After the rain come sunshine & hard work

After the rain come sunshine & hard work

You might have heard it – we had quite a wet and foggy winter. Which meant that despite our best efforts, work wasn’t really progressing well… For every day we were out and about making things happen, there were at least two or three days when our (clay) soil was too compacted, the weather too rainy or just too plain cold to do what we had planned.

However, that all changed in the middle of February… Since almost ten days we have volunteers staying with us and neighbours helping us out, and things are going so fast that it makes my heart leap with joy. We have about two more weeks of work in front of us, and then it’s time to clean up and get everything ready for our first bed & breakfast guests to arrive; we’ve already got a few bookings between March and October and we’re very much looking forward to it.
In the mean time, I thought I’d share a few pictures of what’s going on here…

At the back of the house

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Last year, a lot of earth was dumped at the back of the house. Nothing much grows there at the moment and it gets muddy all the time – so we’re doing some landscaping…
First, we poured a 1m60 border of concrete along the back wall. Not only can this serve as a base for a recycling unit, a wood storage, gas storage, gardening / working station and chicken coop – it’s also much easier to walk on when the weather isn’t perfect.
The wood storage was built in one day by our volunteers Laura & Pietz – and the day after, they tackled the recycling tower (done in just a few hours!) and now they’re working on stone stairs towards the solar system shed.
Our friend Katrien is working at a brand new (and super fancy) chicken coop, with the help of our Belgian volunteer Brecht. It started out as a coop, then became a chicken house, the idea of building a castle came and went and now it looks like it’s going to be a chicken cathedral. Guess we’ll have to call our next rooster “Cardinal”.
In the next few weeks hopefully we’ll be able to continue on the chicken coop, finish the stone stairs and maybe start on preparing the back yard and setting up fencing for the chicken run. It’s going to be bigger than before!

Around the house

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You might have seen that we’ve been working on a terrace wall in front of / around the house since May (2016). I’m very proud to announce that it’s almost done now; it only needs some finishing touches, and it does need to be filled with a lot more soil. Which should happen on Wednesday, with the help of our friend George. Once the soil is in place, we’ll add on manure, planting soil and mulch – and we’ll be all ready to start sowing and planting! I’m very much looking forward to that part.

The side entrance to the guest rooms has been tiled (thank you Dan!), and Axel has been doing a few repairs and improvements to the guest balconies. As we speak, Axel and Brecht have started on the front yard; we’ve been discussing the design for weeks and hope it will be both convenient for me to work in, and beautiful to look at. We’re loosening the earth first, but we’re building raised beds on top of it anyway. The garden beds will be filled with herbs and edible flowers (or just vegetables with beautiful blossoms), and maybe some berry bushes.

The vegetable garden

The vegetable garden is a work in progress – but work is progressing, for once. After the last two seasons, we decided on building hexagonal raised beds – only time will tell if this is the right decision, but so far we think it’s going to look fabulous. The idea is to make a few raised beds every now and then, so in the end it will be all raised beds – and paths in between. So far the fig, kaki, plum and two apple trees have gotten their own raised beds – so we can plant a “guild” of other plants around them. We also bought all the accessories for a watering system… now only to install it before the heath of summer.

This year, we’ve sown the seeds for the vegetables inside… in the living room… Axel made me an extra big table that will hold four of those big polystyrene seed trays. I’ve got plenty of seedlings now: corn, tomato, kale, cabbage, onions, lettuce, more tomato and cauliflower… more to be sown next week. And soon we’ll have to plant out a few of them at least. So much to look forward to!

The chickens

Ah, the chickens… there’s highs and lows there.

First, there’s the incubating. I did a lot of that; I had an incubator with our own eggs + one of Kurkum Farm hatch in January, four little brown-layers-with-feathered-feet (chicks of Fatima & Ramon) and one little peeping Tom are now hopping around happily, they’re about four weeks old now.
After this, I borrowed our friends Dan & Mell’s big incubator and put in another batch – this time it contained our own eggs, Dan & Mell’s Brahma eggs, some eggs from Kurkum Farm and some eggs from Tierruca (the place we’re buying our alpacas at). There were 25 eggs in total… However, due to several different reasons, only 7 hatched. It’s a pretty diverse little group of Brahma, bantam and feathered-feet-layers though, and I hope they’ll be everything I’m hoping for.
At this moment, I’ve got seven Silver Brahma eggs in my small incubator (due around the 11th of March), and 15 more Brahma eggs + a few of our own in the big incubator (due about 5 days later). Fingers crossed for a bunch of healthy and happy chicks!

