Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Grow Hope with World Vision this summer

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Thirty years ago, Ethiopia’s Antsokia Valley was known as the “Valley of Death”. 15-20 people died every day, in the midst of the worst famine the world has ever seen. Ethiopia was in the midst of a drought, and Antsokia was a wasteland.

Today, the picture is much brighter. World Vision’s relief work in the region turned into a long term development effort. They provided local farmers with seeds, tools and livestock. They planted more than 22 million seedlings, may of which were fruit plants. They brought bee hives, training and new infrastructure: flour mills, veterinary clinics, roads and irrigation channels.

Traditional Ethiopian crops including sorghum and teff now grow here once again, but they are mixed with novel crops that bring multiple harvests every year. Mangoes, papayas and oranges hang from the trees, and are joined by bananas, sugar cane, tomatoes and cabbages in the fields. More productive agricultural techniques, such as organic fertilising and crop rotation, mean that over 99% of the children here are now classed as ‘adequately nourished’ by World Health Organization standards. Life here may not be easy, but the people in the Antsokia Valley can live without the feat of hunger.

Elsewhere in Africa, the outlook isn’t as rosy. World Vision’s Grow Hope campaign is bringing orange maize seeds to vulnerable people in Zambia. Although maize (sweetcorn, Zea mays) is a staple food for over a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, the varieties commonly grown are lacking micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), such as vitamin A, that are vital for health.

But maize is naturally high in genetic diversity, and varieties exist that are high in provitamin A (converted to vitamin A by the body when the maize is eaten). Conventional breeding has created Orange Maize – agricultural varieties that are naturally high in provitamin A.

A field of orange maize. Image credit: HarvestPlus Zambia Country Program

Look out for World Vision’s Grow Hope show gardens this summer – they’ll be at BBC Gardeners’ World Live from 12-15th June and RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show from 8-13th July. (If you’re lucky, you will already have seen their Chelsea show garden!)

And if you register for more information about the Grow Hope campaign, World Vision
will send you a free pack of Calendula (pot marigold) seeds and some freshly ground Ethiopian coffee as a thank you gift. And if you sign up via this special Grow Hope link, you’ll also be entered into a competition to win two tickets to the Hampton Court Flower Show!

Posted in Blog on Jun 10, 2014 ·

Last modified on Jun 10, 2014

Tags: competitions & ethnobotany.

How to make a herb spiral

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summer spiral.

Summer spiral, by amberdc

Herb gardening is all about putting the right plant in the right place, or finding the right herb for your space. There are so many herb plants available that it’s easy to find the right one for you.

There are sun-loving perennial herbs (such as rosemary, thyme and lavender) that thrive in hot, dry and sunny locations. They’ll love being in containers on the patio or the deck. And there are perennials that prefer more water and a little bit of shade. Try mint, lemon balm or sorrel if you have a cooler location or a north-facing windowbox. For perennial herbs it’s usually easiest to buy a plant from the nursery. Annual herbs such as parsley, coriander (cilantro) and basil are easily grown from seed each spring (although you can buy plants, too). Basil loves a sunny spot and plenty of water; parsley and cilantro also want plenty of water but prefer a cooler position.

If you want to have a dedicated herb garden then consider making a herb spiral, which naturally caters to the different requirements that these herbs have. A herb spiral is a herb garden that pulls together many permaculture design principles and uses a spiral shape that is commonly found in nature. At its heart is a mound of soil, about 2 meters in diameter and 1 meter tall. This is a no dig garden – you should be able to reach all parts of the spiral without stepping on it, so soil compaction is avoided. A line of rocks or bricks spirals around the mound, from the bottom to the top.

Together, the mound and the rocks provide a range of niches and micro climates that will suit the cultivation of many different herbs. The north-facing side will be cooler, and the soil at the bottom of the spiral will be much wetter than the soil at the top. Mints and watercress should thrive (although it does depend on your climate and the site of the spiral) at the bottom on the north side. The spiral winds upwards, through sunny and shady sides, and the soil gets progressively drier. At the very top conditions should be ideal for the Mediterranean herbs such as oregano and rosemary.

