Sunday, 28 June 2015

Crop Production History - Market Gardens

Crop Production History - Market Gardens

... and can growing food in an environmentally way be achievable?

I am trying to work out how much food we need to grow to provide us with enough calories / nutrition for 3 main meals per week, for the whole family, and to see if this is even remotely feasible. Can you live an environmentally friendly lifestyle without harming the environment?

A quick ball park calculation was done with Potatoes. 

If we say that potatoes should form a 3rd of a meal and that your main meal should provide 50% of your calories per day and that potatoes contain 800 calories per kg and that adults require 2,000 calories per day and children require 1,500 calories per day we arrive at:

Adults require 2,000+ calories per day (400 breakfast, 600 for lunch, 600 for main - rest are snacks and junk)

Children require 1,500 calories per day

Adult main meal = 600 calories and children's main = 500 calories we get (2 adults and 3 children):

2 x 600 + 3 x 500 =  2,700 Calories per main meal

Potatoes need to provide a 3rd of these = 900 calories per day x 3 days = 2,700 calories per week

2,700 calories per week for a year = 140,400 calories per year.

140,000 divided by 800 calories per kg gives us 175 kg of potatoes per year need to be grown.

Our 1st early potatoes seem to be producing 0.5 kg each plant and I presume that the main crop will produce 1.5 kg per plant so I'll presume an average of 1 kg of potatoes per plant.

That would require growing 175 potato plants. If each plant takes up (including spacing) 0.75 sq metres we need 131 sq metres of potato bed (11.5m by 11.5m bed). That sounds like a huge area, bigger than many peoples garden just for potatoes and that is just for under 50% of a families main meals for the year.

These simple calculations only account for a 3rd of our calories for under half of our main meals and doesn't include breakfast or lunch. The rest of the calories have to come from elsewhere and be spread over as many different vegetables as possible. We could plan our yearly food, or as much as we want like this and find out how much space we need to provide for veg and fruit.

That got me thinking about productivity and comparing it to farmers or more specifically Market Gardeners of the past. 

We seem capable of producing 1.33 kg per sq metre which becomes  5.4 tonnes of potatoes per acre. How does this compare to past commercial production before the real intensive farming started?

The Development of Market Gardening in Bedfordshire 1799 to 1939
Luckily I found a report / document entitled with the above at which is a very interesting read.

Within the first few pages we find that Carrots and Onions (which I think are similar in weight to potatoes) were averaging 200 Bushels per acre around 1810. 

Using a document from we find that a Bushel is about 57 lbs for Onions and about 50 lb for Carrots. Taking 57 lb per Bushel we get 11,400 lbs per acre and converting into kg we get 5,175 kg (5.2 tonnes) per acre. That matches almost precisely what I think we can produce.

Reading a little more, land rent was around £2 to £3 per acre then, rising to £5 to £6 per acre for a cleaned and manured acre for potatoes.

Throwing these figures into an inflation calculator from the Bank of England we see that land was being rented in 1810 (at 2014 prices) at £140 to £210 per acre and £385 per acre for prepared land. According to DEFR a comparable price for land now is about £66.50 per acre (2013 prices) which is at least half the price compared to the 1800's.

It appears that our garden production is on a par with growers back in the early 1800's and compare that to today's commercial yields of approximately 18 tonnes per acre. Commercial intensive farming for potatoes is over 3.3 times what it was, or what it is compared to an ordinary gardener.

Finding a document suggested that in 1810 potatoes were selling for 3.15 shillings per hundred weight. Rough calculations suggest this is about £0.22 per kg in today's money. On the local market potatoes (different types) sell for between £0.75 and £2.00 per kg. Taking an average, £1.35 per kg now compared to £0.22 we see that potatoes are around 6 times more expensive to buy now compared to prices in 1810.

My calculations may be a bit off, and depending where you find documents the yields that get reported back in time vary massively and I may not be comparing like with like in reality but a couple of hours reading and converting has certainly been very interesting.

Permaculture people often say that their way of growing can compete with, and is better for the environment compared to modern intensive farming, for all sorts of reasons, but taking productivity into account I can't see it myself. Considering how much food needs to be produced now, compared to when so many more people used to grow their own, and efficiency gains that have been made, it would appear to me that permaculture, and home / small scale growers are only ever going to be niche market and something that can only be practised by the few for their own peace of mind.

