Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Plant chemistry: blackcurrants and cat pee

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I’m not a chemist, but I do find plant chemistry (and the links and patterns between different plants) to be a fascinating topic. Fortunately there are chemists out there who can bring these to our attention, and Compound Interest includes some great plant-related infographics amongst a wider spread of chemical topics.

If you click the infographic below you’ll be taken to the site, where you can find a larger version, and the informative post that goes with it. Suffice to say I didn’t know that the cultivation of blackcurrants (Ribes nigrum) was (and in some places, still is) banned in the US due to disease worries. They’re a very popular fruit crop in the UK, in gardens and allotments. I’m pleased to say that my little specimen, which I bought in a pound shop in the spring, is doing quite nicely (although it would like to get out of a pot and into a permanent home).

blackcurrant chemistry infographic

Compound Interest talks about the anthocyanins that give blackcurrants their colour, and the fact that the berries can have far higher levels of vitamin C than an orange.

And then it says that some people find the smell of the berries reminds them of cat pee. Now, this isn’t a problem I have myself but apparently there is a chemical link between the two – in the form of a sulfur compound called the ‘cat ketone’.

Have you made this connection?

Posted in Blog on Jul 27, 2015 ·

Last modified on Jul 24, 2015

Tags: fruit & science.

Blurred vision and stealth edibles

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Filling up

My parents are coming to visit today, to ‘see the garden’ (which is probably just a convenient excuse for them to visit). I am a little apprehensive – not least because it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop raining all day. We were going to have a barbecue; we’ve thought better of it.

Last weekend we filled the rest of the existing raised beds (there are 6 – when the garden is complete there will be 12). In my impatience to have things in the beds and growing, I decided to transplant some overcrowded tomato and courgette plants from their crates. Unfortunately it had been a dry few days, and they were wilting from drought.

What I should have done was water them thoroughly and wait for them to perk up. Of course, that’s not what I did do – I ploughed ahead and pulled them up and unceremoniously planted them anyway. Root disturbance on top of water stress is not a recipe for a happy plant. One of the courgettes died pretty quickly, the other two remained on the critical list for days. One is now fully recovered and growing again, whilst the other still looks unhappy. The tomatoes are doing an interesting mixture of looking very unhappy and perfectly content at the same time. It helped that – although I planted them out on a hot and dry day – the weather has been overcast and wet ever since.

Since then I have filled two more of the beds with new perennial edibles (more on those soon), leaving one bed empty and waiting for asparagus plants. We’ve brought some of the container plants back from the refugee camp, but not all of them. It’s a garden in progress, and the current set of planting is more a question of convenience and necessity than planning.

It certainly doesn’t represent the vision I have in my head for the garden, which I think will gradually unfold over the coming years. I want a beautiful, aromatic, overflowing, edible paradise of a garden. What I have at the moment is a half-hearted veg plot containing some unusual plants. In the rain.

My mother has very conventional views about gardens. Whenever we have discussed my plans for the garden, she has been adamant that the vegetables belong in the far strip, out of sight from the house. The garden proper should be filled with pretty things. No doubt I should have a woven sun hat and spend my days neatly dead-heading the roses.

She may approve of the dahlias, as she doesn’t know the plan is to eat them. It’s a shame that none of them is currently in flower, although they’d look like drowned rats in this weather. Fortunately the bergamot in the planters in front of the house is starting to flower:

Bergamot flower

I won’t tell her it’s edible. It will be our little secret :)

Posted in Blog on Jul 26, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 10, 2015

Tag: planning

A future for the front lawn?

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This summer, we will be focusing on the main garden. The aim is to have the structure in place by the end of the year, so I can spending next year gardening rather than building the garden. It’s not that it hasn’t been an interesting experience, and I’m loving watching the design unfold and become the garden we want, but I’ve spent far more of the year wanting to garden than I will spend actually gardening!

This involves lots of day dreaming, and flights of fancy, and pondering what will go where in the garden. With the main garden design well under way, I have continued to think about the other two areas that we will need to tackle in the future.

