Today I took my scythe and cleared a path through the long grass across to the other side of the main valley here. It’s an area of the land I have not visited for a while, on the north side of our little seasonal stream. There is a beautiful bit of old cork oak forest there, and some chestnuts, an old walnut and a few old fruit trees along the waterline. At the edge of the forest along the stream banks I was greeted by a carpet of red clover buzzing with bees, and a rich array of wildflowers still in bloom. Everything seems to be flowering a bit later this year due to heavy rains in May.
I wandered into the shade of the the forest edges and began collecting wild oregano which is now in flower (Origanum Vulgare). At first I see a just few of them, but soon my “oregano eyes” are fully operational and I notice it everywhere, its flowering tops waving at me from amidst the long grass, the the brambles, and the bracken. Collecting wild oregano is a delicious activity. I am drawn deeper into the dappled shade of the forest edges, and sunny clearings, listening to the birds, noticing all the different plants, and as my arms fill with oregano stalks, I inhale the wonderful aroma of this plant. I feel its powerful healing qualities nourishing me from this contact.
I leave the forest with a big bunch, grateful.
Foraging for wild plants brings me into a state of natural abundance, and deep connection with the environment around me. I feel in communication with these plants, and will often receive messages or intuitions about using a particular plant.
The oregano will be dried and used to flavour food, make medicinal infusions, and macerated oil.
I am excited to see how many new herbs I spot with each year I spend here. By not having animals grazing, and by selectively clearing the land by hand, the biodiversity is increasing each year. There is a pharmacy growing in these hills, an abundance of medicinal and aromatic herbs.
One day we plan to buy an alambique and start making hydrolats and essential oils from the plants.
Here are some of the ones I have identified and begun to use:
We have loads of this. Round here it is a pioneer plant, growing extensively on degraded land or after fires. An amazing aroma exudes from its sticky leaves, that is made in to a resin used in the perfume industry (labdanum). It is also highly medicinal and quite magical. We collect the leaves and flowers and make tea from them. Last year I did a one day course in steam distillation of plants to make hydrolate. We made cistus water, which has a wonderful smell, and can also be used internally or externally for healing, I enjoyed anointing my face with it every morning.
A sticky cistus leaf can also be used as a plaster (band-aid) on small cuts and grazes.
There is quite a lot of this around in flower at the moment, and when I have a moment I collect the flowers to make make a herbal oil. I use our own olive oil to cover the flowers in a jar and leave in the sun to infuse. This one in the picture is right outside my yurt….
In the spring the hills turn purple with this aromatic wild lavender. We also have another variety with pale greenish flowers that is apparently more rare – Lavandula Viridis
Helichrysum / Helichrysum italicum
Since we cleared a big area of Cistus up on the hill, I have noticed a lot more wild plants that have been hiding amongst it – the cistus acts as a nurse plant – providing shelter and shade for other plants to grow. One I am enjoying at the moment is Helichrysum, with its bright yellow bobbly flowers. It has an interesting smell and I am trying making it into a tea. It is another very healing plant and makes a sought after essential oil.
Earlier in the year we have loads of Malva Sylvestris growing into big bushes, with its pale purple stripy flowers appearing in the spring. Its one of the main wild leaves I pick for salads, and the flowers too….
More recently I notice we have a delicate looking relative – with pale pink flowers and smaller leaves, flowering now in the early summer. It looks like Musk Mallow.
We have quite a few hawthorn trees in the forest. Its another magical plant rich in folklore, and good heart medicine. In the spring you can eat the young leaves, and in the late autumn the red berries appear. I like to eat them fresh, even though the flavour is quite mild, and there is a big seed inside. Last year I made hawthorn vinegar by soaking the berries in Apple Cider Vinegar, and a Hawthorn tincture.
Other abundant medicinal and aromatic plants on the land are wild mint, wild chamomile, myrtle, horehound, olive leaf, red clover…..
