A surprise in store

There are times when our plants cause me to do a double-take. This happened today.

I often take some steps back to view an area either from above, from a bedroom window or from the roof; or from a distance, as from the back doorstep looking over the raised beds. It helps to see the garden in perspective and to spot things I might not see from close up.

So I was astonished to find that our lime tree, seen from the vantage point of the back door, has a small crop of fruit on a section overhanging raised bed 1. As I always have my head down to work on the bed, I hadn’t actually noticed the fruit above.

The limes are beautiful: small, round and glowing a brilliant green on this most ungainly tree:

This is a curious development. I can’t remember when the young tree was planted as I didn’t keep an accurate record (doh!) Perhaps some six or seven years ago. Since then, it has produced no fruit, although there have been a few flowers in each of the past two or three springs.

A bit impatiently – after all, young trees need possibly five years to settle in and mature before they can be expected bear fruit – I resorted to blandishments. Why? I had read in Helena Attlee’s wonderful book The Land where Lemons Grow that it may work to lay the law down to citrus trees and show them who’s boss.

In an anecdote taken from the Book of Agriculture of Ibn al-Awam, a medieval Arab text of the almanac sort, she relates that if a citrus tree fails to bear fruit, then two workmen should approach it with an axe, and openly discuss in front of the tree how, if it does not produce a crop in the coming year, it will be cut down. “That generally did the trick,according to Ibn al-Awam”, she adds, “and he was obviously right.”

Attlee cites as modern-day evidence a heavily-laden mandarin tree growing on an estate in Liguria where this approach had been tried and had achieved dramatic results.

So I did the same with our lime tree in the spring. Tired of being jabbed by its horrendous thorns whenever I worked on RB1, and fed up with its straggly shape and blackened, unhealthy leaves, I told the tree in no uncertain terms that either it bore fruit this year – or else! I may even have given it a kick – the veggie’s version of the axe treatment.

Hey presto, or abracadabra, or whatever words you like, we now have limes.

And not just limes, either. Right now, our orange tree that turned out to be predominantly, but not exclusively, an “Italian” lemon (as the Egyptians call citrus trees bearing the big lemons, though none is native to Italy) with a feeble branch of orange grafted onto the rootstock has its usual wonderful crop of superb, juicy fruit in all sorts of colours from green to orange, though they are still lemons.

Some branches are so heavy with fruit that we are supporting them by arrangement with the guava tree nearby.

And the kumquat tree also promises another superb harvest:

Ahead lies a period of intensive marmalade-making, a laborious but rewarding process that will take me back to idyllic days in Sicily last autumn, when we visited organic citrus estates and tasted so many glorious, mouthwatering types of marmellata (bitter or Seville orange; blood orange; grapefruit; lemon).

I wish I could grow bergamot as well. Not that I have tried – I have never seen a tree in Egypt, and don’t know if it is ever grown here.

Finally, a wonderful fruit that developed slowly – oh so slowly – over the summer. Our one and only Keet mango:

Keet mango 9.17

There were three or four fruit on the tree; all but one failed. We waited months for it to ripen, finally enjoying our mouthwatering mini-mango-feast at the end of September. Worth the wait!

* The Land where Lemons Grow – Helena Attlee, pub. by Penguin Books. The best book on citrus fruit I know, and a wonderful tour of Italy from Liguria and Lake Garda to eastern Sicily.

 

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Across an antique sea

Gardening is when I tend to muse. I know I ought to concentrate, but I can’t all the time. There’s only so much focus I can manage on an unwieldy hedge of Indian laurel. Besides, for me, gardening is often meditative.

Various strands are coming together these days to take me, mind and spirit, away from the immediate tasks. For a start, “world affairs” (no, don’t worry, I won’t start). Then, the hyper-active wildlife around us, from our resident insects, including unusual numbers of grasshoppers this autumn, and birds – warblers, bulbuls, doves, hoopoes – to passage migrants such as the European bee eaters that have been visiting for a while to snack on the residents of our hives.

Plus a recent visit to Alexandria reminded me of something I tend to forget, living near Cairo: Egypt is part of the Mediterranean world.

Alexandria, founded in the C4 BCE by Macedonians, was one of the great trading ports of the ancient and medieval worlds. Nowadays, though its historic character is disappearing fast, it still has a distinctive atmosphere. Wandering through a busy street market filled with the produce of the sea and the fields of the Nile Delta, with artisans’ workshops behind the stalls, I felt I could have been in Sicily browsing the markets in Catania, or Ortigia, otherwise ancient Siracusa, founded by Greeks from Corinth.

