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!



Boris redux

Or: an epilogue to the drama

Last time I wrote about Boris and the rosemary, I concluded that he was a has-been and she merited rehabilitation. I no longer referred to them as one and the same. This was in late June, in Rehabilitating the rosemary

You may remember that Rosemarinus officinalis had a habit of growing out of control, dominating one corner of the garden and overpowering lesser flora by sheer, towering ambition.

By the end of June, we had come to an accommodation of sorts. The Boris genie was back in his box, as it were, and the rosemary had command of her plot. In fact, I felt I owed her some respect.

A further drastic reshaping of the herb in September seemed to do the trick nicely. Afterwards, rosemary kept her shape, flowered generously, attracted bees and other pollinators, and produced richly scented shoots full of essential oil. In short, she did everything a herb is supposed to do.

But: Cave Rosmarinum! Beware of jumping to conclusions, say I (not an exact translation).

Come October, the Boris inside the bush broke out once again… Absolutely irrepressible, the unkempt giant of the corner with the thatch going every which way made a storming comeback. Thus was Elizabeth David’s warning shown to be true: “A treacherous herb”, said she.

With inexhaustible energy and a blindness to the inappropriateness of taking over the whole plot, the herb is once more occupying more than a fair share of space and light. I do believe she/he is larger than ever, robust in the extreme and impervious to everything around – even to the presence of a superb lemon/orange tree with the strength of continents in its genetic heritage.

So this may not be an epilogue. It may be only the second act in a very long and unnerving soap opera: eerie in the extreme.

Parallel universe: On the cover of the British satirical magazine “Private Eye” last summer: Theresa May curtseying to HM Queen Elizabeth II. HM: “How low can you go?” May: “Well, I’ve appointed Boris as Foreign Minister.”


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.


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?


Rehabilitating the rosemary

It wasn’t the Queen of Hearts after all: it was the Knave. If I had paid closer attention to my Lewis Carroll, I would have anticipated it.

So while Boris is already a has-been (unless there is an epilogue to this near-Shakespearean drama), I’ll have to go back to calling my rosemary by its official name, Rosmarinus officinalis.

I’ll change her gender too. And my attitude along with it. The mother plant is a magnificent specimen, if totally out of hand, and there are any number of her offspring all around the garden, filling in gaps in the hedge at ground level, or growing up against the wooden fence separating the kitchen garden from the fruit trees, with more cuttings now established in three raised beds. So, yes, I should be grateful.

In Sirmione, Lake Garda, last month we found rosemary used as a hedge:

Rosemary in Sirmione  5.16

In the kitchen, rosemary is a wonderfully versatile herb, adding flavour to casseroles, pasta sauces, meat roasts and home-made stock, although legendary British food writer Elizabeth David would have none of it. Her advice is perhaps pertinent in the present context. Warning against its overpowering essential oil, she cautioned: “Rosemary has great charm as a plant but in cookery is a treacherous herb.”*

In the pharmacopoeia it helps ward off ageing and memory-loss, and relieves headaches, depression and nervous exhaustion, but is best avoided in pregnancy as it is spasmodic (may cause contractions). In Egypt you can obtain rosemary soap from the Nefertari natural products range; I’m thinking of making my own macerated oil to use in cooking – or maybe to rub on my aching joints after a day’s hard gardening.

So on the whole, I should curb my criticism of our overwhelming rosemary, I think. There’s nothing wrong if it grows like topsy as some of you have pointed out – it’s happy! And David had a point about the charm of rosemary, especially when it is in flower. Ours has multiple spikes heavy with pale mauve flowers, very pretty and an absolute magnet for the bees and other insects.

Long may she reign over her corner of the garden!

Rosemary in flower

*In Italian Food, Elizabeth David, first published by MacDonald, 1954

And then there was Boris….

Something has happened in our garden over the past week or two. The rosemary has grown out of control.

Rosemary 3   6.16

It is supposed to stay quietly in its corner of the plot, but I have realised (too late!) it is taking over. There must be some cunning plan here. Unwieldy, straggly, with a top canopy that knows no boundaries, it has been pruned – hard – on past occasions but nothing will curb its irrepressible ambition which just keeps growing… and growing.

Rosemary 1  6.16

The rate it’s going at, I’m not sure where it will end up. Plants around it stand little chance: Nothing can stand up to it. Even the lemon tree, dignified and elegant, the result of years of careful cultivation and much shaping, may be in danger. So I have decided to call it Boris.

Of course, like all living things, this is a plant that starts off small…

Rosemary 4   61.16,

… but if not kept firmly in check it can get so carried away that, like the unfortunates in “Alice in Wonderland”, it may be in danger of losing its head.

Personally I blame the early influences in its life: the soil must have been too rich. Perhaps the best tactic now is to deprive it of light (and I am tempted to say of oxygen too) and watch it diminish by some sort of natural process of atrophy. Dream on!




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.