Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Digesting Some Facts About Dalek Composters

Our Dalek can eat for Ireland. We put kitchen guck in and within a few weeks it has reduced to a fraction of its mass.  The domed scoffer has been shoved to the far end of our garden on account of his occasional propensity to embarassing odours but in fairness to his designers (Davros?), he only ever hums in exceptionally hot weather - or when he’s got a bad case of indigestion.

We feed him with all the food waste that a family with three children can produce in any given week. We keep a big picnic sized portable cooler box in the kitchen and into it goes all our fresh food kitchen waste along with eggshells, egg boxes, loo roll tubes and odd papers. At the end of the week when it’s full and weighs about five kilos, we walk to the end of the garden and sling the rotting guck into the Dalek where the worms, bugs and microbes get to work on it.

For those who aren't from Ireland or the UK, it's time to explain something. A Dalek is either (a) a warlike metal coated alien from the planet something-or-other - as featured in the popular BBC cult science fiction series Dr Who or (b) A popular nickname in gardening circles for a particular type of pepper pot shaped composter which so happens to resemble the sci fi baddie. Indeed with the with the addition of a couple of police lights on top, a sink plunger and an egg whisk to the composter, you'd have some trouble distinguishing kitchen waste digester from menacing and shrill intergalactic nemesis.

A BBC science fiction Dalek yesterday
 Our Dalek is also a big lover of newspapers. Until recently, each and every week he was a particularly big fan of the Sunday Times Culture section which he scrupulously digested each and every week. Unfortunately, they recently changed the paper from a matt to a gloss and now it gives our Dalek a bellyache. Unknown to many, news print is actually a perfect addition to a composter and is a key method of keeping the chemical balance ideal for digestion. It contains plenty of carbon which helps to neutralise the acidity of the "green" waste that comes from our kitchen.

They digest newspapers.... and biographies.....
The "Dalek" style of composter is a giant pepper pot with a removable lid on top, an open bottom which goes on the ground. Some people like to line this with chicken wire to prevent rodents burrowing in. There's also a flat sliding panel on the front bottom which allows access to the black gold that is the mature compost. The open underside allows the earthworms and other insects access which aids the digestion and breakdown process. 

Over the years, I would imagine that its innards by now contain a whole universe of assorted heebie jeebies. But this is only after a degree of trial an error. In the beginning it proved tricky in to get the balance of contents right and sometimes its innards turned to sludge and remained as unusable sludge for much of the year. So anyone who wants to get the most from a Dalek or any other composter will need a period of trial and error to get that balance right.

We must have got that right in the end because the Dalek now exterminates food waste at a remarkable rate and in so doing, saves us a packet of cash in the process. While others pay eight euros every couple of weeks to have their kitchen food waste taken away in a stinky brown bin - our Dalek vaporises the lot in jig time.

GERMINATE!! GERMINATE!! A garden Dalek invasion pic lifted from Mark's Veg Plot (check it out)

The problem is that it’s rather too good at digesting food waste. A weekly installation of five kilo of food guck and the Sunday papers disappears to the degree that the infernal thing is always half empty (not half full), a condition that persists until right until the end of the year. Where does it all go?

Until last year we were also throwing cooked meat products into the Dalek, something you’re not supposed to do because you’ll attract rats. To keep the rats away I judged that our cat Oscar (he’s wild), the biggest cat in western Europe - would scare them off whilst a double under wiring would also keep the rodents out. But this thinking both underestimated the tenacity of rats and overestimated that of fat cats. For a time we ended up with whole family of rodents in the Dalek, something I didn’t tell Her Outdoors about, because  don’t appreciate this type of thing you understand.

Newsprint is good for compost to keep up the carbon levels and balance the "greens"

Indeed many intrusive objects found in its digestive system can be attributed to Her Outdoors “autopilot” school of kitchen cleaning. Uncompostables like foil dishwasher tablet wrappers and yoghurt carton tops cause our annual compost haul to twinkle and sparkle a good deal more than anyone else’s.

It seems the trick to running a happy Dalek is (a) take the trouble to turn the contents on occasion with a gardening fork (b) in dry weather take the time to pour a watering can or two of water into it, to keep it moist and clammy in there.

You'll be richly rewarded by year's end with pure plant food once you manage to get that balance right between the two main types of waste - green waste which is high in nitrogen and includes all kinds of fresh food waste, leaves and grass cuttings, and brown waste which is high in carbons and in our case, is usually made up of degradable paper (including newsprint) and woody cuttings.

If you sling a huge big bag of grass cuttings (green waste) into your Dalek then you’re going to give him indigestion. Large amounts of grass tend to compact and the lack of oxygen inside the slab of grass prevents its break down. So you end up with a big pillow of slime in there.

Exterminated! What happens when you overload your Dalek with grass guck

There are different views on whether weeds with seed heads should be thrown into compost. I keep dandelions and docks out but the rest go in on the grounds that the heat the compost generates will kill the seeds of other plants. Other staples among the kitchen waste are coffee grounds and tea bags.

Adapting a composting regime that sticks can be a tricky process. Essentially its about routine and having a container/caddy in the kitchen which won’t stink the place out. Our picnic box cooler is ideal because the lid seals tight and the waste stays cool inside it until the end of the week. But if we leave the lid off for even a few minutes, next time we lift it, a flurry of nasty little fruit flies will spray out of it. Women in particular have an ingrained reluctance of having anything at all “dirty” in the kitchen. So if you can’t have a sealable container in the kitchen, stick it just outside the back door where dinner plates can easily be scraped into it.

They do like coffee and tea however

Finally, sometime in spring, I slide off the panel on the end and dig out the priceless black gold which should have the colour and consistency of coffee grounds. This is the best food you could ever give your plants. Unfortunately there’s only enough to apply a light dressing on the raised beds in the garden and never enough left over to take up to the allotments. It’s also vital in the greenhouse where it helps our seeds to sprout. Spring is when our Dalek makes most impact and its keyword is: Germinate! Germinate!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Super Spuds, Sophia and The Sex Pistols

Last year a tabloid newspaper revealed that Debbie Taylor, a 30 year old hotel chambermaid from Essex had been eating nothing but crisps for ten years. Previously 22 year old Gina Gough was also reported to have been living on crisps - this time for three years (in her case it became an issue when she was hospitalised for gall stone issues). Before that again, another newspaper revealed that Faye Campbell of Stowmarket had spent fifteen years eating just chips.

