Monday 31 March 2014

Got Mycorrhizae?

Fungi are amazing organisms. They're everywhere, but their lives go on unseen, in secret, for the most part. They're crucial for decomposition and recycling of waste. They grow like plants but are made of chitin like insects and other invertebrates and, just like humans, they produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight - in fact, some consider fungi to be more closely related to animals than to plants. They can absorb toxic waste and chemical pollutants, using them as food and rendering them harmless. They can MAKE IT RAIN! Their rootlike mycelium - the main body of the organism - can spread underground for miles (the largest fungus on earth is believed to be a honey fungus which covers nearly nine square kilometres in Oregon's Blue Mountains!) while the mushrooms and toadstools we see on the surface are just their flowers and fruits! And it's fungi that form the vast underground network which scientists believe allows plants to communicate, warning each other of pest attack and other troubles.

These mycorrhizal fungi - fungi which connect to the roots of plants and form a symbiotic relationship with them - have other benefits for their hosts too; a vast mycelium acts as a secondary root system for a plant, bringing nutrients and water from far deeper and further away, effectively increasing its root system by up to 700 times! Plants with roots colonised by mycorrhizal fungi establish faster, grow better thanks to the additional nutrients, have more resistance to pests and disease, and suffer less in drought. It's estimated that 90% of land plants have associations with these fungi. Just one gram of woodland soil can contain over a million microscopic fungi, and in one square inch of decomposing organic matter, such as a decaying tree trunk, there can be 70 miles of mycelium. The stuff is everywhere!

Well, not everywhere. Guess where you won't find mycorrhizal fungi...

You won't find it in the kind of sterile shop-bought compost you raise young plants in. And you won't find it on highly-cultivated, regularly disturbed allotment soil. Nope.

So I think it's pretty cool that you can now buy it in a packet. :-)

The fungi spores, native to the UK and grown here, are dried and bound in clay. To use them you just sprinkle them in the planting hole when transplanting, or add them to a drill under a sprinkling of soil before sowing seeds. I have put mine into an old herb jar with a shaker top for easy application!

Needless to say, I will be using this this year, especially under my new perennials, and have already added it when planting my strawberries and asparagus, and sowing my broad beans. Of course, switching to no-dig growing and using ground-covers will mean that fungi can survive much better in our soil from now on, and should colonise the area nicely, so personally I can't see myself using it year on year, but it certainly looks like it has great benefits for growers whatever their methods (look here for some photos comparing plants with and without mycorrhizae) and the RHS particularly recommends it when planting out trees, roses and shrubs, to ensure less transplant shock and help plants establish faster.

Mycorrhizal fungi apparently don't help brassicas, since brassica roots release a natural anti-fungal defence which stops them thriving, nor acid-loving plants such as cranberries, blueberries, heathers, azaleas and rhododendrons. Some other plants however, like grapes and roses, depend heavily on the mycorrhizae and can really struggle without them, and a few species of orchid cannot live without them at all.

It's crazy to think that our traditional method of digging the soil over before growing crops actually breaks this beneficial natural relationship that does so much good in the wild, and stops us benefiting right where we need it most. It's another one-up for no-dig gardening, and I can't wait to see the results!

Saturday 29 March 2014

Allotment Week, Part Three - Green Manures and Ground Covers

I've dabbled a little with green manures before - mostly scattering phacelia seeds here and there at the last minute of the growing season and then cursing them when they finally appear the following spring right where I want to be planting stuff, and I can't bear to get rid of the lovely flowers before the bees have made the most of them... But last autumn I made my first serious attempt at using green manure properly.