The adult chickens have been on rotating pastures since the beginning of the new year, with the help of an electric fence (which is super easy to move) and the chickshaw (moveable chicken coop). I love this setup, and am definitely going to write a review on the chickshaw soon… we’ve had it almost a year now. The chickens seem to love it as well; they’re safely inside the fence, and they get a new bit of land to scratch up and explore every few weeks. What’s not to like? They’re getting lots of kitchen scraps, 99% organic food and of course bugs and weeds from out there. Our eggs are now bright orange and very, very tasty.
On the bad news side, there’s something wrong with Tita. She’s been in quarantine for a week now, but we can’t seem to figure out what her problem is… she’s not really weak, but has trouble walking (or flying) straight and falls over at times. She’s getting some supplements and we still have some hope left… not much though, as she doesn’t seem to be getting better (not getting worse either, but she’s not fit enough to join the rest in the run). Fingers crossed for her!
Last but not least, we’ve said goodbye to our very beautiful but very useless Brahma rooster Ramon a few days ago now, I’m writing a separate post about this (and about the uses and uselessness of roosters). Tito is now head honcho but he’s not sure how to handle that – he’s always been a bit insecure and being left with two older hens (Fatima and Ramona) doesn’t do much for his self-esteem… as long as he behaves, he can stay though – or until one of the little chicks steps up and becomes big boss. We still have several months before that.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this small update – it’s so nice to get feedback and hear how so many of you are following our adventures here in Spain. There will be many more to follow!

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Mas del Encanto: Past, Present & Future.

Mas del Encanto: Past, Present & Future.

Thankfully, no scary ghosts visited us over the holidays. However, we’re in the middle of a winter break, and that is giving us ample time to think.

We’re on a break from the B&B, but that doesn’t mean we’re lazying about: we’ve got plenty of winter projects going on.

Making it pretty

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Jabba’s guests Tilly and Tuppence are helping him inspecting the progress on the terrace wall (november 2016)

First and foremost, we needed to make things prettier. Although the guest rooms have been finished since May 2016, the surroundings of the house still looked like a bulldozer went through (which it actually did, it was a construction site after all). In november and december we’ve had a group of volunteers over to help us build a terrace wall in front of the house; next month, we’ll be planting plants, herbs, flowers and shrubs on the new terrace so the view from the guest rooms will be even better than before.

Making it comfortable

Since this winter, we’ve got central heating. Currently it works on a gas boiler, which is a good back-up but we don’t want to depend on fossil fuels forever; in a few weeks, we’re having a wood burner installed which will not only heat the radiator water, but provide for hot showers in winter as well. Bye bye gas bills, hello heating our house with wood from olive & almond pruning!

Making it practical

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Foggy weather & a cold sun

In the first part of the winter, we had a good group of volunteers at the farm to help us work on the terrace wall – however, it rained for most of the time – which meant they spent a lot of time inside. Worse: they spent most of that time in the “cave”, digging it out until it started resembling a normal cellar, more or less… It just needs a bit of finishing and a floor, and then we’ll be able to use it for (wine?) storage.

We still have a few things to finish this winter – building wood storage, building storage for the gas bottles, tiling a few bits that get too muddy in the winter and too dusty in the summer… Hopefully by half March, it will all be perfect.

Expanding the chicken project

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Fatima, who is faithfully laying us one egg a day. She only stopped for two days around New Year’s, it was just too cold and dark and foggy. 

I’m really full of ideas for my chicken project!

First, the chickens already had a fixed run since last spring – they will get a fixed coop now as well. That way, they’ll be completely safe from predators and still have space to run around.
I will be separating the roosters from the laying hens; the roosters will be kept inside a moveable electric fence, and move around on the land while keeping the grass short, fertilising the ground and doing some bug control. It’s an experiment (some people say it’s possible to keep several roosters peacefully if there are no hens about – others have bad experiences with it), but we really need chickens to clean up the land and I would rather keep my best layers close to the house.

