Saturday, May 19, 2007

“How disappointment tracks the steps of hope.” Letitia Elizabeth Landon (English poet and novelist, 1802 – 1838). (Inspirational photo is, apparently, of Cape Disappointment lighthouse in Washington State, USA, along with some chap in fancy dress ... looking decidedly disappointed.)

Often, as I wander about doing jobs, I ponder about subject matter for blogs and I’ve long been meaning to correct the idea that we live in some rural utopia by telling you about some of the disappointments that have accompanied our successes. I thought that I’d tell you about some of our animal problems, illnesses and losses and was going to say how much more serious they were (affecting sentient beings) than losing a few vegetables. That was until last Saturday, when returning from a very hard physical day’s work taking down the stone pigsty (see previous blog) I found a very downcast Gabrielle who reported that we’d lost a half of all the seedlings she’d sown, nurtured and then planted out in our raised vegetable bed system according to the cycles of the moon. Some serious wind over a couple of days and an onslaught of slugs (this month is as wet as last month was dry) had done for the poor things. Receiving such news when already exhausted, I didn’t have the emotional reserves to comfort Gabrielle, in fact I was almost upset AT her: “can’t she at least look after a few vegetables whilst I’m exhausting myself doing proper man’s work all day, every day?” A symptom of my own disappointment transferred onto her; I rapidly saw sense, although we were both still left with round shoulders and a heavy heart: bloody permaculture nonsense.

Growing organic, perma-culture vegetables, fruit and nuts precludes the use of super strong snail and slug killing pellets produced by caring chemical corporations and we’re left with such helpful advice as “pick them off by hand” and “set beer traps”. Now I have spent many a damp summer’s evening in gardens by torchlight picking slugs up with ever more slimy fingers AND I have noticed that it does actually reduce the population. I’ve also bought nematodes, microscopic creatures that eat gastropods (the Latin name for slugs and snails) from the inside: go guys, and show no mercy! You can, perhaps, sense my anger at these slow-moving, gentle vegetarians? But I’ve always, in a boyish fashion, poo-poohed beer traps as being a complete waste of beer and that it would be better to drink this precious commodity while reflecting on what to do about the slugs. However, hallelujah! I’m a complete convert.

Once we’d picked ourselves up from the depths of our veggie despair, we realised that, if we are to progress in our permaculture adventure, then a large part of our learning will be via the disappointments and thanks to them, in the future, we’ll be able to evangelise on how to grow delicious vegetables under a straw mulch without being bothered by hungry univalves. So we had to fight back. I’ve bought nematodes before and, to be honest, had limited success. In fairness, I think soil type and dry spells immediately after applying them, haven’t helped. Our raised bed system under straw mulch has softer soil and retains moisture (essential for the nematodes survival) well, so we thought we’d give them one more try. A note about the straw mulch: it has many good qualities but a downside is that it provides a very good (from a slug’s point of view) habitat and actually exacerbates our problem. Whilst looking at the website, I also came across some anti-slug collars which one places around each seedling to provide a physical barrier. However, they are very expensive, considering the number we’d need, and aren’t tall enough to both seal against the soil and rise clear from our straw mulch. So we manufactured our own version out of empty plastic water bottles which our neighbours Alan & Carole have been saving for us (see photo).

Results: smiles have returned, along with a certain sense of impending victory. The beer traps are outstand-ingly successful, even using the very cheapest beer. The collars have been 90% successful and Gabrielle has suggested forgetting the return, which is time consuming to make and can be overcome by the most persistent and courageous of our foes, and just make a simple collar from a whole bottle, which delays their climb enough that they can be picked off easily.