The traditional commercial cereal crop around here is barley – mostly destined for the whisky distilleries. Oats grow well and wheat is occasionally seen, but mostly the golden summer fields in these parts are barley. I’m experimenting this year with growing barley on the allotment – I won’t be able to grow enough to do all the feed for the livestock but I can do some, and the principles will be useful when I scale up in future years.

Most of the commercial farmers have now just finished drilling their spring barley so I bought a sack of barley from the local feed merchants/farmers’ suppliers and did some research into how much I needed. I’m only sowing an area 7m by 1m, not a whole field, so the 25kg sack that I got (the smallest they sell) is far too big! It won’t go to waste, though – I’m sprouting some for the bunnies and the chickens will certainly eat whole barley without complaint if the sprouting doesn’t work out.

I looked up the sowing rate for barley and it’s recommended for spring sowing at 350-400 grains per square metre, with the higher rate being better for later plantings. I have better things to do than sit and count that many grains of barley, however, so I counted 50, then weighed them on the kitchen scales. 50 grains weighs 2g, so multiplied by 8 (to give the weight of 400 grains) and then by 7 (for my 7 square metres of seed bed) gave me a grand total of 1,12kg of grain required in total.

Our weather’s been very dry and the soil, being short of organic material, is also on the dry side, so to give the seeds a good start I decided to soak them in water overnight. This softens the seed coat, kickstarts the germination process and means I don’t have to muck about watering the whole seed bed after sowing and risk washing my broadcast seeds into clumps.

Soaked barley seed

Soaked barley seed

The following morning, I took my now somewhat greater volume of barley, all plump and luscious-looking, to the allotment and carefully scattered it as evenly as I could over a freshly-raked bed, then raked it in lightly. The fresh grain was a brilliant shiny gold against the soil, practically glowing, and the local rooks were almost queueing up watching, so raking helps to camouflage the seeds in the soil slightly as well as helping to get them into the soil for when they root. You can see in this picture how the grains on the left are less visible than those on the right.

Barley seed, partly raked in.

Barley seed, partly raked in.

The rooks were still watching, though, and all the crow family are intelligent, resourceful critters, so I finished off by stretching a length of fleece over the bed and weighting it down around the edges with rocks.

Barley, safely covered with fleece.

Barley, safely covered with fleece.

Now I just have to wait and see how it does!


Climate Variability: ENSO

One of the things that I found confusing when I started to get interested in climate change was that the climate is always changing! There are cyclical changes driven by the sun’s internal cycles, by minute changes in the Earth’s orbit and the angle of the Earth’s axial tilt, and then there’s El Nino.

El Nino (Spanish for “The Boy Child” because it often happens around the run-up to Christmas) is a complicated and somewhat predictable (but also somewhat unpredictable) beast. Basically what happens is that a pool of warmer-than-usual water builds up in the western Pacific Ocean, then drifts eastwards towards the Americas, coupled with a reversal of the usual trade winds and changes in rainfall and temperature over large areas. The Met Office has some nice maps that rough out some of the usual changes that occur between El Nino and its opposite, La Nina.

Two of the countries that are most interested in tracking the Pacific Ocean (and which have info that’s readily accessible to English speakers) are the US and Australia. Both publish monthly updates on what ENSO (the El Nino/Southern Oscillation) is up to – NOAA has its data here and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has its info here.

For the UK, there’s not a lot of concern with El Nino directly impacting our weather, but ENSO does affect countries that we do business with, dictating such important factors as the timing and intensity of the Indian Ocean monsoon season, drought in Australia and rainfall in California/Central/South America. These global patterns have a knock-on effect on crops that we import – such as sugar cane and citrus fruits from the Americas, North and South, or rice from the Indian sub-continent.

At the moment there’s a “neutral” ENSO condition in the Pacific, meaning neither El Nino nor La Nina is in play, but there does seem to be an increasing likelihood that El Nino will be back later in 2014 – which means that the already extraordinary drought in Australia may intensify, but that California’s current drought may break and, if previous El Nino seasons are a guide, that Central America may see severe floods due to heavy rains.

