Monday 27 March 2017

Inspiring idols - meeting the rock stars of the market gardening world

Last Wednesday saw us up and packing ready to depart after lunch for Umbria for our very first (and the very first, here in this part of Italy) conference on sustainable agriculture in the beautiful little village of Paciano.

We were close to not being able to make it to the event, having needed to find somewhere to stay that would be Reggie-friendly (Umbria is only the neighbouring region to ours, but it's still a 2.5 hour drive away so we needed to stay over for a couple of nights, and of course having Reggie in tow puts a more difficult angle on finding suitable accommodation), but at the last minute, Ruth, the organiser of the conference miraculously found somewhere in the neighbouring village of Panicale for us.

Just after lunch, the ever helpful Paul and Kathy arrived for a quick briefing on what they needed to do while we were away - namely, water our precious seedlings and feed our equally precious Florence.

After they left we threw the last of our stuff into the car and lifted Reggie into his crate in the boot (while he loves sleeping in his crate at night, he otherwise won't voluntarily enter it of his own accord) and headed off in the direction of the Autostrada.

Not entirely by design, we ended up taking the slightly more scenic (and slower) route to Umbria: East to Florence, South past Siena, then East again towards Arezzo before hitting Lake Trasimeno in Umbria, and at the end of a three-hour journey we arrived in Panicale and found our way to the house of Giuliana, our host. It turned out that, rather than being a holiday rental apartment, we were actually to be staying in Giuliana's own home - she had moved out of the apartment, where she usually lives, into the main part of the house above, to stay with her 91-year-old mother while we were in situ. We were slightly alarmed by the fact that all of Guiliana's personal possessions were in the apartment (Reggie is very good, but he's a dog, and dogs can be unpredictable!), that the tiny garden was unfenced, that there were two dogs living next door, and that Guiliana and her mother were just upstairs within Reggie-barking distance. Nevertheless, we made ourselves at home in the tiny, but pretty and beautifully restored apartment (which we later found out was the part of the building Guiliana's grandparents used to house the cow and the pig) as best we could.

So while Helen unloaded the car, I took Reggie for a long overdue stretch of his legs before carrying him into the apartment, as no matter how much we cajoled him, he wasn't going to enter of his own accord (this carrying was to become a bit of a theme the next two days).

We decided it would be best for us to stay in with him for the evening, and as such had brought food from home to cook for dinner so that we didn't have to leave that evening, so while Helen attempted to find suitable cooking implements in the kitchen, and Reggie paced the floor whining and whimpering, I decided it was time to open some wine.

Having snapped both of the arms off the only corkscrew we could find... the evening got off to less than a good start, but with the help of my trusty Swiss Army knife (but sadly not the one I'd left at home that actually had a corkscrew on it) I managed to dig out the cork so that we could at least enjoy a couple of glasses of wine in front of the open fire while Reggie continued to pace and whine.

By the time we went to bed I think Helen and I were both readying ourselves to pack up the car first thing and head home. Reggie's clear unease at being in an unfamiliar environment put the guilt trip on both of us, and we had no idea how we were going to manage the next couple of days. He refused to get into his crate at bedtime, and after having made him suffer the three-hour car journey in the crate and knowing he would likely need to spend more time in it the next day, we decided to leave him to sleep where he wanted - we'd put a cover (brought from home) over the sofa, so thought that if he settled there, all would be well. Helen and I each collapsed into bed and drifted off into an exhausted sleep - but just as we did get off to sleep, were woken with a huge spontaneous bark that must have woken Giuliana and her mother above us too. At that point Helen got up and managed to persuade him to go to bed in his crate, which soon led to a much more settled night for us all, and we both got off to a deep sleep - which sadly was interrupted by Helen's alarm at 05:50 as we had a lot to do before conference registration at 07:45!

With sleep barely rubbed from our eyes we headed out down the lane with Reggie strangling himself straining at the end of his lead all the way.

