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A Middle Eastern garden

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Kitab al Felaba

Al-Andalus display at the Eden Project, 2010

I was talking recently about having Palestinian plants in my new garden (and there’s still no news on when we will be moving in!), and yesterday morning it occurred to me that it might be nice to go a lot further than that, and design a garden with Middle Eastern influences.

The main part of the garden is almost square, with fences on two sides and a wall on the third, so it could pass as a courtyard garden. I’m thinking tiles and mosaics, mirrors and wrought iron, copper and lamps, cushions and throws, dusky pinks and deep blues, dark wood, lots of white and stars. A water feature of some kind.

In terms of the planting, it seems there isn’t that much that wouldn’t be at home in a Mediterranean/ Middle Eastern inspired garden. A lot of the plants with which we are familiar came to us via that route. There will be lots of herbs, of course, including mint, coriander and parsley, lemon verbena, oregano and thyme, sage, rosemary and saffron.

Fruits could include grape vines and figs, peaches and apricots, pomegranates and citrus. The lemon tree I grew from seed will finally feel at home! At least in the summer, it will have to come inside in the winter…. The garden is probably too small to include a walnut, but an almond might be manageable. I have at least one olive that will fit in nicely.

Flowers wouldn’t be missing, with the scents of honeysuckle and jasmine filling the air. Calendula would fit in with the colour scheme, and there would have to be roses – preferably at least one Damascus rose.

Moroccan garden

Moroccan Garden, by Pieter De Decker

Lots of leafy green vegetables (spinach, chard and leaf beet, mallow, purslane and rocket), plus asparagus. Garlic and onions, pale courgettes and other squashes, peppers and okra, carrots and cucumbers.

It’s an idea still in its infancy, and a proper design will have to wait until we’ve moved in and I can measure up. But it has promise… Eastern promise ;)

Have you got any Middle Eastern features in your garden? Or have you been to see a garden that might inspire me? What would you add to your garden, if you wanted to enjoy your own Arabian nights?

Posted in Blog on Aug 22, 2014 ·

Tag: gardens

The Parlour Bookshop, Didcot

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The Parlour Bookshop

The Parlour Bookshop, Didcot

Didcot is home to a secondhand bookshop. I drive past it everyday on my way to work, but for all that it’s not the easiest place to visit, as it has extremely restrictive opening hours. It opens from 10am to 12:45 and from 13:45 until 16:00, hours that are completely incompatible with anyone who works full time.

As this was the first free Wednesday I’ve had since moving to Didcot, it seemed rude not to go and have a gander. It’s a little way outside the town, and a bit of a hike, so I took the car instead and made use of their customer parking.

The Parlour Bookshop doesn’t seem to specialise in anything, and doesn’t buy books – it exists only because people need to clear out books for various reasons, but for all that it is very well stocked. Shelves are labelled, and marked into bays, so you have some hope of finding what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for something in particular then the man behind the counter can no doubt help you out; I was just there to browse.

It turned out to be a little bit of an ethnobotanist’s paradise, and I was soon stacking books on the counter so that I didn’t have to hold them all at once. The non-fiction shelves are the most extensive, but there’s plenty of fiction as well. Popular authors are separated out into their own boxes. It doesn’t seem as if the shop’s donors are much into science fiction, however.

If you’re passing, and spot a book in the window that you like, you can pop a note through the door and they’ll hold it for you for a couple of weeks, until you can inspect it and decide if it’s something you’d like.

I was the only customer at 10:30 this morning, which was helpful as the aisles are not wide. I spent about 20 minutes browsing, and came away with a good haul:

Secondhand books

My new secondhand books

Ryan is slight dubious about the sea vegetables, but I think seaweeds are interesting! As I spent over £15, I qualified for a 10% discount. The final total came to £15:30 :)



The Parlour Bookshop
30 Wantage Road
Didcot
OX11 0BT

T: 01235 818989

(They also offer photocopying, faxing and laminating!)

