Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Magic Potion for plants

We have been asked to reclaim a part of a property from overgrown grasses and other so-called weeds and turn it into a garden for the next season.

The soil around the property is generally rather poor, as is most of the surrounding area. So in order to have a good soil chemistry and good plant growth, we want to give it a boost and started to prepare a fertiliser mix that should introduce not only sufficient amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous, but also the necessary minerals needed for healthy plant growth.

There are 14-16 essential elements without which no successful growth can take place.  I say 14-16 as some are more or less important depending on the plant's requirements.

Note: as a side note it is worth to mention that weeds can actually fulfil the function of showing you which nutrients are in short, or excessive supply in your soil. Weeds in general aren't so much a nuisance, can but can tell you what needs to be done with your soil. If you have excessive dandelion growth for example your ground is too compacted and needs loosening (often occurring on trampled lawns, or bare soil, garden beds that tap-root breaks up the soil like a drill). Vetch indicates a low fertility, ie. low nitrogen in the ground. (It is a nitrogen fixer as it belongs to the legume family). Weeds can accumulate the necessary nutrients and bring them up from the deeper regions of the soil to where your annual veggies can reach them. Therefore, weeds should not be pulled as soon as they poke out of the ground. It is better to leave the weeds mature and pull them just before they start to seed. Let them wilt on the beds, till them back under or add them to your compost pile. This way the accumulated nutrients will be put back into the ground. 

In our case, the soil needs pretty much everything to start off as a vegetable garden. Although some nutrients are higher than others, we will brew a mixed fertiliser that can add all the main essentials such as:
zinc (Zn), manganese (Mn), magnesium (Mg), molybdenium (Mb), Iron (Fe), Calcium (Ca), silica (Si), Sulphur (S), sodium (Na), potassium (K) Boron (B) and of course nitrogen (N);

So in this video we show you how to make such a brew using seaweed and other plants. If you don't have seaweed, a combination of nettles, camphor, and other plants mentioned in this video will also do the trick.

On thing should be mentioned as well...this brew can stink. Don't kid yourself, you might want to leave the container with the mixture down wind from any place you want to spend some time at especially when using nettles. 

It doesn't take much effort to make the brew. Simply gather some seaweed or nettles and other mineral accumulating plants and chop them up finely. Some people want to wash out the seaweed to get rid of the salt. I personally don't bother with this, because the liquid fertiliser will be diluted 1:10 before putting it onto any plants and there simply isn't going to be any effect of the salt. Sodium is, as outlined above is also one of the essential elements. You can add other things like egg shells to the mix to add more calcium for example. Our water is slightly acidic here and this helps to dissolve the nutrients into the water. 

Pic 1: Cutting up the seaweed....a stress relief exercise

Mash everything up really well and aerate the mix. Do this every 2-3 days for about 2 weeks. After that you can let the mixture sit for another 6 weeks. Then strain the solids out of the brew and use the liquid diluted with 10 parts of water on your plants. This mix is especially good when you are transplanting or trying to get cuttings to root. It stimulates both root and plant growth.

You can watch the video below to see how we did it. It's pretty quick and easy so if you can get hold of some seaweed, why not give it a go? Have fun!

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Heating Fuel Crisis

Today I want to write about a topic that we all know just too well, at least all of us who live in an environment that requires the heating of houses.

How to heat your house in the future?

Normally, when one of us mentions the term heating fuel or fuel in general, nearly everyone will think about oil and the rising costs entailed. But of course, oil or gas are not the only fuel that are used to heat our homes. Wood is also a fuel, as are turf and coal, not to forget electricity and solar energy, or geothermal energy.

While solar and geothermal energy are becoming more and more popular in some regions, other regions are still heavily relying on either fossil fuel sources, or wood. 

Since we are currently residing in Ireland, I became aware of a new phenomenon that has developed here in the last 4-5 years. Traditionally, the main source of heat originated from turf, or peat. This material is one of the lesser known fossil fuels. It is the soil from the moors that developed over 1000's of years by decaying organic matter. Turf is, for all intents and purposes, the prelude to coal. Eventually the bog will be buried under the ground and pressure and heat from the ground will act like a slow cooker and compress the turf to what eventually will become coal and if more heat and presure are applied over time, this coal will turn into oil and if more heat and pressure are applied, this oil will turn into gas. All of these materials are good for burning and therefore can be used to heat your home. 

Pic 1: Turf drying in the sun

The problem of course, is that the time it takes nature to produce those fuels is much longer than it takes to burn them and therefore, we have to consider those resources as finite. 

