Sunday 24 April 2016

Stretching the spring

We had a guest staying with us who was a massive help on the property, and her industrious hard work, plus, the fine weather of spring, has allowed us to re-do much of our garden. We now have a potato bed, have torn down much of our wooden garden, and will be putting it back in brick. We took the berry bushes and transplanted them to the back edge of our land, where we planted them in a newly built raised bed. We'll be creating a thorny hedge along the cow fence, creating our own barbed-wire hedgerow to keep out our neighbours' cows in case they get adventurous.

Our guest also planted some of the willow shoots we pollarded some weeks ago, and they will fill a gap in our hedgerow. I will put cardboard between the shoots to keep the weeds down, and lay down the now-rotted boards that made up our garden beds; as they compost down, they will feed the young trees, and we will be able to lay them down, year after year, into a hedgerow, a solid living wall of wood.

We used to have shower doors made of plexi-glass, or transparent plastic, until one of them came off the hinges. We could spend a lot of money to put it back, or we can just use a shower curtain and use the two-metre-long, one-metre wide transparent slab to make a cold-frame.

Cold-frames are ideal for people who lack the space or extra money for a greenhouse or poly-tunnel, but they allow you to do the same thing: to let you grow plants in a space that will let in sunlight but trap heat. Even when the temperature outside dips below freezing they keep out frost, and allow the gardener to more easily control water, pests and wind-blown seeds.

A cold-frame is just a box with glass or transparent plastic on top, ideally with a top slanted toward the south, and a bit taller than your waist so you don’t have to stoop to get into it. Fill the box with earth and plant seeds inside, and over the slanted top secure a sheet of glass or whatever you have. You could install the window frame with hinges at the top for maximum convenience, but just taking off the glass gently will do.

To keep seedlings going during the winter, you can insulate the back and sides with anything from straw bales to foam. You can also do what the Victorians did and pile in manure under the bed, which generates a lot of heat when it decomposes. Put soil on top for the seedlings, and you give the baby plants warmth from above and below.

Around this time of year, most of us are only just beginning to put in our plants outside – and we still have the occasional frost. Plants are at their most valuable when they are seedlings, and can perish quickly with a drop in temperature, a deluge of rain or a nibble from a passing critter. Seedlings are also expensive to buy; you can grow annual plants from seeds, but that means that you lose up to a month of growing time.

Cold-frames solve this problem, allowing you to start your seeds early under conditions that you control, while it is still cold and miserable outside. The additional month of growing time means that you can get a richer harvest than you ever thought you could in this country.

After the seedlings are out, moreover, cold-frames remain useful for growing warmer-weather plants – Victorians grew tropical crops in Britain this way. During the winter months, it allows your crops to continue growing without threat of frost.

If you want to start small, though, you can create cloches, transparent coverings for one or a few plants each. Victorians, again, mass-produced glass bells to cover plants to create a microclimate inside. You can do the same thing, however, with soda bottles.

To make a cloche, cut the bottom off an old two-litre bottle and place it around a seedling in the garden. Once the bottom is off, the plastic becomes very flimsy, so you might want to bury the edges several centimetres deep to keep it stable. Alternately, you can place a ring or solid structure inside if you have one, something that will keep the bottle in place but allow the seedling to grow. Or you can place it around a flowerpot whose diameter is smaller than that of the bottle.

Cloches, like greenhouses, allow you to regulate the amount of water a plant receives – here that means not getting waterlogged in the rainy winter. You might want to keep the caps of your soda bottles in a drawer, so you can put them back on at night if it gets too cold.

A step up from a cloche is a row cover, something to put over an entire bed. We clamped flexible plastic piping over our raised beds to make hoops, draped clear plastic over them and secured the plastic to the wood below the hoops with staples. Alternately, instead of plastic, you could put horticultural fleece over another raised bed– we did both this year, and it worked so well that our corn salad survived the darkest part of winter.

Photo: Grapes growing in Ireland, thanks to greenhouses and cold-frames. 

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Ireland's Quiet Revolution

Originally published in the American Conservative. 

Once every four years my social media feed goes bananas; hundreds of colleagues in my native USA promise that the upcoming election will the most important moment in history, the last chance to fulfill our promise as leaders of the planet or save ourselves from sliding into totalitarian darkness. This time around I know people who have supported Trump, Rubio, Paul, Cruz, Carson, Clinton, Sanders, and Stein, with every fan base seeing themselves as hobbits standing up to Sauron. Too few of my friends on the left or right pay much attention to the other 195 countries of the world, or the fact that some of their elections and voter frustrations parallel the USA in instructive ways.

