Monday, 2 March 2015

Lazy Watering

It is said that the laziest people take the most pains.  At least this is one of the sayings that my mother used to say when I was a child, however its total absence from common use in my adult life makes me wonder.  I am lazy in the way that will cause me to go to great trouble to solve a minor problem.  It is very appropriate to my current garden project.
Last years’ planting was not an unmitigated disaster, but to call a glittering success would be an outright lie.  I think the details of that deserve more details elsewhere, but the upshot is that something needs to change if my planting is to be worthwhile.
I first came upon the idea of self watering plant pots in an article in the permaculture magazine by vertical veg, who in turn got the idea from rooftop gardens project in Montreal.  This was a few years back, I was instantly taken with the idea and resolved to make one some day. 

The need to get my plants out of the penetrating wind that passes through the garden meant that the best option would probably be containers on the patio and I’m not sure I can be bothered with all that watering.  So a self watering system called.
Conceptually a self watering system is quite simple.  Two containers are place one above the other, the bottom one contains water and the top one contains soil and plants.  between them you have some sort of wick to allow the water into the soil without drowning it.  If you are going for a genuinely self watering system then you need the water level to be self maintaining.
The example that appeared in the Permaculture magazine used lengths of pipe with holes drilled to make hollow legs that are filled with soil and water allowing it to wick up into the main soil container.  Holes have to be cut into the base of the soil container to allow contact between the soil in the container and soil in the water.  These should total 5 -15% of the area of the container base.  Smaller holes also have to be drilled in the base of the soil container to avoid waterlogging.  The bottom of the legs has to be blocked.

My first attempt was a simple two bucket system with no self levelling for the water.

Cut 3 lengths pipe of 6-8" long.  As a stand alone pot the absolute length of the pipes is not too important, but they do need to be approximately the same.

Drill a load of holes in the pipes.  I think I used a 5mm drill to make ~24 holes per pipe.  You also need to make sure there are some holes in the right place to cable tie it all together.

Drill a load of holes in the base of the soil bucket to allow drainage and air flow.

Cut holes in the base of the soil bucket for the legs.

Connect the pipes to the bucket with cable ties

It would be a good idea to connect something to the open end of the pipe to stop soil going everywhere.  I used plastic from a milk bottle, but I would not recommend it.

New additions

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if I access to a glass house I will fill it with plants.  Strange and wonderful plants!  I have wrung out of ebay some its most exciting seeds, and many of them have even grown!

Liqurice and I have history.  I have heard that it is hard to get liqurice to germinate.  This is not the problem I have.  My problem is keeping it alive.  It rots off rather easily, even when you think you are past that danger.  I have had several attempts at growing it, but this year has been more successful than usual.  It germinted and kept going without suddenly dying.  Now that winter is upon us it has died back and I wait with bated breath to see if it will come back in the spring.

Carolina Allspice (calyanthus floridus) 
Another of the plants I became aware of through the book 'A Taste of the Unexpected'.  Parts of it can be used as a spice.  It sounds quite interesting but to be honest I only bought the seeds because I was buying some other seeds and saw it was available.  I was more interested in those seeds, but no progress was made.  These have got going quite well, and look a bit like the plant from little shop of horrors.
"Feed me Seymore!"

Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
Imagine the finest hair you can think of.  Then imagine that hair chopped into lengths of 1-2mm.  If the hair that you were thinking of was a sort of chestnut brown, then you pretty much have a description of tea tree seeds.  As you might imagine they are a bit tricky to handle and there is not a lot of stored oomph in a little seed like that.  So they are slow to germinate and quick to dry out.
This has to be one of the most challenging plants that I have managed to grow from seed.  Mainly because everything gets going faster, including moss and green stuff on the compost.

Manuka Tea Tree
The manuka seed is visually identical to tea tree, with all of its associated fun.  I bought the seeds later in the season and only a couple seeds made it to the seed leaf stage.  Then over winter the dog tried to eat the pot.  We will just have to see what is still going when the growing season starts again.

For completeness I also grew tea.  The real one.  As in a nice cuppa.  The seeds could not be more different from tea tree.  About the size of a small hazel nut.  The recieved wisdom was that it is quite difficult to grow, but not so far.  There was conflicting information about whether to crack shell off of the nut or not, so I tried both and both germinated easily enough.

