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

Water, water

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Rivers are over-topping their banks

It’s been a bit wet in the UK recently. When we compared our rainfall data for 2014 with that for this year, we saw that we’ve had approximately 50% more in November and more than 60% more in December (and it’s not quite over yet).

We are lucky in that we live on a hill and, although water flows through our garden from the field behind, it doesn’t hang around for long. In addition, our raised beds and raised chicken area act like sponges, and then drain gradually once the rain stops. Others are not so fortunate. Those living in the bottom of valleys are on the receiving end of all the water that has drained off the land further up the catchment. And so in recent days there is news of flooding in such locations.

It seems that we have suffered much more severe floods in recent years than previously and the media is keen to apportion blame… councils allowing developers to build on floodplains for example or upland livestock farming. But it’s a complicated picture and there are lots of reasons behind the current situation. Which means there isn’t a magic bullet – we can’t do one single thing to solve the problem.

Perhaps the first thing to consider is that this is about changing climate. By putting a blanket of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gasses) around our planet, we are trapping energy in our atmosphere. The result is the increase in storms and severe weather events. You will see many claims in the media that our changing climate is not the result of human activity. These often come from such renowned “experts” as Nigel Lawson, with his degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and James Delingpole, with his degree in English Literature. If you are interested to see the credentials of those in the public eye who are sceptical about climate change, check out the DeSmog disinformation database. In contrast, the people actually undertaking scientific research about climate change overwhelmingly agree that it’s happening and that it’s anthropogenic. Indeed, according to NASA:

Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

So, that’s something to bear in mind.

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The local supermarket car park will soon be awash

But, back to the floods themselves… There are several things that we need to do. We need to remember that floodplains serve a particular purpose in a river catchment, and that is not providing flat land for housing! Apart from anything else, floodplains are where rivers should be able to overflow; where the water spreads out, slows down and deposits the soil particles that it’s carrying before it reaches the sea. Floodplains should be the place where we catch the fertility of the land before allowing it to be washed away, and where, as a result, we can farm productively in the drier months. Channelling water so that it moves rapidly through this part of the catchment means that the energy is not dissipated and any nutrients will disappear out to sea.

Further up river catchments we also need to slow down the movement of water. We need to develop a landscape that holds water – upland bogs and grazed diverse grasslands are good for this – and where water is intercepted by trees and shrubs. We don’t need a smooth landscape where water just flows off – we need diverse topography, with pools, banks along contours, a mixture of vegetation types and a well-developed soil. Upland woodlands slow the movement of water, from the moment it falls. Leaves, twigs and branches intercept rain and increase the time it takes for that water to reach the surface. Tree roots make the ground more permeable, and this increases infiltration. Plus, the organic nature of deciduous woodland soils means they act like a sponge and hold large amounts of water.

Anywhere in the catchment, we can make a difference to the water-holding capacity of soil. You are doing this if you add compost to the beds in your garden. In addition, any organic matter incorporated into the soil (whether in a tiny garden or on a large farm) is acting as a sink for carbon and thus reducing net greenhouse gas emissions. These are really good reasons to compost waste and to treat any organic matter as a resource not a problem to be disposed of… not to mention increasing soil fertility and therefore allowing you to grow better crops, which photosynthesise and thus also reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Another benefit, is that increasing the water-holding capacity of soils reduces the impact of droughts – something we have also encountered recently. Adding organic matter, therefore, is a win-win situation.

So, whilst we can’t stop the flooding right now, we can manage our land better to reduce problems in the future. And we can all do this – plant a tree, make compost, build a garden bed, collect rainwater to flush the toilet or water your house plants. Every action helps and together we can make a difference.

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Over the banks but not over the bridge

 

 

All tucked up

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Teeny-tiny leeks

There’s not much going on in the garden at the moment… some leeks that I planted out very late are growing and the weeds never seem to sleep, but generally it’s all quiet. At this time of the year it’s easy to leave the vegetable patch to get on with things and allow it to develop its own layer of vegetation that will need dealing with in the spring. This year, however, I have decided that I want to avoid as much weeding as possible prior to planting, so I have started to mulch.

