Raymond Blanc’s kitchen garden at Kew
Ryan and I stumbled across Raymond Blanc’s kitchen garden at Kew during our visit a few weeks ago – we hadn’t known it was there in advance. There’s a notice that informs you that this is being grown for a television programme (it’s ‘Kew on a Plate’, four programmes to be broadcast next year, with an accompanying book) and that it is being constantly filmed. It also asks you not to pick anything….
Side view of the kitchen garden
It’s quite a formal layout, complete with a scarecrow statue that comes from the kitchen garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. But the planting is less traditional – you can see there are lots of herbs and flowers amongst the vegetables. In fact it was here that Ryan first encountered lemon verbena :)
A bed with crops from the Americas was drawing a lot of attention from passers by, mainly because they couldn’t identify all of the plants! As well as familiar squashes and sunflowers, the bed included quinoa and amaranth:
and some healthy-looking yacon:
So I was able to introduce Ryan to yacon’s adorable furry foliage :)
There were also some mushrooms growing in Kew’s Ice House, but the low light conditions made it very hard to get a decent photo.
Will you be watching when the programme airs next year?
Posted in Blog on Nov 17, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 17, 2014
When we moved into the new house, Ryan and I were keen to entice some of the local birds into the garden. We didn’t know what they might be – early on I spotted a robin hopping about in the shadows of one of the shrubs. So far it hasn’t been brave enough to make an extended appearance, but hopefully it will once I get down to doing some proper gardening, and digging around in the soil.
There are plenty of crows in the area, but they don’t seem to come into the garden. I have seen a pair of pied wagtails flitting around the local rooftops, but that’s the closest they’ve come.
A selection of goodies for wild birds, available from Homebase
And so I was pleased when Homebase offered me the chance to review some of the products from their wild bird & pet care range. As I didn’t know which birds we had a chance of attracting, they sent me a variety of things to try. When the box arrived, the contents proved so exciting that Ryan unpacked everything and assembled the bird feeder while I was having a nap, so these photos are his :)
Assembled bird feeding station
The bird feeding station has proven to be very useful. The garden is currently featureless, and we had nowhere to hang any feeders. Ryan has put it up in a temporary location, near the plants that were rescued from the allotment. The birds are enjoying hanging around on those as the wait their turn for the feeder :) As you can see, it has several hooks plus a dish for loose food and a water dish, that is currently being kept well-filled by the weather.
Waiting for diners
Ryan set it up with one of the suet blocks, the smaller feeder filled with robin mix, and the larger one filled with winter warmer mix. The robin mix was immediately popular, and we’ve had to refill it – we’re not 100% convinced that the birds have figured out how to get to the seeds in the larger feeder. But it’s not the robin that we see having a meal…
Blue tit on bird feeder
I thought we had a pair of blue tits that were eating all of the food, but yesterday I saw three, so that’s good news. I have also seen a bird that looks like a house sparrow, but appears on its own – mum thinks it might be a dunnock, but I don’t have a photo and I have yet to get a good look. It was hopping about in my pots, and may well be taking chunks out of my new chard plants, rather than the bird food. There’s also a little brown birds that hops in and out among the pots, and which might be a wren.
Our mystery guest, now identified as a weren
I couldn’t recognise this one from the photo, but several of you have identified it as a wren. Thank you!
The birds are still wary of us, but it’s clear that there are more than we thought that we may be able to entice into the garden, so we will be watching progress around the bird feeder very carefully. When the weather turns colder we have some fat balls we can put out, as well, and Ryan put a few dried mealworms on the feeder tray yesterday. Hopefully they will attract the robin, although the tray may be too high. Fortunately it doesn’t seem as though any cats make their way into the garden (fingers crossed!) to disturb the birds.
Our new location is considerably more rural than the old garden, so I’m looking forward to seeing what wildlife we can attract* :)
*I’m a little wary that the local bunny population might find their way in – if they do then we’ll be into rabbit-proof fence territory!
Posted in Blog on Nov 16, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 17, 2014
Lemon verbena, photo by bgblogging
On two separate occasions this summer, Ryan and I encountered lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla, previously A. citriodora). Ryan loves lemony flavours, and when I gave him a leaf to crush and smell, he carried it around in his pocket until it had lost its scent entirely. So lemon verbena is definitely on the plant list for the garden next year.
In Homegrown Tea, Cassie Liveridge notes that lemon verbena is not the easiest plant to grow from seed – it’s more common to buy a plant. She also says that it’s not entirely hardy, and in a frosty area the plant is more safely grown in a container that can be moved into an unheated greenhouse over the winter.