Posted in Blog on Aug 20, 2014 ·

Tag: books

Review: Mrs Crimble's coconut macaroons

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Giant choc coconut macaroon

There’s a weekly tradition at work of a meeting that involves cake. A nominated person brings in cakes for everyone else, and we sit and have a natter for half an hour or so. Some people bake; some people buy cakes. There is a slight snobbery about it – baking is better, and if you can produce nicely iced cup cakes, that’s a bonus. I think some of my colleagues are avid fans of the Great British Bake Off.

We have various allergies and intolerances we have to cater for, and one week one of my colleagues brought in a packet of Mrs Crimble’s Coconut Macaroons, which are gluten and dairy free (it’s worth noting that although they don’t contain any dairy ingredients, they are made in a factory that uses them, which might be an issue if you have a severe allergy). My cow’s milk intolerance doesn’t usually bother me when it comes to baked goods*, but I thought I would try one of the macaroons, and I’m glad I did!

They’re truly lovely – moist, coconutty and distinctly moreish. They come in packets of six, and at the moment I am having a macaroon most days, as my afternoon treat. They also come in a chocolate variant, which involves a chocolate layer on the base and drizzled stripes. They’re great if it’s not hot enough to melt the chocolate, at which point they become a little messy to eat.

I recently discovered that you can also buy individually-wrapped giant versions, so I had to try one. They are made to the same high standards, but I didn’t find that bigger is better. As you’re chomping through the great dome of the middle bit, it does become a little bit of a chore….

So… coconut macaroons. Thoroughly recommended by me, so don’t eat them all! You can read the full ingredients and nutritional information on the Mrs Crimble’s website, along with some lovely sounding dessert recipes that use macaroons. Nom.



*I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s one of the proteins in cow’s milk I have a problem with. Perhaps baking denatures the pesky protein.

Posted in Blog on Aug 19, 2014 ·

Tags: food & reviews.

My temporary spice rack

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Temporary spice rack

My temporary spice rack

“The important thing is the spices. A man can live on packaged food from here ‘til Judgment Day if he’s got enough rosemary.” Shepherd Book, Firefly

We still don’t have a moving date. It feels oh so close, and at the same time, so very far away. It is months now since we put a lot of our things into storage to declutter the flat; my collection of herbs and spices was one of the things deemed non-essential, and I have been left with a limited range in a collection of tiny storage boxes. Ryan has a selection of herbs in the freezer, and there are some odd bits and pieces left in the cupboards, and that’s my lot. For the most part it’s OK, but it’s occasionally frustrating to realise that you just don’t have something.

Necessity is the mother of invention, however. When we discovered last night that we didn’t have a packet of our usual fajita seasoning, I had to improvise a suitable sauce for our tacos. Ryan was a little sceptical at the list of ingredients I collected:


  • Ground cumin

  • Mixed herbs

  • Hoisin sauce

  • Tomato ketchup

  • Steak seasoning

But after dinner he proclaimed it better than the packet mix. It’s not quite perfect – it lacks a certain smokiness. Ryan suggests replacing the hoisin with BBQ sauce; I’m leaning towards smoked paprika. Either way, it will have to wait until we’ve moved. I’m a dab hand at improvised pizza topping as well (usually tomato ketchup and basil pesto) – what’s your favorite foodie improvisation?

Posted in Blog on Aug 18, 2014 ·

Tags: food & spices.

Toilet paper

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Composting Toilet

The Feedback section in the New Scientist last week (9th August 2014) was mostly devoted to the topic of toilet roll – having asked for figures on the annual consumption of this essential commodity, they have been regaled with anecdotes about the size of the army rations thereof, and differences in quality in different countries.

It’s not often that the topic of toilet roll comes up in gardening circles. There is occasional talk, perhaps, of the lack of toilet facilities on allotment sites, or the construction of composting toilets by an enterprising committee.

