At the beginning of 2012 I chose one of the four classical elements – fire – to be my guide for the year. It proved to be an apt choice, as very soon after that my entire life burned to the ground (metaphorically speaking) and I was forced to rise from the ashes. I had forgotten, until I was wandering through my blog archives, but as Samhain (Halloween) marks the Celtic new year, it seems like an appropriate time for me to choose a new element.
Without a shadow of a doubt, it has to be Earth. In the months to come I will be working on my allotment, and putting down roots from which to build a new life. New ground, new life. A fertile time.
But today is a day of fire, as it is Bonfire Night here in the UK. We have been allowed bonfires at the allotment all week, and I came back from my stint there on Sunday smelling like smoke. I wrote about burning yard waste a couple of years ago, and on allotment sites that don’t allow bonfires some people light one on bonfire night anyway, the idea being that it will go unnoticed on a night of fire and smoke.
If you’re lighting a bonfire tonight (or at any other time this winter), then please bear in mind the following safety tips, which I included in The Allotment Pocket Bible:
Check piles of waste for wildlife (particularly hibernating hedgehogs) before lighting.
Keep a bucket of water nearby in case things get out of hand.
Keep smoke to a minimum (only burn dry waste).
Don’t leave fires unattended. Make sure they’re truly out.
Don’t use liquid fuels such as petrol or paraffin as accelerants. If you’re struggling, use firelighters.
Keep your fire level and away from overhanging branches.
Don’t burn rubbish that may be toxic, extremely flammable or dangerous (no aerosols or plastics).
Don’t start fires on windy days.
Consider buying a garden incinerator, or making one out of an old metal dustbin or barrel, to keep fires contained.
All being well I will be attending a fireworks display at the weekend, but it won’t have a bonfire. My dad used to light a bonfire in the garden occasionally, to burn garden waste. It was something we enjoyed together, although I’m sure my mum was less thrilled when we both came inside reeking of smoke. There is something quite mesmerising about fire, but remember that it can get out of control very quickly, so it’s best to be prepared.
For as long as I’ve had my allotment, it has has a thicket in the middle. The main offender was an out-of-control thornless (technically prickleless) blackberry, whose arching stems reached for the skies but then fell back down to earth. It was aided and abetted by currant bushes in need of a good prune, and lots of grassy weeds. it looked impenetrable, and the blackberry was not only beginning to take over the plot but was sending out shoots across the path as well.
On Saturday morning I spent an hour cutting all of its stems to the ground. It won’t stop them growing up again next year, of course, unless I go back and dig out the roots. But for the moment the allotment is considerably more low profile. Some of the stems were too thick to cut with secateurs:
As I didn’t have a machete handy I took the simple approach of standing on them until they snapped in half, and cutting through them then.
Theoretically it is now possible to walk down from the top of the plot to the bottom. In practice it isn’t, since the way is blocked with plant refugees from the garden, sitting in their pots. It wouldn’t be an easy route, however, since the blackberry clumps are there to trip over, and the plot is oddly uneven. It would be easy to twist your ankle, particularly around the edges, which are sunken. Obscured by grassy weeds you take a risk every time you step off the path. It’s one of the things on the list to fix :)
I don’t remember the first frost ever having been this late before – we’re still waiting for one here. The oca are still growing and the purple sprouting broccoli are still safely under their net tunnel to protect them from marauding butterflies. They’re not coming out until it’s too cold for caterpillars. And then they’re getting staked, because it’s windy!
There’s no photographic evidence of my last trip to the allotment, during which I dug up the Sárpo Mira potatoes (which were still going strong, despite blight on other plots) and planted my overwintering onions, shallots, and saffron in their place. The rhubarb has been tidied up, and that corner of the plot is covered in bark chips to help keep the weeds under control. The garlic, and elephant garlic, are still waiting in the wings – I’ll plant those soon.
This opinion piece was first published in the June 2011 issue of Kitchen Garden magazine. Things haven’t changed much since then ;)
Although the world keeps changing far more rapidly than many of us can keep up with, there seems to be at least one constant in modern life – much of it comes wrapped in cardboard. It’s almost impossible to buy anything without having to peel off several layers of packaging, and if you don’t have access to decent recycling facilities then a good deal of your bin gets filled with cardboard every week.
On the face of it, this can be a boon to gardeners. We can get our environmental brownie points by taking all that cardboard waste and using it as a carbon-rich material to help us turn our kitchen waste and grass cuttings into life-enhancing compost. By doing so we cut down on the amount of rubbish going to landfill, the fuel used to get it there and the nasty methane gases it makes when it rots down underground. We can be smugly virtuous and bring home our groceries in abandoned cardboard boxes, then turn them into plant fuel – ditching the plastic bags and saving ourselves a packet into the bargain.
