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Growing lemon trees in pots

Lemon Lemon tree, very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet – but grow it in a pot and be prepared to face defeat! Well that’s my take on the old song, anyway.  And if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked “what’s wrong with my lemon tree” then I’d be a rich woman!  The Italians have been successfully growing citrus in pots for centuries but in the tropics and subtropics we rarely get it right.  This is because we’re challenging Nature by trying to grow a plant that thrives in dry climates with low winter rainfall and hot, dry summers.  Luckily most citrus bear fruit in the subtropical autumn/winter when it’s cool and dry but the soggy summers encourage pest and disease problems. So there are three main rules when growing a lemon tree (or any other citrus tree) in a pot:  The right environment, the right watering and fertilising program and the right care regime. ENVIRONMENT Choose a BIG pot that is wider at the top than at the bottom but not so small at the base that it can easily topple.  A lemon tree grows large and bushy and you don’t want to keep repotting so fill up any empty spaces with herbs that can be removed later. Choose a sunny position with plenty of space all around.  Citrus needs at least six hours full sun a day and an airy position discourages fungal diseases.  Perfect drainage is essential so put some gravel or small stones in the bottom of the pot, top with a 5 cm layer of coarse sand then fill the rest with a good quality potting mix. WATER AND FERTILISER Water thoroughly every two days; more in very hot weather.  Check regularly to see that the growing mix is neither soggy nor too dry.  Don’t spray the leaves because this encourages fungal diseases and sooty mould.  The potting mix will feed the plant for the first three months; after that apply a citrus fertiliser according to the instructions on the packet – usually every two months is enough. CARE Top up the potting mix every spring, first removing about one third of the old mix and flushing the rest with a hose at full strength.  Flushing breaks up a mix that is starting to harden and become too impacted around the roots.  It also gets rid of any build up of salts that come with regular fertilising. Lemon trees and other citrus are sadly prone to health problems and attack by insect pests. The leaves should always be a rick, deep green (darker in mandarins) and if they are not then start looking for problems. The most common health problems are due to incorrect nutrition and will show themselves by yellowing leaves or yellowing along the veins only.  If you are applying a complete citrus fertiliser regularly then this should not occur.  However, if older leaves develop yellow veins then dissolve a tablespoon of Epsom Salts in a 5 litre watering can and pour around the roots.  This problem is more common with citrus grown in ground than in pots.  Sooty mould is an unsightly black deposit on leaves and stems caused by the secretions (commonly called “honeydew”) from certain insects such as aphids and scale.  These are often found in association with ants so if you see ants all over the tree, check for their host insects and wash them off with soap and water.  This treatment also gets rid of the mould.  Adding some pesticidal oil such as Neem, or even a teaspoon of household disinfectant, will discourage the problem from re-occurring. The most common insect pests of citrus are Bronze Orange Bugs and Citrus Leaf Miner.  The former reveal themselves through a pungent, unpleasant smell and are either green (when very young) black or bright orange.  They can be picked off by hand but if the tree is badly infested use Pest Oil or Confidor.  If you handle them, they secrete a sticky, smelly liquid which is mildly corrosive.  Their sap sucking habit damages the branches and leaves.  Citrus Leaf Miner is the caterpillar of a moth that lays its eggs in new, tender young leaves.  The caterpillars leave pale, silvery trails through the leaves which become distorted and pallid.  Pest Oil discourages the moth from laying so be alert to the first signs and then spray the new growth and remove any leaves already affected.  This or any other insecticidal oil will kill off most insect pests.  However, it’s always safest to be sure so if your potted lemon tree looks unthrifty, with yellowing or distorted leaves, or blackening tips, get advice either on-line or from your local garden centre. Lemon trees grown in-ground in subtropical climates often show signs of citrus scab which are brownish lumps and patches on the fruit skin.  It looks bad but doesn’t harm the fruit.  However, as lemon trees are grown in pots for ornamental reasons you don’t want scabby, unsightly fruit so spray in mid-spring with a solution of copper oxychloride and white oil (available from nurseries/garden centres or hardware stores).  This stops the problem occurring and you should have lovely yellow unblemished lemons. Potted lemon trees need pruning, unlike those grown in the ground.  Lightly trim to shape as required but if you want flowers and fruit, don’t hard prune when flower buds start to appear.  Water shoots – the long, pale, branchlets with (usually) larger leaves than those on the main branches – grow from the base of the tree, below the graft mark, and should be removed.  If the branches in the centre of the tree are too thick and tangled, gently remove a few to open it up – this helps avoid fungus problems by letting more light into the centre of the canopy.  Always use sharp secateurs or pruning saws, and sterilise them first. After five years or so the constraints of being confined to a pot affect the roots of lemon trees and they begin to fail – symptoms are smaller leaves, leaf drop, fewer fruit or fruit drop.  The whole tree begins to look down at heel.  There are horticultural techniques to de-pot and trim the roots but these require a lot of skill and effort.  The obvious answer is to buy a bigger pot but if this is not feasible then just remove the tree and either plant it outside or just throw it away – you’ll have had plenty of value from it by then and no plant lives forever. Remember, if you want any more advice on this topic or any other, just email me at jrlakemedia@gmail.com and I’ll try to help.

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Rosemary relieves stress

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Yes, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) DOES help prevent and relieve stress but only through inhalation, and only for mild cases.  Just don’t expect it to work as well, or as quickly, as a pharmaceutical anti-stress medicine.

To make this work for you, use either fresh rosemary or the extracted oil.  Spend ten minutes each morning, before you start your day, inhaling either an oil-soaked pad or a bunch of rosemary leaves.  You may like to do this in conjunction with some other stress-relieving activity such as yoga or tai chi.  Do the same last thing at night to relax you before sleeping.  And do it as many times during the day as you can find time for, or as your stress level dictates.

Rosemary as a stress-reliever has been the subject of several recent authoritative, peer-reviewed scientific studies (as opposed to quack stuff turned out by so-called natural scientists) and these indicate (albeit cautiously) definite benefits in inhaling the complex chemicals that make up the oil found in rosemary leaves.  They include rosmarinic acid, also found in basil, sage and oregano, which derives from caffeic acid, a powerful antioxidant.  Among other things it has been shown to increase the production of saliva and reduce stress hormone cortisol levels.

Rosemary’s other, and more tangible health benefit, is as an anti-bacterial agent.  All plants with pungent oils can be used in this way, either to preserve food or dab on cuts and scratches.  In warm weather, when I want to keep meat at room temperature before cooking, I lay it on a bed of rosemary leaves and cover it with the same – rubbing the leaves a bit first to release the oils.  Rosemary oil can be dabbed on minor abrasions, though a more powerful biocide would need to be used on more serious wounds.  Some rashes will also respond to applications of rosemary oil.

Many extravagant claims are made for the health benefits of rosemary and most of them have absolutely no scientific basis.  Indeed, taking large amounts of medicinal rosemary sold in “natural health” outlets, in either oil or dried-leaf form, may create problems for those on diuretic or blood-thinning drugs.  Still, any plant which contains rich and complex oils will have SOME health benefits when added in moderation to food.  The pungent oil dictates sparing use but this is also what makes it such an effective counter-flavour with fatty meats such as mutton and lamb.  I also use it in casseroles with any meat, and in Mediterranean-style vegetable dishes where a lot of garlic and olive oil is also used.

