Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Coconut: Nose to Tail

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Coconut: Nose to Tail from The Perennial Plate on Vimeo.

In Sri Lanka, the coconut is, in a sense, a source of life. Not only it is the main ingredient in most Sri Lankan dishes, but it also plays a major role in many non-culinary parts of every day life. Without the coconut, things in Sri Lanka would be very different. Filmmakers spent the day with a family of 8 on their modest coconut plantation outside of Negombo, to see what the coconut has to offer.

Posted in Blog on Apr 17, 2014 ·

Last modified on Apr 14, 2014

Tag: ethnobotany

Grow Wild!

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Check out this video from the official launch of the Grow Wild campaign (supported by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew), which aims to get young people sowing seeds for UK native wild flowers to brighten up our urban areas and provide new habitats for our beleaguered pollinators and beneficial insects.

You can get your hands on some free seeds via their Facebook page. Sowing them is easy – as they say in the video, it’s just like sprinkling salt on your chips! You don’t even need a pot, just a patch of dirt….

And you can follow the campaign on Twitter, using the hashtag #LetsGrowWild to show them how your plants are getting on.

They’ve got 2000 free packets of seeds to give away by 20th April 2014, so get your skates on to apply for yours. They’ve got different mixes for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so wherever you are you’ll get the right plants.

Posted in Blog on Apr 15, 2014 ·

Tags: wildlife & flowers.

Plant Nutter's Book Club: The Lost Art of Potato Breeding

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The Lost Art of Potato Breeding

It’s the middle of April, and it’s time to open up the discussion for the Plant Nutter’s Book Club’s second book – the Lost Art of Potato Breeding, by Rebsie Fairholm. I confess that I haven’t finished reading it yet, but hope to do so in the next couple of days. So… while I’m catching up, what did you all think? Are you all converts to the cause of backyard potato breeding?

You will have noticed that I haven’t had a vote for our next title, and in fact I’m going to put the Plant Nutter’s Book Club on hold for the summer, while we’re all toiling away in our gardens or allotments, or jetting off to sunnier climes. If there’s enough interest I will start up again in the autumn; in the meantime I will keep an eye out for interesting plant books, and if you find a good one you can let me know in the comments :)

Posted in Blog on Apr 15, 2014 ·

Last modified on Apr 13, 2014

Tags: books & carnival.


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Parax paper

Ryan went to the Gadget Show last week, and brought me back a present. He bought me three notebooks made from Parax Paper, which (according to the label) is made from stone. He knew I’d be intrigued, and I had to investigate. It turns out that Parax paper is tree-free, made from calcium carbonate (the active ingredient in agricultural lime, and the stuff that makes water hard) and some plastic (HDPE). Its manufacture doesn’t use any water, requires less energy than conventional paper, and the finish is naturally white. It has a lovely, smooth writing surface and can be recycled (as plastic, not paper). It has won all kinds of eco awards.

Parax paper is water-resistant, and hard (but not impossible) to tear, which should make it an ideal allotment notebook. It won’t mind being used in the rain. In theory, I could write on it underwater, if I had a pen that would write underwater. As the paper doesn’t yellow over time, it could be good for archiving. I will give it a go. If you fancy trying Parax paper for yourself, Amazon is one possible retailer as they have a good selection.

Stone Ice Cubes

Parax paper isn’t the only stone product to have come into my life recently. We have also acquired some whisky rocks, designed to cool your drink without watering it down. Of course, they can be used with anything, not just whisky. Ours are made from soapstone (they’re Chill ‘N Rock, which we ordered from Amazon). You pop them in the freezer, and then into your drinks as necessary. A quick wash and dry and then they can go back into the freezer for next time.

Now, I’m an ethnobotanist, interested in the way people make use of plants. And occasionally I stray into ethnobiology (mainly due to an interest in edible insects, entomophagy), the way people make use of animal products. And I my stone implements set me wondering – is there such a thing as ethnomineralogy? It turns out that there is, it’s the “study of the interrelationships between people and the minerals, or inorganic resources, in their environment”. So, whether you’re in to the animal, vegetable or mineral, there’s an anthropologist out there who wants to know about it!

Posted in Blog on Apr 14, 2014 ·

Last modified on Apr 10, 2014

Tag: science

Rapid pulse

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Ryan and I have been clearing out our cupboards and running down our food supplies, inadvertently doing so at the same time as the Guardian’s Live Better campaign was looking at food waste. In one memorable day I used up four spare eggs, making pancake batter and two batches of Snickerdoodle dough (one which went into the freezer for later) and roasted the butternut squash that had been sitting on the counter for… a while.

