Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

2012 Roadmap

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Elder Stubbs sign post

2011 was quite a busy year for me and included two fun and productive social media experiments – blogging The Peat-Free Diet and hosting Write Club 2011.

in 2012 I am hoping to publish three ebooks – The Peat-Free Diet, My Garden is Not a Cat Toilet and the manuscript I am close to finishing – Jade Pearls & Alien Eyeballs: Incredible Edible Plants and the People Who Grow Them.

I am hoping to finish writing ‘Jade Pearls’ by the end of February; I am pretty close. Once I have it needs a foreword, editing and sanity-checking, formatting and the likes before it becomes a book. It’s not a process you want to rush, but finishing the manuscript marks the end of the time when I am solely responsible for the book.

Which means I will have more time on my hands, and as this coincides with the beginning of the growing season, I am hoping to spend a lot more time outside. There is still work to be done on the garden redesign to get it into shape for spring. And I have an OU short course (my last, this time, I am determined it will be my last) to finish by the end of April.

But there will come a point when the idea of starting another book looms large on the horizon, and so I have a question for you – what would you like me to write about? What would you like to read? What are your interests? I am specifically asking here about book-length topics, but feel free to suggest shorter blog/ podcast topics as well.

If I do end up writing one of the books suggested, then I will give credit to the person(s) who suggested it in the book, and probably send them a free copy of the ebook as well. If you all gang up on me and a particular topic is resoundingly popular then I might form a book group where we can all discuss the contents, and progress of the book so that you have some say in the process (as you did with The Peat-Free Diet, which contains – and acknowledges – your contributions).

You can leave your suggestions here in the comments, tweet me, write on my Facebook wall or simply email them to me :)

Posted in Blog on Feb 24, 2012 ·

Last modified on Feb 25, 2014

Tags: scribbling & books.

Writer's Retreat: A Room of my own

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Thinking, over the last few days, about how my Writer’s Retreat has been going, I have come to the conclusion that it has been a complete disaster. The period since Christmas has been one overwhelmed by grief and loss (and yes, I do know they’re ‘just’ chickens).

Life has changed a lot, but it still goes on. I am reading more – harking back to an earlier period when the first hour or so of my day was reading time, without the need to go outside and see to the chickens.

The picture above is of my office, the room in which I am supposed to write. I took the photo this morning, and the office is in a state of flux, but the although these distinct piles of clutter will be moved on, no doubt others will take their place. The neutral decor is reflected throughout the house – a deliberate decision to make it easier to sell when the time comes, although hardly inspiring.

Garden view

I have a view out into the garden – again, hardly inspiring on a grey day like today. The room is north facing, and there’s a ring road in the distance that can be quite noisy. The Raptors (the three younger chickens) were also noisy; writing with the window open in the summer became impossible.


Behind my desk is a wall of books. There are some gaps on the shelves as I am having a bit of a clear out. They will gradually be filled.

The problem is that I have developed an aversion to my office. I am perfectly happy writing, just not in there. The noisy chickens were part of it; the fact that it has become a bit of a glory hole over the winter isn’t helping, but that at least is easily remedied.

Mind you, once the clutter has been removed it will feel even more sterile. I need a way to inject a bit of life, preferably without spending any money or doing anything too permanent.

Posted in Blog on Jan 19, 2012 ·

Last modified on Apr 14, 2014

Tag: scribbling

Writer's Retreat: Fat

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Yesterday was a very difficult day, and today is due to offer up more of the same. Hopefully it will see an end to the drama, though, and I will blog about that in due course. On Monday I spent around three hours working on Jade Pearls & Alien Eyeballs and reached a bit of a milestone – 15,000 words, with all of the people profiles added in. Time to start on the plant profiles.


Since I have drastically cut back on eating meat this morning I have had an experience I haven’t had for a while – washing the accumulated greasy grunge off the grill, this time the result of a couple of lamb chops. Hence I have been thinking about fat.

