• It’s the Ryder Cup Drinking Game!

    Rejoice! Posh retailer Marks & Spencer has added some exclusive beer imports to its already impressive range. This is especially good news for Nick because M&S is his closest supermarket meaning minimal walking for maximum beer pleasure.

    This new range includes the likes of American outfits Ska Brewing, Six Points and Hardywood, Norway’s Aegir and Amundsen Bryggeri, along with four beers from one of our favourite ever breweries, Danish experimenters Mikeller.

    Rejoice again! It’s Ryder Cup weekend. One of the greatest sporting occasions pits Europe’s golfing elite against America’s finest club swingers and we’ll* be glued to the radio and telly for three days, immersed in the tension with a few beers to see us through.

    And if you think this is beginning to sound like we’ve got a daft drinking game lined up for the sporting entertainment then you wouldn’t be wrong…

    Our Ryder Cup Drinking Game: The Rules

    Here’s how it goes. Pick one beer to represent Europe (we’ve opted for Mikeller’s IPA ‘Hair in the mailbox’ in honour of Europe’s captain, Thomas Bjørn, who is also Danish) and one beer to represent America (M&S has been raided for Ska Brewing’s IPA Modus Hoperandi). Then all you need to do is take a swig of the relevant beer when one of these events happens…

    • A player hits a duff shot which the commentator blames on the unique Ryder Cup tension
    • A player hits an outstanding shot which the commentator puts down to the unique atmosphere of the Ryder Cup
    • A player is seen whispering to his playing partner behind a cupped hand
    • A player spins his putter in the air in frustration at missing a putt
    • A player picks a ball out of the hole and does one of those fist-to-fist celebrations with his caddy
    • A player removes his cap before shaking his opponents hand
    • The cameraman pans to a shot of the players wives and girlfriends

    Easy, huh?

    Now load up on beer, enjoy the golf, don’t get too carried away with the booze and, most importantly… EUROPE: GET IN THE HOLE.

    *Maybe not ‘we’. Rich doesn’t much go in for golf. But if there’s beer drinking to be had then he might change his mind…

    M&S cans of beer

    Some of the new beers on sale at M&S. A Ryder Cup fan’s beery dreams…

    This is a sponsored post

     

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  • How to grow pansies and violas

    Pansies, and their smaller cousins violas,* are a garden essential. They can brighten up a border or basket in almost any colour you can think of and, for us, their edibility makes them great for floating on a cocktail** when someone posh comes round to visit. And they’re virtually indestructible, which suits our lazy style of gardening a treat.

    To give you a further flavour of their easy-going, colourful character we’ve put together this growing guide for you to enjoy…

    What are pansies?

    Pansies are five-petaled flowers that come in a huge range of varieties and colours. The name ‘pansy’ derives from the French word ‘pensie’ which means thought or remembrance. Besides their cheery disposition gardeners also love them because they flower in early spring or late autumn, when there’s not much other colour around. They’re rarely troubled by disease and tolerate most conditions, although they’re no so keen on long, hot summer days.

    Sowing

    Although garden centres are nearly always well stocked with cheap trays of pansy and viola plants, they’re not much of a challenge to start from seed (I had some self-seeded violas growing in my lawn this year). Sowing will also give you a greater range of varieties from which to choose – browse the selection at Garden Seeds Market for an idea of what’s available. June and July are the best months for sowing: cast the seeds in a tray or seed bed and they should germinate within a week or two. Prick them out as they grow and when the plants have three or four true leaves they’re ready to move in position.

    Planting up

    If you’ve sown your own seeds for autumn then you’ll probably be planting them up in late August or early September. For shop bought plug plants you can leave it until early October. If you’re looking for spring pansy action then get busy after the danger of frost has passed. They’re at their best in containers, hanging baskets or border edges, dug into some decent compost. If you’re placing them in pots then don’t pack them in too tight as their growth can be quite vigorous as they scrap for water: this year my pansies successfully elbowed a fuchsia into a small corner, starving it of nourishment. If you’re expecting them to hang around through summer then keep them away from full sun, otherwise most spots will be fine (although, as with most bedding plants, too much shade will cause them to get a bit raggedy as they reach out for light).

    Aftercare

    Pansies can be quite thirsty and don’t much care for dry ground so keep on top of watering, especially with those dwelling in pots and baskets. Trim away any dead flowers from time to time, consider giving them a feed if it looks like they’ve sucked the life out of their compost, and enjoy their bright colour charms in the garden and on top of your next cocktail.

