From Bristol to CAT: Countryfile takes on Sustrans

On the 4th of May, the Countryfile Magazine editorial team and Rich from Sustrans are racing from Bristol to the Centre for Alternative Technolgy in Machynlleth, mid Wales using a variety of different travel methods. They aim to explore the trials and the triumphs of travelling in rural areas. Each person will take different routes and judge how efficient it is a way to travel based on time, cost, experience, environmental impact and the effort (calories/ energy/ stress)

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Plants are endlessly fascinating. In May I’m going to spend three days looking at how they grow, on our Botany for Gardening course

by Chloe Ward
When i was a kid i made a little promise to myself that i would never, ever be as boring as my Mum and Granny who would walk up and down their rows of vegetables discussing each one. It’s a promise I’m happy to break though. Plants are endlessly fascinating. In May I’m going to spend three days looking at how they grow, on our ‘Botany for Gardening’ course. We’ll be doing little experiments and stuff that was boring at school, but strangley is really fun now. There’s still spaces if you want to join in.

Thoughts on peat in response to questions and comments from twitter and facebook. I’d back a levy, but I’d prefer a ban

by Chloe Ward

I would back a levy, though of course i’d prefer a ban. It would be hard to sell bags of peat under the table in the pub, thought i guess it would happen. (trucks in the night?)

It astounds me on how slow the horticulture industry is to stop using peat. I’ve been a gardener for twenty years. I have never, ever used peat or felt the need to. At CAT we make up our own seed and potting mixes, but in other gardens i’ve used commercially sold organic mixes which also work fine. If you’re choosing a potting compost, they do vary in quality, so shop around until you find one which suits you. In 2010 ‘Which? Gardening’ awarded ‘Best Buys’ to three peat free potting composts – Vital Earth Tub and Basket Compost, New Horizon Mulit-Purpose Compost, and Vital Earth Multi-Purpose Compost.

Another big irritation on the peat-front is how sneaky the sellers are in their labelling. For example, recently i have seen a grow-bag labelled as “20% peat-free”. What does that mean, if not 80% peat? So, watch out for that – if in doubt, look for organic certification.

MSc Environmental Change and Practice

Environmental change will affect many aspects of society including the working practices and research agendas of the built environment professions.

Students in the sun at the Centre for Alternative Technology

Responding to this change, a new and innovative master’s degree is commencing at CAT in September 2011 in collaboration with the Cardiff School of Art and Design, University of Wales Institute Cardiff (UWIC).

The aim of the programme is to provide students with the theoretical knowledge and the research and practical skills to be able to operate effectively within their chosen field of the Built Environment, while responding to environmental change. The focus is on buildings and the built environment and is intended for architects, builders, planners, engineers, surveyors, researchers, academics and other built environment professionals and experienced individuals. Students may link coursework to their professional work projects, volunteering projects and/or current research projects running at CAT and at UWIC.

Heliodon pair

A portfolio of work is produced including practical work, case studies and reports. Intensive one week modules are held at CAT and at UWIC, and the programme is available Full Time (1 year) or Part Time (2 years).

Find out more.

Illegal vegetables and how to grow them

by Chloe Ward

Wheel barrow in the gardens at CAT

Do you like the sound of this bean? Want to grow it too? I could sell you some seed for a quid. Bargain? Sadly, though, the law does not permit it. It is illegal to sell my bean seed. Why? Do the seeds yield an illegal drug? Is it an invasive species likely to wreak havoc on our natural ecosystems? Does the plant contain some kind of hazardous toxin? No – it’s just a sweet, innocent, harmless bean, a Climbing French bean with the botanical name of Phaseolus vulgaris. But French beans come with cultivar names too, like ‘Neckar Queen’ and ‘Blauhilde’ and mine hasn’t got one. It’s got no birth certificate. This is the problem. Ever since the passing of the Seed (National List of Varieties) Act 1973, a vegetable seed can only be sold if it is on a special list. To get on the list it has to pass a DUS test. It must be Distinct (different from all other varieties), Uniform (all the plants grown from a pack of seed must be the same) and it must be Stable (the plants should not change from generation to generation). The vegetable seeds for sale today are all on the list. The ones your neighbour gives you may not be.

You can read the rest of this article here

This article was first published in CAT’s Clean Slate magazine.

Growing up: A new age for forest gardening?

by Chloe Ward
Forest gardening offers an environmentally sound way of growing without the back-breaking work. But has it has it lived up to expectations?

