Category Archives: Chemical fertilizers

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.

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.

Making fertiliser – comfrey & nettle juice

Our aim is to make a productive fruit and vegetable garden with zero external inputs or outputs. That means that everything comes from within the garden including fertiliser. Being organic gardeners, we do not use chemical fertiliser mainly because of huge amounts of energy  used to make it and the mining of mineral like phosphates is not sustainable. So, we make our own from Comfrey, or Symphytum, and nettles both of which are grown in the garden.

The Comfrey patch. When buying Comfrey plants make sure you use the Bocking 14 variety as it will not spread! We have used Dalmore Croft for many years – no connection just happy customers.

In the previous garden we made comfrey juice by filling barrels with the leaves and stems and then pressing the contents with broken paving slabs. It worked very well, there are details here. In the new garden we will do exactly the same but in 60Ltr, barrels.

There is also a simple way of extracting the juice using a piece of pipe and a bottle weight. Details here

Lawrence Hills, the founder of HDRA analysed comfrey juice and found that the nutrient content was very similar to Tomorite. We are also making nettle liquid which is high in phosphorous. Combined with comfrey juice this will make a balanced fertiliser.

Please note: we make concentrated juices and NOT comfrey teas. The juice is pressed out of the plant without adding water.

This is how we added the drain and made a stand for the barrels.

(Hover over the image to see the caption, click to enlarge.)

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The usual shop bought lettuce

Ever wondered where those bags of bright green lettuce come from? The answer is from massive fields harvested by big machines.

Notice how perfect they are. How is that done? The answer is simple by repeated application of pesticides including insecticides and fungicides plus lots of artificial fertiliser to make then look very green.

Modern pesticides are systemic which means they get into every cell of the plant. They are designed to poison any insect that bites the plant. Systemic pesticides cannot be removed, no amount of washing will get them out.

The government sets the maximum amount of residual pesticide for each pesticide in common use. But there will a cocktail of different pesticides in every plant. There is no limit to the number pesticides used. There is little research as to of effects on human health of regularly consuming  pesticide cocktails, even if the residues for each individual chemical stays within the limits. Nobody knows how they might react with each other. Things are changing as concern grows about the food we eat, see this report.

Lettuce are fed a lot of artificial fertiliser to ensure that they grow quickly and look very green. That produces more problems. First, not all the fertiliser is used, the surplus is washed into ditches, then rivers and then the sea. Excess nitrogen in water is a big problem yet is virtually ignored.

The other concern is that the soil used on farms has become depleted. It does not hold together well so get washed off in heavy rain or blows about when it is dry because it contains very little organic matter. Soil loss from erosion is a massive issue for the UK and the world with a prediction that we only have about 40 years of topsoil left. What then?

When the lettuce will be ready to harvest they are picked by hand and packed into plastic bags ready to be shipped to the retailer. Supermarkets will control the whole process from telling the farmer what variety to grow, how to manage the crop and how many bagged lettuce they want on a certain date. The field becomes an extension of the shop floor, part of a mass production process geared to make the maximum profit for the retailer.

All this because consumers have been led to believe that the cheapest, mass produced factory food is best. Bur cheap food comes with hidden costs –  read about mineral deficiencies in modern food.

People often ask why bother to pay the extra for organic produce. The answer is simple, choose food that is grown in rich fertile soils without the use of pesticides that produces more nutrient dense food that is much more sustainable or stick with factory farming. It’s you choice!

Our first lettuce of the season, grown in soil with absolutely no chemical pesticides!

This is a link to a lettuce table we made a few years back where you can grow your own even without a garden. We are about to make another so stay tuned – video to follow.

Where do lawn pesticides end up?

What happens to the pesticides used on your lawn? First they soak into the ground then move into streams and rivers and finally the sea. They do NOT just disappear or get neutralised by the soil – that’s just PR hype to make you feel better about using them. The same is true for chemical fertilizers – they get washed out of the soil very easily and pollute rivers on the way to the sea where they are responsible for large algae blooms.

See this PDF for more information. Also see Our lawns are killing us

What we should have learned from the last few weeks is that the food supply in the UK is at best precarious and that it does not take long for a food scare to empty supermarkets shelves. With news about shortages of wheat in the UK due to the very wet winter and with an uncontrolled BREXIT on the horizon, it has never been a better or more urgent time to dig up the lawn and grow food – without the use of pesticides!

If you don’t have a lawn you can still grow food in even very small spaces – ask us, we’ve done it.

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Please note: we do not store emails, pass on details to anybody else or send messages after we have a responded to your question.

 

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.

Our Lawns Are Killing Us

The amount of chemicals used on lawns is staggering. In the US it can be nearly four times that used on agricultural land. The only reason is to make lawns look nice. Visual appearance is the key factor!

