If looks could kill …

A thousand words on poo!

As we turned into the allotment yesterday a light tipper lorry pulled away at great speed and off down the hill. “He was in a hurry” I said to Madame as we pulled over next to a newly dumped pile of manure whose new owner stood regarding it whilst trying to keep her two children out of it. Obviously I couldn’t just ignore the chance to see whether it was as good as, or better than, our usual supplier. It certainly looked alright, but when I took a handful and smelt it, there was a powerful whiff of ammonia. Without getting too nerdy about it, ammonia (NH3) is one of the principal greenhouse gas emissions from cattle farming. It’s generated when ammonium – which is a normal component of fresh manure – breaks down in a double chemical whammy that deprives the resulting manure of nitrogen, reducing its fertilizer value; and at the same time releasing ammonia into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Farmers know about this (I hope) and manage their manure carefully to minimise losses.

We allotmenteers are mostly neither chemists nor farmers but our belief in manure is almost parallel to membership of the local church – we think it’s a terrific thing but we’d rather not get too involved in the theology. On the other hand, cattle produce mountains of the stuff and it can be quite a disposal problem and so combining the excess of poo on the farm with the excess of zeal among the faithful means that there’s a considerable temptation for entrepreneurial tipper lorry owners to solve the farmer’s problem and make a considerable amount of money in the process.

“How old is this?” I asked the allotmenteer who was still getting over the shock of my sticking my bare hands and nose into the pile. “He said it had been stacked for two years”. “Hm” I thought. “How much did he charge you?” “£100 – cash”, she said. There was not much over a cubic yard, around half a ton, which meant it cost roughly the same as my present source which was looking better by the minute.

Years ago I was given the honour of digging out about a four foot layer of horse dung from a stable. I imagine it must have been necessary to sell the thoroughbreds and buy some Shetland ponies, the filthy floor was so close to the rafters. If you want to know what a four foot layer of anaerobic, methane emitting manure smells like please put down your knife and fork now. This is not for the faint hearted; but straw being expensive and occasionally in short supply, there’s a temptation to put as little as possible down and my goodness it shows, or rather smells – acridly, stomach churningly, eye wateringly vile .

On the other hand a friend who runs a stable and lets me have a load of fresh horse manure for the hotbed every year (although not this one because of travel restrictions), is generous to a fault with her straw, and it shows in the horses gleaming state of health as well as in the healthy “countryside” aroma of their poo. In a nutshell, not all manure is equal and it pays to choose your source personally rather than rely on the A4 advert flapping on the entrance gate of the allotments. Try before you buy if it’s all possible and remember that among species there’s a hierarchy of value. My grandfather valued sheeps truckles above all else, but they’re better left on the land. I can’t imagine that he would feel the same about sheep muck from intensive farms where the sheep are fed on concentrates and never see a field.

Next comes the horse, but even then as I’ve already described, there’s a vast gulf between good and bad. If you’ve got loads of space it might be best to get it fresh, keep it covered and turn it yourself until it’s ready. Oh and check that they’re not worming the horses with some persistent vermifuge that will kill all your hard won worms. Cow’s manure comes last in the list and don’t ever use pig’s manure which is full of pathogens, and – if I haven’t already put you off – remember that e coli often comes as a freebie with manure, especially the fresh stuff, so keep it well away from salad crops and wash your hand carefully, perhaps with gel – like I did.

Good manure needs to be turned frequently to complete its decomposition and this obviously involves the farmer or stable in a lot of work which will be reflected in the price. Cheap is not always a bargain. So this pile of rather young manure which smelt strongly of ammonia was not all it was cracked up to be. But on the other hand we’ve had a tremendously wet winter and heaven knows how much nitrogen has been leached out of our soil during the past few months – so we’ll all be looking at organic ways of feeding it back.

What to do …?

Our allotmenteer has several choices to make. She could stack it and turn it regularly until it’s properly finished – which is extremely hard work. Leaving it as an uncovered pile will just mean more ammonia (nitrogen) escaping into the atmosphere as the weather warms up, while more will be washed away by the rain and could land up polluting the river. She can’t spread it among salad crops, tender plants or dig it into beds where she intends to grow root veg because they’re all adversely affected by fresh manure.