As with all permaculture projects, the key to success with a herb spiral is to do your homework before you start. Think about which herbs you would like in your garden; the ones that you use most often is a good place to start. The next step is to research each herb’s preferences and then allocate them to an area on the spiral. Only once you’ve found each herb its perfect niche you start to build the spiral. If you haven’t got enough shade, then you could consider planting a climbing plant up a trellis on the sunny side of the spiral.

A herb spiral is essentially just a raised bed with a collection of different micro climates and could be used to grow any collection of plants once you have a spiral of culinary herbs you could consider building a spiral to attract bees and butterflies to your garden or using one as a very attractive vegetable plot!

Posted in Blog on Jun 7, 2014 ·

Tags: herbs & permaculture.

Book review: Kitchen Garden Experts

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Kitchen Garden Experts

If you’ve ever wanted to sneak a peek into the kitchen gardens of famous chefs, then Kitchen Garden Experts by Cinead McTernan, with photographs by Jason Ingram, will be a must-have book for you. Published by Frances Lincoln at the beginning of May, it takes us on a tour of twenty kitchen gardens in the UK that supply produce to famous chefs. For each site we get introduced to both the chef and the head gardener, and are treated to a selection of recipes for using homegrown produce in a very up-market way.

When I was doing my dissertation last year, I came to the conclusion that for an unusual edible crop to make it in a garden, it had to be supported by both a gardener and a cook (although those two roles could be played by the same, multi-talented, person). My idea is borne out by the gardens visited in the book – in many of them exotic edibles have been included by the gardener, often at the request of the chef.

We’re told that, at The Grove in Pembrokeshire, Head gardener David Butt “likes to grow unusual crops that are generally unavailable or expensive”. David has a pink variety of oca (Oxalis tuberosa), a tuberous vegetable originally from the Andes that allows chef Duncan Barham to add novelty to the menu. David and Duncan don’t think of their vegetable garden as a way to cut their food bills, but as the “very best way to ensure provenance” – a philosophy that will resonate with many home growers.

The citrus flavour of oca is also appreciated at River Cottage, where the leaves are used as a leafy salad vegetable or a garnish, in addition to the tubers.

At The Ethicurean in Somerset, grower Mark Cox shares my love of experimenting, and gives the chefs an intriguing array of crops. He includes quinoa and achocha, and loves electric daisies (or alien eyeballs!) – although the book notes the Ethicurean’s customers have yet to share his enthusiasm for this tongue-tingling flower!

A L’Enclume (Cumbria) staple dish involves a perennial crop that will be familiar to permaculturalists – Good King Henry. It sometimes gets bad press as one of those old-fashioned plants that was “forgotten for a reason”, but at L’Enclume it is a key ingredient of a signature duck dish. The restaurant also grows its own oyster plant, “an indigenous sea vegetable from the west coast of Scotland” that previously had to be sourced from a grower in the Netherlands.

A willingness to seek out and try new ingredients is a theme throughout the book, but the main focus is on more familiar crops. There are growing instructions for plants such as baby beetroot, rhubarb and radishes, courgettes, tomatoes and turnips. A plant has to be deemed delicious to be worthy of inclusion in these gardens; the section on Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons talks about their signature microgreens and courgette flowers.

Most of us won’t get the chance to visit these places in person, and to nose around the gardens. But Ingram’s photos bring the book to life, and make it the next best thing to being there. The only problem being that you have to cook the food yourself!

Kitchen Garden Experts
by Cinead McTernan
Hardback, 192 pages, RRP £20
ISBN 9780711234963
Publisher: Frances Lincoln

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy by the publisher, but these words are my own :)

Posted in Blog on May 29, 2014 ·

Tags: books & food.

Non-Toxic Slug Control for your Garden

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The Slug Buggers don't work

Long ago, and far away (well, just down the road really), I wrote a few articles for the Helium website. I haven’t written anything for them in years, but I suspect my lack of participation was not a factor in their decision to shut down their operation. It means I can now rescue my articles and post them here, should I want to. Whether anything I wrote in those heady days is still worth reading remains to be seen ;)

There are many ways you can keep your slug population under control without resorting to toxic slug pellets:

  • Encourage beneficial wildlife in your garden – from insects right through to frogs and hedgehogs. Make sure that you have a range of habitats available. Wild patches, log piles and damp shady places around the garden will ensure a wide range of wildlife is at home in your garden and keep pest populations under control.

