Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Showcasing science with plants: Dark Matter at Chelsea

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Dark Matter garden design for Chelsea 2015
Dark Matter garden design for RHS Chelsea 2015

An ethnobotany superhero by night, my mild-mannered daytime alter ego is a science writer for the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), one of the UK’s research councils. It’s not often that those two worlds collide, although during the early summer the campus I work on is dotted with the blooms of hardy orchids.

This year, though, STFC have sponsored a garden at Chelsea! It’s a lovely garden for the National School’s Observatory (NSO), a website established by Liverpool John Moores University to provide schools in the UK and Ireland with free access to the Liverpool Telescope (the world’s largest fully-robotic telescope).

Two scientists at the NSO, Professors Andrew Newsam and Mike Bode are making it their mission to inspire as wide an audience as possible about astronomy, and getting people into scientifically-themed show gardens is one way they do it.

In 2013, the team (Howard Miller Design Ltd and Landstruction) put together a horticultural representation of a spiral galaxy that won a Gold medal at RHS Tatton, and proved very popular with visitors to the show – where else would you expect to find people queueing to listen to a scientist! Mike took the black hole home, and it now has pride of place next to his greenhouse, but you don’t have to worry, as he says it’s not plugged in ;)

Dark Matter Garden
The Dark Matter garden, before the crowds arrive at RHS Chelsea

Fresh from their Tatton success, they decided to design a show garden for Chelsea, and to give themselves a real challenge – the concept behind this year’s design is Dark Matter, something we can’t see, and can’t (yet) detect in any way. If you’d like to know more about the science then you can read the piece I wrote for the STFC website – Say it with flowers, which has links to even more good sciency stuff for those of you who are really interested.

The really exciting news is that not only did the garden win a Gold medal, but it was also chosen at the Best Fresh Garden, so that is thrilling (and well deserved) and I’m so happy for the team that put together this smashing garden. It has also gone done well with the press, and you can see some of the responses to the garden on the Storify I put together at work: Dark Matter at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015 (and which I am updating all week).

If you’re heading to the show for the last couple of days, then do make sure you stop by and see the Dark Matter garden whilst it’s still fresh ;)

All that remains now is for the public to offer their opinions, and vote in the People’s Choice Award for their favourite Fresh and Artisan gardens (the smaller show gardens) – so do pop over and vote for your favourites :)

Posted in Blog on May 20, 2015 ·

Tag: events

Cornish hedges in spring

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Down the lane
A Cornish lane in May

Cornish hedges are an exuberant delight. I visited in April a few years back, and every lane was awash with alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum). This year, in May, they put on a stunning display that would put a Chelsea show garden to shame.

The backdrop is generous, luxurious green. In shady alleys this is provided by lacy ferns; in sunnier spots, grasses first head for the skies, then tumble to the earth like green waterfalls.

Blue and white
Allium triquetrium and bluebells, amid the grass

This monochrome bounty is punctuated with white. In some places, tall and graceful umbels of some member of the carrot family (cow parsley, perhaps?) sway gently in the breeze. In others, great swathes of Allium triquetrium (the three-cornered leek) send up spires of gently nodding bell-shaped white flowers. But the most abundant plant here at this time of year is exploding in great puffs of star-shaped white flowers. Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) scents the air, particularly when the car brushes against the hedge to make room for passing in these narrow lanes. We saw one patch that was a six-feet high wall of wild garlic flowers; such bounty must make this a forager’s paradise.

Flowering hedge
Flowers in the hedge

But lest your eye weary of two colours only, there is more. Bluebells, singly or in small clumps, mirror the glimpses of blue sky overhead. And there are delicate spots of pink, as well, from the small, wild flowers of red campion Silene dioica.

The overall effect is one of joyous, bountiful spring. Wild, wayward, and haphazard – a beauty that was not designed. And yet could, perhaps, be recreated at home. Alliums, edible herbs and spring flowers – dowdy and overshadowed maybe, as the more colourful blooms of summer flowers appear. But here, at the turn of the season, a feast for the eyes, and the palate.