Mostly it has been less eventful, just making use of things we have on hand rather than buying more stuff at the supermarket. It amazing how many packets of this and that we have hanging around in the cupboards – it’s not even a big kitchen.

However, one of the cupboards has me stumped. It contains a lifetime’s supply of tinned lentils. Now, I quite like lentils, but I’m not Ryan is converted yet and my usual trick of just frying them up with an onion and some spices doesn’t make the most appetizing-looking dish. I could use one can to pack out the beef in a spaghetti bolognese. But what to do with the rest? I can’t even give them to a food bank, since technically they are past their use-by date, although I’m sure they’re perfectly fine to eat.

So… over to you. What can I make with my tinned lentils that will tickle the tastebuds. Leave your ideas and recipes in the comments. The more the merrier! There’s at least a dozen tins lurking in that cupboard ;)

Posted in Blog on Apr 12, 2014 ·

Last modified on Apr 10, 2014

Tag: food

Time for tea and snickerdoodles

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It’s a couple of days until the next stop on my virtual book tour, so it’s time to take off the pith helmet and put my feet up with a cup of tea and a biscuit. In my Smashwords author interview I respond to a question I was asked about my favourite biscuit – which has to be Snickerdoodles. You can’t buy them, you have to make them, and they have nothing whatsoever to do with Snickers chocolate bars, or peanuts in general. They are a divine, spiced* biscuit (cookie) that’s very moreish and goes very nicely with a good cuppa.

It turns out there’s a hierarchy of treats in our house. Snickerdoodles are at the apex, being preferred over everything else. Although they will physically last a few days in an airtight container, it’s hard to test that theory as they get eaten too fast. I made some to bring in to work, and the four shown in the photo above are the only ones that survived the onslaught. They won’t make it through another night….

The recipe I use for them is from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess. According to the book, this recipe “makes about 12”, but Nigella either has the biggest walnuts on the planet, or she can’t count. There were 22 in my last batch….

Nigella’s Snickerdoodles recipe


250g plain flour
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
125g butter, at room temperature
100g plus 2 tbsp* caster sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp* cinnamon
2 baking sheets, greased or lined


  1. Preheat oven to 180°C or Gas Mark 4.
  2. Combine the flour, nutmeg, baking powder and salt and put to one side.
  3. Cream the butter with 100g of sugar, then beat in the egg and vanilla.
  4. Stir in the dry ingredients until you have a smooth dough (I tend to use my hands to bring it all together).
  5. Mix the remaining sugar with the cinnamon on a plate. Pinch off pieces of dough and roll into walnut-sized balls. Roll each ball in the cinnamon-sugar mixture and arrange on your prepared baking sheets.
  6. Bake for about 15 minutes, by which time they shoud be turning golden-brown. Take out of the oven and leave to rest on the baking sheets for 1 minute before transferring on to a wire rack to cool.


*I find this to be far too much cinnamon sugar, and there’s always a lot left over. It keeps well, so you can save it for the next batch. I have taken to making half the amount of cinnamon sugar, which is still plenty. You could always sprinkle it on your muesli in the morning, but it’s also a nice addition to flapjacks.

You can freeze the dough and defrost it to bake at a later stage. This is great if you’ve got an egg that needs using up, but no current desire for biscuits (is that even possible??). You could make a double batch of dough for some now, some later, but I’ve tried it and it makes working the dough hard, so you might want to make two separate batches at the same time.

What’s your favourite biscuit?

*the perfect choice for a plant hunter, since the spice trade did so much to drive exploration and the spread of plants across the world :)

Posted in Blog on Apr 11, 2014 ·

Last modified on Apr 10, 2014

Tags: food & spices.

How to grow your own thong

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Broadfen horseradish thong

A few weeks ago I received a press release from Waitrose about their new Alan Titchmarsh gardening range. It’s a fairly routine set of offerings, all nicely packaged up. The one that caught my eye was their ‘Broadfen’ horseradish, which they said was a “heritage variety first grown by the Egyptians (1500 BC).”

I did a quick Google, and the internet appears to agree that horseradish was probably first grown by the Ancient Egyptians. But there’s no (online) evidence that it was any particular variety, and it seems unlikely to have been passed down through history to land up (exclusively) on Waitrose shelves. I enquired of the PR people whether Waitrose had any evidence to back up their claim. Stony silence. There’s actually very little reference online to named varieties of horseradish at all.

I was going to Waitrose anyway, so I invested £2.50 to buy a Broadfen thong. It’s not an unreasonable price; if you buy horseradish from a seed company you’ll pay maybe £6 for a handful, and I only wanted one plant. If you have an allotment, or a gardening friend, you can almost certainly get your hands on horseradish for free, by asking them to divide their plant and give you a bit. Horseradish is a thug of a plant. If it’s not confined in a big pot (some people recommend a dustbin) then it could well take over your entire garden. And most people don’t eat that much roast beef.