Except… it’s not the simple, is it? The boffins that design this packaging are gradually making it all completely indestructible. If you build your heap carefully, nurture it, turn it and then wait several months for the compost to reach perfect maturity then when you come to use it you’ll find that all that innocent-looking cardboard has been contaminated it with plastic.
There’s the cardboard lids from take-aways, and paper plates from picnics; they both have a thin layer of plastic in the mix, which is left behind when the card rots away. And those paper cups you chose for the allotment get-together, precisely so you could compost them? They’ve been coated with something that prevents them from degrading at all. They come out looking, at most, slightly squished.
And although it’s perfectly possible to buy a well-known brand of tape (at least here in the UK) that’s made from cellulose (the same stuff plants are made from) and that disappears without a trace on the compost heap, you’ll find that most companies use plastic tape that just clumps together in a horrible mess.
You’ll have less trouble with plain corrugated cardboard, and it even adds some air into the mix, which can only be a good thing – but watch out for the glue strips used to hold boxes and parcels together, as you’ll be fishing them out later if you don’t.
Clearly eternal vigilance is necessary if you want to keep your heap uncontaminated – which is fine for old hands and composting ninjas, but how to we get people into composting when it’s no longer as simple as ‘cardboard good’, ‘meat and fish bad’?
There can’t be a more iconic symbol of Halloween than a witch riding a broomstick. In olden times it wouldn’t have been a problem to wander out into the woodland and cut a stout pole and then find sticks to make the sweeping end, and then you’d have yourself a fine broom, or besom. I suspect most of them were used for more mundane purposes – they are jolly useful things to have to hand.
According to Sacred Earth, magical brooms may well have been made from birch. There’s no reason why you couldn’t grow your own birch if you wanted to, and it’s suitable for coppicing, so you could have a new broomstick every few years. The allotment forestry website has lots of useful information about growing your own poles. Birch, it says, makes excellent pea sticks, and there’s also the possibility of birch wine (but don’t drink and fly!). Apparently birch twigs are the best for the sweeping part of besoms as well.
Other species mentioned on the allotment forestry site include hazel, sweet chestnut and elder, so you can choose your broom tree so that it fits in with your garden and the other uses you wish to make of it. They don’t mention bamboo, but it has been grown commercially in the UK; you might have trouble growing a cane stout enough to bear your weight, however.
If you wanted to fly a little more under the radar, so to speak, then you might consider growing the Walking Stick Kale. If it’s sturdy enough to use as a walking stick, it’s sturdy enough for a broom handle. And you can eat the leaves while you’re waiting for it to grow.
Once you have your broom handle, you need something for the brush (unless you have birch twigs to hand). In the US it’s quite common to grow broom corn Sorghum bicolor for this purpose. It’s easy to grow, and should grow anywhere that sweetcorn grows (and available from Seeds of Italy in the UK. The brush is made from the tassels. Mother Earth News even has an article on make your own broom once you’ve harvested your broom corn.
If you don’t have any broomcorn to hand, PFAF has a big list of other plants that can be used to make brooms.
A Marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) broom from Norfolk. Not sure it will fly, though.
Butchers used to use Butcher’s Broom (Ruscus aculeatus) to scrub down their chopping boards and work surfaces. It’s far too scratchy to make a broom for flying on, but if you grow the hermaphrodite form you’ll be rewarded with ornamental scarlet berries, which give this diminutive shrub another name – Knee Holly.
And once you’ve made your broom, how do you make it fly? Well, it turns out that the ‘traditional’ way is to make yourself fly, by applying ‘flying ointments’ made from toxic plants to sensitive areas of skin. Perhaps your new broom will be better employed for the big post-Halloween clean-up, on All Saints Day.
Today is a day for #spookyscience, so keep an eye out for tweets and Facebook posts from me and anyone else who’s joining in!
Judging by the news reports, the storm the south of the UK was expecting overnight and this morning hasn’t been as bad as had been forecast. It has been very wet in Oxfordshire, and is still blowy now. As a gardener, wind is my least favourite weather. I can see a point to most of it – plants love sun, they need rain, cold weather kills off pests… but wind rocks plants and blows things around. Some people are going to find it hard to get to work this morning, because of fallen trees and other debris.
Rather than spending today complaining that the forecasters and the media overreacted, I think we should just be grateful that we were warned, and that we got off lightly.
Update:vergettegardens has a nice blog about the damage some of our independent nurseries suffered during the St Jude storm, and what we can do to help.