MEMORIES?

Historically, rosemary has been associated with remembrance.  To those with a British cultural inheritance, this is mainly because that’s what Ophelia tells us, in Hamlet, when she’s madly strewing herbs all over the place.  And Shakespeare obviously got the idea from somewhere.  Though whether it’s because we believe that it actually improves memory, or because we’ve extrapolated this idea from the fact that rosemary (a common plant) was used centuries ago to place on graves in respectful memory of the dead, is not clear.

Healthy sprigs for cooking - or inhaling to relieve srress

Healthy sprigs for cooking – or inhaling to relieve srress

 

 

GROWING IT

I’ve written a lot about rosemary over the years because, taken all round, it’s my favourite garden herb.  By “garden” I mean a herb that also makes a useful ornamental plant, not just one that’s grown in a pot or herb garden for culinary or medicinal purposes.  In my many years as a gardener I’ve used rosemary for low hedges, parterre borders, single pot specimens and as a foundation and background plant in mixed beds and borders.  Its green or greyish green (depending on variety) upright foliage spikes set off other garden plants quite beautifully.  And when it’s in flower, it’s a colourful sight all on its own.

Rosemary grows in all but very tropical climates with heavy monsoon rains and though it looks at its best and lasts longest in Mediterranean and warm-temperate climates it adapts very nicely to desert and subtopical zones.  It can even be grown as a summer plant in cold climates, provided it’s brought into a warm, protected environment in winter.  In fact rosemary is so versatile that the different climates merely mean a slightly different management regime. In my subtropical  mountaintop climate I replace my bushes every five years for maximum good looks – whether in ground or in pot. The plant will continue growing long after that but starts to look straggly.  In colder and less humid climates rosemary bushes keep their looks a lot longer.

The basic rules for rosemary are good drainage and regular watering.  Don’t overwater though – the very name rosemary is derived from the Latin, meaning “sea dew” (and not, as I used to think, something to do with roses and the Virgin Mary!) and this is because in Mediterranean regions just the lightest sea mist was enough to keep this plant in moisture. Regular tip pruning for health and shape is also important, with a good cut back (about one third) in autumn.  This encourages profuse flowering when spring comes round again – and my rosemary flowers from spring right through to the following autumn. Old, dead growth should also be regularly removed. The only fertilizing necessary is a dose of compost around the base of new plants, digging it in slightly, about three months after they go into the ground.  I repeat this once a year in late spring, Pot plants get fed once a month with a cheap all – purpose liquid fertilizer .  Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers or plants will be reluctant to flower.  My soil is rather acid so I sprinkle dolomite around my rosemary bushes twice a year, in early spring and late summer.

The best mulch for rosemary is gravel.  This will warm the plant, help prevent root-rot diseases and protect the shallow roots from heavy rain and soil erosion.  It will also keep down weeds.  Coarse bark is also an acceptable mulch, or nutshells, but “soft” mulches such as hay and leafmold will encourage the root-rot pathogens that are the only problem that ever seems to effect this tough herb.

A herb that grows thick and healthy without much work

A herb that grows thick and healthy without much work

 

THE MANY WAYS OF GROWING ROSEMARY

 

 

 

 

REF:

Angioni A, Barra A, Cereti E, Barile D, Coisson JD, Arlorio M, et al. Chemical composition, plant genetic differences, antimicrobial and antifungal activity investigation of the essential oil of Rosmarinus officinalis L. J Agric Food Chem. 2004;52(11):3530-3535.

Atsumi T, Tonosaki K. Smelling lavender and rosemary increases free radical scavenging activity and decreases cortisol level in saliva. Psychiatry Res. 2007;150(1):89-96.

 

Cheap, easy and environmentally-friendly way to control scale

Tiny Brown Scale insects on the stem of a metrosideros shrub.  Many plants can be affected by these pests.

Tiny Brown Scale insects on the stem of a metrosideros shrub. Many plants can be affected by these pests.

 

Scales are tiny insects that can create havoc on susceptible plants.  They look horrible, too.  The most common types are light brown but they come in lighter and darker shades too, with tinges of other colour. Different types of scales can be white or cream.  You notice them when they cluster on the twigs and stems and, sometimes, underleaves.  See picture. Often, too, you’ll notice a white, sticky residue in association with scale and this unsightly mess is due to ants who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with scale insects.

The recommended remedy is white oil, sold in hardware stores and garden centres.  There is also a product called Pest Oil which is considered more plant and environmentally-friendly.  But I use my own tried and true remedy which is cheap, easy and doesn’t harm either plant or surrounding environment.  This is an important consideration because many birds feed on scale insects, thus acting as useful garden helpers.

I keep an old 750 litre cleaning spray bottle (or buy a cheap plastic spray bottle from a garden centre/hardware store).  The size here isn’t important.  I put about two dessertspoonfuls of ordinary washing up detergent (liquid laundry detergent would probably do as well, haven’t tried it) and add two or three good squirts of household cleaner – the sort of stuff you use to clean bench tops and bathroom sinks.  This will contain an anti-bacterial agent of some kind.  But don’t use one that contains chlorine bleach.

Fill the bottle with warm water, then spray the plant.  The detergent will stick to the insects’ protective covering (which is the part you see) and smother them.  The small amount of chemical will finish them off and act as a deterrent against further infestation.  Yet it is not enough to hurt the plant or any birds that might come back and snap up a scale or two for supper.  In a day or two the scale infestation will disappear (you can help it along a bit by hosing or brushing the dead insects from the branches if you like) and you now have an easy remedy to quickly respond to any further infestations.

White residue often found in association with scale insects

White residue often found in association with scale insects

 

Permaculture in a hot climate

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(A subtropical permaculture garden makes use of every available bit of space for food-growing and recycles whatever it can)

The principles of a permaculture lifestyle work well in the tropics and subtropics but certain principles need to be understood.

When I first started practicing this type of home food-production 30 or so years ago I based my methods on those evolved for colder climates where the difference between growing seasons is more marked – bearing in mind the Father of Permaculture Bill Mollison lived in Tasmania.  I soon learned that adjustments needed to be made for my sub-tropical garden – also bearing in mind Bill’s oft-quoted statement that permaculture is a philosophy of working with rather than against nature.  As opposed, of course, to AGRIculture, which works against it.

This, to me, remains the essence of a permaculture garden.  Permaculture is based on fine and lofty principles but for most of us it comes down to a practical way of turning our own backyard (and if possible our front yard too) into a self-sustaining source of good food, grown as “naturally” as possible without manufactured chemicals and pesticides  and with due regard to the surrounding environment.  Though as the latter is usually other people’s non-permaculture gardens this aspect is less important to the average home gardener.  I believe that understanding and adhering to the PRINCIPLE of permaculture is what is most important here, not sticking to every last finicky tenet of a practice that lends itself to infinite personal application.

