Obsessing about the raised beds

As usual, I’m obsessing about the raised beds. Seen from above, they don’t look so bad:

RBs 2 & 4 10.17

Up close and personal, it’s a different story. Depleted soil; swarms of snails; tribes of woodlice; a late-summer plague of grasshoppers; reams of caterpillars; mealy bugs on aubergine/tomato plants…. Not to mention the truly spectacular failure, etched on my memory, of crops I tried to grow through spring and early summer 2017, from aubergines to squash, courgettes to tomatoes.

So has anything gone right? Well, the mint in RB4 is magnificent, although it’s not supposed to be there at all. I hauled armfuls of the herb out this morning as I got the bed ready for the coming growing season:

Mint fr RB4 10.17

Now this is quite a treat, so let me acknowledge the glorious, fresh smell that pervaded the kitchen. Known as na’ana’a baladi, or “local mint” in Egypt, it’s often added to glasses of sweet black tea, or whizzed up with lemon juice, sugar and ice-cold water to make a frothy and refreshing pick-me-up in hot weather.

Spearmint, known for some reason as sa’oudi, is less popular. We were given some by friends: I keep it by the back door, to be accessible for emergency purposes – an infusion is a brilliant (and rapid) digestive tonic.

Returning to my obsession: I began the growing season this autumn by getting the timing wrong. I’ve done this before – planted too early – and paid the price, and now I’ve repeated the same mistake. So my neat rows of cut and come again lettuce; early mizuna; dill; rocket; and oriental green leaves a) hardly germinated and b) where they did struggle to the surface, were decimated by pests.

On the other hand, seeds I didn’t sow have germinated with a vengeance, including flat-leaf parsley in RB4 around a similarly self-seeded basil (below left), while I also discovered an unknown Greek oregano hiding under the mint (right):

Rocket has appeared here, there and everywhere except where I sowed the seeds; but, not to be put off, after finishing preparing the bed and moving some young rocket plants into it from elsewhere, I sowed more seeds in the hope that the timing now might be better.

As for RB2, everything that germinated there was eaten to oblivion, in spite of the netting covering the whole bed. There’s just a tiny bit of mizuna left – though you may have difficulty spotting it in the photo:

RB2 mizuna struggling 10.17

Although I did some preliminary clearing of RB1, I’ve yet to get properly to grips with it or RB3. Seen from above, they look slightly better than at ground level.

RBs 1 & 3 10.17

RB3 is the major challenge, as it has not been properly dug for at least 2 years, and I have no doubt it will be full of tree roots. Plus, I will have run out of compost by the time I get to it, so I will have to buy some in if the soil is to be improved and it’s anyone’s guess whether the commercially available kompoost here is any good.

Maybe a green fertiliser would do the trick. However, my previous attempt, using clover (or berseem, much grown in the countryside in Egypt, where it is also used as animal fodder) was counter-productive: I couldn’t dig the stuff out of the bed!

So, having calmed down a bit as I worked steadily on RB4, I decided to take the kitchen garden one bed at a time, and stick to a conservative sowing schedule for the rest of the season. No adventures, no tricks – just steady digging and sowing, and a prayer for each row as I cover the seeds over.

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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….

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!

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Assessing the garden produce

In temperatures easily reaching 40C, sometimes well above that, the plants in the raised beds have to a large extent survived, seemingly against the odds. To give credit where it is due, I think this is largely owing to the Engineer overhauling the irrigation system in April – after which he disappeared for two months! Benign neglect while we were away in May-June seems to have done the plants no harm either. This all puts me in my place, I rather think.

Raised bed 4 has been a triumph of our experiment in hugelkultur. Formerly overwatered and depleted, the soil in two-thirds of the bed was dug out, the trench filled with dead wood and dry composting materials, and then topped off with mixed sand and soil plus a thin dressing of compost and horse manure. The cherry tomatoes, capsicums, sweet basil, beans and mange tout were all young plants when we left on holiday. On our return, the tomato vines had grown like topsy and were laden with a heavy crop of fruit; likewise, the capsicums had produced a plentiful supply of fine, tender peppers, while the basil bushes were glowing with health. Only the beans and mange tout had been well and truly fried by the sun.

