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




Crisp? More like incinerated…

The heatwave this week has taken its toll.

Last week, in pretty hot weather, I was interested to see the chamomile taking shelter beneath leaves of chard in Raised Bed 2, which seemed to offer the herb some hope of protection – and me some hope of a few more flowers for my night-time infusions.

This week, the chard (above left) has flaked out entirely owing to a full frontal assault from a brutal midday sun, so the poor herb plants stand exposed as the temperature climbs to 42 C (107 F). Yesterday our car thermometer measured 45 C in the early afternoon; I nearly expired along with my herbs.

As for the squash, quite simply incinerated in the same bed (also above left), and the courgette (above right), we’ve had no crop at all this year – and it doesn’t look as if that’s going to change.

With humidity at 10-13% and a bit of wind, going anywhere is like walking into a fan oven. I guess we might be thankful that the humidity is far less than we used to experience in the Arabian/Persian Gulf, but that’s small compensation for internet weather sites that read: “42 C – hot with plenty of sunshine” and then (Monday’s forecast): “35 C – very warm”.

My plants have a different view about “very warm”:

It’s hard to know how to protect them. Covering them can help, but the temperature in the beds beneath the covers becomes fearsome, as far as I can tell. Some do a bit better where they have shelter from the hedge, like the chicory and the remnants of flat leaf parsley in RB 2:

Chicory RB2 8.6This is a marginal advantage – it doesn’t prevent the plants from finding themselves rooted in a sea of boiling sand (if it’s damp) or a bed of fine grains almost hot enough to make glass (if it’s dry).

I think the only solution is to follow the time-honoured Egyptian practice of planting according to the seasons, unless one has access to covered beds and cooling systems (surely not energy-efficient). This means planting summer crops of corn and okra, karkaday and melons; and finding part-shaded corners where other plants can brave the midday heat and survive to produce fruit (tomatoes, cucumbers).

Once out the other side of this week’s heatwave, I’ll re-assess the damage – and report back on this year’s very surprising fruit crop.


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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.





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.