Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

A kitchen garden for aliens

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Himalayan balsam
Himalayan balsam, an ‘alien invader’, growing in the wildlife garden at Birdland

Following the news that homeowners who fail to control Japanese knotweed in their garden could face fines or ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders), I thought it might be a good time to think about non-native plants. Now, I am definitely not suggesting that anyone should choose to grow Japanese knotweed, or allow it to spread further than it already has – it’s a problematic plant in the UK. But it’s easy to clump all non-native plants into the same category, when the reality is considerably more complicated.

My latest book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, is all about unusual edible plants, and the people who grow them. It looks at some of the history of crop introductions from the ancient world right through to the modern, and explores some of the reasons why people might choose to grow something to eat that they wouldn’t expect to find in their local area. Towards the end of the book I touch on the debate about whether we should plant native or non-native plants, ending with the suggestion that “there’s a place for native plants in gardens, but it’s not the veg patch”. It’s a somewhat controversial suggestion, made for very good reasons. As the previous chapters of the book explain, most of what we find growing in our farms and gardens has made a very long journey to be there – our favourite foods are all native to somewhere, it’s true, but that’s not likely to be your local area. The UK, in particular, has rather a limited native flora, due to a history of being either covered in ice or cut off from the rest of the European continent by a body of water. So how do you determine whether a species is native? By its length of stay in a region, or how it arrived there? If you go back a few thousand years, all of the ecosystems on Earth would look substantially different….

Here’s another controversial suggestion – the whole native v non-native plants debate is pointless, because it misses the point. There are very few ecosystems left on the planet that could be said to be ‘natural’, in that they haven’t been disturbed by humankind. We should be taking care (or at least an interest in) which species we’re moving around the planet and why, but the basis on which we decide whether a species is useful or not changes over time. We’re not the only things moving species around the planet, and ecosystems aren’t static – they evolve as conditions change. The changes to the climate and ecosystem that our lifestyles are driving are likely to have much more of an impact on which species grow where than anything else we do.

‘Alien’ is not a synonym for ‘invasive’. Although some introduced species can take over, most are perfectly well-behaved. We don’t hear about those because they’re not causing any trouble. Money is spent on the control of invasive species, in some cases without scientific evidence that they’re causing harm. Although there are clearly some places where conservation matters, in many others ecosystems could be left to rebalance themselves.

In terms of wildlife, there are some animal and insect species that have very specific feeding habits, and rely on a particular plant, but most are more generalist and don’t distinguish between native and non-native plants (as anyone fending off pests in the vegetable garden will have noticed!). Although native species are good for wildlife, non-native species can be too – biodiversity is what we should be aiming for.

“Classifying biota according to their adherence to cultural standards of belonging, citizenship, fair play and morality does not advance our understanding of ecology” (Davis et al), which is a complicated way of saying that we have allowed ourselves to become prejudiced against all non-native species, rather than judging each one on its merits. When we’re choosing a new plant for the garden, we should put that bias to one side and make a decision based on which plants will thrive in the location we have available, which ones are unhappily invasive and which ones will deliver the benefits we’re looking for. Chances are, we’ll find ourselves with a happy mix of native and non-native species.

What do you think? Are you firmly on one side of the debate, or do you have a good mix of plants in your garden?


Davis, M. A., Chew, M. K., Hobbs, R. J., Lugo, A. E., Ewel, J. J., Vermeij, G. J., … & Briggs, J. C. (2011). Don’t judge species on their origins. Nature, 474(7350), 153-154.

Holmes, B. (2014) Loving the alien: A defence of non-native species. New Scientist, 2962, 54.

Posted in Blog on Nov 21, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 20, 2014

Tag: ethnobotany

Trendy Pond

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Trendy Pond front
My new Trendy Pond, still in its packaging

The nice people at Swell UK have given me a trendy pond to play with – as you can see, I haven’t managed to take it out of the box yet, but might manage that this weekend. I’m hoping that it will make a nice water feature in the garden next year, and that I can plant it up with some edible plants.

Ryan has already said that he’s not keen on the idea of an indoor pond (one of the suggestions made on the packaging!), so we can safely assume that it’s going to live outside. It will hold up to 30 litres of water, and isn’t really suitable for fish, so I can just go nuts with the planting. The website gives the dimensions as approximately 45 cm wide by 30 cm high.

I was talking a couple of years ago (doesn’t time fly!) about wanting an edible water feature of some kind in the garden, and started a list of potential plants then. Of course, in the intervening time I had forgotten, and so started a new list when the pond arrived. The only plant I came up with this time that didn’t make it onto the last list was Water Pepper, Persicaria hydropiper.

