Everyone has seen litter, discarded plastic packaging tossed into hedgerows or left on beaches. Distressing reports from the Pacific Henderson Island show beaches covered in 38 million pieces of plastic, despite the island being uninhabited by humans. We have removed our personal responsibility for waste disposal, instead opting to ship much of it to countries such as China, Malaysia and Indonesia (over 610'000 tonnes in 2018 alone!), who then recycle or simply dump the rubbish. This has allowed for a gradual shift in mindset, to out of sight, out of mind. Of course, the largest absorber of discarded plastic is the ocean (over 8 million tonnes of plastic a year). British skipper, Emily Penn, recently sailed through the world's largest rubbish patch, which covers an area of 1.6 million square kilometres, and I would highly recommend checking out her fascinating project, eXXpedition.
While we simply have not lived long enough to see the long-term effects of plastic, the immediate danger of these 'macro' plastics is easily understood. However, another, possibly darker threat is also at play. Microplastics are the tiny (<5mm) pieces of plastic that have usually broken away from a larger item, although some are created intentionally small, like those used in sandblasting. Where is the danger? Well, every time synthetic materials go through the washing machine, minute fibres are washed away to rivers and oceans. These fibres collect bacteria and pollutants before being consumed by fish and other underwater life, resulting in "gastrointestinal infections and blockages, reproductive problems, and starvation". As if this issue isn't serious enough, humans are also at risk, either through microplastics in the water system or by consuming aquatic creatures. Microplastics have even been found in places previously believed to be pristine, like Antarctica. Perhaps the scariest aspect of the microplastics issue is that we have too little experience of such a problem to truly understand the health risks to humans.
How you can help:
For free - avoid buying clothing made from synthetic materials, and beauty products containing microbeads. Make sure that your personal waste is disposed of as properly as you can, and double-check your local area's rules regarding plastic recycling.
For a fee - GUPPYFRIEND Sell a bag that captures microplastic particles from the washing machine (shipping is free, although comes from Germany so takes a little longer). Many local services have appeared in the wake of the pandemic who offer organic and plastic-free produce directly from UK farms. To fellow residents of Yorkshire, I can recommend The Organic Pantry for their fantastic range of plastic-free, organic fruit and veg, not to mention the delicious fresh baked goods!
Up for a challenge? Participate in this year's 'Plastic Free July', an informal annual challenge held internationally to try and bring awareness to the amount of plastic in our everyday lives. The idea is to find plastic-free alternatives to our regular groceries and other purchases, which can be much more difficult than expected. I like to think about how different this challenge would have been only a few decades ago, even if my diet and monthly activities looked the same. Online shops such as The Plastic Free Shop thankfully provide alternatives to many items, which also highlights how rare and modern companies who make plastic-free products seem nowadays, ironically.
Obviously, in medical fields, for example, plastic has allowed for huge advancements in hygiene and safety, and this is in no way directed at those uses, but nobody will ever convince me that a cucumber should be shrink-wrapped.
Combatting plastics is simple enough in theory. We must understand that we are paying for the packaging as well as the product and take responsibility for everything we bring into our homes. Producers must be pressured to change their packaging, the technologies to create biodegradable, or at least recyclable alternatives to every plastic grade are developing so quickly right now, and most have long been in existence.
The life cycle of plastic causes such havoc to the environment at every stage. From extraction methods that release methane into the air, contaminate water supplies and displace vital underground minerals, to minute particles infiltrating the food chain, and finally, incineration which releases toxic dioxins.
One of the most dramatic effects of plastic production is 'Phthalate syndrome'. Dr Shanna Swan's acclaimed 2017 research has suggested that men may be entirely infertile by as soon as 2045 due to the phthalate chemical found in more transparent, flexible plastics (such as those in children's toys and food packaging).
Inevitably, the largest barrier in the fight against plastic is human greed, our modern levels of unprecedented consumption, and our unwillingness to actively care for issues we don't perceive to be under our nose. Together our efforts do make a difference, and (some) companies are really trying to help the situation. For those of us privileged with the choice, taking a moment to weigh up the worth of a plastic purchase, or spending a moment to google an alternative is such a painless and inexpensive step to take when the cost of the alternative is really so high.
In nature, plants don't automatically grow spaced out in neat rows, so to thrive, different plants must learn to cooperate. We can use this principle to increase the yield of our own growing spaces. Besides increasing the garden's overall production, companion planting avoids monoculture spaces, which leaves plants vulnerable to pests and diseases.
Plant pairing may be based on making the best use of the space or their ability to deter pests or even to aid each other's growth. Companion plants need to have different growth habits, so they don't compete for space, light or nutrients. Certain plants are well suited to companion planting. Peas and beans grow well alongside many other vegetables because they add nitrogen to the soil for use by other plants. These tall plants also provide perfect shady spots for leafy plants like coriander and lettuce.
Herbs with a strong scent can be planted in between vegetables to repel insects. However, some herbs (such as mint) can quickly take over and smother surrounding plants.
Some slow-growing winter crops can be interplanted with fast-growing salad leaves so that the space is not left empty over the summer.
Growing a border of flowers around your veg plot distracts unwanted insects from more precious crops while attracting valuable pollinators. Aphids are partial to nasturtiums, so they can be used as a sacrifice to protect veggies while producing beautiful and delicious flowers.
