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

 

 

Crisp? More like incinerated…

The heatwave this week has taken its toll.

Last week, in pretty hot weather, I was interested to see the chamomile taking shelter beneath leaves of chard in Raised Bed 2, which seemed to offer the herb some hope of protection – and me some hope of a few more flowers for my night-time infusions.

This week, the chard (above left) has flaked out entirely owing to a full frontal assault from a brutal midday sun, so the poor herb plants stand exposed as the temperature climbs to 42 C (107 F). Yesterday our car thermometer measured 45 C in the early afternoon; I nearly expired along with my herbs.

As for the squash, quite simply incinerated in the same bed (also above left), and the courgette (above right), we’ve had no crop at all this year – and it doesn’t look as if that’s going to change.

With humidity at 10-13% and a bit of wind, going anywhere is like walking into a fan oven. I guess we might be thankful that the humidity is far less than we used to experience in the Arabian/Persian Gulf, but that’s small compensation for internet weather sites that read: “42 C – hot with plenty of sunshine” and then (Monday’s forecast): “35 C – very warm”.

My plants have a different view about “very warm”:

It’s hard to know how to protect them. Covering them can help, but the temperature in the beds beneath the covers becomes fearsome, as far as I can tell. Some do a bit better where they have shelter from the hedge, like the chicory and the remnants of flat leaf parsley in RB 2:

Chicory RB2 8.6This is a marginal advantage – it doesn’t prevent the plants from finding themselves rooted in a sea of boiling sand (if it’s damp) or a bed of fine grains almost hot enough to make glass (if it’s dry).

I think the only solution is to follow the time-honoured Egyptian practice of planting according to the seasons, unless one has access to covered beds and cooling systems (surely not energy-efficient). This means planting summer crops of corn and okra, karkaday and melons; and finding part-shaded corners where other plants can brave the midday heat and survive to produce fruit (tomatoes, cucumbers).

Once out the other side of this week’s heatwave, I’ll re-assess the damage – and report back on this year’s very surprising fruit crop.

 

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

The lady’s all for turning

I’ve spent several days over the past three weeks dealing with the compost heaps: Co-operative and crumbly (well – getting there, at any rate!), nicely bedding down, or recalcitrant and smelly – you name it, I’ve turned it.

In my family, no-one ever turned the compost. Stuff from the kitchen and the garden was dumped onto two or three heaps far from the house itself. The piles were contained in makeshift, 3-sided wooden pens, latterly in similar containers made of wire netting. Then they were left to get on with the job of rotting down. No drama!

No-dig organic gardener and educator Charles Dowding describes compost-making as an “alchemical process that degrades almost anything.” Mesmerised, I watched a video on his website* of how he goes about making huge quantities of compost for his market garden in western England. His approach? Almost any plant material goes in, even roots of weeds such as couch grass, provided the heap is added to regularly, thereby smothering the roots. Temperature and moisture levels are kept optimal, and the proportion of “green” to “brown” is roughly 50:50.

Getting the right mix of “green:brown” is the fundamental principle underlying all good compost-making. Ideally, aim for the ratio above, or even for 25:75.

In Egypt, my results are somewhat mixed, I don’t know why. It can go according to plan:

But it may not:

The third bin, which was filled over the winter, contains a seriously nasty sludge, very wet and unusually pungent. My instinct is that its rather acid smell may indicate too much citrus fruit waste. The excess moisture means not enough air in the mixture. Dowding’s rule is that you should not be able to squeeze any liquid out of the mix: By no means an activity I enjoy, squeezing this lot gives it away.

So here’s the lowdown on my composting method:

Containers: There are five bins, none of them large. One is made out of wood from freight boxes and measures 42cm x 35cm x 60cm high. It is lined with cardboard – a material that never seems to rot down. Then there are four plastic bins, also 60cm high, with drainage holes pierced in the bottom of each one. None of these is lined, but I usually start with a network of woody twigs and stems at the bottom to protect the drainage holes.

Contents: We recycle all the plant-derived waste from the kitchen. Peel and chunks of vegetable/fruit are cut up into small pieces (by hand!) Coffee grounds can be included: they are also “green”. Debris from the garden goes in, some in the form of fresh clippings and fallen leaves. Then there are loads of chopped woody stems and twigs (brown material). As far as possible, I dry these in the space between the raised beds and as soon as one load of dried matter is moved into the bins, in comes a new batch of fresh waste:

Bugs and weeds: There is a view that you can compost anything, even clippings of (for example) hibiscus, geranium and roses after the mealy bugs have invaded – weeds will be smothered by a good-sized heap, and pests cannot take the heat in the, er, compost-kitchen. I’m not of this school of thought: I don’t compost pernicious weeds, and I think infested plant materials should be burned. So I do sort the waste before I compost it.