I am also doubling up on the incubating efforts; I now have the first (small) batch of eggs in, but in a few weeks our friends Dan & Mellissa are kindly lending me their (bigger) incubator and I will hopefully be hatching chicks until May or so. I will incubate my own eggs (of course), but will also order fertile eggs from other places for a bit of variation. I have plans to get some Barnevelders, Araucanas (which lay eggs with blue coloured shells), Marans (dark brown eggs) and of course more Brahmas. Some of these will be up for sale; as small chicks (4-6 weeks old, if you want to see your chickens grow up), pullets (4-6 months old, if you want egg-laying chickens) or for chicken dinner, if we end up having too many. Contact me if you’re interested!

If all goes well, we hope to have eggs for sale by summertime. They will be organic and free range.

Preparing for Spring season in the garden

The most fun part at the moment, is preparing the garden for spring. Thankfully after a few foggy and rainy months, the sun is back (and it looks like it’s here to stay… at least for the next few days). Axel has built me a few raised beds (he’ll make more!) and I’ve been filling them up with compost, manure and organic material. I’ll be sowing ground cover in them first, and plant out seedlings as soon as I can… Hopefully resulting in an abundant harvest this spring.

The trees have been well taken care of too; most almonds have been pruned, and many of the trees got a protective circle around them, clearing the grass and making a small trench that will catch some extra water. A layer of mulch will be applied around them (next week!), for fertilising and protection.

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Ramon crowing his lungs out

Preparing for Spring season at the B&B

We’ve learned so much from last year’s trial season – and now we’re taking these lessons and planning for next year’s first real bed & breakfast season. Getting the paperwork done (soon! I hope), installing a small kitchen in the breakfast room, buying little things our guests missed in their rooms last season, and deciding on pricing. Unfortunately we had to slightly raise the rates for next season, to account for the share agents like booking.com or airbnb.com are getting; however we’re doing an “early bird” promotion before we go public, so people can book at lower prices if they book in time.
More on that later this week!

Closed for business, and ready for some real work!

Today is “la fiesta del Pilar” (Pilar festival) in Matarraña. The Virgen del Pilar is the patron saint of Zaragoza, and for some reason that is celebrated here as well… Mainly by closing all the shops and going out to hunt.
Also today, we decided to close our bed & breakfast for the winter. From 30+ degrees yesterday, the weather suddenly turned to cold, grey and gloomy. Since the central heating isn’t working yet (waiting for radiator knobs, I’ve been led to understand) and there is no wood stove yet either, it’s getting a tiny bit too frisky. We will open up again when ElTiempo predicts a sunny and warm weekend… or when the central heating works like a charm, whichever comes first.

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This morning’s sunrise… cloudy but stunning. Goes well with my favourite Turner painting…

This summer, we had the perfect guests for a trial run of the B&B. Most were friends, family, ex-classmates or ex-coworkers; everybody was happy to help us out by giving tips on how to improve. The basics were all covered: a cosy bed with fluffy covers, a clean shower with good water pressure, a balcony with a view and chairs to sit on. A few things weren’t, like outside tables to put your drinks on or nightstands (Axel still plans on making those himself). A few things improved over the course of the summer, like the shampoo bottle holder in the shower or the chairs in the bedroom.
And of course, there was breakfast: freshly baked bread (almost) every morning, cakes and toast, hard boiled eggs, home made jam, honey, cheese, cereals, yoghurt, juice, coffee, tea, fruit, almonds; you name it, we thought we had it. Until our first Catalan guests pointed out that tomatoes, olive oil and garlic are an elemental part of breakfast as well 🙂

We learned that guests don’t always do what you’d expect them to. We expected our guests to go on trips to rivers and mountain trails (check), visit castles and museums (check), eat at local restaurants and bars (check), go to fiestas and ferias (check), go look for vultures and ibex (check) – we did not expect them to go on road trips to faraway places to find foodstuffs not available here (check), help out plucking chickens and building walls (check), or to use our remote and off-grid farm as a base for daily city trips (check as well). Good to know though that those are possibilities as well!
We already suspected it, but we got confirmation that this is a great place to have a party. We hosted over 100 people in May – too bad we had to put up tents as the weather wasn’t cooperating, but the result was stunning – and the food was excellent, the music wonderful, the atmosphere better than we could have hoped for. We hope to host more parties and events in the coming years; we still have to organise an official opening party and invite all the locals…

This week's visit to Jordi's pottery workshop - he made us beautiful custom light covers.

