Category Archives: Urban Agriculture

Soil and CO2

This is by far the best explanation of soil sequestration (storage) of CO2 in soil that I have seen. I cannot understand why farmers, gardeners and governments are not jumping on this as a way to help to drastically reduce atmospheric CO2.

Get the PDF here

New compost bins almost ready

Work on the new three bay New Zealand compost bin is progressing slowly. The first two bays are in place. All of the timber is reclaimed, the back is made of sample oak flooring panels the local B&Q were throwing out. The rest is either from dismantled pallets or has been found lying around the garden.

With four days of heavy rain forecast there will be no further work this week.

Carbon sequestration reduces atmospheric CO2

Huge amounts of carbon dioxide are stored in soil and more could be added. All that is needed is a change in the way soil is managed on farms and in gardens.

What is exciting is that it can be done today without the need for new technology to be developed or massive new machines to be built. It just needs is farmers to change the way they treat soil. Not only could that help to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it in soil it would also reduce fertiliser and pesticide use which means less the chemical leaching into rivers and streams. See this article about extreme levels of pollution in Europe.

There are several new books explaining how we could sequester enough CO2 to make a huge difference to climate change:

“According to Dr. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, a pioneer in the study of “biosequestration” (using plants and microbes to sequester carbon dioxide), humans have put some 500 gigatons (billion tons) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the birth of agriculture some ten thousand years ago. But most of that CO2 was emitted during the relatively recent advent of modern agriculture. Through plowing the land, which releases tremendous quantities of CO2, deforestation, urbanization, and land-use change we have effectively taken a massive quantity of carbon that used to be stored in the ground and released it into the atmosphere.”
[Tickell, Josh. Kiss the Ground (p. 18). Atria/Enliven Books. Kindle Edition.]

Small scale commercial growers and gardeners can help by not digging or rotovating their soil. For gardeners switching to no-dig beds is the best way to start. In 2010 I started a trial garden on farmland that had not been cultivated for around 30 years. No digging was involved and it worked.

The other parts of the process are the application of organic matter, compost and yet more compost! Next is not leaving the soil bare particularly in winter when heavy rain causes compaction and washes out nutrients.

Making new compost bins

There are compost bins on the plot we have taken over. They are made form a few old pallets just wired together and are a bit rough and ready. I have to confess, I made them a few years back to help out. There is good, usable compost in the bottom of each section but the heaps never got hot enough to kill weed seeds.

NZ bins at the old Ryton Organic Gardens compost display area

As soon as the beds are sorted the whole lot is coming out to be replaced by a 3 bin New Zealand bin. Again, it will be made pallet wood with a removable front, a waterproof lid and sides without gaps or holes.

There is often confusion about having slatted sides which allow air into the bins which is thought to be necessary for composting to happen.  What it does is keep the bin cool which slows down the process or or stops it working. More importantly it prevents the heap reaching a higher enough temperature to kill weed seeds.

Often the advice is to use treated timber as it last longer. There are several reason why you should NOT do that. Compost bins rely on bacteria to break down organic matter and they do not want to be in contact with anything that might kill them. Also, chemical wood treatments can leach into the compost contaminating your veg plot.

The last big compost bins I built were made from recycled scaffold planks which lasted at least 10 years. There were four, one cubic metre bays and it was possible to make 12 cubic metres of compost a year! The new garden is much smaller and we will probably be making 1 cubic metre.

A good set of plans are available here but as mentioned above I would not make the sides or back slatted. I will also have a closer fitting lid.

Photos of the progress will be posted so please come back soon.

$4.7M to Study Storing Greenhouse Gases in Soil

Muir Institute Leads UC Project to Find Shovel-Ready Solutions for Carbon Sequestration

Huge amounts of carbon dioxide are stored in soil and more could be added. Yet again the main problem will be extremely powerful business interests, namely the agrochemical companies and massive food producing and processing companies.

What is amazing about all this is that it can be done today without the need for new technology or massive new machines to be built. All that needs to happen is for farmers and growers to change the way they use soil. Not only does this help to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it in soil it reduces the chemical leaching into rivers and streams. See this article about extreme levels of pollution in Europe.

There are several books claiming that we sequester enough CO2 to make a huge difference to climate change:

According to Dr. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, a pioneer in the study of “biosequestration” (using plants and microbes to sequester carbon dioxide), humans have put some 500 gigatons (billion tons) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the birth of agriculture some ten thousand years ago. But most of that CO2 was emitted during the relatively recent advent of modern agriculture. Through plowing the land, which releases tremendous quantities of CO2, deforestation, urbanization, and land-use change we have effectively taken a massive quantity of carbon that used to be stored in the ground and released it into the atmosphere.

Tickell, Josh. Kiss the Ground (p. 18). Atria/Enliven Books. Kindle Edition.

