Tag Archives: organic gardening

We’d rather drink the gin than spray it on weeds, thanks.

Not an expensive brand and bought duty-free but we would still rather drink it than spray it on weeds

Not an expensive brand and bought duty-free but we would still rather drink it than spray it on weeds

Christmas dinner conversation covered many topics but I wanted to test something I had read on the biochemist and the synthetic organic chemist at the table. The location was Canberra where we ate outdoors on a balmy evening and the temperature was still hovering in the late 20s Celsius as the night drew in.

Before leaving home, I had read the following passage in a new publication:

“You’re not trying to get your weeds drunk but the alcohol in cheap gin stops them in their tracks. Grab a bottle of spirits, mix with the juice of 2 lemons and spray on weeds.”

Discretion is the better part of valour so I won’t name the source of this advice but, as a gin drinker, it raised many questions. Where can I buy this cheap gin that is referenced? I wondered if it meant the diluted, flavoured gins that I see for about $15 at the bottle store but the Australian contingent tells me these are a New Zealand product and this advice seems more international, so maybe not. Why gin? Is it the juniper berries that are the magic ingredient or will any strong alcohol work as well? Is it really meant to be applied undiluted because around $30 to $35 for a litre of weed spray is extraordinarily expensive? What does the lemon juice do?

img_3601The biochemist and the synthetic organic chemist were more amused than anything else. They could not see any reason why gin should be more efficacious than any other form of alcohol. But none of us really wanted to sacrifice the Christmas gin to carry out field trials. Mark recalled the routine use of kerosene for weed control on carrots in his father’s day. When we arrived home, he found me the reference in the McPherson book, “Vegetable Growing in New Zealand”. It is so old, it doesn’t even have a date on it but the publisher was Whitcombe and Tombs Limited and it is a few decades or more since I have seen that name.

In case you want to know more about kerosene as a weed spray, it is advised to use it at full strength (!) through a high pressure nozzle at a rate of 40-50 gallons of spray per acre. Now you know.

Back to the matter of the gin. Given the lack of field trials, I turned to the internet. There were plenty of sites advising the use of gin as a “natural” weedkiller though none I found particularly credible. I admit there are limits to my interest in this topic so I cannot claim to have done exhaustive research. But I did ascertain the following:

  • It does not have to be gin. It is the alcohol that works – isopropyl alcohol (also referred to as rubbing alcohol) is likely to be the cheapest source of the active raw ingredient.
  • The addition of lemon juice is for the desiccating (drying) effect.
  • It is usual to dilute it quite heavily with water.
  • Liquid detergent is often added as a surfactant (spreader and sticker).
  • Vinegar (acetic acid) is the most popular base ingredient and appears to act in a similar manner to alcohol.
  • The increasingly widespread advice to use salt is a problem in that it will contaminate your soils.

One of the better sites I came across was The Garden Counselor. I particularly liked the comment: “I am not opposed to using vinegar as a weed killer, only the cavalier promotion of the idea.” Substitute the word “gin” for “vinegar” in that quote and it pretty much sums up what I think.

If you want to be purist and shun liquid detergents – also referred to as ‘dish soap’ in American parlance – in your homemade spray, you may like to check the ingredients of your pure soap substitute. I was shocked, I tell you, genuinely shocked when I checked the ingredients of many soaps recently. Even expensive, luxury soaps usually contain sodium palmate as the main ingredient. That is palm oil. Think of the orangutans and the issues regarding palm oil production. I am not sure about the justification of “from sustainable plantations” either. It seems to me that this just means the land has already been clear felled for monoculture. It is so hard being an ethical consumer these days.

As far as we are concerned, the bottom line is that if you want to avoid manufactured chemical weed sprays, hand weeding or boiling water are the best alternative eco-options. Also, there is still a desperate need for sound, well-researched and tested advice on organic gardening.

We drank the gin with lime and soda instead.

Setting the table for a summer Christmas in Canberra

Setting the table for a summer Christmas in Canberra

Biodynamics – the homeopathy of the gardening world

A mutinous threat from Zephyr and Spike

A mutinous threat from Zephyr and Spike

Being a SNAW (that is a Sensitive New Age Woman, but of course you knew that), I am all for religious tolerance. That is, as long as nobody comes knocking on my door thinking I may need to be converted of a Saturday morning. I could perhaps do with being renovated, but not converted.