Sea Buckthorn
I was faced with a choice when buying these seeds.  A small pack from a reputable source, or a large pack of wild collected seed.  I went for the large pack and planted half of them.  It seems they all germinated.  A few took a turn for the worse in a little mould incident, but it still looks like there will be quite a few to plant out this year.

I was given the rather lovely silkie bantams.  Sometimes we even get some eggs.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Harvest 2014

This year has not been a runaway success, but it has been a very good year for the Chilean Guava.  I don't know what volume of fruit there was, as there was not exactly a harvest more of a persistent grazing and in the end the dog discovered the plant as a source of nibbles.

I have my main plant in a large pot, which I moved out of the wind before it flowered and put on a patio in full sun.  I put the pot in a bucket with a lot of water as I wasto be running to stand still and the plant seemed happy.  In the autumn it was covered in berries ~1cm diameter that tasted great.  Most were picked and eaten straight away, until the dog discovered them.

Yacon and Oca cropped, but not heavily.  possibly due to the wind chill.

Pepper tree; purchased ~1ft tall at end of 2012.  Tripled in height in 2013 in a courtyard in Southampton.  No much growth in 2014 on a Hillside in Somerset.  No fruit as yet.

Blue Honesuckle; 5 berries.  Quite tasty. Plant constantly looks like it is about to die.

Wasabi; challenging to keep alive.  I have had trouble with slugs before, but nothing compares to they way they attack wasabi.  various other critters go for it too.

Cape Gooseberry; did quite well in the conservatory.  Probably 1 litre of fruit.
Two cape gooseberry and a soya bean
A bigger  Soya bean and two bigger cape gooseberrys

Tomatillo: no success.

Soya beans; grew up well. produced just enough beans for small handful of edumame then all died.  These were grown from seeds that were supposed to be suited to the UK, but I have read that soya is not able to nitrogen fix in UK soil unless the correct bacteria is added.  Possibly the source of the problem.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Let there be light!

Have you ever wondered what to do with plastic bottles other than sending them off for recycling? Have you ever wanted a way to spread a little light around outside, but found that your tea lights keep blowing out?  The solution may be at hand!  With just a little bit of cutting, a bit of string and a tea light, an ordinary plastic bottle can be transformed into a storm lantern that will brighten any rainy British barbeque.
First drink what ever was in the bottle and it is probably worth rinsing and drying it too.  Then using a thin sharp knife such as a craft knife cut two or three holes in the base of the.  These will let the air into the bottle for the candle to burn.  They don’t want be too big otherwise they might let the wind in.  1cm in diameter seems to be about right. 

Then cut a door into the side of the bottle by cutting three sides of a rectangle and leaving the fourth side attached.  This will be your means of access, so make sure it is close enough to the bottom and large enough that you can put a tea light in and light it while it is sat on the bottom. 

Now all that remains is to attach some string round the neck of the bottle.  Get a length of string of at least 20cm and tie a slipknot at one end.  Tie the other end to the loop of the slipknot, then tighten the slipknot around the neck of the bottle.

Now you should have a bottle with loop of string at the top, some holes at the bottom, a flappy door in the side and no lid. Not much so far, but hang it up and put a tea light in it and you have storm lantern that is surprisingly resilient to wind.  In fact I had one hanging up in the my rather windy garden in the Somerset hills and the candle survived until the wind hit it with a gust sufficient to send wax sloshing round the inside of the bottle, which put the candle out.  Anything less than that should be fine.
At this point you might be thinking ‘the bottle is going to melt’, well surprisingly it doesn’t.  Now I should put a caveat it here that this design is based on experience rather than careful calculation, so can’t offer any kind of guarantee that it is not possible to melt or burn the bottle, but I have used them many times and had no problems.  As a precaution I would suggest that you do not use these lanterns indoors, but if you have a need for storm lanterns indoors there are some other issues that you should attend to.

As tea lights have a metal base they do tend to cast their light up and out, leaving quite a shadow underneath.  To counter this you could try sticking tissue paper over the bottle to scatter the light.  I haven’t tried this yet so I can’t vouch for its effectiveness.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Smell of the season.

