Monday, 29 April 2013

Composting II - Food Waste Recycling

After viewing the in-vessel composting site, we drove off a few miles to Cassington, to Agrivert's purpose built, high-tech, anaerobic digester facility.

Sounds impressive? It was! This is where the bulk of the area's food waste goes, and is situated in peaceful farmland just off the A40. You'd never know it was there....

The process is "anaerobic", ie not using oxygen, because it takes place inside the tanks, not in the open air: if you remember the garden waste processing, that was an aerobic process, just as our domestic composting is: it needs oxygen in order to work. Very different systems! (To see the third instalment of this article, check out this article on what happens to our general recycling.)

The waste arrives by the truckload - Debra, our tour guide, told us that it's not just our household food waste, but also food waste from restaurants, supermarkets, and milk processing waste as well. Before entering the reception area, Debra warned us that it might be a bit smelly... but actually, it really wasn't that bad.

I can imagine that on a hot day it would be a bit ripe, but the process is very swift: the trucks pick up the food waste from our streets, bring it straight here, empty out and return for more, so it's not as though it's sitting around for any length of time.

It all arrives in the unloading bay, where the trucks reverse up and tip out their contents into a large pit. At the base of the pit are various mechanisms to move the "stuff" along and up a conveyor belt, where the contamination is removed, and the good stuff is macerated.

Here's a photo looking down into the pit - no, it really wasn't as smelly as you would have thought. And no, I wouldn't want to fall in.

Once again, the process is surprisingly simple: this arrangement moves the waste from the pit, through the "chomper" and through a de-contamination unit, which picks out any plastic or other unwanted items.

The contaminants are moved away on a slow conveyor, and the "good stuff" appears as a liquid slurry, lovingly referred to as "soup" by the team.

The "soup" is then piped into a series of large metal vessels, where it is heated and sterilised. And how are the heaters powered? Aha, we'll come back to that.

Just a word before I go on to the rest of the process - corn starch bags. Familiar with them? Our supermarkets sell them, to go inside our indoor food caddies, so we can bag up our food waste and put it in the food bin outside, which is then regularly emptied.

As I was looking at the contamination conveyor, I couldn't help noticing that most of it was pale green plastic. I asked Debra - "corn starch bags", she replied. "Are they not processed along with the food waste?" I asked. "Oh no," she replied, "we have to remove them. They go off to be incinerated along with the other contaminants."


When the council first told us that we would be putting our food waste in separate bins, the leaflets said we can only use compostable bags made of corn starch.   Although we can use a small amount of newspaper to line the bin, if we really, really wanted to. But corn starch bags were the way to go.

Ever since, I have been buying expensive corn starch bags, and resenting the fact that I barely half fill a bag in a week, and I have to empty my indoor caddy long before it is full. (because it starts to smell, of course.)

Now I find that not only are the corn starch bags not necessary, but they are actually a contaminant, and have to be carefully removed!

As Debra told us: "Just put the food into the bin, loose. You don't need bags. Tip it out every day into the outside bin. When that's been emptied, just rinse it out! That's all I do - there is no need to use bags."

As each council seems to differ, I should explain that in the Vale, we have a small kitchen caddy - just about the right size for a corn starch bag, huh - which is emptied into a larger outside caddy, which is put out for emptying every week. Some other councils have different arrangements, but basically we all have to have some sort of pot indoors, which is tipped into the outdoor collectable one. Debra says, don't bother with bags, just empty the kitchen caddy or pot out into the outdoor one, leave the stuff loose: and if, when it's been emptied, it gets a bit smelly, rinse it out. She agrees that newspaper can be used, but not too much of it. No need to wrap every item individually!

Well, that's convinced me: once I've used my existing stock of corn starch bags, I will in fact stop using my kitchen caddy, and will go over to the system my friend in London uses: she has a tub on the worktop for peelings and scrapings, and as soon as the meal is prepared and/or cleared, she just tips it straight out into the outside bin. It never gets smelly indoors: and every so often she runs the emptied outdoor bin under the outside tap, quick rinse and that's that.

So, back to the process:

The sterilised - or is as pasteurised? ok, the "heat treated" soup is then piped into a series of truly enormous round above-ground tanks, looking somewhat like the old-fashioned London gas storage tanks:  you know, those ones where the rounded tops would rise, indicating how full they are.

These tanks don't change shape, but we were told that they have a gas-permeable membrane inside them that sits on the surface of the soup to prevent it forming a crust, while it digests - quite literally, just as our stomachs do, using nothing more than bacterial action. No chemicals, no stirring, no additives, just ongoing bacterial action. Agrivert had to buy the initial "dose" of bacteria, but once it got going, apparently it is self-sustaining, just like our own stomachs.

