Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Permaculture Design Course with Geoff Lawton

So, I have started the online permaculture design course with the greening of the desert man Geoff Lawton.

What do I think of it?  It is a very intense course with a very steep learning curve.  A lot of the information I had heard of before and had a general understanding, however the detail that the course goes into is quite daunting.  Some of the terms used such as energy and entropy are on the edge of scientific definition and, although this could be irritating, it is still understandable within the context of permaculture.

Some of the concepts such as; 'always make the problem the solution' and 'gardening can solve all problems'  I like!

Even though; I still cannot find a solution for Equisetum arvensis that does not involve removing it completely from the garden.  There must be an easier way of controlling it and working it into a viable sustainable system.

The best thing about the course is that you can see what is being talked about and there are a number of good examples where people have got it right and everything is working together.  Is it a cliché  to quote the Loess Plateau in China?

Also, I was pleased to see that Geoff uses a tractor and plough to turn over his main crop vegetable garden.  Appropriate technology as Mollison would say.

What is the downside?  The culture of the celebrity is such an irritation.  Geoff Lawton knows things that I would like to know and he explains things quite succinctly. After more than forty years of experience he gets things right more than he gets things wrong.  This does not mean that he should be 'celebritised'.  The comments that verge on the sycophantic irritate me to distraction.  

I have stopped reading the comments now.  I know that I should be joining in with the chatter but I really don't find it a learning process.    Maybe I am just a grumpy old man.

So, is it applicable to cool temperate maritime climates?  Definitely.

Let's qualify that a little.  We have it easy in the Uk because there is rarely a scarcity of water on the allotment.  If there is a lack of rain, then water capture and storage in water butts can usually be counted on to provide enough water to see most plants over the drought.  I rarely water any of my vegetables and still get a very good crop.

For many years I have been cursing the three springs on my old allotment garden.  I drained the soil with commercial drainage pipes not really realising the fantastic resource I had.  Just thinking about the flushes of vegetation around springs should have alerted me to the potential but I had never connected the springs on my allotment to those flushes on the hillside.

Accepting that in the Uk we do not usually have a lack of rain water, there are still benefits to controlling water flow on the allotment.  It is all about slowing the mass flow of water through the soil.  This will slow leaching, allow more time for uptake of soluble minerals; capture eroded soil particles, enhance water filtration  and provide more opportunity for upward water capillary action for plant growth.

Also, having my comfrey bed at the bottom of the hill on the old allotment meant that all the nutrients washed down by water from the allotments up the hill could be taken up and harvested. This is what I am going to do on the new allotment but probably using a much smaller catchment area.

Water is not really a limiting factor in the UK although light is.  I really don't want to plant on contour.  The planting rows need to be running north to south so that plants can get maximum light.
This I will do while still considering the slope and slowing mass water flow. 

I will mulch the whole of the allotment with chippings.  However, I will find not digging very difficult. 

So now that I have finished the course and find that I can use a lot of the techniques that Geoff suggests.  However, I do not have a farm or small holding to do the big projects. 

Still every little helps as the Vicar said as he peed into the sea. 

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Concrete slabs are slippery beggars.

As the soil has been rock hard due to the frosts, I decided to get the last of the concrete slabs from the old allotment.  They are two inch thick two foot square slabs.  I have some two inch three foot by two foot slabs but these are far too heavy to be moved easily.  They are really evil beggars and will fall on your foot as soon as look at you.

So what safety precautions did I take before attempting the move?  Steel toed boots were worn.  I got these for the RHS practical gardening course and they are invaluable mainly because they keep your feet warmer than wellingtons.  However, I was glad of them yesterday.

Thick gauntlet gloves enables you to grab hold of rough surfaces without tearing your hands and I wore them.

I could have used my slab trolley but it was easier to walk the slabs down the path and that was my downfall.

Although the ground was rock hard in most places, down the side of the old allotment was very wet due to the spring on the top half.  So the slabs got very wet and muddy as I was walking them to the car.  I have a technique to lift the slabs into the car that involves using my leg muscles rather than my back so I was not worried about how to get them into the car.  I had put an old pallet in the car to make sure the weight was evenly distributed over the back axle.

I got the slabs into the car without incident, which is good because there was nobody on the site except for me and, if I had an accident, it would have been a little worrying as I found out later.