You will see this in the slideshow. Each pair of photos places Alex first, then either Catania or Ortigia. The Alex images are smaller because I didn’t have my iPad and used a mobile phone instead:

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Street markets are so revealing, wherever they are: Stalls overflowing with farm produce, the leaves fresh and crisp and sometimes beaded with dew in the early morning when nights are really cool. Herbs, salad leaves and veg were beautiful in both Sicily and Alexandria. Autumn in Egypt is pickling season, so there were plenty of olives, chillies, limes, while in Ortigia the tomatoes were amazing.

This musing on the phenomenon of our trans-Mediterranean culture and heritage has been brought into sharper focus by reading Amitav Ghosh’s book about Egypt, “In an Antique Land”*.

Ghosh weaves two different biographies into his work: one is his own stay as a graduate student in the Delta in the early 1980s, the other is that of a Jewish merchant trader of the Middle Ages.  Links with Sicily are there in the second story, as part of Abraham Ben Yiju’s family moved from what  is now Tunisia to the island in the C12 CE. But there are much wider networks, across the Red Sea to Aden, where Ghosh has established that Ben Yiju lived for a while, and beyond this to Mangalore in southwest India where he settled and traded in commodities including spices like cardamom.

It’s a brilliant investigation of a world of extended commercial and personal networks in an era before the term “globalisation” was coined. Ghosh also, however, looks with an anthropologist’s eye view at modern Egypt. Here again, networks across the seas are part of life and an entirely rural community, where most people depend on the land, is portrayed as part of a wider pattern of events.

I didn’t learn much about how the land is cultivated from Ghosh’s book, but then he is not an agricultural engineer. Divvying up great estates after the 1952 Revolution is in there as is the purchase of machinery (made in India); but very little about crops. There is no obsession with pests and bugs, and, of course, in the post-Aswan High Dam era, villagers are not concerned about the Nile flood.

But as an account of the experience of living with ordinary Egyptians, and as primary research into an era of extended contacts over the seas almost entirely lost in the mists of time,  “In an Antique Land” is exceptional.

So, as my battle with the hedge of Ficus nitida ebbs and flows, I lose concentration and sail off, figuratively speaking, with the trading ships of another era carrying spices and textiles maybe, eventually, as far as London.

  • In an Antique Land – Amitav Ghosh pub. by Granta

 

 

Wildly romantic

Courtyard garden 1Last weekend was a treat for the gardener – an escape from late summer pruning and clearing up, preparing raised beds and chucking compost about – with a diversion into a wildly romantic garden in the northern city of Alexandria.

Tucked away in the district of Smouha, the Antoniades villa and garden is a magical estate of shady pathways, formal gardens with classical statuary, once grand promenades and a secluded courtyard with fountains and water channel. It has a special atmosphere – enhanced, I think, by the clear light and expansive sky of the Mediterranean.

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The mix of formal design and planting with stands of conifers and trees from across the world may well have been persuasive in its time; now, however, the conifers are running away and, though some hedges are well clipped, many shrubs and trees are a riot.Colour is muted: At this time of year, Plumbago capensis and Lantana camera are most prolific, with occasional splashes of red from Bougainvillea spectabilis, but most eyecatching of all are the glorious Hibiscus rosa-sinensis.

Perhaps this gives the garden its special charm, as a faded memory of Alexandria in a very different era, when grand houses and splendid gardens were de rigueur for the rich.

Here and there the formal planting is well maintained and the water sufficient for the garden to thrive; a statue of Venus suggests the illusion of a European garden but then the spell is broken by Hypatia, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and a leading light of Alexandria’s intelligentsia in the C4 CE.

Formal garden - Hypatia

The work of French architects and landscape designers, the estate was once owned by Sir John Antoniades, a wealthy banker of Greek origin with a trans-Mediterranean business empire and a knighthood from Queen Victoria. But its creation was also part of a wider effort by the ruler of Egypt in the 1860s, the Khedive Ismail, to beautify both Cairo and Alexandria with grand buildings in the French style, botanical collections, orchards and zoological gardens.

