Losing Control; Honesty is a Virtue; Heat and Light or Society’s Trash?

The curse of strategic gear failure, in the form of knee and back issues have struck. So typing, or camera contortions are limited. Let alone serious gardening.SDIM7476 (2) But this does focus the mind on the illusion of a false sense of control, which one may be achieving on one’s little bit of tended land.

Nature is quietly biding its time, ammunition in subterranean seed banks itching to explode and dominate. Particularly at this glorious time of the year, with still damp soil and now rising temperatures. So tasks need prioritising, but also enough time for therapeutic slow walking and musing that two or even three years ago, the plant distributions in the garden were very different. Several, but certainly not all, vigorous and lovely self seeders have shifted, diminished, or completely died out from some areas of the garden, whilst muscling in to new ones.

Where have all the magenta primulas gone from below?SDIM7517 (2)

Terrace garden 15/05/11

Terrace garden 15/05/11

What prompts this? Competition from neighbours? Simple nutrient issues, or a subtle change in the micro climate of where they originally thrived? Less light? More or less moisture? Or do they all produce some self-inhibiting, soil infusing chemical cues, to encourage them to keep on moving on and exploiting new areas, and expanding their range? Or is it the hidden mycorrhizal networks that are responsible for this shifting around? Or a combination of many factors?

Who knows?SDIM7507 (2)

None of the magenta primulas above, were planted.SDIM7437 (2)

But the end result plays havoc with carefully planned colour effects, now just digitalised memories. For the frustrated, and injury curtailed gardener the chance to sit down, relax and take stock is probably a blessing in disguise. So, for example, this is the year to Fiona’s delight, when I’ve thrown in the towel with the orange form of the native Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica. SDIM7504 (2)Years of uprooting individual plants which dared to introduce a splash of inappropriate orange, has achieved absolutely no success.SDIM7505 (2)Last year in a bid to randomise the flower effects, I’d even scattered more seed from the entirely yellow cohort, into areas of the garden which I thought might benefit, and had dense enough foliage colour to cope.SDIM7506 (2) Was this rash? Next year will no doubt reveal my folly.SDIM7516 (2)But one plant that we’re definitely still really keen on, is the white form of honesty, Lunaria annua var. alba. Its biennial tendencies and vigour, move it into the possible thug category, but its flowering period from mid April through May gives that splash, or even sheet, of white flowers to complement all those shades of green which abound with new leaves continually unfurling. This year the revelation has been how great it looks coming up through the bank topping hedgerows, which separate the garden from the surrounding fields.SDIM7422 (2)Whilst I’ve always known it was a good nectar, and even larval food source source, for Orange-tip butterflies, Anthocharis cardamines, this year we’ve been wowed by its scent. We’ve also discovered over the last few years that rabbits love it. Is this a virtue? Well, I’d rather lose replaceable white honesty than some of the other, more special, garden plants.SDIM7511 (2)This year the honeybees have also piled in for nectar foraging sessions, along with the more usual bumblebees, on a few warmer sunnier days. It can indeed crowd out other more treasured plants, but it’s easy to pull out, and you do at least have a good long time to remove it before being cursed with progeny, unlike the scourge of the hairy bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta.SDIM7510 (2)

For us, white honesty fills a really useful role in the spring garden, before the white form of dame’s rocket/violet, Hespera matronalis, sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata, and white Viola cornuta alba which are just now beginning to take over the virginal baton.SDIM7429 (2) But would we chance the more common native purple form of honesty? No, I’m afraid, since I fear we’d be heading down the yellow/orange poppy route, and never regain the initiative. So pure white, they will hopefully remain, until perhaps we accept that control is completely lost, so what the heck! SDIM7487 (2)SDIM7398 (2)

Whilst much energy has been expended in the garden and writing this blog over the last few years, a more tortoise like project has been taking place. Accumulating plastic bottles as water storage containers. I’m not fussy about exactly what the original contents were, providing they were for human consumption, but in some cases feel that the original container probably has a much higher value to me than the contents.S1010038 (2)

The vast majority are just rinsed and refilled with water, then used as potential thermal stores. This idea began in the greenhouse, where they now form an increasingly tall loose wall between a polycarbonate sheet and the lower cedar wood cladding, which stays in position throughout the year. (Click here for an earlier post outlining the potential for water as a thermal store. Basically, it’s twice as good as stone, at a value of about 4.2 KJ per litre per degree C of raised temperature. So that’s a lot of stored heat once you’re into several hundred litres of hidden bottled water).

