Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Muggle Memory Magic

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So… despite your very best intentions, you have found yourself in a situation where your brain is coming up with wonderful ideas that you absolutely need to act on, but which you are temporarily prevented from jotting down. Maybe you’re in the car. Perhaps you forgot your notebook, or the battery on your phone just died. It won’t be long before you can get to a pen, but how do you remember in the meantime?

Memory and recollection is a very personal thing. I find it easy to remember anything that has been set to music – advertising jingles probably make up 25% of my brain contents by now. I have, in the past, thought up little ditties to help me remember things. It works quite nicely for exams, as long as you don’t have to sing them out loud….

However, that does take some effort, and when I’m driving or focusing on something else then that doesn’t work.

The first step to remembering the idea is to remember that you had one. One way to do that is to create a Memory Token (which is a bit like a Remembrall from Harry Potter). Pick up an incongruous object, one that you wouldn’t normally be carrying around. A piece of rubbish is fine, if your pockets are normally pristine. Something that makes a rustly noise might help, but it’s not essential. In your brain, you link your Memory Token with the thought that you had an idea. That’s all you really need to do, although if you’ve got a reasonable memory you can add a keyword that sums up the idea. Now you carry your Memory Token with you until you get to a pen.

This is my Memory Token from the car yesterday morning, which I carried across the car park and into my office (which is not a short trip!) and put on my desk:

When you’re back in reach of a pen then, with a bit of effort, you can normally remember what the idea was. The Memory Token acts as a reminder that you need to have a think. If you’re having trouble remembering then sometimes it helps to go back to where you were (or what you were doing) when you had it. (Apparently it’s easier to remember things you thought of whilst drunk if you get drunk again, but I’m sure that doesn’t apply to you ;)

Keep your Memory Token with you until you’ve recorded the ‘message’ it was holding for you, at which point it can be recycled. You don’t want them hanging about once you’ve remembered the idea, or you’ll be constantly trying to remember something you haven’t forgotten. Equally, the magic does wear off after a time, and the Memory Token reverts to being a piece of rubbish (like a portkey); you’ll forget what it was supposed to mean, so don’t wait for ever to jot down your idea.

And if you have a lot of ideas then just invest in a proper notebook and carry it around with you, otherwise you’re going to end up looking like some crazy bag lady!

What’s your favourite trick for remembering things?

Posted in Blog on Apr 23, 2014 ·

Last modified on Apr 24, 2014

Tag: writing

The Paper Trail

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Writers are often advised to keep a pen and paper within arm's reach

Writers are often advised to keep a pen and paper within arm’s reach

Advice for writers often includes having a notebook (or other means of note taking/ recording) on your person at all times, the idea being that you never know when you’re going to have a great idea. Insomniacs need to remember to have some kind of note-taking device on the night stand. People who tend to get their best ideas in the shower should consider investing in some waterproof paper and a pencil. In fact, it’s often when we’re doing the most mundane tasks that inspiration strikes, and we’re not usually very far from a piece of paper and a pen, a smartphone or computer or even the back of our hands.

This morning I was washing up when my brain decided it was ready for me to write down content ideas for a possible new book project. The closest thing to hand was the recycle bin, which furnished me with an old envelope. I scratched around and found a pencil and happily jotted down all the odds bits and pieces that came to mind. That process tends to continue over several hours, or even days, as my brain dredges up long-forgotten snippets of information.

It’s essential that, at some point in the process, those thoughts are transferred to a more permanent medium. An old envelope can be discarded by accident, and any type of loose-leaf paper can be lost, or filed ‘somewhere safe’ and never seen again. If you’re a fan of paper then a bound notebook of some description (I called mine my Brain) is the best choice, especially if you date entries and/ or go back and create an index. I have mainly moved on to Evernote, which allows me to access my notes from anywhere there’s an internet connection (as well as offline on my laptop).

