Categories
Growing Food Permaculture Raised Beds

Building Raised Beds

A year ago we were still in the theoretical phase of working land. We already met Bhudeva though we were not yet the owners and we were bewildered by the vastness of permaculture and could not imagine how to begin reviving 9 hectares of land. Then we found Sepp Holzer’s raised beds and something told me we’d found a good beginning.

Raised beds is a common gardening term and usually refers to small and manageable areas of garden that are slightly elevated from ground level and neatly arranged to accommodate plants. This IS NOT what we are talking about. When we say raised beds we are referring to Sepp Holzer Hugelkultur … very large raised beds that:

  1. Are made up of fallen wood or other residue organic matter that has substantial mass.
  2. Provide a fertile growing area for many years without the need to bring in extra fertilization.
  3. Soak up a lot of water and as a result can survive droughty months without any need for irrigation.
  4. Make harvesting easier by reducing the need to bend down to ground level.
  5. Drastically increase the surface growing area where available land may be limited.

Paul Wheaton posted an excellent article on such raised beds so I don’t need to. I urge you to read his article to gain a basic understanding of what hugelkultur raised beds are and then, if you’re still interested, continue reading about our efforts to create them.

Raised Garden Bed - from Permies.com

Location

If you have a small garden this is probably a lesser-issue. However, we have 9 hectares of land and this was quite an issue. We have an evolving vision of the entire property but there are still many things that can and are being shuffeled around in that vision. Here is what we knew:

  • We wanted to build a few raised beds … how many would depend on how much wood we would have (which was still an unknown when we decided to get started).
  • We wanted the raised beds to be our primary gardening area for annuals.
  • Therefore we wanted the raised beds close to our future (and current) house.
  • But we didn’t want them taking up space that would be set aside for one of our forest gardens which we also want close to our future house.

So we decided to start building the beds just south of the intended location of our future house. The house is intended to be mostly underground so a forest garden cannot be placed to the south where it would block out the sun. The only inhibiting factor for this location was timing.Β  Eventually the area of the house and its surroundings will become a construction site (though a relatively delicate one) and we do not want the raised beds to be in the way or to get trampled. Fortunately there is enough space for both πŸ™‚

Materials

The raised beds started with a symbolic gesture. I simply placed a small pile of medium sized pieces of wood that were lying around from an old and ailing tree we pruned heavily (it seems to be reviving wonderfully). Most of the materials then came from a maor thinning we did of a dense and overgrown prune orchard behind the existing house (the one we currently live in).

We currently know of only two kinds of trees that are not suitable for raised beds. Hardwoods such as Acacia (which is a strong native here) contain chemicals which deter the microbiological fungi that are responsible for rotting wood (which make them extremely durable and rot resistant). Then there are walnut trees (also abundantly available here) beneath which nothing ever grows due to another chemical that is present in the tree (though we don’t know if its just in the leaves or in the bark itself) … so we don’t want that in the raised beds either. So our raised beds are mostly of prune trees with a few more mixed in.

Building

Building the raised beds was a lot of work for one person. I am confident that a few people working together could have done it much faster … however it is possible to do on your own. Converting a branched tree into pieces that can be piled together can be quite a meditation. I eventually found a work-process that I could follow fairly regularly (dragging trees from where they were lying around, spreading them near the raised beds, chainsaw cutting and then piling).

How you go about it ultimately depends on what kind of wood you have available to you. I had lots of relatively thin pieces (even the tree trunk) and only occassional massive pieces. In some cases I used the heavy trunk pieces to quickly create a base … very rewarding as it feels like rapid progress πŸ™‚ However I ultimately found that is it better to use the thinner pieces to create the base and then to lay on top of them the heavier pieces to weigh them down. Some of threes were tall, straight and fairly thin (most branches pointed up and alongside the trunk) and I just placed them as is on the ground … a pile of such trees formed a formidable base with relatively little work.

The good thing is that it isn’t rocket science and eventually it is all buried by dirt. My main objective was to make sure I got fairly large beds (at least 1 meter high just the wood)Β  and as much wood mass as I could into the beds. Because I was using fairly thin branches, whenever I could I tried to insert pieces into spaces that formed inside the bed. There was still much space for dirt to settle inside.

Another good things is that we now have 3 different “densities” of raised beds to observe and experiment with over the years. We have one very dense bed, two mixed bed and two low-density (and smaller) beds.

