22 October 2008

Experiments with LEDs to get ...l'ambiance parfaite ...

We're sorting out loads of things at the moment. The style of the roof and the heating for the extension, our lighting for winter and designing the electricity runs for the extension.

I went on a bit of a spending spree a couple of weeks ago and amongst other things, I bought several 9 and 5 watt 12v compact fluo lightbulbs and these 36 LED units (In the photo above.) which consume under 2watts each. I know I go a bit about lighting but it's nice to have a lovely warm cosy atmosphere in a house, and good lighting can help a lot.

I bought them from a supplier I've found reliable with good prices and fast service, Energie Douce. I'm a bit disappointed with the blue/white colour of the new LEDs but a red or pink shade over the light will it warm up. I often put a bit of red nail varnish on to LEDs (Which stay quite cool normally) but only for outside the house. I wonder if I should take a chance and try some out on the inside ?

There's not a lot of useful light either and I expected that with LEDs, but I'm still experimenting with how I can use them for background lighting.
I've got a few lovely paintings and interesting corners (Like this one with my "magic egg" collection.) which just disappear once we switch on the main lights in the kitchen. It's a big room, 7x6 metres but feels small and needs more light to open it up.

We do use candles a lot and I love them but we don't like going out for a wander outside in the evening leaving the candles on because our two cats love sitting in window sills and they've singed their tails and knocked over quite a few things on their travels.

Candles also need to be bought and stored and you need to spend time every so often cleaning the holders. I "rewick" them with a tiny bit of cotton wool twisted and pushed into the wax in the holder with a knife then I dribble some wax from a candle on to the little wick, light it and it burns away all the accumulated wax around the edges. Once there's a nice dip, I enthusiastically push in a new candle and often end up squirting the wax on to my computer screen...

20 October 2008

Unbelievable colours of Autumn

The colour in the garden and in the woods around our fields is a real joy to behold at the moment. The main colour is from Virginia creeper which can spread where you don't want it but when it's in the trees and on the gloriette and the pergolas, it's glorious.

I planted a Red Oak near the chicken shed three years ago. It's never done well and I thought it was because of the nitrogen rich soil. We had to cut down a nearby Acacia because it was split in a storm and since that's gone the Oak has really recovered and has now become a beautiful young tree which we can see from the terrace.

This jungle is my potager which is still bursting with things to gather, so I'm a bit busy getting things in and stored before the frost comes. The bottom of the garden is protected by trees and a hedge and feels warmer that up at the house. The weather's still glorious and in this photo taken a few day ago it looks like high summer.

A chicken walks on the path

The borage is still seeding and growing and almost each rose is producing one or two spectacular flowers.

We've still got green peppers and chillis to get in, peas and beans and the celery I grew in the tent frame is really lovely and there's lots of it. We had some tonight with a rabbit Fabrice shot - the second of the season. We still have courgettes and I grew lots of parsley this year, mostly the tasty Italian kind and it's self-seeding everywhere.

I planted pumpkins for the pigs very late in the season after the potatoes and onions and they're producing big healthy looking pumpkins which I have to keep training to go the way I want them to otherwise they send their roots down into the paths.

This is a lovely time of the year and it is nice to just wander around looking and soaking in the atmosphere and richness and look at some of the things we've done. We've got loads of plans and projects on the go and thankfully, we've a lot more energy than we had last year, so it feels as though we'll make a bit of progress again.

The wood's chopped and under cover near the house and the more delicate plants are being moved nearer and nearer to the back of the house where it's warm and protected. The indoor plants are back indoors and seem to appreciate the comfort. Food's stored and the freezer is filling up again with game and we light the fire most evenings - which is really nice.

13 October 2008

Off grid computing

Happy solar batteriesOne of the reasons I haven't been blogging much recently is that my six year old laptop has only a few hundred Mo of RAM so it runs out of memory whenever I try to do anything complicated.

Often, I just give up waiting for action and go and get on with something else - not a bad thing really. ;-)

I did buy a bit more memory (The maximum for my machine.) and took my computer apart to plug it in. (Scary stuff!)

