Category Archives: Wwoofing

Synergistic Gardens at La Fattoria dell’Autosufficienza

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I have just finished a week volunteering with Elena in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy.  Our main focus was in the vegetable gardens.  Elena follows Emilia Hazelip’s methods adapted to a temperate climate from Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural farming techniques.  A term referred to as Synergistic Gardening which is a fancy way of saying self fertilising garden.  The main focus is building soil fertility.  Here are the main principles;

  • Permanent raised beds with the ability to reach the whole bed without stepping on it.  Keyholes are best use of space but if you have room strips are easy to work with
  • No bare soil – permanent soil cover using organic mulch like straw or sheep’s wool.  I believe a living mulch could work really well too.  Adding even more life to the beds.
  • No monoculture – massive diversity in plants for all the obvious reasons; Resilience, beneficial insects etc.  There is no particular planting patterns it seems.
  • No chemicals! (pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones)
  • No tilling – yes that means no digging (apart from the original prep)!
  • No added compost (with the possible exception of demanding transplants)
  • No treating plants (i.e. for insects, illness, etc).
  • No pulling out plants (except for root vegetables)

It actually seems like a lot of rules but it’s pretty simple once the beds are set up – keep it covered, mix things up when sowing and interfere with the garden as little as possible.  If you want to remove the odd weed then cut it at the base letting the roots stay.

Helping Elena made me realise that keeping annuals can actually be very easy.  I helped her do her yearly irrigation system check, her yearly weed (by chopping at the base of the stem), yes once a year, and the rest of the time we were scattering seeds.  She likes to observe what does well in what situation rather then referring to a companion planting book.

There are a few logical sowing methods that I observed like salad plants taking up most of the edges for ease of regular picking and some larger rooted plants in the higher positions with more soil below.

Whilst walking around the gardens I thought to myself that one packet of seeds is roughly equivalent in cost to one vegetable, like a fennel or a pumpkin or something similar.  So compared with the effort that we put into annual gardening we may as well just scatter seeds and hope for the best.  If two come good then we have saved ourselves the cost of one vegetable and for the very very least effort spent.  Even less if we are saving our own seed!

Thank you for having me for a week and good luck with the continuing success of your experiments at La Fattoria dell’Autosufficienza

2 Squats, a Truck and a Hostel

Whilst in Barcelona Nina and I decided that we would meet my parents on their holiday in Venice for one day. I knew at that point that it was a crazy idea but they would appreciate a day together and it was the perfect excuse to get further east. The only obstacle was 1200km and the expense of the train, boat and bus ride. On leaving our wwoof in the Spanish Pyrenees we would have to cross two borders, through France and west to east of Italy. It seemed that the most economical way would be a four day hitch hike. We’d bought a tent in Spain and had a new sense of freedom.

Amanda and Deno dropped us at a large petrol station near to Figueres, there were a lot of trucks, we were close to the start of the toll road into France. We checked out the number plates and soon realised that every other truck was either French, Italian, Bulgarian, Czech… We were in a good place to get east and so wrote out our “ITALY” sign and began to wait. We swapped sign holding every 10 minutes and after half an hour decided that talking to truckies in the petrol station might work better.

Scouring the number plates and asking the easterly nationals “Italy? France?” we were soon greeted with an “OK”. The plate was Bulgarian and we were not too sure how far in that direction he was going but we hopped in and figured that part out on route. We’d hitched in Spain before but only an hour up the road each time. Now we were up high in a truck cab and probably for quite some time. We introduced ourselves and settled in to a journey with Jorge. He spoke no English, we spoke no Bulgarian but we soon worked out that he could take us as far as Nimes in France, an hour or so from Marseille.

We were dropped at his turning off point, now starting to rain and not in an easy place to pick up another ride. We were on the highway and so started walking in search of another good spot to hitch from. We felt glad that we’d got 200km or so in the right direction but we were now a little stranded. Nobody flying past us could or would stop and maybe it was a little dangerous too. Within 15 minutes or so a highway repair truck pulled over and kindly offered to take us to a good hitching place. He dropped us at a toll. It seemed a little cheeky asking for a free ride in a place where people were paying for the road but we had no choice and so held up our “ITALY” sign once again.

It seemed like nobody would stop here, not many trucks, no number plates for other countries and not that much eye contact either. Enter Ben! A french lad who lived up in the mountains. He pulled over, told us he was heading to Marseille and helped to put our packs in the back of his van. We were soon chatting about anaerobic digesters and composting techniques. He was a really nice guy and within an hour he was on the phone trying to fix us up a bed for the night at his friends in Marseille. He made several phone calls and while we waited for a reply we weighed up the possibility of camping on the outskirts of the city – not such a nice place to stay.