Roadside plant sanctuary

The furthest strip from the house is currently a refugee camp for my plants in pots. Many of them will come back and find a permanent home in the main garden in due course. The strip (and I’m tempted to call it the Sunset Strip, since it is west facing) can only be accessed from the road in front of the house, and so is far less convenient to garden. In permaculture terms, it’s a different zone, and needs to be treated differently. It will need to be planted with species that can take more care of themselves – almost certainly all perennials. On the plus side, I do walk past it on my way to and from work every day, so it’s not as if it’s out of sight (as long as I remember to look!).

So that’s a project for later, probably next year. Ryan and I toss ideas about occasionally. Eventually some of them will stick and we’ll come up with a plan.

Front garden

The front garden is an easier proposition, because it’s half finished. The paving is done, and the planters are in place with temporary contents. The idea is for the planters to become a herb garden, as they’re in a sunny and sheltered spot that it quickly accessible from the kitchen.

Behind the newly-painted picket fence, I have always envisaged having a low hedge of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae), as I have a number of plants that need to be planted out. I haven’t done the maths yet, to see whether I have enough, or too many.

They won’t take up all the space, so that leaves a strip between the hedge and the paving that is currently… well, it was a weedy lawn. After being used as a staging area for my plants in containers, and then the paving materials, it is a sorry looking patch of ground.

Ryan doesn’t want it to be one big bed, with the hedge as a backdrop, and I can see his point (to a certain extent). We have toyed with the idea of re-turfing it; it would be the only grass in the garden. If we did, we’d need some decent edging to keep the hedge and the turf separate – the Ecoborder from The Plastic People looks good and robust.

Unhappy lawn

We’ve also toyed with the idea of replacing the grass with a high-end artificial turf, so that we can get rid of the mower and save the space in the shed. The environmental cost of the material itself could be out-weighed by the lack of inputs it would need over its life, and it is only a small area.

Other ideas I have pondered include stepping stones and creeping thyme, or a traditional chamomile lawn, although they are not entirely straightforward, according to my research.

What do you think – keep it simple, or go for something a bit more interesting?

This post was produced in association with The Plastic People, but as usual the inane witterings are my own :)

Posted in Blog on Jul 25, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 10, 2015

Tag: planning

Drink your garden

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Apparently more Brits watch gardening programmes than tuned in for Game of Thrones. I can see why – in the penultimate season of GoT the action was so slow that it would have been more interesting to go outside and watch the plants grow. I didn’t bother watching the latest season (but yes, I know who died, thanks).

The gin gurus from Portobello Road Gin reckon that half of consumers aged 24-44 grow plants in their garden, and so they’re encouraging us to use our garden like a fridge.

True, it can’t keep your drinks cold, but it can provide some tasty treats from which we can rustle up some cocktails for a summer evening.

“The adventurous home bartender can grab a large red wine glass, plenty of ice, a generous measure of Portobello Road Gin, a decent tonic and head to the vegetable patch for ingredients and garnishes that you normally might not consider. We chose ingredients that compliment but don’t overwhelm the flavours of the gin or the tonic. These might not be the first flavours you’d think to use but we think they work really well.”

So, once you’ve got your hands on a large glass and plenty of ice, head out into the garden to put the finishing touches to your drink!

Vegetable Patch Copa
Looks like that bunny’s got his eye on your drink!

The Vegetable Patch Copa
50ml Portobello Road Gin
200ml Tonic water
25ml carrot juice made from around 8 baby carrots
A sprig of basil
Juniper berries for garnishing

Pour the carrot juice over the ice, then slowly add the gin and the tonic, give it a gentle stir and garnish with a basil sprig and a sprinkle of juniper berries.

garden cocktail collection
Head Gardener’s perks

This next one will require a little bit of preparatory shopping and a trip to the allotment…

The Good Life Copa
50ml Portobello Road Gin
200ml sparkling water
Pinch grape seed extract (apparently a great source of antioxidants)
1 tsp powdered dextrose
Frozen gooseberries
Pomegranate pieces
A large twist of your favourite citrus
Rose petals

Stir the dextrose, the grape seed extract and the gin to create a smooth paste.
Add the ice, pomegranate and the frozen gooseberries and top with sparkling mineral water, then finally drop in a few rose petals.