The one place I can think of where it would probably be OK is a good deep bean trench covered with soil. Another possible use is to use it in layers as a compost activator. She could mix it in layers with the free wood chip we have on the site which would reduce to compost reasonably quickly – the same would happen with dead autumn leaves because what this concentrated source of nitrogen needs is lots of carbon – even cardboard – to assist its decomposition and breakdown into “black gold“; odourless friable compost. Ideally she’d nurse it and turn it regularly and then spread it in the autumn and let the worms take it down.

There isn’t a 100% ram stamped ecologically pure way of composting – whether it’s manure or garden waste. The challenge isn’t to reduce wastage and greenhouse gases to zero – which I don’t believe is achievable – but to minimise it as far as possible. As Wendell Berry memorably said of intensive farming where manure is kept as slurry and cattle are kept in squalour, – they’ve taken a solution and turned it into two problems. Remember that in a small mixed farm where livestock are kept on grass, there isn’t – or shouldn’t be – any manure for sale at all because it’s just too valuable. Home compost made from vegetable material and activated with comfrey is as good as any animal manure you could get, unless it’s from your own livestock. The problem for small allotment holders is that we just don’t have space to grow comfrey and we don’t generate enough vegetable waste to compost our couple of hundred square yards sufficiently to compensate for what we take out. We too are intensive farmers! So beware of manure if it looks and smells like waste, because it probably is; and find a good source of safe horse manure and be prepared to put the work in. .

Muck, but no mystery!

….. and suddenly, at last, the sun shone, the rain stopped and were able to get out on to the allotment.  In spite of the cold wind we took a chance on filling the hotbed, and so we drove over to one of my old parishes to sack up and bring back the first of two car loads of fresh, hot, horse manure. Most gardeners want the well rotted kind but for this purpose we need about twenty bags of strawy stable manure as fresh as possible.  Last year being the first time we’d tried this technique we asked my friend Annie to keep out as much straw as possible, but that proved a bit of a mistake because the bacteria that heat the heap don’t just need nitrogen they need carbon too – and that’s what the straw provides.  The theory is that this mixture will heat the bed quicker and hotter – but we shall see.  Our car is quite small and even with the seats down it’s difficult to get more than 10 full bags in at a time.

So as each bag was tipped into the deep frame – it’s a spade depth below ground level – we trod it firm and watered it.  We continue that process of topping, firming and watering until the heap is around 3 feet deep, and once it’s started to heat up we cover the manure with a home made mixture of topsoil, well rotted compost and horticultural sand.  This not only gives a good well drained bed for sowing, at the end of the season the whole lot of soil, compost, sand and manure go back on to the beds – about a cubic metre of it.  It’s most useful where we’ve terraced the beds, and every year we’re able to raise them a little more. Since our cold frames were stolen the hotbed will take over the work of germinating and bringing on early tender plants.

It’s amazing what a pleasurable experience a few hours of hard physical work can be after months of moping about indoors.  Annie was saying that they’ve been unable to let the horses out even for a taste of grass because the land is so wet.  As we drove across Lansdown on Friday we saw a herd of cows grazing on the few shreds of grass that have survived the wettest winter in memory.  When I mentioned it to Annie she said “he probably ran out of silage – he must have been desperate”. Desperate or not they were back indoors again today but that’s a measure of how hard this winter has hit farmers.

