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


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:

Of Sappho and Dionysos

The past few days, I have stepped into a most beautiful, magical part of Egypt: A haven that is surprisingly close to Cairo.

I say “surprisingly” because Cairo is, after all, a C21 mega-city: from Memphis and Ono (Heliopolis) to Maadi and New Cairo, and from pyramids to “Intelligent Village”, it has, so-to-speak, seen it all.

But then there is Fayyum: An astonishing oasis of greenery close to a natural lake southwest of the capital, intensively cultivated since ancient times, site of a National Park, and situated on one of the world’s major migratory routes for birds.

Fayyum farms

Steeped in history – and the subject of a play I attended at a tiny theatre in London last January – Fayyum was the playground of Middle Kingdom rulers and their families some 4,000 years ago before Macedonian soldiers settled down to cultivate the land after Alexander’s conquest, and the Romans arrived with their obsessive planting of wheat, their ruinous taxes, and, of course, their baths.

Lunch on Friday was at Dionysias in the shadow of a Ptolemaic temple: bread, cheese, dates, water. The sort of rations a simple soldier might once have enjoyed – but where was the wine? It was missing, and the god for whom the town was once named may not have been pleased.


Fayyum is not an oasis proper as it is supplied by a branch of the Nile, the Bahr Yusef. The water supply has been regulated for millennia and a network of canals and irrigation ditches now criss-crosses the land bringing cultivation to a wide area, much of it some 40m below sea level. Under the pharaohs, the lake was named Mer-Wer, or the Great Lake, an ideal spot to hunt waterfowl and enjoy the breezes. More recently, King Farouk continued the tradition from a hunting lodge on the southern shore.

The agricultural wealth of the land is astonishing. I imagine this is partly owing to the Nile, but also to the fact that in prehistoric times the area was an inland sea. Later, it became a freshwater lake. Over time, deposits of marine flora and fauna would have accumulated, creating fertile land once the water receded or was drained, much like the Borghese garden and estate we visited in Sicily last October: (see In Persephone’s gardens)

But the accumulation of “waste” material takes on a whole new dimension in Fayyum. Most fascinatingly, it provides insight into Greek Egypt, for which there is perhaps less material evidence than for other epochs of the country’s ancient history, although the underwater exploration of sites near the great Ptolemaic capital Alexandria has begun to set this right.

For who knows how long, local farmers mined ancient waste tips in Fayyum for materials to use as fertiliser: Nothing like well-rotted compost to get the pomegranates to bear fruit and the wheat ears to fill out! When British archaeologists explored the tips from the late C19, they found discarded papyri among the debris (sabkha) … fragments of geometry by Euclid, of plays by Menander and Sophocles… and poetry of Sappho.

The sabakheen were recycling Sappho to fertilise their crops!

The obsessive rifling of rubbish tips by archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt is the subject of Tony Harrison’s play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, first performed at Delphi in Greece in 1988 and recently revived at London’s Finborough Theatre. It’s a clever, witty yet tough play in which Grenfell turns into the god Apollo and Hunt into the leader of the satyrs, the agonised search in Fayyum for fragments of literary value frustrated by wills, bills and condemnations to exile that overwhelm the rare scraps of poetry.

Meanwhile, the University of Oxford is leading a project to assemble, translate and interpret the fragments of ancient Greek, Latin and, from more recent times, Christian, manuscripts that were discarded among the Fayyum waste. Many of Sappho’s poems, tantalisingly reduced to mere wisps of words, are from the stash of “Papyri Oxyrhyncus”:

Earth is embroidered

with rainbow-coloured garlands…

…Nightingale with your lovely voice

you are the herald of spring…

…Flaming summer

charms the earth with its own fluting,

and under leaves

the cicada scrapes its tiny wings together

and incessantly

pours out full shrill song.

[From: Ancient Greek Lyrics, translated by Willis Barnstone, pub. Indiana University Press]

More from Fayyum in my next post: travelling through farmland and discovering fields of medicinal herbs, including one I had never heard of (Ammi visnaga), cultivated since ancient times and used in “mish”, Egypt’s favourite pickled cheese!

Acceptance: A marriage of minds

Is gardening all about planning a landscape and crafting it with loving attention to every detail to achieve the outcomes you want? Or is it more about acceptance of what nature brings, and going with the flow?

Maybe the answer is that it needs to be a happy marriage of the two approaches. Planning, and staying amenable to amending your goal(s) as you go along, means having an overall design, an end result, in your mind’s eye. But acceptance means keeping an open mind and welcoming the adaptations that climate, soil conditions, and gifts of the wind, the birds – and even the compost heap – may bring.

So, for example, last autumn I started off with a little notebook of rough-drawn diagrams of raised beds 1 to 4, and gradually filled in each space, usually running lengthwise half the length of each bed, as I sowed seeds. Labelling each row and adding the date of sowing, this meant I could keep a tally of what was going where – and generally manage the disposition of rows in each bed quite precisely.

Unusually for me, I managed to keep the records quite conscientiously.

That was then. Now, however, my rows have gone haywire!

