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BLOOD ON THE BAG: A SHORT AND VIOLENT HISTORY OF FERTILZERS – PART DEUX

October 30, 2011: In Part One, we looked at the violent history of organic fertilizers and how they gave rise to wars, imperialistic expansion and the grossest forms of labor exploitation. Of course there were many good things organic fertilizers did, but I’m not getting into that. This is only about the dark side. But the dark side of organic fertilizers pale in comparison with the dark side of inorganic fertilizers, like Darth Vader, Jr to Darth Vader, Sr.

INORGANIC FERTILIZERS are created by a variety of chemical processes. The most important of which is the Haber-Bosch process, named for Fritz Haber, the German scientist who invented it and Carl Bosch, the German engineer who produced it. Both won Nobel Prizes for their work in 1918.

In simple terms, the Haber process captures nitrogen from the air and converts it to chemical ammonia liquid that in turn can be converted to several different forms of nitrogen used in fertilizer. This discovery in 1908 has been called the greatest gift to humankind in modern times. It enabled huge quantities of ammonia to be produced for fertilizers. “Bread from the air” the process was called. It’s estimated that 2 out of 5 people on the planet today would not be alive, if not for the Haber process.

Frtiz HaberFrtiz HaberFritz Haber was a complex, interesting and tragic figure. He was a German Jew, who later converted to Christianity. He was an ardent patriot. When WWI started, he poured his energies into the war effort and what he came up with was - gas warfare. Fritz Haber developed the first poison gas to be used on the battlefield and supervised its first use. His wife, also a chemist, was so appalled at his chemical warfare work that she killed herself with Fritz’s military pistol. Haber was never remorseful and felt that poison gas would bring an end to the war quickly and therefore save lives. We’d see that logic again when the first A-bomb was dropped.

For all of Haber’s service to Germany, in the post-WWI Germany his place became increasingly tenuous. He was eventually hounded out of Germany by the Nazis in 1933 for being a Jew and died a year later in England. Ironically and tragically, the Nazis took his work and developed Zyklon-B, the gas used in the infamous gas chambers of the concentration camps.

Carl Bosch, the engineer who worked with Haber, didn’t fare much better. After the Haber-Bosch process was developed, he poured his energies into building factories to produce nitrogen fertilizer and later synthetic fuel. He helped found the German chemical giant IG Farben that was a critical part in Hitler’s war effort and the sole producer of Zyklon-B, the concentration camp gas.

Bosch, however was a critic of Hitler and, as Hitler rose to power, Bosch was steadily stripped of his responsibilities and power in the German chemical industry. He fell into alcoholism, became reclusive and eventually died in 1940.

The Haber-Bosch process gave us nitrogen from the air. It removed the limits to 19th century agriculture and revolutionized its productivity. But, as in any revolution, there are side effects and aftershocks. Nitrogen from the air has also brought us megatons of explosives, pollution from excess fertilizer use and perhaps a world population that has exceeded its carrying capacity and cannot exist without it any longer.
Haber-Bosch – a process that has had a greater impact on humankind than perhaps any other in contemporary human history was discovered and built by two men that hardly anyone knows of. There’s irony along with blood on the bag.

Next time you open that bag of organic or inorganic fertilizer remember its cost. But be not like Lady Macbeth and wring your hands crying out “Yet here’s a spot! Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” Your garden needs it. Just be wise in its usage.

BLOOD ON THE BAG: A SHORT AND VIOLENT HISTORY OF FERTILIZER – PART I

September 29, 2011:This is not a treatise on organic vs inorganic fertilizers. It is instead a short synopsis of the violent past of commercial fertilizers. I bet you never considered or even knew, when you opened that bag of 10-10-10 or guano fertilizer, that it had a dark past.

What is the difference between organic and inorganic fertilizers? Organic fertilizers are derived from once living matter, ie: compost, animal and bird manure. Sometimes non-organic rock sources of nutrients, such as rock phosphate which is mined, is included under organic. Inorganic fertilizers are derived through chemical processes, most notably the Haber process. (We’ll get into the guy for whom that was named in part deux).

