Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

The kitchen garden at West Dean

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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 :)

Vegetable garden

Posted in Blog on Nov 14, 2014 ·

Tag: gardens

Unusual cucumbers

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Unusual cucumbers
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
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!

Cucumis africanus
Cucumis africanus

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.

Cucumis zambianus
Cucumis zambianus

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
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
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.

Kew's Intoxication Season

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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
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

Opium poppies
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.


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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
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.

Opportunity costs, and tea

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Tea time
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.


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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.

Space worms

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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.

Worm compost
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.

Main course
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….

Silkworm pupae
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. [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.

Scented leaf pelargoniums

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My mistreated scented geraniums

As previously mentioned, among the plants that I have rescued from the allotment so far are two scented leaf pelargoniums (aka scented geraniums). I’d wanted to add some of these edible flowers to the garden for years, and so in February I ordered a collection of four plants from Otter Farm. And then life kicked off (as it does) and they ended up being dumped on the allotment and left to fend for themselves while I took care of buying the new house.

The original collection included Orange Fizz (“with a lemon sherbert/orange scent, pretty flowers and an upright habit – excellent in cocktails”) and Lady Plymouth (“beautifully rose/mint-scented variety, with grey green leaves edged cream and gold”), but unfortunately they were the two that died. I may choose to replace them next year – I haven’t decided on a planting list yet.

Meanwhile, Attar of Roses (“with a gorgeous, distinctive rose scent, makes a large plant”) and Pink Capitatum (“lime scented leaves and fabulous mauve pink flowers”) have survived, although as you can see they’re not in the best of condition. They were in the garden until the cold weather arrived, and now I have brought them in to work to overwinter on the windowsill and receive some TLC (or at least regular watering…).

They fell over on the way to work, and Attar of Roses filled the car* with such a lovely scent I was tempted to keep it in there as a living air freshener. It was making the office smell nice yesterday too; I can’t smell it now the plants are on the windowsill – I may be too far away, or just more used to the scent. One of my colleagues described as as being like “very expensive perfume”. Pink Capitatum is less pungent, but if you bruise a leaf (which is delightfully furry) then you do get a citrusy waft.

Since they’re half hardy they can’t go out into the garden until the risk of frost has passed next spring, but one potential spot for them is in the herb garden at the front of the house, where we will brush past them on the way into the garden. I will have to give it some thought.

I will also ponder getting some more varieties – do you have a favourite scented pelly?

*Yes, I normally walk. But I’ve been ill. Ryan says he will write me a note, in place of my mum :)

Posted in Blog on Nov 7, 2014 ·

Tag: flowers

When life gives you lemons...

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Seven years ago, I found a couple of lemon pips in a bag of salad, and sowed them. It took them a little while, but eventually they germinated:

Oranges and lemons
Citrus pips germinating

And by the following February I had a couple of nice seedlings:

Lemon seedlings
Lemon seedlings

What happened to the second is lost in the mists of time, but by November one was a nice, strong plant:

Young lemon plant

But life is never easy, and for a few years it was really tough on the little lemon. It had to overwinter in an unheated greenhouse – they say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but dying right back nothing every winter makes it hard to be a happy lemon.

Still, in June 2013 it proved that life goes on…

Leafy lemon

Rescued from the garden when I moved, the lemon spent last winter in my office at work. It was reasonably happy, sitting on my desk, until it was infested with scale insect. My first inkling was a sticky desk. Although I tried to clean up poor lemon as best I could, it was tricky at work and he had to wait until I could bring him home to the new house.

One of the first things I did when I moved was bring lemon home (and, boy! it’s heavy in his soil-based compost) and put it outside in the garden. A couple of good rain showers put paid to the stickiness, and I used an (organic) bug spray against the insects, but lemon couldn’t stay outside as the weather turned colder.

Instead, I brought it inside and did my best to clean off the remaining scales. Time will tell whether I’ve got the infestation under control, but for the moment lemon is clean and happy sitting on the living room windowsill. I wouldn’t say it was grateful for my ministrations, though. It stabbed my thumb with one of its thorns. Some of them are small and delicate, just right for slicing through skin. Some of them are impressively long and formidable – I reckon they’d go straight through the soles of flip flops! Still, the lovely citrusy aroma rising from the leaves did make up for it a little bit….

It remains to be seen whether my lemon will ever flower, but in the meantime, here he is enjoying the view:

Lemon tree at home on the windowsill

Posted in Blog on Nov 6, 2014 ·

Tag: fruit

Thoughts on: Exotic

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A view up through the canopy in the Eden Project's tropical biome
A view up through the canopy in the Eden Project’s tropical biome

It’s November, and across the world hundreds of thousands of writers are taking part in NaNoWriMo – a month-long sprint to write 50,000 words of fiction. I have no current interest in writing a novel, and indeed I doubt I could manage NaNoWriMo this year. So much has happened that I am struggling to write at all. And so I thought I might take up a different challenge and try and blog every day in November. (I’ve already missed yesterday, but I’m home sick so I’ll get my mum* to write me a note ;)

New additions to the house this week include a sofa that’s comfortable to sit on (a big plus!) and enough boxes from Ikea to make even a flatpack virtuoso cry. Ryan is in the process of putting together our new wardrobes; the additional storage space will make life much easier. There are also new desks for the office, but they will have to wait a while.

Had we moved in when we expected to, the garden would have been more of a priority. But now that winter has arrived, with damp days and dark evenings, there’s not a lot I can get to grips with outside at the moment. I have been thinking about what I am trying to achieve in the garden, and last week I started jotting down some words that came to mind. One of them was exotic, a word that tends to be synonymous with ‘tropical’ when it comes to gardens – but tropical isn’t what I have in mind. I prefer Google’s definition:

Google’s chosen definition of the word ‘exotic’

So… foreign :) Distinctly non-British. No red, white and blue colour schemes. No cottage garden, rose garden, or straight-lined vegetable patch. Peacocks rather than wood pigeons. Exuberant, rather than restrained. Colourful, fragrant and (and this is a word I’m not overly comfortable using) sensual.

That’s all I’ve got for today! You might be in for a month of partly-formed thoughts.

What does ‘exotic’ mean to you?

*That’s a joke. I don’t live with my mother, I have a shiny new house :)

Posted in Blog on Nov 5, 2014 ·

Tag: gardens

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