Valley Wood: One Year On

Well, incredible as it seems, it’s now one year since I took on Valley Wood, and a huge amount of weekend work has gone into it over the past 12 months.

It’s been an amazing journey so far . . . when I was last down there I found myself reflecting on progress so far whilst dozing in the shelter on a warm afternoon. In some ways I have achieved a huge amount  . . . but in other ways I have barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done there.

I found myself in quite an odd frame of mind, and thoughts came to me that in future the woodland would be maintained by other people after I am gone, but by then it would be a case of maintaining and looking after it, managing it and making it productive rather than all of the initial sorting out work which I am having to do. It occurred to me that I might be remembered as the person who took it on and sorted it out in the first place. That was quite a striking thought.

I suppose that there are really two notable achievements from the past year: the creation of an edible forest garden and a camping area so that friends and family can come down and help me with the work.

The forest garden is taking shape in the lower part of the wood – as with the rest of the wood, it was overgrown with rhododendron and I’ve had to put in a lot of work cutting those down to make room for new plants and trees. But now there are open areas with navigable paths there, and as well as some coppiced hazel which I discovered buried amongst the rhodies, I have added in a heavy-cropping blackberry, raspberry, blackcurrant, seven apple trees, a sweet berry rowan cultivar, gooseberry, blackthorn and ramsons. All except the ramsons seem to have taken and are doing OK – it will be great to see them grow over the next few years! There is plenty more rhododendron left to clear though to be planted up with more trees and shrubs.

The camping area has 4 level areas for tent pitching, plus there is room for a large tent on the top track but that is technically shared space with my neighbours. I have also made a temporary shelter out of some poles and a tarpaulin, as it often rains at Valley Wood – a good thing with the generally drier prospects which climate change is bringing. And when it rains, it pours! It’s beautiful when it rains, but it’s handy to be able to keep dry whilst it’s going on! There is also space to sit around a camp fire in the evening, and I have made a small pond as a final touch.

A good start I think – having established a base there, I will be able to enlist the help of friends to accelerate the rhododendron clearing. I’m hoping to begin planting up some of the cleared areas in the main woodland with new trees this autumn!

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Making A Rocket Stove

There are loads of good videos on YouTube about how to make your own rocket stove, but this is how I made mine.

I used two catering sized vegetable oil tins and a normal baked bean size tin.

First using a strong pair of scissors I cut the top off the first large tin. Better to use tin snips if you have them but good scissors will do. Start the cut by making a hole in the can with a hammer and a sharp screwdriver.

Then I cut both ends off the second large tin and rolled it up to make a narrow tube. I used garden wire to hold it tight.

Then I took both ends off the small tin using a can opener, and using the screwdriver scratched a circle near the bottom of both the big tin and the narrow tube. The circle is nearer the bottom of the tube than the tin because the tube sits inside the big tin to form the flue.

I cut a circular hole in the big tin and the flue, and put the small tin through both. Then I filled in the outside of the flue with wood ash from my wood stove, to insulate it.

Finally I cut a hole on the middle of the bottom of the second large tin which was left over, and made a lid for the stove. I cut some 1cm notches in the top of the stove so the lid would push down into it a bit, and then hammered down the edges to keep the lid in place.

Finally I sprayed the stove black with woodstove paint. Voila!

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Valley Wood – The Plan

Well, I took on Valley Wood in May, and I confess that when I bought it I didn’t really have any idea of how I was actually going to manage and improve it. But after a few months of hard-working weekends down there, I think I have a basic plan for it, which is turning out to be surprisingly sustainable, both financially and environmentally.

Valley Wood is a mixed woodland of conifers (mainly Noble Fir and Scots Pine) and all manner of deciduous broadleaved trees.

As it is long neglected, there is a fair quantity of dead trees in the wood – some lying on the forest floor, some hung up in other trees, and some still standing. A fair proportion of the standing dead trees are conifers.

The dead trees lying on the forest floor tend to be rotten, but this is good as they provide habitats for all kinds of life. They can happily be left to decay where they are.

Hung up trees and standing dead trees are potentially a hazard as they can fall over or down, and removing them frees up empty space in the woodland where new broadleaved trees can be encouraged. Dead standing trees are fortunately also ready-seasoned firewood with a very low water content, so can be harvested and burned almost immediately after only a short period of air drying. This is a massive benefit in financial terms, especially with the winter not too far away, as it removes the need for a firewood ‘production line’ where normally logs must be seasoned for at least one year before they can be transported and burned. Driving a van full of water-ridden logs which would burn poorly at the end of the journey would make no sense at all – but with this plan, there is a huge quantity of ready-seasoned firewood and harvesting it will open up the woodland to recolonisation by broadleaves.

