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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Splitting up the blog…

Splitting up the blog…

This little blog has taught me so many things. It has taught me that it’s ok to open up: I can write about our mistakes and our bad days, and it’s ok to share our successes and our good days with the world as well. It has taught me that although most people think we’re crazy for moving to Spain and starting a new life here, they also think it’s bold and courageous and they like following our adventures here. But most of all, it has taught me that I love to write about those adventures – and that I love to share everything I’m learning here.

The adventure started years ago, when we first started dreaming about an Earthship somewhere on grassy meadows in the south of France – and it took a leap when we bought our land in Matarraña (Spain turned out to be quite a bit sunnier and just as pretty as France). There were other milestones – the day I got my (online) Permaculture Design Certificate with Geoff Lawton, the day we moved to Spain, the day we moved to our little maset (the little donkey shed Axel rebuilt for us), and finally the day we moved into our new house.

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Our “maset” – the converted stable we lived in before the big house was finished.

I now felt like it was time for another milestone… this week, I split up my blog. I will continue to post personal updates, news on the bed & breakfast, the adventures of our volunteers and some chicken stories on this blog – but I’ve also started a new blog. I’m looking forward to using that blog as my big outlet: I can’t wait to share information about permaculture, homesteading, small scale farming and keeping animals. I will post my favourite recipes, share tips on how to go back to basics (even if it’s just a tiny bit) – and as a sociologist I would love to write about the social aspects of permaculture, gender roles on a homestead or the importance of an utopia in the modern world (fans of Jurgen Habermas, hold on to your hats). Of course there will be chickens as well, and volunteers, and everyday observations about life in Spain.

I would like to invite you all to take a look at my new blog on www.simplelivingspain.com (yes, it’s basically about Simple Living in Spain). And maybe you’d like to subscribe to my newsletter, and get a weekly overview of cool things I’ve read, interesting videos I’ve watched and news from the farm? If you have any suggestions on what you’d like to read there, please go ahead and contact me – in the comments, on my (new!) Facebook page, on Twitter, Instagram or good old-fashioned e-mail. My (digital) door is always open, and I’m always looking for more inspiration – or interesting subjects to stick my nose in.

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Stuff I’m going to be writing about on my SimpleLivingSpain.com blog: chickens, living off the grid, growing our own food and cooking / baking it, gardening, living in Spain and much much more… 

The road not taken – on choices and inspiration

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The road not taken – poem by Robert Frost, drawings by Gavin Aung Than. 

I am a firm believer in the idea that most of us (you, dear reader, and myself), living in a “free” world, have the opportunity to make more choices than we can possibly fathom. And yet, we are made to believe that our path is more or less cleared for us, and all we need to choose are the little details: everything has already been set out for you, and of course the meaning of life is to buy a house, 2 cars, and 2.1 children. And spend the rest of your life paying off the debts you really are supposed to have.

Every single day is the first day of the rest of my life. And every single day, I am faced with a gazillion of choices: most of them are fairly simple, others are more of a challenge. I learned from Gretchen Rubin that happiness is not a goal or a purpose – happiness is in the journey, in the way we get there. So in every choice I make, of course I think about the ultimate purpose of that choice, but I also try to imagine the road that will lead me there.

This week, my friend and “neighbour” left us, in search of her own road. The search will lead her to a yoga retreat center in India first – probably the best place to go if you’ve got questions, and you know the answer is within you. It has made me reflect a bit – on friendship, on travelling and working in exotic places, but most of all about fate and choices and crossroads in life. I secretly hope she’s coming back soon – but if she’s not, I just hope our paths will cross again some time in the future.

Some time ago, I read the poem “The road not taken” by Robert Frost; it was imbedded in a “ZenPencils” cartoon by Gavin Aung Than. I have been following ZenPencils for ages, but this one really got to me… What the poem tells us, is that there are always other roads, alternate realities. What the cartoon shows us, is that both roads can be just as beautiful, both realities just as fulfilling. Maybe the road we’d like to travel isn’t as easy for one person as it is for somebody else; everyone has his handicaps and talents, and we have to find the best way to put both to work. But the choice is ours – and once we’ve made it, it’s no use looking back and wondering “what if”. No use regretting what we’ve made of our lives so far – if I’m not happy with it I can either complain, or choose to change it. And I’m the only one who can make the change.

Another inspiration was the commencement speech given by Jim Carey (here’s the link – you might want to skip the first 10 minutes). There was that little phrase: “You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love”. The tiny voice in my head probably told me that a thousand times, but it took mister Carey for me to realise how silly it was to live live the life you think will keep everybody else happy. Somehow along the way, I made the choice to “pursue challenges as something beneficial, so I could deal with them in the most productive way”. Some people might see those challenges as huge obstacles and choose to avoid them at all costs – so far, I have learned that every new challenge has made my life better.