    +++++

    *What’s the difference between a pansy and a viola?
    It can get a little confusing because pansies belong to the viola family but we tend to refer to violas as the members of the family that aren’t pansies. Pansies are usually larger and have larger leaves but the best way of telling what is a pansy is to look at the five petals. If four of them point upwards then it’s a pansy; if only two point upwards it’s a viola. Voila!

    **Due to their size, violas tend to be a better cocktail garnish, unless you’re serving martinis in buckets

     

    This is a sponsored post

     

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  • Cocktail recipe: Mezcal Margarita

    If you’re looking to conjure up a classic tequila based cocktail then you can’t go far wrong with a Margarita. It’s a drink that, in its basic form, is effortlessly simple and easy to adapt into all sorts of flavour combinations. For this recipe we’re only straying from the classic in one direction, but it’s a fairly major direction: we’re substituting the main ingredient, Tequila, for Mezcal.

    What is mezcal?

    OK, so technically you could argue we’re not deviating from the recipe at all: Mezcal is a spirit made from agave and Tequila is simply a type of Mezcal with restrictions on what kind of agave can be used (blue) and in what part of Mexico it can be made (the state of Jalisco or four other specific regions within Guanajuato, Michoacán, Mayarit and Tamailipas). Mezcals can use any combination of around 30 agaves and are made by a greater variety of production methods so have a wider range of flavours which almost always include some degree of smokiness.

    The Mezcal we’ve chosen for our Margarita, Se Busca Reposado, is a great example of the flavours you can find in a Mezcal with an initial almond sweetness to the distinctive agave flavours, some green pepper and spice hitting mid-sip and just a moderate smokiness that wafts through at the finish of our cocktail. Being labelled a Reposado means it has been aged in oak for between two months and a year (in Se Busca’s case that’s 10 months in French oak barrels) so it has a golden hue along with a few mature woody notes. We think this extra flavour works a treat in a Margarita mix…

    Our easy Mezcal Margarita recipe

    With even the most simple Margarita recipe, folk will argue over the quantities of the three ingredients. The International Bartenders Association prescribe a rather precise 50% Tequila, 29% Cointreau and 21% lime, but we prefer to adopt easier maths and suggest 50%, 25%, 25%.

    Using those sums we’re combining 40ml Mezcal with 20ml Orange Liqueur* and 20ml freshly squeezed lime juice. These ingredients are shaken with a handful of ice and strained into a cocktail glass.** For the full Margarita experience you’ll want to salt your rim: simply rub a bit of lime around the rim of the glass and press it against some salt. A wedge of lime as a garnish completes the piece.

    *Cointreau is usually cited as the orange liqueur of choice but we used the home made orange liqueur from the recipe in our book.

    **There is a variant on the standard cocktail glass that is specially for Margaritas. It has an extra bulge below the main cup. We couldn’t find such an item from our regular glass suppliers – the local charity shops.

    ***I was given some smoked salt ages ago and thought it would work a treat. It didn’t. Unless you think licking a sweaty chain smoker is the ideal way to precede a sip of cocktail. Stick to regular salt instead.

    East Mezcal Margarita Recipe

    Se Busca Reposado + Lime + Orange Liqueur. Mezcal Margaritas made easy

     

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  • Interview: Fermentation revivalist, experimental brewer and booze author Jereme Zimmerman

    Jereme Zimmerman is our kind of home brewer. In his first book, Make Mead Like a Viking, he explores the history of and gives fermentation advice for mead, a booze we’ve had plenty of practice making. And he has now repeated the trick with beer. His latest book, Brew Beer Like a Viking, is partly a historical stroll through the origins of beer, in the days before hops, and partly a recipe book for anyone wishing to brew using methods that are considered unconventional by today’s standards. And there are loads of unusual ingredients to experiment with along the way.

    Eager to find out more about his brewing experiences we rustled up some questions for Jereme and he kindly served up one of the most fascinating set of responses we’ve ever received.

