Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Garden transformation with power tools and elbow grease

View/leave comments (3 so far)

I think there’s a part of every gardener that harks back to ‘simpler’ times, when the world was a quieter and greener place. We enjoy doing things by hand, appreciate craftsmanship and work at Nature’s pace. Sort of. The truth is that we all live busy and hectic lives, and there’s never enough time to spend in the garden.

When Ryan and I moved into this house last autumn, the back garden looked like this:


The shrubs along the fence were taking up some prime real estate – one of the sunniest spots. They had to come out, and a couple of weeks ago I decided it was time to start removing them, before the local birds had any serious thoughts about nesting in them. A few hours of serious effort saw half of them cut down to the roots:

Shrub removal

Something hefty from the SGS Chainsaws range would have finished the job in a jiffy. As it was, we were left with a large pile of branches:

Piles of ex-shrub

Fast forward to Saturday, and Ryan’s dad came round to help, and brought along his electric shredder. He shredded, Ryan finished cutting down the shrubs, and I started weeding in the strip along the front of the garage block. I’m not planning on doing anything much with that piece of the garden this year, but it seemed like an ideal location to be mulched with the shreddings.

It has gone from this:

Extra strip

to this:

Mulching the strip

and left us with a much smaller pile of wood:

Log pile

We still need to dig out the shrub roots, but in the meantime Ryan has come up with a different garden plan that would allow us to start paving very soon. The garden looks much larger, and sunnier now that the shrubs are gone – when the sun comes out! In the almost unending gloom of February, it’s hard to imagine what it might look like in summer. On Sunday I had an overwhelming urge to plant something, and we went to the garden centre to look at plants. But the complexity of building a garden from scratch left me bamboozled – there’s very little I could plant now that wouldn’t have to be moved later – and so I came home with nothing.

Disclosure: this blog post was produced in association with SBS Chainsaws, but the words (and the garden ;) are my own.

Posted in Blog on Feb 27, 2015 ·

Last modified on Feb 25, 2015

Tags: general & planning.

Video: Rose of Jericho resurrection plant

View/leave comments (1 so far)

Resurrection plants can survive extreme dehydration, even over months or years. In scientific terms, they are called poikilohydric. This one, the Rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica), is native to the deserts of North Africa.

Not a plant you’re likely to find in a garden, but you may unleash a horde of zombie plants without realising it!

Posted in Blog on Feb 25, 2015 ·

Last modified on Feb 25, 2015

Tag: science

New vegetable varieties from Marshalls

View/leave comments

New varieties from Marshalls

Marshalls Seeds have sent me a wodge of their new vegetable seed varieties to try this year. None of them fitted into the plans for my garden this season, so I have passed them on to new homes*.

My dad has taken two squash (Sweetmax and Spaghetti) varieties, despite once telling me he thought spaghetti squash wasn’t worth eating. Hopefully he’ll feel different when they’re homegrown! He also picked out Brokali Endeavour, a sprouting broccoli, and the two tomatoes (Fenda and Corazon).

New varieties from Marshalls

That left the warty pumpkin Knucklehead (which I think looks like fun) and the savoy cabbage Serpentine, which I have dispatched to Carl and Debs in Wales (with the blight-resistant toms from Victoriana Nursery Gardens).

Hopefully they will all report back later in the year about how they grew!

*I am trying very hard to be realistic about the time and space I will have to garden this year, and not to put things in my seedbox, only for them to languish unsown until they’re past their best. This way is better for everyone :)

Posted in Blog on Feb 23, 2015 ·

Last modified on Feb 16, 2015

Tag: seeds

Time for a cuppa?

View/leave comments (3 so far)

Tea time

Being British, whenever anything out of the ordinary occurs, my first inclination is to put the kettle on and make a nice cup of tea. And we tend to mark the passing of the day with strategically-placed brews.

I know from my travels that I can, if need be, go for two weeks without a proper cup, but it’s rare for me to have tea-free days. And although I am slowly broadening my horizons and exploring the world of tea, most of my cups are Standard black “builder’s” tea, served with milk and a little bit of sugar.

Brits still prefer ‘proper’ tea, made from Camellia sinensis

According to a survey by Dementia UK, 73% of Brits do prefer builders’ tea, with only 13% picking a herbal tisane. 14% stick to ‘classic’ tea, although I’m not sure what that means – probably that they like blends such as Earl Grey or English Breakfast.