And, most springs, you can find yourself involved in a discussion on the use of toilet roll inner tubes for sowing individual seeds. They’re good for larger ones, like beans, and can be planted out whole to avoid root disturbance. It’s much easier to get your hands on them these days, as I’m told they’re no longer wanted for craft projects at nurseries and play schools, due to the perceived problem of contamination.

From an ethnobotanical perspective, it might also be interesting to explore the potential plant replacements for the job, should our choice of tissue become unavailable. Mullein frequently gets mentioned as being suitable for this purpose, and PFAF says that Brachyglottis repanda is also known as Bushman’s toilet paper. Knowledge of this kind is worth persuing in advance should you be an outdoorsy kind of person likely to find yourself caught short.

So… toilet roll and gardens. What are your thoughts? Would the truly self-sufficient grow their own toilet paper?

Posted in Blog on Aug 14, 2014 ·

Tag: ethnobotany

Supermoon

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Supermoon

Taken on Sunday 10th August 2012

Posted in Blog on Aug 13, 2014 ·

Tag: general

Greens in Gaza

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Colourful chard

I’m not a politician. I’m not a diplomat. I’m not an expert on foreign policy. It’s hard to watch what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank with any equanimity; over 1300 Palestinians have been killed so far, including 315 children and and 166 women.

I believe that more unites us and divides us, and that’s certainly true of the people in Gaza. They are farmers, gardeners and foragers.

In 2008, a team of ethnobotanists from Palestine published a research paper entitled “Traditional knowledge of wild edible plants used in Palestine (Northern West Bank): a comparative study“. Traditional knowledge is a hot topic in ethnobotany, as our changing lifestyles mean that less and less of it is passed on to each generation. In most places in the world, the traditional uses of plants are being forgotten, and we are becoming more and more reliant on cultivated plants and agriculture.

The team found that, across 15 local communities in Palestine, locals were collecting 100 wild edible plant species, 76 of which were mentioned by 3 or more people. Those plants were distributed across 70 genera and 26 families. The most significant species were:

Majorana syriaca
Foeniculum vulgare
Malva sylvestris
Salvia fruticosa
Cyclamen persicum
Micromeria fruticosa
Arum palaestinum
Trigonella foenum-graecum
Gundelia toumefortii
Matricaria aurea

Some of those won’t be familiar to people outside of the Middle Eastern/ Mediterranean region. Others are. Fenugreek is on that list, as is wild mallow. Of the 100 wild species listed, some require very specific processing to remove toxins. I certainly wouldn’t rush to consume any members of the Arum family, and I’d be wary of consuming Cyclamen bulbs as well. This is where the traditional knowledge, and the Palestinian culture, combine. There are plenty of edible plants of the region that aren’t on the list, and no doubt some that are wouldn’t be considered edible in other places.

The Middle East is one of my areas of interest, because I enjoy the foods of those cultures. The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey has been on my wish list for some time; I bought a copy yesterday when I read that 8 members of author Laila El-Haddad’s family had been killed in one night.

Flipping through it this afternoon, a recipe for chard and lentil stew caught my eye. The book says that “chard is used extensively in southern Palestinian cuisine.” Chard and leaf beet are two of my favourite plants – easy to grow and generous, endlessly versatile in the kitchen. Chard is also an attractive plant, that could just as easily fit in the flower border, with its colourful stems.

Mallow

Khobeiza or mallow grows wild all over Palestine”, the books says above a recipe for greens with dumplings. Or there’s purslane stew – known as rilja or baqla, purslane is a “succulent plant found growing through sidewalls and in abandoned lots all around the Mediterranean.”

There are recipes for broad beans, cauliflower, spinach and okra. The gardener in me wants to find a source of the short, stout, red carrots that are a “Middle Eastern variety with a long history”; substituting stumpy orange carrots just wouldn’t be the same.

