Dry Stone Walling 101

A couple of weekends back (yes, I’m a bit behind with my blog posts), I went on a two-day introduction to dry stone walling, run by the fantastic people at the South West England Dry Stone Walling Association. I’d been nurturing a vague interest in dry stone walling for some time, so when I saw that there was a course on (quite literally) just down the road, I felt that it was some kind of sign – so signed up!

In case you haven’t come across dry stone walling before, it’s the craft of (as the name suggests) building a wall from stones, but without using any mortar. Dry stone walls are common in many parts of England, particularly in agricultural areas. Because the geology of each area is different, the style of walling varies to take account of the characteristics of the local stone.

Our task on the course was to dismantle an old wall (i.e. the one built by the people on the previous course a few months ago) and rebuild it from scratch. The first job was to take down the old wall down and to dig out the large foundation stones. It’s important to build directly onto the inert subsoil, as the topsoil is still breaking down and does not, therefore, provide a stable base. This means lots of digging.

At the end of which we were left with a satisfyingly large pile of stones, each sorted vaguely according to size…

…as well as a very nice trench. We used a frame and some string to mark where we wanted the wall to be. The wall is made up of two separate vertical layers, interlocking with each other, and with smaller stones filling the gaps in the middle. And the two layers slope inwards in a 1:6 ratio, providing additional stability. (I bet you didn’t think you’d be learning this when you started surfing the internet today…)

With our trench all marked out, we started relaying the foundation stones. We each worked on one section of one side of the wall, so we soon got to know each other quite well. And the agony of lugging massive stones around created an odd kind of bond in seemingly record time.

Thankfully, it was soon time for lunch. The course instructors were well prepared, with a gas stove to boil water for tea and a converted horse box with a toilet. (Yes, you read that correctly. It’s behind the white partition in the photo below.) To be honest, after weeks and weeks of doing ‘work’ work, I was really enjoying just being outside and doing some manual labour. I don’t know why, but it just feels more honest, somehow.

Inevitably, we were soon back at work. By this stage, the wall was starting to appear above ground level (always helpful in a wall) and we had to make sure that all of the stones were well fixed and didn’t move around. (The trick is to insert smaller stones from behind to get a solid fit.) While some parts of the country have lovely, uniform chunks of stone, the local pennant sandstone around here appears to be somewhat random. But if you look hard enough, I found, there’s almost always a stone to fit the gap you’re struggling with.

By the end of day one, our wall was almost certainly recognisable as such. Admittedly, it wouldn’t yet keep the cows in (I forgot to mention that we were working in a cow field, with the cows paying particular attention to our activities), but it was most definitely getting there.

You can see in the photo below how the stones overlap to create a solid structure. The mantra, apparently, is ‘one on two, two on one’, to make sure you don’t get any weak points. Admittedly, there are some fairly sizeable gaps between some of the stones, but please don’t forget that we were beginners, and so should be permitted a certain amount of leeway in such matters.

We were also fairly mucky by this stage, as the wind had been blowing the dirt around in little dust devils. I didn’t realise until I’d walked home quite how much like a vagrant I looked. Which explained why the wedding party I’d passed at the church had given me such a wide berth. In fact, I didn’t really get properly clean until about three days later.

On day two, we soon got cracking in adding height to our wall. By lunch time, it was already approaching the correct height – about 1.2 metres. And it hadn’t yet fallen over, which is always a good sign.

Next step was to add stones along the top, each tilted at 45 degrees. These help to stop the stones along the top from falling off, but mostly just look pretty.

With this final task done, we stepped back and admired our handiwork. We were, to be honest, all feeling a little bit pleased with ourselves. All except the chap in the camouflage jacket in the photo below. He’s Jon and he was our chief instructor. And he’s clearly wondering how he’s going to explain to the farmer why his perfectly good wall has been demolished and replaced with this rather wonky one.

In all fairness, I think our wall looked fairly good. Well made dry stone walls can last for millennia, so hopefully ours will survive at least until the next course comes along and rebuilds it.

Welcome to the microfarm

I’m always a little bit jealous of people who work full time as farmers, growers or gardeners. Sure, the pay is terrible and they can’t put things off just because it’s raining. But they get to devote themselves to what they love. They can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, rather than putting it off for weeks at a time because other things get in the way.