We managed to find a quiet road leading away from the village not far from the house so headed off up there for half an hour before turning back. Although it was a quiet lane we couldn't afford to let him off his lead (and indeed we passed not only a couple of cats but some free-range geese, neither of which would have ended well had he been free range as well!).

Sleepy eyes - not used to being up and out at this time of the morning!

After getting back to the house we gave Reggie some breakfast and lured him into his crate for the morning, desperately hoping that his early morning exercise would be enough to let him relax and have a snooze for a couple of hours and that he would stay quiet until we got back at lunch time.

We were soon parking in the pretty neighbouring village of Paciano - coincidentally, the same village we stayed on the outskirts of 13 years ago on our only Umbrian holiday together.

We found our way to the Palazzo Baldeschi, where conference registration was due to take place, but we were clearly too eager and found the doors still closed, so made an about turn and went for a coffee and pastry in the local bar before going back to sign in.

Upon arriving we were greeted by Ruth, organiser of the whole event. By this time we'd been Facebook friends for many months, and had bought sweet potatoes from her before Christmas for everyone here in the valley, but other than a couple of phone calls we had not yet met in person, so it was great to finally meet her.

The three of us went straight back to a now buzzing coffee shop where Ruth - who clearly knows anyone worth knowing in Paciano - introduced us to a lovely guy in his 90's by the name of Dr Sidney Holt. Sidney is a local in Paciano these days and had been for many years - I later realised that I had read a little about his work in a book on the sorry state of our fish stocks. He was a mathematician who was hired straight out of university to help with measuring the state of Britain's fish stocks after the war. He and a colleague created a model that would monitor these levels so long as correct data was entered into his model by other scientists and researchers. So important was his work, that he is considered one the most influential marine biologists of all time. I could have sat down and chatted to him about his work all day long had I not had a conference to attend and he a timeshare in Cumbria to head off to!

So, after another quick coffee, and a while spent meeting and chatting with other conference delegates, we headed along the street towards the Teatro Antico Sipario - a lovely recently restored building whose inauguration was coinciding with the conference today. We later found out that the building had been restored by a couple of brothers from Florence, one of whom spends most of his time at the flower market in our very own Pescia - we were three hours away from home and yet Italy still seemed no bigger.

After the opening we all spilt into groups, heading off to one of three venues on the main street of the village that were hosting the presentations. We headed straight to the old cinema across the road, where we bagged ourselves front row seats to listen to the rock star of the market gardening world, Jean-Martin Fortier, who Ruth had persuaded to come all the way from Quebec, Canada to speak at the conference.

There was a typically Italian start to proceedings, during which I found myself attempting to help try to get the audio-visual equipment working (once an AV technician, always an AV technician), after which we sat down to a three-hour talk by 'J.M.' as he likes to be called (explaining that folks from the US normally pronounce his French-Canadian name so badly he prefers the abbreviation). 

I had bought J.M.'s book last year and devoured it, and Helen and I had spent several evenings watching YouTube uploads of talks he has given at other events - making us feel slightly star struck as we've come to consider him/his farm something of a role model. He is famous for having set up a relatively small farm that uses very little machinery, and a lot of hand tools, to produce $140,000 of veg produce annually with the inputs of just 4 people. His underlying theme is efficiency - in every respect, he's kind of like the David Brailsford of the farming world.

We had already seen a lot of his talk in the YouTube videos we had watched, but J.M. was all the more engaging in person, not to mention the fact that we had the chance to ask questions about things that pertained to our individual situations.

We were really buzzing after this first talk, we'd enjoyed talking with J.M. and with some of the other delegates (we quickly realised how valuable it is to meet people doing similar things to us, facing similar challenges and with similar goals and motivations), but sadly we couldn’t hang around for lunch as we needed to get back to Reggie and find out if his behaviour had already caused us to be kicked out of our accommodation.