The idea, in case you're not familiar, is that rather than leaving soil bare over winter (or at any time), you sow a cover crop of some sort. This crowds out weeds, keeps the fungal organisms in the soil happy, and protects the soil against leaching, erosion and so on - and when you're ready to plant crops again you dig in the vegetation to add organic matter to the soil. Now that I've seen our plot flood, I can see how important it can be to have roots in the ground, keeping the soil together and preserving its structure in case of extreme weather. The problem I typically have, though, is that I clear my beds too late to sow anything, or, as with the phacelia, poor planning means I want to plant right where a cover crop is doing its thing. I've also always been a bit wary about adding to my weed problem by experimenting with certain green manures which are reportedly not-so-easy to kill off when you're done with them! But after a lot of reading, I've identified a few green manures that I think suit my way of working:

Field beans, often grown for livestock feed and much-resembling a branching broad bean, are winter-hardy and germinate right up to November, so I can get away with sowing them really late in the season. And being in the bean family, their roots fix nitrogen in the soil.

Phacelia needs sowing by September latest, so I'm gonna have to try harder to clear some space for it late summer (maybe after the broad beans...?) but I think it's well worth persisting with for the lovely bee-friendly flowers it produces around May - if I can manage to leave it that long. It'd be ideal for whatever bed I'm going to grow squashes on, since they don't get planted out until May or June.

Mustard is a quick grower which is killed off by frost and can be left where it dies to decompose and mulch the soil. It's not quite the same as having something growing over winter, but I'm interested in giving it a try this year and seeing how it works out. Mustard is said to help keep soil pests under control too, so it might be good to grow this before potatoes.

White clover is hardy and long-lasting, and can be used as a 'living mulch' around perennial or widely-spaced plants. It keeps weeds down and has bee-attracting flowers in the summer, AND it fixes nitrogen. I'm going to start introducing this all over the place: we have already sown it over what is to be our squash bed (too late to sow phacelia here now for flowers by May) and I will start to scatter it round the edges of the perennial bed, letting it spread naturally. If it's growing where I want to plant, I'll simply pull it up to clear a space.

Buckwheat is a quick-growing summer green manure and to be honest, I'm not sure if I'm really going to fit it in anywhere, but like phacelia it has wonderful flowers, loved by insects, and it seems easy to deal with, so I wanted to give it a try and bought some seed anyway...

Back to 'allotment week', and our third big task was to clear last year's green manures and sow a new one. After our potatoes were harvested early last October we sowed field beans in their place, and they've grown pretty well through the mild winter, reaching a height of nine inches or so. But plans have changed since last autumn and I wanted to get some clover started here, so it was time for them to go.

Switching to no-dig gardening means we won't be able to dig our green manures into the soil, but instead we can cut down the growth and either use it as a mulch and let it decompose naturally on the surface, or add it to our compost heap. Leaving the roots in the soil means they'll add loads of nitrogen. Just look at the nitrogen-filled root nodules on this field bean stump I pulled up by mistake!

I cut the beans down at the soil surface, trying to get every shoot to reduce the chance of regrowth. I'm sure some of my allotment neighbours must have thought they were up-and-coming broad beans I was cutting down! The greens made a nice leafy layer on the compost heap.

I hand-weeded the whole bed after this - the beans don't keep weeds down as well as some other green manures are supposed to and there were quite a lot of young dandelions, docks and pineapple weed around. Then I raked and watered in some white clover seed over the whole bed. Hopefully it will have a good chance to get established as a living mulch before I plant the squashes out.

Mulching round plants helps to keep weeds down, reduce evaporation, and absorb excess rainfall in wet periods. A living mulch has all these benefits and more! It can attract and provide shelter for beneficial insects, it doesn't need replacing so often, and it has even been shown to decrease pest attacks in some vegetable plants. I'm really looking forward to seeing how this works out! Earlier this week I also read this interesting post by Alison of Backyard Larder, which talks about using edible plants such as wild strawberries and lambs lettuce as living mulches - something I am going to have to give some thought to now! I'm certain claytonia, one of my favourite home-grown salad leaves, would make a pretty great groundcover too, but judging by the way it gets everywhere in the garden I think it'd be a bit risky on the plot!

