Sunday, July 26, 2015

Alternative Lawns

 Photo: Avondale garden one year after planting.

It’s the height of grass cutting season. I’m out there in the garden twice a week with my hover mower taking the top growth of the grass off before it gets too long to cut. Cutting grass isn’t the most enjoyable thing I do in the garden but I must confess there is a sense of satisfaction when it’s looking manicured and neat, in much the same way as tidying the house. It’s more a case of doing the job because I know it’ll take longer if I don’t keep on top of things and not because I love cleaning or cutting grass. 

I’ve even considered getting artificial grass in some areas and went as far as pricing some of this very environmentally unfriendly plastic  up the other week. It’s much the same as buying a carpet, and for the type of material that actually looks like grass and not something from the greengrocers table, it’s about the same price as a woolen Axminster too.  

Once the area to put the plastic grass is cleared of weeds, the sand (or underlay you could say) has been put in and the edging has been put in the artificial lawn could cost as much as €60 per square metre to lay. It wouldn’t be so bad if that’s all that was needed, but there is an annual maintenance of cleaning, weeding and brushing, so we might as well just stick to real grass unless you are in a penthouse apartment with a small patio area on the roof and can’t get the lawnmower in the lift.

The idea of lawns is under scrutiny at the moment because it’s classed as monoculture and isn’t really of benefit to the environment once feeds and chemicals are applied, some people even resorte to sraying their dead grass with a green dye in summer. That and the fact they need watering and cutting uses up vital resources. The natural lifecycle of grass is to die off a lot in certain times of the year but we seem determined to keep it looking green all year. Things get more worrying when we realise the smell of freshly cut grass, so often comforting and nostalgic, is a chemical alarm call: a bouquet of fragrant volatile organic compounds that plants release when under attack. 

Real Alternatives
Alternatives such as Avondale park in London developed by Lionel Smith from reading University are totally grass free areas. You wouldn’t be able to play football on them though as they are made from soft-stemmed perennial plants that spread without using seed and live for longer than two years. Most of them have been grown in a greenhouse to give them a good start and have varieties such as red-flowered daisies (bellis), white-flowered buttercups (ranunculus) and bronze-leaved bugle (ajuga). None of the plants have needed to be watered since planting and no fertilizers are needed. The Grass-free lawns are planned not exceed 3.5in (9cm) in height, or they will turn into a meadow.
Research indicates that grass-free lawns can produce up to 90% more flowers, contain over 25% more invertebrate life, and support up to ten times as many visits from twice as many pollinator species as wildflower turf. Mowing is reduced by up to two thirds, rainfall can be absorbed up to twice as fast as a turf lawn and grass-free lawns need no chemical additives.- Ever.
The key to a good lawn made this way is that they can multiply with runners or roots, and that they're allowed time to knit and blend before the first cut.  This type of planting would only really be practical on small scale areas as it would be quite difficult to grow and maintain the amount of plants for a rural garden with an acre lawn. 

Going back
Going back a few hundred years, lawns were not expanses of unbroken green. Some medieval paintings of gardens depict carpets of turfgrass stippled with various flowers, such as lily of the valley, poppies, cowslips, primroses, wild strawberries, violets, daisies, and daffodils. People walked, danced and relaxed on these flowery meads, which were meant to imitate natural meadows. In the 15th and 16th centuries, we used white clover, chamomile, thyme, yarrow, self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) and other low-growing meadow and groundcover plants, sometimes mixed with grasses, to create lawns and pathways on which to walk and mingle.

For most of history, however, mixed plant lawns and non-grass lawns have been the exception, in part because a smooth, well-kept, lush grass lawn became as much a symbol as a functional part of the property. It’s not always practical to turn the garden into a vegetable plot either as this would take a lot of time and need maintaining far more than a lawn. 

So for now there probably won’t be too much change in our garden landscape so the poor old tortured grass will just have to stay.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Uncut Petunias and Willow Water

The uncut petunias are putting on a great show.

