Eviction

As you know, the limery is full of plants at the moment – chillies, peppers, melons, Cape gooseberry (Physalis), the carnivores, germinating seeds, ginger, passion flowers and tomatoes.

Hmmm… tomatoes… as some of you know, I don’t really like the tomato plants. Don’t get me wrong, I like the tomatoes, just not the plants. Peppers form lovely plants; the melons are trained to climb over the door, the Physalis are statuesque, but the tomatoes are untidy… and smelly. And because I’m not keen on them, they are the plants most likely to get a bit neglected.

Looking around yesterday, I decided that I needed a bit more space as I wanted to plant a few seeds in trays and there was not much room on the window sills. My eye immediately fell on the two most scratty tomato plants which, despite regular feeding, look very neglected and sorry for themselves. Not being keen on throwing plants on the compost heap when they are still cropping (even if only a bit), I decided to transplant them outdoors. Our newest raised bed is slowly being filled with material to compost in situ (leaves, grass clippings, cardboard, tea, paper etc) and is currently home to some impressive courgette and squash plants:

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hard to get the scale, but they are huge

However, one end is unoccupied. So, as an experiment, I have planted the two tomatoes in this area. The compost (you can’t call it soil, really) is amazing – very organic and full of worms, as well as being warm because of the decomposition that is happening remarkably quickly. Of course growing medium isn’t everything and we might be let down by the weather, but fingers crossed these will survive and continue to crop:

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you can see they are currently not very happy – I hope that will change

Elsewhere in the garden, the crops continue to be abundant:

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this morning’s harvest

And even that sad sage plant I mentioned a few weeks ago has perked up…

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it’s growing!

I hope, if you are a gardener, you are enjoying abundant crops and, whether you are or not, that there is abundance elsewhere in your life.

Throwing it all away

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The glorious rubbish bed in 2013

Before the limery was built, we had a feature in our garden known as the ‘rubbish bed‘. Basically this was a raised bed made and filled entirely with waste. Mr Snail had constructed it by taking up some of the flag stones that formed the patio and partially burying them on their ends to enclose an area that we filled with all sorts of waste to rot down and become a growing medium. I don’t think it contained any actual soil, but there was a lot of cardboard, grass clippings, shredded willow, spent potting compost, shredded paper, moss raked from a friend’s lawn and leaves. Most of the organic matter went in fresh and we allowed it to rot down in situ. The best squashes I have ever grown were from this particular bed.

And then came the limery. Because of our limited space, we had to shuffle things around and the rubbish bed had to be sacrificed. The flag stones were reused to floor the limery and a new much deeper bed was built in a different location. The contents of the rubbish bed were transferred to other places – some went into two dumpy bags in which I grew potatoes and some was spread on the other raised beds.

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Volunteer potatoes in the new bed

Ideally, I wanted the new bed to be filled the same way, but it is turning out to be a long haul. However, I think that the end is in sight… it just requires some physical labour. As you may recall, I began by lining the bottom of the new bed with old handouts and lecture notes as a cathartic way to draw a line under my teaching career. Then, we added all the usual stuff, plus lots of tea leaves and coffee grounds and we stopped recycling most of our junk mail and put that in there too, along with the bedding from the hen house. Of course, when we thought we were getting near the top we turned our backs and everything rotted down and the bed was only 1/3 full again. Despite this, we have persisted and it’s currently hosting a late crop of unintended potatoes that we have decided to nurture, plus a courgette in a pot that has rooted down into the compost. Once these have died back and been harvested, we will be piling in the contents of the two dumpy bags (which came from the original rubbish bed), plus all the spent compost from the pots that have had the peppers, squashes and tomatoes in over the summer. And we’ll keep adding paper and cardboard and grass clippings from our neighbours so that by the time we come to plant courgettes and squashes next year, they can go in the ‘new and improved rubbish bed’ and we will hopefully have an ideal medium for a huge harvest… once again, all from material that many folks would simply throw away.

So, if you have a garden that is short of organic matter or just generally lacking soil like ours was, don’t despair…. simply compost everything and anything that can rot down, either in a compost bin or in situ, and you will be amazed by the productivity you can achieve.

