Garden Organic celebrates 50 years of organic achievement

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Garden Organic. Take ten minutes out of the day to read about their history and sign up as a member. As well as advising organic gardeners, they carry out an extensive programme of research into new organic methods, help people in developing countries to learn about new organic techniques and preserve the diversity of fruit and vegetable seeds through their Heritage Seed Library. They also work with schools to generate interest in gardening and publish many extremely useful books on organic gardening. I’m a big fan of the work of their founder Lawrence Hills, who spent most of his life researching and promoting organic techniques. Most of his books are out of print but you can still get hold of them through on-line retailers and second-hand bookshops. The research tradition of Lawrence Hills continues today and its worth becoming a member just to find out about new techniques we can all use in our gardens to make life easier, more pleasurable and bountiful. Their research work overseas takes in regions as diverse as Africa, Central America and South East Asia and includes ground breaking schemes in Cuba and Afghanistan to tackle poverty, drugs and AIDS related illness. Visit to find out more.

CAT garden featured in Guardian

Fans of the Centre for Alternative Technology will be pleased to know that The Guardian is featuring a CAT garden in their Anatomy of a Garden section tomorrow – saturday 26th July. Look out for it in the magazine.

A World Without Bees

If climate change doesn’t get you, the disappearance of the honeybee will – this is the rather gloomy message of Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum’s well researched and engagingly written new book on Colony Collapse Disorder – a honeybee ‘plague’ which has already killed millions of bees worldwide. Some 90 commercial crops owe their continued existence to the pollination services provided free of charge by the honeybee so its fair to say that A World Without Bees is an important book. For it to succeed in its mission it has to put the fear of God into us without losing us to jargon. It does so admirably, taking us through the rather complicated but interesting world of honeybee health, politics and economics and delivering us to a conclusion which lays the blame firmly on our own shoulders. Time to start talking about bee rights? Could be.

Garden News Article – of mice and slugs

This is the follow up Garden News article about slugs and mice – printed a couple of weeks ago. Garden News is published every Tuesday and my articles appear once a fortnight. The next one will be tomorrow 22nd July.

Sometimes it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees. Last week I discovered a small row of carrots cut down in their prime – the remains of the curly tops and stems scattered about the soil like flotsam washed up upon a muddy shore. At first I thought my slug watch experiment had come to a definitive, not to mention premature end. Proof positive that my paired down approach to slug control hadn’t worked. But to my relief, or should that be horror, the real problem was not slugs at all but mice: the evidence in the scatterings of debris strewn towards and through the gap between my fence. Slugs don’t scatter. They methodically devour.

Working out which pest did what damage is Cluedo for gardeners, a distressing distraction with an occasionally pleasing end. Sometimes you never get to the bottom of a garden pest mystery, sometimes its obvious, sometimes you must plough through page after page of diagnostic assistance from the RHS manual on Pests and Diseases or even better Buczacki and Harris’ Guide to the Pests, Diseases and Disorders of Garden Plants.

A few moments in the company of B and H soon exhales any breath of sentimentality the Spring Watch loving part of my gardening soul has stored up for the cute perpetrator of crimes against carrots. Wood mice may look sweet but they will eat just about anything, not just the bean and pea seeds that automatically spring to mind when we think of them. Ironically a carrot-laden trap will also tempt them. Something I guess I could have worked out for myself. If I had managed to grow any carrots I could have used them to trap the mice. I believe that’s what they call Catch 22.

Controlling pests in an organic garden is a three-stage process. Stage one is preparing in advance for any problems that are almost certainly going to occur in an average growing season (planting comfrey, putting up carrot fly netting and so on). Stage two is allowing nature every advantage to keep its own balance of pest and predator (laying off chemicals, planting a wide variety of those predator loving flowers described in Garden News three weeks ago and maintaining a healthy crop rotation). Stage three is watching out for problems and playing god when necessary, intervening quickly when something isn’t quite going according to plan.

My slug watch experiment is a good example of this three-stage process. Its taught me that slugs love to eat comfrey and in averagely dry conditions they will keep to familiar territories where they’ll find lots of good food: just like humans they’ll hang out where life is easiest. These little comfrey canteens are easy targets for slug predators like toads, frogs, birds and slow worms, also looking for an easy life. But in very wet conditions, where there has been rain over a number of days and nights, the slugs and snails will venture away from these safe areas and use the moisture in the soil as an indicator that now is a good time to head off in search of a varied diet: which they then find in your veggie plot.

On nights like these you have to play God, diligently going up to the patch and removing what you find. This may seem like a tedious task but not so. The garden is rather wonderful at night: even when damp. And there’s something very rewarding about watching an amphibian push through a line of rocket leaves in search of prey. And the results: over a month practicing this method I’ve lost only two small poppy seedlings – and that was on a night when I didn’t do the patrol.

As for the mouse, well they have their predators too – owls, weasels, cats and other birds and mammals – but some of these predators being rather hard to encourage into the garden – I may have to take matters into my own hand. This means setting a trap. Traps can kill non-target beneficial species (which may also be an offence) and injure pets so they always need to be placed under a cloche or other form of protection. For the time being though I’m going to watch and wait. Even though the books say mice will eat anything, they haven’t eaten anything else – yet. If it stays like that the Spring Watch part of me will probably win out. If not the gardener will come out. Fighting.