Turf, in contrast to coal and oil brings along a separate problem when used as a fuel source. The bog (and here we distinguish between blanket bog and raised bog) is a unique ecosystem that, despite looking rather desolate, sports a high biodiversity and acts as a huge, long-term carbon sink. So taking all the turf from the bog does not only pose the problem of a disappearing heat resource, but also adds the problem of a disappearing eco-system, which helps us in the daunting task of scrubbing the CO2 out of the atmosphere. 

Due to these facts, the Irish government has decided to phase out the production of turf and started to protect the bog-lands in the country. 

Bord na Mona, the Irish governmental heating fuel company has already switched off one of their large-scale turf electrical plants and has plans to completely turn away from turf-heated power plants in the future. 

The EU has recently invoked a ban on turf-cutting, which is not completely being adhered to by Irish turf farmers. But that is another issue. 

With all of this happening, the price of turf has strongly risen and the availability decreased. As a response two things are happening. 

1) A large influx of Polish coal for Irish fireplaces can be noticed. Every petrol station and hardware store in this part of the country at least, has signs out advertising good polish coal. In my own humble opinion, this is the most backward way of combatting a fuel crisis. We turned away from coal decades ago as this fuel is one of the dirtiest one can imagine. We are protecting carbon sinks only by putting more carbon, and more soot into the atmosphere. This is simply unacceptable, yet it is becoming quite popular. 

Pic 2: Premium polish coal sold by the Irish governmental company

2) There is an increase of people who are offering firewood and many people are getting inserts for their old turf fireplaces to be able to burn wood. That itself is not a bad idea, however, it seems to me that the process is fundamentally flawed. 
The reason for this is two-fold. For one, the Irish have no idea how to burn wood (Sorry if I offend anyone, but that simply is the truth) and second the wood that is harvested is not planted in a sustainable way. 

Here are some tips from a perspective that comes from our experience living in a country that has been working on firewood heat since it was first started. In Canada, nobody would really buy any softwood to heat their home. Nobody that has the choice anyway. 
All the wood I have seen for sale here in Ireland is pine or some sort of other softwood. This wood does not contain any heat to speak off. For a comparison here are some BTU levels from different wood types in million BTUs/cord (one cord is 128cft or a stacked pile of 8'x8'x4')


White pine                14.2
Willow                      13.0
Spruce                     16.0
Sycamore                 19.5


Red Maple                18.7
Paper birch               20.1
Yellow Birch             23.6
Red Oak                   24.0
White Oak                25.7

Hardwood also is a much slower burning wood. The density is much higher and a piece of hardwood can last all night if correctly burned. 

Another problem that softwood poses when being used as firewood is the amount of creosote that can build up if it isn't correctly burned. Softwood creates a high build up of creosote when burned slow and with little amount of oxygen, ie. when your wood-stove's choke is closed. This creosote will settle in the stove pipe and chimney and can cause chimney fires. Most Irish chimneys are not designed to withstand a chimney fire, where temperatures can reach over 900degC. 

Pic 3: That is what you DON'T want to happen...

The best way to use wood for heating is to have good, dry (also called seasoned) hardwood. When the log is placed in the fire, the choke should be opened for approximately 10-20 mins and then closed to maintain maximum heat efficiency and the best and cleanest burning. Never burn any green (fresh) wood. It will be slow to burn, not give any heat and on top of that produce a lot of creosote and soot, which in return can cause chimney fires.

Now, back to the problem of what to do. Hardwood is simply not available in a sufficient amounts and coal does not seem to be an option either due to the environmental impacts. 

It is difficult to solve this problem. This situation will take time to solve. Wind energy, and geothermal energy are options that will take time to fully develop in this country and many others. Ireland should be seen as an example of what happens when problems that seem so far off in time are ignored to the point when they become acute. Silviculture in Ireland started decades ago and if the planning would have been better, and more hardwood species would have been planted (like birch for example) at least the firewood situation could be a little better now. 

I mentioned Canada earlier in this post as an example. In fact, it is far from being a perfect example. What turf is for Ireland, hardwood is for Canada. The amount of hardwood being cut in Canada is immense, while most of the cut areas are either left to succumb to brush and thick forest which can not be used in the next 100 years, the ones that are maintained as agroforestry are exclusively planted with softwoods that promise a fast turnaround of profit.

Ireland and Canada are only two examples that I picked to discuss here briefly. The problem is omnipresent. We are facing a crisis and no one is properly addressing it. The little that is being done is lacking in efficiency and proper planning. The reason for that is the desire for fast profit and the apparent inability of the people in charge to plan further than their own short lives (as most people who are in charge are at least 40 if not 50 years of age, their planning is mostly only done to a max of 20 or maybe 30 years). 