We did sow a spot of phacelia last year too, scattering it in odd patches where I pulled up individual squash plants. You can see what remains as a clump in the third bed in the picture at the bottom. I'd really like this to flower before I want to sow my root veg there... I don't think it's going to happen, but I'll wait and see, and if all else fails maybe I'll scatter a few seeds out of the way for the bees (and me!) to enjoy the flowers later in the summer!

So that's it for allotment week. We didn't get our potatoes in like we wanted to - no big deal as it's early yet - but we really did get a good headstart on the season, and did a lot of those little jobs that usually get pushed to the bottom of the list. If you follow this blog I'm sure you'll agree it's probably never looked this neat and tidy! Now, bring on some warmer temperatures and let's get some crops out there!

Thursday 27 March 2014

Allotment Week, Part Two: Goodbye Digging!

Think about allotments or growing-your-own, and digging is probably one of the first activities that comes to mind. But digging, it seems, is not the best choice for the soil, and more and more gardeners are giving it up. I've been following the work of gardening author and teacher Charles Dowding, who promotes no-dig gardening, and the efforts of Roy and Tanya from Pushing up Dandelions, who created a wonderful and productive no-dig plot from scratch last year by bringing in mulch, manure and compost from offsite, and the advantages are clear:
  • It preserves and protects beneficial soil life: the six legged kind, the wriggling kind and the oft-forgotten complex fungal organisms that weave their mycelia through the dirt.
  • The soil develops a more stable and open structure, which admits air and water, drains well and can be walked on (carefully) without compacting.
  • The soil surface stays loose and is less likely to harden into a crust.
  • Leaving roots and other organic matter in the soil to decompose naturally adds structure and nutrients.
  • Regular digging means old weed seeds in the soil are constantly brought to the surface where they can germinate and grow.
  • Most crops actually establish better and grow faster in undug soil, thanks to its improved structure and microlife.
  • Digging takes a lot of time and can be jolly hard work!

(For more about no-dig gardening, check out this handy leaflet from Garden Organic.)

When we started out with our plot, I don't think we could possibly have avoided digging: the couchgrass problem was severe, and we couldn't have afforded to ship in enough compost to just cover it up - and anyway we wanted to grow in the fertile allotment soil, not shipped-in compost from goodness-knows-where! But now, having dug annually for a few years and finally gotten rid of most of the grass across the main growing area of the plot, we're making the big switch to no-dig gardening...

The two beds in the foreground of the pic above have only needed hand-weeding for the last year or so. We helped the third one along last year by basically digging all the soil out of it to about a foot deep, lining it with a couple of layers of thick cardboard to smother the grass, and putting the soil back minus the grass roots! Our squashes grew well here last year and again, it only needed hand-weeding. The cardboard will decompose eventually, but hopefully it will take long enough to smother and kill off any remaining perennial roots below.

Our card-lined no-dig squash bed!
The fourth bed, way over near the compost bin, is still chock-full of grass. We're planning to grow potatoes there this year and Eddie has started to dig it, but those plans may yet change to no-dig plans...

You will have noticed we've put in some (hopefully) permanent paths now, too, lined with weedproof fabric, edged with bricks and filled in with woodchip. This added structure will really help us keep control of things better, I think, and provides something of a barrier to any remaining weeds and those creeping in from the sides.

Taken last summer
So anyway, now we've got a big weed-free area, we're giving up on our thoroughly weed-ridden strawberry and asparagus beds, and planting a new perennials bed was our other main task for 'allotment week'. Below you can see how our old strawberry bed looks right now, and the asparagus bed is in the same state. Hand-weeding them every year when the couchgrass is obviously still so established is just soul-destroying. We were obviously very naive about how long it would take and how hard it would be to get rid of the perennial weeds!