So, what’s a thong? Well, it’s basically a root cutting. My Broadfen thong looked like this*:

Horseradish thong

I took that photo a month ago, when I planted it up in a big pot on the allotment. So far it has shown no signs of life, so I’ll have to keep you posted on its progress. According to the growing instructions, the best time to harvest my horseradish is in the autumn, after the first frosts. I have the option of lifting my roots and storing them in damp sand or taking the low maintenance option of leaving them in the ground until needed.

Like mustard, horseradish doesn’t release its fiery flavour until you bruise it or cut it; it’s usually grated for horseradish sauce. I imagine that’s quite a pungent process that should be carried out in an area with very good ventilation. Or in a gas mask.

The only other edible plant that I can find that is sold as ‘thongs’ is sea kale (which can also be grown from seed). If you wanted to grow your own thong then it’s a simple matter of acquiring a horseradish or sea kale plant, growing it to maturity and then taking some root cuttings to propagate new plants.

Have you tried growing your own thong?

*Note that both ends appear to have been cut in the same manner. Usually with root cuttings the top is flat, and the bottom slanted, so that you can tell which way is up and plant accordingly.

Posted in Blog on Apr 8, 2014 ·

Tags: spices & perennial.

Book Review: Gardening Myths and Misconceptions

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Professor Walsh: So, the Slayer.

Buffy: Yeah, that’s me.

Professor Walsh: We thought you were a myth.

Buffy: Well, you were myth-taken.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, A New Man

Gardening myths and misconceptions

Anyone who has an interest in organic vegetable gardening, or No Dig techniques, is likely to have a book by Charles Dowding on their shelf – he is considered to be an expert on those subjects. His latest book, just published by Green Books, is a bit different. In Gardening Myths and Misconceptions he’s doesn’t aim to tell you how to garden, but rather identifies pieces of gardening lore that we could perhaps do without.

It’s a topic I’ve touched on here before. Although some of the traditional gardening ‘wisdom’ handed down (possibly through generations) is helpful, some needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. There aren’t many gardening axioms that are appropriate for all gardens, at all times.

In his introduction, Dowding affirms himself to be a person with a questioning nature, and most of the advice in the book to be based on his own years of experience. He would like to free us all to garden in our own way, less stifled by the rules that are handed down.

The book is then divided into chapters that cover different aspects of gardening, and the myths and misconceptions that pertain to them. Chapter 2 is on sowing and planting and, among other things, reminds us that not all seeds need to be sown in spring. There’s also a section on transplanting root vegetables.

Chapter 3 is on watering, and recaps some scientific evidence that putting shards in the bottom of your containers and that watering in the middle of the day doesn’t burn plant leaves.

Moving through vegetable garden planning and design (chapter 4) to annual vegetables (chapter 5), Dowding tells us that – according to his own experiments – grafted vegetable plants (e.g. tomatoes) aren’t actually worth the extra investment in terms of the resulting increase in yields (something that flies in the face of anecdotal evidence – I haven’t heard anyone else say anything less than positive about them, but they are the latest thing and so very new).

Chapter 6 covers trees, shrubs and perennial vegetables, and there are some interesting snippets here about whether perennial vegetables can be as productive as conventional annual and biennial ones. Dowding recommends ditching the forcing pots for an easier life, a sentiment unlikely to go down well with anyone who has invested money in one of those lovely Victorian-style terracotta forcing pots.

Chapter 7 (manuring and fertilizing) admits that making liquid feeds is a lot less smelly if you don’t drown your source plants (something I have been saying for years) and is followed by a chapter on making and using compost.

Chapter 9 is on soil structure and care (one of Dowding’s specialities) and chapter 10 talks about pests, diseases and weeds.

Reading the book brought to mind the Telegraph’s recent article that tried to divide the gardening world into “young hort” gardeners, into recycling, guerrilla gardening and unusual edibles and “trad hort” gardeners – stuck in a world of double-digging, spraying the roses for black spot and splashing out on fancy compost bins. The suggestion has caused outrage in the less traditional, but not young gardeners, (including me!) who identified more with “young hort”. I am declaring us “young at hort” and moving on.