That did do the trick for a few weeks but when I'm in forums, answering e-mails and trying to research something amazing that a friend's just told me about, all it needs is for me to visit one site with a bit of background music or a video and everything comes to a standstill.

I like being able to make do and mend but with computers there's only so far I can DIY, so I've bought a brand new laptop with lots more memory and I'm looking forward to getting to know it better once I get all the electrics and the internet connection sorted out.

People often ask us how we manage our internet connection living off-grid. I cleaned up and emptied out my laptop a few days ago (To let me get on the 'net to buy another one!) and the connection seems to be quite stable, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to write about how we manage our solar and wind energy to have off-grid computing.

Frog on a solar panelAt the moment, we have a very modest 12v renewable energy system which runs on eight 75watt photovoltaic panels and two 75watt Rutland wind generators.

We've bought the panels and wind turbines in stages and decided to keep two separate systems - each one is capable of lighting the whole house, recharge batteries, run small appliances and allows us to get on the internet. Having two systems means that when we can carry out our battery maintenance or add more panels to one system we're never without power. If one system is out of energy we can swop over and at least I'm always sure of being able to send e-mails or recharge torch batteries. I'm pleased to say that neither of the systems of our alternative technology has ever let us down.

DC Converter (12v to 19v) for laptop computer run by solar power 29€
My old laptop needs 19v of direct current (DC) and when laptops run off the mains power they need a transformer to change the alternative current to DC. So instead of using an inverter to change DC to AC to DC, I bought some cheap and cheerful DC current converters like the one in the photograph above for about 29€. This little gadget allows me to step up the DC voltage needed by my laptop and means that I don't waste the precious (especially in the winter!) energy taken up by an inverter while it's switched on. This one has been working well (Despite the dust!) for about three years.

My new computer - like many of the bigger machines on the market - needs more power than the 70watt maximum allowed by the small unit above, so I've been looking for another one. I ordered a unit from Nauticom and it should arrive soon.

300watt inverter runs printer external hard disk etc.I also run my modem from a DC-DC converter but for the other appliances like my external hard disc and my printer (Which I rarely use.) I need an inverter which changes 12v DC to 230 AC. This one cost around 150€.

It's best to use the smallest inverter you can to run equipment because the inverter itself uses a lot of energy, so I opted for a little 300watt one which doesn't take up much room on my desk. I use it with a three plug adaptor so that I can plug in several things at the same time and it too has been working perfectly for a few years. The only thing that drives me mad is all the wires everywhere but I suppose if I want to charge cameras mobile 'phones, batteries and get on the 'net, that's something I'll just have to live with.

I'm really looking forward to getting everything sorted out and finally using my new computer. I wanted to post a photo of the beast, but I don't want to take any chances...;-)

26 September 2008

Opened the chickens early this morning

The sun was streaming on to the garden and everything was covered with dew - it was just beautiful. This black Marans chicken looked amazing with her red comb glowing in the sun and that long shadow.

No doubt she was waiting to see if I'd brought anything tasty for her.

Ready for the chop

Ready for the chop, originally uploaded by hardworkinghippy.

At this time of the year I pick my vegetables quickly because they rot easily later in the season and get them eaten or chopped up and cooked as quickly as possible. Now's the time to get everything ready for winter so these vegetables were sterilised to conserve them.

I made five .35 litre and two .75 litre jars from 8 kilos of veg. I reduced the sauce a lot to thicken it, (That way I use fewer jars and there's no point in storing water!) then when I open each jar I rinse it out with some water and add that to the sauce.

The smaller jars are enough for two people and make a quick meal poured on to pasta and sprinkled with cheese or used as a sauce to complement a small amount of left-over meat. The nice thing about having loads of these jars in stock in your cellar is you know they'll taste great, you can feed a lot of people quickly without too much stress and to prepare a good meal all you need to do is heat everything up - this is the nearest we'll ever get to a take-away.

I've posted a lot about conserving food in this way, if you click on the "storing food" link below, you'll see other posts where the process is described in detail.

