Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

The last days of September

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Autumn vine 3
Colouring leaves are a joy in store for October

Despite the lovely weather, September is drawing to a close and we can expect a more autumnal feel to be around the corner. There’s still time to do your September planting if you’re going to be joining the Glutbusters this year – and there will be a new issue published on 1st October.

There’s also still time to enter Write Club 2014, but only just – entries close at the end of the month, and I will be picking our winners. So far we have three entries to choose from:

  1. Gardening with a disability

  2. Moving beyond potatoes for more calories in a small space

  3. Lavender and Oregano Salt: A recipe of Sorts

Don’t forget to vote for your favourite by using one of the social media buttons or leaving a comment – one lucky commenter will receive a copy of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs!

And I’m working on the next chapter in our choose your own space blog adventure – you voted for finding out more about how ‘homegrown’ silkworm pupae can be added to astronaut’s diets!

What’s on your agenda for the last days of September?

Posted in Blog on Sep 26, 2014 ·

Last modified on Sep 29, 2014

Tag: competitions

Get smart in the garden

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Trained fruit
Keeping a garden tidy can be a lot of work

There’s no denying that electrical appliances can make gardening a lot easier – when you’re faced with a thicket that needs cutting back, an unending hedge that needs trimming, or a large lawn to mow, there are few people who have the time and energy to reach for a manual tool to do the job.

But using electricity in the garden isn’t as straightforward as using it indoors. According to Electrical Safety First, more than 300,000 people end up at the hospital every year as a result of an injury they’ve sustained in the garden. Of those, a third have been caused by electrical appliances. 41% of UK men who garden regularly have had an electrical accident in the garden (compared to 20% of women), at least partly because they are less likely to read the safety instructions….

With conditions outside (hopefully!) damper than indoors, and necessary contact with the ground, the risk of injury from electric shock is greater outdoors, and 25% of garden accidents involve cutting through an electrical cable.

With a little care and forethought, it’s possible to greatly reduce the risk of using electrical tools in the garden. As with all gardening tasks, it’s important that you’re properly dressed – no popping out in your flip flops to do that little bit of strimming!

And you should always ensure that you’re protected by using an RCD (a Residual Current Device) that cuts the power in the event of a fault or an accident. You can buy portable devices, or an electrician can fit an RCD-protected socket for you, if you prefer. Either way, you should test the RCD when you use it, to make sure it’s still working properly and can protect you.

Store your electrical tools properly, away from moisture and little hands, and check them over before you use them, to make sure they’re in working order. And don’t use them in the rain!

There’s plenty more information on garden safety on the Electrical Safety First website, so Get Smart in the Garden when you’re clearing up this autumn, and stay safe :)

Disclosure: This post was written in collaboration with Electrical Safety First but the words are my own.

Posted in Blog on Sep 23, 2014 ·

Last modified on Sep 22, 2014

Tag: general

Write Club: Lavender and Oregano Salt: A recipe (of sorts)

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Today’s Write Club 2014 entry is a recipe from Beth Tilston of the seed blog. You can also find her on Twitter.

You can vote for this post by using the social media buttons in the sidebar to like it, and by leaving a comment.

The other day I noticed that the pots of herbs which sit outside our back door were giving me clear signs that they were about to give up the ghost for the year – and the lavender, which a month ago was humming with bees, was now beeless and gone to seed. Time for the final, and biggest, herb harvest of the year. I cut them all back and put them on trays on a high shelf to dry out, ready for use in the winter.

With some of the herbs, oregano and lavender, I made what has become known in our house as ‘special salt.’ Now I’ll admit that the idea of herbed salts might seem a first to be a little, well, unnecessary. After all, what is wrong with straight up, common or garden normal salt? Isn’t lavender and oregano salt a little bit aspirational? A little bit… Pinterest? It may very well be, but the fact of the matter is that this salt is magic. By magic I mean it takes food from, “These potatoes are nice, Beth” to “Wow, these potatoes are amazing! Wait, is that… lavender?”


