Planting trees – and so much more!

Well, our work weekend passed like a dream – thanks to all our friends who showed up in dribs and drabs over the weekend to help: Steve all the way from India (via Brussels),  Diane and Christophe from Luxembourg, Michaela, Dorothée and Gabriele from Leuven, Bruno and Jenny from Budingen, just round the corner, and Eike and Shuktaan from Brussels…

Ria went to collect the trees from Louis Melis’s nursery on Friday afternoon, so everything was ready when our volunteers arrived.

The picture left in our visitors’ book by Dorothée and Gabriele says it all (in Flemish):

The whole day in pictures

The whole day in pictures

We took the trees down the garden, Ria explained to everybody how to plant the trees, everybody worked hard (including the chicken, who was EVERYWHERE – but not Twinkie, who just sat and watched). We were through with planting trees much sooner than expected (before lunch on Saturday), but fortunately Ria had all manner of other suggestions of things to keep us busy for the day… all interspersed with opportunities to eat delicious food, thanks to Chrisje – including, mid afternoon, apple cake, freshly baked speculoos biscuits and hot chocolate made with milk fresh from the cow brought along by Bruno that morning!

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Planting Trees – Open day 6-7 December 2014

At last, at last, friends, it’s time to plant our fruit trees.

We have 20 lovely treelings of different types and varieties – apples, pears, plums, early, mid-season and late – plus some nuts and surprises… waiting to be planted on our swales this winter.


The ground on the swales is heavy clay, so digging holes won’t be no picnic. With this in mind, over the summer, Steve started the process of preparing the ground with piles of organic matter – scything off all the vertical green life that had sprung up with such abundance, and allowing it to compost down horizontally in the places where the trees will come. Hopefully this will make the digging easier.

Hopefully, also, our siren cry will tempt some strong arms and backs, sharp spades and an appetite for a challenge to come to our aid. In the knowledge that there will be food, drink, good conversation and as much laughter as we feel like making.


If you want to come along and help, you’re welcome on 6 and/or 7 December 2014. We’ll be starting work at 10am (but you can show up at any time after that). Bring warm outdoor clothes, sturdy waterproof footwear, garden gloves and a sharp spade if you have one…

Address: Dorpsstraat 136, 3470 Ransberg, Belgium

Please let us know if you plan to come (comment on this blog or email to Ria or Helen), so we can cater accordingly. Children also welcome!

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Adding rooms

With the approach of the summer and my imminent move – downsizing to a smaller space in Brussels with the departure of my children to study abroad and transferring my cats and some of my furniture to Ransberg – it was time to continue work on the rooms on the first floor.

The first job was placing the ceiling in my future bedroom. As usual, our first reflex was to ask our friends for help. Chrisje did her usual epic paint job to get the ceiling slats ready for placing. Martin stepped up with his carpenting expertise, and Matthieu volunteered to join him as apprentice for a couple of days, to learn more about the craft. With Matthieu came Sophia and his three children on the first weekend, so we were quite festive while we worked! On the second weekend, I stepped in to help out – and learned that men like to work without talking! In the mean time, Ria was busily grandmothering, with granddaughters Pia and Ava on site, helping make biscuits to feed the hungry workers.

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Martin, Toon, Chrisje and Ria all took a big hand in everything else that happened. Placing the insulation, and the fermacell, slathering the brick inner wall with lime plaster and the insulated walls with the finer lime finish, laying the bamboo floor, reducing the entrance to a door-sized hole and fitting the door… I got to help Chrisje oil the floor as a finishing touch. What a gift: a beautiful bedroom, ready for occupation! I moved in towards the end of June, with help from Ria, Toon, and Tom. More about that in another post…

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Once my room was done, attention turned to the front bedroom, which needed to be ready in time to receive our first house guests at the end of July. Pretty much the same cast, only much of the insulation work had already been done in the previous phase of work.

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During August we placed the tadelakt on two walls in the bathroom. A very fascinating – and rather elbow-grease intensive – process. Quite amazing to use such natural materials to create such a beautiful, waterproof finish.

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This is indeed a place of abundance. Whenever there’s stuff growing, there’s something to harvest – either to consume or to keep or to reuse.