Also see: “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life”, David R. Montgomery – 21 Sep 2018.

Small scale commercial growers and gardeners can help by changing the way they manage their soil. Switching to no-dig beds is the best way to start. In 2010 I started a trial garden on farmland that had not been cultivated for around 30 years. No digging was involved and it worked.

The other part of the process is the application of organic matter, compost and yet more compost! Next is not leaving the soil bare particularly in winter when heavy rain causes compaction and washes out nutrients.

Organic growing is the only way forward

“Even as the United States government continues to push for the use of more chemically-intensive and corporate-dominated farming methods such as GMOs and monoculture-based crops, the United Nations is once against sounding the alarm about the urgent need to return to (and develop) a more sustainable, natural and organic system.
(The Huffington Post)

That was the key point of a new publication from the UN Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) titled “Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before It’s Too Late”,” which included contributions from more than 60 experts around the world.”

It has been a long time coming but now the UN are saying that organic growing is the ONLY way forward. Commercial growing in the UK is dominated and controlled by the agrochemical industry. it is not sustainable and threatens food security. We simply cannot continue to rely on farming methods that are dependent on large chemical inputs.

Soil
The biggest asset we have is soil yet 50+ years on chemical fertilizers has left a depleted soil virtually devoid of organic matter so prone to erosion. See this 2006 report on UK soil erosion.

An alternative food supply
In a time of climate emergency, we need to be aware of the perilous state of our food supply. Supermarkets work on the “just in time” supply principle. They usually have 2-3 days of stock in the local supply chain. We import around 30% of our food from the rest of Europe.  Any disruption to that through weather or politics will see the shelves empty within 24 hours as people panic.

We desperately need to separate ourselves from the supermarket food supply chain and grow food in any available space. It can be done, 25 years of organic growing often in very small spaces has proven that to me. We just need to get on and do it!

 

 

Food security

The one good thing that has come out of the Brexit mess is the talk about food security. It has been ignored for many years. Around 10 years ago I spoke to Prof. Tim Lang about the subject. Nothing much has changed, we rely on a small number of supermarket brands for the majority of our food and if anything the supply chain is more precarious now.

Yet again we have let this happen, we have given the supermarkets the power to control what we eat. Farmers are virtually enslaved by the supply chain and they take all the risks.

The effects of climate change on the food supply are already being felt. It is time for the UK to think about where food comes from and take steps to ensure we have enough. That means not taking prime agricultural land for vanity projects like HS2 and making changes to planning laws to enure that brown field sites are used first.

And we need a new ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign!

This what Prof Tim Land about food security said 10 years ago.

Growing food in 2019

The beginning of 2019 brings many uncertainties; BREXIT, will it be the chaos of a ‘no deal’ or a smooth transition. Will we see threats to our food supply from climate change?

Whichever way you look at it there has never been a better time to start growing at least some of your own food. So what is stopping you? Many will say they do not have the time or that they have very little garden or none at all. Or that they do know how to start.

First, I want to say that growing food is not that difficult. There is an old saying that seeds are programmed to grow. There are also a lot of myths around and even some bad advice.

As for lack of time and space I want to show you some easy ways to get started that use little of either. And if you do not have a garden there are always containers. As a very well gardener once said to me, “there is nothing that cannot be container grown!”

Over the coming months I will add instalments about choosing what to grow, how to grow it and where to start. Over the last 30 years I have grown fruit and veg in a small town house garden, a large veg plot and in containers on a patio. I have written about growing in magazines in the US, UK and Australia. Pioneered Square Foot Gardening in the UK and developed a form square metre bed gardening. I have also taught compost making and other subjects and have run this site, for over 20 years.

Please check back soon to see the first instalment about choosing seeds.

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.

Want to grow food but can’t wait 4-40 years for an allotment?

With the ever increasing waiting list for allotments there has to be an alternative to waiting 4 – 40 years to grow your own food. The average waiting list in many parts of the UK is around 4 years. In some parts of London it is 40+ years. But why wait when there is a way of achieving high yields from small beds?

That is the challenge taken up by Bakewell & District Organic Gardeners with the launch of the Micro Bed Gardening Project yesterday. The aim is to encourage more people to grow food by starting with small raised beds just 1m square. Following from successful trials over the last two years the project web site will help people replicate the amazing results achieved.

Newcomers will be guided through the whole process by a step-by-step guide and an online library of linked articles. There is information on all stages from selecting a site, creating beds, sowing seeds and harvesting the crops. Sample planting plans are provided.

If you do not have a garden you can grow food in containers. Again step- by-step instructions and continuing support will be available via the web site.

Although based in Derbyshire anybody anywhere can sign up and the first 50 people revive a 50% discount on the subscription.

For more details see  Quick easy square metre beds