Long term planning can be done. 

College Hall in Oxford University needed new main beams due to an infestation of powder-post beetles. The college was at a loss how to replace the huge and massive beams. As the college has foresters on their payroll to manage the woodlands owned by the school, the administrators turned to them for counsel. When approached with the problem, the foresters answered by saying that they were wondering when this would happen. As it turns out, foresters 600 years ago knew that the beams in the hall would eventually need replacing and had planted oak trees for exactly that purpose. Over 600 years of planning finally paid off. The trees were cut and milled while new ones were planted in their replace those new beams in another 600 years.  

THAT is forward planning with high efficiency level. Not 20 or 30 years for profit planning. It is planning for purpose that is needed today, for us to be able to live comfortable and affordable lives in the next generations (notice plural) to come. We need actions today to solve the many problems we are facing in the future. The heating fuel crisis makes this even more obvious.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Fertilising a garden bed with seaweed

As mentioned in the first post we want to use seaweed collected from the beach to fertilise our garden bed.

The collected seaweed has been left out in the rain for one night just to wash some excess salt of it. Many people just throw the seaweed onto their garden and as far as I know it does not have a detrimental effect on the ground either. The seaweed should be still wet however, and the dried out stuff you can find at the top of the beach is not ideal for fertilising as the break down process is hindered due to the lack of moisture. Also the slimy alginate substance that leaches out from the seaweed helps the soil to stick together and retain more water without mudding up or becoming compacted and the dry stuff just doesn't have any of it anymore.

I also collected some blue mussels I found during an inspection of our boat mooring. They had grown to a phenomenal size on the rope under the buoy and were just enough for a little lunch before working out in the garden.

Pic 1: Delicious.....
The shells of these mussels were crushed between two stones and then spread over the freshly loosened garden bed.

We didn't pick out any of the weeds from the bed, unless they were the really tenacious ones like mint, brambles and some mombrecia. Weeds are nothing bad!! I always say this. They are only bad when you decide to make them your enemy. Every fibre of weed that grew in this garden bed took nutrients from the ground. I want those nutrients to go back into the soil and not take them out of the system.

So after the ground is loosened and the shells have been sprinkled on the soil for a long term calcium supply it is time to spread the seaweed. We covered the whole bed with approximately 3 inches of seaweed. If we would start a new bed we would probably go for 6 inches. This bed, however is already well established and the soil is quite rich.

It is important to leave the seaweed on top of the soil and not to till it under. If the seaweed is in the ground when it breaks down it can actually rob the ground of nitrogen to speed up the breakdown process, and that is what we are trying to avoid. So just leave it on top and let the worms do the job of tilling the nutrients into the ground. 
Pic 2: The finished bed
And we are done....yes, as simple as that. Over the winter months this seaweed will decompose and by spring time it will be time to cover the bed with cardboard and then more seaweed as a mulch. I guarantee you that there will be no weed poking through and your backs will be spared the tedious and frustrating part of weeding.

And here is the whole process in video form. 

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Our Oceans vs. Fish Farms

I was in Galway the other day and amongst all the different people on the street with their petitions for a free Palestine and the latest in nail polish and nail care there was a group that was protesting fish farms in the Galway bay. 

I currently reside far out on the west coast of Ireland for the winter. My parents live here and I have spend many a good time around, beside and on the water. 
My parent's house is located on one of the smaller bays on the west coast and like so many others it sports a salmon farm at the top of the bay. 

Now, I like to make it clear that I am not an aquaculture lobbyist, far from it. In fact I used to be stark against this form of food production. In a way I still am, but I am also a fisherman. I love fishing. In my younger years it was mostly sea fishing especially deep sea fishing. I was on the boat so much that I had to strike a deal with the fisherman in order to afford my leisure trips. I ended up working on a charter fishing boat with one of the best fisherman I ever met. Jan has since passed on, but there are many moments when I remember the days on deck and learning about all sorts of marine life from him. 

Sadly, the days of plentiful catches are over. I am writing this being only 34 years of age and I can remember catching boxes over boxes of fish, containing many different species. This was when I was sixteen or so. Nowadays I am happy to catch a Pollock and maybe a couple of mackerel in the summer time. I haven't seen a Cod in years, no Ling, no Whiting and pretty much none of any other species that we used to catch. 