Similarly, when the personal faiths of others start to intrude on me, especially by claiming to occupy the higher moral ground, I get a little twitchy and few are worse at this than homeopaths, lunar planters and biodynamics converts.

Adding to my twitchiness, Spike and Zephyr, our surviving pets, are seeking legal advice. They are threatening to take out an injunction to prevent us exhuming their former colleagues for preparation 505. That is the one where a skull of a domesticated animal is stuffed with oak chips and immersed in fresh water for three months. Spike and Zephs are appalled at the thought that we may be wanting to stuff skulls with oak chips. Not only do they want to protect their former colleagues, but they are not offering to make the ultimate sacrifice, proffering up their own skulls to test the efficacy of this soil conditioner. They have been known to harumph and suggest that in this country, we should surely be stuffing bird skulls with totara chips seeing as we lack both native mammals and oak trees. And don’t be thinking any old oak tree will do. It has to be Quercus robur which is of course native to Rudolf Steiner’s homeland of Austria.

Preparation 502 is giving me much anxiety. That is the one where you stuff the bladder of a red deer with achillea flowers and bury it for months on end. There is a definite shortage of fresh deer bladders (or even frozen ones) here and local supermarkets don’t seem to stock them. I notice there is a stag where I buy my free range eggs and I pondered asking the owner how she would feel about donating its internal organ to improve our soils. But I am not sure that it is a red deer (it appears to make a difference to compound 502) and as she was hand feeding the stag when I called in one day, I feared she may not react well to my request. I think we may do better with preparation 503 (that is chamomile blossoms stuffed into the small intestines of cattle and overwintered in the ground – must remember to mark where I bury it). And preparation 506 looks manageable – dandelions stuffed in the peritoneum (sounds nasty) of cattle and similarly overwintered.

Prep 501 has powdered quartz stored in the horn of a cow (minus the cow) and buried over summer (note: summer burial, not winter, for this one). In autumn you dig it up and mix it with water at a dilution rate of one tablespoon of quartz powder to 250 litres of water (starting to sound dangerously homeopathic…). But before you spray it, you have to stir the solution for an hour and the method and direction of stirring is prescribed. You can not stint on the stirring because some see the vortex created by methodical stirring as acting like a funnel to imbue the solution with cosmic energy, making it more efficacious. Quartz is largely insoluble in water and spraying a chemically inert substance in microscopic traces over a wide area is of no discernible value whatever but let not these facts get in the way of passionate belief.

The best known prep 500 (a cow horn stuffed with the excrement of a lactating cow and buried over winter in the ground) receives similar treatment to 501 and is diluted to the same extent. Preps 502 to 508 are added to the compost heap at a rate, give or take, of around a teaspoon per cubic metre. Faith goes a long way. Apparently.

Rudolf Steiner was a philosopher and it is most unlikely that he ever got his hands in the soil. Put succinctly, Steiner came from a strong background of esoteric theosophy and when he split from the European theosophical mainstream at the turn of last century, he evolved his own world view which he styled anthroposophy. And that might be described simplistically as an attempt to synthesize mysticism and science. Lost? Don’t worry. I don’t think it matters. I would guess that Steiner, a man who spent his life thinking and in philosophical discourse, likely saw his theories on agriculture and care for the soils as merely part of a much larger universal whole. He might be slightly stunned were he around today to see how this particular side shoot to his core philosophies has taken on a life of its own as biodynamics.

Biodynamics seems to have taken a greatly simplified interpretation of Steiner’s elaborate world view and repackaged it as pseudo science to give it a credibility which it lacks. You really are back in the realms of mysticism without the science once you are into focusing cosmic rays to harness the spiritual energy of the universe. Cows’ horns and deer antlers are apparently particularly good receptors acting as a cross between a satellite dish and a storage battery for cosmic energy and cosmic wisdom. Yet, if you set aside the biodynamic preparations, the other underpinning principles of modern biodynamics are sound organics. You can not fault practices such as:
* Stocking with several different animal species to vary grazing patterns and reduce pasture borne parasites.
* Widening the range of pasture species.
* Planting trees for multiple purposes.
* Crop rotation designs to enhance soil fertility and control weeds and plant pests which include the use of green manures.
* Recycling of organic wastes, where possible, by large scale composting.
* Changing from chemical pest control to prevention strategies based on good plant and animal nutrition and careful cultivar selection.