For the first time in years I didn’t take cuttings from my petunias and verbenas. Generally it’s the first thing I do when buying a tray of annuals. This year I thought I would just let them grow without any cost cutting intervention from myself. The results have been pretty amazing.   

Normally I would get at least four cuttings from each plant before I put it in a basket or container. Pinching the tips out also promotes bushier growth so I thought I was doing the plant a favour.  It turns out that what I usually ended up with were poor parent plants and even sadder looking rooted cuttings. I’m not sure if that’s a growing technique by the nurseries or just that I doubt give the plants a head start with the soil and rooting techniques. This year’s plants are doing me proud in their containers and both varieties of bedding are producing hundreds of rich coloured flowers. 

Rooting Cuttings
Charlotte Haworth from the permaculture institute had the same issue with her plants so looked up an age old recipe for a homemade rotting hormone to give new cuttings the best possible chance of growing into healthy specimens. Here she tells us how the potion is produced from young willow branches.

“There are many ways to propagate plants, which can be broadly divided into sexual and asexual. Taking cuttings is an asexual method, as your new plants will be clones of the mother. The method is simply to cut a new shoot from an existing plant and encourage it to take root itself. 

Natural rooting hormone
Many plants need a little help to grow roots, although some species can be planted straight into the ground. One of these is willow (salix) and an effective way of capturing the rooting hormone present in willow for use on other plants is to make willow water.”

This willow water recipe is based on one Charlotte learnt during her PDC at Permaship in Bulgaria.

Willow water recipe
Fresh willow branches – use the very ends of the branches where growth is newest. Charlotte used a ratio of 100g of willow to 500ml of water.

Step 1: find a willow tree, and harvest the shoots
“You are only looking for the very tips on the branches, where the growth is newest. I cut about 10cm from the end of the branches of my weeping willow tree, the ones that were touching the ground.
You do not need many to make an effective rooting hormone. About five-ten 10cm branch-ends is plenty.”

Step 2: remove the leaves
“Cut all the leaves off the branches so that you are left with just the thin, springy shoots. The leaves can be discarded or, if you are that way inclined, dried for use as tea.  Weeping Willow, salix babylonica, is an especially potent species.”

Step 3: chop up the branches
“Now that you just have the branches left, chop them up very small and place them in a large bowl or container. Ideally the smaller the pieces of branch the better.” Charlotte left hers  a couple of cms long.

Step 4: watering the willow
“Now fill the container with water, so that all of your chopped-up bits of willow are completely covered. Place a lid of some kind on top of the container, and leave it to stand for about 2 nights, to allow all of the rooting hormone to soak out of the bits of willow and into the water.
If you are using a plastic container to soak the willow in, it is possible that some of the plastic will leach out and become present in the rooting hormone. However, this does not necessarily mean that the rooting hormone will not be effective.”

Step 5: decant the potion
“Once it has been left for a couple of days, separate the water from the branches using a sieve. Do not be alarmed if the resulting potion smells a little unpleasant; this is for plants to drink, not you, so there’s no need to worry.

Now the willow water is ready for use and you can put it into a bottle using a funnel.
Once you have the willow water in a suitable container, it can be kept for some weeks in a dry dark place, and up to two months if kept in a refrigerator.”

Using the Mixture
Charlotte experiments on Rosemary cuttings and after trimming the cutting, she gently dipped the ends into a capful of the potent mixture and planted them into soil. So far the results have been very promising with loads of healthy plantlets. 

Maybe next year this is what I’ll do with my petunias and verbenas.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Soils Matter - Conference

Soil, It takes 500 years to form a 2cm layer

Soils Conference – Soils Matter
Klaus Laienberger from Leitrim set up a soil conference in Clargalway Castle this Monday just gone. He arranged the event with the help of the National Organic Training Skillsnet  (NOTS) who provide high quality, low cost training for the expanding organic sector throughout the Republic of Ireland.
The event marks 2015 as the UN designated Year of Soils and there was a long list of soil experts on hand to assess the important state of soil quality not only in Ireland but globally too.