I do have a book on Edible Water Gardens, which I never got around to reading when I bought it, so now that it is back from storage I can read that once I’ve finished Homegrown Tea. Given the small size of my new pond (which is purple, btw :) I’m leaning towards a bog garden rather than a full-on pond, but I might change my mind before spring. I’m also wondering whether I could combine two obsessions and have a pond filled with aquatic tea plants! But so far there’s only water mint on that list….

Have you got edible pond/bog plants in your garden?

Posted in Blog on Nov 20, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 20, 2014

Tags: gardens & unusual.

Feed round-up

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Sparkling dew
Dew baubles

Today, for a change, I thought you might like a glimpse of the things that have appeared in my feed reader (Feedly) that have caught my eye and been saved to read later….

  • Nature’s Poisons has been pondering how people come to eat poisonous plants, and advises you not to eat anything with death in its name. A perennially-useful reminder that not all plants are benign (but that taking reasonable precautions mean we don’t need to fear them).

  • I follow From the Kitchen Of Olivia because she blogs recipes involving tea (my current obsession, in case you hadn’t noticed). Being from the UK, rather than the US, I’ve never had campfire S’mores, so I find this indoor recipe intriguing.

  • Another foodie one, and a recipe that might come in handy for Christmas – DIY Cranberry Gin from the Telegraph.

  • The Odd Pantry has been making chutney from sorrel leaves – a common name that really needs clarification as it is used for different plants in different parts of the world. In this case, Hibiscus sabdariffa, aka Roselle.

  • Ethnobotanical Pursuits, based in America I believe, has been investigating Cinnamon vine or air potato, although naughtily the scientific name is not mentioned (it’s Dioscorea oppositifolia, or Dioscorea batatas). You can buy your own from Real Seeds if you want to give it a go.

  • And Alys Fowler explains how to grow Mediterranean myrtle in our less than Mediterranean climate.

That should give you plenty to read and chew over :) What’s the most interesting article you’ve come across this week?

Posted in Blog on Nov 19, 2014 ·

Tags: food & ethnobotany.

West Dean Gardens Victorian Glasshouse appeal

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Last week I showed you the unusual cucumbers I found in one of the glasshouses at West Dean Gardens. West Dean has an impressive array of Victorian glasshouses, lovingly restored to be home to tender fruits and vegetables.

Indoor vine
The vinery at West Dean Gardens

Me being me, I was so engrossed in taking pictures of the pretty plants that I forgot to take any of the glasshouses themselves, which is a shame (or an excuse to visit again!).

Indoor fig
A fruitful, indoor fig

A trained peach

As well as the strange cucumbers, there are also plants that the average home gardener might have in their greenhouse :)

Impressive tomatoes

West Dean is famous for its annual chilli fiesta

Of course, glasshouses are expensive things, and as they get old they need maintenance. The team at West Dean have started an appeal to raise money for essential restoration work on two of their glasshouses. You can donate online or print off a donation form to mail in with a cheque (although when I tried it, it wasn’t designed to print on A4 paper, which caused no end of printer confusion…).

£10 could buy 1kg of nails

£25 could buy 2 litres of paint

£50 could buy 50 metres of timber

£180 could pay for a day of joinery

£500 could pay for 3 days of painting and glazing

In the absence of photos (sorry!) you can see the glasshouses in the Sussex episode of Christine Walkden’s Glorious Gardens from Above on iPlayer (if you’re in the UK). The series is well worth watching for Christine’s enthusiasm for horticulture and willingness to get stuck in. You might also enjoy looking at the gardens :)

Posted in Blog on Nov 18, 2014 ·

Tag: gardens

Raymond Blanc at Kew

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Long view
Raymond Blanc’s kitchen garden at Kew

Ryan and I stumbled across Raymond Blanc’s kitchen garden at Kew during our visit a few weeks ago – we hadn’t known it was there in advance. There’s a notice that informs you that this is being grown for a television programme (it’s ‘Kew on a Plate’, four programmes to be broadcast next year, with an accompanying book) and that it is being constantly filmed. It also asks you not to pick anything….

Raymond Blanc statue
Side view of the kitchen garden

It’s quite a formal layout, complete with a scarecrow statue that comes from the kitchen garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. But the planting is less traditional – you can see there are lots of herbs and flowers amongst the vegetables. In fact it was here that Ryan first encountered lemon verbena :)

South American crops

A bed with crops from the Americas was drawing a lot of attention from passers by, mainly because they couldn’t identify all of the plants! As well as familiar squashes and sunflowers, the bed included quinoa and amaranth:

Colourful amaranth

and some healthy-looking yacon:

Yacon foliage

So I was able to introduce Ryan to yacon’s adorable furry foliage :)

There were also some mushrooms growing in Kew’s Ice House, but the low light conditions made it very hard to get a decent photo.

Will you be watching when the programme airs next year?

