Category Archives: Wwoofing

WasteNoMo

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Our second stop in Bulgaria, and after a couple of days in the lovely city of Plovdiv, was with Dimo and his worms.  We had arranged a couch surf with another guy in the area but when he had to go the Beglika festival as a helper we were told Dimo would take us in and probably show us a thing or two. We were grateful for the opportunity to understand a low impact livelihood and help Dimo out on the worm farm for a few days.

He kindly picked us up from Kazanlak and we went for a family visit, an off road adventure and a swim before cooking up a late dinner and sampling the stupidly cheap but very tasty Bulgarian beer.

We spent the next few days at the worm farm. Dimo collects fresh cow poo, mixes it with straw, moistens it and sets the worms to work. It takes a few months for them to eat their way through the feast but the end result is weed free, high water retentive, humus rich soil, perfect for growing annual veg and seedlings. He bags the castings and sells them to customers around Bulgaria. During the process the worms also double in mass and he receives an additional income from them.

Dimo also doubles up his worm heap as a plant nursery, stacking functions and making best use of his space. He grows tomatoes and paulownia, a fast growing lightweight timber perfect for tool handles. He uses no chemicals and keep his mole population in check using castor plant which exudes chemicals that the moles dislike.

Dimo also produces his own biofuel from waste vegetable oil in a processor that he built himself. He powers his truck and his tractor from the fuel, true to his business name WastNoMo.

We loved our time with Dimo. We saw some great places, Thracian tombs, old communist monuments and natural beauty. The day before we left he took us to visit Paul of the Balkan Ecology Project who was happy to show us around his permaculture inspired garden.  We were to see them both again at their BalkanEP venue at Beglika Festival.

News from Busso…

Today brings welcome news from Italy. The very nature of our journey means that we are connecting with, working with and then inevitably parting way with friends, couch surf hosts and wwoof hosts along the way. We wonder often how the projects are going that we leave behind. We can of course receive the odd update via email but its just not the same as seeing with our own eyes. Some of our permaculture blitz ideas were met with caution by our hosts, seen as “crazy” gardening or “cocktail” gardens. “Let’s see” was a common used phrase when a new experiment had been planted out.

Luckily Giovanni was very open to the idea of a new synergistic garden, less work, less water, less disease, no chemicals, no digging, more food were all promised once the initial set up was complete. You can read the original blog post here.

The pictures above show the set up process followed by the photographs below, just received from Giovanni, taken only last night, with the comments that it hasn’t even rained since we left – looks like that thick layer of moisture holding mulch is doing the trick…

Solstice in Heaven

Today is the longest day of the year, summer solstice, and according to Nina’s trusty journal it’s also the 150th day of our travels. It seems like a life time ago that we left England, the many changing landscapes that we have passed through adding to the fortunate yet artificial feeling of ever lasting adventure.

Nina and I are trekking in the Vikos Aoös National park, Epiros, Greece. It’s the north western region of the country, up close to the Albanian border. It’s another place we’ve landed in due to the kind hospitality of friends. We were invited to stay at Angelo and Birgitte’s house in the small village of Paleochlori nestled in forested hills, inland from the port of Igoumenistsa. After two weeks there our attention turned to the national park a couple of hours away. Nina plucked this little gem out of the Lonely Planet, hearing that not many people visit the region and that it’s filled with natural beauty, including a third of Greece’s flora, together with traditional villages and monasteries.

Leaving our most heavy items in Ioannina, we donned our backpacks, sleeping bags, tent, a bit of food and set off for 3 days trekking and camping with a rough itinerary of connecting ancient hamlets, traversing the world’s deepest gorge (according to the Guinness Book of Records’ depth/width ratio), visiting a monastery or two and plenty of swimming, much needed in the 30 plus heat.

Four days ago the bus from Ioannina dropped us in Monodendri, one of 45 villages in the Zagori region. The old houses here are all made from local stone, as are the streets, walls and churches. It has the quaintness of a Cotswold village yet more dramatic in it’s isolated setting. We walked to the 15th century monastery, just outside the village, from where we could look down into the gorge we would walk the next day. Close by we found a nice spot for the tent and, with a little concern about the wild boars, snuggled up for a good nights sleep.

