Osiris rising

For millennia, July 19th was a magical moment in Egypt: the day when Sirius, the Dog Star, rose and the annual flood began, crashing through the cataracts above Aswan before making its way along the length of the country to the delta and the sea.

Along its route, a succession of Nilometers was constructed to measure the water each year, to estimate the agricultural harvest likely to follow and to assess taxes due.

So perhaps I should begin by wishing you a happy new year, ancient Egyptian style, as this day traditionally marked a new beginning for all tillers of the land.

What the Nile flood meant, in good years, was renewal with the deposit of a thick layer of fertile silt brought down from the highlands of what is now Ethiopia (80% of the Nile’s waters in Egypt are sourced from the Blue Nile, which rises there). It followed that, every year, farmers would sow their seeds in fresh soil – a soil so rich that the harvests were celebrated in detail over a period of literally thousands of years in carvings or frescoes on the walls of tombs and temples, decorative pavements, papyrus scrolls and artefacts.

I think the annual event was reflected in the Osiris myth, in which the murdered god was brought back to life by his sister-wife Isis. The story, commemorated in annual festivals, also appeared in certain funerary rituals such as the sowing of wheat seeds in a mould shaped to resemble Osiris’ form, their germination representing the principle of regeneration. You can see these in the National Museum in Cairo, part of the extraordinary haul of treasures found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb.

So at this moment in mid-July, I pause for a while to reconnect with the country’s ancient past, and to remember that the Nile, for all that she has been tamed by barrages and controlled by dams, is still an awe-inspiring presence in the land.

On Kasr El-Nil Bridge

There was another aspect to the river, besides the theme of annual renewal, of course: the floods were unpredictable.

Perhaps we think more usually of their failure. Insufficient water at this time of year meant low levels in the irrigation canals that criss-crossed the land, and a scant supply to support the sowings in September-October and then again in the spring. With this came famine.

Other years, the waters came down with extraordinary force. Recently, I have been reading the letters of Lucie Duff Gordon, written in the 1860s during an extended stay in Luxor (Upper Egypt), where it was hoped the dry climate would help her recover from tuberculosis. What devastated the countryside then was not drought, but flooding: the Nile overran its banks, destroying villages, ruining cotton and food crops alike, bringing disease that killed most of the cattle, and leaving the villagers destitute.

It is a sobering and moving account written by an intelligent and sensitive witness. Lady Duff Gordon did not hold herself aloof from the villagers, but participated fully in their daily lives, from sharing picnics by the threshing floor to taking coffee and hubble-bubbles with the menfolk. Her observations of the tribulations of the farmers are remarkably perceptive and interspersed with horror at the indifference of both the Khedivial administration and the boatloads of tourists who passed by and looked the other way.

Nowadays, we may feel somewhat removed from such vulnerability to nature’s forces, but we forget her power at our peril. The soil in my garden is, in part, a gift of the Nile: Simply put, I am its trustee for a while, before moving on.

Letters from Egypt – Lucie Duff Gordon, pub. by Virago Travellers. See also Katherine Frank’s biography of her: Lucie Duff Gordon – a Passage to Egypt.

<a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/soil/”>Soil</a&gt;

The nitty-gritty

Like most gardeners, I have a certain appreciation of grit, gravel and stone chippings. Versatile and useful, they are brilliant for improving drainage in recalcitrant, clay-based soil, in pots of any size, and as a way to bounce the sun’s heat off the surface of the soil, thereby protecting tender stems.

For some time, I have been collecting pebbles and adding them to the surface of the raised bed planted with herbs. In reality, this hardly aids drainage, and it doesn’t compensate for the over-heavy black soil that – unfortunately – fills the bed from top to bottom. Here, you can just about see a few of the stones under the chives beyond the thyme, which has taken over most of the bed:

Herb RB

Of course, this is also a way to find a home for the many stones and pebbles I turn up in the garden. Always intrigued by their shapes and colours, I put the less exciting ones to one side for drainage uses, and lob the others into the raised bed for – in theory – the purpose of providing a “natural” environment for our herbs.

But I think the word “grit” –  prefaced by “true”, another little word with deceptive depth of meaning – has a different, entirely figurative, meaning in the context of gardening.

It takes adamantine mental strength, to paraphrase the yogis, to see a garden through a whole annual cycle of adverse weather, irrigation upsets, failed germinations, insect attacks, withered crops, resting fruit trees, split tomatoes, unexpected hybridisations, bee attacks. I could go on.

But I won’t. A few photographs speak volumes: caterpillar-chewed chard…

chard

… fading baby squash (before it falls off the mother plant)…

squash

… and an unhappy tomato plant…

Tomato plant

… with the ghost of some flowers but no tomatoes in sight, should help to give you the idea.

