Looking at progress with the raised beds this season, I can only conclude that it has been a mixed bag.
If you see them from above, you get the picture:
In beds 1 and 2, furthest from the house, we’ve had ace lettuce leaves for about three months. Watercress that seeded itself in bed 4 was moved back, into 1, and has thrived. The Swiss chard has excelled: it’s a perfect stand-in for spinach in a pasta sauce that combines spinach, black olives and nutmeg.
The beetroot are looking very healthy, and I’m delighted. I love the sweet, juicy, luscious red beets when young. They make a great risotto, and I have a Sophie Grigson recipe I’m dying to try: pilau of beetroot with marigold petals. Oh those colours!
Rather to my surprise, as I’ve never grown them before, the shallots are coming along quite well. I’m waiting to see what size bulbs we get.
The celeriac has caught on, but it’s slow growing and I’ve no idea if we’ll get any roots worth harvesting. It will have to get a move on if it is to produce anything before the hot weather starts in May.
We have two celery plants, perhaps fourth generation self-seeded from ancestors that germinated unexpectedly among a packet of mixed salad seeds. The snails love them: they sneak into the base of the stalks and play hide and seek with the organic gardener!
But only one of the celery plants is in a raised bed; the other has turned up a few feet away in a sandy spot close to a drain. Plants never cease to amaze me for their inventiveness and sense of adventure: who said they don’t migrate?
The herbs are luxuriant just now: dill, with beautiful heads of yellow flowers, forms a forest canopy above lesser beings like stunted spinach.
Coriander is fresh and fragrant. One lonely sage bush is hanging in there. English curly-leafed parsley is doing moderately well, its flat-leaf counterpart rather better, but parsley strikes me as among nature’s dark horses. Once, I grew it with spectacular success in light, sandy soil by the sea in Suffolk, England: we easily had enough English parsley to make Lebanese tabbouleh.
Best of all, I have just spotted tiny seedlings of sweet basil. I shook some dry seed heads over an empty patch in bed 2, and a week later, they are up. Yay!
That’s the good news. Excuse me if I have dwelt on it at some length. You will understand that contemplating the not-so-good news in beds 3 and 4 isn’t nearly as much fun.
In bed 3, salad leaves, beetroot and mange-tout seeds have germinated well in the area where the soil was not overhauled (see: Rescuing the raised beds – part 1). I dressed the bed here with the last of my own compost, as well as weathered horse manure sourced from the racehorse stables in Heliopolis, so I hope they will thrive. The section of bed 4 that was not overhauled was planted with onions and, as far as I can tell, they are settling in (or “working” to use the Egyptian term).
Where the contents was emptied out and the trenches filled with dry brown organic materials before topping off with mixed soil, sand and compost, I am less sure, particularly about the capsicum plants.
This may have to do with how seedlings are transported in Egypt: 20 or so are pulled out of the seed trays or ground, wherever the seeds were sown, with little if any soil attached to the roots, bundled together and then wrapped in damp hessian – if they are lucky – before being transferred to new ground. In my experience this leads to an unacceptably high rate of attrition, but I’ve observed workers tend to plant two together on the assumption that one will survive.
I then added cherry tomato seedlings from the upstairs balcony nursery, transplanting them with all due care; and planted rocket, French bean and courgette seeds for good measure. A surface dressing of stable manure finished the job, but I regret the absence of any of my own compost.
There is a sting in the tail here, though: watering the beds has been easy enough for the past four months – a matter of hand watering two or three times a week. But once the weather gets hot, we have to deal with the unreliable irrigation pipes, or risk losing the crops. I’m not looking forward to that.