Tuesday 25 May 2010

Garden beds

Gardening, always a popular hobby on these islands, has boomed in these touchy times: grow-your-own programmes seem to fill television schedules, and millions of people seem to be cleaning off the old tools in the shed and seeing what’s under their lawn. And good for them: if you have a big yard of deep soil, that’s what you should do with it.

Not everyone has such favourable conditions, however. Most people don’t live in the country, so maybe you live in a flat (apartment), maybe in a narrow row house, maybe you have only thin or contaminated soil, or only asphalt – ten percent of the arable land in the USA has now been paved over. If so, garden beds create an easy way to grow crops almost anywhere.

A garden bed can be as simple as a raised area in a boundary of sticks or stones, both for aesthetic reasons and to enclose the plants. We’ve built several of those in the last few weekends for our berries, herbs and salads, which don’t require deep soil. If you have asphalt or contaminated soil, or want to grow beets, however, you probably want something deeper, and that probably means either bricks with mortar or wood planks, stakes and screws. We made the latter -- metre-deep, five-metre (15 feet) long beds – over the last few weekends.

We have an acre or so of land but needed beds anyway – for reasons of geography we wanted to plant in the field in front of our new house, but that’s where my parents-in-law’s trailer used to sit, and the ground had compacted into concrete. Plan B: put the garden beds back.

We needed wood, and that’s expensive these days – to create six five-metre beds we needed 1,300 euros ($1,600) worth of wood – not even counting the stakes we needed to secure the corners, a few hundred euros more. Luckily, we found a home scaffolding business only a couple of miles away, and he had plenty of planks that no longer met safety requirements for third-floor construction but suited us just fine.

To build the beds themselves we laid scaffolding planks two long and three broad across three of the stakes -- one stake held each end, and one more held the middle. We screwed the planks into the stakes with three-inch screws, and that was one side of the garden bed. Three more planks across each end completed the bed, so heavy it took four people to lift into place. We dug the topsoil out of the space where the bed would go, placed the bed in the space, and measured every side and corner to make sure it was level – where one side was too low, we wedged rocks underneath.

The next step was to fill the bottom half of the beds, not with soil, but with sticks – in our case, sticks my father-in-law and pollarded a couple of years ago, before his passing. The sticks serve many purposes: they drain the soil in this wet climate, and allow root vegetables to grow deeply into the space below. They take up the depth into which few plants would reach, so we don’t waste manure filling the bottom half. They can help form a barrier against weeds, which will not grow vertically through wood or air pockets. Stones or gravel would also suffice.

We ran out of willows on the last bed, and used some from the cherry tree we chopped down – we eventually decided that tree rot would not affect cabbages. We also used a few from the lilandia that ring our property – but sparingly, as they are evergreens and we don’t want soil laced with turpentine. By the way, never fill your bed with live branches, especially willow -- my mother-in-law did this by mistake, and spent years clipping out shafts of willow tree that kept popping up between the carrots.

Speaking of manure, we were lucky here as well – a farmer friend of ours had some horse and cow manure, two years’ ripened so that it smelled and felt like soil rather than poo – and was willing to truck it in. For weeks we’ve been the proud owners of a two-metre-tall manure pile that we have to ease the car around to get out the driveway, and we’re happily reducing the pile more each weekend.

For former car parks (parking lots to Americans) you can do the same thing. Last year my group, FADA, was looking for a community garden, and we acquired the rights to use a former car park behind an old church. There too we built beds a metre high – wheelchair height – and have used them for classes in everything from seed saving to food preservation.

All this work and expense might seem intimidating – we could have used these hundreds of euros and weeks of work to just buy the vegetables in the first place. But that misses the fact that garden beds will last up to 20 years – my mother-in-law’s lasted 15 and were going strong when they were torn down – so this is constructing not just for ourselves, but for generations ahead.

As crowded as most cities and suburbs are, most of their space lies unused, and while Victory Gardens could spread across the backyards, beds could fill many lots, corners and crannies. They could fill the driveways of many suburban homes, where people don’t have a car or can park on the street. Small ones could be placed on rooftops or balconies if the structure can hold them – perhaps nourishing raspberries and other climbing plants that could creep down the side of the building, yielding food and reducing glare.

They could cover the parking lots of stores that have shut down, even as the glass storefronts are turned to greenhouse space. They could be set along playgrounds and schoolyards, providing entertainment for children and free snacks. They could be wedged onto roadsides and street medians – not growing food in that case, but plants that can suck up car fumes and make the surrounding air cleaner, as plane trees did the London smog.

Look around. What space – vertical, horizontal, roof, cellar, sewer, anything -- isn’t being used for growing food, or firewood, or raising animals, or keeping people warm or cool? Whatever it is, what could it be used for?

