Echo Earth Care

Project 1: Cairneymount

When we first discovered Permaculture we were a family of 3 living in a beautiful 4 bedroomed Victorian cottage with well manicured gardens... by the end of this design project we came to realise we were living in a beautiful oversized and very draughty Victorian cottage! The process of applying Permaculture principles led us to conclude that in fact we really wanted a much smaller, more energy efficient house, with much,larger gardens. For this reason we chose not to implement many of the ideas described here, but instead we sold this house and moved to a small-holding nearby (see Croftgary for the next instalment!). We did however learn a lot about the design process, forest gardens and energy efficiency measures as we went along. This design was a joint venture with my husband Scott Egner.

Summary and Learnings

A design was prepared for a family of three who were looking to live more sustainably. SADIMET was used to prepare and review the design, with PASTE and input/output tools used to survey and analyse the data. The main principles used in creating this design were:

  • Everything gardens;
  • Work with nature;
  • The problem is the solution;
  • Make the least change for the greatest possible effect;
  • Each system supports multiple effects, each important function is supported by multiple elements.

The design was created from pattern to detail, identifying zones and then identifying and designing elements in more detail. Much of the design was not implemented due to the family decision to sell the property and seek to become small holders.

A key learning has been to focus on weed prevention techniques, such as mulching, weed membranes and growing ground cover plants as so much time has been wasted with repetitive weeding that could have been spent more productively. Also, the benefit of perennial fruit and vegetables over annuals is enormous in terms of labour and resources required. Whilst the masonry stove is a pleasure to use it may not have been the optimum route to energy efficiency for this house without a source of cheap/free firewood. It might have been more prudent to spend the money on more insulation and draft proofing. A priority for the future would be to source viable firewood.

The Brief

We wanted our home and garden allow us to be as self sufficient as reasonably possible, whilst living in harmony with our surroundings. For us this meant:

  • Eating and growing as much of our own organic food as possible
  • Being as energy efficient as possible, including growing our own firewood, generating our own electricity, maintain heat
  • Optimum use of resources to minimise waste
  • Ensuring the physical, emotional and mental well-being of ourselves and our son.

Survey

Location and Climate

Cairneymount is a 4 bedroom semi detached villa located in the coastal village of North Queensferry, Fife, Scotland, 56N 003W with cool temperate climate. Annual rainfall is approx 700mm with mean sunshine of approx 1500hr/year. The average temperature ranges from -1.5C (Jan) to 19C (July) with extremes from -15C to 30C. The site is adjacent to a main road, with a nature reserve across the road and a reservoir nearby. The prevailing SW winds are relatively mild, with less frequent cold Easterly winds, and the site is subject to local mist and fog from the Firth of Forth. The Sun Angle in Jun/July is approx 58 deg (15.5 hrs), and in Dec/Jan: approx 15 deg (just under 7 hrs).

A map showing various sectors acting on the plot.
Sectors map

A PASTE analysis shows the contents of the garden at the time of the survey:

Plants
Holly trees, spruce, Berberis Darwinii, Cotoneaster, Rowan, Privet hedge (east wall), laburnum, lilac, herb garden, apple trees, plum tree, pear tree, comfrey, geraniums, choysia, Berberis, lavender,  wild cherry, Solomon seals, feverfew, bluebells, euphorbia, hydrangea, aquilegia, Jerusalem artichokes, raspberries, strawberries, annual veg, ivy, honeysuckle, winter jasmine, weeds (cleavers, brambles, dandelions, nettles, thistles......), grass lawn, alpine plants (rockery)
Animals
hedgehogs, frogs, newts, common garden birds, Peregrine Falcon, bats, deer, rabbits, cats, slugs, snails, squirrels, bees, butterflies, ladybirds, mini beasts, mice, snails,
Structures
House, garden shed, outhouse, plastic greenhouse, driveway, compost bins, rockery
Tools
garden hand tools, lawnmower, strimmer, chainsaw, hedge trimmer, limited power tools
Events
BBQs, parties, sledging in winter, paddling pools in summer

House

The house is a South and East facing 1890’s semi-detached stone built cottage with timber frame extensions to East and North. The South side of the house is subject to big temperature swings, especially the playroom (large windows) and the North side of the house is very cold, particularly the flagstone kitchen floor. The entire house is prone to drafts. The Dormer windows are very cold due to lack of insulation. A gas boiler provides central heating and hot water. Lofts are all insulated. Photovoltaic solar panels provide electricity and a masonry stove provides some heat.