It is that time of year again.  When the adds on TV all seem to be for perfume.  Presumably this is because in the summer we can all be outside, with plenty of fresh air to drive away the fowl stench of our loved ones.  But now that winter is here and outside is less inviting, there is just no getting away from it.  They really stink.  And we must buy them perfume.  Or choke.
Given that smell is a rather difficult thing to convey via medium that plays only to our other senses, the add men have to come up with another way to convince us to buy into their particular stink.  They must sell us a concept, a dream, an aspiration.  And it seems that they have decided what we most aspire to is the ability to be massively pretentious.  And possibly live in a black and white world. 
The most offensive of these ads on TV is rip off of the final scene from the film Notting Hill.  Where Hugh Grant blags his way into Julia Roberts press conference.  Quite why this should inspire me to smell like the weasel faced miscreant in the advert I do not know.  And I can’t judge it against the product itself because I genuinely don’t know what it is advertising.  I probably did at one point, as at some point in the past I must have seen, what is only a few seconds of film, to its conclusion.  But since then I have scoured it from my mind.  These days it irritates me to such an extent that when it comes on, if I am within reach of the TV remote I will turn the sound off and look away.  If I am not close enough to the remote I look away and enter a trance like state where I block out certain aspects of my surroundings.  This state I have otherwise attained through meditation or sitting in the back of a small plane, knowing that I would soon be leaving its relative safety to head back to earth via the clear air between.  So maybe these perfume adverts do have a higher purpose after all.

Here’s wishing you a happy perfume season and lets hope their stench does not choke you before the fresh air of spring sets you free.

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Western Wilds

It has been a little while, but I am still here.  Although here is not the same here it used to be.  Since my last post my job as a research scientist came to an end.  It was a job that opened my eyes to some of the less ideal aspects of the academic offering.  The petty put downs, the bitching, the frantic need to establish a career in a rapidly diminishing time frame against competition who apparently don’t sleep.  Not the land of milk and honey I thought I was entering.
So it was against this background that I decided to get out and, get a “proper job”, one not in a research institution and one not on a fixed term contract.  I was also told by my boss that my academic career was F****d, which is lucky because by that time I was more than keen to escape.  And escape I did, leaving behind the medium sized city heading west to take up an engineering job.
Hopefully in time I will be able to get that patch of land that I have been coveting for so long and maybe even build a house.  But for now I am renting a place that is both near the centre and on the edge of a small town.  My bedroom window overlooks fields and when the cows are feeling particularly curious I can see them peering through the gap in the hedge made by a footpath stile.  Before the evenings got too dark I would walk along that path after work and on one occasion saw a cow that had just given birth.  The calf was laying down behind its mother, shivering and still covered in birthy goo. 
You may be thinking ‘Autumn! That’s the wrong end of the year for calves!’  and I was thinking that too, but I was told when I went to speak to the farmer that they have calves all through the year to encourage continuous milk production.  So now you know.  There is more milk production than romantic pastoral notions, there is a grittier side to it too.  Next they will be telling me that apples get crushed to make the cider that comes from these parts. 

As I watched the calf take its first unsteady steps in the fading evening light I thought this is why I really moved out here.  Just think if my academic career wasn’t F****d, right now I would be in the lab worrying about my academic career.  Here’s to the land of milk and cider.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Happiness is a warm statistic

The other day I went for a rather nice walk and saw a horse that was just posing for the camera.  The rest of this blog is about political philosophy, so if that brings you out in hives, just have a good look at the horse and then go and have a cup of tea or something.  Isn't she a handsome horsey.  I think she might like some hay or maybe a sugar cube. 

