Friday 15 May 2020

Building a compost bioreactor

Traditional home composting, as most people who have a garden will know, involves building a pile of cuttings, probably adding to it from time to time, and turning it at regular intervals.

We previously built a "composting station" for this traditional method, consisting of five separate bays, four of which we filled with grass clippings, veg peelings and vegetation cuttings, with the idea being that the contents of each bay could be turned into the empty bay next to it.

This is how the compost station looked when it was first constructed, in 2016 - it had suffered a few injuries brought about by slipping rocks and collapsing sides since then!

While we have used this method successfully (and grown vegetables in the compost it has produced), it can produce an uneven compost (some parts of the pile perfectly broken down into lovely compost, others still in their unbroken-down state), not to mention the undesirable wildlife it can attract.

In contrast, the material in the Johnson-Su bioreactor (no I had never heard of it before either) never needs turning, doesn't produce smells or attract flies or other wildlife, and in theory produces a completely even and rich compost. The material is composted aerobically, which encourages a complete biological breakdown of the compost materials.

The design for this composter comes from Dr. David Johnson, Adjunct Professor for the College of Agriculture at California State University, Chico and his wife, Hui-Chun Su (if you're interested in finding out more, you can find instructions on how to make your own here) .

The downside is that it has to be filled all in one go - you can't add your veg peelings or grass cuttings to it here and there - but we found that around half a day's work, a large pile of olive prunings and some chicken manure was plenty to fill a couple of  composters.

The construction of the composter is something like this: a circular cage of wire mesh (fencing material/chicken wire) with a series of tubes in the middle (which will create the air flow). In our case Stuart ingeniously re-purposed sections of the old flue from the wood burner.

The cage is then lined with water permeable material (we used landscape fabric - kindly donated by our friends Paul & Kathy who had some leftovers to spare).

You then fill it.

In our case this involved chipping all of our olive tree prunings (a veritable mountain of them which half-filled the car park) and emptying a barrel's worth of chicken manure  (maybe 6 months' worth of stored coop cleanings), then layering the two materials as if making a giant stinky lasagna, thoroughly dousing each layer with water as it goes in,

Making wood chip.

8 buckets of chicken manure.

Layering wood chip and manure.

Watering each layer.
Once full, irrigation pipes are added to the top of the pile, to give it a daily sprinkling of water to keep it nice and damp.

Irrigation tubes in place on top
The tubes are then removed, leaving voids in which the air can circulate, and the top of the pile is also covered with the landscape material.

24h later.
Then all you have to do is wait...!

We should have lovely usable compost in around 9-12 months.

Friday 8 May 2020

Six years

Today it is six years since we arrived here at our home in Tuscany. Six years ago today, we had to break into the house (because nobody knew what the previous owners had done with the keys) and were stunned and horrified by the chaos that greeted us when we finally got in. If you weren't a follower of our blog back then, or you need a reminder, read the story here.

Indeed, we were so shocked by the state of the house that we didn't actually spend the night in the house that day, it's tomorrow that marks the anniversary of the first night we slept (or didn't sleep too well!) in the house.

The last six years seem to have gone in a flash and seem like a lifetime, both at the same time.

We have faced many (many!) challenges, battles, frustrations, disappointments, difficulties, but we have always loved our home here and not for a minute regretted our decision to move here or ever wanted to go back.

This year, we feel we have finally reached a point where we feel pleased with what we have achieved here - we finally feel as if the place is starting to resemble what we had hoped it would become. Of course, it has always been beautiful and we've always loved it, but we are finally starting to get to where we want to be with it.

To mark our six year anniversary, we spent an hour or so this afternoon going round attempting to recreate some of the photos taken when we first arrived (some a little later than that). 

We look forward to making more progress in the next six years!

Monday 4 May 2020

Phase 2 begins

I write this on 4th May, the day that the world's media is reporting that lockdown measures are being eased in Italy after 8 weeks of lockdown. It's true. Today marks the start of "Phase 2". But I remain baffled by the lack of detail given in any such reports and by the number of friends and acquaintances that say "hey, your lockdown's being lifted isn't it?".

