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.

 

 

 

 

Summer colour-fest

The title might be an over-estimation. Summer colours in our garden can be spectacular – the bougainvillea in the hedge, the May-flowering Jacaranda tree – but I wouldn’t say it is the best time of year for a garden in Egypt.

Now, however, as we gear up for the start of summer after yesterday’s “Spring Festival”*, we have some glorious colours on the pergola and in the herbaceous borders, in all shades from salmon pink to deep, luxuriant crimson:

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It is likely that the weather will continue hot and dry for the foreseeable future. That said, we can never be quite sure: A week ago, we had a heavy, overcast day, the light ominously grey tinged with orange, followed by  a night of spectacular lightning and thunder and a downpour that soaked everything.

The climbing rose (variety uncertain – no label when bought) is adorned with beautiful blooms, as you can see in the slideshow above. It climbs from the right of the pergola across the front where it is met by white jasmine (J. officinale) and honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Behind, the poor Ipomoea (Morning Glory) ripped by an unfeeling gardener from its original position while still in the pot, tearing I don’t know how many precious roots, is clearly recovering well (below left).

While the honeysuckle on the pergola isn’t flowering yet,  it is well away along the green fence nearby, with lovely flowers scenting the air:

All these honeysuckle plants, and many more besides in the Jasmine Garden, originated as layered branches from the mother plant, bought from a nursery several years ago. Other “descendants” are to be found in a garden elsewhere in New Cairo, and on a balcony in Alexandria!

The bottle brush (Callistemon citrinus) is particularly lovely right now, the brilliant red stamens of its flowers tipped with yellow:

The bottlebrush originates in Australia and is not uncommon in Egypt, although it is something of a specialist shrub; there are specimens on sale at the Spring Flower Show this year.

Several other plants in our garden are of South African origin, including the plumbago (P. capensis), both white and blue – which generally flowers later in the summer – and the spectacular trailing African daisy or Osteospermum fruiticosum/ecklonis. 

These are excellent at filling in space; if anything, they are inclined to sprawl a little too much, as well as seed themselves everywhere (including in the lawn!), so they need to be controlled.

Another couple of border sprawlers are the rose geranium Pelargonium graveolens (or maybe capitatum) and tansy or Tanacetum. In truth, I am not sure which species of these two herbs I have in the herbaceous borders: I have moaned before about the lack of labels on plants in every nursery I know in Cairo (and the “top professionals” at the Spring Flower Show are not much better). But the plants are true winners in terms of filling in space, and lovely for long-lasting masses of flowers (tansy) and striking green foliage (geranium – her flowers are insignificant and don’t last long, but even so the bees appreciate them):

One odd thing about all these beautiful flowers is that none of them appeared in ancient Egyptian gardens, as far as we know. I wonder about tansy: quite apart from its many medicinal properties (e.g. anti-inflammatory and insecticidal), its name is derived from the Greek athanasia or immortal since it has preservative properties – ideal for mummification, one might think.

Lastly in my review of the early summer colours of our garden, one of my favourites: lavender (Lavandula). We have two seedlings of Lavandula spica from Italy to be planted out when they have grown a little more. They promise greenish leaves and aromatic deep purple flowers. Our two locally-sourced plants, with grey leaves and blue-ish spikes, are also flowering this year, a relatively rare occurrence in my experience of the plant in Egypt:

Lavender

 

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

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

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!

 

 

Spring – almost

My Tao reading today is as uplifting as the day is beautiful:

Bird song flies unfettered

Over blue sky and green fields.

Once you feel Tao run,

Give way, give way.

“What is it like to feel Tao?” writer Deng Ming-Dao asks. “It is an effortless flowing, a sweeping momentum. It is like bird song soaring and gliding over a vast landscape.” He adds: “You can feel this in your life: Events will take on a perfect momentum, a glorious cadence.”

Just now, I can feel it all around in the vivid re-birth of nature. True, the orange tree (if that’s what it is!) and the oldest of our three limes have bunches of flower buds on their branches tantalisingly close to blooming, but not quite there yet. And true, the borders are showing bare patches of earth… But the promise is there, the energy is flowing upwards, the tender shoots of red-to-pink-to-light green leaves are bursting out on our roses and vines. This is what is meant by Tao in full flow, I think.

Above, soft vine leaves from rose to light green contrast with the darker green leaves of a rose – and the dark red shoots, as soft as they are colourful, it is sending up into the air. Below, a pear tree presents young leaves that feel as if they might melt when you touch them, still textured with a luminous down:

pear-2-3-17

As with the energy of nature, so with me: I feel “the nerves aglow” as the Tao commentary has it. Gone is the January torpor, I’m rolling up my sleeves and working on the herbaceous border after meandering through the back border last month. This means tearing myself away from the raised beds and pots of seedlings for a while, but the borders are equally satisfying and immensely rewarding once the shrubs have revived and put on their spring-into-summer growth spurt.

