Practical Ecology

Nature Switched On





in the Pyrenees  the first 10 years

floristic catalogue
faunistic catalogue
gallery 1: 2006-2012
gallery 2: 2012-
>> 2010 Feb 19
<< 2009 Dec 16

                         a   S T A M M E R  project              

2010 January 14 to February 3

January is traditionally the month of stock-taking. For the last 6 months we have been living almost continually in the garden house (at least me, Andreas), a good moment to evaluate things, especially because an important number of smaller projects has been finished or is being finished. Besides, I find myself in the situation of quite some time available but without the possibility to go online, as we haven’t got an internet connection in the garden house. So instead of some short paragraphs every week, here I present a larger exposition. I will not only evaluate but would also like to expose some guidelines for the near future.



Looking north-west towards the Central Pyrenees.
 28 Jan 9:15

  The different shades on the walls come from the earth taken from different places on the terrain.
Looking south.
14 Jan 16:47


The GARDEN HOUSE needs only some minor finishing touches, especially the plastering of the exterior walls, and we can now conclude that it is a mayor success. There were considerable problems in the construction particularly because of some faults in the design, and by and large the project took more time and work than we had imagined, but the final result is also beyond expectation: the house is comfortable, pleasant, relatively spacious, practical, with a style of its own. The straw bale walls, plastered with earth, create a pleasant interior climate. In the middle of winter and with only one lighting of the wood stove (5 wood sticks), the temperature varies between 15°C and 22°, while humidity doesn’t get above 50% and usually fluctuates around 40%. On clear days the sun entering the main south window usually raises the temperature with 2 or 3°C. What surprised us a lot was when we opened the door, which has a south-west orientation, to let the sun in, we gained up to 4° when it was 7°C outside (without wind). Humidity fell under 20% then. The presence of one or more people has also a noticeable effect on the inside temperature.

The garden house features now gas from a butane bottle, running water, solar electricity and a water drain from the kitchen to mulch beds around some fruit trees.

The success of the garden house comes on a moment when our original project for a detached house (for which the garden house would have been a rehearsal) has been left somewhat in the air. We have obtained the license for construction but the so-called economic crisis  has also affected us in such a way that for the moment we don’t want to assume the costs for such a project. We are also a bit worried about the amount of work, while at the same time doubting if a much larger house actually means a substantial improvement. So, for the moment we contend with this idyllic ‘garden shed’.

With the door wide open the temperature inside reached 20ºC.
1 Feb 14:27




Time will also tell to what extend our COMPOST TOILET will be temporal. The system itself works fine. Surprising is the almost complete absence of any bad smells. The toilet is in an outhouse, built with straw bales, unfixed and without plaster. To make the building somewhat more durable, I am considering plastering the walls with just one layer and then let some plants like Ivy climb the walls, protecting them against sun and rain and perhaps also fix the bales in position. A weak point of the straw bales are the strings, which can be bitten by mice. Of the bales that we (badly) kept under some PE sheets for almost a year, about 1% suffered from this problem. It is an incognito, and a nice experiment whether the Ivy would be able to stick well to the plaster and cover the building  in a couple of years, wrapping up and stabilizing the bales together with the plaster, even when some strings get cut.

  On the left the toilet bucket and on the right the bucket with straw.
To avoid confusion: the brush is for brushing the furniture.
2 Feb 12:32
The outhouse with a shed for firewood.
24 Jan 13:16


The GREEN ROOF, that is to say it is getting greener and greener. The 4 Sedum species and Sempervivum tectorum grow as they should. The role of Iris germanica, a spontaneous invader, is still uncertain, as is the fate of Achillea tomentosa, which was planted for its promising behaviour: resistant, low, evergreen, with nice flowers.

There aren’t any leaks and the drain of the roof works well. The old wine barrel, to harvest rain water, hasn’t been connected yet. Originally the destination of this water was the ponds on the other side of the terrain, for which I installed a 100m tube. The water doesn’t flow well on its own right; you have to manipulate the tube to get rid of the air bubbles. I suppose that the barrel will increase the pressure and improve the flow. The interest of transporting rain water to the ponds lies in the pure and nutrient-poor characteristics. This favours water transparency and the aquatic ecosystems.     