  • If you keep chickens or ducks then they will also help keep slugs at bay if you let them patrol regularly (although they may also help themselves to some of your plants!).

  • Barriers can be used to keep slugs and snails away from prized plants. Slugs won’t cross copper, and so you can use copper pipe to edge a raised bed, or copper rings around individual plants. You can buy sticky copper tape and copper-infused mats that are useful for protecting containers. Cloches made out of plastic bottles will protect seedlings from bad weather as well as predators.

  • Other barriers worth trying are soot, sand, crushed eggshells, coffee grounds or grit. Barriers tend to be made of gritty substances which irritate slugs, or ones that absorb moisture and make it hard for slugs to slime their way across.

  • Slug ‘pubs’ are popular traps, usually a small pot buried in the soil and filled with beer. Trials suggest the slugs aren’t fussy which sort of beer is used, and will also fall for milk or bran. Slug traps should have a lip above the soil surface – slugs will be able to climb in, but other insects on the surface (including beneficial ground beetles) will be less likely to fall in and drown.

  • If you’re in the midst of an infestation, you may want to go out at dusk or dawn and collect slugs by hand. They collect under stones and in damp nooks and crannies to hide out the sun. Try ringing your vegetable patch with a ‘trap crop’, sacrificial plants that slugs love (try lettuce) and which they will eat in preference to other plants. You will then know exactly where to find them every evening and they will probably leave your other vegetables alone.

  • During spring and fall, the main egg-laying season, you can apply a biological control. Biological controls are microscopic predators, specifically designed to deal with one sort of pest. The biological control for slugs is a nematode worm, watered onto the soil, that kills off young slugs. This will prevent a population boom, but the adult slugs have to be dealt with using another method.

  • As a final resort, it is now possible to buy environmentally-friendly slug pellets that are based on an iron compound. These pellets kill slugs without the potential damage to wildlife, pets and children of the usual pesticide slug pellets.

Slugs are a big problem in gardens where a moist, mild climate allows them to thrive. Each slug can eat twice its own body weight per day, and lays up to 300 eggs in spring and fall. It pays to have your slug control strategy in place early!

How do you deal with these pesky pests?

Posted in Blog on May 25, 2014 ·

Tag: pests

Hands-on gardening on the ISS

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Tending to the Veggie garden on the ISS

Astronaut Steven Swanson tending to the Veggie garden on the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA

If you’re currently tending lettuce plants, then you have something in common with the crew on board the International Space Station (ISS). They’re testing NASA’s new Vegetable Production System – affectionately known as ‘Veggie’. At 11.5 inches by 14.5 inches, Veggie is the largest plant growth chamber to have been blasted into space, and was developed by Orbital Technologies Corp.

Veggie was delivered to the ISS onboard the dragon capsule of SpaceX-3 in April, and installed in the Columbus module at the beginning of May. It has red and blue LEDs to supply the plants with the light they need for growth; it also has green LEDs that the astronauts can turn on to give white illumination, so that the plants don’t look funny colours.

Veggie’s first experiment, Veg-01, is mainly a hardware validation test to check everything is working properly. It has been ‘planted’ with six ‘pillows’ – each one contains the growing medium, a controlled-release fertiliser and calcined clay to improve aeration and plant growth. Water is supplied via a root mat, and wicks for the plants (which also help ensure they grow the right way up in microgravity!).

Veg-01 will be growing ‘Outredgeous’ romaine lettuce, a very red lettuce that will be familiar to US gardeners (I don’t think it’s available in the UK). An astronaut will thin the seedlings down to one plant per pillow, and the experiment lasts for 28 days. Photos will be taken each week, and microbial samples will be taken as well. At the end of the 28 days, the lettuce will be harvested and frozen and stored until it can be returned to Earth on SpaceX-4 in August.

The lettuce harvest will be analysed on Earth to ensure that it’s safe to eat. If so then a second set of pillows can be started on the ISS, with the crew able to tuck into homegrown lettuce 28 days later. While they’re waiting to hear whether Veggie produces edible plants, they have some pillows sown with ‘Profusion’ Zinnias to brighten the place up.