Have fun experimenting with different plant combinations and make the most out of the space you have.
Some combinations to avoid:
Moss is the humble hero of our gardens and may have an important role to play in the regeneration of our planet, but what makes this plant so unique?
Moss does not require any fertiliser or pesticide to grow and can be used in many ways around the garden. If a moss roof is too extreme, why not try and introduce moss to your lawn. Moss lawns have a beautiful, ethereal look and do not need mowing. Protect the moss patches already in your space, and try to avoid damage where possible.
It may only be March, but after some growing disasters in 2020, I was determined to get things growing early in 2021. This year, I started multi-sowing for the first time, and I couldn't be happier with the results so far.
Multi-sowing has gained traction recently thanks to Charles Dowding's popular YouTube channel. By breaking with tradition, Charles has shown how sowing multiple seeds together, rather than spacing them out, can produce much more food using less space.
So how does it work? Take onions as an example (as I have done in my own garden). Instead of sowing a 1-metre row of onion seeds, all 20cm apart, throw 4-6 seeds in a seed tray module together and let them mature as a group. As they grow, the individual onions will push away from each other without any need for pricking out or thinning. When using the multi-sow method, our 1-metre row has gone from producing 5 onions to growing 30. If we scaled this up to an entire field, you could start to see this system's real potential, particularly given the current demands on our food production.
Multi-sowing is a super simple way to save time in the garden while increasing your annual harvest, not to mention saving money in the long run. Many vegetables can be grown in this method, and this year I will be experimenting with spinach, kale, onions, carrots, peas and various herbs.
My onion seedlings are still young, but they are growing steadily and look very healthy. I'm looking forward to seeing their development when I move them outside and enjoying many yummy meals.
For more details on multi-sowing, as well as a list of plants that can be multi-sown, click here - Multisowing.
I will post updates on my multi-sown veggies as they grow on Seedology UK Instagram, as well as in future blog posts. If you decide to try multi-sowing, please share your results and tag us on Instagram.
The 20th-century population boom put an enormous strain on the global food supply, and farmers needed quick fixes to meet demand. But why, decades on, are we still using these outdated and devastating techniques when people are still going hungry? Even worse, if soil degradation continues at its current rate, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations revealed in 2014, we may only have 60 years of food-growing left.
Imagine a forest. Looking up, a canopy of trees absorb carbon to store below ground and feed to the microorganism in the soil. Dappled sunlight allows smaller shrubs and groundcover plants to grow, providing homes for wildlife and fungi. In the Autumn, the fallen leaves decompose to feed the soil ready for the following spring's blossoms and fruits. The earth is rich in a variety of nutrients, capable of supporting a wide variety of life. Every 3cm of 'topsoil', the earth layer with the highest concentration of nutrients, takes 1000 years to produce, and when ecosystems are balanced, it grows year on year.
Somehow, we decided that we knew better than nature. We agreed that the ideal growing system revolves around mono-culture fields that drain the earth of nutrients so voraciously, the degraded soil retaliates by sending up 'weeds' to draw nutrients back to the ground. A lack of biodiversity allows pests and disease to thrive by ridding them of their natural predators. So how do we combat these issues? We create chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. In the 1920s, arsenic was spread liberally across US fruit fields as a pesticide, encouraged by the government! And while this choice was quickly stopped (perhaps a lack of repeat customers), the chemicals we use today are equally toxic. We have seen the pictures of farmers spraying their fields while wearing hazmat suits, yet trust the food produced to be safe to consume. We need only look at India's chemical agriculture of the past 50 years to see its devastating effects.
But there is hope. In ancient times, the Loess plains in China were renowned for their fertility. Over centuries, the land became an arid desert through over-farming and deforestation, which led to mass poverty (it is home to 50 million people), and the loss of large scale ecosystems. In 1994, the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project launched to regenerate the land and reverse the destruction by teaching local people to rejuvenate the soil. Today, a large section of the plains has transformed back to ecological stability, and 2.5 million people have been lifted out of poverty as a result. In less than 30 years, a land most would think of as beyond repair has been saved from hundreds of years of poor practices and disregard.
Currently, we lose 30 football fields of topsoil every minute. We are yet to see the full extent of damage from the chemicals we have added to the ground; we simply haven't lived long enough to see them but do not lose hope. The Loess Plateau should prove that the land can be saved, not through good wishes or government interference, but as a community of thinkers and doers learning together. It is more important than ever before to take food sovereignty back from 'big Agra'; they destroy the earth's ability to create life without any thought for the devastation in their wake. Nature has the solution. Before now, many millions of species worked together to create an abundance of life without the need for pesticide or destruction.
Some fascinating thinkers and doers:
Masanobu Fukuoka - I would highly recommend Fukuoka's 'One Straw Revolution'. He spent years observing nature and perfecting gentle farming techniques through trial and error.
Bill Mollison and David Holmgreen - Together, they established an ideology of permaculture.
Charles Dowding - An excellent example of success without digging; check out his youtube channel for instant vegetable growing inspiration delivered in a friendly format.
Liz Zorab - Another British YouTuber, Liz began a thriving food forest in her back garden.
The Permaculture Magazine - An excellent resource all-round.