So here I am, pursuing my dream of living off the grid in our own self-sustaining little farm. Reading and learning all I can so I can put it into practice (the sooner the better). Not even time will tell if I’ve made the right choice; it can only tell me wether I’m happy with the choice I’ve made (so far so good).

If there is one thing we can learn from “The road not taken”, is that there is no one true and correct road in life. We just make choices, and those choices will lead us somewhere. Would we have had a better life if we had chosen the other road? We will never know. Until some kind of space-time machine can help us explore alternate realities or see the future, of course.

It all started with an Earthship

We have been thinking about going to live abroad for quite a while, but the last nudge we needed, was a “Grand Designs” episode on an earthship / ground house in France. I have always been interested in weird and organic architecture and had come across earthships before (I even saw that Grand Designs episode once before), but I never thought it was for me: I have 2 left hands and would definitely not consider building my own house without the proper guidance and education. However as I saw the show again in December 2012, Axel was very enthusiastic – we started talking about it, and realised it would be possible to build an earthship with the help of volunteers or something…

First off, I need to say something about earthships.

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There is the name, of course; it sounds as if it could lift off into space any minute. The concept has been around for ages but the name has been invented (and patented, I think) by architect Michael Reynolds, who has an earthship-building company and test ground in New Mexico. Another group calls it a “ground house”, and some people just call it whatever they want to call it.

Basically, earthships are radically sustainable and self-providing buildings, based on 6 principles:

  1. They are (supposed to be) built with recycled and natural materials: most are built with old tires, but can or bottle walls are also possible, or you could theoretically use stones you find on your land.
  2. The house harvests its own water, and re-uses it too
  3. They use thermal and solar heating and cooling only
  4. They use solar and wind electricity only
  5. Contained sewage treatment: after water has been used for washing, cooking or drinking, it is filtered by plants and then used to flush the toilets; after that, it goes into plant beds as well
  6. Food production: a part of the house can be used as a greenhouse to grow vegetables and fruit trees in, especially in extreme climates.

Earthships harvest water on their flat roof, but the back and sides are completely dug into the earth, so it can use thermal wrap as a way to keep constant temperatures, summer and winter. At the (south-facing) front, there is a double glass wall that gets sunlight to come all the way to the back of the house in the winter (nice and warm), but also acts as a heath buffer in summer (when the summer is higher and doesn’t reach to the second layer of glass).

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While we were looking for land to build our own earthship on, we also paid a visit to a few existing earthships, did some research, looked at other types of “sustainable” homes, and decided that earthships really sounded too good to be true (at least, in our case). And this is why:

  1. Most earthships are built with tires. All tires must be exactly the same size, and you spend days and days driving around the country to find companies who have second hand tires in exactly the size you need.
  2. Although earthships seem to work really well in the desert of New Mexico, in colder countries they need a solid concrete foundation in order to cope with humidity. In our case, buildings built into the mountain have to be extra insulated (by law) in order to keep the humidity out – and this would mean that the thermal heat wouldn’t work as well.
  3. In Spain, a second layer of glass doesn’t seem to be necessary in the winter; however, it gets far too hot on sunny days.
  4. In the region where we live, it rains A LOT from time to time, and then it doesn’t rain for months in summer. This means that if you harvest water from your own roof, in september you’ll be drinking the water you harvested in March. It creates a few challenges when it comes to keeping water disease-free for so long when it’s so hot, even when you bury your cisterns under the ground… Also we have plenty of water from a borehole on the land, so we can use the water we harvest as irrigation water only. However, we will build a system that can easily be transformed from a water system depending on a bore hole, to a self-harvesting system. You just never know when your borehole goes dry!

We plan to work with the other principles though. Our house will run on mainly on solar power, even though Spanish law says you need a heating system that can work on gas; we are getting a hybrid system, and hope we don’t have to use the gas too often. We won’t build our house with recycled materials, but we’re making sure most of the materials are produced locally. We will re-use our water and have the sewage filtered by plants; the lower gallery of our house will hopefully be the place where we can keep a few fruit plants that wouldn’t survive the freezing winters outside. We will also be researching and experimenting with several techniques that can make the house work better without external energy: solar powered warm water, a heath pump for air cooling and heating, use of recycled water for irrigation,…

Our first aim is of course to have a home that is cosy and comfortable to live in – but we hope to achieve it by using the best and most sustainable technologies available. This way not only will our housing have a lower impact on the environment, but of course it’s nice to know that things like electricity, hot water or a big part of our food could be obtained for free for the rest of our lives.

Last week, we have finally applied for a building permit (actually, our architect Manel did that), and we’re hoping to start building in September 2014… Let’s see how that works out!