If we do see an El Nino develop, we may well also see global average temperatures for 2014 reach new heights, since El Nino is associated with higher global average temperatures. This is natural climate variation at work, not anthropogenic climate change, but still worth watching!


The Risks in Staple Crops

This morning the Independent ran a story entitled Wheat Rust: the fungal disease that threatens to destroy the world crop. I was reminded of another plant disease story they ran at the beginning of the month, Bananageddon: Millions face hunger as deadly fungus Panama disease decimates global crop.

Setting aside the somewhat tabloid-style “scare” headlines (not to mention an aberration of language like “bananageddon” being committed), both these stories do  have a very valid fundamental point in common. Both illustrate just how much humanity relies on a very limited number of food crops, worldwide, and being over-reliant on  a limited number of food sources means we’re more vulnerable to crop failures on a large scale.

To put our dependence into context, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations provides some figures.

Of more than 50 000 edible plant species in the world, only a few hundred contribute significantly to food supplies. Just 15 crop plants provide 90 percent of the world’s food energy intake, with three rice, maize and wheat – making up two-thirds of this. These three are the staples of over 4 000 million people.

That’s a sobering statement in the face of a wheat rust that threatens to reduce harvests.

One way to try and mitigate these disease threats is the scientific approach – to try and develop resistant varieties, to figure out ways to control the disease.

I don’t have a lab and trained staff at my disposal so I’m adopting another approach to improve my  personal food security – not just growing my own (after all, what’s to stop my plants getting some kind of disease?) but widening my diet.

If I grew nothing but wheat on my allotment, for example, then the whole crop, my entire year’s effort, could be wiped out by one disease. If I grow wheat and barley, then I halve my chance of a total crop failure. I double my chance of having something to take home to eat. If I grow wheat, barley, oats…. you get the picture.

This brings us back to my dahlia growing experiment – an alternative food crop that will widen my diet and reduce yet further the risk that I won’t have anything to eat (assuming it works, of course…).

I’m always on the lookout for novel foods to try – though I also have to watch for their growing requirements. The combination of a short growing season, a fairly dry climate (for the UK, at least!), the possibility of cold winters and, usually, a quite late spring combine to rule out some plants I’d otherwise love to experiment with – oca, for example needs a 7 month growing season and I’m lucky if I get 5. Tea needs 50 inches of rain and I only get 28 on average.

I am also trialling root parsley this year – not one I’ve grown or eaten before, but it should do well in our climate and provide us with another winter crop to help bridge the “hungry gap” of late winter and early spring, when the stored food runs short but the new year’s growth hasn’t yet matured enough to eat.

Another crop that grows very well around here is barley (as you’d expect, living as I do in Whisky country!) and I will shortly be sowing barley and, later in the year, buckwheat as cereal crops. These, particularly the barley, will also provide me with straw to make litter for the bunnies and chickens, which will cycle back through the compost heap to return the nutrients to the soil for next year. I haven’t tried growing cereals before but I’m hopeful that in time I can grow enough seed on the allotment to sprout to feed the livestock, which will further reduce our dependence on world markets and big industry.

In the meantime, this afternoon two more potatoes and another 5 jerusalem artichokes are up on the allotment and the turf wall is growing!

7 square metres of turf. Lots more still to go!

7 square metres of turf. Lots more still to go!


Allotment Update

As always, Life gets in the way of plans. I forgot to take my phone with me on Friday night so didn’t get the pix I’d planned, and last night, having taken the pix, I was too busy at home to get round to uploading them!

They’re here now.

Lord Leicester tall pea

Lord Leicester tall pea

The peas are now all  planted out – the Lord Leicester have put on a spurt and shot up in size, so they’re now under bird netting and will get stakes to climb up before long – they’re a tall pea but I’ll nip the tops out at 6 foot so I can reach to pick the pods!

Bottle bank - Hatif d'Annonay early dwarf pea under plastic bottle cloches

Bottle bank – Hatif d’Annonay early dwarf pea under plastic bottle cloches

I need to encourage my daughter to drink more squash – not enough bottles for all the dwarf peas! The bottles act as miniature cloches, blocking the wind, holding heat and retaining moisture around the plants to encourage their growth. It will be interesting to see the difference between those lucky peas under bottles and the ones without.

