Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Love in a mist

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Nigella damascena

One of my favourite flowers, but one that I have yet to grow, is Nigella damascena, commonly known as “Love-in-a-mist”. It has delicately beautiful flowers, held high on ferny foliage, followed by stately seed heads. I believe it self-seeds quite readily. The picture above shows a predominantly blue mixture, but you can also get a mix called ‘Persian Jewels’ that has a few more colours. I think it would make a nice addition to my Middle Eastern garden. It can be sown outdoors from April to June, and then again in September.

Nigella damascena is generally considered to be an ornamental plant, but according to PFAF, the seed can be used raw or cooked, and is normally used as a condiment with a nutmeg-like flavour. It can also be used to produce an oil.

Fennel Flower

Nigella hispanica

This one is Nigella hispanica, (known, with a certain lack of originality, as Spanish Love-in-a-mist). I found this one growing in the Cook’s Garden at Garden Organic Ryton a few years ago, which would lead you to suspect that it’s edible. And Cherry Gal suggests it can be used as a substitute for black pepper, but I haven’t found any corroborating evidence of that yet. This species isn’t covered by PFAF.

kalonji in the sun

Kalonji, by Karen Christine Hibbard

Nigella sativa is definitely edible, and used widely as a spice. I have yet to see it growing, but am aiming to try it myself. It’s also known as black cumin, kalonji, and (inaccurately) as onion seed. You may have come across it in a naan bread. (There’s another spice known as black cumin, Bunium persicum, which goes to show how confusing common names can be.)

black cumin

Nigella seeds, by seelensturm

PFAF also lists two other Nigella species – N. arvensis and N. orientalis, about which I know nothing. Have you got any Nigella growing in your garden?

Posted in Blog on Aug 30, 2014 ·

Tags: flowers & spices.


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Kitchen garden
The productive, but labour intensive, kitchen garden at Hampton Court Palace

Conventional advice for growing your own fruit and vegetables tends to follow one of two tacks – it either assumes you have acres of dedicated space, and the time to look after a traditional kitchen garden, or that you have no space and are limited to a few pots on the patio or the windowsill. It doesn’t resonate with the modern reality of homes being built with ever-smaller gardens and allotments being grubbed up for ‘development’. It’s not really aimed at the majority – people who have other calls on their time, and for whom a supply of homegrown vegetables is only one of many things they want from their garden.

Our gardens, whatever their size, are the places that we relax and play. We might need a lawn for the dog, or for football games; we may want space for a BBQ and a sun lounger. It’s a place where we can dry the laundry, and an ornamental balm for the soul with its flowers and scents, as well as somewhere to grow things for the kitchen. Houses are getting smaller, too. We don’t all have pantries, or room for an extra freezer – we can’t all deal with a sack of spuds in one go.

A beautiful, but purely ornamental, patio display at Whichford Pottery

My vision for my new garden is of a beautiful and productive multipurpose space. A place to potter and relax, to entertain and to experiment. Somewhere where I can pop outside every day and find something tempting to nibble on, perhaps even to take back into the kitchen, without being overwhelmed with produce our small household can’t finish. We won’t have acres of storage space, and we don’t eat our way through mountains of jam or chutney – I’d rather eat seasonally than try to be self-sufficient. Whilst I’m happy to share with friends and colleagues, I don’t want them hiding from me and my marrows! I can’t grow everything we need, but we have farms and commercial growers who have the space (and manpower) to provide the bulk.

I will be aiming not for feast and famine, or even for glorious gluts, but for diversity and interest. Growing different things, or growing and using familiar things in different ways. A garden that is a delight to every sense, a haven for us and for wildlife and somewhere I love to spend my time. I don’t want to measure my success by weight or volume; my definition of ‘yield’ is less tangible, and more fulfilling.

Earlier this year I wrote an article for the Guardian about some of the ways in which it’s possible to garden for continuous supplies of tasty treats. Continuing on from that, I am aiming to publish a special post on the first of every month, with timely advice for things to do in the garden. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who garden this way (or would like to), and I’d love for this to be a community effort, where you can share your hints and tips and favourite plants with me whilst I’m sharing mine with you.

Come on in and join the GlutBusters!

Posted in Blog on Aug 29, 2014 ·

Tag: planning

Write Club 2014

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Word Cloud

September is fast approaching, and whilst I haven’t got a date for moving yet, there are big changes on the horizon. I’m getting a new home, and a garden, and the website is getting a revamp – more on that later, but I’m hoping that will be in October. The new design is clean, clear and very modern, and works very well on mobile devices. It will also be a lot simpler to navigate, for me as well as for you!