Gardeners firmly in the “young at hort” camp, who have been keeping pace with developments in horticulture may not find much new information in this book. “Trad hort” gardeners may not wish to be convinced that their way of doing things is unnecessarily hard work. The audience for this book would therefore seem to be the middle ground. Gardeners, perhaps new gardeners, taught in the traditional horticultural style but who have an inkling that there might be a better way. It’s a nicely produced book, a small hardback with an attractive cover design, and would make a nice gift. But for whom? I’m sure you know better than I. As I’m sure Mr Dowding would agree, we need to trust our own judgment more :)

Gardening Myths and Misconceptions
by Charles Dowding
Hardback, 96 pages, RRP £9.99
ISBN 9780857842046
Publisher: Green Books

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy by the publisher, but my words are my own.

Posted in Blog on Apr 7, 2014 ·

Tag: books

The Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs Tour

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On the fence

It’s only a month until the publication of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, and in true plant hunter style I am donning my pith helmet and setting off on an adventure, exploring the digital world oin my virtual book tour.

I don’t have to go too far today, as I’m hosting a special edition of the Alternative Kitchen Garden Show, including a reading from the book. Here’s the tentative schedule for the rest of the tour, which will shape up as the month continues (shout if you’d like to fill an empty slot):

I’m also tweeting and updating the Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs Facebook page with related content.

You can preview the book over at Smashwords, and it’s available to pre-order on NOOK.

If you’re writing about the book, you can find cover images and photos of me that you can link to or download on the book homepage.

Posted in Blog on Apr 1, 2014 ·

Last modified on Apr 17, 2014

Tags: books & unusual.

March Berry-go-round: Unusual edible plants

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Welcome to the March edition of the Berry-go-round, a blog carnival devoted to all that’s wonderful and intriguing about Earth’s flora. This month I set a theme of “Unusual Edible Plants”, and bloggers from far and wide duly rose to the challenge.

Tamarisk Tree
Tamarisk Tree, by Robert Wallace, on Flickr

Gravity’s Rainbow took the opportunity to bring our attention to a post from the archives. Invasive species – making the best of a bad situation raises an important issue. What do we do about introduced species that turn out to be invasive in their new environment? Control of these species is often a costly, and largely impossible, task. Perhaps putting them to good use would be a better use of our resources?

Licorice seedlings, from tangent ramblings

The licorice seedlings Jeanette from tangent ramblings is growing with Aspirations of a licorice harvest are unlikely to cause any weed problems – the roots will be far too tasty to leave in the ground. And what is Jeanette planning on doing with the resulting bounty? Brewing licorice beer!

Quercus agrifolia
Coast Live Oak, by Eric Hunt, on Flickr

If brewing your own licorice beer from scratch sounds like hard work, then you’re going to be exhausted just reading about how to make acorn atole, over at In the Company of Plants and Rocks. The title spells it out: Acorn atole – not a convenience food. But acorn flour was a staple food of Native Americans in California, when they had no option but to grind, leech and bake their acorn harvest by hand. The result was a highly nutritious, and long-storing food. These days it’s only made for special occasions, even though modern technology makes the process much easier.

Ackee fruit by Loren Sztajer (CC BY-ND 2.0)

It’s the presence of tannins that makes the process of processing acorns so laborious. The ackee fruit brings food preparation to a whole new level – as Nature’s Poisons points out, ackee fruit are both deadly and delicious. A native of West Africa, ackee was brought to the Caribbean in the 18th century, and now forms one half of Jamaica’s famous ackee and saltfish dish.

Only the fleshy arilli are eaten, with the rest of the fruit discarded. Even then, you’re not entirely safe – the flesh is poisonous unless completely ripe, and the US bans importation of fresh ackee in the hope of avoiding poisoning cases.

Muskatnuss / nutmeg / noix de muscade /
Nutmeg, by Carmen Eisbär, on Flickr

You may be wondering why people go to such lengths to eat potentially poisonous foods, but in all likelihood you have one or two kicking around in your kitchen at home. Compound Interest has done a lovely article on the hallucinogen in your kitchen – the chemistry of nutmeg this month. Although nutmeg does get some attention as a possible “legal high”, ingesting more than a couple of muffin’s worth in one go is probably a bad idea, and Compound Interest tells us why.

Andean Roots, from Radix

As this month’s Berry-go-round has largely been a round-up of the time consuming and terrifying aspects of unusual plants, I’m going to end on a happier note :)

The wondrous Radix blog, home of the internet’s resident expert on all aspects of edible buried treasure, has recently celebrated its fifth birthday. As a special treat for us, Rhizowen wrote up a summary of everything his root crop research and ruminations have produced so far, in Radix: Alive at Five. Oca, mauka, ulluco and ahipa are just some of the unusual underground edibles he covers.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s round-up of planty goodness. Keep an eye on the Berry-go-round blog to find out where we’re headed next month :)

Posted in Blog on Mar 31, 2014 ·

Tags: ethnobotany & unusual.

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