Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Book review: One Magic Square

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One Magic Square, by Lolo Houbein
One Magic Square, by Lolo Houbein

Sometimes I’m offered a book for review that I might overlook if I passed it on the gardening shelf of the local bookshop. One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein is such a book – it’s a basics guide to growing your own food, starting with one square metre (and, if you have the space and the time) building up a larger garden gradually. It’s an expansion of the Square Foot gardening method, and as such perhaps not an instant draw to those of us who already have vegetable gardens.

But I was intrigued by Houbein’s bio. She was born in the Netherlands, and was a child there during the Second World War. She studied at the Universities of Adelaide and Papua New Guinea, and One Magic Square was originally written for Australian gardeners. It has been ‘revised for the UK climate’, and is being published b Green Books at the beginning of February in hardcover.

The book begins with an explanation of how to use it, and moves on to giving planting ‘recipes’ – designs for food plots that are one square metre. Unlike the Square Foot concept, a Magic Square is usually a mixed planting, meaning that the problems of monocropping don’t arise, even if you have just the one square. First up are the salad plots. I take issue with Houbein’s statement that “everyone likes salads”, as I am still trying to reach that state of nirvana myself; she also says that having two magic salad squares will keep you in salads all year round – which I’m sure is true, but I didn’t find any references to the size of the household that would work for.

There are some recipes included for salad dressings, and then we’re off into bean plot territory, as they are used for crop rotation and fertility building (as well as dinner). Each plot design includes instructions on how to ensure it crops year-round, so you can pick one and stick with it for as long as you want. For those of us who aren’t salad fiends, or who want something cookable, there are stir-fry plots, pasta/pizza plots, a soup plot and even curry plots.

Curry plot from One Magic Square
A curry plot, from One Magic Square

The great advantage of this book over the original Square Foot concept is that it moves beyond basic and traditional vegetables and tackles some of the more exciting vegetables that have become increasingly popular with modern audiences.

I was particularly interested in the ‘Horta plot’, which draws on the traditional Greek practice of harvesting a collection of wild greens for cooking. Houbein draws on an unusual source for seeds for her horta, as well as adding in a good selection of leafy green vegetables, and the end result is a magic square full of greens that you can harvest for most of the year, and very rapidly after it is first sown. If one of each variety of plant is allowed to self-seed, then the horta plot is self-sustaining, or it can easily be picked clean and replanted with beans for a crop rotation.

The ‘Aztec plot’ is a reimagining of the native American Three Sisters planting, with sweetcorn, beans and squash. It would be interesting to see how well it works in the UK climate, as it’s quite difficult to get the timing right, and the original technique was used to grow corn and beans for drying and storing, rather than eating fresh as we would normally choose to do. The ‘Melon plot’ may also be an experiment for the more adventurous gardener.

Fruit isn’t forgotten, but the section on ‘berry plots and hedges’ made me laugh. Talking about blackberries, it says:

“If you have a stand of blackberries on your land, and you can keep a goat, let her prune it after fruiting. Goats know what’s good for them…. The main reason for the spread of blackberry seedlings is neglect of unattended land, of which there is still some in the UK.”

I don’t know why people with the space to keep a goat wouldn’t have a vegetable garden already, and why they would feel the need to confine themselves to gardening in square metre plots. And that second sentence is one of a few indications that the book was written by someone who is not overly familiar with life and land in the UK. (For those of you elsewhere in the world, blackberries (or brambles) are pretty ubiquitous, even in urban areas – there aren’t many Brits who don’t have a memory of picking them as a kid, and they’re still the most commonly foraged fruit.)

Parts two and three cover the basics of gardening, water and soil and things like that, as well as the reasons why you might choose to garden (and to do it organically). My favourite part of this section was Houbein’s description of the lunch club she has with her friends, where they explore the different food cultures of the world, cooking exotic dishes with homegrown or local ingredients. That’s something I’d love to do; I just need to find some local foodie friends!

And part four contains lists of edible plants that you might like to grow, including herbs and how they can be used, and fruit trees and bushes that are easy to grow, should you wish to expand beyond your magic square. That’s followed by references, further reading and useful contacts for seeds, etc,.

One Magic Square is a thick book, and it would work as a complete gardening manual for those who are just starting out and who would like to grow their own food. It takes a sensible approach, with manageable squares and small tasks, so that food gardening can fit into the busiest lifestyle and you can keep on top of your plot. But despite its focus on the basics, there are some interesting ideas here that would appeal to more seasoned gardeners and those that are thinking about trying something different this year. And it’s a year-round book, so it won’t languish on the shelf during the winter.