Stranger still is that the accompanying pictures of these ladies didn’t reveal the spotty heffalumps we might come to expect from an exclusive diet of spuds and saturated fat, but mostly rather svelte and attractive types.

Giz a crip! Living off nothing but crisps doesn't create the expected heffalumps

We Irish have been here before - albeit without the saturates. Before the potato famine of 1847, a quarter of us (more than two million people) ate nothing but potatoes - usually boiled in their skins, salted and consumed with milk and sometimes mixed with wild greens. In all, around 60% of the populace used it as their main food staple before the potato blight and the resulting famine kicked the habit for us.

By the middle of the 19th century, Irish adults ate between 3.5 and 7 kilos of spuds a day. This happened not because we love potatoes, but because the land was held by the perfidious British invaders and they exported all the other crops from the country. All that was left for the disenfranchised Irish peasant was what he could grow himself on tiny slivers of land rented from the same British landlord. The spud was by far the most productive grown food available. A half acre could thus feed a family of nine or ten for a year.

Seven kilos of potatoes yesterday - 19th Century daily Irish diet

Generations of families could also do this because the humble spud is the nearest thing this planet has to being a “complete” food - lacking only calcium, which we supplemented in those days with milk and greens, the latter often derived from foraged plants like nettles or dandelions. Our famine, which saw a million starve to death and the remaining population reduced by half through emigration, was unique in history in that it was an artificially formed one. The country grew many types of grains and other foods and farmed beef. But these were exported to Britain. Only the potato failed in those years.

Giz a Crip! Statues in Dublin commemorating the Great Famine of the 1840's

An average serving of potatoes contains 21% of the daily recommended amount of potassium, 12% of fibre, 45% of Vitamin C, 10% of Vitamin B6, and 4 grams of protein; while only containing 100 calories per 148g (1 serving size potato). Back in the eighties, National Geographic magazine report explained how the spud was a “miracle food” with an extensive report/study entitled “The Incredible Potato.”

The report notes that by the early 19th century, our spud fueled peasantry were noted as being among europe’s tallest, healthiest and fastest growing. Elswhere in Europe bread and cheese based diets made people shorter and more prone to diseases like rickets emanating from vitamin C shortages.

So its quite easy to see how, that even despite the Famine, we Irish haven’t learned our lesson. Most of us still eat spuds three or four times a week. An unnatural percentage of the population profess to outright adoration and indeed when it comes to answering those “desert island” questions we’ve all been asked at some point in our lives, my own standard replies are: The Grapes of Wrath, Sophia Loren, cold milk, Never Mind the Bollocks and mashed potato with butter and salt.

And the sheer productiveness of the spud means it's easy to buy into the spud miracle when you have an allotment and you’re dealing with a plant that produces more food per square foot than any other. When it comes to world staples it produces four times more food than wheat or rice from the same ground which is why the potato’s usage is increasing in China and India in particular.

Peas from one bed: a pudding bowl full (after two hour’s podding); carrots from one bed - nothing again because of carrot fly; cabbage from one bed - ten or twelve heads, spuds from one bed - four stones - the weight of a child.

Sophia and mash equals paradise island

This illustrates just how ridiculously easy it is: In May I took one third of a bag of shop bought rooster potatoes (they cost a fiver) that had gone all sprouty in our kitchen and rather than chuck them in the compost, I took them up to Plot 34.There I took five minutes to plant them in a prepared bed which had been made up for celeriac, but was now empty on account of this year’s celeriac seeds failing to go all sprouty.

Last week, a tentantive pitchfork rummage yielded more than twenty perfect middle sized potatoes from just over one square foot of ground - enough for two dinners for two adults and two children in our house. At forty square feet of ground in that bed, that’s roughly eighty family meals for doing sweet F.A. And boiled in their skins with butter and salt they tasted absolutely supreme.

In what has been generally a bad year for produce, this year I played spud roulette and won - blight means you always take a gamble. This year in addition to the sprouty supermarket roosters, I planted a similar sized bed King Edward seed potatoes, another of Maris Pipers and a smaller bed of Lumpers, a heritage strain and the very spud that failed in the Great Famine - the one we’d all been living on. Back at home I’ve got spuds arrayed here and there through my raised rockery.

In my first year on our virgin allotment complex, most growers went heavy on spuds as they are known to “break up” new ground making it easier for planting other crops in subsequent years. The blight hit and most lost everything. Dithane, the typical copper based blight spray is not good for anyone or anything and in any case, the rain washes it off. And rain is plentiful in blight weather.

 I planted at least two middling sized beds of spuds the following year and ever since. Despite  getting blight about 50% of the time, I’ve been lucky to catch it early and cut the stalks back to the ground early in every infestation, thus preventing it getting into the tubers. This left me with small to middle sized spuds in those years but a crop nonetheless.

Potato Clamping for badly drawn types (see below)
This year for the first time I’ll be looking into “clamping” spuds to store them, if I can a hold of some straw. Leaving them in the ground until you need them is fine but I find that over winter about 40% get hit by pests including tunnelling slugs (how to they do that?) which seem to enter the spud via a tiny hole, eat themselves large and then they can’t get out again. These can produce a nasty surprise so always weigh your spuds in your hands and throw away the unfeasibly lighter ones or those that “rattle.”

Clamping involves digging a hole, bedding it with straw, heaping up your spuds on it, covering them over with straw and then covering the whole lot with earth. Because if you’re hell bent on eating nothing but spuds - you’ll need them to last the distance and store well. Otherwise it’s down to the chipper for you.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Magic Growth Formula - The Secret of True Record Holders

There really is a magic formula for growing giant sized food plants. But you'll have to read through the boring crap below to find out what it is. Te he.

Looking back on the year with the benefit of the harvest, I'd estimate that July has always been the month for speediest growth for my garden and allotment. It's a month where the plants grow so quickly that you can almost see it happening.  So this July just gone, I tied a marker onto a bean pole just to measure how fast my beans were sprouting at the time of their optimum growth. Twenty four hours later, it had added four inches - that’s an inch every six hours. Incredible! 

July as it happens is also the month when I start brewing compost tea - a magic formula which not only increases the speed of growth but also increases the health of plants and the size and quality of the produce. And now as we push toward the end of September, I'm still using compost tea in order to help me squeeze every last ounce of growth from the 2011 season.