But – referencing that adamantine strength again – I’m keeping faith and not giving up. After all, I have to count my blessings:

  • One fig
  • Two melons
  • Three mangoes (I thought we only had two, but found another one!)
  • Four pears
  • And a new crop of lemons that will keep us going for five, even six, months.

Who said that gardening requires true grit?

 

<a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/grit/”>Grit</a&gt;

“A very pretty garden”

The purpose of this post is not to blow my own trumpet. But a young visitor, who popped into our garden the other day, bowled me over with the comment: “You have a very pretty garden!”

At this time of year, when flowers (Hibiscus, Ipomoea, Jasmine) last barely a day and brilliant sunlight drains much of the colour from them, it’s hard to see great variety in the borders. But, look closely and you begin to see all sorts of attractive qualities.

For a start, there’s a certain variety in the contrasting colours and green tones of foliage, from the copper-red of the beefsteak plant (Acalypha wilkesiana) – below, top left, and right; to the delicate fresh green of Pelargonium Graveolens, also seen below:

There are also more flowers than you might realise at first glance, but you may have to look skywards or in out-of-the-way corners. Our lovely blue Ipomoea, for example, shyly emerges at the top back of the pergola (mea culpa: I placed it there!) which means it is best viewed from a bedroom window. But we also have lots of jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum) tumbling down from the top of the hedge, and white bougainvillea contrasting wonderfully with the bright red of Hibisus chinensis standing tall at the back of the borders:

Sometimes, the detail of a cluster of flowers wins my heart, as with the delightful frangipani (Plumeria acuminata) whose tightly furled buds tinged with delicate pink contrast with the open flowers, shimmering white with yellow centres:

Frangipani

These sweetly perfumed, lovely trees, native to Central America, can grow to quite a size – maybe up to 7 or 8 metres. Ours are still quite young, but one in particular is generous with her blooms. The trees are very much part of the summer garden in the Middle East, and you see stands of them in El-Azhar Park. Another variety, P. rubra has spectacular deep red flowers, rather less scented.

There are other aspects of our garden to appreciate too: For one thing, the play of light and shade through the fruit trees illuminates the herbs (basil, rosemary) in the border as the sun goes down:

Back border sunlight thru trees I rather hope our young visitor looked back across the front garden as he was making his way out: we only have a narrow strip of land in front of the house, but it has been planted to present a vista in both directions. One way, you look past our Calliandra tree to the lawn opening out beyond; in the other direction, the eye is led onwards to the palm tree (currently bearing a decent crop of Zaghloul dates, on the way to ripening).

Magical mulch

I’ve never been one for mulching. This year, however, and quite by accident, I have discovered its virtues. I think I’m a convert.

It was all to do with the neighbourhood cats. They were making free in the raised beds as the crops were removed or died back, using the friable and somewhat dry soil as a local, er, convenience. I decided something had to be done.

First step was to cover RB2 with netting. But this had to be at a low level, with gaps to give the tomato plants some freedom.

RB2 with netting 6.17

It didn’t work: A cat got in and panicked under the netting as my husband approached. Not a good experience for either of them.

So, as we were going away for a long weekend, I needed to improvise fast. I chucked onto two beds a lot of the clippings and trimmings I had piled between the beds to dry prior to composting.

This made an untidy sort of thatch over the soil, to some extent battened down with pieces of wood or pruned tree branches. But it had the merit of being quite airy and letting in a fair amount of light, while acting as a cat deterrent.

Now, a week or so later, I’m discovering that mulch has other advantages. I guess all good gardeners know this, but I have rarely given it much thought apart from one experiment with straw many years ago, which didn’t work.

For starters, it is an antidote to cats. It also plays a role in drying out “brown” stuff for the compost. But both of these matters are perhaps beside the point. Mulch certainly helps the soil retain moisture: Even at the end of a fearsomely hot summer’s day, I find some dampness there . It also protects plants, especially seedlings, from the harsh sun and from having their young roots broiled as the water near the surface evaporates.

RB4 mulch and seedlings

So, with some “lift” – i.e. air and light between the stems and leaves – it is both protective and nurturing. It may also protect and nurture snails and slugs, of course, but I keep a sharp eye open for such hooligans sheltering in the raised beds, and this is usually enough.

Reading up about mulches in “Grow Organic“*, it seems I have some way to go to perfect the art. I don’t have enough compost or semi-rotted leaf mould; these are ideal materials because they will add to the organic matter in the soil by safe, natural decomposition. The clippings are probably quite useful since some elements – especially the drying leaves – will eventually be incorporated in the earth below. At the same time, I am not digging in the woody parts so they will not rob the soil of nitrogen as they break down.

Ideally, mulch should be up to 10 or 15 cm deep. I haven’t added this amount, but as I am keen to let seedlings germinate and thrive, this is probably just as well. If you want to use mulch to stop weeds from growing as well as retain moisture in the soil, then you need this kind of depth, perhaps with an under-layer of cardboard or several pages of newspaper.