As well as proving that edible vegetables can be produced in space, and that the Veggie system works, it is hoped that the astronauts will enjoy tending their garden – which will also make it easier for them to mark the passage of time. A source of fresh food would also be very welcome – fresh produce is eaten almost as soon as it arrives in every cargo run, leaving long-life rations to provide the bulk of astronaut cuisine.

Crops growing in VEGGIE plant pillows

Crops tested in VEGGIE plant pillows include lettuce, Swiss chard, radishes, Chinese cabbage and peas. Image credit: NASA

A control experiment is taking place on Earth, so that proper plant science can be done with Veggie’s results. An Earth-bound Veggie has already grown a range of crops – including lettuce, Swiss chard, radishes, Chinese cabbage and peas.

Have you grown Outredgeous lettuce? Is is a variety worthy of being grown in space?

I am submitting this to VP’s Show of Hands Chelsea Fringe project, although I think she might have trouble marking these gardening hands on her map ;)

If you’d like to know more about how humans carry useful plants across the world (and beyond it!) then check out my latest book – Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs – which includes a potted history of plant hunting as well as interviews with gardeners trying to grow edible plants outside of their native habitat.

Posted in Blog on May 22, 2014 ·

Last modified on Jun 11, 2014

Tags: space & science.

Gardens on Mars: HI-SEAS 2

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Mars in Hawaii. Credit: HI-SEAS

In Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs I talk about the journeys plants have made with us – criss-crossing the globe and leaving Earth entirely for missions in space. I talk about it a little bit more in the latest episode of the Alternative Kitchen Garden Show – Plants in Space.

One of the missions I mention in the show is going on right now. There are currently 6 scientists living in a habitat dome 11 metres in diameter. They can only go outside if they’re wearing a space suit, they have strict water-saving regimes that allow them only 12 minutes under the shower each week and some of their meals are dehydrated astronaut rations. But these scientists aren’t astronauts; they’re part of a Mars simulation project, HI-SEAS 2, and they haven’t been blasted into space. They’re spending the next four months on the side of a mountain in Hawaii.

One of the scientists, Lucie Poulet, is researching three different sets of LED lights that could be used to grow food in inhospitable environments. She’ll be looking at which lights provide the greatest efficiency, and how much time a crew might need to spend tending their plants. But it’s hoped that the presence of the plants might also help to foster a sense of well-being – the psychological effects of greenery are under the spotlight as well.

Astronauts on long term space missions, such as a trip to Mars, would need to be able to grow some of their own food – but it’s still unclear how feasible that will be. There are numerous obstacles to overcome, and questions to answer. How will the plants be affected by different gravity? How do you keep them watered whilst avoiding leaks that put delicate equipment at risk? Will the harvested produce be safe to eat without washing? Or safe to eat full stop…?

Gardens in space are likely to be a far cry from the bountiful ‘hanging gardens’ seen in sci-fi movies – space and weight are at a premium, and the plants have to give a good return on the investment. Lucie Poulet will be growing lettuce, radishes and tomatoes in her little corner of ‘Mars’.

It’s the space-age equivalent of asking what you’d take to a desert island, but which crop would you want to take with you on a space mission?

Posted in Blog on May 19, 2014 ·

Last modified on Jun 11, 2014

Tags: science & space.

Show of hands

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Tarragon harvest

Part of VP’s 2014 Chelsea Fringe project.

Posted in Blog on May 18, 2014 ·

Last modified on May 18, 2014

Tag: herbs

Taking the pith

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Those of you who were keeping up with my virtual book tour for Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs can’t have failed to notice that I’m sporting a jaunty pith helmet in my author photos. I chose it because it is part of the quintessential wardrobe of the stereotypical ‘gentleman explorer’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No self-respecting plant hunter would have ventured to the tropics without one. Although they have now gone out of fashion, I can confirm that they make great sun hats – shielding your eyes and keeping the sun off your head. They are light-weight and breathable. At least I now have something to wear to fancy dress parties and steampunk conventions.