Posted in Blog on Nov 17, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 17, 2014

Tag: gardens

Bring on the Birds

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When we moved into the new house, Ryan and I were keen to entice some of the local birds into the garden. We didn’t know what they might be – early on I spotted a robin hopping about in the shadows of one of the shrubs. So far it hasn’t been brave enough to make an extended appearance, but hopefully it will once I get down to doing some proper gardening, and digging around in the soil.

There are plenty of crows in the area, but they don’t seem to come into the garden. I have seen a pair of pied wagtails flitting around the local rooftops, but that’s the closest they’ve come.

Bird bonanza
A selection of goodies for wild birds, available from Homebase

And so I was pleased when Homebase offered me the chance to review some of the products from their wild bird & pet care range. As I didn’t know which birds we had a chance of attracting, they sent me a variety of things to try. When the box arrived, the contents proved so exciting that Ryan unpacked everything and assembled the bird feeder while I was having a nap, so these photos are his :)

Bird feeding station
Assembled bird feeding station

The bird feeding station has proven to be very useful. The garden is currently featureless, and we had nowhere to hang any feeders. Ryan has put it up in a temporary location, near the plants that were rescued from the allotment. The birds are enjoying hanging around on those as the wait their turn for the feeder :) As you can see, it has several hooks plus a dish for loose food and a water dish, that is currently being kept well-filled by the weather.

Ready to go
Waiting for diners

Ryan set it up with one of the suet blocks, the smaller feeder filled with robin mix, and the larger one filled with winter warmer mix. The robin mix was immediately popular, and we’ve had to refill it – we’re not 100% convinced that the birds have figured out how to get to the seeds in the larger feeder. But it’s not the robin that we see having a meal…

Blue tit
Blue tit on bird feeder

I thought we had a pair of blue tits that were eating all of the food, but yesterday I saw three, so that’s good news. I have also seen a bird that looks like a house sparrow, but appears on its own – mum thinks it might be a dunnock, but I don’t have a photo and I have yet to get a good look. It was hopping about in my pots, and may well be taking chunks out of my new chard plants, rather than the bird food. There’s also a little brown birds that hops in and out among the pots, and which might be a wren.

Our mystery guest, now identified as a weren

I couldn’t recognise this one from the photo, but several of you have identified it as a wren. Thank you!

The birds are still wary of us, but it’s clear that there are more than we thought that we may be able to entice into the garden, so we will be watching progress around the bird feeder very carefully. When the weather turns colder we have some fat balls we can put out, as well, and Ryan put a few dried mealworms on the feeder tray yesterday. Hopefully they will attract the robin, although the tray may be too high. Fortunately it doesn’t seem as though any cats make their way into the garden (fingers crossed!) to disturb the birds.

Our new location is considerably more rural than the old garden, so I’m looking forward to seeing what wildlife we can attract* :)

*I’m a little wary that the local bunny population might find their way in – if they do then we’ll be into rabbit-proof fence territory!

Posted in Blog on Nov 16, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 17, 2014

Tag: wildlife

Lemon verbena

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lemon verbena
Lemon verbena, photo by bgblogging

On two separate occasions this summer, Ryan and I encountered lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla, previously A. citriodora). Ryan loves lemony flavours, and when I gave him a leaf to crush and smell, he carried it around in his pocket until it had lost its scent entirely. So lemon verbena is definitely on the plant list for the garden next year.

In Homegrown Tea, Cassie Liveridge notes that lemon verbena is not the easiest plant to grow from seed – it’s more common to buy a plant. She also says that it’s not entirely hardy, and in a frosty area the plant is more safely grown in a container that can be moved into an unheated greenhouse over the winter.

The plants we saw were large, and growing in the ground – it appears they were overwintering with no trouble. But each was grown in a walled garden. The first we saw was at Kew, and the second at West Dean Gardens. I have no idea yet which parts of my garden are susceptible to frost and which might be more benign environments – so far this winter we’ve only had one air frost, and nothing that has reached the ground. I’ll know more by spring, but it sounds as though the safest course of action might be to buy two plants – planting one in the ground and keeping one in a container. Of course, I don’t have a greenhouse yet either, but hopefully will sort that out before next winter!

making tea
Making lemon verbena tea, photo by jacqueline

As well as being a good tea plant, lemon verbena has other culinary uses – Liveridge suggests it goes well with steamed fish, and (intriguingly) that it makes a lovely sorbet. I’ll have to grow enough to try that :)

This won’t be the first time I’ve tried to grow lemon verbena. A few years ago I bought a plant at the Eden Project – I remember that it came in one of those hairy pots. But it didn’t thrive, and a few months later the dead plant and its pot were both on the compost heap. (Those hairy pots take forever to break down.) I can’t remember what the problem was, no doubt me being too distracted to look after it properly.

Do you grow lemon verbena? How hardy have you found it to be? What do you use your leaves for?

Posted in Blog on Nov 15, 2014 ·

Tags: tea & herbs.