    How did you get into home brewing?
    I started around the year 2000 when I moved from Kentucky to Seattle. I had grown up on a small Kentucky farm and spent my childhood watching my dad make wine (and occasionally sneaking a bottle) in between all of the chores involved in maintaining an old farmhouse and a 40-acre homestead. He mostly made “country wines” from garden produce and fruit he had grown himself. Later in life he told me stories about making corn wine, dandelion wine, sumac wine, and wine from all kinds of other grown and foraged ingredients, including grapes he cultivated himself. From that background I found myself with a yearning for doing some sort of a DIY hobby from my small Seattle apartment. Since I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a brewery or brewpub, and was much more interested in beer than wine at the time, beer seemed the natural choice. So, I headed up the street to a homebrew shop, picked up a brew kit and a copy of Charlie Papazian’s The Joy of Homebrewing, and headed home to brew up a batch. From there, I brewed several kits, often modifying them with my own ingredients (such as adding some Washington Bing cherries my wife and I had picked into a stout). Over time I relied less and less on kits and eventually went to buying the ingredients separately and creating my own recipes.

    Your book is quite unconventional in that it covers alternatives to standard grains, hops and yeasts. Why did you decide to go down this route?
    Well, I suppose I’m just an unconventional person! I’ve always had a tendency to do exactly the opposite of what I’m told to do and to think the opposite of what I’m told to think. In all seriousness though, I didn’t set out with a goal of brewing with and writing about unconventional techniques and ingredients. My current brewing practices stem from my background of growing up living off the land and my interest in history. As I delved deeper into my research in historical brewing I was surprised to find all manner of ingredients and techniques that just don’t exist, or are heavily frowned upon in modern conventional brewing. I started this all in leading up to my first book Make Mead Like a Viking. I had the thought of looking into how people brewed before they had access to homebrew stores and websites and mead seemed the natural starting point since it is likely the oldest fermented beverage due to its simplicity. I initially documented my experiments and research on a now-defunct homesteading website Earthineer, writing under the penname RedHeadedYeti. I quickly found that there was a strong interest in my style of brewing and writing and began travelling to teach about mead, wrote some magazine articles, and eventually wrote a book. In researching for the first book, I discovered a lot more about beer history than I did about mead and felt that information needed to be put into print as well. When Make Mead Like a Viking had been out a couple of years, my publisher Chelsea Green Publishing asked if I had an interest in doing another book. I was itching to get back into beer brewing and looking deeper into the research I had started, so I got started on what would come to be Brew Beer Like a Yeti.

    You advocate that home brewers should ‘have fun and learn from your mistakes’. What are the notable mistakes you’ve learnt from?
    Ha! Too many to list! I’ve made plenty of tasty brews but due to my penchant for extreme experimentation I make a fair share of not-so-tasty ones. Some “mistakes” I look at more as learning experiences. They weren’t necessarily bad, but sometimes a certain ingredient just didn’t work out because I used too much, too little, or didn’t incorporate it into the brew in the best manner. Others I shared with my wife and some friends and they all claimed to like it, so it was more a matter of my peculiar tastes. I always say that if you don’t like a brew, don’t just toss it in the compost. Give it to your wife or unsuspecting friends and they may just thank you for it! “Mistakes” can also be used in cooking as long as it’s not too dismal of a mistake. Mostly I state that because a lot of first-time homebrewers are daunted by all of the things they hear can go wrong. Those things exist for sure but it’s not that hard to avoid them. T

    o answer your question though, an example of a notable mistake would be the time I brewed a five-gallon batch of wormwood ale. I had read in Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers that it was a traditional bittering agent before hops gained prevalence, but he also warned that one would have to be brave to brew with it unless you had a penchant for tongue flagellation. I used what felt like a small amount (half of a one ounce packet from a homebrew supply store) and the result was so bitter it was practically undrinkable. Eventually, I ordered some wormwood from an herbal supplier and decided to brave it again. I compared the taste of the dry herb from the herbal supplier to what was left from the packet from the homebrew store and found that even a tiny amount of the initial packet on my tongue was terrible, while the newly purchased herbs had a noted bitterness but also some floral undertones. I don’t know that this was necessarily a mistake but it was definitely something I learned from. I’ve enjoyed the brews I’ve made with wormwood since that first terrible one. The lesson here is that it’s a good idea to taste (or make a tea from) a new ingredient before brewing with it to make sure you’re going to be able to handle the flavor. 