I read a lot about the impact of farming on climate change and so much of it is almost sectarian in its hatred of any opposing opinions. As we were filling the bags today, I was thinking about the way in which these small farms of a few hundred acres are maligned when they’re lumped together with enormous feedlots which really do create problems. Our half ton of manure is produced by horses which aren’t ruminants and don’t make the same methane contribution as cattle do. It’s a rich source of soil nutrients and helps to build up soil structure while it captures carbon in the process.  We use the soil to grow healthy organic food in a completely sustainable way.  After we’re gone the soil will be in a much better state than when we took it on. There’s a kind of virtuous circle going on here.  All our veg trimmings are recycled back into the same ground, and we even use our own urine as a liquid fertilizer.  Good, small scale farming operates the same virtuous circle. Crops are grown, the soil is enriched and the animals are fed.  Our southwest UK climate favours grass above all else, and so dairy and beef farming are the obvious way of using the ground. Grass fed beef – that’s to say beef that’s not been fattened on a high protein diet of expensive soya and grain – is far superior to feedlot beef. Animals that are free to roam in natural herds outside in the fresh air and with the sun on their backs are not, on the face of it, being cruelly treated. Any old-school farmer will tell you that  stressed animals get sick more often and don’t make either good milk or fine tasting beef. The snag, and there’s always a snag, is that we can’t have it both ways. High welfare, grass fed organic beef is bound to cost much more money and for most of us that means eating a good deal less of it.  The same goes for almost any meat, whether chicken, pork or lamb, we simply can’t go on eating it in the quantities and at the price we’ve become used to, if we want to tackle global climate change. As for species extinction the same kind of argument applies.  The price of cheap food is always going to be pollution, widespread use of chemicals, soil erosion animal cruelty and agribusiness. But to blame all forms of farming without discriminating between more and less harmful practices is counterproductive. Just to give one example from coastal restoration, the choughs that are slowly reappearing on the western coasts are doing so because they feed on grubs that feed on cattle dung.  Free ranging cattle on the clifftops have enabled the reappearance of this charming and acrobatic member of the crow family. The dung is dropped by ruminants in small and manageable quantities and is quickly broken down. That’s a far cry from spreading vast volumes of evil smelling anaerobic liquid manure on the land where it quickly runs off and pollutes streams and rivers.

A less meat based diet would be better for us.  Farmers could experiment with tree planting their expanses of grass, a technique that looks very promising. The trend for ever larger fields monocropping feed maize could be phased out, as could the relentless removal of hedges to make space for bigger and heavier machinery.  Less could really be more; better for us, better for the wildlife and better for the planet. At the moment it’s the poorest people on the planet who are paying the true cost of cheap food. That could end, but not until we – farmers, growers and consumers alike – are prepared to make some sacrifices ourselves.

 

On the allotment, always look a gift horse in the mouth.

I thought I might post a photo of the Hungarian Hot Wax plant that I transplanted into open ground a couple of days ago – as you can see it’s a really happy bunny now. The other photo is of the garlic crop that Madame has finished peeling and dressing. We’re continuing the drying in the shed because it’s still seriously smelly and a bit much for the landing in the flats we live in. This was all being accomplished while I was with our middle son dismantling a greenhouse he’d found online and going free to anyone willing to collect it. We were very fortunate today because this was an 8X6 greenhouse with only one pane missing a corner and, by coincidence, I took along my tool box with exactly the right set of spanners.  He provided 30m of bubble wrap, a can of WD40 and a roll of gaffa tape.

Free greenhouses can cover a multitude of sins, anywhere between free ground clearance of a no-hope structure held up by old bindweed, and a a shining, almost new one that turned out to be slightly the wrong colour for a fussy and very wealthy gardener. On a scale of one to ten, this one was a definite seven. In fact there were two greenhouses there for the taking but three and a half hours in, and on a baking hot day, we settled for the one, knowing that there were six other bidders willing to take it. Really it’s just a matter of patience, a bit of common sense and the right tools for the job. There was, for instance, a mild steel addition to the ridge that was so rusty the bolts had to be drilled out. Brambles had grown inside, and really  needed taking out before we began, but we had strong gloves, and next time I’d take a pair of secateurs. You’ll need a step ladder to reach the bolts in the ridge.  But the first advice is to take a good hard look at it and if it’s not right – too big or too small, bent, corroded or otherwise compromised by missing pieces just say no.  There are plenty of better ones out there and in any case you’ll be buying a whole bunch of new bolts, clips, rubber strip and springs so the free greenhouse is going to cost you transport, about two days of your time plus the cost of the new components which, honestly, are well worth it.  If you can get hold of the assembly instructions online from the manufacturer that would be an absolute bonus. Then take out all the glass first and dismantle the structure carefully making sure that vulnerable uprights don’t flop about and bend when the horizontal bars are removed.