One Magic Square
by Lolo Houbein

Hardback, 368 pages, RRP £19.99, published 5 Feb 2015.
ISBN 9780857842800
Publisher: Green Books

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

Posted in Blog on Jan 23, 2015 ·

Last modified on Jan 22, 2015

Tags: books & reviews.

Book review: Grow a little fruit tree

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In my last garden I had a little orchard of four fruit trees, which lived in the chicken run. There was an apple, a pear, a cherry and a plum. They were all grown on dwarfing rootstocks, sold as ideal for small gardens, naturally small trees. They came with the instructions I would need to follow to keep them pruned, which I dutifully tried to follow.

I largely failed. The birds ate any cherries before they were even ripe. The plum tree became infested with wasps (even though it had no fruit). The apple tree, Saturn, was lovely – it produced a good crop and the apples were lovely, but there were so many that they had to be stored, and I had nowhere to store them. The pear tree grew like topsy, I was forever trying to take the top out of it. It grew hard pears; no one ate them.

Now I have a smaller garden, and although I would like to include some fruit I would like it to be more manageable and suitably productive. I may have found the answer in “Grow a little fruit tree”, a book written by Ann Ralph that extolls the virtues of small trees.

Rather controversially, Ralph doesn’t believe in growing trees on dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstocks – she is convinced that a larger rootstock leads to a healthier and more stable tree, and that any fruit tree can be kept small simply by pruning it twice a year. There is a key step early on, which I won’t reveal here, but her focus is on summer pruning, which reduces the vigour of the tree and keeps it manageable. Combined with ruthless fruit thinning, you’ll have small, healthy trees that produce a suitable quantity of fresh fruit for much of the year. By keeping your fruit trees smaller, you’ll have space for more varieties, to spread your harvests, or try new things.

And because the trees are kept manageably small, pruning them remains a simple and manageable task that you can complete with your feet firmly on the ground. There’s no need for ladders or unwieldy long loppers.

But you do have to prune the tree twice a year – fruit trees are domesticated species, and they can’t thrive without human intervention. Let them go feral and they’ll give you poor crops, suffers from pests and diseases and rapidly spread out of control.

“One sure way to disenchantment with fruit growing specifically or gardening generally”, she writes, “is to relinquish attentive participation”. But the benefit of regular interaction with your tree is that you get to know it well, and can appreciate and enjoy its seasonal rhythms.

“Grow a little fruit tree” is partly a manifesto for a small tree mentality, and the simple pruning methods Ralph promotes, but it’s also a manual for looking after your trees. It discusses soil and compost, pests and diseases, rootstocks and the importance of selecting the right varieties for your tastes and climate. As Ralph points out, if you stop looking simply for varieties that will be the right size for your garden and instead look for varieties that meet your personal requirements, you’ll be on route for a much tastier harvest.

And it’s a technique that fits in well with my GlutBusters idea – “Home gardeners typically do better with reasonable amounts of fruit”, Ralph says. Rather than a glut of apples or other fruits that fall to the ground and rot because you can’t harvest them or eat them, you could have a garden of edible delights in manageable quantities – whether you have a big family and enjoy preserving, or are in a household of one with no storage space.

The book has a brief glossary, and there are colour photos throughout, together with some lovely botanical illustrations. It is written in a friendly, conversational style, and is never patronising or confusing. So if you’re thinking of adding a fruit tree or two to your garden, and would be interested in knowing more about keeping them small and productive, this could well be the book for you. Small is beautiful, they say :)

Grow a little fruit tree
by Ann Ralph

Kindle edition, £9.86, published 10 Jan 2015.
Paperback, 168 pages, £10.38, published 1 Feb 2015.
ISBN 9781612120546
Publisher: Storey Publishing

(In the US, the paperback edition will be published on 30th December 2014, and the Kindle edition on January 10th 2015.)

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

Posted in Blog on Dec 4, 2014 ·

Last modified on Dec 7, 2014

Tags: books & GlutBusters.

Book Review: Qaqamiigux

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Shortly before I moved, I came across references to a new book with an unpronounceable title – Qaqamiiĝux̂: Traditional Foods and Recipes from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. I was intrigued, especially since I had to look up where the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands are. It turns out that they’re off the south western coast of Alaska, with a cool, wet and stormy climate. The region is volcanically active.

