Category Archives: Climate change

How climate change will affect food supplies.

The environmental impacts of food

All text and graphics below are from this site

What are the environmental impacts of food and agriculture?

The visualization here shows a summary of some of the main global impacts:

  • Food accounts for over a quarter (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Half of the world’s habitable (ice- and desert-free) land is used for agriculture;
  • 70% of global freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture;
  • 78% of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication (the pollution of waterways with nutrient-rich pollutants) is caused by agriculture;
  • 94% of mammal biomass (excluding humans) is livestock. This means livestock outweigh wild mammals by a factor of 15-to-1. Of the 28,000 species evaluated to be threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List, agriculture and aquaculture is listed as a threat for 24,000 of them.

Food, therefore, lies at the heart of trying to tackle climate change, reducing water stress, pollution, restoring lands back to forests or grasslands, and protecting the world’s wildlife.

The way we live?

Suddenly the penny drops, it is the way we live that is causing pandemics. The massive increase in international air travel and foreign holidays in exotic locations have become a consumer product. The acceptance that it is meat with every meal coupled with all the expectation that we should be able to buy any food from anywhere any time we want. The complete and utter disregard for wildlife and the habitats that sustain endangered species e.g. palm oil in Indonesia and Soya for animal feed in the amazon.

And what now? After a couple of months of worldwide lockdown there is the frantic clamour to get back to ‘normal’. But the normal has become dangerously abnormal. Normal is killing us. Normal is destroying the very thing that keeps us alive – plant Earth.

Just another gloom and doom story? It need not be that. Now we have the chance, a very slim window in which to do something differently. It looks like governments will not help us, but we can act alone or as part of groups or small communities.

There is another way that is not the ‘hair shirt’ option. Living a simpler life is possible within the over consuming, selfish mad scramble to have everything at any cost. We don’t need the latest fashions to be who we are. Do your own thing, step away from the crowd, resist being a lemming!

The best way to start is at your own front door, by asking what you allow though it. Start with food, question every decision you make when you stock up each week. Ask yourself why do I buy that? Is the cheapest always the best? Where does it come from? How much do we throw out each week? Think about everything you do regularly and ask yourself is there another way of doing that.

Hydroponics – not a sustainable way forward

Covid-19 has affected food supplies across the globe. Singapore was hit hard as it imports 90% of its fresh produce. The government was quick to react both to combat the virus and to tackle food shortages.

Part of the response has been to build roof top hydroponic gardens. They can be installed and producing very quickly and in many ways are ideal for roof tops.

Results are also fast especially with lettuce and other leafy greens, the climate helps. The problem with hydroponics is that it uses artificial fertilisers which are very energy intensive to produce and not sustainable. They will also have to be imported so it could be argued that it makes hydroponic food production liable to shortages from future world events.

When Russia suddenly withdrew support from Cuba, the country was left with a massive food crisis. The USSR had supplied Cuba with a network of hydroponic gardens that produced most of their fresh food. When they left supplies of nutrients stopped so production ceased.

Cuba converted the hydro systems to Organopónicos or organoponics. They became totally self-sufficient and organic. They grew food without chemical fertilisers and did not rely on supplies from any other country. That is THE way forward – it produces total independence and sustainable, organic food.

If Covid-19 teaches one thing then it that we need a diverse and resilient food system that does not depend on imports. It must also be sustainable and have the smallest carbon footprint possible. Nothing else is good enough, there must be no quick techno fixes and so side-stepping the difficult decisions needed. Anything less means widespread hunger the next time a world wide disaster strikes.

It’s time to think about winter

It’s almost mid-summer so time to think about winter planting. There are two ways to ensure you have fresh veg over winter: choose crops that grow in the summer and stay in the ground over winter or sow seeds in late summer of plants that can be harvested through the winter. Most veg growers do both.

The main thing about deciding how to get a year-round harvest is where you live. In the south and south west the winters are generally milder than in the north. That is not always the case and with the changes to the climate over the last 30 years it is hard to predict how the winter will be. Choose the varieties that suit your location. Ask other local gardeners what they do.

The other thing you can do is protect your crops, that means covering them. Don’t be fooled by the idea that you can use a cheap fleece ‘blanket’, and everything will be fine. Fleece might stop ice crystals forming on the foliage which could help them to survive, but it will not insulate the crop from the cold.

