Thursday, January 26, 2012

Don't Aggregate Me

A few of my food growing blogs have been cut and pasted from here into other websites without my permission - word for word and omitting only those words that make up my name. The tracts have been reproduced in places where they could actually make someone some money - where the ads are plentiful and substantial.

And so the dreaded aggregator has been round to visit my blog, departing with plenty on his paste board. Where once a blogger like me might have volunteered his tracts eagerly to the aggregate man - in the post Huff Post sell-off world, the bloggers are not willing and the aggregators have resorted to the sharp practice of the pressgang.

Because this blog is a flight of whimsy I won't lose too much sleep over it. But it would have been different if they'd stolen my book - which took me a year of late nights to put together. I wrote the book to help people to learn about food growing, but also for the purpose of selling it.

Wikipedia had a blackout last week against US government regulations. Wiki and Jimmy Wales stand for free and unfettered circulation of information. It's all very well until you ask: Who will produce reliable information if we expect it all gratis?

There's a place for free info in this world and a place for "paid for" info. To get that balance right we will always have to fight for the rights of the former to exist but also to protect the financial rights to the intellectual rights of the latter. It means we have to penalise people who steal protected content.

If there is no financial reward for producing good verifiable information, and no legal protection for the intellectual rights of those who do, then in our brave new Wikiworld, who will produce that information to a standard and quality and level of verification that we have come to demand? A great big colony of altruistic info monks who live off donations and fresh air? It's a nice idea.

Would you take instructions for your bungee jump from Wiki? No? Work your way down the scale so - investment advice from Wiki? Advice on how to dye your hair? Te he. Why not?

Food growing is a sideline for me and this blog is a hobby of sorts. Otherwise by day I'm a journalist in a fast shrinking profession which is seeing more and more of its trained members leaving newspapers, tv and radio every day - all over the world -  to go over to consultancy and PR. They're moving from pasting politicians and uncovering scandals to selling you toothpaste and bookie brands. It's happening because people don't want to pay for reliable information anymore, particularly online.

Like many print journos, I studied for it in college, gained a journalism qualification and then trained in the industry, starting at the bottom. Since then I have been paid by various outlets to produce content. If I drift from the discipline on here it's because I enjoy the freedom to be sloppy and because its my blog - I can do it. If you're still reading then that's your lookout. But we both know that a blog is a flight of fancy and expect no more from it.

 But the training ensures multiple checks from multiple sources to verify everything I write for the day job. If you think newspapers write nothing but lies and get away with it, then go get yourself libeled, go sue them and see how much you'll make. Suing newspapers pays far more than writing for them.  Newspapers are liable for untruths and being properly liable for what you do in the realm of information provision costs lots of money.

 On the other hand aggregators of a certain type send kids out at 5am to buy the newspapers and then type their entire content into their web sites - stealing information and selling their own ads on the back of it. They pay the kids a pittance and tell them that they're journalists. The newspaper buyers stop buying and turn instead to the free aggregator. This is how aggregators kill industries. And when newspapers are good and dead (whether they're online or offline organs) then the aggregator will detach from the corpse and go leech off something else.

However much it likes to dress itself up, Wiki is an aggregator - albeit a not-for-profit one - for now. The Huff Post also aggregated "free" content remember?

But when jurisdictions move to protect intellectual rights online in the exact same way that they already protect it in the realms of music, movies and print -  that's when you hear the wails. That's when the aggregators cry foul, human rights abuse, censorship, skull and bones, alien abduction et al.

While many journalists have a calling,  unlike Jimmy Wales, most don't volunteer their work for free. As George W once observed, people need to put food on their families. So whether online or elsewhere, the dosh needs to come from somewhere for reliable information to continue.

Without that cash paid over, you're left with anonymous rantings, meanderings, venom, bellyaching and invective of the sort that has collapsed numerous online bulletin boards and chat rooms by rendering them worthless. This is a blog, so it too falls into the non verifiable, dreamy, floaty and farty info category.

Wiki has its place, like this blog has its place. But Wiki has also taken all the information which humanity has built up over centuries and based on paid for science, paid for exploration, paid for academia and paid for journalism - and then sprinkled the whole lot through with rumour, prank, pomposity and uncertainty. You'd be shot by an editor in a newspaper or an academic professor examining if you lifted information from a wiki piece without verifying it elsewhere. So what if you really did have absolutely nowhere else to verify from? Because that's where we're heading.

You'll get noble aims perhaps, a big pot of rumour soup most likely and lots of Wales for donations for sure.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Polytunnels and The Greenhouse Effect

With its standard apex roof and rectangular shape, my catalogue ordered greenhouse has all the aerodynamic profile of a Sherman tank. This certainly isn't helpful in the early year gales which have been causing chaos round these parts of late with120 km per hour plus blows..

But unlike said Sherman (which weights 34 tonnes and is made with three inch thick steel plates), my greenhouse comprises a light aluminium frame filled with clipped in sheets of flexible feather light plastic polycarbonate sheets. My greenhouse combo thus has all the spine of a Rolf Harris wobble board and a kite enthusiast would struggle to come up with a more suitably airborne design.

When the really big gales blow, my greenhouse shivers and shimmers to a blur. And just like said octogenarian Aussie’s preposterous musical instrument, the polycarbonate sheets also emit a disconcerting “woppa, woppa” noise. But like a WWII doodlebug, it’s when the noise stops that it's time to panic. The lack of sound means the wind has gotten inside, and popped out a panel. When this happens I have to leg it outside as fast as I can with a light hammer, a bone spanner and a gun containing heavy duty silicon sealant before a vortex builds inside and sends the rest of the sheets flying around the garden.

Woppa, Woppa .... Don't buy a catalogue sold polycarbon and  aluminium kite
Having spent a year trying to come up with varying ways to hold it together, I finally seem to have cracked it thanks to a combination of super strength industrial silicon glue that the shop guy said could hang a man from a helicopter - this I've fed into every joint. The whole lot is reinforced with strips of heavy duty waterproof duct tape which has gone on around the joins. Now it still goes woppa woppa and it trembles to a visual haze, but it holds firm.

So don't buy a light aluminium greenhouse with polycarbonate sheets, especially ones with rubbish "clip on" panel systems. Before I finally sorted it out I'd spent much of January last year chasing errant polycarbonated sprites around my garden. 

But if my greenhouse happened to be glass paneled like those owned by associates and relations of mine, then I would have certainly had different problems. The glaziers would have had to have been called around at least twice in the last year thanks to heavy snow - we’ve had two serious doses in the last fourteen months. With both glass and polycarbonate you have to spend blizzards raking snow off the roof - the only difference with poly is that the sheets don't break when they do fall out.

If I were back again I would have ditched the greenhouse idea altogether and bought a polytunnel instead.

Polytunnels are a relatively recent experience for hobby growers in Ireland. Until about five years ago they were both too expensive and impractical to be used for anything but commercial growing.  We first saw them first with a hobbyist on telly thanks to the inimitable Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall - seen naked and using his as a sauna in his River Cottage tv series - and more recently our own Richard Corrigan (clothed) - employing one on his popular City Farm tv series.
But now, after a year of weather hell, we greenhousers are starting to notice that the polytunnel pioneers still have their clingfilm tents intact. 

Allen Garrard of Polytunnels Ireland, a Galway based supplier has installed 500 poly tunnels all over Ireland through the last two years. Perhaps it's the dome-like shape and flexibility of the polytunnel form that has seen them remain resolutely standing, but Gerard claims he's only had problems with one of his customers thus far. 

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall (pic is from his Paupered Chef website) fully clothed (this time) in his polytunnel
"This guy put his tunnel up high in the Wicklow mountains. He left it unattended over Christmas and the heavy snow over Christmas saw two and a half foot of the stuff pile on top of it. The sheer weight cracked one of the supports so we had to replace it. Otherwise all the rest appeared to have weathered the snow quite well."

Apart from it's resilient shape, a polytunnel's other main advantage is the value for money on offer  - you can have a fifty foot long version for around a grand and a half although most non commercial growers start with the 14 ft x 20 ft version (E850).Another aspect of the polytunnel’s new found popularity in Ireland is the recent ironing out of one of its two major failings.

For many years the outer skins had the reputation of perishing far too easily. It's not that it's expensive to replace, but rather a major inconvenience.