Qaqamiigux (if you’ll forgive the ongoing lack of accents, I can’t quite get them to display correctly in HTML!) is the word for subsistence in the local language – hunting and gathering. The book arose out of anthropological work in the region, and aims at improving the diet of local people by ensuring that they still have the knowledge and expertise needed to harvest and process local foods. A lot of the information included was gathered through interviews with elders; some of whom have since died.

The diet in the islands has changed considerably in the last few centuries. The population was once entirely dependent on the local environment for sustenance, but new foods were introduced by the Russians when they arrived in the islands in the 1700s. From an anthropological perspective, it’s interesting to note how they were not immediately accepted by the locals – for one thing, they were too expensive. But the Russians did successfully introduce vegetable gardening.

The Americans brought more new foods, and livestock, when they bought Alaska – but again, they were not initially accepted by the local population. Even in times of hardship (and famine seasons are a feature of the environment), the islanders clung to their traditional fare. Only social changes, and being made to feel that their traditional foods were ‘inferior’, led to their wider adoption. [It’s interesting to juxtapose this BBC article on which meats are considered ‘normal’ and why – which looks at this scenario from the opposite direction.]

The Russians brought food such as flour, sugar, tea and salt. Whilst they were useful additions to the diet, and allowed new methods of food preservation that are still in use today, you can see that they may also have been the start of a problem. When the Americans brought their packaged and processed foods, which are widely available today, the islanders began to adopt the Western diet that is making so many of us overweight and leading to chronic diseases such as diabetes.

Qaqamiigux is an attempt to reverse that trend, by bringing the younger islanders back in touch with their local foods and a healthier diet. It is a mixture of traditional stories and wisdom, practical knowledge on harvesting and processing local foods, and recipes to add them into a modern diet. There’s information on safe canning, nutritional information for all of the ingredients covered, a pronunciation guide and a full set of references in the back of the book.

I feel I have to offer a warning at this point – do not buy this book if you are vegetarian, and are offended by images of dead animals. They abound in the book, and the animals featured are ones that we would not normally see on the dinner table. Marine mammals loom large, with the traditional diet including seals and sealions. Whales and sea otters were once (but are no longer) on the menu.

Fish and bird eggs are included, as are reindeer and caribou (although these were introduced into the islands). For each species there is hunting/harvesting information, details of butchery and preservation, recipes and traditional stories and the values they encompass. Coming from a culture that wouldn’t dream of catching and eating animals like seals, it makes for fascinating reading.

There’s also a section on edible plants, some of which sound very interesting. The Chocolate lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis) is also known as wild rice, as its bulbs look like tightly-packed rice grains when they are harvested in summer and early autumn. They’re a starchy staple, as are the bulbs of the bog orchids (Platanthera convallariaefolia and Platanthera dilatata). The roots of the blue lupine (Lupinus noot-katensis) are mentioned as ‘Aleut potatoes’, which I found interesting as unusual edibles have been marketed to the UK population as ‘like potatoes’ ;)

The local berries we would now doubt find familiar (if not immediately palatable), but you would have a harder time convincing people from outside the region to eat Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum), which is called Putchki. Toxic chemicals in the ‘skin’ of the plant can cause burns on human skin in conjunction with sunlight (parnsips can do the same, for reference – same plant family). The book notes that harvesting on a cloudy day is preferable, and that the plant has to be peeled before being eaten, but is used much like celery.

There are sections on tidal foods harvested from the beaches, and seaweeds, and one on ‘other foods’ – the ones that were introduced by the Russians, and are part of the culture now.

So… Qaqamiigux offers an interesting insight into the food culture of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands for those of us who live elsewhere. However, it is important to bear in mind that this is a cookbook aimed at the modern inhabitants of the region. Its recipes are not entirely traditional; many of them call for packaged ingredients, or canned soup – like most American recipes. If you buy this book wanting to recreate ‘authentic’ recipes in your home kitchen then you may well feel disappointed (although most people would struggle to get hold of sealion intestines anyway).

If you live in the US, you can buy a hardcover copy of the book direct from the publisher, or via Amazon. The RRP is $55.

To avoid a wait, and overseas shipping, I bought the Kindle version instead, which is £6.33 or $10.19. Remember that you can get a free Kindle app for most devices now, you don’t have to own a Kindle to read the books.

Qaqamiiĝux̂: Traditional Foods and Recipes from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands
by Suanne Unger

Kindle edition, £6.33
Hardback, 381 pages, $55, published 15 November 2014
ISBN 9780991459100
Publisher: Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association,Inc

Posted in Blog on Oct 26, 2014 ·

Tags: books & food.