By working out how much food I can produce, and the space taken up when you include lots of different vegetables I can't see how being self sufficient can work for many people, if any. The work involved and space required would limit our own growing to be little more than a token, supplementing our main food shopping.

We will still aim to grow as much as we can but when you scale up the needs of 5 people in a family, requiring food 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, it looks impossible to sustain a family on home grown food whilst at the same time earning enough to pay for cars, school, home furnishings and the comforts of life, there simply isn't enough time, space, energy or earning potential from surplus food produced from a large garden.

I can see that it could potentially be possible to be self sufficient and grow organically, and can see that it may have been in the distant past, but in modern times it would require a large pot of cash to start with, enough to buy a house with land, enough left over to pay for your bills (electricity, council tax, clothes and home furnishings and tools etc) and enough money to support yourself in old age. But, that requires someone giving you that money or you being lucky enough to earn enough, quick enough to be able to give up work when young in order to have enough time and money to produce your own self sufficiency. Earning money or being given the money, land and a home must have included or relied upon someone damaging the environment to get to that position.

In the past, without intensive farming practises and chemicals for pests etc, growing your own food and being self sufficient may have been possible but only if you were able to tolerate no electricity, no running water, no carpets to replace, no home decorations, no new shoes and no creature comforts at all and then just exist. In modern times we are not prepared to accept those conditions and so must work to pay for those. This is why nasty chemicals, very intensive farming practises were developed so as to give enough space and time in your life to be able to climb out of the gutter and to have a life rather than just exist in shabby conditions.

Living in an environmentally friendly way, growing your own food to avoid chemicals and to have better quality food is a nice dream, a very worthy goal to achieve, but seems totally implausible when taken to it's logical conclusion of a total life lived that way. I see permaculture, or an environmentally friendly lifestyle, as being a token, a way to reduce our impact on the environment and not a replacement.

I think I understand why old style subsistence living was replaced by modern practices and damage to the environment and I am now on a quest to find people blogging about permaculture, or low environmental impact living, who publish their own food produced by weight, to show that they can grow enough for a family year on year in a sustainable way. I'd like to see if they manage this and have time to earn enough money from an environmentally sustainable job to run their family or life using the permaculture principles, and preferably within the UK. It'd be nice to see just how far people can, and have, taken this. I'm not sure that I would be capable of producing 30 or 40% of our total food for the family on half an acre year after year.

So far I have found a few people who publish their food growing harvest, who claim to be living in an environmentally friendly way, but none of these come even close to producing 10% of one persons calories for a year. I think that by the very nature of wanting to see a blog of their efforts, I am ruling out the type of people I want to read about, simply because in order to have the internet and blog they must be spending most of their time working, probably damaging the environment greatly, in order to be able to afford the luxury of the Internet, which will be only one luxury among many. Let's be more realistic, can I find a blog to see just how far a family can go toward being environmentally friendly in the modern world, whilst still having a few luxuries that damage the environment needlessly?


Saturday, 27 June 2015

Onions, Potatoes, Wildflowers and other things

Onions, Potatoes, Wildflowers and other things

The Autumn Onion sets have grown reasonably well in a bed that had 18 inches of manure dug into the clay, although digging them up demonstrated that there wasn't enough manure. The manure has broken down into very little and the clay soil is still sticking together and has become rather dry. Breaking up the soil ready for another crop will still be hard work and a load more manure will be needed. There was a lot of hay in this manure. The onions were both red and white and a lot have wide necks, some have tried to go to seed although I snapped off the flower head to help the bulbs grow. They are different sizes, different shapes with some being almost flat bottomed and some round. I think these onions came from the local Garden Centre and they went in in the first week of November 2014.

They have been left to dry out
Garlic, Red and White Onions June 2015
The Garlic came from the pure manure bed next to the Globe Artichokes and also grew quite well but had been shaded and now covered by the broad beans which have been semi blown over by the wind. I'm quite pleased with the garlic although like the Onions are various different sizes. This manure bed has composted down extremely well and stayed moist. It has been in semi shade. 

