Sunday, 6 November 2022

Building a forest garden

 

Here in Ireland, most gardeners will plant conventional annuals like potatoes, onions and carrots, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Most, however, neglect the myriad varieties of each of these crops, in myriad colours, and you could plant blue potatoes or purple carrots if you like. More neglect the more adventurous crops that might do well in this climate but remain little-known; yacon, daikon, oca, and others. Creative or lazy gardeners with a bit of extra land might decide to let it fallow, getting mileage from the nettles and dandelions for a while.  If you want to build a garden that truly looks to the future, though, you could plant a forest.

It might seem like that growing a forest contradicts the idea of growing a garden, that one means low, edible and annual plants in rows, while the other means a landscape of tall trees and few edible plants. When you plant a forest garden, though, you are combining the best of both worlds – perennial crops, vines, shrubs and trees that produce food every year but do not need to be re-sown every spring.

A forest garden also has a vertical dimension that many kitchen gardens do not; low trees and shrubs that bear fruit, berries and nuts; vines that bear similar fruit and berries, and ground-cover plants that can be harvested anew each year. With many varieties of plants close together, moreover, you can harvest throughout the year, gathering leaves or buds in spring, summer crops, fruit and nuts in autumn.

The various plants help each other, as different plants require different nutrients from the soil and so do not starve each other. They also help keep different pests away, as the smell of one plant not only repels insects from it, but from the plants around it. In this way, plants in the wild help each other, and by planting them alongside each other we let Nature do some of our heavy lifting.

To make a forest garden, you should first look at your landscape and see what could grow there –in the case of our land, a relatively dry patch of earth surrounded by bog. Then you begin planning a design of trees that will yield what permaculturists call the seven Fs: food, fuel, fibre, fodder, fertiliser, “farmaceuticals” and fun.

Take a compass and mark which direction is the south, and considering putting have the highest plants on the north, to cut down on the colder winds, and the lowest in the south to catch the maximum sun. You also want to pay attention to the rising and sloping of the property, to make sure you know what plants are getting the most sunshine and water runoff.

Plan a forest garden in vertical layers, starting with the pieces that reach the highest and around which the rest of the garden will turn: the trees. Make sure you allow a circle of sufficient breadth for each tree to grow; until it grows out, and find out ahead of time how large they tend to grow. If you plan a certain circle of space for them, and they grow slightly beyond it, you can prune them, but you should let them have a certain minimum of space.

You could plant fruit and berry trees like apples, plums and cherries, as well as lesser-known species like guomi; nut trees like walnut, hazel and oak also would prove valuable over time. Such trees aren’t going to yield vast quantities of food right away, of course, but in the meantime you can plant food-producing vines to climb up the trees – blackberries and kiwifruit, for example – as well as shrubs under them, like blueberries and lingonberries.

Further down still – for a forest garden has food at every level – you can plant edible weeds like Good King Henry and Fat Hen, as well as herbs that return every year. You can even plant some regular crops like carrots and onions around your trees and shrubs, and gradually segue from a regular garden into a forest garden over a course of years.

It is true that a forest garden requires some patience, and if you buy small trees from the nursery rather than growing apple trees from seed, it could be several times more expensive than a conventional garden. With the right species, however, you only have to plant them once; you are investing in infrastructure like a house, only a forest garden could last longer.

 


Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Settling on Enough

 


To a poor man, more is better, and all humans throughout history were poor compared to the wealth we enjoy. Now that we have lived in the fossil-fuel window for longer than anyone can remember, we live in comfort our ancestors could not have imagined, yet we keep pursuing more.

Our cars are huge, our debts are huge, and even some of us are huge, yet we still believe that more is better. The entire religion of economics is devoted to this belief – a rapidly escalating economy is “robust,” not “out of control,” and as it slows down it is said to be “ailing,” not “stabilizing.”

But beyond a certain point, more is more of too much – with eating, drinking, or just about anything. A growing body of data shows that once our basic needs are met, money no longer makes us happy. After that, everyone – whether they make 20,000 euros a year or 200,000 – seems to think that they would be happy if only they made perhaps ten percent more.

Author John Michael Greer uses the analogy of sandwiches; if you are starving, one sandwich is priceless to you. Two sandwiches are even better. A pile of a thousand sandwiches, or a million, becomes a liability; you have to put energy into selling or preserving them, or just getting rid of them. They become a net loss to you, as many of our possessions have become to us.