This week’s visit to Jordi’s pottery workshop – he made us beautiful custom light covers.

We’re closing for winter now, but this doesn’t mean we’ll be sitting still and waiting for spring. We’ve got so many things planned!
First of course, there’s plenty of things inside the house to finish. The heating and the upstairs bathroom (both of which to be done by the plumber); building and buying furniture so we can finally empty all the boxes in the back room; and decorating – we’ve got most things already, it’s just a matter of finding the right place for it (and a nail to hang it with).
Then there’s things around the house: in November and December, we’ll host a group of volunteers to help us build a terrace wall around the house. Collecting stones, building the wall using drywall, filling it up with earth and then planting things to make it pretty; it will make the guest area look so much more attractive. When the terrace wall is built, we’ll also be able to build the gas bottle storage and the fixed chicken coop.
There’s paperwork as well: in order to comply with all the legislation, we have to get our water supply, the plumbing and the electricity certified, get an official visit from the town council and probably much more – things have a tendency to pop up when you think you’ve done everything on the list. We’ve started the process a while ago, there’s no telling when it will be done.
And let’s not forget the garden; after a not very successful summer, we’ve invested in decent (organic / heirloom) seeds, and we’re also investing in better infrastructure; raised beds in a fenced vegetable garden with irrigation on the spot should really make a difference in production.

The twins (currently called Tito & Tita) currently live in what someday is going to be our bathroom... they don't mind when we do a bit of work there.

The twins (currently called Tito & Tita) currently live in what someday is going to be our bathroom… they don’t mind when we do a bit of work there. 

Last but not least, there’s animals. At this moment, we’ve got 8 chickens: Fatima was born in February 2016 (from the second batch I hatched with my incubator), and is faithfully laying an egg a day, hasn’t skipped a day since she started laying. Ramon & Ramona are 5-months-old Brahmas we got from our friends Dan & Mell as company for Fatima – but after their flock was decimated by a lost hunting dog, they might go back to live with them after all. Then there’s 5 chicks; 2 (a hen and a rooster) are almost 6 weeks old and descendants of our Sanchita’s, and 3 are from eggs I got at Kurkum Farm. These are almost 3 weeks old and definitely the cuddliest and funniest chicks I’ve ever had; I’m guessing they’re 2 hens and a rooster… but time will tell. However, 3 to 5 hens are definitely not enough to feed our guests throughout the summer, so we’ll definitely add more; we’re working towards 8 to 12 laying hens (and a rooster to protect them).
We’d love to add more animals to our little farm; we’re looking for animals to graze our lands so the grass doesn’t grow too long, and to produce manure (fertiliser) at the same time. We’ve been looking at Kune Kune pigs (far away & a lot of hassle to import), goats (a lot of work to herd and constantly keep an eye on), sheep (they like to get sick and drop dead), ponies (fun but they eat a lot, probably more than our finca has to offer) and I keep coming back to alpaca’s… They’re quite the investment, but they might totally be worth it. To be continued!

They don't sit still long enough to take a decent picture, but believe me when I say they are the cutest

They don’t sit still long enough to take a decent picture, but believe me when I say those 3 are the cutest.

As you can see, we definitely won’t be sitting still while the B&B is closed. I’ve also got a few more small (paid) jobs lined up, and I’m now actively looking for writing jobs or assignments. As an exercise, I’ll be participating to NaNoWriMo in November. The aim of that month-long event is to write a book in just 30 days. Not sure yet if I’ll be trying fiction again this year, or maybe write a book about our adventures in Spain… In any case, I’ll need a lot of inspiration so fingers crossed!

