Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Container gardening’ Category

Potty about seedlings

On the train home from Alexandria last night I was browsing through the photos on my iPad. This can be useful, as it helps gauge the progress made over the past year or two. However, the downside is that it invites comparisons with previous years and anxiety about why this year’s effort in the garden doesn’t quite match up.

Somehow, in 2016 courgettes, peppers, tomatoes were well ahead of this year’s. I was temporarily unnerved. Was the winter this year so much worse? Did I forget to plant on time?  One reason for the difference is that the peppers were grown from “shatalaat” or seedlings bought by our then garden engineer from Ministry of Agriculture suppliers. The others, however, were sown as seed and were more advanced at this point last year.

Does it matter? Well, I am still feeling my way as to when is the best time to sow crops in our garden in New Cairo. Also, like all dedicated gardeners everywhere, I can be thrown by unpredictable changes in weather. Frost in more northern countries; sudden gales that blow blossom from trees; unexpected temperature spikes that whack tender seedlings – these can wreak havoc with our plans, wherever we are.

So I held back with sowing some seeds this year as we had quite harsh weather rather late in the season. The instructions from the Real Seed people are that aubergines, courgettes, squash and tomatoes all need warmth to germinate; aubergines are particularly fussy creatures in this respect. Further, the Italian heritage chilli pepper seeds I planted recently (“Joe’s Long”- which doesn’t sound very Italian to me), sourced from Marshalls in the UK, also need warmth and moisture at all times – and so on. It’s a wonder that seeds ever germinate given their (apparently) demanding nature. I once tried to get acacia to work – then discovered that the seeds needed to be burnt in a forest fire (or was it scored and scratched?) if they were to condescend to sprout. Needless to say, nothing happened!

Below left, the top balcony garden has pots of heritage tomato and squash seedlings, while aubergines, chilli peppers, lovage have yet to appear. At right, larger pots in the garden contain sowings of the same squash and tomatoes “Rose de Berne” plus “Chadwick cherry”.


On the balcony, the courgettes “Verde di Italia” (below left) and the squash “Summer Crookneck” (right) have all come up and are looking promising, so much so that two courgettes have already been transplanted to raised bed 1.

I have never grown squash before and have no experience with it in the kitchen, but I fell for the Real Seed company’s smart marketing blurb: “always picked early and used young like a courgette. It is much better than courgettes though – and more productive and better flavoured.”  We shall see.

As for the herb lovage, this is a nostalgia trip. My mother used to grow it in the garden of our family home, and to use it in a wonderful mixed winter salad she made (which in turn was a recipe from a much-loved aunt). Botanical name Levisticum officinale, it is a tough perennial that grows tall and bountiful, with leaves that taste somewhat like celery. “Superb with new potatoes” I read – according to Jekka’s Herbs – which should work well with Egypt’s wonderful crop.

So I may be behind – or not quite so far forward – this year. But the diversity of our veg and herbs is new; and the adventure is more interesting because, for the first time, we are growing heritage varieties with different qualities and the capacity to form our own landraces if they adapt to local conditions down the timeline. Fascinating!



Turning the GM tide

Or: Just a few drops in the ocean…

The day I published my last post an email came into the inbox from Charles Dowding , the no-dig guru in Somerset, UK, (see: with an update on crops best started off in warm conditions “undercover” – on a windowsill, in a heated glasshouse or poly-tunnel at this time of year.

New sowings need warmth up to 25C/77F, if they are to “break their dormancy,” he writes.

So I guess the haphazard little hothouses I rigged up on the sunny top balcony are just the kind of thing our seeds need:



Here, I have used a plastic bag, cut open and spread out to cover several small pots. Also, an old mineral water container with the bottom cut out and the top left on (assuming I haven’t lost the lid!), which seems a much better use for it than throwing it in the rubbish bin.

In fact, I think water bottles are often re-used in Egypt, and I should add that we usually filter our domestic water rather than relying on the bottled stuff. Most of the latter is supplied by major multinationals such as Pepsi and Nestle – companies that must be laughing all the way to the bank at our expense. On principle, I prefer to avoid their products whenever I can.

I haven’t, however, followed Dowding’s advice on multi-sowing of seeds. Placing several seeds in one cell, module or pot is comforting for them, he suggests: They “enjoy each other’s company.” I’ve noticed it’s standard practice among farmers in Egypt, as my gardeners usually plant seeds and seedlings (courgettes, peppers, aubergines for example) in twos. Dowding suggests 4-5 beetroots and onions, 6-8 spring onions, 2-4 spinach, 3-4 radishes. This technique presumably helps solve the problem of erratic germination too.

As he says you can transplant them in clumps, I guess the practice is to thin them out as they grow taller, particularly important for root crops.

The pots in the picture above all contain courgettes or zucchini (one seed per pot, with three in the slightly bigger pot at the back). They are heritage Verde di Italia seeds. As you may recall, ever since I discovered that an Engineer/gardener last year planted seeds from the Monsanto-owned Seminis company I have taken care to keep more control of the seeds we use.

Reading more about the subject of GM foods, I was disturbed to find that, among veg, courgettes and squash are very likely to be GM varieties. Most to be avoided, owing to the ubiquity of GM seeds, are corn and sugar beet and their derivatives – which means an awful lot of processed foods are out of bounds. I am not suggesting that you mustn’t consume GM foods, but I have made the decision that I do not wish to. And I would like to have sufficient information about where our food comes from to be able to make informed decisions.

This, currently, is not the case in Egypt. Crops may be packaged as “organic” with a  whole array of certification stamps, and we have several companies that now market organic produce, but I don’t see any guarantee that they are not GM.

There is another, economic argument to be made: GM seeds are very costly. Not so the heritage varieties, assuming you save your own seeds.

Also on the balcony: several pots of babies from all around the garden. These are self-seeded little chaps, which I collect up every so often if I can think of a better place for them:


In the pots are (from left to right and from back to front): struggling convolvulus, planted from seed, that I neglected to water; nasturtiums extracted from a raised bed; aeonium rescued from a border after being knocked off the mother plant, probably by our dog; and marjoram or oregano found in another raised bed. The undercover pots are still to be planted, as I am warming the soil ahead of sowing tomatoes.

I have no idea if my tiny plot tucked away in an obscure corner of New Cairo can in any way turn the tide against GM. I doubt it. What will probably happen is a major disaster in the environment, to do with our precious pollinators, or affecting long-term damage to human health… by which time, the genie will be well and truly out of the bottle.