Basil flower tips and recipes

Basil flowers are beautiful to look at, smell gorgeous and attract bees and other beneficial insects. It is tempting to leave the flowers on because they look so pretty, but removing them encourages the plant to put its energy into continuing to produce abundant leaves for longer – for salads, pesto, preserving and summer cooking.

Small forest garden in pots

One of the plans for my back garden is to make the concrete areas more productive and beautiful. This one is quite near to the back of my house, where a shed was removed after storms a few years ago – a concrete base that had become something of a glory hole for stray pots, bricks and other things that could be useful so I didn’t want to throw them away, but hadn’t quite got round to storing them properly.

The concrete base is rather ugly with a low breeze block around it. This photo was taken on 30th January. The strange plastic covered blob is the outside water tap, wrapped up in case of cold weather.

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On 17th May Charles and I cleared the area of weeds and debris, making a neat pile of all of the ‘useful’ stones, bricks and slabs. I already had two pot grown apple trees, two red elders and a fig. A friend gave me a peach and two nectarines, too.

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This is the space in July. Everything here is grown in pots or reusable grow bags (these were free gifts with other purchases for the garden.) It is a beautiful polyculture, a multi-level mix of edible annual and perennial plants, with some non edible flowers for colour and wildlife. I placed the pots around the edges so that I have access down the middle towards the back fence.

 

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This is a productive and versatile use of a sterile, neglected space. The flexibility of potted plants means that after observing how I interact with this area, what grows well, what is not successful, etc I can reconsider this area in the autumn and redesign it for the winter and next year. So far, I have realised that having the washing line here does not work well (the laundry is knocking some of the fruit off, it takes twice as long to hang things out as I’m negotiating pots) and that I’d love to have a place to sit in here – two considerations for future designs for this space.

I am also going to use more plant trays to conserve water when watering. This is easily solved as I have a store of different sized plant saucers ready to use. Watering is an issue with pot grown plants. A water butt here would be idea, but I am not sure how I could fill it using rain water. A possible solution might be to run guttering along the fence – another idea to ponder!

The compost used is a mixture of homemade, store bought organic multipurpose compost, seaweed meal, rock dust and chicken manure pellets. They are fed using a homemade comfrey and nettle feed.

I have been thinking about ways of making the area around the pots less of a concrete monoculture. My first thought of spreading some of my stone collection was rejected as I thought it would make walking in there unstable. I may do this around the pots where I don’t walk, but need to take into account that I don’t want to create habitats for slugs and snails. A solution may be to have low growing plants in pockets created by stones or in plant trays.

There is an article in the next issue of Permaculture Magazine about growing a forest garden in pots, so I’m looking forward to reading that and getting some new ideas. My article about using the summer harvest is in this issue too.

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Pots are placed on the ground, on the low wall and stone piles – small ones are on top of the compost of bigger pots, too. In the background you can see a grapevine trying to join in.

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Different flowers bloom in the compost around some of the trees.

At the back a boysenberry its starting to climb the fence. A tomatillo and a tomato share a pot with a tree which is labelled ‘nectarine’ but I think the fruit looks more like a peach! Really I should have removed the fruits when I potted on the tree, to allow it to put energy into the roots but they looked so pretty and fuzzy that I couldn’t bring myself to.

The growing space next to this is joining in too – here is a caper spurge which has self sown itself next to a blackcurrant and the growing Pumpkin Nut is spreading itself across some of the pots. I keep redirecting it so that the space isn’t take over by large squash leaves!

Caper spurge (Euphorbia lathyris ) is of course poisonous. I have a great fondness for euphorbias and grow several, but you might not want to grow toxic plants close to edibles if you have young children (or dogs) in the garden (my children are 17, 19 and 22.) The morning glories too have seeds which are toxic if eaten in quantity, so I didn’t grow them with edibles when my children were small.

This is a great area for wildlife. As well as benefitting birds, bees, butterflies, hoverflies and other insects, my population of toads and frogs can enjoy the nooks and crannies here. The dish of marbles is for bees to drink from, I got the idea from a Pinterest post.

I’m happy that the sweet pepper and tomatoes (Garden Pearl) are fruiting outside, they were an experiment. I have two Garden Pearl tomato plants outside, both have been very productive and no signs of blight. I’m growing three different tomatoes in the large, reusable grow bag along with chamomile.

The small white flowers are on a tea tree plant!

More views of the forest garden. Ideally, I would like this to be productive as much of the year as possible but perhaps not this year as I need to change it around and implement new ideas. I may just add some easy to move over wintering herbs in small pots.

Rice and Zen

For the first time in 10 years I went on a holiday during the summer. Here is a short blog post with some photos from the trip. It was lovely to go away but oh my goodness, I came back to a lot of things to do – weeding, side shooting, picking, dead heading… (read about this here.) It was worth it though!

