At home with a dome
James Strawbridge, co-presenter of the TV show It’s Not Easy Being Green, tells us more about his good life
Buckminster Fuller wrote a book in 1963 called Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. In it, he focuses on the planet’s limited resources and a changing approach to fossil fuels. He used the term ‘spaceship’ to describe Earth, with the sun as the energy supplier. He said we “must operate exclusively on our vast daily energy income from the powers of wind, tide, water, and the direct Sun radiation energy”. Famously, Fuller was also involved in geodesics and building of geodesic domes.
Geodesic domes, like the iconic ones at the Eden Project in Cornwall, are not a new technology, but have actually been around since the beginning of the 20th century. Based on the study and measurement of the earth, the structures provide lots of passive solar energy and a strong shape with far less materials needed than traditional gravity-based building design. The shapes are also incredibly aerodynamic and so suited to a windy environment.
Here, at New House Farm, I needed a building to house the new organic hydroponic system I have set up. So, some research and a prototype commercial dome later, we started to assemble the ultimate flat pack Ikea set! Putting together a building that gains its strength only when the last piece is put in place is a bit of a nightmare, but a lot of fun. The wooden frames are covered with plastic, then stapled and siliconed together and finally worked into a jigsaw of pentagons and hexagons. Apparently this is officially called an ‘omnitriangulated’ surface, but I like to think it just looks, like the Crystal Maze. However, two days work has now led to a growing space that gets as much sun as possible with both light and warmth.
The dome is a choice I am very happy with because it looks really cool. Environmentally, it is a good idea because it provides loads of sunlight and a growing plot that maximises the vertical space to its advantage, standing almost three metres high in the middle. Additionally, it is made out of managed British wood rather than the more damaging and expensive metal or plastic. Finally, I think the shape eases into the local environment, more so than many other shaped buildings because of its curved nature. Fuller famously addressed the problem of earth’s limited resources and mankind’s negative environmental impact, calling on “planners, architects, and engineers to take the initiative”. The geodesic dome is one of the designs Fuller fully embraced and which is currently working really well here on the farm.
Inside the dome I have set up a small scale hydroponic system as I discussed in my article two months ago. Basically I have put bits of guttering with holes cut in the top to place seedlings into, and then liquid nutrients are pumped down each of the channels to provide the plants with food. I chose to use NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) which is essentially a thin film about 1 to 2mm deep that flows constantly down the growing channels, in contact with the roots but also allowing them to be in touch with the air. The nutrient is pumped by a 10W pump submerged in an old header tank I found in the attic. The pipes themselves are from the local garden centre and fixed into an old bit of hosepipe from the dark corner of the potting shed.
Standing at waist level, this is an easy way of growing with very little maintenance and very little effort. The nutrient solution is made of natural things such as worm castes, krill, alfalfa and kelp. It gets diluted with water from the spring and then pumped around by a solar panel-fed battery. The channels themselves are set at a very shallow gradient so that the liquid nutrients then flow back down to the reservoir by gravity. Inside the dome you can hear a tranquil trickle that I think knocks spots off other sorts of water features.
At the moment I am growing chillies and strawberries but have also germinated a selection of herbs, salad leaves and tomatoes that will be growing over winter. This means that, hopefully, I will be able to grow out-of-season food and not end up buying imported luxuries over the winter.
There’s now even the option for having a fresh salad with Christmas dinner – I think that’s a bit unlikely though!
People are always on about cost when discussing unknown eco-technologies and growing food. But this is another one of those systems that is relatively cheap to set up and will save you money on expensive, exotic or out of season food items in the future. For the cost of a pump, some guttering channels and a bit of hosepipe you end up with an arrangement that can be fed directly from your composting (if you have a wormery then the liquid nutrient or ‘worm tea’ can be diluted into the mix).
At the moment I am growing with hydroponics as a trial experiment and am yet to be convinced if this method should replace traditional growing techniques. But I do really like the idea of going out and digging the garden in November and then having some salad at lunchtime from another part of the garden, making use of alternative techniques to the best of their advantage.
Other jobs and activities at New House Farm this month have included: making 150 pints of cider from our own and locally collected apples; making mead from honey; making our first bottle of wine from the grapes (yes, sadly it was just one bottle from our vines this year, but fingers crossed for their second year’s harvest!); sorting out the seasoned wood from last year to stack up the woodburners inside; lots of chutneyfication; watching the turkeys grow, and structural work to stop the final leaks around the workshop and outbuildings before winter really sets in.
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