84% add milk, with only 3% choosing lemon. And sweetness has been ditched, with 69% adding neither sugar nor sweetener. It’s not a simple case of people being good, though, as 70% will supplement their tea with a biscuit, whilst 26% would snaffle a bit of cake.

And the Empire is well and truly dead – 68% of use a mug and only 11% remain civilised enough to drink out of a tea cup. The rest don’t care what their tea comes in, they’d happily drink out of a bucket :)

Dementia UK interviewed some notable celebrities about how they take their tea. I couldn’t care less about any of them, so I interviewed some gardening personalities instead:

  • Mark Diacono, of Otter Farm, has given up caffeine and likes a nice redbush tea, or lemon and ginger.

  • Alys Fowler was succinct about her requirements: “No milk, just black, hopefully from a teapot poured the colour of Amber. Repeat till the day ends”.

  • James Wong came over all Star Trek and went for black Earl Grey. Hot.

  • James Alexander-Sinclair is upfront about his love of biscuits, but when the chips are down he’s voting for Earl Grey with honey and a splash of milk, with fruit cake or a packet of Jaffa Cakes.

  • And nature writer Kate Bradbury likes her builder’s tea strong but milky, with organic milk but no sugar.

All of this silliness and statistics is for a good cause. From 1st – 8th March 2015, Dementia UK are asking us if we’ve got time for a cuppa, and to host a fundraising tea party to help find Admiral Nurses, specialists in dementia care. 2014’s campaign allowed 1000 more families to receive care and support.

If you can host a tea party, you can send off for a free tea party organiser’s pack, which includes invites and posters and well as ideas for games and activities. And there are recipes for cakes and biscuits on the Dementia UK website, or you could always try my Snickerdoodles.

Have you got time for a cuppa? How do you take your tea?

Posted in Blog on Feb 19, 2015 ·

Tag: tea

Sowing cool chillies

View/leave comments (1 so far)

Chillies without the heat

My early sowings of pansies and cardamom (old seeds) have come to nothing, so today I turfed the plugs out into the garlic tub and sowed some chillies instead. Although the trend in recent years has been to go as hot as possible, I’ve gone the other way – I’d like the flavour without the heat.

And so I’ve chosen two fire-free chillies from Victoriana Nursery Gardens – Jalapeño Fooled You and Cayenne Sweet Chilli.

I’ve also sown some Padron sweet peppers, the traditional Spanish tapas pepper, and Numex Garnet, which is perfect for drying and turning into paprika.

Blight-resistant tomatoes from Victoriana Nursery Gardens.

When I placed my order, Victoriana were kind enough to enclose packets of their blight-resistant tomatoes. I’m not intending to grow tomatoes this year, so I have sent them off to a new home – Carl & Debs Legge will put them through their paces on their smallholding in sunny Wales :)

Posted in Blog on Feb 16, 2015 ·

Tags: seeds & spices.

Aphrodisiacs and botanical livelihoods in Morocco

View comments

As it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought I would share this TEDx Marrakesh video, in which ethnobotanist Gary Martin discusses some of the plants harvested in Morocco that are used in herbal aphrodisiacs. Martin raises the theory that the main aim of the British Empire, and of plants hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was to find new ingredients that could be used in love potions! He includes mandrake, pellitory (the infamous ‘vegetable Viagra’) and giant fennel. There’s some lovely images of root samples from the Economic Botany collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Via giant fennel’s extinct relative Silphium, Martin introduces the important concept of conservation, and the sustainable harvesting and use of these plants. He also hints that there might be more to the Mediterranean diet that meets the eye, and that we’re missing out on these secret ingredients :)

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

Posted in Blog on Feb 14, 2015 ·

Last modified on Feb 6, 2015

Tags: aphrodisiac & ethnobotany.

Blight-resistant Crimson Crush tomatoes

View comments (1)

The tomato forest
Healthy tomato plants in my greenhouse

I know I’m going to have rotten tomatoes aimed at my head for saying this, but I never had blight in my garden.

It wasn’t that I was doing anything special to avoid it, but rather a lucky combination of circumstances. I’m not the biggest fan of tomatoes, so I don’t grow many.

The ones I choose tend to be cherry tomatoes, ripening early in the season and avoiding the dreaded ‘Smith Periods’ of summer, when blight is rampant.

When I did grow maincrop tomatoes, they were safely tucked away in my greenhouse. And, since none of my neighbours grew tomatoes, blight spores just weren’t flying in my direction.