I got to the new allotment without incident and had a think before I did anything.  My gloves were caked in wet soil which was very slippy.  I have at least three pairs of gardening gloves in the shed so I went to discover which hidey hole I had hidden them in.  (I hadn't hidden them, however it always seems that I have because I can never find anything in the shed.)

First pair I found were the very big ones that I lost and this was the reason I bought the new ones. Well now I know I have two good pairs of garden gloves. The problem with the big gloves was that soil kept on falling inside them and filling the fingers.  I could not fit my little fingers in because of the soil in them.  I hit each of the fingers with the hammer to crush the solid lumps of soil and they fell out quite easily.  So a good pair of dry gloves.  No health and safety problems.

I go back to the car and begin taking out the first slab without any problems, put it on the ground using my leg muscles and walked it down the path to where I was going to use it.  Same with the second slab.

However, the third and last slab decided to be a little more irritating.  The lovely dry gauntlet gardening gloves had become caked in the slippy soil from the other slabs and I didn't have as much grip  as I had on the  other two slabs.  Taking the slab out of the car, I felt a sharp pain in my back and thought I had better put this down quickly and carefully.

It slipped out of my gloves and onto my foot, which was no problem due to the steel toe cap. However, I had lost control of it and it slid right down my leg scraping the skin.   That could have been worse, however my back now had a pulled muscle,  a discomfort that still persists, I have a bruised foot and a grazed leg.    

Just as at the old allotment, there was nobody  on the new allotment site. Fortunately the slab was on the side of the trackway and out of the way of any vehicles that needed pass by.  So I made my way home as best I could.  Sitting and lying down are the most painful so I am walking around and standing quite a bit at the moment.

So what lessons have I learnt?

Keep your mobile telephone fully charged all the time and take it with you to the allotment.

Always have someone with you when you are moving concrete slabs especially this time of the year when there are few people that brave the weather to work on their allotments.

I was very glad of wearing my steel toed boots because the accident could have been much more serious if I hadn't.

Always wear dry gloves when moving slabs.  I could have got another dry pair out of the shed if I had been thinking clearly.

Concrete slabs are evil beggars and need to be treated with respect.

Do not think that you are still 19 and can do everything because you are getting older.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Nitrogen fixing bacteria.

Atmospheric nitrogen is notoriously unreactive having a very strong triple bond between the two atoms in the molecule yet it is vital for all living organisms.

The bacteria and probably the archaea are the only organisms that can ‘fix’ nitrogen from the atmosphere.  Some of these bacteria are always free living like the Azotobactor.  However, it is suggested that free living nitrogen fixing bacteria do not contribute significant amounts of nitrogen to the soil.

Rhizobia are free living heterotrophic bacteria that can form symbiotic relationships with leguminous plants.  There are many different species of Rhizobium; some which can form symbiotic relationships with many plants and some which are specific to certain plants.  They are nitrogen fixers but only when in a symbiotic relationship with a leguminous plant.

Some non leguminous plants can form symbiotic relationships with other genera of nitrogen fixing bacteria; such as alder with Frankia alni.

Rhizobia are able to fix nitrogen from the air using the enzyme nitrogenase.

These  bacteria are able to produce ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and plants can use this to make amino acids and eventually proteins.  Nitrogen fixed by bacteria can also be used to make plant nucleotides.

Nitrogen is used to make amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins.  The majority of cell components in bacteria, fungi, plants and animals are made from proteins.  Contrary to the common misconception, lettuce does contain protein.

As the nitrogen fixed in this way is essential to the plant and bacteria and has been gained through the expenditure of lots of energy, none is lost to the rhizosphere.  However, nitrogen is lost as proteins when cells are sheared off during root elongation and possibly by protein rich root exudates.  There is a great turnover of roots and when they die they add nitrogen to the soil in the form of proteins and nucleotides.

However, the greatest amount of nitrogen is added to the soil when the plant dies. The proteins and nucleotides in leaves, stem and roots are decomposed by bacteria in the soil releasing the nitrogen originally fixed by rhizobia.  This nitrogen enters the soil and is available for other plants to take up. A proportion of the Rhizobia in the root nodule escape back into the soil when the host plant dies but they will  not be able to fix nitrogen when living in the soil.

So, this is why you need to dig in the tops as well as the roots of your peas and beans.  Do not burn the tops or you will loose all your hard earned nitrogen in the form of nitrogen oxide gases.