Here in Ireland, for example, we saw the same 2008 crash and Potemkin recovery, similar anti-government protests and civil disobedience. And in last month’s election, just as in the American primaries, many voters abandoned the mainstream choices and flocked to political independents promising radical change—and no one knows quite what will happen next.

The two countries’ upsets filtered through different voting systems: In the U.S., independents Trump and Sanders had to declare themselves a nominal Republican and Democrat, as the system effectively shuts out third parties. Ireland, though, is parliamentary; voters select their representatives in the Dail (the parliament, pronounced something like “Doyle”). The majority party—or coalition of parties—then create the ruling administration.

The U.S. is unlikely to chuck the Constitution for a parliamentary system any time soon, but Ireland has a few other innovations that my countrymen should consider. We vote for up to several people to represent one district, usually from more than one party. Voting districts are not gerrymandered into bizarre shapes, so seats are not pre-determined. We rank our choices first to last, and if candidates don’t reach a certain quota on the first round, voters’ subsequent choices are factored in—like being able to choose Rand Paul over Sanders, Sanders over Trump, and Trump over Clinton. Such rules allow voters here to fire their public servants more easily than in my native country, where one group gains extraordinary federal power by some slim margin, and voters have only one choice more than in authoritarian states like North Korea.

The two main parties, Fianna Fail (rhymes with fall, not fail) and Fine Gael (actually does rhyme with fail) parallel American Democrats and Republicans in some ways; in theory, they were ideological opposites descended from the bitter rivalry of the Irish Civil War. In practice both were centrist, pro-business parties sustained mostly by old family loyalties, reliably getting a large chunk of the votes and taking turns holding power.

On our most recent election night in February, though, the mainstream parties were shocked to receive their worst results ever, 25 and 30 percent each, while almost half the votes went to third parties and independents—the nationalist Sinn Fein, an alphabet soup of small activist parties, and an army of locally-supported wild cards. Now the government hangs in limbo, as representatives of many parties must duct-tape a coalition together.

The U.S. and Ireland also entered the 21st century with very different pasts that shape voter expectations. Americans today grew up in a superpower, surrounded by the massive infrastructure of suburban wealth; Ireland remained an agrarian and traditional society until the last few decades, and only then, during an economic boom in the 1990s, was modernized at bewildering speed.

Millions of Irish built homes with the new wealth, commuter towns increased several hundred percent in size, and the construction was financed by an escalating debt bubble. When the banks collapsed in 2008, the Fianna Fail government made the fatal decision to guarantee all bank debt with public funds. Those promises came back to haunt them in 2010, when the country went effectively bankrupt and had to be bailed out by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. Ireland has chafed under its debt burden ever since, and many of my neighbors feel that they left the boom worse than they entered.

After this economic crisis, in 2011, the once-dominant Fianna Fail lost 60 percent of their support—the greatest fall of any party in Irish history. A Fine Gael-led coalition took power, but support for third parties and independents began to rise. The new government’s honeymoon quickly wore off; the terms of the bailout limited their power to make changes, and a series of new taxes and fees angered an already struggling populace. (Water charges introduced in late 2014, for example, spurred massive public protests that are still going 18 months later, and almost half of all households have simply refused to pay them.)

When the time came for a new election this year, Fine Gael’s slogan, “Let’s Keep the Recovery Going,” garnered only horse laughter from people who weren’t feeling the recovery. In the end, Ireland’s recent history of bubble, bust, and bailout effectively destroyed generations-old political loyalties, leading one wag to comment that Angela Merkel had finally ended Ireland’s civil war.

In the U.S., populist groundswells for Trump and Sanders might be strong enough to tear the two parties apart without actually leading their candidates to victory. In the same way, Ireland’s surge of independents crippled the two main parties, but are not strong enough to take power themselves; even if they could all work together, they would be just shy of a majority.

That leaves every politico and pundit in the country frantically shuffling numbers around to see what kind of government is possible, and whatever agreement party leaders reach in the coming weeks will result in the strangest in the Republic’s history. The possibilities include:
  1. The two mainstream parties go into coalition with each other. Picture Republicans Rubio and Kasich forming a government with Hillary Clinton to stop Trump and Sanders, and you see how much pride would have to be swallowed.
  2. A minority Fine Gael government cobbled together with many, many independents, who are meeting with Fine Gael leaders one by one and presenting lists of individual demands in exchange for co-operation.
  3. Everyone gives up and a new election is called, and all the candidates re-open their campaign offices.
In theory, if the next election results tip even further away from the main parties, the next government could be run by the largest third party—in this case the socialist Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army during the terrorism of the 1970s and ’80s. That’s not as frightening as it sounds: they abandoned violence two decades ago, and have been increasingly accepted as a legitimate party. But it would be unprecedented, with unknown effects on Ireland’s relations with Britain and Europe. 