What do you think? Do you see your garden as a ‘fridge’ from which to forage ingredients for your G&T – or just the ideal place to enjoy one?

Posted in Blog on Jul 22, 2015 ·

Last modified on Jul 22, 2015

Tag: food

Growing vegetables is always fun

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The Bookazine

Fresh from wondering where my writing career is going, I thought it might be fun to revisit some of the places it has been. In 2007 I was just starting out as a freelance writer, having been made redundant from my job as a techie. I’d been blogging for several years, and was slowly getting published (and paid!) online and off.

In December I received an email from Dennis Publishing, saying that they were looking for someone to write “a one-off gardening guide to growing your own fruit and veg aimed at 5-12 year-olds”. I had been recommended by a friend of mine, who knew that I was looking for freelance work. After a short email conversation, the people at Dennis asked me to meet them at their offices in London for a chat.

At that point in time, I was slightly obsessed by the use of coffee grounds in the garden. Starbucks were doing their “Grounds for the garden” scheme, where they put their waste coffee grounds back into the packets for gardeners to take away from free. But I didn’t live anywhere near a Starbucks that was participating, so I was frustrated in getting my hands on some.

Arriving in the big smoke with some time to kill, I stopped off in a Starbucks, and they had a basket of coffee grounds by the till. I picked one up (had I not had to carry it all the way back to Oxfordshire, I would have taken more). Which meant, of course, that I took it into my interview with me.

Coffee grounds

So I’m sitting in an interview in London with two guys from Dennis Publishing, and there’s a packet of coffee grounds on the table in front of me. I think they were too polite to mention it! I do remember saying that big words were out, because “every time you use one you lose 10% of your audience”* and suggesting that the bookazine (theyre called magbooks now) be printed on nice glossy paper to make it easy to brush the dirt off.

It must have gone well, because we got to the point where the fee was negotiated (which involved me not saying anything, and them coming up with a figure that was more than I expected) and I was released back into the world with my compost grounds. I got the train back from London and celebrated with a drink in a pub in Oxford before going home.

There was just one thing… all the writing had to be done by 1st February. So after Christmas we began work in earnest and meeting the deadline was no problem. I don’t remember too much about the process, to be honest, except that the magbook was to come with 10 packets of free seeds, so I had to write about the plants that would be included, and the chosen layout meant that I had to come up with three whole pages about cress, which led to some hilarity, some head scratching and some more unusual edibles making it into the book.

I thought about including the whole section here, but it’s 3000+ words, so it’s a little long. Here’s the last 500 or so (as I drafted it, not the final, printed version. I don’t remember much editing.):

Other varieties to try

Another vegetable that is often grown in the same was as cress is mustard. Mustard seedlings have a ‘hot’, spicy flavour. They grow more quickly than cress, so if you want to have mustard and cress ready for harvesting at the same time then you have to sow your mustard seeds three or four days before you sow your cress seeds.

Mustard and cress have strong flavours. If you want to try something with a more mild flavour, you can sow oil seed rape seeds. Oil seed rape is a crop that farmers grow – you can see the yellow flowers in fields in the summer – but the seedlings make a nice salad vegetable too.

The sort of cress grown to eat as seedlings is sometimes called Garden cress. There are some different plants that are also called cress.

Watercress is a plant that likes damp soil – it’s often found growing wild by rivers and streams. It’s very good for you, with lots of vitamins and minerals. You can eat the leaves raw in salads and sandwiches, or you can cook them – watercress is often made into soup.

You can grow watercress from seed, or you can buy some watercress from the supermarket. If you put some of the stems into a glass of water they will grow roots – and then you can pot them up into compost. Stand the pot in a tray of water, and keep it topped up – watercress doesn’t like dry compost. You can keep your watercress indoors, or put it outside in the garden. It doesn’t mind cold weather, but it will lose its leaves if there’s a frost.