Even more fascinating is the site’s link with the city’s deepest past: It is on, or very close to, the land where Callimachus once lived. The inventor of the library catalogue system, Callimachus (c.305 – c.240 BCE) was a scholar, poet and librarian at the Great Library of classical Alexandria. Even more interesting, the Academy (or Mouseion) and Library were established by the Macedonian kings of Egypt, following Alexander the Great’s vision, with both zoo and botanical garden alongside – which makes the link with the site today even stronger.

My wandering was filled with admiration for a once-lovely garden now overlaid with a melancholy air…. Classical Alexandria was the scene of an extraordinary flowering of intellectual and cultural life before fading as the Graeco-Roman world disappeared and Cairo rose to prominence. The Antoniades Garden seemed to hint subtly, in the breezes that blew across it, at this past.

May it be preserved as part of our common heritage!

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Making merry (and mischief)

The bugs have been having a ball in our garden this year. I guess gardening organically means that, for all the abundance of wildlife in the garden and therefore of natural predators, there’s also an overwhelming buildup of pests.

It didn’t help that I was away for nearly two months from mid-July. Or that I’m not particularly stringent about “hygiene” in the garden. If the idea is to let nature have her way –  with a bit of guidance – why obsess about collecting up leaves and “cleaning” the beds? It’s a word I hear constantly from the gardeners: The verb nadafa (to clean) is over-used, and needs to be, er, swept away.

There have been some unexpected encounters. In the spring, a praying mantis in the big basil (Ocimum basilicum) near the balcony; more recently the garden has been alive with crazy jumping grasshoppers/crickets (they love the piles of drying materials between the raised beds) and one magnificent locust:

 

Yesterday, as the gardeners began trimming our hedge of Ficus nitida (Indian laurel), dense with dead wood, infested leaves and dust, down came a stem with a truly beautiful caterpillar attached. Magnificent in the finest shades of green camouflage, he seemed to have meandered straight off the toadstool in “Alice in Wonderland”, leaving behind his sheesha:

Caterpillar 9.17

Astonished by his glorious colouring, I took some photos and then popped him in with the clippings to ride off with the waste – giving him a fighting chance. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that: I would love to see him transformed into a full-fledged butterfly.

The overgrown borders have turned into the usual haven for snails. Wherever the perennials are dense, usually under cover of frangipani (Plumeria acuminata), hibiscus (H. rosa sinensis) and the like, it’s damp enough for snails to make merry and multiply like there’s no tomorrow.

The explorer climbing up the rose (Rosa spp.) is behaving true to form: Snails are often found at a considerable height on anything from hibiscus to the walls of the house! The damage is limited in the borders but much more problematic in the raised beds, where they hide along the sides and in corners, and behind stones or bricks used to batten netting down.

Also hiding in the borders are vast tribes of woodlice, and even some small, dark cockroaches – all of them frantically burrowing into the soil the moment I raise the cover over their heads.

Among the truly spectacular casualties this summer was the chard in RB2, the culprits most likely a herd of rampant caterpillars:

Chard destroyed 9.17

The damage was so comprehensive, it made me laugh. I cut the skeletons down, and fed the roots with compost to encourage new growth, while taking care to cover the bed well with netting. We shall see…

As usual, however, it is the mealy bugs that are wreaking havoc in all directions, especially on the roses, plumbago (P. capensis), Indian laurel and some fruit trees.

One of the lime trees, the kumquat and the Italian lemon tree are all affected not only by mealy bugs but also by other pests that leave sticky webs around the stems, leaves and fruit, as here on the kumquat.

Kumquat 9.17

This could be scale, as it appears to be associated with the patches of white, containing insects, on the stem. Not so much of a problem previously, but quite obvious this year.

To combat the fruit flies, we stripped the guava tree of leaves and immature fruit early in the summer. It should flower again soon and produce fruit in the winter, when there are no flies – but, meanwhile, the pests moved on to the lemon tree nearby and did their best to break through the defences:

Lemons under attack 9.17

According to Eric Moore*, the Middle East is a “relatively pest- and disease-free environment.” for gardeners. Well – not in my experience! I can’t accept spraying with chemicals, so I will have to do a lot more to encourage the birds, lizards, beetles and spiders that might help to combat them. And be more conscientious about cleaning out the infected stuff…

* Gardening in the Middle East – Eric Moore – pub. Stacey International

 

Pith and skin

It’s the season of pomegranates:

Now for a confession: these are not from our garden. How I wish they were! Nor are they organic and naturally grown; I ordered some from our organic supplier last week but none was in our basket, which probably means either the farm ran out that day or the fruit didn’t meet the standard required. So these are mainstream, and probably laced with chemicals.

