Last September, when we took possession of the property, we spent our first night sleeping on site in our camper. That morning, I opened the front door into the house and was followed indoors by a little wren. I took it as a good omen, despite being a rational and phlegmatic human who isn’t usually given to flights of fancy. Since then, we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the variety of birds that we’ve seen around the croft, considering the paucity of trees and hedges. Feathery roll-call to date is: buzzard, curlew, blue tit, great tit, blackbird, starling, chaffinch, wren, dunnock, robin and, of course, the ubiquitous crows, gulls and pigeons. There’s also an owl or two, judging by the plethora of pellets in the field.
Say hello to my little friend:
We’ve a fat ball feeder and a seed feeder in the front garden. This blue tit comes to visit us most mornings with its mate. They seem keen to come inside, occasionally headbutting the window enthusiastically; seen here clinging to the render beside the window. I’m thinking about placing a few stickers on the glass, to make it more bird-friendly.
In the last couple of months, we’ve planted in excess of 650 trees and shrubs. It’s going to be interesting to discover what other bird life might be encouraged to join us here, once habitat has been increased. We’ll be installing bird and bat boxes in the trees as soon as they’re big enough.
From the very beginning of planning this site, I knew we’d need to do some serious earth moving. The site is intermittently wet because the subsoil is clay, so when it rains heavily there’s nowhere for the water to go once the topsoil is saturated. We’ll be improving this by increasing the organic matter in the soil by planned grazing, but it can only achieve so much. We plan to plant fruit and nut trees, which struggle with consistently waterlogged roots for the most part. The solution is a permaculture classic, almost a cliche really: swales.
A swale is a ditch dug along the line of contour, with the removed topsoil forming a berm on the downhill side of the ditch. Their purpose is usually to catch overland water flow and hold it, so it can be absorbed into the ground instead of running off the property. In dry climates they’re fantastic, and allow people to grow tree varieties without irrigation that would be impossible otherwise. Of course nobody would describe the north of Scotland as a dry climate, but here they’ll serve another purpose. The berm will allow us to plant trees in soil that’s higher above the water table, giving them a better chance. We’ll be able to plant other, smaller, water loving shrubs like wax myrtle lower down the berm where the soil is wetter and other productive species like ramsons in the bottom of the swale ditch. We’ll be able to create really interesting, productive polycultures because of the different niches on different parts of the swale with differing amounts of moisture and shade. An often overlooked benefit of swales is that they effectively increase the acreage of land. If a piece of A4 paper is representative of an acre of land, imagine a sheet of corrugated card the same size. Now imagine pulling that corrugated card from each end to flatten it out. Free land! Of course swales aren’t dug at the same concentration as the ridges in corrugated card, but the principle still holds. The swales will of course infiltrate a great deal of moisture into the ground during rain, after all it’s what they’re generally used for, so even during dry summers we shouldn’t get water stressed trees and shrubs. Not bad for a glorified ditch eh?
Ponds, even small ones, have a positive effect on natural ecosystems. The same is true within diverse agricultural systems. They have a moderating effect on microclimate because of their thermal mass. They encourage natural biodiversity, for example frogs and toads, which feed on slugs. Who’s ever grown food in a damp climate without wishing there were fewer slugs? Ponds can also be used more directly for food production of meat such as ducks and geese, plants such as watercress and large ponds can be used for aquaculture of fish. Our swales will be designed to fill relatively small ponds, but they’ll still be useful. I have a niggling little plan in the back of my mind that integrates water culture with a greenhouse that should be interesting but that’s for a different blog, far in the future.
Swales, as I’ve already said, need to be dug perfectly on contour. Water shouldn’t flow along them but remain static until infiltrated. Careful levels need to be marked out before any digging begins. Earthworks permanently change the hydrology of any landscape and need to be carefully thought out. In the case of our top field, we need to establish the way the ground slopes before finalising any design. Just looking at a field is never accurate enough. We know it slopes generally to the north of course, but is that north with a bit of west, or east? The human eye just isn’t good at estimating slight changes in slope.
There are many ways of setting levels within landscape. A laser level is beautifully accurate, but is expensive. I tend to buy good quality tools but only if they’ll be used regularly, and once we’ve marked out the contours in the field we’re not likely to need one often enough to justify the cost. One cheap alternative is an ‘A’ frame level. It’s simple to make and reasonably accurate, but doesn’t work well going through undergrowth. At the moment the top field is bare, but we may well need to set some levels after the swales have been put in. For us, the best option is the bunyip or hose level.
At its most basic, it’s a length of clear hose clamped or taped to a wooden stake at each end. With the hose mostly filled with water, when the stakes are put side by side on a flat and level surface the water level in each end of the hose will be exactly the same. If that level is marked on both stakes and one of the stakes is moved up, the water will remain level but will now be below the mark on the stake. It will of course be above the level on the other stake, because that’s how water always behaves. If the hose is a long one and two people have a stake each, they can ascertain whether the stakes are at the same height even if they can’t see each other just by telling each other whether the water level in the hose is above or below the line. It’s beautifully simple, and cheap.