What I need to do now is to extend the practice, especially to the fruit trees. I keep a circular bed, diameter approx. 60cm, around each one free of weeds. This is good, as far as it goes. But the advice is to mulch well, leaving clear a circle of about 15 cm diameter immediately around the trunk.

So, by sheer chance, my wish to maximise re-using everything we produce in the garden is getting a step closer. Clippings, trimmings, discarded plants – always assuming they are free of disease etc – will from now on have another use in the Jasmine Garden before they get to the compost bin. Wonderful!

Aubergine 6.17* Grow Organic – from Garden Organic, pub. Dorling Kindersley – see http://www.gardenorganic.co.uk

A sweet surprise

There’s a footnote to add to my recent posts on the raised beds… Not so long ago, I bemoaned the fact that we don’t have any sweet basil. This is an oversight on my part of unimaginable consequence: For us, as a family, to have to eat our pasta senza basilico is a most terrible deprivation. It feels like an absolute howler to offer anyone spaghetti, penne or fusilli without the addition of that most aromatic and beautiful of summer herbs straight from the beds outside.

Then: “Ecco!” As I removed some bedraggled chicory (Italian, as it happens!) there emerged a small, jewel-like plant, slightly nibbled by snails but nonetheless -incontrovertibly – a baby sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum.

Sweet basil 6.17I pressed a leaf gently between finger and thumb just to be sure – but the look of those lovely, slightly glossy and distinctively fresh, green leaves gave it away before I had smelled the oils.

I breathed a profound sigh of relief: We may yet be able to rescue our pasta dishes this summer.

What has happened with our basil plants is an interesting exercise in nature taking over. It’s not as if we don’t have the plants in the garden, most of them propagated from cuttings from one or two plants I bought at local nurseries. These are not O. basilicum in its sweet form, although they may be varieties of the species that I can’t identify. Some may be different species, possibly O. tenuiflorum, or holy basil, although I have my doubts about that.

In the raised beds, the basil should be the direct descendants of plants grown from seeds of sweet basil brought from the UK. But evidently all the plants – except for this one – have cross-bred. As a result, this year’s seedlings have lost the sweetness and emerged in much more pungent form, with a touch of anise. Not what we want on our pasta!

A similar thing has happened with our oregano (Origanum vulgare). It appears to have hybridised with locally-sourced  O. majorana, so the delicately flavoured herb I once had in RB4 has become O. x majoricum with a more strident taste.

All this variety in herbs makes for fascinating experimentation in the field, unscientific as it is (i.e. uncontrolled). It goes like this, kind of:

flowers + bees = new plant varieties, every season.

Meanwhile, my tastebuds are revelling in tulsi tea, made from the leaves of yet more basil plants. Very popular in India, where O. tenuiflorum/sanctum is called holy tulsi, this tea comes not from the raised beds but from the Pukka company, and is obtainable in London. As if to underline the astonishing variety in the basil world, the tea comprises Green Rama and purple Krishna tulsi, with a splash of lemon Vana tulsi, thereby also showing the illustrious nature of the herb in the Indian tradition. It’s a real tonic to the health.

For more on holy basil, see also:  Basil’s hidden secrets

The heritage conundrum

The results of my experiment with heritage, or heirloom, vegetables this year have not been encouraging.

We had superb Early mizuna, a useful crop of Claytonia” winter purslane and passable “Emerald Oak” lettuce – good in flavour and texture, but small in size. With these exceptions, all other attempts to sow and grow heritage varieties – from aubergines to green beans, and from courgettes to tomatoes – have disappointed. Some have been a complete failure: The aubergines never germinated.

I garden on the principle of “win some, lose some”.  I know there’s nothing easy about nature, whatever the apparent nonchalance with which weeds grow and the hedge overwhelms all neighbouring plants. But this year, the veg have been a terrible disappointment.

The Verde di Italia” courgette plants produced the odd, very poor courgette before shrivelling in the heat. There is one left, still soldiering bravely on in RB1 (below left) even as it melts in the midday sun. Nearby, I have two Summer crookneck squash plants in a pot (below right), but goodness knows what they are intending to do; all I can say for sure is that their will to survive against the odds is admirable – but where are the squash?

My record with the cucurbit family is dreadful. We had some excellent courgettes the first year (2012-13) but I have no doubt they were GM varieties as they were enormous and tasteless – so only “excellent” in theory.  Then another brush with GM horror as our Engineer planted them last year. After this year’s attempt with strictly vetted heritage seeds, I’m not sure if I’ll try again. I just don’t “get” what the family wants!

