Raised beds review

…. Or, “The Good Life” revisited….

I have just been observing Earth Day rather along the lines of Earth Hour, with a candle-lit dinner undisturbed by radio, TV and the phone; and a silent period, again with candles, dedicated to Raja Yoga meditation.

It does no harm to remind ourselves that many everyday conveniences – electric power, computers, televisions and the like –  can be dispensed with easily enough every once in a while, for a brief period. Being without them for longer would mean rethinking how we live.

In the context of Earth Day, it’s worth taking a look at how far we are sustaining ourselves from our small piece of land in New Cairo, growing food organically and sustainably as far as possible. If the answer is moderately encouraging, the reality is we are half a million miles from “The Good Life” as portrayed in a classic 1970s sitcom on British television. Tom and Barbara? No way, I’m afraid!

The 2016-17 success story of the raised beds has been the leaf crops, as before. Mixed lettuce from Italy, heritage mizuna, rocket sourced locally, and some irrepressible Swiss chard from the UK that grew back after I thought I had uprooted it all: These have provided us with a steady stream of salad and cooking leaves for several months. Also in the mix, self-seeded watercress to add spice to our salads. Spinach was almost entirely eaten by our competitors (snails? slugs?) and we got almost none.

Now, right at the end of the season, I am experimenting with a new crop: Italian chicory “Zuccherina di Trieste”. Some are left uncovered for harvesting as green leaves; others are covered so the leaves are blanched and less bitter when used in salads.

Root crops have done better than expected this season. Beetroots Moneta are good, with small and sweet globes. Carrots Early Nantes 2 win no prizes for size, but they are deliciously sweet and crisp, better than anything available on the market whether the produce of organic farms or agribusiness. As the carrots are growing in drills of mostly sand with “targeted composting” at the deeper level, this encourages me to plant more next season.

Disbelief, however, on the legume front. It ought to be easy – this is the land of fuul herati or broad beans, after all – but I consider our record this year to be dismal. Again, the heritage “Charmette” peas were delicious and the locally sourced broad beans were tasty, but yield was tiny. Hardly worth the effort and expense! Total failure among the heritage “Cupidon” French beans, described as dwarf by the seller’s blurb, but in reality stunted and shrivelled in raised beds 1 and 4, with no crop to speak of.

Heritage courgettes “Verde di Italia” and squash have been transplanted into beds 1 and 2, but I would not say the plants look promising. It may be that the sudden spike in temperatures (40C today) is too much for them; a cover has been placed over the squash, but I worry that this will simply cook them in situ!

At the same time, “Rose de Berne” and “Chadwick Cherry” heritage tomatoes have been transplanted into beds 1, 2 and 4. These may thrive in the summer heat – fingers crossed. Meanwhile, aubergines “Black Beauty”, reputed to relish heat as they germinate, have not appeared at all – or at least, not yet.

As usual, we have had a good record with herbs. The rosemary marches on relentlessly – not for nothing is the mother plant named Boris – with offspring now filling in many other spots in the garden as well as providing food for the pollinators. Flat leaf parsley has done well in RB4 and self-seeded in every other bed, and our coriander seeds are now drying in the kitchen for use later on. We also had a good amount of dill. Sage, thyme, oregano, chives, are all thriving. The mint, once confined to a corner of RB1, is now out of the bed and growing throughout the grass paths around the whole area. As it is a staple of our herbal infusions and some of our salads, I bless the herb for its sheer exuberance.

But herbs brought as seed from the UK last year and sown in pots failed to germinate: Lemon balm, lemon grass, creeping thyme, lovage….

I think this is a common enough experience among gardeners, but it is sobering. “The Good Life?” I think not – we are taking baby steps. I have utmost respect for the wonderful gardeners and cultivators who do manage to achieve self-sufficiency: unsung heroes of Earth Day.

 

 

 

 

Fields of surprises

Our journeys into Fayyum have been full of fascination: Beautiful countryside, occasionally with gentle hills, and wide open vistas across the fields; a protected area, with lakes and waterfalls; myriad birds, both resident and migratory, from hunter-diver kingfishers to bee-eaters wheeling and calling overhead; and, all around us, a sense of man’s presence since ancient times.

