Thursday 26 October 2023

The Age of Kinder-Gardens

In our modern world, most of us have joked that school never taught us anything we needed to know – algebra, but not how to do taxes. How true that is depends on the schools and teachers, of course, and learning should be prized for its own sake. Once, however, schools taught a wide range of highly practical and scientific skills that farm children could implement in their daily lives.

A syllabus from the early 1900s in American schools included plant diseases, erosion, insects, surveying, engineering, glaciations, and geology, all to improve their farming. Touring dirt-poor rural America in the early 1900s, Clarence Hall Robison found that agriculture and floriculture were required courses for all students – 320 hours for boys – in addition to botany, zoology, physiology, physics and chemistry.

Robison describes a “typical Ohio village” in which gardening was introduced as a class and the children threw themselves into it. Nor were these students just bringing home a seed in a paper cup, as a few students might do today – in one class the 12 students could not use the standard textbook, for “it proved too easy, as the boys already knew most that it contained.” The boys’ plan that year – just the boys, mind you, so perhaps six students – was to experiment with varieties of corn in “288 hills.” Some boys read about how beehives were made and immediately went home and constructed some of their own, and one child described how he caught two wild swarms of bees and set them in a hive.

In some cases the students lobbied for these classes themselves. After a school heard a lecture on poultry, a group of sixth-graders, Robison said, was “in a class studying Shakespeare, taught as it happened by the instructor in agriculture, [when] one of the girls suddenly exclaimed, “Mr. Button, why can't we study poultry?” The idea was so popular that a class was immediately organized.”

This wasn’t just in schools; some Midwestern advocates of modern farming practices, wanting to popularise them in rural areas, began after-school “corn clubs” that became the 4-H. The Boy Scouts, in one of their earliest manuals, lists a badge for agriculture. To receive it scouts had to “a practical knowledge of plowing, cultivating, drilling, hedging, and draining,” show “knowledge of Campbell's Soil Culture principle, and a knowledge of dry farming and of irrigation farming” and “[g]row at least an acre of corn which produces 25 per cent,  better than the general average.”

In the 19th century, it was all the rage in Europe to turn school-yards into teaching arenas – “child-gardens” or in German, kinder-gartens. In Ireland, Horace Plunkett, who helped found many co-operatives across the Irish countryside, urged that “Children should be given elementary notions of science and a training in the faculty of observation through illustration … drawn from the physical surroundings of rural life.” In 1917, H.S. Sheridan wrote that school gardens teach children “to observe and to think, to use their hands, eyes and minds in conjunction. Concrete facts are presented, and the pupils are taught to think in realities and not in symbols.”

By learning how to grow their own food, children learn the basic skills needed to provide for themselves and their families in a crisis, and lets them live with fewer expenses and less financial stress. They learn that food does not magically show up on store shelves, that we depend on fragile things to stay alive. As a classroom activity, it is a perfect way to demonstrate how plants and animals depend on and fight each other. It teaches chemistry: some plants do better in boggy soil or chalky, can better tolerate warmth or chill. It teaches world history: the limestone under your feet is a coral reef hundreds of millions of years old, mountains made of the shells of a billion billion creatures.

It also teaches a patience needed in this age of texting and Snapchat. An entire generation grew up knowing the world mainly through a glowing rectangle -- the television, a computer or the text screen of a mobile phone. But life is not inside the screen, and neither is childhood. 

Photo: Gardening class in the UK, courtesy of the Garden Museum.

Saturday 21 October 2023

Masonry Ovens

Almost no one enjoys the cold, yet most people in the world live where it is cold for part of the year – even subtropical or Mediterranean climates get chilly in the winter, and deserts get very cold at night. We can keep warm by huddling together or wearing heavier clothes, but sooner or later we have to start burning something.

We currently get much of our heat from fossil fuels – coal, oil, gas – or from electricity that comes from burning fossil fuels. In a few decades we will see many more people in the world and far less fossil fuels, and we will have to warm ourselves in some other way. We could turn to building wind farms, solar arrays or nuclear plants, turning their power into electricity and then into heat, but that would be a long and complex process. It would be much simpler and cost-effective for people to use the oldest method of heating, fire.