Also now out (though not showing) are the first three rows of carrots , a row of beetroot, brussels sprouts, summer cabbage, Welsh onions and two varieties of kale along with some more radish. I use radish as row-markers for slow-germinating crops – the radish shoot up in just a few days, enabling me to see where I sowed the other seeds. Fortunately, I like radish.

Just showing yesterday were one of each of the first early and second early potatoes and the first of the artichokes, proving that the soil temperature’s rising enough to get them growing on.

At home, the leeks are growing on nicely and I’ve sown root parsley, courgettes, runner beans and a cactus-flowered dahlia. The dahlia is something of an experiment – I’ve read the roots are edible and, given that it belongs to the same family as sunflowers and jerusalem artichokes, I decided I’d give it a try. The root that we bought is now in a plantpot, and following guidance on the RHS website, I’ll split it once it has shoots 3 inches tall; it should then split to give multiple plants. It’ll certainly brighten up the allotment once planted out!

We’ve had a series of surprisingly hot, dry, cloudless days – tee-shirt weather in Aberdeenshire in April being something of a rarity – and it’s showing up the lack of humous in the soil; this is something I desperately need to work on. The soil is generally not that bad but it’s very short of organic material that would help retain moisture and provide more nutrients for the crops, so my main task in soil conditioning this year has to be to correct that. Until the soil has that rich reservoir of organic material, it’s prone to dry out too quickly and it won’t have the wealth of plant-food that will provide heavy crops. It’s not something I can afford to fix quickly – if I had a few thousand pounds spare I’d just truck in a hundred tons of compost and blanket the whole plot in 8 inches or so – but over time, with mulching, green manures, composted rabbit/chicken muck and patience, I should be able to build up the soil.

As the song puts it, you can’t have something for nothing (Rush) and before the land can support us, we have to nurture it and ensure it’s strong and healthy. Naure works in cycles and while I can take food from the allotment for us and the livestock, we also have to return those nutrients to the land, via composted muck, vegetable peel and so on. By avoiding bare soil and planting green manures, we can prevent the soil losing nutrients and moisture to the air and assist in retaining any moisture that does fall (rain or dew) in the soil for use by the plants.

Along those lines, we’ve now changed our strategy with removing twitch grass roots from the plot; the weeds are now shooting away on the sections that haven’t yet been dug so, rather than take away so much soil and green matter with the twitch grass roots and, literally, throw it away at the tip, we’re skimming off the top inch or two of soil, complete with weeds, grass etc, and turning the sods upside down as a turf wall along one side of the allotment. Over the next year or two they’ll decompose into soil again and then I can re-incorporate them into the growing area. In the meantime, I shall invest in some annual plants that will smother out the struggling upside-down weeds and give me a colourful, insect-friendly display.

At least, that’s the plan….

Back from the Wilds

Something of a break from the blog over the past week – I was away bushcrafting with the local BCUK group over a long weekend, then got back only for my ferrets to escape when their cage was blown open in a night of gales. One ferret, Loony, turned up the following day in the shed by the chicken run (thankfully, not in the chicken run!) but the other, my little blonde jill Fursty, is still missing and, sadly, probably gone for ever. Stray ferrets don’t survive well in the wild – they try to play with strange dogs and cats, or stand in the road wondering what the funny lights are until too late.

As if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, my daughter’s flitting about the country looking at universities ready for the coming autumn term. Today she was in Dundee.

Getting back to some sanity and sense, I spent some time on the allotment today sowing alfalfa and white clover – both are good for the soil, with nitrogen-fixing bacteria living amongst their roots, and both will also make very nutritious hay for the bunnies in due course. They’ll help to provide ground cover to smother out weeds and reduce evaporation from the soil, acting as a living mulch.

The dwarf peas I sowed a while back are now up and ready to plant out; half of them will be going into the deep beds in the garden to use as mange tout, the other half will go to the allotment and grow on a little further as early podding peas. The maincrop peas, a tall variety called Lord Leicester, aren’t as far forward so they’ll be staying in the potting shed a little longer.