There is nothing flaky in any of that. There is nothing spiritual either. It is just good, sustainable practice applicable to all aspects of gardening and agriculture.

I respect the right of bioydynamic converts to believe in cosmic energies and a holistic interpretation of their position in the universe. But I do wish they wouldn’t try and package it as science and, like lunar planting and homeopathy, such practices have gained a level of mainstream acceptance which is not founded on any scientific credibility at all. It can make it hard to disentangle what is sound environmental practice from what is religion.

Organic Gardening Bible by Bob Flowerdew

If the rather grandiose title makes you raise your eyebrows, the subtitle is more modest: “Successful growing the natural way”. Bob Flowerdew has been gardening organically for 30 years and is a well known radio contributor (BBC Radio4 Gardeners’ Question Time), author and sometime television presenter.

Pare down organic gardening and take it away from the faith based aspects (lunar planting, biodynamics, reverence for heirloom varieties, romantic interpretations of times past, even interlocking with astrology and homeopathy) and what you end up with is the unvarnished reality. Quite simply, to be an effective organic gardener, you have to be a good gardener following sound environmental practices because when things go wrong, you don’t have the option of falling back on chemical intervention. If you get it wrong, you won’t get a harvest.

Bob Flowerdew takes organic gardening back to the basic principles of sustainable gardening with a common sense approach. He does not try and pretend it is all wonderfully easy and anybody can do it at the drop of a hat. Modern aberrations like tomato grow bags and raised bed potagers do not make an appearance. It takes time and practice to learn how to be a good gardener though good advice can help short circuit some of the common mistakes. There is information about which plants fix minerals in the soils, on the pros and cons of various companion planting options, green crops and which ones are recommended in various situations and at different times of the year. This is the first time we have seen mention of the effect green crops can have on crop rotation. For example, mustard is a brassica and that has to be factored in to planning. The author’s preferred fallback option is miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata). The focus is on creating healthy and rich micro environments within your garden. There is a wealth of information contained in the 270 pages (and large format at that), with a comprehensive index at the back. However, we were surprised at the absence of information about the importance of carbon in maintaining soil health. Not even traditional charcoal got a look in.

That aside, if you want good, sound information on organic gardening methods without the smoke and mirrors that too often accompany such books, this is a good place to start. It is just a shame it is English and geared to a colder climate. That is its major drawback for New Zealand gardeners in warmer conditions.

Organic Gardening Bible by Bob Flowerdew (Kyle Books; ISBN: 978 0 85783 035 7) reviewed by Abbie Jury.

First published by Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Differing shades of organic gardening (akin to the sliding scale of vegetarianism)

Anything but organic.....

Anything but organic…..

I see Prince Charles feels vindicated about organic gardening, pointing out that when he first started talking about it, he was the subject of much derision. There is no doubt that the prince is a very keen gardener and he has been a flag bearer for organic techniques in the ornamental garden as well as the kitchen garden. I just recall some discussion about him advocating talking to one’s plants which still seems perilously close to being flaky in my books.

But Prince Charles is absolutely right about home organics. In fact the chemical approach to weed and pest control is comparatively recent, dating back to about the 1950s, as is the routine use of manufactured fertiliser. It was the result of war technology. We’ve been getting steadily better but the intervening decades were not gardening’s finest hours and some pretty dodgy practices and attitudes linger on.

We never describe ourselves as organic gardeners because we are not. We do, however, follow many organic gardening practices because they make good sense in terms of gardening in harmony with nature and enhancing the environment. This is not true of all gardening, much of which has to do with imposing human will upon nature.

As a result of this, we spend a fair amount of time on a quest for reliable information. There is an awful lot of puffery around organics, from flaky thinking to fervent faith, but that does not mean the underpinning principles are wrong. It just means it is a little harder to decode some of it. We’ve still come up short on good information regarding nutritional density, but given time, I am sure we can find that out.