It’s surprising just how many bottles will fit in there, but the real aim is to provide a buffer for night time temperature drops, in an otherwise redundant bit of greenhouse space. (Bearing in mind that we have a fairly cool climate, with infrequent very hot weather, keeping a greenhouse warm enough at night, is more of an issue than overheating). Along with the greenhouse compost heating system, which regular readers will know about (and which I’ve now also located on a separate blog page, click here), they are hugely beneficial in aiding good early tomato, and tender seedling growth. The first tomato flowers are just opening this year, as I write on May15th.SDIM7512 (2)Outside, I’d started last year experimenting with using them on our main vegetable beds, which are mostly located in old builder’s big bags. We also dug out a hot bed, but this year this has been simply used in its lower, settled state, for additional vegetable seed sowing.S1010064 (2)It’s tricky to get reliable outside vegetable seed germination in our climate. I do use pre-germination with 12 hour warm water soaks for larger peas and beans, before sowing once the first root shows. Click here for some very interesting figures on the preferred temperatures for optimum speed, and maximum percentage of seed germinating, for many different common vegetables. Achieving these temperatures early enough in the year, to leave adequate growing time for a satisfactory crop, is often a battle. I was pretty certain that the bottles would help with temperatures, along with simple enviromesh and batten covers, as an aid to earlier more successful seed germination. We’ve had the added benefit of multiple old window frames which sit nicely on top of the bottles for extra protection early on, but as with a polytunnel the downside to this is that you have to lift them regularly to water, and they’re stupidly heavy to move around. With the bottles and enviromesh covering set up, natural rainfall does the trick for most of the time.S1010046 (2)

However, as always, being of a nerdy nature I wondered whether the bottles made any measurable difference to temperatures? So, after the first really warm, sunny day for some time, I took a few temperature readings. I discovered, perhaps not surprisingly, that during the day when the sun was high in the sky, any difference was slight (1 to 2 degrees C maximum). After all, the dark soil surface will absorb energy well. But as the sun disappeared and temperatures fell away more of a difference opened up.S1010030 (2) I’ve included readings from the nearby path surface as a comparison. It’s convinced me that although by dawn the bottles have almost lost all their energy and added warmth, there is going to be a significant boost to soil, and possibly air temperatures through the whole 24 hour period. (Apologies for the poor clarity of the thermometer readings).

8.15 pm:  Firstly soil, and then water bottle, temperatures – you can just make out the carrot seedlings.S1010051 (2)S1010052 (2) On the same night as skies remained clear and temperatures fell away at about 10.15 pm.S1010089 (2)Ground temperature. S1010080 (2)Soil temperature in big bag with 2 litre clear water bottles between seed rows and enviromesh covering:S1010087 (2)S1010088 (2)Soil temperature for big bag with 1 litre, opaque water bottles between rows.S1010084 (2)S1010086 (2) Soil and bottle temperatures for big bag with 2 litre water bottles and no enviromesh covering.S1010081 (2)S1010082 (2)

Apart from their thermal store potential, 4 other benefits of the bottles occur to me.

Firstly, as with the enviromesh, they may be providing a bit of extra wind protection at the critical early seedling stage – the big bags are in a pretty open, unsheltered location about 800 feet above sea level.

Secondly, they’ll tend to concentrate any rainfall or watering more directly over the root run.

Thirdly, the quite significant area of soil covered by the half buried bottle suffers very little direct evaporative water loss in hot, dry weather.

Finally, for those very rare occasions here, or in other less rainy locations, where summer water supplies become an issue, the bottles provide a close at hand, significant emergency water supply to keep the crops going. We rely on our own spring water supply, and water shortages are, thus far, a rare short term (few weeks maximum), and summer only issue. Perhaps with more irregular climate and weather patterns, having even just 25 litres or so stored water, per bag may be very handy. Just unscrew and use.

By 6 am dawn, the values were as below:S1010097 (2)S1010094 (2)S1010090 (2)S1010093 (2)S1010095 (2)S1010096 (2)

What about drawbacks? Issues around weeding might develop. But for now, with a sore back, the raised big bags are a big advantage. Few weeds seem to grow under the bottles, and once seedlings are established it’s pretty easy to add a thin layer of mulch or compost between the bottles as a weed suppressant. Any between bottle seedlings are easy to hand pick, and if the bottle spacing is appropriate, the maturing crops will minimise weed growth potential anyway.