Spacing

We built 5 raised beds. They are located on a slight-slope that faces south. The land also slopes slightly from east-west. The raised beds are oriented roughly west-to-east and they are interlaced so that water can flow between them:

Again this isn’t rocket science and only time will tell if our choices will work well for us. We tried to leave enough space between the beds so that after burial, which widens the beds, there would still be enough space to walk comfortably between them with a wheel-barrow for carrying stuff in and out (tools, harvest, etc.).

The blue space you see in the diagram is where we got the dirt. We dug a small lake … however that is a topic on to itself … and it is too early of an experiment so I am nowhere near confident enouh to write about it. .. stay tuned though πŸ™‚

Burial

To bury the raised beds we hired Florin our wonderful tractor guy for a day (we had him to lots of other things that needed doing that day).We decided to dig a test lake and to use the dug up earth to bury the beds. The lake is placed in the lowest corner of this part of the land … so hopefully it will collect water without us having to penetrate the aquipher for water (as seems to be the norm around here).

The beds were spaced in such a way that a tractor good just get through and dump earth onto the beds. This is important to plan for if you intend to use a tractor. It would have been easier to do this one row at a time (or two rows at first) so that there would have been unhindered access for the tractor but just having the tractor arrive at our property is costly so we decided to maximize using it.

It took a lot of earth to bury the raised beds. It would have been an unimaginably difficult task (a few strong people over a few days) to get this done without heavy machinery.

Because of the limited access to the central bed the tractor had to dump a few loads when its not aligned parallel to the bed itself. This resulted in a “wide-dump” causing dirt to fall to far to the sides of the bed creating a wider bed then we had hoped for.

It is better (for the shape of bed that we were aiming for) that the tractor come up parallel to the bed and dump the earth right on top.

Post Burial

We then had the tractor haul over a pile of hay that we would use for mulch.

We also had the tractor haul over a pile of cow-manure that was sitting next to our barn (last years our neighbors housed their cows there for some time ) and had composted there. We didn’t know if the amount would be sufficient for the 5 beds so we preferred to leave it in a pile we could use as we see fit. In retrospect that was a mistake. Spreading it manually will not create more of it. It was hard work to spread the manure over the beds and I definitely regretted not having the tractor dump it directly onto the beds (with supervision to make the best of what is available).

Then came the mulch … and planting the beds … both of which I will get too in separate future posts πŸ™‚

Meanwhile …

While we were building our raised beds our neighbors were all busy doing the same traditional, expensive, labor intensive, fertility destroying activities they (and most Romanian peasants) have been doing for eternity:

People who passed by were curious about what we were doing with the piles of wood on our land … or to be specific … why we weren’t cutting it up into firewood … or to be even more specific … why were we burying precious firewood with dirt. We give a brief and passionate explanation to those who ask and get on with our work. The beautiful thing about these raised beds is that when you hear the reasoning it makes sense even if you’ve had no gardening or farming experience … it makes TONS of sense if you have had any experience … yet it it still mostly met with doubt.

If all goes well, then this time next year we will be free to relax or do new things while our neighbors will all be doing the same work again. Maybe in a few years when we’ve shown that we can get better results with less work and less expenses some of them will come around to inquiring about what is going on.

Beware: Sitting & Digging Dogs

Our dogs love sitting on on raised piles … usually of hay … though raised beds work great for them too. They demonstrated their affections from the start:

At first it was cute … heck it was an achievement that they just sat there instead of trying to bark the tractor into submission … but now we are constantly demanding they get off. It isn’t pleasant to see them walking over or sitting (or digging into) the raised beds now that they are planted … and to the dogs the plants make no difference. So our recommendations: (a) get them off from the very beginning and (b) get used to it πŸ™‚

 

 

 

 

Categories
Bee Keeping Growing Food

Bees: the end of the beginning

Yesterday we finally took the last step in welcoming our bees to Bhudeva. I was working (making great progress) on the mobile chicken shelter when Andreea noticed that outside the first hive we had already transferred to a top-bar-hive there was heightened activity. We can’t be sure but it looked like the bees may have been preparing to swarm (a natural instinct where a bee family splits into two resulting in many bees leaving with the active queen). We weren’t really prepared for it but we decided to place another (third) hive next to it with waxed top-bars and inviting scents and hope that if the bees do decide to swarm they may choose it as a new home. However it turned out into a much longer work session πŸ™‚

Fortunately for us Levente was available and joined us – both out of curiosity and to help. We put the new hive in place and then opened up the living hive. For the most part things were looking good.