21 September 2008

While I was away on my Permaculture Design Course, somebody cleaned my woodstove with soapy water!!

In the summer we tend to use the woodstove as a work surface. It gets filled up pretty quickly - as do all the other surfaces in our house.

As we were expecting a lot of visitors this weekend I gave the house a dust and when I cleared all the pots and pans, gardening gloves, scissors and other stuff off the top of the cooker I realised that it had started to go rusty!

Woodstoves are made of cast iron and they need to be kept dry and over the years we've just got into the habit of not putting anything damp or wet on the cooking surface. It doesn't matter when the cooker's lit - the heat soon causes the moisture to evaporate but in the summer the stove is vulnerable unless it's covered and checked regularly or unless everyone is aware that moisture can be a problem for the metal.

When the warmer days come in spring and the stove is on its last few firings, I coat the surface with oil and rub it into the joints and round the handles to protect them.

To start getting the top back to it's former glory I rubbed gently with a bit of wire wool on the areas which were starting to bubble, then scrubbed beeswax into the top and joints. I need to light it soon to make sure the wax seeps into all the joints and the rust doesn't spread. I'll do that while this warmish spell keeps up because I'll have to keep the windows and doors open to get rid of the smoke and smell of the burning wax.

Once the stove's back to normal I'll start dying some yarn, bake a bit of bread, and do some sterilising because I'm just too mean to use gas for those sort of things. I can't wait to get on with it!

17 September 2008

We got some new piglets on Saturday!

12 September 2008

I've totally lost control of all this growth

Everything's everywhere - and this is just the way I like it!
These are some photos of the new bit of garden I started about two years ago. There are also some photos looking towards the older part of the garden where most of our summer veg is. I've replaced potatoes and onions with marrows for the pigs and I might get a decent crop if the good weather and rain keep up.

Loofas growing on a tent frame
Annual climber Cardiospermum halicacabum or Love-In-A-Puff, Balloon Vine, HeartSeed, Winter Cherry

My weird jungle garden, originally uploaded by hardworkinghippy.

Building our extension - the progress in September

This is looking east to the pond which we dug for the rainwater from the house. When we've finished building the exterior of the house and using the space as a workshop area, we'll extend the pond and use the clay for covering the straw inside the house.

This is what the extension looks like at the moment. It's very square and chunky and even now I can see that the idea that we had of making something which is big on the inside and looks small from the outside is going to work.

Once this face of the house has it's own terrace and has been clothed in plants and the existing trees around it are underplanted with shrubs the mass of the building will disappear into the undergrowth.

The next important step of the work is tying the top of the building together ready for covering it before winter then making sure that the roof is constructed in exactly the right shape to fit in with the rest of the building - respecting the style of other old farmhouses in the region.

We're been trying for months to find a good roofer to help Fabrice do this part - but here in rural France that's easier said than done of course !

11 September 2008

Bags of Angora goat fleece on the terrace

We'd just sheared a friend's Angoras.

These bags are a constant reminder that we have to get on and do ours while the weather's good....

7 September 2008

Damp and drizzly garden update


I meant to do a posting about the Permaculture course I was on a couple of weeks ago but of course, life's not like that. It took me ages to "reclaim" my kitchen, sort out the garden, catch up with paperwork (Did I ever tell you that I'm Fabrice's secretary?) and just spend time with the animals. We've had loads of visitors and lots of late nights and laughs and spending time on the 'net just hasn't been possible.

I also seem to have lost the knack of taking photos, maybe it's because by the time I feel like getting out my camera the light's gone and this rainy weather hasn't helped a lot either.

One of my delights when I came back was to see how fast the loofahs have grown up the tent frame and when I looked closer I realised I have about eight which are already a good usable size. My plan is to use them as scrubbers for the kitchen and bathrooms instead of buying those spongy things - one less thing we have to buy when we go out shopping ! I can even dye them different colours and if I've enough they'll make lovely presents.