The 3 solar pods made last year. The beds are 2m x 1m with a centre divider. The pods are 1m square so can be used on any bed. The long bed on the right has been divided into 4, 1msquare beds.

To keep out the cold you need something substantial like, a  poly tunnel, a cold frame or a DIY solar pod. It is possible to be harvesting lettuce from January – March if you protect the crop and get the right seeds. One year we had lettuce in a polytunnel  that were completely covered in ice. It thawed and we ate them! Or if you are really dedicated you can make hot beds which uses the heat from manure buried under the soil to keep things warm. It does work but is a lot of work. See how to make hotbeds here.

Hot bed with insulated walls.

The practical approach is to choose plant varieties that will thrive through winter and use some physical protection if you can.

Things we don’t sow try to over winter: garlic, we use a short dormancy variety with cloves planted in January when the weather is suitable. Neither do we sow broad beans in the autumn. Our garden is 300m ASL so winter can be long cold and very wet! If you live further south it is always worth trying to over winter as many crops as you can.

Another option is to move the plants out of the garden. A greenhouse is fine if you have one but a good supply of salad leaves can be grown on a sunny windowsill. Our salad crops are grown in trays on the lettuce table which can be moved into the greenhouse. Watercress will be in a smaller tray and again will over winter in the greenhouse. You can also grow in containers that can be moved inside when it gets colder.


Red lettuce in a bucket.

Don’t forget to make holes in the bottom. Fill with bagged compost – not garden soil as it is too dense for small containers. You can grow a lot of food in containers, see this site.

These are some varieties we have like.
Lettuce: Winter Density and Winter Gem.
Spinach: Perpetual  also known as Spinach Beet.
Carrot: Bolero, Eskimo F1, a new variety we are trying this year.
Kale: Cavolo Nero because the curly green variety is everywhere now.
Parsnip: most varieties will sit in the ground for months, we like Tender & True.
Leeks: Musselburgh, they can stay in the ground to February/March.

Potatoes are lifted and stored in hessian sacks and can last into March.
Onions are harvested, dried and stored in net sacks.

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French roof top farms to supply 1000kg a week

Paris roof top gardens could soon supply 1000 kg a day of fresh food. Think of the food miles saved. Think of the air miles saved! Think of the taste of really fresh food that you can normally only get by growing your own.

The downside is that it is aeroponic growing. There is no soil or other growing medium. The nutrients are in water which is sprayed on the roots of the plant and continually recirculated. It works well and can produce high yields. The downside is that aeroponics uses chemical fertilisers which are made using fossil fuels resulting in a big carbon footprint.

Some vertical growing systems use a synthetic growing medium like rockwool or vermiculite. The production of both is extremely energy intensive. There are also issues around disposing of used rockwool. Again, far from sustainable food production.

No quick fixes are ever as easy as they appear.

Early protected cropping – growing plants in large open ended glass jars. It worked!

It can only be a half-way house the ideal being getting back to the market gardens that used to surround Paris.

Gardening in a changed climate

When the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services was opened in 1990, they predicted that within 30 years the UK climate would have changed. They were exactly right, the climate has changed. There are more severe storms, periods of drought, unusual weather patterns and more. So, what does that mean for gardeners who grow food?

The 2019-20 winter was very wet with flooding in many parts of the country. It was followed by a long warm dry spell and drought in the South. Now it is back to cool and wet with cold northerly winds. Some will argue that there is nothing unusual about that, but the difference now is that weather swings from one extreme to another and weather patterns can last for weeks.

This is for Friday 5 May 2020 – click image to see an animated jet stream forecast from netweather.tv

The jet stream moves around more and breaks up. It used to be relatively stable flowing from east to west over the Atlantic. It did sometimes go further north or further south but was generally more stable for longer periods. Now it breaks up and ‘kinks’ often pulling air down form the Arctic with cold northerly air stream across the UK.

Gardeners are used to adapting to the vagaries of the British weather but sudden switches from warm to cold in summer are different. This week saw a near 20C drop in temperature with cold winds and nighttime temperatures in single figures. Add in the rain and the plants sit in cold wet soil which slows down or stops growth.

We need to change the way we grow or risk losing more tender crops. For us that has involved covering potatoes and dwarf French beans with solar pods overnight. The climbing French are more difficult to protect but at least we can try to keep the wind off them by making a tent out of old bubble wrap and fleece. The lettuce table is covered to avoid flooding from the heavy rain.