Top photo: Partially-built bed.
Second photo: Stack of old scaffolding
Third photo: Completed beds with sticks
Bottom photo: Filled with earth and planted with seedlings.

Monday 17 May 2010

The post-apocalypse movies we'd like to see

Movies about the future are important. If you agree with that last sentence, feel free to skip ahead a few paragraphs – but if you are sceptical, I’ll lay out my case.

We are seeing the beginnings of a long transformation as our exponentially-growing population meets the limits of the world’s resources, especially oil. Many of us warned of this for years and were ignored, and now the world is sufficiently far gone that we’re running out of choices. Some things are going to happen whether we want them or not: we are going to have less energy, which effectively means less driving, less flying, less buying, less selling, and less money. The weather will probably grow stranger, and some people will have to move.

The details, though, can play out in many ways. What is now Ireland or the United States can descend into nationwide ghettos: rampant addiction and desperation, angry citizens finding scapegoats and conspiracies, and gangs of young men – in uniform or not – seizing food, shelter and women.

Or, we could have a world with at least as much stability and equality as we see today, but with most people growing and preserving their own food and making and fixing their own possessions -- freeing up the remaining energy to keep factories, hospitals, trains, ambulances and the internet running. This latter scenario could look a lot like small-town America or English village life in the early 20th century – small family farms, schools, libraries – but with up-to-date gardening techniques and basic Internet. Overall, it could be a much healthier world than even most Westerners have today.

These are not the only two possibilities, of course, but two extremes of a wide range, and we might have some ability to make our corner of the world look like that second choice --but only if we get a lot of people on board. I don’t mean a few dilettantes or a countercultural elite, or even a few million Greens and crunchy cons, but all of us: Cops, secretaries, construction workers, janitors, the elderly, and school kids. Everybody.

And we have to move fast: the number of backyard chicken coops could multiply tenfold today and still be rare. People can take years to get the hang of gardening, to get back into physical shape, to build garden beds and walls, to meet other people who are doing the same thing. And none of us are getting any younger.

What we need is a way to reach a lot of people at once, not just to present the crisis and let them walk away scoffing or scarred, but to show the future as it could be. We need a realistic yet hopeful vision of the world, one that would be vivid and memorable in a way that no essay could, that could reach a hundred million people in a way blogs never will. Luckily, we have something like that: they are called movies.

Movies – and television, and the mainstream media in general -- have a remarkable ability to shape people’s views of the world. Movies during World War II helped rally the home front, and films like The China Syndrome helped sour the public on nuclear power. More recently shows like CSI have affected real-life legal decisions, according to some experts, because jurors expect real forensics labs to perform the magic of their fictional counterparts. Be honest – how many of you believe that a ship’s captain can perform a wedding, or that you get one free phone call if arrested? Yes, those are entirely invented for movies and television.

If we agree to take futuristic films seriously, though, we run into one amazing fact: They are almost all depressing. Beginning around the time I was born – I’m in my thirties – our vision of the future went from techno-utopias to techno-horror pretty quickly, from Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey to Mad Max, The Terminator, I Am Legend and many more. Around the time that America hit its national oil peak, around the time that our exponential rate of progress began to slow, the world – especially my own country – turned towards apocalyptic politics, millenarian religion, and doomer movies, and it’s difficult not to suspect that all these things were connected.

Today, as I mentioned in a previous column, most video stores even have a single section now entitled “science fiction / horror,” since any future they show is likely to be horrifying. And such stories influence us whether we want them to or not -- think of how apocalyptic most peak oil conversation has been, how often the early peak oil list-serves referred to Mad Max or zombie films.

Moreover, for countercultural youths fascinated by the 2012 myth or many evangelical Christians with the Rapture – both scenarios that involve billions of people dying -- these are not just fears. They are fantasies.

These are the worst possible attitudes to have as we enter an age that, to the luckiest humans in history, will feel like hardship. Paranoid conspiracy theorists do not help build a delicate web of trust among newly-met neighbours, and millenarians will not help build lasting infrastructure for the next stage of history. The more people are convinced that we face a violent and despairing future, the more likely such a future becomes.

In the years to come the boom of the last several decades will likely end, and more people go back to manual labour or giving their child a wooden toy for Christmas. It will be genuinely difficult – for me too, probably – and I don’t want to dismiss the genuine pain of families who have been evicted or who can’t afford chemotherapy. Nonetheless, the way most people will live will likely be the way your grandparents lived, the way most of the Third World lives today. It might be a reduction of our fortune by 10 percent, or 50 percent, or 90 percent – depending on your time and place -- but it’s not the same as Armageddon, and we shouldn’t confuse the two.

Hollywood could easily help people imagine a more realistic future, and there are many models they could use. 1950s America, Irish village life, post-war Britain, modern-day Mexico or India – since people in every time and place used and wasted less than we do today, almost any such model would probably look more like our future than the latest Zombie Apocalypse movie.