These days we’re obsessed with fat – eating it, avoiding it, and working it off after Christmas (Pete is out pounding the pavement as I type, although he began last year and it’s not a resolution for the new year in his case). But for most of human history we would have been hard pressed to get too much fat in our diets. And in World War II it would have been unthinkable for me to have wasted the fat that came off my lamb – it would have been cleaned up, solidified in the pantry and used for cooking to supplement the meagre fat ration. Going back further into history every scrap would have been eaten or used for lamps, or possibly even rather fragrant skin care!

Now we’re exhorted not to pour waste fat down the drain (where it clogs the sewers and encourages rats). We can take waste oil to the recycling centre to be turned into biodiesel, or use it to make high calorie snacks for the garden birds. You can also compost small amounts (it’s made of hydrocarbons, after all) if you mix it with something dry like paper.

If you had to grow your own fat, you might find it a little tricky. There are plenty of plants that produce it, so you wouldn’t necessarily have to raise animals, but your diet would look very different.

There are no vegetables I can think of that have significant amounts of fat; the only fatty fruits I know of that are regularly eaten are avocados and olives – neither likely to be very productive in the British climate!

However, there are plenty of plants that develop oily seeds, and many of those can be grown here quite successfully – it’s processing them into cooking oil that causes issues on a small scale. Sunflowers are a big crop in France and grow well enough here; for an oil crop you’d want a black-seeded variety, but if you’re going to eat the seeds then apparently the striped ones are better.

Pumpkin seeds are also a reasonable source of fat and you can also get several varieties that have been bred with hulless seeds. Pumpkin seeds can be a valuable by-product of a crop grown primarily for squash, although you have to experiment to find a dual-purpose variety that works for you and you climate.

It’s also possible to grow flaxseed, linseed and sesame here, although how easy they are to harvest and thresh I don’t know. I’m sure some of you can come along, chew the fat, and offer some more suggestions ;)

Posted in Blog on Jan 11, 2012 ·

Last modified on Apr 14, 2014

Tags: scribbling & food.

Writer's Retreat: On Twitter

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Over the last couple of days, I have gained a lot of new followers on Twitter. Judging by who they are and the things they tweet, this is not because I was asking questions about the (culinary) differences between hemp and marijuana after reading an interesting blog post with a recipe for a Moroccan love potion with pot. It seems to be almost entirely due to the fact that the lovely Alys Fowler retweeted one of my tweets (and, of course, our respective followers have similar interests).

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t have that many Twitter followers – around 1,100 this morning. That’s because I don’t follow the ‘rules’ for Twitter popularity:

  1. Follow everyone who follows you, regardless of whether they’re real people, companies promoting their products or spammers.

  2. Search out, and tweet on, trending topics.

  3. Mention your (or other people’s) genitalia or sex life.

  4. Tweet about drugs (although a response is not guaranteed, see above).

  5. Follow more people, as they may feel obliged to follow you back.

  6. Take part in hashtag events, such as #FF Follow Friday, where you suggest people you follow that other people might enjoy.

My own approach is somewhat different, and I fully expect to lose a high proportion of new followers shortly after they discover me. I opt for a far more rational use of Twitter, which is very well explained in this blog post by food blogger BraveTart. Stella has lots of tips on the combination of blogging and tweeting.

I tweet, almost exclusively, about gardening, food and the environment – the stuff I write about. I occasionally indulge in friendly banter with the people I know on twitter. I follow, almost exclusively, people who do the same thing. I have good friends on twitter that I don’t follow because our virtual interests barely intersect; I have good friends on twitter that I only follow because they barely tweet at all; there’s a well-known garden writer that I don’t follow – simply because he tweets about sporting events more than I can stand.

I add new followers, and I delete people sometimes. It’s not a judgement on them as a person – I don’t like them any less than I did when I first followed them, but for some reason I no longer want to clutter my day with their tweets.

I know that my chosen Twitter strategy offends some people – one in particular springs to mind, who simply can’t understand why I wouldn’t want to follow him back. If you feel this way, then feel free not to follow me – I certainly won’t be offended. I do not get notified when I lose followers, nor do I often check who is on the list.

