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!

 

 

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.

A little diversion (or two!)

I haven’t been avoiding the garden, and I haven’t given up on blogging. But over the past three weeks I have been totally diverted – by the arrival of two beautiful grandsons. This means the plants were told to manage for themselves for a while, and pruning the bountiful lemon tree was left to the tender mercy of the garden assistant while I flew off to London to meet the newest, and most delightful, members of the family.

As I have written before, I don’t think plants mind being left to their own devices. In fact, I may have heard a (discreet) sigh of relief when I told them I was going away. The number 1 gardener had cleared out a lot of the herbaceous border, cleaned up around the fruit trees and cut rather more than I intended off the younger lime tree. We had spread some compost – but not fertiliser as that isn’t done until this month, February.

I was also beginning to harvest a great mix of salad leaves, but perhaps this was a bit ahead of the game given the tenderness of the young plants. Meanwhile, the herbs needed a rest: winter is not their favourite time of year. Back in early January, the number one performers looked like the broad beans and when I came back at the end of the month they had lived up to their promise:

broad-beans-2-17

It has been a pleasure to get down to work and do some “tillering”, pinching out the growing points of the main stems to let the laterals flourish. And, following advice in one of our gardening books, I put the shoots to good use by lightly stir-frying them with shredded Swiss chard from raised bed 1 and a touch of garlic, sprinkling with salt and a twist of black pepper, and adding the mix to a piping hot mushroom risotto: a heavenly dish!

Despite the cold winter nights other plants have surged ahead, and they are now flowering exuberantly. Number one in this respect is a very early borage:

early-borage-2-17

This is a herb that has acclimatised very well to our garden in Egypt: Descended from plants grown from seed bought in the UK, it now self-seeds all over the place. I can’t say we use it very much, though the leaves can be added to salads, but it is a great favourite with the bees and is therefore of high value. The specimen above has grown so vigorously that it is right through the netting over the bed, so I have removed the net to give the plant her freedom.

rocket-2-17Also making a break for it is the rocket; both self-seeded among the veg and planted in rows in raised beds 1 and 4 last autumn, it is now zooming upwards and blooming.

The flowers may look rather nondescript, but they go on for ages and, again, the bees love them. At this time of year, plants that provide food for our bees are too precious to remove. Nearby, the watercress is taking over.

Finally, over in the herbaceous border a welcome surprise: I must have missed a stem of my favourite rose when cutting the bushes back last month. On my return, there was one solitary, sweetly perfumed flower – so beautiful!

winter-rose-2-17

 

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