The other thing in the garden which is doing really well is Sweet Peppers. I bought a few plants early in the season and sowed far too many seeds all of which have been keeping us in peppers all summer and there will be enough to do quite a few jars for winter.

The Aubergines are ripe and we've been eating them for a while too, but they really need more heat to produce a second crop - like the tomatoes which are taking too long to ripen, although we usually manage to get a handfull every day for a salad and when there's more I make a meal based on them.

My prettiest Peppers are these black ones which I bought as young plants - they're so shiny and even black and unripe they taste quite sweet.

I also have two bought plants of another very early variety which must have produced at least 40 fruits per plant and they're still growing well. (The photo below was taken in mid-July) I imagine they're both F1 hybrids though and the seeds will be sterile - I must find that out from our neighbour Yan who sells spices on the markets and was kind enough to bring me back these very early plants as soon as he saw them for sale. I really miss my little greenhouse for starting off things - I'll sort something out for next year I hope.

Let's hope it stays fine for a while tomorrow...

This is an update to let you see how our Loofahs turned out.

I finally got about 13 decent sized Loofahs and gave some away to friends to let them clean the loofah out themselves - that way they get to keep the seeds.

Cleaning them out takes time and patience. It consists of cutting the ends off the loofah, then wetting it and squeezing it gently to get the fleshy insides out along with the seeds - pushing them gently to the ends until they plop out.

Some people wait until much later in the season when the loofahs are completely dry but I was very impatient and I've still got a few hanging on the vines which I'll experiment with after Christmas.

After they were empty of all the stuff inside them and the seeds were all removed, I washed them well and left them to dry naturally. You can bleach them but I like the natural colour and my septic tank doesn't like bleach!

I dyed a few but I've misplaced the photos and given the ones I dyed away as presents.

I'm very pleased with them and have a few around the house for wiping around the bath and washbasins and scrubbing myself with in the shower and a good few left over to last me for quite some time.

I intended to use them to do the dishes but after a couple of weeks they tend to collect bits of food and rot quite quickly so I think I'll give up on that idea.

12 August 2008

Permaculture in France

In the 80s I read my first Permaculture magazine and I was impressed by how relevant and practical its articles were to my way of thinking so I went on an introductory course and what I learned has influenced me ever since. A few years later, Permaculture magazine was released in the UK and I treated myself to a subscription, became an avid reader and began meeting more and more people who were developing Permaculture ideas.

In France I've met very few people who have heard of Permaculture. The way we plan our resource consumption, landscape around our house and tend our gardens is just common sense but it's a multi-faceted combination of ideas about everything to do with energy management and difficult to explain quickly to our hundreds of casual visitors without giving them a "label" which they can use to find out more.

"Permaculture" is the best label that I can think of, so I'd like to help spread the concept of Permaculture in France and I've been making contacts (mostly through the French site Brin de Paille run by Pascal Depienne) and finding out more about the Permaculture network here. So far, the movement is in its infancy and there's still a lot of work to be done encouraging people to join the forums, (48 members so far!) exchanging ideas and experience and translating manuals and other documents into French.

Anyone who would like to find out more about Permaculture in France can find more information in THIS link

The Permaculture movement has done a great job of presenting good ideas into courses which are standardised and can be taught all over the world and I need a review of my existing skills, a chance to meet a few new Permaculture people and a bit of time away from the farm.

So, later this week I shall be leaving my garden, goats, sheep, building work and Fabrice behind and indulging myself by doing the 10 day residential, certified Permaculture Design Course led by Steve Read at The Dharma house.

See you when I get back !

Digging the holes for the erection of the new 2kw wind generator

Fabrice digging the holes for the new 2kw wind generator

We've made a start to getting the new wind turbine up, but it will be a while before it's generating electricity.

Doing this now while the ground is dry will ensure that the cement in five holes we made - one for the mast and four for the guy ropes - has a chance to dry out before we put up the mast.

Each one of these three sections of the tower is too heavy for one person to lift. When you see them laid out like this it's a bit scary.

This is us working out where to put the holes for the 8 guy ropes and have a clear passage for the tractor so that we can erect the mast and let it down again for maintenance.