We had no way of telling until we spoke to Giuliana - who was out when we got back - but when we got back to the apartment all was quiet inside and there was a very happy, waggy-tailed Reggie to greet us when we entered and let him out of his crate, so we set up a table and a couple of chairs outside the front door of the apartment, used the long tow rope from the car to tie Reggie safely to a post, allowing him enough freedom to wander about but without wandering off, and laid out the food we had just bought from a deli in the village on our way through.

Half way through lunch, we were greeted from the shutters of the windows above by Giuliana’s 91-year-mother who is house bound these days.

Despite Reggie barking at her, she was insistent on trying to talk to us, barely half of which we understood, although part of what we did catch was an invite up to her house to drink orange juice!

We politely turned down the invitation, explaining (or attempting to) that we were lunching, and after a while and a few more attempts at inviting us up for orange juice, Guiliana's mother gave up and went back inside. As soon as we had packed our lunch away, we headed out for another walk with Reggie. This time, we took the car and parked a little way further along the same lane as we had used that morning, and with Reggie now on his extra-long military grade leash (tow rope + dog lead) we traipsed the length of the lane and back, until his tongue was lolling from the side of his face in exhaustion!

On returning to the apartment, we sat outside once again in a just-warm-enough garden until Giuliana arrived home around 6pm, when her mother appeared through the window once again, issuing us with another invite up for orange juice. Despite Giuliana's pleas to her mother to leave us in peace, her mother was insistent, and not wanting to disappoint, we decided we would indulge her and accept her hospitality. So, after putting Reggie back indoors, went upstairs for a glass of orange pop and a tour of the upstairs part of the house with Giuliana's mother - she was a lovely funny old dear, she insisted on showing us every room in the house, followed by lifting her skirt to show us her bad knees, and would not let us leave without an orange each. Poor Giuliana followed us round with a pained look on her face and thanked us for our patience with her elderly mother, but in reality it was a charming, if slightly bizarre interlude. We found out that Giuiana's mother was born and grew up in a farmhouse within spitting distance (and view) of the now family home, which is where Giuiana's father lived, and the two met, fell in love and married in their 20s. The whole building had been in the family for many years although it was split into two parts between Giuliana's father and his brother, and Giuliana has recently refurbished the former animal stalls on ground level, where she now lives while her parents have the upper floors.

Feeling on something of a roll after having had a surprisingly successful first day despite the rocky start (no complaints about Reggie whatsoever), we decided to head out for dinner together - something we have only done (just the two of us) twice since moving here. By this stage, Reggie had taken to hiding whenever we opened the door to his crate, and really didn’t want another spell in his ‘bed’ again so we decided it was probably OK to leave him on the sofa for a couple of hours, and off we went back to Paciano to grace one of its three restaurants with our hard-earned money.

We ended up in La Logetta, just inside the village walls. We were first in… and last in as it turned out, and had the restaurant to ourselves which meant a bit of banter with the waiter from time to time who it turned out had moved to this part of Umbria from Rome for a quiet life (although I suspect he would like it a little less quiet than it was this evening in his restaurant).

The food was lovely - traditional ingredients but nothing like traditional recipes, which made this rare treat even more special as we find that the lack of variety in our local traditional trattoria can be a little uninspiring. With a lovely meal dispatched we headed back to our dog and shortly after that to bed, Reggie having to be man-handled into his crate yet again at around midnight after having gone through the same rigmarole as the previous night: starting out with him sleeping "free range", but waking us all up with a volley of loud barks just as we were drifting off to sleep.

Despite the conference starting slightly later on Friday, it was another relatively early start for us, as we weren't going to leave poor Reggie in his crate for another morning without him having a good walk first. We headed back up the same road in the car, parking this time at the start of a marked footpath.

We found a lovely walk through the woods, which took us to a fishing lake seemingly full of carp. The woods were full of juniper and flowering broom as well as other things that are less familiar to us in our valley but were here in such abundance as to make it feel like we were all of a sudden much further away from home.

