Pith and skin

It’s the season of pomegranates:

Now for a confession: these are not from our garden. How I wish they were! Nor are they organic and naturally grown; I ordered some from our organic supplier last week but none was in our basket, which probably means either the farm ran out that day or the fruit didn’t meet the standard required. So these are mainstream, and probably laced with chemicals.

But we do have a pomegranate tree. We bought it earlier this year from a nurseryman at Cairo’s Spring Flower Show. It was beautiful, a fair size tree that took some manoeuvring into the back of our 4×4.

All was not as it seemed, however, and we should have been more careful. On closer inspection later on, we found the tree had evidently been taken out of its home bed and crammed unkindly into a pot that was far too small: a last-minute dash for the Flower Show, I suppose. Our gardener took a lot of trouble to cut the pot and loosen it around the root ball, without actually taking it away, so he could keep the roots intact as he lowered the tree into position in the ground.

Transplanting 2

Since then, I’d like to say the tree has gone from strength to strength. But that isn’t quite true. Pomegranates don’t like to be over-watered; but turning off the nearby irrigation spray has meant it hardly gets any, so we have to step in with hand-watering. In addition, the leaves have been attacked by pests (caterpillars? Grasshoppers/locusts?) Mainly, however, I think it is in shock from the transplanting process, and needs lots of TLC.

Still, the tree produced some lovely bright orange flowers in early summer and then a few baby pomegranates appeared on cue:

They then mostly dropped off. So we are left with… one!

Pomegranate in the bag 9.17This one is well and truly “in the bag”. Hoping to ward off the fruit flies which plague our guavas, get into the pears, and have even tried boring through the thick skin of our lemons (a step too far even for these pests, but they’ve given it a good shot), my husband covered our one remaining pomegranate with a plastic bag. This may be counter-productive: plastic is hardly an ideal environment for fruit and I doubt if it is helping the ripening process. Besides, the slit in the side, to prevent condensation from building, may do precisely what we don’t want – let the flies in.

You may wonder what’s so special about a fruit with a carapace-like outer casing, that is tart enough to make the eyes smart? All pith and skin, you might say – oh, and with seeds that wedge themselves into every available gap in the teeth.

I think the trees work better as ornamental additions to the garden rather than as sources of fruit. They were beautiful in Sicily both in the streets of Ortigia and, loaded with fruit, in the garden of Casa Cuseni, Taormina. They were also to be found ornamenting some lovely ceramics:

And while it’s one thing to battle your way through the skin, fiddle around with pulling away the pith, and then try to keep the seeds from skittering all over the kitchen as you extract them, it really is a delight to use the juicy little seeds for some adventures in Mediterranean cuisine.

I love them scattered across salads, best of all with sizzling halloumi cheese. Sweeter seeds can be added to summer fruit salads, with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream. Pomegranate juice isn’t my thing, but it is popular in Egypt. Meanwhile, in Iran, it is used in savoury dishes to add bite to a sauce: In her encyclopaedic Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden gives the recipe for Faisinjan, chicken or duck with a finely-tuned sauce that balances pomegranate and lemon juice with just enough sugar to take the edge off the tartness.

So we’ll wait to see what happens with our one remaining fruit. And if it fails, I have other ways to enjoy them: A favourite jacket, the work of an Indian designer, features a pattern of pomegranates… Pomegranates and textiles? Ah, that’s another story…

Pomegranate jacket

 

 

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Pick of the crop

Sweetest of the summer crop this year: The prize goes to our wonderful Zaghloul dates, large, glossy, and coloured from bright red through to a rich and dark brown depending on their degree of (over-)ripeness.

Zaghloul dates 9.17

Bite into one and it is crunchy, juicy and flavorful. The taste of late summer in Egypt, after the main mango season has passed and before the citrus fruits overflow on market stalls. While Arabia has its Khidri and Kholas dates, Egypt – in my experience at least – is overwhelmingly the land of the Zaghloul.