But why is it called a pith helmet? Probably the first thing that springs to mind when you think of pith (if, indeed, you ever do) is the bitter white stuff you find between the juicy segments of citrus fruits. That’s actually their mesocarp (or albedo), a pale and spongy inner layer of the rind. It contains chemicals that are good for combating bruising, if you can choke it down. It’s interesting to note that the Buddha’s Hand citrus (Citrus medica var. sarcodactyl) consists only of pith covered in a highly-scented rind.

Botanically speaking, real pith is spongy parenchyma cells, used for the storage and transport of nutrients. In eudicots (plants whose seedlings have two leaves), pith is found in the centre of the stem. In monocots (plants like onions, with one-leaved seedlings) the pith extends into flowering stems and roots. In both cases it is encircled by the rings of xylem (which transports water) and phloem (which transports nutrients). Aren’t plant vascular systems fun?

Pith helmets (AKA topees) were originally made with pith, from an Indian swap plant called Sola (Aeschynomene aspera and some similar species). They were sometimes referred to as solar topees, and the ‘solar’ comes from Sola, rather than their sun-protection function.

It was around 1870 when the pith helmet became popular with military personnel in Europe’s tropical colonies. Although they have been particularly associated with the British and French empires, they were used by all of the European colonial powers of the time. They were adopted as civilian headgear, for both men and women, in the 1940s. Latterly they tended to be made from cork, which is more durable.

My pith helmet (which I bought, naturally, from Amazon – the department store home of the odd and unusual) is made from genuine pith, from trees in northern Vietnam. Apparently the Vietnamese learned the art of making pith helmets a hundred years ago, during the French occupation. It’s amazing that there’s still enough demand to keep them in business….

The Sola has edible flowers, and its tender leaves are used as a vegetable. Its pith has also been cut into small pieces, strung together to make ‘ear ornaments’. Or turned into dyed beads and made into garlands for decorating religious statues and newly-wed couples. The white, spongy “wood” can also be used for paper, fibre, artwork, handicrafts and artificial flowers.

It’s not the only plant with useful pith. That of the sago palm, processed to remove toxins, is an important food source in Melanesia and Micronesia (in the Pacific Ocean). And the scourge of all children subjected to school dinners, although personally I quite like it ;)

Posted in Blog on May 17, 2014 ·

Tags: books & ethnobotany.

The Aroma of Rain

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Given the showery weather we’ve been having recently I thought you might like this lovely infographic from Compound Interest, which examines the chemicals behind ‘petrichor’, the distinctive smell of rain or wet ground :)

(Click through to the original image if you want to see it larger!)

Posted in Blog on May 15, 2014 ·

Tag: science

Groundbreaking food gardens

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On 4th June 2012 I received an email from Niki Jabbour, a garden writer in Nova Scotia in Canada. She said that she was working on a book of edible garden plans and would like me to contribute a design for a composter’s garden. Niki continued on her quest to collect interesting plans for food gardens from writers and bloggers around the world, including Amy Stewart, Roger Doiron, Amanda Thomsen and our very own VP.

A month later, I sent her my idea – the Circle of Life garden. As you can see, my artistic skills are in need of some development:

Emma Cooper's Circle of Life garden design

The idea behind the Circle of Life garden is that it is fuelled by returning waste products to the soil. Chickens have a run around the outside, where they can be fed any suitable garden waste (and will help with pest control). Their coop is right by the compost bins, where their poop will make the composting process go with a bang. A rhubarb patch soaks up the nutrients right by the compost bins, and there’s plenty of garden beds to make good use of all that lovely compost.

To find out more you’ll have to buy the book. Niki has done a lovely job of writing up my idea, and a small team of illustrators have turned all of the designs into beautiful, instructive illustrations. They’ve really brought all of the gardens to life.

One feature of my design that caused a bit of a stir was the comfrey tower. It’s a simple system that uses a vertical length of tubing to rot comfrey leaves down into a liquid feed without that pesky stench. I didn’t attempt to draw one; Elayne Sears has done a lovely job with the image:

Comfrey tower

Illustration courtesy of Storey Publishing, © 2014

To recreate the Circle of Life garden in your own back yard, you’ll need a copy of Groundbreaking Food Gardens, which is available now. When you buy one you’ll also get 72 other wonderful edible garden plans for free ;)

Posted in Blog on May 10, 2014 ·

Tags: books & compost.

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