Sunny patch
A sunny spring hedgerow scene, in Cornwall

Posted in Blog on May 18, 2015 ·

Tag: gardens

Gardeners unite: Nepal earthquake appeal

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Toothache Tree
Zanthoxylum alatum, Nepalese pepper

On Saturday 25th April 2015, a massive earthquake devastated Nepal, leaving more than 7000 people dead, and many more homeless. This morning another quake, magnitude 7.3, has rocked the region. People there need our help.

There are any number of appeals you could contribute to, but an easy way to send money is via DEC, which is providing emergency shelter, food, clean water and blankets. Once the immediate crisis over, they will continue to work with individuals, families and communities to support them to rebuild their lives. Please send what you can to help them.

The picture shown above is of Zanthoxylum alatum, the toothache tree and one of the species of ‘Szechuan pepper’ that we can grow in our forest gardens to add an exotic taste to our cooking. It’s also known as Nepalese pepper.

According to Wikipedia:

in Nepal, the Ghar Bagaincha, literally “home garden”, refers to the traditional land use system around a homestead, where several species of plants are grown and maintained by household members and their products are primarily intended for the family consumption (Shrestha et al., 2002). The term “home garden” is often considered synonymous to the kitchen garden. However, they differ in terms of function, size, diversity, composition and features (Sthapit et al., 2006).

In Nepal, 72% of households have home gardens of an area 2–11% of the total land holdings (Gautam et al., 2004). Because of their small size, the government has never identified home gardens as an important unit of food production and they thereby remain neglected from research and development. However, at the household level the system is very important as it is an important source of quality food and nutrition for the rural poor and, therefore, are important contributors to the household food security and livelihoods of farming communities in Nepal.

The gardens are typically cultivated with a mixture of annual and perennial plants that can be harvested on a daily or seasonal basis. Biodiversity that has an immediate value is maintained in home gardens as women and children have easy access to preferred food, and for this reason alone we should promote home gardens as a key element for a healthy way of life. Home gardens, with their intensive and multiple uses, provide a safety net for households when food is scarce. These gardens are not only important sources of food, fodder, fuel, medicines, spices, herbs, flowers, construction materials and income in many countries, they are also important for the in situ conservation of a wide range of unique genetic resources for food and agriculture (Subedi et al., 2004). Many uncultivated, as well as neglected and underutilised species could make an important contribution to the dietary diversity of local communities (Gautam et al., 2004).

In addition to supplementing diet in times of difficulty, home gardens promote whole-family and whole-community involvement in the process of providing food. Children, the elderly, and those caring for them can participate in this infield agriculture, incorporating it with other household tasks and scheduling. This tradition has existed in many cultures around the world for thousands of years.

The Nepalese people are gardeners, just like us, and they need our help. Please donate today if you can.

The World’s Tallest Mountain
Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. The Nepalese name for the mountain is Sagarmatha: “mother of the universe.” A NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data from the NASA EO-1 team, archived on the USGS Earth Explorer.

Posted in Blog on May 12, 2015 ·

Tag: ethnobotany

Video: Tulip mania and the boom and bust economy

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Since the tulips are flowering, it seems like the perfect time to let them explain a bit about economic theory ;)

Posted in Blog on May 11, 2015 ·

Last modified on May 10, 2015

Tag: flowers

Outdoor cooking, indoor side dishes

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BBQ :)
Not quite a fire pit – our BBQ bucket

One of the things I’d like to do when the garden is finished (or, you know, as finished as it gets) is more outdoor cooking. Ryan likes barbecues; I fancy getting into more elaborate things such as outdoor soups and stews. I saw a ‘BBQ wok’ the other day, which looks very much like a colander, and that’s intriguing. We’re aiming for a nice fire pit; at the moment we have a cheap BBQ bucket :)

We fire up the bbq every time the sun comes out. So far, Ryan has done most of the work on starting the fire and cooking the food. I have been in the kitchen, doing the side dishes (it’s still cold outside!). The recipe links below will take you to our new website, The Outdoor Kitchen, which is charting our journey into this fiery, unknown territory.

