How Permaculture breathed life back into a forgotten 16th entury garden in the foothills of the Cambrian mountains
Roz Brown looks back on a 3 year adventure in extreme growing
We came to live at Nannerth Ganol 5 years ago. Before that we lived on the south Devon coast and grew vegetables and soft fruit without too much trouble in a walled garden with a microclimate, next to the sea where frost was almost unheard of. We had free-draining fertile soil and a big old Victorian greenhouse, outside grapevines, and never saw more than a few snowflakes in 10 years.
So it was a bit of a shock to the system to be living at 250m/800ft, on a 30 degree+ slope, with almost no topsoil, prone to high winds without much shelter, and the sort of extended winters that have become the norm in the last few years in mid Wales.
Nannerth Ganol is a 500 year old Welsh longhouse that was surrounded in its heyday by its own grazing land reaching from the Wye at the bottom, to the top of the ‘mountain’ behind us: winter grazing and cereal and fodder crops were at the bottom on the more fertile lower slopes, and summer grazing at the top, where the old summer dairy – or hafod – can still be seen. The land that belongs to the house is now just under an acre, and the grazing that surrounds us is used for sheep by the adjacent farm half a mile away. Until restoration in the 1980s of what had become a ruin, Nannerth Ganol had been unoccupied for almost 100 years. The ruined buildings were used as byres and for storage, and nothing was done with the land around the buildings. When we came, about a third of the plot had been made into an easily maintained holiday cottage garden with mown grass and shrubs and a few perennial flower beds. The rest was in a ‘natural’ state with rough tussocky grass, a belt of sycamore trees with a mass of bramble beneath, and a large area of scrub, mostly blackthorn and bramble, which was completely impenetrable and a great place for the local rabbits to hang out. Apparently this used to be THE place to go rabbiting!
Making a start
After one year of observing and scratching our heads, we decided to take out the scrub with a Rambo machine and a lot of digging out of roots and big rocks. We found a wonderful winding stone wall that nobody knew was there, and a hundred years of leaf litter that gave a flying start to the soft fruit we put in.
Then we began working outwards across more of the neglected and oddly tussocky slope. Leaf litter ended here as there had been nothing growing to trap it and let it rot back into the ground. The soil, such as it was, was all mineral dust from long defunct anthills – apparently they only get really huge and tussocky like this if they have been there a 100 years or so. It’s like fine sand and does not hold moisture or have much organic content - water disappears through it straight down into the slatey layers just below. There had been no ‘succession’ (as I learned to call it on the Permaculture course): no pioneer plants other than couch grass, no shrubby growth, (not even brambles), and no tree saplings had gained a toehold here in all that time of neglect even though there had been no grazing. It seemed that even Nature had given up on this patch of ground.
Having cleared the area, we dug out terraces on the slope and shored up the fronts with the ancient wormholed oak beams lying in the barn – these had come from the ruins of the house and barn before restoration. They came in handy for the terraces, being iron-hard and virtually unburnable on the woodstove.
We tried planting into what passed for soil. Almost nothing grew well past the first stage, and things went yellow for lack of nutrients. We built dry stone walls with the rocks we dug out of the beds. It was hard and there was almost no food to show for all the effort. We had a greenhouse by then and all the seedlings I had worked so hard to raise just failed once they were out in the beds. I felt completely disheartened.
A chance viewing changes everything
It was around this time I watched a documentary called ‘A Farm for the Future’. It reminded me about Permaculture, which I had always wanted to learn more about. I decided to go on a course and find a way to grow food in this extreme environment. The course changed everything about how we do things in the garden, how I think about life, and how I spend my time and energy these days.
Three years on – what do we have? A demonstration Permaculture garden that grows more than we need, and with progressively less effort. The garden blends in with the geography of the place, takes advantage of its strengths, and connects with its history. Through Permaculture I came to understand the rhythms of the site, its microclimates, the sectors that affect it, why they built this house exactly on this spot, and how we could change our perspective and stop running up the down escalator trying to do things the way we always had in other gardens.
Why Nannerth Ganol is where it is
On the course I learned about the careful siting of these old longhouses and farmsteads in relation to the Welsh uplands. They were built at the precise point between the gentle bottom slopes of the river valley and the more steep upland slopes where the frith (wooded upland) begins. This enabled the use of the space between two frost pockets for domestic vegetable growing and provided everyday life with a degree of comfort and protection from the severest weather, including flooding. This point is also the spring line so water is easily accessible. When taking the cattle out for grazing on winter days, the animals could stay within sight and easy reach of the house – vital in those days of rustling! (They were brought indoors at night and in bad weather in the winter). In summer they progressively went higher up on the tops behind the house, and someone would be stationed at the summer dairy on the hill for milking. The dairy products were carried downhill – easy – to the farmhouse.
The house itself also takes advantage of the gentle slope of this intermediate level – it slopes slightly downhill as well, to enable the slurry from the cattle in the byre to drain out away from the domestic quarters ‘uphill’ on the stone platform base.
Sycamore trees were planted as shelter for the house and were pollarded for joinery use. Low walls and traditional stone enclosures on the site kept animals out of the growing areas, or contained the chickens and domestic livestock. There is evidence that ducks were also kept, that a stone-lined potato clamp was in use, and that bracken was collected for animal bedding. There was a chaff store, so we know they grew barley on the lower fields in the fertile valley, and the central part of the barn was used for threshing and winnowing using a horse-operated device: the horse walked round and round on a circular area outside at the back of the barn. Later they built a byre with hay store over it in the garden (now a guest cottage). The wain store was at one end of the barn so we know they had 2 big farm carts. The hayloft is still above it.