Horticultural glass is very fragile and sharp, and for safety’s sake is better carefully bubble wrapped and taped before moving it.  If you’re really anally retentive you can number all the bits but it’s going to take an eternity to re-erect anyway.  Finally, don’t skimp on the foundations where it’s about to be re-erected because if they’re not rectangular and level and if they’re not deep enough, the pieces will not bolt up easily, and the glass will start to crack as it subsides. The rubber strip to hold the glass in the frames is essential but a pain to install – there’s a knack to it that you will have to learn. But don’t let me put you off, you’ll get a great greenhouse for fifty quid and a couple of days work – what’s not to like?

Other freebies are not quite such good value. We’ve seen so many people spend a great deal of money on second hand scaffolding planks.  Scaffolders know they’re on to a good thing and will try to charge you far more than they’re worth, but they never sell them on until they’re totally knackered and you’ll be lucky to get three years out of them.  New, pressure treated gravel boards are often half the price if you get them from a local sawmill, and they’ll last ten years.

Water butts, old nets and especially old carpets are often (in order) leaky and needing new lids and taps, full of holes of the kind that badgers can stroll through, and poisonous and rightly banned on sensible allotment sites. If, on the other hand, a local stately home or disgraced member of parliament is disposing of pure wool carpets without underlay, take them without hesitation, although you might have to prove their provenance to the site rep.

I could go on for ever about free manure.  There are hundreds of well meaning stables out there who think they’re acting charitably getting you to dig out their muck and spread it on your allotment. Sadly most weed seeds seem to pass through horses digestive systems merely strengthened and rendered more potent. “Well rotted” all too often means “just cooled down” and so if cheap manure is offered, see how long it’s been stacked, or take it home hot for hotbeds and make sure it gets even hotter – enough to kill the weed seeds. Beware also that they’re not full of wormer – it kills the good ones as well as the baddies! We once introduced Creeping Buttercup into one of our gardens by spreading manure from a local farmer whose fields were notorious for being overstocked with horses that consequently picked up and passed on all manner of parasites.  They were also starved of decent grass and comprised mainly noxious weeds.

There are plenty of really useful free things out there – not least brandling worms. I know there are lots of suppliers out there who would love to sell you a small box of worms for twenty quid – don’t bother – just make a good compost heap and they’ll appear all on their own.  All they seem to think about is food and sex, so not only do they digest your compost and turn it into something wonderful, the also multiply to meet the amount of food you supply them with.

Cardboard is great – especially the brown stuff.  Worms absolutely love it and you’d be amazed how much free cardboard can be found outside shops.  Bike shops are the absolute tops because one box will line a whole path, or bed, or you can tear it into shreds to add carbon.  When you turn the heap the worms can always be found amongst the cardboard.

Free mushroom trays are so useful as well – we’re lucky, two of our sons are also chefs and one of them supplies us from wood-ash from the pizza oven.  Ask around – there are loads of cafes that would love to save money by giving you their coffee grounds – but remember in compost terms they’re a ‘green’ component.

Human urine – you know it makes sense! – bio-available nitrogen, enough for one person (at ten to one dilution) to fill a watering can with plant food.

And best of all – free advice. Every allotment site has a few people who really know what they’re doing. Pay attention to what they say.

Happy gardening!

 

 

Where’s it gone? – Oh there

 

So yesterday at last the sun shone and the snow had melted and so we drove over to Annie’s stables to collect the manure for the hotbed.  It’s surprisingly difficult to source manure ‘fresh’ – as it were. Just as every item on a restaurant menu comes with a small pack of needless adjectives like delicious attached, the word manure is rarely seen without its attached qualifier well rotted.  We’ve asked high and low and our search for the freshest, smelliest and hottest manure has met with head shaking and occasionally patronising hints that we don’t know what we really want. So as always we fell back on a friend who lives in one of my old parishes who was pleased to help out, and even sent photos of the growing pile to keep us focused and cheerful. Yesterday we lined the back of our little car to stop any leaks from the bags from soaking into the seats and drove over.