It’s still quite early in the year here and we had a frost just the other night so, when the peas go out, each will get its own personal cloche. My daughter drinks a lot of fruit squash so we save up the empty plastic bottles, then cut off the bottoms and push them into the soil over seedlings, providing each one with its own miniature greenhouse which helps to retain moisture, catch heat and ward off any frost.

I’ll post a picture once they’re all in and “bottled”, which should be Friday. Tomorrow’s another hectic day……


The other night I watched a documentary called Chasing Ice, a quite remarkable story of the lengths a photographer went to in order to record the retreating glaciers of the world (and is still going to, given that Extreme Ice Survey are now setting up cameras in the Antarctic to complement their Arctic and Montanan coverage!)

As a testament to courage and passion in pursuing an avocation, Chasing Ice would deserve a watch. As a record of the extraordinary way in which the cryosphere (the world’s ice) is quietly vanishing away at the moment, it deserves a watch. As a memory of vanishing landscapes, which we will probably never see again in our lifetimes (ice takes a long time to form glaciers!) I felt that I had to buy a copy of the DVD in order to preserve a piece of our heritage.

Amongst the stunning scenery and the superb cinematography, I was struck by something quite extraordinary. At one point, the term “cryoconites” was mentioned. I looked it up. In general, I don’t rely on Wikipedia for information – it’s a very useful place to start off with a basic description and then I chase the links up to get to the peer-reviewed science (which usually goes slightly over my head but I’m trying to improve myself!) What really caught my attention with the cryoconites was that here, in the middle of millions of square miles of ice, were lifeforms that could survive on dust and sunlight, and which had the power to melt the ice-sheets.

Imagine that. Microscopic algae and dust, yet they are changing their environment around themselves. How? Because they’re dark in colour. It’s not even something they’re doing deliberately  – it’s just because they happen to be dark-coloured by their nature. Dark objects absorb more heat from the sun than light coloured ones do (which could also be described as dark coloured objects reflect less light than pale ones do) and because of that, each of these tiny balls of dust-and-algae warms the ice on which it sits until they’re growing in a pool of water.

I find that quite amazing, to consider the effect these algal colonies are having on the planet. Too small to affect the environment? Not one bit.

It’s also quite hopeful – surely if they can change their environment without even trying, we should be able to achieve something amazing too – if we put our combined efforts into mitigating climate change.


Rabbits, Raspberries and Radishes

I took possession of my new buck, Samson, today – he was bred by a very knowledgeable backyard rabbit breeder friend of mine who was thinking of keeping him on for herself, but kindly allowed me to beg and blandish him out of her rabbitry. He’s a good, solid, typical NZW with plenty of room for meat on that big round back end, he’s been well handled and has a calm, friendly nature. In fact, I had trouble persuading him to not come and talk to me when I was trying to get a photo with the phone!

Samson, investigating

Samson, investigating

I got a much better one a few minutes later when he went to explore the rest of his hutch.

Samson settling in

Samson settling in

Trudy seemed to be eyeing him up from her cage and Freckles was nearly hanging out of his door to see who the new neighbour was! Samson seems to be settling in well, he’s eating and drinking cheerfully and he’s demolished a carrot. I suppose, given that I know how healthy the stock is that he came from and how well they’re kept, I needn’t put him in quarentine but I will anyway…. it’s the principle of the thing.

On the allotment front, today was a fairly brief visit to put in some plants I picked up the day before yesterday – a blackberry, Merton Thornless, which is now being trained up the south end of the dog run; a couple of periwinkles (Vinca minor) for ground cover on the steep southern slope that edges the plot, and some lavenders in the perennial/herb patch. Yesterday we moved 5 mint plants from their pots in the garden at home and planted them out in bottomless buckets in the herb patch, too. I also put in a row of fennel seed and a row of radish seed – the soil’s still quite cool but who knows?

At home we’ve been putting in raspberries – 30 canes of 3 different varieties (we like raspberries!). There’s another blackberry waiting to go in here – Bedford Giant – and a redcurrant to go with the 4 blackcurrants already here.

