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.

More water

I have been thinking a lot about water recently. I think about it as it falls from the sky (most days); I think about it as it flows off the field behind us, through our garden and into our next-door-neighbour’s garden; I think about it as I slosh through the mud to round-up the very soggy chickens (I’m thinking of trading them in for some ducks); and I think about it whenever I do the washing and have to dry it indoors.

In the UK, flooding seems to have been something of a theme of 2012, and the year-end is no different. Travel has been severely disrupted in the past few days as a result of flooding and landslides and not helped by a couple of fires associated with railway lines! Earlier in the year I wrote about the severe flooding in Aberystwyth and surrounding areas and discussed the issues associated with this, including building on floodplains and the impact of upland land use.

The recent flooding is particularly acute because the ground, having been exposed to months of wet weather, is saturated. This means that any water which does fall doesn’t soak into the soil, but immediately flows over the surface, quickly reaching streams, rivers and drains, thus potentially causing flash floods. So we could reduce this problem in the long-term both by having more tress in the landscape – to intercept water and slow down the rate that it reaches the soil – and by having soils that have a greater capacity to hold water.

It is the latter that I have been pondering over the past couple of days. Because our garden receives so much run-off from the field behind, we have had to build raised beds to prevent our vegetables drowning and we’ve had to raise the level of the area where the chicken enclosure is to prevent the chickens dissolving! The latter we achieved by using recycled plastic boards to enclose an area of about 11m2 that used to be lawn and filling it with wood chip. The wood chip now needs topping up (a job for the new year) as it has started to settle and rot down. We noticed earlier in the week that it was starting to get puddles on the top of it – despite still being about 10 cm higher than the natural surface of the garden. So, yesterday I decided to loosen it with a fork to improve the drainage a bit. And what did I discover? That what we have now is soil! Despite the wet conditions, the area is teaming with earth worms. We have inadvertently created a brilliant composting system – carbon from the wood chip and nitrogen (plus lots of other nutrients) from the chicken poo. I’m really quite excited about how efficient it has been… and how much water it is holding. I’m seriously thinking of setting part of it aside to grow potatoes next year!


The soil is an important resource for managing water in the landscape

The ingredients for a good soil – that is fertile and acts like a sponge – are right there in my back garden, so why aren’t they right there in the surrounding countryside? Well, the problem seems to be this balance between carbon and nitrogen. Soil micro-organisms need both, and if we upset the balance, we cause problems. Gardening books warn us not to dig wood chips into the soil because they will ‘rob’ it of nitrogen. In fact, what happens is that wood chip contains loads of carbon but not much nitrogen. Micro-organisms need nitrogen if they are to make use of all this ‘feast’ or carbon and, being really efficient critters, they scavenge nutrients much quicker than plants and so they grab all the nitrogen they can, leaving the soil somewhat depleted. If we are gardening, we avoid this either by composting our wood chip along with things that are nitrogen rich (like chicken poo, or kitchen waste) or by simply using it as a mulch on the surface, where it breaks down much more slowly.

This sort of problem does not occur in modern agriculture… quite the reverse, in fact. Many farmers these days apply inorganic (chemical) fertilizer to their land. This is usually either just nitrogen (N), or a combination of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). So the thing that is missing in this case is carbon. In soils, the carbon is present in organic matter, so when nitrogen is boosted by fertiliser application, the micro-organisms start to break down the organic matter like mad. And here’s the rub… the organic matter is the stuff that makes the soil act like a sponge. So, our modern farming methods deplete the soil of organic matter (regularly because fertiliser is usually applied every year). Taking a crop off removes the plant material that would, in nature, mostly be returned to the soil thus boosting organic matter. So, with modern agriculture, we end up with soils that water flows through or washes away (thus exacerbating the situation).

