Tag Archives: Gardens

Biosphere II

The entrance to the Biosphere II…

Biosphere 2

I remember this from my childhood, the great experiment to see if we could inhabit space under domes, live completely contained lives under glass. The great (although flawed) experiment here, here! Just outside of Tucson!

They couldn’t do it the way we hoped, the way I had read about in those Daw paperback novels with the yellow spines and the library’s mark of the atom, but the Biosphere II experiments taught so much…I remember the faces of the eight scientists who lived here for two years as seen through this glass. Way back between 1991 and 1993, way back.

I also remember them being a bit too celebrity-like, especially the women, looking at this picture I can see why I might have thought so.

Yet all these years and I had never managed to visit — I even drove all the way up here once with my friend Samantha, but it was too expensive. Worth it? Yes, but too expensive when we just didn’t have the money. Too many things are that way in this country, rather damaging to many of the potential scientists out there. But I digress.

I confess I wasn’t too impressed by the presence of a lawn in a place studying sustainability, but I love the futuristic style.

Biosphere 2

It’s at it’s busiest between Christmas and New Year’s apparently, so we were able to walk through at our own pace rather than on the tour. I’m sure we missed some things that way, but I think I might have preferred it, we had more ability to avoid other people. Best of all, we were able to climb up to the higher dome that served the original inhabitants as library — until they no longer had the calories and the oxygen to make it up the stairs. They are some stairs, I hate how much I can feel the altitude now when I come home:

Biosphere 2

The views — stunning. Out over the rainforest pyramid, with administrative buildings and the Catalina foothills in the background:

Biosphere 2

Looking over the new soil experiments (called the Landscape Evolution Observatory) where the old agricultural section used to be, the desert pyramid, one of the lungs:

Biosphere 2

A sense of the inside:

Biosphere 2

Back down a floor to the original crew quarters, it now hosts some awesome exhibits — a crazy mix up of science, science fiction books and film, casts and models and stamps. They include methane ice worms, the flower shaped ecopolis sitting sustainably (perhaps) on the ocean. But first one of my favourite things — the Lunar Greenhouse Habitat.

Biosphere 2Another experiment with a closed system (much smaller — much of the Biosphere’s appeal is just the scale at which the experiment was conducted), growing plants using hydroponic systems on carbon dioxide from human waste and respiration, along with other inputs from composting, harvesting and other waste. Very cool. The plants they are growing here? Cow peas, lettuce, sweet potatoes and basil, with a recent decision to include strawberries (these are from NASA’s approved list, for more from NASA on space gardening, go here).

Biosphere 2

Humans have been thinking about this for a while, though I think if flights of imagination in fiction were allowed, this timeline might stretch back much further than 1960 — I shall have to look into that.

Any such garden would almost certainly have to be buried underground — I love how much thought has already gone into what would be required to live on the Moon, or Mars.

They have an awesome model of Mars exploration:

Biosphere 2

The Soviet space stamps (made me all nostalgic for one of my favourite exhibitions of all time, on Soviet Cosmonauts in London’s Science Museum)

Biosphere 2

Meteorites used as blacksmith’s anvils in the 1800s:

Biosphere 2

A great deal of ‘miscellaneous’

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

I loved walking through the great glass greenhouses themselves

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

‘We are not gardeners’ said one of the employees in the rainforest dome. The first experiments were to see how much could be grown, how to keep things alive. Now they watch to see what dies and what survives, attempting to trace the complexities of ecosystems by leaving things alone unless they threaten the structural stability of glass and metal.

I don’t know if I could do that, I love gardens. I also loved walking in the belly of the beast, seeing how things worked underneath in the service tunnels — somehow this is where it felt most spectacular, came most alive in giving a sense of what it would be like to live and work in such a domed world.

Here we experienced sudden immense blasts of wind:

Biosphere 2

More tunnels (I really really love tunnels):

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

The inside of the lung itself, designed to help ‘breathe’ and maintain air pressure constant to protect the greenhouses:

Biosphere 2

The lungs from outside:

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

There was an awesome, if small, display on the Arab falaj, or irrigation system, that  works much like acequias (I think this is some of the heritage that Spanish settlers brought with them to the Southwest if I am not mistaken). Ingenious in their engineering, they also define town planning, with the Mosque closest to the water source to ensure the water’s purity.

The last stop is at the ocean section, where they tried to create a coral reef and failed quite spectacularly. I think, above all, this huge structure of overwhelming aspiration has taught us a great deal of humility. My favourite story — octopi (I prefer this to octopuses, say what you will) had smuggled themselves into Biosphere II hidden in the coral, and emerged to hunt at night. It took some time before staff realised why the other inhabitants of the ocean habitat were disappearing. Algae has essentially now taken over — this bears some relation to the actual situation of our reefs — and these bare rocks and scummy windows stand as a reminder of how we have no idea to recreate all the things we destroy.

