Monday, March 19, 2018

Coffee Grounds. - Do They Benefit The Soil ? - An Experiment

A couple of months ago I went around the coffee shops in town to collect their used grounds.  I had two ideas, one was to make lampshades and the other was to do an experiment to see if seeds grew and germinated in it.  

The lampshades were a total disaster as the family really didn’t like the smell when the bulb warmed the material so they have been composted. The experiment to see if plants grew in the coffee threw up some surprising results though.

I made up seven different soil mixes:
·         100% coffee grounds
·         100% garden compost
·         100% potting compost
·         50/50% garden and potting compost
·         50/50% potting compost and coffee grounds
·         50/50% garden compost and coffee grounds
·         Thirds of coffee, potting compost and garden compost

I put these mixes into the same sized containers and watered them together.  My seed of choice was wheat as I keep a big bag of it for making the wheatgrass and it was to hand.   I put the same amount of seed into each container and covered until germinated.

My expectations for the experiment were that the garden compost would do the best overall as it contained more slow release nutrients. Then the shop bought potting compost would see an initial healthy boost then drop off a bit as the nutrients are depleted.  Then I was thinking the seeds sown in the coffee mixes would suffer as the coffee grounds are very acidic, sometimes too acidic for even azaleas and blueberries to grow in. I thought the seeds in the 100% coffee grounds would just wither and die.


After the seeds germinated I noticed the wheat in the 100% coffee were sprouting but instead of the seeds settling into the grounds, the roots were actually lifting the seeds off of the surface as though they were trying to pull away. The 50/50 mix of coffee and garden compost was doing the same but then I noticed the seeds in the 50/50 garden and potting mix were also prone to this. The seeds settled in the other mixes so no conclusive seed rejection there.

 I must confess here that I was actually hoping the coffee mixes would fail dramatically as I was under the impression coffee shops were just fobbing us off with toxic waste for our gardens to save them paying to dispose of it.  I was proved right with the 100% coffee mix, from the onset the seeds were drier and the shoots were smaller and more fragile than the rest.  This carried on until the end of the experiment and my suspicions were confirmed, plants don’t like to grow in just coffee grounds. But who would think of growing purely in coffee?  No-one you’d mix the coffee with other things you had in the garden and treat it as a supplement. So it was the rest of the results that were surprising.  The healthiest plants by far after three weeks of growing were in the 50/50 mix of potting compost and coffee grounds closely followed by the other mixes but with the potting compost just behind the 100% coffee. The second best growth came from the third mix of coffee, potting compost and garden compost. 

For experiments to be accurate and consistent I’ll probably have to run the tests a few times to see if they are consistent. I probably will never get around to doing this again so thought I would just leave the plants in the post and see how they got on.  After two months of winter weather the plants are all still alive in the pots and are indistinguishable from their neighbours. You couldn’t pick any that look healthier than the others.  This makes me thing that in the experiment, a lot of the nutrition the small plants had actually came from the seeds themselves, not the potting mixtures. This casts a new light on the results as the 100% coffee could just have been an initial inhibitor for the nutrition and eased off as time went on. 


After three months of trials and observations I have concluded that adding coffee grounds to your garden compost pile could actually be a benefit, but maybe it will be a bit too strong to grow plants in on its own. It’s about variety so mixing the grounds with other garden and kitchen waste, newspapers, cardboard and other woody materials in the composter will give us a balanced medium for growing. I wouldn’t see any issues with scattering the grounds around acid loving plants either.

The results then are pretty inconclusive as the energy from the seeds could have influenced the results.  I’d need to do a few more tests to see if there’s a pattern. No more lampshades though.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Polytunnel Damage

 Protecting plants in the polytunnel

We’re filling our three bird feeders up twice a day at the moment. On frosty mornings we are also breaking the ice on the rain barrel and buckets so they can have a drink.

Word really got around this year by our flying friends and I think we have birds coming in from all over the county.  There are all types of birds too and it’s really entertaining watching them dance around the different types of feeders we have. The reason for their attendance in the garden might be something to do with the cold snap we are having.  With the ground being so hard they can’t get to dig for worms.  Some of the smaller birds have been hopping underneath the polytunnel door and having a rummage around the pots but even the soil in there is frozen too.

It’s the first time for about five years that frost has got into the tunnel and as well as the solid soil, some plants have suffered. I have some no rather soft, squidgy cacti in there and some early broad beans that have just withered and died. 

I was chatting to someone who also has a polytunnel and they were concerned about the weight of snow on the plastic, thinking it could bend or buckle the poles collapsing the frame.  They were wondering whether to scrape off the snow with a brush so it doesn’t build up.  I have never heard of a professionally built tunnel collapsing under the weight of snow but I should think it could happen, although they are really strong when they are new, the plastic could get weaker with time. The only tunnels I know of collapsing are the homemade ones formed out of plastic water pipes or wooden frames.