The hive looked thriving, there was lots of activity. The standard “chop and crop” frames were all filled with bees (we took the opportunity to gently, using a hand saw, cut off the ends of their frames so that they would not interfere with the hive’s lid). The bees did an excellent job cleaning up after the somewhat brutal chop-and-crop.

Some of the new top bars were also coming along. This one had quite a comb built up.

It was fantastic to see inside the hives (sorry … no image) chains-of-bees linked together, supposedly using their body lengths as a measuring tool in building new comb. However there were no eggs to be found … which means we may have lost/injured the queen when we made the initial transition. We did find quite a few young queens … which is when things got interesting.

We decided to do a split. So now instead of hoping that the bees move to the new hive (which wasn’t very likely) we moved into it three frames with one of the new queens. We added to it a few empty top-bars and a failed chop-and-crop bar from the original transition, with honey in it, that was left over from the initial transition. So now we had two hives populated and we managed to capture and set aside four additional young queens.

Β 

Then came the third hive – the one that was setup as a transitional hive. As we were warned in the forums the bees showed no signs of moving into the lower top-bar-hive. They were very active in the standard hive sitting on top of the top-bar-hive … but showed no interest in moving down. Our decision was to shake them into the top-bar-hive and remove the standard hive completely. Andreea & Levente took care of this task.

Had we been there on our own we would have a serious mistake that Levente wisely avoided. We would have taken the standard hive down – and that would have probably aggrevated the bees greatly. Instead, Levente opened the hive, inspected the frames one by one and then shook the bees directly into the standard hive – which of course was still sitting on the top-bar-hive … and this time the bees, with no choice left, moved down. They were very frustrated and there were a few stings … however, with the help of much smoke, Andreea & Levente managed to get all the frames out, examined, shook .. and the bees to move into their new home. We also put in the modified follower-boards to prevent bee-leaks.

 

Because there were three of us and the event was less traumatic we realized that we could easily chop-and-crop a few frames of brood and honey. I had a table and tools setup nearbye and indeed we got 4 frames chopped-and-cropped and reinserted into the top-bar-hive. This time, as I was chopping the frames I also cut the remaining top-bar down to size. Most of the bees found their way into the hive though there was a small bundle under the hive (attached to the netting).

Β 

Andreea completed the day by manually squeezing honey from the crops left over from the standard frames. She aso found and left in the honey plenty of pollen.Β 

This all happened yesterday. Today the two primary hives are very active and the third, split hive, less so. We’ll see how it goes.

We are relieved and happy. We are looking forward to the bees settling in their new homes. We still want to phase out the remaining converted top-bars … but other then that it looks like the transition has been completed. We are expecting our acacia trees to bloom in the coming weeks … and that should result in plenty of honey-stores for the bees … maybe even some for us πŸ™‚

This transition had a wonderful and unexpected side-effect. Levente was very much opposed to our decision to abort the standard hives in favor of top-bar-hives. He is already used to us doing things differently and he usually watches us from the sidelines with curiosity. With the bees he was outright against what we were doing. However yesterday he saw that the bees were actually doing very well. He was impressed. We gifted him with the remaining 6 frames and the 4 queens. We then drove over to their place where we sat with Valentin, his brother-in-law, who is a professional beekeeper (standard hives). This time it was Levente telling Valentin about the top-bar-hives and showing off our queens … and Valentin also seemed curios and impressed. So the bees did an excellent job of making a case for top-bar hives … and so it goes πŸ™‚

 

Categories
Bee Keeping Growing Food

Bee Week

One of our intended projects for this spring was to get started with bees. One reason is that we consume a lot of honey so it made financial sense to pay once for getting started with bees and then enjoy our own honey for the rest of our lives. Another reason is that bees play a crucial role in gardening and developing a landscape – they fertilize plants by doing what they do naturally … carrying pollen. It’s easy to take them for granted (I did) but without bees there wouldn’t be much food (not naturally anyway).

So this past week+ has been about bees. We had two high-priority projects two choose from: (1) a mobile shelter and mobile electric fence for the chickens and (2) bee hives. We decided to start with the chickens but as I set out to work I changed my (and our) mind to bees. At the time we still did not find a source of bees. This meant I could take my time in building the hives, which I did. Then Levente told us he found bees at a great price and suddenly everything was moving very fast.