We are very far from any possibility of survival on another planet. Best we take care of this one — Biosphere I —  and so it is scary to me that the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ were rarely mentioned here in either videos or displays, though they serve as a focus for all of the research. It showed just what scientists have to do in the face of denial from the highest levels, and that’s only going to get worse.

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For love of brutalist concrete conservatories

Concrete conservatories are amazing. I have long had an architectural love affair with conservatories of metal and glass, and these elements are not missing from Krakow’s Botanical Garden of the Jagiellonian University. Founded in 1783, it still serves as a teaching garden, and has a most wonderful collection of orchids and other tropical plants, many from the collection of botanist Joseph Warszewicz (1812–1866). The first greenhouse was built here in 1787, but they have been extended, reconstructed, and added to over the years and are entirely wonderful.

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

The plants were beautiful too, and here you can find many of the medicinal plants collected in jars upon jars at the Museum of Pharmacy, botany just another form of the dual aspiration to explore the wonders of the world and to better understand the various healing powers of plants. Until, of course, you bring Empire and the desire for profit extraction into it, I am curious how countries like Poland were part of that dynamic. But mostly I just love plants and conservatories.

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For more on brutalism and/or gardens…

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Gilbert White on changing customs around gardening (and London)

I need to finish up thoughts on Gilbert White — his writings on nature are here, on superstitions here, a few things about his perceptions of how people were dressing, eating and gardening are to be found here — linked to how they foraged from the commons, but not quite same.

In talking about leprosy, he notes not just the superstitions surrounding it, but the changes in habits and dress that he believes have reduced the frequency of skin ailments — the change in clothing and the growing of fresh vegetables and fresh meat (the aristocracy at least ate SO MUCH meat):

This happy change perhaps may have originated and been continued from the much smaller quantity of salted meat and fish now eaten in these kingdoms; from the use of linen next the skin; from the plenty of better bread; and from the profusion of fruits, roots, legumes, and greens, so common in every family. Three or four centuries ago, before there were any enclosures, sown-grasses, field-turnips, or field-carrots, or hay, all the cattle which had grown fat in summer, and were not killed for winter-use, were turned out soon after Michaelmas to shift as they could through the dead months; so that no fresh meat could be had in winter or spring. Hence the marvellous account of the vast stores of salted flesh found in the larder of the eldest Spencer** t in the days of Edward the Second, even so late in the spring as the third of May. It was from magazines like these that the turbulent barons supported in idleness their riotous swarms of retainers ready for any disorder or mischief. But agriculture is now arrived at such a pitch of perfection, that our best and fattest meats are killed in the winter; and no man need eat salted flesh, unless he prefers it, that has money to buy fresh. (** Viz.: Six hundred bacons, eighty carcasses of beef, and six hundred muttons.)

I found this even more fascinating on the growth of gardening, and the widening availability of vegetables for sale (and clearly, a corresponding growth of markets, transportation links between town and country, and the ability of people to buy them where they cannot grow their own).

As to the produce of a garden, every middle-aged person of observation may perceive, within his own memory, both in town and country, how vastly the consumption of vegetables is increased. Green-stalls in cities now support multitudes in a comfortable state, while gardeners get fortunes. Every decent labourer also has his garden, which is half his support, as well as his delight; and common farmers provide plenty of beans, peas, and greens, for their hinds to eat with their bacon; and those few that do not are despised for their sordid parsimony, and looked upon as regardless of the welfare of their dependents. Potatoes have prevailed in this little district, by means of premiums, within these twenty years only; and are much esteemed here now by the poor, who would scarce have ventured to taste them in the last reign.

And to throw in just a few fun observations on London!

20 Nov 1773

Martins love to frequent towns, especially if there are great lakes and rivers at hand; nay, they even affect the close air of London. And I have not only seen them nesting in the Borough, but even in the Strand and Fleet- street; but then it was obvious from the dinginess of their aspect that their feathers partook of the filth of that sooty atmosphere.

On the great frost of 1776 — amazing

On the 22nd the author had occasion to go to London through a sort of Laplandian-scene, very wild and grotesque indeed. But the metropolis itself exhibited a still more singular appearance than the country; for, being bedded deep in snow, the pavement of the streets could not be touched by the wheels or the horses’ feet, so that the carriages ran about without the least noise. Such an exception from din and clatter was strange, but not pleasant; it seemed to convey an uncomfortable idea of desolation

The Terrible Truth About Ducks

Yesterday started with ducks. They get shut in at night, to protect them from the fox. When released, they erupt from their prison with a joyful waddling quacking, leaving their little wooden hut in a waddling quacking line of joyfulness.