It costs me about half a tank of diesel to visit the woodland, but I reckon the financial cost is only what I would have spent at home on a normal weekend, going out for a meal and some drinks on a Friday or Saturday. And as my living costs at the wood are negligible, I count it as cost neutral really. Similarly with the cost of the woodland itself – although I’m paying interest on the money borrowed, land tends to appreciate in value so I’m not making a loss on the land.

I reckon I can fit about a cubic metre of firewood in my van, which at home I normally pay about £80 for during the winter months – during summer my solar hot water system provides all of my hot water for bathing and washing up.

So as long as I come back with a van load of logs every time I visit, I’m £80 in profit – or another way of looking at it is that the sun is also heating my home for free in the winter as well as the summer, in the form of stored sunlight (firewood). This means that my only overhead as far as fuel goes is electricity, which I’m estimating at maybe £250 a year at current prices.

Not bad for a Victorian terrace.

The woodland has other harvestable products – ferns which can be sold for gardens, living Christmas trees, and maybe in time mushrooms if I get around to setting up some mushroom logs.

But quite apart from all of this, there is the sheer recreational value of the woodland, and as a destination for Transition camping expeditions and the like. But there is a lot of work to be done first – camping and communal areas to be hacked out of the mountainside, shelters to be built and the like.

A few weeks back, I received the documents from the Land Registry showing the ownership of Valley Wood going back to just after the Second World War. They show a long history of the woodland being bought from local or national government, and then being sold back again some time later.

As it doesn’t seem as though any kind of harvesting or management of the trees has taken place, my thought is that private owners have repeatedly tried to find a way of commercially exploiting the woodland, but have not succeeded due to the difficult terrain. The woodland is on a steeply sloping hillside, which makes mechanised timber extraction difficult and expensive, and extraction by horses and hand is not normally used for commercial operations. So the woodland has remained as it is, wild and neglected.

I am hoping that what Valley Wood actually needs is a different approach to management – a Permaculture approach which will maximise the efficient production of usable resources from the wood, whilst simultaneously meeting regeneration and biodiversity objectives.

The huge quantities of invasive rhododendron on site could potentially provide a firewood source for those staying in the woodland, to avoid the need to use the “good” firewood being extracted for domestic use. This would meet the goal of rhododendron control and a return of the forest ecosystem whilst providing warmth for those staying on-site.

The many apparent problems of the woodland can increasingly be seen as unique features, even beneficial in some respects. Instead of spending thousands of pounds (which I don’t have) on track improvement and tree clearance for artificial campsite creation, my expenditure on tools is as follows:-

Chainsaw (the only mechanised tool in use in Valley Wood)
Billhook (for clearing tracks and trimming trees)
Log tongs (for manipulating large logs)
Folding pruning saw
Mattock
Spade
Log trolley
Forestry winch (for hauling the log trolley up steep inclines, bringing down hung-up trees and moving large rocks)

All of which total I reckon about £500. So at £80 profit per trip in firewood, that’s about 6 trips before the equipment has paid for itself. Pretty good economics, sustainably speaking! Plus of course, this very light touch approach to woodland management is infinitely better in terms of resources used and environmental impact.

Very interesting, the way Valley Wood is developing. And the taste of my first woodland blackberries and raspberries on my last trip was a whole other world of experience in itself! 🙂

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No-Man’s Land

If this patch of my garden looks a mess, that’s because it is.

It’s a small bed situated next to a couple of small ponds, round the edge of the garden next to the wall, which I originally designated ‘for wildlife’ and have pretty much left to do its thing. There are frogs and other stuff in there – it’s so overgrown that it isn’t really possible to see what’s going on in there. What you can see though is that there are plenty of different species in a small area.

For the past couple of years I’ve made the effort to clear this small bed of weeds and seed it or plant it up with various things, mostly things like spinach beet or kale. But because the bed is so near the wildlife border, there are plenty of slugs and snails which soon devour anything remotely tasty. I’m not going to use any kind of slug pellets there as it is in the domain of the frogs and other wildlife. So the snails have free rein.

This year I think I’ve decided to give up trying to produce food from this part of the garden. But in leaving it to nature, I may actually end up with something which is far more diverse than what I had planned, and may even end up producing food nonetheless.

