Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Outdoor cooking, indoor side dishes

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BBQ :)
Not quite a fire pit – our BBQ bucket

One of the things I’d like to do when the garden is finished (or, you know, as finished as it gets) is more outdoor cooking. Ryan likes barbecues; I fancy getting into more elaborate things such as outdoor soups and stews. I saw a ‘BBQ wok’ the other day, which looks very much like a colander, and that’s intriguing. We’re aiming for a nice fire pit; at the moment we have a cheap BBQ bucket :)

We fire up the bbq every time the sun comes out. So far, Ryan has done most of the work on starting the fire and cooking the food. I have been in the kitchen, doing the side dishes (it’s still cold outside!). The recipe links below will take you to our new website, The Outdoor Kitchen, which is charting our journey into this fiery, unknown territory.

The first one was a simple potato salad, which goes very nicely with flame-grilled meat (or anything else, if you’re veggie :). Ryan keeps wanting to have it again, but we can’t because it used up all the mayo until we go shopping.

Leftovers will keep for a couple of days in the fridge, if you can stop people from eating them!

For our second barbecue we’d had a veg box delivery – fresh supplies of potatoes. But no mayo. Potato salad was out, so I made potato wedges instead. The result is lovely, tasty wedges that are less of a guilty pleasure than chips :)

The veg box also contained courgettes, so I thought I would try barbecuing one. I went with simplicity, bbq naked courgettes. I loved the result, with the flame-grilled skin and tender insides. I ate the whole thing – because Ryan really didn’t like it. He’s not a fan of courgettes, and there was nothing there but the courgette.

Next time I might try a marinade, or perhaps a dressing to pour over them after they’re cooked. I might even go crazy and try grilling a big mushroom (Ryan doesn’t like them either).

Freshly-made charcoal
Freshly-made charcoal, from Harcour Arboretum

So we’re off to a flying start with the outdoor cooking (especially as we made our own charcoal last year, at Harcout Arboretum) and keen to continue experiments.

Are you a fan? Do you have a favourite recipe to share?

Posted in Blog on May 9, 2015 ·

Tag: food

Woodruff, coumarin and May Cups

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Edible spring flowers: violas and sweet woodruff
Edible spring flowers: violas and sweet woodruff

Earlier in the year, I bought some new herbs plants for the garden. There was an offer on if you bought five plants, so after picking a pretty pink thyme and two different varieties of sage, I was looking around for two more to pop in the basket. Ryan chose angelica and I picked one I wasn’t familiar with – woodruff. I had a vague recollection that it could be used for tea, and it can – this is sweet woodruff, Gallium odoratum.

I planted it up in a tub with some violas, and didn’t think too much more about it, since I have been busy planning the garden and trying to manage an ever-increasing army of plants that I can’t plant out. (I have stopped adding to it now. Really, I have.)

When I opened the May edition of Simple Things magazine, there was an extract from Lottie Muir’s book Wild Cocktails with a recipe for a German May Cup that involves sweet woodruff. My little plant was happy, had grown and was flowering, so I thought I would harvest some and give it a go.

Sweet woodruff in flower
Sweet woodruff in flower

The recipe calls for harvesting the woodruff in advance, so this I duly did. Drying some brings out the flavour, so I left some sitting on a plate in the living room, whilst the rest went in the fridge to stay fresh. I did nibble on a fresh leaf, and the taste is surprising – a green, grassy, initial flavour gives way to something far more interesting, a cross between almond and vanilla.

On Friday evening I duly made some syrup, infused some dry white wine with the dried flowers, mixed and chilled. The recipe called for Champagne or sparkling wine, but we’re not big fans, so I left that out. The result was… very sweet. Far too sweet for my taste (even diluted with more wine), although Ryan was happy to drink his. It’s not likely to become a regular part of our May Day celebrations; I’ll dry out the remaining woodruff to use as tea.

Sweet woodruff can also be used in pot pourri and herb pillows, and in sachets for scenting clothes. It’s ‘freshly mown hay’ aroma and that intriguing exotic flavour are both a result of a chemical called coumarin, which is present in a number of plants. Taken in large quantities it can cause liver damage, but that’s true of a lot of things and not a particular worry if used in moderation (although it is probably best avoided if you already have liver problems).

Coumarin is the chemical in bison grass, Hierochloe odorata that gives its flavour to żubrówka, a vanilla-flavoured, vodka-based spirit. I have a bottle in the kitchen, having once drunk a delightful ‘bison berry swizzle’ cocktail that also involved raspberry puree and apple juice. I think I also have a packet of seeds somewhere, although clearly I can’t add any more plants to the garden until it’s actually a garden.