Allotment potatoes affected by late blight

I didn’t grow tomatoes on my allotment, but I did grow potatoes. I deliberately chose blight-resistant Sárpo potatoes, and had the sense not to look too smug when my neighbour’s crops were cut down by blight but mine weren’t.

If your garden tomatoes have fallen to blight in the past, then the only real solution is to grow blight-resistant varieties.

The only problem is that blight (more properly known as late blight, and caused by an organism called Phytophthora infestans that used to be considered a fungus, but which is now classed as an oomycete) evolves.

The strains that are attacking our tomatoes and potatoes now aren’t the same ones from a century or two ago. So plant varieties that used to have some resistance to blight can quickly lose it – and the first you’ll know is when they start to show those tell-tale splotches.

Blight-resistant Crimson Crush, from Suttons
Blight-resistant Crimson Crush (left), from Suttons

But this year, outdoor tomato growers stand a fighting chance of harvesting a healthy crop, thanks to some serious science and breeding work.

A collaboration between the Sarvari Research Trust (home of Sárpo potatoes), Bangor University and independent tomato breeder, Simon Crawford has led to the development of Crimson Crush.

This new variety of tomato has two blight-resistant genes, which gives it excellent resistance to the strains of blight we have to deal with now.

Healthy fruits on Crimson Crush
Healthy fruits on Crimson Crush

Crimson Crush is available exclusively from Suttons, as plug plants.

It’s an indeterminate (cordon) variety, which will need support and you’ll need to pinch out the side-shoots as they appear. It has been bred for outdoor growing, and provides “exceptionally fine tasting, large, round tomatoes (each weighing up to 200g)”.

Order Crimson Crush plug plants now, at £7.99 for 3, with delivery set for April 2015.

If you’ve struggled with blighted tomatoes in recent years, why not give Crimson Crush a try this summer?

Disclosure: This post was written in collaboration with Suttons, who provided the images of Crimson Crush. The words are my own.

Posted in Blog on Feb 11, 2015 ·

Tags: veg & fruit.

Daffodils v alliums: it's a cultural thing

View comments (2)


If you’re from a part of the world in which daffodils grow, you probably recognise them in the picture above. The UK will be carpeted in the things in a few weeks – we do like our spring flowers after a bleak winter.

Our supermarkets sell bunches of daffs, some in flower and some in bud. You can buy pots of bulbs ‘in the green’ that will flower when you take them home. At various points of the year, you can buy daffodil bulbs for planting.

Given the nature of the retail market, all of those things might be on sale in a supermarket, and they’re likely to be just inside the door, on the way into the fruit and veg department. That’s just how things work.

In our culture.

Public Health England have written to supermarkets asking them to move daffodils away from the fruit and vegetable aisle, because they are poisonous, and because there have been recorded incidents of them being eaten and causing poisoning.

Chinese chives
Image credit: kattebelletje

Do you know what these are? They’re Chinese chives, an edible allium. Would you recognise them, sold this way? We’re not used to eating flowers, so we might be a bit suspicious. But this would look perfectly normal to someone with, say, an Asian background.

Now, I have seen some very unkind and ill-educated comments about the daffodil ‘ban’. As an anthropologist (which is what an ethnobotanist is at heart, with a special interest in the culture of plants), I know that culture is the way we survive the world.

Our culture is ingrained in us from our earliest moments on the planet. It’s easy to forget that what we know, and what can’t imagine anyone else not knowing is not the same as what we would have learned had we been born into a different culture.

So… if you’re having trouble understanding why anyone would mistake a beautiful daffodil for a stinky onion, I’d like you to try the following thought experiment.

  1. Imagine you’ve travelled to another country, where you don’t really speak the language.
  2. You’ve gone to a shop that sells food.
  3. Amongst a vast array of unfamiliar items you’ve spotted something that looks like something you know, so you buy that and take it home.
  4. You’re not much of a cook, but you do your best to prepare a meal, and you don’t notice anything amiss.
  5. You’re lucky, and you wake up in hospital, having survived accidental poisoning.

You might feel like an idiot, but people laughing at your stupidity would probably make you feel very unwelcome.

We put warnings on microwave meals that remind us they will be hot after heating. We put warnings on electrical equipment to tell people not to use it underwater. We put warnings on aerosol cans to discourage people from throwing them on bonfires.

Why? Because those are dangerous things, but that doesn’t mean that everyone automatically knows that. Not knowing something doesn’t make you stupid, it just means you don’t know something.

But suggesting that people be allowed to suffer the consequences of their ignorance? That makes you look like an idiot.