I was first introduced to compost tea by John Evans, a Waterford born gardener who has used it to clock up nine giant veg Guinness world records as well making it the subject of an international business venture.

John Evans (right) the nine time Guinness World Record Veg man

Compost tea making is a bit like making yoghurt, where a base culture is "amplified."

In the same way as bringing on a yoghurt culture, compost tea brewing involves taking a sample of good soil microbes and increasing their numbers a thousandfold by artificial means - in this case by injecting oxygen through them.To make compost tea you need a couple of things. First a five gallon bucket. I use catering mayonnaise containers. Next you'll need an air pump of the sort commonly used in aquariums. You'll get a basic model at the pet shop for under twenty quid. Next purchase a length of plastic tubing to go with it - this costs about twenty cents a foot. Get a length of about six foot. After that you need an airstone. This is the heavy air distributor through which the air is blown to dissipate it into hundreds of little bubbles rather than the large single bubbles you'll get from the end of the tube on its own.

An aquarium airstone for the bubbles
All these can be acquired at a pet shop.Fill up your five gallon bucket with water. Set the airstone with the tube attached right to the bottom of the bucket and turn on the pump. Leave it to bubble for about three to four hours. This is vital for two reasons. First it aerates the water to a level which is perfect for microbe production. Secondly - and this is hugely important - the bubbling will help remove the chlorine from "city" water which would otherwise kill the microbes. It also removes heavy metals which can also impede the tiny animals. Next we need the "culture." This is simply a sample of matter which already has a microbe population in it. Microbes exist in a range of materials and the most commonly used for brewing compost tea include compost (obviously), dry farmyard manure, chicken manure, top soil, worm casts from a wormery and fish waste from an aquarium.

Let the water bubble for at least three hours before adding anything - especially if it has been chlorinated
I like to mix up a range of different matters on the grounds that it should also vary the microbe content of the tea so I take two trowels full of compost from our compost bin, two trowels of topsoil from the garden and one trowel of shop bought manure.These are spilled into the bubbling water and stirred in with a stick. The aeration of the water enables the microbes to multiply in the water at a phenomenal rate.

One expert suggested that the population of "good" microbes in the mix doubles every seven minutes thanks to the aeration pumped bubbles and the "food" they're given. Next you'll need to find something to feed that microbe population explosion. Evans preferred microbe nosh is molasses. Last year I used a few good squirts of squeezy bottle honey per batch, this year I'm using a few ounces of ordinary white sugar.

John uses molasses, I use sugar to feed the microbes

You leave the mixture to bubble away, stirring it every so often to agitate the culture from the bottom and prompt it to release microbes - enabling them reproduce even faster. It's important to stop the process after 24 hours. Don't let the brew bubble for any more than 30. Once this point has passed the microbe population begins to change and the aerobic or beneficial microbes which initially manifest themselves start to get replaced by "bad" anerobic microbes.

 If anerobic microbes have taken over you'll know because the mix will stink. A mix dominated by beneficial microbes should smell slightly sweet with no nasty odour.The next important factor is to ensure that you use the mixture straight away because once the bubbling stops the microbes start to die and once again anerobic microbes which are damaging to plants (and people) begin to take over. So valuable is my compost tea that I use a soup ladle to dole it out to my plants. Wear gloves or else wash your hands directly after doling out the mixture because it's superrich in bacteria.The earth's soil has been historically rich in beneficial microbes which work with plants in a mutually beneficial way.

In with the compost to help provide the "starter" microbes

They break down soil nutrients into a form which plants can digest easily. They also protect the plant from fungi and strengthen it against attacks from pests.Tilling land has killed off these beneficial microbes and the use of artificial fertilisers has finished off what populations remained in many commercial soils. This in turn has weakened food plants and taken flavour from the resulting produce. Compost tea is fast becoming recognised as an organic and environmentally friendly way, of returning these beneficial microbe populations to the soil in an instant.To see these microbes up close, go online and scour youtube for compost tea samples shown under a microscope. Microbes are tiny animals and the samples shown are manic soups of thriving and quivering biodiversity.

Great lads! There they are, the soil microbes all going mad for a decent brew of tea.
When John Evans took me on a tour around his garden in Cork some years ago he showed me how firm and waxy the foliage was on his food plants - he described this as a protective "biofilm" provided by the microbes in the tea. This he induced by spraying or drizzling the mixture directly onto the foliage as well as treating the soil around the base of the plant.I ladle two or more measures of tea to the base of the plant and then I try to drench the foliage as well with a few more. Some people like to filter the tea and then spray it on the foliage - both above and under.

For his part, Evans believes the microbes not only stimulate the roots of the plants but that large numbers of dead microbes (their life cycle is short by our standards) also provides additional ideal food for the plants.Deployed in the rapid growth month of July, the effects of my first batch of compost tea are immediate. Some late cauliflower plants put in at the end of the garden have been struggling to establish themselves in the corner of the garden which gets the least sunlight. Within two days they have noticeably perked up and expanded.

The two chilli plants in the greenhouse which have weakened and drooped because a colony of ants nested under them and undermined their roots, are suddenly perky and solid again and have burst into flowers. My four aubergine plants in the greenhouse which have also been slow to put on size have noticeably surged. Outside in the garden, the tea-ed up beans have gone interstellar and those corn plants in the "Indian garden" which have lagged behind their brothers in sunnier positions are now catching up thanks to selective tea application. Meantime the blueberry bushes in planters are suddenly producing double sized fruits.

Make a magic beanstalk with compost tea
Properly made compost tea is truly a magic formula for gardeners and anyone can avail of it in the peak growing season at minimal cost. It's not just a good fertiliser, it's a complete beneficial bio system. The exact opposite of biological warfare for plants.Downsides? Well it's the courgettes you see. They need to be picked when they're young and tender. But these are fast customers to begin with and it's been said that a courgette can go from flower to full grown fruit in 24 hours. My problem is that they're now going further - turning into full blown marrows a foot long and four inches wide - before I can catch them for the table. Every time I look there's another inedible artillery shell hidden in the foliage which will have to be chopped up and thrown back into the compost.Just an example of a turbo charged garden in the fast lane when it's been fully tea-ed up in our fastest growing month.

Whoah!!! There go the beans after a cuppa.