The first one was a simple potato salad, which goes very nicely with flame-grilled meat (or anything else, if you’re veggie :). Ryan keeps wanting to have it again, but we can’t because it used up all the mayo until we go shopping.

Leftovers will keep for a couple of days in the fridge, if you can stop people from eating them!

For our second barbecue we’d had a veg box delivery – fresh supplies of potatoes. But no mayo. Potato salad was out, so I made potato wedges instead. The result is lovely, tasty wedges that are less of a guilty pleasure than chips :)

The veg box also contained courgettes, so I thought I would try barbecuing one. I went with simplicity, bbq naked courgettes. I loved the result, with the flame-grilled skin and tender insides. I ate the whole thing – because Ryan really didn’t like it. He’s not a fan of courgettes, and there was nothing there but the courgette.

Next time I might try a marinade, or perhaps a dressing to pour over them after they’re cooked. I might even go crazy and try grilling a big mushroom (Ryan doesn’t like them either).

Freshly-made charcoal
Freshly-made charcoal, from Harcour Arboretum

So we’re off to a flying start with the outdoor cooking (especially as we made our own charcoal last year, at Harcout Arboretum) and keen to continue experiments.

Are you a fan? Do you have a favourite recipe to share?

Posted in Blog on May 9, 2015 ·

Tag: food

Woodruff, coumarin and May Cups

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Edible spring flowers: violas and sweet woodruff
Edible spring flowers: violas and sweet woodruff

Earlier in the year, I bought some new herbs plants for the garden. There was an offer on if you bought five plants, so after picking a pretty pink thyme and two different varieties of sage, I was looking around for two more to pop in the basket. Ryan chose angelica and I picked one I wasn’t familiar with – woodruff. I had a vague recollection that it could be used for tea, and it can – this is sweet woodruff, Gallium odoratum.

I planted it up in a tub with some violas, and didn’t think too much more about it, since I have been busy planning the garden and trying to manage an ever-increasing army of plants that I can’t plant out. (I have stopped adding to it now. Really, I have.)

When I opened the May edition of Simple Things magazine, there was an extract from Lottie Muir’s book Wild Cocktails with a recipe for a German May Cup that involves sweet woodruff. My little plant was happy, had grown and was flowering, so I thought I would harvest some and give it a go.

Sweet woodruff in flower
Sweet woodruff in flower

The recipe calls for harvesting the woodruff in advance, so this I duly did. Drying some brings out the flavour, so I left some sitting on a plate in the living room, whilst the rest went in the fridge to stay fresh. I did nibble on a fresh leaf, and the taste is surprising – a green, grassy, initial flavour gives way to something far more interesting, a cross between almond and vanilla.

On Friday evening I duly made some syrup, infused some dry white wine with the dried flowers, mixed and chilled. The recipe called for Champagne or sparkling wine, but we’re not big fans, so I left that out. The result was… very sweet. Far too sweet for my taste (even diluted with more wine), although Ryan was happy to drink his. It’s not likely to become a regular part of our May Day celebrations; I’ll dry out the remaining woodruff to use as tea.

Sweet woodruff can also be used in pot pourri and herb pillows, and in sachets for scenting clothes. It’s ‘freshly mown hay’ aroma and that intriguing exotic flavour are both a result of a chemical called coumarin, which is present in a number of plants. Taken in large quantities it can cause liver damage, but that’s true of a lot of things and not a particular worry if used in moderation (although it is probably best avoided if you already have liver problems).

Coumarin is the chemical in bison grass, Hierochloe odorata that gives its flavour to żubrówka, a vanilla-flavoured, vodka-based spirit. I have a bottle in the kitchen, having once drunk a delightful ‘bison berry swizzle’ cocktail that also involved raspberry puree and apple juice. I think I also have a packet of seeds somewhere, although clearly I can’t add any more plants to the garden until it’s actually a garden.

Lady’s bedstraw, Galium verum is another plant that grows in this country that contains coumarin; meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, Spignel, Meum athamanticum , and Sweet Vernal Grass, Anthoxanthum odoratum, do too.

