Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

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.

Plate of the Nation - foodies wanted!

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Mayfly Television is making a new Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall TV show called Plate of the Nation (working title), which will take a look at how we cook and eat as a nation to provide an insight into the very heart and soul of modern British home life.

The show is about what we cook and eat, how we behave with each other in the kitchen, who our self-appointed household head chefs are, what we talk about at the dinner table and how food brings us all together.

They are now searching for foodie families and households across the nation!

They are looking for everyone from carnivores to vegans to showy self-styled chefs to people who don’t know how to boil an egg, and everything in between.

They want couples, solo chefs, shared communal kitchens and raucous family homes.

Most of all they want households where the kitchen is busy and filled with laughter.

If this sounds like your house or one you know, they’d love to hear from you.

Email: or tel: 0207 148 6731

NOTE: expressing interest in a show is not a guarantee you will be chosen to take part
Data Protection: Mayfly Television will not share your contact information with any third party without your consent and have in place systems and practices to protect your data. If you are under the age of eighteen, please ask your parents to make contact on your behalf.

Posted in Blog on Jul 1, 2014 ·

Tag: food

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

Grow! Harvest! Eat!

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“We grow! We harvest! We eat!” mural in the Exotic Garden at Ryton organic gardens

I haven’t felt much like writing over the last few weeks. I haven’t felt like doing much of anything. It took Ryan and I far longer than we had anticipated to get his flat ready for sale – having moved some of my things in, it was cluttered. We had to put most of my things (and plenty of his) in storage to declutter, before redecorating the whole place. It was worth it in the end, when we quickly found a buyer for the flat once we’d chosen the house we hope to live in, but it left us both exhausted.

The allotment has been left to fend for itself far too much this year. We tried at one point to control some of the weeds, but we lost that battle. I popped over last Sunday morning to see whether any of the plants that I have in pots there (the refugees from my old garden) needed watering in the sunny weather. I couldn’t even see them, they were hidden by a wall of grass and bindweed. Even the areas we had cleared were smothered. I felt a little bit like sleeping beauty, waiting for a prince to rescue me. Except that the allotment doesn’t need one prince with a sword, it needs an army of princes armed with strimmers and hedgetrimmers to break a path through at this point in time. It’s not going to happen.

We’re ploughing though the mountain of paperwork that comes with buying and selling houses. For the last couple of weeks Ryan has been working some insane hours. Warm nights and early sunrises aren’t conducive to a good night’s sleep, and sometimes you just have to concentrate on the things you can do whilst waiting for a situation to change.

The garden that may become mine was, last time I saw it, in much better condition. It’s probably a similar sort of size to the allotment, but it’s in three different sections. The main ‘back’ garden is a square off to the side of the house. There’s a strip along the front side of the house, and another strip a similar size and aspect on the other side of the garden that can’t be entirely fenced off because there’s a supply box of some description that the utility company need to have access to. There’s a lawn, some shrubs around the edges, and plenty of vertical spaces to make use of. The house faces west, with the garden to the north – at midsummer all but the patio is in full sun at midday. I’m not sure there’s room for a greenhouse.

I have been trying to think of a plan for the garden, but of course it is difficult without proper measurements – and there’s no point getting too invested until the house buying process is further along. I was originally trying to think of a ‘theme’ for the garden, but nothing really seemed to fit. More recently I have taken a more basic tack, thinking about how we want to use it.

My old garden was large, and gave me a lot of scope for gardening, but it never became a place where we simply went and sat. There wasn’t much of a patio, and most of the garden was in full sun (and far too hot) all day during the summer. There wasn’t any shade for us or the plants. With the new garden we’d like to be able to sit outside, have a BBQ and eat outside, and have some shelter from the sun. The living room has patio doors that open onto the garden; it would be nice to sit inside with them open and have the sounds and smells of the garden wafting in. Essentially, I suppose, I want a garden that is an outdoor room.

That doesn’t mean it’s going to be full of roses and carpeted with a well-manicured lawn, though. And it’s certainly not going to be one of those ghastly “low maintenance” gardens. *shudder* I’m still me, and I still want plenty of space to grow my plants. I want to be able to pop outside before work, or when I get home, and at the weekends, and spend time gardening. There isn’t a definitive list of the things I want to grow – I like trying new things, and I get new ideas all the time. So although I’d like a defined structure to the garden (something the old one never really had) that’s relatively easy to maintain, I want plenty of scope to experiment with the planting.

A compost bin and a water butt are pretty much essential. There will be some perennials, and climbing plants. I may experiment with stepover apples, and other trained fruits. Ryan is keen to put in some raised beds, and I concur – they will be great for annuals and biennials, concentrating most of my gardening effort on the plants that need it. I think a strip of herb garden alongside the front door would be both welcoming and efficient – with access to a larger kitchen again I’d like to get back into garden-to-table eating.