Posted in Blog on Feb 8, 2015 ·

Tag: ethnobotany

Glutbusters: February 2015

View comments

A squirrel in the garden, showing it’s not the best place to grow nuts!

January was been a bit wet and wild – not proper winter weather at all! Plants are more likely to be suffering from waterlogging than frost. Still, there have been some cold snaps, and the bird feeder is proving popular with the local wildlife. We’ve even had a visit from a squirrel, although he hasn’t yet figured out how to scale the shiny pole. We think he may have buried some nuts in the garden before we move in, though, and be collecting them now.

With soggy ground and miserable weather, there’s not much gardening to be done. But there are a few things that Glutbusting gardeners can be doing to get ready for the new season. You can plant bare fruit trees and bushes, including grapevines, and if you didn’t sow broad beans or plant plant garlic in the autumn, then it’s time to choose a suitable variety and do that in the next few weeks before the weather starts to warm up again.

If you have a greenhouse or a cold frame then it’s possible to start sowing hardy veg such as peas now for an early harvest in the spring.

Peas are extremely versatile plants

GlutBuster Pea Advice

  • The wonderful things about peas is that the the plants come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s one to fit in every garden. Tall, climbing varieties have a small footprint and make use of vertical space, but there are also shorter varieties that need less support, and even dwarf varieties that will happily grow in pots and window boxes. You can even get peas with coloured pods, which would look fine in your flower beds!

  • There are two kinds of pea seeds, which are sown at different times. Smooth-seeded pea varieties are more cold tolerant, and can be sown in the autumn and early in the year. These are a good choice to sow now. Although they are reported to be starchier and less sweet than maincrop varieties, homegrown peas are so much sweeter when they’re just picked that you won’t be disappointed! Wrinkle-seeded peas are sown from March onwards, once the weather starts to warm up (and there’s a larger selection of wrinkle-seeded pea varieties available).

  • Good varieties to sow now for outdoors include Douce Provence, Meteor and Oskar (from Real Seeds).

  • In the kitchen, peas are very versatile plants – you can eat the leaves, shoots and flowers as well as the peas.

  • Select two or three different varieties, and sow them in batches throughout the year, and you can harvest fresh peas from your garden over a long period of time.

  • When you grow peas for shelling out of their pods, it can feel like you’re throwing most of your harvest away. But you can use your empty pods to make vegetable stock, or a quick internet search will give you recipes for pea pod soup or even wine!

  • And eating your peas fresh isn’t your only option. Look for soup peas or peas for drying, to give yourself an easy way to store your peas for later use.

  • Peas take nitrogen from the air and ‘fix’ it into the soil, creating their own fertiliser with the help of symbiotic bacteria in their root nodules. Now, the peas are also going to use most of that nitrogen themselves, to grow and to produce peas. But digging their remains (the ‘haulms’) into the soil at the end of the year, or adding them to the compost heap, ensures that any leftover nitrogen is available for the next crop, and that those bacteria will still be around in the soil next time you grow peas!

  • Peas are almost entirely self-pollinating, and their large seeds mean it’s a doddle to save your own seed for next year. Just earmark a plant or two for saving and let the pods dry. Then bring them in, shell them, make sure they’re properly dry and you’ve got next year’s seed!

GlutBuster alternatives

Asparagus pea flowers
Asparagus peas are highly ornamental

Rather than podding peas, try growing mangetout, where you eat the whole pod before the peas inside swell. There are special varieties of seed you can try, which produce non-stringy pods that are ideal of munching on raw in salads, or lightly cooking in stir-fries.

With snap peas, you wait until the pods are fully swollen, when they have thick, crisp walls which snap like a stringless bean. Again, snap peas can be eaten raw, stir-fried or even boiled.

For something a little more exotic, try the asparagus pea. It’s a very ornamental vegetable, with its red flowers and pods with crinkly edges. Reputed to taste a bit like asparagus, hence the name, the trick is to eat the pods when they’re young and tender – there are no ‘peas’ inside to mature.

GlutBuster buys

Thompson & Morgan are offering free P&P on everything until midnight on Monday 2nd December. Simply click through to start shopping, and use the discount code TWEB79YZ to activate the offer.

You can also get free P&P at Sarah Raven this weekend, using the code EXCITE – but only until midnight on Sunday!

Rocket Gardens deliver garden-ready vegetable plants to you at the right time of year – all you have to do is select the garden you want, and plant it! They’re currently offering a discount on their spring vegetable gardens to anyone who uses the discount code JOLLY when placing an order. You can save 20% off until midnight Monday 2nd February 2015, then 15% off until midnight Wednesday 4th February 2015 and finally 10% off until midnight Friday 6th February 2015.