Book Review: Taste of Beirut

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One of my all-time favourite restaurants (which sadly closed, after the smoking ban came into being) was a Lebanese restaurant in Oxford. (There are two more, but they can’t match the quality of the food, or the jovial atmosphere.) It was a wonderful place to go in a large group, as they would just keep bringing out plates of mezze until everyone was stuffed. I found two of the dishes particularly moreish – small triangular pastries (sanbousek) filled with feta cheese, and a salad of garlicky broad beans. When dining in a smaller party I tended simply to order those, along with some grilled chicken and rice with vermicelli.

I have never managed to recreate any of them successfully (although I came close with the rice), and once we’ve moved and I’m settled into my new kitchen, it will be time to try again. This time I will have more of a clue, because I have been reading Taste of Beirut: 150+ Delicious Lebanese Recipes from Classics to Contemporary to Mezzes and More, which is written by Joumana Accad, the blogger behind the Taste of Beirut blog. I have been following the blog for some time (I can’t remember how long!), and it has an interesting flow of new and traditional Lebanese recipes, along with snippets about Lebanese life and plants. I am glad that it has solidified into book form (I have the ebook version; a paperback is being released on 10th October).

Accad was born and raised in Beirut, but has spent thirty years living in the United States, giving her a unique insight into the difficulties of cooking a cuisine from within a different culture. Her philosophy is to reach the highest level of flavour with the smallest number of basic ingredients – for her Lebanese food is about conviviality rather than complexity. Perhaps that’s why I like it ;)

Accad walks you through the basics of Lebanese cuisine, including her shortcuts for busy modern cooks. The Introduction explains some basic do’s and don’t’s, and Chapter 1 explores the crucial ingredients you would find in a Lebanese larder. Here you will learn about freekeh, mahlab, mastic and the elusive Sahlab (a starch extracted from Turkish orchids that I know as sahlep).

In Chapter 2 there are recipes and instructions for staples such as a basic bulgur pilaf, flatbread dough, the rice and vermicelli pilaf I’m so fond of and various sauces and condiments (including toom, the garlic paste). Many are quick and easy, or can be made in advance and stored in the freezer.

Chapter 3 introduces the hearty Lebanese breakfast, centered around flatbreads (which would traditionally be made in the local bakery). Chapter 4 moves on to lunch, and a variety of ‘sandwiches’ that are really wraps with traditional Lebanese fillings.

It’s party time in chapter 5, with a selection of mezze recipes for when you’re feeding a crowd. Although we tend to think of mezze (or Spanish tapas) as an entirely foreign way of eating, as I was reading through this book I remembered the British love of buffets. Our finger foods might not be quite as exotic, however….

Accad’s recipe for pumpkin fries will draw the attention of Americans, and gardeners will love her use of Swiss chard. She offers a dip recipe that makes use of the troublesome stalks, as well as stuffed chard leaves in place of vine leaves. If you tend towards lazy gardening then the dandelion leaf salad might be more up your street!

Chapter 6 looks at main courses, concentrating on the stews that are a home cooking mainstay, and the kibbeh (a mixture of minced meat and bulghur wheat) that is Lebanon’s national dish. Vegetarian options are available, known as ‘sad’ or ‘tricky’ kibbeh, as they were traditionally served during times of fasting… or hardship.

And chapter 7 rounds out the book with desserts, including an easy way to make baklava, and some other recipes that look (to my eye) more modern than traditional. There is a glossary of Lebanese words at the back.

I would have expected some recipes for drinks, but none are included. Arak gets a mention, as does ayran (a yoghurt drink), and there’s mention of the use of sahlab to thicken drinks. Perhaps there are none – I don’t know. But if it is an omission then it’s a minor one. There is plenty here for the adventurous cook to get their teeth into, everything is explained clearly enough for anyone less experienced, and there’s a good photo of each finished dish so that you know what you’re aiming for.

I am thoroughly looking forward to trying a number of these recipes over the coming months, although I will have to look elsewhere for clues on how to recreate my beloved broad bean salad. In the meantime, I need to find those Swiss chard seeds….

Taste of Beirut: 150+ Delicious Lebanese Recipes from Classics to Contemporary to Mezzes and More
by Joumana Accad

Kindle edition, £10.93
Paperback, 320 pages, £11.51, published 10 October 2014
ISBN 9780757317705
Publisher: Health Communications

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

Posted in Blog on Sep 20, 2014 ·

Last modified on Sep 19, 2014

Tags: books & food.