3 teaspoons dried lavender
9 teaspoons dried oregano
9 teaspoons peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seed
250g quality salt

The process of making ‘special salt’ is so easy it can barely be called a recipe. First, cut your herbs a few days (or more) in advance and let them dry out in your preferred manner. I had good results with just putting them on some paper on a tray. Next, put all of the ingredients except for the salt in your pestle and mortar (actually, put them in your mortar, the pestle is the club bit – thanks Wikipedia!) and grind until the peppercorns and coriander are broken up and the oregano is in small flakes. Because of the lavender, your kitchen should be smelling like a perfumiers by this point. You must be ready to remove any scoffers and naysayers from the vicinity – they’ll change their minds. Now add your salt and mix it all together. If the salt is in particularly big chunks, you might need to grind the whole concoction a bit more. Spoon into a receptacle with a lid and allow to infuse for a week. I’ve never done that because I am weak-willed and can’t stop myself from using it, but you might do better…

Posted in Blog on Sep 22, 2014 ·

Tags: competitions & food.

Photo blog: Newington Nurseries

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Whilst we’re waiting for the next Write Club offering, I’ll catch up with some recent photo blogging. This set was taken at Newington Nurseries in Oxfordshire last weekend. A independent specialist in mature plants and orchids, it’s a quirky place that also serves (I hear) a decent lunch. And if you’re over that way, the Crazy Bear farm shop is worth a visit as well, as they have an olive bar and giant sausage rolls, and there are animals to see (including reindeer, and often piglets).

Imposing door

Wire lanterns

Turtle crossing


Dragon mobile

Small lanterns

Posted in Blog on Sep 21, 2014 ·

Tag: gardens

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.

Write Club: Moving beyond potatoes for more calories in a small space

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Jeannette Bedard is our next Write Club 2014 contestant, with her guest post on productive potatoes. Jeannette blogs at tangent ramblings.

You can vote for this post by using the social media buttons in the sidebar to like it, and by leaving a comment.

At times, usually when I supposed to be doing something else because I’m a grad student and procrastination of some form seems to be part of the gig, I find myself planning what plants I would include in an imaginary biodome on a inhospitable planet many astronomical units away. Imaginary biodomes are one of my favourite thought exercises – to me it is the perfect fusion of my love of space exploration and my attempts to grow as much as my own food as I can in my small backyard.

Purple potatoes blooming

Right now, one of my food-growing issues is producing enough calories to feed my family of three. I have no problem growing plenty of nutritious food to eat year round, but this food is generally low in calories. I understand that the most calorie-dense food one can grow is the potato. Fortunately, I love potatoes, so I devoted an entire bed (of 6 beds) to them. On St. Patrick’s day I planted all my potatoes and by the beginning of August they were ready to dig up. I thought it was a great harvest (at least he best I’ve had so far), yet now in September it’s clear my potatoes will run out in October.

I have parsnips, salsify, carrots and beets on the go, all of which are more filling than kale (a staple here) but not enough to feed my family for long. I’m glad we live in an era where we aren’t at risk of starvation – the grocery store is only a short walk away. I’d just like to do better with my calorie production.

Since I’m already thinking about next year’s garden, producing more calories is at the forefront of my mind. This gives me an excuse to do more research on the enjoyable topic (for me) of biodomes for space exploration. From checking out what has been successful in biodomes, the following has made my list of calorie-dense foods to grow at my latitude:

Jerusalem artichokes – I’ve grown them in the past and they did well. Unfortunately, I’m not a huge fan, not because they taste bad but because they don’t taste like potatoes. I’ve since found some new recipes, so they are worth trying again.

Dried beans – I grew bush beans for drying a few years ago and got a modest harvest for the space I committed. This time I’m going to try the vines. I’m generally quite successful at growing green beans (my hens feasted on green beans for weeks while I had a glut last summer an no time to pickle them). There seems to be a huge number of choices to experiment with. Has anyone tried lablab (hyacinth) beans?