The Age of Stupid

It.s 10.30 sunday evening and I’ve just come back from seeing the most amazing film: The Age of Stupid. We had a special screening in Machynlleth – the film was only completed a month ago and wont be available on general release until September – but when it is you should all go and see it. The film has been made thanks to individual donations and a small scale share issue to regular people and stars Oscar nominated actor Pete Postelthwaite as an archivist of the human race isolated in a secure library of human achievement in the Arctic around about the year 2050. Preparing to beam a history of humanity and global climate change into space he looks back one more time at our own stupidity and our overwhelming failure to grasp the seriousness of our situation. Director Franny Armstrong, a remarkable person of immense talent and as I found out tonight listening to her talk in an after film discussion panel, great humility, also made the documentary film about Helen Steel and David Morris’ fight against the McDonalds corporation. Unlike a Michael Moore film, which is all about how Michael Moore sees the world, Franny lets other people tell their stories – and the documentary is all the better for it. She spends time with an Indian airline entrepreneur, an oil worker who survived and helped many others survive Hurricane Katrina, an aspiring medical worker in oil and war torn Nigeria, Iraqi children living in exile, a wind farm developer fighting to secure planning permission for a wind farm on a disused air base and an Alpine mountaineer grieving for the loss of his glaciers. These are people living on the front line of global climate change and with the politics of our carbon economy. Their stories are extremely moving and as a viewer rewarding to watch. Perhaps for me the most shocking image was the sight of gas flairs in African oil wells burning into the sky. The gas, a by-product of oil exploration could be put to use powering african cooking stoves. Instead it is burnt off and burns more CO2 in a year than many millions of homes in the UK. As well as regulating domestic consumers in the UK governments need to force oil companies to do something about this terrible wastefulness. The final edit of the film is made but if you have money to invest in a powerful, well made and noble film then please visit their website and sign up now. They need to meet post production costs, pay for marketing and distribution. If you work for an NGO, local council, school or any group at all that would like to be part of this film get involved in some way, This is a ground up film and you can help. They will be launching the film in September and want as many people as possible to go to see it on the opening weekend to make sure it gets good distribution. I will be posting news here but bookmark their website and keep informed –

Slug wars: Pellets v nematodes

In situations where you can’t get to your land to do a nightly slug pick and you’re only option is some sort of control is it better to use pellets or nematodes? If anyone has done this experiment let us know. Up until a couple of years ago the choice was between chemical slug pellets and organic biological control, but now there is a soil association approved organic slug pellet on the market – Advanced Slug Killer – we can have a look at both of them. I haven’t used either so I’m reporting second hand here.

Organic slug pellets are based on ferric phosphate, which according to reports will break down harmlessly to iron and phosphate nutrients after use and do not harm children and pets, birds, hedgehogs and other wildlife. They only kill slugs and snails.

Organic slug pellets are a poison but are allowed under organic standards because they are made using base chemicals found in nature. Nemaslug is the product name for Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita – a natural predator of slugs that looks like a microscopic worm.

A parasitoid, nemaslug enters the slug and feeds off it from the inside, causing the slug to lose its appetite and eventually die. These are found readily in nature but the nemaslug product allows you to apply a concentrated dose to kill as many slugs as possible in the area you wish to garden, or farm.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of slug pellets is that they have a shelf life, can be pre-ordered and kept in storage ready to use when a situation calls for it.

The disadvantage of nemaslug is that it has no shelf life. The nematodes are bred in a lab, take a few days to reach you once an order is placed and must be used straight away. You must plan when to use it and it needs to be reapplied every six weeks. It kills young slugs living below the surface of the soil (90% of the population) but not the big ones on top.

Because it is a soil based nematode it also does not kill most snails, which live above the soil. Slugs can be particularly harmful to potatoes and other root crops. Many people say it is very important to rotivate the soil regularly to disturb and kill slugs and slugs eggs.

Slug pellets on the other hand kill those slugs and snails that are moving about above the surface. They work because they contain an ingredient which slugs find attractive. Slugs eat the pellet, not suspecting that it contains poison.

I have not found any comparison studies between the two but Gardening Which? found that 72 per cent of people taking part in a test believed nemaslug an effective way of controlling slugs.

Having said this only 42% said it was more effective than their usual method and only 38% would buy it again. Many people thought it too expensive, complained that it didn’t control slugs and was a pain to apply. There is another problem too.

In another Gardening Which? study they found that some biological control companies failed to deliver the promised number of nematodes. This meant that applications were less successful than they should have been, and that customers were getting poor value for money. The best companies for slugs were Agralan and Defenders but it should be noted that Defenders did badly on other biological controls. The worst Green Gardener and Scarletts. They didn’t review the Organic Gardening Catalogue.

This is quite neat too

If you happen to have a fast flowing river, a spare bike wheel and an enormously long piece of electric cable. I think I’d rather enjoy the stars but it does show how hydro power works at its most basic level and its fun.

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