The harvest last year amounted to 19 kg from our one palm tree. This year, we didn’t weigh the crop, which I now regret as I think it wise to keep a rough tally of how much the garden produces. But it was enough to distribute among family and friends, with some to fill a small box for freezing, to be transported to our son in London during the winter: A handful of jewels to brighten the grey winter days of northern Europe. And, of course, enough for us to enjoy plenty over three weeks or so, while they are still fresh.

I would not say that Zaghloul are my favourite dates. I’m more of a Khidri person, with a penchant for really dark, soft, sweet fruit to accompany a little finghen (cup) of Turkish, or Arabian, coffee. But I’m in the minority in my family, and I defer to their better judgement in the date-sphere. Besides, I’m grateful for every fruit the trees in our garden produce – chemical-free, freshly picked, a gift from nature.

For more about palm trees, at some length, see:

Trees of life  

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

Back to work II

A strategy for the raised beds:

If you have been following the Jasminegate for a while, you will know the growing season 2016-17 in the kitchen garden has not been particularly happy.

This is nothing new in gardening terms. Every gardener – every cultivator of the land – knows that some years, or seasons, are real “downers”.  Unhelpful weather conditions, a sudden spike (or drop) in temperature, howling winds, drought, natural or irrigation system floods, pests, even the neighbourhood cats: You name it, we contend with it.

This year, however, the failures have come one on top of the other. Near-useless tomato plants with thick stems and curling leaves – period. Courgette and squash that promised much (such beautiful flowers!) only to produce fruit that rapidly shrivelled and dropped from the mother plant. Beans – both French and broad – also promised much and the bees loved their flowers, but the crops were variable. One aubergine, and about three melons, all so bitter that I hesitated even to compost them. Not to mention the carrots, roots mostly visible only through a magnifying glass.  And on… and on…. and on.

All this was made more uncomfortable by a summer stay in England where I visited gardens professional (Newby Hall in North Yorkshire and Kew near London, both heavenly in their own way) and amateur (a friend’s, and my brother’s, also in Yorkshire). Beautifully planted and productive, they are all that a garden should be. Crowning my discomfort was a TV garden show in which Monty Don raved about his “Rose de Berne” tomatoes… picked some gorgeous samples (these should have been my fruit, I fumed, silently), cut one open and savoured its wonderful texture and flavour. I was almost there in the garden with him, but I’m sure the tomato would have given me indigestion!

Whingeing over. I now have to develop a new strategy for the raised beds – or at least adapt the old one – to move me beyond regretting the lost rows of what-might-have-beens. The situation at the end of the summer is sobering:

 

RBs 1, 2 and 4 (above) produced reasonably good crops of salad leaves, rocket, coriander, dill and flat-leaf parsley. Chard also did well, although I didn’t plant much, and chamomile produced more flowers than in previous trials although it rapidly faded when the summer heat kicked in. RB4 also has good, if small, green peppers (spring 2016 planting) and one cherry tomato (Chadwick) that has produced a few good fruit:

The aubergine probably should not be discussed.

But even if the hugelkultur treatment of these three beds made a difference, and I think it did, I wonder if it was worth the huge effort of digging out almost all the sand and soil, chucking in heaps of dried branches, stems, leaves and unrotted compost and then re-filling with well mixed sand and soil. So much blood, sweat and tears…. So uncertain a result.

So this coming season, my plan is to add as much compost and horse manure as I can and dig it in to a depth of about 15 cm. This should provide a satisfactory medium in which to grow salad and other leaves (spinach, chard) as well as herbs. For root crops, I’ll repeat the attempt at “targeted composting”, digging in the rich mixture to a greater depth in the trench or drill in which the seeds are sown. I still haven’t quite made the cultural leap to a no-dig approach. I think it’s brilliant… but I am not there yet.