There are plenty of other wild and aromatic herbs and shrubs here that I have yet to get to know and many I have yet to identify. I have also planted aromatic shrubs around the garden – varieties of Rosemary, Sage, Artemesias, Lemon Verbena, Melissa, Geranium, Zatar, Jasmine – all great for the bees, and for our own enjoyment.
With the building of a duck house, there had to be a duck pond to go with it. or, as it happened, two duck ponds.
In addition to being ponds for ducks, these ponds also form part of the general water-retention strategy for the quinta. The aim is to slow the passage of water through this steep land and spread it as far as possible from the stream, allowing it to infiltrate and hydrate the soils. This promotes the growth of the vegetation which is so essential in improving the soils here. Vegetation decomposes to provide soil carbon. Without soil carbon, these thin soils haven’t a hope of holding onto moisture (or much of their biota) through the hot dry summer months. Irrigation becomes necessary. But build up soil carbon levels enough and eventually irrigation needs are minimal, even zero. So in order to make irrigation unnecessary, it’s initially necessary (at least if any kind of speed is required).
Back to the duck ponds. Or maybe duck puddles would be more accurate. They’re barely large enough to be worthy of the word pond, though they’re more than adequate to keep a couple of ducks happy.
The ponds are an extension of the main swale which leads from the lower pond on the bottom terrace diagonally across the terrace to the wall at the back of the terrace right next to the hen house. The contour lines run diagonally across the terrace from edge to back, so so do the swales.
The first pond is at the point where the main swale meets the back terrace wall. It acts as a collecting basin from which the water can then be dropped to a lower level, collected again in the second duck pond, and sent out in a further swale until it meets the back wall again. In theory I could carry on with this collect-drop-collect-extend model to the end of the terrace because the terraces are built to run gently downhill across their length, but an outcrop of bedrock and the increasing gradient of the terrace puts a stop to this not far beyond the second duck pond.
I used 110mm plastic waste pipe to take water from the spillway of the first pond to the inlet of the second. The second pond was dug in the ‘terrace’ created by the hens by scratching in their compound. The soil which forms the dam is mostly well-manured soil from the old compound, so quickly grew a good covering of vegetation, including the comfrey planted here.
Now all that remains is to install the electric poultry netting and thatch the hen and duck houses (this keeps the interior much cooler in summer) and we will be ready for a trip to market to recruit some user testers. I’m really looking forward to having poultry again. It’s been too long without.
It’s been quite a saga, this business of creating unlined ponds. I particularly wanted unlined ponds, because their principal purpose is to provide hydration for their surroundings in the course of slowing the passage of water through the quinta. But as I’ve learned, it takes a while for them to stabilise. There are four of them; two sets of two on the terraces above and below the yurt terrace. Small ponds – which these all are due to limitations of terrace width and slope – are much more sensitive to small perturbations.
Bottom terrace ponds
Small perturbations, in the case of the two ponds on the bottom terrace, turned out to be quite cute with fur and tails and stuff.
These ponds were dug in 2011 and are now well settled, but not before I had to resort to edging some of the banks with metre-deep lengths of corrugated metal sheeting and burying tangled balls of chicken wire in the soil around the spillway. It’s not that the rodents aren’t helpful – they’re very good at assisting in the process of hydrating the soil in the area surrounding the ponds and, along with the frogs, give the dog endless amusement. It’s just their ideas about where water should go don’t always match mine. Out through terrace walls is a definite no, as is filling the earth dam between the ponds with little perforations. Training them hasn’t been easy. A bit like herding cats.
At this stage now though, these ponds require only minimal maintenance. The plantings of marginal and aquatic plants are all well established and the two little 40cm alder saplings (Alnus glutinosa) I transplanted from the wild two years ago (before they could be removed by riparian brush cutting) are now small trees and growing vigorously. The swales which are filled by these ponds and the duck ponds in the poultry enclosure dug last year have had some small perturbation deterrent work and general maintenance and improvement as well.