The Parlour Bookshop, Didcot

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The Parlour Bookshop

The Parlour Bookshop, Didcot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secondhand books

My new secondhand books

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

The Parlour Bookshop
30 Wantage Road
OX11 0BT

T: 01235 818989

(They also offer photocopying, faxing and laminating!)

Posted in Blog on Aug 20, 2014 ·

Tag: books

Greens in Gaza

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Colourful chard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Almond tree

Posted in Blog on Aug 5, 2014 ·

Last modified on Aug 7, 2014

Tags: books & ethnobotany.

Book classification system

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We still don’t have a date for moving into the house, and nothing is certain, but I am looking forward to the day when I can be reunited with my books. For two years now, many of them have been stored in my parents’ garage; some travelled with me to Kent and although I briefly lived in the same place as some of them, they’re now in a storage locker.

Although I have missed some of my fiction favourites, it’s the distance from my reference library that has pained me the most. Now that it appears the end of the separation is in sight, I have been giving some thought so how I will organise them in their new home.

I used to have an ad hoc system whereby books on a similar topic were clumped together, although it was complicated by the fact that I liked to keep books by one author together as well. I found it hard to keep track of which books I had, and where they were. When I was looking for a book on a shelf it was mostly by the memory of what it looked like – and, when I finally found one, it wasn’t unusual to find out that it looked nothing like I thought.

Keeping track of books in multiple locations has been trickier still. There are a few volumes that have slipped through the net, and are currently… somewhere, but I kept a list of the contents of each box I packed, and stored it in an Evernote database. Over the last few months this has morphed into a Library notebook, in which each book has a record based on a template. It lists the title, author, source details and current location. For non-fiction books it has a space for notes, and for a citation if I think I will want to make use of my research. New books are added as I acquire them, and as long as I keep the locations updated, everything is hunky dory. It’s nice to be able to refer to the database and know that, yes, I do have a copy of that book somewhere. (And it can keep track of ebooks in different formats, which I otherwise tend to forget I have.)

But unless I label my shelves with very specific location data, my Evernote catalogue isn’t going to help me find the book on the shelf. So over the weekend I decided to become a complete and utter library nerd and develop a personal classification system, so that I could label my books and shelve them in a way that makes some sort of sense.

I’m reasonably familiar with the Dewey Decimal System (DDS) from a user’s perspective, since it’s quite popular in libraries. The basic idea is that it is a ‘tree’ system, with ten umbrella subject categories at the top, each one of which is broken down into ten divisions, each one of which has ten sections. You end up with a classification for a book that looks like “629.786 FRE”, which includes the first three letters of the author’s surname, and means you can shelve books alphabetically within each section.

The problem with the standard DDS for me is that a) I wouldn’t use a lot of the classes, and b) I own so many different kinds of gardening/plant books that I keep running out of sections to put them in. So I looked at the topics of the books I do have, and tried to work out my own, personal classification system. I won’t really know whether it works or not until I have tried to shelve all my books, but I reckon they should all be covered by this:

Class 000: Plants and gardening

000 General gardening
000 General gardening
001 Horticulture
002 Wildlife gardening
003 Composting and soil
004 Permaculture
005 Community gardening
006 Weeds
007 Plant diseases
008 Garden pests
009 Garden history

010 Edible gardening
010 Edible gardening
011 Fruit
012 Vegetables
013 Herbs
014 Unusual crops
015 Edible flowers
016 Perennials and forest gardening
017 Foraging
018 Heritage varieties
019 Wartime gardening

020 Ethnobotany and anthropology
020 Ethnobotany and anthropology
021 General ethnobotany/ anthropology
022 Plant use
023 Food culture
024 Drugs
025 Aphrodisiacs
026 Off-grid living

030 Botany and plant science
030 Botany/ plant science
031 General botany reference
032 Plant identification
033 Botanical Latin
034 Botanical history
035 Propagation

040 Fungi and microbes
040 General fungi
041 Fungi cultivation
042 Microbes

050 Garden animals
050 General animal reference
051 Chickens
052 Bees
053 Insects and minibeasts

Class 100: Food

100 General food
100 Food
101 Food memoir
102 Food history
103 Spices & seasonings
104 Tea and coffee
105 Other drinks
106 Seaweed and algae

110 Recipes
110 General recipe books
111 Garden to table
112 Asian
113 Middle Eastern
114 Spanish
115 Nordic
116 Baking
117 Vegetarian
118 Ices
119 Slow-cooking

Class 200: Science

200 General science
200 General science reference
201 Popular science
202 Chemistry
203 Physics
204 Space
205 Environment