I’m still waiting to hear when I can move into my new house (and the garden), but I already know there will be Palestinian plants in the garden next year, and Palestinian meals on the table. The Gaza Kitchen looks like a comprehensive guide to Palestinian cuisine, beginning by explaining the spice mixes and condiments, and moving on through salads and mezze, pulses and grains, vegetable stews, meats and seafood, preserves and conserves. Photos throughout give a taste of life in Gaza before the current crisis, as well as sections about farming and foraging there, with profiles of residents and explanations of ingredients and the cuisine itself. I am looking forward to reading it properly, and trying the recipes, but I can already recommend it if you’d like to know the region better through its food. You can also look out for Zaytoun‘s fair trade ingredients from Gaza, including olives and olive oil, za’atar, almonds and dates and cous cous.

There are farmers, gardeners and foragers in Israel, too. Of course there are – there is more that unites us, than divides us.

Almond tree

Posted in Blog on Aug 5, 2014 ·

Last modified on Aug 7, 2014

Tags: books & ethnobotany.

Remember WW1

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Field Poppy

Today marks the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into World War 1.

Posted in Blog on Aug 4, 2014 ·

Tag: flowers

Growing plants in lunar soil

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Apollo 15: Irwin Scoops up Soil

Astronaut James B. Irwin scoops up lunar soil during Apollo 15, 2nd August 1971.
Image: NASA

When Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for humankind in 45 years ago, he got covered in Moon dust. Throughout the Apollo missions, dust was an issue. Fine but rough, it caused problems with the space suits, and created mini dust storms in the cabin once the landers launched back into space.

On Earth, mineral soils are formed from the underlying rock by weathering, which is a collection of natural processes that gradually break down the rock. Weathering can be mechanical (through atmospheric conditions such as heat, water, ice and pressure) or chemical (when the surface rock reacts with water, oxygen or chemicals produced by plants). The rock particles then combine with organic matter to form what we know as soil.

On the Moon, that doesn’t happen. Lunar dust is formed from lunar rock (regolith) when small meteorites hit the Moon’s surface and pulverize the rock. Some of the rock melts and then cools, coating the dust with a glassy shell. There’s no organic matter for the dust to combine with. UV rays by day, and solar winds by night, create charged particles and give lunar dust ‘static cling’. Oh, and tiny specks of iron make it magnetic. So it’s not your run-of-the-mill Earth soil.

But would anything grow in it? The short answer is no – the minerals it contains are locked up in a form that plants can’t access. Whilst it might be possible to use Moon rock as a ‘substrate’ for hydroponic growing (essentially there merely to hold the plants up), all of their nutrients would have to be supplied with a fertilizer.

But that’s not the final word on the subject. NASA did some plant experiments with Moon rock at the time of the Apollo missions (mainly as part of their quarantine procedures to make sure they hadn’t imported health risks with their souvenirs). They didn’t attempt to grow plants in lunar soil, but they exposed plants to it. Not only did they find no negative effects, the experiments seemed to show that the plants benefited from the Moon dirt – results that have not been replicated. Since then the Moon samples have been considered a precious commodity and have not been made available for destructive research such as grinding them up to grow plants. So researchers have to use ‘simulants’ – Earth rocks that are similar in type to those found on the Moon.

Early in the new millennium, a team of researchers led by Natasha Kozyrovska and Iryna Zaetz from the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, conducted a series of experiments with French marigolds (Tagetes patula) in one such simulant – anorthosite. They published their results in 2006.

Unsurprisingly, seeds sown in plain old crushed anorthosite didn’t grow into plants. But they were the control group. A second set of seeds was inoculated with a microbiome (bacteria and fungi known to promote healthy growth), whilst the crushed rock was also seeded with bacteria – and in this more complex ecosystem the seeds were able to germinate and grow into flowering plants. The microorganisms present were helping the plants to extract nutrients from the rock, and the authors suggested that this might be a way of starting to grow plants on the Moon.

Reading through the paper, I got the impression that what the authors were proposing was a kind of space permaculture. Lunar regolith is sterile, which not only means that plants can’t rely on microorganisms to release nutrients, but also means that any soil made from them would be a blank canvas for microbes accidentally brought from Earth. Rather than fungi and bacteria that promote healthy growth, you could end up with an imbalance – an environment that is harmful to plant growth. The idea of inoculating the seeds and the regolith was to promote a healthy soil environment that could protect plants against pests and diseases.