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Courgette in a pot but rooting into the compost in the new bed – hopefully a taste of things to come

November shoots

Some time back I wrote a post entitled Is it worth growing potatoes? My resounding conclusion was ‘yes’. Even though they are relatively cheap to buy, I like the fact that I know they will all get eaten, that it cuts down on our food miles and that that I can grow them chemical-free (check out my original post to get an idea of the pesticides that go into the spuds you are likely to get from the supermarket).

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Tiny potato shoots – I hope they survive

Anyway… this year, construction of the limery meant that I was short of growing space and so not all of the potato tubers that I had available were eventually planted. Over the summer, the remainder sat in egg boxes on my windowsill and grew a few leaves, before starting to shrivel. Even so, they tenaciously held on and I couldn’t bear to throw them away. Finally, though, even I had to admit that I needed to do something with them. So, on Saturday when I removed the no-longer-productive courgette plants from their large pots in the limery, I decided that the remaining compost may just be able to have a second life as a medium for growing potatoes. And so, I rearranged the compost and popped the somewhat shrivelled tubers in. The pots remain in the limery and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that these sad little remnants of this year’s planting will spring to life and provide us with a small crop sometime in the new year. Who knows? I could just have put the used compost and tubers into the compost bin, but I have nothing to lose in this experiment. I will be certainly be gloating if I can eat fresh Welsh new potatoes in February.

I’m also pleased to report that the limery is still proving its worth (all these pictures were taken today):

It may be the depths of autumn, but we have green shoots and reminders of summer.

Piles of files

National Recycle Week – Day 5

Today it’s recycling my way!

With my half-century on the horizon (ok it’s more than a year yet, but it’s still there) I have been re-evaluating my life and some things have had to go, the latest being my teaching for the university. Finally I acknowledged Mr Snail’s repeated cries of ‘you’re being exploited’ and decided that I’d had enough. I’d fought the good fight – I’d argued the case for better treatment of ‘casual’ (their term, not mine)  teaching staff with everyone from personnel to the Vice Chancellor for the last 17 years and finally, I’d had enough. So, it’s over and I’m now looking forward to writing knitting and crochet patterns instead, alongside my usual editing work.

This change has brought with it the incentive to clear out my office… over the years I’ve accumulated loads of files and reports and they have been looming over me on my shelves for far too long. So, on Monday afternoon, whilst I was running a defrag on my ailing laptop, I decided to start the clear out in earnest.

I started on a shelf of lever-arch files, with one stuffed full of jottings from my 2002 Open University MEd module.

A small start

A small start

And then I worked my way along the shelf, realising just how much paper I have been accumulating over the years.

A few more

A few more

And so it went on, as I progressed to another shelf, which included box files

and more

and more

And then on to the pile on the floor up the corner

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and more

Until my computer was finally done and I had a break, having filled a couple of boxes  and a large bag full of paper

Just one of the boxes

Just one of the boxes

and having completely stuffed one of the liberated box files full of poly-pockets

Reused box file containing poly-pockets awaiting reuse

Reused box file containing poly-pockets awaiting reuse

I suspect that we will never need to buy any sort of filing supplies for the rest of our lives!  And I’m only part way through.

So, what of the recycling part of this post? Well, the new raised bed is now complete and there’s a lot of it to fill. We’ve decided to treat it like a big composter for the time being and so, the bottom needs a good layer of paper and cardboard to act as a base:

A nice absorbent base - full of carbon

A nice absorbent base – full of carbon

Before being covered with greenery:

Grass clippings on top

Grass clippings on top

Several years ago we trained some of our neighbours to deliver their grass clippings to us and, right on time, a bag arrived this morning for me to add to the mix. Now, I just need to go and collect the bags of moss I have been promised and some horse muck and we’ll be well on the way to a replacement for the bed that was removed to make way for the limery. Now, that’s my sort of recycling.

Farewell rubbish bed

We now have a date for the builders to arrive to start construction of the conservatory. This means that there are some jobs to be completed… one of which we tackled this morning, namely the emptying of the “rubbish bed”.

