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

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Empire of the herbs

I have been empire-building.

What started with a need to rehabilitate raised bed 2, and therefore move a rather lovely rosemary and a struggling sage, mutated over the winter into a case of near-herbal overreach.

After digging out the two plants with as near tender loving care as I could manage, in contrast to the usual approach among Egypt’s gardeners (i.e. smash and grab), I placed them in an ill-prepared spot in full sun at the side of the house. And waited.

Not content with the two plants, I removed a bit of lawn and added an oregano seedling and a touch of chives. And waited a bit more.

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Next came a small and straggly thyme from the raised bed dedicated to herbs (last photo above); I had thought it was a seedling, but, as I went to dig it out, found it was a layered branch of the mother plant. It didn’t seem to mind the dis/re-location.

You may wonder why the new bed. What’s so special about herbs that I’d risk another battle with rampant rosemary, woody sage infested with mealy bugs, leggy thyme and seedy oregano? Not to mention chives that develop the prettiest of flower heads and then seed themselves absolutely all over.

The answer is, I cherish them for their extraordinary qualities. Herbs fill in gaps in the lower hedge where other plants fear to root (rosemary, basil). They add interest to borders (basil, dill, fennel, dianthus). They give food for our bees and other pollinators (rosemary, lavender, thyme, borage). They are food for us too, whether in our cooking, our salads or our honey. Their flowers may be technically insignificant, but they range from pretty white (thyme) to unusual blue (borage) and stunning purple (lavender); and you have only to brush against the leaves on a hot day to release a whole cloud of amazing scent that rises on the currents of air, filling the atmosphere with the heady perfume of essential oils filled with beneficial compounds. What’s not to like?

So through the winter I have worked with the gardener to dig up turf – expertly turned with the fas or adze, a tool used since ancient times. It can be wielded with as much refined precision as brute strength, depending on the need of the moment. We expanded the bed outwards, and then found it taking on a life of its own as it crept northwards along the side of the house.

Out went the bees’ water jar, for the duration, and in went more plants: zaatar or Lebanese thyme, dianthus, a baby sage. I managed (somehow!) to leave space between them: Close planting has been a bit of a problem in other parts of the garden, and I’ve learned my lesson, I hope.

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I’ve struck a deal with the lavender. She stays in her pot so long as she is flowering, since to be full of blooms is a generous and unusual gesture among the lavenders I’ve grown in Egypt. I’ll only transplant her into the bed when she is ready. Nearby, there’s now another, smaller lavender (L. spica, grown from seed brought from Italy); fingers crossed that she will thrive. And a gift from nature, a self-seeded plant that may be a rock rose – I am not sure – undoubtedly the descendant of plants popped into the border last year.

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The bees have their water pot back in situ. This was timely: as the temperatures has risen recently, their need for water has become more urgent.

What is needed now is to add more variety to the existing space, rather than dig out more of the lawn. Attempts to grow melissa (lemon balm) have failed – sigh! I wish I could grow this lovely herb, “the elixir of life” according to Paracelsus, a wonderful aid to work on the anahata (heart) chakra. Hyssop also refused to germinate, and the Thai basil is shrivelling up in the sun. Worst of all, I forgot to make sure we have sweet basil, a terrible omission that must never be repeated: For now, we are senza basilico, the ultimate horror for a family of pasta-lovers!

 

Rearranging the borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

older-rosemary-cutting

Like parent like child – another rosemary running wild

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rearrange

Summer scorcher

Nowadays, in the height of the summer, the Jasmine Garden offers respite from the heat only early or late in the day, when the shady spots and cooling breezes work their magic. Otherwise, it’s out of bounds between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. – and that’s tough for a gardener.

Every day, the bees gather noisily around the water pots left out for them on a corner of the lawn. I am leaving the basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) unrestrained as it is one of very few plants to flower throughout the summer, providing our friends from the hives on the roof with sustenance in an otherwise bleak time.

The raised beds are sun-bleached, the tomato vines scorched and crumpled, the beetroots visibly wilting, but a few sturdy occupants carry on regardless, producing a good crop – the green peppers, for example. Today’s tally is 350g, rather more than I know what to do with. Oddly, although they come in many shapes and sizes including some that both look and smell as if they might be hot, they are all mild… These were supplied by our erstwhile Engineer (he who dared to bring Monsanto seeds into the garden!) so I can’t ask for any info as to what they are, but they were sourced from a Ministry of Agriculture supplier so I am surprised to find the batch so varied.