I love the farms and fields. There is such precision and familiarity about the wheat crop standing tall, now ripening fast to a lovely golden hue as harvest-time approaches. Precision because the cereals are sown in strictly-defined plots within the fields; familiarity because you see exactly the same scene in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings of paradise in the world beyond this, though the cereals would have been emmer wheat and barley.

Paradise, for an ancient Egyptian ruler or notable, was portrayed as a well-ordered and productive land of bountiful harvests, with crops ready for gathering, animals well-fed and fattened, and an estate manager keeping a careful eye on the farm workers – no chance of slacking, even in the next world.

Back to the present, and everywhere piles of harvested “berseem” (clover) are in process of being transported from field to animal pen as fodder for buffaloes, cattle, horses and donkeys. Bare plots are rapidly ploughed and replanted, and summer crops are already appearing: corn, for example.

Close to Lake Qarun, we are stopped in our tracks by a new discovery: The earth is ablaze with gorgeous marigolds (Calendula officinalis) in bloom; nearby, the air is suffused with the scent of flowering chamomile – most likely German chamomile or Matricaria recutita. I have never seen the herbs growing in the field in Egypt. Both contain valuable substances used in formulating natural remedies, especially C. officinalis; and I buy dried chamomile for infusions from a local health store.

This year, I have had some success with German chamomile planted in raised bed 2 – see the little picture above, lower right. I’m growing it on a very small scale, but it is now flowering and, according to my wonderful RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs*, I need to get harvesting the fresh young flowers for use in infusions or to freeze for later on. It can be dried, but the volatile oils will evaporate rapidly.

A little beyond these fields, we find yet another herb. At first glance, it looks like Queen Anne’s lace (Ammi majus), a common hedgerow plant in the English countryside when I was a child; but, on closer inspection, it is somewhat different. As we ask the farmers about it, one of them tells us it is “khella”, and it is used medicinally to treat kidney problems.

A little research in the Encyclopedia identifies it as Ammi visnaga, part of the Apiaceae family, related to carrots (Daucus carota) and ajowan or Trachyspermum ammi:

This is a plant with an amazing history in Egypt: mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, a medical text dating from the New Kingdom some 3,500 years ago, it was used to relieve fever and for the treatment of kidney stones. It is known to be a valuable vascular dilator that does not lower blood pressure – hence its continuing use today.

In the 1950s, investigation of the oil in its seeds identified a substance (khellin) that has proved effective in relieving the symptoms of asthma.

I read that the seeds are also added to “mesh”,  a white cheese with a story of its own. Described by Magda Mehdawy and Amr Hussein in their book on ancient Egyptian food* as “aged cheese”, it was – and perhaps still is – left to mature in clay pots for at least a year. Maybe this is the white cheese I have seen in the Imhotep Museum at Saqqara – food for a snack made some 4,500 years ago, which puts a whole new light on the term “aged”! Frustratingly, when I investigate the list of ingredients on a jar of the stuff in a local supermarket, I find no mention of “khella”. Clearly, it may have changed somewhat…

*Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Herbs, Deni Bown, pub. by Dorling Kindersley, London 

* The Pharaoh’s Kitchen, Magda Mehdawy and Amr Hussein, pub. by AUC Press, Cairo

Of heritage seeds and hugelkultur

Autumn sowing in the raised beds began in September, with locally sourced rocket, flat leaf parsley and coriander in RB4. This followed hugelkultur treatment of the soil. RBs 1 and 2 were planted up from late October.

Now seems like a good time to take stock and report on progress. It’s also useful to consider how the trials of heritage seeds brought from the UK have done.

I’m pleased on both counts, although I’m unclear about the wisdom of leaving sowings until the end of October. Comparing the health of the September sowings with the later ones, I think earlier is better. Note to self: do not be tardy with the task once the summer heat breaks in 2017.