Cherry tomatoes bed 4   6.16
Swinging into action last Saturday, the Engineer and assistant rigged up a rather peculiar frame for the tomatoes using bits of wood from around the garage to raise the tomatoes off the bed. Just picked, the little fruit burst on the palate like a summer’s day: sweet, flavourful and warm from the sun!
Bed 3, partially renovated along hugelkultur lines but with less dried material as we were running low at that point, has done correspondingly less well. The soil seems dried out and is retaining less water, I assume. Tomatoes and capsicums are not cropping as well, but we do have a welcome little patch of self-seeded rocket, some straggly beetroot, and a whole lot of flat leaf parsley and coriander in seed.
Harvest 6.16
Bed 2, rather neglected in the early summer, was filled with drying out chard, celeriac that had grown like topsy but refused utterly to form a decent root, two-year old red carrots that had grown likewise, and a sprinkling of herbs including a very healthy sage bush acquired at the Spring Flower Show at El-Urman Gardens.


The gardeners cleared the bed and began preparing the soil for a sowing of molokhiya, a mallow plant grown in Egypt since pharaonic times. The leaves are used to make a rich and quite heavy soup; I am not sure that we really want to grow it – or eat it! – but I’m willing to have a go.
We found the chard in bed 1 in need of trimming but otherwise still producing healthy new growth. Again, not my favourite but it can be used as a spinach substitute and it’s very handy for stir-fries and mixed vegetable soups. Dill and flat leaf parsley had gone to seed, celeriac was misbehaving again, and the mint was threatening to take the bed over. So the gardeners cleaned the bed and we plan to re-plant with herbs and rocket next week.
Raised bed 1  6.16
Lastly, the herb bed: I don’t often write about the diamond shaped bed in the middle but in some ways it has been an unsung star of the garden. The herbs – thyme, chives, marjoram – just get on with the job of growing. Rosemary rises to gigantic proportions elsewhere in the garden. I never give them supplementary food (no nitrates!) or water but leave them to their own devices: as a result they are filled with essential oils, giving off a wondrous perfume if you simply brush against them and filling the dishes we prepare in the kitchen with the most delicious, beneficial flavours.

The flavours of summer

“Is there any more wonderful sight, any moment when man’s reason is nearer to some sort of converse with the nature of things, than the sowing of seeds, the planting of cuttings, the transplanting of shrubs, the grafting of slips?”

So wrote Augustine of Hippo some 16 centuries ago. I might add: “And best of all, harvesting the produce of the garden that man (or woman!) has lovingly tended.”

Garden produce 4.16

Over the past seven months I have managed the vegetable garden rather more productively than previously, with successive sowings of salad leaves, rocket, beetroot and herbs. So we have managed to keep ourselves supplied continually, if modestly, since the beginning of the year.

This feels like a triumph, albeit a minor one. But when the challenges come thick and fast – as they have done on occasion in the Jasmine Garden – any progress can feel like a milestone reached.

First off, we spent much of this month working with an engineer on the irrigation system (see below left). It hadn’t been working properly for a year or two. The lawn was bare in patches and burnt dry in others, raised bed 4 was subject to mini-floods, raised bed 1 and the herb garden had very little water at all. That suited the thyme and the marjoram, but emphatically not the lettuces.

 

We almost got it right, but three bursts in two beds* made it clear that we still needed to secure the pipe connections with metal collars – and to watch them like hawks until the system had settled down. Up to now, the timer for the raised beds isn’t working, which means we have to switch the system on manually for that section of the garden only – how odd!

