Life Around the Woods - June 2019

Woodland wandering

Doesn't Spring bring such lush colour to the landscape? Our 20 acre site is filled with many shades of green after being dominated by darker hues over the winter. It’s an exciting time of year, when we enjoy listening to bird song and spotting new nests hidden amongst the branches. We’ve just spotted a Kestrel nest high up in an Oak tree on the edge of the woodland and glamping meadow which we will be observing with great anticipation, we’ve loved watching our local Kestrel hunting in the meadow over the last couple of years and are very excited to think that it has a new family up there.

Ladybird on a nettle

With this abundant growth brings an ongoing task of mowing paths and controlling nettles in the woods. We do however love nettles to quite a degree, especially their spring leaves which are delicious and full of nutrition. Seb adds a handful to the morning smoothie that he makes for the family and the wildlife absolutely loves them. Did you know that ladybirds like to lay their eggs on nettles? Ladybird larvae are a gardeners best friend as they enjoy feasting on whitefly and red spider mite. Do you need a better reason to embrace a patch of nettles in the corner of your garden? In all honesty though those nettles are a bit of a pain, literally, and so with Seb's scything and Elliot and Dylan using their nettle killing sticks we attempt to keep on top of them in certain areas of the woods.

We’ve recently created a space in the woods for guests and friends to gather and play with a mud kitchen, straw bales, tyre swing, a campfire space, and balancing and climbing challenges for our younger guests. Our time in the woods often involves carrying out woodland management tasks, such as coppicing which is concentrated during the winter months, and enjoying a walk through the space. The new woodland play area has motivated us as a family to spend more time in the woods appreciating and exploring it’s beauty and has given us a focal point for our forest bathing.

Mud kitchen woodland play - credit Amara Photography

We’ve found this regular opportunity to be so fulfilling and have been inviting home educating friends to join us for a weekly gathering of families who enjoy unstructured time in nature. Round the Woods guests have recently been enjoying this space during their stay too and are always welcomed into our nature group on Tuesdays.

We’ve also recently discovered that what we’ve always called our wildlife meadow is in fact a County Wildlife Site. I’ll post more details about what this means once we’ve had a visit from Norfolk Wildlife Trust in a few weeks time. We’ve also had a night bat survey done in our woodland not long ago and are looking forward to getting results of bat species that were identified and what we can do to support these populations of such amazing creatures.

Seasons on the Smallholding

Our vegetable garden is also such a busy place at the moment with growth everywhere you look. The greenhouses are filling up with large tomato plants (over 140 over 2 greenhouses and a cold frame!) and the smell when you walk amongst them is amazing! We’ve recently planted lots of seedlings and seeds in the ground including pumpkin, squash, kale, carrots, leek, onion, runner beans, climbing beans, cabbage, beetroot, swede, lettuce and peas. There isn’t much space left in the vegetable beds, just a bit amongst the pumpkins for sweetcorn when they’ve grown big enough to plant out and space for a few more of the brassica family to keep us fed during the winter months.

We had a scene out of a well known Beatrix Potter story a week ago when we spotted a rabbit inside the rabbit proof fenced vegetable garden... This spells a potential disaster for all the seedlings that were already in the ground, as Peter was effectively trapped inside the vegetable garden with nothing to eat but our cabbage plants that we'd been nurturing for 2 months. With all 6 of us thoroughly searching the area and the hasty removal of a big pile of strawbales on pallets that we reckon he'd been living under we have thankfully not seen any further signs of our little friend. I know you're eager to hear what became of our little cabbage plants! The good news is many of them somehow survived having all their leaves nibbled and have grown back stronger than ever! It was a serious case of hard pruning…

We've been trialing the Ruth Stout potato growing method with straw - look it up, you’ll find loads of blogs and videos going into great detail on what’s involved. It's claimed to be so much easier than digging up potatoes, which we despise so much that we’d rather not plant potatoes at all. Other than the back breaking work of digging up potato beds to harvest, the other negative about growing potatoes in the conventional way is that unless you manage to dig up every single one you have surprise potato plants popping up in your veg garden taking up lots of space.

To give a brief explanation, with this method you take a bare bed (you can weed or mulch it however appeals to you but for us this involved laying a thick blanket of straw on a patch of grass for a few months to prepare the bed. We then moved the straw to one side and placed the seed potatoes directly on the top of the soil and covered them back up. We planted over 100 seed potatoes and used about 25 straw bales to initially cover the area (we’re a household of 6 so a good supply of home grown potatoes will be well received). We then waited, and waited, and waited (i think i watered them once when we had a particularly dry spell) and to our great surprise potato plants have actually grown through the 8 inches of straw and popped their heads up to receive sunlight. We won’t be able to reveal the end result until we actually harvest them but if it all goes to plan we should be able to push the straw to the side and gather the potatoes from on top of the soil. Fingers crossed all that straw is hiding a good supply but either way it seemed like a good use of some of the excess straw bales from our Roundhouse project.