Now there are advantages and disadvantages in the use of both groups of fertilizers, but I’m not going to get into that. When it comes to plant nutrient needs, the nutrient in the greatest demand is nitrogen. Nitrogen is responsible for green growth and many other things. When we fertilize in the vegetable garden or on the farm, it’s usually to supply nitrogen. As far as the plant is concerned, it doesn’t matter or distinguish between nitrogen from organic sources or nitrogen from a chemical plant. An ion is an ion. The differences between them as far as how they interact with the soil and soil biota are there however. . . but I’m not getting into that either. Both have blood on their bags.

ORGANIC FERTILIZERS, until the early part of the 20th century, were the only form of fertilizers available. For local small scale agriculture there was and is local waste resources available, but it has always been limited and expensive to move around. For the world’s population to grow it needed larger, cheaper and more reliable forms of organic fertilizers and that came from essentially two sources – the nitrate mines of northern Chile and seabird guano (droppings) from numerous rock nesting islands off Peru, Mexico and the West Indies. Harvesting these sources caused wars, imperialistic expansion, legalized slavery – in short, a lot of shit, including the word “shit”.

Etymological legend has it that “shit” came from the lucrative guano trade. Guano had to be shipped dry for weight and safety purposes. If the guano was shipped in the lower holds of their transports where leaky hulls might bring them in contact with water, they would generate ammonia, which is highly explosive. An errant ship’s lantern could blow the whole ship to smithereens. To avoid this, guano was labeled “S.H.I.T” for Ship High In Transit. (That’s the legend, however, I gather it’s not the truth. Origins of the word go much farther back than the 1800’s, but that makes for a shittier anecdote.)

What is fascinating is that bird droppings were the beginning of the United States overseas expansion. In 1856 Congress enacted the Guano Islands Act, a law which is still in effect today. What it says is that any American citizen can lay claim to any island in the world if:
1) It’s uninhabited at the time of discovery
2) Has guano deposits
3) Is not in the jurisdiction of another country.
And once you have claim of the island, the United States is obligated to protect that island by force, if necessary. Over 100 islands were claimed by the US through the Guano Act in the Pacific and Caribbean, including Midway Island, the site of the famous WWII naval battle. Until the Guano Act, America’s expansion was limited to the Pacific Coast. One might say that guano built our country into the world power it is today . . . or one might not say that, either

These guano islands however were no dream retreat. They were mining operations and some of them were labor hellholes of the most horrific kind. The most notable was Navassa Island in the Caribbean. The island was mined by African American laborers after the Civil War. They were indentured for a period of 1 ½ years but it was more like being slaves. They were beaten, tortured and killed by the scores. As was the pattern in mining communities in the US, at the end of their work period they owed more to company store than they had made and they had to stay on. In 1889, they had had enough and a bloody worker revolt took place where 15 people, mostly white supervisors and family were killed and dismembered. The US Navy eventually came in and removed everyone, except a small boy hiding in the bushes, and took them back to the US where the rebels were tried and one was hung.

The great deposits of guano are gone along with the vast fortunes made by the guano trade. Many of the guano islands are now wildlife refuges, a good thing. You can still buy guano fertilizer. Some of it is seabird guano, but an increasing amount is bat guano.It's not cheap about $3.50 - $4.50 a pound.

I must say, in all fairness, that the blood of exploitation is not solely due to the need for fertilizers, but is shared by the need for bullets. Potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate that is found in guano and the Chilean nitrate mines is used in the manufacture of gunpowder and explosives. We have used it to produce both food and feuds.

In part deux, we’ll look at inorganic fertilizers. The discovery of how to get nitrogen from the air is hailed by many as the most influential discovery of modern times. It has been both the boon and the bane of humankind and the scientist who discovered it (probably the most unknown “famous” person in history) had a life worthy of a Shakespearian tragedy or Wagnerian opera. Stay tuned, the bag gets bloodier.

RAINWATER HARVESTING: PENNIES FROM HEAVEN?