Top terrace ponds
Small perturbations in the case of the larger two ponds on the top terrace weren’t quite so small and cute. These ponds were first dug in the spring of 2012. In the process, we uncovered the underground water channels linking the collecting tank on this terrace (behind the flat-topped rise behind the ponds in the image below) to the next one down. Having uncovered them, the challenge became covering them up again and stopping the water from finding its way back into them.
2012 was a drought year though. We built in the channel in the upper pond, but had to patiently wait for 2013’s spring rains to test it. The upper pond filled, but it was evident water was still finding its way into the channels. More work was done that summer and in 2014, for the first time, I got the upper pond full and water filling the lower pond.
The water in the lower pond was finding its way into another branch of the channel system however, and the water never got higher than this, tantalisingly close to the pipe spillway back into the main channel. So near and yet so far.
Then later that year, my neighbours uphill decided to clean out the decades-worth of sludge in their water tanks on our mutual stream. Had they thought beyond their immediate objective and phoned me, I could have diverted all the sludge down the storm drain path of the stream. It would have taken no more than 10 minutes to do. But they didn’t. And I didn’t discover it until my main water supply tank was thoroughly polluted and the collecting tank and upper pond on the top terrace were both knee-deep in sludge. The remaining two collecting tanks on the next two terraces also got their fair share.
All work on the ponds had to be put on hold until the sludge could be dug out. That didn’t happen last year as there were too many more pressing jobs needing done. Then earlier this spring we couldn’t start work as doing so would increase the water flow to the blocked channel on the yurt terrace. Nothing doing until the channel was cleared.
So at last we got to it, largely thanks to volunteer Paul who took on the job with enthusiasm and had the collecting tank clean within a couple of days of dedicated shovelling and the water running to the ponds again.
The lower pond had, by this time, just become a hollow in the terrace full of vegetation. We cut this and left it in situ, covering it with sludge from the upper pond so it would decompose anaerobically and gley the pond. After several applications of sludge in key areas over the channels, the pond finally filled to the spill pipe.
After a week, the amount of water being absorbed by the surrounding soil has reduced considerably and what goes down the pipe is pretty much what’s coming into the pond. As the vegetation decomposes beneath the sludge, it should improve the seal further.
It’s so exciting to see these ponds finally full and working as they should be. Summer will bring its challenges with a reduction in the stream’s flow, but with luck they should hold water well enough by then to maintain their level. We shall see …
The previous post on the geodesic dome greenhouse outlined the logic in choosing a dome for this site and how it was by far the better option for fitting in all the things I wanted to have in this greenhouse. These include an aquaponics system and a bathroom as well as growing space for tropical and frost-tender fruits and vegetables, seed growing areas, a rocket-stove water heater and a worm farm – a fair bit to cram into an area measuring just 7x5m at the outset.
I also wanted to build in a subterranean heating & cooling system (SHCS) to make even better use of all the thermal mass present in the solid bedrock floor and back wall. This is a proven low-tech solution for maintaining comfortable temperatures and humidity levels in the greenhouse year round. It can minimise or even eliminate the need for supplementary heating or cooling.
It works like this. Vertical pipes containing in-line duct fans are placed at various points in the greenhouse. They connect to underground perforated drainage pipes which cover as large an area as possible. The underground pipes exit at the surface. The fans are set to automatically come on when the difference between soil and air temperatures exceeds a set amount. So when the air is hotter than the soil by x°C, the fans come on, pulling the hot air down into the underground pipes where it’s cooled, the water vapour condenses out of it, and it’s released back into the greenhouse drier and cooler. When the air is cooler than the soil by x°C, the fans again come on, pulling the cold air underground where it’s warmed by the heat stored in the thermal mass surrounding the pipes. It exits back into the greenhouse warmer and moister.
