Woodburner ash – don’t waste it – use it to grow cauliflowers that will be the envy of Mr Sainsbury.

This is a bit of a woodburner ‘confidential’ – it’s rather like camper vans in that if you have one it is all consuming, obsessive and yet totally boring for everyone else! Thus it is with woodburners. How I adore ours. It’s a bit like having a blast furnace in the sitting room – it is so very industrial revolution. Open up the air turn wheel and whoosh, I could be smelting iron! Visiting aficionados sigh and say ‘Oh, it’s a Clearview’. We discuss how many Kilowatts – the conversations are totally predictable.

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The ash tray

Anyway, the least glamorous bit about having a woodburner is clearing out the ash tray. Cinders does it, and at first I took it outside the front door where the wind blew it straight into my face. Now I carefully parcel up the ashes in newspaper (when cold – do not do this with hot ash!). The tipping technique is to slide it out inside a newspaper fold so that the ash does not escape and use the rolling technique as seen in the fish and chip shop. First wrap it up in one sheet and then another. Don’t forget to keep buying newpapers –  it doesn’t matter if you read them or not.

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The tipping out technique

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The parcel rolling technique

Now it’s ready for the garden and onto something that’s going to feed me with flowers. Wood ash is rich in potassium (potash), which stimulates flowering and fruiting. But it is a very soluble mineral and gets washed away fast. So I am thinking that my parcels of potash which I place round the base of cauliflowers are slow release. In time the damp newspaper will deliver potash to the cauliflowers, purple sprouting broccoli, the wok broc, the nine star perennial broccoli and so on. And a teeny bit of mulching with newspaper gets  thrown in too.

No mess, no fuss ash disposal, that puts the potash right where you want it.

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Parcels of wood ash around the cauliflowers

Another option is to stick the ash parcels straight in the compost bin, where much of it will get locked up by the living micro-organisms and find its way eventually to feeding your edible flowers via your wonderful compost.

Eat more ash I say.



THE LONGEST AUTUMN – shining on into the darkening winter. Leaves still bright on the sparkling branches.  Kick-along golden carpets for walkers in wellies. Bright berries of rose hip and hawthorns bedecking the hedgerows. I really can’t remember an autumn as long as this one is, sliding into December so beautifully.

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The little green lane at the bottom of our  field

Walking out today I grabbed stuff from the hedgerows to make autumn wreaths. Collect thin branches of dog wood, willow, sliver birch, and old man’s beard vines, rosehips, holly, cotoneaster and fallen leaves.

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Ingredients for a rustic wreath collected from the hedgerows

The birds are starting their raid on the holly berries. Picking my holly now and storing the branches in a shed preserves them with berries for Christmas.

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Pick holly  now for Christmas decorations

Wreaths are made just by twisting branches round into a circle and binding more on to build up a firm ring. The first twists are the hardest, because everything seems too short and springy. But persevere and don’t worry about it being mis-shapen at this stage. As you build the layers twisting more branches round, mould the wreath into an even ring and as you continue binding it will become fixed. Turn the ring over and make your twisting go in the other direction. Join in new pieces just by tucking them into the circle at an angle between other twigs. Bits sticking out add to the overall rustic look, so don’t worry about being neat! Long ivy trails are very easy to use and wrap up well.

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Getting started – the first twists

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Holly – cut the leaves off little sprigs so the berries show before pushing into finished wreath

When the twiggy part is build up to be bulky enough them you can add decorative sprays of berries and leaves. Loosely wrap old man’s beard around the outside of the wreath.

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Autumn celebration wreath

Dress the wreath up more with raffia bows. Making a raffia loop is a good idea for hanging it up.

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In Stroud the crew from the Transition Stroud Open Gardens and Homes team are demonstrating how to make these hedgerow wreaths this Saturday December 7th 10.00 am –2.00 pm at the Winterfest – Stroud Ale House, 9 John Street. See you there!



Conversation at Permaculture groups and gardening gatherings at my age always turns to aches and pains. People want to keep on gardening but struggle with bits and pieces falling off – arthritis, new joints, RSI, old sports injuries, heart problems and so on. We’re a crotchety old lot. Anyway, I have recently had neurology surgery and now I am never able to bend, stretch or twist my lower back, or lift heavy objects. So here I am with a new large growing project and realising I have to adapt to this new order of things in the health department.

I have over the years partly wrecked my body already with gardening.  I developed tennis elbow and RSI in the 1990s, due very much I think to gardening on heavy London clay which makes everything hard going. I discovered Peta fist grip ergonomic gardening tools then and have been using them ever since. I was introduced to them at THRIVE the organization for social and therapeutic horticulture when I was on one of their wonderful courses.

