"Human welfare is fundamentally linked with Mother Earth.....not just because the soil is the primary source of most of our food....but because it occupies a key position in the rhythmic cycle of life itself." - Stanley Whitehead. (from Mother Earth - the Journal of The Soil Association, Winter 1947-48)
I recently had the very great honour of being invited by 'The Environmental Pillar' (an advocacy coalition of 28 Irish environmental groups) to give a presentation at the Irish launch of the European People4Soils initiative at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, on Monday 5th December. They asked me if I would talk about what practical action gardeners could take to help to restore soils. I was delighted to accept their invitation as this is a subject very close to my heart and which I am absolutely passionate about. It was with the above quote that I began my presentation. First of all, my apologies for this month's polytunnel blog being just a little later than usual! Preparing my presentation took up quite some time and energy but it was well worth it. Looking back through over 35 years of photographs, to find the best ones which illustrated my points, brought back many memories for me and was a great pleasure. For the benefit of those who weren't able to attend, I'm repeating my opening and closing few words here. The entire talk was filmed and will I understand be posted onto their website very soon.
The enthusiasm and energy from all of the people who attended was infectious. There was a wide diversity of environmental groups represented - not just organic farming organisations. I sincerely hope that they will all go on and spread the awareness that soil is not just essential to growing healthy food for us - but also that restoring soil carbon, by regenerative organic farming methods, is absolutely key in helping to mitigate climate change. In the last 30 years we have lost approximately 30% of our soils globally, mostly through destruction by intensive chemical agriculture. Felling forests, drainage and destruction of wetlands is also not just adding to this loss of carbon-fixing humus but also causing emissions of even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As the living soils in forests and peat bogs are major carbon sinks, this is having a massive effect on accelerating climate change. But there is hope that we can do something and this is what I wanted to get across. We can ALL do something!
The esteemed soil scientist Rattan Lal, from Ohio State University estimated a couple of years ago that just by restoring 2% of global soil carbon - we could mop up ALL of our current greenhouse gas emissions from whatever source.... A stunning statistic! Regenerative organic farming and growing is the ONLY method of agriculture which can do that. Just putting back some plant wastes into soil but still continuing to use fossil fuel-derived, soil-destroying chemicals can't do that. A combination of the two simply doesn't work, as one will cancel out the other! Agricultural chemicals destroy the soil life which is vital to making carbon-fixing humus in the soil. In addition - using chemicals literally 'mines' carbon from the soil and also many nutrients which are vital to our health and that of all other creatures.
In 1963, the late Rachel Carson - author of Silent Spring and heroine of the environmental movement said "I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with Nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature - but of ourselves." Sadly too few heeded her timely much-needed warning. The lure of chemical farming and cheap fossil fuels proved too seductive. We thought had it all - and like irresponsible teenagers we squandered the riches of our Mother Earth to the point were in many places soil can no longer do the job it evolved to do - which is to support healthy life on this planet.....But like irresponsible teenagers we now have to grow up, prove our maturity and urgently take responsibility for our actions!
In the autumn of 1992 just after the first Rio Earth Summit, I organised a lecture at the National Botanic Gardens which was given by Alan Gear - who was then Chief Executive of HDRA - now called Garden Organic, which the largest organic gardening organisation in Europe. His lecture was entitled "The Road From Rio". His warning was again stark - that we ignore the value of soil at our peril! Hearing his motivating talk, many of us were re-energised and went home determined to do whatever we could to help raise awareness of how valuable soil is and what a vitally important contribution organic farming could make to a more sustainable future. Not just for growing healthy food but also in mitigating climate change.
I went home from Alan Gear's lecture and planted 300 more trees - many of them biomass willows. I'm so glad I planted them. They've been so useful for shelter for animals and plants, for fuel and for making soil healing compost from the smaller prunings. They're also a wonderful year-round resource for all kinds of bees, insects and other biodiversity vitally important in the connected web of life. If you only do a couple of things for our children's future and for the planet - please plant a tree or two, use peat-free compost and try to support organic agriculture if you don't have somewhere to grow your own organic food. Don't put it off until tomorrow - do it now! I know organic produce isn't cheap - but the more people who buy it the cheaper it will become.
Intensive farming is costing us the earth - quite literally! Fast forward over 50 years since Rachel Carson's dire warning....and the words of Rattan Lal give us hope that we CAN do something to avoid total catastrophe - and that the answer to doing that lies in the soil. But only in a healthy, living soil. It's no good us burying our heads in the sand and saying that it's all too depressing, there's nothing we can personally do, so we'll just go on ignoring it as usual! That's a mistake! It's no good either just "talking the talk" without "walking the walk" too! As gardeners or even just as consumers we can all do something. Act globally but think locally. It begins at home - we all have to eatl! We can't turn back the clock - but we CAN ensure a future infinitely better than it otherwise will be if we do nothing.