Lady’s bedstraw, Galium verum is another plant that grows in this country that contains coumarin; meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, Spignel, Meum athamanticum , and Sweet Vernal Grass, Anthoxanthum odoratum, do too.

Coumarin has been in the press in recent years, because of two species that won’t grow in a temperate climate. It’s present in cassia, Cinnamomum cassia, which tastes similar (and is related) to true cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum, but is cheaper and more widely available. True cinnamon doesn’t contain coumarin, but cassia does, so developing a ‘cinnamon’ bun or latte obsession could be detrimental to your health (although the fat/sugar content might get you first!).

And tonka beans, Dipteryx odorata, are a South American legume that also contain coumarin. They’re apparently a foodie delight, but are banned in America because of their coumarin content. The Atlantic’s article attempts to debunk the health threat, saying that reports of coumarin being a blood thinner are the result of name confusion with a licensed drug. Decomposition by certain strains of fungi can turn coumarin into a blood thinner, but that’s unlikely to happen in your back garden, or in the short timescales between harvesting and using your coumarin-bearing plants. The article suggests that coumarin is about as toxic as nutmeg – another flavouring for which normal consumption wouldn’t cause any harmful effects.

Woodruff in the sun
Sweet woodruff enjoying spring sunshine

All told, I’m happy to have added sweet woodruff to my garden, and I’m looking forward to making more use of it once it has had a chance to grow. I’ll have to find it a shadier spot – apparently it makes a useful ground cover under shrubs and trees and ‘easily spreads’ (so be careful where you plant it!). I can find it a spot like that when the garden is finished.

Over time I’d like to add more unusual (and familiar) herbs to the garden. In Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs I wrote a chapter on unusual herbs, including: sorrel, lemon balm, costmary, perilla, stevia, paracress, Vietnamese coriander and Holy basil. They won’t all make an appearance in the garden this year, but hopefully will in the future.

Have you adopted an unusual herb into your garden? What do you use it for?

Posted in Blog on May 6, 2015 ·

Last modified on May 2, 2015

Tags: ethnobotany & herbs.

Naked Gardening Day - health and safety tips

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Dancing by Marko, via Flickr

Today, the first Saturday in May, is World Naked Gardening Day. The idea is to pop out and do some gardening in the altogether (‘as nature intended’) to help improve our sense of what is normal and acceptable in terms of body shapes and sizes.

(I did once seriously consider going to a ‘clothes optional’ day at Abbey House Gardens, but found surprisingly few takers for travelling companions.)

We’ve had a health and safety briefing at work this week. We are required to fill in risk assessments for all tasks that are potentially hazardous (i.e. absolutely everything), but if it’s a quick thing you can go through a short ‘on the job’ checklist. I thought it might be fun to put together a bare bones guide to the hazards of naked gardening ;)

The weather
We’re told these days that we’re all vitamin D deficient, and we should expose our torsos to the sun whenever possible, so naked gardening scores some points in that dimension. However, if it’s sunny we do have to be aware of the risks of sunburn, and skin cancer, so protective lotion is almost certainly required.

A hat will protect you from sun stroke, especially if you’re a bit thin on top.

Looking out of the window, a more pressing concern in my garden today would be hypothermia, especially if the forecast rain arrives later. Have a towel, dry clothes and warm drinks on standby for when you retire indoors. From experience (selling university rag mags in Birmingham in November, dressed as a St Trinians girl) I have found that a hot shower is more warming than a hot bath, if you’re very cold.

Cuts, grazes and puncture wounds
There’s plenty of potential for injury in the garden when you’re nude. Feet are especially vulnerable, so it would be best not to let them go au naturel but to continue wearing your normal gardening footwear. Forks and spades will go straight through toes if you let them, so avoid flip flops and go for sturdy shoes or boots instead.

Thorns are a particular hazard for feet, but also for hands, so gloves may continue to be a necessity, depending on what you’re doing. I would leave pruning anything prickly for another day, personally.

Cane toppers. Great for stopping you poking out your eyes on a normal day, you may want to consider popping them on short canes today as well, so you don’t poke anything else while you’re bending over. You know what I mean, stop sniggering at the back!