I think the biggest threat to a tunnel is the wind really so I’d leave well alone as there’s more chance of damaging the plastic with the brush.  If the snow is sitting for a long time it could affect the light in a tunnel and also it could trap cold air as it would block the sunlight. Again though, around here the snow never really hangs around that long to cause any lasting problems.

I have had some damage done to the tunnel this week though and it wasn’t the snow. There suddenly appeared a two foot slit in the side near to the doorway. I of course immediately blamed the dog (It’s generally her to be fair) and thought no more about it and went to get the repair tape.  When I got into the tunnel I was greeted with the culprit, a foot square piece of corrugated plastic sheeting.  It had come from nowhere blown by the wind and its sharp edge sliced into the plastic. I still have no idea where it came from and it’s one thing I can’t really blame the dog for doing. 

Is Snow a Problem in the garden?
Most damage by snow in the garden is when it sits on brittle branches of shrubs such as buddleia. It can also flatten early sprouted vegetable stems. A light dusting such as we usually get won't do much harm. But an inch or two covering tiny, newly planted veggie starts could mean you'll have to replant the garden.
There might come a time when we need to cover a few delicate plants, not crocus or snowdrops, have you seen how resilient they are? Amazing.
Covering a Plant
To eliminate this issue altogether, your best option is to cover your plants.

You can use anything. Here are some ideas to cover your plants so they are not exposed to snow at all. That way, you won't have to worry about the cold or the weight of snow from harming them. 

Cardboard box: Use a cardboard box to cover plants. You could even cut in some holes on the sides for air. Just remove it as soon as possible to let your plants get the light they need, as the cardboard will prevent plants from getting light. Remember though they will soften and could do more damage if you left them on for too long.
Plastic milk jug, or plastic pop bottles with the bottom cut out: These are good at fitting over individual plants.
Plastic storage bin: A clear bin will protect the plant while letting light in. If it's not clear, remove the bin as soon as possible once the snow stops.
Plastic tarpaulin, held up with garden stakes or large pots: This is another way to protect your garden from snow.
Plastic bag: Your standard plastic bag fits over smaller plants and can keep blooms from getting broken or too cold.
If you are anything like me though you’ll only have plants in the garden that can look after themselves. The lazy gardening way!

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Why Compost? The Basics on Making a Start

 Compost ready to go....

Entrepreneurs are starting to see opportunities in other people's food scraps. At one time it was just the local councils who recycled your waste. Now individuals are paying householders a visit once a week to collect all of the perishable food waste and composting it.  The jury is out whether there’s any money in it but even if not, there’s a great opportunity for the individuals to have an abundance of compost for the garden.  It just doesn’t stop at food waste either. For example, Gareth Austin our local garden entrepreneur is collecting hair clippings from barbers in Derry with a view to bulk composting it and introducing it into the community gardens as a bulking and nutrition supplement. 

Composting is getting more common in households and for good reason. It’s an inexpensive, natural process that transforms your kitchen and garden waste into a valuable and nutrient rich food for your garden. It's easy to make and use but as a lot of people don’t have gardens there is still a need for a collection service to deal with the waste.

Benefits for your garden
If you do have a garden to feed, compost is a perfect  nutrient-rich food product for your garden and will help improve soil structure, maintain moisture levels, and keep your soil's pH balance in check while helping to suppress plant disease. It will have everything your plants need including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and it will help buffer soils that are very acidic or alkaline. Compost improves your soil's condition and your plants and flowers will love it.

Setting up a bin
If you do get a notion to put in a compost bin, Ideally site it in a reasonably sunny spot on bare soil which makes it very easy for beneficial microbes and insects to gain access to the rotting material. It also allows for better aeration and drainage, both important to successful composting. Some use wire mesh under the bin to stop rodents getting in and some liquid might seep out of the bottom of the bin and stain paving both underneath the bin and sometimes around it. If this is likely to be a problem, then you should consider building a small raised bed filled with soil to put your compost bin on.
Liquid should be contained within the soil in the raised bed and you can always plant up around the bin to make it a feature. If you are putting your bin onto old paving and staining is not an issue, you will need to introduce the soil-dwelling organisms manually.

If space is limited and you don't have an out of the way corner in which to put your bin, you can screen it from view by using live plants, a trellis, bamboo or willow.

Making compost
Here's some information about what you can add to your bin to make the best compost. Aim for a balance of 50% greens and 50% browns in your compost bin to get the right mix. There are loads of different theories about what to compost and what not to compost, especially when it comes to cooked meats and bones. If in doubt, leave it out is my motto. 

'Greens’ are quick to rot and provide important nitrogen and moisture. Examples are :
 Animal manure with straw, Annual weeds (not seeding), Citrus peel, Coffee grounds, Comfrey leaves, Cut flowers,  Fruit peelings and pulp, Fruit seeds, Grass mowings, Hedge clippings, House plants, Nettles, Old bedding plants, Perennial weeds, Seaweed, Tea leaves and bags,  Urine, Vegetable peelings and pulp.