The pure manure bed
This bed, where the old chicken run and caravan were, was an experiment. I planted the whole bed hoping the Broad Beans, Garlic, Shallots and Onions would be OK. The Broad Beans have done very well and have liked the manure, The Garlic didn't seem fussed either but the 300 or so Onions in this bed, planted in the spring, have so far failed. They are extremely small, yellowing leaves with brown tips. I've looked for pests (as suggested on the net as the cause) but the bulbs look perfect but little bigger than they were when planted. I planted some Onions in the Autumn here as well, next to the Garlic and although also small, probably caused by the fact they were very shaded next to the Artichokes, which grew bigger and spread more than I expected, were OK.

The Onions planted in the Autumn went into fresher manure than the ones that have failed in the spring in the same bed so I think that they failed because April was a dry month and the top inch or so where the onion sets were planted became very dry (although deeper than 1 inch was very moist) before I realised and started to water them. I have left these Onions in to see if they will put on growth still in the next 2 months.

I have all but given up on these onions and have planted some sweet corn between the rows of onions as well as Courgette so as to get a crop from this bed. It's a shame about these Onions because although I still have a normal quantity of Onions compared to most years I was hoping to have 5 times this amount as we use so many Onions and hopefully we would sell some.

I'm declaring my Potato bed as being a great success. I dug most of the bed last year, piled on manure, then dug it again to a depth of 2 forks, then piled on 2 feet deep of manure and left for months and then dug it all over again. It is almost 50 / 50 clay soil and well rotted manure. A very nice texture in the main. For planting the potatoes I dug trenches 18 inches deep rather and earth up the potatoes. As the Potatoes grew I filled in the tranches. This bed stayed moist for the entire time. 

There are 1st and 2nd earlies as well as main crop and I had read that the 1st earlies (Pentland Javelin) can be ready as early as 10 weeks after planting. I also read that they needed 15 weeks.

Click on any photo to enlarge

This picture was taken after 8 to 9 weeks.

We dug one potato plant after 10 weeks and got about 450g of perfect potatoes. Very tasty. They will now be left for another 5 weeks to grow more tubers.

24th June 2015 - 450g of Pentland Javelin

The old bonfire site was sown with random wildflower seeds. I didn't know what they were, only that they were saved seed from last summer. Most were Poppy and Corn Cockle and they put on quite a show!

22nd June 2015

10th June 2015
These will provide seed to be sown this Autumn around the field.

I have grown from seed, and then planted out, several Teasel plants around the field. One that was planted within the long grass, which then became part of the potato bed has grown to almost 6ft and is rather impressive. Plenty of seed for the birds and hopefully I can save some.

Teasel 18th June 2015
An over all picture showing the Teasel can be seen in the potato bed photo above.

Other Teasels around the field aren't quite this size and so I presume they really appreciate the manure and moist condition on the soil. Out of all the Teasels the one I left in a large pot has done least well.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Creating the best vegetable bed

Creating the best vegetable bed

Each time I create a new veg bed I have tried to do it differently to find the quickest and best ways of creating a bed.

  1. No dig bed made on top of grass - OK but when the soil is mainly clay there is a plough pan and water will puddle on top of this and plant roots don't penetrate very well. Weeds grow through. Have given up with this style of bed, wasn't impressed. Didn't address flooding issue. Plant roots only have depth of added material to grow in.
  2. Up turning the turf, breaking it up a bit and piling manure and compost on top - similar to a no dig bed but still leaves a plough pan and weeds come through easily. Helps drainage a bit but it seems a waste to not use the soil below ground and in essence this is a raised bed without built up edges. Takes a lot compost or manure to make the bed and doesn't use much of the nutrients already present if the plant roots don't go down into the up turned turf.
  3. Removing turf, digging the soil to a fork depth - works fine, drains OK but over time the dug soil just clumps back up to normal clay. Needs hard digging each season. Plough pan still only a fork depth down. Dries out too quick.
  4. Removing turf, digging the soil to a fork depth and adding bought compost - plough pan still there but introduces organic matter which helps stop the clay from reforming into big lumps. Still dries out too quick.
  5. Removing turf, digging the soil to a fork depth and adding bought compost, and then mulching with hay - solves drying issue but gives slugs a nice place to live.
  6. Removing turf, digging the soil to a fork depth and adding a lot of fresh manure, then digging the manure in - works well, keeps the moisture in and adds lots of organic material. Many plants don't mind fresh manure too much.
  7. As number 6 but after digging in manure, then adding 2 feet deep of fresh manure and waiting for it to compost - works well and puts the plough pan deep down giving plants plenty of root space. Can keep a bit too much moisture in the manure. The idea is to dig the bed again to mix up the underlying clay after the first crop. I have 2 big beds like this. After the 2nd season the soil is becoming very rich and easy to dig. Fine soil.
A new bed
The new bed just dug involved the addition of sand to make a 40% clay, 30% sand, and 30% manure.