I thought to myself, how wonderful ducks are! They headed straight for the water.

ducks

I don’t know if it was the waddling or the quacking, but I really loved ducks at that moment.

After feeding them, all of their water gets emptied out and refilled — the three of these and a large almost -paddling-pool size one in the larger enclosure. They’re allowed into the larger enclosure where they can hunt for slugs and snails (the main practical reason you want ducks possibly) if they’ve laid eggs. They had laid two eggs. Out they went. More waddling and quacking. More joy.

We were refilling the water here and a sudden splashing made me turn around. I am sorry to say that possibly the most violent sex scene I have possibly ever seen was being enacted in the paddling pool. Apparently this is just the way it is for female ducks. More than one male was involved, and I would not be surprised to find that more than one female ends up drowning in such encounters.

Lady ducks of the world unite, is all I have to say.

It was a bit anticlimactic, but realising I personally wouldn’t be able to organise the lady ducks effectively to overthrow patriarchy, I agreed to continue to rescue the herb bed, and when done we used hazel from the hedges to build cages to support the great sprawling valerian

Farm 2.5

and the soon to be sprawling elecampane, which will soon send forth great yellow flowerheads.

Farm 2.5

If you build the cages early enough, they will disappear into the foliage as it grows ferociously in the spring and summer. The valerian was my hazel weaving work, but because these branches were cut from the hedge which has been lopped many times, they were quite unideal for such a weaving. Still, they were usable. You use all that is usable, and most things can serve multiple purposes over the course of their development, this is the philosophy of permaculture.

We had weeded these beds while Rob was mowing the orchard with the scythe — necessary before the docks flowered and seeded. So we spent some time raking up the leavings, which we will at some point use to mulch the apple trees. This is where the chickens live, along with Gandalf the Grey (gander) and Galadriel the white (goose).

I have stared my gander fear in the face and won.

Farm 2.5

Farm 2.5

Today we weeded a different bed full of herbs and flowers, transplanted some comfrey, and began work on a new bed using a brilliant tool called an azada, which scrapes the root-matted tops off of the earth infested with the terrible cooch grass, allowing you to turn over the earth and rid it of the deep clinging roots of said grass. It went from this (we’d started a bit here):

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To this:

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You can see how the roots infest this beautiful soil. This is the grass that makes no-dig permaculture gardening impossible here (after reading Masanobu Fukuoka I was so excited about that, but ah well). You have to turn it over and over and pick it through, and still you know it will be returning. I did most of the azada work, so I am happily tired.

I quite love hard work.

Also, yesterday, we picked a huge amount of beautifully ripened strawberries — the lovely varieties you can’t buy in supermarkets because they bruise and don’t last forever and will make other strawberries pale in comparison.

Farm 2.5

So today we made some jam. Well, I watched Diana make some jam. I think I will be able to make jam in future. A kilo of strawberries, a kilo of sugar (yep, half and half), some lemon rather than pectin for it to set. Boil, stir, get it up to temperature. Boil a minute or two more. Let it sit a minute and the fruit settle. Fill jars sterilised with boiling water. After a little while, turn the jars upside down. A few hours later turn them right side up and that creates a seal.

Also today I sent off yet another job application and made dinner which people actually enjoyed. A good day.

To end by continuing the herb lessons from Mrs. M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, here is some awesome info on valerian and elecampane:

Valeriana officinalis – Valerian

It was afterwards found to be useful in certain kinds of epilepsy. The plant was in such esteem in mediaeval times as a remedy, that it received the name of All Heal, which is still given it in some parts of the country.

The drug allays pain and promotes sleep. It is of especial use and benefit to those suffering from nervous overstrain, as it possesses none of the after-effects produced by narcotics.

During the recent War, when air-raids were a serious strain on the overwrought nerves of civilian men and women, Valerian, prescribed with other simple ingredients, taken in a single dose, or repeated according to the need, proved wonderfully efficacious, preventing or minimizing serious results.

Though in ordinary doses, it exerts an influence quieting and soothing in its nature upon the brain and nervous system, large doses, too often repeated, have a tendency to produce pain in the head, heaviness and stupor.

Inula Helenium – Elecampane

The herb is of ancient medicinal repute, having been described by Dioscorides and Pliny. An old Latin distich celebrates its virtues: Enula campana reddit praecordia sana (Elecampane will the spirits sustain). ‘Julia Augustus,’ said Pliny, ‘let no day pass without eating some of the roots of Enula, considered to help digestion and cause mirth.’ The monks equally esteemed it as a cordial. Pliny affirmed that the root ‘being chewed fasting, doth fasten the teeth,’ and Galen that ‘It is good for passions of the hucklebone called sciatica.’