The soil that gave us life and nurtured us holds the key to our past - and the evidence of may past civilizations who didn't heed the warning signs of impending disaster........that soil also holds the key to the future of life on this beautiful earth as we know it.......and THAT KEY is now in OUR hands!
|My 'soil' 35 years ago||A lump of that soil sitting on my soil now!|
The two pictures above show an example of what can be done with very little effort, lots of TLC and compost! The one on the left shows the totally degraded and exhausted soil which I started off with here 35 years ago - so bad that not even weeds wanted to grow! The other shows a lump of that same soil sitting on a bed of the vitally alive, healthy, humus-rich soil which I now have here. I'm not superwoman, I don't have help. It won't take you 35 years - it can be done! And from the moment you start to heal the soil you will become part of the solution - and not part of the problem.
Despite low light levels at this time of year - there's still plenty of healthy food to eat in the polytunnel
The sun is very close now to reaching it's lowest point in our sky and at this time of year us gardeners are eagerly looking forward to the solstice. That's when the year will turn the corner and life giving light starts to return to our little corner of the planet, heralding a new gardening year to come. Like most of you - I can't wait! At the moment - some days are so gloomy that they barely seem to get properly light at all. Despite this, as you can see - there's still lots of lovely 'squeaky-fresh' vegetables to pick in the tunnel beds - or even just growing in containers - as you can see from the pictures here.
|One of this year's beds of luscious loose-leaf winter lettuce||Home bred purple kale hybrids & Sugar Loaf chicory.
||NW beds in east tunnel 2015. Broccoli in side bed cropping. Lettuce interplanted with spinach
|Red curly kale picked as baby leaves for salads is also happy in a container||Salad mix Colour & Spice from Mr Fothergill's planted with red stemmed cutting leaf celery||Watercress will give you lots of nutritious lush leaves even growing in a large tub|
I don't know why more people don't grow at least a container or two of mixed leaves even if all they have is a balcony or windowsill. It's so easy if you choose the right varieties - and it needn't be very expensive. Mixed salads or lettuce mixes are always the cheapest seeds - you get far more for your money - and you can grow in almost anything that will hold compost once it's deep enough for the roots! You don't need to fill it right up with expensive peat free compost - save broken polystyrene or plastic plant trays, or even tougher un-rotted bits from your compost heap, and fill up the bottom with those. They'll give you good drainage as well. Most salad plants are very happy with just 10 - 12 inches of good compost to put their roots into as long as you keep them sufficiently watered. You can mix some soil into the lower layers as well - which gives the compost more water holding capacity and makes it cheaper again! When you compare it with your outlay - even just one or two meals would more than cover the cost of doing it! So make an early New Year's resolution for 2015 - and if you're only a summer gardener - then vow to make next year the year that you will have salads all through the winter too. Brussels sprouts and parsnips may be delicious comfort food from outside I grant you - but somehow they don't feel quite as vibrantly bursting with health as a salad picked five minutes before you eat it!
Planning ahead and remembering to sow winter veg. in August and September is often difficult to remember while dealing with summer gluts, but it really pays off now. Loose leaf lettuces, chicory, chards, spinach, kales, watercress, lamb's lettuce, Chinese leaves, rocket etc. are all really useful winter salads that I'm cutting now. What isn't quite perfect for the table - the hens get - which keeps them healthy and laying eggs with lovely orange yolks all winter! I would never want to be without my winter tunnel crops - you can really feel the crisp, green lusciousness doing you good! Vegetables that are often taken for granted in summer because they're plentiful, become treasures to be relied on in winter! It's so nice to be able to go out and 'pick & mix' a really varied salad every day - sort of 'dowsing' the salad beds to see what feels just right for you on that particular day! There are only pathetic organic salad or spinach bags in the shops right now and - at the moment it's mostly just baby spinach which is tired, several days old and often already practically composting in the bags! Frankly, I can think of far better ways of spending 3 euros!
Keep ventilating the tunnel every day for at least a couple of hours if you can to avoid moist stagnant air building up - air circulation is really important to avoid diseases. Watercress is the only crop which I make sure is kept really moist at the roots at this time of year. There's barely any other watering to be done now in the tunnel - but if you think the soil looks very dry - then just scratch around just under the surface with the tip of your finger - you'll often find that it's moist enough there so needs no water. But if it feels really 'dust' dry - then just dribble a little water between plants like lettuce etc., being very careful not to go close to or splash plants, as this can cause rotting very quickly. I's also a good idea to keep an eye on the weather forecast and try to water on a day when it's forecast to be milder for a couple of days. Don't drench anything though - as with low light levels and cold temperature at this time of year things are growing very slowly and won't use it. If they're sitting in cold wet soil their roots may rot, or stems may rot at soil level.
Another of my 'old reliables' in winter is Calabrese or summer broccoli. I've been growing the very productive variety 'Green Magic' from Unwins seeds since it was first on the market. It's the best I've found for winter tunnel production and after the main heads are cut in mid-late November from a late July sowing - it slowly produces deliciously sweet, smaller side shoots all winter long which are lovely either raw for dips or cooked. It's quite happy given some protection with fleece if severe frost is forecast - but otherwise doesn't need any more protection than just being inside in the tunnel. I grow it throughout the year - in mid-late January I'll sow more which will give me an early tunnel crop - and then another sowing in late March or April will see me through the summer nicely. Again it's another crop I wouldn't be without as it's so full of healthy nutrients