So, before I get on to the different approaches dictated by a hot climate, here are what I see as the essential principles of permaculture for the average home gardener.

  • A design that takes into account natural landform, rainfall, water collection and distribution,  basic soil type, neighbourhood constraints (or advantages), available sunlight throughout the day,  local climate factors such as frost likelihood and wind force/ frequency/direction, sources and types of available power (mains electricity, solar, generator, wind etc), local authority constraints and requirements.
  • Understanding of the biodiversity of natural and /or existing vegetation including common weed types.  Assess what can be useful either as food (human and animal) or soil improvement (through composting/green manuring) and what must be eliminated.
  • Planning that takes into account age and capability of householders/gardeners and amount of food required. (No point in growing more than you need though some excess to give away, sell or re-process into food for the soil is usually a good thing).
  • Diversity of crops and critters; in diversity lies strength, interesting and healthy variety, and the ability to resist insects, diseases and natural disasters
  • Turning as many factors and features as possible into renewable resources – animal, vegetable or mineral.  Very few organic things can’t be recycled through permaculture.
  • Integrating growing areas so that you get aggregated benefits.  For example “edible fences” of vine crops to divide one section from another, or hedges of fruit/berry-bearing shrubs, or pathways of herbs, or low herbal plantings to separate one crop from another.  This makes more complete use of available (including vertical) space and has added benefits of surrounding susceptible crops with  barriers of insect-repelling herbs.  Always look at a bit of garden and say “how could I use this more productively?”

And here’s a little principle of my own – grow lots of flowers!  Some flowers are edible, some (pyrethrum) have insecticidal benefits, others smell delightfully and all are beautiful.  Your permaculture garden should be a place of delight and recreation as well as a food source or what the hell’s the point of it all?  It only takes a little effort to reap a great reward when it comes to adding scent and colour to your vegie crops.  Also, flowers attract beneficial pollinators and while some of these (butterflies) will certainly produce leaf-munching caterpillars an overall benefit of flowers is that they serve to confuse potentially harmful insects with an abundance of choice.  I’ve always been a great fan of potager gardens where flowers and edible crops exist happily together.

Non-edible flowering plants fill up empty spaces in a permaculture garden, confuse pest insects, encourage beneficial insects and enhance the aesthetic element.  Plants such as geraniums, roses and nasturtiums can be used for food flavouring, too.

Non-edible flowering plants fill up empty spaces in a permaculture garden, confuse pest insects, encourage beneficial insects and enhance the aesthetic element. Plants such as geraniums, roses and nasturtiums can be used for food flavouring, too.

Most plants of the daisy type have insecticidal properties in the leaves - yet their flowers still attract bees.

Most plants of the daisy type have insecticidal properties in the leaves – yet their flowers still attract bees.

Canning the heat

Hot climates (subtropical and tropical) have both benefits and disadvantages.  These can be summarised as:

Crops can be grown all year round, with some seasonal adjustment making it possible to grow the traditional “cold climate” fruits and vegetables of the European/western diet in the cooler season (especially in the subtropics).  At the same time, in summer, it’s possible to grow crops such as taro, cassava, chillis and edible ginger.  A far greater range of fruit trees can be grown in hot climates – bananas, guavas, mangoes, sapote, custard apples etc.  Some varieties of apples as well as peaches, nectarines, blueberries and strawberries can be grown in the sub-tropics, especially in upland areas.  Avocados thrive there too.  In fact a subtropical climate is just about the best there is when it comes to growing your own food.

Rainfall is plentiful, HOWEVER, it usually falls to a monsoonal pattern, in an immoderate amount that washes away soil and its nutrients, erodes earthworks such as ditches, mounds and swales, damages delicate leaves and fruit.  Most important of all, distribution is uneven and unreliable with periods of intense, heavy rain being followed by even longer periods of no rain at all.

Sunshine makes plants grow fast and strong.  Yet it can be so intense that it burns leaves, flowers and fruits; too much of it has a drying effect that reduces the moisture content of plants, so they are less “juicy”.

High humidity encourages growth but also encourages the development of moulds and fungal diseases.

Lack of frost is generally regarded as a benefit when growing food crops – but some root vegetables need frost and cool topsoil to develop full size and flavour.

While a greater abundance and variety of crops is possible in a hot climate this is matched by a greater abundance of insects and weeds.  How you handle these two “problems” is one of the most important challenges faced by hot climate permaculturists.

Making compost is easier and much faster in a hot climate and you can do it all year round.  However, once in the soil, compost breaks down faster and needs more frequent application – and this goes for any sort of fertiliser.

And let’s not forget that permaculture is not just about plants…

In a cold climate animals need indoor protection during winter and they are more subject to illnesses caused (or exacerbated) by cold and damp.  In a hot climate they can stay in the open year round but they will be vulnerable to insect infestation and annoyance (ticks, worms, flies, maggots) and heat exhaustion.  Clean water must be provided  more frequently.

Permaculture in a hot climate takes a greater toll on the gardener in many ways.  Of course, you don’t have to contend with ice and snow and a bleak, cropless garden that may even be covered in snow for several months.  You don’t have to suffer the urgency that comes with having to get everything harvested by a certain date and then appropriately stored for winter – there’s not the same need for pickling, preserving and processing.  In a hot climate permaculture garden you can have some fresh crops all year round and adjust your eating habits to your season, with just a little jam-making and pickling – and probably some freezing too – if you enjoy doing that sort of thing.  The downside is that you can’t ever take a break.  No sitting over a winter fire for a few months of pleasurable garden inactivity, pouring over your seed catalogues!  Permaculture in a hot climate means permanent labour!  And vigilance!

Part of the permaculture philosophy is to reduce human labour.  So don’t bite off more than you can chew.  If you have a large garden – more than half an acre say – set aside a section of it for permaculture development.  You can always expand as required, once you’ve mastered the principles and put them into productive practice.

In its purest form, permaculture embraces both land and dwelling place in one self-sustaining practice. This wholistic approach means that your house should be built of renewable or non-environmentally threatening materials (mud brick, underground, wattle-and-daub, recycled bricks and timber), your water should be collected on site, and all your energy should be sourced from sun or wind.  Such an admirably idealistic approach is way outside the scope of my expertise; for the purposes of this article I’m assuming my readers live in “normal” suburban homes built on typical suburban lots or small acreages.  Even so, I would expect them to have them to get at least some of their power from solar panels and have tanks to collect rainwater.