We were beginning to realise that when hitch hiking we are at the mercy of our drivers.  A little faith and a lot of luck later we were dropped at the door of Ben’s friend in the center of Marseille. They welcomed us in, explained that it was a squat, apologised for the lack of electricity, showed us a room we could sleep in and then invited us to eat with them. We felt very fortunate that on such a rainy night we wouldn’t be erecting our tent in the dark!

Day two of our voyage to Venice started with a little shopping trip in Marseille ready for the unknown road ahead. We had a coffee, grabbed bread, cheese and fruit and followed the advice from the squatters to hitch from the toll road again heading east out of town. The toll looked uninviting and there was no real place to stand for foot passengers. We were asked to move to a different area on the opposite pavement by security and it seemed unlikely that we could get picked up in our new invisible spot!

To our surprise in a matter of minutes a mechanic from the airport pulled over in a minibus. He was heading to Toulon, an hour or so up the road. It was our first glimpse of the southern coast of France and we were relieved to be on the road again, this time heading towards Cannes. He dropped us a kilometre from a petrol station where we would find our next ride. On route to the petrol station, and now on foot, we spotted the fat sign of IKEA. Remembering that they had free internet we thought it was the perfect place to check our couchsurf requests for Venice.

Next to IKEA was the next petrol station we would try our luck from and we didn’t wait more than 3 minutes before our next ride. A male couple leaving IKEA with their new kitchenware. They had just found a new apartment in Cannes and were moving there from Switzeland in a couple of months. We squeezed in the back and they took us as far as Cannes to yet another petrol station. This one had plenty of trucks and we were hoping that our next ride would be from up high in another cab.

Enter Dimitri. We were sure when he rocked up in his monster truck that he was Italian. Our sign said “ITALY”, he looked Italian and he was going to Italy. We introduced ourselves, jumped in and asked where he was going. We would’ve been happy just to cross the border but it turns out he was going via Milano to Bologna, not all that far from Venice. Jackpot with a day to spare!

Dimitri was a really nice guy, he was only 23 but had been driving his truck for a few years, he had a young family back on the west coast of France and thankfully his taste in music was pretty cool too. Crossing into Italy and for the rest of the evening we cruised along listening to reggae and asking questions about one another’s lives in broken english and french.

By eight or nine that evening we realised that Dimitri’s trip via Milano was for a delivery and an overnight stop. We were a bit worried about staying on the outskirts of the dodgy misty metropolis of the Italian north but our kind lift giver soon offered one of his bunks when he realised we would be camping. We arrived in Milano, parked up and disappeared into the mist for a pint of Leffe happy that we had come so far.

The next morning we continued with Dimitri as far as Brescia where we said our goodbyes and started a new day and a new hitch. Well, so we thought. It turns out that the north of Italy is not used to hitch hikers and the lady at the petrol station had great determination in telling us not to hitch from her slip road or she would call the police.

After some shoulder shrugging and nonchalance from me we decided to give her her way and moved on. We walked for some time towards the centre of Brescia where we saw the bold blue and yellow bricks of IKEA once again. We thought it to be a lucky charm and so crossed the motorway and entered the store. There is no free internet in Italy though and after a 1.99 pasta dish we stepped outside to try our luck at the leaving customers with no room in there cars. Yep. Silly idea at Ikea. A friendly member of staff soon picked us up though and we decided to get a train closer to Venice. Hitch hiking in Italy is hard and the trains are cheap.

Next came our Youth Hostel in the charming city of Padua. It was our only option after our AirBNB and couch surf hosts fell through. We took full advantage though and spent the next day exploring the city on foot in the rain with a broken brolly we found. We called ahead to a couch surf host in Venice who said he was full but if we got desperate to call him. My parents were arriving in two days and if we were to be there to greet them at the port we had to go to Venice that evening.

Slightly put off by the description on his profile, we were not quite sure what we were getting ourselves into by volunteering to stay with “Autonomass”. His name was Massimo and he lived in autonomy. He greeted us at the station and was immediately keen to take us to a university building he and friends were squatting to be saved from sale by the skint Venetian municipality. That evening we heard the horror stories of Venice and the huge destructive problems of mass tourism. Apart from the palaces that are being sold off to make way for hotels, the second most visited city in the world is suffering from the 3 million or so tourists that flock in every month. Yes it’s true that Venice is sinking, we saw it for ourselves.

So Massimo’s main objective is to protest against the tourism industry. All the facts were undeniable. They were having a catastrophic effect on the city. It’s becoming a museum, and as the prices rise the locals leave. He was here to stay and with the help of the rest of the activist army they would be staging a protest on the water the following day. They will be in boats, about 100 of them with a sound system, tekno and fireworks. The main target – the Queen Victoria cruise ship. Yes, the one my mum and dad will be arriving on for our day together in Venice.