We woke at the crack the dawn, packed down the tent and set off excited by what we may find. The first task was to descend nearly a kilometre down onto the gorge floor. It was already becoming hot but luckily there was plenty of tree cover. The old paths here were used to connect villages before roads were put in more recently. The gorge itself is 20km long. We joined it a little way along and walked around 12km along it. We’d heard that there were bears and wolves here but hadn’t really taken seriously the possibility of seeing one. It took an hour or so to descend and on reaching the bottom we stopped for some breakfast on the dry, rocky river bed.

The walking from here was not difficult, although challenging. The path had to climb to avoid rock faces that descended into the river below. The sheer scale of the gorge was breathtaking and the diversity of plants and habitats made every step of the way interesting. There were plenty of frogs, lizards and beetles. The whole place was humming with insect life. We even stopped to take in a family of weasels playing on the rocks and the only other people we saw that day spotted a small brown bear on the path. We read that there are 1750 recorded plant species in the national park and it feels like a very stable eco system. Geologically though, this is not the case, with the occasional sound of rocks pitching themselves into to ravine below, though not every rock finds the bottom.

Half way along the gorge we came to the source of the spring fed river that continued ahead. The mountains here are caustic which means they hold vast amounts of water within. In winter this forms glaciers inside the mountains and throughout the year they melt to produce the most stunning aqua coloured watercourses. Unfortunately though, this means that they are also extremely cold. Nina managed a five second swim but I only just got my feet wet. The river that we were to follow from here just added more beauty to the already picture perfect surroundings. Rainbow trout now added to the flora, a sub species that have adapted to the extreme water temperatures by spawning all year round.

Our path split from the gorge after a few more kilometres and we begun the climb up and round more forested mountains, clinging to the hillside, before opening out onto flower meadows and eventually the small village of Mikro Papingo. We’d made it to civilisation after a very hot 17km. A welcome fountain greeted us and we cooled down before enquiring about a spot to camp in Makro Papingo – the next village. A barman in the local restaurant pointed us to the village football pitch and we set up camp in the dark.

Yesterday we went easy on ourselves. First stop was the incredible rock pools between the two villages we’d found last night. Nina was keen for an early morning swim but once again I only managed a rinse off in the super cold waters. A small human intervention made a beautiful pool from an otherwise trickling stream through the rock.

We hitched a lift the next 7km to a village where we were hoping to wwoof. The Zissis brothers ran a hotel and restaurant there using their own organic veg. They were the only wwoof hosts in the region and we had contacted them a few weeks earlier. Unfortunately (but in the end fortunately) they had nothing much to do about the place. They instead offered us a free room for the night and lunch, drinks and dinner with the family. Greece already has that welcome feeling that we experienced in the villages of Morocco. We explored the village on foot before a well needed bed.

This morning we walked down the hill to join the Voldomatis river as it continued it’s path from the gorge. We are in awe of the beauty of this region and the unspoilt wilderness. Today we followed a path 10km or so along the river edge. We met one other couple, seasoned Aussie walkers, who obviously knew all the worlds best places to walk. We couldn’t argue that this was one of them. Nina swam again. I chickened out again. We sat and looked at the amazing scenery around us, happy that we are here but sad that to think that most rivers in the world are polluted by industrial and human waste or bad agricultural practices. We’ve been drinking the water from this river for three days, we’ve walked it, we’ve watched the trout, the birds and the dragonflies. The banks are covered in trees, to the waters edge. Nobody is messing with this landscape and that’s why it’s thriving!

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Gorilla in the Mist

We have been in Italy for 6 weeks in total. For each new person we meet or new village we enter we wonder if we’ll ever have a truly authentic Italian experience. Some time with a family would be nice or the chance to learn about home cooked Italian food. From the comfort of our Molise farmhouse we looked through the wwoof host list once again and although we usually steer clear of agri-tourism farms there was something wooing us towards our next host. It may have been the photo’s that Nina spotted of home made pasta and freshly baked wood oven bread. In fact I’m sure it was. We contacted Giovanni and he was keen to have us for a week in Busso before we left Italy for Greece.

Giovanni kindly collected us from our farmhouse in Faifoli. He has a friend with a mill nearby and was keen to pick up some fresh flour for baking and making polenta later in the week. He hinted on route that he was recently separated from his wife and it was obvious when we arrived at his house that the agri-tourism business had been laid to rest. The topic of conversation in the car was verging on obsessive and Giovanni clearly had a new passion – truffle hunting! It turns out that we had arrived in one of the most prolific black truffle hotspots in Italy and THE only region in the world where you can find the elusive white truffle.