Temperature: I don’t have a thermometer I can use in the compost heaps, but I note that Charles Dowding is careful to measure the heat. Ideally, you should aim for 55C-70C. Above 60C, most pathogens and weed seeds will die, he says. I’m pretty sure our compost gets a good deal hotter in the summer months as the bins are in full sun through the middle of the day. The final product may have been pasteurised for all I know!

And finally… Are you all for turning? I am! Mr Dowding considers it to be optional, but advises it will introduce more air into the mix, keeping the useful bacteria healthy. You will also break up any clumps of matter, aiding the degrading process. What you get, in 6-8 months’ time, should be a gorgeous, dark(ish), crumbly organic mixture, both light to the touch and rich to the eye – truly, a gardener’s feast!

* For Charles Dowding, see:  http://www.charlesdowding.co.uk

Empire of the herbs

I have been empire-building.

What started with a need to rehabilitate raised bed 2, and therefore move a rather lovely rosemary and a struggling sage, mutated over the winter into a case of near-herbal overreach.

After digging out the two plants with as near tender loving care as I could manage, in contrast to the usual approach among Egypt’s gardeners (i.e. smash and grab), I placed them in an ill-prepared spot in full sun at the side of the house. And waited.

Not content with the two plants, I removed a bit of lawn and added an oregano seedling and a touch of chives. And waited a bit more.

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Next came a small and straggly thyme from the raised bed dedicated to herbs (last photo above); I had thought it was a seedling, but, as I went to dig it out, found it was a layered branch of the mother plant. It didn’t seem to mind the dis/re-location.

You may wonder why the new bed. What’s so special about herbs that I’d risk another battle with rampant rosemary, woody sage infested with mealy bugs, leggy thyme and seedy oregano? Not to mention chives that develop the prettiest of flower heads and then seed themselves absolutely all over.

The answer is, I cherish them for their extraordinary qualities. Herbs fill in gaps in the lower hedge where other plants fear to root (rosemary, basil). They add interest to borders (basil, dill, fennel, dianthus). They give food for our bees and other pollinators (rosemary, lavender, thyme, borage). They are food for us too, whether in our cooking, our salads or our honey. Their flowers may be technically insignificant, but they range from pretty white (thyme) to unusual blue (borage) and stunning purple (lavender); and you have only to brush against the leaves on a hot day to release a whole cloud of amazing scent that rises on the currents of air, filling the atmosphere with the heady perfume of essential oils filled with beneficial compounds. What’s not to like?

So through the winter I have worked with the gardener to dig up turf – expertly turned with the fas or adze, a tool used since ancient times. It can be wielded with as much refined precision as brute strength, depending on the need of the moment. We expanded the bed outwards, and then found it taking on a life of its own as it crept northwards along the side of the house.

Out went the bees’ water jar, for the duration, and in went more plants: zaatar or Lebanese thyme, dianthus, a baby sage. I managed (somehow!) to leave space between them: Close planting has been a bit of a problem in other parts of the garden, and I’ve learned my lesson, I hope.

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I’ve struck a deal with the lavender. She stays in her pot so long as she is flowering, since to be full of blooms is a generous and unusual gesture among the lavenders I’ve grown in Egypt. I’ll only transplant her into the bed when she is ready. Nearby, there’s now another, smaller lavender (L. spica, grown from seed brought from Italy); fingers crossed that she will thrive. And a gift from nature, a self-seeded plant that may be a rock rose – I am not sure – undoubtedly the descendant of plants popped into the border last year.

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The bees have their water pot back in situ. This was timely: as the temperatures has risen recently, their need for water has become more urgent.

What is needed now is to add more variety to the existing space, rather than dig out more of the lawn. Attempts to grow melissa (lemon balm) have failed – sigh! I wish I could grow this lovely herb, “the elixir of life” according to Paracelsus, a wonderful aid to work on the anahata (heart) chakra. Hyssop also refused to germinate, and the Thai basil is shrivelling up in the sun. Worst of all, I forgot to make sure we have sweet basil, a terrible omission that must never be repeated: For now, we are senza basilico, the ultimate horror for a family of pasta-lovers!