Pic 1: Recreational fishing
The reason is pretty simple and doesn't need much explanation. The sea has been completely overfished. Trawlers from all parts of the world including Japan fish through the complete length and width of the Atlantic. There are 7bn mouths to feed after all. Places like Indonesia and Japan cover a large proportion of their daily protein intake with seafood. Ever more technology is thrown onto the trawlers including GPS, sonar, laser guided nets and what not. The industrialisation of fisheries is only paralleled by the industrialisation of farming in my mind. But we don't hunt animals with such zeal. Why not? Well the answer is obvious, there wouldn't be anything left within a year or two. How come that we think that we can do it in the sea?
Pic 2: A small sized trawler hauling in a catch

I think the problem lies within the restrictions of most peoples imagination. We can't see what goes on under the sea. It is a complete mystery. We can't just go under water and have a look either. At least most of us can't. As long as I can still buy my cod fillets at Lidl or Costco for €2.79 why would anyone think that Cod is about to go extinct? 

But what are we going to do when (not "if") that happens. Fishermen in Newfoundland already know what that means, yet the story is always the same. Fishermen cry out about livelihoods and customers want their salmon steak for dinner and their lobster for christmas, whilst scientists and environmentalists start to warn about the consequences and about the imminence of this situation like a preacher warns about the devil and the end of days. 

How can we do this then. How can we feed 7bn people (and rising) whilst maintaining sustainable fishstocks?

Fish farming like other animal farming can be a solution. Sadly nowadays fish farms are more like the pigfarms and cattle farms as run by McDonalds, Burger King and Costco. But there are better alternatives out there. Nobody would consider a pig farm with 100.000 pigs in one spot sustainable....well maybe some people would....some people also think George W. Bush was a smart person but that is another thing entirly. What I am talking about are sustainable farming operations that are not only environmentally but also economically sustainable. 

Fish farms are undergoing a transformation. There are systems out there which are currently being investigated that integrate several different farm products on a fish farm that together form symbiotic environments. Such farms are Integrated Multi-trophic Aquaculture or IMTAs. In those systems you would for example find salmon being farmed in cages as you can see in many places. However, where normally the wast products of this high concentration of fish would pose a problem to the local environment, the cages are surrounded by a mussel farm. Mussels feed of the waste products of the fish and not only help to lessen the environmental impact, but also turn shit into money... quite literally. They also eat sea lice larvae, which are a huge concern in salmon farming. Those people that were protesting against the salmon cages in Galway bay were also specifically concerned about the higher amount of risk indigenous wild salmon would encounter when passing close to the cages. Sea lice and other diseases could spread to the wild population further reducing the already low numbers.
Other products grown in IMTAs are plant extractibles such as seaweed. Which also grow better due to the higher amounts of nutrients in the water orignated by the fish. 

Pic 3: Mussels grown on salmon cages on an IMTA in Eastern Canada

OK, IMTAs are still not really that environmentally friendly or even organic. There are still pesticides used, and the salmon feed is probably made from chicken meal grown in huge chicken farms....but it is a start. 

Some people have taken aquaculture another step further. There are some farms existing today that work on Permaculture principles, specifically the principle not to work against nature, but with it. Some farms have truly mastered the environmental farming and I would call it more fishing than farming. I will not go into the details of this here, but rather tell you to watch this video which gives a detailed run down of the complete system and how amazingly beautiful, productive and organic aquaculture can be whilst staying...nay, becoming totally economically viable.  

So, no I am not against but FOR fish farms. We need to ease the pressure on our marine environments if we want to survive. Without healthy oceans we WILL DIE! It is as simple as that. 
The oceans have been so immensely altered through human activities, that we have reached a point where we can not allow any further destruction of this system without running a real risk of a total collapse. Does anyone remember the orange roughy? That is how fast a total collapse can happen. We are playing around with a system that we neither understand,  nor can comprehend. 
In order to continue feeding everyone in the future and have sufficient seafood available for all, we either have to cull several billion people or have to resort to alternatives such as fish farming.

That being said....this fish farming should not and must not be carried out in a way that is equally destructive and thoughtless as nowadays ocean fisheries. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Seaweed gardening

Seaweed is the bomb!!! Yes it is. If you are lucky enough to live by the seaside and have access to seaweed you have a free source of superb food for your soil and for yourself.