The kitchen garden at West Dean

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I’ve had one of those days at work, and I don’t much feel like writing. So have a nice picture of the ordered ranks of the vegetable garden at West Dean Gardens that I took last month, and we’ll try again with words tomorrow :)

Vegetable garden

Posted in Blog on Nov 14, 2014 ·

Tag: gardens

Unusual cucumbers

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Unusual cucumbers
Unusual cucumbers, grown at West Dean Gardens

It seems to be Cucurbitaceae week on the blog. Fresh from talking about Gynostemma pentaphyllum, today’s post is about some unusual, and ornamental, cucumber varieties.

Just before we moved house, Ryan and I had a much-needed weekend away on the south coast. We’d planned various visits, but whilst we were there I picked up a tourist information leaflet about West Dean Gardens. I’d heard of them, but hadn’t realised we were so close. Of course, we had to visit :) And after a wet day at Fishbourne Roman Palace and Gardens it was nice that the sun came out.

West Dean Gardens is a lovely place for a kitchen gardener to visit, and I’ll share some more photos in due course. There are lots of greenhouses, growing impressive crops of fruiting vegetables, and one of the things that caught my eye was a display of unusual cucumber varieties that had been grown in one.

Hedgehog gourd
Hedgehog gourd, Cucumis dipsaceus

Also known as the teasel gourd and Ekaleruk, you can buy seeds for the hedgehog gourd from Chiltern Seeds. They note that this plant comes from Arabia, and although it is usually grown as an ornamental, the fruit, seeds and leaves are all edible. They also say they have no recipes, but cannot recommend swallowing the fruits whole!

Cucumis africanus
Cucumis africanus

This one doesn’t seem to have a common name, and opinion is divided on whether or not it is edible. According to PlantzAfrica, the fruits “have been pickled and preserved at the Cape since the late 17th century”. However, there are other references to them being extremely bitter and inedible. It sounds like this plant may not be domesticated, and that variation in the wild population makes some fruits tasty and some not.

Cucumis zambianus
Cucumis zambianus

The common names for these cucumbers are confused – they could all be called a ‘horned melon’ or ‘hedgehog gourd’, and at some point they probably all have :) Horizon Herbs call this ‘kiwano’, but it’s not the kiwano I know and have grown, which is Cucumis metuliferus (I got my seeds from the HSL, but they’re quite widely available now). In fact, it seems that Cucumis zambianus is a relatively new species, first officially described in 2008.

South African Spiny Cucumber
South African Spiny Cucumber, Cucumis zeyheri

According to Trade Winds Fruit, these cucumbers are considered to be inedible, although it again notes that some plants will be more bitter than others.

Bur gherkin
Bur gherkin, Cucumis anguria var longipes

This last one is, perhaps, less ornamental than the rest. That might explain why the literature on Bur gherkin seems to be mainly scholarly ;)

I don’t think I’ve ever grown cucumbers – I don’t like eating them. However, Ryan does, so I may well try and grow Crystal Lemon next year. I have also failed to grow Mouse melons (Melothria scabra) before – they’re not a Cucumis species, but they are in the Cucurbitaceae.

What’s the most exciting cucumber you’ve ever grown? Do you fancy growing any of these unusual ones next year?

Posted in Blog on Nov 13, 2014 ·

Tags: unusual & fruit.

Kew's Intoxication Season

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Quite often, when I tell people that I’m an ethnobotanist (and explain what that means), they grin and joke that I must enjoy studying Cannabis. In fact, I have a pair of silver cannabis-leaf earrings that I sometimes wear as an ethnobotanist’s joke. But plant-based drugs are an interesting topic, so before we moved, Ryan and I took a day trip into London to visit Kew Gardens during their Intoxication Season – a celebration of mind-altering plants. Some of the species on display were familiar, and legal:


Tea and coffee both contain mind-altering caffeine

The display notes that tobacco could become a biofuel crop, and is being used to develop an experimental drug to combat the Ebola virus

Salvia divinorum
Salvia divinorum is used by shamans to produce altered states of consciousness.

But most are illegal in at least some countries:

The cannabis plant was kept under lock(s) and key

As was the peyote cactus

Kew couldn’t obtain a license to have a real Coca plant, so visitors had to make do with an illustration

Opium poppies
The Opium poppies had been harvested and dried. They’re legal to grow in the UK, but trying to turn them into drugs isn’t.

Intoxication Season, which focused on different types of plants over four weekends, was designed to inspire debate about mind-altering plants, society’s views on them and the choices we make as to which are legal and which are not. There’s a nice write-up over at New Scientist for those of you who would like to know more, and I can thoroughly recommend Mike Jay’s book on the topic, High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture, which is utterly fascinating.

Posted in Blog on Nov 12, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 12, 2014

Tags: ethnobotany & gardens.

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