Elecampane is frequently mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon writings on medicine current in England prior to the Norman Conquest; it is also the ‘Marchalan’ of the Welsh physicians of the thirteenth century, and was generally known during the Middle Ages.

It was formally cultivated in all private herb-gardens, as a culinary and medicinal plant, and it is still to be found in old cottage gardens. Not only was its root much employed as a medicine, but it was also candied and eaten as a sweetmeat. Dr. Fernie tells us, in Herbal Simples:

‘Some fifty years ago, the candy was sold commonly in London as flat, round cakes being composed largely of sugar and coloured with cochineal. A piece was eaten each night and morning for asthmatical complaints, whilst it was customary when travelling by a river, to suck a bit of the root against poisonous exalations and bad air. The candy may still be had from our confectioners, but now containing no more of the plant Elecampane than there is of barley in Barley Sugar.’

In Denmark, Elecampane is sometimes called Elf-Doc. Here one sometimes comes across the name Elf-Dock locally, also Elfwort.

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From Mines to Market Gardens — The Tamar Valley

Sovereigns, Madams and Double Whites: Fruit and Flower Pioneers of the Tamar ValleySovereigns, Madams and Double Whites: Fruit and Flower Pioneers of the Tamar Valley is a wonderful book I found in the library here. It emerged from a 2001 project to uncover the market gardening landscape, and is full of oral histories and quite wonderful photographs. It is the story of the long-gone smallholdings up and down the Tamar valley. They were built up and down the steep south-facing hills for the earliest flowers and strawberries.

Almost all of them have now become grazing and farm land, or woods.

There is so much here of England’s industrial and agricultural history that is long forgotten. It is so strange to think of this area as a centre of copper mining, much less arsenic refining, but so it was:

For a brief period of twenty years in the mid nineteenth century the Tamar Valley became the copper centre of England, the river crowded with shipping carrying ore to be smelted in South Wales. However by 1868 the largest mine, Devon Great Consols, was nearly exhausted and metal prices slumped putting hundreds of families out of work. Arsenic refining took over but in turn was abandoned. By the 1930s mining was dead leaving a strange and dramatic landscape of waste tips and ruinous buildings half hidden in lush woodland and intricately mixed with villages, farms, riverside quays and market gardens. (1)

Apart from copper, the Tamar Valley was known for cherry and apple orchards, and had the earliest strawberries in the country — that was where the money once was. Early strawberries and the famous Tamar Double Whites, a lovely fragrant daffodil planted here by the thousands and their remnants now left forgotten in hedgerows and bordering fields. But the market gardens along the slopes here reached their height in the 1950s, when they supported an industry of 8-10,000 people, more than the entire population today. Special tools to work the hillsides were invented (a special dibber!), and diggers to move soil up slopes.

It is amazing to think smallholdings could provide so much work, and that they once sent flowers and fruit all over the country. Somehow it pleases me greatly to imagine early daffodils from Devon arriving to bring joy in Birmingham.

Also fascinating is the role that changing transportation links played in this story. In many ways this agricultural revolution was due to the arrival of the Great Western Railway. It reached Plymouth in 1849 and bridged the Tamar to Saltash in 1859 — before this, the river Tavy had been the main way of transport. But the trains allowed a much faster movement of fruit — allowing it to be sold within 24 hours of picking. Because of the warm micro-climates here in Devon allowing the very early growing of fruit, the possibility of transport opened up new possibilities just after the waves of lay-offs from mining.

In the change to market gardening, many followed the pioneer James Lawry. On a visit to Crystal Palace in London in 1862 (I do so very much love accounts of Crystal Palace), he heard of Covent Garden market. Visiting it, he discovered their earliest strawberries arrived in June, while back home in Tamar Valley their crop was much earlier. Upon learning the  difference in price for Strawberries in London as opposed to Devon, there seemed little to lose. He started sending his fruit to a Mr. Israel in 1863.

Lawry helped establish not just strawberries, but also punnet-making, and thus began a thriving networks of smallholdings and associated employment for the whole family.

In 1966, Beaching’s cuts to train services and closure of multiple stations ended what was left of this industry as transportation costs became too high, fruit could no longer arrive to markets within 24 hours at a low enough price. I already felt like spitting whenever his name is mentioned. Of course, globalisation, and the flying in of fruit from countries around the world did not help either.

In 1971 there were still 250 viable holdings, by 1979 only 140 growers left, and the extreme slopes fell out of cultivation for the easier flats where mechanization could be brought in. Now they are all but gone.

We probably won’t be able to fly in strawberries forever, so perhaps this shall be full of smallholdings once again. Interesting thought.

