Category Archives: Composting

How to do it and what to do with it.

Compostable plastic hard to compost

An article in “Nature Index” says that biodegradable and compostable plastic is not the panacea that many think. Kevin O’Connor of University College Dublin says “People think that biodegradability gives us a licence to throw away, it doesn’t.”

During recent trials O’Connor says that compostable plastic needed a temperature of around 50C to decompose whereas most domestic composting gets to about 24C.

He went on to say “The slow biodegradation observed in marine and fresh water shows that we should not allow any type of plastic to be released into these ecosystems.”

The only answer is to stop using plastic and not keep searching for a universal alternative that allows us to continue as we do.

Make hot compost
Composting kitchen waste in a Hotbin
Hotbin in winter
Hotbin web site
(The usual caveat applies, not connection with this company other than being a satisfied user.)



Hydroponic food is not the way forward

There is currently a lot of intertest in the use of hydroponics to grow food. It is being hailed as the way to solve the food crisis and provide cheap food in cities. The usual arguments are that redundant buildings can be used in city centres, or even old underground railway tunnels thus reducing food miles. It is being pushed as the only way forward especially by the media as it makes a good story.

I have nothing against growing food in cities and it is something that I have advocated for many years. There are many small plots of land that should be used for food production as well as flat roofs on building which make ideal growing spaces. See this from 2008  and this from 2009 and there are many more examples on the City Farmer web site

There are problems with the current push by the hydroponic industry not least of which is the claim that it is ‘organic’.

Hydroponic growing uses N-P-K fertilisers, (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) dissolved in water that is fed to plants. Some systems use plastic troughs through which water constantly circulates while other use an artificial substrate. They all rely on the same chemical fertilisers used in conventional farming which require huge amounts of energy to make. The mining of potash is an environmental disaster as is the continuing high level of depletion of other resources. None of this is sustainable in the long term.

To grow strong, healthy and nutritious plants requires more than just N-P-K, fertilisers. Soil contains many micro-nutrients which are essential for healthy, disease resistant plants. Hydro growers will argue that their fertilisers contain other chemicals but they can never truly mimic the complex web of nutrients available in soil.

Hydroponics uses products like rock wool, vermiculite or perlite to anchor plants roots in the early stages of growth or as a substrate for the whole life of the plant. After use these products are discarded as they cannot be reused due to fear of infection. They are products manufactured from minerals using large amounts of heat. Again, very unsustainable.

Being organic is about caring for soil which is the most valuable asset we have. That means not using artificial fertilisers or pesticides. Hydroponic growers make a lot of noise about using less pesticides but forget about the chemical fertilisers they rely on. Hydroponic growing will never be certified as organic in the UK and cannot be sold as such.

There are ways to grow real organic food in cities and it is something we should be doing. Hydroponics is not the answer although it gets a lot of news because of the high-tech novelty value of rows of plastic containers growing plants under artificial lights. The real way to grow good food is outside in soil or soil based composts.

Coming soon, a design for an autonomous, solar powered, organic vertical growing system!

Low tech water saving toilet

Saw a tweet today from “Environmental technology” about waterless toilets being the way to save water “… the answer to conserving the most precious resource on our planet – water. Nicknamed the Nano-Membrane Toilet, this completely waterless unit separates waste out into solid and liquid, before recycling and disposing of it effectively.”

In 2008 we had a composting toilet at the allotment, a box with a toilet seat and a bucket underneath. The instructions were simple: 1. make a deposit, 2. cover with sawdust 3. close the lid. When the bucket was full the contents were composted. There was no smell and no flies. I would gladly have one in the house!


Rise in organic food sales

An article in The Guardian says that “Organic food and drink sales rise to record levels in the UK”. That is good news but there is still scepticism about the value of organic food. Some say it is too expensive others argue that it is a con. The thing that finally convinced me it was the only food i wanted to eat was finding the information about pesticide residues in food. That was in the early 1990s when the government stipulated a ‘safe’ minimum amount of residue for each common pesticide and fungicide. For many years two government scientists, McCance and Widdowson, produced a report of the amounts of each pesticide found in fruit and veg that they bought from supermarkets. There were items that exceeded the allowed maximum and this was included in a yearly report.

What was not recognised was that most crops received multiple applications of different products. There might be applications of fungicide, then pesticides for insect infestation followed by weed killers. There was never any limit for cocktails of chemicals.

Then in a drought year we heard about high levels of chemicals in carrots and the government  told us to wash them. The problem is that modern pesticides are systemic. That means they are taken up into the cells of the plant and cannot be removed, even by fancy veg washing products. And peeling does not help as the chemicals are in every cell.