SOIL

“Good” soils are more frequently found in cold rather than hot climates (I may go into this in detail in a later article but for now, take my word for it!).  Even the soil that sustains large and complex vegetation systems such as rainforest breaks down quickly once exposed to the elements.  So garden soil in the tropics and subtropics needs to be thoroughly dug over once, to a depth of about half a metre (deeper would be even better but we are talking about the possible here).  This is quite deep enough for all vegetables and also young fruit trees. (If you are planting larger fruit trees then the planting holes need to be deeper and wider – but this is another issue).  You can do this bit by bit though it would be more desirable to get the whole cropping area done at once, before any planting takes place.  Yes, it’s possible to grow your crops in raised vegetable beds as many do, but we are talking PERMACULTURE here and long-term sustainability means getting as much of your growing as possible done in a deep, sustaining soil that can be regularly renewed for years to come.  There are extreme circumstances (very steep slopes, unworkably heavy or shaley soil) where alternatives to in-ground growing have to be considered but as a general rule it is best to take your natural soil, and its natural profile, and work it into a suitable growing tilth.  This will take time and effort.  In the meantime you might be looking at alternatives (raised beds, containers, straw bales) but in the end successful permaculture depends on good soil.  The goal is a soil that is dark brown to black in colour, not too heavy and sticky, nor too light and sandy, and which crumbles nicely in your hand.  (If you want to know all about soil you can buy my e-book Improving Your Soil – The Natural Way for $4.95 at http://www.amazon.com/Improving-Your-Soil-GardenEzi-ebook/dp/B007IXY6Y8.)

It’s also important to raise or lower the pH level of your soil so that it lies in the neutral zone between acid and alkaline.  This will suit most crops.  Those that require higher or lower levels of acidity or alkalinity will require localised adjustments. (This is outside the scope of the current article – but look for further detailed articles on this subject – there are some on this website).

Good soil is the foundation of successful permaculture - it should look something like this

Good soil is the foundation of successful permaculture – it should look something like this

MULCHING

Adding a cover of organic matter is the way to improve soil texture and consistency and once it is added to soil that’s been opened up and worked you’ll be amazed just how quickly this takes effect.  Again, you’ll find detailed information on suitable mulches in my soil book.  As a guiding principle, the best mulches for soil improvement in a hot climate are the straw residue of crops such as sugar cane (excellent for breaking down heavy clay), pea, bean and lucerne. Fine bark is good, especially if you wish to acidify your soil (but bear in mind that many vegetable and herb crops require a slightly alkaline soil). The hotter your climate the more frequently you need to apply mulch but usually laying a good thick cover twice a year in mid-spring when the ground begins to warm up after the cool season and again in late summer will be sufficient.  Topping up in between if required. The rule that you should never mulch dry ground is even more important in a hot climate where the evaporation rate is so high.  If there has been no rainfall always water the ground before applying mulch.  And keep it loose enough so rain can penetrate through to the soil.

Nothing improves soil like mulching with crop residues such as cane straw - but remember always to wear a mask because it's dusty stuff and can cause allergies

Nothing improves soil like mulching with crop residues such as cane straw – but remember always to wear a mask because it’s dusty stuff and can cause allergies

Mulch should be laid in a deep layer (about 6 inches or 15 cm) but not so densely that rain can't penetrate.

Mulch should be laid in a deep layer (about 6 inches or 15 cm) but not so densely that rain can’t penetrate.

COMPOSTING

Making your own compost is an essential part of permaculture practice.  In a hot climate it’s faster and easier.  Just about anything organic can recycled into compost and used to enrich your soil.  Apply twice a year when mulching as your regular practice but top up every month in the main spring/summer growing season and you won’t need to provide any other plant food.  There is no better way of creating a really wonderful, rich, growing environment.  Obviously you will use your chook poo and old nesting/laying straw from the hen house as well as manure from any other animals you keep (except dogs and cats!).  But unless you have your own cows or other pasture animals in sufficient numbers to provide worthwhile manure, you’ll need to buy in a few bags a year.  A mixed manure such as Searle’s 5 In 1, formulated in an for a hot climate, is particularly good.

WEEDS

Weeds proliferate in the hot climate garden so don’t waste time trying to control them; harvest them for compost, turn them into a nutritional and biocidal “tea” or let your livestock eat them.  Chickens, ducks and geese all eat weeds.  So do goats, rabbits and guinea pigs.  Of course you’ll need to manage your livestock so that they can get at the weeds without eating the vegies and herbs.  The best way of doing this is by fencing off the vulnerable areas and allowing livestock free reign to keep weeds down in the in-between areas such as fallowing beds, pathways and the ground around fruit trees (if this isn’t already planted to some lower-growing crop).  Poultry and small animals can be kept in mobile cages that can be moved from one area to another.  A goat can be tethered.

Weeds also play a role in attracting beneficial insects to the garden.  They also attract pest insects and this can be a bonus too because, like cultivated flowers, they help to confuse the pests and provide alternative food to your valuable crops.  Of course, you don’t want weeds in your growing beds competing for water, nutrients and sunlight with your vegies.  Here you will use suppression techniques such as layered newspaper or cardboard or straw mulch, and be regular and vigilant in hand-removal.  But I’ve seen permaculturists with flourishing weed borders around the edges of their beds and these seem to help lure pests away from the good stuff.

Many weeds have valuable nutritional AND biocidal properties.  They can be gathered and put into a large container of hot (but not boiling water).  Let this steep for a week or so then skim all the debris from the surface and strain through a sieve or coarse cloth.  Pour or spray the brew over your plants – it will help condition the soil as well as encourage healthier plants.  Throw the mucky, smelly vegetative residue into the compost heap.  Nothing is wasted in the permaculture garden!

There are SOME weeds that are so anti-social that you do need to get rid of them, especially if their proliferation is likely to become a problem in neighbouring gardens or adjacent bushland.  Those which produce numerous seeds that stick or adhere to clothing are a problem, as are weeds poisonous to livestock.  They should be thoroughly exterminated by whichever method suits you best.  The really important thing here is to GET TO KNOW YOUR WEEDS.  Study the weeds in your garden as you would any other plant and learn which ones to throw away and which ones to keep – like poker!

INSECTS

I like lots of insects in my garden.  It’s the sign of a healthy and diverse biosystem.  They pollinate plants, make honey, feed birds and frogs and livestock, some even prey on plant pests.  And of course a few – a very annoying few – of these insects ARE plant pests.  Chemical killers have no place in permaculture.  Instead, we have to focus on repulsion.  And now I’m going to say something very controversial – in all my years of growing things I have never yet come across a really effective insect repellent for the home garden.  And let’s forget the word “chemical” here – everything in nature is full of chemicals.  And that includes all the so-called “natural” repellents such as garlic, Quassia chips, Neem, soap, eucalyptus and ti-tree oil.  They owe whatever anti-insect properties they may possess to their chemical constituents.  True, they can’t poison you in the way that manufactured and/or extracted chemicals can do – which is also why they don’t really work.  Some of the sprays made from these plants can have a short-term repelling effect on some insects but this is too short to be worthwhile – you need to spray at least once a day and more if it rains.

The only really effective way of keeping nuisance insects at bay is too put up a barrier.  Grow your vulnerable fruits and vegetables under netting.  Be vigilant with the rest; do a daily patrol to pick off seasonal infestations of beetles, caterpillars and grubs (spraying with any vegetable oil or just detergent and water will get rid of large infestations).  If your garden is a welcome place for birds and frogs, and if you have insectivorous livestock, then these critters will all help keep the number of pests down.  As with all permaculture practice, a multi-faceted approach usually gets the best results.