Whilst I’m otherwise engaged working my way through that lot, I thought we could re-run a successful event from 2011: Write Club. Write Club is my guest posting competition, and for the month of September I am opening up the blog to guest posters – anyone who feels they can write a post on a relevant topic is welcome to enter. (I am not going to edit your posts (which wouldn’t be fair), so I suggest you get your spelling and grammar in order before you send them :)

There are five rules:

  1. Blog posts have to be 1000 words or less. They can include photos if you own the rights to them and send them in a suitable format.

  2. Your topic has to be within the gardening/ environment/ sustainable living genre, but feel free to write about things I don’t normally cover, because that’s part of the point.

  3. Do not be rude. No swearing, no libel, no inflammatory comments. This is a friendly place, don’t upset people. It will be me that has to deal with the fallout.

  4. Carrying on from 3), I reserve the right to refuse to publish your submission. Hopefully if that happens we can work on an acceptable version together, but at the end of the day if we can’t then you don’t get to play.

  5. If you’re submitting a guest post to this blog then it has to be your own work, and it can’t have been featured anywhere else online before (Google frowns on duplicate content). DO NOT COPY other people’s work; I will be checking for plagiarism and pre-existing work before I accept your entry.

Write Club is as much about blog readers as guest posters, and it’s the public that will pick the winner! I will determine the most popular post, based on the number of comments, Facebook Likes, Tweets, and Google+ mentions it receives (based on the information displayed on the social media counters on each post).

The prize for the most popular post will be a £20 gift voucher for the gardening company of your choice (or the equivalent in your currency if you live outside the UK).

Every reader who leaves a comment on one of the guest posts during September will be entered into a draw to win a copy of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs. One comment per guest post per person will count as an entry into the draw.

As the voting system relies entirely on social media you can promote your own pieces to your heart’s content – which does leave the competition open to a bit of abuse, but I reserve the right to disqualify entries that resort to unfair tactics like tweet robots. Fortunately you can’t vote down other entries – a negative comment will count towards the final total in just the same way as a positive comment.

Whether you submit your piece at the beginning of September or towards the end is up to you – you may feel there’s an advantage in it being online longer, or that a sprint finish would suit you better. Your choice – I will be posting each entry in the order they are received, one a day unless I am absolutely inundated!

To enter: Email entries to with the subject line “Write Club”. Submission of an entry does not guarantee publication on the blog. If you have any questions then ASK! You may find it helpful to read the entries from 2011, and/or the writing prompts I suggested back then.

Happy writing!

Posted in Blog on Aug 28, 2014 ·

Last modified on Sep 29, 2014

Tag: competitions

An edible archway

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Edible archway

An archway into a pergola at the Cotswold Wildlife Park

Ryan and I went to the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens last weekend, which is a nice day out if you’re in the area. (If you book online you save a little bit of money, and some time at the ticket kiosk – tickets are valid for one month from purchase.)

The animals are great; there’s always a crowd around the meerkat enclosures, and there’s plenty of cute things on show. There was a man doing a falconry display as well, but since his falcon had basically flown off and was showing no sign of coming back, it was more like a man swinging a piece of dead meat on a string with a running commentary ;)

The planting is always interesting as well. My favourite part on this occasion was in the walled garden. A large pergola has been planted up with climbing edibles. At first it simply looked like a grape vine (there are several around the walled garden), which was fruiting merriily. But on closer inspection I found…

Hanging kiwi

Kiwis hanging from the pergola

…at least one very happy kiwi plant, fruiting away merrily in the shade under the pergola. And it got even more exciting, as there was something else climbing up the poles….

Bottle gourd flower

A bottle gourd flower

They had several bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria), which were flowering and fruiting on the sunnier edges of the pergola. The flowers are quite distinctive, as are the immature fruits:

Baby bottlegourd

Baby bottle gourd fruit

It was a lovely feature, I could have spent hours there! Whilst I might not have room for an extensive pergola in my new Middle Easten garden, I do have my arbor, so I can recreate the scene on a smaller scale. Vines, fruit and climbing squashes will fit in with the theme perfectly :)

Posted in Blog on Aug 24, 2014 ·

Tags: gardens & fruit.

Independent nurseries

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Victoriana Nursery Gardens, in Kent

I ordered some plants yesterday, from Thompson & Morgan. I’d seen their new ‘patio’ raspberry, ‘Ruby Beauty’, and took advantage of their Bank Holiday free P&P offer. It was ideal for me because I fancied buying some plants, but since I don’t currently have a garden I am struggling to keep plants alive. My new raspberries should arrive after we’ve moved in to the new house, and give me something to play with. They will be the first of many new plants to take up residence with me.

