Thursday, August 16, 2018

Plastic Pot Alternatives

Toilet roll art- a better use for them than growing plants in - and more fun

I’ve been looking to expand my plant collection this week by taking cuttings. I generally use 20 cell plug trays to grow them in and have spent a couple of days looking for a non-plastic alternative. With not much luck.  

There’s a massive shift in public awareness to find alternatives to plastic or to not use any packaging at all such as shampoo bars and net bags for shop bought vegetables.
In the horticultural industry it looks as though growing on a commercial level without using plastic still has a long way to go.  

I did find a lot of items that could be used on a small scale and go into those in greater detail later but on a large scale it’s plastic all the way. I should imagine that having a container that decomposes quickly could cause all sorts of problems, like decaying before the plants are sold. The likes of coir fibre and corn starch plastic could be used but at present they don’t do multicell packs that I use.
I’m taking a look at things we can do on a small, non-commercial level at home to replace plastic containers and it probably won’t be long before growers and manufacturers realise the need to reduce the plastic in the trade and we might see far more eco-friendly products to hold our bedding plants for the same price.

Some ideas and products are better than others but one thing that definitely improves them all is the addition of some type of drainage, without that it’s nearly impossible to grow plants and seedlings successfully. 

Materials to use for making home pots

Toilet rolls
Toilet rolls are the perfect size for seedlings, and you can fold one end over to make a base. I do find that these go mouldy and dry out the soil too much though and wouldn’t use them. I find the empty rolls are more useful for making silly faces out of, and it gives me something to do in my ‘quieter moments’
Newspaper Pots
Origami-style, using old newspaper. There isn’t any tape or glue, no tools required and it takes less than a minute to make one. The ink is soy based too so will compost but again I find the moisture causes mould.
Wooden Seedling Flats
These are wooden boxes that are not compartmentalised, used for seed-raising. They are filled with soil and seeds sown, which can be transplanted once they’ve germinated.
Seedling flats can be made from softwood (like pine) or hardwood. If looked after properly and maintained, they can last several years. The most eco-friendly option are those made from reclaimed timber and offcuts. I’d shy away from chipboard and plywood unless it’s marine grade.
Soil Blocks
You can press soil together to make cells to plant seeds without any other material by using a soil blocking machine.  It’s the same idea as the newspaper press machines for making bricks for the fire. They generally fall apart when overwatered though.

Compostable and Biodegradable  Pots

Compostable Pots
There are a lot of pots that fall under the “compostable” category. The most eco-friendly ones are natural and made of waste materials like coconut coir or aged cow manure. Less environmentally sound ones are made with brand new wood fibre, and/or peat moss (removal of peat moss has been linked to global warming).

Whatever they are made from, they are designed to be single-use. They require energy to manufacture, package and transport. They are more durable than newspaper or toilet rolls though.
Remember here that Compostable means it will break down in a compost bin or soil into humus (natural material) with no toxic residue. 

Biodegradable Pots
Biodegradable means it will be broken down by bacteria under certain conditions.
A ‘biodegradable’ label does not guarantee it will be broken down into constituent parts, only that it will break down small enough that it cannot be seen. It does not guarantee there will be no toxic residue

Biodegradable (but not compostable) pots are often made with PLA plastic, also called corn starch or plant-based plastic. 

These pots are a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional fossil-fuel based plastic pots. It should be possible to reuse them a few times before they begin to break down.

More Alternatives
Coir fibre, Concrete,Hypertufa (concrete and peat) hemp pots, Ceramic stoneware, Wool and felt, Bamboo, and my favourite - found object such as old rusty tins could all be used. Individually found items are a good idea but will be a real challenge of they were for retail in large quantities.

Fiddly stuff
Eggshells might look cute, but they are impractical to fill. I found the same with egg boxes, and they are so absorbent they dry out the soil. When it too cold and damp they will encourage mould growth which causes dampening off.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Composting Weeds

The narrow strip is cleared and manure is added.