Coumarin has been in the press in recent years, because of two species that won’t grow in a temperate climate. It’s present in cassia, Cinnamomum cassia, which tastes similar (and is related) to true cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum, but is cheaper and more widely available. True cinnamon doesn’t contain coumarin, but cassia does, so developing a ‘cinnamon’ bun or latte obsession could be detrimental to your health (although the fat/sugar content might get you first!).

And tonka beans, Dipteryx odorata, are a South American legume that also contain coumarin. They’re apparently a foodie delight, but are banned in America because of their coumarin content. The Atlantic’s article attempts to debunk the health threat, saying that reports of coumarin being a blood thinner are the result of name confusion with a licensed drug. Decomposition by certain strains of fungi can turn coumarin into a blood thinner, but that’s unlikely to happen in your back garden, or in the short timescales between harvesting and using your coumarin-bearing plants. The article suggests that coumarin is about as toxic as nutmeg – another flavouring for which normal consumption wouldn’t cause any harmful effects.

Woodruff in the sun
Sweet woodruff enjoying spring sunshine

All told, I’m happy to have added sweet woodruff to my garden, and I’m looking forward to making more use of it once it has had a chance to grow. I’ll have to find it a shadier spot – apparently it makes a useful ground cover under shrubs and trees and ‘easily spreads’ (so be careful where you plant it!). I can find it a spot like that when the garden is finished.

Over time I’d like to add more unusual (and familiar) herbs to the garden. In Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs I wrote a chapter on unusual herbs, including: sorrel, lemon balm, costmary, perilla, stevia, paracress, Vietnamese coriander and Holy basil. They won’t all make an appearance in the garden this year, but hopefully will in the future.

Have you adopted an unusual herb into your garden? What do you use it for?

Posted in Blog on May 6, 2015 ·

Last modified on May 2, 2015

Tags: ethnobotany & herbs.

Naked Gardening Day - health and safety tips

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Dancing by Marko, via Flickr

Today, the first Saturday in May, is World Naked Gardening Day. The idea is to pop out and do some gardening in the altogether (‘as nature intended’) to help improve our sense of what is normal and acceptable in terms of body shapes and sizes.

(I did once seriously consider going to a ‘clothes optional’ day at Abbey House Gardens, but found surprisingly few takers for travelling companions.)

We’ve had a health and safety briefing at work this week. We are required to fill in risk assessments for all tasks that are potentially hazardous (i.e. absolutely everything), but if it’s a quick thing you can go through a short ‘on the job’ checklist. I thought it might be fun to put together a bare bones guide to the hazards of naked gardening ;)

The weather
We’re told these days that we’re all vitamin D deficient, and we should expose our torsos to the sun whenever possible, so naked gardening scores some points in that dimension. However, if it’s sunny we do have to be aware of the risks of sunburn, and skin cancer, so protective lotion is almost certainly required.

A hat will protect you from sun stroke, especially if you’re a bit thin on top.

Looking out of the window, a more pressing concern in my garden today would be hypothermia, especially if the forecast rain arrives later. Have a towel, dry clothes and warm drinks on standby for when you retire indoors. From experience (selling university rag mags in Birmingham in November, dressed as a St Trinians girl) I have found that a hot shower is more warming than a hot bath, if you’re very cold.

Cuts, grazes and puncture wounds
There’s plenty of potential for injury in the garden when you’re nude. Feet are especially vulnerable, so it would be best not to let them go au naturel but to continue wearing your normal gardening footwear. Forks and spades will go straight through toes if you let them, so avoid flip flops and go for sturdy shoes or boots instead.

Thorns are a particular hazard for feet, but also for hands, so gloves may continue to be a necessity, depending on what you’re doing. I would leave pruning anything prickly for another day, personally.

Cane toppers. Great for stopping you poking out your eyes on a normal day, you may want to consider popping them on short canes today as well, so you don’t poke anything else while you’re bending over. You know what I mean, stop sniggering at the back!