Netting is the best protection against birds, insects and other pests

Netting is the best protection against birds, insects and other pests

If you can't keep chickens or other animals at least make your garden a bird-friendly place and they'll repay you by eating insects and adding a bit of manure around the place. Of course some of them will also eat your fruits and berries so you'll need some protection (no, not a cat!  Some bird-friendly netting!)

If you can’t keep chickens or other animals at least make your garden a bird-friendly place and they’ll repay you by eating insects and adding a bit of manure around the place. Of course some of them will also eat your fruits and berries so you’ll need some protection (no, not a cat! Some bird-friendly netting!)

 

WATER

The efficient collection of water is a major part of permaculture practice and this is even more important in a hot climate where rainfall is very seasonal and the evaporation rate high.  The roof of every structure on the lot should be used to collect water, channelling it into rainwater tanks.  The more the merrier!  Take advantage of natural contours on your land to create swales (large shallow channels with comparatively high, rounded banks on each side) to direct water to in-ground collection points such as ponds or underground cisterns.  Smaller channels can be dug to guide rain runoff onto garden beds and all beds should be raised in the middle with ditches around the edges.  In this way, very little precious rainwater is wasted and can be stored until needed.  The creation of swales and ditches also gives you control of heavy monsoonal deluges, channelling the water away from where it can cause erosion or waterlogging and into collection points.

LIVESTOCK

Permaculture practice integrates animal and vegetable.  It IS possible of course to adapt the permaculture philosophy to small gardens where no livestock can be kept.  In such cases, animal manures will need to be purchased.  Keeping livestock adds a whole new dimension to basic gardening practice and means more responsibility and hard work but most permaculturists accept this, even if they only have room for a small hen coop.  Chickens, in fact, are very little trouble to keep, considering their many benefits.  It’s possible to design chicken houses and mobile structures that are almost self-sustaining and advice on how to do this can be found on the internet.  Along with advice on the best breeds for your purpose.  Chickens not only lay eggs and provide very nutritious poo but are great consumers of weeds and insects.  If you live in a suburb chickens (without a rooster) are probably all you’ll be allowed to keep.  But if you have a few acres/hectares then you can keep other poultry (geese, ducks, guinea fowl) and perhaps a goat or two.  Cows are too much hard work for the average permaculture gardener and require special handling.  Goats are a much better bet and though they need good management if they are not to gobble up your vegies and ornamental plants, their eclectic appetites make short work of weeds.  And of course they produce milk, cheese and manure. They are also able to tolerate heat, if you buy the right breed.

A chicken house made from recycled materials

A chicken house made from recycled materials

Do not despise guinea pigs in the home garden.  They make good pets for the kids and if you keep them in movable cages they can graze different parts of the garden, keeping down weeds and consuming unwanted vegetative matter such as carrot tops and the outer leaves of brassicas.  Their manure is not copious (unless you keep a lot of them) but it’s useful in the compost heap.  And you can keep quite a few of these clean, lovable little critters in a small backyard.

If you live in a hot climate, the permaculture system offers a better chance of successful fruit and vegetable growing than the traditional English-style neat-beds-in-a-row type system.  The somewhat chaotic-appearing profusion of a garden developed along permaculture lines, in which just about every bit of ground is used to grow something, tends to confuse insect predators by its very abundance.   Instead of the hard and arbitrary division of beds by bricks or sleepers, growing areas and working/walking areas flow seamlessly into one another with only plants dictating the areas of separation.  This more natural approach also fosters disease-resistance: vegetables grown in beds isolated from other crops are the most prone to fungal and other diseases. The recycling of all organic waste keeps the soil replenished despite the constant assault of sun and heavy rain alternating with drought.  The use of livestock adds the necessary balance to create a “natural” system and helps with pest control.  The creation of a living jungle of edible plants is, once established, a lot easier to maintain than lawns and neat flowerbeds and sterile paved pathways.  What’s more, all this vegetation cools the air around your house.  If you don’t believe me, try taking your deckchair out into your green permaculture paradise and comparing this with sitting on a paved patio.

Mixed plantings of vegetables in beds works best with permaculture

Mixed plantings of vegetables in beds works best with permaculture

Permaculture gardens are like edible jungles

Permaculture gardens are like edible jungles

No space is wasted

No space is wasted

The result is lots of healthy vegies, in soil that is always being replenished the natural way

The result is lots of healthy vegies, in soil that is always being replenished the natural way

HAGEN – BAD GUY OR JUST MALADJUSTED?

Hagen

Another article that tries to make sense of Wagner’s Ring Cycle – by Julie Lake, author of Ringtones

 Poor old Hagen!  He has such a dreary part to play in The Ring.  Wagner doesn’t introduce him to us until the fourth opera – Gotterdamerung.  And when we do meet him he’s such a misery!  Gloomy of countenance with never a hint of a smile.  True, he is able to summon up a kind or rough joviality with the Gibichung vassals when necessary, but you know he’s only pretending to be one of the lads because it suits his dark purpose. 

Yet hateful Hagen’s role is crucial to the story because he is the one who kills Siegfried the Hero.  Thus precipitating the final doom – his own and just about everyone else’s in The Ring of the Niebelung.

Technically, this makes him a baddie.  Yet I find myself with a sneaking sympathy for Hagen.  Like so many others in the saga, he is the victim of forces far beyond his control and though he appears to submit willingly to those forces and, indeed, obviously believes that he himself is dictating the progress of events, he is in his way just as much a victim as poor stupid Siegfried.

In fact, if you think about it, Hagen and Siegfried have a lot in common.  Though not actually related they are step-cousins of a kind because Hagen’s father Alberich and Siegfried’s foster-father Mime are brothers.  Not very close brothers, mind you, or else the two boys might have grown up together and THAT might have brought about a very different outcome!

Hagen has been fathered by Dwarf Alberich, The Ring’s chief villain, on a mortal woman.  We know nothing about his childhood but he appears to have grown up mainly in the household of the Gibich, half-brother to the Gibichung lord Gunther and his sister Gutrune.  Wagner doesn’t bother to explain much about this relationship so if you want a bit more background you’ll have to turn to Ringtones.  It’s quite obvious that Hagen has had a rather rotten childhood; a father who isn’t around all that much and a mother who is long dead by the time he joins the story.  Obviously he is in a position of inferiority to that of Gunther, the Gibichung heir, and indeed seems to live with his rich and powerful kin as a sort of upper servant; a steward who runs the show and gives orders to the vassals and men-at-arms.

Alberich appears to view his son merely as a tool for his own vengeance and may indeed have bred Hagen just for this purpose.  As a half-human with good connections Hagen can be accepted where a Niebelung dwarf cannot.  He has a better chance of getting close to the magic ring – which is Alberich’s one obsession.  We take it as a given (at least we do if we’ve watched the three preceding operas) that Alberich has instilled this obsession in his son; then in Gotterdamerung he drives the point home by appearing to Hagen in a dream, reminding him of his filial duty in no uncertain terms.

So poor old Hagen has never known any love.  Alberich, after all, had long ago renounced it in favour of gold and power, in effect also denying it to his misbegotten son too.  Who knows what Hagen might have been like with a bit of decent parenting.