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Some protest pictures here

Wwoofing in the Spanish Pyrenees

We arrived by train from Barcelona to Figueres station where we were greeted by Amanda, Deno and their two dogs Rita and Lucy. From there we drove for an hour into the mountains and just past the small village of Albanya. The farmhouse is in an isolated location within a protected national park. We were truly blown away by the beauty of the area on arrival, between the rolling holm oak forests sat a 17th century farmhouse on a ridge above their vegetable gardens and fruit trees.

We immediately knew we would have an amazing experience there and within minutes we were kicking ourselves that we would only be staying a week. Amanda showed us to our room before we set off into the forest to explore the area, full of marron chestnut trees and meandering creaks. The dogs came with us and we were immediately friends! Later that evening Deno cooked up a lovely pasta meal and we drank wine and chatted until late. Deno is Italian and loved to cook.

The next morning we set about our week of work which was to include weeding then mulching the many raspberry, strawberry and artichokes patches, replanting mints as ground covers, strimming, making new beds for yet more raspberry’s, collecting butchers broom, a root crop for tea and compost preparation.

On day three I discovered a pair of disused tanks and a spring which looked like they were once used to wash clothes or something. Deno and Amanda expressed an interested in making use of it and I jumped at the chance of a fresh diploma project.  I spent most of my weekend off observing the surroundings of the tanks, any unused resources and carrying out some experiments with clay to understand the possibilities of a design. Amanda and Deno seemed excited about the possibility of “growing” fish and aquatic plants and my new found enthusiasm in aquaculture was rubbing off. Watch this space for a design and implementation plan for PR4.

Our time at CanColl was really rewarding. Amanda and Deno are in the early stages of a Bed & Breakfast to earn a living and with Deno’s amazing cooking and Amanda’s hand in the garden they are certainly close to living out their dream. Thank you so much for the wild boar sausage!!!

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Big Mountains, Small Money

It’s nearly the end of March and the last four weeks have been all about the Mountains and less about the money.  We are in Granada at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They are still covered in snow although the temperature here is averaging about 26 degrees in the height of the day.

Since leaving our village building experience in Morocco we’ve not managed to get far away from the beautiful jagged edges of the landscape. We travelled by local bus through the Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco up to Fez where we spent three memorable days exploring the winding medina streets of what is said to be the oldest surviving medieval and the largest non motorised city in the world.

Our next leg took us again by local bus up to Tangier for our ferry. We skimmed the Rif mountains of Northern Morocco of which we had visited on the way into the country 8 weeks ago. It was a whole lot warmer than when we arrived.

The ferry took us across the water into Spain with the giant rock of Gibralter to our east. Arriving in Spain only 3 hours later made Morocco feel a world away. We’d had a truly rich experience there and felt sad to leave.

Part of our journey design and the reason we are able to spend quite a bit of time in europe will be our careful use of money and here in Spain it was to begin. Areas we highlighted for scrimping were travel and accommodation mostly and so this was to be our first hitch hike of this travel adventure.

We wrote out our Malaga sign whilst on the boat and after a couple of badly chosen spots we found a good area and stuck out those thumbs! It was only 20 minutes later that we were scooped up by a local and taken 40 minutes or so towards our destination. He plonked us in a good spot to find another ride and it was only 15 minutes more waiting until a big old motor home pulled in to take us on to Malaga.

In Malaga we had arranged to couch surf with a couple who seemed to be professional couch surf hosts. Ana and Israel had hosted many other people and enjoyed the company and practicing their language skills. They were very kind and trusting and gave us a key and disappeared off to a family gathering leaving Nina and I their home.

Our next stop and another great money saving arrangement was our first Wwoof of the journey. We arrived in Orgiva by local bus but hiked the remaining 5km or so up a dry river bed to find the olive finca we were to be working on for the following week. Wwoofing is a great example of stacking functions as it has so many positives – we live for free with accommodation and food covered, the host receives two hard workers for 5.5 hours a day, we can to learn about local processes and cultures whilst exploring the area and we meet other like minded people who share the same passions about organic techniques.

Kate’s Finca was stunning, set in a valley of more snowy topped mountains with no road access. Her main output is olives but she also has tonnes of veg and other fruit trees and chickens etc. Wwwofers stay in little self contained Casitas with cooking facilities and fire places. It was a beautiful place to work for a week and we would have liked to stay longer.

My fourth Diploma project should now be in full swing but I am yet to find it and so moving on was unavoidable. We saved another bus fare by hitching and trekking to Granada to meet with our next Couch surf host. Andrea, who is studying environmental science here. We explored the city yesterday and cooked for her last night. Travelling on a budget feels very rewarding so far and it means we have a few extra euros for the all important ice cream and beer.