Impromptu amputations
Sharp objects abound in the garden, and a lot of them are tools. Mind what you’re doing with those secateurs/ loppers/ pruning saws – some pruning cuts cannot be reversed. Anything electric should be protected with a circuit breaker, by which I mean you should protect yourself by using a circuit breaker with any electrical tools.

Lawn mowing… looks like a nice, gentle activity that should be safe enough whilst naked (with boots on, see above), but it does throw up stones. Safety glasses just aren’t going to cut it today.

Fires. Really? You’re choosing to have that bonfire/bbq now? Are you insane? Put your clothes back on! No one likes the smell of burning hair!

Chemical burns
I’m sure you’re all organic gardeners, with no nasties in the shed, but if you’re not then leave them in there until you can wear the proper personal protective equipment (i.e. pants). Watch out for plants that can cause chemical burns if they come into contact with bare skin. It’s bad enough when it’s your arms….

So, once you’re wearing just your hat, boots and gloves, you’re all set for appropriate gardening tasks. Such as light weeding… although do be careful of toxic/ scratchy plants in the vicinity. Or sit back with a nice cup of… better make it iced tea, you don’t want to risk a nasty scald somewhere sensitive. You could maybe do a little potting on, that should be safe enough, if you stay out of the sun.

What’s that? Your garden is overlooked by the neighbours? They have young children? You’re right, perhaps we should confine our naked gardening to sowing seeds indoors ;)

This has been a bit of a giggle for World Naked Gardening Day, but in all honesty safety in the garden is no laughing matter. In 2004, 87000 people in the UK were injured whilst gardening – seriously enough to need emergency medical treatment. After lawn mowers, the thing most likely to cause injury was found to be… flowerpots.

What’s your top tip for gardening safely?

Flowerpots – an accident waiting to happen!

Posted in Blog on May 2, 2015 ·

Tag: events

Out now in paperback - Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs

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Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, by Emma Cooper
The cover of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, out now in paperback

All of you who said you prefer ‘proper’ books to ebooks can now vote with your feet – Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs is out now in paperback :) All that bright pink should liven up your bookshelf a treat….

For those of you who haven’t heard of it before, Jade Pearls (my latest book) is a guide book to the world of unusual edible plants, whether they are old or new, rarely grown or from somewhere far flung. It looks at the history of plant hunters moving these plants around the world, and tells the stories of modern day enthusiasts, showcasing some of the unusual plants you may encounter as you begin your own journey into this intriguing world.

Beyond our familiar fruits, vegetables and herbs, edible plants can be exotic, old-fashioned, wild or just plain weird. Think of the things you consider to be unusual – things you’ve seen in the produce section, or the latest ‘superfruit’ to be mentioned in the media. Perhaps you encountered something new on holiday, and wished you could bring it home with you. A list of plants you consider to be unusual would be different from my list, which would be different from everyone else’s, because what counts as unusual depends on both your past experiences, where you live and when you live – there are trends and fashions in food and gardening, as in anything else.

An unusual plant may have been commonly grown in the past, or it may have been bred only recently and be something truly new. Or it may come from far away. It may be a plant that is very commonly grown and known in agriculture, but not often cultivated at home – or the reverse, a plant that is common in gardens and on allotments but rarely commercially available.

Writing and publishing Jade Pearls has been a real labour of love for me, and I still enjoy reading the stories it contains of people who are similarly obsessed with slightly offbeat plants. It’s a thoroughly good book, but you don’t need to take my word for it! When the ebook version was published last year I embarked on a virtual book tour, and you can find all kinds of goodies – interviews, reviews and guest blogs – about Jade Pearls here:

I published the paperback via Createspace, so it is available from Amazon (in all territories). Should you prefer the ebook version, head over to the Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs homepage to find out more about stockists.

Get your copy now, and embark on an adventure where you meet the nicest people and fill your garden with truly wondrous plants!

Posted in Blog on Apr 29, 2015 ·

Last modified on Apr 29, 2015

Tags: books & unusual.