'Browns' are slower to rot, provide carbon and fibre and allow air pockets to form.
 Some examples are: Autumn leaves, Cardboard, Cotton towels, Egg boxes and shells, Evergreen prunings, Hair corks, Nuts, Paper bags, Sweetcorn cobs, used kitchen paper, Vacuum cleaner contents, Wood ash and Wool.

Here are some items frowned upon by the composting fraternity:  Bones, Bread, Cat litter, Cigarette ends, Dairy products, Disposable nappies, Dog faeces, Meat and fish scraps, Olive oil, Plastic and soiled tissues. Although I’d say most of these items have been in my bins at some stage with no ill effects (apart from the plastic)

Using your compost
You can check the compost is ready to use by seeing if it is dark brown and smells nice and earthy. It should also be slightly moist and have a crumbly texture.

It probably won't look like the compost you buy in the shops and it's very likely that yours will still have twigs and eggshell in it which to me is nicer to look at and they can always be sieved out if you need a finer mix for seedlings.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Using Moss and Coir Fibre to Soak up Oil Spills

Using sphagnum moss to soak up oil and fuel.

An acquaintance of mine had an unfortunate garden spillage of home heating oil the other day. It came from an incorrectly attached pipe after a boiler replacement and although it wasn’t enough of a spill to contact the EPA, it did still leave a mess.  There was no chance of run off into water or the garden as it was on concrete, but it did highlight just how quickly a natural disaster can happen.  It pays to have some form soaking up equipment to hand just in case something like this goes off without it being spotted quickly. There could have been 1000 litres of oil run into the soil from the tank within minutes and it’d take more than a bag of clay balls to soak that up.  The whole are would need to be cleared and replaced which could cost thousands of euro and if home insurance doesn’t cover you it’s be out of your own pocket.

I have a 25kg of the aforementioned clay balls and they can help to soak up oil from my strimmer of the drops of petrol that come from the mower. This clay resembles cat litter and will need to be mined.  There are a couple of other alternatives we can use now such as cut human hair or straw, but the most eco-friendly seems to be coir fibre.  It’s been used for years as a garden product but has particular absorbent characteristics.

Coir to absorb oil spills
Coir coconut fibre is an all-natural spill absorbent product. One source of the coir ‘greenness’ is the fact it’s made from an entirely renewable resource: coconut husks.

Though many absorbent products on the market today continue to use mined clay as their main ingredient, the need and demand for greener products has found coir to be the alternative.
Coir, at a microscopic level, has hollow channel structures. This forces hydrocarbon spills (like petrol or oil) to be trapped inside the spill absorbent product. Used coir holding fuel spills can be a fuel source for energy producing incinerators and  the coir is biologically stable and free of harmful micro-organisms; therefore, it provides a perfect environment for bio-degrading organisms to absorb the hydrocarbons. 

Coir is the most ecologically sustainable absorbent product ingredient available in certain countries but not here in Ireland as the shipping costs to the environment are huge.  So here at home I’d be more tempted to use something we produce ourselves in huge amounts locally. Sphagnum moss.

Absorbing oil with sphagnum moss
Peat moss, long known as a garden enhancer, hanging basket lining and believed by some to even have healing properties ( it was used widely in the wars to heal wounds), is now being promoted as the best and most ‘environmentally friendly’ way of cleaning up oil spills.

Like coir, the moss-based product cleans up and contains spills on land and water. Sphagnum moss can be used on a wide range of hydrocarbon and chemical spills outside and in the workplace, from diesel oil, petrol and brake fluid leaks, to paint, acetone and ink.

Not all peat moss is suitable for this use and the purification and dehydration of the product is vital for its effectiveness. The sphagnum moss does need some treatment before being ready and if it could be managed sustainably would be a perfect solution for us. The two largest suppliers providing the service in Norway and Canada have  processing plants to separate peat from inert materials, like soil and twigs, and then send it through a dehydration unit that reduces the moisture content to an average of only about 5 percent to 8 percent.

In that form, the peat is ‘activated,’ in that its natural capillaries are seeking to get filled back up.
 Since the dried capillary walls of the cleaned moss are primarily organic, they have an affinity for organic matter, like oil or hydrocarbon products like solvents.  The moss will absorb hydrocarbons and other organics before any water or inorganic matter due to this affinity. Once a hydrocarbon spill is pumped off to the greatest degree practical, the rest can be absorbed into the moss where it is encapsulated; it doesn't leach.

One of the big benefits of moss is that it provides a habitat for naturally occurring microbes which break-down hydrocarbons into organic carbon compounds.
The peat moss product can be strewn directly onto the oil floating in the water. It absorbs the oil on contact and encapsulates it. Water does not penetrate the peat moss, so the oil is trapped in a non-sticky crust which is easily removed from the surface of the water.

When peat is used to absorb a hazardous material, it would be subject to disposal laws and rules governing that hazardous material. But because crude oil will eventually biodegrade, the contaminated peat moss - with approval of local authorities, may be allowed to remain on site after a clean-up as part of the remediation making clean up an affordable necessity should an accident happen in your garden.

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