You could also try growing Land cress (also known as American cress or winter cress). It looks and tastes a lot like watercress, but it doesn’t need as much water. Land cress is a useful plant to grow through the winter, because it doesn’t mind cold weather. Sow land cress seeds in July or August for a winter harvest. When you harvest land cress, take a few leaves at a time from each plant – if you take all the leaves off the plants might die. In the spring your land cress plants will flower and make seeds, and then the leaves start to taste nasty and aren’t nice to eat, so put the plants on the compost heap.

Watercress and land cress are both easy plants to save your own seeds from.

You can also buy seeds for a very unusual plant called Para cress. Para cress is a perennial plant. There are two sorts – one with yellow flowers and one with yellow and red flowers. The second sort is sometimes called the Eyeball plant, or the Peek-a-boo plant, because the flowers look like monster’s eyes! It’s also called the Toothache plant because chewing the leaves makes your mouth a bit numb and can help if you have a toothache. The leaves are eaten in salads, but the flavour is quite strong so you wouldn’t want to eat too many in one go!

You’ll notice I was ahead of James Wong and his ‘electric daisies’ by a few years :) Paracress is also the ‘alien eyeballs’ of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, my latest book, which is about unusual edible plants and the people who choose to grow them.

Alien eyeball

By the time the growing season came around, Growing vegetables is fun! was appearing on shelves in bookshops, and even in Tesco, and rapidly sold out. The feedback I got was that it went down very well with kids of all ages. A second edition was brought out in 2009, and a third in 2010.

Bookazine in Borders

Looking at my copy this morning, lots of good stuff went into the bookazine. It starts by talking about environmental issues such as food miles, climate change and pesticides, and touches on healthy eating. It covered sowing seeds, making paper pots and other forms of recycling, pests and diseases, companion planting and crop rotation. Composting and mulching, feeding plants, and garden wildlife were also included, and their were pages for drawing pictures or sticking in photos, and making notes.

In short, it was everything you could hope for in a beginner’s gardening book, in a glossy magazine format with cartoon drawings :)

So I’m glad to see that – although it’s out of print, the third edition is available on Kindle:

*I don’t 100% agree with that statement any more. Although jargon is horrible and makes for hard reading, I don’t think people are scared off by unfamiliar words as long as they’re introduced in context and explained properly. But this was for kids, so plain English was the most appropriate choice.

Posted in Blog on Jul 19, 2015 ·

Tags: veg & writing.

Filling the beds

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Edible dahlias in their new home.

Last weekend Ryan and his dad built the first six of my raised beds (ultimately there will be 12 in the garden, giving me a little over 17 square metres of prime planting space). Now they need filling.

After doing a lot of calculations, and looking at bulk deliveries of compost and top soil, we have concluded that the most cost effective way of filling them is to visit the local garden centre and buy what we need in bags. It’s also the most convenient way of filling them, as it means we can do it in stages, rather than having to deal with several tonnes of top soil in one go. I’ve chosen a mixture of topsoil, organic manure and peat-free compost.

So last weekend we filled the first one, and I planted it with my edible dahlias from Lubera. They are new varieties bred for their edible tubers. I have one plant each of 6 different varieties, each one supposed to have a slightly different flavour. We’ll have to wait until harvest time in November to find out more!

I’m planning on mulching the beds with bark chips, but in the meantime I’ve sprinkled some of my old (harvested in 2010) Welsh onion seed on the surface of this one. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and it’s a plant I would like to reintroduce to the garden.

The exciting thing about the garden being on the way is that I can now start buying plants again! This morning I have ordered some pretty tulips from Sarah Raven, where there is 10% off tulips until midnight tomorrow (Sunday). I chose the ‘Super Perennial Tulip Collection’, which should contain 3 different ‘green flash’ varieties, and ‘Green Wave’, because they are colourful and frilly and just adorable. In my defence, they are also edimental – tulip petals are edible, although I have yet to try one myself. The only tulips I have had in my garden so far are Lady Tulips:

A lady tulip, moments before it was uprooted by a chicken

Which are still coming up, 8 years later, currently hiding out in large container with my crab apple.

