Oak Tree Paddock
Learn about our world
One of the main reasons for buying this lovely hectare of hillside, nestling on the edge of the vibrant Somerset town of Frome, was to be able to keep our family’s horses closer to home. Previously my daughter, Amber, and I had to travel several miles to a riding stables, sometimes twice a day, to take care of them.
It would enable us to have family gatherings, picnics and bonfires, and provide a safe environment for my son, Dan, and his mates to practice their fire juggling.
Another was my love of the outdoor life, permaculture and living sustainably. I knew how healing it is for me to spend time in nature in deep connection with mother earth, and I looked forward to learning more about the character of the land and discovering what wanted to grow here.
It really was a blank canvas, a large rectangle of land, with no trees or planting of any kind. The wind swept through, and there was no shelter in the field for the horses.
The first few weeks were sunny and bright. The pasture was lush and green and had not been grazed for quite a while. It seemed a veritable horse heaven. We were soon to find that this would not always be the case.
The soil beneath this beautiful grass is heavy clay, with a tendency to go from a quagmire of super slippery slurry, to hard baked and cracked concrete at the blink of an eye. Sometimes even the local farmer’s tractor couldn’t make it up the hill with the hay through the quagmire, having to abandon the attempt at the bottom of the hill.
When we had our borehole sunk, we discovered that we have 200feet of solid clay beneath us. It was one of the quickest boreholes the company had ever sunk!
The field had poor quality, leaky old buildings with a high corrugated asbestos content. There was a concrete post and barbed wire fence on one side, and an outgrown hedge on the other, mostly ringbarked by the horses next door and choked with ivy. There was clearly plenty of work to tackle...
Installing fences and planting trees and hedgerows were the first priority. By now I had met my partner Bear, who started by replacing the old concrete and barbed wire fence with a sturdy stock proof post and rail fence.
A youth enterprise work team planted a native species hedge along our south-eastern border.
For the next two years we studied the land and its wild inhabitants, its weather patterns and water flows. We noticed where the sun shone and when the shade took over. We made note of frost pockets, of boggy areas and of rising springs.
I also studied books on water management, green building techniques, permaculture and forest gardening.
I wrote a land management plan setting out our intentions for the land, taking into account our
We were now ready renovate the buildings, manage the water run-off from the land, and start the extensive planting scheme.
After building a temporary compost toilet and putting up a yurt, we decided to tackle the older, most dilapidated building. which was leaky, cold and draughty, with corrugated asbestos roof and walls. We designed it to have two workshops, a tack room and a large airy stable.
We decided to install a wild flower turf roof for its environmental value, its insulating properties and its sheer visual beauty. The increased loading caused by the weight of the soil meant that we had to use a stronger timber framework to hold the roof. We had the oak and timber frame made and erected for us, using the same footprint and post holes, and retaining the covered walkway. The timber used for the framework is native oak and Douglas fir. Bear replaced the exterior walls with board and batten cladding.
In the meantime, we found a very useful eBook on do it yourself turf roofs. Bear followed the instructions to install the many necessary layers of planks, plywood boards, two types of geotextile waterproof membrane, and the growing medium.
I discovered a great company selling biodiverse, chalkland, wild flower meadow, supplied as a living blanket on a roll. After the intense and time-consuming work of preparing the previous layers, the joy of rolling out a virtually ‘instant’ living roof was amazing!
It continues to delight and surprise us with the variety of flowers that pop up each year.
It did not take long to realise that we could not manage to maintain the land and horses in times of persistent heavy rain. When the land was dry, heavy rain would run straight off the rock hard ground in rivers which flowed down the hill and out through our gate and into the lane.
As the land gradually absorbed the water into its cracks, the ground became pockmarked with deeper and deeper hoof prints. The earth has so much clay in it that these holes hold the water without draining away, and the land becomes waterlogged. As I have disabled legs, and difficulty with balance, it becomes impossible for me to walk on the land, let alone when pulling a heavy wheelbarrow.
We made a plan to help water flow off the land into appropriate ditches through the use of earth banks, swales, filtration strips and French drains.
We installed a track to snake up the field, catching the water in a deeper layer of larger stones with waterproof membrane beneath. There are several places where the water is channelled into a side ditch as the track comes down the hill, and soakaways which can hold onto excess water.
We wanted to take the track to the top of the hill, but the cost was prohibitive. We hope to do this at a later date.
So far we are very pleased with results. We can always get to the borehole shed and can poopick the fields with relative ease. We can drive up with bales of hay and come down with trailers of manure.
One of the unexpected results of installing the track was the enormous quantity of earth that needed a place to go. Quite a lot disappeared in earthen banks to channel water run off, and into plant beds along the margins of the land in which to extend the forest garden.
However, there was still a huge amount left. This has allowed us to create one of our best loved features of the land...the mound. The mound has many functions;
The upper edge catches water run-off from the field and channels it into a French drain.
In doing so, it is creating a small area of wetland where I can grow herbs and plants that like boggy conditions, like yellow flag, marshmallow and meadowsweet.
It channels the frost around the upper edge, leaving the top and southern slope well protected and free of frost pockets.
It provides a fabulous site for herbs, fruit trees, roots, strawberries and larger annual vegetables.
It acts as a barrier to the northern wind, allowing us more sheltered sun spots.
Wattle and Daub
We decided to use wattle and daub to infill some of the sections of the timber frame. We used clay from our land, manure and horsehair from our horses and hazel from the hedge down our lane. We only had to buy in the oak lathes, some sand, and some string.
We made a small frame to experiment with varying proportions and consistencies of the daub. The mix was made on a large tarpaulin on the ground, trampled with bare feet and rolled up trousers.
Several local youngsters came to learn and have a go. It was very messy but a great deal of fun!