In fact, even as our houses swell and possessions multiply, people's happiness has been going down. Some sociologists have suggested that discontent is related to economic growth, as our new wealth is used to build homes further away from each other, buy more electronic devices that occupy our time but offer only short-term pleasure, and spend more time commuting and less time with loved ones. As author Bill McKibben puts it, “Do the experiment yourself. Would you rather have a new, bigger television, or a new friend?”

The globalised production of all this booming wealth has created some severe consequences for the globe. All those factories to make our stuff, all those cars on the motorway, all that food shipped from Australia – it all burns oil, pollutes the atmosphere and changes the weather. Most of all, it erodes the infrastructure to do otherwise – local farms, organizations, and jobs – and will make a restoration of a simpler world more difficult.

We can and should try to shift the economy into arenas that destroy less of the world, but we can also remember that there is a world outside the global economy. Before we were consumers, we were citizens, less part of an economy than a community.

How can rebuilding community help with economic or environmental issues? Well, 30 percent of our energy is spent on food, and local food uses 10 times less energy than food shipped around the planet. But sociologists who followed shoppers found that those in farmers markets had 10 times as many conversations as those in supermarkets. The actions that harm the natural world do not increase happiness, but the actions that restore the natural world also restore happiness.

Here's more good news: a study by psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn has found that people are not happier when they have more income, but when they give more away. Those who responded as happiest to survey questions turned out to also be the ones who gave most to charity. 

Most interestingly, this runs counter to what we all have been taught; when Dunn asked the subjects of her experiment what made them happy, almost all said they'd be happier spending money on themselves. What they thought about themselves were wrong. We are better people than we realize we are.

None of this means that we should be poor – even if money doesn't make us happy, the lack of it can make us miserable. Most of these days have debts to pay off It does mean, though, that may of us are caught in a rat race that is not only making our own lives more miserable, but damaging the world we live in as well. And a simpler life is the solution not only to the world's problems, but to yours as well.

Photo by Brian Kaller.

 

Sunday, 23 October 2022

What Not to Do Your First Week as a Beekeeper

 


Note: I’m not an expert beekeeper; My cousin in County Longford is an expert beekeeper, and I’ve learned a lot from him. I’m a guy who had a beehive, and got some honey once a year. I’m just writing about what it was like to get the hive, so you can avoid some of the same mistakes.

 

If you’re thinking about keeping bees yourself, there are a few things to remember. First of all, everything you do will be, according to someone, wrong.

Take, for example, when you choose what kind of hive to get – by “hive,” I just mean the wooden box and the pieces inside, as you have to set that up before you put the bees in. All of those modern square hives come in two models, one smaller and one larger, and since every piece is made for a hive of one size or the other, most beekeepers stick religiously stick with one model and swear by it. I picked the smaller version, thinking it would be easier to lift when laden with wax and honey – but when I told a local beekeeper, he talked to me about my decision in the delicate but grieving tones usually reserved for a terminal illness.

Then you need to decide where to put this wrong hive, and your spot will also be, according to someone, wrong. Most books, for example, recommend placing your hive where it will be warm and dry, protected from wind and rain. Those books were not written for people who live in a bog. In Ireland.

I chose a place in a corner of our woodland, facing the bog and its fields of wildflowers, but wove a wattle-fence around part of it, sheltering it from our fierce winds.

Next you need to fill the hive with wooden frames, those rectangular slices of honeycomb that beekeepers remove to get the honey. Most hives come with slides of wax to help get the bees started, and you have to slip the wax into each wooden frame and secure them in place with wire or nails. When you have done this for all ten slides and put them into the hive one by one, you lift the hive off the shelf, set it down gently. Then you listen to the sound of several wax slides come crashing down, and do it right the second time.

You will also need a smoker – basically a cross between a watering can and an accordion -- to slow the bees down before you open up their home. Despite being the smallest animal we’ve domesticated, they are the only ones we have to sedate before approaching.

The bees will need sugar-water to get them started, before they figure out where all the flowers are in relation to their new home. This is easy to make on the kitchen stove – a kilogram of sugar per litre of water – and most hives, like ours, have a feeder attached. You don’t need to feed them continually – that would rather take away from the point of getting honey – but it does help them through the early days and again through the winter months.

You also need a bee suit, a one-piece outfit which will seem to consist mostly of zippers. Do try to seal all the zippers completely, or the neighbourhood children will see a strange, white-clad figure flailing and dancing the hokey-pokey out of the forest.

