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!!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Driven Up The Walls

Farming as it’s currently done - outside in the fields and with muck and tractors - is for numpties. Apparently. Yes indeed, it seems ye olde method is no longer plausible because of soil exhaustion, chemical contamination, weather disaster and population pressure. Instead think farming in high rise city blocks as the only viable way of making healthy clean food for the future.

So says Professor Dixon Despommier of Columbia University USA who is world renowned for his concept of the urban vertical farm - a high rise building of thirty floors or more with a footprint of five acres. His city situated behemoth of glass, steel, salads and chickens, would use aquaponics and aeroponics - processes of growing plants without soil. In order to feed a city like New York and you’d need 150 of these buildings to feed that city.

Despommier with some food he grew earlier in that tower behind him
And of course the architects absolutely love this stuff. Not surprising then that since Despommier came out with “The Vertical Farm” thesis in 1999, that every turtlenecked architechie in possession of a 2B propelling pencil -  has taken a bash at sketching out some sci fi vertical upright gardening structure or other -  whether a full blown vertical farm like Vincent Balle’s concept Dragonfly Farm building for New York or (at the lower end of the pecking order), a “living wall” tacked on to a regular municipal building or other.

Balle's Dragon Fly Farm for New York - I don't think this one will fly somehow
Recently they’ve even built a whole series of stand alone “living walls” in the poorest part of Los Angeles, designed produce fine upstanding tomatoes, onions, chillies and cucumbers - cut and come for the impoverished so to speak. Ye see apart from the commendable idealism, the problem with allowing architects and structural designers to tangle with gardening stuff is that they view plants as just another material or texture rather than individual living things with their own very particular needs.

For this reason, most of their living walls will fail - by producing stunted plants with diseases. Onions and carrots can’t grow in the same homogenous upended giant seed tray. Amateur food growers know what architects and designers of novelty wall mounted growing systems don’t - you can’t bung a bunch of onions, tomatoes and chillies into one great big tight knit vertical patchwork quilt and expect to walk back to perpendicular cornucopia.

A dead living wall in London's Islington
As it happens I’m out in my back garden now musing about the nutty upright growing device designs I’ve seen on the internet over the last few days. And I’ve just come up with my own - the lettuce gutter.

I’ve just taken delivery of a massive 16 foot by ten foot and eight foot high shed which has robbed me of about a third of my total garden growing space. There’s a big chunky rain gutter on the front side which takes all the rain water from the roof to the side of the shed, down a drainpipe to the side.

My brainstorm involves bunging up the hole to the downpipe, filling the gutter with soil and growing lettyce in it. If my roof gutter can grow weeds and small trees, then why can’t my shed gutter grow rocket and mustard? The rain would therefore trickle down to give the salad a drink. So hey presto let’s tell the architects!!

A lettuce gutter yesterday - looks like someone's beaten me to it!
But as I've said, hairbrained upright growing schemes like this one - alongside those peddled by bampot designers online -  generally don’t work. Otherwise the lettuce gutter would have been patented by now, we’d all be climbing ladders on summer weekends to pick salad and I’d be rich instead of working for the Sunday Times.

But with my greatly reduced backyard, I’m now facing the conundrum that many city dwellers face when trying to grow a bit of produce  -  a tight ground area and lots of upright vertical space crying out for an idea.

So this is what I’m actually going to do. 

First, tomatoes - the best crop ever for growing up (or down) walls. They don’t require a massive rootball and can be trimmed, trained, wired or strung in all directions - best of all - upwards. Next up strawberries. I have loads of strawberry plants sitting around in window boxes and buckets which are set to make their big  splash around May. 

These I plan to suspend in a hanging gro-bag formation from at least one wall of either the shed or the house. Strawberries flower, fruit and then get in the way for the rest of the year. So the removable gro-bags will allow me to shift them into the dark side passage once the fruit goes and they start firing out those annoying runners.

Next, the grapevine. I have one in the corner of the patio but unfortunately the tomatoes shade it out. This will henceforth be situated at the sunny corner of this new shed, and will be trained out along the shed gutter thus turning it into a far more practical and productive aid to the larder than filling it with lettuces.

They're grape for climbing - a vine scales a shed
I am aware of peas and beans as a viable upright option but peas yield very little for all their handsome growth and while beans bring more food, I can’t stomach them. If you're partial to beans they climb exceptionally well - some to eight or nine feet up.

Next will be two shed hugging cucumber plants. These won’t be allowed out of the greenhouse until May or they’ll die in the weather, but I do have two or three salvaged and still loving rose bush stumps and rootballs in plastic bags and these will also be trained on the shed for colour but also for support - for the cucumbers. Once fed properly and provided with something to climb cucumbers will quickly swarm up a (sunny) wall and are highly productive. We don’t eat a lot of cucumbers so there will only be two.

Finally - last but not least I’ll be planting a damson tree that’s been sat dormant in a bucket on the patio since I purchased it in the autumn. Although it’s a tree with root capacity to undermine my shed foundations, I’ll be confining it to a big container and then training it along a wall with wire - making its branches perpendicular to the trunk in a well tested style which will yield buckets of fruit.

Small fruit trees are perfect along walls - they can be grown as high as you want and then cut off top and trained outwards. Try the container viable Irish bred Coronet mini apple tree which stays at four or five feet or try to find a small pear strain. Always beware though of the capacity of tree roots to do damage to walls though.

An esplanaded pear tree against a wall
From the top down, hanging baskets or containers will also do well for strawberries and cherry tomatoes (try tumbling tom). Make sure there’s clay in the mix to retain moisture so you don’t end up having to water them twice a day. So there you have it, a few tips for growing food vertically which aren’t off the wall. Until you hear about my potato chimney pots that is..

