The Energy Garden

One of Mother Earths many gifts to us is the garden it bring us so many pleasures and with a little extra effort it can produce fruits, vegetables, wine, cordials and even has the ingredients for home made plant based Shampoos, Soaps, Herbal remedies, home made pest control and compost and with the right planning it can harvest a huge amount of rain water to use in the house even Coffee substitutes and Tea can be grown and a home pharmacy.

The latest feat to add to Mother Earths gifts in the garden is quite a staggering one. Imagine being able to grow your own fuel to heat your house in only 2 to 3 years in your OWN GARDEN. This I imagine is going to make even the most apathetic of garden owners sit up and say Tell me more.

This is project for a largish garden or an allotment space with 200 metre space needed. .Willow trees have been used for centuries to make huts, boats and baskets. Now a Willow variety has been bred to grow quickly and efficiently, which becomes a “Wood Fuel” for home heating wood burners, at the same time be continually harvested. Its rapid growth, ability to store high levels of energy and ability to grow on non food producing marginal land are all essential factors.

There is of course a great mind that has been pondering and then converting this concept from possibility to reality. The man in question has a fascinating background Anthony Heijenga was born into North Dublin horticulture and then rather suitably ran away to the stars. The type of stars that NASA would inspect, working on projects that involved Anthony working as a “Nasa Research Scientist”.

I met Anthony for a coffee and found him to be a profoundly interesting man; he explained his fascinating background over two hours. I find it hard to stay quite for two minutes let alone two hours but his story of his research and how he came to develop his “Energy Garden” was a compulsive story. His research in NASA had a horticultural flavour “I was working with plants , not as we know them but changed into systems that are half plant half machine, designed to do things hundreds if not thousands of time faster than in nature similar to the methods of producing of Anti Cancer Drugs” .These are Anthony explained the sort of systems being used on Space Stations, Space Flight Missions, including the shuttle, the Russian Space station MIR and the present International space station where there is no option for traditional plant cultivation which is needed for reabsorbing carbon dioxide to make it more safer and stable environment.

All this led him to the realisation that the Willow had the capacity to be grown in a Garden/Allotment setting that can heat ones house .This Anthony tells me “May prove to be Willow’s greatest gift to humanity a future where the beauty of “Willow Fields” can replace, the need for gas coal or oil fields and contributes to the reverse in global warming” heady stuff indeed and all possible in the garden.

To get to this point Anthony has been working and experimenting in his “Woodland Willow Sanctuary” and also in conjunction with Skerries Mill in North County Dublin where on can see his Energy Willow Allotments in action. This is not actually a sterile environment quite the opposite growing and enjoying the Willow as it reaches it maturity can be says Anthony “A therapeutic event it is a quiet and serene place to go as the planted willow is a nature haven with the early pollen from the Willow providing food for many insects and so attracting moths, bee’s butterflies and ladybirds”. So how does all this work..? First step says Anthony “is good weed control, its vital from the beginning, it is very important to allow the young willow plants to establish themselves. It can be done by various methods”. I liked his suggestion of using a narrow gauge lawnmower to minimise weed growth by running the lawnmower over the weeds on a regular basis to stop them spreading. Applying a yearly layer of mulch along the base the Willow with the likes of Bark Mulch is also very good at suppressing weeds and improving soil quality.

“It takes about four hours to plant a two hundred square meter allotment. The ideal time for planting willow cuttings is from mid February to the end of March” and says Anthony “it is important to do it at this time as if they planted in the autumn it can risk the cuttings rotting and if it is done to late in the spring the soil could be to dry”.

The 25 cm long willow cuttings which are easy to plant. “They are thin and initially without roots so its quite simple to push them into holes I use a plugging implement called a dibber ,it is very important to allow the young willow plants to establish themselves , so by digging the soil to a depth of 30 cm will help enormously”. Rabbits can do serious damage to a young Willow crop so using Rabbit Fencing is important to protect the whole allotment or garden planting rather than individual rabbit guards.

By the end of the year two, the most mature rods from each plant need to be cut to encourage future harvests this already “amounts already to 60 % of the maximum yield which once processed will be ready for the wood burner about six weeks later . The yield is similar in year 3 and 4 with a maximum yield from year 6. Anthony suggests “To cut the harvested rods to approximately 10 cm above ground level this promotes the development of new shoots and rods from the remaining root stem and so allowing a continuous harvest of 1 – 1.5 kg of wood fuel per plant per year for an amazing 25 years”.

With a planting density of four plants per square meter, a two hundred square meter garden could produce around a tonne of wood fuel per year by year six. The Willow plants absorb 7% of the Sun light energy to make them more productive New varieties of Willow are being bred that will be far more efficient and be able to store up to 50% of the surrounding Sun light energy or the equivalent of 7 tonne of wood fuel from our two hundred square meter garden, at which point Willow would have the same energy value as low grade coal.

A Successful house heating scheme using the Willow Harvest is running already for some Dundalk residents. They wake up says Anthony “in a warm house with hot water delivered by a district heat system, fuelled by Willow wood chip, produced from a field only five kilometres away its so much better than depending on a distant oil field in the Middle East the change has been seamless, and most importantly more economical”

Having in a woodland sanctuary has proved to be very positive experience for Anthony “Unlike a vegetable allotment, growing Willow requires minimal work, and is well suited to enjoying the finer things of life it is ideal for sitting and relaxing in the midst of your own personal productive woodland with a good book and beverage”.

The introduction two years ago of a new Fingal County Council wood ‘fuel allotment’ scheme is helping to make Anthony’s vision become a reality .They provide technical support that involves the rental of a two hundred square meter allotment area (like a vegetable allotment), that costs €100 a year a useful option for those who don’t have suitable sized garden or a lawn.

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