Category Archives: Climate change

How climate change will affect food supplies.

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.

Save allotments from development

In this time of uncertainty, we need more space to grow food. The UK food supply has been described as precarious for many years and the effects of climate change and leaving the EU will make continuity of supply more difficult.

This is an interview with Professor Tim Lang from around ten years ago.

 

A big incentive for growing you own food is cost and there are other benefits like freshness, increased nutrient content and zero food miles. Add to that the exercise and fresh air that comes from gardening combined with the community of the allotment and there is good reason for them to be prescribed by doctors!

But there are problems. Allotments need a few acres of land which is in direct competition with the current house building frenzy making them prime targets for land grabs. There is money to be made, lots of money, by building houses and no landowner seems exempt for the lure of a quick profit.

Take for example the once sleepy village of Wellesbourne in Warwickshire. A few years back it was earmarked for expansion and thousands of new houses with no gardens have been built. It is not far from the M40 so has road links to Birmingham and London which makes it an ideal and desirable commuter location.

There is one plot left in the village – the allotments which would net millions if it was ‘developed’.  The owners, the Diocese of Coventry,  want to sell off the top half and leave an area away from the road plus part of another field for a very reduced number of plots. The problem is the lower field floods.

There have been allotments on the site since 1838. Now there are 61 plots tended by 90 people and a long waiting list. The plots are well look after and it is obvious there is a lot of work going into the site. Even in the middle of winter there are crops to be picked and plants to be planted ready for the new season. Why then does the Diocese of Coventry, want to wreck it all? The answer is very simple – MONEY.

Instead of selling off allotments for a quick profits we need to save every one we have and make more land available for food growing to enable communities to be more sustainable and resilient. Climate change is already having an effect on food supplies and things will only get worse. It is very sad that the Diocese of Coventry does not understand this.

This is Mr Hale, he is 88 and yesterday he was digging his plot ready for planting. He explained that the soil is very good, on the light side with some silt. It is also black which usually means it has lots of organic matter.

He is philosophical and doubts that he will still be digging in 5 years time but he is also passionate about the allotments and does not want them to go. Who can argue with him?  There’s lots of evidence that he’s not alone and is is plain to see what the site means to so many people.

There is still time to save the Wellesbourne plots because the district council have admitted that the number of new builds in their 5-year plan has been exceeded so no new planning applications will not be approved in this period.

See the Wellesbourne allotment  web site for more information.

Composting Christmas trees

As I am always on the lookout for material to make compost my thoughts turned to Christmas trees. What has stopped me in the past was the long running gardening myth that pine needles turn soil acidic which is the last thing I want. Then I found a piece about composting Christmas trees on  this site

Christmas trees: Yes, it is possible to compost a whole (real) Christmas tree. You’ll need to put in a bit of work by stripping the branches off the tree and breaking / cutting everything into small pieces first. The smaller the pieces better. You don’t really want any woody bits larger than your thumb going into your compost bin. Shredders make light work of this process if you have one. Thick woody pieces can however take a very long time to start to decompose (were talking a year or two before you see any progress) so be prepared to be patient, or consider composting only the smaller limbs if you don’t own a shredder. There is a misconception that composting pine needles will result in acidic compost. It’s not true, by the time the needles are composted they will have lost most of their acidic potency.”

I now have half a dozen trees lined up for shredding and with some other stuff to add that should fill a cubic metre bin.

How to be happy – compost something!