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All secure for the winter

Despite some blustery weather yesterday, I got outside with a length of MyPex that had been hanging around the shed for a couple of years and covered one of the raised beds. Until a couple of weeks ago there had still been nasturtiums flowering in this area, but the first frost killed them off and it was all looking rather sad. I dug the edges in to secure it, but because I know how easy it is for a sheet of mulch to get blown about, I also weighed it down with planks and pots, stones and a couple of spare log rolls. The MyPex excludes the light, but allows water to penetrate, so the vegetation that was left underneath should rot down nicely over the winter and provide lovely organic matter for the plants that I put in when spring comes around.

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I’m regarding this as green manure

Unfortunately I only had enough MyPex for one bed, but I do have some black polythene mulch that I am going to use to cover a second bed. The wind got up whilst I was working yesterday and so I decided not to battle to get this done, especially since there are some rogue brambles to deal with first. For the time being the weeds can grow as a green manure… they will turn into great compost once the mulch is finally down The main drawback of this approach is that mulch provides a great habitat for slugs and snails. I will deal with this by feeding them to the chickens when the mulch is lifted in the spring – you can plant through it, but then in our wet climate, you lose all your plants to molluscs!

Today there has been a mixture of sun and very heavy showers, so no gardening. We were lucky to have a rainbow though, which made me smile and grab my camera:

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Even on a grey day there can be brightness

Loyal to the soil

The other day my friend Ann and I were discussing the fact that if she wants to become a British citizen, she will be obliged to swear  or affirm (the former involves God and the latter doesn’t – you get to choose which) an oath of allegiance to the Queen. Strangely, because I was born here, I can choose not to ally myself with the Queen and even, I suppose, to plot her downfall (in a democratic way!) but if Ann wants to be British, she can’t.

At a citizenship ceremony you affirm your allegiance by saying the following:

I (your full name) do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that on becoming a British Citizen I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors according to law.

I’ve quoted the non-religious version, but you can swear to God if you wish. In the ceremony, this is followed by the “Pledge of commitment”:

I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfill my duties and obligations as a British citizen.

Whilst I don’t have a problem with the pledge, I would certainly have to think carefully about the affirmation. I’m not a big fan of the royal family – they are after all just people who, by accident of birth, are able to lead a very privileged life. Although our monarch is the head of state, she doesn’t actually run the country… and anyway she has no skills to do so apart from having ancestors who were the biggest bullies in their time. And this got me to thinking about what I would feel happy affirming my allegiance to…

These ones were planted a bit later

Celebrating to bounty of the soil

I’m not at all nationalistic – I prefer to see myself as a citizen of the world and to celebrate my links to all other people, not just those who happen to occupy an arbitrary area. Don’t get me wrong – I am very grateful to have been born in a country where I can speak freely – including telling you I’m not keen on the monarchy – without fear of retribution, and where I experience no severe repression because of my gender, lack of religion, skin colour or sexual orientation. The question is, given a choice, what would I affirm my commitment to? I think the answer is not to my country or monarch, but to the land… and air and water; to the earth around me and all it’s wonderful diversity.

So, as a citizen of the earth, this is my affirmation and pledge

I do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that, as a member of the human race, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the earth beneath my feet, the air that I breathe and the water that sustains me.
I will give my loyalty to the natural world and respect its rights and bounty. I will value the world’s ecosystems and work to enhance the land that sustains me – leaving it richer than when I found it. I will observe nature and be inspired by what I see, fulfilling my role as a part of the diversity life on this amazing planet.

How about you? What sort of pledge would you make?

A handful of soil

I’m a day late, but what the hell? It’s a great cause, so I’m adding this post to many others for Save the Soils! blogger action day (in my case action day +1… well, what do you expect from a snail?).

When we moved into Chez Snail we didn’t have any soil…we had a thin layer of clay, a patio and a lawn. But where was our soil? Surely there must have been some over the land at some point in the past? The answer, of course, was that the soil had been stripped off the land when the house was built and, no doubt, had been sold (valuable stuff, top soil).