Recently a problem of political philosophical has been occupying my mind.  Since the fall of communism at the end of the eighties there has been no coherent viable alternative to capitalism.  Now I would not consider myself to be opposed to capitalism per se, but I am uncomfortable with anything being totally unchallenged.  I usually find myself defending capitalism in political discussions, for the simple reason that it is a functioning system.  Now call me crazy, but I like ideas that work in practice rather than just being an ideal that would only work in an ideal world.  As a died in the wool scientist few things rub me up the wrong way quite like ignoring evidence in order to support your own theory and there is quite a body of empirical evidence in the form of failed communist states, that communism in its early twentieth century form does not work.  It seems to me that the reasons for this are simple, it is an ideal that comes crunching up against the barriers of human nature quite quickly.  When wealth is redistributed in the name of fairness, it is always the re-distributors that come out best.
If you live in a commune, you can name, or at least recognize all of the people in that commune, and as such you will be bound personally to the consequences of your actions.  If you put in more work it will be you, your friends and family that will prosper.  If you are a sponge for the fruits of other people’s labors  you will witness first hand those other people having to work harder to carry your dead weight in the system.  When the commune is scaled up to the size of a state no such first hand experience exists.  If you take all that is on offer, then those who suffer may well be on the other side of the country, and if you work hard you or yours will not benefit.  So why bother.  The link between the consequences and actions of an individual are broken, and the less attractive aspects of human nature take hold.  To counter this, the whole system has to be managed.  But the people managing the system are neither all knowing nor free from these base urges of greed and sloth.  As such productivity declines and distribution is inefficient. 
Capitalism also suffers from a disconnect between greed and suffering, so the rich almost never rub shoulders with those who are going without.  But its strength is that personal productivity is connected to personal gain and this means that instead of being hamstrung by greed, capitalism is actually powered by it.  As such its direction of the whole system is dictated by millions of individual people who are looking for an opportunity to get ahead, and this means it needs comparatively little management.  It can even self correct. 

When I make this point I am often mistaken for a conservative or even a Conservative, but neither of these are true.  I just have an attachment to systems that work, and capitalism does.  At about this point most people say ‘what about the poor?’, ‘what about the financial crash?’.  Well markets generally pick themselves up after a while, but the interim period may be too horrific for governments to allow it to run its course and for this reason some management is usually required.  What about the poor? Capitalism never set out to help the poor, so strictly speaking the poor are not a failure of capitalism, but a failing of capitalism.  It is an ugly system that doesn't care about anyone.  It is a brutal system that runs on greed, chews up the poor, keeps the rich, rich and can has some interesting effects on those in the middle.  It is not nice.  It just happens to lack a convincing viable alternative.
But what of socialism?  Many would suggest it is socialism, not communism that offers the coherent alternative to capitalism.  Socialism is the splicing of communism and capitalism in various ratios to give it some of that hybrid vigor   On the communist end of the spectrum it will suffer from the same problems as communism and at the capitalist end it almost indistinguishable from capitalism.  In most of the space between socialism suggests that the money of capitalism should be shared around society.  But this is missing the point.  It is still expecting money to solve the problems.

America is widely regarded as the home of modern free market capitalism.  In 1776 they declared independence from Britain in a declaration that enshrined the “pursuit of happiness” as a right for its people.  This concept has since been widely accepted around the world.

If we look back to the nineteenth century when Marx set out his ideas of socialism and communism, the world was a very different place to the world we see today.  The poor of the working classes lived in conditions that would be unthinkable today and becoming unemployed could mean starvation.  The life expectancy of the poor was low.  The most obvious impediment to the happiness of the poor was their lack of monetary wealth with which they might buy food and a higher quality of shelter.

In the twentieth century the liberal democracies of North Western Europe, and some other parts of the world, largely eradicated the symptoms of nineteenth century poverty using a various mixtures of left and right wing politics.  Of course there are plenty of places around the world where the picture is not quite the same.  People are worried about their future.  But in northwest Europe starvation and tenements have gone, however poverty has stubbornly refused to die.  Its definition has changed to become less about survival and more about lacking the means to effectively participate in society.  A monetary quantity that is inherently relative to costs and wealth of the rest of society.  The symptoms of poverty have also changed.  Starvation has been replaced by obesity, along with a host of other life shortening conditions such as mental illness and addiction to all manner of substances.  One thing that all of these conditions have in common is a strong link with stress, anxiety and general unhappiness.  Where once the symptoms of poverty could be considered to impede the pursuit of happiness, it can now be considered that the symptoms are caused by a lack of happiness.