The spinach beet actually seems to have remained despite the slug assault, and is currently going to seed. The seeds will come up next year and give me spinach. But as well as the veg, a whole range of wild flowers have self-seeded there, including some stunning pink poppies, as well as Welsh poppies and a load of other stuff whose names I don’t know.

So by ceasing my energy input, I seemed to have actually ended up with an optimal solution for this patch of garden – nature has selected what should be there, and it’s a huge variety with a good balance of pollinator-friendly flowers and edible leaves for me.

Permaculture is in so many ways the path of least resistance. And nature has the best design just waiting for the opportunity.

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Valley Wood

Well, like buses, Green Cottage updates sometimes come in threes!

Last but not least this time, a new addition to the Green Cottage “estate” is four acres of mixed woodland in North Wales.

I bought the woodland from woodlands.co.uk, it’s an unmanaged wild woodland which I aim to improve for wildlife (including family and friends ;)) and bring into production of wood fuel and possibly even charcoal and timber.

Achievements so far have been hewing a tent-sized camping area out of the hillside using a grubbing mattock, cutting down a few trees on the upper track to make room for a digger in the autumn, cutting down some rhododendron and making a couple of paths through the upper part of the wood to enable me to get around the wood which at the moment is pretty much impenetrable.

Incredibly hard work, but incredibly good exercise and therapy for the soul. Best thing I’ve ever done!! 🙂

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Garden Update 3rd June 2011

Despite a dry start to the year, here in North Manchester we have had a fair bit of rain recently, and the garden is rockin’!!

A gorgeous sunny day today so I thought I would take a few photos to illustrate the state of play. Got some nice frost hardy cabbages on the go this year, they are looking favourites for best crop of 2011!

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First Quickening

A couple of Sundays ago, I attended a traditional Wassail up at Hollymount Orchard, a local project by local food group Incredible Edible Ramsbottom (for those of you who don’t know, it’s a place not a local delicacy).

The group has been working on the orchard for about a year, it was discovered in a derelict and overgrown state and has been cleared of brambles, the trees pruned and generally brought back to life. The orchard originally belonged to a convent, and the trees are possibly hundreds of years old, so the restoration of the orchard is really inspiring!

The Wassail was great fun, with musicians and singing, a bonfire and a ritual pouring of cider on the roots of the apple trees. The day was cold and windy but a bonfire added a bit of warmth.

I was really encouraged to see such a group of dedicated people doing something so worthwhile. I’ll put in a bit of work myself and maybe earn some of this autumn’s apples for my cider press!

Garden Update 24th January 2011

Spent my first day this year out in the garden yesterday, pruning back the grape vine and digging up the remaining carrots and parsnips which had stayed in the raised beds through the coldest British winter in 100 years.

I was really surprised how many came out of just a couple of square metres of garden!

Of course there were far too many to cook anything with so I opted to freeze them. But even if you freeze them, the bacteria in them degrade them slowly, so what you have to do before freezing is ‘blanch’ them.

What this basically amounts to is par-boiling them for a short time to kill the bacteria in them, then dunk them in cold water to stop the cooking process, then dry them to stop them sticking together and finally freeze them.

I used a pan of boiling water and a plastic pasta strainer, and some kitchen towel to dry them off. I did the carrots for 3 minutes and the parsnips for 2 minutes.

I must have a year’s supply in the freezer now. No need to grow them this year!!

Came across some rather attractive orange fungi in the garden too.

Roots of Success

Well I think I can confidently say my soil management strategy is working! We roasted these and they were delicious.

Why Don’t You Just Buy Some?

I decided the other day that I would use my Vigo fruit press to have a go at making some pear cider, as I have bought it now and am looking forward to making all kinds of exotic beverages with it!

I don’t actually know anyone with any pear trees though, so I decided to go down Bury Market and buy a rucksack full for the purpose. I thought that although I didn’t know the source of the pears, they were likely to be locally supplied and devoid of preservers.

When I asked the stall assistant, she looked at me quizzically. “I’m going to make pear cider,” I said. She said, “why don’t you just buy some?”

I was lost for words. In retrospect I could think of all sorts of things to say, such as, the stuff in the supermarkets tastes like fizzy alcoholic pear-flavoured water. “It’s nicer to make it yourself” I managed in the end. She shrugged and charged me £16 for a rucksack full of Conferences.

She had a point though – what I should really be doing is collecting pears from trees which would normally just go to waste, rather than buying them from the market. I will have to ask around in advance of next year’s season.

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