There were clear benefits from the hugelkultur treatment. Most of the soil was dug out, the trenches filled with dead wood from our Indian laurel (Ficus nitida) trees, dried clippings from shrubs and herbs, leaves and even kitchen waste not yet composted. The soil was then replaced, mixing sand and earth as much as possible, and a top dressing of home-made compost plus horse manure applied.

Drainage has improved no end and the soil is amazingly workable. I know this because I no longer have to hammer in stakes or netting supports; they glide in so smoothly that I do a double-take, wondering if I’m working on the same beds.

emerald-oak-ciccoria-and-watercress

 

Germination has been good overall, but patchy. September’s sowing in RB4, with self-seeded watercress added to the mix, is really flying and we harvest rocket from this bed almost every day to form the basis of our salads. In addition, October’s planting of heritage “Emerald Oak” oakleaf lettuce; and of ciccoria “Zucherina di Trieste” from Italy, are coming along well, and we are taking leaves from them.

In RB1, a bed that previously suffered from overwatering and underfeeding resulting in poor performance, we now have promising growth from heritage early dwarf peas “Charmette” and green beans “Cupidon”. But I think they were sown a few weeks late and, although I am covering the beans against the cold, I doubt they will crop as well as they perhaps should.

Heritage winter purslane “Claytonia” (below) has germinated oddly – in bunches – suggesting that gardener’s shaky hand syndrome was at play here. It doesn’t seem to have much taste but adds fresh greenery to our salad bowl, so I welcome its presence anyway. Nearby, the remains of a packet of beetroot “Moneta” from Thompson and Morgan, have appeared and are doing well in patches.

winter-purslane

RB2 is the most recently overhauled and the last to be planted up. Here we have robust broad beans (fuul herratti or medames, part of Egypt’s national diet), sourced from a shop in Heliopolis. Side shoots, or ’tillers’, are beginning to appear, so I’ll let the plants grow to the height of the netting covering the bed, then pinch out the main growing points to encourage denser growth.

Close by, heritage early mizuna, and mixed lettuce from Italy, are thriving; carrots, Thompson and Morgan’s “Early Nantes” germinated nicely and then appeared to freeze, as if shocked to discover they had popped up at quite the wrong time of year. It looks as if I have yet another carrot-mishap on my hands: Truly, I have form when it comes to this root.

Finally, some seeds I never manage to persuade to germinate well, chamomile, and a tiny scattering in RB2: I’m grateful for every infusion I ever manage to get from my own produce – each cup is a minor triumph!

chamomile

 

The energy shifts

You may think nothing much is happening in the Jasmine Garden right now. It’s been quiet on the blogging front.

Not true, in fact. Although I have yet to suss out exactly which seeds should be planted when for optimal results in Egypt, the experimental raised beds aren’t doing badly. Specifically, the broad beans in RB 2 are up and should (hopefully) do well – I believe they were planted at the right time, in line with what Egyptian farmers would do. These are not just a food crop, but also a way of improving the soil, given the nitrogen-fixing properties of legumes.

The October sowing of rocket – the trustiest of all our salad leaves – in RB 1 also seems to be fine, as are the peas and (so far) the green beans. The latter two crops are from heritage seeds, as you may recall, so I will be interested to follow their progress. More on these in future posts.

But what has really struck me is how the energy flow has shifted. I would say that it has been moving for most of the year, and I don’t much like what I sense. It goes without saying that it has to do with international affairs – but these may be a symptom, rather than the cause. I feel, as we approach the end of the year, that the invisible tectonic plates of human affairs have moved, subtly and almost imperceptibly. We are now facing a new order, something both unknown and also, historically, sadly familiar.

So my garden is a great comfort in these difficult times. I totally believe it would be better for us all if more people turned back to nature, rediscovering their link with the natural world and deepening their understanding of our dependence on it, if mankind is to find a way to navigate the uncertain territory ahead.

In Egypt, this would surely be a useful approach. We face a much harder time, who knows for how long.

This month, I should have been making marmalade. We have sufficient kumquats for a new batch, and a few kilos of lemons could usefully be made into preserves. But where to find the sugar?