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Peta  Ergonomic Gardening Tools

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Getting stuck in with Peta Fist Grip Trowel.

I have worked out over the years many ways of making my gardening easy, little tweaks and small alterations. Here is one of them – the watering can launch pad! Build a small pile of bricks and slabs under a tap to lift up watering cans to an easier height for lifting off!


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The Watering Can  Launch Pad

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So easy to set off with a watering can now!

I have lots more tips I plan to share and I also want to have conversations and explore ideas with you too. I hope to be growing food well into my 80s so that’s a lot more gardening.  The Permaculture maxim of making gardening ‘the least work’ is apt, and my no-dig, no-work methods pinched from Ruth Stout are serving me well.

I’m going to run a ‘mixed agility’ gardening class next year. I always have some high raised beds and learners  are always amazed at how easy that makes it to cultivate and work the ground. Little things like this and the right tools make so much difference.  Follow this blog for more ideas!

And if you are under 40 you probably don’t need to be reading this post yet – just send the link to a gardener who is older than you!



In which I learn about the curious nighttime calls of two owl species.

I have never before lived in a place where I hear owls so often as here. Mostly my knowledge of owls came from Winnie the Pooh, but I am learning now how important habitat like this valley is for them. The Tawny owls live up in the ancient beech woodlands above the village – much of it is National Trust at Standish and Randwick. When we walk up to the Throat at Ruscmobe at dusk we hear them warming up their voices in the woods. Then as a lie in bed I hear their  traditional ‘twit twoo’  hoots coming and going as they sweep across the valley searching for food, and I find their presence quite soothing and expected.

What I never realized before is that the Barn Owl has a different voice altogether.

Barn Owls  have a really eerie screechy sort of shriek which I find quite disturbing. I hear it over the field, I sense when they fly off away and come around the front and hang around the church and graveyard, quite disrupting the peace of the night. I truly don’t mind, although it does wake me up. I love fresh air and we sleep with windows flung open in all weathers. I feel privileged to share my space with them, and hope they have luck hunting for small mammals in my field. I do wonder where they live, as I have learned that  barn owls are hard pressed nowadays to find the holes for nesting in agricultural buildings which they like to use. Most of our Cotswold stone barns around here are ‘housified’ .

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Woodland Green – view at the Throat,  Ruscombe  – the woodland rising behind our village.


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Not a bonfire pile but but a habitat pile – for small mammals, snakes, insects.


In the field an unexpected late outing with the mower for Nigel. It has been a warm and moist autumn so the grass just keeps on growing. More mulch for the veg plot, and especially nice now it has chopped up fallen leaves in it too – worms love leaves.  On top of the beds where we grow squashes , we put a layer of  cardboard over the dandelions first and then piled  on the grass clippings. Then I will dib in a load of broad bean seeds. This means the soil is protected for the winter, the nutrients are there for next year’s squash, there is food for the soil life and an edible green manure crop. Field beans which are sold as green manure are the same thing as broad beans.  So if you plant a kitchen variety of broad bean as your green manure you are guaranteed to get delicious beans as well. I actually plant ‘The Sutton’ which is a dwarf variety, only 30cm high which is suited to windy sites like this – otherwise I would have to stake them.  The rodents like bean seeds so I plant them generously to make sure some are left. But the rodents feed the owls of course, which I so love…

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The Mower Man

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Spreading the lovely mulch of grass clippings and chopped leaves


The final grab of fertility from the hay meadow this year is the last run over with the mower which has kept Nigel busy. He beetles up the field with barrows full of fresh grass clippings and we dump them straight onto the vegetable plot.

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Grass clippings mulching over onion and garlic beds

Today I shoved in 20 garlic cloves (variety ‘Solent White’ ) and 40  onion sets (variety ‘Radar’) and on top of them we dropped a 4-inch deep layer of grass clippings . This forms a mulch which will feed the soil, suppress weeds and protect the soil over winter. The onions and garlic will love being under the blanket, growing their little sharp sprouts through it in a few weeks time, and next July we should get bumper crops of substantial bulbs.

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Small perpetual spinach plants get mulched

Then we mulched the little kale and perpetual spinach plants which will give massive leafy crops in the spring – they are the most productive and reliable crops we grow.

This sort of enthusiasm for extreme mulching may seem weird for folks who are new to Permaculture or organic gardening. The secret of growing good crops is to feed and protect the soil, and a mulch does just that. What we are actually feeding is the soil life – it is a living system of invertebrate animals, and a vast myriad of microorganisms which are all working away underground. Those chopped up leaves you can see in the grass clippings will have vanished beneath the soil in a few weeks time, eaten up by the happy, hungry earthworms.