Now comes the intimidating bit: you need to buy bees and put them into your new home. You will probably do this by buying a swarm nucleus, or “nuc,” a mini-hive filled with a queen and skeleton crew of her staff to get a hive started. Whereas a full hive will have ten to twenty frames of honeycomb, a nuc will have four or five, which you remove and place in your hive. The rest of your hive will be filled with empty frames – empty but for those wax slides you put in – ready for the bees to use as they expand their population.

 Remember those two basic models of hive I mentioned earlier? Since the honeycombed frames of the nuc have to be removed and placed in your hive, the nuc’s frames must be cut the same size as your hive’s. This is why beekeepers stick with only one model – I had to find someone else with the same kind of hives, who was also ready to sell nucs.

Eventually I found an old beekeeper in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, and drove out to his farm. He cheerfully plopped into my arms a wooden box, secured all around with duct tape and with a wire mesh at the top, and right under the mesh, a swarm of bees writhing like a single organism.

 “How long will they be safe in there?” I asked, looking up at the threatening sky.

“Oh, they’ll be okay for a few days,” he said, “Just make sure they don’t get cold and are kept out of the wind and rain.”

The freezing sideways rain began on my way home over the mountains, each bump further shaking the box in the back seat, which buzzed ever more irritably with each bounce. If you must drive over mountain passes in freezing rain and near-zero visibility, I learned, it’s better not to have an angry swarm of bees a thin piece of cardboard away from your groin.

When I got home it was still lashing rain, and I learned that most bee suits are not waterproof. Nonetheless, I did set up the nuc next to the hive, their entrances parallel. Bees have amazing sense of direction, but they don’t use landmarks like we or most mammals do; they use the position of the sun and moon to create a kind of GPS. With it they can track and find the positions of hundreds of thousands of flowers each day and communicate them to the other bees – an amazing skill far beyond our abilities – but everything hinges on having the right starting point. Move the hive twenty metres to the left, and they are like cars following Google directions from a slightly wrong street – everything will turn out very badly.

Through the next few days of rain I sprayed sugar-water through their mesh to keep them fed, until the sun came out and I was ready to don the bee suit, smoke the bees and put their honeycombs in the proper hive -- that was Plan A. After smoking them well and removing the duct tape, I realised that the box was actually held together with screws that would require some power tools to remove – Plan B. Me drilling into the bees’ home caused them to get understandably upset, so Plan C was to smoke them again, until the burning material in the smoker suddenly ran out; Plan D, to stuff more in and re-light it, failed when the lighter jammed. My daughter ran out to help with matches, only for me to shout “NO! Don’t come near me! I’m covered in bees!”

Plan E, finally, worked -- for my daughter to get matches, run to a nearby stone, leave the matches and run the other direction while I, trailing a cloud of bees, retrieved the matches, ran back, lit the smoker, and finally calmed the bees down while I moved them. Last I checked, they were settling in fine.

Perhaps the most important thing to learn, though, goes beyond beekeeping. Many of us are trying to learn a lot of new skills, often with little proper training and limited supplies. Everything you do will be wrong, at least compared to the ideal scenarios of how-to books and videos. Don't worry about it: you'll learn as you go, and most of the time, you'll come out okay in the end.

Sunday, 16 October 2022

Getting rid of food waste


 

Several years ago a study found that up to a third of all food sold was thrown away uneaten – inexcusable in a country where farmers struggle and children go hungry. That country was the United Kingdom, which has a generally good record of conserving its resources, so pundits wondered what a global study would find.  Such a study was released later – by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, somewhat surprisingly – and looked at impoverished Third-World nations as well as the prosperous West. Unfortunately, their findings revised the figure … upwards. 

The IME report found that “30-50% (or 1.2-2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach” across rich and poor countries alike. The reasons varied, however; poorer countries had less money and technology to harvest and store food properly, while countries like ours waste food mostly through “retail and consumer behaviour.”

The retail part accounts for a third of all crops brought to stores, they said, when “supermarkets, in meeting consumer expectations, will often reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at the farm because they do not meet exacting marketing standards for their physical characteristics, such as size and appearance.” For ten thousand generations humans ate or preserved what was ripe; now we demand food appear before us in all seasons, looking like it came off an assembly line. 