Camassia: hero and edimental

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Camassia quamash, Quamash, growing in the RISC roof garden

I don’t tend of think of myself as a trendsetter, but I can honestly say that you heard it here first – you need to grow Camassia. Apparently it’s one of the ‘hero’ plants of Chelsea 2015, a real stunner that will add to your garden. There’s a number of species of Camassia, but the article mentions C. quamash, which is edible as well as ornamental – an edimental, as my friend Stephen Barstow would say.

It’s also known as Quamash, which came in very handy when I was writing The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z, as Q is otherwise a difficult letter to fill! Here’s what I wrote in the book, way back in 2008:

Q is for… Quamash
Quamash (Camassia quamash, also known commonly as Camassia) is an edible bulb, a staple food of native Americans. I can’t now remember why I decided to try and grow it, but I do remember seeing some growing at the RISC roof garden in Reading. They have pretty blue flowers, a bit like bluebells.

The seeds need a period of winter cold to germinate, so I sowed mine in a pot last autumn and put it in the cold frame. It sat outside all winter, and the seeds burst into life in spring. The seedlings were tiny, single-leaved things.

Unfortunately I got a bit engrossed in other things in spring, and when I checked on them one day the quamash seedlings were dead. It’s a shame when something like that happens, because it’s a whole year before you get the chance to try again.

However, I have since read that it takes rather a lot of cooking to make the bulbs edible. They would have been cooked in large fire pits by the native Americans, something which few of us would be able to replicate today – even if we had enough bulbs to make it worth the effort. If I grow quamash again next year, it may well become one of the plants in the garden that – although technically edible – is grown for its interest and ornamental value.

Camassia & alpine strawberry
Camassia and white alpine strawberry seeds

Clearly that entry in the book was about one of my failures, rather than my successes, but reviews suggested you all enjoyed reading about those ;)

If you do, and you have The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z on your wish list of books to read, then I suggest you get your hands on a copy now, because I believe it will shortly be out of print. If you’re in the UK then I can send you a signed copy for £10 inc. P&P, just drop me a line.

Posted in Blog on Apr 25, 2015 ·

Tag: unusual

Review: Weather@Home wireless weather station

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Ice alert! Weather station.
Checking the weather from the comfort of the sofa

This is a chancy time for gardeners. Spring has arrived, and we’re getting some sunny days that can easily cook any seedlings that are left in an unopened cold frame for the day. But there’s still the risk of frost at night. Keeping an eye on the weather forecast is a necessity. If you tend to watch the tv news, or listen to the radio, then the weather forecast comes to you. If you rely on the internet, or an app, then you have to remember to check it. Would a personal weather station make life easier?

Oregon Scientific sent me one of their Weather@Home wireless weather stations to review.

Ryan did the setting up, although it’s not complicated. The indoor unit has an easy-to-read display and shows the temperature and humidity inside, as well as the time. The outdoor sensor needs to be fixed in a suitable position and added as a channel, and then the indoor unit displays the outdoor temperature and humidity as well. You can add more sensors, so if you wanted to you could have a sensor in the greenhouse, or the shed.

The base unit also displays a local weather forecast, and if it’s going to get chilly it has an Ice Warning light that flashes – so you can pop outside and protect any plants that would be damaged by frost.

The unit I have also has bluetooth connectivity, so you can also access the information via an app on your smartphone when you’re in range. It has a history function that shows you the last week’s worth of weather data.

What it doesn’t have is internet connectivity, so you can’t check the weather when you’re away from home. And there’s no way of downloading your weather data, so you can’t keep records of your garden’s climate.

easy to operate
easy-to-read display
multiple channels (indoor/ outdoor/ greenhouse)
local forecast
bluetooth connectivity
flashing ice/frost warning

short history
no ability to collect data
no internet connectivity, to check remotely

Good for: checking the weather conditions and forecast
Not good for: tracking the climate of your garden

Do you monitor the weather in your garden?

Posted in Blog on Apr 22, 2015 ·

Last modified on Apr 21, 2015

Tag: reviews

Unless stated, © copyright Emma Cooper, 2005-2014.