I view my Twitter stream as an endless source of contact with people who share my interests, and the inspiration they provide. It’s the most immediate way of being part of (a small section of!) the online gardening community.

There are days when I can write with my Twitter client running in the background, and there are days when I can’t. There are days when I can fully function as a human being with my Twitter client running in the background, and days when I can’t. The solution in both cases is the same – turn it off!

But even if I don’t follow you, don’t be afraid to engage me in conversation; I don’t bite and usually have time for a chat :)

Oh, and if you have a Mac and you’re wondering where the # key is – it doesn’t have one. To produce a hash symbol you have to press Alt and 3 at the same time.

Posted in Blog on Jan 9, 2012 ·

Last modified on Jan 9, 2012

Tag: scribbling

Writer's Retreat: Battlefield Earth

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Bees on poppy

My immune system is currently battling against an alien invader – the cold thoughtfully passed on to me a few days ago. The outcome of this conflict is not in doubt; it’s duration is less clear cut.

War and conflict appear to be part of the human psyche. Even those of us who are far removed from the armed forces may become embroiled in the War Against Weeds, the War Against Pests or an ongoing quest to Dig For Victory. Although we are far outnumbered, we have both chemical and biological weapons in our arsenals.

One of the most enduring images of war for the British is the field poppy, taken from the Flanders fields that bloomed so spectacularly after the horrors of WWI churned them up. It is now our symbol of remembrance.

(Those of you who are botanically-minded should note that I know the poppy above is not a field poppy; I believe it’s an opium poppy.)

Those poppies bloomed because their seeds had lain dormant underground, just waiting to be brought to the surface so that they could germinate. Weeds have a tendency to do that, which is why the phrase “One year’s seeding, seven year’s weeding” encourages us to remove them before they set seed. Even so, weeds are a perennial topic in garden writing.

  • If you’re going to be digging your soil in preparation for a spring sowing, then the stale seedbed technique is one way of getting the weed seed problem under control.

  • No Dig technique, such as mulching the soil surface, cut down on the need for weeding.

  • Not all self-seeded plants are unwelcome. There are numerous ‘volunteers’ in my garden, that have grown by themselves but are most welcome. The list for 2011 includes elderberries (thank you, birds!), calendula, parsley, violas, borage, lemon balm, lavender, tree spinach and wonderberries. I’m hoping the 2012 list will include those opium poppies.

  • Volunteer tubers are a little harder to deal with. Potatoes can grow in the compost heap, and where we forget to dig them up they can grow again next year; the experts tell us this is a sure-fire way to attract pests and diseases. The oca that grew in my garden in 2011 were, I’m fairly sure, left over from 2009 (having grown and not been completely cleared for a second time in 2010). The Jerusalem artichokes I planted in the ground last year may become a problem in my new bed layout.

  • But even if your self-seeders are weeds and not welcome volunteers, they may still be useful. With foraging and wild food still on the rise, they can make a welcome addition to the dinner table, particularly at this time of year when there’s not much going on in the veg patch. Foraged leaves are acceptable entries in Veg Plotting’s 52 week salad challenge, which has just kicked off.

Yesterday was not a Writing day. Yesterday was a Dealing With the Accounts day, and a Loud Conference Call Going on Downstairs day. Oh, and an Uncovering a Giant Mushroom in the Garden day :)

Posted in Blog on Jan 7, 2012 ·

Last modified on Apr 14, 2014

Tags: scribbling & weeds.

Writer's Retreat: Muck and Magic

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Steaming heap

Yesterday I wrote a piece about The Peat-Free Diet for the Oxfordshire Master Composter’s newsletter, and a quick case study about why I got involved with the project for the handbook. (If you’re curious, I talked about that in episode 67 of the Alternative Kitchen Garden Show.)

On New Year’s Eve I went out in the garden for a low effort potter and discovered that some serious worm bin maintenance was in order – the worms were evacuating the WasteJuggler (which is like a mini wheelie bin with a tap), which is a sign that conditions inside are unacceptable. It was my fault; I’d known for weeks that the tap had become blocked and liquid wasn’t draining, but hadn’t got around to doing anything about it.