My Big Old Annual Moan About the Council

Rabbit! rabbit! rabbit! But this time I have an excuse. There's been a massacre. The victims were butchered in their beds. The main suspect - let's call him Peter, Brer or Bugs - has just wiped out three plantings of juvenile cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower plants, about ninety in all. Yes I'm blaming a rabbit. Or a whole rabbitude of them. Proof? (a) Little roundy pellets in the vicinity (b) Buck toothed incisor patterns left in the deceased and critically wounded brassicas (c) I nearly caught one of the fat little gets a few weeks ago. He was so full he seemed to be having trouble hoppiting off and if the grab I’d made had been a successful one, he’d have ended up in a stew - one way at least of getting those filched nutrients back into my account.

No use hiding behind that stick!
Meantime, down the hill, raiding sheep long ago caused one harassed grower to turn his beloved plot into a chicken wire origami of Fort Appache. Think "Troubles" era RUC station. My rabbited plants might have recovered somewhat in this fantastic growing weather had I actually been able to water them. But on my last visit - perhaps the hottest of the year so far, the water was turned off - yet again and always in the heat.

Despite the recent rains, our windswept hillside site was bone dry and the bunny stripped plants would have fluffed up with a bit of water.The lack of water for me is the for-all-for-the-want-of-a horse-shoe-nail difference between thirty cabbages and none, thirty heads of broccoli and none, thirty heads of cauliflower and none. And I’m looking at bare blackcurrant bushes whose failure is also directly linked to the taps being dry during the hot period just before easter when these bushes went thirsty and raggedy because the water was also turned off. Meantime my competitive relations are boasting about blackcurrants the size of their heads.

Then there’s the bull with a face like Jordan's ex. I'd caught him hoovering my raspberry plant stems backwards through the fence on which they were supported, extricating the berries from the thorny branches with the oral finesse of a Jim Rose Circus veteran. However its attitude was more pre deregulation Dublin taximan. As it slewed off the last of my ripening raspberries and spat the bare stems right back through the fence, it looked at me as if to ask: "Alright bud?" Unlike the rabbit, I didn't attempt a wrestle.The infernal thing continued to hoover my raspberries even despite me ranting my tonsils raw and throwing half a pebble path at it whilst simulaneously holding back as many raspberry stems from the supporting fence as my tally of remaining fingers would permit.

Bad moos around an allotment. And it's no use hiding behind that stick!

I didn't have a bigger-than-the- bull, bull-barred jeep with the huge wheels and a great big blaring bull-horn which the farmer blares as he reverses and thrusts about in a motorised bull fight every evening in order to get Butthead and his accompanying herd of bovine raspberry blowers back to base - after they’ve chowed on our permimeter crops.

So the thing is this: Myself and a goodly number of my comrades in farms at our complex have now had quite enough of the bull. And the rabbits, and the sheep and the feral accountants. Because we pay the council handsomely (they increased our rents from E44 to E120 this year - 172% up that is) to keep the water on the land and to keep the local farm fauna from treating our complex like the salad snack counter at Fresh.

Because rabbit and livestock proof perimeter fencing is part of the deal on an allotment complex.Neglectful mother council has also banned us from having sheds to shelter in when it rains (we have dark shipping containers in the car park), and it seems to cut off our water when the rain stops. For more than a hundred people we have been provided with the single toilet bowl from Trainspotting located in the outhouse from the Texas Chainswaw Massacre. Previously used by thirty years of Dublin binmen (ours is a former tip head site) and without a window or electric light last time I was there - we have had to find the seatless and stained bowl in the dark with outstretched hands.

A gang of short shrifts yesterday.
The same council gives our representative - the one appointed to speak for hundreds of paid up allotment holders, short shrift each time we raise views on these issues. Their attitude: “we've a massive waiting list of people just dying to take over your plots. And did you know private plots cost E350?” Already some of us are murmuring about clubbing together to buy our own land.Based on figures they provide on their web site, it seems that our council earns roughly E17,000 per annum from our five acre site.

According to a recent survey by the Farmer’s journal, the average price of agricultural land in Ireland has fallen by 57% in four years. In Dublin the average is now E13,000 per acre.Thus our council earns E3,400 per acre per annum in rents - enough for them to reap the entire value of their land within four years. This is not providing an “amenity” - this a business.On the other hand it would take 32 of us paying E416 each to buy an acre of our own land which would allow us an average allotment each (120 square metres) and common land for parking and other facilities. Of course we’d have to pay for fencing, wc facilities, insurance and the sinking of a few wells. But a one of payment of E1,000 each would likely take care of the lot.

The alternative is that increasing council allotment fees combined with an increase in the cost of the hobby as compost and seed prices increase, are now turning allotment keeping into a paid-for fashion hobby akin to golf.In the same week as my robbing rabbit, a hardy old grower who disappeared from our complex some time back was finally replaced with one one who blocked off vehicle access to perhaps 20 allotments with a brand new sixty grand car. Wearing brand new designer wellies of the sort normally found at the backstage area in Glastonbury, he unloaded expensive trays of garden centre grown lettuces.

Soon it’ll be hired help to do the digging fchrissakes!!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rum, Botany and the Lash..

Quiz time. Which of the following are true berries in the botanical sense?

(a) raspberry (b) potato (c) strawberry (d) Chilli (e) blackberry (f) banana or (g) pumpkin?

The correct answer is: potatoes, chillies, bananas and pumpkins - all of which are "true" berries in the botanical sense. Meantime raspberries, strawberries and blackberries are not. It’s all something to do seeds and pulp coming from a single ovary you see - that and smug botanists. 

The sort of stubborn, contrarian, pointy headed, sciency insistence that says potatoes are berries and berries are not, is just one reason why I happen to believe botany is among the barmiest sciences. History’s big bots deployed more money than sense - cruising the planet’s nether regions in hideously expensive expeditions to "discover" plants in their naturally occuring habitat, uproot them, rename them a “tippitiwitchet” or whatever, and then transplant them elsewhere on the planet where they’ve no business being.

Mad botanists...putting plants where they've no business being.
This was generally accompanied, like releasing rabbits in Australia or mink in Ireland, without a fiddlers for the environmental consequences.Here in Ireland mad bots brought us the parasitic mistletoe to suck life from our oak trees (James MacKay of Trinity College) and bad bots at the Botanic gardens in Kew and Edinburgh happily distributed Japanese knotweed to the masses throughout these islands setting it off to become our most destructive invasive species.