Parsnips and beetroot below:S1010066 (2)S1010067 (2)

I’m including a link (Click here  – sadly no longer available, which is strange!) to a brilliant BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ programme . Search for the 15th May 2014 on “Photosynthesis”, which I happened to hear this morning. A wonderful mix of science, ecology and evolution all explained succinctly by the 3 invited experts, 2 biochemists and one botanist. I would guess that most listeners would come away having learned at least 3 new facts about this fundamental process which underpins the whole of life on earth as we know it. I lost count of how much new information I picked up).S1010068 (2)

But what about toxic leach out from the bottles, aside from what you might have ingested from the contents already?

Most are made from complex polymers of either PET or Polycarbonate. I found a few interesting threads which real enthusiasts might wish to read. (Click here for the best discussion I found – again unavailable now!) But the consensus amongst experts in this field, seems to be that they are pretty stable structures and that any complex molecules leaching out would be far too big to be absorbed and taken up by the roots of any nearby vegetable or edible plant. And for anyone who’s never thought about it before,(and I hadn’t), what about the miles of plastic tubing which are used to irrigate most commercial salad crops grown in intensive hydroponic horticultural systems which provide much of the UK’s, and I guess worldwide, supermarket produce?

Whilst trying to find other examples of bottles being used in this way as surface soil warmers, rather than as simple internal heat stores (on which I failed miserably), I came across another equally sideways use of part of society’s mountain of trash. The “Liter of Light” project. Click here for more details of this recent global initiative bringing light to the poorer communities of the world. How?SDIM7450 (2)

Take a plastic bottle, fill with water and a dash of bleach to prevent algal growth and insert it through a hole in the roof. The bit of bottle poking through the roof and its water content will diffract the sun’s light internally into the room below and provide the equivalent of an old style 55 watt bulb’s worth of illumination to a previously gloomy interior. OK it doesn’t work at night, and you have issues with sealing the roof (or you would in our wet climate), but this has clearly been of huge benefit to some of the world’s poorest people, and a brilliantly (sorry) bit of lateral thinking on behalf of the Brazilian, who first had the idea.

Since we’re, for now, fortunate in not needing such low tech solutions in the UK for providing light, at least there will be no competition for redundant bottles to create seed germinating bottle banks.SDIM7469 (2)

Should my idea take hold.SDIM7447 (2)

Which is unlikely.

However, if anyone should read this and have any experience of using plastic bottles in this, or any other way, I’d be delighted to hear from you. Incidentally, the ‘Liter of Light’ project estimates a 5 year plus lifespan, for bottles used in this way. So my seed bottle banks should hopefully have a fairly low churn, or rather leakage, rate.

The April showers have, as always, produced the usual delightful array of May flowers.SDIM7534 (2)SDIM7541 (2)SDIM7531 (2)SDIM7545 (2)SDIM7526 (2) And for those interested in my poultry prattlings, the 4 Ronquières hens, which had sat stoically for 4 and a half weeks,S1010019 (2) eventually managed to hatch a single, scrawny poult which disappeared within 12 hours. Unlike our now not so tiny, hatched and reared indoors, tiny turks:S1010016 (2)Artificial egg incubating seems the only sensible option, and our remaining 11 poults are now getting used to regular exercise on their new asymmetric bars (the covering mesh indicating that at 3 weeks, they’re also pretty adventurous fliers):  S1010047 (2)

Finally, a novelty meal this last week, when Fiona boiled my breakfast egg. Surely this would be a tour de force for a snazzy restaurant if you could work out how to reliably replicate it? S1010012 (2)S1010014 (2)

Has any other reader ever created a similar unintended boiled egg sculpture? And what’s the longest continuous strand of egg yolk that can be created in this way? And could some clever scientist create a formula to predict the optimum conditions to generate it?

It actually tasted pretty watery, so didn’t taste half as good as usual, or as it looks.


6 thoughts on “Losing Control; Honesty is a Virtue; Heat and Light or Society’s Trash?

  1. This is a wonderful idea. Thanks so much for doing the experimentation and documenting it so well. We may have to try this in our garden in cooler weather and for heat-loving plants!

    • Hello N,
      Thanks for the comment. Glad you liked the idea. I’m sure other folk will have used this technique, but I was quite surprised by the temperature readings I got. I reckon in cooler climates, or for crops like squash/courgettes it might be useful. My impression is that the germination rates and growth of seedlings is good….but it has so far been a benign spring here,
      best wishes

  2. I’ve never heard of white Honesty. I’ve only tried seeds of the common type this year and they have yet to flower. Your work with the plastic bottles is commendable. I’m just too lazy to grow much vegetables myself. I stick to the easy ones. It is put them in and water and hope and take what comes up. Some years are better than others. I’m glad to see the turkeys are doing well, the artificial incubation is worth while. Amelia

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