The garden is going to come together slowly, so I’m looking at autumn planting rather than filling the beds with summery things (although there are some plants that could be transplanted). I had a £20 voucher for Thompson & Morgan, so I ordered my autumn planting alliums from them this year. From their range of autumn planting vegetables I chose:

  • Shallot ‘Eschalote Grise’, which they say is a khaki-coloured shallot originating in Kazakhstan.

  • Garlic ‘Solent Wight’, a soft necked variety described as well suited to the British climate.

  • Elephant Garlic, which of course is a really a giant leek.

  • Garlic ‘Red Donetsk’, which is reputedly very hot and not for the faint hearted, but perfect for making garlic bread!

  • Onion ‘Electric’, a red onion which I’ve grown before and should be reliable.

I need to do some maths and work out how many beds that little lot will cover. If there is space I would like some leeks, although it’s getting a little late to put them in. I have earmarked one bed for asparagus, and am intending to order several varieties from Victoriana Nursery Gardens, who sell asparagus plants rather than the more conventional bare root crowns.

What are you planning on planting this autumn?

Posted in Blog on Jul 18, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 10, 2015

Tags: general & veg.

Is anybody listening?

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I’d like to write more books. I enjoy writing and I have ideas and information that I want so share, and packaging it up neatly in a coherent volume is a bit different to just churning out blog posts. For one thing, it’s more permanent; I’ve sent copies of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs to the British Library and to the five legal deposit libraries (Bodleian Library Oxford University, The Cambridge University Library, National Library of Scotland, National Library of Wales and Trinity College Dublin), and knowing that they have been preserved for posterity is not a small thing.

My gardening journey has taken me off the beaten path and I write the books I want to read, the ones no one else is writing.

But here’s the thing – my books aren’t bestsellers. I can’t live off my book royalties. Many more people read my blog (and listened to the podcasts, when I was making them) than have bought even one of my books.

I can think of three possible reasons why that might be:

  1. My books are no good. They’re not worth reading. I don’t think that’s the case, and people who have read them say nice things about them*, but you never know, and it’s worth considering. (*Not my mum. She seems to enjoy showing them off to her friends, but I don’t think she reads them.)

  2. There’s no audience for them. The edible plant geek community is just too small to support an author.

  3. There is an audience for them, but I haven’t found it – i.e. the marketing for my books sucks.

You might be able to think of more reasons, and if so I hope you will share them in the comments.

I could continue to write books, but if no one is going to read them then it’s a self-serving hobby, and not really sustainable in the long term.

Of course, I am not the only writer to ponder whether it’s worth the effort involved in producing a book, something which we seem to be driven to do. The world of books is changing, and it’s not obvious yet how anyone can continue to make a living in it. I think the only way to make money as a writer at the moment is to write about how to make money writing!

Over the years I have spent a lot of time and energy on this blog, mainly for the love of it and because I enjoy feeling like part of a community. People used to leave comments, or come and find me for a chat on social media. It seems like that’s fading, too, and social media is become less social. Or the conversations are moving to different locations. I’m not the only person to feel that way, either.

At the moment I have a full time job, and am just in the process of building my new garden. I love growing plants, and learning all about them, and sharing that with like-minded people. I have plans to move the blog to a new platform, and write about lots of exciting things. But I have a full life and have no reason to shout into a void.

So perhaps you would do me a small favour and tell me why you’ve never bought one of my books? (I’m assuming that you haven’t, since most visitors haven’t. If you have, then thank you – I hope you enjoyed it :)

Why haven’t you bought one of my books?

  • I didn’t know you’d written any
  • They’re too niche, I’m not interested in the topics
  • I can’t afford books
  • Other (please be so kind as to leave a comment)


More polls:

Posted in Blog on Jul 15, 2015 ·

Tag: writing

Six raised beds

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'Fooled You' chilli forming

By the end of last month, the paving was finished and I had planted my three front garden planters with peppers, bergamot and salvias for the summer. They’re coming along very nicely, and in fact the first cool chilli is appearing on one of my Fooled You plants.