After a quick wardrobe change, I got stuck in. I emerged about an hour later covered head to toe in brown goo and smelling like I’d been rolling around in a pig sty. The worms had been rescued, the finished compost harvested and the worm bin set up again; but it was one of those occasions when I had to get undressed in the Futility Room as I was too dirty to be allowed into the house.

I was reminded of an anecdote from WWII where a Land Girl who was assigned to work with the pigs wore her dungarees until they were stiff with muck. Then she sent them home to her mother for washing; the mother, short on supplies for her own garden, soaked them in water to loosen the dirt, then used that water as a liquid feed for her veggies…. :)

There’s no doubt that gardening can be dirty work, and that there’s money (and inspiration) in muck:

  • Manure, particularly the elusive “well-rotted horse manure”, is a perennial topic in garden writing. But anyone who has a guaranteed source of the stuff is unlikely to share that information!

  • You can also branch off into manure tea and other liquid manure preparations, or go the vegan route and talk about green manures.

  • Humanure is a still an almost taboo topic, but composting toilets are becoming a little more acceptable.

  • My garden has been fuelled by chicken manure for six years now. I haven’t thought about the effects that rehoming the chickens will have, but a shortage of material for composting could well be one of them.

  • There’s also the ongoing concern of manure contaminated by aminopyralid, a herbicide that is supposed to break down but clearly doesn’t do so quickly enough to prevent damage to vegetable crops.

Magic is something else entirely. Magic is things happening in a nice clean, effortless way. Magic is about seeing the end result but not how it came about. You know, the way that nature does things ;)

Posted in Blog on Jan 6, 2012 ·

Tags: scribbling & compost.

Writer's Retreat: Conveyor Belt

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I have a fascination with conveyor belts, and have had ever since I was a kid. I don’t often come into contact with them, and I don’t have any photos – mind you, they can be very dull things to photograph since the thrill is in the action. If you ever visit Cadbury World, go round the back to the play area and see whether the little museum section is still open – last time I went (a few years ago now) there was a big window onto a maze of conveyor belts that brought finished boxes of candy bars from all over the factory and assembled them onto pallets for shipping. I could have stayed for hours.

Long ago and far away my first job out of university was on a management training programme for a printing company. They forced me to read a couple of books. One was ‘How to win friends and influence people’ – your hair looks lovely today, by the way :)

I don’t remember the title of the second, but it was about a factory that was having problems with bottlenecks. They had streamlined their process and implemented all the economies of scale, and large batches of materials worked their way through the various processes in the factory to produce cost-effective goods at the other end. Only they were having problems with bottlenecks, which meant that the goods weren’t finished on time and the factory was losing money. The solution was counter-intuitive. By breaking down the large batches into small batches, the bottlenecks disappeared and the flow through the factory was better, which meant that the finished goods shipped on time and the profits went up despite the economies of scale disappearing. Thrilling book, huh?

It’s possible to see the garden in terms of a conveyor belt. From early spring onwards there is a relentless forward motion, with the seasons pressing on and plants growing. Gardening activities have to take place at the optimum time for the best results. Bottlenecks occur along the way, with the gardener up against the clock sowing seeds, planting out or even harvesting veggies.

There are two distinct ways in which humans deal with the modern conveyor belt mentality. They try and streamline the process, make it as efficient as possible and remove all the bottlenecks. That way lies efficiency and productivity – garden nirvana. Or they try and step off the conveyor belt – stop and smell the roses. I suspect most gardeners try both approaches at different times of the year.

I didn’t do any work on my book yesterday. This morning it has occurred to me that if I think of my writing process as a conveyor belt, picking up ideas and taking them to the different parts of my mental factory (and yes, I know that makes me sound like a nutter), then my conveyor belt is being affected by a bottleneck. Work is backing up, and one particular type of goods isn’t being shipped in a timely fashion. It’s not a problem I can solve on my own, so I have to go and talk to the foreman.