I have mostly ditched the heritage seeds, for now. I stocked up in London on packets from Unwins, Thompson & Morgan and Suffolk Herbs, all mainstream suppliers. But I will also use last year’s supply from the Real Seed Company, especially of “Early Mizuna”, oakleaf lettuce “Emerald Oak” and salad mustard greens “Golden Frill”. No need to throw the heritage towel in completely.

RB3 is a bit trickier. I didn’t complete the hugelkultur treatment, and I never excavated the tree roots from our Indian laurel hedge (Ficus nitida – a bad choice) which must, by now, be all over the bed. I think I’ll put it on the back burner for a while and rehabilitate it later on; after all, I will need to transplant the lettuce seedlings at a later stage, so I’ll keep RB3 in reserve. Also in need of an overhaul is RB5, the “Cinderella bed”: Much neglected, this diamond-shaped bed in the middle of the set has produced an endless supply of herbs over the years, but is now in quite bad shape. Trouble is, I am not quite sure whether our two huge thyme plants are drying, dying or just resting!

I’m going to be busy – extremely busy – over the next several weeks….

Back to work

I have been away for so long this summer; it seems like aeons since I was stacking protective “mulch” in the raised beds and frantically clipping borders ahead of going away. Now, six weeks later, I am back in the Jasmine Garden and it’s payback time.

This is stating the case quite mildly. Some plants have gone wild. We have bizarre and straggling roses, with mini-blooms atop meandering stems that reach above my head; the rosemary mother plant is about halfway across the lawn (which has flaked out almost completely in places); some hibiscus flowers are almost atop the hedge:

Hibiscus by hedge 9.17this means they are some 7 feet high, possibly more; the osteospermum is galloping across the path, even though it was well trimmed before I left. My old friends, the ornamental basil plants, are full of flowers in some places but in others have gone bohemian with wild flowering heads and long brown fronds full of seeds.

Some of my favourites, however, gave up the unequal struggle with the summer months in Egypt and faded away:

Dianthus 9.17Dianthus – and this was a particularly lovely one – couldn’t cope whether in pots or in the borders, and I have lost several. What a pity! I have loved their grey-blue leaves and sweetly-scented flowers in colours from pure white to delicate pink to salmon-red and even deeply luxuriant crimson. Some had been with us for a few years, and I truly feel their loss.

But – and there is usually compensation of sorts somewhere in the wilderness – there are some high points in our now-wild borders, with their overgrown edges, rambling perennials and surreal roses. As I surveyed the front border I came across jasmine tumbling down from the top of the hedge, a mass of white flowers cascading through the shrubs and speckling the lawn below:
Jasmine cascade 9.17

I was alerted first of all by the glorious fragrance in the air nearby; this is by far the best of the jasmines this year, though the climber over the gate is running it a close second and has now twined itself into the trees outside our garden, as well as over the gate, and, come to that, the jasmine on the pergola is doing well too.

And then, in the side border, a lovely surprise: our rounded-leaf frangipani has produced blossom this year. As far as I remember, this is the first time it has flowered so I suppose it is now fully at home in a new garden, a new country. We brought it as a small cutting from our garden in Doha some 7 or 8 years ago, asked the gardener to place it in the ground long before the herbaceous border existed, and then rather forgot about it. Now, we have a real beauty:

Frangipani 9.17It is flowering long after the other, larger frangipani bought in a local nursery, and produces even more glorious blooms than the local variety, which also has more pointed leaves. Positioned close to blue plumbago (from South Africa), and the bottle brush tree (from Australia), with the Indian laurel hedge behind, this lovely tree is one small part of our international garden.

Meanwhile, all sorts of grasses and weeds I haven’t identified have sprung up all over, including in the new herb bed. I need to get to them before the heads of seed throw their loads to the winds, or I shall be scuppered for weeks to come.

So I am rolling up my sleeves to get on with tidying up and rescuing, composting and clipping, as fast as I can. I have to get a move on, not only in the borders: The raised beds urgently need attention as some of them are drowning in rampant chicory, tomato plants and basil, and the planting season is just around the corner. More on this in my next post.

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).