Preparing for raised beds

Ryan then ordered kits to make 12 raised beds out of (eco) treated sleepers, and whilst waiting for them to arrived prepared half of of the garden by rotovating what was once scraggy lawn and was then a staging area for the pavers. Yesterday he enlisted the help of his dad to assemble 6 of the raised beds:

First bed coming together.

3 half-height beds

First full-height bed under construction.

Securing the top level

My job was mainly to provide refreshments, and step in occasionally when an extra pair of hands made things easier. Now it’s over to me, to order a soil/compost mix to fill them, and then plant them up! However, that’s still only half the garden, so there’s still some way to go!

Posted in Blog on Jul 12, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 10, 2015

Tag: general

Dark Matter at Daresbury Laboratory

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Remember the Dark Matter garden from RHS Chelsea 2015? When it was dismantled at the end of the show, it was put on a truck and taken to Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire. In this video you can watch it being rebuilt and replanted :)

I’m due to head up to the lab next month, so hopefully I will be able to take some photos and do what the Chelsea visitors couldn’t and actually walk through the garden!

Daresbury Laboratory welcomes thousands of visitors each year, through their schools programme and their Talking Science public lecture series. So if you’d like to see the garden, sign up for a lecture later in the year (they pause in the summer) and take in some science at the same time.

Posted in Blog on Jul 9, 2015 ·

Tag: gardens

Summery floral drinks from the garden

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My lavender, in its glory days

After a couple of years living in the wasteland that was my allotment, my lavender plant has gone a little wayward and woody. The rosemary is the same way, really. They should have had an annual chop after flowering, to keep them nice and fresh. It’s possible that some serious remedial pruning later in the summer will shock them into more appropriate behaviour – but it’s not guaranteed. The garden wouldn’t be the same without rosemary and lavender (their flowers and their scents, their lovely flavours), but they’re easy plants to replace if they get out of control. (There’s nothing inherently wrong with a big, bushy lavender or rosemary, I just don’t have the space to let them grow.)

Lavender 'Hidcote'
My new lavender ‘Hidcote’

This lovely new specimen was given to me by online retailer Best4Hedging , who #LoveLavender as much as I do – so much so that they are providing gardening advice, tips and tricks for lovers of lavender. My new plant is ‘Hidcote’, a variety that is supposed to be particularly suited to culinary uses, something that might sound strange to us, but was common in past times. In the old garden I did once make lavender sugar, but never got around to using it in baking – I was planning some lavender shortbread, if I remember correctly. Since then I’ve had lavender buffalo milk ice cream, which was a real treat, but possibly a bit of an acquired taste :)

Flight of the bumblebee
Bees #LoveLavender too!

If baking and biscuits all sounds a little bit last year then why not try using your lavender in a cocktail instead? The team at Best4Hedging have come up with some lovely drinks recipes for common garden plants, the first of which is lavender lemonade:

Lavender Lemonade is very easy to make. All you need is lavender sprigs, lemon juice, sugar and water. Bring one litre of water to the boil in a large saucepan with 1 ½ cups of sugar, and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Squeeze the juice of about six lemons into the mix, before sprinkling in some fresh lavender flowers. When it cools, the drink can be served with ice and garnished with lemon slices and lavender sprigs for decoration.

I definitely need to give that one a go – it sounds like a lovely thing to be sipping on my new patio!

The rosemary is a-buzzing and a-fizzing!

My old rosemary plant can get in on the action as well, with this recipe for rosemary gin fizz:

All you need to make rosemary gin fizz is fresh rosemary, lemon juice, honey, gin and sparkling water, and it only takes a few minutes. Cut the fresh rosemary into three one-inch sprigs, and mix together ½ teaspoon of honey and the juice of one lemon in a drinking glass. Pour in the gin and sparkling water, give it a stir, and add some ice.

Do you drink your herbs? Do you #LoveLavender? Join in the conversation and tell me how you use yours. Last year, Write Club entrant Beth Tilston shared her recipe for lavender and oregano salt. It’s the perfect time to give it a go!

Posted in Blog on Jul 3, 2015 ·

Tags: herbs & flowers.

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