Please donate to our ‘Gardening for the Future’ campaign

In light of this week’s conference in Turkey we urge supporters to donate to our ‘Gardening for the Future’ campaign at CAT.  Hosted by the IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecological Services), the talks focus on the value of soil and the revival of less intensive, ancient farming techniques which have been proven much more sustainable – many of which are taught here on site.

Students at CAT learning about garden diversity
Students at CAT learning about garden diversity

At CAT we know all too well the devastating effects that climate change and peak oil pose to our current food supply and prices. The addiction to and damage caused by petrochemicals currently used to transport and fertilise our food and control pests, make it absolutely essential that we develop and share alternative methods of farming.

Volunteers at CAT in the gardens
Volunteers at CAT in the gardens

We aim to teach, train and inspire people to use more sustainable methods of farming and gardening by demonstrating our more natural growing techniques. We are researching better composting methods, the use of green fertilisers, forest garden techniques, organic pest control and much more. We urgently need to raise £23,300 to keep this vital work happening. This will allow us to provide students, volunteers and visitors with the training and tools to become a new generation of green growers, helping to create a greener tomorrow.

Please follow the link to donate; we appreciate all your support.

Whose Larder?

Building on the land-use and diets part of Zero Carbon Britain, Laura Blake, a food and diets researcher at CAT, has embarked upon an exciting new project, tentatively titled ‘Laura’s Larder’. In the first of a new series of blog posts, she explains the importance of thinking holistically about our food.

“Whilst working here at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), I have been doing some research into the environmental and health implications of our diets. This work was primarily conducted as part of CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain project, but more recently I have been developing something new (more details to follow!)

My interest in food has been ongoing for many years now. I became vegetarian at a young age and, with the help of my Mum, learnt how to get all the nutrients I require from non-meat sources. This was the beginning of my interest in nutrition, which I eventually went on to study for my undergraduate degree. I then went on to do a Masters in Food Nutrition, which, combined with membership of a fair-trade society, meant I became more aware of the inequalities of our current supply system.

There are many different issues surrounding the foods we choose to eat – from the effects of the greenhouse gases (GHG) released in their production, processing and transport; to the inequality in the profits of large companies who benefit from paying producers (often overseas) next to nothing. Recently commissioned research into shoppers’ buying habits noted that sales of Fairtrade products increased by 18% last year, despite people generally spending less on their shopping. It appears that we care about issues relating to the food we eat, and when we are provided with trusted information we can make good choices that have benefits on a global level – choosing to buy fair-trade, for example, really does make a difference to people’s lives.

As I continued my work in food issues I began to realise that the effects of climate change (droughts and soaring temperatures, floods and other extreme weather events) have already begun to affect our ability to grow food. My Masters helped me understand that farmers who are already lacking access to clean water, medical supplies and facilities – as well as struggling to make enough money to buy food for themselves – may find it even harder in the future to grow their crops, making life even more difficult. But climate change will not just be a problem in other parts of the world: the effects may hit poorer farmers hardest but they will also affect our growing abilities here in the UK.

As climate change results from high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, this makes reducing our food-related greenhouse gas emissions another important consideration when buying sustainable products – the story goes full circle.

Through my work on the Zero Carbon Britain project I was able to carry out some in-depth research into the greenhouse gas emissions associated with different types of foods that we commonly consume in the UK today. This was one of the two main focuses of research that went towards the recent publication of Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future here at CAT. It turns out that the best way we have currently of cutting emissions related to our food and agriculture is simply to choose to buy and eat different things that are lower in carbon. By looking at the greenhouse gas emissions associated with different types of foods that we commonly consume in the UK, I could come up with a diet that both met all of our nutritional requirements and significantly lowered our greenhouse gas emissions.

Throughout my time working on the ZCB project I was often asked questions such as “how much cheese could I eat if I didn’t eat beef?” or “how much chicken could I eat if I gave up lamb”. These questions reflect the fact that we clearly care very much about making good choices with respect to our food, but we don’t currently have enough information. We all have different tastes, and foods that we would potentially prefer to swap over others in order to reduce our emissions. All of these thoughts have formed the backbone of my new project, something I will tell you about in more detail in my next post!”

Growing in the Gardens

CAT is currently recruiting for some lovely long-term volunteers to join us here in mid-Wales. Are you looking to gain experience in woodland management, horticulture or marketing? CAT has five or six-month placements in these areas and we are recruiting in a rolling basis. We’re taking a closer look at the different roles over the next few days. If you are interested in applying then check out our volunteering website.

Yesterday we looked at the Water and Natural Resources Volunteers. Today:

Gardens Volunteer

Tending to the flowers planted to help support the bees and butterflies

Why volunteer in CAT’s gardens? Well first and foremost, because they’re one of the most important aspects of CAT. According to Roger, CAT’s main gardener, it’s the best place to be for a volunteer! By coming just before the harvesting season the new volunteer will be in time to reap the benefits of the spring and summer plantings.