The process gives off quantities of methane, which is piped away and into the gas turbine engine, where it is used to create electricity.

Now - and this is the really clever bit - some of that electricity is used to power the plant, and to heat up the steriliser vessels! How neat is that!

After something like a hundred days, the "soup" has moved through all of the large above-ground tanks, and what is left is a non-smelly, utterly organic, wonderful liquid fertiliser, which is pumped into tankers with spreader attachments, and off it goes to local farmers, to grow our crops for us.

I am so impressed with this facility, I can't tell you:  ok, it cost a lot of money to set it up, but once in operation it quietly takes all our horrible food waste, and turns into fertiliser to be used within a very few miles of the plant, and as a by-product it makes enough electricity to power the entire operation, and enough left over (sold back to the Grid) to power, ooh, what was it? 4,200 homes - a whole village, in effect.

It uses no noxious chemicals, no imported or added materials, a minimum of machinery, a minimum of staff, is just about completely smell-free, and although it is fair to say that the gas turbine is quite a noisy bit of kit (well, it is HUGE!) we were able to hold normal conversations while standing outside it, waiting our turn to go inside to look. So, not even noisy, then.  OK, quite a lot of trucks coming and going, but that is inevitable, as we all insist on throwing so much away.

Personally I waste as little food as possible.  In fact, I would say that I waste very little actual food, my food waste is normally vegetable peelings, and once I get my wormery set up again - lost them all in the cold winter, drat - I probably won't have anything much to put out at all. But I'm very pleased to  know that what little I do waste is going to be processed into useful commodities in such a very efficient way.

And as soon as I have finished up my current roll of corn starch bags, I will never use one again! 


Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Friday, 12 April 2013

Fri: call this spring?

Well, I don't. It's been cold, wet and miserable all week, and I have done less than half of my usual work, groan.  About the only good thing you can say about this so-called spring weather is that at least the weeds aren't up in force yet.

Mind you, neither are the daffodils.

Which reminds me, last weekend I went round Buckland Lakes, opened under the NGS Yellow Book scheme: my friend Marina recommended it as being a good place to go and look at conifers, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, as there were only about two conifers there. Mind you, the Ice House was nice.

I got quite excited when Marina suggested it, as on the map it appeared that the grounds of Buckland House had quite a lot of mixed woodlands, with a lot of the little pointy conifer symbols, and a quick internet search came up with "6 acres of mixed woodland", but alas,  the grounds weren't open, just the lakeside walk. It appears that the lady who owns the lakes does not have any sort of arrangement with the owner of the House to allow the once-a-year visitors to enjoy the woodlands as well as the lake, which is a bit of a shame.

Had there been any level of co-operation, we might have been presented with a circular walk, instead of an out-and-back along one side of the lakes and back again. I always find this a disappointment when visiting gardens, do you?   I seem to remember being quite scathing on the subject when I visited Bourton House garden a couple of years ago. Almost every path they had was a dead end, and I grew very irritated with it. Not only do you keep bumping into other visitors - and I mean literally bumping, if the paths are not wide enough for two to pass - but it means you keep coming to a dead halt, and not for the good reason of being stopped in your tracks by admiration for a plant or a statue or a view, but for the bad reason of there not being any attempt to create any sort of coherent path through the garden.

This was the situation at the Buckland lakes - at the very end, there was a rope across the path and a sign indicating that visitors must turn around, and every single visitor ambled up to it, was brought up short by the rope, and said "Oh!" out loud. Usually followed by "oh dear, do we have to turn back?" in various degrees of disappointment.

And then, as you trudge your way back along the path, not looking around as you have seen it all already, it's quite painful to see the optimistic faces of the new arrivals falling, as they are greeted with a stream of  returners, somewhat in the manner of salmon swimming against the tide.

And, to get back to the daffodils, I know these openings have to be booked at least 18 months in advance, and you can't choose your weather, but oh! what a shame it was for the owner, that spring is so late this year. All the snowdrops had gone over, and hardly any of the daffodils were out.  I expect that in a fortnight or so, it will be a glorious walk, but last weekend? Frankly, it was a bit dull.

I'm a big fan of lakes: as you'll know if you've read much of this blog, I work in a couple of gardens who have lakes (I'm so lucky! I love my job!) so I'm familiar with the problems and joys of gardening around water.  And I have to say, as lakes go, these ones were a bit on the dull side.  We were on what you might call the "far" side of the lakes, away from the house - so from our perspective, there was a flat sheet of water, then a flat sheet of grass leading up to the House in the distance. Somewhat less than eye-catching, especially as, because of the perspective, the view didn't really change from one end of the lakes to the other.