Sept. 10, 2011: Wouldn’t it be great if you could harvest the rain coming down and apply it for your irrigation needs.? Lord knows we have a bounty of it here in the Pacific Northwest for 8-9 months of the year. Sounds like a no-brainer sustainable solution to water conservation . . . . but is it?
Rainwater harvesting is the collection of water from impervious surfaces, typically your roof, and using it for your water needs, most typically irrigation. With home treatment and proper permitting by city authorities to assure safety, rainwater can be used for potable water uses in the house, but that’s not the topic I want to talk about. The more popular vision of rainwater harvesting is collecting from the roof into a tank or tanks and using it on the landscape for irrigation. Still a pretty cool idea, but is it sustainable. No and Yes is my answer.

(!!!Boring Math Alert!!! The reader is forewarned that there is some very boring math in the passages to come. Those wishing entertaining prose should leave the screen . . . maybe come back before bedtime)

The 3 spheres of sustainability are financial, social, environmental. Rainwater harvesting meets the last two spheres but I’m not convinced it meets the first. There is also a practical problem with it. We get so little rainfall for 3 or 4 months of the year when we need it most for irrigation that there is a huge discrepancy between need and how much you can store. June through September sees about 5 inches of rain total. Your landscape, particularly if you have lawn, will need about 4 times that amount. Ah, I hear you say, “Just get rid of the turf!” Now you’ve reduced landscape water use by upwards of 2/3 rds. Good, but its still not enough. There’s still a discrepancy. Now we either have to have large storage capacity (big tanks some of which can make your yard resemble an Iowa grain elevator operation if they’re not hidden, large “bladder bags” that are waterfilled underneath a deck, or an underground cistern) or we have to supplement the water from the city water system. How cost effective is this? (Here comes the boring math!)

Let’s look at the cost savings for a typical small residence. I’m going to give some parameters to this residence. It’s a house that has a 1000 square feet of roof (that’s the area we’re collecting the rainfall on). The following figures are from rainwater industry and saves me boring math calculations. Ugh!
Irrigation season: April – September
Maximum amount of rainfall that can be capture (April-Sept.): 7,674 gallons
Collection capacity for driest month (July – but maybe not this July): 432 gallons
Amount of water needed for a landscape (A lot of variables here. I’m assuming a small lawn – 400 SF that needs 1” water/week. Shrubs and other plants irrigated by 100 1 gal/hr drip emitters on for 4 hours a week) for the driest month of the year (July):3,040 gallons

As you can see, if you're still awake, what falls in July won’t irrigate this yard. The difference is what I would need to store from previous months to meet the short fall. That’s 2608 gallons. That’s one BIG harvesting tank (about an 8’ by 9’ round tank)

So let’s say you don’t want a grain silo in your yard or to have your yard dug up for one of the gas station size tanks to go underground. You want something smaller, more easily hidden, that you’ll have to supplement. Is it financially sustainable. Let’s see (even more boring math ahead!).

The City of Portland now charges residential customers $3.09/100 cubic feet (CF) of water. 100 CF = 784 gallons. Let’s say you get one of the smaller size slimline tanks that can be easily hidden and have a capacity of 305 gallons. Assuming we get the 432 gallons of rainfall in July and we use it faster than it collects, we saved 432 gallons of city water we don’t have to pay for usage.Furthermore the sewer rate, which is based on you water bill, is $7.54/100 CF and 432 gallons we don’t have to pay for disposal (a savings of $4.15) That’s a cost savings of $5.85 for the month or 35.10/ irrigation season (assuming each month is as dry as July, which it isn’t, but I’m not going to figure that out as my brain is hurting right now)

The cost to install this system? There are a lot of variables in figuring that, but I’m going to guestimate that tank and pump for irrigation system (contractor installed) is about $900 (on the low end). At the above seasonal water savings, that’s a payback period of 25.6 years. With bigger tanks, the payback I’m sure will be less, but it’s still a question of how economically feasible it is.

Now Portland’s water rate is projected to rise 85% in the next 5 years. Now we’re looking at a 13.9 year payback. As water rates go up, rainwater harvesting becomes more economically feasible, but I don’t see it being financially sustainable in the near future.