A passing comment suggested that I really need to find a local, independent source for my plants. That wouldn’t have fit the bill yesterday, for the reasons outlined above. I buy my plants, seeds and gardening sundries from a variety of sources. I’m quite familiar with Oxfordshire’s garden centres; I have a long list of online suppliers I use and trust, including large companies and smaller, independent ones such as Victoriana Nursery Gardens and Real Seeds.

There are a number of reasons why independent, local nurseries don’t feature very highly on the list:

  • How do you find them? Googling for nurseries brings up places to leave your babies, and it’s not the easiest thing in the world to get only plant nurseries in your search. Not all of them will have a web presence, or pay for an advert in the Yellow Pages. Unless you drive past them, or are recommended by a friend, some of them are all but invisible. The RHS used to have a Nursery Finder, now you’re stuck with using the Plant Finder – which involves searching for a plant, not a nurseries.

  • Small concerns may have opening hours that are incompatible with my work schedule.

  • Oxfordshire is a big county, and many nurseries are some considerable distance away. A visit means a special trip.

  • They don’t sell what I want to buy. It’s easy enough to find common bedding plants, or perennials, anything ornamental. But edible plants? Not so much, particularly the unusual ones.

  • Standards are variable, for both the plants and the customer service. I have been to local nurseries that were depressing and unkempt. I made a special trip to one on the other side of the county, after an email exchange confirmed they had a plant I wanted to buy. When I arrived I was told they couldn’t find it, and that I should have called ahead….

So whilst, in an ideal world, we would “shop local” for our seeds and plants as much as anything else, it’s not always the easiest thing to do. What are your experiences? Do you have a spectacular local nursery you’d like to share? Where do you find your plants? Leave me a comment!

Posted in Blog on Aug 23, 2014 ·

Last modified on Sep 23, 2014

Tag: general

A Middle Eastern garden

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Kitab al Felaba

Al-Andalus display at the Eden Project, 2010

I was talking recently about having Palestinian plants in my new garden (and there’s still no news on when we will be moving in!), and yesterday morning it occurred to me that it might be nice to go a lot further than that, and design a garden with Middle Eastern influences.

The main part of the garden is almost square, with fences on two sides and a wall on the third, so it could pass as a courtyard garden. I’m thinking tiles and mosaics, mirrors and wrought iron, copper and lamps, cushions and throws, dusky pinks and deep blues, dark wood, lots of white and stars. A water feature of some kind.

In terms of the planting, it seems there isn’t that much that wouldn’t be at home in a Mediterranean/ Middle Eastern inspired garden. A lot of the plants with which we are familiar came to us via that route. There will be lots of herbs, of course, including mint, coriander and parsley, lemon verbena, oregano and thyme, sage, rosemary and saffron.

Fruits could include grape vines and figs, peaches and apricots, pomegranates and citrus. The lemon tree I grew from seed will finally feel at home! At least in the summer, it will have to come inside in the winter…. The garden is probably too small to include a walnut, but an almond might be manageable. I have at least one olive that will fit in nicely.

Flowers wouldn’t be missing, with the scents of honeysuckle and jasmine filling the air. Calendula would fit in with the colour scheme, and there would have to be roses – preferably at least one Damascus rose.

Moroccan garden

Moroccan Garden, by Pieter De Decker

Lots of leafy green vegetables (spinach, chard and leaf beet, mallow, purslane and rocket), plus asparagus. Garlic and onions, pale courgettes and other squashes, peppers and okra, carrots and cucumbers.

It’s an idea still in its infancy, and a proper design will have to wait until we’ve moved in and I can measure up. But it has promise… Eastern promise ;)

Have you got any Middle Eastern features in your garden? Or have you been to see a garden that might inspire me? What would you add to your garden, if you wanted to enjoy your own Arabian nights?

Posted in Blog on Aug 22, 2014 ·

Tag: gardens

The Parlour Bookshop, Didcot

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The Parlour Bookshop

The Parlour Bookshop, Didcot

Didcot is home to a secondhand bookshop. I drive past it everyday on my way to work, but for all that it’s not the easiest place to visit, as it has extremely restrictive opening hours. It opens from 10am to 12:45 and from 13:45 until 16:00, hours that are completely incompatible with anyone who works full time.

As this was the first free Wednesday I’ve had since moving to Didcot, it seemed rude not to go and have a gander. It’s a little way outside the town, and a bit of a hike, so I took the car instead and made use of their customer parking.