Chickens 101

Growing up around chickens (and we had geese as well), I didn’t like them one bit. However now I have my own chickens, I finally understand why my father always kept them. They have turned me from being terrified of anything with wings, to learning anything there can be learnt about them. And now I secretly want to turn all of my friends (and strangers) into keeping them as well…

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Jansen & Haddock…

Why keep chickens?

  • They’re very low maintenance; as long as you have a decent coop and a predator-proof fence, all you need to do is make sure they have fresh water and food (every few days or so, more often in summer) and clean out the coop now and then (depending on the design and the number of chickens per square meter). When you go on vacation (and if you have the right setup), a neighbour can easily come and check on their water and food every few days.
  • They can be as expensive as you’d like – you’ll pay more for a fancy breed and the costs of the coop and run depend on where you source the materials and wether you build it  yourself.
  • They don’t need much room; technically, you could keep them on an apartment balcony. The eggs you’re currently eating come from chickens kept at an average of 17-19 per square meter, which is the European norm. Most people around here seem to keep 3-4 chicken in a (more or less) square meter cage; the more room they have, the less cleaning they require – and the more they can act like chickens (which is fun to see). We are planning to have about 12-16 chickens on around 25 square meter most of the time, although we’ll have them free range with an electric fence for protection as well.
  • They provide their owners (and maybe neighbours and family members as well) with daily fresh eggs. That is, if you get the right breed – some breeds lay more eggs, others have better (and more) meat, while “dual purpose” chickens lay an average number of eggs but are very tasty as well. I’ll be focussing on egg laying chickens in the rest of this post.
  • They provide you with high quality fertiliser for the garden. Or if you don’t have a garden, chances are a neighbour or friend will happily come and collect the chicken poo for his or hers.
  • They will eat all your kitchen scraps and leftovers. No more food waste!
  • If you have a garden, they will eat pests (ants and slugs, for instance)
  • They are funny and active and better than a television. Really. Watching them scratch away or fight over a piece of spaghetti is priceless.
  • They are good pets; some breeds are quite flighty, but others like being cuddled and are very sociable. I think many chicken breeds are definitely better suited for children than rabbits or hamsters, for instance.
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Rodriguez & the Sanchitas, Ginnie, Calimero, Greta, Fluffy and the nameless little roosters…

So… why not keep chickens?

  • If you’re going for free range / pasture raised chickens, they are either higher maintenance, or the infrastructure will cost more; some people only do supervised free ranging, others have a system with electric fencing and / or a chicken coop that will automatically close at dusk and open up again at dawn. Don’t underestimate local predators – foxes, the neighbours’ dogs, maybe a snake, sometimes even a cat if you’ve got chicks.
  • Some neighbourhoods or cities have ordinances prohibiting or limiting chicken keeping, be sure you know what you’re allowed to keep before going to the trouble of setting up everything
  • Make sure your neighbours won’t have a problem with your animals – even if you don’t have a rooster, some chickens can be loud, especially when they’ve just laid an egg (thankfully they don’t do that in the middle of the night). Sharing your eggs with the neighbours can be a good pacifier though.
  • There is a thing called “chicken maths” which makes people want to keep / buy / raise more chickens than they originally intended to.
  • If you want to free range them full time but are very attached to your green lawn… Just don’t do it, they will scratch it up and turn it into bare land. Although you can avoid that by having them free ranging in different bits of the garden every few days…
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One of the chicks under the brooder is Fatima, the only chicken featured on this page still alive today.

