Thursday, February 18, 2010

Celebrating Earth Day in the Garden

This post was inspired by Jan of Thanks for Today, who has started the "Garden Bloggers Sustainable Living" initiative in honor of Earth Day on April 22, 2010. Jan is collecting links to Earth Day garden posts and even awarding gardening prizes to participants through a drawing. It's worth taking a look at her post on this, where you can also find a list of posts on the subject by other bloggers. Here's her logo for this project:

We, too, are trying to adhere to earth-friendly principles in our garden. Among these are:

Composting everything possible, both from the garden and from the household, here are my heaps and bins (click any photo to enlarge):

No pesticides of any kind, no chemical fertilizers. I wrote an earlier post on my attempt to deal with slugs in an earth-friendly way.

Collecting rain for watering. On the left-hand corner of our allotment cottage you can see one of the blue rain barrels fed by the roof:

Encouraging wildlife to feel at home in the garden. In the spring we will be putting up a wild bee "hotel" to provide a home for these endangered species, with the added benefit of pollination. Here's our model, purchased from a workshop employing the disabled (photo taken from their website):

We also make sure to leave a few untended places in the garden, hoping a hedgehog might someday make its home here:

Letting the grass grow. This sometimes rewards us with such mushrooms:

Purchasing cut flowers from Fairtrade dealers. My last post was on this subject if you're interested. I'm really pleased with the Fairtrade roses I purchased for Valentine's Day. Not only were they grown under earth-friendly (and humane) conditions, they simply last and last. On the left you can see the roses when I bought them on Feb. 13, on the right the way they look today, 5 days later and still going strong, opening up beautifully.

Happy Earth Day everyone!

    Sunday, February 14, 2010

    Fairtrade flowers for Valentine's Day

    Happy Valentine's Day everybody.
    Here's my Valentine's bouquet of roses:

    This post is about where they came from.

    Germans love to buy cut flowers, and Germany is one of the top ten countries in terms of per capita consumption of both cut flowers and plants. Here an interesting link from the Flower Council of Holland showing the consumption of many countries. At the same time, the local production of flowers here has gone way down, as it has in all industrialized countries. These days, cut flowers are mainly imported to Europe from Africa, and to North America from South America. This interesting article shows that over 90% of cut flowers in the U.S. are imported, whereas back in 1970 it was only 3%. In Germany the situation is not quite so drastic. As described in this very interesting brochure published by the German Federal Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (in German), 20% of the cut flowers sold here are still grown here. According to this source, Germans spend an average of 40 Euros per year on cut flowers, with roses and tulips leading the list.

    So globalization has hit the flower market hard everywhere. Roses and everything else are available the entire year. And as in many other sectors, sometimes you don't want to look too closely at the conditions under which the roses you buy are grown in places like Columbia or Kenya. After watching a few documentaries on the subject, including descriptions of child labor, low wages, overuse of pesticides with no protection for workers, genetic engineering and monocultures, I had almost decided to stop buying off-season cut flowers. There are several documentaries on the subject on Youtube, including here.

    But then I came across an article about a network called Fairtrade whose mission is to inspect flower growing (and other) sites and award them a Fairtrade label if they meet certain requirements, including minimum prices, prohibited use of certain substances, adherence to ILO standards on occupational health and safety, minimum amount of paid vacation for workers, and many other things. Fairtrade certification is only awarded to producers who comply with an entire catalogue of requirements. If they do, they can label their products with this logo:

    On the Fairtrade website, you can go to your own country and find businesses that sell Fairtrade products. I discovered that a grocery store chain in Mannheim sells them, and bought some of their roses a few months ago. I was very pleased with them - they were moderately priced, quite lovely, and kept in the vase for over a week. In fact, they came with a guarantee of keeping fresh for at least five days after purchase. I've had worse luck with expensive roses from florists.

    So for Valentine's Day I purchased Fairtrade roses for the family. The label attached to the bouquet includes a Fairtrade code number, and on the German Fairtrade website I entered the code and was able to see that my roses came from the Finlay Flower Farm in Kenya, certified by Fairtrade in 2004 and employing 2250 people! If you're interested, Finlay has its own website.

    I hope that it's all as good as it sounds, and that I can feel good about my roses, even though it remains somewhat absurd to be buying roses in February, when Valentine's Day happens to be. Here's another shot of my roses in the snow on the patio. If you look closely (click to enlarge) you can see that it is actually snowing in the picture.