I have written several times in the past about the woeful lack of soil in our garden when we moved into our house. This was because the topsoil had been stripped away and sold off when the house was built. The only solution was for us to build raised beds and create our own soil. We did buy some topsoil in to get started, but we have also made tonnes of compost over the 15 years we have been here. Perhaps our greatest success was the rubbish bed – constructed from upended paving slabs and filled with all sorts of waste material: cardboard, shredded paper, wood-chip, moss raked out of a friend’s lawn, fallen leaves, spent potting compost, garden compost, grass clippings, wood ash, teabags, to rot down in situ and generate soil and a bit of heat for the plants too.

The 'four sisters' bed

The “rubbish bed” in all its glory in 2013

However, this bed now has to go to make way for the conservatory, properly drained patio and a new, block-built raised bed. So, in glorious sunshine this morning, we emptied out the most amazing compost/soil (all home-made) and transferred it onto other beds and into two dumpy bags that we then planted up with potatoes. The soil that we had created was packed full of earthworms and had the most fabulous texture. It’s a bitter-sweet activity – I am so proud of what we have created from “rubbish”, but very sad that this area of garden will no longer exist (it has been amazingly productive).

Most of the site of the rubbish bed is destined to become a patio, but part of the footprint will coincide with a much deeper raised bed… which, in its turn, will be filled with new compost all created from waste: we already have two of our neighbours trained to deliver their grass clippings, and a friend has some moss to contribute.

So, farewell “rubbish bed” and thank you. Here’s to much more in situ compost making and productivity.

Emptied out and waiting to be dismantled

Emptied out and waiting to be dismantled

Pure intentions

Happy dogs

Aiming for more ethical and sustainable dog ownership

So, this is, apparently, the post many of you have been waiting for… how to deal with dog poo. Owning a dog is not the most sustainable choice, although it’s more sustainable than having children! But, for those of us who do have a canine companion, we can do all sorts of things to minimise its impact on the planet. First, rescuing a dog rather than buying one and thus encouraging breeding is by far the most sustainable option: there are plenty dogs in the world, let’s not support people creating any more of them simply for profit. Second, have your dog neutered, so that it doesn’t create any more puppies. When we start to run out of dogs, then we can think about creating more of them. Third, food choice is important – we have moved over to feeding Sam and Max minced organic offal as part of their meat diet, for example, because this is often regarded as ‘waste’ as it’s not a very popular human food. Having filled them up with yummy organic food, however, there are consequences! What goes in, has to come out and so there is poo to deal with.

In days gone by, dog excrement was considered a valuable resource and was used in leather tanning. Interestingly it was known as ‘pure’ or ‘puer’ in the nineteenth century and Julian Walker cites Hotten’s Slang Dictionary, 1865 as containing the following definition: Pure Finders – street-collectors of dogs’ dung. These days, however, leather is produced without the use of ‘pure’ and pure is generally regarded as a waste product – often bagged up and placed in refuse destined for landfill or simply left to contaminate our streets (shame on you, irresponsible dog owners).

I think this is a real pity, because by treating ‘pure’ as waste, we are missing out on a valuable source of fertility. Responsible dog owners already collect up their dog’s waste, so choosing to take an extra step and compost it is not an enormous leap.

If you read around the subject you will find dire warnings about the health issues associated with using dog (or cat) waste in the garden, but if you understand the issues, then you can create an appropriate system and minimise risks.

The two main problems you are likely to find highlighted are Toxocariasis and Toxoplasmosis, so let’s deal with these two things first.

Toxocariasis is, according to NHS Choices, ‘a rare infection caused by roundworm parasites. It is spread from animals to humans via their infected faeces. Roundworm parasites are most commonly found in cats, dogs and foxes…’ In general, the infection causes no or mild symptoms, but in rare cases it can lead to eye problems (ocular toxocariasis) or damage to the central nervous system or organs (visceral toxocariasis). Roundworm eggs can remain viable in soil for several years if the conditions are moist and cool. You should make sure your dogs are wormed and ensure good hygiene anyway, so ideally there won’t be any toxocara in their poo.

