Lord Muck's Blog

Iceland: Europe’s biggest producer of bananas

September 5, 2013

They are somewhat off the tourist trail, but Iceland’s network of geothermally-heated greenhouses are an important part of their economy. I got to visit several in the Geysir/Selfoss area about an hour’s drive northeast of Reykjavik in mid July. They rely on the same hot rock system that powers the famous hot water fountains. The produce is impressive, over 90% of the nations cucumbers are produced on the island as are over 75% of the tomatoes and large proportions of peppers, and soft fruit including strawberries as well as cut flowers and bedding plants.IMG_2273 The plants are pollinated by bees imported from the Netherlands.

One horticulture business run by Helena Hermundardottir  pictured,IMG_2271 and  her husband and family, Fridheimar, specialises in tomatoes harvesting over 370 tonnes pa. It was established in 1995 and has  5,000 sq m under glass including a visitors centre.

The geothermal energy keeps the greenhouses at a constant 23 deg C and the long hours of daylight are used to advantage by having  very thin glass roofs, just 4mm thick. Lighting is more of an issue in winter of course when the hydro-powered electricity kicks in – as indeed it does on cloudy days at other times of the year. All very hi-tech, but energy is both renewable and incredibly cheap in Iceland. Nonetheless viability is threatened by cheap imports from southern Europe, especially in winter as electricity consumption is high.IMG_2279

All the produce is consumed locally, no banana exports from Iceland. Bananas aren’t really a commercial crop . The University of Iceland’s Agriculture department is experimenting with growing them and current annual production is only about 120 ‘bunches’ (3-400 bananas on a ‘bunch’?) but it shows what could be done.

Ice, fire and permaculture in Iceland

August 6, 2013

I have  been away travelling in the ‘Northlands’, Iceland, Faroes and ferries in between  throughout July. Naturally I seemed to gravitate towards the quirkier end of Icelandic culture and while travelling in the Eastfjords came across Iceland’s annual permaculture festival. Running over the weekend of 12-14 July it was centred on the tiny village of Stodvarfjordur, population less than 200. Combined with the village’s annual ‘Polar Festival’ it featured literary, dance and musical events, a graffiti workshop in an abandoned fish processing factory, ‘grass roots film making’, permaculture film screenings and an evenings feasting based around permaculture.

All this included a ‘permaculture stroll’ around the village, a trip up into the mountains  to gather herbs for tea, seasoning and soup, a fishing expedition, and a  rhubarb competition followed by a ‘rhubarb feast’!  Saturday included a kind of farmers market-cum-WI market including a lot of plants for sale, a fishing competition, a  ‘cold fresh jump in the ocean’ – I didn’t try that one, all in preparation for the final barbeque, the ‘night feast’ – in broad daylight of course, this is Iceland in July, where the newly-caught fish met the newly-gathered  herbs and wild vegetables from the adjacent mountains. These included angelica, thyme,  what I took to be wild parsnips, geranium and much else,  along with fire-making workshops,  small children, much beer consumption and a large camp site with lots of face-painting opportunities. All under a brilliant sun and overlooked by snow-capped mountains on a fjord of stunning clarity and beauty. No photos? Don’t look at mine, take a look at their facebook page. Beautiful, memorable.

Permaculture rocks

July 7, 2013

The pre-Cowley Road Carnival warm up event to be seen at last night was a gig at ‘The Bully’ (one of Oxford’s leading venues) by fresh-from-Glastonbury Australian band, Formidable Vegetable Sound System. I’m not sure if its the world’s first permaculture rock band – but its certainly the first I’ve come across. The event was a fundraising gig for the Barracks Lane Community Garden. What fun it was. Packed out, the event raised over £600 on a sultry summer evening with a local ukulele band in support and a reggae session before the main act. Hard to describe the mixture of influences but when I went down early to help set up, Charlie the lead  described it as ‘..mashing together speakeasy electro-swing style wonk and live ukulele quirk  with a side serving of radish beets..’