The reality has been that sugar disappeared from the shops for a few weeks recently. Whether due to manipulation of the market by traders, or a failure of supply, I found myself joining an incongruous queue to obtain vital packs of the stuff in one of Heliopolis’s smartest neighbourhoods. Fortunately, I could join the ladies’ queue, much shorter than the men’s, and enjoy the banter. But the fact is, I haven’t seen queues for basic foodstuffs since the 1970s.

On top of that, we face steeply rising prices for electricity, petrol and food as subsidies on a whole range of items are removed (in return for an IMF loan). The 2 kilos of sugar I could buy at the government outlet cost EGP 7 a kilo; the price is EGP 12.50 in our local supermarket. Meat has reached EGP 105 a kilo at our local butcher; better quality veal is EGP 160. At the topmost end, Aussie beef costs up to EGP 890 in an upscale supermarket where the shelves are increasingly thinly stocked. I wonder if anyone buys it.

Given that a cleaner may hope to earn EGP 120 for a full day’s work, I wonder how on earth people on an average wage can possibly hope to keep their heads above water. I suspect they don’t, but rather live from day to day, scraping by as best they can.

Imported foods are increasingly scarce. For sure, we can all manage without the luxury of biscuits and pasta from overseas – there’s pretty good stuff made locally – but for anyone who needs, say, gluten-free products or a variety of veggie proteins, the carpet has just been swept from under their feet.

In 2016 I have come to regard the Jasmine Garden as less an interesting experiment in urban cultivation – a diversion for an ageing (and increasingly aching!) writer – more as an essential contribution to a world in crisis. This is something we all need to think about deeply. I wonder how many will?

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

Rearranging the borders

First things first: the sowing of seeds is proceeding full steam ahead, so this week has seen “Cupidon” green beans going into raised bed 4, with more in a pot as back-up in case they don’t germinate well in the beds. In addition, I’ve sown two rows of Thomson & Morgan “Moneta” beetroot in RB 1.

It seems I forgot to order heritage beetroot, or any other beetroot seeds, while in London, so I’m using up a packet from last spring, before I did a re-think of what seeds I use in the garden.

I’ve also transplanted into RB 1 a celery seedling that popped up in the lawn, offspring of celery that had in turn removed itself to a flower border some distance from the mother plant: The original migration takes us back a few generations. It’s hard to keep up with migrating plants.

And now we are at last cutting the hedge down to size – I mean really down, probably no more than half the height it used to be, while stripping out vast amounts of deadwood to boot – I am rearranging the border along the back of the garden. The aim is to create a dense cover of rosemary and basil at medium height (wish on! When I last checked, one basil was at the top of the hedge, i.e. 6-7 feet high), with room for calendula and small herbs at the front of the border.

The fun thing is that every rosemary we have in the garden is a cutting from one mother plant situated at a corner of the lawn, which has grown like topsy over the past 5 years or so. Confusingly named “Boris”  some time around June 23 – for reasons that are explained in  And then there was Boris…. – he/she has been a, well, er, runaway success, though usually out of control and arguably not suited to a civilised setting.

As you can see from the photo below, even the offspring don’t behave well once they get going.

older-rosemary-cutting

Like parent like child – another rosemary running wild

So why ever would I want to plant more of them? The aim is to make all the borders as bee-friendly as possible. Previously occupied by shrubs with insignificant flowers, the kitchen garden borders are better used if we make sure they feed the bees (and other insects too).

Returning to the sowing schedule, with a bee-friendly theme: last week we called on a traditional A’ataar shop in Midan El-Gama’a, the heart of old Heliopolis, to stock up on seeds.

We use so much rocket -it’s in every salad I make, and we eat it as a snack with cold drinks – that I had almost run out of seeds. I also needed fuul herati or broad beans, to sow as a crop, as food for our bees and as a green fertiliser. Rather than using clover, which I have in stock, it seems preferable to plant a crop that would be good for everyone sharing the garden. It’s also true that, once they start to flower, rocket plants are incredibly attractive to the bees.

In Egypt, we usually buy seeds from a supplier of basic foodstuffs; historically, the same was true in Britain, where grocers used to stock seeds for purchase beyond what gardeners and farmers could save from their crops.