A little bit about the stuff

Seaweed comes in many forms, long and thin, broad, with little gas bubbles (oh the bubblewrap effect) or as hairlike strands. 
It can generally be said that all seaweed is a good source of nitrogen as it sports a really high protein content, which also makes it a good candidate to be directly consumed by us. Seaweed also produces a multitude of different bioactive compounds. Many modern drugs are derived from compounds that were initially found in some form of seaweed. 
Generally speaking there are only few species of seaweed that are poisonous, but it has to be said that the one or other species can be detrimental to ones health. Mostly however, it is really healthy. There are many books out there that talk about cooking with seaweed and for those who think that I am talking nonsense I suggest you give it a try. I have a copy of a book called "Irish Seaweed Kitchen" by Prannie Rathigan which I find quite comprehensive.

But in this post I want to write a little more about what can be done in the garden using seaweed. 

Seaweed is high in Carbon and Nitrogen which makes it an excellent fertiliser. In comparison to other terrestrial green manure crops you won't have to worry about weeds that might get trekked in with mulch. As a mulch cover it is also not too bad, although the higher nitrogen content will make

Seaweed additionally
it decompose faster than, say straw will. But it is free and if you don't mind mulching the garden a bit more often, go ahead and use seaweed instead of stra

Seaweed additionally
w or wood chips or whatever you might use currently. 

As you know, seaweed fertiliser has made it into the garden centers all over the world by now. 
In Argentina seaweed became a problem on recreational beaches. So much was washed up that it had to be periodically removed. A scientific study investigated the possibility of composting the waste seaweed and use it to enhance the soil quality of the local farm land. 
I won't get into the details of that one but here is the reference if you are interested: 

Eyras et al.
Biological Evaluation of Seaweed Composting 
Compost Science & Utilization, (1998), Vol. 6, No 4, 74-81
The conclusion was that addition of seaweed compost improved the local soil significantly not only in respect of carbon and nitrogen but also in terms of water retention and improvement of plant health to water stress. 

Additionally, seaweed is high in minerals especially Manganese and Zinc. Both of which are members of the 16 essential nutrients. If either of those nutrients is in short supply it will have an effect on the overall yield of the soil in terms of plant growth.

So what do we do with it?

Today we gathered a nice pile of seaweed to use as non-animal manure in our vegetable garden. And when I say our vegetable garden, I mean my mother's. Since we are staying at their place for the winter I thought it would be nice to repay my parents with a little work around the house, including the garden. Starting with fertilising the vegetable patch. 

The seaweed that we gathered on the shore is fresh, and wet. 

NOTE: When harvesting any seaweed or anything else from the wild really, please take care not to overdo it. We made sure that we didn't take a lot of seaweed from one patch. A little here and a little there won't hurt. Best is to gather up the seaweed that is washed up on shore during a storm. That stuff will rot anyway and why not let it rot where we can use it

After bringing it up from the shore - which we did by hand using a large bin to stay truly carbon neutral - we spread it out in a small pile. This pile is not on the garden bed however. We are expecting rain tonight and I wanted to let the rain wash out some of the salt before spreading it out on the bed. 

So much for today. Next we will go into how to pack the bed properly and how to prepare it for the winter months.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Autumn/Fall Update!

Again it has been a while since the last post. In this time however things were not quiet at all. 

We have since moved continents to spend the winter in a more habitable place on the lovely west coast of Ireland. It has been quite the ordeal as we also brought our cats along with us and despite all the necessary paperwork, and vaccinations etc. it is impossible to fly a cat into Ireland. Only from very select airports in the US is it possible to land directly in Ireland. According to Aer Lingus this has to do with the types of planes.....I call BS on that and say that it is one of those nonsense regulations that only hassle travellers. We had to buy a car in Germany and drive through 7 different countries in order to take a ferry crossing from Wales into Ireland. The cats were never even checked that much for protection of the native land. All this big effort only never to be checked. Somehow I get the feeling it would be better to let people fly with their pets and actually check them at the airport when one goes through customs. But hey, that is just my idea, what do I know. (Note: It was a saga and half. The telling will appear on my blog as we wanted to keep it separate from Permaculture Beginnings. Watch this space. Afton)

Anyhow, we have now landed where we wanted to go and will keep you updated on what is happening. We are planning a workshop on lasagne beds and easy low maintenance gardening in the near future. This workshop will be theory and hands-on split between morning and afternoon. We will hopefully (weather depending) be able to build a lasagne bed and build a mulch garden from start to finish to show people how easy it is to achieve a weed free garden without all the back breaking weeding work.
We have planned further workshops before next May which will be on the topics off: "An introduction to Permaculture" and "Food forests and Agro-forestry". 
These are all still in the planning stages and we will let people know about them as soon as we can. In the meantime feel free to check our new website which is still in the beginnings but we are working on it and hope to bring you news and updates soon. 

This is the link to the site: