Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

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.

Sending emails to Evernote

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As you know, I am a bit of an Evernote evangelist as I find it an indispensable tool for holding and organising the avalanche of information I keep for work or for personal interest. It’s great for making notes, or clipping stuff from the web. You can make To Do lists. It can hold images and audio notes, and the premium version not only holds PDF files but makes them fully searchable.

Did you know you can email directly into Evernote? If you’re away from your account you can send yourself a note that will appear when you’re back at your (virtual) desk. You can forward emails that you want to keep. I’ve read of at least one person who uses their Evernote address to sign up for mailing lists – so each new email drops straight into Evernote.

To email into your Evernote database you need to find your personalised email address. If you’re using a client then simply look under the “Account info…” menu option. On the web version it’s held under “Account settings”. It will look a bit like this:

But it gets better than that, because you can alter the subject line of the email so that Evernote automatically files it in the right Notebook, and adds your chosen tags. This is the format you need:

Title of the note @notebook #tag1 #tag2 #tag3

(Ryan has just reminded me that this only works with existing tags in Evernote – if it’s a new tag then it will just appear in the title of your new note.)

Just type the name of the notebook as it appears in Evernote. Evernote have put together a How To video to show you exactly how it’s done:

And then you can use your Evernote email address anywhere you want. I’ve just discovered that you can set up Google Alerts to send directly into Evernote. I’m normally logged into Google, and it uses my Gmail address when I set up alerts (which send you emails whenever keywords you want to track are used on the internet – very handy for research), but if you log out then you can add in any email address you like and those alerts will pour into Evernote and be neatly filed away.

If that’s not your cup of tea then I’ve also just learned that you can specify your Google Alerts to be delivered as an RSS feed, rather than an email. So then you can access them via your feed reader (I use Feedly). If you’re suffering from email overload then either option is a good way to keep an eye out for interesting information, without it cluttering up your inbox.

If you’re looking for Evernote information, here’s the up-to-date list of my blog posts on the topic:

Posted in Blog on May 3, 2014 ·

Last modified on May 14, 2014

Tag: writing

6 steps to becoming a book blogger

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Pile of Gardening Books

A few years ago I decided that my dream job would be reviewing gardening books. I’d be sent a new pile of books to read each week, and type up my comments for publication. Needless to say, that’s not how I currently make my living ;) but I do review a fair few books on the blog, and receive review copies from various places. I imagine paying jobs as book reviewers are rarer than hen’s teeth, but anyone can become a book reviewer or a book blogger. So… what’s the secret?

1: Find your niche

Most book bloggers have a niche, deciding to concentrate on romance novels, chick lit, teen dramas, horror or whatever. Even with non-fiction books, it’s usual to have a niche – mine is obviously centered around plants and gardening. What do you enjoy reading? That’s your niche. Of course, if you’re the world’s most voracious reader then you might find it hard to settle on just one. It’s not entirely necessary, but it’s easier to convince people to send you review copies, and to build up a readership, if you can specialise.

2: Review books

Whether you’ve got your own blog, or you’re using a social media site like Goodreads, or you’re using the review facility of your favourite online retailer, the key to becoming a book reviewer is to start reviewing books. Review your favourites, or the books you bought but just couldn’t finish. Work your way through that pile of unread books lurking on the shelf – every reader has one. Blog your charity shop finds, or books you borrow from friends.

Borrow books from the library, or review books that are (legally) free online. Good places for free historical books include the Soil and health library for gardening tomes and Project Gutenberg for a wider offering. There’s also Forgotten Books and The Online Books Page, with which I am less familiar.

Many of the main ebook vendors have a ‘free books’ option in their search function. The top reviewers on Amazon are sent free stuff to review, but it’s a very competitive gig. Reviewing books isn’t the easiest way to get free ones (try entering competitions instead!), so view book blogging as a vocation rather than a source of freebies.

3: Seek out opportunities

There are lots of people on the internet looking for reviewers for their books (and other products). Some will be specific to your niche, others more general. Have a look at BloggersRequired and Fuel My Blog for a wide range of opportunities. NetGalley offer preview and review ebook copies to bloggers.

4: Reach out

Follow your favourite authors and publishers on Twitter or Facebook (or Pinterest, or Google+, whichever your social medium of choice is) and engage with them. If you post a review of their book, let them know. Get yourself on their radar. Sign up for their newsletters to hear about forthcoming titles.

5: Ask nicely

If there’s a new book coming out in your niche, get in touch with the publisher and politely ask if they’re offering preview/ review copies to bloggers. They might send an ebook, they may send a hard copy. Don’t have a nutty if they decline, or fail to respond. Act like a professional.

If you have specifically asked for a title, then remember to go ahead and review it, and let the publisher know. They’re used to sending out review copies on spec to big media outlets and not getting any coverage, but when they’ve been kind enough to respond to your request, and take a chance on a blogger, then don’t let let them down and make them think twice about agreeing the next time!

6: Pay it forward

With time and effort, you may find yourself on publisher’s mailing lists – offered preview and/or review copies of their new titles, or offered your pick from their back catalogue. Free books may arrive on your mat with alarming regularity, but it’s wise to review as many of them as you possibly can. If you don’t want them, perhaps you can find someone else to review them (whether on their own blog, or as a guest post for yours).

Remember that behind every book there is an author, and that writing is a hard way to make a living – authors need your support! Without readers, there would be no published writers. If you come across a book you really like, make more of an effort to get the word out. You can rate and review it on Amazon (and other online stores), Tweet about it and mention it on Facebook. Become a book evangelist!

What are your hints and tips for book bloggers? Have you found a good source of free reading material? Are you a member of a book site I haven’t mentioned? Share your thoughts in the comments :)

Yesterday was the official publication day for my new book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs. It’s about unusual edible plants, and the people who choose to grow them, with a smattering of Plant Hunter history thrown in. You can find out more about the book by following the trail I left on my virtual book tour – lots of lovely bloggers have reviewed the book, asked me probing questions, or hosted a reading.

If you would like a review copy of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs then you can ask the PR Monkey nicely, giving details of your blog (or chosen reviewing platform) and your preferred ebook format. If you’re not sure whether it’s for you, you can find a preview of the book at Smashwords.

Posted in Blog on May 2, 2014 ·

Last modified on May 14, 2014

Tags: books & writing.

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