    And what are the brewing successes you return to time and again?
    When brewing with all grain in particular I like to throw in a lot of adjuncts, but my go-to for a simple, near-foolproof all-grain beer is to just brew with 100% barley pale malt, minimal low-alpha hops (with the occasional herb thrown in), and a British or Belgian ale yeast. I’m pretty much guaranteed a fairly simple brew day and a super tasty beer. When I’m feeling more “ancient” and Scandinavian I do something similar but instead of hops I throw in some juniper branches and berries and ferment with bread yeast. Sometimes I also toss in some meadowsweet and yarrow. These were common ingredients for early Scandinavian beers such as sahti, and are still used in traditional farmhouse brewing in places like Finland and Norway today.

    Besides brewing advice the book is also packed with stories and folklore. Did you have much difficulty in tracking down the historical information?
    Tracking it down wasn’t so much difficult as it was time-consuming. I was an English major in college and have been researching and writing for many years, so I already had a penchant for research. The difficulty was in verifying the information I found. Beer books, even by the most respected of writers, are chock full of myths (the untrue kind, not the storytelling kind) that have been passed down from book to book to the point that they’re accepted as fact. Thankfully I have some friends with similar interests who are dedicated to extreme accuracy in recreating and writing about period brewing who helped me debunk myths and provided me with sources I never would have come across on my own. One in particular is Susan Verberg, a Dutch immigrant who now lives in New York State. She is a historical reenactor and is fluent in Dutch and German. She passed along resources from the Netherlands that were in English, or translated portions for me. She was particularly helpful in researching gruit, although we both find that to be a maddening subject. It originated in the Netherlands and most of what has been written about it very well may not be accurate at all. I touch upon this in Brew Beer Like a Yeti but that’s a subject that needs a lot more solid research… I’m also thankful to a couple of beer blogs I follow religiously, in particular Norway’s Larsblog, Finland’s Brewing Nordic, British beer archeologist Merryn Dineley and British beer writer and beer myth debunker Martyn Cornell’s blog Zythophile. In the end, though, I had to go with what seemed the most accurate. When it comes to history you can never really say for sure and you can drive yourself crazy following what I call rabbit trails. You’ve got to stop at some point!

    If you could drink beer from any time and place in history, where and when would it be?
    I would want to go back as far as possible to when people were first figuring out how to malt grains, crush them with rocks (saddle and quern), and brew by the most rudimentary methods such as heating the wort with hot rocks. I’d really like to know if my attempts at emulating those brews are even remotely close to what they tasted like. Then of course I’d like to fast forward to Viking / Anglo Saxon times and enjoy a good mead hall feast!

    One of your recipes involves using spit as part of the process. Can you briefly explain how that works and how do your friends react when you offer them a taste?
    Yeah, that one tends to gross people out but it’s a very traditional and ancient South American brewing method (and was likely employed by Neolithic man in other periods). It’s really no more gross germ-wise than eating at a restaurant, where you’ll be exposed to many more germs. The spit is involved in the starch conversion process. You boil the wort and ferment it with yeast like you would any other beer, so any spit is long gone by the time you drink it. Although there are many indigenous South American beers brewed this way, chicha is the one most people are familiar with. Chicha can be brewed with standard malted grain (corn instead of barley), but the chicha made by the spit method is chicha de muko (muko are the little spit balls you make from ground up corn). Essentially, human saliva has enzymes that help convert starches to sugars similar to what happens in the malting process. The catalyst for this process is the diastase enzyme (ptyalin), which causes carbohydrates to break down into sugars. I can tell you that it is a very tedious process chewing up all that corn. Even when I soaked the hardened corn kernels in water first, or ground it coarsely it took me a lot of time (and a good amount of Netflix binging) to chew up enough for a one-gallon batch! I could see why this was traditionally done as a communal thing, with everyone sitting in a circle, telling stories and spitting into the same vessel.

    Unfortunately, even the most rustic and adventurous of my friends refused to help. My friend Steve Cole would have, as he’s participated in some of my more extreme brewing adventures, but he had a lot going on in his life at the period I was experimenting with this. I would say I may try it again with Steve someday but to be honest the chicha recipe I have in the book that is made by malting corn kernels the standard way is so delicious I’m not terribly interested in trying the spit thing again! As for offering my friends a taste, well, I’m afraid I drank it all. I may have been able to convince someone but chicha de muko is meant to be drank young while it was still fermenting, as it turns bland and then sour quickly due to the lack of hops or other antiseptic herbs, so I wasn’t waiting around. I can say that it is delicious young. Sweet, flavorful, with just a bit of tang. Some of my friends did try (and enjoy) my chicha made with standard malted corn, malted barley and a hint of hops, though.  