Class 300: Humanities

300 General humanities

310 Writing
310 General writing
311 Freelance
312 Science
313 Home & garden writing
314 Publishing

320 Languages
320 Languages
321 Spanish

330 History
330 History

340 Crafts and hobbies
340 General crafts/ hobbies
341 Photography
342 Papermaking
343 Drawing and illustration
344 Travel

It clearly has plenty of room for expansion. You may be thinking that it’s overkill for a personal library. It might be – but I have over 300 titles in my non-fiction collection and, having had the experience of wanting to pick up a book I once read but no longer own, I am loathe to have any more clear outs. Plus, it may be nerdy, but putting it together made me happy :)

I should be able to use my Brother garden labeller to label my books – the labels don’t fade, they’re removable and don’t leave behind a sticky residue (I know from using them for pretty much everything for a few years!). They may have to go vertically on the spine, rather than conventionally horizontal, but I can live with that.

Even once you have a classification system, what number to give a particular book is a bit of a judgement call. I have a copy of The Complete Yurt Handbook, which stumped me for a little while. I nearly put it in with the food books, because it’s the details of Mongolian food culture in it that I really enjoy (I’m never likely to build my own yurt!). Having put it to one side for a little while though, I found some other titles it naturally falls with – hence the “Off-grid living” section. In some ways it doesn’t matter, as long as you can find the book, but I like the serendipity of going to look for a particular book in the library, and finding something even better close by on the shelf.

Ryan bought me a Personal Library Kit, so I can be a proper librarian – it has a date stamp, and sticky wallets you can put in the books to mark in the date books are returned, and removable cards so you can keep track of which books are on loan, and who has them. Not that I intend to lend my books to many people – that’s a very quick way to lose friends!

Anyway, labelling and shelving my books should be a fun rainy day project once we’ve moved into the house. How do you keep track of yours?

Posted in Blog on Jul 10, 2014 ·

Tag: books

Choose your own adventure blog

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In Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs I take a look at some of the journeys familiar plants have made across the globe, and touch on their arrival in previously inhospitable places – underwater, Antarctica and even outer space. Since writing it I have become increasingly interested in the idea of plants in space, and have blogged about some of the current projects (lettuce on the ISS, and a ‘Mars’ greenhouse in Hawaii, you can scroll through the posts by selecting the space blog category). Researching the history of plants in space has proven to be quite a challenge. It’s not that there’s no information available, it’s that there’s a lot, and it’s a fascinating topic. Tracking down one piece of research inevitably brings up something new and shiny, and you’re off down a rabbit hole. It occurred to me that it’s a bit like a maze, and I thought we could treat it like a Choose Your Own Adventure story.

So… here’s the plan. I’ll write a blog post on something interesting I’ve found during the course of my research, and then list three rabbit holes I could have quite happily fallen down. You’ll have a few days to vote on which topic you’d like to hear more about, and then a couple of days later, voila! a new blog post will appear and we’ll repeat the process. We’ll be going on a research adventure together. Ideally I’d like to do one new post a week for the series, but whether I’ll be able to keep that up is another matter (things are a little busy here).

This week I have been reading The MIR space station: A precursor to space colonization by David M. Harland, who is an author and space historian. He has put together a very detailed book about the history of Soviet space stations – the Salyut series and Mir. I have been guilty in the past of assuming that advances in space have mainly been made by Western nations (NASA is very good at disseminating information, and the USA is justly proud of its space programme), but in fact a lot of nations contribute to space research, and a lot of pioneering plant science came out of the Soviet programme. It was on Mir, for example, that the first plant completed an entire lifecycle (from seed, to mature plant, to seeds) in space – the result of a concerted effort to overcome the many problems inherent in horticulture in microgravity. (Objects in orbit around the Earth experience ‘weightlessness’ because they’re always falling; although this is sometimes referred to as ‘zero g’ or ‘zero gravity’, it’s more accurate to say that the gravitational forces are very small – hence microgravity).

Harland’s book isn’t about plants, it’s about space exploration. He goes through each and every space mission relating to the Salyut stations, and Mir, through to the Shuttle-Mir missions and the plans for the ISS. (The book was published in 1997, and so pre-dates Mir’s demise in 2001.) What saves this from being a very dry recitation of facts is that Harland includes a lot of the human aspects of space exploration. The book doesn’t gloss over the very real risks that the cosmonauts were taking, or the lives that have been lost. He relives the drama of cosmonauts being stranded on a damaged and leaking space station, after a collision with a supply vehicle. He draws out an important thread – that a continuously manned space station (such as the ISS) has a much greater chance of long-term survival, as the crew can fix (very often with considerable creativity to overcome a lack of resources) very serious problems that would jeopardize the continued existence of a station if it happened to be unmanned at the time.