The Parlour Bookshop doesn’t seem to specialise in anything, and doesn’t buy books – it exists only because people need to clear out books for various reasons, but for all that it is very well stocked. Shelves are labelled, and marked into bays, so you have some hope of finding what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for something in particular then the man behind the counter can no doubt help you out; I was just there to browse.

It turned out to be a little bit of an ethnobotanist’s paradise, and I was soon stacking books on the counter so that I didn’t have to hold them all at once. The non-fiction shelves are the most extensive, but there’s plenty of fiction as well. Popular authors are separated out into their own boxes. It doesn’t seem as if the shop’s donors are much into science fiction, however.

If you’re passing, and spot a book in the window that you like, you can pop a note through the door and they’ll hold it for you for a couple of weeks, until you can inspect it and decide if it’s something you’d like.

I was the only customer at 10:30 this morning, which was helpful as the aisles are not wide. I spent about 20 minutes browsing, and came away with a good haul:

Secondhand books

My new secondhand books

Ryan is slight dubious about the sea vegetables, but I think seaweeds are interesting! As I spent over £15, I qualified for a 10% discount. The final total came to £15:30 :)

The Parlour Bookshop
30 Wantage Road
OX11 0BT

T: 01235 818989

(They also offer photocopying, faxing and laminating!)

Posted in Blog on Aug 20, 2014 ·

Tag: books

Review: Mrs Crimble's coconut macaroons

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Giant choc coconut macaroon

There’s a weekly tradition at work of a meeting that involves cake. A nominated person brings in cakes for everyone else, and we sit and have a natter for half an hour or so. Some people bake; some people buy cakes. There is a slight snobbery about it – baking is better, and if you can produce nicely iced cup cakes, that’s a bonus. I think some of my colleagues are avid fans of the Great British Bake Off.

We have various allergies and intolerances we have to cater for, and one week one of my colleagues brought in a packet of Mrs Crimble’s Coconut Macaroons, which are gluten and dairy free (it’s worth noting that although they don’t contain any dairy ingredients, they are made in a factory that uses them, which might be an issue if you have a severe allergy). My cow’s milk intolerance doesn’t usually bother me when it comes to baked goods*, but I thought I would try one of the macaroons, and I’m glad I did!

They’re truly lovely – moist, coconutty and distinctly moreish. They come in packets of six, and at the moment I am having a macaroon most days, as my afternoon treat. They also come in a chocolate variant, which involves a chocolate layer on the base and drizzled stripes. They’re great if it’s not hot enough to melt the chocolate, at which point they become a little messy to eat.

I recently discovered that you can also buy individually-wrapped giant versions, so I had to try one. They are made to the same high standards, but I didn’t find that bigger is better. As you’re chomping through the great dome of the middle bit, it does become a little bit of a chore….

So… coconut macaroons. Thoroughly recommended by me, so don’t eat them all! You can read the full ingredients and nutritional information on the Mrs Crimble’s website, along with some lovely sounding dessert recipes that use macaroons. Nom.

*I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s one of the proteins in cow’s milk I have a problem with. Perhaps baking denatures the pesky protein.

Posted in Blog on Aug 19, 2014 ·

Last modified on Sep 26, 2014

Tags: food & reviews.

My temporary spice rack

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Temporary spice rack

My temporary spice rack

“The important thing is the spices. A man can live on packaged food from here ‘til Judgment Day if he’s got enough rosemary.” Shepherd Book, Firefly

We still don’t have a moving date. It feels oh so close, and at the same time, so very far away. It is months now since we put a lot of our things into storage to declutter the flat; my collection of herbs and spices was one of the things deemed non-essential, and I have been left with a limited range in a collection of tiny storage boxes. Ryan has a selection of herbs in the freezer, and there are some odd bits and pieces left in the cupboards, and that’s my lot. For the most part it’s OK, but it’s occasionally frustrating to realise that you just don’t have something.

Necessity is the mother of invention, however. When we discovered last night that we didn’t have a packet of our usual fajita seasoning, I had to improvise a suitable sauce for our tacos. Ryan was a little sceptical at the list of ingredients I collected:

  • Ground cumin

  • Mixed herbs

  • Hoisin sauce

  • Tomato ketchup

  • Steak seasoning

But after dinner he proclaimed it better than the packet mix. It’s not quite perfect – it lacks a certain smokiness. Ryan suggests replacing the hoisin with BBQ sauce; I’m leaning towards smoked paprika. Either way, it will have to wait until we’ve moved. I’m a dab hand at improvised pizza topping as well (usually tomato ketchup and basil pesto) – what’s your favorite foodie improvisation?

Posted in Blog on Aug 18, 2014 ·

Tags: food & spices.

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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