We also planted Sedum and Sempervivum on the firewood shed.
24 Jan 13:18
  The old wine barrel will be placed on the cupboard.
North face of the house.
2 Feb 12:37


The SOLAR PANELS haven’t produced any problems so far. The system generates a maximum of 750 watt y this is sufficient for what use: some lights (summing 30W), a laptop computer (100W), stereo equipment (110W) and the occasional charging of a mobile phone or mp3 player (10W). We haven’t suffered any exhaustion of the batteries in spite of some rather persisting fog during several days. Very important is the absence of a refrigerator, which is the biggest consumer of watt-hours. Our cellar, under a floor filled with straws, is doing very well as a fridge: the temperature doesn’t pass 7ºC these days. I suppose that in summer we do need a fridge (of the A++ category, 80W), but then there is much more sun to charge the batteries.
For safety and aesthetics the panels were installed at a distance of 200m from the house. To make up for the voltage loss on the way, we used thick electric cables (16mm2). When we measured the voltage at the house we found 230 volt, so losses were minimal.

  The solar panels on a rotating structure.
Looking north.
1 Feb 14:10


The KITCHEN DRAIN is of a simple design, advocated by Art Ludwig, and consists of a PE tube (1 inch) of 20m length, that goes down from the kitchen sink to some swales around fruit trees, filled with straw. Like the compost toilet, the straw absorbs smells and nutrients, which little by little become available for the fruit trees. We use of course biodegradable soap.
The system works irregularly due to the frequent frosts in the mornings (under -4ºC) when the tube freezes and clogs up. (Later on it usually melts). The cause will be fundamentally an inadequate fall, about 2m over a length of 20m, which doesn’t permit a complete emptying after each charge of water. I am considering cutting the tube and diverting the water temporarily through a shorter stretch with a better fall. 


The outlet of the kitchen drain on the swale around a pear tree.
2 Feb 12:36

The two PONDS are a constant point of attraction, for us as well as for wildlife. There is always something to see, not only plants, birds, toads or insects but also the ever-changing play of light and form in or outside the water or the ice.
The affluence of water by gravity, from the different higher terraces was during some heavy thunderstorms surprisingly abundant. But this water was quite dirty because of the ballast of mud, which improved a bit when the ground was little by little covered by vegetation. More problematic is the whimsical character of the frequency of heavy thunderstorms, which are needed to form a substantial inflow of water. Generally, without any other water source, the (upper) pond is likely to stay completely dry for several weeks in summer. Curiously, the lower pond never dried up completely, certainly because of the absence of vegetation and the accompanying transpiration. So in this pond the important predators of mosquito larvae, the Backswimmers, were never absent. In the upper pond there did appear some outbreaks of these larvae.  
We can now count on public running water so we will depend less on the erratic thunderstorms.

  The green leaves are from the grass Lolium perenne.
1 Feb 14:15
  Lower pond
3 Feb 12:34
  Lower pond.
(P.S. Compare the patterns with this image from 25 January 2011)
14 Jan 16:20


With respect to the VEGETATION and its maintenance and development, I must admit that my dedication has been somewhat deficient lately, due to so many construction activities. My intervention was limited to some cuts with the scythe and the creation of a hill (also as a place to install the solar panels) of rocks and earth with an interesting south exposition, the only one on the terrain.

An important datum is the number of 9 different species of orchids. I have got the impression that the total number of plants as well as the number of species has been growing during the almost 4 years that we have stayed here. An important factor could be the absence during this period of the relatively heavy pressure of sheep grazing in the region and the fact that sheep seem to find the orchid leaves quite tasteful.

In the near future, when the construction activities slow down, I would like to introduce more rock, stone and walls on several sites. The material is relatively easy to obtain and use and I have also been fascinated by rock garden, stone walls, ruins and their accompanying vegetation. But also the influence of Louis LeRoy and his Ecocathedral must be mentioned.  
I also intend to improve and complete the distribution maps of the species on the terrain, with special attention to the family of grasses, of which I have got too many doubts.