The plants we saw were large, and growing in the ground – it appears they were overwintering with no trouble. But each was grown in a walled garden. The first we saw was at Kew, and the second at West Dean Gardens. I have no idea yet which parts of my garden are susceptible to frost and which might be more benign environments – so far this winter we’ve only had one air frost, and nothing that has reached the ground. I’ll know more by spring, but it sounds as though the safest course of action might be to buy two plants – planting one in the ground and keeping one in a container. Of course, I don’t have a greenhouse yet either, but hopefully will sort that out before next winter!
Making lemon verbena tea, photo by jacqueline
As well as being a good tea plant, lemon verbena has other culinary uses – Liveridge suggests it goes well with steamed fish, and (intriguingly) that it makes a lovely sorbet. I’ll have to grow enough to try that :)
This won’t be the first time I’ve tried to grow lemon verbena. A few years ago I bought a plant at the Eden Project – I remember that it came in one of those hairy pots. But it didn’t thrive, and a few months later the dead plant and its pot were both on the compost heap. (Those hairy pots take forever to break down.) I can’t remember what the problem was, no doubt me being too distracted to look after it properly.
Do you grow lemon verbena? How hardy have you found it to be? What do you use your leaves for?
Posted in Blog on Nov 15, 2014 · ∞
Tags: tea & herbs.
I’ve had one of those days at work, and I don’t much feel like writing. So have a nice picture of the ordered ranks of the vegetable garden at West Dean Gardens that I took last month, and we’ll try again with words tomorrow :)
Posted in Blog on Nov 14, 2014 · ∞
Unusual cucumbers, grown at West Dean Gardens
It seems to be Cucurbitaceae week on the blog. Fresh from talking about Gynostemma pentaphyllum, today’s post is about some unusual, and ornamental, cucumber varieties.
Just before we moved house, Ryan and I had a much-needed weekend away on the south coast. We’d planned various visits, but whilst we were there I picked up a tourist information leaflet about West Dean Gardens. I’d heard of them, but hadn’t realised we were so close. Of course, we had to visit :) And after a wet day at Fishbourne Roman Palace and Gardens it was nice that the sun came out.
West Dean Gardens is a lovely place for a kitchen gardener to visit, and I’ll share some more photos in due course. There are lots of greenhouses, growing impressive crops of fruiting vegetables, and one of the things that caught my eye was a display of unusual cucumber varieties that had been grown in one.
Hedgehog gourd, Cucumis dipsaceus
Also known as the teasel gourd and Ekaleruk, you can buy seeds for the hedgehog gourd from Chiltern Seeds. They note that this plant comes from Arabia, and although it is usually grown as an ornamental, the fruit, seeds and leaves are all edible. They also say they have no recipes, but cannot recommend swallowing the fruits whole!
This one doesn’t seem to have a common name, and opinion is divided on whether or not it is edible. According to PlantzAfrica, the fruits “have been pickled and preserved at the Cape since the late 17th century”. However, there are other references to them being extremely bitter and inedible. It sounds like this plant may not be domesticated, and that variation in the wild population makes some fruits tasty and some not.
The common names for these cucumbers are confused – they could all be called a ‘horned melon’ or ‘hedgehog gourd’, and at some point they probably all have :) Horizon Herbs call this ‘kiwano’, but it’s not the kiwano I know and have grown, which is Cucumis metuliferus (I got my seeds from the HSL, but they’re quite widely available now). In fact, it seems that Cucumis zambianus is a relatively new species, first officially described in 2008.
South African Spiny Cucumber, Cucumis zeyheri
According to Trade Winds Fruit, these cucumbers are considered to be inedible, although it again notes that some plants will be more bitter than others.
Bur gherkin, Cucumis anguria var longipes
This last one is, perhaps, less ornamental than the rest. That might explain why the literature on Bur gherkin seems to be mainly scholarly ;)
I don’t think I’ve ever grown cucumbers – I don’t like eating them. However, Ryan does, so I may well try and grow Crystal Lemon next year. I have also failed to grow Mouse melons (Melothria scabra
) before – they’re not a Cucumis
species, but they are in the Cucurbitaceae.
What’s the most exciting cucumber you’ve ever grown? Do you fancy growing any of these unusual ones next year?
Posted in Blog on Nov 13, 2014 · ∞
Tags: unusual & fruit.
