Saving the planet: Klaus Laitenberger tells Skerries how.
Charlie Heasman, 30th Sept 2019
Last Saturday Skerries Allotments played host to Irish organic gardening guru Klaus Laitenberger.
To call him Irish is perhaps a misnomer; he is an introduced species from – as his name might suggest – Germany, and was first recorded in County Cavan in 1999. But such is the nature of things that he has proved to be an absolutely invaluable addition to the biodiversity of Ireland ever since.
Klaus lives with his wife Joanna and children in North Leitrim. He worked as the Head Gardener at the Organic Centre in Rossinver for 7 years. He moved on to the position of Head Gardner in Lissadell House in Co. Sligo to carry out an extensive garden restoration project. He completed the MSc in Organic Farming in Scotland. Together with his wife they self-published a number of Irish Gardening Books (e.g. Vegetables for the Irish Garden).
After Lissadell he lectured at the MSc Course in Organic Horticulture at UCC and currently works as an organic farm and garden inspector for the Organic Trust. As well as travelling the country delivering lectures and courses he runs an online seed business: https://greenvegetableseeds.com/ , well worth checking out not only for the seeds but also the monthly newsletter.
The theme on Saturday was ‘Growing Winter Vegetables’. A talk and power-point presentation in The Mills in the morning, lunch, and then everyone adjourned to the allotments for a bit of hands-on and dirt under the fingernails.
We certainly learned a lot about winter veg but what surprised many, including this writer, was how much we also learned about a whole lot else. Some of it frankly depressing.
Klaus’s work means that he is not just interested in the whys and wherefores of growing peas and carrots; his involvement with the Organic Trust takes him into contact with farmers, agricultural contractors, government departments, chemical companies and a whole host more. At this level one begins to see the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is not good.
Some of the issues he discussed:
Ash dieback. Most of us have heard of it but for those of us who haven’t it’s a lethal disease which spread initially from Japan, into Europe, and thence to here. Ash is our most common native tree. Very little is being said about it either in the media or at government level because everyone has given up on its control or containment. 95% of trees will die. And the worst of it all is that the disease didn’t get here unaided; we imported it. Inadvertently perhaps, but import it we did…
…Shades of Dutch Elm disease back in the 70s and 80s.
Sprays and insecticides. “We used to use some really nasty insecticides back in the day which were subsequently proved to be disastrous for both the environment and human health. Fortunately they are now banned. Unfortunately in ten years time we’ll be saying the same about the ones we’re using today.”
Soil stewardship. Fertile soil is a lot more than simply ground up rock. It is an incredibly complex mix of minerals, humus and micro organisms. In fact it can be said to be a living entity in its own right. In the natural state a balance is maintained; in pre industrial agriculture the balance was also maintained, even if it meant leaving land to lie fallow and recover every fourth year or so. Composting or green manures can do the job today.
By contrast chemical fertilisers: nitrogen, potassium and potash (NPK) do next to nothing to put anything back; they merely help the crop to extract an ever diminishing amount of nutrient still present. The more the nutrients diminish, the more NPK is needed. The soil is being forced; not fed. Eventually the system has to fail, and it won’t be as far into the future as one might hope. Meanwhile think Great American Dust Bowl and hold that thought.
CO2 and global warming. When we think about carbon sequestering the fist thing that comes to mind is forests: temperate, tropical, what’s currently left of the Amazon etc. Save the forests; plant more trees. And nothing wrong with that of course.
But no-one thinks of the role that soil once played. Plant material was always locked into the soil and carbon with it. Vast quantities of carbon which are now absent from intensively farmed land. Reverse the trend of our farming practices and you go a long way to solving not one, but two major problems.
Klaus even claims to have the ideal plant for the job. One that requires no pesticides, gives a good staple food crop for humans with minimum maintenance, leaves which can be used for animal fodder, and what’s left can be ploughed back into the ground.
It’s the Jerusalem artichoke, which is actually not an artichoke and doesn’t come from Jerusalem; it’s a sunflower and it comes from the Andes. Mr Laitenberger is very keen on the potential of Andean food crops. “They gave us the potato, there are a lot more that we haven’t yet discovered.”
It is so often the case when someone lectures about the environment that we are told all the problems but the speaker has no solutions. This was different; Klaus did offer answers. And while I for one don’t fancy subsisting solely on a diet of Jerusalem artichokes for the rest of my life I’m happy to buy into his ideas.
To the lady who said to me on the day “this is all really interesting but so depressing”, I say “yes on both counts, but there is hope for the future if we all wake up to what is going on and act”.
One final word, two actually, or a name if you prefer: Mary Marsden.
Thanks Mary for taking it upon yourself to organise the day. I’m sure everyone else wishes to thank you too.