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‘Cut and come again’ celery

Lastly the celery with which I am really pleased, got a mulch of cut grass. I have never had much success growing celery before, but this year has it has been remarkable. I sowed the seed in my heated greenhouse in February and put out 7 plants, keeping them well watered and mulched with compost. I have been able to cut celery all summer and just slice the sticks off 1cm above ground level leaving the stumps in. These are now re-growing beautifully with more sticks and I hope if I cover them with fleece it might go on over the winter. That is ‘supercelery’ or is it ‘soupercelery’?!


The overwhelming size of the autumn harvest can come as an unexpected challenge for new vegetable growers. Everyone I know who is a serious food grower like me, dedicates almost as much time to harvesting crops, cleaning them up, storing them and preparing them to cook, as they do to growing them. And right now it can take up masses of time. There is the fruit to get in now, with a huge crop of fabulous apples. To be a food grower requires dedication, determination, time and energy.

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Food arrives in my kitchen

Every available shelf and space is pressed into service for food storage. Winter black Spanish round radishes are in an old enamel bread bin, main crop potatoes have been dried and put into cardboard boxes.

Many of my squashes are not ripe yet, so I picked them and in the summerhouse I hope they will ripen up there in the warmth.

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Pumpkins and squashes gathered in

My gratitude for all this food is enormous, and as winter approaches I can see that my larder is full. I am happy to cook while listening to radio four – yesterday I made squash soup, today I made tomato sauce. The freezer is full, and I give away my surplus produce to friends. We have a willingness to eat whatever is available in abundance. The earth gives all this to us, but I am still always in awe of how it happens every year here – we are so blessed.

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Tonight’s dinner of pasta with tomato sauce and stir fry



The second Stroud Permaculture Course is underway, and days out are always the greatest fun. The course is well lead by Sarah Pugh and attracts really interesting people, who all come with a wealth of varied experience.

The first visit was locally around Stroud. Learning about how a town size forest garden looks, what’s a medlar and why grow Amelanchiers.

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Up the Slad Valley for Alena’s artful flower and herb garden. Community growing at the Stroud Slad Farm/Farm Garden Project. Amazement at how much ‘stuff and abundance’ can grow in a polytunnel, how very much humans can manipulate growing conditions. How much does a huge polytunnel cost and what are crop bars for?

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Across the Vatch to the Slad side, and finding a hidden ecohouse embraced by the arms of a burgeoning foresty garden in the making. Slopes, views, trees all around.

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Off to the next valley and Hawkwood, an adult education centre and a hub of things growing. Home to Stroud Community Agriculture – more gawping at the size of the polytunnels and the crops inside. Chicory growing for us as a green manure and a packing shed speaking of belonging, where members help themselves to their weekly share of the harvest.

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A woodsmokey fire, courtesy of the Building Skills Action Group (part of Transition Stroud) in their wonderful barn, to sit round for a yummy shared picnic lunch. Complete with courgette buns and convivial conversation.

Finally, up and over across Edge to Brookthorpe to Days Cottage. Helen’s family have  farmed orchards there since the 1600s and the whole place bursts with a renewal of the old ways. They started out growing veg, but soon realized the value of the ancient orchards around them. Now they are juice and cider makers of distinction, with immense expertise which came across with boundless enthusiasm.

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Dave took us around the Forest Garden they have planted and behold, another polytunnel, this one dripping with grapes.

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The glut of greenhouse tomatoes found me making one of our absolutely favourite soups. I wandered down to the veg plot to get a handful of basil. It is growing in the ground next to some cabbages all covered up with horticultural mesh, supposedly to be keeping the cabbage white butterflies off. Pulling back the mesh I saw what I have been hoping for over the last few weeks, an adult Great Green Bush Cricket, as they reach maturity in August.

During the summer we have seen nymphs and medium sized ones, but this was a whopper. I can’t really describe how ridiculously excited it makes me to have this in my field! You can find them in pockets all around the south of England apparently, but this is about as far north as the species occurs.

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Female Great Green Bush Cricket – I dropped a nasturtium in for scale.

The mature crickets  now mate and the female uses the long ovipositor to lay eggs underground which is where they overwinter, before hatching next  spring.  (These pictures, by the way, are just taken with my Samsung Galaxy phone, which is about as photographical as I can get, but seems to do a brilliant job. )

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The long antennae seem to have rotating sockets so they change direction

Although we  cut our hay we have left large areas of long grass and the edges of the field are becoming overgrown with brambles and self sown trees – Great Green Bush Crickets lurk in the thick vegetation of hedgerows, nettle beds and thickets, so I am trying to make sure that they have the right habitat here. (Although they obviously like lurking in savoy cabbages too!)

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The long grass areas now.

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And the soup finally gets underway!