Quite often, when I tell people that I’m an ethnobotanist (and explain what that means), they grin and joke that I must enjoy studying Cannabis. In fact, I have a pair of silver cannabis-leaf earrings that I sometimes wear as an ethnobotanist’s joke. But plant-based drugs are an interesting topic, so before we moved, Ryan and I took a day trip into London to visit Kew Gardens during their Intoxication Season – a celebration of mind-altering plants. Some of the species on display were familiar, and legal:
Tea and coffee both contain mind-altering caffeine
The display notes that tobacco could become a biofuel crop, and is being used to develop an experimental drug to combat the Ebola virus
Salvia divinorum is used by shamans to produce altered states of consciousness.
But most are illegal in at least some countries:
The cannabis plant was kept under lock(s) and key
As was the peyote cactus
Kew couldn’t obtain a license to have a real Coca plant, so visitors had to make do with an illustration
The Opium poppies had been harvested and dried. They’re legal to grow in the UK, but trying to turn them into drugs isn’t.
Intoxication Season, which focused on different types of plants over four weekends, was designed to inspire debate about mind-altering plants, society’s views on them and the choices we make as to which are legal and which are not. There’s a nice write-up over at New Scientist for those of you who would like to know more, and I can thoroughly recommend Mike Jay’s book on the topic, High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture, which is utterly fascinating.
Posted in Blog on Nov 12, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 12, 2014
Tags: ethnobotany & gardens.
I wrote this post yesterday, but got sidetracked before i could upload it. So this is yesterday’s blog and there will be another one later today :)
Gynostemma pentaphyllum, AKA Sweet vine tea
One of the plants that Cassie Liveridge mentions in Homegrown Tea is one that I own, but which you very rarely see mentioned anywhere. I’ve had my Gynostemma pentaphyllum for four years, since buying it at the Eden Project. According to the label, it is hardy down to -10°C, but I think it has lived its entire life inside – mainly on the kitchen windowsill.
It’s an odd plant. Some of the time it seems entirely happy on the windowsill, and then – for no apparent reason – it dies right back. And then starts back into growth as though nothing had happened. It’s a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which is also home to melons, cucumbers and squashes. It has the characteristic leaf shape, although in smaller form, and has the ability to latch on to anything nearby it can use as a support. Most recently that has meant the aloe vera on my desk.
As it has recently disappeared again, I have moved it to the windowsill where it will get more light. If it’s not sharing a tray with the aloe vera, it will also benefit from more water.
I didn’t think Gynostemma pentaphyllum had a common name in English, but Liveridge refers to it as sweet tea vine. Apparently it was investigated as a potential sweetener, but the researchers found healthy compounds that explain why this plant is referred to as “poor man’s ginseng”.
Healthy in any language :)
Liveridge states that “It can increase energy levels and may help with stress, depression, and anxiety, as well as helping with jet lag.” She recommends taking it regularly, but in moderation, to feel the benefits. Over the course of owning the plant I’ve tried making tea with it once – I didn’t feel any more zingy afterwards, so obviously I need to up my intake!
It’s also possible to eat young leaves as a salad crop, so it could be considered a multi-purpose plant. I have never seen mine flower, and it sounds as though that’s unlikely to happen in our climate. Plants are either male, or female, so unless you happen to have both, you’re not going to get seeds, but plants are easily propagated by allowing those wayward stems to settle on and root into the soil.
So… it looks as though my little Gynostemma will spend the winter on the windowsill, and then venture outside for the first time next summer. With a big new pot, and something to climb up, we’ll see if we can make it happy enough to provide enough tea to put a spring in this gardener’s step :)
Is this a plant you’ve tried?
Posted in Blog on Nov 12, 2014 · ∞
Tags: tea & herbs.
A lovely set-up for a spot of outdoor tea
My problem with the garden at the moment is that I’m not seeing its possibilities – I’m seeing the opportunity cost of going down any particular route. The garden is (as they all are) of finite size. This shouldn’t be an issue, because I have finite resources of energy, time and money to lavish on it, so there will always be a limit to how many different things I can grow. But how to whittle down the list so that I don’t rule out anything too exciting, but have something manageable to focus on? Rationally, my blank canvas of a garden will keep me busy for many years to come, so not only is its finite size not a problem it also helps to keep the project manageable.
Over the past few years, there have been lots of plants that I wanted to grow, but I have been continually frustrated. Countless plants have been bought and neglected to death, and endless packets of seed languish unopened in my seed box. All kinds of plant projects have been dreamed up – things I wanted to plant, and grow, and write about – but come to nothing.