So… I may not have a plan, but I have some ideas. Now I just need the garden :)

What’s your favourite part of your garden?

Posted in Blog on Jun 28, 2014 ·

Tags: general & allotment.

50 insane facts about plants

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Loving this infographic from Chadwicks :)

50 Insane Facts About Plants

For those of you without a magnifying glass, this is the link to their sources!

Posted in Blog on Jun 25, 2014 ·

Tag: ethnobotany

Review: Waitrose Makhani curry paste

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Waitrose Makhani curry paste

My cow’s milk intolerance makes it quite difficult to shop for processed food – once you start reading labels it’s amazing how many products milk (or a milk derivative) makes its way into. In an ideal world we’d all be cooking every meal from scratch, from fresh ingredients, but it’s not always possible. I haven’t yet mastered the art of making a decent curry by hand, for example.

Curry sauces can be particularly problematic, so I’m glad to have found one that’s almost dairy-free (it contains some clarified butter) and that I really like. Waitrose Makani curry paste is £1.65 for a 200g jar (avoid the ready-made jars of Makhani sauce if you have a problem with cow’s milk, as they contain double cream). Each jar contains enough paste to make 2 or 3 meals, depending on how many people you’re serving, and how strong you like your curries. Once the jar is opened, it will keep in the fridge for up to 4 weeks. If you don’t have a local Waitrose, you may be able to order online via Ocado.

I have three go-to options for using the paste, which is best added at the start of cooking. The first is the simplest – simply stirring it in for a dryish curry. You may need to add a little water to stop the sauce from sticking.

The second involves adding a tin of chopped tomatoes – you get a milder, saucier curry, with plenty of healthy vegetable content.

The third is my favourite, and by far the most decadent. I use either coconut milk or coconut cream to make the sauce. Again, the result is a milder and saucier curry – it’s divine, but you may want to factor in the extra fat content.

All three versions reheat nicely, if you find yourself with leftovers. Your home will smell like an Indian restaurant for a little while – it smells like a ‘proper’ curry!

This is, to date, the only curry paste/sauce I have found that I like and that I can eat, and I have been buying it now for several years. I am a genuinely satisfied customer, so if you’re a fan of the occasional simple curry then I recommend you give it a go :)

Posted in Blog on Jun 23, 2014 ·

Tags: food & meh!.

Hardy orchids

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I don’t normally say much about plants that you can’t eat, but this week I was escorting some visitors* from the Hardy Orchid Society around the site at work so I took some photos :)

The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory has a population of 3000+ bee orchids, which are in flower at the moment:

Bee orchid

It’s also the right time of year to see the pyramidal orchids, of which there are a few dotted around:

Bee on pyramidal orchid

And there’s the occasional common spotted orchid as well:

Common spotted orchid

What you can’t see at the moment is the white helleborine – its flowers have been replaced with seedpods:

White helleborine seedpods

*For reference, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is a secure site. You can’t just rock up and see the orchids there, they’re inside the security fence. However, there are examples of orchids in the local area, outside the fence, and the Hardy Orchid society would be able to give you more information on where to see those :)

Posted in Blog on Jun 22, 2014 ·

Last modified on Jun 22, 2014

Tags: flowers & wildlife.

A field of dreams

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Opium poppy field

In my last post I was talking about some of my favourite plants from yesteryear. Since then I have developed a soft spot for Opium poppies (Papaver somniferum), which can be grown legally here in the UK. In fact, this impressive view is a field of poppies being grown commercially by a farmer in Oxfordshire – they will be harvested and turned (via an industrial process) into diamorphine, a painkiller in high demand in the NHS. To do that you require a license from the Home Office.

Papaver somniferum

Papaver somniferum

Papaver somniferum

Gardeners are more likely to cultivate Opium poppies for their stunning flowers, and their edible seeds, but perhaps not on this scale :)

Posted in Blog on Jun 16, 2014 ·

Tags: flowers & spices.

My 10 favourite plants

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I let the cat out of the bag on social media yesterday – we are in the process of buying a house, with a garden. The garden that may become mine is pretty much a blank canvas, and although I have thought about it I haven’t come to any firm conclusions on the kind of garden I would like it to become. I will tell you more about the garden when (if?) it becomes the garden that will be mine. In the meantime, it was fun to visit the archives and resurrect an article that lists my favourite plants from 2008….

As a kitchen gardener, my favourite plants are the ones that grow well for me and in my garden and provide something tasty to eat – the ones I look forward to growing all year. Many of my favourites grow during the winter months, when just having something growing in the kitchen garden is a satisfaction in itself.