For a touch of decorative colour and light, we used green and blue bottles inset into the wattle and daub.
Edible and Medicinal Planting
The objective was to provide fresh and nutritious fruit, nuts, roots, greens and salad leaves, and to grow medicinal herbs and plants for ourselves and our horses. We would use the medicinal plants to make balms, ointments, oils, tinctures and elixirs. We would also grow plants to provide materials for land based crafts
We decided to use a combination of permaculture and forest garden principles to grow foods and medicinal plants in a way that is harmonious with the Earth, healthful to people and compassionate to all living things. By mimicking natural ecosystems, we would create a network of beneficial relationships between the plants, the animals, the soil and the water. We believe that the produce of one’s own soil, often eaten just moments after being picked, has a particular vitality attuned to those living on that soil, and is the most nourishing to both the body and the soul.
The concept of forest gardening was first pioneered by Robert Hart and has since been promoted by Patrick Whitefield and by Martin Crawford, founder of the Agroforestry Research Trust. A forest garden follows the structure of a natural woodland, using plants of direct and indirect benefit to people. Most of them are edible, suitable for coppicing and land based crafts, or for fixing nutrients in the earth.
The canopy layer is planted first, with the shrub layer and herbaceous, perennial and groundcover layers planted in subsequent years. It creates a vibrant ecosystem, maximizing positive interactions between plants, and maintaining a healthy fertile soil without the need for imported fertiliser. It works with the land instead of against it.
It is a low energy system for producing useful products without the need for annual cultivation, whilst locking in more carbon than it emits. By keeping the earth covered and the soil structure in good condition, forest gardens are excellent at storing water after heavy rain, reducing flooding and heavy erosion. They are extremely beneficial for the environment, increasing biodiversity and creating many new niches for insects and small animals.
Though we incorporate annual species such as beans, sweetcorn and oca in the forest garden, we have also experimented with sloping hugelcultur beds and hotbeds for growing our annual vegetables. We locate these closer to the kitchen for ease of harvest.
Several youngsters have helped us over the years, gaining experience on the land and with the horses. They have absorbed information about planting, permaculture and forest gardening.
They have been amazed to see the trees that they planted as saplings, produce abundant crops of almonds and hazelnuts, and of apples, pears, plums and cherries. They have seen how a few strawberry plants can turn into rampant areas, overflowing with luscious strawberries. They have learnt how to make fertilisers out of comfrey and nettles, and how the whole ecosystem supports itself.
They have seen how a small piece of willow, pruned from a tree can be poked into the ground, and can grow into a whole new willow tree. They have watched as the increasing harvests of cut willow are made into a variety of baskets and even into a life-sized horse!
All this is made possible by our location, which is within walking distance of the town.
I strongly feel that these experiences give hope and reassurance to young people who are growing up in difficult times, bombarded by stories of scarcity, and often with little to look forward to.
Growing Fruit and Veg
Despite having the developing forest garden, we also wanted to learn to grow annual vegetables.
We started by experimenting with a hugelcultur. This is a sloping bed, with as much carbon rich material as possible packed into its core. This can be logs, branches and twigs, natural fabrics, cardboard and other decomposable items, which break down over time to provide ongoing fertility for the bed.
Vegetables, roots and herbs are planted all together, giving support and protection to each other. Pests and predators are confused by the various smells, and are not attracted in the same way that they are to vegetables grown in rows and blocks. Including herbs attracts beneficial insects to the bed.
We have also had a go at growing in a hot bed, which allows for harvests much earlier in the year during the ‘hungry gap’. Heat is created in the large lower section of the hot bed, and permeates up into the growing bed above. The tender seedlings planted in february or march, with a covering of fleece, survive the frosts, giving much earlier harvests. As the first harvests are taken, it can be replanted to provide a second harvest.
We really love this method of growing veg as it uses our fresh horse manure in the base to provide the heat, and our well rotted, composted manure in the upper growing bed. When it is emptied, we can use the spent manure on other beds and trees. The top can be reused as seed compost for the following year.
We are learning all the time, and are now realising the importance of giving protection from the cold with fleece, and from insects and birds with various types of netting.
Harvests continue to improve and the land grows ever more abundant.
Spiritual Art and Earth
I like to mark and celebrate the traditional Earth festivals, especially the solstices and equinoxes. I often collect flowers and plants, fruit and vegetables, found growing on the day and make a seasonal mandala in a very large bowl I made in a previous life as a potter.
We have made a large permanent medicine wheel, which we use to connect us with the spiritual aspects of our mother earth, our ancestors and the cosmos. It is made following the tradition of the American Indian medicine wheel, with its directions, astrological signs and beneficial attributes.
It is a wonderful place to give gratitude and blessings, to seek guidance and to make requests.
We also host Red Tent gatherings here at Oak Tree Paddock, providing a safe and loving environment for women to connect, share and support each other.
In the land management plan, we decided to plant large numbers of willows. There were many reasons for this. This has been a traditional willow growing area as reflected in the name of the parish, which is Selwood, from Sallow wood, meaning willow.
We planted six varieties, with varied colours for basketry and sculpture, and some more suitable for firewood. We have also experimented with different types of pruning to find the most convenient and productive methods. We have chosen to plant many in places that suffer from waterlogging after rain, and have noticed a considerable decrease of bogginess in these areas.
It is amazing to see how the harvests of willow increase in size every year!
My early attempts at willow work came from the splendid book, ‘Hedgerow Basketry’ Since then I have been collaborating with, and learning from, local willow worker, Mary Cross (www.organic-matters.co.uk). We have made hearts and baskets and a life size sculpture of a horse. We are now looking at ideas for wind sculptures and hanging bouncy chairs!
Mary also has experience of making beautiful, colourful, willow coffins, which are becoming increasingly popular.