My daughter and I were visiting my dad who has lived near Chiang Mai for 3 years. It felt very strange leaving my garden and allotment during such a peak growing time. Fortunately one of my sons was in charge of watering pots, the greenhouse and polytunnel so I knew everything should still be alive when I got back (it was!) and Charles kindly weeded the allotment and raised beds in my front garden.

We flew to Bangkok where we caught another plane a couple of hours later to Chaing Mai.

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The view of rice fields as we flew into Bangkok

Dad lives in a village near to Doi Saket in Northern Thailand. It is very peaceful here, a lovely place to relax. We were especially excited about the swimming pool which was completed shortly before we arrived. It used a mineral filtration system, no smelly chemicals. It is a complete contrast with life at home. I’d brought some writing work with me – it was amazing working here on the veranda looking at these views and going for a swim whenever I felt too hot. I have visited Thailand in January and October, when it is hot but nothing like I experienced this time!

Here dad has created Of Rice and Zen, a boutique resort with two individual villas for rent – one has been there for a few years and a newer one  built using timber and tiles from an old rice barn. All of the scaffolding is made from bamboo.

 

The tiles are 100 years old. I thought they look beautiful.

The gardens here are gorgeous, there are so many possibilities growing in the tropics. The edible plants in dad’s garden include coconuts, mangosteens, mangoes and pandanus, a grass-like vanilla flavoured herb used in cooking both sweet and savory dishes. I’ve tried to grow it in the UK several times but without much success. Between the garden and the rice field, the khlong is used to channel water and irrigate the pond and rice field. Here one can forage for wild plants including edible morning glory and bitter gourds. The villagers also collect frogs and fish.

July is the start of the rainy season in Thailand. It was very hot and humid (especially for a person used to English summers) with incredible thunderstorms. One morning the khlong had overflowed, flooding part of the garden. It looked very dramatic, but soon drained away.

Organic growing is becoming increasingly popular in Thailand. This wall painting is in a large shopping centre:
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One of the many markets inspired by sustainability, healthy eating and organic growing.

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I enjoyed exploring the many stalls.

Here I bought some Thai organic potions to experiment with – an Egg Hormone for fruit (think I will try some on the aubergines) and Soybean Hormone. ‘Hormone’ is an unusual term for plant feeds, I wonder if it is one of those words that translated unusually from Thai to English.

I love tropical fruits and Thai cooking and came back full of ideas of how I can adapt home grown vegetables and fruit to create meals influenced by the colours and flavours of Thai cuisine.

Ripe apricots in June

On June 17th, Charles and I Travelled to Ireland to visit Ballymaloe, home of Darina and Tim Allen and the famous cookery school, where Charles was giving a one day workshop the following day. We’d met Darina when she came to Bruton with her brother Rory O’Connell to give a talk at Roths Bar and Grill (fascinating talk, delicious food, my friend Christine and I polished off quite a lot of Roth’s lovely organic red wine, it was a good evening.) Darina and Rory visited Charles’ no dig garden at Homeacres the next day.

Ballymaloe cookery school, situated on a 100 acre organic farm, was started by Darina and Rory in 1983. The 12 week intensive courses look fantastic  – they offer many shorter courses too (wish I lived closer as I’d love to do some.) Darina’s belief that chefs should work in and understand kitchen gardens as part of their training is reflected in the extensive organic farm including livestock, vegetable gardens, fruit, wildlife gardens, foraging areas. We stayed in their beautiful home and enjoyed fresh delicious food including gorgeous yellow raw butter made from the milk from their Jersey cows.

The organic kitchen gardens are impressive, full of different vegetables, fruit and herbs which are used by the  family, students at the cookery school and in the restaurant.

Ballymaloe herb garden
Ballymaloe herb garden

I had a great time exploring the gardens with Tim Allen and Charles on the Friday evening and by myself on the Saturday. It is an incredible resource for the students, who are able to gain an understanding of how to grow food, how long it takes to reach maturity, the problems that can occur due to weather or pests and, crucially, what actually is in season.

Built by Tim’s father Ivan Allen as a growing space for mushrooms and tomatoes (eventually they become uneconomic to produce), the glasshouse is very impressive.

View from the front doors
View from the front doors

The glasshouse has been transformed into an extraordinary polyculture of annual and perennial food crops which makes full use of the incredible one acre of glass covered growing space. The huge glass structure creates a microclimate which extends the season considerably. There are ripe apricots and peaches in June!

Around the edges are established fruit and nut trees including pomegranate, almond, fig, apricot, plum, nectarine and peaches. Extensive grape vines are full of swelling grapes (at the same time, my grape vine in the polytunnel  is just in flower.)