    What are some of the other unusual methods or ingredients readers will come across?
    I would say sahti and other ancient ales are a good example. I found in my research into Scandinavian farmhouse brewing that there was huge range of techniques involving various levels of heating the mash and wort. Some involved little-to-no wort boiling, varying mash temperatures well outside the norm of modern homebrewing, or even boiling the mash and the wort together. Most, but not all, used juniper for bittering, flavoring and disinfecting the brew, and yeast was passed along from brew to brew and from generation to generation. In Finland the same yeast was used for bread baking as beer brewing, hence the use of bread yeast.

    If there’s one ingredient you would encourage home brewers to start experimenting with, what would it be?
    There are so many but one of my new favorites is juniper. Be careful how you source it, though. The juniper used in Scandinavia has edible branches and berries, but there are many forms of juniper that are toxic. They may not kill you but they’ll make you sick. I’m not sure that it is prevalent in the UK so some brewers may need to special order it. If you forage for it in the wild like me, make sure you can 100% positively identify it. There are European varieties that are toxic, usually the ones in shrub form. In the US, it’s best to only use the varieties that are in tree form. Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) are two common edible varieties here, although I understand the flavor may be different than the Scandinavian variety. Juniper is an ingredient that has somehow been nearly completely ignored by brewers and brewing historians. I, and others who are undergoing similar research paths, am finding that it very well may be one of the oldest brewing ingredients and was very likely used much longer than hops. The flavor takes a bit of getting used to but I think it’s a great alternative to hops for its bittering, flavoring and antiseptic qualities. Even better, all I have to do is take a short walk out the back door to gather some!

    Jerem Zimmerman brew beer like a yeti cover

    Jereme Zimmerman’s Brew Beer Like a Yeti (Chelsea Green Publishing, £18.99) is available now

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  • Cocktail recipe: how to make a Dark Rum Daiquiri

    When it comes to rum based cocktails it’s the white rums that receive the call in the majority of recipes. But there are times, particularly when the first autumnal shivers strike, that our eyes glance towards the darker end of our rum range for some toastier, oakier notes in our cocktail creations.

    The Daiquiri is a rum based cocktail, originally designed for the lighter versions of the spirit, that we think works well with darker alternatives. The recipe is little more than a glass of rum that has been sweetened with sugar and soured with lime, so there’s no reason at all why this trick can’t be performed on a few shots of the dark stuff.

    History of the daiquiri

    As with most cocktails the true origins of the Daiquiri are a little hazy and the way it is made and served has changed over the years. It’s a Cuban creation, named after a beach and iron mine, and is claimed to have been invented by an American mining engineer, Jennings Cox, in the early twentieth century.* Over the years it spread in popularity throughout Cuba, eventually making its way to America. J F Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway were both big fans of the drink with the latter having his own variation with grapefruit juice and cherries named after him, one of many alternative servings that have developed over the years.

    The original Daiquiri would’ve been created in a tall glass filled with ice, with the sugar, lime and white rum poured over the top, before evolving into a shake-and-pour drink fit for a classic cocktail glass.

    Our easy Dark Rum Daiquiri recipe

    If you’re using dark rum we think it worth getting a decent one. Our rum of choice is Appleton Estate 12 year old Rare Blend: great in cocktails, good enough to sip neat, and it won’t break the bank account either.

    For our preferred recipe you need, 60ml rum, 20ml freshly squeezed lime juice and 20ml simple syrup.** Pour the ingredients into a shaker with a small handful of ice, give it a quick shake to mix and chill, strain into a cocktail glass and serve with a slice of lime. And make sure to give it a big sniff before sipping – nothing smells more like the Caribbean than rum and lime.

     

    *We reckon he might’ve nicked it from the British Navy who had long been drinking grog made with rum, lemon or lime and sugar. And we reckon the Navy would’ve used dark rum. So perhaps our Dark Rum Daiquiri is the original after all…?

    **Make this yourself by gently heating a small amount of water into which you dissolve the same amount of sugar. Allow to cool before using.

     

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  • How do I know when my hops are ready to pick?

    One of the questions we get asked most is ‘how do I know when my hops are ready to pick?’ Unlike most things we grow in the garden, hop harvest time isn’t obvious. Hop cones are the plant’s flowers, so they don’t ripen like fruit and veg, and the good stuff for beer (the powdery yellow ‘lupulin’) is hidden beneath the petals.