Then, once the food is on the store shelves, “commonly used sales promotions frequently encourage customers to purchase excessive quantities which, in the case of perishable foodstuffs, inevitably generate wastage in the home. Overall between 30 percent and 50 percent of what has been bought in developed countries is thrown away by the purchaser.” That’s up to 50 percent in our homes on top of the 30 per cent at the store – up to 80 percent overall.  

Such depressing findings studies do have a glass-half-full side, however: we could cure world hunger right now with what we already have. Of course, there’s no one giant pool of food – if we waste less, it won’t mean a village of Africans suddenly receives more. It might mean, though, that lands being used to grow crops for us – bananas, coffee, whatever – could instead be used to feed local people, or some other effect.

Conserving our food waste would also save money in bin charges, and would help reduce some of the greenhouse gases that are making the global weather go haywire. Properly composted kitchen waste gets munched by worms and oxygen-loving bacteria, but when thrown in the regular bin and buried deep in a dump, a different type of bacteria have to work on them – methane-producers. Methane is 23 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide from our cars and factories, so while our food waste is only a small part of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s a powerful part, and one easily eliminated.

The first way to cut food waste, obviously, is to use as much as possible, whether store-bought or from your garden. If you have extra fruit or berries, or find they are a bit too ripe, make them into jam to preserve vitamins over the winter. Freeze them to use later as pie filling. Mash and dry them into fruit leathers for snacks over the next few weeks. Pile the fruit and berries into a jar to the rim, pour spirits like vodka or poitin over them, and make liqueur.

If you have too many leftover peas, for example, try juicing them, mixing them with lemon juice and vodka, and making peatinis. Make them into a dipping sauce. Dry them by the closetful for pea soup over the winter. If you have too many courgettes (zucchini to Americans), incorporate it into bread, cakes, casserole, soups, stir-fry, sandwiches, frittatas, moussaka, tarts and latkes.

If you are overloaded with herbs, cut them at the base, hang them upside-down in the closet or greenhouse to dry, and use them over the rest of the year for flavourings or tea. Alternately, mash basil and other herbs with pine nuts and olive oil to make pesto.

Most of all, remember my favourite weapon in the fight against home food waste: quiche. This fancy-sounding French dish – typically cooked vegetables covered in cheese and eggs and cooked like a pie – works well to disguise any number of old dishes.

Raw vegetable waste unsuited for human consumption – carrot tops, coffee grounds, peelings and woody stalks – need a compost bin. If you don’t already have one, start working on it now or ask permission to use an inconspicuous corner of someone else’s yard. Compost turns your waste back into soil that you can put back in the garden after a year or two, soil rich in the kind of nutrients that might otherwise require chemical fertilisers.

The most basic kind of compost is for raw vegetable waste – things like animal waste or mulch need a separate bin, and need to “cook” for longer. Don’t put meat, cooked food, fat or eggshells in, as they could attract vermin. Don’t put too much that would be poisonous, like potato leaves – farmers around us pile up the potato leaves to dry and then burn the dried pile in spring.

For things that don’t go in regular vegetable compost, there are few kitchen disposal units better than chickens. They are basically pigs with beaks: they eat both meat and vegetables, cooked and uncooked, and they don’t care if the rolls are a day old or the carrot slices have gone woody. Also, they will readily turn all your waste back into protein again.

Consider hot composting, which I have written about before – with the right ratio of carbon-rich to nitrogen-rich materials, and you flip it with a pitchfork to oxygenate it, you can “farm” bacteria that generate heat rather than smell. I have taken a hot shower in the middle of a field on a very cold Irish morning, the water pipe heated by nothing more than compost. For more information on how to do this, I cannot recommend highly enough the research of Bruce Terrell in Ireland, seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xh_731DFSY0  

With measures like these, most of us could reduce our waste to almost zero in a short time, and while we’re not directly responsible for supermarkets and other companies, we can influence their behaviour. If you have a lot of chickens or a big compost bin and they have fresh food they throw away each night, you can talk to them about alleviating their waste disposal costs.  Such experiments have hazards, of course – you want to make sure you don’t generate disease or a neighbourhood odour – but when done properly they could solve multiple problems with a single solution.

And, of course, you can grow your own.

 

WRAP study:
https://www.ns.is/ns/upload/files/pdf-skrar/matarskyrsla1.pdf

 

Institution of Mechanical Engineers study:
https://www.imeche.org/policy-and-press/reports/detail/global-food-waste-not-want-not

 

Photo: Parsnips from our garden.