How about the other 2 spheres of sustainability – social and environmental? To my mind there’s no doubt rainwater harvesting is sustainable. Socially, rainwater harvesting is water conservation and if everyone was more conserving in their usage of all resources, well there would be less strain on the environment and our infrastructure. How much value you put on one sphere over the other, I guess only you can decide. All I can say is that rainwater harvesting is not and is sustainable – how’s that for an ambiguous answer.

I’m only a landscape contractor. As such, I believe in giving my clients the pros and cons on any project they would propose to me, as best I understand it. I also believe in giving my clients other sources of information, so they can make an informed opinion independent of me. Here’s some excellent links on the topic of rainwater harvest:

Oregon Smart Guide – Rainwater Harvesting: http://www.bcd.oregon.gov/pdf/3660.pdf
Harvest H2O – An online rainwater harvest community: http://www.harvesth2o.com/
American Rainwater Catchment System Assn. : http://www.arcsa.org/
Bushman, one of several rainwater system manufacturers: http://www.bushmanusa.com/

MINT - SMELL WITH AN ATTITUDE: A DINER'S GUIDE TO THE LANDSCAPE

Feb. 19, 2011: Once upon a time, in Greek mythology, there was a young, beautiful and mortal PlutoPlutomaiden, named Menthe. Now Menthe was fooling around with the god Pluto and Pluto’s wife, Persephone, a goddess, was not thrilled about this. One shouldn’t mess with goddesses, as they have the power to put a hurting on you quick. Now I don’t know whether there were marriage counselors back then on Mount Olympus that Pluto and Persephone could go to and work out a marital resolution, but I suspect not. If you’re an immortal couple, then you’ve been married for aeons, and you’ve probably discussed the same issues a million times. After an eternity, what’s the point? Anyways, that’s a question for Dr. Phil, not me.

In the end, Persephone knew that there was no changing Pluto’s philandering ways and she went right to the other source of the problem. She turned Menthe into a lowly green plant. Even though Pluto was a god, he couldn’t undo Persephone’s spell (yet another reason not to anger goddesses). It worked like a charm. Pluto’s ardor immediately cooled, but before he went right out and found another beautiful maiden, he bestowed upon Menthe the gift of smell. Kinda like “Sorry, babe, I can’t fix this, but at least you smell nice”. And ever since mint has smelled nice . . . .and wanted revenge.

The mints are both a family of plants (Lamiaceae) that include lots of plants we wouldn’t think of as mints (basil, oregano, thyme, the teak tree) and a genus (Mentha) that is the topic here and comprises about 15 Carmen MirandaCarmen Mirandadifferent species. Two characteristics that all the Mentha and most of the Lamiaceae family have in common are square stems and oppositely branched leaves. What is truly amazing about mints is the variety of them and the variety and subtly of smells. Talk about smelly - we have the traditional peppermint and spearmint, but also banana mint, pineapple mint, apple mint, chocolate mint, orange and lemon Bergamot mint, lavender mint and even a mint that’s been bred for use in mint juleps, aptly named Kentucky Colonel. What will plant breeders develop next in mint? Who knows, but I'm hoping for a winter hardy Nacho Cheese mint that you can gather during the half time break watching Super Bowl. Mint, it’s the Carmen Miranda of the plant world.

Mints come in many shapes and forms from low-growing steppables (Corsican mint , pennyroyal) to 3’ high Chocolate mintChocolate mintapple mint. As intriguing and endearing as are the types and smells of mint, we have yet to discuss . . . the attitude. Many mints (not all) are angry, aggressive and invasive. Wouldn’t you be if you were turned into something people stepped on? They spread by rhizomes (underground running stems) and stolons (aboveground running stems) and by seeds. If you don’t want them taking over the garden, you need to plant them in an inground container (like a 3-5 gallon plastic nursery pot with the bottom cut out). I presently have a mint war going on in one of my landscape beds between two botanical bulldozers, apple mint and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, a mint family member that aggressively spreads by seeds). Long after more peaceful, bucolic plants have been pushed out of the neighborhood, I’ve watched the battle lines move back and forth. I’ve been loathe to go in and impose a peace treaty as I want to see which gladiator wins. Looks like apple mint might, but I’ve been seeing evidence of lemon balm terrorist attacks in other parts of the garden. Like some sort of botanical Huns, they are on the move and employing the horticultural equivalent of rape, pillage and burn to find themselves a new homeland.