These ones were planted a bit later

Soil in our garden where there used to be none

So, we started making soil… we collected bags of moss raked out of friends’ lawns and sacks of leaves; we made compost from grass clippings and cardboard and kitchen scraps; we got chickens and used their soiled bedding; we built raised beds and primed them with some bought-in soil and them added any organic matter we could think of; we planted a willow hedge, chipped the prunings and incorporated these; we learned to compost dog poo safely ; we boosted nitrogen with urine; we shredded all our confidential waste and added this to the garden, we trained the neighbours to deliver their grass clipping to us… and fifteen years on we do have a productive plot  that contributes significantly to our diet.

Amigurumi Escherichia coli

Bacteria are so important in soil… ok this is a crochet one, but I didn’t have a microscope to hand!

But soil is not just about organic matter – it also contains a mineral element (which varies according to the nature of your bedrock) and lots of living things – from those we can see (like earthworms) to microscopic bacteria, algae, cyanobacteria and fungi. And then there are the marvellous, magical mycorrhiza (also fungi)… mostly hidden from view, but bursting forth into our world when they produce their fruiting bodies – mushrooms and toadstools. And it’s these living things that make to soil the wonderful, productive and dynamic system that it is. Bacteria in the soil and in the roots of some plants can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere… converting it into forms that are available to other living things (like us). Micro-organisms break down dead stuff – plants and animals – converting their bodies into more soil and freeing the nutrients held within them. Without micro-organisms we’d be drowning in dead stuff!

The 'four sisters' bed

All that soil building really pays off

Living things participate in a great cycle of nutrient transfer and harvesting crops means we deplete the soil… hence the importance of putting organic matter back in through composting. Artificial fertilisers just don’t deliver the goods – they give a short-term boost, making micro-organisms go berserk, but leaving the soil depleted or imbalanced in the long term. Compost, on the other hand contains carbon and nitrogen in balance and so the soil micro-organisms get a balanced diet and continue to thrive. Not only that, but compost improves soil structure and enhances water retention… both key to productive plant growth. Plus, if you make compost, you are keeping material out of landfill and building up a bigger carbon store in your garden… every little helps when it comes to reducing our carbon emissions!

So building good soil is a win-win-win-win situation. Even if you only have a tiny back yard or a balcony, you can build a little area of good soil… and if you have no outdoor space, make sure your organic waste goes to a municipal composting facility, so it can boost soil building somewhere else. We can all do something to improve the soil that is the foundation of our lives… after all, without it we are not going to have much to eat!

P.S. In case you didn’t know, I’m an ecologist by training… I’m getting off my soapbox now

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Our garden today (taken from indoors!)

The only impermeable, soil-free part of our garden today (taken from indoors!)

Even if you don’t live in the UK you may have heard that we are having a very wet winter here. It’s been raining for a couple of months… we have had some short dry periods, but every two of three days the jet stream delivers a new low pressure cell to us with associated wet and/or windy weather. Some parts of the country, like Somerset and the Thames valley, are suffering from flooding, whilst many of us are just very wet. Chez Snail is on a hill, but our garden is currently a stream, with water flowing off the field behind and both down our drains and into next door’s garden. Today we also have a red warning for high winds, meaning there is a risk of structural damage. I am certainly not going out and about and I will be trying to dissuade Mr Snail-of-happiness from going to his Chinese class tonight because driving conditions are currently described as ‘dangerous’. At least we are safe and dry and in our own home, unlike so many folks right now.

In the face of this sort of extreme whether, it’s easy to feel disempowered and useless. However, whilst all we can do at the moment is batten down the hatches, I do think that it is important to remember that everyone can take small steps to improve our situation in the long-run. If we act collectively, we can make a difference to our environment.

Whether you believe in climate change or not (and remember that the vast majority of experts do) it is clear that we are all exposed to extreme weather in one form or another (my thoughts are also with those of you in Australia under threat of fire or tropical storms). So, what can we do? Well, as far as flooding or drought are concerned, we can help the environment by improving the soil. Soil that contains lots of organic matter acts like a sponge, whilst mineral-dominated soil has a much lower water-holding capacity and hard landscaping just leads to rapid run-off… delivering water in a fast, large pulse to those people further down the water catchment.