Our old strawberry bed - yuk!
Our new perennial bed has 24 strawberry plants in two raised beds (Florence, Mae, Lucy and Albion runners transplanted from the old bed and from home) and two new rows of asparagus (10 x Gjinlim and 10 x Backlim). Eventually we'll also plant some globe artichokes, a perennial kale or two, and some herbs!

Asparagus crowns going in the ground
So here it is: our new perennials bed (with fox protection on the far raised bed, as we keep finding decomposing animals and bones in it!). There are still a few swedes and leeks here too, but we're getting through them fast now. It won't be long before the asparagus is popping through the soil and the strawberries start leafing up again!

In the meantime, I've taken some cuttings from our perennial Daubenton kale to go here...

...and I'm raising Green Globe artichokes from seed at home. They say you get a lot of duds growing artichokes from seed, so I started by sowing 20 seeds, and culled the weaker ones from the 16 that germinated, so now I have ten. I'll be sure to get rid of any others that don't keep up, and if there are still more than I can handle, I'll take the surplus to swaps! I have bought artichoke plants before but they struggled and died (they were in the troubled bottom end of the plot, where the compost bin now is) and they were expensive! Seed is much cheaper!

Of course, there's still some digging to do: we need to start from square one on the remaining grassy areas now, including the old strawberry and asparagus beds. But it's great to know we can now start to say goodbye to that back-breaking chore we had to get through each season before we could start the fun stuff, and I know the plot's going to be much more productive for it!

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Allotment Week, Part One: A Good Tidy Up

Every year, in the middle of March, Eddie and I take a week off together with the primary intention of getting the allotment in order for the growing season ahead. To be honest, it rarely works out like that; weather or household tasks usually get in the way and we don't tend to get as much done as we'd like - if I recall correctly, the plot was under snow this time last year! - but the intention is there. Well, last week was our "allotment week 2014", and I'm pleased to report that it was rather jolly good!

First things first: After seven years in the elements, our trusty storage bench neither functioned as a bench, nor kept the contents dry any more, and definitely needed replacing. You gotta have somewhere to sit!

I'd have liked to get something non-plastic, but wooden options are much more expensive and require more care and maintenance, so I confess we went for plastic again. We did dutifully take the old one to the 'rigid plastics' recycling bin at the tip though!

Our new bench looks pretty good and seems a bit more insect-proof than the first! Without a shed, we really rely on this space to keep all our tools and bits and pieces.

Next, we badly needed a new compost bin. Our old one is seven years old, just like our bench, and literally falling apart, with one side threatening to burst and spill compost all over the path...


With a few pallets from my brother's workplace and a bulk pallet delivery from the local Wood Recycling Centre, we soon had a new one built at the opposite end of the plot.

We moved it here for a few reasons: first, it's the shadiest part of the plot, under an elder tree, and the soil seems to be very poor here and full of roots; nothing we've planted here has ever done well. Second, the grass and nettles here go crazy and it'll be a sure way to stamp them out (while cutting any remaining nettle growth to feed to the compost). And third, we can use the sunny and now super-fertile spot where the old bin used to be for something else! Once we've finished deconstructing the poor thing and moved all the half-finished compost, that is...

You might have noticed we built a little flower bed next to the compost bin too, alongside the path. I lined it with thick cardboard to try to keep the grass out, and in it I've planted cowslip, forget-me-nots (not shown), wild pansies which self-sowed elsewhere on the plot, and some primrose seeds. I'll pop a few bulbs in later in the year, too. I'm not exactly sure which of these plants will thrive in this little semi-shaded spot and which won't, but hopefully it'll soon be a mini haven for pollinating insects!

Speaking of attracting wildlife, the pond needed a bit of TLC too. It was so overgrown this winter that we pulled basically all the vegetation out and then replaced a few small bits to regrow. Then the site flooded, and the pondweed (and the tadpoles) all floated away. Hmph. So we replenished it with oxygenating weed and put some barley straw in it to tackle the algae that's covering everything. It's looking much better already, and the water's so clear we can see the big fat frogs at the bottom. (It's rather silted up: the 'bottom' isn't nearly as deep as is used to be - so I think we still have more work to do on it...) Now when will those big fat frogs give us some more tadpoles? That's what I want to know!