From the house, or from the other side of the lakes, at least you'd get the sheet of water with trees reflected in it, which would have been more interesting, and is another point in favour of the circular walk going around the lake, rather than along it and back.  No doubt when the lakes were built - and they were built, they are not natural - it was for the benefit of the folks in the Big House, so from their  point of view I expect it looks lovely every day.

There seems to be a bit of taboo about daring to say that a garden was less than "lovely" but honestly? This one (not  a garden, a lakeside walk) was far from lovely.  Ah well, can't win them all, and at least, being NGS, the entrance money is going to charity.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Do youngsters have what it takes to be Gardeners?

There was a very interesting response to my last post, in which I suggested that there was not much point encouraging youngsters to look for a career in horticulture when there are so few jobs, and at such low wages.

London Gardener (sorry,  you didn't give a name) made the extremely valid point that some spheres of life - classical music and gardening being mentioned - were interests that we develop as we mature.

Oh, I so agree!

Any "young people" out there will no doubt be throwing their mobile phones at the screen (tut! showing my age here, they will of course be reading this on their mobile phones - no doubt while studying, updating their FaceBleurk status, tweeting, and/or pretending to be at work at the same time. Talking of which, *warning! digression!* I was watching the local bin men, emptying wheelie bins on a high street earlier this week, and one of them was talking on his mobile phone throughout the entire operation. Quite apart from the fact that he was running along a main road, in amongst the traffic, with the phone glued to his ear, doing his share - more or less - of hauling the wheelie bins around, but using just one hand - and this includes operating the buttons on the back of the truck: quite apart from the many Health and Safety implications, am I the only one that considers this to be stealing from your employer? He was paid to be at work, working, not yapping on a personal call. I know it was a personal call because I was working in a front garden, and he was shouting very loudly into the phone. I realise I am out of touch with modern life, but in my opinion, this is STEALING from your employer and you should not do it. Yes, I likewise feel (very strongly) that txting, tweeting and updating your social network during work hours is STEALING from your employer. Personally, I normally don't answer my phone when I am working, I let it go to voicemail, and check them in my own time.  Pernickety of me? Maybe, but someone is paying me by the minute, as it were, to work: so if I stop to take a phone call, I am not working, and therefore they are paying me for nothing. In my opinion, this is STEALING and I won't do it.  All my current clients know this, and if they have cause to phone me during the day, (the only calls I am likely to answer) they generally start with "can you talk?" and they are always brief, even if I reassure them that I am not actually working at that moment. End of parenthesis.)

Where was I?

Oh yes, youngsters will be pouting and whining "you don't understand the youth of today, we can all do three things at once" and I will be standing firm (feeling as though I have a target painted on me) and saying that I strongly feel that most "young people" do not have the right work ethic to go into horticulture.


There are four types of horticultural work generally available:

1) Scientific: things like Plant pathologist (as per last post, the Forestry Commission, government funded, have "a small number" of them and you can bet they don't resign until they drop), GM analyst, breeding specialist: these sorts of jobs require degrees, are generally based indoors, and are few and far between.

2) Garden Designer: a few really good ones, who get thousands of pounds per job. Counterbalanced by hundreds and hundreds of middle-aged housewives who have taken a short course, probably on the internet or at evening classes, and who now think that they are Garden Designers. Doomed to fail once they run out of friends and family willing to pay them to "design" for them.

Then we get to the dirty-finger-nails nitty gritty:

3) Gardener on an estate or a Big House: what most people think of when they hear "professional gardener". Extremely low paid, can take decades to work your way up from Under-gardener to Head Gardener: any one Head Gardener will have a dozen or more underlings, and will not retire until forced to by ill health, thus reducing the chances of progression. Tends to wear out underlings.

4) (fanfare of trumpets) the joyous self-employed, like me. Working in a small number of private gardens, on a rather more domestic scale - most of my gardens are between a third of an acre and four acres. Although I should say that the four-acre one is slightly more than half water, ie very low maintenance.

Oh, and one or two oddments such as the Leisure industry: park rangers,  sports grounds maintenance, golf course groundsmen: that sort of thing. Specialising.

So, assuming our Young Person does not have a Speciality in mind, they will be attempting to start options 3 or 4.

Option 3, working in an estate: being completely inexperienced, they will be working as an under-under-gardener,  being strictly directed as to what to do, and most young people (terrible generalisation, I know) take a while to learn that they have to knuckle down, take orders, turn up on time, be reliable, do uninteresting tasks when they first start work, etc. As an Older Person - oh god, no! no! I'm still young! but in the eyes of the world, I am very probably nearly middle-aged, aaaarrgh! sorry, end of panic attack - I would also add that youngsters need to learn how very little they actually know. A hard lesson to learn.

