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.