Toxoplasmosis is found in the faeces of infected cats (and other animals). The NHS Choices web site states: ‘Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a common parasite called Toxoplasma gondii … Most people who get toxoplasmosis don’t have symptoms. Around 10-15% of people develop symptoms similar to mild flu or glandular fever, such as a temperature, sore throat and muscle aches… Toxoplasmosis is more serious in people with weakened immune systems, such as those who have had an organ transplant, those with HIV and AIDS, and those receiving certain types of chemotherapy treatment.’ A major issue is pregnant women passing the infection to their unborn child and resultant damage to the child’s nervous system and it is generally recommended that woman who are pregnant never handle cat waste. The eggs that are passed by a cat can remain viable in moist soil for 18 months or longer.

I do not have experience with composting cat waste, but I see no reason why you couldn’t use the same techniques as for dog waste, with the proviso that anyone who may be more susceptible to Toxoplasmosis does not attempt this.

In addition, dealing with faeces of any sort means that you are handling gut bacteria. Remember that good hygiene is essential – use your common sense and never apply faeces to soils around crops that you are going to consume uncooked.

However, with all those warnings out of the way, and with the note that other approaches (like wormeries) are available here is my technique for PURE COMPOSTING:

Our poo bin

Our poo bin

Our poo bin is an old wormery with a reservoir at the bottom and a tap, plus it has a lid with a clip to keep it closed. It does not, however, contain composting worms any longer.

We collect all our dogs’ poo on walks in kitchen paper. We place it in a plastic bag for transport and on return home we drop the paper and poo (not the bag) into the poo bin. If the dogs poo in the garden, we collect it  and transfer it directly (unpackaged) into the bin. We tried using biodegradable bags and are still suffering from their unsightly remains in our soil.

In addition, the poo bin receives wood shavings and chicken poo from cleaning out the chicken house, plus shredded paper and wood ash from our storm kettle. We put in less ash than poo. The wood shavings and paper act as a good source of carbon. If you don’t keep chickens, paper alone is fine, and you could also add cardboard or finely chopped/shredded woody prunings. The ash helps to balance the pH and you should only use wood ash – coal ash is too acidic.

We just keep adding to the bin until it is full. It does not smell. We use a compost aerator tool to make sure that the contents of the bin are turned regularly and there is plenty of oxygen available for decomposition. Because of the ingredients, the compost can be very dry and if this is the case, I add human urine – this also gives a nitrogen boost and speeds up decomposition.

We regularly drain the liquid  to ensure that the base of the compost does not get waterlogged. This liquid is diluted 10:1 and used as a root feed – it seems to work well for tomatoes, peppers, chillies and fruit trees and bushes. We do not use this as a foliar feed.

more on this in an up coming post

This is what it looks like once transferred to the standard compost bin. There is no bad smell.

When the bin is full, we leave it for a couple of months –  aerating occasionally – before transferring the contents into the bottom of a standard compost bin, where it will remain for about a year, with other material being composted on top. Alternatively, we leave the poo bin closed up for six months and then use the compost for planting fruit trees or in the bottom of a bean trench.

The two-stage method (either moving it to a new bin or burial for continued decomposition) should minimise health risks. If you are unsure – simply compost for longer. If you have two suitable poo bins, and your dogs aren’t too ‘productive’ you should be able to have one bin in use and one rotting down in a constant cycle.

As I say, other methods are available, but this is the one that works for us using the resources that we have to hand. It produces a good compost and there are no bad smells during composting or with the finished product. In addition, we have had no problems with flies in the bin.

Pups - not completely unsustainable!

Pups – not completely unsustainable!