Giovanni got up at 4am every morning to take two of his five dogs out hunting. He mentioned to us that he watches films or listens to music at around 2am each night and he was up past twelve every day that we were there. One day we found him randomly sleeping in his car at lunchtime and on day five he confessed to insomnia which gave reason to the silver-back nature we had experienced, calm and attentive one minute and explosive and unpredictable the next. We wanted authentic and we certainly got it. Our time in Busso was very testing but also very rewarding.

Our host, also a professional chef, was keen to demonstrate his skills in the kitchen and we were baking sourdough bread and pizza within hours of arrival. He cooked pumpkin risotto, wild chicory, potato and bean pasta amongst an array of other Italian delights with home made wine with every lunchtime and evening meal. Oh yes, before you ask, we were treated to the legendary black truffles, once with egg and once with the polenta on a friendly visit to parents for lunch. There is no other taste like it in the world. Delicate fungi with a buttery warmth that when grated, raw, has a distinct texture similar to parmesan cheese. I could see how they could become addictive and maybe why Giovanni was obsessed and a bit crazy.

Our duties as wwoofers were mostly helping out around the place. We emptied a wood shed and added some new acacia uprights for roof support before re-stacking it, we put up some fencing, we helped move things around that he couldn’t have done alone, we supervised the revival of an old lawnmower and we generally kept the crazy-maker’s kitchen clean. Plus we made another round of elderflower cordial, our third batch in Italy!

Giovanni mentioned a few times that he wanted to ‘do’ permaculture in his vegetable garden. On day four he went out to visit a friend and Nina and I set about turning an unused area of his vegetable plot into a synergistic garden. I’d learnt the basics from Elena a few weeks earlier. The process of setting it up is very easy and due to the no-dig nature it only has to be done once. On the slope I pulled earth from the high ground down to form one metre terraces, leaving a path. Nina added plenty of old sheep and rabbit poo and I then added a drip irrigation pipe along the top of each terrace and we heavily mulched, paths an all. We had some seeds collected from our journey so far, some seedlings that Giovanni bought plus whatever we could find around the property, like strawberries and mint. We designed a companion pattern for each bed and packed them full of food crop and beneficial plants like borage and calendula. Giovanni was very happy with his new garden and said that he was hoping to transfer the whole veg patch into this type of ‘easy’ growing system.

We were asked along to a morning truffle hunt one day. Up and out the door before 5am. Dew-proof trousers, a big stick and sniffer dogs in cages. It was all very surreal. We drove to an area just a few kilometres away, a young forest emerging from grassland. Oaks, blackthorn, wild apples, hawthorn, poplar and dogwood were all present. Giovanni showed us areas of grass die back where he expects to find truffles and sadly areas where some very competitive truffle hunters had dug up meters of soil around the tree. They do this once they have found just one truffle in the hope of randomly finding more. Not only do they take the unripe truffles but they break the mycellium and upset the symbiotic relationship of tree and truffle and any hopes of the same area fruiting again. Our guide has no need for this illegal type of scavenging as his dogs are so good at honing in to the spot. It was great to see them nose to ground, excited by what they may find. We didn’t find a truffle that morning. He never does when he takes people with him. We heard the horror stories of poison baits being left for dogs, easy for poachers to get the upper hand once your rival dog is dead. It’s big business and Giovanni has a friend who recently sold a truffle for $23,000.

I was worried for Giovanni and I was worried for his animals. I could have counted the number of hours sleep he’d had in one week on one hand. One moment he was full of joy and enthusiasm for his new garden and the next he was whacking one of his hounds in frustration. He was relying on truffles for an income and relying on his dogs for truffles. When little Ziggy got a wheat tuft in her ear it was the cost of removing it that seemed the major concern and not the welfare of the dog. I had to remind our host that the dogs had no water in their cages, cages that they spend every moment in when not truffle hunting. It makes me think about using animals as tools for profit related business. And it makes me think about relying on one stream of income and the pressure that comes with it. The permaculture principle of redundancy teaches us not to put all our eggs in one basket. The analogy of the spiders web demonstrates this perfectly, it can still perform it’s function even when a whole bunch of links are broken. I hope that Giovanni will be inspired by his new garden and maybe he will develop it further for less reliance on truffle hunting.