Throughout history, herbs and spices have been extremely popular, used as medicines and aphrodisiacs as well as making their way into dinner. A plant that the Romans (and ancient Greeks and Egyptians) would have been familiar with was Silphium. They thought it was the finest of all seasonings, as well as a top notch medicinal plant. The Romans got a taste for meat from animals fed on Silphium, and it seems that the herb may well then have been grazed into extinction. It never seemed to make it into cultivation. Another possible explanation of Silphium’s disappearance is that a change in the Mediterranean climate meant it could no longer thrive, and died out naturally. According to Pliny, the last known Silphium plant was given to Emperor Nero as a gift.
It is now thought that Silphium was a form of giant fennel, and so we might be able to get an idea of what it was like by using fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) in our cooking. It has an equally venerable history, with mentions of it on ancient Egyptian papyrus sheets. The ancient Greeks used it, and the Romans brought it with them when they invaded Britain. The French, apparently, find that rabbit has its best flavour when the bunny in question has been fed on fennel.
Fennel leaves and seeds can both be used for herbal teas, with the characteristic aniseed flavour. Fennel leaves are often used as seasoning for fish and olives (and snails!) and the feathery leaves make an attractive garnish. You can combine fennel, lemon balm, parsley and sweet marjoram for a bouquet garni for fish dishes, and a sauce made with gooseberries and fennel leaves is used in a classic mackerel dish.
Fennel seeds are very versatile, being equally tasty in sausages and stuffing as they are in bread, biscuits (cookies) and cakes. They’re also one of the ingredients in Chinese 5 spice seasoning and curry powders, and may make it into Morocco’s Ras el Hanout spice mix or the Middle Eastern za’tar.
I am still waiting to hear whether I will be graduating in November. It feels like a long time since I handed in my dissertation; life has moved on and I’ve started a new job. When I am introduced to people at work, the subjects of my two degrees often come up, and most people are somewhat bemused by the apparent gulf between them. Astrophysics isn’t much like ethnobotany, it is true. But even taken together they don’t represent the sum total of my interests in life – I consider myself to be a ‘lifelong learner’, and there are plenty of things about which I would like to know more.
Which is why I have recently signed myself up for some MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). Only one has started so far, and it caught my eye because it has the same title as (and is written by the same person as) a book I bought myself shortly after finishing my dissertation.
It’s called ‘What a Plant Knows’, by Professor Daniel Chamovitz, at Tel Aviv university. The book and course are both about how plants take in information from their environment, and how that changes the way they behave. It’s not suggesting that they ‘think’ or ‘know’ in the human sense, just that they collect and use very similar sensory data.
Chapter 2 is about what a plant ‘smells’ – the volatile chemicals it receives and processes, and the main example is that of ethylene. Ethylene acts a plant hormone, playing a vital role in regulating the functions of the plant. It controls whether a plant elongates in the absence of light, or grows short and stocky. It controls leaf senescence (death) and it controls when fruit ripen.
You may have learned the ‘trick’ of putting unripe fruit in a bag or a drawer with a ripe banana, to make it ripen. It works because the ripe banana is emitting ethylene, and the unripe fruit is taking it as a signal that it’s time to ripen. In fact, all fruits emit ethylene gas when they ripen.
Our understanding of (some of) the ways in which ethylene affects plants in relatively recent. Frank E. Denney discovered the ripening effect in 1924 (he wrote a paper called ‘Hastening the Coloration of Lemons’, which doesn’t appear to be available electronically). Before that, people were using ethylene to ripen plants without knowing. The book explains that citrus growers in Florida ripened fruits in sheds heated with kerosene. They thought the heat was ripening the fruits, and were frustrated to discover that when they swapped the kerosene heaters out for electric ones that the fruit no longer ripened. Frank E. Denney proved it was the ethylene gas produced by burning kerosene that was doing the trick.
Further back in time, the book mentions that the ancient Egyptians slashed ripe figs on fig trees to encourage others to ripen, and that in ancient China farmers burned ritual incense to ripen rooms full of pears. When I read that, I wanted to know more – but I’ve discovered that it’s one of those ‘facts’ that is repeated a lot on the internet, without anyone providing any decent references on how they know. I’ve started trying to track down the origins of that story, but it’s slow going. If you’d like to get involved in an ethnobotanical mystery then you can read more over on my research quests page. There are plenty more ‘facts’ like that in gardening and botany, and hopefully we can put together a crack team of citizen researchers to either prove or debunk them, or at least find out where they came from :)
In the meantime, I’ve got some unripe pears I need to put in a bag with a ripe banana. Anyone got a ripe banana?