The oral histories are short–a few paragraphs of key memories–but so interesting. Alan Rickard’s father had been to Canada to work in the mines there, then returned to work five acres growing cherries, dahlias, rhubarb, irises, strawberries and daffodils. This was apparently true of many families, John Snell’s father went to the mines first, then Ford’s Detroit plant and then returned home. Almost all of the gardens sold a similar variety, though most seemed to specialise in one or two. There are a few fishermen, who gardened on the side. Others seemed to be more gardeners who fished. A few German POWs who remained after the war. A number are still in the business, generally where their children and grandchildren have taken over — though in large modern greenhouses or polytunnels.

One of my favourite quotes from Alan Langsford:

When I was a little boy I wanted to be a Dutchman when I grew up. [The bulb-salesmen] all wore suits, drove nice cars and didn’t work outside on the land! (142)

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Herb gardening, and I use a scythe

Today we worked clearing out a bed of herbs that had been sadly overrun, hard work but most satisfying. The lemon balm smelled most divine. It was a beautiful day today, mostly sunny and warm.

Honestly, there may be nothing I’d rather be doing than working in an herb bed on a day like this.

An overall view of this afternoon’s progress.

Farming 2.4

I wanted to learn more about herbs in this place, so here a few of the herbs I was working to clear around, the pictures probably give an idea of how much weeding remains to be done. These descriptions are all from Mrs. M. Grieve’s herbal, which I quite love.

Myrrhis Oderata – Sweet Cicely

Farm 2.4

Sweet Cicely is very attractive to bees; in the north of England it is said that the seeds are used to polish and scent oak floors and furniture. In Germany they are still very generally used in cookery. The old herbalists describe the plant as ‘so harmless you cannot use it amiss.’ The roots were supposed to be not only excellent in a salad, but when boiled and eaten with oil and vinegar, to be ‘very good for old people that are dull and without courage; it rejoiceth and comforteth the heart and increaseth their lust and strength.’

Tanacetum vulgare – Tansy

Farming 2.4

It is connected with some interesting old customs observed at Easter time, when even archbishops and bishops played handball with men of their congregation, and a Tansy cake was the reward of the victors. These Tansy cakes were made from the young leaves of the plant, mixed with eggs, and were thought to purify the humours of the body after the limited fare of Lent. In time, this custom obtained a kind of symbolism, and Tansies, as these cakes were called, came to be eaten on Easter Day as a remembrance of the bitter herbs eaten by the Jews at the Passover. Coles (1656) says the origin of eating it in the spring is because Tansy is very wholesome after the salt fish consumed during Lent, and counteracts the ill-effects which the ‘moist and cold constitution of winter has made on people . . . though many understand it not, and some simple people take it for a matter of superstition to do so.’

‘This balsamic plant,’ says Boerhaave (the Danish physician), ‘will supply the place of nutmegs and cinnamon,’ and the young leaves, shredded, serve as a flavouring for puddings and omelets. Gerard tells us that Tansy Teas were highly esteemed in Lent as well as Tansy puddings.

Culpepper says: ‘Of Tansie. The root eaten, is a singular remedy for the gout: the rich may bestow the cost to preserve it.’

Prunella vulgaris – Self-heal

Farming 2.4

The Self-Heal holds an equal place with Bugle in the esteem of herbalists.

Cole, in Adam in Eden (1657), says:

‘It is called by modern writers (for neither the ancient Greek nor Latin writers knew it) Brunella, from Brunellen, which is a name given unto it by the Germans, because it cureth that inflammation of the mouth which they call “die Breuen,” yet the general name of it in Latin nowadays is Prunella, as being a word of a more gentile pronunciation.’

Cole further explains that the disease in question ‘is common to soldiers when they Iye in camp, but especially in garrisons, coming with an extraordinary inflammation or swelling, as well in the mouth as throat, the very signature of the Throat which the form of the Floures so represent signifying as much’ – an instance of the doctrine of signatures of which William Cole was such a ready exponent.

‘There is not a better Wound herbe,’ says Gerard, ‘in the world than that of SelfHeale is, the very name importing it to be very admirable upon this account and indeed the Virtues doe make it good, for this very herbe without the mixture of any other ingredient, being onely bruised and wrought with the point of a knife upon a trencher or the like, will be brought into the form of a salve, which will heal any green wounde even in the first intention, after a very wonderful manner, The decoction of Prunell made with wine and water doth join together and make whole and sound all wounds, both inward and outward, even as Bugle doth. To be short, it serveth for the same that the Bugle serveth and in the world there are not two better wound herbs as hath been often proved.’