T’was the most renowned bot of all time, Sir Joseph Banks (founder of the Royal Society) who lobbied to have HR genius William Bligh appointed to captain the Bounty - the ship Banks designed to run a thousand breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indes. Banks wanted the breadfruit (not native to the Indes) to feed slaves who were chopping sugar cane (also not native to the Indes).
Captain William Bligh...mutiny consultant.
Despite Banks being cast adrift for months with Bligh after the resulting mutiny, Banks subsequently fixed it for Bligh to be appointed Governor of New South Wales. There the harbour was so overrun with busy bots that they named it “Botany Bay.” The result of Bligh landing was the Rum Rebellion in which he caused a whole province to mutiny. The ironic ending to this sorry tale of rum, botany and the lash came with the point flat refusal of the sugar slaves of to chow down on Banksy’s bread fruit.

But back to berries and false-berries.

July being peak berry time in Ireland, Plot 34 and my back garden are yielding strawberries, raspberries, red currants and gooseberries. I’ve had a less impressive crop of blackcurrants this year due to drainage issues (the allotment holder next door dug a trench behind them) but otherwise things are berry good indeed.

Look at the goji's on that!!
These days mad amateur botanists like my Dad (who’s been inviting all and sundry out back to have as look at his gojis) don’t need vast inheritances to take them sailing around the world in search of exotic plants -  they can simply pop down to Lidl, Aldi or their garage forecourt - the latest venue to flog foreign fruit bushes.Given their growing superfood status, this year Gojis are red hot around the world. From the Himilayas, the berries are extremely high in antioxidants indeed but have also been attributed with all sorts of quack claims including that they cure cancer and impotence.

The Chinese claim that Gojis were an vital part of the miracle diet that helped local herbalist, Li Quing Yuen to live to be 256. Research backs up the claims that the goji guzzler who died in 1933, was actually born in 1677 along with unearthing Imperial documents which detail official congratulations bestowed on Yuen for his 150th birthday in 1827 and his 200th in 1877.So it’s no wonder the world is going mad for the hugely expensive Gojis. But plant importation has not been without issue. In the UK there have been claims that plants imported from China via Holland (for a eurozone passport) carry diseases which threaten domestic tomato and potato crops.
Quing Yuen at 255 and not looking a day under 156
Experts there have urged buyers to take on locally developed plants.Alternatively here in Ireland you can just go out and dig one up. Thanks to mad bots, gojis have already been growing wild here for centuries. They’re mostly located in coastal areas with the biggest population existing the Wexford and Waterford shores where they’re better known as the Duke of Argll’s Tea Plant. Just make sure you get the right berry bush.What these naturalised pioneers prove is that gojis have no problem at all with Irish conditions and soils. They’ll also grow well in the shade and in containers and offer the change to bound your garden with a superfood producing hedge.

Bulletin boards online show that an untoward number of buyers end up with massive plants but no berries. The secret is pruning and feeding. Gojis are extremely heavy feeders and quickly clear the soil of nutrients. To keep cropping heavily they need manure or organic feed but not commercial chemical based fertilisers which produce leaf growth but no berries. Meantime there’s almost no information out there about proper pruning. If someone knows the proper procedure, tell me and I’ll pass it on.

Personally, I have less problems questioning the introduction of north american blueberries to Ireland because they’re so similar to the native fraughan as not to  make a difference. Also, like the bog bound fraughan they can’t self seed in average standard Irish soils because of their acid preference.  Blueberries are another superfood with high antioxidant qualities.

Cranberry plants complete the list of johnny foreigner come-latelys. The sprawling ground crawler takes a lot of space and like the blueberry, it requires a damp acid soil. If you must persist, try growing them on the top part of a two tier raised bed system so the limbs can hang downwards.

Some recently deceased cranberries yesterday

Plant them with upwards growing blueberries to maximise the space and this arrangement also allows better control of the soil conditions. Feed them with Rhododendron/azalea fertiliser.As for advice on your bananas and pumpkins, ask a dotty bot.

Grand For Growth in Monsoon June

The people of Egypt don’t wake in the morning, throw open their curtains and exclaim: “Hey Fatima, you’ll never guess what? - it’s blazing sunshine.... again!”

Nor do they spend their days continuously discussing the heat with everyone they encounter.

 - “I’m taking next week off so I’m hoping it will cool down a bit by then.” or
- “I left the washing out in the garden again yesterday and it got all bleached,” or
- “Yeah, it got so hot that the camel fell over.” 

Fatima! It's hot sun....again!!!
The Egyptians don’t talk non-stop weather all day because  they've had the same conditions for thousands of years. So they're quite used to it. What then is our issue here in Ireland - waking every day to expect something other than rain? Like Egypt we've also had the same weather for thousands of years but here it continues to surprise us - to the degree that it’s usually the number one conversation topic of the day.

 - “Can you believe it? Raining again!”

Why? It’s Ireland! It’s rained since recorded history began!  It's a marine temperate climate  with a two word forecast:  “scattered” and “showers.”

We’ve already had the June summer “monsoon." Most of my six years running an allotment have seen a washout June and for most of July. And apart from a few years somewhere back in the 1970’s, almost all the Irish Junes and Julys I recall have been characterised -  as the forecast says -  by “scattered showers.” My last June visit was typical - full rain gear, trousers and jacket, rainproof hat, wellies and twenty minutes to wash the mud off my tools and my rainproofs before stocking up the car to head home.

The “European Monsoon” is more commonly called “The Return of the Westerlies” and the result of increasing westerly winds from the Atlantic, where they become loaded with wind and rain. The rain tends to come in two waves, in early June and again in mid to late June just as Ireland Inc is wearing light summer attire and sunglasses as if sheer will and sheer attire alone can scatter the showers.

Mary!! It's raining again!!!
The upside of our temperate climate is what makes us the Emerald Isle and has growers in other countries green with envy: steadily mild temperatures, a northerly global aspect that provides daylight from five am to eleven at night in Summer and of course, plenty of rain. Together it's a decent brew for plant growth.So much so, that if you missed out on planting your crops, most varieties will allow you to have a second go - even now.