To get an idea of the process so far take a look at these photos:

Life on the Glampsite

It’s so wonderful to have guests staying with us again in our yurts, it feels so natural to open up our woodland and meadow for others to explore and spend time in and we get so much joy from offering the opportunity for true relaxation and reconnection. Our yurts sit so perfectly in their homes in the meadow and this meadow feels so empty during the winter months. We are so excited to one day be able to share the space with guests during the autumn and winter too as there is so much beauty on the landscape during those times when the yurts aren’t occupied.

Straw Bale Roundhouse

Our Roundhouse will be the inviting and magnificent structure enabling guests to stay year round to experience all four seasons at Round the Woods. It sits proudly in the meadow that we’re busily working away on completing it. We spent the winter erecting the straw bale walls, spending every day there as a family shifting bales, shaping them to the curve of the structure and laying them in position - quite like giant building bricks. This stage happened relatively quickly and we had some great help from volunteers getting involved. Once the bulk of the walls were in place we were able to appreciate the sense of space inside the 7m diameter room and could start imagining the finishing touches making it a warm and welcoming space. The detailing for the walls has been a pretty tiresome and long process with lots of wire mesh used and extensive stuffing of straw to fill gaps, particularly the space between the straw bales and the ceiling boards to continue the wall. This was a large triangle shape that has swallowed up a lot of straw and is a very slow process but we’ve almost completed this stage.

Meanwhile Seb has spent several weeks handcrafting the beautiful Douglas Fir that will frame the reclaimed double glazed windows we found locally. The Douglas Fir is from our neighbouring Weston Park golf course that is soon to reopen as the Royal Norwich Golf Course and is as local as you can get, especially when all the alternative timber options were from Sweden. He’s been tenon and morticing the joints together for the four windows in the main room and has designed all the pieces needed for large opening windows. I set him a challenge for the toilet room window as it was the only glass we will be needing to buy new and so I have requested a round window. He’s come up with a really creative way to design this, which we’ll reveal in a future update.

When will it be finished?

We are regularly hearing one question from people interested in the Roundhouse project and that is “when will it be ready?”. The truth is we haven’t given ourselves a deadline and creating such an amazing structure is a dream of ours.

For years we have imagined building a straw bale home for ourselves on a smallholding somewhere and naturally our path has organically evolved as new ideas and plans have been discussed. We’ve now found ourselves living even more of the smallholding dream than we could have imagined as we are custodians of 20 acres including semi-ancient woodland and County Wildlife Site meadow which enables us to explore and become familiar with more wilderness than a vegetable garden could ever have. However with this amazing site came a large brick house which we are privileged to call home and to occupy along with our children and Kate’s parents.

With that in mind, our dream has taken on a new form with us seeking to share the beauty of a space created with natural materials. Our straw bale Roundhouse will be year round guest accommodation at Round the Woods and we’re so grateful to be spending any spare time we get working with beautiful materials and creating a wonderful space.

And so we are enjoying the creative process of building our Roundhouse and we haven’t given ourselves a deadline. We would like to have finished lime rendering the outside walls before winter sets in so that we have a watertight structure for completing the finishing touches and so that we can take down the tarps that currently hang from the roof all around. We’re so eager to see how naturally it sits in it’s surroundings but we are being patient and are tackling each new challenge as it presents itself. This appears to be the way with natural building, there are so many unknowns and things you cannot foresee no matter how much planning you do, it’s all good experience (if only we were going to become professional roundhouse builders). It’s hard work and many hours have gone into the building so far but it will be worth every second and the pride we will feel will be amazing.

New Campfire

Seb has created a beautiful and inviting campfire area for the middle of the meadow, revamping what we’ve had for the last 3 years. He made use of old tarps and a freecycled Romeo and Juliet banner from Norwich Theatre Royal for weed control and we had a delivery of gravel. With only two rakes available our boys willingly got to work spreading it evenly over the area. Then with the addition of new rustic benches and more solar lighting the campfire was transformed into a welcoming feature in the meadow. Our guests this Spring have been making great use of the space, having regular campfires and using it as a central meeting point for whole site bookings.