I built ours a little fancier. The hose must have no airlocks in it, or it’s just not accurate. Airlocks are difficult to eliminate in a thin diameter hose, so I used 25mm braided hose. The thicker diameter also eliminates a lot of drag on the inner surface of the pipe which also should increase accuracy. Instead of marks drawn on the stakes I cannibalised a pair of cheap tape measures and screwed a tape to each stake. Hose is somewhat flexible, so if it’s squashed at all it changes the internal volume. This could lead to two people trying to describe just how much above the line their water level is. With tape measures on the stakes you can use figures that actually mean something to both people, nice and accurate.
We’ve had a bit of a play with it this afternoon, and it really does seem to work as well as the literature suggests. Tomorrow we’re going to survey the slopes in the top field and work out where the swales will run and the retention ponds will logically go. After years of study and planning, this is the start of the exciting stuff. As a bonus, there’s nothing quite like dragging a pipe full of water stuck to a couple of tape measures around a field, sticking in bamboo canes and waving your arms around, for entertaining your neighbouring farmers. Who knows, I might even crack out the new video camera!
On a (literally) lighter note, we got the comfrey crowns in yesterday. Comfrey is an amazing plant. It used to be widely used as food, but is now considered potentially toxic so is no longer recommended for eating. Comfrey is attractive, producing flowers ranging from pink to blue. Bees love it. It’s easy to propagate, and is best known as a bioaccumulator. Comfrey roots are huge. The tap root grows down into the subsoil and brings up minerals into its above ground parts. Once established it can be cut several times a year without harm and the leaves either used as a green mulch, essentially a slow release fertiliser, added to compost heaps as an activator, fed to livestock, or made into comfrey tea for feeding plants. It’s easy to propagate, you just take sections of root and plant them. Most varieties self seed to the point of being invasive, but the Bocking 14 variety is sterile, making it more suitable for our uses. Eventually we aim to have it growing under all our fruit trees. It’ll provide good ground cover and can be cut a couple of times a year to feed the trees. No need for any synthetic fertilisers or barrowing materials around the farm, just a walk with a scythe-. This first patch though is to be used for a different purpose. We’re going to have a composting toilet between the veg garden and where the main greenhouse will eventually go. The toilet will have a diversion system for urine, which will go into a short soakaway. The comfrey has been planted either side of where the soakaway will go, to make use of that fertility and convert it into a useful resource. No urine puns from me! You’re welcome.
We brought with us from Yorkshire a motley mixture of plants in pots, numbering about 40, originally from our small back garden. These were herbs, such as oregano and mint, plus perennials including horseradish and ramsons, as well as small shrubs including Buddleia and currants. Also a few trees: rowan, apple, oak and yew. And Kim, our affectionately named pinus Koraiensis, which had served as our Yuletide decoration for 5 years. Between periods of active service, she lived in a large pot in the garden. The Korean pine puts on a new level of horizontal branch growth every year, making a delightful pyramid shape. It’s a productive edible nut variety, producing nuts after about 20-25 years. Handy!
For the last couple of years, Kim looked in desperate need to go into the ground, the upper branches becoming crowded and stunted. All together now: poor Kim! You’ll be relieved to know that one of the first things we did was to plant her into the wet and welcoming ground of Caithness. Sigh of relief all round. Even better, we’ve just introduced Kim to some new friends: the blueberries. In nature, a tree such as the pine will grow with an understory beneath it of other smaller plants which don’t compete with it for resources, such as light and food, forming a mutually beneficial relationship. Pine forests are naturally acidic, as is our field just now, and blueberries are acidophilic plants. In the future, we’ll also plant juniper under more Korean pine. A couple of years ago, during our walking holiday in the Cairngorms, we observed a natural polyculture of pine over juniper and raspberry. Why fight nature? I’d rather try to emulate an ecosystem that works.
Now Kim and friends are enjoying a peaceful retirement with a view of the loch and will become part of our view from the living room window and eventually provide us with nuts and fruit. Thanks, Kim.
After a breakfast of porridge and a good slug of caffeine, I head outside for the first task of the day: pouring pee. I’m weird? You’re weird! We have an additional ‘water feature’ in our bathroom: a big yellow watering can. Jealous? Our trees have only been in the ground a few weeks and we’re keen to give them every possible assistance to grow well. Urine makes an excellent plant fertiliser, mixed 10/1 with water. It has the added advantage of acting as a deterrent to deer, who would love to nibble on those tender buds and shoots. There’s not a lot of deer pressure in our area of Caithness, but it makes sense to be cautious. Those beasts can jump and our fencing is woeful at the moment. It lets the animals know that humans are here, plus it’s free and plentiful, so the price is right (urine the money! I’m not even sorry). Ideally, avoid pee which contains oestrogen from contraceptives, or any other pharmaceuticals, as this can contaminate your soil. A morning walk round the saplings is a good way to keep a close eye on their progress too and become aware quickly of any issues. Today, I noticed that rodents have been rearranging and nibbling on some of the mulch, so that’s something we’ll be addressing very soon and will be detailed in a future post. A pee days!