Back in the saddle again

I haven’t been writing recently, but I have been doing. So, as a gentle return to blogging, I thought we could catch up by means of some pictures…

I worked on Mr Snail’s scarf:

He says it's not long enough yet

He says it’s not long enough yet

I finished a blanket for the Denmark Farm charity raffle:

A bright blanket

A bright blanket

I got the lovely feather picture framed:

Feather by Anne Lawson

Feather by Anne Lawson

I bought two new (recycled plastic) compost bins to replace the wooden ones that had rotted in our very wet garden:

Two 330l compost bins

Two 330l compost bins

We emptied our dog poo composter…

Empty bin

Empty bin

the content was odourless and the only identifiable ingredient was wood shavings

more on this in an up coming post

more on this in an up coming post

I made some more scrunchies and gave a couple away (which I forgot to photograph)

Progress on the current scrunchie

Progress on the current scrunchie

I taught an ecology course… creatively

The world vegetation mixing desk

Plan for the world vegetation mixing desk

I finished another blanket for the raffle, using squares donated by Jenny from Simply Hooked

lovely lap blanket - thank you, Jenny

lovely lap blanket – thank you, Jenny

I baked cakes, made waffles, roasted vegetables, turned my cheese, walked the dogs, took another huge bag to the local charity shop, tended the chickens and did the day job (scientific editing)… and I made a difficult decision which I then acted upon. So, onwards and upwards…. normal service is now resumed!

 

Courgettearama

Yesterday's courgette harvest

A small harvest a few days ago

Every time I go into the garden there are more courgettes (zucchini) – clearly a run-away success this year. I’ve generally been weighing them when I bring them into the kitchen, and so far I’ve picked well over 7kg (15lbs) of them… not bad for mid-July, eh? Currently there are seven decent-sized specimens in the fridge, a pot of courgette soup on the stove (simple recipe: courgettes, curry powder, homemade stock, cook together, then stir in some creme fraiche and season to taste) and lots growing on the plants in the garden. Last night we did have a meal that did not include courgettes (new potatoes, lettuce, boiled eggs and homemade mayonnaise: all out of the garden except the oil in the latter), but we did have courgette soup for lunch!

However, not everyone is having my success this year, and I have been asked by a couple of people what might be going wrong. I can’t say for sure, but I can tell you what works for me.

Courgette plants in the compost bed

Courgette plants in the compost bed

I always grow my courgettes in lots of compost; in fact, the bed that I use for most of them doesn’t have soil in it – it’s an in situ composting system to which I add grass clippings, leaves, cardboard, shredded paper, compost, chicken bedding and anything else I can think of every year. I have grown courgettes and squash in it for the past four years and the lack of rotation seems to have had no adverse effects. I think I add so much extra material each year that, effectively, there is always new substrate. In the winter I let the chickens onto this bed to give it a good turning and to further increase fertility. When I do plant courgettes into beds with soil, I always add lots of extra compost and water sometimes with some sort of nitrogen-rich liquid fertilizer (worm wee, for example).

Making use of lots of compost has two benefits: first, you are supplying plenty of nutrients and second, organic matter holds large amounts of water. Courgette plants are both hungry and thirsty! According to the University of Kentucky, a courgette is 95% water! So that means for every 1kg (2.2lbs) of courgette that you harvest, you need to supply 950ml (33 fluid ounces) of water. In contrast, a potato contains a mere 79% water. I, however, do not like to have to spend too much of my time watering plants, and all that organic matter saves me having to do so. I do give them a drink very occasionally, but even in June when we got a total of 58mm (just over 2 inches), I only watered them about once a week, despite the very sunny, warm weather. So far this month, I haven’t watered them at all, apart from giving the ones in the soil some liquid feed once. In drier climates, watering is likely to be required, but using lots of organic matter will certainly reduce the amount you need to apply.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with some images of the abundance… clearly the organic matter approach is working here:

The game of the name

I’m very conscious about the effects of language – choose one word rather than another and you can change the whole tone of a sentence. But it’s more than that, by naming objects or ideas in particular ways, we give them a label that can have very deep connotations. It’s often said that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, and it is true that language is a powerful tool for changing hearts and minds. Because of this I was very taken with a word my friend Katie used several times recently – petrol.