But for jotting down thoughts you really can’t beat a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. And for the early stages of a project, a grotty piece of scrap paper is fine. In fact, it might be better than a pristine sheet, which can tend to inhibit creativity. Jotting ideas down on scrap paper doesn’t set off our internal critic in the way that writing on a nice piece of blank paper sometimes does. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to be right first time, it’s just ideas, it’s just notes. The polishing comes later.

Once I’d made my notes this morning (and I am still carrying around my old envelope, to add to it when the muse strikes), I got in the car to drive to work. And I had a new idea…. My iPhone was in my bag (I must learn how to use Siri), and although there’s a biro in the glove compartment, I didn’t have any paper. Since I wasn’t stuck in a traffic jam, I had no way to write anything down anyway. So sometimes you just have to remember ideas to come back to them later. I’ll tell you my trick for doing that tomorrow.

In the meantime, how do you record your ideas?

Posted in Blog on Apr 22, 2014 ·

Tag: writing

Proper attire for gardening

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If your gardening shoes are no longer up to the job, you can recycle them into planters!

Now that spring has finally sprung, we’re all spending more time out in the garden. It’s a great place to be when the weather is nice, and most of us could use the exercise after a winter indoors, but it pays to bear in mind some healthy and safety aspects if you want to avoid injuring yourself. It won’t take long, I’m just going to share with you some of the advice that I included in The Allotment Pocket Bible.

According to ROSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents), around 300,000 people go to hospital every year after being injured in the garden. Of those, 110,000 are children, and 87,000 are injured while actively gardening, or doing garden DIY. With a little planning, and the right equipment, you can greatly reduce the risk of an accident.


There are some benefits to getting your hands dirty, and some gardening jobs are tricky to do without bare hands, but a good pair of gardening gloves will protect your hands from thorns and prickles, plant saps that might react badly with your skin and anything nasty lurking in the compost heap.


One of the possible nasties in the compost heap is fungal spores – compost is, by its very nature, a breeding ground for fungi. They’re vital to the rotting process and usually harmless, but dry compost can also send up a lot of dust. You could damp your compost down before digging it out, or wear a mark. Stand upwind of the heap, so nothing blows into your face.

If you’re using power tools like strimmers (weed wackers) or wood chippers, remember to wear protective goggles.


It’s tempting to nip out into the garden in sandals or flip-flops in summer, but if you’re digging then you need to wear sturdy boots to protect your toes. A new allotment could also be harbouring unpleasant surprises (unexpected holes, clumps of roots or half-buried trash). Proper footwear will help to prevent slips and falls on muddy ground or slippery paths.

Knee pads

Cold and stony ground is hard on the knees. A traditional kneeling pad, or knee pads to strap on over your clothes, will protect both your knees and your trousers!

General advice

  • Cover any open wounds before you start gardening, and make sure you wash your hands when you’re finished.
  • Know which plants in your garden are potentially poisonous or harmful.
  • Ensure children can’t fall into any ponds, and that wildlife (and pets) can escape if they do.
  • Store garden chemicals (even organic ones) properly and out of the reach of children. Follow the instructions when using them.
  • Store tools properly. Stepping on a rake is only funny in cartoons. A tidy hose lasts longer, and won’t be a trip hazard.
  • Use a cut-out device with power tools.
  • Be careful with BBQs and bonfires.
  • Consider wearing long sleeves and trousers even in summer, they’re a great barrier against scratches, bites and stinging sap.

If you’re in the market for new gardening gear, Brookes has a great selection of good quality workwear to help make your time working outdoors more comfortable. Visit to see what bargains you can pick up.

What’s your top tip for staying safe in the garden?

Posted in Blog on Apr 18, 2014 ·

Last modified on Apr 15, 2014

Tag: general

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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I made this! Thanks to Chuck Olsen on Twitter for his ominous clouds.

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).”

Broadfen horseradish thong

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 ·

Last modified on Apr 18, 2014

Tags: spices & perennial.

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