Former gardens volunteer Drew had this to say about his time at CAT:

I came to CAT with very little knowledge of gardening, but with an enthusiasm to learn as much as possible. Some would say that’s a great attitude to have, but ask Roger, our Head Gardener, after a whole day of being barraged by questions from his wide-eyed, hungry for knowledge volunteers on all things horticultural and you may get a different response. He is a dedicated and passionate gardener and has been a joy to learn all things green fingered from.

As a long term volunteer you get the opportunity to immerse yourself in a way of living that is quite alien to many. The feeling of community within the surroundings of CAT and the local areas we find ourselves living in is a joy to be a part of. From sowing seeds to swing dancing, weeding in wellies to learning Welsh, pruning grapevines to preparing pot-luck dinners, it has been an incredible journey that has left me wanting more of the same. So much so that I have actually decided to lay some roots (excuse the terrible gardening pun) in Machynlleth and find work locally so that I can keep helping and learning from Roger on my days off. I also hope to get involved in a local Community Garden Project, something I would never have thought about before coming to CAT.

Visit the volunteering website for more information about this placement.

Working in the Woods

CAT is currently recruiting for some lovely long-term volunteers to join us here in mid-Wales. Are you looking to gain experience in woodland management, horticulture or marketing? CAT has five or six-month placements in these areas and we are recruiting in a rolling basis. Over the next three days we’re going to take a closer look at the different roles. If you are interested in applying then check out our volunteering website.

First up:

Water and Natural Resources Volunteers

Using a draw knife to make a traditional Welsh gate.

We’re looking for two people to work in CAT’s Water and Natural Resources department. This is a brilliant opportunity to learn about traditional coppice skills, correct tool use and care, sustainable woodland management, biodiversity survey work, land and estate management, wetlands and eco-sanitation. CAT’s woodland website has loads of further information about each of these areas.

The people we’re looking for may not necessarily have experience in this area, but they will:

  • have a genuine interest in woodland and natural resources
  • have practical skills
  • be happy to get a bit grubby
  • be flexible with an enthusiastic and positive disposition
  • be keen to learn
  • willing to complete physical work outside in all weathers


Iñigo, a previous volunteer had this to say about his experience: “I like being involved in the woodland and working outside, being in contact with nature through the work that we are doing and trying to preserve biodiversity. I think it’s a great experience to have and to take some skills and to develop a different view of what you can do with them, and to improve sustainability and to be a change maker in some way.”

Visit the volunteering website for more information about this placement.

Planting the New Green Roof Display

A few months ago we posted an update on the new green roof at CAT, made possible thanks to a donation from the People’s Postcode Trust. So far the roof has been rather more slate-grey than green. Today, however, the planting of the roof began!

Jony and Riccardo planting sedums

We chose to colonise the roof with sedums – hardy alpine succulents – that are also known as stonecrops due to their ability to adapt to extreme growing mediums. Up at CAT we have sedums growing naturally in the disused quarry on slate waste.

The plants chosen for the roof, however, came from the walls and roof of Jony’s – CAT’s Artist in Residence – house. They are, he explains, “a completely homegrown tray of sedum from mid-Wales […] We’re pit planting these in organic potting compost. The roof is like a scree slope of shale that’s falling down the mountain. The plants root themselves in this medium, and the slate also acts like a mulch to stop weeds growing. You need something completely inert that weeds won’t grow in.”

Over the next few years these small plants will slowly grow and spread across the roof until they cover it entirely.

One of the species of sedum being planted

A Green Roof (or Living Roof) is like a shallow box garden. The bottom and sides are lined with a waterproof covering, then with a special membrane with small pockets to collect water to allow for slower drainage. A growing medium (in this case slate chipping) is laid down and then the sedums are planted.

Green Roofs are an important example of the kind of technology that can help us adapt to climate change. They help reduce surface water flooding in cities by absorbing storm water quickly, but releasing it slowly. They also help reduce hotspots of overheating in cities, provide important habitats for biodiversity in urban areas and offer potential spaces to be used for growing food. In general, they don’t give much in the way of insulation, so a roof still needs to be properly insulated.

Although Green Roofs are not a modern invention, it is the recent advances in water-proofing technologies that have led to Green Roofs becoming more widely used in sustainable construction over the last decade.

Preparing a sedum for planting


Catching up with our water and natural resources volunteers

A report from our wonderful water and natural resources volunteers on the work they have been doing.

Managing the woodland:
Coed Gwern is 15 acre woodland managed in a sustainable way by CAT, ensuring and enhancing biodiversity. The spring season is a very important time because many of the migrant birds are coming back to our woodland and life increases after the long stopped of the winter season –bird nesting, trees blossom, etc-.