Siegfried, too, is the victim of poor parenting.  Indeed, both characters show strong symptoms of either psychopathy or perhaps Asperger’s Syndrome – inappropriate behaviour, casual cruelty, a  lack of empathy with others.  But while The Young Hero is at least blessed with good looks, charm, boundless energy and a capacity for sportive merriment Hagen is lumpen, sluggish and cold of heart.  Siegfried has the blood of the gods in his veins (or ichor, or whatever passes for blood with gods) while Hagen has the blood of cavern-dwelling dwarves.

So, blighted from birth, it’s no wonder that Hagen takes such a dim view of the world and even less to be wondered that he takes an instant dislike to Siegfried.  True, he has already marked his step-cousin down as a victim before their first meeting.  But you can tell, thanks to Wagner’s superb musical characterisation of these two foredoomed enemies, that Hagen just can’t wait to give that bumptious but popular Young Hero his comeuppance.  Despite their several similarities, Siegfried is simply everything that Hagen is not.  Does Hagen fully realise this? It’s hard to tell because, though menacing, he plods through his part showing no emotion – not even anger.

He is certainly cunning, though, and this appears to show an intelligence of which the appallingly innocent – and thick! – Siegfried is not possessed.  Hagen’s plan to trap and eliminate Siegfried, and to manipulate Brunnhilde, Gunther and Gutrune into helping him, is masterful.  Stolidly, he overcomes all obstacles. Yet the plan ultimately backfires. Is this the Fates at work?  Is it the overmastering power of redemptive love (as some Wagnerians would have us believe)?  Or is it that Hagen, despite his cunning, lacks the imagination to predict what Brunnhilde might do if Siegfried dies?  Whether or not Brunnhilde’s great love is redemptive is open to interpretation but there is no doubting her despair and her passion. Hagen, the loveless and the passionless, is incapable of understanding such feelings.

And so he fumbles the ball.  Almost literally, because he is so stunned by Brunnhilde’s self-immolation and its aftermath that he fails to grab the ring.  His death, like his life, is clumsy and harsh.

There have been many fine Hagens in the performance history of Gotterdamerung but I have a particular liking for the recent interpretation by Hans Peter Konig (NY Met Production).  This is no single-minded villain, hell bent on cruelty for the love of it.  His Hagen shows a degree of bewildered resignation: a sort of “what am I here for, oh dear I suppose I’d better get on with it then” approach.  He is grim, he is slow, he is so obviously not looking on the bright side of life that I, at least, found him quite pitiful.  Tragic, rather than wicked.

This is possibly because I don’t like Siegfried and find him infuriating!  Of course, if Hagen felt the same way he might have done better, from the point of his posthumous reputation at least, to have picked up his spear – or even a sword – and faced the Hero in single combat.  Except, as we know, Siegfried would have beaten the shit out of him!  And Hagen wasn’t in the business of pointless heroism; he had a proper job and estates to run and a ring to regain.

I’m not saying we should try to love the loveless Hagen.  But just endeavour to put yourself in his boots for a moment.  Until Gotterdamerung he has apparently led a blameless – albeit joyless – life.  Wagner tells us no differently and not even Ringtones accuses him of any previous crimes.  He’s got his mostly-absent and extremely unpleasant father bashing his ear from time to time with ideas of vengeance and power. He’s got his spoiled brother and sister apparently depending on him for getting anything done around the place, including finding marriage partners for them.  On the periphery he’s got an ill-assorted bunch of gods, half-humans and water nymphs vying for power and what he believes is his family treasure. And then he’s got wonder-boy Siegfried stomping boastfully around the general vicinity, in proud possession of the gold, the girl and a very big sword.

Okay, it’s Hagen’s influence that lures Siegfried to the Gibichung realm in the first place.  Nobody said he was a nice guy!  Just that, given the circumstances, it might not be all his fault.  Like Action in West Side Story, he’s depraved because he’s deprived and maybe…just maybe…if he’d had the right counselling when young they’d have found that deep down inside him there was some good.  Alas, we’ll never know!

Wagner’s Ring – a study in class warfare

Ring

The Ring explained Part 8 – Ringtones author Julie Lake demystifies Wagner’s Ring Cycle

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Fans of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle usually see it as being about the struggle between love and power. When in fact it’s really about a conflict that’s just as old – the class struggle.  There are definite Marxist undertones in The Ring and if you think that’s far-fetched it’s worth remembering that Wagner was something of a radical in his younger years.  So it’s a fair bet that The Ring was written to express his views on privilege and class exploitation.

On the surface, of course, The Ring of the Niebelung is a mishmash of Norse legends in which gods, dwarves, mortals and various monsters slug it out until everything ends in tears.  Wagner, no shrinking violet, knew he had an orchestral and vocal work of exceptional magnificence but he didn’t bother to give us a storyline that made much sense.  Anyone who has ever studied the libretti for the four operas (without the benefit of the splendid singing in your ears) knows how easy it is either to fall about laughing or just give up trying to follow the crazy plot and motivations.

That’s why I wrote Ringtones.  With a great love of the four operas, a working knowledge of Norse mythology, and the ability to take a modern perspective, it was possible to put together a reasonably coherent story and do away with the silly bits and fill in the gaps in the way that Wagner surely would have done if he’d been as good a writer as he was a composer.  In doing this I found that the old ‘love and power’ theory fell to pieces like the sword Needful when Wotan zapped it, to be reforged as a whole bright new theory of class conflict.  Viewed in this way, the story of The Ring of the Nibelung starts to make some sense.

What is it, after all, that Wotan, the main protagonist, fears most?  It is the downfall of Valhalla; not just his palace but his entire world.  Gotterdamerung.  The Twilight of the Gods.

In Norse mythology, as in all ancient pantheology, the gods rule the known universe.  They are the aristocracy, top dogs, alpha beings to whom all others must bow down.  And like elites in every time and place, their abiding concern is to hang on to all that power.  For, as history shows, supreme power never stays in the same hands for long.  Empires rise and crumble; rulers are toppled by their subjects; new elites rise to take the place of those they have toppled.  Power can only be retained through strength – and wealth –  and is always vulnerable to either the barbarian at the gate or the discontented serf within.

This is exactly the situation when the Ring Cycle begins.  The gods of Valhalla reign supreme but they have become effete and decadent, taking their supremacy for granted.  Just like the French and Russian nobilities before they were overthrown.  We have a powerful symbol here in the magic golden apples tended by Freia, Goddess of Fertility (and a few other things).  The gods depend on these for their eternal youth and strength but, inexplicably, the apple trees are failing.  Everyone is worried about this but nobody has a clue what to do about it.

The apples can be seen as representing the source of power which must be tended with constant vigilance if it is to remain healthy and strong.  Elites always come to neglect their power sources in time, which is why they inevitably fall.  Wotan knows this; he doesn’t really need Erda’s prophesies to warn him; he can see all too clearly that the era of the gods is drawing to its close.  Unless he can do something to prevent it.