Impromptu amputations
Sharp objects abound in the garden, and a lot of them are tools. Mind what you’re doing with those secateurs/ loppers/ pruning saws – some pruning cuts cannot be reversed. Anything electric should be protected with a circuit breaker, by which I mean you should protect yourself by using a circuit breaker with any electrical tools.

Lawn mowing… looks like a nice, gentle activity that should be safe enough whilst naked (with boots on, see above), but it does throw up stones. Safety glasses just aren’t going to cut it today.

Fires. Really? You’re choosing to have that bonfire/bbq now? Are you insane? Put your clothes back on! No one likes the smell of burning hair!

Chemical burns
I’m sure you’re all organic gardeners, with no nasties in the shed, but if you’re not then leave them in there until you can wear the proper personal protective equipment (i.e. pants). Watch out for plants that can cause chemical burns if they come into contact with bare skin. It’s bad enough when it’s your arms….

So, once you’re wearing just your hat, boots and gloves, you’re all set for appropriate gardening tasks. Such as light weeding… although do be careful of toxic/ scratchy plants in the vicinity. Or sit back with a nice cup of… better make it iced tea, you don’t want to risk a nasty scald somewhere sensitive. You could maybe do a little potting on, that should be safe enough, if you stay out of the sun.

What’s that? Your garden is overlooked by the neighbours? They have young children? You’re right, perhaps we should confine our naked gardening to sowing seeds indoors ;)

This has been a bit of a giggle for World Naked Gardening Day, but in all honesty safety in the garden is no laughing matter. In 2004, 87000 people in the UK were injured whilst gardening – seriously enough to need emergency medical treatment. After lawn mowers, the thing most likely to cause injury was found to be… flowerpots.

What’s your top tip for gardening safely?

Flowerpots – an accident waiting to happen!

Posted in Blog on May 2, 2015 ·

Tag: events

Out now in paperback - Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs

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Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, by Emma Cooper
The cover of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, out now in paperback

All of you who said you prefer ‘proper’ books to ebooks can now vote with your feet – Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs is out now in paperback :) All that bright pink should liven up your bookshelf a treat….

For those of you who haven’t heard of it before, Jade Pearls (my latest book) is a guide book to the world of unusual edible plants, whether they are old or new, rarely grown or from somewhere far flung. It looks at the history of plant hunters moving these plants around the world, and tells the stories of modern day enthusiasts, showcasing some of the unusual plants you may encounter as you begin your own journey into this intriguing world.

Beyond our familiar fruits, vegetables and herbs, edible plants can be exotic, old-fashioned, wild or just plain weird. Think of the things you consider to be unusual – things you’ve seen in the produce section, or the latest ‘superfruit’ to be mentioned in the media. Perhaps you encountered something new on holiday, and wished you could bring it home with you. A list of plants you consider to be unusual would be different from my list, which would be different from everyone else’s, because what counts as unusual depends on both your past experiences, where you live and when you live – there are trends and fashions in food and gardening, as in anything else.

An unusual plant may have been commonly grown in the past, or it may have been bred only recently and be something truly new. Or it may come from far away. It may be a plant that is very commonly grown and known in agriculture, but not often cultivated at home – or the reverse, a plant that is common in gardens and on allotments but rarely commercially available.

Writing and publishing Jade Pearls has been a real labour of love for me, and I still enjoy reading the stories it contains of people who are similarly obsessed with slightly offbeat plants. It’s a thoroughly good book, but you don’t need to take my word for it! When the ebook version was published last year I embarked on a virtual book tour, and you can find all kinds of goodies – interviews, reviews and guest blogs – about Jade Pearls here:

I published the paperback via Createspace, so it is available from Amazon (in all territories). Should you prefer the ebook version, head over to the Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs homepage to find out more about stockists.

Get your copy now, and embark on an adventure where you meet the nicest people and fill your garden with truly wondrous plants!

Posted in Blog on Apr 29, 2015 ·

Last modified on Apr 29, 2015

Tags: books & unusual.

Camassia: hero and edimental

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Camassia quamash, Quamash, growing in the RISC roof garden

I don’t tend of think of myself as a trendsetter, but I can honestly say that you heard it here first – you need to grow Camassia. Apparently it’s one of the ‘hero’ plants of Chelsea 2015, a real stunner that will add to your garden. There’s a number of species of Camassia, but the article mentions C. quamash, which is edible as well as ornamental – an edimental, as my friend Stephen Barstow would say.