After a good hour-long walk and a belly of breakfast, we encouraged Reggie back into his crate for the morning and headed out for the car.

Just as we were getting into the car we bumped into Giuliana, who told us that last night Reggie had barked a lot and had frightened her mother. Our hearts sank. We apologised and explained that he had been out of his cage while we were out last night but that this morning he would be back in it, and hoped that would fix the problem. We also explained that we would be back at lunchtime for another walk, and hoped that would help make things calmer all round.  

Feeling a little subdued, we headed back off to Paciano, where we were soon cheered by the sight of the other delegates and speakers, and after a quick coffee and pastry, we were dragged away by Ruth as she was after some technical help for the speaker we were going to listen to this morning.

Charles Dowding is a market gardener and a pioneer of "no-dig" gardening in the UK. We have been following him online for a year or more since learning of this method of gardening, and had subsequently bought one of his books to help with growing this year.

While Charles' setup (in Somerset, UK) is on a smaller scale than J.M. (yesterday's speaker), he produces £20,000 of produce a year from his garden plot with only one other pair of hands to help and his veg gardens are a thing of real beauty. And while J.M.'s is a ‘minimal tillage’ operation, Charles' is a 100% zero-tillage, or no-dig operation.

Charles is clearly as passionate about educating as he is about gardening, and we enjoyed an intimate and interactive three-hour presentation from him in which he covered all aspects of his work. Helen and I even got to bend his ear at coffee break about his composting experience (and he ours about our life here). It was really amazing to have such intimate access to these people that we couldn’t quite believe it was happening - and in a sleepy corner of Umbria too! It was a real privilege and it was great to meet Charles and his partner Steph, with whom I have had regular useful exchanges on the no-dig Facebook group.

Once again, we had to forgo lunch at the conference and instead headed back to the apartment to release the hound, who we hoped had been quiet for the morning! We once again tied him to the post to restrict his trouble causing ability while we sat outside and finished off the cheese and salumi that we'd bought yesterday, before again loading Reggie and his long lead into the car for another lengthy walk along a different marked footpath from the same road.

It was warming up as the day went on, and by the time we were halfway through our walk - which afforded us some lovely views of the enormous Lake Trasimeno in the near distance - it was so warm I was putting my t-shirt into my pocket and I was mightily relieved to see the car come back into view at the end of the walk!

Back at the house we tied Reggie up in the garden and made a start on packing and tidying, before putting Reggie back in his crate for a final stretch and heading back to the conference in Paciano.

There was one final talk I wanted to hear, which was given by a guy who I had not come across before: Iain Tolhurst. His talk was advertised as being about composting with ramial wood chip - a topic I couldn’t miss, having discovered a little info on this since reading Will Bonsall’s book on self-reliance but then struggling to find much else around it on the internet. In his talk on Thursday morning, J.M. had also mentioned that he was starting to use these wood chips on his farm. With both an abundance of wood and a wood-chipper available to us, we are very keen to utilise what is supposed to be the very best of soil conditioners available.

It turned out that Iain (or Tolly) farms very close to Pangbourne - not far at all from our old home in Oxfordshire (for anyone interested, he does organic veg boxes delivered to the local area).

Tolly’s set-up is different again from those of the previous two speakers we’d seen, with a 20-acre farm and the use of a tractor and other mechanised machinery. The one thread that connects the three is that they all minimise as far as possible the disruption to the soil to preserve the soil fauna and funghi.

The focus on his presentation was again different, it was largely about building biodiversity and locking in carbon with the aim of becoming a carbon-neutral farm. The composting was touched upon, and I was happy to be able to ask him a couple of questions about the ramial chips during the presentation, but was also fascinated to hear that though his building of biodiversity (he has 350 species of beetle living in his ‘beetle banks) he has no brassica pests and doesn’t need to cover his cabbages - neither does he have slug or snail problems!