First the turf was removed:
The turf is fairly easy to remove but leaves a very dry, concrete like layer where the water from rain hardly reaches more than 3 or 4 inches deep.

Lots of water needs pouring over this layer in order to dig in dry weather. A good half hour of the hose pipe.

Digging is still very hard and the clods need breaking up as small as possible:
A blackbird helps as much as possible but it still takes hours!

I tend to do half a bed at a time:
Across the whole bed almost 1 tonne of sand is added. The soil is dug over 3 or 4 times, each time watering a bit to make sure the sand sticks to the small lumps of clay. This will stop the clay from forming bigger lumps in the future.

Rotted / composted manure is added:
 9 or 10 barrow loads of manure is added to the bed overall.

Dig in the manure:
The end result is a bed that is about 14 to 18 inches deep which should be well drained, rich and yet still holds moisture.

Probably a good 6 to 10 hours labour, many many gallons of water, 1 tonne of sand, 9 barrow loads of manure. Still not perfect as there are clumps of clay still there but each season, a bit of weather and a quick dig should break it down more. Will probably still have manure added and dug in after each season.

The sides may not be straight but that is character! It is about 3 x 4 metres in size.

New bed vegetables
Left to right:
French bean - Cannellino
Leek - Musselburgh
Carrot - Nantes 5
Spring Onion - Ramrod
Dwarf French Bean - Safari (Kenyan bean)
Swede - Marian

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Growing Mushrooms - Part 2

Growing Mushrooms - Part 2

Having read up a bit more I feel that my manure will have enough carbon and nitrogen and is only semi rotted / decomposed and therefore probably good enough for the mushrooms - if it isn't then I'll start from scratch with fresh manure, gypsum and straw as per instructions. If I do need to start from scratch then it will be only to see if I can get them to grow as it will be too much work to continue as a crop.

Hopefully, if I am right, then I now have a method of growing mushrooms in a repeatable manner with little fuss. 

The Mushroom spawn arrived, and I have mixed it with my compost. The compost is well wetted but not soaked.

In theory, as long as the temperature is around 20 to 26 deg C (30C and above will kill it lower than 20 will slow it) within a few days, perhaps 10 to 15 I should see the Spawn "running" through the compost like cobwebs. Growing outdoors means I'm at the mercy of nature for the temperature but as the spawn grows Carbon Dioxide is given off, which must be kept in the box, via a lid. The Carbon Dioxide encourages the growth. Depending on the temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels this stage could take weeks to months to finish.

Compost with the Spawn mixed in.
Each day, maybe several times a day, I'll need to make sure there is enough moisture in the compost but once the surface is full of cobweb like growth the next step can be made.

The next step is to encase the top of the mushroom compost with around 35mm of moss or normal garden compost (seed compost). CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) levels need to be reduced by removing the lid and letting in more air, and hopefully after a week or two there should be mushrooms.

One further problem seems to be that I may not have enough spawn for the size of the compost, but that won't matter too much as I will still be able to tell if the spawn is running and growing, if it is, but not enough to produce mushrooms I can simple add more spawn and wait again but this first attempt is mainly about seeing if my compost is right.

Fingers crossed.

Time taken to get to this stage:

30 mins for digging fire pit (re-usable)
30 mins creating box (re-usable)
10 mins digging earth for insulation (maybe more needed)
2 hrs moving manure and loading dustbin and emptying into mushroom box.
10 mins lighting fire and loading fire with wood.
10 mins mixing spawn.