There’s plenty about the joys and problems of being in space. If being a glorified medical guinea pig doesn’t put you off the idea of being an astronaut, perhaps this will – apparently one consequence of weightlessness is that stomach gases do not rise to the gullet; instead they pass through the intestines and give rise to highly aromatic, intense flatulence! Imagine that smell waiting to great new arrivals when they open the airlock…. That’s generally not a problem gardeners on Earth have to deal with, unless they choose to feed their dinner guests with homegrown Jerusalem artichokes ;)

And so it turned out to be a surprisingly fascinating read, chock full of detailed information (some of which I skipped over), but eminently readable and it details a non-Western chapter of space exploration that we perhaps haven’t heard enough about. Along the way it allows us to read some of the early history of plants in space, providing a jumping off point for further research into those experiments.

Which means that it’s time for me to hand over to you to choose the next step of our adventure. Would you like to continue to delve into the history of of those early plant experiments, and learn more about the first plants in space? Or wander off down a tangent and look at what happens when you take honeybees into space? We know that bees are a critical part of Earth’s ecosystem, and they may be an essential feature of self-sustaining manned missions (to the Moon, or Mars), but how do they fly in microgravity? Or perhaps you’d like to come back to the present, and find out more about the possibility of using the Moon as a safe repository for our most precious treasures – including a lunar seed bank.

Have a think about which path you’d like our journey to take, and then cast your vote. I’ll count the votes on Monday evening and start working on the blog post you’ve chosen :)

Update And our first winner is Bees in space! Watch this space for a blog post on that topic in the next week or so, and then it will be time to pick again – so don’t worry if your favourite topic didn’t get picked this time, there’ll be other opportunities as our journey together unfolds.

Space bees won!

Posted in Blog on Jul 3, 2014 ·

Last modified on Jul 7, 2014

Tags: space & books.

Book review: Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution

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Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a RevolutionIf you’ve heard about Incredible Edible Todmorden, you probably think it’s a project to fill the town with edible plants, available to anyone to harvest at they wander past. You may have seen pictures of the beds of sweetcorn outside the police station, or heard about the herb beds at the medical centre.

But although the vegetables are putting Todmorden on the map (it has spawned a whole new pastime of ‘vegetable tourism’), the original founders of Incredible Edible Todmorden would tell you that they’re Trojan horses – ‘propaganda planting’ delivering a far more powerful message of community empowerment.

Todmorden was a town in decline. It had lost most of its industry. Jobs were few and far between. The local school had a poor reputation, and pupils were being shipped elsewhere. Residents weren’t hopeful of a turnaround in their situation; government initiatives at various levels weren’t providing a solution.

As Pam Warhurst and Joanna Dobson explain in Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution, the idea behind Incredible Edible was to engage the community in developing their own solutions – using food as a concept that can unite us all. Building a kinder society was the goal; planting vegetables was merely a means to an end.

The first part of the book is a look back at the early years of Incredible Edible, and shows just how successful that idea has been. The founders took action, rather than relying on words, and didn’t wait for permission or funding. Slowly but surely they have created new planted areas across the town, and build a bee-friendly walking route to showcase the highlights and local businesses.

There are three ‘plates’ to keep spinning in an Incredible Edible town. The first is community, bringing the town together to work as a team. The success of this aspect was clearly shown when Todmorden suffered serious flooding in June 2012, with people rallying round to provide 1200 meals to those whose houses had been affected by the floods and were left unable to cook for themselves. The police now donate any materials they confiscate during raids on drug farms to Incredible Edible, which has benefitted greatly from compost and buckets, gardening tools and even heated propagators that they would never have been able to afford to buy.

Learning is the second plate, and schools in the area have actively participated in the Incredible Edible project. Todmorden High School now has an aquaponics system, and offers an Agriculture BTEC as well as more familiar subjects. With a canteen offering good food made from local ingredients, the school has lost its poor reputation and is threading food themes throughout the curriculum.