The 9 metre mast will sit on this base and the steel ropes

will keep the mast absolutely straight.The bolt goes through the bottom of the mast which will be pulled upright gently by our tractor and secured in place.

We still have a lot of building work to do including installing our hot water system (which we'll use as a dump load for excess electricity) before we put the generator up but the cement bases should be dry and completely solid by then.

7 August 2008

A hot August day in the shady woods with the goats...

It's very hot here and we give three of our kids a bottle of milk every afternoon so we have a good excuse to take the dogs down into the cool woods and have a good look at the goats, play with them and generally sit around appreciating the peacefulness around us.

I took my camera, a little Sony Cybershot, to take a few snaps. I erased most of them because they were too dark and the ones taken with flash were harsh and boring but I could almost see a little goat in this photo and decided to keep it.

When I put it into my computer I lightened it with Picasa and hey presto, this is a shot which I'm pleased with and think really captures the sweet Angora kid expression and the beauty of the sunlight in the woods.

18 July 2008

Mulching for garden productivity

At this time of the year our Angora goats like to sleep outside. The kids are big enough now for us not to have to worry about foxes and they sleep at the top of the hill near to the house so we can hear them bleating if there's a problem.

We take this opportunity to clear out the goatshed which is an open airy space with a metre deep litter of straw, hay, goat and chicken droppings and goat's hair. It's a lovely dry clean bed for our Angora goats, it smells sweet and sitting in there on a cold winter's evening feeling the heat on your bottom is very pleasant .

The shed is at the top of the hill where we have our main vegetable garden and we collect all the water which comes off the roof. We have two hoses connected our water containers and the water flows by gravity in the classic permaculture way down almost to the chickens shed which is at the bottom of the garden. The chicken shed roof has it's own water barrels and they're just high enough to water the new part of the vegetable plot at the back of the shed and all the planting around it. We use that water for cleaning and filling the containers for our chickens and the plants around the area love the regular watering and all the compost around the shed. This photo shows the shed, then the slope up to the tent frame which I use as a cage to keep the chickens away from things I really want to protect.

After I've planted the summer vegetables I use some of the goat's bedding as a mulch. I know that normally you shouldn't use animal bedding near plants but it's clean and dry enough not to have problems with the mulch rotting the plants. I know too that people say not to use hay because it's full of seeds, but if you have plenty of material, you can just keep adding more and more mulch and the weeds don't stand a chance. I use sticks to protect the newly planted things from chickens and when I (or the chickens!) spread the mulch, the sticks keep it away from the base of the plants.

We empty the shed with a pitchfork and the chickens start straight away scratching though the bedding and the shed for insects. They spend about two weeks doing a fine job of clearing the inside of the wooden structure which helps it to dry out and last longer and they also scratch and clean around the shed making a superb compost which I use for potting up plants and cuttings. Fortunately, they're too busy up at the shed to spend much time disturbing my newly planted summer vegetables.

I barrow the material down to the garden and mulch around all my plants, tucking in the mulch around the established shrubs and perennials to smother weeds and between the newly planted vegetables to retain the water in the soil and cut down the need for watering.

I couldn't grow what I grow in such a small space if it weren't for mulching. Our garden is on a very poor sandy soil on a south-facing slope. We've terraced it with raised beds to contain the soil and the regular mulches helps stop the soil and it nutrients being washed downwards.

The mulches also stop the soil compacting and promote the development of micro-organisms, encourage earthworms and help keep the soil warmer at the start of the growing season and cooler in the really hot few weeks when the plants need as much water as they can get to swell up and provide us with food.

Plants that are mulched grow a strong network of roots to search for food and water and they rely less on human intervention for their survival. They hold themselves up well and the lower leaves are less likely to be lost through soil-borne diseases and splashing after heavy rains.