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La Premier…

So here’s my go at a little documentary.  Part 1 of our Wwoof to Oz adventure.

Next stop Spain…

Bouthrarar Tabout

On leaving Marrakech we travelled for a day over the Atlas mountains south east and arrived in El Kelaa Des Mgouna, the gateway to the valley of the roses.  We passed through our original WWOOF hosts town as we’d heard nothing from them to confirm our arrival.

Part of my third diploma project involves Nina and I having a monthly travel check-in with each other to establish whether both of our needs and expectations are being met.  When we went through our list it was obvious that our journey so far was missing some vital elements – time in nature, live and loud music, being effective, exercise, some meaning and more learning and celebration.  We decided from that to head into the valley and see what we could find…

An hours minibus ride brought us to the beautiful hamlet of Bouthrarar, a collection of tiny villages on the banks of two converging rivers.  It was obvious on arrival that the locals were making good use of the available water as there were lush green fields of broad beans, lucern, wheat and clovers.  Surrounding each small plot were fig, walnut, almond, peach and olive trees.  The hedgerows are all made up of roses, hence the name of the valleys.  They are harvested in May and made into various products like rose water and soap.

On closer inspection we found that the abundance in the valley was down to careful use of water and the ingenious irrigation system not dissimilar to those in Ladakh.  Small sections are diverted away from the river upstream and held high by hand built channels.  By the time they reach the next village they are way above the crops in need and can be carefully directed downwards using more channels and small sluices which are opened and closed by rocks or soil.  The excess water then rejoins the river below.  A great design for catching and storing energy, using minimum effort for maximum effect.

On our first evening in the valley we asked our host if there was any chance we could see some of the local building techniques in action.  Our hopes of exercise, learning, meaning and community were answered in a flash when we were offered the opportunity to join the local building team the next day.  It turns out that our host Youssef is in contact with Unesco to have the valley recognised for it’s local traditions including the building practice which they call Tabout.  We jumped at the chance and spent the following week completely immersed in Berber life.

The technique involves constructing a wooden frame, ramming earth into it and then moving the frame on to the next section whilst the previous one is being rendered.  The team made it look easy but Nina and I found it pretty hard work, carrying baskets of soil on our heads up ladders and ramming earth into the frames with a heavy tool made from walnut.  I think we surprised them with our enthusiasm and I don’t think they expected us to show up for more hard graft the next day.

As the week progressed we were not only fatigued by work but also by the amazing hospitality that we enjoyed.  Being part of the team also seemed to earn us the privilege of being part of the family and we were welcomed into each and every home for the remainder of our time in the valley.  Brahim, Moha, Abd Hamane, Said, Mohammed and their families were by far the most hospitable people I have ever come across.  Each night after work, and all the following week, we ate with them, sang with them, danced with them and enjoyed the type of days off they would only normally spend with their families.

It was always midnight or later before the evening festivities of song and homemade fig liquor had finished and Abdul or Youssef would insist on walking us home.  On day ten we managed to break away from the village and enjoy a neighbouring hamlet, of course joined by one of the team who wanted to make sure we had a fulfilling experience and were safe.  From the nearby village of Almdoune, and after being taken to another families home for tea, we set off on a walk to take in one of the many gorges of the valleys.  A spectacular trek that took in not only a beautiful gorge but more picturesque villages and a magnificent kasbah too.

It was late when we arrived back to Abdul’s house and there he and his wife Sadia insisted on dressing us up Berber style for a final ho down over at Brahim’s house.  We shared family photo’s and exchanged gifts and seeds before some emotional good byes and hopes of seeing each other again some day…Inshaalah

There was no way possible to summarise in a blog what an amazing two weeks we have had with the tabout team but I have made a small documentary which will be here on the website when we come across a better connection for uploading.

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Read more about our journey and see more pictures at Nina’s blog typotraveller

Woofing in the Hunter Valley

During our road trip in Australia and just after leaving the Blue Mountains we contacted what seemed a nice place to Wwoof.  Permaculture principles and a straw bale build with accommodation in a tree house.  Sounds nice.  We gave Rosie a call at short notice and she was happy to take us.  We rocked up that evening and they put us in the tree house.  What they meant by the tree house was another building in the adjoining property that happened to look out through the trees.  It was amazing.  The next day we got to work and the first thing we did was build a new wheel barrow friendly path.  It needed a small brick wall on one side.  This was to be our first wall building excerise.  It turned out quite nice and did the job.  Other more fluffy jobs came in the next couple of days and we also hounded Rosie about her techniques and learnt a great deal.  Thank you rosie.  A few pics here…

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