Posted in Blog on Jan 4, 2012 ·

Last modified on Apr 10, 2014

Tag: scribbling

Writer's Retreat: Wind

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Wind farm

I was woken up this morning by the wheelie bin blowing over. Even after the Christmas delays in the collection cycle, the contents (with all recyclables removed) doesn’t weigh enough to keep it upright in the wind today. When the sun comes up and the chickens get up for their breakfast I will leave them confined to their closed runs – they will blow away otherwise!

Wind appears a lot in fiction – what could be more atmospheric than a howling gale and lashing winds? Not only does it provide a significant hazard for characters, but it brings with it the emotional portent of forthcoming doom. Even in this modern age we are not immune, with ‘extreme weather’ events being one of the early side-effects of climate change; somewhat ironically, wind-power may be one of the routes to our salvation.

Of course, the nature of the human condition means that there’s more than one kind of wind and it’s not the only thing that blows!

In the garden, wind has numerous effects:

  • The wheelie bin incident is unusual here, but unsecured objects blowing around is not. I know Carl Legge once lost his trampoline, but he does live in a windy part of the world. My mum saw someone else’s laundry flying through her garden last year.

  • In fact, wind can uproot entire trees, and even lower wind velocities can cause wind rock, a particularly problem for tall brassicas during the winter. Staking is the only remedy.

  • Gardeners in windy areas can build or plant a shelter belt, which reduces the wind velocity in its lee. A solid barrier like a brick wall causes turbulence that can be more damaging than the wind itself; permeable barriers like hedges reduce the force of the wind without causing the turbulence. The extent of their effect depends on their height.

  • Trees that grow in prevailing winds are contorted into spectacular shapes. There’s some fascinating information available online on how wind affects trees.

  • When I was learning how to ride a motorbike (long ago and far away) my instructor asked me which weather conditions brought about an invisible hazard. I answered ice – but he countered that ice was predictable in cold weather. He was talking about the wind; although you can tell when it’s a windy day, gusts are unpredictable. Wind is just one of a number of ‘invisible forces’ that we ignore every day. Think about the water pressure holding plants up – we only notice it when the plant runs out of water and starts to droop.

No one has joined me on my Writer’s Retreat yet, but that’s OK :) If you do choose to join in then just leave the link to your wind-inspired prose (or your own writing exercise) in the comments below.

I am still under the weather and making slow progress on assembling the work I have already done on Jade Pearls & Alien Eyeballs. I think I am nearly done with that now, so later in the week I should be able to start filling in the gaps with new words.

Posted in Blog on Jan 3, 2012 ·

Last modified on Aug 7, 2012

Tag: scribbling

Writer's Retreat: Fever Dreams

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I’ve started the new year with a cold – nothing serious, I’m just feeling a bit under the weather. I went to bed feeling ropey last night, and experienced something I’d forgotten about – fever dreams. They weren’t particularly wacky, or pleasant, but when I finally stopped trying to sleep I was inspired enough to reach for… my sketchpad. Now I can’t really draw, but I had an idea for an illustration that I wanted to get down on paper before my brain properly woke up. It has occurred to me that works of art don’t really emerge in one session, paint splashed onto canvas by a maestro, like you see in the movies. With a little effort, and several unsuccessful attempts, I may be able to capture a version of the illustration I am happy with.

I wasn’t short of inspiration in 2011 and I have several writing projects that I have outlined and are waiting to be written. Some are rather epic things, requiring a lot of work and research and time to grow. Others are shorter and more instant. The one this illustration is for is for a rather esoteric piece of writing I started in the last days of the year. It’s about sleep, and dreams, and is such a departure from my normal work that it may never see the light of day.

Dreams aren’t the easiest things to capture on paper, particularly in fiction where it’s tempting to use them as exposition – an obvious, intensely logical ‘aha’ moment that explains what characters are thinking. Which, of course, dreams don’t do. But they can be great sources of inspiration, which is why plenty of writers sleep with a notebook to hand.

So, if you’re following along with the Writer’s Retreat this month, today’s topics are Fever and Dreams:

  • It’s a good time to be talking about hopes and dreams, with a new year just dawning and spring around the corner.