The flooding, the inability to put anything else in our compost bin lest it exploded, and some neglect over winter had really left the whole allotment in a bit of a mess. The once-lovely blue frames round our beds are rotten now and fallen to pieces (and we're gradually replacing them with brick borders), our table made of bits of pallet fell apart when we tried to move it, and there was flood debris lying around here and there. So before we got down to any, like, actual gardening, we spent some time giving the place a good tidy up too; moving heaps of weeds from last autumn to the new compost bin, bagging up rubbish, and piling up stray wood. Quite a lot of stray wood... Now do we drag it all to the dump, or is this the time to give hugelkultur a try, hmmm...?

Tuesday 11 March 2014

You Vote Three Times Every Day

For some reason I've always been under the impression that organic food - and organic farming - was the environmentally friendly choice. Organic farmers avoid pesticides or herbicides or fungicides, and they only use environmentally friendly fertilisers, right? They use methods like polyculture, soil-building, companion planting and encouraging beneficial predators, and when they have a problem they deal with pests manually or use strictly-controlled organic pesticides if they really, really have to, right?

Wrong! I got quite a shock when I saw this video:

(For the purposes of this post, I'm talking only about the first 1m40s of the video - the rest is another issue, which I've commented on before, here, and about which I'll have plenty more to say in the next few weeks...)

It seems some organic farmers don't give two hoots about environmentally-friendly methods, and use organic-certified pesticides, fungicides and herbicides liberally - in fact, at much higher rates and much more often than conventional fertilisers. Apparently I should have known this back in 2010, when a study showed that use of organic pesticides could actually be more damaging to the environment and its wildlife than synthetic pesticides. In fact, some organic-certified (i.e. derived-from-nature) pesticides are much more toxic than their synthetic counterparts: organic-certified rotenone, derived from the roots of tropical bean plants and effective against caterpillars and beetles, is six times more toxic than carbaryl, a synthetic product used for the same pests. Nicotine sulfate, extracted from tobacco, is six times more toxic than its synthetic counterpart, diazinon. 

Now, some say this study is irrelevant:
"...the implications of the study are minimal because organic farming is not about replacing synthetic pesticides with organic pesticides, say organic farmers, retailers and regulators.
The culture and approach of organic farming is what distinguishes it from conventional farming, organic farmer David Cohlmeyer said. He runs Cookstown Greens, which supplies organic produce to restaurants and hotels in Ontario. Organic pesticides are "irrelevant" to his business, he said.

"When you're doing it right, you don't have pest problems," Mr. Cohlmeyer said. "We don't use any pesticides because we don't need to."

Organic farmers are only supposed to use natural pesticides as a last resort. Instead, crop rotation, planting habitats for beneficial predators and good soil are an organic farmer's first priority, said Simon Jacques, Ontario representative for organic certification program Ecocert."
Good news! I wasn't completely delusional about the good of organic farming then. But the attitudes of the two farmers in the video demonstrate very clearly that an organic farmer is not necessarily a farmer who cares for the environment or supports wildlife on his land. For the two farmers in the video, organic farming IS about replacing synthetic pesticides with organic ones. I don't know why I hadn't seen it coming, to be honest: profit trumps the greater good every time, doesn't it? If you're going to grow big monocultures, you're going to need more pesticides, whether organic or synthetic. And - as well as rendering the 'organic' label fairly meaningless - this revelation highlights again what I think is really wrong with our food supply chain: industrialisation.