It was certainly quirky , but the message was spot on with more songs about composting that I could have imagined possible, plus others on permaculture, the end of the fossil fuel culture, waste and recycling (!) and the creative uses of marginal spaces. Funny, relevant, inventive, and not nearly as serious as the subject matter suggests, Formidable Vegetable Sound System  apparently were a hit at the Glastonbury Green Field and I can see why as they turned sustainability  into an epic dance floor sensation for the 100 plus who turned out to see them. With further stops in Suffolk, London, Bristol and  Ireland amongst others   in the next few weeks before their ‘world tour’ moves on to Canada and the USA,  its worth  the effort to check them out.

Cathy’s compost

June 27, 2013

IMG_3787A Sunday afternoon in Headington, Oxford  at the invitation of Low Carbon Headington’s garden group to discuss composting and generally trouble-shoot. Ten eager composters and plenty of  informed questions. Debates around the relative advantages of ‘daleks’, rotating bins and the wooden slatted variety. Host Cathy came up trumps by having examples of all three in use in her garden as well as a leaf-mould  bin made from wire netting. Most surprising question? The use of seaweed in compost. Well yes it has its place as organic material, but lets face it Oxford is about as far as you can get from the sea in the UK or does this low carbon group know something about global warming and  imminent sea level rises that the rest of us don’t? A tour of Cathy’s  great selection of composting technologies was rounded off with tea and home-made cakes – none containing carrageen.

Recycled wheelie-bin saves orchard from flooding

June 26, 2013

IMG_3807I’ve commented in  earlier posts on just how wet my allotment has been.  It hasn’t been confined to my plot. The whole site has suffered in the past 18 months. Apart from the obvious – its rained a lot, there has be quite a bit of puzzlement as to just why it has been so bad, with plotholders resorting to the construction of deep channels around and across allotments and months of suffering flooded plots and lost crops. The conclusion has been that the 100 year old clay land drains in the area have either got blocked by tree roots or similar, or crushed in  nearby construction work and no longer function. Either way the result has been severe flooding on the allotments as water has drained down the hill.

Now, bless them Oxford City Council Parks Department have spent four days on site installing  a new one. The risk has been that in running it across my orchard plot  to reach the existing access and drainage system, quite a few trees would have to go, or be significantly damaged.  I’ve taken a deep breath and recognised that this was for the greater good, including mine. But the line of the pipe is actually parallel to the allotment boundary and straight through the very scrubby hedge at the back of the plot. In the process of connecting to the Bartlemas hamlet pond the Parks Dept staff  have selected a route that misses all my trees. Brilliant! And in a charming example of the new thriftiness in local government, the sump is a recycled wheelie-bin (see picture). Fantastic!

The work is now complete and  far from causing lots of grief, it has opened up several opportunities. The hedge will need to be replaced and the plan is to plant hazel the whole way along and coppice it for pea and bean sticks. Although it will involve quite a bit of hard work in clearing the old hedge line roots and parts  of the hedge that have been ‘stranded’ in the orchard by the line of the new drain, the work has opened up such a large new space, that it looks as if there will be room for three, possibly four new trees in the orchard.  I’ll let you know what I plant.

Chateau Whirlow

June 4, 2013

A day in Sheffield visiting the Whirlow Hall City Farm  on behalf of the Barracks Lane Community Garden, along with fellow trustee Debbie. Barracks Lane is quite tiny (about 100 x 200 metres on  the site of some old council garages in Cowley) and a day at Whirlow reinforced that sense. High up on the moors on the edge of the city it covers 138 acres  is a working farm with pigs, sheep , cows and chickens, an extensive educational programme  and everything from outdoor horticulture to hydroponic strawberries, an orchard and vineyard. Perfect weather gave the place an almost  holiday feel an the excitement of coachloads of local school children heightened that sense. After lunch in the cafe  we got taken up the hill behind the farm house to see the vineyard. Planted in 2011 there are 2,900 vines and at 850 ft,  it is the highest vineyard in England.  Who knows, perhaps the  the steel city is about to become the home of a great British vintage wine?