Getting Bees

On Tuesday afternoon we went to bring home to bee families. Though there are a lot of beekeepers in Romania there isn’t (at least we couldn’t find) an organized market place for bees. We asked Levente and he asked around until he came across someone that was willing to sell 10 frame colonies. We didn’t want such a large colony … we preferred to get a nucleus colony (a small package of bees wit a queen)Β  – but that didn’t work out. So we went to purchase two colonies together with Levente (who wanted to purchase one colony) and Valentine his brother in law (who is a professional grower who wanted to purchase 7 colonies). Valentine was generous and loaned us two standard hives to make the transition.

It was about a 20 minute drive to get to the beekeeper. It was impressive to see hives that have been working for 60 or 70 years … though he himself admitted that is was time to retire some of the boxes.

When we arrived Valentine was already at work opening hives and checking the colonies. Each hive was opened and smoked to get the bees to retreat inside. He then looked frame by frame to see that there is a healthy queen, good broodΒ  developing and to check for Varroa mite infestation levels (for the first time we saw a mite riding on the back of a bee – though there weren’t many).

All of the hives he examined were OK and one by one he and Levente transferred the bees from their existing hives into new ones .. frame by frame … transferring them in the same order and same orientation. Bees have very keen navigation and always return to the same place looking for their hive opening … so … together with their hive they are moved aside and a new hive is placed where the old one was. The flying bees automatically return to the old location = the new hive. Meanwhile the frames from the old (set aside) hive are moved one by one into the new hive.

Once the hives were prepared all that was left to do was wait for darkness and for the bees to retreat into their new hives. One by one the hives were closed off and tied off in preparation for the journey back home.

We chose in advance the location for our new aviary … a partially shaded, south facing space with some wind protection. We setup up an ad hoc stand for the temporary hives. We arrived after dark and used the car lights to put their hives in their new place.

Top Bar Hives

Originally we thought to begin our beekeeping journey with two standard hives (do it like everyone else does). However we realized that it would be a pretty expensive and complicated endeavour. We first came across Top Bar Hives at Beesource.com. At first it appealed to us because of its simpler do-it-yourself potential but there wasn’t enough information there to get us started. So we did more searching and came across Phil Chandler and his fantastic work at Biobees.com. We highly recommend Phil’s book The Barefoot Beekeeper in addition to his freely available articles on getting started with beekeeping and download-able plans on how to build your own Top Bar Hive.

Top Bar Hives are part of a more natural approach to beekeeping. There are many benefits in Top Bar Hives both for beekeepers and bees. The one example I have been using most to demonstrate the essential difference is through the question of winter-feeding. Standard industrialized (on any scale) beekeeping is designed for maximum honey yield. This means that most of the honey the bees create is taken from them. Then as winter comes there arises a question of how to feed the bees? “Generous” beekeepers will leave them just enough honey frames … others will leave them insufficient honey supplies that are instead complemented by artificial feed (sugar syrups which are cheaper then the equivalent supply of honey). In natural beekeeping this issue is re-solved by re-framing it … some honey is taken in summer but the rest is left for the bees winter-needs and only what is leftover in spring is taken from them. This is to say that Top Bar Hives are not just a different beehive architecture but they come with a very different approach to beekeeping … an approach that is better aligned with our values, more accessible to us and so much more appealing then standard beekeeping.

Hive Construction

So we built 3 top-bar Chandler hives – one for each colony and one more for a potential split (when a singly colony’s swarming instinct is used to create a new hived colony). Building the hives again reminded me of the different realities of our life here in Romania. In Phil’s instructions it is taken as obvious that properly dried and pre-planed lumber is readily available. Though it is available here too the price is very high … so I’ve been using more readily available and affordable rough-sawn (construction grade) pine. Anyways that’s how I set out to build the first hive.

I also wanted to experiment and build a hive with thicker (2 inch / 5 cm) side-walls to see if that would be better for the bees during our cold (-25c) winter. I quickly learned that unlike our furniture the “simple” top-bar hive requires a fairly high level of planing precision. The follower-boards need to form a tight fit against the sides … and the boards I used were not quite flat … so the fit was not very good. There were other subtle aspects that I learned to appreciate and I managed to get the first thick-walled hive built.