Tucked away in a walled garden in Pangbourne, not far from Reading, is a land of make believe for gardeners. Through the gate you’ll find a chaotic, abundant mix of unusual edibles and hard-to-find ornamentals, brought together here by garden owner and nurseryman, Paul Barney. Paul is also a modern day plant hunter, and has brought many of the plants here to the UK himself.
This is the home of the Edulis nursery, a name that will be familiar if you’ve spent any time researching unusual edibles, or attending Rare Plant Fairs. The nursery itself is not generally open to the public; there’s a mail order catalogue, but if you want to pop in then you have to wait for an open day, or make an appointment. I have been meaning to pay a visit for years, but never got around to it. But when I saw a tweet from Paul on Saturday morning, saying that the nursery would be open for his end-of-season sale, I took the opportunity to pop along.
Even on a grey autumn day, it’s a lovely place to have a poke around. There’s something of interest for every gardener – if you can find it! If there’s something specific you want (and you can download a PDF copy of the catalogue, to have a good look in advance of a visit or show), then Paul is on hand to find it for you.
He encouraged me to take a nibble of one of these Szechuan pepper berries – the effects of which must have lasted for a good ten minutes. From the initial very sour, mouth-puckering flavour I thought would never end, through the slight numbing effect and on to the very odd ‘tingling’ sensation (which is actually a measurable vibration).
I have wanted to add a Szechuan pepper to the garden for ages, so I came home with two different varieties – Zanthozylum simulans and Z. bungeanum. I imagine it will be a few years before I can inflict their effects on unsuspecting visitors to the allotment….
A slightly less controversial taste is offered by the Chilean guava – this one is Ugni molinae variegata, which was wafting a strawberry scent through the air. The berries are very tasty indeed, reminiscent of strawberries and very sweet.
It was an interesting time of year to visit, as the Yunnan licorice (Glycyrrhiza yunnanensis) was producing these fluffy flowers or seedheads. It would make a very ornamental addition to an autumn garden. Nearer the ground, the earth chestnut(Bunium bulbocastanum) was also in flower:
I also brought home a couple of plants that Paul recommended. The first was Allium hookeri, an edible allium a bit like a broad chive.
As well as being edible, it produces white flowers that make it the “bee plant of the century”, according to Paul.
And for those of you who like watercress, but dislike the American land cress that is often grown as a winter substitute, Paul recommends Cardamine raphanifolia, a shade-loving perennial that is completely dormant in summer, and comes back into leaf once the weather starts to cool down.
This lovely specimen is happily growing in a pot, and doesn’t need a constant supply of water. Paul calls it ‘easy watercress’.
One of the plants that I was keen to transplant from the garden to the allotment was comfrey (Symphytum officinalis). I had several plants, which I grew from root cuttings several years ago. Some were growing in the concrete blocks in the raised beds – which turned out to be a mistake, as they’d grown very impressive roots and wedged themselves in firmly. These ones were extracted with a sledgehammer. I took them to the allotment and planted them around my new green cone composter, and despite the terrible abuse they are still alive and growing new leaves. It’s a tough old plant.
Comfrey is a popular plant with people who practice permaculture, because it has so many uses. With deep roots that are able to bring nutrients up from the subsoil, comfrey is known as a ‘dynamic accumulator’ plant. These nutrients are stored in the leaves, which can then be used to feed other plants.
Comfrey is a very vigorous perennial, which can be cut several times each season. The composition of the leaves means that they break down rapidly and be used fresh to feed plants – either placed in planting holes or left on the soil surface as a nutritious mulch. Comfrey leaves also act as a compost activator – so adding them to the compost heap speeds up the composting process as well as adding nutrients.
You can also turn your comfrey leaves into a very good liquid fertilizer. If you drown the leaves in a bucket of water for several weeks, you’ll get a smelly liquid feed that is great for fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and peppers because it is high in potash. You can try adding scented herbs like thyme or rosemary to the mix to improve the aroma, but comfrey is different from most plants in that its leaves will happily rot down without the addition of water. Seal the leaves into a bucket for a few weeks, weighed down, and they will produce a brown liquor that can be diluted into a much less stinky liquid feed. Whichever method you choose, the remains of the rotted leaves can be added to the compost heap at the end.
And if that’s not enough – bees really love comfrey flowers, and plant has medicinal uses, although it is no longer recommended as an edible.
If you want to add a comfrey plant or two to your garden then buy root cuttings (or beg them from someone with mature plants) of Bocking 14. This variety is sterile, so it won’t self-seed all over the garden. Root cuttings are usually available from May to August. Keep new plantings well watered until they are established. If the ground is not ready for planting then your comfrey will be happy in a container for quite a while.
