mumsnetBack along, my family and I swapped a house for a three-acre field in Devon and a leaky caravan where we lived off-grid for two years. Sadly, we failed to get the planning permission we needed to stay. We are now back within four walls, with a proper loo and everything in a cottage in Dartmoor. So this is now a blog about living ethically amid a fabulous landscape with our home educated kids while we adjust to being 'normal' - for a while... and what we plan to do with our land next

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Reed warbling

I visited a nearby 'green' community recently, which I've been wanting to visit for a long time because it is founded on ecological principles and is an interesting model for sustainable living and permaculture.

I wanted to move in, of course. It was so welcoming and homely and the grounds are beautiful. The large warm kitchen was painted a sunny yellow and smelt of home-cooked pizza and apple cake with top notes of oregano and cinnamon. Industrial-sized tubs of things like couscous and bulgar wheat sat on fat wooden shelves, while several buckets variously destined for hens or compost made the disposal of a teabag slightly intimidating. I slid into the window seat behind the huge communal table and wondered if they would notice if I never slid out again.

Later I was taken around the grounds where I inspected the composting loos (still can't get over my obsession with other people's droppings - see Potty Mouth), the veg plot, the furnace and the communal workshops filled with arts and crafts, woven baskets and drying cob bricks. It was truly inspiring.

Of particular interest were the reed beds. All the household waste, including the contents of the flushing loos, drain into these, filtered through two reed beds and finally into a pond, which is home to frogs and newts and must therefore be good clean water, since newts are fairly picky about their habitats.

Reed beds utilise the common reed (Phragmites australis) which is able to transfer oxygen from its leaves, down its stem and rhizomes into gravel around its root system creating a rich population of micro organisms. There are horizontal – or surface – systems and sub-surface and vertical systems. Since I can see you beginning to twitch, I will not go into their inner workings in detail – but basically the vertical systems take up less room and can deal with stronger effluent than the surface ones.

Since our eventual reed beds will be dealing with grey water and liquid effluent – well, wee - we will have three sub-surface systems that will clean it all up and make it resuable. It's a lovely system – so green and satisfying. No nasty waste or chemicals going out to sea or into our rivers, just nature filtering away. It does mean you have to be careful what you use to wash the dishes, or your hair, with, but that's no bad thing.

Interestingly, one of the objections to our planning application cites our reed beds proposal raising the possibility that they can fail in freezing conditions. I had to search very hard to find any mention of this – which just goes to show that if you are determined enough to find something negative, your efforts will be rewarded.

Yes, they can have problems – just as sewage pipes can crack, for which there is much more plentiful evidence. But since our beds will be sub-surface, these problems are unlikely to occur and the instances where they might fail are in extremis – trying to object to them on that basis is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water – and goodness knows how a reed bed would deal with one of those.

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