Suddenly faced with the space to grow, and (hopefully) the stability to allow my garden to thrive, it was hard to choose between these put-aside options, and the new ones that are constantly popping into my head. But since trying to do everything at once is a guaranteed recipe for failure, and that the garden can be reinvented over time, it seemed sensible to choose one to begin with.
And the one that has risen to the top for 2015 (and possibly beyond) is tea – I’m going to try and grow as many tea (or tisane) plants in the garden as possible. I have been reading Homegrown Tea by Cassie Liveridge, and it’s amazing how many of the plants she includes in the book I either have, or have wanted to grow for a while (often for a different purpose).
I’ll need to buy some new plants (woo hoo!), but I have plenty of seeds in my seed box as well. There’s no point starting until the bare bones of the garden are in place – plants that can’t go in the ground get neglected and are sad – so that’s the priority over the winter.
Real tea, Camellia sinensis, is a definite possibility for the garden, although self-sufficiency would be impossible :)
Do you have a favourite plant in your garden that you use for tea? Or one that’s on your wishlist? What’s your strategy for dealing with the inevitable limits to your gardening ambitions?
Posted in Blog on Nov 10, 2014 · ∞
Tags: tea & gardens.
The giant Pandan triffid surveys its domain
Back in March this year, when I naively thought having a garden would be just weeks ago, I ordered some plants from Suttons. The Chilean guavas have spent all summer on the windowsill at work, but have now come home and are acclimatising to life outside in the garden. The current plan is for them to make a little hedge in the front garden – I’ll have to see whether they need some friends to help them fill the space. The kaffir lime plants have spent their months on various kitchen windowsills; after an attack of red spider mite they’ve dropped their leaves. I’m still hoping they will recover, but at the moment they look sad.
But there was another plant, and to be honest I had forgotten all about it. It, too, was on the kitchen windowsill and moved with us to the new house. But I had lost track of what it was and why I bought it in the intervening weeks. The penny dropped when we took Ryan’s parents out for a thank you dinner for helping us move – to a local Thai restaurant. They served us their delicious chicken wrapped in pandan leaves, and I thought (as I do every time) that I really ought to try growing my own. I had a pandan plant years ago which I bought at the Eden Project, but it died.
Then I vaguely remembered having ordered a Vanilla plant from Suttons’ Homegrown Revolution range. What had happened to that? And hence I rediscovered the pandan plant (Pandanus amarylifolius) on the kitchen windowsill, looking a little dry and sad.
And so I have taken it to work, where it is guaranteed to be watered at least once a week, and a winter free from frost (although it gets quite cold in the office at the weekends, so I will have to take that into account). Hopefully it will perk up and I will be experimenting with homegrown pandan leaves in no time at all :)
Posted in Blog on Nov 9, 2014 · ∞
Tags: spices & windowsill.
Worms were the only survivors when space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003. Caenorhabditis elegans, nematodes, had been sent into space to test a synthetic nutrient solution. Their naturally short life-span meant that the survivors were several generations removed from the worms that were blasted into space at the beginning of the mission. Nematodes experiments have also been conducted on the International Space Station (ISS), looking at the effect of microgravity – it turns out that these worms can suffer muscle mass loss in the same way as humans do. Nematodes weren’t the only worms included on that fateful mission; among the student experiments (which included space bees) was one that aimed to investigate mealworms (Tenebrio molitor). Sadly they didn’t survive.
Composting worms, at work on Earth
Small organisms such as these are very useful for bioscience research in space, but there are other reasons why worms might be a key feature of future space adventures. When the latest Antares supply mission to the ISS suffered a ‘launch mishap’ at the end of October, another student experiment – to investigate whether worm composting works in space – went up in smoke. The students wanted to find a way to recycle leftover astronaut food, and were sending composting worms (Eisenia fetida) into space – the same worms you’re using here on Earth if you have a worm composter. Fortunately, the students have been told they will get another chance to run their experiment.
Composting worms can help to dispose of waste food because they can eat things we can’t, and including animals and insects into closed-loop agricultural systems in space is one way of completing the cycle and turning waste products into inputs. They can be used to improve the soil and produce fertiliser (like the composting worms) or to turn inedible biomass into protein to enhance the astronaut’s diet. But adding animals into the system can be tricky – not only are they large and heavy (hence expensive to launch into space), but they produce waste gases and some of them would stink out closed quarters. Plus you have to factor in the time spent looking after animals, when astronauts are already busy. Aquatic animals such as fish are also being considered, but bring their own set of problems to overcome.