A floor plan of the ground floor.
A floor plan of the first floor.

Analysis

Zones 0, 1 and 2 were identified within our property and desired elements allocated to each zone. Then an input-output analysis was performed to determined how to co-locate elements that would be included in the design.

 

A map of zones.
Zone 0: House
Zone 1: Annual veg ; pond;  chickens;  compost;  greenhouses, cold frames
Zone 2: Forest garden
Zone 5: (Outwith our property) Coastal path and nature reserve - foraging

 

Input/Output Analysis

A visual representation of input-output relationships between various components of the plot.
Input/Output analysis identifies the relationships between elements in the design so that related elements can be collocated to optimise efficiency.

Multifunctionality

Wherever possible in Permaculture we like each element to have more than one function, and each function to be supported by more than one element in order to maximise resilience should one element fail. We have tried to incorporate this principle in this design.

Food Energy Wellbeing Resource optim.
Forest Garden
Chickens
Pond
Glass structures
Annual veg beds
Compost
PV cells
Water management
Masonry stove

Basemap with Moveable Elements

In order to map out elements and get an idea of size, scale and compatibility, we made a 1:50 scale basemap and used cardboard cutout miniature elements (to scale) to move elements around the map and see how they worked together. This was particularly useful for the forest garden to make sure that the trees were sufficiently far enough apart to avoid a closed canopy and ensure sufficient light for all the different plants.

Proposed Design

The proposed design focuses on energy efficiency measures in Zone 0, with labour intensive food production in Zone 1, close to the house, with Zone 2 forest garden further away from the house.

Top (1)
Upper middle (2)
Bottom (4)

Zone 0 - House

The key objectives for the house were to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and minimise water use.

Actions Implemented

We had already installed Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels to provide electricity and generate income via the Feed In Tariff. It was therefore decided to install a solar immersion switch to direct excess electricity from the PV panels to the hot water immersion tank, thus providing hot water from the solar panels.

Actions identified but not implemented due to moving house
  • Heat loss reduction via under floor insulation, insulation of hot water pipes and increased draft proofing.
  • The space under the floor can extend to as much as 4ft, providing scope for an under floor thermal store.
  • Replace the gas burning fire in the dining area with a rocket thermal heater at some point in the future.
  • It was proposed to increase the insulation and solar gain of the property by installing a glass porch around kitchen, a lean-to greenhouse on East wall under Play room, a cold-frame under living room at front of house and a solar wall on South wall under playroom.
  • Water usage would be reduced by incorporating a flush reducer for the upstairs toilets.
  • The possibility of a compost toilet would also be investigated, dependent on access under the bathroom floor. The area outside the bathroom is covered by shrubs and this could make way for storing the humanure.

Zone 1

Zone 1 focuses on the area immediately surrounding the house, and path up from the driveway. This area would include all elements that require the most attention such as annual vegetable beds, herb garden and chickens. In addition this area would include lean to green houses, solar walls and cold frames to maximise solar gain for the house and attention from the inhabitants. Whilst the footpath up to the house is technically zone 1 as it is passed through on a daily basis, it is not suitable for annual vegetable growing due to being heavily shaded and surrounded by mature holly and shrubs.

Zone 1
Actions Implemented

Annual vegetable beds were mulched to improve soil enrichment, were designed to be narrow to prevent walking on them and were fed via comfrey and nettle fertilisers. The beds are highly prone to slugs and snails and it is hoped that the proximity to the pond will attract predators to reduce the slug problem.