Those of you of a certain age will remember crops of corn slowly turning a golden colour in late summer and then the harvest that followed when the weather was right. Now, cereal crops and potatoes are ‘sprayed off’ so that harvest can happen at set times. On corn they use weed killer and acid on potatoes to kill the tops.

Modern farms are part of the supermarket supply chain and if they are contracted to supply 100 tonnes of potatoes in the first week of September that is what they must do or lose the contract. It is supermarkets who control agriculture as it must be part of a production line to ensure continuous supply. There is no such thing as seasonal fruit and vegetables, we want everything all the time and we it now!

There have been arguments about organic produce being more nutritious. An idea fiercely contested by conventional farming. A study by Newcastle University found that organic milk was higher in nutrients. Such research is not so common now as universities rely on external funding.

Other groups round the world looked at simple indicators of quality in veg like the Brix reading. Although this is a simple test that anybody can do it does provide an overall indication of quality. I have a brix refractometer bought several years ago when experimenting with different growing techniques and did a random test on carrots last week. Comparing a standard carrot from Waitrose with one in our box from Riverford Organics. The results are clear

Supplier BRIX
Waitrose 6.4
Riverford 10.2

It is not all about pesticides as non-organic, or factory farming, methods also have an effect on soil, our greatest natural asset. Since the 1940s the emphasis has been on increasing production through the widespread use of chemical fertilisers. While the use of N-P-K (Nitrogen Phosphorous Potassium or Potash) does give rapid growth, it produces plants that do not have the strength to withstand insect attacks. Previously farms mixed and crops on land manured by the animals. That was a natural cycle and produced rich healthy soil.

A somewhat ironic side effect of not applying organic matters to soil such as compost or manure is that it results in thin soils which are easily eroded. Farmers use high cost inputs to get bigger, quicker crops and lose their soil in the process.

There is growing evidence that the strongest, healthiest and most nutritious crops are grown on good quality soils that provide the whole spectrum of minerals and nutrients. That is not surprising! The fact that the nutritional value of food has declined since the 1940s is overlooked see this report from 2002  And this one from McCance and Widdowson

This is why I decided to buy organic food nearly 30 years ago. Some will argue it is an expensive luxury but now the price of organic veg is the same or only slightly more than the other stuff. In the end it is your choice but remember one thing, your body is you, if you look after it and feed it well you will feel the benefits. Like I said to a man one day if you bought a top of the range luxury car would you put paraffin (kerosene) in the tank to save money. He told me not to be so stupid, so, I asked him why did he put the cheapest possible food down his throat. My only conclusion was that he valued his new car more than he valued himself.

The answer? Grow you own and if not have it delievered to your door.  We use Riverford as we no longer able to grow much of our own food.

Trying to answer my question about GO going

I still cannot imagine GO without a garden. Part of my attachment to the gardens is personal; going there literally did change my life and gave me many extra years.

I first went to Ryton to visit the café which was in a wooden shed at the back of the shop. Then I found the gardens and the organic growing stuff. I went back many times and the gardens were always a place to see stuff growing, understand how brassica collars worked, learn the best way to deter slugs and importantly how to make compost. Seeing it, touching it, smelling it was a vital part of the experience.

So, back to the question, I do not think that GO should, well go. There certainly needs to be a ‘root and branch’ overhaul of everything starting with a concerted publicity campaign to get more visitors to the garden. The next is real consultation with members about the way forward. That means being honest and open, not just trying to justify the decisions taken by council, in secret, behind closed doors

There are rumours of a £1.2 million hole in the pension fund. Not sure how that has come about but if that is the main reason to sell then the decision verges on insanity. There are other ways to raise money which could include selling SOME the land or developing SOME in different ways that retains the bulk of the gardens. There are also other ways to raise money but that means being creative and asking for help.

Again, I make this plea to GO, please talk to us! You keep saying there are 20,000 members so why are you ignoring such a valuable resource? There is no need to waste precious funds on expensive PR companies to argue your case all you need to do is engage with members.

And PLEASE, PLEASE postpone the sale until we have had a chance to talk about all possible options.

WISE appeal (Centre for Alternative Technology)

CAT is well known for its work promoting renewal energy. What a lot of people do not know is that CAT is also a big organic gardener. Growing food has long been an important part of their work.

A few years back CAT launched the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education – WISE. Over the years they have built a solid reputation for the courses in all aspects of sustainability The project was a natural extension of this and it will create a purpose built education centre at a time when there is increasing need demand for education in sustainable living.

Everything was going well until they ran into problems with their builder. Now they have won a court action and were awarded £530,000 but, you guessed, the builder has gone bust! So, CAT is in desperate trouble and needs our support. They are trying to raise the money quickly and are asking for donations. Please help by going to the donation page where you can also read the whole story.