As you know, I’m very keen to promote the use of local and renewable resources in order to make our lives more sustainable and protect our planet. One of the biggest problems is our reliance on petrochemicals: our lives are filled with all sorts of products produced from oil that we don’t really notice. We’ve all been told about the issues associated with vehicle fuel – petrol and diesel – and we know that burning oil and coal and gas contributes to all sorts of environmental problems, but petrochemicals fill our lives. As you read this, you are probably wearing them (manmade fibres) and looking at them (your computer). You may have washed your hair with them this morning, smeared them on your face, eaten off them, prepared food on them, cleaned your teeth with them… the list goes on. And whilst their presence may be obvious (to some) in plastics, they are also hidden in things like juice cartons (which appear to be made of cardboard) and books (the covers are often coated with oil-based varnish).

Balls of reclaimed petrol!

Balls of reclaimed petrol!

So what do we do? Well, being aware is the first step – no one takes action if they don’t know a problem exists. And this is where naming comes in and where Katie has hit the nail on the head. She has taken to referring to petrochemical products as ‘petrol’. So, when using acrylic yarn, she says she’s ‘knitting with petrol’ and when we saw a farmer spreading inorganic fertilizer she said he was ‘throwing petrol on his land’. And as she talked I realised how effective it was. If, every time we bought food wrapped in plastic rather than paper or sprayed chemical fertilizer on our vegetables rather than digging in compost or using homemade liquid feed, we said ‘I’m wrapping my food in petrol’ or ‘I’m putting petrol on the garden’ would that change out attitude?

I know it’s not exactly accurate terminology, but it makes you think… if we could try to swap at least some of out ‘petrol’ for something renewable, we could make our lives much, much more sustainable.

Round and around

Most annual crop growing systems benefit from some sort of rotation, where you grow different crops in the beds from year to year so that you don’t get a build up of pathogens and a depletion of specific nutrients. Your rotation can last three or four years, and there is lots of information available on how to plan; for example the Royal Horticultural Society give  a brief outline of both three- and four-year rotations here. In practice, many vegetable gardeners either do not have the space to practice a rigorous rotation (for example not growing potatoes at all, or only growing them in containers) or simply can’t be bothered.

My pick-and-mix placement of crops usually works

My pick-and-mix placement of crops usually works

In my small garden, I could be strict with a four-bed rotation as I do have four raised beds. However, I’m not consistent with the crops that I grow, so sometimes I want more than a quarter of the space given over to one type of crop and sometimes less. Also, I like mixing crops in the same bed, which sort of puts a spanner in the works. And anyway, I’m just too disorganised. I like to be creative and spontaneous, so basically I plant what I feel like where I feel like with the proviso that I don’t plant either onions or potatoes in the same place two years running. In fact I try out new crops each year and some of the less conventional ones (like Aztec broccoli or oca) almost certainly have fewer diseases than the standard offerings  and different nutrient demands. I do try to move my beans around each year because (a) they always get a healthy dose of compost dug into their bed before planting and (b) they are nitrogen-fixers, so should help boost the fertility of the place they have been.

Last year the potatoes grew in it, this year it's being used for mangetout

Last year the potatoes grew in it, this year it’s being used for mangetout

In addition, in my garden, I do lots of container growing. I make use of loads of home-made compost for this purpose and, of course, it doesn’t just get used once.You can’t, however, plan a rotation for your pots in the same way as for land. Last year I used lots of my fresh compost for potato-growing in dumpy bags. After I harvested the potatoes, I left the compost in the bags, but folded the tops down to protect it. I don’t want to grow potatoes in the same compost this year, so that has been transferred into some big pots for growing mangetout up the fence. Compost that has had tomatoes or peppers growing in it usually gets transferred into a bed that will be used for squashes. Because tomatoes and potatoes both get blight, I try to avoid transfer of spores in compost so don’t use compost from tomato pots in potato beds.

It all sounds quite complicated, but actually, I don’t have any difficulty remembering what I grew where (especially since I always take lots of photos) and deciding where to plant. I’m sure there are some of you out there who love an organised rotation, but you are clearly not scatty like me!

And while we moved compost today, Max enjoyed the sunshine!

And while we moved compost today, Max enjoyed the sunshine!

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