So I challenge any filmmakers out there – Hollywood insiders, students, amateurs – to create films like this, images of post-crash life that are both positive and realistic. Here are my suggestions:

In the Brambles: A sweet television comedy series set in a future US suburb where most homes hold extended families of mothers, grandparents and children. If you live in suburbia, just picture where you live with the green space turned into vegetables, coops and hutches.

Most families have at least one person working and taking care of the money side of things – mortgages and a few other basics – and a few parents send cheques from faraway combat zones. Most of the neighbours stay at home, however, and since people rarely drive anymore, everyone sees each other all day.

Many of the storylines focus on the elderly Boomers --a large minority of the population, as many of them moved in with their children or vice versa -- as they argue, maintain long-standing feuds, offer advice, try to make some extra money through get-rich-quick schemes, or play matchmaker with the younger residents. Many of them mind the children, as do local former teachers who run home-schools. Old and young alike work the gardens and hutches while the parents are away, and bond across generations.

The Brambles is what locals call the subdivision, after the blackberry hedgerows that residents have laid around the perimeter, the walls of thorns proving a deterrent to gangs. Residents take turns patrolling the neighbourhood at night, sounding an alarm at any night-time movement, making life difficult for secret cigarette addicts and covert teenage lovers and leading to all manner of comic misunderstandings and hijinks.

Other storylines could involve:

• Residents gear up for the annual vegetable awards, in which everyone gets a little carried away with the competition, spying on each other with binoculars and sending children to scout the other competitors’ yards.

• One of the residents gets an eviction notice, and the neighbourhood bands together to stand against the police. The matter is resolved without violence when the police fall in love with Granny Madison’s blueberry pies, and agree not to evict in exchange for a pie once a week.

• One elderly resident keeps to himself, and is the subject of much gossip among the neighbourhood children, who peek in his windows and frighten each other with stories about him. When one boy sneaks into the house on a dare, however, he finds the old man has a fascinating history, and the two become friends. The episode ends with the boy leading the old man out to meet his neighbours for the first time.

I picture In The Brambles as similar to pastoral British comedies like The Vicar of Dibley or Last of the Summer Wine, with a touch of Seventh Heaven and a dash of King of the Hill.

The Stairwell: A daytime drama about six families who live in an urban brownstone, up and down the titular stairs. Since they all live in the same building and have to share the same gardens and latrines, they are much closer than most neighbours today – more like roommates, and that accounts for much of the drama.

The brownstone is kept covered with raspberries and nasturtiums, which not only yield edible leaves and fruit but help protect the stand against the summer heat. The residents have turned the vacant lot next door into a straw-bale enclosure for goats and chickens, and they fertilise it with the building latrines. A makeshift roof collects rainwater off for drinking and sends it through a steel drum of charcoal for cleaning.

Almost half the residents work in this urban setting, in local factories, hospitals or casinos, and people mind and home-school each others’ children. Since the basics of life are the same for people in every era, storylines could come from many of the usual places: married characters cheating with each other; lovers quarrelling, children bucking the expectations of their parents.

Additional drama could come from the obvious circumstances of neighbours who must function like room-mates: one family is evangelical, and will not allow their children to be taught science. The single man’s post-traumatic stress scares the children, and the neighbours hold a meeting to decide what to do with him. Teenaged children try to make extra money to buy their parents a birthday present. Whole story arcs could revolve around weather, as the new summer heat forces the young men to refit the brownstone with Arab-style ventilation, or cousins have to move in from the old coast.

I see The Stairwell as resembling the dramas of the UK and Ireland, where soap operas are about mechanics and fisherman rather than oil barons and fashion designers. Models would include the long-running London-based soap Eastenders, as well as the Irish soap operas Fair City and Ros na Run.

The Windmills:
A comedy film about a group of recently unemployed men struggling with family stress and poverty, who decide to pool their money and skills and build a small wind farm together out of boards and car alternators. They hope to generate enough electricity to get the Internet coming to their homes again, enabling them to keep in touch look for jobs, download self-sufficiency courses and – closest to their hearts – play World of Warcraft with buddies on the other side of the world.

I picture The Windmills resembling British comedies like The Full Monty, Brassed Off and Billy Elliot, which use unemployment and labour riots as a backdrop for a story of working-class people fulfilling personal dreams. As in these films, the characters in The Windmills finally reach their dream, but more important is the journey to get there – one character is reunited with his estranged son, another kicks his addiction, and they all learn to feel useful again.


These are just a few examples, but if you don’t like them, make up your own. If you can’t make a movie, write a short story. Create a comic book. Write a fairy tale for your children.

The point is that very few people read scientific papers or specialist web sites, but we all watch or read stories. If you think there is any hope for a tolerable future – and if you are reading this, you must – then make that future come alive for your family and neighbours. I ask only two things: it has to show a realistic future, and be fun.