Chicken resources

  • Keeping chickens in the city (specifically): see this video – or check out The City Chicken website (I love their “hen house of the month” gallery!).
  • Justin Rhodes’ website, Abundant Permaculture: it’s full of videos on how to keep chickens. Also, Justin sometimes contributes to (free) webinars and online summits, he has tons of good ideas that can be helpful to any chicken keepers. Our chicken coop was built from his “chicksaw” design. And if you like vlogs: he’s got one, featuring his whole family doing stuff in the garden and with the chickens…
  • A very useful article for anyone thinking about the right setup for them to keep chickens, is Paul Wheaton’s “Raising Chickens 2.0“.
  • The Chicken Chick and Fresh Eggs Daily both have a blog with info and fun stories, and lots of information on their website. Same goes for Raising Happy Chickens, which is where I learnt how to hatch my eggs. I follow these 3 ladies on Facebook as well.
  • If you’re on Facebook, check out The Poultry Pages. With around 30.000 members it’s the biggest group (I don’t get their updates in my timeline as it’s just too much); there’s lots of interesting info, funny stories, and if you’ve got a questions there’s usually lots of fellow chicken people on it within minutes.
  • Want to read even more? There’s always the Permies forum, new content added every day.

Reset and try again

In most ways, I consider our lives here a big success. We couldn’t be happier, we’re “living the dream”, and I’m not going to bother you (again) with how beautiful it is here and how much the sunshines makes each day more glorious.

However, it’s not like everything is going perfectly. At times, it seems like we’re building failure upon failure. Examples? We have plenty of those. When your zucchini fail to appear, and your neighbour just laughs at your attempts to grow organic tomatoes. When you can literally can not find a single olive hanging off your olive trees. When you have other priorities in spring, and just don’t get enough things planted to feed you and your housemates as planned. When you just can’t handle the heat for days and days in a row. When the tiles just fall off the stairs. When there are no bees around to fertilise your garden. When you do your best living and working with a couple of volunteers who hardly speak any English (or other common languages), and they just end up hating you. When you keep spraining your ankle (and don’t really get to give it a rest). When your self made “almond milk” turns out to be this white watery liquid with a lot of must at the bottom. When you make a (very very stupid) mistake and the chickens all get killed.

Of course, my first reaction is to blame myself  (in many cases, it is my fault and nobody else’s) and feel bad about the whole thing. Turns out that doesn’t really help.

So the only option left, is “reset and try again”… Failure is everything those mushy quotes say it is – we’ve made mistakes (we’re making them all the time!), and those would really be failures if we didn’t learn from it, or if we didn’t try again. Now it’s time to kick out a few of the original plans, and instead… We sit down. Take a deep breath. Give ourselves some credit for we’ve realised already in such a small time – and tackle what really needs to be done in the weeks to come. And after that, we’ll think some more: make new plans, decide on other projects, do what we think we should do at that time. Live life by the moment, instead of letting our dreams be broken by unrealistic expectations. Cut ourselves some slack, take some time off. Maybe try and get some more sleep.

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And most of all, think about all the things that are not going wrong. This summer, we’ve had some great guests already – old and new friends, long lost (or never lost) family members. We’ve had super volunteers as well – always ready to pitch in and really help out whenever necessary. We’re finally making stuff: hummus with our own chickpeas, mustard from our own seeds, our olives are tasting amazingly good, marzipan from our left over almonds getting made as we speak, made amaretto last week, planning to make fresh “tinto de verano” tonight. More and more things are getting finished: the last step of the outside stairs is finally there, our current workaway-volunteers are grouting the last bit of inside tiles that still needed to be done, we’re getting help on Friday to finish the wall around the water deposit,… And then there’s the shooting stars in this amazing black night sky… they really make you forget everything else.

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Bruno Duran / GeoPixel organise stargazing nights in a few different places, now the Perseids are coming through again.

Permaculture basics

I’ve been wanting to write an introductory post to permaculture for months now. There are thousands of articles online about it already, probably even more on “agroforestry” or “regenerative agriculture” and other techniques which are closely related or seen by some as an integral part of agriculture. I’m writing this as a tiny introduction, so in future posts I can write more about this; I would love to share specific techniques or ideas I’m experimenting with, write about the social aspects of permaculture or talk more about off-grid lifestyle… so consider this a bit of a background story.

Permaculture is a set of design principles and techniques that aim at producing, cultivating and using things in a sustainable way, all the while working with nature instead of against it. To me, it’s mainly a way to minimise input (work, money and materials) while maximising the output. It can be put into practice in very small spaces (an apartment balcony for instance) to very large scale (big farms). Permaculture mimics patterns and features from nature: growing different plants together so they can help each other, creating systems including several elements at the same time, accounting for wind direction and sun inclination, and many more.