However for the other two hive bodies we purchased (for a more reasonable price) a package of soft-wood flooring panels. Oddly they were cheaper then the planed boards and they were a perfect size. They also had a ready made tongue-to-groove joint which made assembly of the larger panels easier. They seemed too good to be true sitting there alongside the more expensive pre-planed boards. They worked our great and made construction very easy to do (they are 27mm thick so that should be sufficient for the bees).

Phil’s hive construction PDF is thorough, precise, easy to follow and a relatively simple design to implement.

Moving Bees into a Top Bar Hive

Yesterday we finally went to move one colony from its temporary hive into a top-bar hive. We weren’t absolutely sure how to go about it. Most of the instructions in Phil’s book spoke of transferring nucleus (small) colonies. Ours were full 10-frame active colonies in peak activity. From the moment I opened the hive we ran into difficulties.

First I should say that we didn’t purchase a smoker because we didn’t want to aggravate the bees. We preferred to use a water spray bottle – supposedly the bees think its raining and go back inside. The bees were very aggressive and defensive of their hive and they did not respond to water spraying at all. While I could understand their anger (we were about to mess up their home) my understanding did not matter when I got stung numerous times (through my clothes and gloves) in just a few seconds. I walked away to let the excitement (both mine and the bees settle). I was very proud of Andreea who stayed close to the bees and projected light and love … and didn’t get stung at all (though to my defense she wasn’t the one who opened the hive nor was she standing as close to it as I was).

So improvised smoke (an old pot filled with burning materials and mostly covered by clay roof shingles) – also Andreea’s idea. We then moved to transfer a first frame. Of the options outlined in the book we attempted a sewing technique where the comb is cut completely from the standard frame and then cropped to fit into the shape of the top-bar hive inner space and then sown on to a new top-bar. That didn’t go too well either. Between the sewing and the wires running throughout the comb (wires are typically used in standard frames) the top of the comb practically got torn off. We left it in the hive but in the end decided to take it out and throw it out … it was too clumsy and would have prevented the bees from moving freely inside the hive.

So we deserted that option and moved to a chop-and-crop technique. In this approach the comb is left attached to the top-part of the standard frame (the rest of the frame is cut away). The comb is then cropped to a size that fits in the inner space of the top-bar hive and inserted as is. We used this approach for the rest of the bars.

It was not a pleasant thing to do.Β  The frames were filled with brood (cells with bees in different stages of maturity) which we had to cut through. We also inadvertently injured quite a few bees (and apologized to every one we noticed). Andreea was heart-broken. I was confident that it would be for the better. We also went through a difficult transition when we moved out to the village and we are now grateful for a better life here. I am confident that the same will happen for the bees.

I got stung a few more times in the process. Andreea got stung once. We are both relieved to know that neither of us are allergic to be stings. Andreea got stung by something that looked like a bee (but probably wasn’t) a few years ago and had a very strong allergic reaction … so we didn’t know what to expect. Now we know πŸ™‚

We also had some difficulty getting the roof onto the hive. The tops of the standard frames were longer then the width of the roof of the hive. TIP: in Phil’s design, change the size of the top width of your hive to match the standard frame size in your part of the world. Some of the standard frame-tops also have nails sticking out of them preventing them from creating a good seal at the top of the hive. We left it as is and will see what to do about it in the future.

Anyways one hive has been transferred. I expect the bees have a lot of cleaning up and rearranging to do. We will leave them along for a week or so and see how they are doing then. We do not want to repeat the process a second time. It was difficult, strenuous and unpleasant for all the living creatures involved. For the 2nd hive we are looking at building some kind of transitional hive as demonstrated Phil’s video … and we’ll most probably be using a smoker!

Was I that Ridiculous?

At one point Loui (our younger dog) got to close to the action and was chased away by one or more bees. It was hilarious to watch. He ran, jumped, barked, twisted and turned as he was trying to get away from the bees. As I was laughing at him I wondered to myself if that was what I looked like when I was in the same predicament πŸ™‚

 

 

Categories
Bee Keeping Growing Food

Sudden Explosion in Bhudeva Residents

It’s almost 10pm and we just got back from a long day – we just arrived with two bee families. I don’t have much capacity to write … but did feel compelled to put out this one image of the two temporaryΒ  bee-hives. The coming days we are going to bust with completing their new top-bar-hives and then transitioning them and allowing them to settle into their long-term πŸ™‚

Categories
Growing Food Permaculture

Inspiration: Sepp Holzer

If you haven’t already been touched by Sepp Holzer’s inspiring life and framing then this relatively new production with available subtitles (after you click play a “cc” button will appear and you need to click it and then ”english” to activate them) makes for a good introduction. Enjoy πŸ™‚

Arrived in my life complements of Paul Wheaton

Categories
Blog Growing Food On The Way Uncategorized

How to Pile Hay?