Using fire, though, presents a few problems. For one thing, we destroyed most of the world’s forests when we only numbered in the millions, or hundreds of millions. Now there are seven thousand million of us in a world with a fraction of the forest we used to have, and what remains – the great rainforests of the world, for example – are needed as the home of much of the life on Earth.

We could coppice trees (cut them off at the base) or pollard them (cut them at man-height) and let them grow back. It is an old, and still valid, method of preserving forests, but trees like hazel still take a decade or more to return.

Also, traditional fireplaces were spectacularly inefficient: A fireplace and chimney send only 10 percent of its heat to the room, and the other 90 percent goes out into the sky. Old buildings in Ireland will have the fireplaces stuffed with newspaper the whole way up, and there is still a draught.

There is, however, a little-remembered method that was used in Central and Eastern Europe until the beginning of the fossil fuel era – the masonry oven, also called a Russian stove or tile stove. It relies on a simple concept: it is a hearth surrounded by a thermal mass like cob, brick or tile, which heats up with the fire and slowly releases heat throughout the day.

Instead of having a single vertical flue that takes the heat directly into the sky, masonry ovens have a flue that winds around several times before heading outside -- the smoke is typically cold by the time it reaches the outside. All the heat is transferred into the mass, and thence into the room. Since the smoke and heat rise inside insulated ducts which do not conduct heat quickly, interior temperatures rise very high, and makers of masonry stoves claim their products are 85-90 percent efficient.

Fires in masonry ovens do not need to be tended and kept going, as it is not the fire itself that keeps the house warm but the thermal mass – most oven owners simply set one fire in the morning, and then let the heat radiate through the day. As they release the heat slowly, so they tend to be warm but not hot to the touch – some old Russian ovens were made with spaces where children or elderly could sleep.

Perhaps most importantly, since the ovens need only a brief and quickly-burning fire, they do not require chopped wood for fuel, but can use faster-growing and more common material like straw or sticks. The fast-burning straw creates little soot to build up and block the flue, so their users say they require little cleaning.

Masonry ovens, like thatched roofs, bale-building and cob, is an old method recently revived when more people began to realize its advantages. If it takes off, millions of people could build sustainable heating systems out of nothing more than clay and stone, and heat themselves with material that is renewable and almost free.

For more information check out David Lyle’s excellent Book of Masonry Stoves, or an article on the subject by Low-Tech Magazine.

Photo by Wikicommons. 



Friday 13 October 2023

Planetary refrigerators

It’s getting cold again, and while I look forward to seeing more days when I can work outside without bundling up, the cold is useful for many things. For one thing, it’s as cold as a refrigerator outdoors, and that means you have less need to spend electricity on a refrigerator inside. In fact, you can do the same thing year-round, simply by keeping some of your food underground.

Look over the houses of County Kildare and you will see many garages, tool sheds, trampolines, storage units and even swimming pools, but you are unlikely to find many root cellars, or even many people who are familiar with the term. Yet root cellaring seems to have been practiced in most times and places, and even, in a sense, by animals who bury their food. It is a zero-carbon, zero-electricity, low-cost way to keep roots and other foods over the winter, simply by using the planet as your refrigerator.

Root cellars can take many forms, but they all work on the basic principle that vegetables in the right conditions stay alive, so they do not spoil, but also do not continue to grow, ferment, seed, bolt or any other plant activity. Since the temperature underground changes little throughout the year, this usually means keeping them partially underground and well-insulated.

Perhaps the easiest things to root cellar are the roots the name implies – carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, celeriac, turnips and so on. Many vegetables and fruits can be stored, however -- krauts like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale; onions and their relatives leeks and garlic; fruit like apples and pears; herbs and even salad greens. Most of the vegetables come from late-season plantings, when the crops are ripening at the latest possible moment before they must be stored for winter.

You can keep potatoes or carrots in boxes of earth, sand or sawdust; I did this last year with beetroots to see how long they would keep, and was delighted to find that they remained firm and delicious after six months. After a year they began to get a bit wrinkled on the outside, like a raisin, but not rotten --- and I can attest that they were still quite edible.

You can make a fort out of straw bales, as a child might do with pillows, and keep food cool inside. You can poke two pegs in the ground at either end of a crop row, pull string taut between them, and wrap plastic over the rope to make a long small tent. Some people have buried broken refrigerators and used them to store food – a literal electricity-free refrigerator, although of course you might want to have the chemical fluids drained first, in case they leak into the soil.  