My cauliflower plants, sprouted in the green house and planted at the allotment in May were stripped by the slugs and snails to leave bare stems. This week I’ll be planting another batch to reinforce their ranks. Cauliflowers are supposed to be sown by the end of May, so it might be a tall order. But the sort of weather we’ve been having, and always have, accelerates growth to the point that they might just catch up. In any case it’s always worth a try.

Other crop types that don’t have a May cut off for planting here can be sown fresh right through to the middle of July. Peas for example - mine will also require a second planting. Large blank gaps probably mean the birds have been picking them out as they sprout. One last planting should see pods ready in September. Again our temperate weather and long evenings help - a growing season like ours with frost unlikely until October makes successful late crops far more likely.

Naked broccoli

It also makes staggered planting a more viable option. This is the process of sowing seeds at intervals in order to enable different batches of the same crop to mature over a long period.Broccoli is one crop which tends to mature all at once and unless you’ve got plenty of freezing space, you’re looking at a massive storage issue. However by planting some in March, some in April and so on, it matures in waves and your harvesting season in lengthened for that particular crop.

Primo cabbage, a nice tight cabbage designed for smaller gardens can be sown from March to July enabling harvesting from June to October. Kale can be sown from March until June and Nantes Autumn King carrots can be planted as early as April or as late as June. You could probably plant them in July as well with the caveata that they’ll be a little smaller when you do eventually harvest them.July is a also a good time to plant the last of your lettuce and salads.
The Christmas tomato                           

In other countries, lettuce is planted in the shade as summer heat causes it to bolt. In Ireland’s temperate climate there’s far less to worry about in this department and it will usually do well in the open. I’ve picked lettuce in the garden well into October.And this week I’m handing out six inch high tomato seedlings in our office. But give them a good sunny spot and plenty of feed and in the absence of a hard frost, you’ll be pickinig fresh tomatoes from them right into December.

Christmas Day is my own personal record for the toms. The exception was the Christmas just gone which was uncharacteristically white. Normally though, it’s just scattered showers.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Strawberry Fields In A Jam

All through the sixties and seventies, and for some unfortunates, the eighties too -  a summer holiday for the average juvenile Dub (person from Dublin, Ireland to you non Irish out there) meant two weeks of enclosed confinement in a Wexford caravan with rain scudding off the outsides and squabbling siblings and Scrabble tiles bouncing off the insides. When the weather permitted there were occasional forays to a beach to digest warm red lemonade and “hang sangwiches” containing fake ham (haslett anyone?) and real sand.

Irish Holidays 1400AD - 1982AD
But one of the real treats of going on holiday came on the way home -  from the strawberry tables laid out on the road sides by growers in the sunny south east. In the age before nintendo other things were sacred. Pester you parents, make them pull in and buy and then stuff yourselves with the world’s most delicious fruit. Then spend the rest of the trip home scratching hive eruptions and asking "are we there yet?."

The fire engine red hue of a ripe strawberry is nature’s road sign to come and tuck in. And, as any grower of strawberries knows only too well, nature’s lunch invitation runs far and wide –  to grow them successfully you’ll need to fend off over 200 different types of strawberry loving beings including rodents, birds, thrips, mites, weevils, aphids, wasps, slugs, snails, caterpillars and other people’s kids (except for the one that's violently allergic).

Cultivated strawberries are a relative newcomer to our gardens - in centuries past througout most of Ireland you could simply wander out into the woods and pick all you wanted. Then along came the Brits in the 18th Century to take our forests home to make battleships for world domination. And so woodland strawberries along with woodlands, became rare. This meant we brought them home when we found them, planted them in the garden and mulched and marked the berries with straw – thus giving them their name. Hayberries (only joking)
This year my strawberry plants are in a raised bed and as the fruit comes on I’ll be framing some netting over them to stop the birds. I’ve already covered the surface with coffee grounds to help keep the slugs and snails off them. The rough timber surface also helps to deter them. There’s plenty of manure around them because when they’re fruiting they do feed as well as drink heavily. As a woodland plant, they prefer slightly acidic ground.
Wexberries...the very bext

Later that same century, the much larger garden strawberry we are familiar with today was created by crossing two imported varieties from the north and south Americas. Unfortunately few foods have been as denigrated by the mainstream supermarket chain through the past three decades as the beloved strawberry. The store bought berry has been designed for longevity, durability in transport and to be produced at bargain bucket prices rather than taste, nutrition and texture. The muscular fragaria you find down at your local supermarket is an irradiated water pustule which will last forever in your fridge. Put one in and keeping looking over the months.

Which is why there’s a world of difference today between the taste of a modern supermarket grown strawberry and a homegrown one. Especially a heritage one. So if you haven’t already got your strawberries in – mine are already starting to flower – then there’s still time to grab a few trayloads from the garden centre.

A hive outbreak yesterday
Different varieties fruit at different times running from June (Emily, Honeoye and Elsanta) through July (Elsanta, Pegasus, Symphony and Florence) to early August (Sophie). The ideal is to get an early and a late version on the go at once to stretch out your season. If you’re tempted to try growing “wild” strawberries (the old native woodland types),  do bear in mind that while the flavour is the best you’ll taste, they’re tiny – about the size of a tall jelly tot,  often chewy and you’ll never get enough of them to fill a desert bowl.

The plants don’t produce well in year one but do best in their second and third years. So give them a chance (I did in my first year, vow in print, never to grow strawberries again) They do reproduce quickly by throwing out runners after they fruit. So ground yourself a few runners from each plant by pinning the “bend” into a pot of compost or soil and once they’ve rooted and produced three or four leaves, cut the stalk to the main plant and now you have another plant.  While fruiting however they need to be watered carefully and well fed. Otherwise plants will keep in any old conditions and are quite resistant to a bit of heavy frost and snow. Some growers even swear that they fruit better because of it.

When they’re fruiting you can save space by planting them in multi pocketed upright containers, in hanging baskets or in cut pockets in wall mounted grow bags – but you do need to ensure that they’re kept well watered once they start flowering. Water continuation is crucial. Also make sure they go in the sunniest position possible – it’s the sun that makes that flavour.

There is a multi pocketed planter in there somewhere..
 If you’ve kept them in containers through the year do go through the roots and the soil for vine weevils, fat white grubs whose parent is that familiar salt and pepper coloured beetle you often see poking around patio containers. Birds are the biggest fans of fresh strawberries and even before they’re ripened, delinquent magpies will pull off the green berries just for something to do. Plastic netting is dirt cheap and should be framed rather than just thrown on.