And if you want to do things the permaculture way, consider planting your comfrey around the compost heap. Not only will it be handy, but it will soak up any nutrients that leach out of the compost!
Back when I was on a quest to compost as much as possible, I put some paper plates on the compost heap after a garden party. The result was not good – they, like so many apparently cardboard products, had a layer of plastic that was left behind and that I had to fish out of the finished compost. It’s very hard to find truly compostable packaging; I get bizarrely excited when the avocados or apples that I bring home from the supermarket turn out to be packaged in a kind of pâpier-maché tray. It’s not quite as easy now that I have to trot down to the allotment with my compostables (as opposed to to the bottom of the garden), but I’d still rather compost my waste than have to send it off for recycling.
Image credit: Be Green
Which was why I was interested to learn that an American company, Be Green Packaging LLC make food packaging that is not only compostable, but tree-free. It’s made from fibre plants – bulrush, bamboo and sugar cane. So I thought you might be interested to learn more about their raw materials; which, as it turns out, are also edible plants.
Sugar cane, of course, is one of the plants that has changed the world. A plant of Empire and slavery, and a source of empty calories that we could do – but apparently cannot live – without. This picture of sugar cane ‘sets’ is from the Economic Botany collection at Kew. Sets are a method of propagating sugar cane; freshly cut sections of cane root very easily.
On my travels through Asia I remember big vats of boiling sugar cane on street corners. IIRC, it was so that the sweetened water could be sold as a drink, but that’s a few years ago now ;) This picture illustrates a less traditional use – sugar cane being grown to produce bioethanol for fuel.
So sugar cane is a very useful plant. What about bamboo? Grown in the UK mainly as an ornamental plant, it gets a bad rap a lot of the time because it spreads. And spreads. And can send shoots up through concrete. Bad plant!
But when we’re not trying to corral it into an urban environment, bamboo is very useful too. The larger varieties are used as a source of timber for building, and even scaffolding poles. Its fibres can be processed (although not particularly easily) into cloth. And those bamboo shoots you find in your Chinese take-away (or in a tin at the supermarket) are actually shoots from bamboo (unlike the crispy fried seaweed, which is just cabbage.) There are a lot of bamboo species that produce edible shoots – some are more palatable than others. I have a Phyllostachys aurea that I bought as it’s supposed to be one of the best. It’s under control in a very large container, but as of yet I haven’t tried the shoots. Phyllostachys edulis is reportedly a popular choice in Chinese back gardens, and the clump is earthed up to blanch the new shoots.
And, of course, I’m sure you all have a few bamboo canes lurking around the garden. A few years ago I read a lovely article in the Eden Project Friends magazine, which was all about the history of commercial bamboo production in Cornwall. Yes, Cornwall. Wars had caused a shortage in the supply of bamboo garden canes, and an enterprising chap in Cornwall with some land and some inherited bamboos, started cutting them and selling the poles. Demand was high, and he went around the south west cutting canes in other gardens. People used to ask him to grub up unruly clumps; he took them home and started a bamboo plantation. His homegrown industry supported (ha ha!) the Dig for Victory campaign, and the business was hugely successful until the post-war calm allowed cheap imported canes to arrive once again. There’s even a Pathé news video of the Cornish bamboo harvest.
Image credit: Be Green
So… now you’re wondering about the bulrushes, yes? Thinking about how they don’t look very tasty? Well bulrushes (Typha species) have lots, and lots of uses. They’re all aquatic, or bog, plants. They range in size. Some species are widespread across the world (except Africa), and others are more localized in Asia. They are noted for their wildlife value, have medicinal uses, and can be used for biomass, for stuffing, for thatching, for tinder and for weaving. Apparently the pollen is highly inflammable and has been used for fireworks! Most have edible roots, stems and leaves. Some produce an edible oil. And the explosive pollen is edible, too. In fact, it’s quite wondrous and something I have been fascinated with for quite some time. It’s a traditional food in the southern Iraq marshes – the ones that Saddam drained and which are gradually being restored (although there’s not enough water to go around in the region, so probably not to their former glory). There’s a lovely post on My Iraqi Kitchen, if you want to know more. Pollen is high in protein, so it makes a really good food. If you’re in the US you might be more familiar with Cattail (Typha latifolia), which is also known as ‘Cossack asparagus’.
It’s always fun to take a fresh look at a plant you think you know, because – like people – they often have hidden depths. Here I have just touched on the obvious, tangible, uses of three plants that you might find on (or in!) your plates. I’m sure they make valuable ecosystem contributions, too, but that’s a topic for another day :)