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Mapping in Molise

Whilst in Rome, and aside from our memorable time exploring the city, a few other significant things happened.  I finished writing up the design for my fourth diploma project, I received a copy of Aranya’s new book – Permaculture Design and Nina and I got an invite from our host Angiola to spend some time at her place in the country.  She has a 12 hectare property that has until recently been managed by a caretaker.  It’s been owned by the family for over 100 years but sadly they are now selling it off, piece by piece, as the running costs and upkeep outweigh any income generated by it.

The idea of inviting us to stay is to provide some suggestions as to how Angiola and her siblings might use the land in the future with the focus being on how it might self sustain itself.  So whilst on the lookout for my next diploma project and equipped with my new book we left Rome on the bus for some time in the country.

One of the skills outlined in my learning pathway as needing improvement is mapping.  Aranya’s book is more of a technical guide to design than a permaculture overview so I decided I would systematically try the techniques suggested starting with surveying and assessing.  It’s helpful to try new theories and explanations and the more I try the closer I come to finding my own preferred combination.

As with any new permaculture design the first task is to observe.  Just to observe. To gather as much information together using all of our available senses.  Nina and I spent our first days walking the property and making notes of any observations.  We used two new tools taken straight from the book to make sure most areas are covered.  PASTE – Plants, Animals, Structures, Tools and Events. We Made note of these in relation to how often they appeared using another model, this time DAFOR – Dominant, Abundant, Frequent, Occasional and Rare. It was a great way to record a lot of information in a very visual and easy to understand way.

I’m enjoying drawing and colouring at the moment – it must be too long in my life since I really got involved in some arty hands on work.  The maps were the next task and one that I loved.  Using the rough field map created, some photocopies and a window I complied a base map of the whole site plus an enlargement of the built up area, a sector analysis for both areas to show energies that flow through the property and a zone map to show the current zones as they are used.  These maps provide me with an excellent visual representation of the property but there is more to every design than meets the eye.

Through more observation, some investigation and by interviewing Angiola herself I completed the next stage of the design cycle – understanding the boundaries.  These can be seen as physical constraints but also invisible limitations.  Some very interesting points were discovered including a no dig limit due to archeological findings and the fact that there was no budget.  None.

This brings us on to the final part of surveying a new project – the resources. Here we looked at every kind of available resource.  If there is no money available then what do we have by means of natural resources or knowledge for example?  These are often resources that a client will overlook but things that could prove invaluable to the overall design.

Before we continue with the design process we met with Angiola to discuss our findings so far and to make sure that our thoughts along with her ideas were on the same track.  At this stage we assess all of our information before we start with any actual design work.  It became clear that one of the focuses of this project was that of the financial aspect more than what they should grow.  Without full transparency of the income and outgoings it is very difficult to create a full design and so at this stage we have agreed to produce a video with some ideas of land use for Angiola to present to a meeting in September rather than a full permaculture design.

We have had a great two weeks here and learnt a great deal from observing the land and how Angiola and her family regard this asset.  Who knows, perhaps the opportunity for a full design project will come but for now it’s just at the ideas stage.

We did spend spent days at the local village, Montagano, to get supplies and have the odd coffee or glass or beer, we spent days in the garden helping Michael Angelo and Maria Pia plant the famous local tomatoes, we did an 18km walk to Limosano village which had a spooky abandoned feel, we made elderflower cordial to share and feel very grateful for the opportunity to stay for free in the Italian countryside and practice some permaculture surveying techniques.

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(IM)Permanence Film Project

What better way to welcome International Permaculture Day than switching on the computer to find the first episode of Richard, Michelle and Grace’s film project.  I have just watched it and feel totally inspired and amazed by their wonderful journey and the incredible projects that the film shares.  Thank you guys and we hope to see you on the road soon.  Here it is – enjoy…

Diploma in Roma…

Today marks our 104th day on the road.  It seems like a lifetime ago that we left England.  We have seen many places, met many amazing people and helped with some incredible projects.  A few weeks ago I left Can Coll in the Spanish Pyrenees with all the information I needed to provide Amanda and Dino with a deisgn for their property as part of my Permaculture Diploma.  We’ve been here in Roma for over a week now and it’s been quite a difficult time working on my design whilst the smell of the ancient city drifts in through the window.  I’m happy to say that PR4 is now complete and ready to be reviewed by my tutor and peers.  We have four more days to enjoy Roma and I think this evening we will celebrate!  If you are interested in the design click on the picture below…