Total: 3.5 hrs

I can see by the thermometer that as long as there is sun, even intermittent, then the temperature is about 20C, full sun doesn't raise the temperature much more (about 22C) so far but cloudy overcast conditions drop the temp to 15C or so. There seems to be little air flow and with the moisture I think that the humdidity will be OK and without air flow the CO2 should stay in the box to a large extent since it is heavier than air so in theory should just sit on top and within the manure as the fungi grows.

At this stage I'm fairly optimistic, especially as I have since read that the manure just needs to be partly rotted to well rotted and the Ph is 7.5 and looks OK. The manure isn't drying out as quick as I thought so that means less work. Just a shame that the next 3 days look a bit cool and cloudy but after that the forecast is for hotter weather.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Growing Mushrooms - Agaricus bisporus - Part 1

Growing Mushrooms - Agaricus bisporus

The idea of growing mushrooms has long been in the back of my mind but it wasn't until a conversation with Nick Vowles of Marshland Permaculture Interest Group that trigged me in to action. Nick said that he had trouble growing Agariucs Bisporus and this sounded like a challenge.

Agariucs Bisporus are the common mushrooms that are normally in the shops, Button Mushrooms.

A quick Google led to Mushroombox who sell the spawn and a short while reading up at various places on the net seemed to suggest growing them in horse manure would be ideal. Manure is something I have lots of so although other mediums may be suggested I have opted to try manure. 

There are a few conditions of my own that must be met, namely they mush grow outside, in a wooden box and rather than mix in straw I need to use hay, since again, I have hay.

Mushrooms, like anything, need the correct habitat to grow and so it is all about creating that habitat and where ever possible reducing the competition that they will face - no rocket science involved.  My main problem is going to be getting and keeping temperature and humidity right because they will be outdoors. In nature the conditions often aren't correct and to a large extent I will be at the mercy of nature. To help with this I have placed earth around three sides of my box to help keep the temperature more consistent and maybe I will add earth to the fourth side although I have place the box next to a path - a slight error in the location although I can move the path since it's just a matter of changing the direction of the lawn mower :)

The Box
Plywood base (yes it will rot) but if successful I can put in concrete slabs. This is just a first attempt after all. Pallet sides which are nice as they fit together. I'll make a lid at a later stage. 

Next is the manure. The manure has lots and lots of bacteria and other fungi as well as all sorts of other creepy crawlies in it and all of these will be competition for the Mushrooms so to help them the manure needs to be pasteurized.

Pasteurizing 4 or 5 wheel barrow loads of manure isn't easy but an old metal dustbin and a fire to heat it up seem the best way. Hard work and time consuming but easily doable.

I dug a small fire pit, about 18 inches square and about 8 inches deep and placed bricks around it and laid broken paving slaps either side so that the dustbin could be supported while still exposing the fire to the base of the dustbin.

Approximately two thirds of the dustbin was filled with semi rotted (4 month old) manure and a couple of gallons of water added. The water will steam and heat the manure better as well as keep the metal bin from burning and melting a hole in.

I had read that the Agariucs Bisporus is a secondary composter which simply means that the manure needs to have already been partly composted by other organisms before it gets to work. Semi rotted manure seemed to fit the bill.

What I hadn't given much thought to was the time it would take to heat up all of the manure. Four wheel barrows took most of the day. I don't know how hot the manure got but I considered ready was when the manure at the top was very hot to tough and steaming away. The dustbin lid was there to simply help contain the heat.

The result
A bit more manure went in after this photo so the box was about half full. A lid was placed over the box and the next stage awaits.

I haven't totally worked out the next stage yet but it will involve adding hay (sterilized) and the spawn, which should arrive today or tomorrow and perhaps some Gypsum. I now need to look at getting the balance between Carbon and Nitrogen right. I may not need to do any more because the manure has straw and wood shavings in which means there may well be a good balance already. 

I think the manure does already have the correct balance, or at least a good enough balance, for mushrooms since many wild mushrooms and fungi in general can be seen growing in various places around the garden as well as the rotting manure pile but the hay may also be needed to help get oxygen into the manure as well as act as a casing for the later stage.

Part 2 in a few days.