Unfortunately it looks like we have lost half of the Blueberry crop. There are three bushes, early flowering, mid season and a later variety which keeps us going for three to four months. The early bushed flowered and the fruit set so it looks like a good crop. Probably less than half the fruit set on the mid season bush and most of the flowers on the late bush have died.

Next year we plan to stick to the dwarf varieties and maybe try some more hardy runner beans. Also, we might well decide to plant out in late June which will shorten the growing season but could avoid cold spells. What ever happens gardeners are a resourceful and resilient bunch and will find ways to cope!

Drought and what to do to save your plants

There is a drought, no rain for weeks, expect hose pipe bans soon say the water companies. But what about gardeners? What can we do? The answer is to mulch.

The graphic says it all, there should be no bare soil in the garden as it dries out very quickly.

Mulches
If you make compost then use it as a mulch, it does not need to be perfect so not need to sieve.
The RHS say you can use:  wood chippings, processed conifer bark, well rotted manure, straw (for strawberries), spent hops (poisonous if eaten by dogs) and seaweed. Some of these will not be easy to get!

Cardboard could also work but not corrugated as there is concern about the toxicity of the glues used. Do not use old carpet or plastic sheet which can have very toxic breakdown products,

The basic advice is to cover the soil and water sparingly without using a hose pipe in areas where they are banned.

Watering
We also need to be aware of the best way to water plant see this page.

My grandfather was a master gardener. He was born in Australia but moved to Lincolnshire. He had a huge vegetable garden on superb light soil which was prone to drying out. For watering, he used a galvanised bucket and an old food tin, like a big baked bean tin although I doubt very much that he knew what they were. The idea was that you walked along the row of veg giving each plant half a tin of water at the roots. There was no mains water available, so his irrigation methods had to be frugal. It was a good lesson to learn. (CS)

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Progress in the garden

This is our fruit and veg  garden on 16 May 2020. We started work on the plot just over a year ago. There was a lot to do and it’s been hard work but worth it. We are looking forward to harvesting some tasty, pesticide free veg soon.

The weather made it a difficult year but gardeners always say that! The first few months were cold and wet and the top part of the garden was flooded a few of times due to poor drainage. That should now be fixed.

Spring has been cool and mostly dry here and again we are verging on a drought. There were frosts up until last week. That has caused some damage especially to the fruit bushes in the new bed to the left of the path, the top corner is just visible in front of the chairs.

We have done a lot recently thanks to lock down but there is still more to do to achieve our aim of an sustainable, zero waste fruit and veg garden.

New projects
We are lucky to have a corner of a large garden to grow food. Many people have only have a small gardens or just a balcony so we want to share some ideas. First will be an update to the lettuce table  made about 20 years ago. The plan is to make one using as much reclaimed timber as possible and use reclaimed butyl rubber pond liner for the waterproofing.

Next is the use of self-watering containers. We have used them before with good results. We will have peas, beetroot, tomatoes, courgettes and strawberries in various sizes of container. More to come on this soon.

We are also about to start making comfrey liquid fertilizer from the plants started in 2019. This is part of the closed loop, self-contained. zero waste garden we are working towards. It will not be on the same scale as our previous project.

We desperately need an extension to the compost bins as we are already getting short of space. So far we have a cubic metre of compost maturing in one of the bins. The second bin has active compost in it which leaves just one free for the next batch. The plan is to try a very simple way of locking boards together to build metre square bins that can be used when required and then broken down over winter.

As winter approaches we want to try some new ways of extending the season with the aim of having keeping some crops going through winter. That will mean some new cloches and cold frames to go with the solar pods stacked against the wall on the top right of the photo above.

That should be enough to keep us busy for a few weeks, we will post news with videos of progress here.

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Regenerative agriculture – regenerative gardening?

There is a lot of talk about regenerative agriculture, particularly in the US, how it improves soils, stores CO2 from the atmosphere, reduces or eliminates the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers and reduces costs.

What can gardeners take from this? How do we change the way we garden to get the same benefits?

To start:

1. Stop digging soil – use no dig raised beds and apply lots of compost particularly in the autumn.

2. Never leave the soil bare especially over winter as heavy rain compacts soil and washes out nutrients particularly nitrogen. Use cover crops, mulch or compost.

3. Mulch around growing plants with compost.

4. Get to know your garden, learn what works best for you and don’t blindly follow what everybody else does.

5. Remineralise your soil see this page.