The other day Andreea decided to clean out the barn where we currently house our flock. She had setup it up with areas covered with hay which the flock really liked. Over time the hay accumulates moisture, droppings and food scraps and had become … less attractive. So she pulled it all out and dumped it outside (which turned into a magical playground for the flock who explored the hay as if it was heaven). Then she went to bring new hay from one of our piles … and then called for help.

The hay piles had accumulated a substantial snow cover. One of the piles, the one we made and also the one closest to the barn, was not arranged very well so that moisture (and now frost) had found its way deeper into it then the other piles. So it was much harder work then we thought it would be. We managed to get the barn re-done and I began to appreciate the skill that goes into properly arranging a pile of hay in such a way that it will hold, be protected from the weather, and comfortable to take apart. I still don’t know how to do this … and this post will not provide a thorough answer. However …

I then sat at the computer and decided to search for some information on this. The search results were astonishing:

  • First there was a generic and superficial article about hay at Wikipedia.
  • Then there was an article about how to stack bales of hay (which needs to be done properly so that the stacks do not collapse).
  • Then there was information (articles and videos mind you) about how to stack hay in Farmville (an online game).

Only after digging deeper into the search results did I find a photo-blog of someone who documented travels in Romania giving some information about how peasants make a haystack and how they take it apart. There is much more to it the these pages show … or should I say endless more details that are hard to describe unless you actually do it

The world has changed, and though I believe overall it has done so for the better, there a few weeds I would definitely pull out of the ground. Precious (as in the kind that feeds cows for meat and milk) knowledge is being lost and replaced superficiality and ignorance.

Our personal experience, so far, is driving a horse and carriage, loading it up in the field and unloading into a somewhat messy haystack.

I don’t know if our hay-skills will improve much as we hope to decrease our need for harvested hay, reduce the amount of land where it grows and probably hire machinery to cut it down and bale it for us in the interim.

Categories
Animals Blog Food Growing Food On The Way Preparation Preservation Uncategorized

Three Pigs

PLEASE NOTE: This post contains VERY graphic images of three pigs being slaughtered. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there to take the images nor that I would be able to. In the end I wanted to be there, I was there and I was able to take these images. If you feel you may be disturbed by them now is a good time to stop scrolling this page. You are invited to skip to the end where I have noted some thoughts and reflections on this event.

From the end of November through to Christmas in many village homes in Romania Β pigs are slaughtered. Pigs are a very popular source of meat here in Romania. It is a somewhat celebratory event as it provides an abundance of meat as the holidays approach and the winter sets in. I don’t eat meat (and I’ve put that to the test here in Romania) but Andreea does crave it occasionally. She prefers red-meat but that’s harder to find and more expensive then the abundantly available pig meat in Romania.

When our neighbor told Andreea that they would be slaughtering their large female pig, Andreea asked if she could purchase 10kg of meat but she was gently refused – there simply wasn’t enough meat. The purchase, feeding, slaughter and butchering of a pig is usually a family effort – so when the meat becomes available it is divided between the people involved in this process. So, though a large pig was butchered (about 160kg) there simply would not have been enough meat. However she did invite Andreea to purchase one of the smaller pigs promising they would also butcher it for her. Andreea took up the offer and we joined in for a day of pig slaughtering. I was invited and welcomed to come with a camera.

We woke up to another beautiful & picturesque frozen morning (I was actually praying that the sun would not come out so I would not lose a woodworking day).

And a short walk down to our neighbors brought us into a warm room where everyone was ready to get to work. On the table you can see two dishes filled with a Romanian pastry called Placinta – large dough dumplings (in this case fried) some filled with cheese and others with a cooked cabbage filling. They were prepared the evening before (we know because we were there to eat them warm as they came out of the frying pa) in a large quantity to feed the group of people who worked throughout the day.

I think they were waiting for us to get to work … knives in hand πŸ™‚

So we headed out back to the get the first pig – the large mother.

