Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Toilet paper

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Composting Toilet

The Feedback section in the New Scientist last week (9th August 2014) was mostly devoted to the topic of toilet roll – having asked for figures on the annual consumption of this essential commodity, they have been regaled with anecdotes about the size of the army rations thereof, and differences in quality in different countries.

It’s not often that the topic of toilet roll comes up in gardening circles. There is occasional talk, perhaps, of the lack of toilet facilities on allotment sites, or the construction of composting toilets by an enterprising committee.

And, most springs, you can find yourself involved in a discussion on the use of toilet roll inner tubes for sowing individual seeds. They’re good for larger ones, like beans, and can be planted out whole to avoid root disturbance. It’s much easier to get your hands on them these days, as I’m told they’re no longer wanted for craft projects at nurseries and play schools, due to the perceived problem of contamination.

From an ethnobotanical perspective, it might also be interesting to explore the potential plant replacements for the job, should our choice of tissue become unavailable. Mullein frequently gets mentioned as being suitable for this purpose, and PFAF says that Brachyglottis repanda is also known as Bushman’s toilet paper. Knowledge of this kind is worth persuing in advance should you be an outdoorsy kind of person likely to find yourself caught short.

So… toilet roll and gardens. What are your thoughts? Would the truly self-sufficient grow their own toilet paper?

Posted in Blog on Aug 14, 2014 ·

Tag: ethnobotany


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Taken on Sunday 10th August 2012

Posted in Blog on Aug 13, 2014 ·

Tag: general

Greens in Gaza

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Colourful chard

I’m not a politician. I’m not a diplomat. I’m not an expert on foreign policy. It’s hard to watch what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank with any equanimity; over 1300 Palestinians have been killed so far, including 315 children and and 166 women.

I believe that more unites us and divides us, and that’s certainly true of the people in Gaza. They are farmers, gardeners and foragers.

In 2008, a team of ethnobotanists from Palestine published a research paper entitled “Traditional knowledge of wild edible plants used in Palestine (Northern West Bank): a comparative study“. Traditional knowledge is a hot topic in ethnobotany, as our changing lifestyles mean that less and less of it is passed on to each generation. In most places in the world, the traditional uses of plants are being forgotten, and we are becoming more and more reliant on cultivated plants and agriculture.

The team found that, across 15 local communities in Palestine, locals were collecting 100 wild edible plant species, 76 of which were mentioned by 3 or more people. Those plants were distributed across 70 genera and 26 families. The most significant species were:

Majorana syriaca
Foeniculum vulgare
Malva sylvestris
Salvia fruticosa
Cyclamen persicum
Micromeria fruticosa
Arum palaestinum
Trigonella foenum-graecum
Gundelia toumefortii
Matricaria aurea

Some of those won’t be familiar to people outside of the Middle Eastern/ Mediterranean region. Others are. Fenugreek is on that list, as is wild mallow. Of the 100 wild species listed, some require very specific processing to remove toxins. I certainly wouldn’t rush to consume any members of the Arum family, and I’d be wary of consuming Cyclamen bulbs as well. This is where the traditional knowledge, and the Palestinian culture, combine. There are plenty of edible plants of the region that aren’t on the list, and no doubt some that are wouldn’t be considered edible in other places.

The Middle East is one of my areas of interest, because I enjoy the foods of those cultures. The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey has been on my wish list for some time; I bought a copy yesterday when I read that 8 members of author Laila El-Haddad’s family had been killed in one night.

Flipping through it this afternoon, a recipe for chard and lentil stew caught my eye. The book says that “chard is used extensively in southern Palestinian cuisine.” Chard and leaf beet are two of my favourite plants – easy to grow and generous, endlessly versatile in the kitchen. Chard is also an attractive plant, that could just as easily fit in the flower border, with its colourful stems.


Khobeiza or mallow grows wild all over Palestine”, the books says above a recipe for greens with dumplings. Or there’s purslane stew – known as rilja or baqla, purslane is a “succulent plant found growing through sidewalls and in abandoned lots all around the Mediterranean.”

There are recipes for broad beans, cauliflower, spinach and okra. The gardener in me wants to find a source of the short, stout, red carrots that are a “Middle Eastern variety with a long history”; substituting stumpy orange carrots just wouldn’t be the same.