A fruit cordon was planted on the South facing wall, alongside sorrel and comfrey.

A container wildlife pond was situated close to annual veg beds for pest control and visible from house for safety of children and for the inhabitants to enjoy from the patio or indoors. The pond increased biodiversity and attracted predators for pests whilst providing opportunity for children to learn and play.

Actions Identified but Not Implemented
  • The wild cherry tree would be removed to allow significantly more light, whilst generating firewood in the process.
  • The chicken coop would be attached to the existing shed for extra protection and water harvest from shed roof. Whilst providing food, the chickens would also provide manure, ground preparation, pest control, company and opportunities to learn and play for the children.
Solar Gain (Not Implemented)

A glass porch would be installed at the back door to surround the kitchen, a lean to greenhouse constructed on the East wall under the play room, a cold frame under the living room at the front of the house and a solar wall on the South wall under the playroom. These structures would provide solar gain and insulation to the house whilst extending the growing season for food. The glass structures would contain waters butts which would be fed with water captured from the house roof, providing water for the plants and acting as a thermal store. Where possible these glass structures would be made from recycled materials.

Cold frames and solar wall
Cold frames and solar wall

Zone 2 (Not Implemented)

Zone 2 would be planted mainly as a forest garden with fruit trees (mulberry, medlar, apple, pear), a Hazel canopy and hedge for food and firewood, Willow for crafts, garden poles, firewood, biofilters and the existing holly providing a substantial windbreak and bird habitat. Perennial vegetables would provide food, ground cover, chicken feed, habitat, food for wildlife, pollinators and compost material. Herbs and flowers would also be grown to provide herbal remedies, food, pollinators, food for wildlife, beauty fragrance, cut flowers and all round happiness! Mushrooms would be incorporated into the forest garden area to provide food and general ecosystem health.

Social and outdoor play spaces
Social spaces marked with purple star

The patio is located next to the kitchen and affords spectacular views of the Firth of Forth and across the water to Edinburgh. It is also large enough to hold a gazebo to protect against bad weather.

In terms of play space a slide was located on the steep slope at the front of the house.

Actions Not Implemented

A willow den would be included in the damp shady corner of the forest garden and the existing holly tree would accommodate a tree house. A pond would provide ample opportunity for pond dipping and observation.

“The Problem is the Solution”

As with every garden there are problem areas. Where possible these were designed to be turned around and used to their advantage.

Actions Implemented

There were several areas of the garden which were covered with invasive rhododendrons. These were removed, generating a large amount of wood, prunings, shreddings, which were used as firewood for the masonry stove, mulch and compost.The resulting spaces contain very poor soils , with no worms or any other sign of life. The north area was remediated with green manures initially, then replanted with a family apple tree and associated companion planting, such as mint, alliums, comfrey, daffodils (to repel deer), and wild flowers. The remaining areas were remediated with green manures and then would have been incorporated into the larger forest garden.

Old pallets left over from deliveries were used to make a wood store, located along the outhouse wall at the Northwest corner of the house.

Actions Identified but Not Implemented

The very cold north facing wall would be planted with evergreens to create a “Green Wall”. The steep hillock at the front of the house is very hard to mow and weed and would therefore be left to re-wild, creating a wildflower meadow.

Implementation

The process of completing a PDC and then compiling this detailed design for our home and garden led us to the realisation that we wanted to pursue a more holistic lifestyle than our current situation would allow. We decided to sell the property and have bought a small holding where we aim to set up a ScotLAND centre and teach Permaculture. Therefore some of the design ideas listed above were not actually implemented.

Monitor and Evaluate

Although some of the design was not implemented, we continued to live at the property for over a year as market conditions slowed the sale of the house. This gave us a real opportunity to monitor the property and evaluate how successful at least some of the design would have been. It was also a period where a balance was to be found between useful Permaculture practices such as mulching, encouraging wild flowers and a natural look, and keeping the property looking presentable for viewers.