You can already tell from the conditions in which the pigs are kept that they don’t get much opportunity to be pigs nor are they familiar with human contact (beyond basic feeding).

The pig didn’t want to come out and was lured to the door with a cob of corn – there they tied a rope around it’s foot.

Still they couldn’t pull her out.

So one of them went in and got her by the tail … and so they managed to get her out.

In case you are wondering, as I was, why the leg, here’s the answer … by pulling the leg out from under her they got her lying on her side.

Which exposes her neck for the slaughter. She struggled and yelled fiercely to no avail.

It took a few gurgling minutes for her to die and was then pulled to the work space for butchering.

And it was then time for one of her siblings (the first of two) to go.

And one was picked out and quickly slaughtered.

… and pulled out to the field

that was starting to get busy.

I took a small pause to again appreciate how beautiful a place we live in.

… and then it was time to torch the pigs … this is both to burn off the hairs and a first act of cleaning/disinfection. Traditionally this was done by placing the pig in a pile of hay and lighting it. Apparently that was a slow process and today everyone is rushing and there is no space for tradition so blow torches connected to home cooking gas cannisters are used. The problems is that the gas is effected by the freezing cold so the canisters need to be heated. At first they torched the canisters themselves (safety is not a big thing here) and later placed them in hot water.

And so begins a very tedious and time consuming process of burning and peeling/scratching:

Pieces of wood are used to support the legs … you gotta get it all … and the fingernails are burned and then pulled off … which is when bone is first exposed.

A victim

and a crime scene

Meanwhile the smaller pig was coming along much faster … it was already flipped over and they started rubbing salt into its skin and cleaning it with warm water.

And then it was time to bring in (or take out?) the 3rd pig … this one was selected by Andreea and will henceforth be referred to as “our pig” or “our dead pig” or “our pig meat”.

And the place started looking very busy … though a quiet and pleasant pace of work was maintained.

Meanwhile the 1st small pig was getting its last scraping and washing

… and then more salt rubbed into it (pity it wasn’t alive to enjoy this)

… and finally propped up between two pieces of fire wood … ready for butchering

… and quickly cut open (it was relatively easy because it was still small and not very fatty … see larger pig ahead).

The procedure starts with emptying the chest cavity … so you reach in, tear through lots of ligaments

and there is the heart and lungs still hooked up

Then the bowels are taken out into a large dish

And the unwanted gallbladder is cut away from the much wanted liver

Which left an empty shell of a pig

Which was then cleaved into two halves

Which were carried inside

This is one example where two halves don’t make a whole

And the butchering continues

Once the large pieces are cut away a blanket of fatty tissue and skin is left … this guy did a very nice and elegant butchering job

Here you can see half the pig piled up neatly in the rear and the second half still whole

The other small pig (our pig) was taking a different route (different butcher and a more improvised work space). The head was cut off first and the rest was … well laid back πŸ™‚

And again in a meticulous and what looked to me a professional chunks of meat and organs were efficiently organized

And … here is Andreea salting a fresh sliver of pig skin

… and reliving a childhood memory she’s shared with me numerous times – relishing its fresh taste

On to the main show … the large pig.

… again some final scraping and washing

… propping up

… and cutting open

… a very large liver and gallbladder

… and a huge bowl emptying

… and a kidney cut up. The kidney is used to determine the “market weight” of the pig. The kidney is weighed and its weight is multiplied by 1000 … so a 50gram kidney (like our little pig had) indicates a 50kg pig.

And again, an empty, though very large, shell of meat remained.

It was cracked in half

And again one half at a time carried to a work table

Where the butchering continued

… and fat was peeled

and loads of meat were carried into the house.

including heavy blankets of skin and fat

which were meticulously carved and cleaned

and set aside for processing and preservation.

Most of the meat will end up smoked. Before it is smoked it is salted (which apparently dries it). A large plastic container was filled with layers of meat and salt. The bottom layers were the neatly arranged blankets of skin and fat – this will be left in salt for two months and then smoked – a recipe for Slanina – smoked fat – considered a specialty dish.

On top of that the rest of the meat is piled – including this heavy slab of meat – a complete leg and thigh … deep cuts were filled with salt and it was added to the container

… no meat gets left behind πŸ™‚

This meat will sit for 2 weeks and then be smoked.