Just at this time a new source of power emerges – the ring!  This bit of bling had been crafted by the Niebelung dwarf Alberich, a nasty bit of work, or so he appears to gods and mortals in the story.  Alberich must have a smidgin of better feeling under his dark exterior because he goes to the bank of the River Rhine looking for love.  What he finds is three flirty, flighty girls, the Rhinemaidens, whom we assume to be mermaids or sirens because they live actually in the river where their most precious possession is a horde of gold.  Alberich goes for a bit of a grope and the girls tease and then repulse him until he gets into a fine old temper and grabs their gold, even though he is fully aware that it comes at a price – he can have love or money but he can’t have both.  Seeing that he’s an ugly little sod who isn’t likely to get any love anyway, Alberich goes for gold.

Such magic does the Rhinegold possess that the ring made from it confers great power on whoever wears it.  So, like many another downtrodden working class lad, Alberich dreams of seizing power from those who have held it so long – the gods.  He’s no revolutionary, this dwarf, driven by notions of democracy and equality.  By his own account he’s really only interested in bettering his own position, enjoying fabulous wealth and lording it over his own Niebelung folk.  Yes, there’s a hint that he might like to score a point or two off Wotan and the haughty gods.  But basically, Alberich just wants to join the nouveaux riches.

Wotan, however, sees it differently and in the operas there is a certain sense that this is due to conflicts in the distant past between gods and dwarves, as well as between gods and giants.  Wotan shudders at the thought of Alberich leading his Niebelung hordes to conquer Valhalla and overturning the existing social order.  Throughout the Ring Cycle this is his greatest fear and prime motivation for getting the ring back to the Rhinemaidens.  Thus Alberich and the Niebelung dwarves can be seen to represent the lower orders who need to be kept in their place.  After all, they live in a dark, dank underground and are entirely lacking in refinement and social graces.  In fact, as Wagner cast them, they are just how the upper classes have always seen those who serve them at the lowest level – nasty, brutish and short.

Thus the ring – made from mysteriously-sourced gold and crafted by a member of the proletariat – symbolises the mystique of power which, as is pointed out in Ringtones by Loge, is largely a matter of bluff bolstered by myth.  Political and social power is gained by force but as the initial strength of the elite wanes it is held in place largely by just those two elements –  bluff and myth.  That’s why Wotan simply MUST get hold of the ring, because to have such a new and potent artefact in the hands of the lowest class is too terrifying to contemplate.  And, when he realises (warned by Erda) that the ring’s power carries a curse it reinforces the fear he already has that his own power to rule – and that of his class, the gods – requires only a sharp shove to make it topple.  So why doesn’t he just hang on to the ring, once he’s got hold of it?  To augment his own considerable power?  Or, believing Erda’s prophecy, albeit reluctantly, doesn’t he immediately return it to the Rhine?  Why does he immediately and tamely hand it over to a bloody giant, of all creatures?

The giants, like the dwarves, form an underclass to the gods.  Yet their position seems stronger.  Dwarves serve the Nine Realms of The Ring as miners and smiths; digging stuff out of the earth’s bowels and fashioning it in to useful artefacts for others.  They rarely venture from their oblivion.  Giants, however, are big and strong and their own realm (not that we know much about it) is out in the light and air where they seem to occupy a role similar (in our terms) to that of the sturdy, semi-independent yeoman class of bygone times.  Giants, we know, have been tough enough to take on the gods in the past and such conflict has led to treaty rather than defeat.  At the beginning of The Ring story Wotan is seeking to maintain the uneasy truce between gods and giants and obviously needs their skills and hard labour to build his dream home.  Treaties and political negotiations are recorded runically in Wotan’s spear, made from the Tree of the World’s Knowledge (an Ash, if you’re horticulturally inclined). We can see this tree as the accumulation of wisdom and experience that guides human action, and the spear as its implementation.  As with all high-level negotiation and the treaties that ratify it, there must be faith and trust.  So the word of Wotan, ruler of the known universe, must indeed be his bond.  And when he pledges it to the giants, he cannot break it, even at the expense of the ring.

He’s in a nasty position!  Again, we might wonder why he doesn’t hastily try and find something else which will satisfy Fafner.  But – it’s a difficult moment. Frikka and her siblings are demanding he redeem Freia before the giants take her away for good, Erda is prophesying doom for anyone who dares to wear the ring, the giants are angry, distrustful, obdurate and ready to stomp away as soon as they’ve got what they came for.  He just needs one more little bit of gold to complete the payment.  And so, in a gesture of supreme exasperation, he chucks in the ring.  It’s a gesture he regrets almost as soon as he’s made it and will come to regret more as time goes by…but then he is, after all, Head God and his own power is still stronger than anything else in the Nine Realms and he’ll just have to try and get it back.  Which he does, once he fully realises the ring’s significance.

Those who hold power do not always make the wisest decisions, especially when under pressure.  They don’t think quickly enough or see far enough ahead.  Think of Louis X1V.  Think of Czar Nicholas.  Think of Julius Caesar.  Or Richard Nixon.  There’ll always be another chance to act.  To put things right.  The hubris of rulers tells them they are bullet-proof even when all the evidence tells them the gun is loaded and the trigger cocked.

So now Fafner has the ring.  The symbol of power.  Yet this stubborn, apparently fearless creature – who has already shown he is more than ready to stand up to the Head God – does nothing with it.  Having slain his brother he leaves not only Valhalla where he has just completed a magnificent building but also his own giants’ home and goes to earth, of all unlikely places, where he dozes away the rest of his life in a lonely cave.  He even turns himself into a dragon, or so it’s said.  Why?  I mean if the ring really does hold magic, why not use it for his own ends as Alberich wanted to do?  Or, if he fears its death curse, why not just give it up?  The only conclusion we can come to is that Fafner has no idea that the ring is anything but a bit of bling – indeed, why should he know of it?  Thus the likeliest explanation for his behaviour lies in the nature of giants, who are unsociable, covetous and suspicious of everyone, especially each other.  Fafner has been given wealth beyond his dreams but, as it says in Ringtones, what is he going to do with it?  Buy a yacht?  Build himself a castle bigger than Valhalla?  Use his wealth to lure goddesses as beautiful as Freia?  Giants have no interest in such things.  Like the sturdy yeoman of old, they are happy enough with their lot in life provided nobody tries to take anything from them.  They will serve those above on their own terms when it suits without the dangers or responsibility of elitist power, violently defending their rights if necessary.  They will despise those below and crush and make no common cause with them when revolution is whispered.  Giants have no wish to overturn the status quo.  So sudden extreme wealth becomes a problem for a giant.  Others will try to take it from him – dwarves, gods, other giants.  Even mortals, unless they can be sufficiently frightened away.  So Fafner, a true miser, hides himself and his gold where his fearful reputation can protect him best.  Wotan, the only one powerful enough to tackle him direct, has given his sacred word.  And nobody else has the guts!  Until Siegfried the Hero comes along, that is.