If you have a garden, therefore, caring for the soil – making it healthy and active and full of organic matter – means that you can create a little reservoir to hold water. This is not just good for people who live downstream from you, this is good for you. It means that you will have water stored in the soil ready for your plants to use in drier months… it may not be enough to last the summer, but it will help you along. It also means that if you do need to water your garden when it’s dry, more of the water will he held in the soil for your plants to use rather than just flowing over the surface or soaking straight through. Adding organic matter is quite simple if you make compost, although I have to confess that I could always use more of the stuff! There are all sorts of sources of organic matter, from wood to teabags, from weeds to paper and any of it can be composted to help your garden become a better sponge. Different materials require different approaches, but there’s lots of advice available if you look.

Colleen and Valor in a raised bed

Our raised beds (photographed last summer) do not flood, hold lots of water and are really productive

In addition to acting like a sponge to hold water, organic matter in the soil sequesters carbon and thus keeps it out of the atmosphere where it acts as a greenhouse gas. And once you have a healthy soil, it will be much more productive – allowing you to grown a greater diversity of plants… all photosynthesising and thus also reducing the carbon in the atmosphere and being available to compost later and thus adding to your healthy soil. This is a virtuous circle with wide-reaching positive effects.

So, don’t feel you can’t make a difference – you can – and at the same time you can see the benefits right in your own back yard.

Job done

The woodchip is delivered

The woodchip is delivered

So, Mr Snail-of -happiness drove off yesterday morning to our local tyre emporium and then to help with a house move and I settled down to do some paid work. At which point the new woodchip for the chickens was delivered… two cubic metres (about 70 cubic feet). He has great timing! The idea was to spread a new, thick layer of woodchip over the chicken’s patch to keep the hens drier and save us having to part-exchange them for some ducks.

My transportation tools of choice

My transportation tools of choice

The closest it could be delivered was the front of the house, meaning that it needed to be moved round to the back by hand – and by me. So, setting aside the editing to make the most of a day when it wasn’t raining, I reviewed my options. We have a barrow that is good for most jobs, but the chicken area is surrounded by a 30cm barrier to raise it above ground level and it’s a pain to get over this with the wheels. I, therefore, decided to use a large tub-trug and carry it round until the bags were light enough to drag.

Foraging straight away... I don't think there can be much to eat in there

Foraging straight away… I don’t think there can be much to eat in there

And after only about two hours, it was all done and spread out, transforming a quagmire into a clean and dry area for the chickens to feed. The great thing about this approach is that we are progressively building up soil here – the wood slowly rots down in combination with the chicken droppings and eventually we will use this area for growing vegetables and move the hens to a different part of the garden. It’s all part of our strategy to restore the soil that was removed when the house was built and thus to reduce the flooding that we suffer in the garden. Sadly we don’ manage to produce enough woodchip ourselves to achieve this and our local tree surgeons, despite promising to supply woodchip free, have never delivered any. I was, therefore, forced to buy it in, but I think that it’s a good long-term investment and the hens are certainly appreciating it:

Happy hens with dry feet

Happy hens with dry feet

Gratitude

I was reminded earlier today that having the opportunity to grow at least some of my own food is something that I should be grateful for: thank you Shakti for your comment.

So much to value in the garden

So much to value in the garden

It’s easy to moan about the slugs and the rain (or lack of it), to despair when something doesn’t grow, or the chickens eat it, or because I don’t have enough space to plant all the things that I want to, But that simply doesn’t get you anywhere in life… as Johnny Mercer once wrote you should ‘accentuate the positive‘! So I thought that I would make a little list of (a few of the) things that I am grateful for in my garden:

Having space to grow some of my own food

The joy of eating crops that I have just harvested

Collecting warm eggs that have just been laid

Knowing that what I’m eating has not been exposed to pesticides

Feeling close to natural cycles

Knowing my hens are happy

Eating strawberries straight off the plants, still warm from the sunshine

Storing potatoes and squashes for the winter

Feeling the soil on my hands

Composting… making waste material into something useful

Leaving the soil better than when I found it

Being able to find fresh herbs even in the depths of winter

There are so many I could add, but I’d like to hear some from you…

Life finds a way

Soil has been on my mind quite a lot recently… mainly because there’s a bare bed in the garden since Mr Snail of Happiness harvested kilos and kilos of potatoes on Saturday afternoon. The potatoes are safely in boxes in the loft now and the bed is awaiting some pleasant weather so I can get out there and plant something in it. I quite like the look of bare soil, but it’s not an ideal system… it’s available for all sorts of seeds to colonise, it can get washed or blown away, and in my small growing space it seems like a waste of a resource.