But we do have a pomegranate tree. We bought it earlier this year from a nurseryman at Cairo’s Spring Flower Show. It was beautiful, a fair size tree that took some manoeuvring into the back of our 4×4.

All was not as it seemed, however, and we should have been more careful. On closer inspection later on, we found the tree had evidently been taken out of its home bed and crammed unkindly into a pot that was far too small: a last-minute dash for the Flower Show, I suppose. Our gardener took a lot of trouble to cut the pot and loosen it around the root ball, without actually taking it away, so he could keep the roots intact as he lowered the tree into position in the ground.

Transplanting 2

Since then, I’d like to say the tree has gone from strength to strength. But that isn’t quite true. Pomegranates don’t like to be over-watered; but turning off the nearby irrigation spray has meant it hardly gets any, so we have to step in with hand-watering. In addition, the leaves have been attacked by pests (caterpillars? Grasshoppers/locusts?) Mainly, however, I think it is in shock from the transplanting process, and needs lots of TLC.

Still, the tree produced some lovely bright orange flowers in early summer and then a few baby pomegranates appeared on cue:

They then mostly dropped off. So we are left with… one!

Pomegranate in the bag 9.17This one is well and truly “in the bag”. Hoping to ward off the fruit flies which plague our guavas, get into the pears, and have even tried boring through the thick skin of our lemons (a step too far even for these pests, but they’ve given it a good shot), my husband covered our one remaining pomegranate with a plastic bag. This may be counter-productive: plastic is hardly an ideal environment for fruit and I doubt if it is helping the ripening process. Besides, the slit in the side, to prevent condensation from building, may do precisely what we don’t want – let the flies in.

You may wonder what’s so special about a fruit with a carapace-like outer casing, that is tart enough to make the eyes smart? All pith and skin, you might say – oh, and with seeds that wedge themselves into every available gap in the teeth.

I think the trees work better as ornamental additions to the garden rather than as sources of fruit. They were beautiful in Sicily both in the streets of Ortigia and, loaded with fruit, in the garden of Casa Cuseni, Taormina. They were also to be found ornamenting some lovely ceramics:

And while it’s one thing to battle your way through the skin, fiddle around with pulling away the pith, and then try to keep the seeds from skittering all over the kitchen as you extract them, it really is a delight to use the juicy little seeds for some adventures in Mediterranean cuisine.

I love them scattered across salads, best of all with sizzling halloumi cheese. Sweeter seeds can be added to summer fruit salads, with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream. Pomegranate juice isn’t my thing, but it is popular in Egypt. Meanwhile, in Iran, it is used in savoury dishes to add bite to a sauce: In her encyclopaedic Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden gives the recipe for Faisinjan, chicken or duck with a finely-tuned sauce that balances pomegranate and lemon juice with just enough sugar to take the edge off the tartness.

So we’ll wait to see what happens with our one remaining fruit. And if it fails, I have other ways to enjoy them: A favourite jacket, the work of an Indian designer, features a pattern of pomegranates… Pomegranates and textiles? Ah, that’s another story…

Pomegranate jacket

 

 

Pick of the crop

Sweetest of the summer crop this year: The prize goes to our wonderful Zaghloul dates, large, glossy, and coloured from bright red through to a rich and dark brown depending on their degree of (over-)ripeness.

Zaghloul dates 9.17

Bite into one and it is crunchy, juicy and flavorful. The taste of late summer in Egypt, after the main mango season has passed and before the citrus fruits overflow on market stalls. While Arabia has its Khidri and Kholas dates, Egypt – in my experience at least – is overwhelmingly the land of the Zaghloul.

The harvest last year amounted to 19 kg from our one palm tree. This year, we didn’t weigh the crop, which I now regret as I think it wise to keep a rough tally of how much the garden produces. But it was enough to distribute among family and friends, with some to fill a small box for freezing, to be transported to our son in London during the winter: A handful of jewels to brighten the grey winter days of northern Europe. And, of course, enough for us to enjoy plenty over three weeks or so, while they are still fresh.