With 90% of the greenhouse sitting on solid bedrock, I had 3 options:
- break out another half metre’s depth of bedrock to accommodate the pipework (not really a sensible option with no means of getting serious machinery to the site);
- lay a half metre’s depth of crushed bedrock over the SHCS system and then build the greenhouse on that (again, not an easy option without serious machinery and the crushed bedrock would have to be brought in);
- lay the SHCS pipes at the base of the beds and terraces inside the greenhouse as we built them.
The first two options would be costly in time and money but allow for an optimal system to be constructed. The third option wouldn’t cost anything but would likely result in less than the ideal length of pipework for the size of the greenhouse. But I reckoned that once the passive effect of all the thermal mass underlying, surrounding and within the greenhouse is taken into account, the greenhouse’s ‘climate battery’ should perform well enough for its climate and situation to make this workable and worthwhile. Winter average temperatures here are around 5°C and rarely get much below -5°C. I’ve seen -12°C, but only once. Ground temperatures are around 12°C.
I used 110mm grey waste pipe for the rigid vertical sections and 100mm perforated land drain for the underground sections. These are connected via manifolds made from 5-litre plastic bottles. This was very simple to do since the manifolds don’t need to be airtight – the air going through them is passing into perforated land drain, after all.
The first section is at the base of the large central growing bed. The bed is roughly 1m deep. In these images, the walls are only partly constructed.
The second section underlies the aquaponics fishpond and terraces at the back of the dome.
The third section runs round the lower perimeter of the greenhouse outside the frame. Since the heatsink itself doesn’t need to be within the greenhouse envelope – only the entrance and exit need to be inside – we could use this space to our advantage. And there’s no bedrock in this area!
The next stage, after completing the second length of the second section, will be to install the fans and the remaining lengths of vertical pipe above them. Once the control system is wired in and we have solar electricity supplied to the greenhouse, we will be able to complete and test the system. Tuning its performance and evaluating its success (or otherwise) will have to wait until the greenhouse has its covering and we have a whole year’s worth of experience with it, but it already puts out warm moist air on cool mornings through the vertical pipes!
I’m so very pleased to have this new postcard collection available for sale to our supporters (and anyone else!). Full colour, high quality images on the front, with the back printed for use as a postcard (or put them on your wall!)
Available for €10 per pack of 10, plus postage if you’re not able to visit us personally. Quantity is limited. Email (remove the spaces) info @ casalinho. com to order.
If you read Portuguese (or even if you can just use translation software!!), take a look at this new project from our friends Filipa and Pedro.
Editora Ancestral is a small Portuguese project with the mission of publishing both books and a quarterly magazine – Revista Ancestral – focused on the recovery of ancestral knowledge and its fusion with current practices and perceptions, promoting an alternative and sustainable way of life. We aim to explore several different topics, such as permaculture, organic/biodynamic agriculture, alternative economics/politics, herbalism, feralculture, alternative schooling, wilderness skills, simple living, natural beekeeping and foraging, and many others.
The 1st edition of Revista Ancestral came out on the first day of Spring, March 21st 2016. (Download it here, after filling out the form). This edition is free and online-only, accessible to everyone! Hopefully, with the help of sponsors, we will be able to launch both an online and a paper 2nd edition.
If you would like to contribute to our magazine’s 2nd edition, make sure to send us your article, recipe, DIY or other contribution until 24th of July 2016. The text should be written in Portuguese and follow some general rules explained here.
If you would like to include an advertisement for your project, workshop, course or other event in the magazine, and therefore support our work, then please contact us for all the details via our e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As well as paid advertisements, you can also include your events on our “events list”, completely free of charge!
So, what are you waiting for? Come read Revista Ancestral and feel free to contact us with any questions, suggestions or submissions!
Back in July 2012 we dug a chunk out of the mountainside in preparation for a ferrocement rainwater harvesting tank. Plans for the tank were later shelved due to budget constraints, but a good use for the site was never in doubt. It’s one of the few parts of the quinta to have sun at winter solstice, so was perfect for a greenhouse.