Melissa officinalis – Lemon Balm

Farming 2.4

(My favourite)

The word Balm is an abbreviation of Balsam, the chief of sweet-smelling oils. It is so called from its honeyed sweetness It was highly esteemed by Paracelsus, who believed it would completely revivify a man. It was formerly esteemed of great use in all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system. The London Dispensary (1696) says: ‘An essence of Balm, given in Canary wine, every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness.’ John Evelyn wrote: ‘Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully chasing away melancholy.’ Balm steeped in wine we are told again, ‘comforts the heart and driveth away melancholy and sadness.’ Formerly a spirit of Balm, combined with lemon-peel, nutmeg and angelica root, enjoyed a great reputation under the name of Carmelite water, being deemed highly useful against nervous headache and neuralgic affections.

Many virtues were formerly ascribed to this plant. Gerard says: ‘It is profitably planted where bees are kept. The hives of bees being rubbed with the leaves of bawme, causeth the bees to keep together, and causeth others to come with them.’ And again quoting Pliny, ‘When they are strayed away, they do find their way home by it.’ Pliny says: ‘It is of so great virtue that though it be but tied to his sword that hath given the wound it stauncheth the blood.’ Gerard also tells us: ‘The juice of Balm glueth together greene wounds,’ and gives the opinion of Pliny and Dioscorides that ‘Balm, being leaves steeped in wine, and the wine drunk, and the leaves applied externally, were considered to be a certain cure for the bites of venomous beasts and the stings of scorpions. It is now recognized as a scientific fact that the balsamic oils of aromatic plants make excellent surgical dressings: they give off ozone and thus exercise anti-putrescent effects. Being chemical hydrocarbons, they contain so little oxygen that in wounds dressed with the fixed balsamic herbal oils, the atomic germs of disease are starved out, and the resinous parts of these balsamic oils, as they dry upon the sore or wound, seal it up and effectually exclude all noxious air.

John Hussey, of Sydenham, who lived to the age of 116, breakfasted for fifty years on Balm tea sweetened with honey, and herb teas were the usual breakfasts of Llewelyn Prince of Glamorgan, who died in his 108th year. Carmelite water, of which Balm was the chief ingredient, was drunk daily by the Emperor Charles V.

I used a scythe to cut grass for the first time this morning as well! It’s harder than it looks, and although using a scythe I wasn’t actually scything but ‘mowing’ in the proper terminology.

I also did more weeding on a bed of broad beans and some volunteer potatoes, and got one and a half episodes of Night Vale in.

Farming 2.4

And to finish it all off, I milked the goat once again. I was better this time. Exciting day…

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Gardening lessons

I did not have enough respect for nettles. I do now, and will for the next hours and days if my hand keeps itching.

I actually enjoy weeding, particularly when it is half spent listening to Welcome to Night Vale (which makes time speed quickly by and I highly recommend), and half listening to bird song. Most of all, I enjoy it when I look back and see a wide swathe of weed-free earth.

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I have not yet conquered my fear of the gander, but I will. As apparently he himself respects a big stick.

Farming 2.3

I do not have enough endurance when it comes to scraping paths clear. But we scraped them. They are nice to look back on as well, once you have managed to fully straighten up.

Farming 2.3

Calendulas are some of the most beautiful things in the world.

Farming 2.3

And finally, I am so glad we have weekends free. Though tonight I am learning how to milk the goat!

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Starting a Community Garden

To go from gravel covered ground to a vibrant community garden of raised beds is going to take a lot of work, so we thought the sooner we started the better. The 5th of March was chosen and we stuck to it and we had a number of brave and wonderful people brave the weather to join us:

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We planned a number of activities so that all ages could participate even at this stage of the community garden, from planting seeds to planting sacks. We set up a few tables in the foyer though, so people could plant some seeds to take away and grow food on their windowsills, and if possible to bring us back a plant or two that could grow and flourish here.

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The sack planting was a bit chilly but very cool, and tomorrow’s post will be a complete how-to on how to make your own. They are very useful ways to grows vegetables in small urban spaces like balconies or a little patch of paved garden.

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The key learning, however, is that it is not too early for strawberries.

The main things for Saturday, however, was to build one of the large herb beds we want to set alongside the path across the Precinct site, so people can pick fresh herbs for their meals as they walk from Cable Street to the Limehouse DLR and back.

We started with the large but fairly flimsy structure that our first load of firewood was delivered in. To get it in out of the first drops of rain, I had already sawed this in two as you can see:

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To shore up those flimsy sides we broke up two other pallets (given to us by a wonderful foreman name of Gary running a building site off Commercial)

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And screwed it all together:

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At that point it started to hail. We brought it all inside the hub.

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Paint doesn’t usually last too long on outdoor beds, cracking and peeling with sun and rain and, er, hail. But we have gallons of marine paint left over from painting the trim on the containers and that is much more resilient, so we went ahead and used that to paint our first herb bed. Half orange and half turquoise.