    Thankfully, there’s a relatively long window for hop picking if you’re growing for home consumption and don’t need to worry about maximising yields. As with most harvests, the flowers develop at different rates on the same plant so when some are beginning to fade, and others are just coming up to readiness, most of the flowers in between will be at their best.

    To give you a few clues regarding the best picking time, here are a few tips…

    Picking season
    Most hops in the UK are ready to pick towards the end of August and through September, so you can relax during peak summer and give up when cold weather becomes a bit more common.

    Colour
    As the hops swell they take on a vibrant, fresh green colour. When ready, the vividness begins to fade and you’ll start to see some browning around the edges.

    hops that are ready to pick

    Give it a squeeze

    Texture
    Unripe cones contain quite a lot of moisture so they’ll feel damp and soft to touch. When you squeeze them, they’ll stay squished. Hops that are ready begin to feel drier and more papery – gently rub them between finger and thumb and the petals are more likely to break off and your digits will feel sticky and oily.

    Smell
    After a squeeze of a cone, give your fingers a sniff. If it’s predominantly a green, grassy, vegetal aroma you’re sensing then they’re not ready. If the smell of hoppy beer takes over then it’s time to pick.

    lupulin in hop cones

    Yellow dots of lupulin = beer o’clock

    Check for lupulin
    Break up a cone and at the base of the petals you’ll see the powdery yellow lupulin dotted around. This contains those sticky oils that does the work so a ready hop needs a good smattering of this substance in order for it to produce the goods.

    Overripe is better than underripe
    If you’re still unsure then wait a little longer – overripe hops are better than underripe hops and, once you’ve seen how they look when they reach the overripe stage, it’ll be more obvious next year what an underripe hop looks like.

    Unless you’re making a fresh ‘green hopped’ beer then you’ll need to dry the hops and store them. We’ll put up a separate post about this topic soon…

    If you don’t currently have hops to harvest then you might like this short piece on how to grow hops

    And here’s a post on how to take hop cuttings

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  • Soil crisis! How biochar can help improve our growing conditions

    Did you know there’s a soil crisis going on? We’re all becoming increasingly aware of the damage human activity is causing to our air and our seas but less publicity is given to the degradation of the soil beneath our feet. As gardeners we like to think we know about the importance of good quality soil and do our best to look after it. But is there more that we, and the rest of the world, can do to improve the situation?

    Sacred Earth is an environmental group that connects people with nature and has been looking into the ancient practice of using soil-enhancer ‘biochar’ – an eco-friendly charcoal that can be dug into the soil to improve its fertility. The group has just launched its first biochar product for domestic gardeners so we caught up with Sacred Earth founder Phil Greenwood to find out more about the project.

    Sacred Earth founder Phil Greenwood

    Sacred Earth founder Phil Greenwood

    How did the Sacred Earth project come about and what inspired you to start producing biochar?
    I set up Sacred Earth in 2011, because I believe the ecological crisis we’re facing today is down to humanity’s loss of connection with the natural world. I think if we can revitalise that connection, we can create a positive way forward for our children and the environment in the face of climate change. 

    Sacred Earth has a beautiful 40-acre site near the village of Horam, East Sussex. It’s entirely off-grid. There’s no gas, electricity or even a connection to the water mains. It was once an abandoned brickworks, but under our stewardship, we’re returning it to its natural state, by encouraging biodiversity and helping the local plant, tree, animal and bird life thrive. 

    Our biochar project is about one of the most fundamental things in our whole ecosystem: the soil. The issue of soil health is something that’s been troubling me for a long time. Thanks to the fantastic work of David Attenborough, the general public now understands what a disaster plastic is for our environment. But too few people are aware that another environmental crisis is happening, right beneath our feet. Research from the United Nations shows that a third of all soil on our planet is ‘severely degraded’. Our own government has admitted we only have 40 years until UK farmlands become infertile. Monoculture farming combined with the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers has depleted soils of the mycorrhizal fungi and other beneficial micro-organisms essential to plant and crop health. Much garden soil is unhealthy too, because compost hasn’t been added, weed killer has been applied or it simply hasn’t been tended carefully enough. 