And other parts of the meat are processed into various sausages. One kind of sausage is made of the fattier tissues and another is made of the internal organs together with cooked onions and rice. The meat is ground and packed into the intestines. For this the intestines need to be untangled … a meditative task where the tender ligaments keeping it all together are cut away until the intestines can be pulled apart. A gruesome task (if you ask me) and smelly one especially since the intestines are packed with … shit at different levels of digestion.

Then the intestines are filled with water.

… and their contents rinsed out

and … well piled on the ground

… until they are collected and washed and taken back inside.

The internal organs were washed and set aside earlier.

At this point (around 15:00) I left and went back home. The room was getting to be to intense for me … the smell of meat was overwhelming, some was already cooking (chunks of meat frying in melted fat) for a meal. Smoking had accumulated, I was hungry … and I had enough. So no images of the sausages.

Thoughts & Reflections

One Room: It’s easy to miss, especially for people of a western mindset – that everything indoors in these images happened in one room. The house has two rooms but only one is heated so in winter this room is everything – a bedroom, living room, kitchen … everything. One wood-stove is used for both heating and cooking. It houses two women (Maria and her mother) and occasionally on weekends Maria’s two children. At one point this small room (approximately 4 by 4 meters) sheltered 9 people. One of the sofas/beds was covered with plastic sheets on which the meat was piled. The small table (pictured at the top of this post) has seen the meat from many pigs over its life. Under the table, between the two beds, there is now a large plastic container containing a pile of meat that will be enjoyed over almost a year.

Respect: I have greatest respect for Romanian villagers, they are survivors. They are relatively poor and yet they manage to create an abundant (at least food-wise) life.

Hardship: Romanian villagers are set in their ways – and their ways make for a life of hardship. Pigs are typically grown in a confined and inevitable dirty space (permaculture wisdom is that pigs, if given an option, will keep their shelter clean). They are not given space to roam and range, they are not put to work, they do not live long. They are grown over a better part of a year for meat and meat alone. They have to be fed (expensive and tedious). Pigs here have a poor life and a poor death.

Respect: There seems to be very little respect in life or death towards animals – pigs included. There has to be a better and more respectful way to slaughter animals. There also seems to be missing a respect toward the abundance of food that comes from the taking of an animal’s life.

Appreciation: The lack of respect towards the animals also reflects inwards. Romanians do not seem to be able to recognize and appreciate the abundance of food from such an event. They seem to have lost touch with a capacity to enjoy the gifts bestowed on them by nature.

Biology: It was amazing to see the internals of a living being. I had theoretical biological knowledge – but it went to a different level when I saw the diaphragm that separates the chest and abdominal cavities and the internal organs all in their places.

Strength: I didn’t think I could handle being so close to slaughtering and butchering. Two years ago when I visited Romania I could not sit for long at a table that had just a slab of freshly butchered meat. I don’t know what changed … but except for a first few seconds when blood gushed out of the large pig … I was fine.

Life: I noted that biologically, the pig and I have quite a lot in common. Yes, pigs have a very small brain … but most of the biological workings we share (breathing, digestion, elimination, etc.) are autonomous anyway. Mind aside, What is the magical force behind this? What was it that drained from the pigs eyes as blood was draining from its throat. What was it struggling uselessly to hold on to?

Farm Animals: If When we get around to expanding our livestock (currently poultry only) – slaughtering is going to be a challenge. It is an inevitability – it is impossible to sustain animals on a farm without there being some slaughtering. We will need to figure this out.

Our Pig: Andreea now has 20+ kg of meat – most of it frozen in small one-serving bags she can defrost whenever she feels like having some meat. Some of it will be smoked together with Maria’s batch of meat. Our dogs will also enjoy some of the meat.

Holiday: This event took place on December 1st – a National Romanian Holiday.

Categories
Forest Gardens Growing Food Resources Videos

What is a Forest Garden?

I’m going to be referencing Forest Gardens quite a bit and this video, which I should have posted long ago, is a good introduction by Martin Crawford of Agroforestry UK

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Agriculture Links Agriculture Links Forest Gardens Growing Food

Agroforestry UK

Agroforestry Research Trust

Categories
Forest Gardens Growing Food Videos

From Dirt to Forest

This video is a time-travel demonstrating 7 years of evolution of a forest-garden – from nitrogen-fixing ground-cover through to a autonomous and perpetuating food-forest.