A lot of people practise permaculture without knowing it or without wanting to call it that. To some, it has a hippie or extremely green connotation (especially when words and expressions like “holistic”, “care for to the earth” or “synergy” are used). It’s taught at university in many countries; used as a way to re-green desert or depleted pieces of land; a growing number of people are using permaculture (or aspects of it) at home in order to provide for their family or community. There are astonishing examples of what it can do on large scale, the only downside being that it takes quite some time and effort to set up – the average permaculture property will take 5 to 7 years to start producing enough to get some return on investment.

Permaculture is not new or innovative; it mainly assembles techniques and ideas that have been around for a long time. And as the permaculture movement grows, new inventions pop up from time to time as well.

How do we implement permaculture at Mas del Encanto?

Every permaculture project starts off with a design. I made a first draft for our property as a homework assignment for my permaculture design course; we’ve made a few changes since then, but the main thing is still the same. I divided our property into zones, zone 1 being the zone closest to the house, where we’d spend most time and have the things we’d spend most time around; zone 1 being the wilderness zone, where we wouldn’t touch the forest.
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The first permaculture design for our property, there’s the different coloured zones and a few buildings and ponds

Then there’s soil; you can’t keep animals, grow vegetables or produce fruit when your soil is no good. At this moment we’re getting manure from our neighbours’ horses, but some time in the future we hope our own animals will produce enough to add to our compost and build up rich soil. We make sure we rotate plants (& animals) on our land so the soil gets richer season after season, instead of being depleted and needing lots of fertiliser like in traditional agriculture.
We also don’t use chemical pesticides; we use specific plants to deter certain pests and we try to attract the right animals to our land, which will feed on the “bad bugs” and make sure our veggies survive.
The terraces to the east of our finca (the barranco or dry river) are being turned into a so-called food forest or forest garden. We’ve planted many fruit and nut trees already, there are some berry bushes in between them and we’ll keep adding vegetables and edible plants, while at the same time working to make the soil better. We select the plants carefully so they will be able to help each other; for instance there’s legumes that put nitrogen in the soil, trees provide support for climbing plants (beans and tomatoes for now, hopefully grape- and other vines in the future), and the big leaves of pumpkin, squash and zucchini plants provide shade on the ground so the soil doesn’t get baked by the sun. We plant certain flowers to attract pollinating insects, and plant other plants to keep pests and flies away from our vegetables.
Chickpeas looking pretty

Chickpeas looking pretty tasty

Chickens are very important in most permaculture designs; with little input, they have a lot of output. Our chickens take care of bugs and weeds, and in exchange they give us daily eggs and a lot of poo (fertiliser) – and occasionally we’ll get to eat one of the surplus roosters. Although or chickens have a set run for now, we built them a mobile chicken coop so in the spring and the fall, we can drive them to different areas of our land to “clean up” the area: eat the weeds, scratch up the soil, get the whole thing ready for planting. We plan to implement more animals as working elements in our design; we’ll need grazers to keep the grass short, maybe one day some goats to eat weeds and make us cheese, and (who knows) a pony so we won’t need a tractor… There are plans for beehives, an insect hotel and maybe a bit of vermiculture (worm composting). So many plans, we’ll need quite a lot of time to implement them all!
Hills & trenches

Hills & trenches (with mustard and beans)

The way you manage waterflow on your property to minimise costs and effort but maximise the outcome (irrigation), is a very important aspect of permaculture. We started on waterworks here and there on our land; we made trenches around many trees to catch more water when it rains, dug canals in the barranco so the waterflow gets redirected to a pond, and all the rainwater from the roof of our house goes to one point where one day, we’d like to have a natural swimming pool. Hopefully this fall we’ll get to rent a digger to do some landscaping around the house as well.
We know we have many, many more years to come before we can get our little farm to its full potential – but we have so many inspiring examples, challenging ideas and so much time before us that we’re very much looking forward to the potential results.

A few videos for further watching

http://www.geofflawtononline.com/ – Geoff Lawton has tons and tons of videos on all things permaculture. You only need to register (it’s free) to watch them.