Riwa & the raspberries

Riwa & the raspberries


In the summer months we’re out picking (especially in the raspberry jungles) morning and evening, and spending our evenings surrounded by jars, bottles, pans and colanders, and every imaginable kind of sweetener other than sugar. We make jams, syrups and sauces, we bake, we freeze, we bottle, we juice, we dry, we steep in genever…

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We’re constantly stashing our extras in the freezer, and Chrisje always makes huge pans  of soup so she’s got some over to freeze. When the tomatoes glut, we make and bottle sauces, and our potatoes, beetroot, carrots and root veggies last out the winter in sand. The pumpkins hang around at (unheated) room temperature crying “eat me” until we do. And of course, there are always fresh veggies for lunch when there’s anything growing in the garden.

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Seeds – Beyond collecting seed for next year’s planting and for swapping at seed exchanges, this year we’re experimenting with dried beans to add protein for the winter months. I also love having dried peas to add to my seed mix for salad sprouts – they’re not so easy to find in Brussels health food stores.

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Organic matter – Although not everything that grows is edible, on a permaculture holding everything plays a part. Over half of the land here is not under food crops, but gets a short back-and-sides with the scythe every few months, delivering up beautiful heaps of hay for the apple trees, the fruit and vegetable beds and the humanure processing pile.

Harvesting hay

Harvesting hay

Peelings and food leftovers go to the chicken, who dutifully wolfs them down and converts them into protein in tidy ovoid shells. She also gets the buckets full of apples that just naturally fall into her terrain in late summer and autumn. I suspect that during those months she is permanently tipsy.


Tipsy chickens

Nor do we despise what many would call ‘weeds’. The omnipresent horsetails and nettles get mixed with the comfrey into potent and evil-smelling food for the veggies. Horsetail tea is also a potent fungicide. The thistles, brambles and ground elder all end up as precious brown compost materials that actually make it into the compost heap, which Ria manages in such a way that there is always compost ready for use when needed.

Rainwater – this might be Belgium, where it always seems to rain, but when you have a garden, you notice the droughts! We can tell the state of play by the amount of water in our little pond – a couple of times this year the frogs have had to take refuge in the mud at the bottom. Slowly but surely we are expanding our water harvesting capacity. Good guttering at front and back of the house, feeding into the rainwater cisterns, and now we’ve even guttered the woodshed. We use the water from the cisterns to flush our one conventional loo and water the garden when it’s dry.

Rainwater harvest from the woodshed roof

Rainwater harvest from the woodshed roof

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To my eyes, everything that nature brings forth is beautiful. By contrast, we humans – especially in our more modern manifestations – can be responsible for quite some ugliness… especially with our more utilitarian concrete and metal constructions.

One aspect of what we are trying to accomplish in our experiments here in Ransberg is the co-creation of beauty with nature. What can we humans, with our quirky perspectives and our best intentions, contribute to what nature already does without us?

Here are some glimpses…

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Humanure revisited

Back in 2012, I was extolling the virtues of composting toilets. Our adventures with humanure have continued as… well… our first digestion box filled to the brim with goodness and the dear, brimful yellow buckets started proliferating again.

Proliferating yellow buckets

Proliferating yellow buckets

This state of affairs continued until we were faced with the prospect of no more empty buckets… And that rather motivated these girls to take action!

Not having a handyman handy (like last time), we reverted to our favourite mantra: “What if it’s easy?” Looking around, we found the ingredients we needed: Some of Pedro’s pallets, and some blue nylon string saved from the straw bales now firmly sealed inside the walls of our living space. That’s all it took to cobble together a fine new humanure digestion station down by the wood shed, and within an hour, the yellow buckets were decanted, the huge pile of freshly scythed nettles and brambles were snugly layered between each packet of goodness and the thermometer was victoriously perched on top of the pile.

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Half an hour later and we were again the happy possessors of a row of clean, empty yellow buckets, waiting ready to receive new goodness. Time for a cup of tea and one of Chrisje’s sweet treats…

Another few months' peace of mind!

Another few months’ peace of mind!


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Ecotuin dagen – Eco-garden days

Open door...

Open door…

Last year and this year, in June, we opened our garden to the ‘public’ under the auspices of Velt – an association for ecological living and gardening active in Flanders and the Netherlands. Members and non-members alike, including a good smattering of curious neighbours from the village, drifted in and out of our gates for two days, enjoying the weather and the beauty, sharing knowledge, connections and friendship.

In 2013 we welcomed more than 70 visitors (folks are always curious when a new garden comes into the list). This year fewer came, but the rewards to those who did were substantial: herb tea and Chrisje’s divine bluberry tart (made with locally picked blueberries). We also had picture books to show the story of the place and how things have changed since we started – a great source of stories and inspiration.

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