Thursday, 20 May 2010

Gardening for 10% carbon -- by Amanda Soule

From Amanda Soule's blog Fixie's Shelf: she is a dancer, storyteller, puppeteer and gardener, living a low-carbon lifestyle in Melbourne, Australia (when not going round the world).

16 April -- I got this fantastic book, How To Grow More Vegetables, Fruit and Nuts on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. It gives very detailed instructions for how to get the absolute most out of a limited number of garden beds. I'm making some changes to the way I garden and water, based on the ideas in this book.

I love this book because a) it answers so many of my questions about gardening, and b) the entire approach is centred around sustainable principles. So often I've read gardening advice that suggests we bring home tonnes of compost, organic fertiliser, straw for mulch and more, and it all seems so costly. This book focuses on how to get as quickly as possible to a "closed system" where you can recycle all nutrients on the property and not need to bring in more. There is no mention of raised garden beds or special compost bins to be built, because as the author points out, the timber used to build them is probably better put to another use - it's a waste of resources. Indeed, the entire system of gardening is focussed on using minimal resources, including water, for maximum gain.

The only thing lacking in the book, I think, is the use of of the compost pile to compost human waste (I'm talking about poo) - as this would really bring it to a closed system.

I think if you are a beginning gardener and need a way to get started that isn't daunting at all, you'd be better to get One Magic Square, which makes it feel so easy to get started and is very inspiring. But if you already grow vegies and are looking for ways to increase your yield, this book is fantastic.

Here's a few of the key ideas the book presents:

- Do a proper soil test to find out exactly what nutrients your soil really needs, then add the right amount of organic matter to balance out the nutrients (the book tells you what and how much to use). This way you can avoid low yields and yellow leaves and other plant problems, because the soil is perfectly balanced.

- Double dig the soil before every crop to aerate it, and give it a nice layer of compost on top. Be very careful not to compact the soil after digging, as this makes it harder for the plants to extend their roots. The method described loosens the soil without destroying the structure.

- Build a big, proper compost pile, and recycle all your nutrients and garden waste here. If you grow the right plants within your garden bed, they will make enough material to build the amount of compost you need to feed that amount of soil. This is more sustainable than using, say cow manure, where the cow has destroyed a piece of land in order to generate the fertiliser for your garden.

- Plant your vegies exactly the correct distance apart. Each plant has a root ball of a particular size, and by planting them as close as possible but not too close, then you create the right micro-climate beneath the leaves for healthy soil, and the plants don't need to compete for water and nutrients.

- Use a "breakfast-lunch-dinner" concept to raise plants from seed. First you plant the seeds one inch apart in a seed tray, and let them grow there for a specified amount of time, usually two weeks. This is breakfast. Then you transplant into a deeper seed tray, two inches apart, which gives the plants a fresh burst of nutrients and newly airated soil, and they grow there for a certain amount of time. This is lunch. Then finally you transplant them into the growing bed, which again has fresh compost and moist airated soil, which works as dinner for the plants. By doing this you also use less water, than you would if you'd planted directly into the growing bed. It's more work, transplanting everything, but it means you can have other food growing in the bed until the last minute, and it really shortens the time a plant needs to be in your garden bed before it starts producing food.

- Water with a soft shower head, similar to rain. Don't blast the soil with a heavy spray, as this can compact the soil. Water the soil rather than the plants, and make sure you keep all the soil moist, even in beds where nothing is currently growing. When soil dries out it is very hard to re-wet as it repels water rather than absorbing it.

My very favourite part of the book is the plans they have for sustainable gardens. They suggest that 100 square feet is a good starting size (my vegie garden is about 125 square feet of growing beds, plus I have other beds around the house for permanent crops), but to be sustainable you really need 300 square feet per person! Yikes. With the plans the authors tell you exactly what to plant, when to plant it, where to put it in the garden bed, and what to replace it with throughout the growing season. I am a bit surprised you'd get to harvest some of these vegies so quickly, so am interested to test it out for myself.

I've planned my own winter garden, using ideas from all the garden plans offered, and have planted my seeds with the last new moon. They came up beautifully and you can see them in the photo. Then just after the full moon, I transplanted them to their second tray. Fingers crossed this results in a winter full of food. With the next new moon I popped them into the garden bed. I was astonished to see how much they grew each day, compared with the previous lot of beet seedlings I put into a garden bed. I'm not sure which of the many things I'm doing differently is the key, but something's working and my beets are growing like never before.

The results

My spring garden, by the way, did indeed supply food for the summer - we've hardly had to buy vegetables since late December [mid-summer in Australia]. Even though you need more garden space for three people to be self-sufficient, our garden is very much meeting our vegetable needs already, and with a bit more careful planning and hopefully the above techniques, I hope we can continue to do that year-round. My next focus is to try and increase the flow of fruit, because we really could use more, and a more steady supply too.

27 March 2010 -- To avert the worst of climate change and peak oil, we need to change how we live. Riot for Austerity is a 90% reduction project - in joining this I am aiming to cut my emissions and use of resources to 10% of what the average American uses. This is the amount deemed necessary to leave our children and grandchildren a decent world. Care to join me?

I've been participating in the Riot4Austerity for 6 months now - with the aim of reducing my use of resources to 10% of the average. Mostly I'm using US averages since I don't know Australian averages. I can't believe half a year has gone by. I can see now as the months pass the new habits I've been trying to create have settled in and are becoming more routine - much of what I'm doing doesn't feel like a big deal any more. I've averaged my use of everything over the last 6 months and here's the results:

Target is 10% of the US national average for each category, or less.

Transportation fuel - 8%
Electricity - 14%
Gas/Kero - 7%
Rubbish - 4%
Water - 16% til 1 March then 0%
Consumer Goods - 12%
Food - I'm aiming for 75% local sustainable/homegrown produce, and we're on 73%.
More posts on low impact / low carbon living are to come - Ed.

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