It was also interesting to hear him talk about carbon, but I won’t go into detail as this is something you need to care about to find interesting.

With the conference at an end, we dashed back to the apartment to load our things into the car, lift Reggie into the boot, say our farewells to Giuliana, and head off into the countryside between Panicale and Paciano to find the large villa where the speakers had all been staying for the duration of the conference, where Ruth had organised an apericena (drinks and buffet) to draw the whole event to a close.

We were blown away by the beautiful stone villa - 7 bedrooms, perfectly manicured lawns, a pool, open-plan living area, and a stunning view - and pleased to have the a chance to mingle again not only with the speakers, and the by now exhausted Ruth, but with some of the other delegates we had met, including Ray, a Canadian guy trying to get a business selling micro-greens off the ground near Orvieto.

Despite wishing we could stay for longer - in different circumstances we could have happily whiled the whole night away chatting with people, exchanging stories and experiences, and enjoying the company of like-minded people - we soon sloped away, knowing that we had a long drive in the dark ahead of us, and a less than thrilled puppy-dog waiting (im)patiently in the car.

We took the less scenic route home, using the autostrada most of the way, and we made the journey home in just two and a half hours, returning home to find a happy, well fed cat, and with a dog who was over the moon to be back in his own surroundings. Feeling exhausted from what felt like a lot longer than a two-night trip away, we opened a bottle of wine while we talked over the events of the past couple of days, before retiring to the comfort of our own bed.

For both of us, attending the conference was a fantastic experience, and we are very grateful to Ruth for organising such a great group of presenters. We learned lots, we loved meeting some of our market-gardening heroes, we loved meeting other people doing similar things to us, and we returned home feeling exhausted yet with freshly renewed enthusiasm, motivation and even more determination to get out into our veg beds and get growing!

Over the weekend, we managed to plant out our beetroot, chard and lettuce, and sow carrots, and we spent most of Sunday honing our woodcraft and wattle fencing skills - building a new section of fence and a gate to close off the guest patio area and give a feeling of a little more privacy. We are pleased with the results - all materials (bar the screws and hinges) having come from our own land.

And so there you have it - a productive week of learning and feeling inspired, followed by a productive weekend!

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Strim to win

Last week saw a whir of activity, with terrace strimming, pergola building, electric fence positioning, raking, bonfire-tending, and some paid work in between. The week culminated in what felt like one of the busiest weekends we've had in a long time.

For me, the theme of the entire week was strimming - four days out of five during the week after I'd finished my office work I got togged up in work clothes and associated safety gear to go out and finally complete the first - the most difficult - strim of the grassy terraces behind the house. This took about 2 hours each day, but by the fourth day every terrace had had at least a rough trim. 

Safety gear for strimming includes the obligatory safety boots (an integral part of our work clothes), goggles to protect eyes from flying dust, grit and foliage, ear defenders to defend against the drone of the four-stroke engine, gaiters to try to stop grass and shrapnel from gathering in our boots and down our socks, a baseball cap to keep grass out of hair, and, new for this spring, a face mask. The face mask helps against the pesky flies that virtually turn the air black when you kick up the grass (urgh), but its main function (and the reason for keeping it on despite the annoying tendency for the goggles to steam up as the mask funnels your hot breath up into the goggles) is protection against "pooby traps". 

Since about October last year, we have been walking Reggie solely around our own woods - no longer taking him out in public places where we run the risk of running into the things he finds most difficult to cope with (other dogs, other people, cyclists, joggers, cars...). This seems to work really well - he loves a good run around our woods, is getting plenty of exercise (especially now we have upped his walks to twice a day), and even gets to chase deer every now and then. We are also saving a small fortune in fuel costs and on the time it takes to drive somewhere suitable to go for a 'public' walk. The downside is that he does like to lay a "pooby trap" (for the faint of heart, look away now): part of his walk-time ritual is to, ahem, empty his bowels at the start of his walk, and now that we are giving him free run across our own land, he tends to run off, do his business in a spot unbeknownst to us, and then carry on as normal (I swear with a sneaky grin on his face). It's often only when partway through strimming the long grass that we suddenly discover these little minefields he has left for us, and we have learned from painful experience that a face mask goes a long way towards being suitably protected from the fallout (nobody likes a pooby trap to explode in their unprotected face).