In the meantime, it may help readers to think of organic gardening running a similar line to vegetarian diets – there are a whole lot of points on the continuum where you can find your niche. Starting from one extreme, you have the old fashioned eater whose dinner plate is 50% meat (usually red), 35% spuds and the remainder in consolation green veg. This gardener sees nothing wrong with pouring on insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, along with chemical fertilisers. We won’t dwell too long on this 1960s model.

The realisation of heavy carbon footprints and lack of flavour in food which saw a return to seasonal eating, and then to eating locally produced foods may be analogous to the home gardeners who suddenly decide they must have raised vegetable beds on the quest for self sufficiency. It matters not that they are filling the beds with compost mix sourced from the garden centre, trucked considerable distance and packed in heavy plastic bags. Nor does it matter that any resulting produce will be extremely expensive. They have made a start and they claim it is organic because they are not using sprays. At this point, organics has more to do with what is being left out rather than a change to the way we garden and it tends to be the domain of the enthusiast who is not always particularly well informed or indeed experienced.

Move along to the partial vegetarian movement (which seems sometimes to extend to the genre of foraging and wild foods). We belong around here – two or three meals a week which are vegetarian and always seasonal using our own produce. Gardening organically at this point has much to do with sustainable practice wedded to pragmatism. We factor in issues such as plant and seed selection, plant heath, soil health, maintaining ecosystems, composting, mulching, and lawn management to avoid needing to spray or feed. But we want to be able to get crops of tomatoes through and we are yet to be convinced you can do that organically in our climate. We make relatively well informed choices in food and gardening.

Genuine vegetarians usually underpin their diet choice with philosophical beliefs. Many will eat dairy products and eggs, some even fish. But others will shun any dead animal products including cheeses made with animal rennet, even leather shoes. Being a certified organic gardener tends to come parallel at about this point. It is much more rigorous and prescriptive while offering the security of rules to follow.

At the far end of the spectrum are the vegans, probably matched in gardening by those who operate closed horticultural systems (with no external inputs) and biodynamics. While there is a tendency to accord these extremes the mantle of purity, the higher moral ground, in practice they are usually more faith based than science based. Neither a vegan diet nor a closed growing system is complete in the long term without supplements.

So organics is not a hard and fast set of rules, unless you are after accreditation. What is really interesting to us about Prince Charles is that he is serious about having a beautiful, traditional garden, all the while applying organic principles at every level, not just to his cauliflowers. It is looking increasingly like common sense these days. We just wish we could afford the prince’s eighteen garden staff to help us towards greater purity in gardening practice.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Crystal ball predictions for the 2010 gardening year

Ah, that wonderful Christmas – New Year hiatus. In the days before the Boxing Day sales and indeed before seven day trading, it used to be more of a coma than a hiatus but even now, in this country, we settle in to holiday mode. Why else would we tolerate the truly appalling offerings on television where there is rarely anything worth watching? Clearly we are all meant to be reading the Christmas books or chatting to family and friends instead. And the print and electronic media, yours truly included, sink into a period of reflection, summarising the year past and bravely making predictions for the year just starting. This is at least one step better than recycling earlier offerings under the headings of “ 2009 Highlights” or “Best of…”. So I shall resist the temptation to recycle a piece from earlier this year (though I will admit to being proud of the series I wrote on English summer gardens which is still on this website) and look into my crystal ball.

I believe we will diversify from vegetables. Veg gardening is not fad or fashion but the all consuming obsession is showing signs of dilution. There is a hint that some would like to read about other types of plants and gardens as well as home food production. I recall an Auckland journo wryly commenting on the $70 lettuce. That is the cost for some of producing their first and sometimes only produce after buying planter boxes, the bagged potting mix and compost, the most basic of tools and punnets of small plants from the garden centre.