Besides seeds, the old-fashioned shop in Heliopolis stocks pulses, rice, flours and herbs either in large, battered wooden containers or in sacks. Antiquated in every sense, it’s like something from the Ottoman era; only the digital scales give it away. When we visited, there were numerous items I didn’t recognise – among them, neatly coiled flax fibres for cleaning pots and pans, apparently.

And one curious thing: a sack of corn meal, like polenta, was a huge attraction to some bees. Hovering over it, occasionally dipping down onto the meal, were they after a quick sugar-rush, I wonder?

Rearrange

Planting up the raised beds

The rehabilitation of the raised beds is proceeding. And, just as gardeners in more northerly regions are clearing up ahead of the winter – all that pruning, leaf collecting and cleaning out of greenhouses to be done – I’m gearing up to sowing a new season of crops.

The best time of the year is just around the corner. I can’t afford to slack. Now is the moment to get on with preparing the raised beds or I’ll miss the optimal time for sowing.

Before we went away in late September, the hugelkultur treatment of bed 4, originally begun in the spring, was completed, followed by a sowing of rocket, coriander and flat leaf parsley. We left them to their own devices while we were away and were pleasantly surprised to find a good rate of germination, except for the parsley – never an easy seed.

This week, we finished the hugelkultur treatment of bed 1. By “we” I mean the very sturdy gardening assistant, who has the unenviable task of digging out all the soil and sand, with assistance from me. My more fun role is to throw in the infill of dried stems, branches and leaves sourced from the huge basil, severely cut back in September (and now happily thriving once again), honeysuckle, rosemary and plumbago. The important thing is to make sure the cuttings really  are well dried and won’t sprout from under the surface.

Extracted from the trench were large roots from the nearby hedge of Indian laurel trees. Although they proved less generally invasive than I feared, it’s a problem best dealt with before planting up the beds.

We finished the filled-in bed with a top dressing of home-made compost, bought-in compost, and horse manure from stables in Heliopolis. Still nowhere near enough home-produced compost: I can see how these beds should be treated but we can’t possibly make enough compost to add a deep layer of beautiful, rich, crumbly compost to cosset our seedlings… I think I’ll soon be making compost in my dreams!

Seeds planted this week: salad leaves (“Emerald Oak” oakleaf lettuce, “Claytonia” winter purslane, leaf chicory “Zuccherina di Trieste”); spinach “Amazon”; rocket; dill; coriander – all three sourced from Egypt; early dwarf pea “Charmette”; dwarf French bean “Cupidon”; dwarf bean “Bellini”; and a few Anaheim chili peppers.

This was done according to what I hope is the appropriate template from the Maria Thun biodynamic calendar. I am slightly confused about the applicability of the calendar, bought in London, to gardening in Egypt. True, we need a calendar for the northern hemisphere, and I guess we share the same broad lunar and planetary influences. But is it right to sow seeds of leaf/fruit plants in a descending moon? (I can see why one might plant roots at this time). And I’m thrown by another biodynamic calendar with a schedule one day behind Thun’s, making October 24th a leaf, not a fruit, day.

I have also been a lot more careful about how I source seeds this time around, obtaining some organic seeds in Italy, and others from the Botanic Gardens at Kew. For the first time we are trying heritage seeds. I was so appalled to find a previous gardener had planted Seminis (i.e. Monsanto) courgette/zucchini seeds last spring, that I decided to handle the matter differently.

So I placed an online order with the UK’s Real Seed Company, specialists in heritage (heirloom) seeds. Brilliantly, they delivered in record time and I brought the seeds back from London in the summer. The move towards heritage varieties may or may not work, but it’s worth a try if we are to garden organically, safely and respectfully towards the earth.

Out with the genetically engineered, tasteless monsters; in with the age-old, tasty, well-adapted vegetables bringing new colours and flavours to our table… I hope!

seeds-calendar-10-16

Back to basics: biodynamic calendar and responsibly sourced seeds

 

For more information:

https://www.realseeds.co.uk

https://www.biodynamics.com

https://www.steinerpresswarehouse.com