I’m still waiting to hear when I can move into my new house (and the garden), but I already know there will be Palestinian plants in the garden next year, and Palestinian meals on the table. The Gaza Kitchen looks like a comprehensive guide to Palestinian cuisine, beginning by explaining the spice mixes and condiments, and moving on through salads and mezze, pulses and grains, vegetable stews, meats and seafood, preserves and conserves. Photos throughout give a taste of life in Gaza before the current crisis, as well as sections about farming and foraging there, with profiles of residents and explanations of ingredients and the cuisine itself. I am looking forward to reading it properly, and trying the recipes, but I can already recommend it if you’d like to know the region better through its food. You can also look out for Zaytoun‘s fair trade ingredients from Gaza, including olives and olive oil, za’atar, almonds and dates and cous cous.

There are farmers, gardeners and foragers in Israel, too. Of course there are – there is more that unites us, than divides us.

Almond tree

Posted in Blog on Aug 5, 2014 ·

Last modified on Aug 7, 2014

Tags: books & ethnobotany.

Remember WW1

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Field Poppy

Today marks the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into World War 1.

Posted in Blog on Aug 4, 2014 ·

Tag: flowers

Growing plants in lunar soil

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Apollo 15: Irwin Scoops up Soil

Astronaut James B. Irwin scoops up lunar soil during Apollo 15, 2nd August 1971.
Image: NASA

When Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for humankind in 45 years ago, he got covered in Moon dust. Throughout the Apollo missions, dust was an issue. Fine but rough, it caused problems with the space suits, and created mini dust storms in the cabin once the landers launched back into space.

On Earth, mineral soils are formed from the underlying rock by weathering, which is a collection of natural processes that gradually break down the rock. Weathering can be mechanical (through atmospheric conditions such as heat, water, ice and pressure) or chemical (when the surface rock reacts with water, oxygen or chemicals produced by plants). The rock particles then combine with organic matter to form what we know as soil.

On the Moon, that doesn’t happen. Lunar dust is formed from lunar rock (regolith) when small meteorites hit the Moon’s surface and pulverize the rock. Some of the rock melts and then cools, coating the dust with a glassy shell. There’s no organic matter for the dust to combine with. UV rays by day, and solar winds by night, create charged particles and give lunar dust ‘static cling’. Oh, and tiny specks of iron make it magnetic. So it’s not your run-of-the-mill Earth soil.

But would anything grow in it? The short answer is no – the minerals it contains are locked up in a form that plants can’t access. Whilst it might be possible to use Moon rock as a ‘substrate’ for hydroponic growing (essentially there merely to hold the plants up), all of their nutrients would have to be supplied with a fertilizer.

But that’s not the final word on the subject. NASA did some plant experiments with Moon rock at the time of the Apollo missions (mainly as part of their quarantine procedures to make sure they hadn’t imported health risks with their souvenirs). They didn’t attempt to grow plants in lunar soil, but they exposed plants to it. Not only did they find no negative effects, the experiments seemed to show that the plants benefited from the Moon dirt – results that have not been replicated. Since then the Moon samples have been considered a precious commodity and have not been made available for destructive research such as grinding them up to grow plants. So researchers have to use ‘simulants’ – Earth rocks that are similar in type to those found on the Moon.

Early in the new millennium, a team of researchers led by Natasha Kozyrovska and Iryna Zaetz from the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, conducted a series of experiments with French marigolds (Tagetes patula) in one such simulant – anorthosite. They published their results in 2006.

Unsurprisingly, seeds sown in plain old crushed anorthosite didn’t grow into plants. But they were the control group. A second set of seeds was inoculated with a microbiome (bacteria and fungi known to promote healthy growth), whilst the crushed rock was also seeded with bacteria – and in this more complex ecosystem the seeds were able to germinate and grow into flowering plants. The microorganisms present were helping the plants to extract nutrients from the rock, and the authors suggested that this might be a way of starting to grow plants on the Moon.

Reading through the paper, I got the impression that what the authors were proposing was a kind of space permaculture. Lunar regolith is sterile, which not only means that plants can’t rely on microorganisms to release nutrients, but also means that any soil made from them would be a blank canvas for microbes accidentally brought from Earth. Rather than fungi and bacteria that promote healthy growth, you could end up with an imbalance – an environment that is harmful to plant growth. The idea of inoculating the seeds and the regolith was to promote a healthy soil environment that could protect plants against pests and diseases.