And so the idea of raising edible insects in space arises. These ‘microlivestock’ can be easily and cleanly raised on waste products, and produce little in the way of waste themselves (and frass , worm poop, makes good fertiliser). Insects are already eaten in some cultures on Earth, although for most people they are decidedly not on the menu.
An appetising plate of edible insects
Two of the most studied species are silkworms (Bombyx mori) and mealworms, which are beetle larvae.
Katayama et al point out that insects were an important portion of the hunter-gatherer diet. Perhaps the Paleo diet people should be taking a look….
Yummy looking silkworm pupae
Yang et al write about the history of silkworm consumption in China and state that silkworm culture won’t have adverse effects on the cabin environment. They also say that silkworm fibre (I assume they mean silk) is over 98% protein and could be hydrolysed into an edible product. I’m not sure anyone would find that more appetising than the worms themselves.
Yu et al propose a simple bioregenerative life support system involving mulberries and silkworms. The mulberries would provide fruit for astronauts, plus leaves to feed silkworms. The silkworms could also eat the leaves of stem lettuce – stem lettuce is a popular Chinese vegetable, but the leaves aren’t eaten (and seem to be considered inedible). 105 silkworms would provide the daily protein requirements for an astronaut (a Chinese astronaut, or taikonaut – they note that the Russians have double the protein requirement!). The silkworms can be eaten as pupae or as powdered larvae (which has the advantage of not having to deal with cocoons). Yum.
Beyond that being a slightly dull diet, I fail to see how mulberry trees would make good candidates for space cultivation, being large trees. You could take seeds, I suppose, so they blast-off weight would be small, but then you’d have to wait years for the trees to mature….
“The height and diameter of ground-controlled mulberry tree were much lower than other kinds of fruit trees. Lower trunk shortened the distance of transporting nutrient and water, accelerated the growth of branches and leave and improved the efficiency of photosynthesis.”
Li et al note that silkworms have a limited waste disposal role, as they only eat the leaves of stem lettuce and mulberry leaves. They investigated mealworms as an alternative, feeding them wheat straw and vegetable waste (and wheat is one of the ‘big 3’ cereal crops on Earth that produce most of our calories, so being able to grow it in space would be useful). Mealworms can be fed a variety of plant material.
Mealworms, with a side of mole crickets
And earlier this year, three volunteers spent three months inside Moon Palace 1 (Yuegong-1), an artificial biosphere in Beijing designed to test the kind of life support system that may one day be used for a long duration space mission. They grew grain, vegetables and fruit and fed the crop wastes to mealworms. They ate dozens of worms each day, trying out different cooking styles and seasonings. No doubt we can expect them to publish a cookbook very soon!
Mealworms may not be the best choice, though – the HI SEAS project decided against them as they are “little escape artists”, something I have personal experience of. I used to have a regular delivery of live mealworms to feed the garden birds. I can just imagine how the postman felt when he delivered the damaged box from which they were all escaping…. Some scientists feel that freshwater algae could deliver the same benefits, but that’s a topic for another post :)
Katayama, N., Yamashita, M., Wada, H., & Mitsuhashi, J. (2005). Entomophagy as part of a space diet for habitation on Mars. The Journal of Space Technology and Science, 21(2), 2_27-2_38.
Kramer, M. (2013). How Worms Survived NASA’s Columbia Shuttle Disaster. Space.com [Online]. Accessed 9th November 2014.
Li, L., Zhao, Z., & Liu, H. (2013). Feasibility of feeding yellow mealworm (Tenebrio molitor L.) in bioregenerative life support systems as a source of animal protein for humans. Acta Astronautica , 92(1), 103-109.
Rutkin, A. (2014). Space hopefuls dine on worms in ‘Moon Palace’ module. New Scientist. [Online]. Accessed 9th November 2014.
Space Today Online. (2006). Tragedy of Space Shuttle Columbia. Space Today. [Online]. Accessed 9th November 2014.
Yang, Y., Tang, L., Tong, L., & Liu, H. (2009). Silkworms culture as a source of protein for humans in space. Advances in Space Research, 43(8), 1236-1242.
Yu, X., Liu, H., & Tong, L. (2008). Feeding scenario of the silkworm Bombyx Mori, L. in the BLSS. Acta Astronautica, 63(7), 1086-1092.
Posted in Blog on Nov 8, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 9, 2014
Tags: space & compost.