Sweet potatoes and peanuts – I like both of these and I have a cunning plan to build a shelter for next summer which makes both of these a possibility at my latitude. I just have to figure out how to grow them.

Amaranth and quinoa – I read once that five square feet of wheat is required to make one loaf of bread, assuming I would need more than one loaf of bread this is more space than I can commit. But amaranth and quinoa appear to productive in a small amount of space so are worth a try (I don’t have any actual statistics to compare their productivity to wheat).

There are some food-stuffs have been used in these biodome experiments that I could grow/raise, but I doubt I could bring myself to eat. For example, in a recent biodome experiment conducted in China, they ate mealworms. My husband and I have successfully raised mealworms to feed our pets but I’d have to be in an apocolyptically dire situation to even think about feeding them to my family. Silk-worm pupa have also been suggested as a food source, which disgusts me just like the mealworms do.

Azolla growing in an aquarium

Azolla, an aquatic fern, is another potential food source. It has been used as animal feed for eons, is easy to grow and grows exponentially fast in shallow water. Eating it doesn’t gross me out like the bugs do, it just doesn’t seem appealing. I did recently acquire some azolla which is multiplying in my aquarium. My plan is to feed it to the hens as the recipes in the azolla cookbook I found were much less appealing than a walk to the grocery store.

Of course I’ll grow potatoes next year, probably giving them an entire bed. And after doing research on biodome space plants for m garden, I once again have a list of more things to grow than the space I have – plenty of fodder for another thought exercise.

Posted in Blog on Sep 19, 2014 ·

Tags: competitions & space.

Review: Walkers taste challenge

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Walkers taste challenge
Walkers’ new crisp flavours, ready for tasting

For a bit of fun last week at work, one of my colleagues brought in the new Walkers crisps flavours for a blind taste test. Walkers are asking people to vote for their favourite – I assume the one that gets the most votes will continue to be on sale for a while, whilst the rest are thrown into the dustbin of history.

Each flavour was laid out on a numbered plate, ordered from 1-6 going clockwise from the top right in the photo above. The colours ranged from very pale through to quite pink. We were each given a sheet with the flavours on, and had to pair them up with the numbered plates. I had an inkling that it wasn’t going to be easy – and I was right.

  1. The first plate was not a good one to start with. The pale crisps had no smell, and no discernible flavour. They were salty, but non-descript. I thought they tasted as though they’d been down the back of the sofa for a couple of months! After I’d tasted them all, a process of elimination led me to guess (correctly) that these were Ranch Raccoon. Now, I have no idea what raccoon tastes like, but these crisps taste like nasty.

  2. The second flavour was easier, as it was pale pink and had a hint of smokey BBQ about it => Pulled Pork in a Sticky BBQ sauce. A little too sweet for my tastes, and another “No, thanks”.

  3. This was the easiest of the lot. Very yellow, with a pungent smell of spices, it could only be Chip Shop Chicken Curry. This was the least nasty of all the flavours, and the one I would choose to eat if I was being forced.

  4. I got this one wrong, mixed up with no. 6. It had a fruity flavour, reminiscent of lychees to me. Again, pale pink. A second taste gave a tang I thought might make it Cheesy Beans on Toast, but in fact it was Hot Dog with Tomato Ketchup. One you know, you can get a hint of those little cheap pork sausages you find in tins of spaghetti….

  5. The spices made this one easy – Sizzling Steak Fajita. Unfortunately it’s more like Sizzling Green Pepper Fajita – an overwhelming sour taste makes it very nasty, although one of my colleagues picked it as their favourite. Taste is a very individual thing!

  6. And last, but not nastiest, was another pink crisp with a fruity hint that made me think of Vimto. I thought Hot Dogs, but it was in fact Cheesy Beans.