In RB2 colourful nasturtiums have popped up and are happily flowering right beside the broad beans; I presume they came in with the compost. In another section, the (sown) mizuna is overwhelming everything with its bright yellow flowers. Self-seeded dill and rocket are well through the netting and have joined the flower-children nearby.

It’s also the case that the carrots in RB2 are the only plants I actually sowed in that particular part of the bed: flat leaf parsley and dill have appeared according to their own sweet way (below left). Meanwhile, in RB4, the Emerald Oak lettuces are overhung with flowering and seeding coriander sprawling way beyond its allocated space (below right), and surrounded by watercress which seeds itself in the bed every year unaided by human hand – and then tries to take over:

The prize, however, must go to RB3. It has been left a little uncared-for this season, largely because I never got round to completing the hugelkultur rehabilitation treatment, having run out of both dried materials to fill the trench and energy. Now, it has gone …. WILD!

RB3 in full bloom 3.17As far as I recall with the aid of my notes, the only thing actually placed here by human hand last autumn is the dill (foreground). All the other flowers, from borage to rocket via nasturtium and the odd salad plant is self-seeded or maybe from a little package donated by wind or birds. Still, there’s likely to be one glorious consequence:

Honey 3.17

via Daily Prompt: Acceptance

Winter winds, winter warmers

It’s blowing quite a gale today, the wind whistling around our house and in through any ill-fitting windows and gaps beneath doors (of which there are a few…) Winter has arrived. Though the days are usually fairly sunny and bright with temperatures up to 20C, the warmth evaporates at night leaving us shivering in a stone-floored house.

We could run the a/cs, adjusting them to warm rather than cool – but that seems like chickening out. So we wrap up well, get out the rugs and blankets, and eat the warming foods of winter – billeela, spiced hoummus, shorba’t a’ats (lentil soup), warm karkadey*.

In the garden, we have done a lot of work to clear borders and collect leaves destined, for the most part, for the compost bins. Fruit trees are being pruned, notably the pears, satsuma, limes. The lemon will be pruned once we’ve taken all the fruit; the plum trees will be cut back later on.


Whether this is right, according to Egyptian farmers’ practice, I am not quite sure, as my basic guide has always been the Royal Horticultural Society’s text “Vegetable & Fruit Gardening” and that, naturally, is intended for use in the UK. I also have a “Monthly Diary” for the care of fruit crops from Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture, and that’s quite helpful, provided my husband helps me out with the Arabic.

I love these books: the photos on the front are so enticing, I only wonder why my produce rarely looks anything like the images they present. Velvet peaches, perfectly shaped bananas, crowds of potatoes, or pears, or grapes – and not a bug in sight. I take refuge in the thought that they can’t possibly be organic: they are too spectacular to be true!

Today’s job for the gardening assistant was to clear leaves from the lawn and then spread compost over the grass. We have some fun before and after pictures:

You may notice the change in the weather from the moment when the leaves had been collected to the point when the compost was applied. Such a change is typical of this time of year in Egypt. It’s confusing for the gardener: you start off in shirt and jumper, maybe overheating in the sun, then run to add jacket, scarf and even a woolly hat while being blown around by the wind.

My chat with the gardener confirmed that, as the Ministry’s diary indicates, farmers don’t apply manure just now (we are now entering the agricultural month of Tuba, by the way). So we’ll keep the sacks of fertiliser, which were delivered along with the compost, until early February (Amsheer) when the muck is usually spread – but, I read, not around the pear trees. There’s magic in this system, I guess, referencing long-established practice by farmers over the millennia.

At least it gives me time to get to grips with pruning the big lemon tree. That means confronting its terrible thorns – it’s a job I dread.

  • Billeela: A sweet winter classic, made using wheat grains boiled for a while in water, then drained, and cooked in milk until soft. Add sugar to taste before serving, and your choice of cinnamon, sultanas, dessicated coconut and chopped nuts. I like to roast the nuts and coconut lightly.
  • Spiced hoummus: A favourite in our family. Prepare the chick peas by soaking overnight and then cooking in fresh water until beginning to soften. Drain. In a separate pan, gently soften grated ginger, add ground coriander, turmeric, cumin and chilli powder (also to taste), then add the chick peas and mix well. Cover generously with water, some chopped tomatoes or tomato puree and continue to cook until the chick peas are soft and have absorbed the spices. (I also add some chopped celery, carrot and onion, but this is unusual). Ensure there is still plenty of liquid with the chick peas, and serve in mugs or bowls with lots of fresh lemon juice.
  • Lentil soup: Needs no explanation! The preferred preparation in the Middle East is with lots of ground cumin and coriander; again, best served with lemon.
  • Warm karkaday: Made from the sepals of Hibiscus sabdariffa, a plant grown particularly in Upper Egypt. See also Snacking on hibiscus In winter this sweet drink can be served warm rather than on ice as in hot weather.

Half full of beans

For the past week I’ve been working on raised bed 2. That is, digging out most of the soil and sand and doing the hugelkultur treatment myself.

This is partly because our gardening assistant disappeared, as they so often do. But I also wanted to check the condition of the bed, and take equal care with how the treatment was done.

