Wednesday 30 November 2011

#Nov30 in Oxford

Updated 5pm: More pictures from the march and rally

Proud to support all workers on strike today. I joined the Unison picket line in Rectory Road, Oxford, for a couple of hours. A couple of pictures from striking Oxford workers.

Plus pic of the #Solidaritea chocolate cakes I made and dropped off at a couple of picket lines.

Monday 21 November 2011

Solving a thorny problem

Brambles - ugh!

Like many gardeners, I am regularly at war with brambles. I cannot control the council land that my garden backs onto. Although the council have promised, a couple of times, to remove the brambles, this has yet to happen. I clearly need to hassle them more. In the meantime, I have to do what I can to keep the council's brambles from trying to take over my garden.

This war has inevitably led to some injuries. Actually, quite a few injuries. There has been thorns stuck in my fingers. There has been scratches on my arms. There has been blood. It's not been a pretty sight. And I really need to stop swearing bloody murder every time I'm hurt. There are children living next door.

I've tried different types of so-called pruning gloves over the last couple of years but so far none of them have lived up to their name. So when at the Chelsea Flower Show this year, I specifically looked for some gloves that would stand up to brambles and that would leave my poor hands and arms unscathed and my need for band aids diminished. And the ears of my neighbours children uncovered.

Of all the stands I visited, the Gold Leaf glove stand looked the most promising. They had a glove on offer called a Tough Touch glove. It's made with leather, and has a gauntlet like cuff (you know, like knights used to wear) that goes over the wrist and part way up the arm.

Trying them on they felt good, warm too (fleecy inside). But would they really do the job? Obviously the sales people were used to suspicious gardeners, so they had some rose stems with thorns on hand (as you do) to demonstrate the effectiveness of the gloves. Wearing the glove and then grabbing the thorny stem, they did appear to be very strong and I didn't get any stinging or cuts. What's more the gloves were quite comfortable. Whilst I was still not 100 per cent convinced how they would work in practice, they were the best thing I'd seen so I decided to give them a go. I gave them £24, they gave me an expensive pair of gloves that I hoped would work.

I had a couple of bramble advances into my home garden over the summer that I had to halt, and used the gloves. They appeared to do the job. But I was still thinking, but what about when it's a whole bramble patch? Yes, I'm hard to please.

Fast forward to last weekend. I was talking part in my Allotment Association's working party on Sunday. A large part of it was spent clearing brambles. I suspect this may be a regular occurrence on lotties up and down the country! So, out came the magic gauntlet gloves and I got to work.

You know what? They bloody worked. I was right in the thick of it, grabbing thorny branches, pruning and carrying a stack of the thorny buggers to the fast-growing-pile-of-things-to-burn. All through it, I didn't get one cut or scratch on my hand or wrists. I have to say, I'm quite impressed.

They don't stop branches falling on my head because I cut the wrong angle and then didn't get out of the way quickly enough. They won't stop brambles growing in the first place. But they did do just what they said on the tin. And the neighbours children can play outside without bursts of bad language disturbing their play. Finally, a solution to a thorny problem.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Agroforestry talk - some musings

I attended an excellent talk on Agroforestry by Professor Steve Newman of the Agroforestry Research Trust (and BioDiversity Int.) last night, put on by Oxford Permaculture. Whilst I might live in an urban environment and won't be setting up a forest garden on a piece of land, the talk was still relevant as you can still use elements of the forest garden in a small garden or at your allotment. This might be something as simple as growing strawberries underneath your pear trees, as I currently do. Or it could be creating several layers of crops within a small kitchen garden or on your allotment, as I plan to to do as I develop my kitchen garden and lottie in the future.

Steve also repeated one of best definitions of permaculture that I've come across...
Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that is modelled on relationships found in nature.
I must try and remember that next time someone asks me what permaculture is!

Steve also questioned 'what is food?' and thought maybe we needed a new definition. So much of our food comes from monoculture, and have been brought down to the lowest common denominators: grasses (wheat, rice etc), potatoes and maize.

However, I think the question isn't 'what is food', but 'what food is appropriate to grow in a given environment?' For example, as Steve pointed out, in the UK we should be growing nuts (walnuts, hazel nuts, chestnuts) rather than cereal like wheat (or at least growing more nuts and less cereal). Our environment is highly suitable for nut growing and nuts are high in protein and carbohydrates and are more nutritious than wheat. Nuts can be ground into flour and used for baking. And from a permaculture/agroforestry perspective, nut trees can fit really well in a diversified agricultural system.

One example Steve showed was of nut trees with wheat growing underneath (see - you can have your cake and eat it!). As the leaves on nut trees come out quite late, wheat can be sown in the autumn when the nut tree has lost it's leaves (which go into the soil and add nutrients). The wheat starts growing before winter sets in, stops during winter, then gets growing again in early spring once the temperatures start rising. By the time it gets to summer, the leaves on the nut tree will be out, but by this point the wheat isn't doing much photosynthesising. Therefore the shade of the tree does not impact on the wheat as it now putting its energy not into photosynthesis, but into using the energy stored in the plant to develop the grain.

Getting the initial design and spacial relationships right is very important. The nut trees should be planted carefully so they are not too close together.  With careful design you get two yields from one area of land (and probably more but I'm just limiting this to nuts and wheat for as an example).

As someone who rather loves her potatoes and fresh bread from the farmers market, I don't want to give them up. But Steve's talk did make me think about how what I see as key food items, wheat and potatoes, is quite limited and not necessarily giving me the best nutrients. Wheat is grown in as a monoculture in the UK in a way that is clearly unsustainable. However, if we shift what we think of as key food products, and start using agroforestry techniques to diversify, we have the opportunity to grow more food locally that suits the UK environment, build resilience (because if would be less likely that both crops would fail in a given year), and of course we would get to try lots more new ways of eating yummy food.

Thanks to Steve Newman for such an inspiring talk, and for Phil Pritchard from Oxford Permaculture for organising it. I know it's a cliché, but it really was, food for thought!