Thanks to improved skins and cut prices we don't need to be commercial growers to get the polybenefits 

The second issue is one which polytunnellers everywhere will simply have to put up with - the semi circular shape means you can only stand up in the middle portions, and growing space at the edges is limited to low ranging food plants only. But that semi circular shape also gives it a natural strength in January's crazier gales.

Nowadays however straight sided tunnels with standing room all round have been developed without losing too much stability inherent in the basic structure while the high tech skins deployed today should last you ten years if properly installed. It is these developments that have taken tunnels from the sole realm of the smallholder or commercial market gardener for which they were intended and made them so recently popular with medium to large sized urban garden owners.

Unlike a greenhouse, which takes from two days upwards to assemble, a polytunnel goes up in a few hours. A simple frame is screwed together and sunk two foot into the ground. Then a one foot deep trench is dug on both sides. You place the edge of the skin sheet into one and back fill it with soil to keep the sheet in place. Then you throw the rest of the skin over the top of the frame and stretch it. You lay the other side it in the second trench and backfill again. The weight of the soil keeps the skin stretched taut. The door at one end is a simple timber frame coated with plastic and inserted into a timber frame, also coated.

Wind proof! This one's located at Stornoway on the outer Hebrides
Because the skin is buried a foot deep on either side there's no way the wind can wheedle it's way in. The foot deep plastic also tends to stop tunneling pests dead in their tracks whereas generally, pests find it easier to find their way under or through the chinks in a greenhouse frame.

"If you lay a piece of plumber's copper pipe across the ground at the door, slugs or snails can't cross it and it's effectively pest proof," says Garrard. He also advises using opaque foggy plastic rather than the clear version. Polytunnels get really hot inside and in my view, the clear plastic can cause the crops to burn" hence HFW’s penchant to use his as a sauna.

For this reason there's no point in growing certain crops in polytunnels as many would wilt, burn or bolt too quickly. "I wouldn't grow potatoes, carrots, onions or anything like that. It's really more suited to tomatoes, chillies, courgettes and so forth.”

The growing warmth they generate and their now proven resilience to Irish weather has given Garrard a brainwave which he says will allow Irish families to sit out in tropically warm gardens in all weather conditions. Gerard, who manufactures his tunnels in Clarenbridge and hopes to expand his business to employ more people in the future, is now planning to start manufacturing geodesic domes in Galway.

Woppa! Woppa! Nnnnnghhh! Only Rolfie's board should make that music.
Anyone familiar with the Eden project in the UK will recognise the sort of space age domes which allow tropical climates in temperate conditions. He believes they will allow us to have enclosed and warm gardens from 30 feet in length. "You'll be able to sit out in warmth at this time of year."

And thankfully they don’t go “Woppa, Woppa” in a gale - in fact they go “ZZZZZZzzzt!!” as the wind ripples over the skin. But most importantly they don’t go wallaby either..

Monday, January 2, 2012

Your Top Ten List of Post Christmas Gardening Excuses

It’s after dinner on Christmas day 1991 and I'm wearing baggy cream chinos and slip on loafers. I still have all my hair and it's cut into a dodgy post new romantic era high rise. My aunt looks me in the eye and shakes her head as her children storm around the hall on a collective e-number berzerker. They are screaming, spinning, lashing at one another and leaving little explosions of Christmas decorations in their wake. - “Mark my words,” she warns. “One day it’ll all come back at you!”

The ghost of Christmases past will confirm that my then favourite pastime at the annual extended family get together was to dose my juvenile cousins with fizzy cola and brightly coloured sweets before handing out pressies of toy bows and arrows, sucker dart guns and plastic swords. 

Then I’d sit back and watch the show.

Fill em up with E numbers, hand out the plastic weaponry and ....escape!!
Later there’d be filthies from the aunts and uncles as they attemped to crowbar their still spinning offspring into the car to get them home.

Twenty years on I have three children under ten and I’m the one reaping the whirlwind. These days as I run around trying to contain my own annual pint sized post dinner Christmas frenzies, the aunts sit and smile contentedly from easy chairs as their adult children run around to fetch them a Baileys.

Which brings me to gardening.