It’s said that if something isn’t eating your garden then it’s not part of the ecosystem.  We’re lucky this year as there’s not much eating the garden except us.   

The heat has really brought on the vegetables and we’re happily munching our way through the beans, mange tout, aubergines, broccoli, kale, courgettes, herbs, pak choi and peppers. 

The poor cabbage whites don’t get a look in as we are one step ahead of them. Greenfly just pass on by and the snails are throwing themselves over the fence to try and find a garden where there’s something to nibble on. I can’t remember a year like it and apart from the slight hiccup with the hosepipe ban everything has been thriving as we managed to keep most of the roots moist with the stored water in the butts.  Annuals are so healthy and vibrant they are growing faster than the pests ability to eat them and it’s probably one of the best displays we have had ever.

There are a lot of weeds growing but thankfully nothing so bad that it affects our planting. Apart from pulling up a bit of chickweed and nasturtiums before they go to seed we are on top of things in that respect too. There will be a lot of weeds coming through now things are getting a bit wetter and it’s important to keep an eye on things and get them pulled out before they go to seed.  It’s been a great year for drought tolerant wildflowers too.

Lush weeds mean fertile soil and this is partly due to composting.  But what weeds can we compost?  This is an annual question that hasn’t really and hard and fast rules (thankfully like most things in gardening)

Certain plants such as perennial dandelions and docks never get put in my compost bins and any annuals that have gone to seed don’t go in either.  If I had a large 3 year system where I could get the temperature up really high then I would add them to the mix but I don’t. Couchgrass and bindweed that appear in the garden are two others that don’t go in as well and if I had Japanese knotweed that wouldn’t go in either. I think that would go into my incinerator as I’d feel irresponsible taking it down to the recycling centre but I’m sure they get the waste to a hot enough temperature to kill everything before it’s made into compost.

Horse Muck
The weed problem got really bad last year as I brought in a load of horse muck from a local stables. It was free and felt a good idea at the time.  I don’t really do any digging and this is where the problem lay. If I performed the art of double digging manure into the ground at a spades depth then I’m quite sure all of the weed seeds would wither die or lay dormant for years until they made their way to the surface.

As I tend to mulch on top of the soil, all of the weeds, including reeds and foxgloves got a free run and took over my chamomile lawn. I’ve just about cleared things but it has made me think twice about what I add to the soil.  Because of last years’ experience I have done something I have never done before – I bought manure in bags.  

After nearly eight years in the house we have finally got around to working on a small 100cm wide strip that runs along the front of the house. The montbretia and perennial geraniums took over so they are all dug out and I wanted to improve the soil a bit before planting a selection of our (now large) perennial plants that are outgrowing their pots. Who would have thought an impulse buy of 70 plants one night in winter would mean all of this work!  I had to paint the house too, I kid you not.
To improve the soil I added 3 large bags of sterilised farmyard manure and twisted it in gently with the topsoil, some garden compost and a few bags of potting compost. It probably only cost the same amount to do this small area as I would have spent on petrol driving to the stables and at least I won’t be on my hands and knees day after day picking out taproots. I’ll just keep putting a thick mulch of weed free compost down every spring to keep it fed and fresh.

Monday, July 30, 2018 - Hedgerow Management

Allow some of the mixed hedging to flower for pollinators

I’ve been reading a load of interesting information about pollinators this week. I have found the website very informative where it goes into detail about the the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan. The plan addresses pollinator decline and was officially launched in September 2015 in collaboration between The National Biodiversity Data Centre and the Heritage Council. 
All-Ireland Pollinator Plan
One third of our bee species are threatened with extinction from Ireland. This is because we have drastically reduced the amount of food (flowers) and safe nesting sites in our landscapes. The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan is about all of us, from farmers to local authorities, to schools, gardeners and businesses, coming together to try to create an Ireland where pollinators can survive and thrive. Buncrana has a lot of places on the interactive map on the website and the community gardens in Carndonagh are on there too. I’ve chosen a specific topic to highlight from their Resources pages which is something most of us, especially farmers can contribute to, the safe care of our hedgerows.