  • Illness often brings about change in our lives, although it may just be a temporary retreat into a nostalgic version of our childhood – chicken soup (or Lucozade!) on the sofa, under the duvet.

  • Fever can also be brought on by other things….

  • The Fever Tree is Acacia xanthophloea, and gives us quinine, the original treatment for malaria. It has had a huge impact on human history.

  • And if you wanted to head off on a tangent then you might find inspiration in the range of botanical mixers produced by Fever Tree here in the UK. Booze was a hot topic in 2011 and no doubt that trend will continue into 2012.

  • I knew that giraffes and other African animals like eating acacia trees, but until a recent revelation at my local Thai grocery shop I didn’t know that there was an entire Acacia genus of plants and that some of them are suitable for human consumption. Poo Weed Omelette anyone? :)

Flights of fancy aside, what I am hoping to do this month is make considerable progress on an old project – my book about people who grow unusual edibles, which is now titled Jade Pearls & Alien Eyeballs. It’s a complex project, with interviews and profiles, research and prose. I have picked it up and let it drop so many times that there’s bits and pieces of it all over the place.

Yesterday I began the process of bringing together all the pieces I have. Once that is done I can match it up to the overall plan and see what remains to be written. It’s a bit like doing a jigsaw where you have to colour in the pieces yourself! Hopefully I can finish it this time, as not only does it have some fascinating interviews that really deserve to be read, but there are snippets about forthcoming books that are really enticing… and time sensitive!

Posted in Blog on Jan 2, 2012 ·

Last modified on Aug 7, 2012

Tags: scribbling & fire.

Writer's Retreat: Fire

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I am going to be spending the first month of 2012 engaged in a virtual writer’s retreat. I am not going anywhere physically; the idea is merely to allow writing to be my main focus. As a result I fully expect to spend far less time (but probably not none) on Facebook and Twitter; I will still be working on the garden.

Writer’s retreats are, by their nature, very personal things. Some people head off on one simply to create a space in which they can write – free from the every day things that get in the way. Some use them, and the exercises supplied by organized retreats, to reboot creativity. I imagine others use them as a way to meet and engage with other writers.

So, with that in mind, if you want to join me on my virtual retreat, feel free :) I will try and blog every day (an exercise in itself) about what I’ve been writing about, what has inspired me, or (possibly) how much of a writing funk I have spent the day in!


Early this morning, a tweet led me to the blog of a writer who, rather than making new year’s resolutions, chooses a word to describe her goals for the coming year. In a similar spirit, I have chosen one of the classical elements to guide me through 2012 – Fire. It means a lot to me personally, as energy and motivation were two things I struggled with throughout 2011.

So, one of the things I will be writing about in 2012 is fire – it even has its own blog category – and heat:

  • 2011 was the UK’s second warmest year since records began. Climate change is obviously going to continue being a global concern in 2012.

  • What’s hot and what’s not? Gardening trends are not something I have got involved with much in the past, but it will be fun to see what’s getting other gardeners hot under the collar.

  • Heat-loving plants, and spicy flavours. Pete picked up some SERIOUSLY HOT chilli seeds at the seed swap last year and is determined to grow them this year. He has already labelled his seed trays, and would have sown them already if I hadn’t stopped him ;)

  • Cooking outside. We have various means of cooking over naked flames in the garden, so we should make more use of those this year.

  • And from the Chinese new year on 23 January, 2012 is going to be a Year of the Dragon, which sounds like a good excuse for some flaming good fun to me!

If you would like to join me on my Writer’s Retreat, and write something inspired by Fire, then come back and add the link in the comments below :) It doesn’t have to be garden-related; it can be fiction or non-fiction. There is only one rule for inclusion – it has to be a new piece of writing (blog post, article, story or whatever), as this is all about producing new things and not a blog carnival as such.

Or you could begin your own retreat, with your own rules, and let people follow along on your blog. Just add the link in the comments and we’ll see if we can get 2012 off to a flying start.

And with that, it is time for me to light a fire under myself and go write something! See you tomorrow.

Posted in Blog on Jan 1, 2012 ·

Tags: scribbling & fire.

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