It isn’t the best paint to use inside and in enclosed spaces, but we made do…

community garden

community garden

We’ll be lining it and filling it with wicking materials to conserve moisture despite the windiness and exposure of our site, then soil and plants, probably also adding a bench to make it somewhere people can sit and enjoy the fragrance once it warms up a bit. Looking at it, I wonder if it doesn’t need a few more planks and a little more solidity, but we’ll be keeping some of the spaces as things will grow as happily out of the side of it as they will from the top. We’ll be posting another how-to once it is all done, but for a first day this was absolutely lovely and we got so much accomplished.

Best of all, I think, was the time we were able to work outside and chat with people on their way through who just came up to to find out what we were doing, to say how happy they were that this vacant piece of land was finally being put to a community use, and even just how much they loved gardens. It really felt like we were creating a sense of community then, and gave us a good taste of what will be possible when the sun is shining and people are looking around for things to do outside…

I’m going to end this gratuitously with a puppy, Nala is the Precinct Art Space’s newest tenant and made Saturday even more wonderful than it was before. Along with always having strawberries, may we suggest trying to find a puppy to join you…

community garden

[also posted on St Katharine’s site]

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Amazing Container Gardens from recycled materials

I started research on what to do for our community container garden just looking at pallet constructions. There are some beautiful DIY designs, this one from Caravanserai, who were amazing enough to help us build the benches for the cafe and who are coming on Saturday to lend a hand:

b32dc9eb52b5b05d8da6fd6194fb0295And more…

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from palletsdesigns.com

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A vertical pallet herb garden…I’m pretty excited about that…

pallet-vertical-garden-ideaThese are perhaps more classy…more work too. But so beautiful from palletsdesigns.com:

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Put all together they are lovely, as you can see in a post from 99pallets.com (I clearly am far from alone in loving pallet construction):

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There are some more complex designs that require a little more than a hand saw, though I suppose you could manage with just that:

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from palletfurniturediy.com

all the way to more professional loveliness that still seems within reach

b sq. Design Studio, Canada Blooms Garden Festival
b sq. Design Studio, Canada Blooms Garden Festival

These varnished and waxed vertical systems for succulent seem just as fancy — also doable:

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from palletfurniturediy.com

And what to do with that sunny but vertical slope?

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You think it can’t get better and then you look at this amazing project from Johannesburg: you start with something so simple, that becomes more complex:

Brothers-in-benches-pallet-social-project-done-in-Johannesburg-1-400x300Put a few more together and holy shit:

Brothers-in-benches-pallet-social-project-done-in-Johannesburg-3-400x291There is a write-up of the project ‘Brothers in Benches’ here — what better way to allow people to creatively interact with and shape social space?

That’s enough about pallets, because while looking into them I heard from a wonderful friend about African Sack gardening, as they had planted them in the school where she worked with their students. Who loved them unconditionally.

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Part of a wonderful how-to post from Humanitarian Aid & Relief: Stories and updates from World Concern

 

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(RIGHT) Ms Harriet Nakabale plucks spinach from a sack that doubles as a garden in her compound. (LEFT) Ms Nakabale shows a section of straw berries from her home based farm. From The Daily Monitor.

Looking more at them,  I began to find my way into the wider wonderful world of container growing in the Phillipines. There is Peñalosa Farms, Negros Occidental. I mean, my god:

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Paradise.

Ramon_Penalosa vertical organic gardenYou can stay there too.

I was amazed by how people have recycled plastic, inspired, and then momentarily cast down after stumbling across an article that suggested they might well be unsafe. Then I recalled all those posts about why you shouldn’t drink bottled water and the carcinogens leaching out of the plastic and etc. So a little more research… Some plastic is unsafe, but some is (probably) safe. For a long discussion of that try this article on the fresh organic gardening website.  These are the ‘safe’ plastics

safe

PETE or PET bottles. You see the triangle symbol with the #1 inside at the bottom of the container. This type of plastic is used for most clear beverage bottles.

HDPE (high density polyethylene). You see the triangle symbol with the #2 inside at the bottom of the container. This type of plastic is used for “cloudy” milk and water jugs, opaque food bottles.

LDPE (low density polyethylene). You see the triangle symbol with the #4 inside at the bottom of the container. This plastic is used in food storage bags and squeeze bottles.

PP (polypropylene). You see the triangle symbol with the #5 inside at the bottom of the container. This is used in rigid containers, including some baby bottles, and some cups and bowls. Examples are the wide-necked milky white containers usually used for yogurt.