I hang old unwanted cd's nearby to keep the birds off. In his day grandfather used to deploy shards of old mirrors to keep the birds off his fruit. The resulting reflections unnerve them. Birds hate mirrors.  

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Rooting Out the Ginger Ant

While most home grown foods generally taste better than shop bought, carrots - along with tomatoes and peas - are three crops that taste so outstandingly different, that a single serving will instantly break the resolve of even the most hardened of non believers.
The taste of a home grown carrot is such a revealation that it should have any organic food cynic seeing through the dark. Homegrown carrots are just so many more times... carrotier.

The trouble is that carrots also happen to be many times more fussier into the bargain. Consider too that the carrot root fly - one of the most dogged and destructive pests known to allotment mankind - will always have the carrot grower's efforts firmly in its sights.

Lovely nubile juvenile carrots - the dream we strive for
For my first five years with my allotment, fellow growers marvelled at my bumper carrot crops. Initially, as a newbie to the food growing game, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I sowed, I weeded and I harvested and that’s pretty much was all there was to it.
 Most years I’d take two sacks of near-perfect Nantes variety in September or October, bring them home, process them, freeze them and our family would enjoy them for most of the next twelve months. My fellow fly stricken growers continued to scratch their heads and attempted in vain to figure out by deduction how I managed to avoid the plague which, once it gets in on some allotment complexes, puts people off growing carrots completely.

Smug  - how I felt after three years of perfect carrots. He told us the Whitehouse veg garden has great carrots - for now..
Personally I thought my past successes were down to complementary planting - sowing lines of onions between the carrots. The onion smell is thought to confuse the carrot fly. But last year, for the first time, both my sowings of carrots were wiped out by the pesky varmint despite the usual flanks of onions. The first signs are the stunted foliage which takes on a reddish tinge.
I have no idea what changed - but if I’m going to have another go this year, I’ll have to think through a strategy of sorts. Our carrots were really missed last year but on the other hand I don’t fancy all the effort that goes into them without some guarantee of results.
I refuse to show a proper wiggling carrot fly maggot..

Here’s the fussy carrot bit: The soil has to be dug deep - at least two feet because the main tap root we eat does not account for the satelite “hair” roots which delve at least as deep again and then spread out in all directions. It can’t be too waterlogged or too dry. It needs to be dug extra fine - too many stones and you end up with many fingered and split carrots.

Right from germination they’re succeptible to being smothered by weeds, which also tend to spring up faster than usual in extra refined soil. That’s why I've learned to prepare my carrot bed and then leave it sit for two weeks to allow whatever weed seeds are still in the ground to sprout and identify themselves before removing them.

Unlike many other crops, carrots can’t be started in a tray on a windowsill or in a greenhouse where you can keep and eye on them and keep them safe. The seeds need to be sown in situ.

They’re also fussy about germinating conditions and generally won’t sprout unless there’s a few consecutive days of ten degrees plus temperatures. They don’t like too much nitrogen in the soil - that might be caused by too much fertiliser or manure (they go hairy as a result) but they do need a mineral rich or they stay small and the roots don’t swell up. When the seeds do sprout they’re also prone to drought.
Changed me mind...lots of them at once
Meantime the carrot fly - which looks like a shiny black flying ant with a reddish head is out. It's said to have the ability to smelling carrot foliage from as much as ten miles away. Thinning the carrots as they grow to allow them enough space is a process that sends up scent and brings them from all over.

Because I suffered last year, it is a certainty that there are carrot fly larvae in the ground at Plot 34, ready to hatch out this month - the first phase of a two part cycle. The flies travel between a hundred and four hundred metres to find their target crop. There is no chemical available to treat them and government advice is to grow the following year’s carrots 2km away. Very practical Mr Government. Thanks.
Mr Government...tight trousers are back in and so are lamb chops
At allotment complexes in particular, once established, the fly is incredibly difficult to shake off. The hatching flies move straight to the carrot foliage and lay their eggs in cracks in the soil at the base of the plants. It takes two more months for these eggs to hatch into flies and lay more eggs. We live in hope however that the dreadful temperatures of the immediate past winter killed off the unwelome sleepers.

So I’m looking into the cost of buying a substance called enviromesh, a type of net curtain material with which I’m planning to cover the carrots. The idea here is to build a frame around them to the height I’d expect the foliage to grow - perhaps a foot and a half and then cover it with the mesh. The local DIY barn says they’re out of it at the moment (and they’re usually are out of whatever’s in season) but they say it normally costs twenty euro for a ten metre by a half metre roll of the stuff. That’s expensive for a carrot crop - but apparently it can be resused again and again.

The sort of grief you have to go through to make sure the carrot fly doesn't get through
Some growers simply create a two foot high barrier around the crop on the grounds that carrot fly don’t fly higher than that. My own view is that the wind could easily carry them up and drop them in. Or if they’re as determined as most people say, what’s to stop them simply shinning the boundary fence.

Another tip for avoiding the grub is to grow your carrots in the most exposed and windiest patch you have (he isn’t a strong flier and can’t cope with winds apparently). Keep nettles down as the fly uses them as a resting and vantage point.

Alternatively ditch the defences and grow one of the new resistant strains of carrot. Flyaway is an F1 hybrid carrot cloned to be flyproof and Resistafly is another. Much as I hate to sow hybrids, the clones of the grow your own world, I've sown Resistafly this year with its daft name and lack of pedigree, because I do love the taste of a home grown carrot.

Carrot Fly - right to reply: "Bzzzzzzzt bzzzzz bzzzzz zzzt!"
Finally you could bring in your own crack squad of heebie jeebies to go on the attack - in the last few years nematodes have been developed to find the bug in the soil and kill it. The problem is that this is an even more expensive solution than the enviromesh with most nematode doses costing over twenty quid anyways. Or you could do what many gardeners do and just give up.

But to Plot 34 the ginger ant is simply raising my hackles and throwing down a challenge. On guard ye little get....

(UPDATE FROM TWO MONTHS LATER IN JULY - I didn't bother with the environmesh in the end. A nearby allotment holder did, with mixed results. He can't get in to take out the weeds which have smothered his crop here and there - but 60% of his plants should make it.