Option 4,  should they take my route and be self-employed - well, it takes a lot of self-discipline to do it, and frankly I found my solid business background, and my added years of life experience, to be invaluable. 

Why, exactly?

Almost anyone, with minimal tuition, can weed and prune to an acceptable standard:  it is fair to say that it takes quite some time to learn all the names of plants, their pruning regimes, to learn all the weeds and their habits, to understand and recognise micro-climates and soil types, to learn to spot the various bugs, mildews, diseases etc etc, but any job has jargon and work methods that have to be learnt. No, the aspects of being self-employed which I think are important start with the aforementioned self-discipline: it's very easy to say "aww, don't feel like it today" but if I don't work, I don't get paid. More, if I don't work, my clients will eventually get fed up with me and find a more reliable gardener.

Then there is the paperwork: maintaining work records,  invoicing, tax returns and so on. Also there are aspects of business management: assessing my performance, analysing profitable avenues,  allocating an advertising budget, analysing results of advertising: not to mention having to deal tactfully with a variety of clients and situations. 

The more I think about it, the more I think that gardening/horticulture - the dirty-finger-nails variety - should almost be seen as a vocation, rather than a career.  Truly was it said to me, when I first started gardening professionally, "you won't get rich as a gardener."  It is certainly true that I would not have been able to consider this career before I was financially stable.  It is also true that I am enjoying this life more than I can say.  And as you can see, I am fairly free at saying things!

Of course, pigeonholing  "young people" as ethically or emotionally too immature to be gardeners is unfair: I did say "most" young people, not all, but I stand by the statement.

Thankfully, there will always be the "good kids" out there, the ones we never see, the ones who are safely indoors doing their homework, or doing something creative, or belonging to Scouts/Guides/Air Cadets etc: there will always be the rare one or two who are emotionally mature enough not to want to be a gardener "because they reeely reeely love plants", and who can recognise that although it's a - er, can I say spiritually rewarding without sounding like a hippy? Maybe not, let's go with just rewarding: although it's a rewarding career, and will make you a nicer, better, happier, calmer person, it won't make you rich. And if you are going to have to support yourself or a family, then you are going to have to recognise that you need to achieve financial stability before you go into gardening.

I must stress that all this is to do with working as a gardener, not being a gardener. I would love to see all children doing a little gardening as they grow up: I find it heartbreaking to think that there are children who have to have a school lesson on how to plant a sunflower seed, whose parents have never shared that with them. What's happened to the grandparents? *cries out and holds arms aloft to the heavens* Why aren't they showing their grandchildren how to grow cress on damp kitchen paper? Why aren't children helping Grandad in the potting shed, tying up the tomatoes? Don't parents even talk to their children these days? ("Apparently not" comes the answer.)

As London Gardener said, we all go through a stage of our early adult lives when all we want to do is party and meet people: not the best time to be working in solitary splendour. There is a lot to be said for gaining your experience and maturity, then bringing those things into gardening. Both the garden and the person will benefit more.

And at least gardening is one of the few occupations where age is actively in our favour: if you take up gardening as an adult, no-one would blink an eye at employing you (unless you confess that last week you were shelf-stacking, of course), but would you entrust your much-loved garden to a school leaver? I think not.

So on balance, my opinion is that I don’t think anyone should try to be a self-employed gardener until they have enough poise to deal with clients, enough business acumen to set their hourly rates accurately, enough strength of character to turn up on time and do the job honestly, diligently, reliably, and without one hand permanently txting.

Not really for school-leavers, then.

Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Getting youngsters into gardening: why bother?

The gardening world is currently buzzing with a couple of hot topics: one is the perennial (ha ha, see what I did there?) one of despicably low wages (agreed), and the other is the lack of government interest in teaching children about gardening, leading to a lack of youngsters in our trade.

It's a given that wages are low in "gardening" - despite the fact that to be a good gardener requires experience, skill, passion, attention to detail, patience, a good eye for colour, the ability to spot problems early and sort them out, the ability to deal with clients tactfully, the fortitude to work in all weathers, .. I could go on for some time, but despite all this, it's seen as an unqualified job, which is particularly annoying for those gardeners like me, who have qualifications, insurance, excellent references and so on.

The main reason for low wages is, of course, that of supply and demand:  for every estate or "big garden" job there are many more applicants than positions - not to mention those Enemy Within, the unpaid, unskilled, often inexperienced Volunteers, who devalue us all by working for nothing.