I have also gathered in another 700g of onions, making a total of 2.2kg so far, with more to come. Sadly the garlic never got planted… Unfailingly, when I mention it to the gardener (whoever he may be) every year, I always hear that it’s the “wrong time” and we should have planted it last week/month or a fortnight ago…

But a July sowing of rocket has germinated and, though stunted, the plants are producing fiery leaves that add piquancy to any salad. Neither the flat-leaf parsley nor the coriander appeared.

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Meanwhile, the fruit trees are doing better, with the fragile lime tree acquired at the 2015 Spring Flower Show in El-Urman Gardens at last taking off. The dates are approaching harvest time and we are keeping a close eye on them. To my husband’s enquiry as to how we should judge the right time to gather them a gardener in a local park answered mysteriously: “You will know!” This left him none the wiser, but we conclude that trial and error, and watching what the neighbours do with theirs, will have to be our guide!

Our guava crop is disappointing, so far. Affected by what looks like a burrowing pest, the fruit have developed patches of slightly mushy, brown flesh while remaining dry and underripe elsewhere. There’s also a tricky balance between leaving them until they are fully ripe and losing them to the birds, as the bulbuls are very partial to them, so we have netted some and hope to have a few that ripen fully and remain bug-free. Definitely not to be compared with last year’s wonderful fruit, however.

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One great thing about the summer: the fast-growing plants produce quantities of clippings and dead-wood for the compost bins or hugelkultur beds. Laid out in the raised beds, or on their walls, or between them, the heaps are sizzling in the sun and drying beautifully. This promises a much better balance of brown:green in the bins and, with the addition of some fermenting yeast solution plus leaving the bins in the full sun, I’m working on accelerating the composting process as much as I can.

And there is some colour too, and perfume especially in the evening: hibiscus flowers are showy but unscented; petunias survive by growing next to the water outlet from an air-conditioner; the jasmines cascade down the pergola and through the hedge, or help fill the border near the front gate – I have a flower in a tiny tumbler of turquoise Venetian glass next to me now, and it smells divine.

Basil’s hidden secrets

I have always had an affinity for basil. It’s a curious thing, but certain plants draw me to them, perhaps for their perfume, or the colour and form of their blooms, or perhaps simply for the unbounded exuberance of their bright green, fresh foliage, so full of vitality that I just can’t resist it. I think, with basil, that last point is the key.

Now, by a curious twist of fortune, I find myself being treated with basil as a homeopathic remedy. And as I delve into the nature of the plant, I have come to realise that it is packed with so many nutrients and compounds of potential value in treating illness and promoting health as to be counted a treasure.

Indians have always known this. Tulsi, Ocimum sanctum Linn. (or O. tenuiflorum) has been regarded as a sacred plant for thousand of years. Mentioned in Ayurvedic texts, it was used as an adaptogen to balance the many processes in the body, and to promote vitality; as a treatment for malaria, different forms of poisoning, inflammation, heart disease, stomach disorders, and colds and coughs. In my case, it has been prescribed for a severe attack of bronchitis with asthma that went on for months earlier this year, and severely curtailed my capacity to look after the garden. So my beloved basil is rallying to support my health in a way I would never have anticipated.

This is not sweet basil (O. basilicum), a close relative much used in Italian food from a garnish for pizzas to pesto sauce for pasta. It is a stronger, perennial herb growing up to 2 meters tall, with strongly aromatic elliptical leaves and elongate racemes of usually white flowers. One species has bright green stems and leaves (“Rama” or Bright Tulsi) while another, with dark green or purple leaves and stems, is known as “Shyama” or dark Tulsi.

I am pretty sure that what I have previously referred to as “Egyptian basil” could well be O. sanctum, and – if it is – then we have several wonderful specimens growing right here in the Jasmime Garden, including one several years old that is taller than I am:

 

There are plenty more, all cultivated from cuttings taken from one or two mother plants brought in when we began to cultivate the land.
Tulsi 7.16
Almost continually in bloom throughout the year, the basil is a magnet for insects of all kinds, especially the bees from the rooftop hives, and including many moths and butterflies. They, in turn, attract birds to the garden, so establishing a virtuous circle with the basil at the centre.