Today’s tasks include getting the gardener to help spread manure over the border (above right) after my weekend efforts to clear it of weeds and cut back plants where necessary, extracting and composting all the dead wood I could find. I haven’t finished the border yet, but it’s looking a lot better. As for the back bed (above left), it looks untidy once again as the mint has popped up all over the place, but the fruit trees have been pruned, weeded and fed, and I feel: well, satisfied.

bed-by-green-fence-3-17

My resolution to sow seeds of assorted flowers serendipitously along the borders is partially in hand, notably in the bed in front of the green fence separating kitchen and flower gardens. I cleared this out last week, added manure, and sowed morning glory at the back to climb up the fence, with cornflowers and snap dragons in front plus a few hyssop for the bees. I have no idea how well this little English flower garden will fare in Egypt’s heat – assuming success with germination.

It’s a somewhat messy bed, without much of an edge, but I figure that it could look both natural and attractive if it fills up with flowering plants that tumble over the scrappy grass in front. It has some taller herbs – rosemary and Lebanese thyme or zaattar, plus a geranium – so there’s no planting scheme here!

Next thing is to extend the sowings to the back border, perhaps with the inclusion of marigolds: Time to add a splash of colour to an otherwise dull bed. I’m following the Tao, carried along by the flow, as much in touch with nature in this little corner of New Cairo than anyone even in the deepest English countryside – and it’s wonderful!

via Daily Prompt: Vivid

On not losing the plot…

January isn’t a good month for gardening in Egypt – and February usually begins in much the same vein. So it seemed a good opportunity to fly off and join some yogi friends in Bahrain to discuss, at a conference, how to face up to, and make the most of, these unstable and changing times.

At a previous yoga gathering, gardening had been one of the activities recommended for us to “make a difference”. Environmental campaigner Satish Kumar advised us: Don’t sit back and sigh and wish the world would change, but actively engage in shaping it as you would wish it to be.

Every time I go out in the garden to gather salad leaves or herbs, or a handful of broad beans in their pods for a quick, mood-lifting snack; or whenever I spot the hawks flying over the garden or a hoopoe digging for insects in the lawn, or the warblers bobbing in and out of our hedge: Then I remember his wise words, and I feel glad to have heard him speak.

Since returning from Manama I’ve been galvanised by a series of warm and sunny days and the sight of the first tentative leaf buds on the citrus trees, especially the satsuma which is in the sunniest spot; maybe also by the need to transplant seedlings into the raised beds or wherever else they are going to go. These are the few that actually germinated in pots on the upstairs balcony: sage, lavender, Thai basil and chamomile. The rest didn’t germinate at all, which means I’ve failed again with lemon balm, lemon grass etc.

I’ve spent the past few days cleaning the beds round the fruit trees and then spreading manure at the outer edge. Working at the rate of three trees per day, I’ve finished all but one citrus, our two pear trees and one plum. The satsuma (above left) was pruned earlier by removing some of the interior, crossing branches. The lemon (above right) was left to the gardener: he cut away a lot of the lower branches to give the orange scion light and air (i.e. a chance to grow!)  but I wish he’d been a bit more careful with the rest of the tree – I am deeply grateful for all the lemons it so generously gave us last year, and I note he has hacked away at the branches, leaving rough and torn edges, without clearing the interior properly – ugh!

I’m also clearing out the bed along the back hedge behind the raised beds with a view to adding Thai basil*, and maybe calendula along the front edge. The young rosemary plants previously placed there have established themselves. All were grown from cuttings taken from our irrepressible mother plant ‘Boris’. But I need flowering plants in front to give the border depth, colour and interest as well as to provide extra food for the beloved pollinators.

Also over the past few days, I have transplanted into RB4 young lettuce that were suffocating in a pot, close to a clutch of seedlings transplanted a few weeks ago. Others were squeezed into an empty patch in RB2, though there’s not much space as the heritage  mizuna is taking over:

Chamomile seedlings have been popped in with others sown directly into a corner of RB2 in the autumn – I haven’t had much luck with this herb but we have a few small plants, and hopefully there will be enough for some infusions later in the year.

It isn’t warm enough to sow summer crops such as courgettes and tomatoes. But I’m trying to get round this by filling pots with sand and soil and positioning them under plastic on the top balcony. After they have warmed up, and it only takes a day or two to create a tropical micro-climate, I can hopefully safely sow the seeds: Early courgette “Verde di Italia”, vine tomato “Chadwick Cherry” and vine salad tomato “Rose de Berne”. These, and the squash and aubergine seeds, are all heritage varieties from the Real Seed Catalogue.

So there is much more to come…

 

*A propos basil (rihaan in the Middle East, tulsi in India) staying among an Indian yogi community in Bahrain I came across all sorts of different tulsi teas, including one flavoured with rose and another with bergamot – “Tulsi Earl Grey”!  My favourite was an infusion made with tulsi and lemon grass from the garden with other flavourings: Mint, I think, and maybe cinnamon, and sweetened with honey.