For now the country feels strangely like the U.S. did in November of 2000—but with a few important differences. People here don’t demand global dominance or an endless boom, just jobs and basic infrastructure. Since the system allows for many parties to participate, voters know they can blow off frustrations without destroying the established order. 

Most importantly, voters here lack the sense of imminent apocalypse that haunts Americans. Some Irish are celebrating after the election, some are chastened, some are making deals—but no one is panicking. Whatever happens, they’ll get through this.

Monday 11 April 2016

Published by history magazine

The very nice people at Medieval Histories have reprinted my piece on bog butter -- check it out here, and the rest of their magazine.

Photo: The bog after a rain.

Wednesday 6 April 2016

What else you can do with rhubarb

Before we casually shipped warehouses of vegetables across oceans and refrigerated them, spring was traditionally a lean time in Western temperate climates, a time when our ancestors had been living on things like salted meat or grains for months. The first edible greenery, then, gave food a much-needed injection of vitamins and flavour -- nettles, linden leaves, hawthorn leaves, sorrel, and most importantly rhubarb.

For this reason, early rhubarb – a vegetable that “thinks it’s a fruit” -- became an important crop for people who lived in far-northerly climates like ours, especially if you could “force” it to grow early and long. “Forcing” rhubarb involves moving the rhubarb into darkened sheds where they plants shoot upwards – reaching for the light, as it were – and the stalks grow long and tender. A tiny patch of Yorkshire, UK called the “rhubarb triangle” once produced 90 per cent of the world’s forced winter rhubarb.   

Country people here frequently gave rhubarb away as gifts for visitors, and newcomers described delivering party invitations door to door and walking away with armfuls of rhubarb at each house. Many people’s knowledge of cooking rhubarb, however, extends only to one recipe -- the rhubarb crumble dessert.

Many other dishes are possible, though – savoury or spicy, by itself or as a sauce for something else. To make rhubarb you simply have to deal with its two central facts – 1.) it is very tart, and must be mixed with other flavours, and 2.) it disintegrates into mush when cooked. That still leaves a lot of possibilities, though, beyond the one dish everyone makes. For example:

Savoury rhubarb spread – take one strip of rashers (bacon), one stalk of rhubarb (about 80g) and two red onions (about 100g). Dice the rasher into small pieces and fry it for about five minutes or so until they are brown but not yet crisp.  

Dice the red onions and put them in, or run them through a mandolin and break them up into slivers. Also slice the rhubarb with the mandolin, and mix the onion-and-rhubarb slivers together. After the bacon has been cooking five minutes or so, drain most of the oil out – save it for later – and toss the onions and rhubarb in the pan and mix them about. Add pinches of salt, black pepper, mustard powder and cayenne.

In about ten minutes the onions and rhubarb should cook down into a maroon paste; tart, savoury and spicy all at once. Once that is done you can spread the paste over crackers, as I did, or on toast.

Rhubarb-and-cucumber salad – The key to this is salting the rhubarb and cucumber to take the edge off the taste. Take one stalk of rhubarb (say, 80g) and one cucumber (about 150g) and peel the cucumber. Slice both thinly with a mandolin, put them in a bowl and add about 20g of salt. Let the mix sit for an hour or two, and then wash and drain the vegetables.

For the dressing, mix 200ml or so of some home-made yogurt or plain yogurt – “Greek style” works best. Chop about 100g or so of herbs – I used a mix of mint, dill, chives, parsley and Bernard – and mix them in thoroughly. Mix them with the cucumber and rhubarb, and you have an excellent salad.

Rhubarb salsa – Take half a stalk of rhubarb – say, about 50g – and slice it through the mandolin. Dice half an onion, also about 50g -- and a yellow pepper, of about 50g. Slice one jalapeno pepper in the mandolin. Keep them all separate.

Lightly oil the bottom of a cooking pot, turn the stove on low and throw in the diced onions. Cook for one minute. Throw in the sliced rhubarb and jalapeno and cook for two more minutes. Finally, mix in the yellow pepper and cook for one more minute.

While that is cooking, dice three tomatoes and toss them in, and turn off the heat. Chop up about 50g of coriander finely and toss that in as well, and mix everything together well. Add a teaspoon of Siracha sauce, or some comparable hot sauce, and a dash of garlic salt and black pepper. Scoop up with nachos, crisps or toast, or eat by itself.