When the grass is as long as it is at the moment, it tends to form tough clumps, and the strimmer struggles to do much more than flatten the grass then just send it whipping around in circles around the base of the clump to which it is attached. This makes the strimming process more tedious, more time-consuming, a lot less rewarding and significantly less visually pleasing than it can be at other times of the year when the grass is shorter and more evenly distributed. Thus, by the end of the week despite my efforts, the terraces still had a look of having gone three rounds with an angry hairdresser. 

For Stuart, the project of the week was the guest pergola. In our first year, we bought various sun shades for the guest patio - each of which lasted approximately five minutes before being twisted by the wind and ending up on the rubbish pile. Last year we watched with shame as our poor guests had to make do with huddling their chairs up against the fence in single file attempting to seek out the tiny bit of shade afforded by the fir trees above. This year we were determined to provide a better solution - and thanks to the efforts of my husband, we now have a fully functioning guest pergola constructed for the princely sum of... nothing (other than hard labour).

Rather than buying wooden posts (the pergola on our own patio is constructed from chestnut posts bought from a local agricultural supplies shop), Stuart decided to fell some small-ish acacia trees, strip the bark from them and cut them to size. The result is impressive! 

From cut trees to pergola poles - Stuart stripped the bark from the acacia trunks he'd felled.

Bark-stripping implement.
Pergola frame taking shape.

Pergola frame complete.

Pergola complete - all we need now is to lay down gravel on the floor to even things out.

Other than the pergola, Stuart spent a fair amount of time reinstating our electric fence (with plans to plant potatoes in the next 7 days we didn't want to take our chances without some form of protection against those potato thieves!) and doing general tidying of the veg growing area and tending to the fast-growing seedlings in the poly tunnel.

Stuart has reinstated the electric fence - this time with a smart new box to house and protect the power unit.

The fence now covers the perimeter of all our new beds.

Tyres and wooden slat frames ready and waiting for potatoes.




Rainbow chard

Beetroot and  Brussels sprouts.





... and the garlic going well!
After a busy hour or so on Friday evening helping David shift a pile of firewood from his drive to his wood storage area - racing against the fading light with barrow after barrow of logs, Saturday was yet more physical work. We spent the day on our uppermost terraces giving them yet another raking and another strimming with a blade (the strimming we shared this time) so that they are now in a state in which we can more or less leave them without fear of the brambles encroaching once again.

No sooner had we come in from the terraces than we had to set about cleaning and tidying the house and turning our hand to prepping food for dinner as we'd invited Mara and Franco for another of our amazing 'the spicery' box curries. These spice box kits never fail to deliver, and this time was no different and we had a lovely evening with our friends sharing the range of interesting dishes the kit had instructed us on how to make.

Despite a late night on Saturday, there was no rest for the wicked on Sunday. On Saturday afternoon Stuart had taken a call from a German couple who were looking to book some accommodation in the area and had stumbled across our apartment. The catch? They would be arriving the next day (Sunday)! So we spent an intense few hours on Sunday morning clearing tools out of the apartment (as Stuart has been doing some jobs in there over recent weeks, it had become the temporary home for most of his work tools) and putting things back together, before doing a thorough clean of the place ready for guests to arrive that evening.

While we could quite happily have collapsed after an intense morning's cleaning, we kept going for the afternoon and spent a few hours back on the uppermost terraces doing yet more raking as well as having a bonfire to burn through the piles of rakings we had accumulated.

We finally packed up our tools in time to enjoy a well earned glass of wine on the patio and watch the sun go down after a hectic but most satisfying weekend.