The interesting thing about these symptoms is they do not just affect the very poor, but reach all levels of society to varying degrees.  Obesity has recently been described as an epidemic.  Government response has largely been to tackle each symptom.  We are now routinely ‘educated’ about the risks of smoking, drinking, taking drugs, eating badly, and are told to take more exercise, less alcohol and no tobacco.  A war has been declared on drugs, with sellers, importers and users alike being locked up.  Food is labelled in bright colours telling us its salt content, fat content, sugar content, etc.  Tobacco products have warning labels and pictures of all manner of medical nastiness on them.  Yet no attempt has been made to improve happiness directly or explicitly.  Many attempts have been made to tackle secondary effects, such as improving facilities and prospect for the poor, but this problem reaches wider than just the poor.  Any number of governments, and their respective policies, have promised to make us all richer, and it can be argued that this is quantifiably true.  The poor no longer starve and most of us have material items that our parents aspired and saved for, but the rates of mental illness and suicide would suggest that this has not brought us happiness.  It is a widely repeated truth that money cannot buy happiness, and yet this has been the basis of most government policy.  The reason that we have all bought into this in spite of the well worn adage that money cannot buy happiness, is that it partly stands up to scrutiny.  A lack of money brings unhappiness, or at least this is generally seen to be true.  It is also true that a correlation does exist between higher income and happiness, but this is not the same as cause of happiness.
The basic stuff of happiness is quite simple.  The factors include relationships with family and / or friends, pleasurable activities, engaging with something, a sense of meaning, and a sense of accomplishment.  Working against these is stress, social disengagement and fracturing of family life.  It can be argued that capitalism allows people to buy pleasurable activities and gain a sense of achievement through their work, but this comes at the cost of stress and an increasing amount of time is required, allowing less time to enjoy the fruits of these labours.  The negative effect of capitalism on our happiness has often been noted by the increased suicide rate in times of economic downturn, especially amongst young men.
Capitalism is an effective way of managing an economy to maximise economic output, but it is largely blind to the happiness of suffering of its people.  In times where the main impediment to happiness is financial, the various forms of capitalism can offer an effective solution that can maximise benefit across a population.  However that is not an accurate depiction of the society that we live in today.  By the old standards we do not live in a society of haves and have-nots, but a society of haves and have-mores.  Monetary differences still separate the rich from the poor, but it is the comparison rather than the absolute wealth of people that causes jealously and unhappiness. 
Happiness is a notoriously difficult thing to quantify.  Pioneering efforts have been made in Bhutan to measure Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an alternative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  These have been criticised as being an inherently subjective measure and therefore not a reliable measure.  It may seem pessimistic, but a measure of gross national unhappiness may be easier to quantify by using data on the symptoms of unhappiness.   The most extreme and irrefutable of which would be suicide, but should also include levels of mental illness and addiction.  Measures of happiness have been proposed that take into account a number of factors such as economic, environmental, social, mental, political wellbeing.  The exact way that happiness should be measured is still an active area of research, but in many ways any measure is better than none.

 At this point one might ask why have a measure of happiness?  I have not been proposing a radically new system, just a measurement of the effects that any system is having on us.  As Prince put it “if long life is what we all live for, then long life will come to pass”.  Personally I would rather a happy life, but sentiment remains the same and the aims for which we are all striving are the most likely to come to pass.  In our current society we focus almost exclusively on monetary wealth, and this has been largely successful.  Broadly speaking we are wealthier than our parents and grandparents.  By having a measure of happiness we would gain focus and this would give perspective on the broader effects that policy has on society.  Currently we have a review of the market performances at the end of every nightly news program and every quarter the productivity of the economy is published.  Yet there is no equivalent for our happiness or mental wellbeing.  If we invested as much focus and effort in our happiness as we do to making money, then improvements are bound to occur.  As lord Kelvin put it "if you can't measure it, you can't improve it".  That's not to say it can't improve with out a measure, but how could you be sure?

In summary, since the fall of communism, capitalism has had no viable opposition.  Capitalism is an effective way to maximise economic productivity, however it can cause great stress and we have now reached appoint where the main impediment to happiness is no longer absolute poverty.  Implicit in the acceptance of our current forms of capitalism is the idea that wealth will bring happiness.  Barring recent bumps we are now richer than at any time in our history and yet happiness is still as elusive as ever.  Measuring happiness is not in itself an alternative to capitalism, but is would provide a different focus around which to make policy.
It seems perverse that governments elected to represent the people are not making attempts to routinely measure that thing which we hold most dear.  Our Happiness.  Capitalism has done us well, but will more money make us happier?  Perhaps it is time to change the focus of our government policies to take account of the effect that they have on people rather than just their wallets.