This is an issue with some reclaimed wood as well, we’ll be lining our beds so there’s no possibility of toxins leaching from creasote-treated or painted wood. I’m glad some bottles are probably safe, because there is recycled bottle tower growing — I am so looking forward to trying this:

p1070455-copyYou can find a wonderful how-to post from Dr Van Cotthem here, which is a site where my vertical and container gardening learning has advanced in leaps and bounds. More from the Phillipines:

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From Rancho Delicioso in Costa Rica:

Vertical-Tube-Garden

But those bottles don’t have to stay vertical, they can be laid out horizontally like so:

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Hung from on high

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Put into pyramids even

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More vertical gardening ideas use gutters — all the lettuce you could use for your salads:

http://ranchodelicioso.com/recycled-bottle-gardens/

Amazing what we can do, how much we can grow even in small spaces.

Now, to grow it.

Three Inspirational Community Gardens

Only a fraction of the places you could look, because they are so many! What more do you need in searching for some kind of hope for humanity, because these gardens are amazing and they all exist because people worked hard mostly in their free time to create them. Just because they love gardens.

I’m half excited and half pure panicked about the thought of setting up our own community garden at the precinct. So much work, so much I don’t know. So I’ve been visiting lots of people and talking things through.

I know that’s not the same as doing it of course. Our first event to build some herb beds and plant some sack gardens is Saturday and I’m pretty scared.

Still, look at what is possible.

Cody Dock

This might just be my favourite — they have boats after all, and sit alongside the water and have an old routemaster puppet bus.Who can compete with that?

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Stephen Shiell working with local residents has built one hell of a beautiful garden in this very industrial space, a place of wonder even on a bitterly cold February morning.

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Dancing grasses, a splendid area of bog, an unexpectedly successful succulent garden that stunned everyone with its flowers

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A scattering of art across the landscape, like these wind pipes and a living woven fence of willow. I confess, I never knew this was possible with willow. I can’t wait to see it after it leafs out (though some of it has died back, something about the site or the preparation not having been quite to its liking, and this is the greatest lesson I have taken away from all of these gardens. You never really know what will happen and everything will still be okay):

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They have built these beautiful and very simple glass lids to some of the growing beds that we might want to consider for the end of this year so we can start some seeds early (a bit too late now sadly!):

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An incredibly inspiring place I can’t wait to return to, especially as they are working to further reclaim the pathway along the canal, with its ancient reed beds and stillness in the heart of the city.

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Poplar HARCA

Storm warnings were in force when Ana Mae Contreras showed me around several of the gardens on the estates, and despite that I got to see community building in action. Not much had happened at one of the gardens over the winter, so as soon as we started looking around people came down to find out when things were starting up again.

Nice.

As is the garden, built with strong scaffolding to grow kudu, a gourd popular in Bengali cooking:

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I am looking forward to growing some of this, and even more to learning how to cook it. They are in the middle of building a bottle greenhouse here, which I love (Stepney City Farm has a lovely one as well)

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They also have a nice and tidy composter, which might be useful for our gardens, though I think we have space for the more traditional kind and its much larger capacity.

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Just around the corner from here is a new orchard, which each of the fruit trees adopted and cared for by a family. I loved that, but my heart was truly stolen by an curious square of rubber set into the ground — turns out it is a trampoline, one big enough to hold three grown women sharing a moment of pure joy.

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Ten minutes away their youth project is working on their own garden — a different form of bed, and beautiful

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Walk down a narrow grassy alley perfect for hosting community cooks and food sharing, there are more immensely solid allotment beds:

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And this awesomeness still somewhat under construction:

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Woolwich Community Centre Garden

This was a little off the beaten track, but I went to an amazing training put together by the Greenwich Co-operative Development Agency on starting a community garden. I would highly recommend it. It walked us through thinking about everything we need to start a garden…this what we came up with

  • Space, soil, water, sun, gravel, compost
  • Raised beds for growing
  • seeds and plants
  • committed group to help start and manage gardens, but multiple opportunities for people to drop in and out, volunteer short term
  • process for access, managing security
  • meeting space, and place for planning building, crops, care
  • marketing to get people involved
  • fundraising, process to capacitate community to do the fundraising
  • budget
  • relationship with neighbouring gardens and city farms and allotments for resources and support
  • plan for statement of purpose as we can’t have simple allotments, how we might divide harvest, could we do some communal cooking
  • insurance

The training was about how we manage to pull together all of those things, and immensely useful.

The weather, as per usual, was freezing cold. It also rained.

Here is the garden at the centre:

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The best kind of compost system, and the kind we hope to build:

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A handy way to store things, especially all the bits you need to make bee houses:

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I would love to do a workshop building those. I’d also love one of these — a worm farm, useful for organic fertilisers, though I am as sold on nettle and comfrey teas.

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We definitely have a lot of work to do to be this amazing.

We’ve had more help from Caravanserai, Stepney City Farm, the Women’s Environmental Network and others still to get in touch with. There is so much happening around food growing and urban agriculture in Tower Hamlets, it is exciting to be a part of it.

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