Mark this: despite what any gardening columnist tells you, there are few reasons to go outside and start digging in. In fact there is only one real reason why people get out gardening at this time of year and it is this – cabin fever. They do it to escape from the festivity jaded holiday season household in which everyone is stuck indoors and killing one another. For certain the January garden doesn’t need you out there stomping around, compacting the ground and generally making a nuisance of yourself by disturbing its dormant perennials.

Let's Get Gardening!!! You'll need a damn good excuse to justify this one.
Gardening expeditions at the latter end of the holiday season are entirely selfish. You’ll desperately need to flee – the bored kids, Noel Edmonds Christmas jumper, omnibus soap opera depression, the tweets, whistles and brain beating electro tunes of the new electronic toys whose batteries are fading but haven't quite died.

But in your rush to get outside always remember this: You can’t possibly abandon a similarly fraught spouse to his or her fate just to go and do some gardening. Not at least without a truly plausible excuse - or a full cast iron set of them.

The problem is that many of the “ten things” list of gardening excuses for early January as provided by some gardening columns I’ve read are just not very good at all and won’t pass the muster for a handy exit. For example, one English based online gardening site I looked at had the following in it’s “ten things to do in January” list: 6. “Ask the council if they are having a Christmas tree shredding event….” (??!!!) Another advises: 8. “Polish your garden fork and spade with oil.” Ha ha ha.

Remember that the key ingredients to a good gardening pass excuse are (a) urgency - it needs to be done now and (b) there must be a tangible benefit for the household collective. So lookit. If you can’t get a pub pass and need to get outside before your head explodes, here’s a good and proper excuse list containing ten rock solid plausibles that will, with certainty, guarantee your post Crimpo fleedom to the great out back.

1.    Remember that beautiful garlic we were eating last year? Well if I don’t get the coming year’s crop planted by the end of the week, it’ll be too late.
Most say November or December is perfect for garlic planting, but early January will do at a pinch for a last minute effort.

2.   If I don’t trim back those dead climbers, they’ll start taking over the whole garden. The garden will look much tidier without them and it's best to do it when they’re dormant.

Free all trapped gnomes from dead climber webs
3.  The fence and raised bed planks are showing signs of rot, if we leave them like that through the months ahead they’ll be gone by the summer. I’ll need to clean them off and paint them up with some wood stain before I go back to work – I’ll just run out to the hardware shop and get some environmentally friendly stuff like Procol Fencecote.

4.  Did you see that scrawny sparrow just then? Those poor birds are starving God love them! I’ll need to get up to the shops to get some nuts and wood to knock together some bird tables and hangers to save the poor things.

5.   Oh no! I forgot to sprinkle some well rotted manure on the vegetable beds. It takes a few months for it to get drawn down into the soil by the earthworms. Our soil is a bit tired. Unless I get some manure sprinkled on soon, it will be too late and this year’s home grown veg won’t be as good. I’ll have to go up to the garden centre to get some.

Waiting for the table - a starving birdie yesterday
6.   I've just read in the newspaper that it’s best to get those remaining weeds out in January when their growth has been slowed and when the ground is clear of most other growth. Strangling chickweed in particular is more vulnerable at this time of year says yer man - their garden guy in the funny hat.

7.  Did you notice that the Autumn leaves have turned into a slippy guck on the paths? That’s a bit dangerous alright for the kiddies. But if I shovel it all up into a bucket and get it into the compost, it will not only makes the path much safer, but will sort us out for some great free compost.

8.  Dang! I just remembered. The greenhouse panes and panels need to be washed out inside with a mild bleach. Otherwise any mildews, mould spores or insect eggs will remain active into the new year and that could create problems for our tomatoes.

Get the disinfectant to cull those greenhouse spores

9.  That garden shed needs a bit of a spring clean. I think I’ll bring the radio down there and get that job out of the way before I go back to work.  

10 . Do you fancy some nice fresh home grown garden fruit this summer? I’m reading here in the newspaper that now’s the time to buy in and plant your apple, pear and damson trees. Why don’t I just pop up to the garden centre and get some before they’re sold out?

Time for an early Spring Clean in the shed. Now where is it exactly?
Now all you need is an excuse not to bring the kids out with you.