Into the trenches went dead wood cut from the hedge, a vast quantity of stems, branches and leaves pruned from the basil bushes in late summer, plus dried clippings from honeysuckle, jasmine and plumbago. For good measure, I added chopped up squash and pomegranate peel – which may take a while to rot down in a conventional compost heap – and some banana skins, covering them with more twigs and leaves before I combined soil and sand to return it into the bed.

I’m no spring chicken , and the only way I could manage the task was by dividing the bed into four sections of roughly 1m x 1.2m, and doing them one at a time. My observations as I worked were not encouraging some four years after constructing the beds:

  • There was almost no visible life – not a single earthworm; just the occasional wood louse and snail.
  • The watering hasn’t worked. Most of the bed was too wet, even to a depth of more than 30cm, while a few patches were bone dry.
  • Perhaps as a result, the soil was in layers, a bit like a sponge cake: Sand below and thick, gluey soil above. Some roots were set hard in cement-like lumps of soil which had to be broken up by spade.
  • There has been a nightmarish invasion of roots from the Indian laurel hedge, and one other tree with different roots (likely the “decorative orange” nearby, which flowers profusely in spring but never produces any fruit).

Clearly the irrigation methods have been at fault. Compost and fertiliser were added each year, crops have been grown consistently, and the soil should be in reasonable condition. But our gardeners – whether qualified agricultural engineers or labourers – have repeatedly used basin irrigation, which means flooding the bed in preparation for planting, and then (over)watering occasionally as the seedlings grow. This has presumably washed organic matter down, incidentally to the level of the tree roots as they enter the bed, taking the fine particles of sand as well.

The practice may well have existed in Egypt since ancient times, running in parallel with the annual Nile flood which replenished the land with a fresh layer of fertile alluvium, but it makes no sense in today’s environment. I despair.

I guess that using the “no-dig” method could manage the situation by adding a thick layer of compost on top and growing the crops in that. But we can’t produce enough compost to do that, and I’m not persuaded that the stuff available commercially in Egypt is of a high enough quality.

So I’ve worked out a compromise: What might be termed “targeted composting”. Bed 2 was due to be planted with mizuna and salad leaves; carrots; and broad beans to provide food for us, and food for the earth by means of their nitrogen-fixing mechanism. I applied a top dressing of compost for the leaves; mixed it down to a level of 10cm in the drill prepared for carrots; and deeper in the holes prepared for individual broad bean seeds.

On top, I plan to spread the dried horse manure we have in stock, and hope for the best. In his guide to organic gardening the no-dig way, Charles Dowding* warns against this if it is mixed with sawdust (which it is): you have to be very careful to leave it on the surface and not mix it in, or the wood will actually drain nutrients away from the plants as it breaks down. Better to prepare the beds well in advance, weather the manure on the surface, and then sow.

There are so many challenges to gardening the natural way; it’s a wonder that anything ever grows in nature, let alone produces nourishing food.

  • Organic Gardening the natural no-dig way, Charles Dowding, green books

A gardener’s sixth sense

Since I started gardening in Egypt, I’ve developed a sixth sense for burst pipes.

In fact, I think there’s a kind of vibrational link between myself and the irrigation system. When I got up around 7 o’clock this morning, I knew there was a problem: something sounded wrong, somewhere at the back of the house. And that usually means trouble not so much at t’mill, as the old English expression goes, but among the raised beds.

Dead right: not for the first time, a pipe at the corner of raised bed 1 had burst its closure collar sending a spray of water at least 3 metres (say, 10 feet) into the air, way above the level of our newly downsized hedge.

The Indian laurels and kumquat trees were getting a soaking; part of the raised bed was being sprayed with a jet of water like a fountain at Versailles.

Compost bin lids were awash, but only the lids as none of the bins is open to the air. Happily, when we moved them back into place last Sunday we raised them above the ground on brick bases, so my precious compost sailed through the drama relatively untroubled by the storm around.

Not so a bucket of clay removed from the raised bed the same day. After leaving the bed without irrigation for a fortnight, most of the soil and sand, which had formed two separate layers, was dug out on Sunday . Then we gave it the hugelkultur treatment: Piles of dried tree branches, stems of basil and honeysuckle, and dead leaves from the herbaceous borders were placed in the trench before re-filling with mixed soil and sand.

One bucket of pure soil was left out: Full of lumps of clay-like earth, jammed with roots from the Indian laurels, I was leaving them to dry out before bashing them up, removing the roots and returning the soil to the bed.

Well, it’s going to take a while for that lot to dry out, now…

Oddly enough, the bed itself isn’t too badly affected. This could be on account of a generous top-dressing of dry compost and horse manure, which acted a bit like a layer of blotting paper and soaked the water up. The flood may even have been useful, sort-of, watering the bed after the hugelkultur treatment and before we get it going again.

Well, that’s what I like to think. But I rather hope there aren’t any more surprises in store. Although, on that note, there was another one this afternoon in the air above our house: A flock of European bee eaters, passage migrants between northern Europe and East Africa, very likely doing a recce above the hives on our roof. They are my favourite birds of passage, but I’m so attached to our bees and so grateful for the honey they produce, that I feel guilty every time I welcome the birds’ arrival.