Hedgerows for Pollinators
What is pollination and why is it so important?
Pollination is a vital action in nature; it is the means by which plants fertilise each other in order to produce viable seed to keep the species going.

In some plants pollen is spread by wind, others require the actions of insects to transfer the pollen from the male to the female flower. These insects (honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees, hoverflies and others) are known as pollinators.  In general trees and shrubs that produce blossom (whitethorn, blackthorn, cherry, crab apple, etc.) are insect pollinated and those that produce catkins (hazel, alder, birch, oak, poplar) are wind-pollinated. The exception is the ‘pussy’ willow which produces an insect pollinated catkin. The blossoming species are often the woodland-edge species and so are the ones most commonly found in hedgerows.

Pollinators are a link in the chain of living (eco) systems that enable life to continue on earth. 
Healthy ecosystems (and therefore healthy pollinator populations) are essential for sustainable agricultural production.

How do hedgerows support pollinators?
Good quality hedgerows provide the four essential needs of pollinators:
•Sources of pollen and nectar for food
•Places to breed
•Places to overwinter
•Corridors and pathways to travel across the landscape
Most agricultural crops that require pollinators only provide a food source for a few weeks – diverse hedgerows and flower-rich verges can provide food over a much longer period to fill the hungry gaps.

What makes a good quality hedgerow for pollinators?

Food Source
Trees, shrubs and wild flowers in hedgerows provide food throughout the season from spring to autumn. Dandelion, blackthorn and pussy willow are very valuable in the spring when little other food is available. Mature whitethorn provides a good source of food later in the spring, followed by elder. Later in the season ivy provides a critical food supply. 

Places to breed and overwinter
Open fields provide few opportunities for bumblebees to nest but hollows and holes in hedge banks along with tussocky grass in hedge margins are ideal. The hollow stems of dead brambles provide nesting and over-wintering sites for cavity nesting solitary bees. Hedgerows that have sandy, earth, or earth and stone banks provide ideal nesting and over-wintering sites for mining solitary bees, particularly if they are south facing.

When moving between their nest and feeding sites most pollinators like to follow linear features like hedgerows which give them some protection from the wind and rain. Hedgerows and other linear landscape features in agricultural landscapes can increase the connectivity between otherwise isolated plant and pollinator populations so well-connected networks of hedgerows are important to increase pollinator movement and pollen transfer.  

Hedgerow Management
Hedgerow management for pollinators needs to be considered as part of the wider context of other management objectives – stock control, shelter, screening, etc.

New hedgerows for Pollinators

Planting a diverse range of species is key

Many common and uncommon hedgerow species will provide food for pollinators.  Some native hedgerow species that are insect-pollinated this can be affected by a number of factors such as local climate and altitude. Blackthorn, Wild Cherry, Crab apple, Rowan ,Whitebeam Spindle, Whitethorn/Hawthorn Guelder Rose and Elder are some of the more well known varieties.
Shrubs like gorse and climbers like wild rose, honeysuckle and brambles also provide food and habitat for pollinators.  Hedgerow species need to be suitable for their environment (soil and climate) and complementary to each other – in some situations some species can become dominant and push out less vigorous species. Try and select a suitable mix that will provide blossom throughout the season.  

Ensure good connectivity between hedgerows and other natural and semi-natural habitats
If you can link in your new hedge with other natural and semi-natural habitats in your area then this will make it easier for pollinators to get to and from your new hedge safely and will complement the general ecology of the area. Remember that areas of scrub are also important sources of food for pollinators.
The brochure continues with advice about connecting hedgerows and managing existing hedgerows  for pollinators stressing that over management of the hedgerows by advising about timing and repairing hedges. 
For more on the subject and other advice check out the website

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