South facing slope with the solar panels.1 Feb 14:05  
3 emerging plants of a group of 13  Orchis purpurea in an area where I had lost all hope for them because of bulldozer activities.
1 Feb 14:08
Orchis purpurea in the half-shade of some oak trees.
1 Feb 14:19





3 Plants of the orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis with Brutus, an abandoned cat which is just that: a bit brute.
1 Feb 14:00



Also the VEGETABLE GARDEN has suffered from the constant and more urgent construction bustle. The first results are nevertheless promising and inspiring to go on with the horticulture. Curiously, at the beginning I wasn’t so keen on this manipulation of plants, being devoted to spontaneous and natural vegetation. It seems that straw has convinced me, simply because I ordered too many bales (thinking of our definitive accommodation) and I didn’t know what to do with them. Mulching with straw can be really an important instrument to get several results: getting rid of weeds, stimulation of soil life, retention of humidity. And last but not least: the aforementioned features make the tilling of the soil unnecessary.  In fact, I haven’t lifted a spade of earth in the garden and the few vegetables that escaped from predation by slugs grew marvellously. Yes, straw has some mayor inconveniences: it attracts slugs and snails and it increases considerably the risk of freezing or very slow development in spring.
In the futures I want to continue with mulching, but little by little I will substitute the straw (which is finally running out) with the cuttings from other parts of the terrain and I will take away the mulch layer in spring. I would also like to continue experimenting with the use of legumes (White clover and Bird's-foot Trefoil) as green manure.
Now, the vegetable garden seems to be a normal and natural part of our life here and our philosophy of ‘Nature Switched On’.

The vegetable garden with a mulching of straw.
Looking north-west
1 Feb 14:21


  The harvest of only one plant of Jerusalem Artichoke(Helianthus tuberosus). The tubercles taste a bit like artichoke and can be eaten cooked, fried or raw.
3 Feb 13:06







A project that is being executed right now is a solar GREENHOUSE. It is built with, you guess it, straw bales and second hand double-glazed aluminium windows. Only the south wall will have windows while the roof of transparent fibre will also let the sun in. Like the compost toilet shed, I will probably plaster the walls with a layer of earth and straw, with the posterior plantation of vines like Ivy to cover everything up.
This greenhouse will also accommodate the shower, which in the future will also become solar, heating the water with a system of radial black tubes.

Principally all greenhouses are ‘solar’ but it seems that in this case, according to information on the internet, it refers especially to the temperature buffering in water containers, the more the better. Ideally it would consist of some thousand litres in black barrels placed against the north wall but my greenhouse measures only 6 x 2 m (12 m2 interior) and I don’t know yet how to set it up.
In the greenhouse I will grow vegetables in winter and sow in early spring to plant vegetables later on in the garden.

The heat will be probably of the same order as the cold so ventilation will be crucial. Two windows (and the door) can be opened and two bales can be taken away at both extremes of the greenhouse.
3 Feb 11:01




Taking everything into account we can say that we are more than satisfied with the whole enterprise. Right now, at 8 o'clock in the evening, while I am writing, it is icy cold outside (2ºC) and here inside the wood stove roars and I am wearing a T-shirt. Like the heating, the cold of the cellar (6ºC) is free and abundant and makes a refrigerator in winter unnecessary. The few other electric devices we use, consume the also virtually everlasting supply of solar energy. The compost toilet produces a useful fertilizer and doesn’t use water and the kitchen drain irrigates and fertilizes some fruit trees in the vegetable garden, as does the future shower in the greenhouse.
You can imagine our feeling of satisfaction, independence and efficiency.   

  This tenant is also feeling at home, sitting in its cave at the bottom of the cellar. I put a board to let it get out but it preferred to stay.
22 Jan 10:25

floristic catalogue
faunistic catalogue
gallery 1: 2006-2012
gallery 2: 2012-
>> 2010 Feb 19
<< 2009 Dec 16











Latest revision on:  01/08/2018