So… I’m not voting for my favourite, because they were all quite unpleasant. I don’t imagine any of them will be long-term Walkers flavours, but we’ll see. The combined smells of 6 different crisp flavours made the office stink for a while, and it was surprisingly hard to find anyone willing to polish them all off. But we had lots of laughs doing it.

When you now what you’re eating, it’s easy to recognise the flavour. When you don’t, it’s quite hard. It gives you some sympathy for people who can’t tell which meat they’ve been given in their take-away curry (but not for the people who are trying to fool them…!).

Have you tried any of the flavours? What did you think – do you have a favourite?

I didn’t get a look at the packets, and I couldn’t find listings of the ingredients for these flavours on the Walkers website. It’s a fair bet that most (if not all of them) rely on some kind of milk product. I’m OK with that in small doses, but not on a regular basis. If you’re badly affected by milk (or anything else) then please find out what’s in these, before you eat them!

Posted in Blog on Sep 16, 2014 ·

Last modified on Sep 15, 2014

Tag: food

Seed database

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Thai basil front
The front of a Thai basil seed packet

Earlier in the month I visited what will be (soon, hopefully!) my local garden centre. I needed some pots in which to pot on my windowsill plants, but I discovered it was time for their end-of-season seed sale, and found myself rummaging through the bargain bins. There were lots of peas and beans, and tomatoes, as well as flowers and herbs. Now, I’m not short of seeds, so I was very restrained – I came away with Thai basil, lemon coriander, and lime basil (clearly, there was a bit of a citrus theme going on!) to add to my herb garden next year.

Whenever we go to garden centres, Ryan points out the lovely enamelled boxes labelled ‘Seeds’, and asks me if I want one. I generally just laugh – they’re about the size of a cigar box. My plastic, rodent-proof seed box could hold a pair of football boots. I have never been very good at keeping track of what’s inside it (especially in the recent, garden-free years), and so I have started what I hope will become a new habit.

I have taken photos of the front and back of the seed packets, cropped them down and made them smaller so that they’re a reasonable size to save in an Evernote notebook.

Thai basil back
The information on the back of a Thai basil seed packet

I have a Premium Evernote membership (since I use it for everything!), and once I have uploaded the photos it OCR’s the text in the images and makes it searchable. So as I record my new seed purchases, I will have a record of what I’ve got, an image of what it looks like (makes finding the right packet easier!) and the sowing and cultivation details at hand.

Now, if I tear through half of the instructions when I open the packet (you’ve done that too, right?) then it won’t matter any more…. And there’s a picture of what the plants looks like, so when those seedlings lose their labels and I can’t remember what they are… you get the idea. It should be a useful database :)

How do you keep track of your seeds?

Posted in Blog on Sep 14, 2014 ·

Tag: herbs

Write Club: Gardening with a disability

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Angela Moore kicks off Write Club 2014 with her guest post on gardening with a disability. Angela blogs at Garden, Tea, Cakes and Me and is on Twitter as @daisyangel1.

You can vote for this post by using the social media buttons in the sidebar to like it, and by leaving a comment.

I have scoliosis, which is no surprise if you are a regular reader of my blog Garden Tea Cakes and Me, I have written about it previously particularly to highlight Scoliosis Awareness Day. Scoliosis has recently featured in the media due to the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in a social services car park in Leicester, confirming that he had Scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. I have a curved spine I also have a garden, but how do I manage gardening with my wonderfully curved spine.

I love gardening, the nurturing of an inert seed into life giving you something wonderfully green, colourful and scented or maybe a fruit or vegetable that supplies sustenance. But for me there is a certain acceptance of compromising in the garden – what I want to do and what I can do physically is not compatible. I cannot stand for long periods of time, I can only kneel for a very short period. I cannot raise both my arms above my head, not that it matters being only 4ft 6 inch tall means I cannot reach most things anyway. Fortunately for me there are no light bulbs that need changing in my garden, though it can be problematic picking fruit off trees or pruning shrubs.