The legumes did marginally better, but I wouldn’t win any prizes for my produce. I harvested a few – maybe a score – pods of peas and a handful of French beans, but although Charmette” dwarf peas and “Cupidon” dwarf French beans looked fine and tasted good, the yield was useless. Once the days warmed up, and well before the heat really kicked in, neither could cope with the conditions.

Over the aubergines, I will pass a discreet veil. They are notoriously slow to germinate. Enough said.

But the tomatoes are a mystery:

The two above are doing passably. I think they are both “Chadwick cherry” though by now I have rather forgotten about the one in the pot, which it shares with a non-heritage melon plant.

But others are struggling and producing few, if any fruit. This is the case in RB4, where in 2016 we had two “Gardeners Delight” cherry tomato plants that cropped wonderfully well. On the balcony, two plants in pots started well but are now suffering badly from blight:

One answer is to spray with a fungicide but, as this is an organic enterprise, that’s a no-no. I will let the plants go.

The answer to all this mishap and mayhem in the garden is: well, not to worry too much. We don’t depend on what I grow in order to eat – thank heavens! – and we do have supermarkets where organic veg are available. It may be sobering, but it isn’t the end of the world.

And for the next growing season, starting in the autumn, I think I will revert to standard commercial varieties. To be accurate about the nature of this experiment, I sourced all the seeds from the UK, and I accept that, while the selected varieties may be well adapted to conditions in northern Europe, they may not thrive in the very different conditions of cultivation in Egypt.

But courgettes and squash? Oh no, that’s a cucurbit too far!!

A mini vendange, and other fruit

We have just picked our first ever bunch of grapes!

It weighs in at just 100g, the fruit small but juicy and pleasantly sweet. Above all, they are our own produce, free from chemicals – nothing of any kind has been sprayed on/applied to them – ripened in the sun. Birds permitting, we may get some more, although none of the bunches left on the vine, which is climbing on the wooden frame over the garage, is as large as the first one.

The story of our fruit crop this year is one of “minor triumphs” with the notable exception of the lemon tree (another excellent harvest on the way) and the kumquat, where masses of blossom surround the few fruit remaining from last year:

I picked the first lemon yesterday. Admittedly they are far too small to be useful for juice, but I like to take the odd one when I need lemon rind in a recipe: I know the fruit are untreated and the peel is perfectly safe once rinsed.

As for the kumquats, it will be interesting to see what sort of crop we get this year after last year’s bounty. Meanwhile, I’m glad to have a rest from marmalade-making…

Just now, the yellow plums are ripening on the tree, and – assuming the birds leave them alone – we are back now to the “minor triumph” category. We’ve never had more than a couple from this tree (and none from the red plum), but this year we may get about a dozen. Soft and juicy, still warm from the sun, they are delicious.

We have counted four pears on one of our trees. It will be a while before they are ready to eat. The second tree, which I was attempting to espalier along the green fence, has been given her freedom and allowed to grow tall again: Let’s hope for some fruit from her next year.

Going down in terms of numbers, but up a good deal in size, there are two beautiful mangoes on the way:

The tree, var. Keet, is small and compact, nothing like the giants commonly planted incredibly close to blocks of flats all around Cairo.  Bought from an organic supplier at the Spring Flower Show a couple of years ago, and planted rather too close to the hedge, this is the first time the tree has produced fruit. We can’t wait: Mango, in so many different forms (a thick and luscious juice; cubed and eaten with ice-cream; sliced and used to decorate cakes; never, ever made into chutney) is the taste of summer in Egypt.

In fact, none of our fruit trees has been in longer than 5 years, so the crop we are likely to get this year is probably about what we should expect. There are no fruit on the satsuma tree (resting after last year’s superb effort) and none on the lime trees either.

Hopefully there will be another good crop from the date palm. You may recall that we had some wonderful red (Zaghloul) dates in 2016, and it looks as if this year will be good:

Early datesIt’s early days yet, however, and we are concerned about the number of dates that have already fallen to the ground while still small and green. It’s unclear what the loss signifies – unless it is related to the exceptionally hot weather over the last few days.

Also developing: the guavas.

Baby guavas

We had one excellent crop two years ago, after spraying with Malathion. Almost all were spoilt by fruit fly last year (no spraying). This year, we are trying fly-traps to protect the young fruit, but opinion is divided on their effectiveness. I shall be sorry if we don’t have any fruit but we can’t risk using chemical spray, for the sake of our bees.

Now for two complete surprises: a fig and a melon!

I had given up on the fig tree, and discovered the lone fruit by accident when pruning some basil nearby; the melon is on a ‘spare’ plant thrown into a pot of surplus tomato seedlings and left by the compost bins. The melon plants carefully transferred into the raised beds are producing…nothing!

Last word, however, has to go to the real stars of the Jasmine Garden: The bees, and yesterday’s harvest from the hives on the roof – gorgeous, golden, poly-floral honey:

Honey 6.17