Rocket Gardens also have a new Gourmet Vegetable Plant range, which includes unusual varieties such as asparagus peas, sugar snap peas and mangetout, Ceylon spinach, and cape gooseberries.

And Organic Plants are stocking blight-resistant Sárpo seed potatoes now. Order now and chit them on the windowsill, ready for planting in early spring.

GlutBuster Star


We’re sticking with peas for the GlutBuster Star this month, because you don’t even need a garden to grow them, and they’re available all year round – if you grow your own peashoots! Fresh peashoots are expensive to buy in the shops, but they’re quick and easy to grow.

All you need is some seeds suitable for sprouting – don’t use seeds sold for planting unless they are organic, as they may have been treated with chemicals you wouldn’t want to eat. You can use any dried peas, so look for those in the supermarket as it’s cheaper to buy them in bulk that way.

Fill a shallow container with a little bit of compost, or vermiculite, then closely sow a layer of peas – they don’t need room to grow! Cover with a bit more compost, water and keep damp and within a few days you’ll have pea plants sneaking upwards. You can start harvesting them once they’re about 10 cm tall, and if you don’t pull up the whole plant, you can harvest them two or three times before their energy is spent and they have to go on the compost. Sow a tray each week or so, and you’ll have a steady supply of gourmet peashoots for salads and stir-fries, right through the year. Have a look at how to harvest pea shoots as a cut-and-come-again crop.

GlutBuster Top Tip for February

If you have any seeds that need to experience a period of cold before they’ll germinate, then now is a good time to do that – you can let the winter weather deal with their needs rather than trying to chill them in the fridge. I’ve written a bit more about Winter Sowing on the Gabriel Ash blog this month.

And that’s the end of the first GlutBusters newsletter of 2015! What are you most looking forward to growing and harvesting from your plot this year?

Posted in Blog on Feb 1, 2015 ·

Last modified on Feb 3, 2015

Tags: GlutBusters & veg.

The Great British Kitchen Garden Revival

View comments (3)

Kitchen garden
The kitchen garden at Hampton Court Palace contains some long-forgotten vegetables and herbs

The Great British Garden Revival has been gracing our screens again this year. In each episode two famous TV gardeners champion a particular plant or style of garden, which they think is in danger of being forgotten. This year that has included lilies and knot gardens, lavender and woodland gardens. The idea is to “attempt to inspire the nation to to save Britain’s rich gardening heritage”. There’s obviously an interest in our gardening history, as people have been talking about the wonderful Tudor gardens that appear in Wolf Hall.

There’s not much edible amongst that lot, but we have a great tradition of kitchen gardens in this country, and I thought it would be interesting to champion some of the ignored or forgotten plants that once graced our kitchen gardens and our tables, but have fallen from favour.

I wrote a section on forgotten vegetables for Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, noting that Britain isn’t the only nation to have let some varieties slide:

“While it is easy to see how vegetables from other countries may never have found their way onto our plates, and why heritage varieties may have fallen from modern commercial favour, there are vegetables and fruits that were once common but are now largely forgotten. These aren’t wild plants, languishing by the roadside waiting for their virtues to be rediscovered, but cultivated ones that for some reason are no longer popular.

Given their long history of vegetable gardening (including their beautiful pótagers and the famously intensive market gardens of Paris in the 19th century), it is perhaps not surprising that the topic of forgotten vegetables seems to resonate most strongly in the French. It is often easier to find relevant information (although harder to read the results!) if you search for ‘les légumes retrouvés’ or ‘les légumes oubliés’.”

In the book I mention salsify and scorzonera, skirret, cardoons and tiger nuts, among others. That’s just a small selection of the goodies on offer if we pop into our time machines and go back to the gardens of history. For some plants, we wouldn’t even have to go that far back.

And so I thought this might prove to be an interesting blog meme – have you got a favourite ‘forgotten’ edible plant that you’d like to champion? If so, then blog about it and let me know the link and I will start a list here. You may even have an existing blog post you’d like me to point to. If you don’t have a blog, but would like to champion a species, then I’m happy to host a guest post from you.

If you’re not a blogger, but you can think of a plant in need of a boost then post it in the comments! We’ll see if we can find it a champion :)

Let the Great British Kitchen Garden Revival begin!

Posted in Blog on Jan 31, 2015 ·

Tags: carnival & unusual.

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