That in it self has taken some time for me to accept, but there is still lots I can do in the garden. There are just a few rules I have follow: –

  • Let someone else do the heavy work – that someone for me is my sister, who adores gardening and is more than happy to do the digging, reaching and lifting. My sister is the one with the ‘Under Gardener’ mug; mine of course reads ‘Head Gardener’.

  • Knowing when to stop – not to keep going until the garden task is competed, stopping helps to prevent me from over doing things, difficult when I like things completed straight away. I regularly set an alarm on my phone to remind be to stop grab a cup of tea, sit and enjoy the garden for 15 minutes – something we should all do more often!

  • Getting the right layout – I have some amazing raised beds not your average one plank of wood high mine are two foot high. This means no bending down on to my knees, minimum bending of my back, they make for much easier gardening, and more importantly high enough for my carrot crops to avoid carrot fly!

  • Being Patient – I may not be as quick as some gardeners, but tasks do get completed I just have to allow a little extra time.

The greenhouse is the centre of my gardening world, it is here I get to enjoy what I love the most – sewing of seeds, potting on seedling and taking cutting. Apart from the everyday gardening tools in the greenhouse I also have, a footstool to reach the higher staging and a stool to sit on as I have said previously standing too long is my enemy. The failures the successes in the greenhouse all make up the challenge and enjoyment that is gardening. I may have never successfully grown Squash, my seedlings do not survive longer than a few weeks, but that does not mean I will stop trying. However my Agapanthus seeds I planted six years ago are now thriving and healthy Agapanthus plants, my tip I ignored them at the back of the greenhouse for nearly three years!

I feel I need to explain the photograph above as I do not normally dress so smartly for gardening. This photograph was taken when I had just popped out to pick some raspberries having returned home from an event where I met the Duke of Gloucester – ooh get me!

I am sure in the years to come I may have to make more adjustments to how I garden, but one thing for sure I will always enjoy it.

Posted in Blog on Sep 7, 2014 ·

Tag: competitions

Waking sleeping beauty

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I had to abandon my allotment earlier in the year, as it was engulfed in a sea of weeds that I had neither the time or the energy to deal with. All of my plants in pots, mainly refugees from the old garden, had to be left to fend for themselves – they had been swamped by the undergrowth. I don’t think I could have found them all, had I been so inclined. I hoped that they would find some protection in their leafy covering, but as the weather warmed up and there were extended periods of drought, it seemed increasingly unlikely that any of them would survive. But there was nothing I could do.

I think it has been around four months since I was last there, but I had the day off today and this morning I felt like I could cope with a trip to survey the damage. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared. Yes, there have been casualties, but some of my plants have survived – more than I had expected. It will take some time to clear the weeds and uncover the true extent of what’s left, but it feels more possible now than it did in May.

An olive, hiding under a bindweed blanket

Clearing the thatch away will be a gradual process, and I will uncover plants as I go along. With sturdy plants it’s simply a case of pulling the bindweed until it breaks free; with this olive I had to be more gentle, as it was poised to come flying out of its pot completely. But it has survived the summer, and even produced a single olive whilst doing so.

Rescued olive
Free at last

Now that the weather is cooler and wetter, it should appreciate better air flow.

The tally so far is:

Tree fuchsia (sorry Owen!)
One Sichuan pepper (one is still MIA)
All of the asparagus

Alpine strawberries
White saffron
Japanese raspberry
Babington leeks
Cha cha chives

I brought home the pot of white saffron, as it has no drainage holes and won’t fare well as the autumn rolls on. I also brought home the Cha cha chives, which I have been worried about, and the regular chives, to sit on the kitchen windowsill. In fact, I even went so far as to snip some fresh chives for my potato salad at lunch time.

It’s a start. Next time I go I will try and solve The Mystery of the Missing Horseradish Pot!

Posted in Blog on Sep 5, 2014 ·

Tags: allotment & herbs.

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