Half-welly walk

Coppicing willow at the National Botanic Garden Wales

Coppicing willow at the National Botanic Garden Wales in late January

We spent a lovely day in late January volunteering at the National Botanic Garden in Wales. We were helping to coppice the willow in the Education area near the Science building. It was a lovely fun if rather wet day (particularly nice as the Food Fair was on in their giant greenhouse – The Parsnipship vegatarian food for the 21st century was by far the best stall), but the whole day left us wanting more! Luckily for us there is a lot of work we need to do to get our woodland into some kind of managed state.

Half-welly walk

Half-welly walk - a more accessible section (before)

Half-welly walk is a wide track that takes you down to part of the wood. Or at least it would if it wasn’t for the fallen trees, brambles and general overgrown junglyness in the way.

That’s the first job decided.

Half-welly walk is such a wonderful micro-habitat. Standing in one spot I counted seven native trees around me. If I’m right in my winter identification of trees, this could make it a species-rich hedgerow, and possibly an ancient hedgerow – more research needed. Wonderful responsibilities to have.

Bluebells emerging

Bluebells emerging

Two weekends later and half-welly walk is walkable. Good timing too as the bluebells are just poking through the earth. Now we will be able to see them easily on our trips down to the river.

Looks like we’ve got a lot research to do about the species lining this walk and the implications … not least perhaps a more respectful name if it is such an ancient hedgerow …

Housing and Energy tours January 2012

We are very lucky to have arrived in this area just as the local Transition Town groups are reforming. So many local people are interested in renewable and low-cost energy solutions for their homes it’s brilliant and even better, we are almost out-weighed by the number of sustainable energy installations already up and running within a stones throw of the Forest Garden!

When we joined the group late last year, we were somewhat curious about how energy tours in January might go (since we’d arrived, everyone we’d met had enthused about how cold last Winter was – getting snowed in for weeks that kind of thing). However the tour of renewable energy installations was arranged for two afternoons in January.

One of the roofs at the Ceridwen Centre with Photovolatic cells

Every photovoltaic cell installation needs a dragon I think

First up the wood chip boiler, photovoltaic cell and solar water installations that heat and power the Ceridwen Centre and home for owner Roger and his family. Luckily Roger was able to get a grant for half of the money for the wood chip boiler and system – this was many years ago. Although the wood-chip system is supposed to be able to run with minimal person time, Roger finds that he needs to check on it twice (perhaps even three) times a day to ensure that it is all running smoothly. During the frank and honest conversations we are used to in the group (no sales pitch here), Roger admitted that if he were to make his choice of boiler again he’d go for a log fired system – a lot less hassle, they need filling up with wood just once a day, which granted means that someone always needs to be around, but then someone always is around. Luckily for the group we would see a log fired system in the next tour.

I don’t think there was any space left on Roger’s roofs for any more kit! Even on this dull day the meters were reading electricity and hot water being generated.

Wind Turbine at Mair's Bakehouse

Naked wind turbine at Mair's Bakehouse

Then on to Mair’s Bakehouse a totally off-grid organic bread bakery in the middle of nowhere. I thought we were isolated until we turned off the road to this old farmhouse! Rick runs his home and bakehouse using just wind energy from the smallish turbine and wood to fire up the (huge) brick oven.

The wind turbine’s cover had blown off during the extreme weather events of the days leading up to the tour (it had landed intact near the edge of the woods in the distance) and Rick had yet to put it back on. Rick is very pleased with his turbine, if I remember correctly it is about 12 years old and hardly needs any maintenance. It steadily charges a large bank of batteries near the house with 2kw, and a regulator sorts all of the energy requirements to the house.

One of the mixing machines in the bakehouse (fondly named “Batty” after a character in television series Last of the Summer Wine) needs a massive amount of energy to get it started and Ricks installation deals with it very well – it kicks out a huge 11kw peak which sets Batty off nicely.

The bread oven is heated with wood lit directly in the oven, which heats the bricks which radiate the heat back out to the 60 or so loaves that can be cooked in the oven at any one time. I was a little disappointed with the oven but only because it didn’t have any bread in it, I was so hoping to be able to try some. I’ve heard that Rick’s bread is amazing, it’s sold in a lots places around west Wales – wholefood stores and local producer markets, but I’ve yet to get to any before it’s sold out! Rick is planning on a new delivery service this year, so perhaps that will be my best bet.

Where the leat meets the river

The turbine is that way! Notice the three sluice gates - only one is open.

Last on this tour was a water powered turbine at Tony Woodman’s place. The big thing about this turbine is that it is fed by a leat from the river and produces enough energy to run the house and metal workshop. Tony created the dragon above the entrance to the castle at Newcastle Emlyn (to name just one).

With a constant water flow from the river, Tony is in a very fortunate position. It’s just a four meter drop from the leat to the turbine, but that is enough for his energy requirements. He regulates the amount of water in the leat by opening and closing three sluice gates where the water is caught at the river, and another gate above the turbine. A sound insulated shed around the turbine ensures that peace and quiet is maintained.

The next tour featured the Ceridwen Centre (again), but this time we also got to see inside the very nice Ceridwen building that can accommodate up to 25 guests at a time! No wonder Roger keeps a careful eye on the wood chip feed.