Things are improving in some ways – for instance, we no longer burn stubble after cereal production, instead we plough it back into the soil, thus returning some carbon. And lots of organic farming techniques value incorporation of organic matter into the soil, but we need these practices to be much more widespread if we are to reduce the potential for flooding. According to Toby Hemenway, good quality soil can hold about a quarter of its volume of water, so if your soil is 30cm deep, it can soak up 7.5cm of rain…. isn’t that astonishing? OK, you are not going to be starting from a completely dry soil, but what if the soil in your garden could hold that amount of water: acting as a ‘water battery’ and storing that water for when you need it, whist slowing its movement through the land during periods of heavy rain? So, good soil is not just beneficial in wet places, it’s great for dry places too!

As climate change leads to there being more energy in our weather systems, we are likely to get more extreme weather – wetter and drier. By developing good soils, we can buffer the negative effects of these changes and make everyone’s lives more secure in terms of food security and safety from natural disasters… all through thinking enhancing the health of our soils.

Flower power

There is a scene in the US sitcom Friends where Monica gives the following advice to Phoebe’s boyfriend

do not get her flowers. Okay? Because y’know, she cries when they die, and there’s the whole funeral…

The line gets a big laugh and it’s supposed to show just how cookie Phoebe is but, you know, I’m really on her side in this case. Whilst it may seem strange to most people, the truth is I really dislike cut flowers… the idea of having something gradually decomposing on my mantlepiece isn’t something that appeals to me.

A breadseed poppy flower in my garden

I have told many people over the years about my feelings towards cut flowers and most of them think I’m bonkers… although a few have acknowledged that I do have a point. I prefer to see my flowers growing… perhaps in a pot, but preferably outside in the garden or in a natural place where the bees, butterflies and hoverflies can enjoy them too.

I was brought up not to have flowers in the house because my mother has such severe hayfever. Even the flowers at my sister’s wedding had to be artificial. So, I didn’t grow up expecting to see flowers indoors… just green growing plants. Perhaps this is why I have always been thoughtful about their presence and never really accepted them as a natural feature.

Of course as I got older I began to think about the origin of cut flowers and question their environmental credentials. The point of a cut flower is beauty… for most people they should be perfect – no blemishes or signs of deterioration when they are received. Like any other plant part, once picked decomposition is going to set in quite quickly, so treatment with fungicides and rapid refrigeration are in order… particularly since many flowers travel thousands of miles before they reach the supermarket or florists where they are sold. As John McQuaid says in an article in the magazine of the Smithsonian institute

Selling flowers is, at bottom, an attempt to outwit death

But even prior to their picking and transportation, the flowers need to be perfect – so have to be grown in conditions that prevent attacks by insects and pathogens.

Flowers in the garden – where I like them

A large proportion of cut flowers are grown in Colombia or Kenya – countries with a climate that allows year-round flower production without artificial heat. In terms of carbon  emissions this seems like a good option – the other common source of cut flowers is Holland, where the plants must be grown in heated polytunnels to ensure they are available throughout the year. However, even in tropical countries, cultivation is often in polytunnels in order to control pests and water applications. And, of course, pesticide use is common… having a significant impact on the health of the workers (often women and children) in the facilities (you can’t call them gardens or even farms) where these flowers are produced. Most (but not all) cut flowers are produced by large companies whose primary motivation is profit, not the welfare of either their workers or their customers. War on Want have highlighted the issues associated with the industry and, whilst the situation seems to be improving, in part as a result of customers looking for fairly traded of environmentally responsible bouquets, there are still problems. For example the ‘Fair Trade’ mark tells you nothing about the levels of pesticides, although it does give more assurance that workers are not being ‘exploited’. In my opinion, however, ‘exploitation’ should be considered to include exposure to dangerous chemicals as well as long working hours, limited breaks, child labour and so on.

Even as a purchaser or receiver of cut flowers you may be exposed to unpleasant substances. John McQuaid writing in 2011 noted that

the U.S. Department of Agriculture checks imported flowers for insects, but not for chemical residues

Which makes me wonder what the message really is when you give someone a bunch of flowers – here darling, have some dangerous chemicals and watch these plants slowly dying!