The site as it stood was suited to a rectangular structure. A couple of years ago I figured I could use the frame of an old cottage-style tent to make a greenhouse.
A southeasterly gale soon convinced me it wasn’t up to the task.
But both the tent frame and an off-the-shelf polytunnel would be missing the opportunity to use the thermal mass of the solid bedrock back wall of the site within the structure. I went looking for second-hand polytunnels online thinking I could remove the legs down one side, but I couldn’t find any with the right dimensions and somehow it didn’t seem a very satisfactory solution anyway, especially since the back wall wasn’t a consistent height. The only answer seemed to be a bespoke construction.
Liam, the engineer of the water tanks here, also builds geodesic domes for festivals and the like. We’d often discussed the idea of a geodesic dome greenhouse. It would be different, but far more importantly, did it make sense?
I played around with drawings and Sketchup models for a while, seeing how easily I could fit in all the things I wanted to fit into the greenhouse, and came to the conclusion a dome was by far the better option. Its height allowed for many different internal levels for cultivation which made much better use of the site than a polytunnel or some sort of rectangular construction could. Turning the bedrock back wall into a curve would increase the surface area and absorb more heat. If the different levels were built with stone and filled with the rubble we removed, it would increase the amount of thermal mass still further. The dome shape also offers much better wind resistance. And Liam could build the dome to the site, so we could accommodate the changing heights of the back wall and extend it over an outcrop of particularly solid bedrock at the entrance. Doing this, we figured we could just about squeeze in an 8m 5/8 3V with part of it cut away to fit the slope. This on a site which measured roughly 7x5m at outset.
So at the end of 2015, work began on site preparations, removing more of the back wall to turn it into a curve, and shaping the downhill side of the slope to accommodate the front edge of the dome. I was able to fine-tune my Sketchup model as I prepared the site and then work from it. Meanwhile, Liam made the frame using the same model.
The frame went up in December. It fitted the site perfectly with only a bit of rock breaking to accommodate the bracing bars. (These were necessary to give the frame more rigidity since it isn’t a full hemisphere standing on level ground.)
Stumpy the not-so-clever dog spends his days digging up the garden when he’s not pretending he’s a goat. This week I have TWICE caught him with a perfectly unharmed mole in his mouth.
We’ve no objection to moles in the garden, as one of the things they’ll be happy to eat is the young of the voles which plague us, so of course I relieved him from it and set it free to bury itself again. I knew moles were strong diggers but I really had no idea quite how strong. When I held them in my cupped hands, they were pushing my hands apart in their efforts to ‘dig’ away. An incredible little creature.
Photo credit to Tea, volunteering with us just now.
Springtime is absolutely my favourite time of year for foraging so I set myself the mini-challenge of cooking with as many foraged foods as possible during April. The majority of items in this album were fresh, but as I preserve a great deal in the plentiful months I have used some stored foraged foods too. I was pretty rubbish at remembering to photograph things (far too keen to eat them!) so this is just a selection.
In these photos the foraged ingredients are blackberries, borage, broom, calendula, carqueja, chickweed, dandelion, dead nettle, elderflower, fat hen, goosegrass, henbane, herb Robert, mallow, plantain, purple gromwell, rowan berries, salad burnet, sheep’s sorrel, viper’s bugloss, wild radish and wild rocket.
This week we attended a marvelous open day at a local project, Monte dos Carvalhos. The theme of the event was Local Economy so we were asked if we’d like to put together a stall showcasing some Casalinho goodies.
After a shared lunch there were simultaneous tours in English and Portuguese. Barbara at Monte dos Carvalhos offers natural building workshops and there are some great examples of her work to see.
Following the tour groups broke away for discussions on the theme of local economy whilst Xico the donkey entertained the children. What a charmer he is!
A really lovely day where we had the opportunity to meet new people and enjoy a different space. With much appreciation to the Monte dos Carvalhos team for their warm welcome.
You can read Monte dos Carvalhos’ own blog piece here.