Positives

The installation of the solar immersion system has been very positive, generating significant savings whilst providing ample hot water.

The inclusion of a container pond has increased biodiversity, and there have been regular sightings of frogs and toads. The pond also provides valuable drinking water for birds in dry spells.

Some perennial fruit and vegetables were planted before the decision to sell the house and these have been very productive, e.g. walking onions, buckhorn plantain, Siberian purslane. The use of nettle and comfrey fertilisers in the annual vegetable plot has been notably successful. A lot of experience has been gained in making jams, curds, chutneys and wine.

Companion planting has also been a great success.

Prior to the decision to sell the house two patches of lawn were left unmown to generate a mini wild flower meadow. These were both highly successful, generating amazing diversity in flowers and insect life. The remediation of the rhododendron patch with the apple tree guild has been highly successful. This tree now produces plentiful apples of three different varieties, and the accompanying planting provides a huge diversity in wildlife and the sound of buzzing bees can be heard from afar. It also provides a beautiful view coming up the garden path to the house and from the windows at the front of the house, particularly an evergreen sweet pea that climbs up around the trunk of a wild cherry tree. Most exciting though is the wealth of life that can now be found in the soil.

Negatives

There is a perverse correlation between the ease of growing a vegetable and how much the family actually like to eat it! For example Kale, Jerusalem artichokes, need no effort at all but no one likes them. Brassicas, carrots, beetroot and parsnips are delicious but never make it past the slugs, carrot root fly etc. On the plus side there have been a lot of lessons learnt in finding good recipes to make the most of prolific undesirables!

A longer term solution is required to manage weed growth in the gravel patio and in the edges of the front path which contain chuckies, as both of these areas require a disproportionate amount of time and attention weeding. Had the family been staying at the property they would prioritise this as requiring action.

Interesting

The play dens did not get built as per the design, but instead they evolved naturally, as clearings appeared in various trees and shrubs, and sticks became available during pruning spells.

Play den under the holly tree

The masonry stove is a pleasure to have, however the intent was to reduce bills. This would only be possible if a source of cheap/free firewood was available, as originally intended in the design. It is also relatively labour intensive.

Tweaks

2014 was a particularly dry year and the annual vegetable beds were drying out, as were the water butts so a garden hose was needed for irrigation.The ground was also so dry that the water would run off, taking soil and nutrients with it.

In addition to the swales, a child's play sprinkler was repurposed to water the parts of the vegetable plot that the swales couldn't reach.

The vegetable bed sloped down to one corner so a series of mini-swales were created. Water from the hose, or from the water butt, could be used to fill the first swale and then the water would gradually trickle down the bed via the swales. The water butt didn’t have enough pressure or flow to fill the swales and flow down past the first two rows, however the garden hose managed this easily.

As a family we really enjoy have campfires and cooking outside however there was no fire pit in included in the original design, and this is something we would want to include in future designs. As an interim measure, when the washing machine broke down and needed a new drum the old drum was repurposed into a mobile pit.

The family have taken to occasionally having a spontaneous night camping in the garden. The original design did not leave any space for such activities, and again, this is something that would be included in future designs.

Reflection

This was my first design since completing my Permaculture Design Certificate. The scale of this project was significantly bigger than that of the PDC and was very much a real world exercise and required a much deeper level of detail.

Looking back, it would have been valuable to do a cost benefit analysis on many of our ideas, especially the masonry stove, rather than go with implementing as many permaculture ideas from the Earth Care Manual as possible! Fortunately we decided to move house before we implemented more of these ideas as we may have come to regret a few of them!

This design was very much a learning experience - particularly how to survey and how to "observe and interact". It was also a lesson in working together with my husband as a partnership. A key lesson going forward will be to evaluate our ideas from both a practical and financial point of view before implementing them. The most useful tool was the basemap and cardboard elements as it was very easy to move things around and visualise the design and identify issues.