This fits well with the sacred plant’s reputation. Deeply revered among Hindus, it is often to be found at the centre of domestic gardens in India, carefully tended and watered (usually by the women of the household). Its wood is used for rosaries or japa malas or Tulsi malas. I regret to say that I have used its stems and branches as supports for the mange tout, but I may rethink: it seems somehow disrespectful.

What is utterly fascinating, however, is the vast array of compounds and chemicals hidden inside the leaves, stems and flowers of this remarkable plant. Among them are eugenol and eugenic acid, urosolic acid, linalool, caryophyllene and estragol; saponins, flavonoids and tannins; and fatty acids and sitosterol, depending on which part of the plant is under examination. Up to now we have just scratched the surface of the substances available and how they work, usually in combination, to treat illnesses and conditions from diabetes and eczema to peptic ulcers and even certain types of cancer.

O. sanctum also has its uses in agro-homeopathy, and in natural treatments for agricultural uses. It is effective against a fungal condition affecting rice and as a deterrent against the root knot nematode. Companion planting benefits tomatoes, I have read; oddly enough, again as if by instinct, I have it growing in three of our five raised beds, often in close proximity to the cherry tomato vines.
Basil and toms 7.16I wouldn’t say that O. sanctum is the tidiest or most graceful of plants in the garden. It has a tendency to be leggy and ungainly, with spindly racemes of flowers and seeds blowing around in the wind, and a carpet of flotsam on the ground beneath it. But it is one of nature’s undoubted wonders and I absolutely treasure it in my garden.

Turning up the heat

I think the summer has arrived. Temperatures are hovering at or near 40C during the daytime. The nights are still beautiful, however, with cooling breezes.

While some occupants of the garden are visibly wilting, others are just coming into their own. Isn’t this the most wonderful thing about gardening? There is always something in the throes of coming into season, buds just opening, a new colour and fragrance to enjoy. Well, almost always!

So, as the red rose climbing over our pergola loses its colour, the honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) has burst into clusters of sweet flowers seemingly all around the garden. For the moment, we have a honeysuckle, rather than a jasmine, gate; that will change later in the summer when the jasmine (J. officinale) takes over. We have jasmine growing along the hedge in several places. With its long trailing stems, this lovely climber tends to break out of the garden completely and twine itself into the trees planted along the pavement, spreading white flowers like stars above our heads and diffusing a sweet perfume into the night air.

Somewhat earlier than I had expected, the jacaranda tree (J. acutifolia) outside the gate has also burst into bloom, its eye-catching deep lavender clusters towering overhead : possibly because we have had several spikes of temperature over the past few weeks, the trees are ahead of themselves this year.

Meanwhile, Egyptian basil – presumably of the Ocimum family, though I am not sure about this – continues to flower profusely. Along with borage (Borago officinalis) and nasturtiums (Tropaeolum magus), originally grown from seeds brought from the UK but now entirely self-seeding, the plants provide ample food for the bees.

My husband’s most recent harvest of honey, taken last week, yielded nearly five kilos. Seen above, unstrained through muslin, the product of the hives this time is clear, sweet and more delicately flavoured than any we have had for some time. I have a feeling the more varied diet of springtime brings forth a gentler taste in the honey.

At the same time there are other harbingers of the end of spring: overhead, the European bee eaters are back, passing through on their way to northern Europe and making a diversion from the Red Sea (where we spotted them two weeks ago) to refuel in New Cairo. Poor bees!

 

Bee-sotted

These are beautiful days – warm (up to 30 C!) with lovely breezes. The citrus trees are showing tender shoots of incredibly fragrant leaves. Flower buds are appearing. The birds are full of song, especially the bulbuls; warblers flit about in our hedge, hoopoes chase one another over the lawn. I’ve followed a fellow-blogger’s advice and put the soft hairs we get from grooming our golden retriever out for the birds to use for nesting. Now it only remains for me to write about the bees…

After a hard(ish) winter, we are down to one stack or hive on the roof. But the bees are all around us in the garden, active as ever, enjoying every moment of sun. The flowers in the kitchen garden are their favourites, to the extent that we don’t remove overgrown rocket or mustard from the raised beds in order to let them take whatever they can. There’s another attraction at the moment: the huge rosemary, positioned at a corner of the lawn below the area of roof where the hives are situated. It’s in full flower right now, and the bees are having a ball.