Life in a Dol house
2017 - Week 11

I've started, so I'll finish...

With a week of wall-to-wall fine and sunny weather, I have been outside for most of the working day, every day. 

This has translated into finishing the cutting away of the sandstone for the new steps up from the courtyard. The idea is that you cut into the sandstone, a little deeper than the actual finished steps, so that when four or five centimetres of concrete is poured, the finished tread height will be 18cm and the tread depth 30cm.

There were still quite a few barrow loads of spoil from even this small enterprise. Once again, I have a large (and growing) area of spoil in the location where the new building should be. 

It's going to be another job for a tipper truck to take it all away. Something which is compacted and has been around since the time of the dinosaurs suddenly seems to expand and double in volume the moment you break into it! 

Whilst in the courtyard, I dug out the trench to take the infrastructure pipes later in the year.

Back filling the trench with pure sand will make it very easy to re excavate, and I marked the walls on either side, so I know exactly where the trench is.

I also took the opportunity to dig two pits for trees in the courtyard. I will plant two columnar varieties of trees, one on either side of the gate. With the sandstone removed, I filled the pits with compost and soil, ready to take the trees, also later in the year.

I say a "growing" heap of spoil because I have also started to excavate around the cesspit

This is one of those things that is an evil necessity, but is not discussed in polite circles over dinner! There is no municipal sewerage system here, indeed throughout the Balkans, only the larger towns and cities have a municipal system. Instead, every home has one or more what are described as 'septic tanks'. Only they are not what in English is a "septic tank", they are 'soak pits' or 'cesspits'.

I have two of them and the concrete over one was removed in the process of preparing for building work. However far from being what I expected to be a disgusting hole, the system was working extremely well. Excavated from the porous sandstone, to a depth of a couple of meters, it has functioned over the decades exactly as it should. The pit was dry and empty.

All the waste has been digested by microbes and has disappeared into the porous sandstone. No smell, nothing. So it will be safe to cover it over with new concrete and leave it for another 50 or so years. 

This is a process called Anaerobic digestion - anaerobic because all air is excluded, and digestion by microbes is what it says on the tin. I aid the process by adding a sachet of microbes to speed the process up every month.

It is the preparation for that covering which is generating the additional spoil. I need again to work from my datum line to establish the finished floor level, then go down another 20cm, plus 5cm for the steel reinforcing framework and boarding onto which the concrete will be poured.

This pad needs to extend beyond the actual hole to form a secure and airtight cap over it. 

The main problem is that the distance from the building wall is not very great to the edge of the hole so working with the heavy breaking hammer is a bit precarious. I am on the bedrock here, so no danger of the building collapsing, even though the bedrock is soft, yellow sandstone. With between 25cm and 50cm to excavate, it takes time.

Firstly as I already mentioned, it is a confined area, then I don't want debris falling into the pit, so I break a bit, lever it free with the pickaxe and then clear it away with the shovel, checking the depth as I go. No point in going too deep, but also it must be deep enough.

I work on the principle that "near enough is never good enough", things have to be accurate, but on this occasion, I am happy that near enough is going to be about right.

In the orchards I have left the hoeing of weeds a little too late. 

The warm sun has already baked the clay based soil surface into hard chunks. Cracks have opened up everywhere and I have struggled to penetrate the surface with my Dutch Hoe.

It has been exceedingly hard, wrist aching work just doing a small bit each day. But I have persevered with the worst bits, to try and get a march on the annual weeds. With some rain possible next week, I think I might leave the rest until the soil surface has been softened again.

Using that immortal catchphrase of Magnus Magnusson, "I've started so I'll finish", I have begun constructing the rockery in the top orchard. 

Whilst the end product will be horticultural, the work at the moment is more about engineering and design. I have an abundance of hard, white limestone which came from the old buildings, so I began this week by digging out the corner where the retaining wall will start and placing the first stones.

This could be a TED-talk project, I am using technology to move the heavy stones around, design definitely, to get the right stones in the right place. As for entertainment? I'll let you be the judge, because although I have started, it will be a while before it will be finished. 