Discussion in front of the pond-fed water turbine

A hardy bunch, the rain starting to turn to sleet and we're talking turbines

Then off to Keith and Sally’s place. Keith is editor of Green Building Magazine, and a man at the centre of building and energy information. Keith has a log fired boiler, the kind that Roger was referring to, but before we could see that, first the pond-fed water turbine! Keith has two ponds, one with enough water when full for 6 days worth of electricity use, another that guarantees 28 days (and lets face it we are unlikely to go a whole 28 days in Wales without some kind of rain).

Wow the 6 day pond is big! The 28 day pond is practically a lake complete with boat and island! They supply electricity pretty much all year round apart from when the frogs and newts are spawning, when the turbine is turned off. Keith admits that as so much wildlife is now being attracted to the ponds, they might have to create more to off-set natures calendar and the system outage that it requires. A small price to pay for such increase in biodiversity that water brings I think.

The turbine is set close to the river that flows at the bottom of Keith’s land, approximately 10 meters below the ponds. There is some electricity loss along the cables back to the house, but that is to be expected.

Back inside the workshops next to the house, the wood for the log fired boiler is given it’s final dry in the lean-to conservatory area. Like the other places we’d seen on the tour, the cabling and monitoring of energy flow converges in the battery/inverter/regulator hub. Although Keith puts the excess energy into lighting in the workshop, which means that on a dark night it can be like a disco in there (others tend to put it into heating) – more information about the boiler (and the bio-mass to feed it) can be found in the winter 2010 edition of Green Building magazine.

With another stop scheduled on our tour, there wasn’t time to talk about the wind-turbine and other energy feeds. Off to Larkhill Tipis instead.

The Lavvu at Larkhill Tipis

The Lavvu and Laburnum walk on a snowy Winter's day at Larkhill Tipis

Larkhill Tipis has just won Carmarthenshire tourism business of the year award. It was the place I was secretly looking forward to seeing the most, not you understand for the energy installations, but because they have yurts and alachighs and all sorts of wonderfully exotic structures to sleep in under the stars – just my kind of thing.

I’d been wishing for snow for months, it’s timing was lousy. It was really beginning to fall on our short journey around the hill. It did seem a bit daft looking at pv cells covered in snow, but combined with the wind turbines the installation was still producing electricity over and above the energy being consumed by the house and guests (one couple were braving the Winter in a yurt).

With the weather taking a turn for the snowier, and our car-share driver not having a four-wheel drive (indeed our car not being 4×4 either) we decided to not stop to see the compost toilet and other off-grid facilities. Hopefully I will get to see them another time. We hastily made our retreat from the weather and headed home.

The tours were awesome. All our hosts were so generous with their time and so willing to share their experiences and knowledge, and it was just wonderful to spend a few hours with so many people all interested in the same thing. We met lots of friends old and new. Thank you to everyone involved in the days.

More photos from the days on flickr (although I can’t promise I’ll be able to remember what all the technical bits are).

Grafting in so many ways (well two)

There are lots of different ways to graft fruiting trees; the type we learnt at Coed Marros was “whip and tongue”. We had to graft for our grafting lesson; there were tree nursery beds to be filled with five year old composted manure.

If you are not familiar with the term “grafting”, it’s a way of joining material from two trees together to get the preferred properties of each tree in the final specimen. Most usually, a favourite fruit is grafted onto the roots of a tree that has the size property you desire, so rather than a huge tree taking up all the space in your garden, a tree grows to dimensions that are more suitable to the space available. Root stock has very dull names like M1, M25, M26, while the fruiting part, the scion, has names that you would recognise from the greengrocer like Braeburn, Cox and Granny Smith. The root stock may also have the disease resistant qualities you need or be hardy for your climate.

By 10:30 about a dozen of us were gathered with spades, forks and an assortment of knives! We’d been told to bring “grafting knives” but from the mix of penknives that were produced, it was evident that very few of us had investigated exactly what a grafting knife is. It’s a knife with a bevel on only one side of the blade. My rather lovely penknife is curved on both sides, so it went back into my pocket.

Whip and tongue graft

Compare my first attempt (top), to the seamless way it should be done

Strategically we were given the trimmings of some root stock to learn on. Wise indeed as it turned out. I’ll create a detailed page about grafting at a later date. Suffice to say, can you guess which is my effort? Yes, of course, the one on the bottom! (I wish). Well it was my first ever attempt.

Chris Evans tree grafting

Thanks Chris for the great training session

Rather than use grafting tape to hold the pieces until they grow together, Chris uses supermarket plastic bags cut into strips. He reckons he can get enough pieces for about 16 grafts with one bag (not bad for 5p – by law the minimum price of a plastic bag in Wales). Thankfully the plastic disguises a multitude of sins and it looked pretty good in the end, although I doubt it would take if it were done for real. More practice needed before I’m let loose on the real thing! Alternatively there are grafting pliers on the market that do the job in one easy snip. I’ll see how I get on.

In return for the grafting lesson we volunteers filled the four new nursery beds. The team at Coed Marros are expanding their tree nursery so that they can increase the biodiversity of the forest when they replace the trees they take out of the plantation and perhaps even have a few spare to sell.

Raised nurse beds for trees

All done!

They prefer to have all of their developing fruit trees growing in one place, so they can easily protect them from rabbits etc. before they plant them into their final position. Raised beds are the answer. The manure that has been composting for five years was a little further into the woods, not a problem when you have a trailer and many hands to help.

By the end of the day all the raised beds had been filled, all the volunteers trained and the dates for the sessions to graft the trees for real confirmed. Although I am assured there isn’t a practical test that we have to pass before we are let loose on the root stock, I’d best get some grafting hours in the meantime nonetheless.