French marigold

The selection of French marigolds was not random. The scientists wanted to grow ‘pioneer’ plants that would not to be too fussy to grow in the nutrient-deprived lunar soil. These ‘first generation’ plants would then be composted to create organic matter and real soil, but the goal was also for them to be multipurpose. They were looking for plants to recycle waste products and produce oxygen, which had potential nutritional and medicinal benefits, and that flowered and so could improve the psychological well-being of the astronauts. Providing all these benefits, whilst kick-starting a sustainable ecosystem that makes use of local resources, is a tall order – but apparently French marigolds fit the bill!

The paper mentions another problem with growing plants on the Moon – the Sun is up for about two weeks, and then down again for the same period of time. If you don’t want to go to the expense of supplementary lighting, it reasons, the only solution is to chill your plants so that they are dormant until the Sun comes out again. In the meantime, I guess those long nights are perfect for forcing vegetables and sprouting seeds! Or perhaps mushroom cultivation….



And so it’s time, once again, for you to choose the next leg of our space blog adventure! Would you like to know more about growing fungi in space, how scientists choose which crop plants will be grown in space, or the Moon trees (grown from seeds taken into orbit around the Moon during Apollo 14)? Cast your vote below, or if you have a suggestion for a different topic, leave a note in the comments :)

Update:
And you’ve chosen…

how to choose space veggies

References

NASA’s Dirty Secret: Moon dust

Kozyrovska, N. O., Lutvynenko, T. L., Korniichuk, O. S., Kovalchuk, M. V., Voznyuk, T. M., Kononuchenko, O., … & Kordyum, V. A. (2006). Growing pioneer plants for a lunar base. Advances in Space Research, 37(1), 93-99.

Gardening on the Moon

Posted in Blog on Aug 2, 2014 ·

Last modified on Aug 17, 2014

Tags: science & space.

Changing landscape

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Didcot A

At 5 am this morning, the local landscape changed considerably. Scheduled in the early morning for “healthy and safety” reasons, controlled explosions demolished three of the cooling towers of Didcot A, a coal-fired power station that closed in March last year. There are three more cooling towers, due to be demolished next year.

The demolitions gathered a lot of public interest, and despite the early hour many people took to local vantage points to see them come down. Although some may have considered them to be blots on the landscape, the Didcot cooling towers have been a landmark since the 1960s. Visible for miles around, for many people they signposted the way home, and were a welcome sight at the end of a long journey. They were that for me when I lived in Abingdon; even more so since I moved to Didcot last year.

For several months now I have seen them every day, on my drive into work. It will be strange to see half of them missing on Monday, but I won’t be driving that way on a regular basis for much longer – we’re hoping that we’ll have a moving date very soon now.

The timing of the demolition was unpopular, with many people asking to change it to a more sociable hour, but Didcot A power station is no stranger to controversy. Its reliance on coal fuel made it environmentally polluting (it was targeted by eco warriors) and left it with the problem of disposal of the waste ash. The cheapest and easiest solution for RWE nPower was to pipe the ash into local gravel pits, but in the intervening time the gravel pits they had been holding on to for future use filled with water and became Radley Lakes – a local wildlife haven and green space amenity. When the time came to destroy them, the Save Radley lakes Campaign fought long and hard to protect them. They won out in the end, but more due to economic considerations than environmental ones. The Earth Trust now manages Thrupp Lake as a wetland site, and is planning to build a visitor centre.

Once the remaining three towers are removed, Didcot will be left with a brownfield site. I’m not aware of any current plans for its redevelopment – but according to the Oxford Mail, the ground is likely to be too contaminated to be reused for housing. It’s not the kind of place where you would want to plant a kitchen garden, that’s for sure, but a new day has dawned for Didcot and we will have to wait to see what it brings.



Posted in Blog on Jul 27, 2014 ·

Tag: environment

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