Throughout the spring we have been making bird boxes and cleaning coppice areas, a special work related with two different protected species: Willow tits and Dormice. A number of areas of the woodland have been prone to flooding and we have been managing this by building dams and ponds, to retain the rainfall. This should help the different bird species (migrants and residents) to nest and find food supply for their chicks and themselves.

The CAT woodland is a great home for willow tits

However, we don’t just build ponds and dams to slow water down or retain it. Recently we built a small pond in front of the bird hide at Coed Gwern so birds can drink out of it and even maybe bath.

Needless to say that these watery places will just be heaven for species who like getting wet. Pond skaters (these large mosquitoes look alike insects skating over the surface of the water) are usually the first ones to appear, then will come other invertebrates like dragonflies, spiders and frogs.

Monitoring changes: In January 2013 the Water and Natural resource department started an exciting new project involving the local community. The woodland is divided in 24 monitoring points which have been adopted by different people and groups. Through this project we are able to follow changes in the plant and animal life.
We have also been improving the network of paths and walks, placing signs to facilitate a good use of the woodland by visitors.To get involved in the woodland monitoring project contact:

Spring’s also the time to find out bird nesting sites. So  two monitoring routes were chosen and measured (100 meters long each) to survey bird species on a map once a week. This work, carried out over 5 weeks requires bird call and song listening skills as well as identifying birds. This work will enable us to draw up a map of the different nesting sites across Coed Gwern

Art in the woodlands: We have been involved in a biodiversity and arts project, developed by Jony Easterby, to build an artificial pond in the woodland. The pond is designed to be both a natural space for people to enjoy and promote water conservation.

Greenwood crafts: As one of the main activities in the winter and spring months is clearing, it makes perfect sense to use the cleared wood for building gates, fences and splitting logs for firewood next year.

The bird hide builders

Building Bird hides: In the last two months CAT volunteers have been working in a project to build a bird hide in the slate quarries, old dynamite hut. Wall stones were removed shifted, added, levelled and rubble was taken out of the ground to even it out. Once the walls were at the right height, the wood work came along (timber frame for the roof and planks above the walls and under the roof with openings to make it a proper bird hide). Last but not least it has got a proper metal roof, which provides good shelter for bird-watching and listening, rain and sun. So the bird hide is now up and roofed. We are now working on displays to help visitors identify woodland and field bird species, and benches to just sit and enjoy the different sounds of nature!

Worm research: We have continued with research that started last year into the use of tiger worms and compost toilets for developing countries

For more information on volunteering and working at CAT please check our webiste, we currently have a number of positions open for volunteers.

Spring at CAT

Despite the unusually cold weather for this time of year, the garden volunteers here at CAT have been busy hoeing our plots and planting bulbs for our organic produce. We’re planting potatoes, parsnips, beetroot and onions. Hello spring!


CAT runs plenty of short courses offering practical experience of sustainable skills.

Be a CAT Volunteer for a Week in May


Do you fancy spending a week at our beautiful site, and being part of a team doing practical work to help CAT prepare for the main summer season?


We’re holding a short-term volunteer week from 27-31 May, and we’d like to invite you to take part. The exact range of tasks on offer will depend on a number of factors, including the weather, but is likely to include work in the gardens, with our buildings and maintenance team, and with our water and natural resources team.


It’s a great chance to enjoy staying on-site at CAT at a lovely time of the year, to get “behind the scenes”, interact with staff and other volunteers, and maybe learn a few new skills. If you fancy taking part, please contact Sally Carr (, 01654 704976).


We have different accommodation options available depending on your budget and preferences:


En-suite rooms in our beautiful new facility, the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE), fully catered – £200 per person

Rooms with shared bathroom facilities (not WISE), fully catered – £150 per person

Self-catering accommodation (with lunches provided) – £70 per person


Volunteers in the garden
Volunteers working in a polytunnel at CAT


Volunteers get a taste of CAT

Josh on Volunteer Taster Session


This week CAT welcomed some volunteers for a taster session to show them what it’s like to volunteer at the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth.

Josh from Liverpool studied business management at university, and after travelling in Australia fancied a change of direction. “I wanted to try something different and unusual, so I’ve come to CAT to learn about gardening.”

The taster session gives volunteers an insight into life at CAT before they decide to stay for a longer period of time. Long-term volunteers can stay from two to six months, and there are several different areas in which volunteers can work:

•Natural Building Materials Research

Zero Carbon Britain

• Site Maintenance

• Water and Natural Resources

• Eco-cabins Maintenance

• Gardens

• Marketing/Media

The centre also works with local volunteers on a flexible and part-time basis. Click here for more information on volunteering.

Josh on Volunteer Taster Session