Well, yes, it is, but the measures that are still in place at the start of our "phase 2", aka the lifting of restrictions, are still currently stricter than in some other places, markedly more so than in the UK.

From today (4th May) in Tuscany:
  • You are allowed to visit family members (that is family only, not friends).

  • You are allowed to visit a second home (holiday home), caravan or boat in order to do vital maintenance, but you are NOT allowed to stay there (you must return to your main home the same day) and you must go alone.

  • You are allowed to visit the shops that are open (which are still only food shops, pharmacies, children's clothes shops, stationery shops and some agricultural supplies shops) but you must do so alone (one person per family).

  • You may now go for a run, walk or bike ride that is further away than 200m from your house (which has been the rule for the last 8 weeks). But you must be alone (or with people you live with), you must start and finish at your home, you must not use a car/other transport to travel to a place to do your exercise.

  • You may now do other "sport" activity such as fishing. You may travel to do so using your own transport (not public transport) but you must be alone and you must return to your home the same day.

  • You may now tend to your veg garden or other amateur agricultural activity and travel to get there using your own transport, but you must be alone and you must return to your home the same day.

  • Owners of dogs and horses may now carry out training, within the region of Tuscany but must return to their home the same day.

  • The use of boats for sporting activities and amateur fishing is allowed and, for safety reasons, with a maximum of two people who must return to the berth in the same day.

  • Pet grooming services can now be used (strictly by appointment only and observing strict social distancing measures for the dropping off/collecting of animals).

  • Restaurants may now offer a take-out service (previously only home delivery was allowed). This must be pre-booked and you must take the food away to your home to be consumed.

  • The sale of children's shoes is now allowed.

  • Petrol/fuel stations with attendants may now operate according to their own timetables rather than the previous very restricted ones set by the government.

  • In the region of Tuscany a mask is mandatory in all public spaces. A number of masks have been given out to residents free of charge and the cost of buying any additional ones will be capped at 50 cents.
  • We have now received 30 masks delivered to our door. 28 of them are from the region of Tuscany (single-use masks) and two from our local comune of Pescia.

  • Funerals are now permitted but with a maximum attendance of 15, who must all be family members and must wear masks. All other religious ceremonies (including weddings and regular church services) remain forbidden. You may now visit cemeteries but on a strict appointment system and the length of visit is limited.

  • Parks and gardens will re-open to the public, but children's play areas remain closed.

  • You may not travel between regions - you may only travel to a different region if you have a valid reason relating to health or work.

  • You must continue to carry a self-certification form whenever you leave your home (detailing why you are out of your house, where you are going, why, etc.).

  • Anyone with a temperature over 37.5C is legally obliged to stay at home.

You are now allowed to move from one comune (think local council) area to another - so if your favourite supermarket or (in our case) veg grower/seller is just outside the boundary of your local town council, then you are now allowed to go there.

It is anticipated that from 18th May other shops will start to re-open, and museums and galleries will be allowed to re-open.

For hairdressers, beauticians, bars and restaurants a longer wait is anticipated, with 1st June the provisional date on which they are to be allowed to re-open (for bars and restaurants with actual in-restaurant dining, although with distancing measures in place so operating with a reduced number of covers.)

For us, then, little has changed. And we are quite happy about that. We have mixed feelings about the re-opening of activities, partly for fear of a second wave of infections (Pescia itself has had 59 reported cases of COVID-19 since the epidemic began, 58 of which have arisen since lockdown started, with the most recent cases appearing only last week - sadly, in 11 of the cases the patient has died), and partly because of the anticipated interruptions and additional pressures it will bring - the thought of which invokes distinct feelings of ill-ease and anxiety.

We have established a good routine over the last 7 weeks and without any external pressures we have enjoyed being able to work to our own schedule and found the lack of social pressure both liberating and calming. We realise we are in the very lucky position of having outdoor space (and then some), a decent sized living space, to be surrounded by nature and beauty, to have plenty to do, and to have mainly had glorious weather for the duration. We know that there are many others suffering terribly in the lockdown, whether due to domestic situations, financial worries and/or the mental and physical effects of isolation, and of course recognise that the lifting of restrictions is incredibly important to begin to relieve those situations for those people. For us, though, for the time being, we are quite comfortable with the status quo.