Siegfried, though godlike in attitude, is half mortal.  When we deconstruct The Ring from a class perspective, mortals represent the middle class in all societies.  Essentially conservative yet with the education and ambition to yearn for something better.  To govern a democracy rather than be ruled by an aristocracy.  Except, that is, for those extremists who wish either to become aristocrats (or gods, if you like) themselves or else overturn the whole structure in the name of The Common Man and the equal sharing of wealth through labour.  Wotan, it’s apparent, likes mortals.  Unlike Frikka and the other Valhalla-ites who look on those Down There as basically a bourgeois bunch just one level up from the dwarves.  He even dreams of a race of beings born of both mortals and gods – and gets this off to a start with his own ill-fated dalliance with a mortal woman.  Such a race would combine the best traits of both races and in time compensate for the dangerous decline of the gods.  (Perhaps this is where Nietszche got the idea – what IS it with the Germans?)

And so while The Ring begins with a clash between the upper and lower classes, it is soon the middle class that takes over the action.  Siegfried, with that extra touch of arrogance that comes from his god-half bullies the decidedly proletarian Mime and strides through the world like the upper-class twit he is, sure in his sense of privilege and happy to take on either god or dwarf or giant.  Gunther and Gutrune Gibich conspire and aquiesce to further their ambitions and in so doing serve the purpose of Hagen whose bid for the ring – and its power – is conscious and unequivocal.  Brunnhilde becomes mortally middle-class when she is chucked out of Valhalla; she’s a nice girl who seems to just want to settle down with the man of her dreams (even if he is her nephew!) but in the end, while godly Wotan and dwarvish Alberich do nothing but skulk and glower, it is she who actually brings about the overthrowing of the old order.  It is a violent act yet her motive is neither destructive nor self-aggrandizing.  We can see her as standing for Reform, rather than Revolution but alas, like all reformists, her essential wisdom and good intent are corrupted by the machinations of the fanatical and self-interested until mass destruction becomes the inevitable outcome.

There are other potent symbols of class conflict in The Ring.  One is the sword Needful, given first to Siegmund by Wotan who subsequently destroys it, then re-forged by Siegfried.  Think of the name – Needful.  And how it resonates with the old Communist catchcry, “To Each According to His Need – From Each According to His Ability”.  The very downtrodden Siegmund names the sword when it comes to him in his hour of need.  Siegmund is a good chap who is very much the victim of his deprived upbringing.  And he does indeed need just about everything  – love, safety, a job with a decent wage, a roof over his head – and only the sword gives him any chance at it all.  Wotan, having raised his hopes in the first place, smites them to pieces at one blow, essentially in the interests of the gods – his own elite.  He does this with anguish – but when push comes to shove Siegmund, the innocent, is sacrificed.  But the sword of need is not lost.  Sieglinde, Siegmund’s wife and sister, secures its shattered segments for their son, Siegfried.  Mime, Siegfried’s dwarf stepfather, takes them and keeps them.  Wagner casts Mime as a villain but though unattractive he is not totally unsympathetic.  He works very hard to try and re-forge the sword but just doesn’t have the ability.  In the end Siegfried does it himself and you can’t help thinking that this powerful symbol of redressing need might be better in the hands of someone more deserving.  True, Siegfried has neither malice nor ambition.  But he is not sympathetic to any needs other than his own, like those members of the middle class who think the unwashed masses should be kept in their place, even if it is a place of constant suffering and deprivation.

Like the ring, the sword Needful confers power on whoever wields it – and like the ring, that power may be illusory.  It takes a Hero to wield Needful to good effect – but the sword cannot ultimately protect against mortal weakness.  Siegfried, like most of us, has a hidden but dangerous vulnerability.  Once this is revealed to his enemies, he is doomed.  And when he falls it is not to a god or a dragon but to the half-dwarf, half-mortal Hagen – cold, scheming, resentful, cunning – the very epitome of the lower middle class revolutionary who has been moved to serve the interests of the proletariat.  Not that it does him much good.  Hagen reaches out for the ring…for the power…but loses it and his life in the deluge that follows.  And which takes the ring…and the power…back to its source.  Where, presumably, it will lie hidden until the next aspirant for power comes in search of it.

Another interesting symbol is the tarnhelm – a golden helmet made by Mime (at Alberich’s command) which confers on its wearer the ability to change shape, become invisible and even travel through space.  This is not an artefact of absolute power like the ring.  Rather, it symbolises the ability to adapt and deceive, cause confusion and terror, conduct covert operations, move fast and in concealment – all useful things in the grab for power and not something an elitist like Wotan would want to see in the hands of his class enemy.  Yet he has to give the tarnhelm, along with the ring, to Fafner to pay his debt.  Fortunately for everyone, the inscrutable giant does absolutely nothing with it.  Except, perhaps, to turn himself into a dragon.  Only a true revolutionary engaged in trying to overthrow the existing social order can, it appears, understand and make use of the tarnhelm.  When Siegfried gets it he uses it to play a particularly nasty practical joke on poor Brunnhilde.  After which it has no further place in the story.  So what happens to the tarnhelm, that marvellous instrument for transformation? Wagner won’t tell you so if you want to find out you’ll have to read Ringtones!

And then there’s Wotan’s spear.  This is the ongoing engine of his power which is carved in runes on its wooden shaft.  A shaft which we know has been hacked from The Tree of the World’s Knowledge – to the disapproval of some.  Erda, for instance, who is the voice of caution and warning throughout this saga.  The voice which, in all ages, is rarely heeded.  Wotan can use his spear to cow and even annihilate his enemies and yet he rarely does this.  Everyone knows he can – and fears him because of it – yet nobody ever seems to see him do it.  He could zap the dreadful Alberich into oblivion and thus save everyone a lot of trouble  – and yet he doesn’t do it.  Doesn’t do it to Fafner, either.  He DOES do it to Hunding, brutal husband of Sieglinde.  Who is actually his son-in-law.  Zapping him almost casually in a moment of vengeful impulse – and probably to annoy Frikka.  It may be that while Alberich holds the ring, as he does at the beginning of the story, Wotan is wary of trying his own weapon against this unknown symbol of power.  Especially if another method can be found – the awesome potency of the spear is not, after all, to be wasted.  And then, once the ring has been gained, Alberich is not worth bothering about it, temporarily transformed as he is into a harmless toad.  A wise ruler knows that with power comes responsibility and you don’t go in for shock and awe just because you can.  Wotan sees himself not only as a wise ruler but one born to rule – not like that grubby little prole Alberich!

That’s the difference between the ring and the spear.  The latter infers a power that can only be wielded by the especially anointed.  The former can be worn by anyone with the strength – or the cunning – to grab it.

And finally, we have the symbol of gold itself.  The metal which for all time has been regarded as superior to all else – virtually indestructible, untarnishable, unassailable, ripped from the earth by brutal means to be turned into the kind of wealth which is needed to underpin all social and political dominance.   Yet its worth is not inherent; it is only what we declare it to be.  Take it with you to a deserted island, along with food and water and a good book, and it will be the possession you value least.  This is why it’s best kept at the bottom of the Rhine, guarded by those who prize it only for its glitter.  Let loose in the world, the illusory value of gold is always a force for evil that brings out the worst in all who covet it – greed, envy, hatred, selfishness.  And as long as some have more of it than others there will be social division and conflict.

That, I think, is the real meaning of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung.  Sure, it’s about sex, betrayal and power – but mainly it’s all about class.