And the third plate is business, and the authors are keen to showcase those local enterprises that are benefitting from the Incredible Edible ethos. The local market, small farms involved in producing local cheeses, or high quality meat products. Restaurants serving local produce, and cookery classes and demonstrations galore.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Although the authors have downplayed their struggles in favour of an upbeat, ‘can do’ book that mirrors the Incredible Edible mindset, there have been dissenters. Some residents have been suspicious of their motives, others have been bluntly critical, and some ‘downright nasty’. They have not, however, had to worry about vandalism. As they say, “…it really has been our experience that people are not interested in vandalising parsnips.”

Each chapter in part one is accompanied by recipes for using homegrown produce, whether it’s a sausage casserole that caters for a crowd or a delicate French soup recipe that relies on radish leaves. There are also colour photographs at the heart of the book, showing what has been achieved.

Once you get to part two, the emphasis changes to how you can start your own Incredible Edible movement. It includes a wealth of practical information, with suggestions of plants to grow, tips on building raised beds, how to working with schools and businesses, and raising money and keeping volunteers.

Part two is a reference section, and will be good to have to hand if you find yourself supporting a community food project, but don’t be put off by thinking that this is a ‘how to’ manual – part one is entertainingly written and a thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in communities, food, or growing your own. I occasionally found myself lost in the timeline- although the tale is written sequentially, it’s not always totally clear which year you’re rattling through – but that’s a minor problem and you soon find yourself back on track.

With good food, good company, drama, natural disasters and heartwarming community, Incredible! has all the makings of a summer blockbuster – with peas :)

Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution
by Pam Warhurst and Joanna Dobson
Kindle edition, £3.99
Paperback, 304 pages, RRP £12.99, published 28 August 2014
ISBN 9781783064878
Publisher: Matador

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

Posted in Blog on Jun 30, 2014 ·

Tag: books

Book review: Kitchen Garden Experts

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Kitchen Garden Experts

If you’ve ever wanted to sneak a peek into the kitchen gardens of famous chefs, then Kitchen Garden Experts by Cinead McTernan, with photographs by Jason Ingram, will be a must-have book for you. Published by Frances Lincoln at the beginning of May, it takes us on a tour of twenty kitchen gardens in the UK that supply produce to famous chefs. For each site we get introduced to both the chef and the head gardener, and are treated to a selection of recipes for using homegrown produce in a very up-market way.

When I was doing my dissertation last year, I came to the conclusion that for an unusual edible crop to make it in a garden, it had to be supported by both a gardener and a cook (although those two roles could be played by the same, multi-talented, person). My idea is borne out by the gardens visited in the book – in many of them exotic edibles have been included by the gardener, often at the request of the chef.

We’re told that, at The Grove in Pembrokeshire, Head gardener David Butt “likes to grow unusual crops that are generally unavailable or expensive”. David has a pink variety of oca (Oxalis tuberosa), a tuberous vegetable originally from the Andes that allows chef Duncan Barham to add novelty to the menu. David and Duncan don’t think of their vegetable garden as a way to cut their food bills, but as the “very best way to ensure provenance” – a philosophy that will resonate with many home growers.

The citrus flavour of oca is also appreciated at River Cottage, where the leaves are used as a leafy salad vegetable or a garnish, in addition to the tubers.

At The Ethicurean in Somerset, grower Mark Cox shares my love of experimenting, and gives the chefs an intriguing array of crops. He includes quinoa and achocha, and loves electric daisies (or alien eyeballs!) – although the book notes the Ethicurean’s customers have yet to share his enthusiasm for this tongue-tingling flower!

A L’Enclume (Cumbria) staple dish involves a perennial crop that will be familiar to permaculturalists – Good King Henry. It sometimes gets bad press as one of those old-fashioned plants that was “forgotten for a reason”, but at L’Enclume it is a key ingredient of a signature duck dish. The restaurant also grows its own oyster plant, “an indigenous sea vegetable from the west coast of Scotland” that previously had to be sourced from a grower in the Netherlands.

A willingness to seek out and try new ingredients is a theme throughout the book, but the main focus is on more familiar crops. There are growing instructions for plants such as baby beetroot, rhubarb and radishes, courgettes, tomatoes and turnips. A plant has to be deemed delicious to be worthy of inclusion in these gardens; the section on Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons talks about their signature microgreens and courgette flowers.

Most of us won’t get the chance to visit these places in person, and to nose around the gardens. But Ingram’s photos bring the book to life, and make it the next best thing to being there. The only problem being that you have to cook the food yourself!

Kitchen Garden Experts
by Cinead McTernan
Hardback, 192 pages, RRP £20
ISBN 9780711234963
Publisher: Frances Lincoln

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

Posted in Blog on May 29, 2014 ·

Tags: books & food.

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