French marigold

The selection of French marigolds was not random. The scientists wanted to grow ‘pioneer’ plants that would not to be too fussy to grow in the nutrient-deprived lunar soil. These ‘first generation’ plants would then be composted to create organic matter and real soil, but the goal was also for them to be multipurpose. They were looking for plants to recycle waste products and produce oxygen, which had potential nutritional and medicinal benefits, and that flowered and so could improve the psychological well-being of the astronauts. Providing all these benefits, whilst kick-starting a sustainable ecosystem that makes use of local resources, is a tall order – but apparently French marigolds fit the bill!

The paper mentions another problem with growing plants on the Moon – the Sun is up for about two weeks, and then down again for the same period of time. If you don’t want to go to the expense of supplementary lighting, it reasons, the only solution is to chill your plants so that they are dormant until the Sun comes out again. In the meantime, I guess those long nights are perfect for forcing vegetables and sprouting seeds! Or perhaps mushroom cultivation….

And so it’s time, once again, for you to choose the next leg of our space blog adventure! Would you like to know more about growing fungi in space, how scientists choose which crop plants will be grown in space, or the Moon trees (grown from seeds taken into orbit around the Moon during Apollo 14)? Cast your vote below, or if you have a suggestion for a different topic, leave a note in the comments :)

And you’ve chosen…

how to choose space veggies


NASA’s Dirty Secret: Moon dust

Kozyrovska, N. O., Lutvynenko, T. L., Korniichuk, O. S., Kovalchuk, M. V., Voznyuk, T. M., Kononuchenko, O., … & Kordyum, V. A. (2006). Growing pioneer plants for a lunar base. Advances in Space Research, 37(1), 93-99.

Gardening on the Moon

Posted in Blog on Aug 2, 2014 ·

Last modified on Aug 17, 2014

Tags: science & space.

Changing landscape

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Didcot A

At 5 am this morning, the local landscape changed considerably. Scheduled in the early morning for “healthy and safety” reasons, controlled explosions demolished three of the cooling towers of Didcot A, a coal-fired power station that closed in March last year. There are three more cooling towers, due to be demolished next year.

The demolitions gathered a lot of public interest, and despite the early hour many people took to local vantage points to see them come down. Although some may have considered them to be blots on the landscape, the Didcot cooling towers have been a landmark since the 1960s. Visible for miles around, for many people they signposted the way home, and were a welcome sight at the end of a long journey. They were that for me when I lived in Abingdon; even more so since I moved to Didcot last year.

For several months now I have seen them every day, on my drive into work. It will be strange to see half of them missing on Monday, but I won’t be driving that way on a regular basis for much longer – we’re hoping that we’ll have a moving date very soon now.

The timing of the demolition was unpopular, with many people asking to change it to a more sociable hour, but Didcot A power station is no stranger to controversy. Its reliance on coal fuel made it environmentally polluting (it was targeted by eco warriors) and left it with the problem of disposal of the waste ash. The cheapest and easiest solution for RWE nPower was to pipe the ash into local gravel pits, but in the intervening time the gravel pits they had been holding on to for future use filled with water and became Radley Lakes – a local wildlife haven and green space amenity. When the time came to destroy them, the Save Radley lakes Campaign fought long and hard to protect them. They won out in the end, but more due to economic considerations than environmental ones. The Earth Trust now manages Thrupp Lake as a wetland site, and is planning to build a visitor centre.

Once the remaining three towers are removed, Didcot will be left with a brownfield site. I’m not aware of any current plans for its redevelopment – but according to the Oxford Mail, the ground is likely to be too contaminated to be reused for housing. It’s not the kind of place where you would want to plant a kitchen garden, that’s for sure, but a new day has dawned for Didcot and we will have to wait to see what it brings.

Posted in Blog on Jul 27, 2014 ·

Tag: environment

Moose dribble v toxic fungus

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munchin' moose

Photo credit: Steve Wall

In my occasional series, “When Plants Attack” we’ve seen some of the ways in which plants can defend themselves. So far I’ve covered the chemicals they produce to discourage other plants from growing in their space (allelopathy) and the conventional weaponry they use to guard against a physical attack. I am planning more posts to continue the series, which will include a look at the chemical defences plants have evolved to protect themselves against being eaten. But as soon as a plant evolves a defence mechanism, predators will begin to evolve or develop a way to counteract it. For example, some insects can collect poisons from the plants they’re munching on, and use them as part of their own defences. But until now it has seemed as though plant-eating mammals change their behaviour to cope with toxic plants – e.g. by changing how they forage for food, or by eating dirt (geophagy) to detox.