Working on the forest garden
I remember clearly the moment of my conversion. 1991 saw the publication of Forest Gardening – the launch of a new way of growing food. It was the most environmentally sound system you could imagine. A vision of food production that was not just low impact but actively beneficial. The idea was enthralling to an aspiring ecological grower. It gave a new direction for the future. I was instantly seduced. Robert A de J Hart (1913-2000) was inspired by the home gardens of the tropics such as those in Kerala, India, in which a wide variety of food plants grow in a small space, above, below and around each other in an organised tangle, similar to the natural forest that grows nearby. It made perfect sense. Why grow crops in one thin layer spread over the earth’s surface when nature makes use of vertical space right up to the tree canopy? Robert set about developing a system of three dimensional food gardening for the temperate environment. He designed a garden comprising a mixture of edible plants: trees and shrubs with bushes below and a ground layer of perennial or self-seeding plants below these. Read the rest of this article here This article was first published in CAT’s Clean Slate magazine.

Grafting, growing, grazing: the art of the orchard

by Chloe Ward

Since 1960, around two-thirds of Britain’s orchards have been lost. But a recent surge of interest has led to more of us planting or managing fruit trees

Apples at the Centre for Alternative Technology

Orchards are valuable for biodiversity, are a useful source of local, seasonal food, and can be a great way of bringing communities together. For many of us, tending an orchard is also the ideal way to spend a sunny afternoon. The type of orchard you choose will depend on what you want to get out of it. Do you want it to be your own personal achievement, your domain – a place where you can immerse yourself in your work, without interruption? Or would you prefer not to do all the thinking, but have fun days with friends, and perhaps enjoy cider drinking sessions? Do you want to experiment with rare varieties or grow something tried and tested? Alongside thinking about the purpose of the orchard, you will also need to consider the resources available, including the site, labour and finances. These choices shouldn’t be rushed. In ten years’ time, it won’t make much difference whether you planted in 2012 or 2013, but it will make a difference what you planted.

Read the rest of this article here

This article was first published in CAT’s Clean Slate magazine.

Gardener Chloe takes over the CAT blog for a week

by Chloe Ward Display Gardens

Hello. I’m Chloe and I work on CAT’s display gardens. This week I’m taking over the CAT blog.

Everything is happening at once just now, so we’re frantically trying to keep up with the sowing, weeding and planting. It’s been very, very sunny and the plants are shooting ahead with lots a fresh green growth and it seems to me like the apple blossom is much earlier than usual this spring.

In the display gardens it’s not just about growing organic food and creating good habitats for wildlife, but also about showing our visitors what we’re doing and why. I love doing my veg patches, but I also have a few pet subjects, which I’ll be talking about this week. One is forest gardening which I’ve been interested in for over twenty years. Another is seed saving. It’s rewarding to grow veg from seed you’ve saved yourself, but it’s even more rewarding to help keep a vegetable variety in existence. That’s what we’re doing at CAT with some of our veg that we save seeds from.

Looking forward to comparing notes with other gardeners this week.

Nature corner: the slow-worm

by Rennie Telford

Morning Everyone, As I was going down the garden steps yesterday, I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye and looked down to find a handsome male slow-worm which had left the safety of the undergrowth and was making the hazardous journey across the path to the other side. For a normally unobtrusive creature it seemed to be doing everything it could to attract attention, it was zig-zagging along the ground in a rapid writhing motion and the sun was reflecting brightly off its beautiful metallic bronze skin. When it reached the other side of the path and started to disappear into the dead leaves though it really came into its element, it slowed right down and as it burrowed under the leaves it became perfectly camouflaged, occasionally lifting its head and flicking its tongue in and out as it explored its surroundings. Slow-worms (of which there are plenty around site) need to be secretive as they are preyed upon by just about everything you can think of, cats, badgers, hedgehogs, rats, mice, owls, thrushs, chickens and even snakes. They are in fact legless lizards and like lizards have a tail which breaks off easily which can be an effective escape mechanism, leaving a somewhat bewildered predator holding a portion of slow-worm as the main bit makes a hasty retreat. The scientific name reflects this-Anguis fragilis. Another form of defence they have is the ability to eject a foul smelling liquid if handled roughly although I have only experienced this once, normally they seem very placid creatures and although I don’t advocate handling wild animals unnecessarily, there is something wonderfully tactile in the cool, smooth feel of a slow-worms skin. Fascinating creatures.

PS. Listen out for the drumming of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker as you come up the south drive, it has realy been giving it some the last few mornings.