A quick glance at current vacancies is somewhat shocking: Hampton Court Palace want some seasonal gardeners, six months, £1250 a month, sounds good: but that's in London, so you'd need to get there: and it works out at just £15k, if it were full-time, which it isn't.  Norfolk, £7 an hour. Cleaners get more than that. North Yorkshire, old folks' home, duties include gardening and driving the minibus, £7.17 an hour. Luton, 6-months, £14pa pro rata.

So why, I have to ask, with wages so low, and not that many jobs around, why are we getting hot and bothered about the lack of youngsters coming into gardening?

Now, we are talking about Further Education at this point:  this is not the same as getting small children out into the garden.  Yes, school children should all be encouraged to garden: it’s healthy outdoor exercise, it’s a way of reconnecting to the natural world, it’s "good for them" in every way, and I fully support it.  Personally, I think that the parents should be the ones showing the children how to garden and connect with nature, but apparently many parents these days don't know a) how to garden or b) how to talk to their children, so they are now relying on the schools to do it.

So, leaving aside the issue of gardening for pleasure, there is a push within the gardening world to get more children interested in a career in horticulture.  This is partly fuelled by the recent outbreak of Ash Dieback disease - Chalara fraxinea - as reported in the Guardian last December, with the headline

"Ash dieback: lack of plant scientists blamed for slow response."

Roger Coppock of the Forestry Commission, said: "We did start work on a pest risk analysis [for Chalara], but we were already dealing with other diseases and pests and the number of plant pathologists is very small."

Then Prof Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser at DEFRA, said: "We need more university courses to produce more people trained in plant pathology."

 In November, Prof James Brown, president of the British Society of Plant Pathology, told the Guardian the job losses in plant science were "severe". He said: "Britain is not producing graduates with the expertise needed to identify and control plant diseases in our farms and woodlands."

Now on the surface, this appears to be a simple, if worrying, statement: we don't have enough graduates in this subject, we need more. But how many more? One? Two? We seem to have managed without any extra ones right up until this crisis, and to my mind, that implies that any "extra" plant pathologists would have been sitting at home on the dole, unemployed, right up to that point. It's all well and good for the government to say that we need more of them, but what do they expect them do between crises? And who is going to pay them to keep their skills and expertise up to date until such time as they are needed?

Anyone who goes on to study for a Degree feels that they deserve a higher wage than those who did not: and how many actual "careers" - as opposed to "jobs" - are there for qualified Botanists? Or Horticulturalists? Or Plant Pathologists? Very few, and regionally situated, so what is the point in churning out hundreds of applicants for half a dozen jobs?

On the subject of "how many career (ie reasonably well paid) jobs are there in horticulture",  I had a quick look at the Forestry Commission website - it's a government organisation, so it's rather better paid that any other branch of Horticulture.  Despite being the ones with insufficient Plant Pathologists, they are not advertising for any more - they have only 6 vacancies at the moment, and that's for the entire country, which gives you an idea of the scarcity of well-paid jobs.

Even then, the salaries are not as good as they look: £26-£32k plus benefits for a Recreation Manager made me very nearly apply for it there and then, until I read on - for a start it's part time pro-rata, it's by definition a leisure industry job, so your 20 hours would be focused around weekends and bank holidays. Great. The experience and qualifications required are a great deal more than I would have thought necessary, but on reading between the lines, it's not an easy job.

Here are some of the bits I found amusing:

Develop plans that monitor and review milestones, taking action to deal with significant changes to cost, time or quality

Right, the goalposts keep moving, do they?

Show drive; not become easily distracted or put off by minor problems or setbacks

Ah, previous employees have sunk under the weight of trivial problems, have they?

Take responsibility for own work, admitting to and learning from experience and mistakes

Oh, I think we can all see where that one is coming from.

React positively to change and support others to do the same

Your colleagues are hidebound and unco-operative.

And so it goes. And these jobs are examples of the few properly-structured government jobs, whereas most "gardening" jobs are private, where you are at the mercy of an individual.

So I ask, is there any point hammering on about careers in horticulture, when there are so few that pay a living wage?  Is there really any point in telling secondary school children to choose to study horticulture, when they will end up having to move around the country chasing the few jobs, for low wages?

Frankly, I think not.   As Nick Boyes said: "In a week when people working in horticulture come top of the happiest jobs list and the media was full of quotes from people who had left 'stressful' careers in offices to join us in gardening, none of those spoken to had selected horticulture as their first choice of career. My cynical assumption is that they needed to build up a good financial base first, before joining us on the other end of the pay scale."  (Professional Gardeners'  Guild Journal, No 139)