It’s also known as Quamash, which came in very handy when I was writing The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z, as Q is otherwise a difficult letter to fill! Here’s what I wrote in the book, way back in 2008:

Q is for… Quamash
Quamash (Camassia quamash, also known commonly as Camassia) is an edible bulb, a staple food of native Americans. I can’t now remember why I decided to try and grow it, but I do remember seeing some growing at the RISC roof garden in Reading. They have pretty blue flowers, a bit like bluebells.

The seeds need a period of winter cold to germinate, so I sowed mine in a pot last autumn and put it in the cold frame. It sat outside all winter, and the seeds burst into life in spring. The seedlings were tiny, single-leaved things.

Unfortunately I got a bit engrossed in other things in spring, and when I checked on them one day the quamash seedlings were dead. It’s a shame when something like that happens, because it’s a whole year before you get the chance to try again.

However, I have since read that it takes rather a lot of cooking to make the bulbs edible. They would have been cooked in large fire pits by the native Americans, something which few of us would be able to replicate today – even if we had enough bulbs to make it worth the effort. If I grow quamash again next year, it may well become one of the plants in the garden that – although technically edible – is grown for its interest and ornamental value.

Camassia & alpine strawberry
Camassia and white alpine strawberry seeds

Clearly that entry in the book was about one of my failures, rather than my successes, but reviews suggested you all enjoyed reading about those ;)

If you do, and you have The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z on your wish list of books to read, then I suggest you get your hands on a copy now, because I believe it will shortly be out of print. If you’re in the UK then I can send you a signed copy for £10 inc. P&P, just drop me a line.

Posted in Blog on Apr 25, 2015 ·

Tag: unusual

Review: Weather@Home wireless weather station

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Ice alert! Weather station.
Checking the weather from the comfort of the sofa

This is a chancy time for gardeners. Spring has arrived, and we’re getting some sunny days that can easily cook any seedlings that are left in an unopened cold frame for the day. But there’s still the risk of frost at night. Keeping an eye on the weather forecast is a necessity. If you tend to watch the tv news, or listen to the radio, then the weather forecast comes to you. If you rely on the internet, or an app, then you have to remember to check it. Would a personal weather station make life easier?

Oregon Scientific sent me one of their Weather@Home wireless weather stations to review.

Ryan did the setting up, although it’s not complicated. The indoor unit has an easy-to-read display and shows the temperature and humidity inside, as well as the time. The outdoor sensor needs to be fixed in a suitable position and added as a channel, and then the indoor unit displays the outdoor temperature and humidity as well. You can add more sensors, so if you wanted to you could have a sensor in the greenhouse, or the shed.

The base unit also displays a local weather forecast, and if it’s going to get chilly it has an Ice Warning light that flashes – so you can pop outside and protect any plants that would be damaged by frost.

The unit I have also has bluetooth connectivity, so you can also access the information via an app on your smartphone when you’re in range. It has a history function that shows you the last week’s worth of weather data.

What it doesn’t have is internet connectivity, so you can’t check the weather when you’re away from home. And there’s no way of downloading your weather data, so you can’t keep records of your garden’s climate.

easy to operate
easy-to-read display
multiple channels (indoor/ outdoor/ greenhouse)
local forecast
bluetooth connectivity
flashing ice/frost warning

short history
no ability to collect data
no internet connectivity, to check remotely

Good for: checking the weather conditions and forecast
Not good for: tracking the climate of your garden

Do you monitor the weather in your garden?

Posted in Blog on Apr 22, 2015 ·

Last modified on Apr 21, 2015

Tag: reviews

Why is it so hard to find a good tradesperson?

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Bob the builder
Where have all the good builders gone?
Image credit: clement127

I would very much like to spend spring playing in my garden – but there’s not much point trying to do anything until the paving is down. It’s a big job, and not one that we can confidently do ourselves, and so we’re trying to hire a tradesperson to do it.

Last week I rang three different companies. I got through to one guy right away. For the other two I had to leave messages, and quite frankly I was surprised when they both rang me back later. Not only that, all three turned up when they said they would. I thought we were on a roll. I should have known better.

A week later, two of them have not yet supplied quotes. The third scribbled a figure on the back of his business card, which does not inspire confidence. Ryan has been trying to contact a fourth company, and they won’t return his calls.

Even when we finally choose a company, we’ll have to wait a few weeks, so it doesn’t look like my paving will be done this side of midsummer.

It’s not the first time I’ve had this problem. In fact, I have this problem almost every time I need work done. The only tradespeople who seem to be keen to work and show up when they say they will are plasterers. I don’t currently need a plasterer.