We also know from historical records that the farmer here was involved in share-cropping – whereby he would raise cattle and sheep for other owners and share in the profits when they were sold. The people who farmed here must have been pretty self-sufficient. Animal feedstuffs were hay, chaff and probably mangels etc, grown on the lower fields. We also know they kept a pig or two and that the big stone now by the front door was the one used for killing the pig because it has a convenient bowl-shaped depression for collecting the blood.
So how has this understanding, combined with Permaculture principles, helped us become more self-sufficient now that Nannerth Ganol is not a farm and has no land other than the immediate almost-an-acre surrounding it? These are some of the things we have developed to make the site work for us without radically changing its character or impacting adversely on the surroundings.
Making the site work and respecting its history
We have a borehole for our water, which used to come from a neighbour’s spring. So water is still local. We get eggs from the farm next door, but might one day have our own chickens. We grow all our veg in summer and store a lot for winter use. We capture and compost all the leaf litter that comes onto our patch from the oakwood frith above and our own trees (we do this in a series of big wire cages designed to house the leaves through the 3 years it takes for oak leaves to rot down). We compost all domestic and garden waste where possible and add wood ash from the woodburner and crushed eggshells for minerals. We grow lots of soft fruit and have planted over 60 fruit and some nut trees. We have added raised beds to our terraces to increase soil depth, and introduced much organic matter into them. We have made Huglekultur* beds where the most barren part of the anthill colony used to be, to retain moisture and increase fertility. We have planted a forest garden above these beds to trap leaf litter and create a productive area of scrub woodland type planting but with useful edible planting on different vertical levels. We have multi-stage cold frames to acclimatise glasshouse-raised seedlings to the harsh conditions they may face on our mountain. We collect rainwater from barn and greenhouse rooftops. The old wain store is now used for storing straw bales, cardboard, and bags of home-generated mulch for moisture retention, weed control and winterising the raised beds.
Loving those weeds
And we have changed our attitude to couch grass and weeds - seeing what grows as a useful indicator of soil condition and fertility, and as an abundant forage larder to supplement our diet, especially during the hungry gap. Weeds also provide us with compostable material and green mulch, medicines and protection from soil erosion.
The overall appearance of the site has not greatly changed – which was one of our aims. We have kept the tree belt as Zone 5 for wildlife, and only cleared the brambles a bit, allowing the bluebells to flourish and be seen and the bracken to grow for composting and mulch. We have reduced the areas to mow by planting an orchard and just mowing access pathways. After an initial spell of hard work and bringing in compost and manure, we believe we are approaching a situation where minimal work will be needed to be much more self-sufficient: the need for importing outside resources is diminishing steadily. And it still looks, remote, wild and absolutely beautiful.
Changing conditions bring in new species
I am pleased to report we now have nettles – they did not grow here at all before – the soil was too poor even for them. They now like to grow where the peas and beans have grown – more nitrogen in the soil. We planted 50 small gorse bushes as windbreak around the vegetable area and that is also increasing nitrogen levels in the soil. We have lots of sorrel too which was not here before, and I now love foxgloves which came up in thousands on all the space we initially cleared (much to my dismay) – the young leaves make fabulous green mulch and I now welcome their appearance instead of grinding my teeth! Docks grow only on the pathways, showing their liking for breaking up compacted soil, and a new swale and fassime constructed last year has already been colonised by a whole new category of wildflowers and is turning lush and green where nothing except couch grass would grow before and where everything was always too dry.
Fauna – welcome and unwelcome
We’ve got a pond at the top of the garden with a lot of very happy frogs, and the slow worms have moved into the winter mulch to deal with the slug population. We are now regarding rabbits as crop - which seems only fair as they regard our veg as fair game if we don’t protect it. So we do in a way have ‘livestock’ now, along with the wormery, that is. Speaking of slugs, I can safely say that the problem has reduced considerably since I started using copper garden tools on the veg beds. Now we have all of the beds edged with proper wood, I am also planning to strip the left-over wire from a recent electrical job and edge the tops of the raised bed boards with it, as belt and braces. We use horticultural fleece and Environemsh to protect crops from late frost and cabbage white butteflies, and we made chickenwire cages to keep birds and rabbits out of other tasty veg. CDs swing in the breeze near the soft fruit and seem to work well as bird scarers.
Companions, polyculture and moon planting
We have planted lots of herbs, wildflowers and pollinator-friendly flowers in among the veg, and are moving steadily towards block polyculture (never putting too much of anything on one place). We aim to use companion planting as much as possible, and this year I am trying to sow seeds when the moon is waxing and plant out seedlings when it is waning – I’m told this is very common in parts of France even among ‘normal’ growers.
Obtaining a yield
We make comfrey liquid feed from our Bocking 14, and compost teas and natural plant sprays from valerian, wormwood, nettle, yarrow and camomile. We produce jam, chutney and fruit vinegars from the wild plums, rowan berries, haws, blackcurrants, raspberries, rhubarb, brambles, rosehips, rose petals and apples, and herbal teas from lavender, roses, rosemary, Melissa, camomile and mints. There is a huge herb and physic patch for culinary and medicinal use, and early salad bowl ingredients include sweet cicely, chives, 5 kinds of sorrel, hairy bittercress and garlic mustard.
New hedging plants include elder, crab apple, dogwood, whitebeam, guelder rose and hazel, and we put in a small-leaved lime tree for salad leaves in spring and a calming digestive tisane in summer. We have hopes for the walnut tree and filberts and the small variety chestnut. For these there may be hot competition from the squirrels, but I’m told they too are very tasty!