    Saturday, February 6, 2010

    Mannheim's plane tree boulevard "Augustaanlage" is dying

    One of Mannheim's hallmarks is the Augustaanlage (Augusta Avenue), a beautiful long plane tree boulevard leading from the eastern border of the city to the water tower in the city center. Here's a photo giving a partial view taken in happier days in the summer (photo taken by Kai Demut and uploaded to, although even in this photo the trees, due to radical pruning, are not what they once were.

    Look here if you'd like to see an areal view in google maps.

    The plane trees (platanus orientalis, known variously as planes, plane trees, or sycamores) are around one hundred years old and form two double rows with a broad swath of land in the middle, stretching for almost a mile altogether. It is believed to be the longest tree-lined boulevard leading into a city in Germany, possibly even in Europe. For visitors entering the city from the Autobahn, Augustaanlage is both calling card and first impression. So it's no wonder that Mannheim's citizens identify with this avenue and that there is lively discussion any time the city fathers decide to do something new with it.

    Here's a view giving an impression of the length of the boulevard, which ends at Mannheim's art deco water tower in the middle of a beautiful park with large fountains:

    In the course of the years a modern sculpture garden has been installed in the boulevard. Here's a shot of some of it taken last week in the snow (click to enlarge):

    Also, a few years ago there was a successful drive for donations to finance the planting of flower bulbs between the trees. My husband and I now sponsor one square meter of bulbs. Some of them are just starting to come up - here's a photo taken yesterday of what just might be my square meter:
    And here's what it looks like in the spring (photo taken by tessy and uploaded to

    Another interesting activity is the planting of one section with mats of wildflower seeds instead of grass and bulbs. Even in the winter this section is still interesting:

    As you can see, the trees in this section are missing. And that's the problem: they are dying. In the other photos you may also have noticed that the trees don't really look like typical planes. The bad news is that an expert commission has determined the trees are so damaged that they've all got to go. About 25 years ago the widespread damage was first discovered, but instead of chopping them all down and replacing them, it was decided to radically prune them to save weight and prevent branches from falling. The first time I saw them do this - and they've done it four times altogether in the last 25 years - I was first appalled and then amazed at how beautifully the trees branched out afterward. But in principle pruning is not good for the health of the planes. Of the original 450 trees, around 300 remain, since some have been damaged by traffic; by the two wars they've gone through; and just generally by vehicles compacting the earth; extensive building along the boulevard; gas, telephone and water lines being laid; and also by generations of dogs. When the boulevard was originally built, it was actually a park with promenade outside of the city, and there was no road along it and no buildings.

    Here's what the plane trees used to look like. This shot was taken in one of the crossroads of Augustaanlage, many of which also are lined by planes, fortunately not yet damaged. You can imagine how lush this looks in the summer.

    So doomsday is now here. Last night I attended a citizens' meeting at which city officials and experts explained the situation and presented their plan. There was a lot of discussion, and also spontaneous offers of citizens to finance a tree (3000 Euros each)! The plan is to remove all the trees successively in the course of the next four years, and to once again plant plane trees in four rows, but to place the outermost row a little further from the street, and the trees a little farther apart than they are now. A large amount of the earth they are planted in will be replaced. The whole thing will cost around 4 million Euros. And there are plans to make it more pedestrian friendly, perhaps including the monument to Carl Benz at one end in a more pleasing way. Carl Benz invented the first automobile right here in Mannheim, and many people think the monument should be less dominated by traffic and parking lot (although arguably appropriate since he brought it all upon us). Here's the monument:

    Here's another impression of the monument's location at the end of the boulevard. It's that square slab in front of the water tower (click to enlarge and you can see that it's practically in a parking lot). BTW we live a block from where this photo was taken.

    For any skeptics, three slices of an already felled tree were on display at the meeting. They are rotting from the inside out.
    The new trees will be between 7 and 9 meters tall when planted, so that it won't take too long for it to look like a tree-lined avenue again. Full-grown trees can reach 30-50 meters. The experts hope that the new generation of trees will live longer than a hundred years. It is planned to leave them unpruned after initially training them to begin branching out at a sufficient height to avoid conflicts with vehicles.

    For those who understand German, here's a short film produced by local television (Rhein-Neckar-Fernsehen) on the subject.

    God willing, there at least won't be another war in the near future. Members of the European Union have now managed to avoid armed conflicts with each other for 65 years. I read that's the longest in the last 2000.