Serious vegetable gardening will continue for some, but many of those who follow fashion and trends will be realising by now that to be a successful vegetable gardener requires some expertise and skill and quite a bit of time. You can not just plant the seeds or baby plants and then ignore them. Dilettantes will lose heart and move on. The declaration that one will only plant productive trees and shrubs may be a sign of naivety and not the higher moral ground. It could be argued that the doom and gloom of the recession had us all looking to survival mode. Now that the clouds are lifting, increased optimism allows space for aesthetics and beauty in life as well. And I can assure you that while the walnut tree I see outside my window fruits and we enjoy its harvest, it is but a poor aesthetic specimen compared to the magnolia nearby which is lush and opening its summer flowers. We need to nourish more than just the body and to titillate more than the taste buds. In our eyes, the complete garden goes well beyond just fruit and vegetables, although they are an important element.

The upside of the vegetable craze has been the return to some old fashioned values of seasonal eating, taking pride in home produce and super fresh ingredients given a new twist with some rather more sophisticated international flavours. I reviewed a rather large number of cook books last year for the food pages (Second Daughter was fearfully impressed last week with my shelf of recipe books and I only keep the ones I like) and certainly the current focus is very strongly on eating locally sourced foods in season. The delight in being able to transcend seasonal limitations by buying food which has crossed the hemispheres is a thing of the recent past for many of us. We now care whether the garlic and onions come from China, the grapes and nectarines from USA, the kiwifruit from Italy and the pork from Australia. We would rather it came from Te Kuiti or the Rangitikei, thank you, if we are to move outside our local area. So I would expect we will see farmers’ markets go from strength to strength.

The local focus of the farmers’ markets may well extend to wider gardening practices. Here, we raise our eyebrows at the widespread use of mulches, potting mixes and composts shipped across the country when there are local alternatives with much smaller carbon footprints. Pea straw is the classic. It has a great reputation as garden mulch (though it is a myth that it adds nitrogen to the soil because the nitrogen is in the roots of the pea plant and pea straw by definition, is the dried tops only) but have you ever asked yourself where the nearest commercial production of peas takes place? It is being shipped hundreds of kilometres in a large truck in order to cover your garden when there are local alternatives which will do just the same. Try locally produced granulated bark or compost, pine needles, even barley straw from South Taranaki.

The move away from poisons and sprays is a trend we expect to see escalate. Our tolerance level in this country for the use of some extremely heavy duty toxins is very high indeed, often justified as a lesser of two evils. 1080 is the classic: this mass poisoning on a grand scale with a particularly unpleasant toxin which enters the food chain is government sanctioned but we are seeing the tide of public opinion turn. At least 1080 is tightly controlled, whereas the over the counter poisons that are freely and abundantly sold here are arguably worse. Rats, mice, possums and rabbits – you too can bowl into a shop and buy some nasty poisons. The trouble is that many will enter the food chain, some have no antidotes, some are appallingly slow acting and unpleasant and in this country we are all too cavalier in our use of them. Worry whenever you see the term by-kill. It is the unintended death of other life than the target. A cute little dog named Wilfred, in our case, and the poison that killed him did not originate from our property. While we shoot all our possums here, a common possum poison used by others is very slow acting and can enter the food chain. We are having to review our long held practice of feeding the carcases to our animals. The time when we see a sharp reduction in the usage and availability of such toxins can not come soon enough for us, or indeed for the environment of our country.

Buffy the cat, potential by-kill, even even though Mark shoots all our possums. Slow acting over-the counter poisons may mean the carcase is already toxic.

Buffy the cat, potential by-kill, even even though Mark shoots all our possums. Slow acting over-the counter poisons may mean the carcase is already toxic.

Organics, we predict, will become more mainstream and increasingly widely practiced. It may not be organics as the purists know it. Indeed it is highly likely to be a heavily diluted form and possibly derided by the dedicated converts. But anything which sees gardening move away from practices and habits which rely more on the use of chemicals than on good gardening strategies has to be an improvement. If we follow the European trends, ever tighter government controls will stop home gardeners having access to a range of sprays and artificial fertilisers which have been used to prop up poor gardening practices, poor plant selection or unsustainable habits.

The wheel is turning. After a decade or more of rampant consumerism, conspicuous wealth and people who are time-poor, gardening is on the up again and for that we have the vegetable craze to thank. It all looks a great deal more wholesome and cheerful than a few years ago. Happy New Year and may 2010 be one of good gardening cheer for readers.