I would not say that Zaghloul are my favourite dates. I’m more of a Khidri person, with a penchant for really dark, soft, sweet fruit to accompany a little finghen (cup) of Turkish, or Arabian, coffee. But I’m in the minority in my family, and I defer to their better judgement in the date-sphere. Besides, I’m grateful for every fruit the trees in our garden produce – chemical-free, freshly picked, a gift from nature.

For more about palm trees, at some length, see:

Trees of life  

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

Back to work II

A strategy for the raised beds:

If you have been following the Jasminegate for a while, you will know the growing season 2016-17 in the kitchen garden has not been particularly happy.

This is nothing new in gardening terms. Every gardener – every cultivator of the land – knows that some years, or seasons, are real “downers”.  Unhelpful weather conditions, a sudden spike (or drop) in temperature, howling winds, drought, natural or irrigation system floods, pests, even the neighbourhood cats: You name it, we contend with it.

This year, however, the failures have come one on top of the other. Near-useless tomato plants with thick stems and curling leaves – period. Courgette and squash that promised much (such beautiful flowers!) only to produce fruit that rapidly shrivelled and dropped from the mother plant. Beans – both French and broad – also promised much and the bees loved their flowers, but the crops were variable. One aubergine, and about three melons, all so bitter that I hesitated even to compost them. Not to mention the carrots, roots mostly visible only through a magnifying glass.  And on… and on…. and on.

All this was made more uncomfortable by a summer stay in England where I visited gardens professional (Newby Hall in North Yorkshire and Kew near London, both heavenly in their own way) and amateur (a friend’s, and my brother’s, also in Yorkshire). Beautifully planted and productive, they are all that a garden should be. Crowning my discomfort was a TV garden show in which Monty Don raved about his “Rose de Berne” tomatoes… picked some gorgeous samples (these should have been my fruit, I fumed, silently), cut one open and savoured its wonderful texture and flavour. I was almost there in the garden with him, but I’m sure the tomato would have given me indigestion!

Whingeing over. I now have to develop a new strategy for the raised beds – or at least adapt the old one – to move me beyond regretting the lost rows of what-might-have-beens. The situation at the end of the summer is sobering:

 

RBs 1, 2 and 4 (above) produced reasonably good crops of salad leaves, rocket, coriander, dill and flat-leaf parsley. Chard also did well, although I didn’t plant much, and chamomile produced more flowers than in previous trials although it rapidly faded when the summer heat kicked in. RB4 also has good, if small, green peppers (spring 2016 planting) and one cherry tomato (Chadwick) that has produced a few good fruit:

The aubergine probably should not be discussed.

But even if the hugelkultur treatment of these three beds made a difference, and I think it did, I wonder if it was worth the huge effort of digging out almost all the sand and soil, chucking in heaps of dried branches, stems, leaves and unrotted compost and then re-filling with well mixed sand and soil. So much blood, sweat and tears…. So uncertain a result.

So this coming season, my plan is to add as much compost and horse manure as I can and dig it in to a depth of about 15 cm. This should provide a satisfactory medium in which to grow salad and other leaves (spinach, chard) as well as herbs. For root crops, I’ll repeat the attempt at “targeted composting”, digging in the rich mixture to a greater depth in the trench or drill in which the seeds are sown. I still haven’t quite made the cultural leap to a no-dig approach. I think it’s brilliant… but I am not there yet.

I have mostly ditched the heritage seeds, for now. I stocked up in London on packets from Unwins, Thompson & Morgan and Suffolk Herbs, all mainstream suppliers. But I will also use last year’s supply from the Real Seed Company, especially of “Early Mizuna”, oakleaf lettuce “Emerald Oak” and salad mustard greens “Golden Frill”. No need to throw the heritage towel in completely.

RB3 is a bit trickier. I didn’t complete the hugelkultur treatment, and I never excavated the tree roots from our Indian laurel hedge (Ficus nitida – a bad choice) which must, by now, be all over the bed. I think I’ll put it on the back burner for a while and rehabilitate it later on; after all, I will need to transplant the lettuce seedlings at a later stage, so I’ll keep RB3 in reserve. Also in need of an overhaul is RB5, the “Cinderella bed”: Much neglected, this diamond-shaped bed in the middle of the set has produced an endless supply of herbs over the years, but is now in quite bad shape. Trouble is, I am not quite sure whether our two huge thyme plants are drying, dying or just resting!

I’m going to be busy – extremely busy – over the next several weeks….