There’s plenty advice on buying flowers, be it from The Ecologist Magazine or the UK Government. You may want to think about worker’s rights, carbon emissions, water resources, pesticide and fertilizer use, supporting developing countries or your local economy, but for me it’s easy – I don’t like cut flowers so I never buy them!

Oh, and I don’t like cut Christmas trees either!

Soil – getting to the root of things

Unless you are practicing an unconventional system of cultivation like hydroponics (see this great blog if you are interested in doing so) then soil is the foundation of everything you grow.

Gardeners tend to value their soil – they see what they are taking out in terms of crops and try to put something back – often by adding compost, soil improvers or fertilizers. My favourite addition to the soil is compost because it doesn’t cost me anything – I am converting what others would regard as waste (from the kitchen, garden or chickens) into a useful resource. I don’t tend to use commercial fertilizers or feeds, relying on compost, woody material from the willow hedge and other prunings, and worm wee. That’s not to say that I won’t use commercial fertilizers, I’m just too mean to buy them! I received a free gift of some organic liquid tomato feed earlier in the year and so I have recently been using this on potted crops – although it does make the greenhouse smell like someone has been storing fish in there for a week!

Unlike gardeners, many large-scale agricultural enterprises don’t use their ‘waste’ outputs as a resource, choosing instead to treat organic matter as rubbish and buy in fertility in the form of fertilisers derived from the petrochemical industry. In a recent post, Yambean highlighted the shocking waste when Spanish farmers dumped cucumbers in protest at being paid so little for them by the supermarkets. I asked her about this and commented that they would, surely, have been better composting them and returning them to the soil, but she tells me that composting is unheard of in that part of southern Spain and the soil is, as a result, completely impoverished. It’s shocking to me.

Soil is a complex system consisting of a mineral component, organic matter in various states of decomposition (from freshly fallen leaves and recently deceased animals to humus and root exudates) and living organisms (bacteria, fungi, worms, insects, other invertebrates, plant roots etc). It is common sense that we need to nurture such systems if we wish to make use of them. Unless we replenish the soil, it will not continue to be productive. This was the basis of the organic movement in the UK, you know? Ever wondered why the Soil Association (one of the regulators of organic produce here) is called the Soil Association? Well, it was founded in 1946, partly because of concerns about “the loss of soil through erosion and depletion”. In 1967, the association stated that “The use of, or abstinence from, any particular practice should be judged by its effect on the well-being of the micro-organic life of the soil, on which the health of the consumer ultimately depends.” So, you can see that their name really does reflect an acknowledgement of the key importance of the soil.

In large-scale systems, particularly where it is common to have periods when the soil has no vegetation cover, erosion is common. As the Soil Association noted in 1946, soil is not simply lost as a result of nutrients being extracted because we grow crops in it, erosion is also a problem. If you live beside the sea (as I do) you cannot help but notice the brown water around river mouths after heavy rain… this is the soil that was previously supporting plants. It does get replenished naturally – rocks weather and add to the mineral component, organisms die, excrete and shed parts of their bodies and add to the organic matter – but bare land is subject to high levels of erosion that can take a significant time to be replaced. Thus we lose substrate, nutrients and water-holding capacity because we chose to leave soil bare – a simple ‘green manure’ such as clover could reduce the erosion and enhance fertility (clover fixes nitrogen).

If we do not care for our soil is it any wonder that there is an increasing need to add to it from external sources and rely on non-renewable resources? Many people, when thinking of organic growing, focus on the absence of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertiliser, but I’d like to suggest that one of the most important reasons to support organic production is because its practitioners care for the soil and are, thus, ensuring that it is available for future generations to use too. In my garden, I would like to think that I will leave the soil in a better condition than when I found it… not just preservation, but enhancement.

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