Instead I sowed two types of carrots, a yellow heritage variety which simply didn't sprout at all and Resistafly of which about 65% has sprouted. These have remained amazingly intact with no pest attacks at all. However as my friend with the enviromesh noted, they look a bit too good to be true. A bit too "plastic" or something. So I suspect they'll taste different in some way. Watch this spot for further carrot updates.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Murder A Lawn Today

Dig up your lawn. Go on, I dare you. Do it!

Grab a sharp spade now, get out into the garden and start slicing into that turf. Cut out great big chunks from it, turn the sods over and beat them to bits with a garden fork. Then when the thing is finally eviscerated, thrust the implement of its destruction skywords and call out proudly : "You have taken our Saturday lives.....but you'll never take our Freedom!"

Many of you are now feeling quite uncomfortable - because we’ve been brainwashed over generations,  to the point that even the suggestion of a mild scuff on the turf -  never mind the complete obliteration of your immaculately manicured and pampered squall of grains - is apt to stir a subskin disturbance.

I might as well have suggested juggling kittens or taking a book on the outcome of a toddler fight. Destroying a lawn is such a taboo that shredding it might just generate a thrill akin to streaking - because the received lifelong peer pressure to maintain an al fresco rug manicured to the consistency of snooker beize has been drummed into us for generations.

And it's not just Americans....

I know people who spent a lifetime obsessed with their lawns devoting hours upon hours each week to raking them, spiking them, watering them, fertilising them and finding new ways to stop people walking on them and hounds defiling them. For what?

It started a long time ago. According to Wiki, the word "laune" first pops up in 1540 and is likely to be related to the earlier celtic word which means a grass enclosure as a place of worship. And we've been worshiping the green god ever since.

Our parents start us off with that awe for turf with their: "Hey don't ruin the grass!" thing as we horse around on it. Soon after, that becomes "Hey don't forget to mow the grass!" Even the movies drill it into us - every upstanding 20th/21st century dad ever depicted has to be seen at least once by his picket fence tending his lawn? Lawns have somehow come to represent good family and society values.
Witness Clint Eastwood's gnarly pensioner in Gran Torino pointedly thrusting his cranky push jalopy across his housefront square of vaguely green  - to show his unwelcome new foreign neighbours that he's the one with standards. Is this lawn order?

The person who sends me the pic of the best ruined lawn wins Clint Eastwood's mower from Gran Torino (pictured above after his character's passing)

The growing swarm of publicly placed "Keep off the Grass" signs warn kids off having fun on underfoot public space everywhere (gambol on the pavement only!!). And was it the General's (an Irish gangster of notoriety) digging up of the Gardai's (Irish cops) golfing turf at a South Dublin club that finally fired up the fuzz enough to snuff out his wayward career?

We shrugged when Mr G nailed people to floors but we were sincerely shocked when he sliced up a putting green.

The General....Dublin's best known criminal: done in after attacking a police grass

I've just destroyed the ridiculously small patch in my back garden. The front will survive for now only because it's reverted to moss and nothing else will grow there. But gravel is  planned.
Here are the reasons to murder the grass:
1. A Lawn equals a lifetime of mower-bound servitude

You will spend between one and two months of waking hours of your life mowing it, that’s more than the 21 minutes per week you’ll average having sex over your lifetime (according to Paul Bloom, author of “How Pleasure Works.”

Turf or sex? A frustrated lawn widow yesterday

2 Lawns ruin the environment.

Completely dispelling the notion that urban "green" spaces help counteract greenhouse gas emissions by locking in carbons in the way trees do, research published last year as part of a survey assisted by the US Department of Agriculture demonstrated that total carbon emissions would be far lower if lawns did not exist.
The study by University of California Irvine showed that nitrous oxide emissions from lawns were comparable to those found in agricultural farms, which are among the largest emitters of nitrous oxide globally. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas which is 300% more damaging than carbon dioxide.
Another American study showed that a petrol lawnmower using a two stroke engine releases more carbon emissions in an hour than a new car running for 340 miles. In the USA the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans use 800 million gallons of petrol per year mowing their lawns. Interestingly the clutzes also spill another 17m gallons per year filling up the mower - more than the Exxdon Valdez spilled off Alaska.
Lawns require constant additions of toxic chemicals to keep the weeds down through the growing season and are also supplemented by bought artificial fertilisers.

Your lawn burns fossil fuels

3. Lawns waste a whole lot of water.

In the middle of a drought when we need to conserve water most, what's that sound in the middle of the night? That's your neighbour hosing down his lawn.  Water shortages are brought on by millions of people simultaneously hosing down their lawns once the grass starts to yellow.

4 Lawns Cost You Cash

Keeping that grass costs you about E125 per annum if you have a small urban lawn, front and back. That's a new lawnmower at E200 - replaced every four years equals E50 a year. Then you’re looking at E25 apiece per annum for weedkiller, fertiliser and then petrol to run the mower. That's not including the massive metered water charge you’ll receive once water charges begin.

5.Lawns Create Refuse Problems

As we all know, bags of grass cuttings clog up your composter with slabs of slimy guck which refuse to break down. So unless you can balance it out in the composter with woody wastes, you've got to dump it somewhere in the garden causing a slimy acidic mess somewhere else. Otherwise it goes in your bin which you pay to have taken away.

6.Lawns Are No Use WhatsoeverTo Nature

Plants (grasses) which are never allowed flower by virtue of being cropped off once a week and having all other plants removed are no use for birds or bees and make life more difficult for them.

A mole taking my advice yesterday

 7. You Can Make Better Use of the Space

Perhaps most beneficially of all, you can use the space for vegetable patches or raised beds to grow healthy food for your table. In a small garden, the time you put into getting your mower out of the garage, setting it up, cutting your grass and distributing the cuttings will go a long way towards tending a few patches of carrots, spuds and salads for your table. Use the space to provide healthy food for your family and save your self money rather than spend it.

8. We've Enough Green In Ireland

Football pitches and parkland are already everywhere in a land wher it rains all the time, so we've enough grass around the place without fencing some off some more and obsessing over it. In truth, once they’re over four your children won’t use the garden to play, back or front. And even for the littlies, gravel is quite safe. So get out there and rip it up. Save money, save the earth, save your valuable time, make yourself genuinely useful and go kill a lawn today.

Way too much! - Ireland from space showing (in green) where all the lawns are ..and..

A projected mock up from space showing how it might look (much warmer) with most of its lawns destroyed. Do your bit and Dig for Victory!!