I appreciate that I’m perhaps idealising the horticultural life a little too much here. I also recognise that such a career has more than its fair share of ups and downs. But in the last couple of weeks, I’ve tried to introduce some of this ethos – of working to the plants’ timescales, rather than to my own – into how I relate to my own little patch of earth. I’ve stopped thinking of it as a tatty greenhouse and a few raised beds, and started thinking of it as a micro-farm.

I started off by making a list of all the jobs that need to be done at the moment. And I mean everything that needs to be done, not just the things I want to do. Even things like emptying the slug traps and weeding around the shed. Needless to say, it was a fairly long list. And I’ll keep adding to it as successional batches of seeds need to be sown, seedlings need to be potted up and shrubs need to be pruned. (I’ve got my list on a little A4 whiteboard, so it’s easy to keep it up to date.)

My next step has been to devote an hour each morning, as soon as I’ve got back from walking the dog, to working through some of the tasks on my list. So far, this ‘little and often’ approach has been rather enlightening, giving me a real feeling of satisfaction as I storm through the huge number of tasks that have been bugging me for ages. It also leaves the weekends, which I’d usually use to try to catch up on absolutely everything I needed to do in the garden, for larger projects, like building a new cold frame.

I’ve now got all of my seeds planted, except for the ‘sow in mid-May’ ones, which are on the list for this week. Here are just a few of them.

Seedlings

The courgettes and squashes are just starting to sprout their first proper leaves, so they’ll be off out into one of the cold frames soon, to toughen them up prior to being planted out into the garden.

Courgette seedlings

In addition to my regular range of flowers, fruit and vegetables, I’m trying a few more exotic things. Below are dahlia seedlings, freshly pinched out to encourage them to be short and bushy rather than tall and lanky. (My garden, being long and narrow, has the characteristics of a wind tunnel.) I’ve read in James Wong’s book ‘Homegrown Revolution‘ that you can eat dahlia tubers, so I’m keen to try this out. At James’s suggestion, I’m growing cucamelons, electric daisies, inca berries, alpine strawberries, elephant garlic, quinoa, mooli and watercress, too.

Dahlia seedlings

I’m also trying to give my regular outdoor vegetables a bit more of a chance against the slugs by starting them off in little plugs, which I’ll plant out once they’re a decent size. And with the winter here lasting until about two weeks ago, planting out directly hasn’t really been an option. I can sow a second batch directly into the beds now, though, and can see how they compare with the plugs.

Vegetable seedlings

I have a slight tendency to focus on my vegetables at the expense of my other plants, so I’ve been careful to look after the non-edibles, too. For example, I’ve trimmed the dead leaves off my ferns and have potted up the little offshoots that have sprung up.

The ferns

I’ve also taken the significant step of pruning the older stems off my Euphorbia rigida, a rather messy job that I’d been putting off for several months. Needless to say, once I’d found my gloves and dug out the secateurs, the pruning itself only took ten minutes. The feeling of achievement that accompanied it, though, lasted significantly longer.

Euphorbia rigida

Ditto for having tidied up and potted on the various Euphorbia and Hebe cuttings that I’d accumulated at the bottom of the garden. I’d taken loads of cuttings about two years ago, potted them up and then left them to go feral on the gravel between the willow hedge and the shed. I’d felt really bad about neglecting them, but clearly not bad enough to actually do anything about it. Well, now it’s done. I had to ditch some of them but the rest are looking good, even if I do say so myself.

Hebes

I’ve even made seed bombs.  Yes, seed bombs. I bought a book on making wildflower seed bombs (‘Seedbombs: Going Wild with Wildflowers’, by Josie Jeffery) some time ago, together with a bag of clay powder that has been sitting in the living room ever since. So one morning last week, I put on an old jumper and got my hands (and the jumper, the shed and the dog) dirty making seed bombs. (And yes, I was careful to use native, non-invasive flower seeds.) Here are some of my inaugural batch.

Seedbombs

And here’s my first test subject, nestling into the bark chip underneath one of the apple trees by the vegetable garden. I’ve also cautiously ‘planted’ a few on some of my regular dog walking routes around town, so that I can see how well they fare. Exciting stuff.

Seedbomb

So while I’m not a farmer and probably won’t ever be a farmer, I’m trying to bring a little of the farming ethos into my life. Nothing excessive, just a small amount of planning, a tiny bit of coordination and a little hard work every day. Welcome to the micro-farm.