Meeting the ‘Bond Girl’

June 1, 2013

The great day arrived and the weather didn’t disappoint. In true British style it was leaden grey with drizzle and freezing cold. Nonetheless, fully prepared with brollies and spare woollies (pressed into use) Lord and Lady Muck had a great time at Buckingham Palace on 30 May.  The tea was great  – it should be at a Royal Garden Party – and made all the more delicious by our sheltering in the tea-tent when the heavens opened – mercifully for only about five minutes.

Her Maj appeared on the steps of the Palace at 4pm sharp and the band broke into a rendition of the ‘Bond Girl’ theme. I can report that she was wearing a rose-coloured outfit, including hat.  Lord and Lady Muck were in blue Armani suit and matching Versache tie, and floral silk dress with matching pink cardie and a fascinator to die for.

The garden is advertised as being ‘very much a spring garden’ in the blurb attendees are issued with. On the penultimate day of this Spring hardly anything was out,  just the rhodedendrons and azalias. And the compost? The  ‘tremendous 170 metre long herbaceous border’ certainly had signs of a good treatment. The bins, carefully hidden from view,  have the grass clippings, prunings and leaves gathered in the garden, combined we were told, with ‘some of the horse manure from the adjacent Royal Mews’.  No mention of kitchen waste from the Royal apartments though – but perhaps there isn’t any – the cakes were all gone by 5pm.

Spring arrived, potatoes planted!

May 27, 2013

water-filled canals, AprilSome glorious Bank Holiday weather  finally enabled me to  dig over  my allotment plot properly. Normally something that would be done in the Autumn or at the latest in February/March. However as the photo taken in mid-April shows, the moment the weather was good enough to do anything, it was time to  dig trenches all the way round the plot  and create a flood-control system that worked. Ten months of continuous flooding to tackle. That was April gone, and boy was it hard work!

Finally….. the ground is just about dry enough to dig without hearing that strange sucking sound you get when  putting a spade into waterlogged soil. Mind you it still required frequent scraping-off of mud with a trowel. So the pink fir apple potatoes went in on Monday. I was delighted to see  that the planting guide notes said ‘plant March – May’.  So that’s alright then.  Four days to spare!

That lady’s got no arms!

May 19, 2013

I opened my garden to the public today as part of DRARA’s ‘open gardens’ programme in aid of creating a ‘dementia friendly neighbourhood’. Over 50 visitors between 2-6pm in glorious weather. Shame the garden didn’t look more colourful.  Wisteria, clematis montana, ceanothus and camellia were out, plus some apple blossom, but basically that was it. The garden looked pretty – i put quite a bit of work into grass cutting, edging and generally making sure pots etc were filled and the hens were on best behaviour. Several very young visitors were enchanted by them – feeding them melon seeds and cooked rice was a big deal.  Romantic Moderns author Alexandra Harris  was one of the first visitors and admired the  compost and the statuary. Mavis and Colin brought honey – and went away with eggs.  One visitor, peering at the Venus de Milo, said ‘Why has that lady got no arms?’

gardens of liberation

May 18, 2013

Its opened! After a lot of preparation and a very long day out at the studio in Charlbury yesterday mounting, framing and hanging the pictures,  Clare Carswell’s and my Artweeks exhibition opened today. It takes a new perspective on my long term photo project on worldwide urban agriculture, looking at growing in confined spaces across the world, including Havana Cuba – rooftop vegetable growing in tyres using soil painstakingly collected from the markets, to a wonderful gent rearranging his pots of honey at an open day at an allotment site in Bristol, as Morris dancers limber up in the background. Clare has added her take on the garden beside her studio and we have combined it with a quirky collection of objects I’ve acquired on my photographic travels, ranging from a pot of honey from New York skyscraper-based bees, to beer from hops grown on an allotment in Oxford. I’ll do the occasional update on audience reaction over the next few weeks.