Green Gold, a fascinating and eye-opening documentary by John D. Liu about re-greening deserts around the world. Worth sitting down for. It’s also got a very positive message to oppose the defeatism of global warming…

A Farm for the Future, a fascinating documentary by Rebecca Hosking about farming in the UK. It not only explains what’s wrong with relying on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilisers, but it also talks about the many alternatives. The images around minute 25:00 show exactly what the problem is with plowing and killing the soil, these are things that cannot be unseen. And as a bonus, it features the late Patrick Whitefield.

Whole lot ‘o chirping going on

As soon as we moved to Spain, we decided we wanted our own chickens. What’s better than eating a fresh egg in the morning, from your own free-ranging chickens?

Our chicken adventure started in September – friends of ours were going away for a few months, and we offered to chicken-sit their chickens. That’s how Sanchez and his ladies (we soon started calling them “the Sanchitas”) came to live with us.

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Sanchez & 2 of his Sanchitas

In January, we realised our friends were going to come back and chances were they would take the chickens back; so we decided to get ourselves an incubator, and hatch a few of our chickens’ eggs. The hens we have are ex-battery; their breed is made solely for the purpose of producing eggs, and they very rarely get broody (getting broody means a chicken starts to sit on the eggs in order to hatch them).

The incubator with 6 eggs, waiting to hatch

The incubator with 6 eggs, waiting to hatch

We got a Brinsea Mini Advance incubator, which is fully automatic: it turns the eggs dozens of times a day (like a hen would do if she was sitting on them) and regulates the temperature and humidity inside. Then we collected 6 eggs; with only 1 chicken laying daily at that time, it took a few days and we kept the eggs like instructed, on their sides in a cool room. On Saturday January 9th, those 6 eggs went into the incubator. Exactly 3 weeks later, 5 of the eggs were showing movement: they were moving a bit, some chirping came from inside the eggs, and we started preparing the brooder to welcome the chicks… Unfortunately, not everything went right during hatching – only 4 of the chicks hatched, and the last one died not long after.

Calimero getting out of his egg

Calimero getting out of his egg

The remaining three are thriving: they are nicknamed Calimero, Ginnie and The Little One (he is much much smaller than the other two) and currently living in an old rabbit cage. They are being VERY noisy, especially as they’re learning how to fly… It feels a bit like we’re living in a birdhouse 🙂

Calimero and Ginnie, sitting on a tree...

Calimero and Ginnie, sitting on a tree… (3,5 weeks old)

Three hens would never be enough to provide us and our guests with daily fresh eggs though (and at least one of them is probably a rooster anyway), so we decided to put a new batch in the incubator… This time, we got 7 eggs in the incubator. And we bought an Ovascope to make our operation a tiny bit more professional; this device allows us to look inside the egg, to see if and how the chick is developing. We can even take a picture of it… it’s really fascinating. After a week, we noticed one of the eggs wasn’t developing (probably not fertile), so we discarded it; the other eggs made it to the end, and on Wednesday February 24th, we found ourselves with 4 brand new chicks. These are way more orange than the first few, so we’re curious to see how they will grow up!

One of the new chicks in the brooder

One of the new chicks (1 day old) in the brooder

Still, our thirst for more chickens seems to be growing. We would really like about 12-15 laying hens (which would give us 8-10 fresh eggs a day in summer, probably none or only a few in winter). I decided to get some variety in our chicken run, and contacted somebody I know who has “Gallina Serrana de Teruel” – they are very beautiful chickens, and a local heritage breed. They are quite rare nowadays, and I’m always in for saving an endangered species! So on Wednesday, we went to pick up a dozen eggs for our next batch… I got 9 eggs into the incubator. It’s only supposed to fit 7 eggs (otherwise, it can’t turn them automatically); turning is less important during the first days though (and I don’t mind doing it manually from time to time) and I figured a few eggs might not be fertile anyway so I’ll have to take them out in a few days…

So now, we’re counting down again. The eggs went in yesterday, so we’re expecting new chicks around the 18th of March… fingers crossed!

One of Ferran's Serrana's. Aren't they pretty?

One of Ferran’s Serrana’s. Aren’t they pretty?