There is a lot of soil to dig away and some huge stones to move around. Then I bought some weed matting when I was in town this week, to go behind the stones, which will have to be laid in place before I can back fill. Later the rockery will need to be planted with local plants, but for now the work has begun.

In the greenhouse some of the seeds I planted last week have germinated.
I am also having trouble with Callie, who seems to think that she is incubating them. 

Although both she and No 1 cat Risha have beds on the greenhouse staging (who doesn't like to doze in warm sunshine?), she seems to like the Styrofoam better, even though I am keeping it wet. Once more seeds have germinated, the top will have to go back on to protect the tender seedlings.

One surprise germination has been Star Anise, Illicium verum. This is a spice used in biryani curry amongst other dishes. I have had the seeds for several years, but decided this year to try and get them to germinate. 

First I used a nail file to scarify the hard outer coating, then I soaked them in tepid water for 24 hours, before I planted them in a mini greenhouse. Just a week later, two have germinated. Now the challenge will be to get them to a size where I can plant them in the Top Orchard, against the protective south facing wall.

As my design for the orchard takes shape, I am taking the principle of "beautiful functionality" as my focus. 

It is the last major area which has not really been touched since I moved here in 2014. Because it is bounded by walls on three sides, it is quite sheltered, although the severe cold at New Year has set back my Avocado trees. 

The main raison d'être of the orchard is to provide fruits and to this end I have planted three varieties of Cherry, Persimmon, Japanese Pear and Nispero, to add to the three varieties of plum, a dessert apple and olive trees which were already there.

As it runs east-west, the orchard gets sun all day although there are some shady spots, which will be good for various trees I have in mind. As soon as my neighbour's wall is finished, I will plant a Custard apple, Annona reticulata and a Jabuticaba, together with a Kiwi fruit

I have a plan for a small garden pond with perhaps a water feature, so there will be the sound of water, and against the low south wall, I want to plant some native shrubs to provide a bit of shade and to act as a wind break. 

There will be a lot of flowing curves to break up the straight rows of the orchard trees, whilst retaining them so I can maximise production in the available space.

People here do not have gardens in the sense that they are known in other countries. Of course they have small plots of land around their homes, but almost exclusively these plots are use for vegetables and legumes, with herbs and perhaps a few bulbs. I have yet to see any garden with flowering plants and shrubs, so once again this will be a departure from what is the norm here and will be experimental.

Above all, I would like it to be a quiet oasis and a haven for birds, insects and amphibians. Like I said, I've started,.... but it will take a year or so to get the orchard into the place I want it to be, I've started, so I'll finish!

The construction of the north wall was completed this week and it looks superb.
The Crow Stepped Gable End was added on Friday, known as a Crow-stepped gable it seems to fit perfectly.

There was quite a lot of discussion and then measurement to get the proportions right, followed by a lot of searching through my piles of recovered stones to find just the right pieces to build the steps. 

The last jobs are to clean out the joints and fill them with grout, attach facing stones to disguise the concrete foundation then clean up the mess. Quickly said, but it should not take long to do. The photograph does illustrate the amount of work I have to do around the orchard though.

As the days lengthen, the power of the sun increases. 

On Friday afternoon, after another beautiful sunny day, the pressure release valve lifted on the solar water heater, for the first time this year, releasing rivulets of boiling water down the roof and onto the flower bed near the kitchen window. That meant on Saturday, I was up the ladder installing a cover to reduce the amount of area exposed to sunlight, so the water temperature does not reach boiling point.

Last year this was achieved in a rather Heath-Robinson fashion, with a roll of aluminium baking foil and some clear parcel tape. 

This year, I purchased some quick release ratchet lashing straps and some insulation board, so I can increase the amount of cover over the super-efficient heating pipes incrementally, as the year goes on, then in the Autumn, it will be equally easy to reduce the cover as the power of the sun decreases.

Together with planting some red Gooseberry bushes, Hinnomakki crveni, it has been a fairly successful week. I hope your has been too.