The constant temperature and humidity means that the fruits rarely split and we have very few cases of blossom end rot. If long-release mulches such as wood chips are used before winter, then lighter materials are used in the spring, the results can be superb and by adding more and more mulch over a period of years, the resulting earth is dark, crumbly, easy to work with without digging and very productive without the addition of any fertilisers or bought-in compost. When I'm making a new bed from scratch I often incorporate logs of rotten wood , branches, leaves, wool - in fact anything which retains water like a sponge and attracts the numerous insects and worms who help the organic material to decompose. By doing this, then adding a good cover of grass clippings, litter from the goat shed and earth the beds are a wonderful mixture of nutriments. 

The preparation takes time and a bit of lifting and carrying but a well-prepared growing surface will retain its goodness for a very long time and I need to do lees weeding and very little watering thanks to all the water retained in the beds by the logs and branches.

14 July 2008

Our terrace - the most used space in our house !

I always seem to be talking about our terrace, but a lot of things go on there!

HERE a link to a slideshow which will give you an idea how it was made and how it expands our living space.

13 July 2008

Stone facing up to the little windows of the loft

Fabrice is still facing the red bricks of the extension with stone. It's a long job and we need to go further and further away now to get the stones but it will look lovely when it's finished !

6 July 2008

New to growing Stevia

Stevia cuttings in waterSome of you may already know about Stevia, also called Honey Leaf and Yerba Dulce, a plant used as a sweetener - just a teaspoonful of the powder, depending how the plant was grown of course - can be equivalent to a cupfull of sugar.

Many claims are made for Stevia, that it has properties which help maintain blood sugar levels, it improves digestion, protects against Candida and even suppresses bacterial growth around teeth. Anything that helps reduce the amount of sugar we consume is a good thing and I grow it to reduce our honey consumption and be self-sufficient in a plant which I use in cakes, for sweetening drinks and bottling fruit.

I've been looking for seeds or plants of Stevia for some time. As if by magic, I was given three plants for my birthday in April this year.

Our vegetable plot should be ideal for growing Stevia as an annual - although it's a herbaceous perennial shrub in its native sub-tropical Paraguay. The plant likes moist sandy soil - ideally in raised beds which prevent the plant from rotting. My plan was to lift the plants or take cuttings and overwinter them on the back terrace where, under plexiglass and with the heat of the south-facing wall the conditions are frost-free. My citrus and olive plants have done well there for the past few years.

After hardening it off for a couple of weeks, I planted one of the plants into the garden and it disappeared overnight - totally consumed by slugs who ate the stem almost down to the root!

I spent a few early mornings cutting the slugs into bite-sized chucks which our chickens gobbled down enthusiastically and felt confident enough to plant another - protected by a ring of wood ash to deter even more slugs. The second plant didn't do well and lost a lot of its leaves and despite my attempts to revive it by retransplating it into a pot, it died.

Stevia Plant growing well in a potI kept the third plant in a pot and it's growing well. To get a good crop of leaves and to stop the plant flowering (It dies after flowering.) I nipped out the leader stems which has make the plant bushy and it's now a healthy specimen.

I've used the leaves to sweeten rhubarb in a crumble and the taste went well with the Angelica I put in with the rhubarb. I had to sprinkle some "real" sugar on top of the crumble because although it's heat stable and can be baked, Stevia doesn't carmelise like sugar, but it's good to know that I could be buying less sugar in the future.

Stevia cutting showing roots developingAs the weather warmed up I started taking cuttings from the mother plant. I took off the lower leaves, dipped the stem into a rooting hormone and put the cuttings into little pots full of sandy soil. So far, the cuttings put straight into soil are struggling and don't look as though they're going to make it but after seventeen days the cuttings I put into water look healthy and they've started shooting out little roots. I'll wait for another few days then pot them up to make new plants for the garden and to give away to friends.
When I've enough plants I'll put them into the potager to grow on and harvest the leaves for drying and storing in Autumn. Once the Stevia leaves are properly dried the leaves whole or ground to a fine powder will keep for years in glass jars.

I've a few other posts in the blog about Stevia - How to overwinter it and about the idea times and conditions for cuttings. Just click on the label "Stevia" below and you'll get all the posts on the same page.