Tuesday, 19 January 2010

A Year of Biodiversity

The UN have designated 2010 “International Year of Biodiversity” in recognition of both its importance to all life on Earth, including the human species, and its increasing loss – mainly due to human activities such as deforestation, industrial monoculture food production, habitat pollution and climate impacts. The website declares the designation “is a celebration of life on earth and of the value of biodiversity for our lives. The world is invited to take action in 2010 to safeguard the variety of life on earth: biodiversity.”

“Why is it so important?”

Humans are but one animal within the Earth’s diverse flora & fauna, however there is one huge difference between our species and all others – we have the ability to protect or destroy the natural diversity. We depend upon the networks of other living species for food, fuel, health & wealth. Whether your belief in how this arose is through Darwinian evolution, or in the design of nature by a creator God or gods, there is no living organism on this planet which does not perform some service to others, and it is to our own detriment to endanger these networks – whether deliberately or unwittingly.

“Yes, but what good can I do?”

The main International Year of Biodiversity website urges us to do just one thing towards biodiversity, and gives a huge list of what we might pledge to do - from creating a wildflower meadow, planting a window box, not mowing part of our lawns, applying for an allotment, tackling Japanese Knotweed see here for more information on this), to encouraging bats.

The UK’s IYB website, hosted by the Natural History Museum, explains how we can all get involved. There’s information on saving the British dormouse; how to build a bug hotel in the autumn to help insect over-winter; joining in with the Big Wildlife Garden (more of this below); looking for lichens; enemy invaders (helping to monitor non-native species of ladybirds) and counting banded snails as part of Evolution Megalab, being run by the Open University, supported by the Royal Society.

The Big Wildlife Garden

Natural England are running this campaign which recognises two major aspects - the important part gardens play as habitats for many species, and that gardening in a wildlife-friendly way can increase the diversity of plants and animals. This is a topic I’ve alluded to several times here, such as growing fruits in my front garden, growing veggies in window boxes, and (not) tidying the garden for winter.

You can register your own garden here as part of the Big Wildlife Garden and gain points for the things you do to encourage wildlife - even just leaving a patch of nettles (which hosts 40 species of insects, including some of our most colourful butterflies) - building up your score towards Bronze, Silver, Gold and Green award levels. There’s an online forum too, to share ideas from other organisations.

School Wildlife Gardens
Of particular interest to me is the competition for the Big Wildlife Garden School of the year since I’m involved with a local infant school to develop just such a garden. Schools must work their way to Green level, and then send in an article and photos of their wildlife project. Judges will choose regional winners, as well as an overall national winner.

Biodiversity - join in – whatever size space you have!

Friday, 8 January 2010

Biodynamics - mysticism or good sense?

Over the Christmas break I heard a couple of items on the radio about biodynamics, a gardening philosophy which treats the Earth as a dynamic, living organism which is affected by other elements of the universe – in particular the sun, moon and planets. The theory originated from ideas by Rudolf Steiner in 1924, as a response to farmers who had noticed a deterioration in the quality of crops produced using chemical fertilisers.
The USA-based Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association describes biodynamics as a “unified approach to agriculture that relates the ecology of the earth-organism to that of the entire cosmos”, whilst the UK Biodynamic Association describes the aim thus “to revitalise nature, grow nourishing food and advance the physical and spiritual health of humanity. Each biodynamic farm or garden is conceived of as an organism with its own individual qualities and diversity of life. Reliance on home produced compost, manures and animal feeds is a key objective and external inputs are kept to a minimum”.

It’s a philosophy that encompasses ideas such as planting (and harvesting) by the phases of the moon, and the lunar cycle as it travels through the zodiac, and is a natural progression from organic gardening, according to writer and biodynamic/organic farmer Tom Petherick in an article for The Telegraph. He also states that both Tesco & Marks and Spencer recently revealed they use the cosmic calendar to decide when it’s best for critics to taste their wine ranges!
I’d heard about biodynamics before, when Mark Rendell, a designer friend of mine, gave us a talk on the subject, and his own experiments with it based on Nick Kollerstrom’s book “Gardening and Planting by the Moon”, at a Society of Garden Designers meeting. However, I hadn’t realised that it was so widely used around the world – as well as the UK there are organisations in Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and the USA.
Biodynamic vineyards have also been developed in many areas of the world, with growers claiming to have improved the health of their vines.

The Elysia Garden, designed by Andy Jones and constructed in 2007, claims to be the only biodynamic garden open to the public in the UK. It’s part of Garden Organic, Ryton, (previously the Henry Doubleday Research Association, HDRA) an organic growing charity.

The Biodynamics emphasis on “spiritual” values, however, is a cause for some controversy in some circles, and I suppose it could be dismissed as “mumbo jumbo” by sceptics. However, it’s an interesting topic, well-founded in ancient belief systems which pre-date our dependence on ever-decreasing fossil-fuel-based industrial agriculture, and I see no harm in finding out about something that has so many supporters. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, I guess.