On Wednesday a paper published in Biology Letters put forward what the authors believe is the first evidence of large mammals evolving to combat a plant’s chemical defences. The researchers collected saliva samples from moose (Alces alces) and European reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) in Canadian zoos, whilst the animals were anesthetized to undergo necessary medical procedures. These two animals are known to feed on red fescue (Festuca rubra), a grass which occurs around the world. Red fescue uses a common defensive strategy: it forms a mutually-beneficial relationship with a fungus (Epichloë festucae), which produces toxic alkaloids.

By applying the animal saliva to grass samples, the researchers demonstrated that both moose and reindeer saliva slowed down the growth of the fungus, and so reduced the amount of toxin that was produced. Moose dribble also appeared to directly affect the levels of the toxin in European samples of the grass (the deployment of chemical defences depends on the environment in which the plant is grown), and the scientists theorize that the saliva is preventing the plant’s defence system from activating, by disrupting its signals.

So it seems that moose and reindeer aren’t just coping with the toxins produced by their diet of red fescue, but have evolved to actively combat them. “Plants have evolved defense mechanisms to protect themselves, such as thorns, bitter-tasting berries, and in the case of certain types of grass, by harbouring toxic fungus deep within them that can be dangerous or even fatal for grazing animals,” says York University’s Professor Dawn Bazely, who worked with University of Cambridge researcher Andrew Tanentzap and York University researcher Mark Vicari on the project. “We wanted to find out how moose were able to eat such large quantities of this grass without negative effects.” This interesting discovery (which will have to be verified by further studies) may seem a little esoteric, but you never know when you might need an enzyme that deactivates a toxic alkaloid (and this particular one also appears in ergot), and when you do it’s good to know that moose happen to have one handy.

You may also be fascinated to learn, as I did during the course of my research for this blog post, that whilst the common usage of “ungulates” refers to hoofed mammals (such as moose, reindeer, cattle and camels), cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are also ungulates, sharing a common ancestor with the other species in this large group of mammals.

Tanentzap AJ, Vicari M, Bazely DR. 2014 Ungulate saliva inhibits a grass–endophyte mutualism. Biol. Lett. 10:20140460.

Posted in Blog on Jul 26, 2014 ·

Last modified on Aug 25, 2014

Tags: science & fungi.

Bees in space

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footprint on the Moon

Image credit: the NASA History Office and the NASA JSC Media Services Center

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing, which seems like a good time to take the next step on our space adventure. You choose the topic of bees in space, so here we go!

In 1984, 3400 honey bees (Apis mellifera) joined the crew of the Challenger space shuttle for a mission in space, housed in an aluminium “bee enclosure module” (BEM) as part of a student experiment to so see whether they could build honeycombs in microgravity. Weightlessness didn’t seem to bother the worker bees too much, and they produced a perfect 30 sq. in. comb. The queen laid 35 eggs, but they didn’t hatch. As honeybees won’t foul their nests, and the enclosure was sealed, the bees had to ‘hold it in’ for the duration of the 6-day mission, and were probably glad to return to Earth!

In 2003, the first ever space experiment from Lichtenstein, dubbed “Spice Bees” by its student designers, launched 3 Carpenter bees (probably Xylocopa c. arizonensis) into orbit on space shuttle Columbia. They were housed in a special balsa wood habitat, and deemed to be more active in microgravity than earth. The students were waiting to weigh the balsa block when it returned to Earth, to see how much wood the bees had eaten during 15 days in space. Sadly the bees perished, along with their fellow astronauts, as Columbia burned up on reentry.

In 2012, scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario performed a series of experiments on Earth to test whether bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) remain effective pollinators at low atmospheric pressures. NASA and other space agencies currently recommend a pressure of 52 kPa for sealed greenhouse environments (for Mars or the Moon), which is cheaper to maintain than the 101 kPa found at sea level on Earth. Experimental results show that plants will grow well at 52 kPa, and bumblees will pollinate them. In contrast, honeybees can’t fly below about 66.5 kPa, and don’t react well to enclosed environments, making bumblebees a better bet for extraterrestrial pollination.