When I was trying to sell the last house, it needed some work (mainly redecoration). I called four companies. Two didn’t call back. The fourth yelled at me down the phone – he asked how many people I’d rung and I told him. Apparently it would have been completely acceptable for me to ask for two other quotes, but three was taking the p*ss. He refused to even quote for the job. So, in the end, only one of the four turned up and quoted. Fortunately he was pleasant, and competent, and so I could give him the job.

And before anyone mentions those websites that allow you to find local, ‘recommended’ tradesmen, we used one of those when we needed someone to fix the roof. And the less said about that tradesman, the better….

I have a job I need doing, and the money to pay for it. I’d like to hire someone to do the work, and there are people out there who advertise this service – why don’t any of them actually want the job?

Posted in Blog on Apr 18, 2015 ·

Last modified on Apr 18, 2015

Tag: general

Making progress

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It will be a while yet before the paving is sorted out, but we’re making progress in the garden. A sunny weekend allowed us to put the arbor back up, although it can’t yet sit in its final location:

The arbor is back up
The arbor will have to wait a while to be covered in climbing plants

And we may not have our fire pit yet, but a cheap BBQ bucket meant we could have the first BBQ of the year:

BBQ :)
It was a bit cold and windy, but Ryan still managed to cook dinner outside :)

The fold-away washing line has been up for a week or so, and makes a big difference:

Washing line is up
Our new washing line, in action

The birds are ravenous, and keep eating all the food we put out in the feeders. I put up a nesting spiral for them as well, full of wool and feathers and straw. To begin with I thought it might be too late – there was no interest. But I have seen a blue tit tugging away and flying off with a beak full of wool :)

Nesting spiral
Interior decorating supplies for our feathered friends

And I have jumped the gun a little, and bought some new plants. My new Ice Peach is acclimatising in the cold frame:

Ice peach blossoms
Ice peach blossom

Posted in Blog on Apr 16, 2015 ·

Last modified on Apr 12, 2015

Tag: general

A species-rich environment

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Spring has arrived, and the natural world has started to appear in colour, rather than monochrome. My garden isn’t much of a garden yet, but it does still have its charms. Including a lawn that is not weedy, but rather a species-rich environment.

Hairy bittercress
Hairy bittercress is everywhere, although you have to be looking for it to see it

White violets
White violets have sprung up under the bird table

blue violets
As have blue ones. I will have to save them – their location will soon be under the patio

Dead nettles
Dead nettles are pretty (and have no sting)

Daisy in clover
The daisies are in clover in the front garden

And even the dandelions are pretty in the sunshine

Posted in Blog on Apr 13, 2015 ·

Last modified on Apr 12, 2015

Tags: gardens & weeds.

Down the garden path: planning the paving

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Our garden plan

This is our garden plan for the front garden and the ‘back’ garden (which is at the side of the house, strictly speaking). The red areas are paving – a garden path, a wide patio and enough hardstanding to go underneath two sheds (one of which may turn out to be a greenhouse).

The idea behind the patio is that it runs the length of the garden from the patio doors, enticing you out of the house and down to where we’ll put the arbor and some sort of fire pit. As you walk down the patio you’ll be surrounded by the long edge of the raised beds, which will be planted with pretty/scented plants. The ‘E’ shape of the raised beds means that I can get round the back and reach into any spot to do my gardening.

Our initial thought was that we’d like block paving for the patio, in a mixture of colours. Slightly unconventional, perhaps, but I’m after fun and quirky rather than stylish perfection.

This week I started the process of finding someone do to the paving. The first guy came round on Thursday evening, and was pleasant enough. He wasn’t a big fan of the block paving idea, though, saying he “didn’t think it would look nice”. Faced with a number of online paving catalogues with small pictures, and no real idea of what I wanted, we choose a couple of paving slab designs and sent them off to him so that he can provide us with a quote.

And then I gave it some more thought, and looked at the catalogues a bit more, and decided that we’d picked some of the most conventional paving slabs out there. They’re nice enough, but they’re a bit… meh. And whilst we of course value an expert’s opinion on what would be the best sort of paving for our garden, we don’t need to take on board his personal opinion on what would look nice or not. It’s not his garden, and I certainly don’t want to be looking at boring paving with regret for the next twenty years. If block paving turns out to be a mistake, that’s fair enough – but at least it would be our mistake.

Posted in Blog on Apr 11, 2015 ·

Tag: planning

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