Jerusalem artichoke

First on the list are Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes. They’re a fabulously easy plant to grow, requiring almost no care and attention. They’ll survive hot summers, wet winters and everything in between to give a bountiful winter harvest when there’s not much else to gather. Some people, I know, aren’t as fond of their invasive tendencies or the gas that eating them tend to produce, but they make a lovely soup and are a winter treat.

Garlic in trug

Garlic is another plant that grows through the winter without any trouble, and even in a small garden you can grow enough bulbs to last you through much of the year. I grow two types of garlic – soft necked garlic, which stores for a long time, and hard necked garlic which grows beautiful curly flowering scapes and it therefore sometimes called Serpent garlic.

Bucket of onions

Continuing in the same vein, onions are my third favorite plant. I grow Japanese onions from sets, planted in the fall and left to overwinter. They provide a slightly earlier harvest than onions planted in the spring, but I just love having plants growing through the bleak winters.


Another overwintering favorite is chard and leaf beet, two related vegetables that provide leafy greens in all but the nastiest winter weather. Chard is a large plant with glossy green leaves and colored leaf ribs – so beautiful that many people grow it in their flower borders. Leaf beet is its smaller cousin, plain green but good tempered and so easy to grow. A dash of color in the vegetable garden in all weathers, a harvest of healthy leaves for the kitchen and a firm favorite with the other occupants of my garden – the chickens.

Broccoli spears

My last winter favorite is the last to provide a harvest – the purple sprouting broccoli. Purple sprouting broccoli is one of the tortoises of the kitchen garden. Grown from seed in the spring time it grows for a whole year before it produces the flower buds that we eat, but the harvest comes during the ‘hungry gap’ when there’s not much food coming from the garden. And beyond that, it’s delicate and buttery flavor is well worth the wait and one of the major joys of homegrown vegetables. Its season may be short and long-awaited, but it’s not a treat you can pass up.

Nectarine Blossom

Around about the time that the purple sprouting broccoli is thinking about flowering, my dwarf nectarine is doing the same. It’s much more conventionally beautiful – with striking deep red flower buds that open in exuberant magenta flowers. I keep it in the greenhouse to prevent the leaf curl fungus attacking, which means that hand pollination is one of my spring rituals, and an absolute must to guarantee a mouth-watering harvest of juicy fruit later in the year.

Dwarf French beans

French beans are the next favorite to come into season. Tender plants that can’t be grown until the risk of frost has passed, they’re often battered by inclement weather early in the summer and much mourned. But when they do thrive they are gloriously beautiful plants, with deep green and heart-shaped leaves and pretty flowers. A close inspection a few days after the first flowers appear reveals a joyous sight – the first tiny bean pods forming, which rapidly swell to harvest size. A happy French bean plant provides harvests all summer long.

Autumn Bliss raspberries

And while the beans are still flowering and growing new pods, the raspberries come into season. Fresh raspberries are a seasonal delight, loved by almost everyone, but until you’ve tasted a homegrown raspberry, picked and eaten right there in the garden, still warm from the summer sun, then you can’t begin to imagine what you’re missing.

Apple blossom

An eagerly awaited autumn event is the ripening of the apples. I only have one small apple tree, but watching the fruits swell and ripen over the summer is a feast of anticipation. Nothing can beat the thrill of picking and eating your own apple, straight off the tree. And when the last of the apples is harvested, the bean plants have died back and the raspberries have stopped fruiting, it’s time to plant the onions, the garlic and the chard in anticipation of winter harvests ahead.

Apart from the nectarine, which was never fruitful and was abandoned when I sold the old house, I would happily have all of these plants in the new garden (assuming they fit in with the plan). I was very sad to have leave my apple tree behind.

What are your favourite plants?

Posted in Blog on Jun 14, 2014 ·

Tag: veg

Space lettuce!

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As I mentioned a few weeks ago, NASA astronaut Steve Swanson has been doing some gardening on the International Space Station, growing ‘Outredgeous’ red romaine lettuce in the new VEGGIE gardening system. This inaugural experiment, called Veg-01, is partly a test of the hardware and partly to see whether space-grown crops will be safe to eat. After all his hard work, Steve doesn’t get to eat his lettuce – it has to be returned to Earth for testing. If the lettuce is proved safe, a second batch of lettuce can be grown and eaten later in the year. This would be the first mouthful of ‘homegrown’ food to be consumed in space, and NASA have produced a great video explaining the VEGGIE project:

Posted in Blog on Jun 11, 2014 ·

Last modified on Jun 11, 2014

Tags: science & space.

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