A sweet surprise

There’s a footnote to add to my recent posts on the raised beds… Not so long ago, I bemoaned the fact that we don’t have any sweet basil. This is an oversight on my part of unimaginable consequence: For us, as a family, to have to eat our pasta senza basilico is a most terrible deprivation. It feels like an absolute howler to offer anyone spaghetti, penne or fusilli without the addition of that most aromatic and beautiful of summer herbs straight from the beds outside.

Then: “Ecco!” As I removed some bedraggled chicory (Italian, as it happens!) there emerged a small, jewel-like plant, slightly nibbled by snails but nonetheless -incontrovertibly – a baby sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum.

Sweet basil 6.17I pressed a leaf gently between finger and thumb just to be sure – but the look of those lovely, slightly glossy and distinctively fresh, green leaves gave it away before I had smelled the oils.

I breathed a profound sigh of relief: We may yet be able to rescue our pasta dishes this summer.

What has happened with our basil plants is an interesting exercise in nature taking over. It’s not as if we don’t have the plants in the garden, most of them propagated from cuttings from one or two plants I bought at local nurseries. These are not O. basilicum in its sweet form, although they may be varieties of the species that I can’t identify. Some may be different species, possibly O. tenuiflorum, or holy basil, although I have my doubts about that.

In the raised beds, the basil should be the direct descendants of plants grown from seeds of sweet basil brought from the UK. But evidently all the plants – except for this one – have cross-bred. As a result, this year’s seedlings have lost the sweetness and emerged in much more pungent form, with a touch of anise. Not what we want on our pasta!

A similar thing has happened with our oregano (Origanum vulgare). It appears to have hybridised with locally-sourced  O. majorana, so the delicately flavoured herb I once had in RB4 has become O. x majoricum with a more strident taste.

All this variety in herbs makes for fascinating experimentation in the field, unscientific as it is (i.e. uncontrolled). It goes like this, kind of:

flowers + bees = new plant varieties, every season.

Meanwhile, my tastebuds are revelling in tulsi tea, made from the leaves of yet more basil plants. Very popular in India, where O. tenuiflorum/sanctum is called holy tulsi, this tea comes not from the raised beds but from the Pukka company, and is obtainable in London. As if to underline the astonishing variety in the basil world, the tea comprises Green Rama and purple Krishna tulsi, with a splash of lemon Vana tulsi, thereby also showing the illustrious nature of the herb in the Indian tradition. It’s a real tonic to the health.

For more on holy basil, see also:  Basil’s hidden secrets

The heritage conundrum

The results of my experiment with heritage, or heirloom, vegetables this year have not been encouraging.

We had superb Early mizuna, a useful crop of Claytonia” winter purslane and passable “Emerald Oak” lettuce – good in flavour and texture, but small in size. With these exceptions, all other attempts to sow and grow heritage varieties – from aubergines to green beans, and from courgettes to tomatoes – have disappointed. Some have been a complete failure: The aubergines never germinated.

I garden on the principle of “win some, lose some”.  I know there’s nothing easy about nature, whatever the apparent nonchalance with which weeds grow and the hedge overwhelms all neighbouring plants. But this year, the veg have been a terrible disappointment.

The Verde di Italia” courgette plants produced the odd, very poor courgette before shrivelling in the heat. There is one left, still soldiering bravely on in RB1 (below left) even as it melts in the midday sun. Nearby, I have two Summer crookneck squash plants in a pot (below right), but goodness knows what they are intending to do; all I can say for sure is that their will to survive against the odds is admirable – but where are the squash?

My record with the cucurbit family is dreadful. We had some excellent courgettes the first year (2012-13) but I have no doubt they were GM varieties as they were enormous and tasteless – so only “excellent” in theory.  Then another brush with GM horror as our Engineer planted them last year. After this year’s attempt with strictly vetted heritage seeds, I’m not sure if I’ll try again. I just don’t “get” what the family wants!

The legumes did marginally better, but I wouldn’t win any prizes for my produce. I harvested a few – maybe a score – pods of peas and a handful of French beans, but although Charmette” dwarf peas and “Cupidon” dwarf French beans looked fine and tasted good, the yield was useless. Once the days warmed up, and well before the heat really kicked in, neither could cope with the conditions.

Over the aubergines, I will pass a discreet veil. They are notoriously slow to germinate. Enough said.

But the tomatoes are a mystery:

The two above are doing passably. I think they are both “Chadwick cherry” though by now I have rather forgotten about the one in the pot, which it shares with a non-heritage melon plant.

But others are struggling and producing few, if any fruit. This is the case in RB4, where in 2016 we had two “Gardeners Delight” cherry tomato plants that cropped wonderfully well. On the balcony, two plants in pots started well but are now suffering badly from blight:

One answer is to spray with a fungicide but, as this is an organic enterprise, that’s a no-no. I will let the plants go.

The answer to all this mishap and mayhem in the garden is: well, not to worry too much. We don’t depend on what I grow in order to eat – thank heavens! – and we do have supermarkets where organic veg are available. It may be sobering, but it isn’t the end of the world.

And for the next growing season, starting in the autumn, I think I will revert to standard commercial varieties. To be accurate about the nature of this experiment, I sourced all the seeds from the UK, and I accept that, while the selected varieties may be well adapted to conditions in northern Europe, they may not thrive in the very different conditions of cultivation in Egypt.

But courgettes and squash? Oh no, that’s a cucurbit too far!!

Crisp? More like incinerated…

The heatwave this week has taken its toll.

Last week, in pretty hot weather, I was interested to see the chamomile taking shelter beneath leaves of chard in Raised Bed 2, which seemed to offer the herb some hope of protection – and me some hope of a few more flowers for my night-time infusions.

This week, the chard (above left) has flaked out entirely owing to a full frontal assault from a brutal midday sun, so the poor herb plants stand exposed as the temperature climbs to 42 C (107 F). Yesterday our car thermometer measured 45 C in the early afternoon; I nearly expired along with my herbs.

As for the squash, quite simply incinerated in the same bed (also above left), and the courgette (above right), we’ve had no crop at all this year – and it doesn’t look as if that’s going to change.

With humidity at 10-13% and a bit of wind, going anywhere is like walking into a fan oven. I guess we might be thankful that the humidity is far less than we used to experience in the Arabian/Persian Gulf, but that’s small compensation for internet weather sites that read: “42 C – hot with plenty of sunshine” and then (Monday’s forecast): “35 C – very warm”.

My plants have a different view about “very warm”:

It’s hard to know how to protect them. Covering them can help, but the temperature in the beds beneath the covers becomes fearsome, as far as I can tell. Some do a bit better where they have shelter from the hedge, like the chicory and the remnants of flat leaf parsley in RB 2:

Chicory RB2 8.6This is a marginal advantage – it doesn’t prevent the plants from finding themselves rooted in a sea of boiling sand (if it’s damp) or a bed of fine grains almost hot enough to make glass (if it’s dry).

I think the only solution is to follow the time-honoured Egyptian practice of planting according to the seasons, unless one has access to covered beds and cooling systems (surely not energy-efficient). This means planting summer crops of corn and okra, karkaday and melons; and finding part-shaded corners where other plants can brave the midday heat and survive to produce fruit (tomatoes, cucumbers).

Once out the other side of this week’s heatwave, I’ll re-assess the damage – and report back on this year’s very surprising fruit crop.

 

<a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/crisp/”>Crisp</a&gt;

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

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!