Generally speaking, we’re trying to keep a separation between foods that don’t travel or need to be eaten as soon as they’re picked – mange-tout peas, spinach or soft fruits, for example – which are being grown in the garden at home, and the foods that will travel and don’t suffer from sitting in a box for an hour or two before they reach the kitchen, like apples, pears or roots. Those crops are going on the allotment.

Then there’s a few things going on the allotment as well as at home, because I’ll enjoy nibbling on them while I’m working on the plot, like the blackberries, radish and the white alpine strawberries.

Another Small Hop for Food Security….

I’m quite excited – tomorrow I should be picking up rabbit buck no.2 – a New Zealand White named Samson who’s already 23 weeks, so old enough to start “work”.

NZWs are one of the specialist meat breeds, developed to grow fast and reach a good weight quickly, and like that other superlative commercial breed, the Californian, they’re docile, calm and generally good-natured. They’re also all albino so there’s less trouble with anyone in the household getting “attached” to a particularly cute one. They all look pretty much of a muchness.

Fingers crossed, there will be photos of Samson settling in tomorrow evening!

I’m still waiting for a couple of unrelated NZW does to come from a breeder I know in Ayrshire, but once they arrive (hopefully, soon!) we should be getting into the swing of things pretty quickly. Trudy is nearly old enough to mate now and once Samson’s through his month’s quarantine, speed-dating bunny-style will be on the calendar!


The Courage to Publish

I’ve recently been aware of some controversy regarding a psychology study involving research into the links between conspiracy theory and climate denial. To my delight, I’ve just finished reading the paper in question, freely available online, and it’s not only informative, it’s amusing as well.

Recursive Fury is the follow-up to a paper published by Lewandowsky, Oberauer and Gignac in which they noted a correlation between belief in conspiracy theories, belief in laissez-faire economics and climate change denial. This follow-up study reports on the responses to that study on the internet and was originally accepted for publication by Frontiers, a psychology journal. Legal threats induced Frontier to change their minds about publication but the University of Western Australia, where Lewandowsky is based, had the courage to publish the study on their own website (which is where I’ve linked to).

I can heartily recommend the paper as a read – rarely have I read an academic paper written seriously, soberly and at the same time with a light sense of humour.

And yet there’s a serious question here. Why should it take courage to publish an academic paper which has been peer-reviewed and the research passed by an ethics committee? Surely that’s just routine academic publishing?

The debate on climate science/climate change denial seems to be moving towards a more legal-bludgeon-threat stage of response rather than the “no consensus” and “science is wrong” arguments seen so far. This attempt by a group to gag publication of papers and articles they don’t like by threatening legal action is not that unexpected, I think – it certainly follows long-established strategies in modern history, where “if you can’t beat them threaten them” does appear to be a widely-used debating technique (consider the tobacco industry’s attempts to block research linking smoking with cancer).

Recently I’ve also heard about a nasty outbreak of abuse and hate mail, directed at a philosophy professor who published an article discussing putting professional climate change denialists (not the man-on-the-street –  the vested interests and their employees deliberately obscuring the issue) on trial, using the precedent of Italian earth scientists jailed for failing to accurately communicate the risks of an earthquake to the public. I’m not going into the rights and wrongs of either the Italian verdict or the article – read them yourself and make your own mind up! It’s a complex area – but I do see a problem here with the erosion of free speech.

For example, Lawrence Torcello has apparently been the victim of a deliberate, co-ordinated campaign of hate email and abuse following the publication of his article, regardless of the fact that a philosopher philosophising is merely doing his job.

I want to feel entirely free to express my feelings about climate change science and climate change deniers, whether confused, mislead, paranoid, convinced or cynically working for pay, but if I’m going to claim this privilege for myself, then logically, morally and ethically, how can I deny the same privilege to anyone else? Nobody should be the victim of hatred and abuse for expressing their opinion and if a philosopher can’t speculate, what’s the world coming to? Surely we’ve moved on since Socrates was forced to commit suicide by poison for expressing his opinions?

Let’s keep the debate based on science and not resort to legal threats and abusive behaviour, even if we don’t keep it entirely polite. Any contentious subject raises passions and passion requires passionate words for its expression – but not hate mail or gagging attempts.