Ranch - June 2017

The days are long and searingly hot and sunny. It's been a delightful Spring - semi-cloudy, semi-sunny and rather dry. Watering one and a half acres with two watering cans is like cutting a football pitch with scissors so it's time to sort some irrigation. I've piped in an overflow from the 1000 litre tank next to demi-shed B which has filled another 1000 litre tank behind it in the field and we've built a concrete plinth at the top which houses three big water butts connected together.

A makeshift tin-sheet roof and guttering feeds into them and they're already two-thirds full from the rain that we had a couple of weeks ago. I've added water butts and guttering to feed off every available bit of roof and bought hose pipe and soak hose. There's a sack of comfrey in each water butt. Turning a tap now waters and feeds at the same time. Comfrey is amazing - its roots go down several feet and it sequesters potassium and nitrogen. I've grown loads from seed and planted it in the orchard above every tree. The bees love it. Once it's rotted down, it stinks to high heaven - a mixed odour of the worse smelling farmyard manure and rotting fish.

Taff gave me a solar panel a couple of years ago. Last week, after watching loads of internet nerd videos, I finally hooked it all up. It's magic - free electric out of the sky! I still can't believe it. I can now pump water out of the well into the big water butt at the top. With all these measures, the water supply is doubled and the labour is halved. It will be even better when we get the roof on the greenhouse.

I thought this might be the year that we finally got round to doing a plant sale in the van but it's not going to happen. I have made progress though in growing plants in bulk. The lean-to at the top and the four propagators provide a large amount of growing space. I've given a lot of plants away and sold a few to Dewy for the organic garden at Northcote.

The system of putting a layer of fresh manure onto the beds every year is working much better in the field than it is in the main allotment and I've no idea why. I've started a new bed which extends the idea by building sides out of woven willow from the big trees that Dewy and I pruned and some pallet wood that I got given - a kind of raised bed. Before filling it with manure, I've put loads of logs and brushwood in the bottom. It's not my idea. The Germans thought of it and it's called hugelkultur (hill culture). The idea is that as the wood rots, it forms a spongy matrix which retains water so the bed needs little or no watering. Despite being less than a couple of months old, the plants in it are doing much better than anywhere else - incredibly so in fact. The wood in the centre can't possibly be rotted yet, so there must be something else going on. It's the way to go for the future.

Peas, beans, courgettes, gherkins, beetroot, onions, garlic, potatoes, brassicas are all in and doing well. The fruit trees and bushes are bursting forth. All good. There'll be some excess this year so I need to find a market for it - ground to stomach without any middle men - that's the idea. Permaculture is all about common sense and labour saving. There's something deliciously exciting about working towards self-reliance on a scrubby hillside in the North.


I remember reading Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance many years ago. It was long and very complex. There was an underlying theme of keeping and repairing a motorbike as a way of learning and getting your head together. I had a challenge in early spring with the tractor. There was an intermittent problem with the starter - it kept just clicking. I took it off several times and stripped it down. The quality of the engineering is amazing - very robust - made in 1954! I replaced the switch and the solenoid and cleaned the armature and bushes. Every time I put it back, the same thing would happen - it would start perfectly a couple of times then start clicking again. I finally admitted defeat and went to the local garage that I've been going to for years to ask for the number of an auto-electrician.

'Naw.' Said Peter. 'It just sounds like a loose contact'.
'Take the battery off, then hook the fucker directly up to the two starter terminals and work your way back'.

I'd already checked the earth and I'd even fitted an extra earth strap.

He was right - the starter whirred perfectly - there was nothing wrong with it after all. It was the positive battery terminal - so simple and so obvious. All the years that I've been working on old cars and dealing with dodgy electrics - I should have spotted it instantly - Zen in the Art of?

The tractor is starting to earn its keep. Sam and I have made two large strips of concrete with the PTO cement mixer. It would previously have taken me five times longer to mix by hand. I'm looking out for a topper to mow the grass and maybe a wood chipper.

We had our annual trip to that campsite up north last week. We walked up the same hill and sat at the same table outside the same pub. I haven't used the van much since I had the front end rebuilt. It ran perfectly - it comes into its own on steep winding country roads - like a mountain goat. It's perfect for camping in fine weather. We had an extra night and camped at a lovely site in the next valley. My brother recommended it. it's quite remote and off the beaten track. There's a lovely pub about fifteen minutes walk away. Elias and I had a leisurely late afternoon and evening meeting some interesting characters including a stone mason and climber called Alan who knew a bloke that I knew from St Andrews. It was raining heavily when we came out and Elias didn't have a coat so we broke into a brisk jog and made quick progress. After about five minutes I turned to him and said.

'Are we going the right way?'
'I don't know'. he replied.

A brief reconnaissance of our surroundings told us that we weren't so we had to jog all the way back again. Refreshingly, there was no phone signal so we had to use the phone box outside the pub to phone home.

Rock & Roll

After years of humping around big heavy valve amps that were too loud for what I needed, I decided to build my own. The first prototype had a few glitches which I ironed out in the second one. It's based around a 12 inch speaker so it's not too heavy but still loud enough to keep up with the loudest drummer. There's a lot of attention to detail. It's all hand wired. It's designed to be as tough and durable as possible. It's 20 watts. Next, I built a 30 watter. It's too loud for my needs. The idea is that it has enough clean headroom to use as a bass amp. Now Sam and I are building a 5 watter which has the same robust construction as the others: 8 metal corners; covered in furnishing fabric with three coats of varnish and so on. Most 5 watters have an 8 inch or 6 inch speaker but we've used a 10 inch to give it a heftier sound. The idea is that it will be the ideal rehearsal and recording amp.

I don't miss playing live at all - particularly in this weather. We have the odd weekend jam session and that's about it. The other weekend Garth joined us. He's an accomplished guitar player. he joined me, Tyler and Bryn in a Jazz Bastards session. The idea of the JBs is that we just fuck about with no rehearsal whatsoever and pretend that it's accomplished avant garde jazz. I do a bit of skatting over the top.

I've finished recording the twelve songs for my little record and I've done yet another 'final' draft of the book, which I've sent out to a few people. A few have given feedback which is most useful. Taff said 'Show and don't tell'. Fortunately my brother has agreed to edit it. His English is superb - far better than mine. I'm cutting a woodblock illustration for each of the chapters which is pretty time consuming. I should be getting on with it but we're having a heatwave so toiling on the ranch takes precedent.

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