Ready? Go.

Photos from top to bottom:
Still from Terminator: Salvation (2009). Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.
Advertising photo for The Book of Eli (2009). Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment.
Still from WALL-E (2008). Courtesy of Disney.
Still from The Vicar of Dibley television series. Courtesy of BBC One.
Advertising photo for Last of the Summer Wine television series. Courtesy of BBC One.
Former petrol station in Mountshannon, County Clare -- now a potter's shop.

Friday 14 May 2010


Still can't upload most photos, but here is a picture of a typical brick of turf, sitting on my workbench. Whether footing them in the bog to dry or placing them in the fire to burn, you put them two across, then two across the other way, and so on to make a stack.

Sunday 9 May 2010

Footing turf

The Girl and I spent the morning in the boglands behind our property today -- we have gotten to know our neighbours, who have two girls her age, and they have become fast friends. The neighbours -- there are three houses, all in the same family -- own some bogland within walking distance of our home, and for fuel in the winter they dig their own turf.

Turf, as they call it here, is peat, smashed plants thousands of years old interrupted on their way to becoming coal. It's the main fuel here, and people used to dig rectangles of it out of the soggy ground with special shovels. I don't anticipate having to do this myself, but would like to know how, just in case.

Thus, our neighbours took me out this morning to foot turf. The peat is sopping wet, of course, when it is lifted out of the bog, which these days is done by hired machine. The machine leaves the peat in rows on the bog surface, and when it is partly dry it must be "footed" to dry further. My neighbour and I took the long rows of drying peat, broke them into bricks about half a metre across, and stacked them two bricks across and four bricks high, dry side down.

The Girl and her friends, for their part, made the bog their playground -- they turned over logs and played on stumps, and The Girl caught a frog.

Several things struck me about the bog. Most Irish do not appreciate what an amazing resource they have -- very few places on Earth have an abundance of fuel right below the soil. Even people who live next to a coal mine would have to travel many hundreds of metres into rock, braving poison gas and cave-ins, for a product -- coal -- that is smoky and acrid. Peat provides a slow-burning but intense flame like coal, rather than burning up quickly like wood -- but it provides an amazingly warm and cozy smell, something I wish I could take with me when I leave Ireland.

Another thing that struck me was to wonder how much was left of this resource. I have done some cursory searches, and I'm not sure if anyone knows for sure. The Irish have used peat more and more, even for generating electricity, and I'd be curious to plot its use on a Hubbert curve. Hopefully, I will be able to write more on this later.

In other news, our garden beds are doing well -- I filled another bed yesterday, so now we have three five-metre-long beds of seedlings -- peas, carrots, fennel, salad, leeks, kohlrabi and kale. To the side we have added smaller beds with loganberries, raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, gooseberries and strawberries, and along the side of the property we have more trees and bushes to provide an edge to the herb garden. Later this year comes the greenhouse, chickens and more garden beds. Bees will probably have to wait until next year.

P.S. I'm still having trouble with the internet -- we don't have broadband where we are, and my wireless laptop won't always upload well, so I can't upload any photos from today. Sorry.

Friday 7 May 2010


I walk past this every day coming to and from work. This happens to be outside the Guinness brewery, so the concentration of carriages here are just for tourists, but you will occasionally see the odd carriage in Dublin or on country roads near us. I like that the street is zoned for horse and carriage parking, according to the white letters on the asphalt.

Tuesday 4 May 2010


For the last several weeks, our whole family has worked frantically all weekend and some evenings -- in between our day jobs in Dublin -- to turn our muddy fields into a working crop garden again. We only finished our home a few days' before Christmas and the until recently the fields were either frozen or squishy muck, so we could not start earlier. At the same time, we can't just plant -- we have to rebuild the entire infrastructure of garden beds, topsoil, herb gardens and trees.

We have assembled old scaffolding into four beds, one metre across, one metre high and five metres long, and filled their bases with willow sticks. So far we've filled two of them with horse manure and topsoil, and that second one took my whole day yesterday.

The first bed is planted with rocket, peas, carrots, and several other vegetables – the things that needed to go in most urgently. We also planted a quince yesterday, the latest of our five new trees, and added new beds for the berries – loganberries, raspberries, red currants, blackcurrants and strawberries.

We needed to keep out weeds over part of the land, so we lay down the cardboard boxes from moving. Over those I lay evergreen boughs I got from pruning back the lilandia that ring our property, and over those I will put mulch. The mulch I’m getting free from the county, who chopped up thousands of Christmas trees as a public service.

Finally, we tore down the old fence that had stood along the driveway for almost twenty years, and piled the old wood in the middle of the property for a bonfire next weekend.

A note about this blog: We still don't have broadband at home, so this blog is going to have to continue to post only two or three times a week. Sorry about that.