And that’s the history of bees in space. For our next adventure together, I suggest a trip to the Moon. Investigating the possibility of creating a lunar seed bank was a popular second choice in the last vote, so we’ll give that another chance. We could also learn more about the soil on the Moon (regolith), or delve into the history of the Moon trees, which were grown on Earth from seeds that orbited the Moon in Apollo 14. It’s time to choose your own adventure – which way is the solar wind blowing us?

The votes are in!

Lunar soil wins the poll

Burgess, C., & Dubbs, C. (2007). Animals in Space. Praxis Publishing Limited, Chichester, UK.

Chien, P. (2006). Columbia: Final Voyage. Springer.

Nardone, E., Kevan, P. G., Stasiak, M., & Dixon, M. (2012). Atmospheric pressure requirements of bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) as pollinators of Lunar or Martian greenhouse grown food. Gravitational and Space Research, 26(2).

Wikipedia’s list of space shuttle missions

Posted in Blog on Jul 20, 2014 ·

Last modified on Jul 29, 2014

Tag: space

Grinning, winning cress heads

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Day 203/365 : 12.7.13

Photo by kennysarmy

If you’re looking for ways to keep the little ones occupied in the summer holidays, then check out this competition from Chiltern Seeds. Call 01491 824675 or email to request a free “CRESS HEAD PACK”, and they’ll send you a packet of cress seeds, some googly eyes and some coloured pompoms to make your very own Cress Head/Animal/Alien/Loch Cress Monster (I’d love to see a Loch Cress Monster :)

It’s then up to you to decide how to style your cress head, but once you’ve sown your seeds and waited a few days for nature to take its course, then snap a few photos and email them to Chiltern Seeds – the most imaginative cress head will receive a £40.00 book token.

Growing cress is easy, but if you haven’t tried it before, then have a look at my blog post on how to grow mustard and cress for the low down. There’s also a guest post with some other plants little ones love to grow. Happy sowing!

Posted in Blog on Jul 19, 2014 ·

Tag: seeds

Summer garden activities

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Garden Arbor

The house I grew up in had a very large patio. In the summer we had a paddling pool that my parents could set up, that these days would be classed as a swimming pool. It was made from sturdy canvas and poles, and had a plastic seat on each corner. It took quite some time to fill from the hose, and was – of course – completely freezing to begin with. Once the sun had warmed the water up a bit, we had fun splashing around. The pool didn’t have a cover, and my parents never thought to improvise one, so over the next few days the surface of the water would become littered with flies. When it became too disgusting to swim in, we let the water out. The British summer being what it is, it was rarely worth refilling at the weather had usually cooled down by that point. We also used to have the occasional meal outside, on a patio table with an umbrella, but this wasn’t my favourite activity due to the wasps it attracted.

My old garden would have been large enough to house a small, temporary pool in the summer, and it’s one thing I would dearly love when it’s very hot. But the new garden isn’t big enough. We have been looking at sheds and greenhouses, trying to fit in everything we want without losing too much of my gardening space. The final design will have to wait until we’ve moved in, and can measure up properly.

I’m hoping to find space for my arbor, so we have somewhere nice to sit. Ryan would like a good BBQ. Fortunately these days there’s a much better range of insect repellents and was traps that can help to keep outdoor dining pest free, but once I’ve had time to do some planting the garden should be chock full of aromatic plants to confuse bothersome insects and keep them busy elsewhere! Some sort of water feature would make any traffic noise less obvious, and make our little garden a relaxing haven for a nice glass of Pimms or wine on a summer evening, making winding down after a day at work a doddle. For those ‘summer’ days that don’t quite make the grade, it would be nice to have a patio heater of some kind; Calor Gas have some very stylish options on offer.

In the cooler hours of the day I will enjoy watering my plants and pottering about in the garden. And, of course, there’s also the joy of picking (and, usually, munching) anything tasty that happens to be ripe as you wander past. I’m particularly looking forward to alpine strawberries, courgettes (although Ryan is not yet convinced he likes them), leafy greens and peppers from the greenhouse.

So… my ideal summer gardening activities would be eating and drinking, relaxing and pottering about. What are yours?

Posted in Blog on Jul 18, 2014 ·

Tag: general

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