My guess is that I shovelled about 300Kg of the stuff into bags (we always save the old ones they’re terribly useful) and lugged it into the back of the car which was pretty flat on the springs by the time I finished. Then we drove back to the allotment while Madame amused herself by swatting copious numbers of manure flies that had decided to come with us. Everything has to be wheelbarrowed about 100yards down narrow paths from the allotment site car park and so by the time I’d tipped all the bags into the hotbed frame I was aching just about everywhere. I was pretty glad that I didn’t build the frame any bigger because against all expectations the manure was simply swallowed up.  I really thought I’d have quite a bit left over, but that certainly didn’t happen.  Still, it’s all done now and today’s job is to cap the bed with a mixture of soil and proper compost and then cover it and wait for it to heat up.

Our site is divided into two halves which are nominally organic and non-organic.  As I was unloading the car I fell into a conversation with a man who had come across from the organic half and we had one of those blokey chats that men have, which are more concerned with rangefinding than sharing – each of us trying to find out enough about the other to orientate ourselves.  As we drifted from wheelbarrow punctures to carrot varieties we finally ventured into contentious ground.  I said ” really we’re all organic here except for one man, two plots across, who used Roundup to clear his plot.”  He put on a most virtuous face and said – “Roundup? I wouldn’t go near that stuff.” And so the conversation drifted on about permissable chemicals and the Soil Association rules and then, out of the blue he said – “I use that other stuff, glyphosate it’s called, but I don’t spray it I just paint it on the leaves.” I was speechless.

Suddenly, spring sneaked in and we’re rushing.

ff170491-9847-4193-bede-c05cf564d32cSome people might find even a slightly out of focus photo of a pile of poo a bit – well, rich first thing in the morning, but we at the Potwell Inn are made of sterner stuff and find it extremely cheering.  Most people send pictures of their winsome children or latest culinary triumph. Not so for people like us. This little pile is the beginnings of the new hotbed, nestling in the corner of my good friend Annie’s barn.  She’s dotty about horses. I’m less dotty about the animals themselves – (I once had a bad experience with a nasty natured beast called “Copper” who thought it would be amusing to scrape me off his back by galloping at a low branch), – I am however very attached to their by-products which are going to be converted this year to a wheelbarrow full of early salads, followed by the best crop of squashes ever seen anywhere. Annie is/was one of my parishioners back in the day – I took her wedding service, and she was reminiscing yesterday about the rehearsal when a policeman burst into the church, which was very remote and pretty much in the middle of a field, because he had spotted the cars outside and suspected a burglary was taking place. Now, of course, we live 20 miles away but we still keep in occasional contact. Especially when there’s manure involved!  This little pile is just one day’s output from her extremely well cared for horses so I’m expecting great things. How exactly I’m going to get it to the allotment in our tiny car is another matter. Hot, wet and richly smelly, oh my word – it puts a spring in my step.

But now the urgency of the new season is beginning to dawn on us.  There are still two raised beds to complete and I need to build the hotbed very soon indeed if I’m going to reap the benefits of all that bacterial heat. We’re almost into late winter. Early spring begins on March 1st – according to the Met Offce who have no truck with astrological signs and golden numbers. On top of that I need to build the official wormery and transfer all our lovely brandling into their new purpose built home.  Is it any surprise I don’t get enough time for reading and meditation?  Behind me, in my ‘office’ is the second propagator and later today I need to fill twenty or thirty modules with sowing mixture and set the thermostat to 25C so they can warm up and settle ready to be sown with this year’s chillies.  Last year was the first time we’ve ever tried to grow them and the habaneros failed completely so we’re still on a steep learning curve here. Early today I had an email to say that the spring planting onion sets have been despatched, and the seed potatoes won’t be many days later. If it weren’t for the cough I’d be doing pirouettes in the kitchen.

Allotmenteering can feel a bit relentless at times and it’s true, once you’ve tied yourself to a patch of land and even more a bunch of animals, you have to keep your head down. The seasons are very like the tides inasmuch as they flow unevenly.  There are slacks – we’re nearing the end of the midwinter slack now, and there will be another in high summer – but there are times when, like the Severn, the tide flows so fast you feel you’re in danger of being swept away. And yet you feel completely blessed at the same time. The Potwell Inn couldn’t exist without the huge network of friends, neighbours and well-wishers who have encouraged and supported us over the decades.  It may be a virtual pub but the regulars – that’s to say everyone I’ve ever met and worked with – are completely real, just anonymized a bit to protect their privacy.