Many potatoes and other vegetables can be piled into mounds and covered with earth and straw. Mounds should not be dug where water puddles, and while some gardeners dig out a mound first, we who live in the Bog of Allen might fine it safer to simply start on the ground level. The triangular pile should probably not be more than a metre high, to avoid the weight of the higher vegetables squashing the lower ones. Some kind of ventilation – a column of straw, a pipe -- needs to be put through the middle of the stack. The pile of potatoes is covered first with a layer of straw – 15 to 30 centimetres -- and then a layer of earth about half as thick.

Here in the bog we can’t have cellars, but those who do can turn it into a refrigerator for food storage. Put shelves in the corner, to maximise the cool space nearby, ideally on the north side (in the Northern Hemisphere). Have a pipe go through one of your window spaces to let the damp escape, with each end covered in screen to keep pests from using it as a highway. Even better, install two pipes at opposite ends, to allow as much air circulation as possible. You want to keep the air cool but dry and circulating, as much as possible.

You could also dig a pit about a metre deep and a few metres across, lean two wooden walls against each other in the pit to make a triangle, nail them together, and cover the top with a thin layer of earth. The result is a root cellar with an insulating earth and grass roof that can be a walk-in refrigerator during the winter months.



Friday 6 October 2023



In movies blacksmiths look like WWF wrestlers, dramatically slamming white-hot metal with sledgehammers. When I took a blacksmithing course under the guidance of an old pro, the experience was more realistic: A plate-sized fire, small tools and frantic tapping.

The forge this time was an old metal hubcap, with small holes drilled in the middle, and the blower was a refurbished Electrolux vacuum motor. You don’t even need the electricity; on another course we sculpted a forge out of clay and horse manure, and turned some old fertiliser bags into bellows.

We began each day by lighting a small fire in the middle of the hubcap, right over the holes. Once the fire was going, we placed charcoal delicately over it, and then a ring of coal around the charcoal, and the crank fan blew air through the middle to keep the fire hot. Iron-working only appeared in the last 5,000 years or so – the final 0.3 percent of the time humans have had fire – because ordinary wood fire does not heat iron enough to work, and large amounts of charcoal and air are needed.

We quickly learned that you need to spend a great deal of time standing over the fire, with the metal part in just the right place – in the middle, above the blower and slightly buried in charcoal – to get the right temperature. Too little heat, of course, and the metal cannot be worked, but too much and it begins to “burn,” liquefying and sparking. A lot depends on the size of the metal piece – the tractor axel we put in took ages to heat, but I accidentally burned off the tines of my fork in short order.

Once the metal was glowing orange, we had to rapidly move it to the anvil without yanking it out and sending hot coals everywhere, and without burning the people standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you. Once at the anvil you had only several seconds of BAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAM ... until it was black and solid again.

Also useful are steel vices and hefty pliers, which allowed us to grip metal while turning it – hence the twist in the fork handle. None of us wore gloves, but leather aprons and goggles were recommended against flying sparks and coals.

This time, I took an old car part and hammered it into a straight bar, flattened it into a knife-shape over the next two days, and a bit of cutting and polishing did the rest. I cut a handle from a hazel branch, heated the “handle end” of the metal until it was yellow-hot, and seared the hot metal into the handle, with a gust of steam and a few bursts of flame from the wood.

Blacksmithing is one of the dozens of professions that were widespread until just the last century, now is kept alive only by a few aficionados. For thousands of years in metalworking cultures, smiths were a vital and respected role – look how common it is as a surname today. They might become vital again if the coming decades bring the turmoil we anticipate. With charcoal and tools, a smith could turn landfill scrap and old car parts into useful tools again – and as far as I know, there is no end to the number of times metal can be recycled.

When the world is no longer able to mass-produce new materials at its former rate, when there is no new plastic and fewer forests, we will have billions of tons of landfill waste. Movies like WALL-E posit garbage covering the Earth, but in real life much of that garbage would not only be reusable, but precious. Some of it will be metal, and all the landfills we have created in the last few decades could become our mines in the next few decades. 

Top photo: A forge. Bottom photo: The knife I made.