If I leave this soil, it won't stay bare for long

If I leave this soil, it won’t stay bare for long

In fact, the only reason my soil is bare is because it poured with rain yesterday, so I was not encouraged to go and plant it up. I could seed it with a green manure, but I have other plans for it. I have some red onion sets (variety Electra) waiting to go in one end of it, plus several varieties of oriental vegetables to go in the other end. Earlier in the year I tried inter-planting onions and oriental greens, but the latter were too successful and swamped the onions… I will not make the same mistake again.

Given the presence of all this bare soil, I was interested to read this post on Australian almond orchards (I’ve only recently discovered the blog, and I really like it), in which the soil below the trees is kept completely bare, thus supporting no pollinators so that the farmers have to bring in bee hives to ensure pollination. The energy required to maintain this system must be huge, and makes no sense in terms of sustainable production.

The idea that keeping soil bare artificially over a long period of time is a good thing, seems very strange to me. Whilst in nature you do see bare soil, it is always only temporary, and something always comes along to colonise it pretty quickly. Even when a site is severely contaminated, some species can survive. My first job as an ecologist involved surveying old metal mines in mid-Wales. Many of the spoil heaps appeared quite bare from a distance but, close up, even the most toxic spoil (contaminated with lead, cadmium, arsenic, copper and other heavy metals) had a flora of lichens and even grasses (such as sheep’s fescue). And more than 20 years on, I return to some of the sites and they are supporting heathland, grassland and even trees.

The spoil heaps at Cwm Rheidol in 1982

The spoil heaps at Cwm Rheidol in 1982

The same spoil heaps 20 years later

The same spoil heaps 20 years later

Since, as Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, “…life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories” I think I want to control what’s growing in my raised beds, so I’m off to plant those vegetables now!

Hands in the dirt, head in the sun

The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul. There is no gardening without humility. Nature is constantly sending even its oldest scholars to the bottom of the class for some egregious blunder. Alfred Austin

Abundant potato growth

Abundant potato growth

After a rather frantic week retrieving chickens from their holiday home (thank you Glad and Mr Glad for looking after them), retrieving dogs from the kennels (thank you Ann at Rhydlewis – a unique place where the dogs are cared for better than anywhere I know), attending a day-long trustees’ meeting and a learning guild get-together, as well as editing a couple of papers and doing piles of washing, I have finally managed to find some time to spend in the garden. During our two-week absence the potatoes have grown like mad and the raspberry canes have become laden with (as-yet unripe) fruit; the mange tout are on their way up (the variety we are growing – yellow-podded – is tall) as are the runner beans; the courgettes and squashes are settling in and the onions are flowering – boo! As always, some things do well and some don’t, but that is the way of the world and gardening does not come with a guarantee.

Squash, corn and beans doing well

Squash, corn and beans doing well

Anyway, overall the week has been quite stressful, but a few hours in the garden are good therapy. I find gardening to be remarkably good for my state of mind – it gives me time to think, as well as allowing me to be both creative and peaceful. I love seeing plants grow that I have nurtured from seed. Even when it comes to the time that they have to be removed, knowing that what is left will go on the compost heap and contribute to the next cycle is immensely satisfying.

But, reading an article in The Guardian today by Alys Fowler, I discover that gardening is not good for me just because of all the things that I’ve mentioned, but also because there are bacteria  (specifically Mycobacterium vaccae) in the soil that have a beneficial effect on health. These bacteria boost production of seratonin (which is a mood regulator) and help to build a healthy immune system if we come into direct contact with them. So, there you are – get out there and get your hands dirty and you really will be improving your health and happiness!

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