Soil really matters
Klaus tells us about the talk.  “The main problem humanity is currently facing is the degradation of our soils.”
And adds:  “The world population continues to increase while we destroy more and more topsoil.  Every child could do the sums – there won’t be enough fertile soil left to feed a growing world population.”

Here are some disturbing facts:
  • 24 billion tonnes of fertile topsoil are lost every year.
  • Or 12 million hectares of topsoil are lost every year.
  • 25% of the earth’s surface has already become degraded.  This could feed 1.5 billion people.
  • The UN FAO calculated that we have about 60 years of harvests left – and then?

“We are using the world’s soils as if they were inexhaustible, continually withdrawing from an account, but never paying in.” 
More soil facts:
  • Soil stores 10% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions.
  • A fully functioning soil reduces the risk of floods and protects underground water supplies by neutralising or filtering out potential pollutants and storing as much as 3750 tonnes of water per hectare.
  • It takes a long time for a soil to recover:
  • Natural processes can take more than 500 years to form 2 centimetres of topsoil.

“We completely depend on our soils.  Without soil the earth would be completely different.  Apart from some algae, fungi, bacteria and other microscopic creatures there would be no other life.  We certainly wouldn’t be around.

So why does nobody care about the soil and why do so many of us still call this precious substance “Dirt”?  How come these facts that were known for many decades were ignored by scientists and the general public?

As a matter of immediate urgency we need to wake up to the fact that our soils may just give up.  They had enough of the ill-treatment since industrial chemical farming started.
However, there is a little glimpse of hope at the end of the tunnel:
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have declared the year 2015 as the International Year of Soils to highlight the dangers we face.

Feed the Soil
The organic movement is also increasing throughout the world.  One of the key concepts of organic farming is the care for the land and recognising that our soils are the givers of life.  They need to be kept healthy and alive.  Only a fertile soil can produce healthy crops and only with healthy crops can we have healthy animals and people.  The mantra of organic farming is ‘to feed the soil which in turn will feed the plant.  The reverse is true for conventional farming where the soil is considered just a medium on which plants grow and anchor themselves.  The soil is considered as an inert sponge on which plants are force fed like being on a drip.

Over the last few decades our soils have suffered immensely and are close to the brink of collapsing.  As a matter of urgency we need to learn how to care for our soils we need to learn how to “bring soil back to life” as Alex Lavarde appropriately called for.”

“Industrial farming has caused this degradation” says Klaus.  “Amongst a few other factors, the use of artificial fertilisers is one of the main causes for the degradation of soils.  If farmers and growers rely solely on artificial fertilisers our soils will degrade.  The reason for this is that artificial fertilisers only do one thing.  They supply NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) in a soluble form which means fast release.  So they work quickly but also cause damage quickly.

But soils don’t just need NPK.  Soils need inputs of manure, compost, leafmould, seaweed or green manures.  If you add any of these organic fertilisers you will enliven the soil in many different ways.  The billions of living creatures that are in just on handful of topsoil need to be fed and only organic fertilisers will provide this food.  Also by adding these bulky organic fertilisers the structure of our soils will be improved.  There will be better drainage, water infiltration, less compaction, better water holding capacity and importantly it will be easier to work the soil.  If you think about it – through a change of farming systems flooding could be controlled and wouldn’t that be much cheaper than putting up concrete defence structures around our towns?

Artificial fertilisers don’t provide any soil services – they literally just pump up plants.
As a matter of urgency we should give up using artificial fertilisers immediately.  They should be treated by governments just like other dangerous substances and should be taxed highly.
George Monbiot summarised this unnoticed danger:

“Almost all other issues are superficial by comparison. What appear to be great crises are slight and evanescent when held up against the steady but unremarked trickling away of our subsistence.” Klaus concludes.

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