In the edible landscape, mint is a great addition (IF CONTAINED). Mint can be used for flavoring and cooking (a prime ingredient for Middle Eastern, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine). Mints with higher menthol content (peppermint, spearmint) are great for flavoring (ie teas) but not as good for cooking as some of the more “fruity” named mints. Mints also have therapeutic and other curious properties. Its good for the digestion, it’s an antiflatulent (gas), febrifuge (fever reducer), helps the liver, helps prevent cataracts, used in aromatherapy to quiet and sedate, and as an insect repellent (pennyroyal).

Design wise, mints can be used as ground covers, backdrops or key accent plants in perennial beds. Mints are not good as xeriscape (drought tolerant) plants. They enjoy water, but lacking it, they will not die readily, but they'll look dead.

Years ago, I taught a college botany course and I thought it would be fun and educational to have a botanical tea party (this was before the word tea party became a political screech) as an aid to discussing plant aromatic compounds. I gathered together blackberry leaves, several different kinds of mint, had friends send sassafras roots from the Southeast and yellow birch twigs from the Northeast and the only ingredient I felt I needed to buy was pennyroyal. PennyroyalPennyroyalPennyroyal is a mint that grows wild in the Northeast and as a kid I gathered it and brewed it. It makes a tasty tea, but not having a ready gathering source I had to go to an herbalist shop to get it. Upon purchase of said pennyroyal, the woman herbalist asked me what I was using it for. “I’m having a tea party for my students”, I enthusiastically declared.
The herbalist frowned and asked “Are there women in your class?”
“Why yes”, I replied.
“Are any of your women students pregnant?” she asked.
Now I frowned and said, “This is something I really don’t know.”
Pennyroyal she informed me is an abortifacient. It causes miscarriages. I thanked her profusely for averting a terrible disaster and a huge lawsuit for the college, but I could see she was thinking to herself “Men! Just like Pluto!”

THE LORDLY LEEK: A DINER'S GUIDE TO THE LANDSCAPE

Jan. 30, 2011: There aren’t many vegetable that are national symbols, but the leek (Allium porrum) is one. Every March 1st, St. David’s Day, true Welsh folk don leeks (or daffodils, the other national botanical symbol) on their clothing and parade down the streets of Welsh towns and villages. The story goes that in a 7th century battle with invading Saxons the Welsh warriors were instructed to wear leeks in their caps to distinguish themselves from the enemy. They defeated the Saxons and Wales remained a bastion of Celtic Britons until the 13th century. (There are limits to how long a vegetable can protect you.)

In the garden, leeks are a bastion of hardiness. As seedlings, they can be planted in January/February (one of our earliest crops to plant). They can last in the ground throughout winter. Just last week I harvested the last of my leeks which had survived several single digit temperature events. I have further discovered that leeks are the only vegetable I have ever grown that I have never encountered a single pest problem on. Not even gophers will eat them.

Leeks are one of the milder members of the onion family (Allium). They don’t stink like garlic and they ]don’t make your eyes water like onions. Another legend of leeks is that if a young maiden where to sleep with a leek under her pillow she would dream of her future betrothed. Try that with an onion or clove of garlic and you may scare away vampires, but you may end up an old maid, at least dreamwise.

This year, I’m planning on putting leeks in the landscape. Landscapers and designers frequently use ornamental garlic in their plans for the interesting ball-like clusters of purple flowers it shows. Leeks will do the same thing (only with white ball-like flowers), but a far better use is to harvest them before the flowers, when their tunicate bulbs can be used for making leek potato soup. In the edible landscape, the chief ornamental quality is the cascade of dark green linear leaves. Planted en masse (so you can harvest them in stages) it makes an effective backdrop for more showy annuals or perennials. I’ll let you know how they work in the landscape. They’ve never disappointed me in the vegetable garden.

F & P