It's the sheer scale of industrial farms that causes the trouble. Monocultures push out nature. Small farms and big gardens are far better suited to chemical-free growing, good soil care, manual pest-control and rich biodiversity. On a huge industrial farm, a relatively small number of workers have to deal with a vast area of land in the way that makes the most profit. Doesn't our food supply deserve a little more attention-to-detail than that? They plant monocultures because they're simpler to care for and make the most money. They use chemicals because they're the easiest way to deal with a problem, not the best way. They don't feed or protect the soil any more than they must to get their crop. Wildlife? Wildlife doesn't make a profit.

Food is the foundation of our survival and wellbeing. It's the cornerstone of economy; the number one most important commodity in every country. It's the linchpin of society; civilisations have risen and fallen according to their ability to produce it. You can't build a shelter, use a computer, drive a car or win a war without it. It's our first and foremost concern when it comes to looking after our families and our health - food is personal. As human beings, it is and must be our primary industry, and because it's SO important - because we must throw so much time and energy and resources and land into it - HOW we do it is crucial too.

So why are we so dreadfully out of touch with our food supply? Why have we pushed food production out of our communities? Why have we given up responsibility for it, preferring to pay money for other people, often in other countries, to sort it out for us? How much time and energy and resources and land do we as individuals and families and communities give to it?

Our modern food and farming system has transformed some 700,000,000 hectares of woodlands, forests and meadows into vast, featureless swathes of cereal crops, replacing natural ecosystems, displacing wildlife and sometimes destroying whole species. It depletes soils worldwide up to ten times faster than nature can restore them. It's an enormous source of pollution - the biggest source in many countries - and could even be depleting the ozone layer, scientists say. It's the world's biggest source of animal cruelty. And the worst thing of all? It's not even working! 12% of the world still goes hungry, and a good deal more than that struggle to get the food they need.

And I'm sick to death of claims that GMOs are the answer - the only way to feed the world. Recent news of a GM potato that resists blight failed to mention the naturally-bred potatoes already developed by the Sarvari Research Trust. These 'Sarpo' potatoes are resistant to all strains of blight and have been around for six years - if you grow your own you may well already be familiar with them. The trust is currently busy trying to crowdfund £50,000 to expand their business and make their blight-free potatoes available to farmers and growers across the globe (you can help them reach their target here). Meanwhile, £3,200,000 of public money has been spent trying to genetically-engineer potatoes to do exactly the same thing that Sarpo spuds can already do - and it has taken three years to achieve resistance against just one strain of the disease! Whatever the GM industry is about, it is NOT about feeding the world. Imagine the benefits to the food supply by now if Sarpo had been given that £3.2 million, three years ago!

I've said it before and I'll say it again: divide the worlds 21,800,000 square miles of agricultural land by its 7 billion people and we get nearly two acres each! That's more than enough to feed the world by anyone's logic; we're just managing the land - and its produce - insanely badly. Once upon a time, everyone was involved in their own food production. Today, we get our food from shelves, in buildings, without a second thought, and for that reason we've forgotten that because it's SO important, food production is perhaps THE biggest influence on how our world is run.

Every time you eat, you vote for how you want the world to be. You vote for or against biodiversity. You vote for or against animal cruelty. You vote for or against wildlife, and deforestation, and pollution, and slavery, and CO2 emissions, and chemical food additives. You vote for or against the corporations that seek to own the food supply. You vote for or against your own local economy, and your personal food security in times of trouble. Change never happens overnight, but every pound you spend, every consumer choice you make, every meal you eat is an opportunity to influence the system.

We need to take back responsibility for our food supplies; we need to bring food production back to our communities. We need to get involved. Please, get involved. Support your local farmers and producers and, crucially, talk to them about how the food was produced. Join a CSA, a community garden project or a similar group in your area - or start one! If you don't already, grow some food for yourself! Take the One Pot Pledge. Start some herbs and salad greens in containers - they're easy and some of the most heavily-sprayed conventional crops. Put your name down for an allotment. Do anything to take the power back and have some say about how you want our food system to run. Do it now!

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