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Shady Characters (what dope growers can teach us)

How many food growers have researched something on the internet, got interested, and then found it related to dope growing?

Two years ago a Wexford farmer's wife returned to her car in Ferns village to find two suitcases brim-full of marijuana in her boot. Two Chinese men at the scene apologised to her for placing their suitcases in the wrong car (they'd been instructed to stick them in the next car up) The gardai (Irish cops) were called and they tracked the suspects to two houses stuffed floor-to-ceiling with E400,000 worth of wacky baccy plants.

Don't trust those drug dealers with your car...

This was one of dozens of busts which have taken place here since 2008, highlighting Ireland’s other "grow your own" boom. Hot housers can produce E100,000 worth of crops every few months from an area the same size of my allotment and back garden (which in contrast make me about E1,200 per year worth of food, though nothing stronger than wild garlic and cayenne chillies.

The secret to the pot houser's success - and also to his downfall  - is the 1000 watt grow lamp bulb which gives the cannabis plants the equivalent of twenty four hour blazing sunshine if they so need it. They also bring “heat” on the growers because infrared cameras on police helicopters or the resulting electricity bill spikes are what generally leads to the hot house bust.


But perhaps no one understands the optimum application of light to plants than illicit dope growers who could teach us food growers a thing or three about maximising photosynthesis - the process whereby plants make oxygen and sugar from light, carbon dioxide and water.

Last week I was inspecting some very wacky looking cabbage plants in raised beds that I installed late last year in the side passage of my semi d. The passage, used for channelling wheelie bins in and out, provided me with some excellent extra raised bed space along its permimeter but it gets no more than two hours of direct sunlight daily. Food plants need a minimum of six to do their thing.

Not as interesting as my side passage, but just as out for the Ripper..

My first step to testing the growing potential for a darker area like this was to stick in a bunch of partial shade tolerant food plants. In went spinach beet, sugar snaps, cabbages and a blackcurrant bush. All did well apart from the cabbages which stretched eerily skyward in search of light and formed no heads at all. So cabbages, and presumably other brassicas like sprouts, broccoli, calabrese and cauliflower won’t work here but sugar snaps and by assocatiation, other legumes like peas and beans, should.

I learned from a Youtube clip, that blackcurrants grow wild in woods and forests and are among the few fruits that can cope with shade or at least dappled sunshine. Mine did fine in two hours of direct sun but would surely have exploded with fruit were it devoid of shade.

Using shaded space is about wastage limitation and most food plots have partially shaded areas where the sun falls only for four or five hours a day. Some have heavy shade like my side passage, where the sun hardly falls at all. Knowing what to do with these spaces is vital to get the most from your ground overall.

"What? What did he say?" - Some blackcurrants in the dark yesterday...

Some plants like chillies, aubergines, tomatoes and squashes need more than the minimum six hours of sunshine to do well. Others, like those mentioned above, will produce a reduced amount of food but some food nonetheless. Very few, if any at all, will do well in almost complete shade with less than four hours direct sunlight. Only mushrooms and forced rhubarb can grow in the dark.

The general rule of thumb it seems is that fruits and roots need full sun while those harvested for leaves, buds and stalks can get by with less than the recommended six hours. Good prospects for partial shade (four to six hours) include lettuce, brassicas (in particular cauliflower and broccoli/calabrese), peas, beans, chard, fennell, Jerusalem artichokes, cabbages , mint, kohlrabi, spinach and parsley

Darkest jungle...forget lettuce/salad...but do check your pants for outsized centipedes

Those which can apparently cope best of all with the very darkest environs include parsley, chard, spear mint (do contain the roots though) and some darker leaf lettuces.

To increase the level of light in certain areas, we can take some tips from the cannabis growers. They cover their walls in reflective foil so that they get the best exposure for their light sources. Similarly you could surround your plants with reflective surfaces to channel in more light, but a  more practical measure is to paint the walls and paths around then in white. White paint in a sunny patio area will also vamp up the light for high light consumers like tomatoes by creating a "sun trap."

In areas where you have deciduous trees it might be an idea to concentrate your efforts on a winter cabbage or broccoli because of course, for many months of the year, the trees won't have any leaves at all and the light will filter through.

In the dark: "I swear, I saw a lettuce just there..."

The opposite also applies. When planting in Spring be aware of  the potential for increased foliage on trees and shrubs later in the year. I planted Swedes in a raised bed which backed onto my garden fence containing a jasmine and a rose tree. At the height of summer, these generated an overhead canopy of shade which prevented light getting to the swedes at the back of the bed at certain times of the day. The result was healthy big swedes to the front(where the sun hit first) receding in smaller plants to the back (where the sun hit last). As the year went on, the plants at the front grew taller and in turn succeeded in further shading the ones at the back.

Healthy Swedes to the front...

No one spot in your garden gets exactly the same light level as another. Even in the same bed, the sun will always reach some plants before it gets to others. In extreme cases with bushy topped plants like Swedes, you may have to consider staggered planting to give those plants most in the shade a head start to prevent their fellows growing quicker and shading them out.
Ideally we should keep all roots like carrots and swedes well away from walls and fences. Use netting for your allotment boundary rather than solid fencing  which casts a shadow.

In the future we may all end up with grow lights in our gardens for darker months of the year thanks to new technology. NASA has applied LED technology to plant lighting and this more energy efficient technology is already finding its way into private greenhouses.
LED’s use more than less than half the power required for standard growlights by producing only the light spectrum necessary for plant growth - in this case a red and blue combination. This also means less heat and as it happens, bulbs which can last for many years.

Blue and red LED on Cannabis (sue me for copyright on the photo i dare you...te he)

As technology develops it should mean more growing opportunities for gardens in the northern hemisphere, as well as less drug busts - because not surprisingly our cannabis hot housers are already up to speed with LED.