There are no figures for the UK, but it is likely that they are very similar. The British are obsessed with lawns and spend millions every year to get the right effect. The typical front garden is still a lawn with flower borders.

Grass grows and lawns need to be mowed, usually every weekend. The first signs of spring used to be marked by the appearance of migratory birds but now it is the song the lawn mower and the strimmer that heralds the new season.

It takes a lot of work to keep the grass looking pristine. That includes the application of chemicals including selective weed killers, insecticides to kill unwanted bugs and fungicides. They may be combined into one product under the ‘weed and feed’ banner. You can also add cats and dog repellents to avoid unwanted dead patches of grass.

Are Lawn chemicals toxic?
There is evidence to show that garden pesticides are dangerous especially to children. In the US many homeowners have lawn care packages which includes mowing, strimming and the applications of chemicals. In some areas local bylaws (ordinances) insist that front garden (yards) look pristine all the time.

Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, (See the PDF here) 19 are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 15 with neurotoxicity, and 11 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Of those same pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater, 23 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, 24 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystem, 11 are toxic to bees, and 16 are toxic to birds.

A study in the US used markers were added to common lawn treatments to track where it went. Scans of the homes of participants found chemical residues on door handles, floors and carpets. What was even more concerning they found the markers in the stomachs of children who had played on the lawns.

While the results are shocking, they are hardly surprising. If you spread pesticides on your lawn and then walk, sit, or play on them residues will be transferred.

Lawn pesticide fact sheet

The big questions are why does the visual appearance of a patch of grass outweigh the health effects of using chemicals? And, why is there such a strong desire to conform to an antiquated definition of a nice garden? It is rooted in a post war return to decorative gardens after using them to grow food. That created the huge garden centre and garden products industry that we now have.

“Ornamental horticulture and landscaping in the UK made an estimated £24.2billioncontribution to national GDP in 2017. 

Around 568,700 jobs across the country are supported by ornamental horticulture and landscaping, equivalent to 1 in every 62 jobs!

Market information – garden statistics

There is a move to grow food in front gardens. In some US cities the rules have been relaxed and people are growing veg ‘out font’.

In the UK there is generally nothing to stop homeowners growing whatever they want except the usual quiet disapproval of neighbours but it takes a certain amount of guts to ‘rock the boat’ and stand out as being different.

Growing food in small metre square beds

The other alternative is to grow wildflowers. They can be sown in irregular swathes across the lawn or replace all the grass. The big advantages are no more mowing, strimming and no need for weed killers and other toxic chemicals!

 

True cost of cheap food is health and climate crises, says commission

From the Guardian article:
“The true cost of cheap, unhealthy food is a spiralling public health crisis and environmental destruction, according to a high-level commission. It said the UK’s food and farming system must be radically transformed and become sustainable within 10 years.”
Read more

From the report:
“Our own health and the health of the land are inextricably intertwined [but] in the last 70 years, this relationship has been broken,”
The full report

Growing food after oil

This was the headline for a recent article in The Guardian.  I am sorry to say it followed the usual formula of trivialising the issues by focussing on a couple who had setup a small holding to grow salads and raise a few animals. It also included a photograph of a vegan cafe growing their own salad using hydroponics.

James Koch (left) and James Smailes at their vegan cafe, Suncraft, where they grow salad leaves hydroponically. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer

Why is growing food hydroponically seen as the easy answer to food security when it is very much part of the oil-based economy?  ‘Hydro’ uses artificial fertilizers dissolved in water to feed the plants. These chemical fertilisers are made using huge amounts of gas, a fossil fuel!

The belief that the nutrients in soil can be replaced by the right chemical mixture shows a deep misunderstanding about how plants get their nutrients. There are other issues including the substrate in which plants are grown, it often includes enerygy intensive, single use material like rockwool, perlite and vermiculite.

Hydroponics is portrayed as a ‘magic bullet’ that provides an easy way out of a complex problem. In reality it boosts the profits of the immensely powerful agrochemical and fossil fuel industries and offers false hope.

The photographs, videos and TV interviews with people growing food underground and in shops and restaurants makes good news stories. The rows of veg, usually salad crops, under  LED lights creates an atmosphere of technology providing self-sufficiency.

The problem is that it takes a lot of words to explain that growing food in water containing dissolved chemical fertilizer under artificial lights is neither sustainable nor self-sufficient.

Hydroponics can never be the silver bullet for food production. Growing fully sustainable and nutritious food can only happen if we change the way food is produced and marketed. That means the end of the supermarket supply chain and a step back from the high tech, high input chemical growing that has such a strangle hold on farming.

We need more small, organic market gardens and farms round the perimeter of towns and cities that can supply local shops. That means seeing agricultural land as a vital part of our survival rather than a commodity to be used for the greatest profit. Until that happens, we will have no food security with a very real risk of starvation and famine in the so called ‘developed world’.