It’s interesting to note the progress of the raised beds since we launched the rescue plan early in the year:

Bed 1: treated with compost and horse manure produced a magnificent crop of chard that outlasted the spinach by miles; good salad leaves, flat leaf parsley and coriander and a forest of dill (self-seeded).

Bed 2: treated with compost and a little manure did less well for salad leaves (but was patchily watered). I’m still watching the shallots, coming along slowly, as is the curly leaf parsley; the sage bush has recently decided to put on a growing spurt. We may get there yet.

Bed 3: partially overhauled by digging out some soil, extracting the worst lumps and adding dry branches and leaves before filling up with soil and sand mix, plus compost and a little manure. Tomato plants are growing like topsy – but I have forgotten what I planted (!!) They appear to be cherry tomatoes. Those on the upstairs balcony, which were not transplanted, are ahead as they are already turning red (below right). Also doing well: capsicums bought as seedlings from the local market; mange-tout; flat leaf parsley; second sowings of salad leaves, rocket and beetroot.

Bed 4: Again, the tomatoes have taken off. French beans and capsicums are doing well (see below main picture, with ladybirds). A sowing of sweet basil germinated well and is growing happily, while the onions are in danger of going to seed… I need to do something about them.

Meanwhile, the herb bed is full of flowers as the two thyme plants are in full bloom and the chives have produced lovely heads of pale lilac blooms. I love them – and so do the bees!
Herb bed 4.16Of course, it’s not just the admiring and the harvesting that count: the proof of the produce is in the eating, and we have had vegetarian meals full of the most wonderful flavours in the past few weeks – take the beetroot risotto and the wealth of leaves and herbs that form the basis of every salad we eat. Irresistible!

 

  • Correction 30th April: 4 bursts in 3 beds. Nothing worse than leaking pipes in irrigation systems!

Walks on the not-so-wild side

We’ve spent a fun couple of days this weekend at the Spring Flower Show in downtown Cairo, pottering among the displays of flowers, looking at fruit trees, chatting to beekeepers – and trying to resist the temptation to add to our already crowded garden.

The show brings together nurseries and agricultural businesses, as well as suppliers of equipment, seeds and potting compost, from all over. If the flower displays are on the repetitive side (too many geraniums for my taste), it’s a great way to find out more about what works and what doesn’t here in Egypt, and where to get stock for the garden etc.

Oddly, there aren’t many garden design companies in the show, though one exception to this, from the upscale neighbourhood of Maadi, has an interesting, and unusual, display.

What makes the Cairo event so attractive, to my way of thinking, is the setting: the show is held over the road from Cairo University in the grand – if somewhat faded – El-Urman Gardens. Part of an ambitious scheme to create a fashionable European-style city by Egypt’s C19 rulers (Khedives), the gardens are filled with an amazing collection of conifers and exemplars of trees from across the world, from Australian kauris to Indian almonds to American swamp cypresses.

We wandered among colourful banks of flowers, some locally produced, some imported, testing the prices and looking out for a few we could take home. They make great gifts for family and friends: almost everyone we know has a balcony or small patch of garden, and they really appreciate a present of colourful and aromatic carnations, sweet williams or jasmine.

Thinner on the ground this year compared to 2015, I thought, were the fruit tree and kitchen garden sections, though the herbs were looking good and there were a few trays filled with veg seedlings such as lettuce, aubergine and celery. We resisted the temptation to buy a mulberry tree (one of my husband’s favourites, if only for his memories of boyhood escapades climbing them to feast off the sweet, sticky fruit). Just as well, they grow like topsy and have the kind of root systems we can’t accommodate!

Good to see some labels, though all were exclusively in Arabic: I’m not so sure about the vines, though, (above right), planted up in old industrial adhesives cans. Hardly the most sensitive of environments for the roots…

We came away with a modest haul, for once managing to stick to our plan – not something I normally manage when faced with temptation on this scale. As my husband went off to talk to the beekeepers, I even went round my favourite garden tools stall without buying a thing. Reformed character, or what!