    This is a terrible state of affairs, because all life on Earth is dependent on the thin layer of topsoil that covers our planet. But I don’t want everyone to despair. There is hope – and that’s our message! Adding biochar to soil is just one of the many ways we can turn this situation around. It has amazing benefits, both in terms of soil health and sequestering carbon in the ground. 

    After I’d set up Sacred Earth, it became obvious that I should start making biochar, as I had all the raw materials readily available. Much of our site is woodland. We manage it with the ancient techniques of pollarding and coppicing (which is basically pruning trees to encourage regrowth). I realised I could make biochar with all the leftover wood offcuts. The next step was to get a kiln and I took it from there.

    How is biochar produced?
    We make it by hand in small batches. It’s all very rustic!  Normal charcoal is made by burning wood at high temperatures, but biochar is baked at lower temperatures, in the absence of oxygen – in a process known as ‘pyrolysis’. When it has cooled, we grind it by hand and blend it with our unique recipe of other soil improvers, including comfrey tea, foraged seaweed and biodynamic compost preparations. It’s very labour intensive, but done with great care.

    How would I go about treating my veggie beds with biochar?
    Sacred Earth’s Biochar Soil Booster only needs to be dug into soil once. You have two options. You can dig it into the soil directly, or you can mix it with compost first and then dig it in. If you do the former, there is no set square meterage of soil to which to add biochar. Even tiny amounts can bring about results. However, we’d suggest approximately 1 kg per square metre. If you want to add it to established plants, we’d suggest incorporating a good few handfuls around their roots. You’ll need at least 1kg for a small tree. If you decide to add it to compost first, we would recommend one part Biochar Soil Booster to nine parts compost.

    You can use it all year round, but a good time to think about improving the structure and general health of your soil is in autumn-winter, when the growing season has finished. Soils rest during this period, making it an excellent time to add amendments designed to rejuvenate it.

    What results can I expect from using it?
    There is a growing consensus of scientific research showing that biochar enhances soil health and so improves plant health and crop yields. I have certainly found that in my own garden. 

    You have to be patient though. Sacred Earth’s Biochar Soil Booster is designed to improve soil’s long-term health. One of the key things biochar does is to encourage the revival of microbial systems within the soil. This can take time, depending on the current health and makeup of your soil. You might not see its benefits straight away, but it will greatly improve your soil’s function over time. 

    But here’s the exciting thing: unlike other soil improvers, biochar does not decompose. It will stay in your soil almost indefinitely, enhancing and improving the natural health and fertility of your soil for decades to come. In the Amazon basin there are still incredibly fertile charcoal-based soils that the indigenous people made thousands of years ago.

    Is there a crop that particularly thrives on Biochar?
    No particular one that I’m aware of. I put it on everything! 

    What types of community projects are currently in action at Sacred Earth?
    We specialise in experiential learning. We run courses and events designed to help people establish better relationships with themselves, each other and the natural world. They’re on topics like understanding bird song, mindfulness in nature, animal tracking or rural crafts. We also run a unique year-long programme for teenagers, called the ‘Earth Steward Apprenticeship’ – in which 13 to 17-year-olds come monthly to our site and learn how to make fire, forage and wild camp. It ends with a survival quest, in which they have to fend for themselves off the land. We also have regular community days, which we encourage people to come along to, so they can experience our stunning site and meet our friendly community. All events are listed on the website (https://sacredearthland.co.uk/), although we’re now slowing things down, as we move into autumn.

    What do you have planned for Sacred Earth in the future?
    Oh, we have so many plans! We’re busy organising the creation of a community garden for next year. We’re also going to be expanding our ecotherapy offering, hopefully working with other local community groups and charities. Too many people have lost touch with the natural world and we want them to come to our lovely wilderness and discover its joys. Through our biochar project, we want to get the word out about the global soil health crisis. We plan to start talking to fruit and veg growers and farmers about its benefits. We’re also in talks with a university about doing some biochar research on our land, although I’m not able to reveal any details on that just yet. 

    There’s just so much to do when it comes to the environment, but I remain optimistic. I’m hopeful that lots of small, community-owned eco organisations like ours will pave the way for a new way of doing things.

    A piece of eco-friendly charcoal 'biochar'

    A piece of eco-friendly charcoal ‘biochar’

    Sacred Earth Biochar Soil Booster is available from sacredearthland.co.uk

    The post Soil crisis! How biochar can help improve our growing conditions appeared first on Two Thirsty Gardeners.


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