The rafters provide an ideal drying space for onions.

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This sweet corn will be ready to harvest months before my outdoor grown corn.

The glasshouse has a series of large beds, many of which are covered with weed suppressing membrane to save time – it may also have some moisture saving properties, like the compost mulch I use in my garden. They use a small tractor with a kind of rotavating attachment (I lack the necessary technical vocabulary for such equipment, having never used a rotovator or a tractor!) as part of the bed preparation, but are also exploring ways of introducing more no dig methods into the garden. The glasshouse was full of wildlife – bees, butterflies, foraging birds (some were feeding their young on the rafters!)

The glasshouse is also used for propagating:

The outbuildings at Ballymaloe are beautiful. Here I looked through a window of an old potting shed.

 

One of the potting sheds
One of the potting sheds

Homegrown produce is offered for sale at the shop and also at a local farmer’s market.

Homegrown produce for sale outside the shop.
Homegrown produce for sale outside the shop.

Whilst Charles was teaching, I spent some time working on my iPad in the restaurant – this was my view.

The gardens are very beautiful.

Here are some of the self catering cottages for students on the 12 week courses – so pretty!

Inside the shop and restaurant area – I loved the little decorated alcoves, especially the ‘shrine’ to kale!

The lovely shell house folly, created by Blot Kerr-Wilson in 1995, includes some of Darina’s personal shell collection. I tried to capture the intricacy and beauty with my phone camera, not easy! It is gorgeous.

After the day course, I drove us to Kilruddery House near Dublin, a journey of about three hours, where Charles was giving a talk the next day. We had visited here last year, it’s a great place – the have extensive ornamental gardens, a large no dig kitchen garden and organic farms. Fionnuala and Anthony Ardee actively produce and promote good quality organic food. Charles and I enjoyed more amazing, fresh, home produced seasonal cooking. In addition to the walled kitchen gardens they keep livestock including chickens, pigs and sheep. A huge polytunnel is being constructed as part of the preparations for their Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in September, which will prove invaluable for extending the growing season for produce for their farmer’s market and the Kilruddery cafe.

The Irish Times
The Irish Times

Edible flowers and a rose vinegar recipe

On Friday I harvested the first of my roses to dry the petals. The edible flowers here are beginning to bloom in abundance, adding beauty and colour to the garden and food, with the added bonus of smelling amazing and feeding the bees. My article on growing and using edible flowers, including many recipes, is in the current issue of Permaculture Magazine (International) and the new publication, Permaculture  Magazine, North America.

Mulching and planting my no dig polytunnel

I love tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers, peppers and chillis – having a polytunnel gives me the opportunity to grow these in abundance. Last Monday morning (23rd May) the polytunnel looked like this:

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so I brought the laundry in and cleared the last of the winter lettuce, moved most of the pots outside and removed any emerging bindweed which creeps in from the right hand side. Having base rails was the best solution for the space I have in my back garden, it meant that I was able to have an additional 2 feet or more width to the tunnel, but the disadvantage of base rails over digging the polythene in is that the latter method also acts as a barrier to creeping weeds.

At the back are tomato and tomatillo plants waiting to be planted.  Beside the rear door is a grapevine, in front are some overwintered garlic – on the left is elephant garlic. In the middle of the tunnel you can see two Grenoble Red lettuces which I am growing in order to save their seed, to the right are Rocket new potatoes. I left the self sown night scented stock because the scent it so gorgeous – here I had just begun sprinkling rock dust.

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Remaining in the tunnel are some young plants in module trays which are remaining here until ready to plant. I grow a lot of beans because I’m also supplying some clients. These are climbing and dwarf French beans, runners, borlotti and Czar.

There were two compost heaps ready to mulch the tunnel: one plastic ‘dalek’ type with year old compost and a larger heap made from pallets and old wood. This heap had 3 year old compost on the bottom, two year old on top. Neither heap have ever been turned. The compost is beautifully rich, dark and crumbly. The ‘dalek’ composter simply pulls up, revealing a neat pile of compost. It also revealed some unwanted inhabitants, the ants were very alarmed!

Charles came to help with the mulching. The polytunnel wasn’t mulched last year so I thought I would give the soil extra treats – powdered seaweed meal and rock dust – to add minerals and zing to the soil. It looks a bit strange at first, as if I have spread concrete dust! Here Charles had added the first wheelbarrow load of ‘dalek’ compost.

_MG_8485Strangely, no matter how careful I think I am being with my composting, I always find unwelcome bits of plastic in the resulting compost. So we had two buckets when loading the wheelbarrows – one for anything that needs to continue composting such as sticks (these go in one of the current heaps) and another for rubbish – and checked the compost thoroughly before using it. We spread a good two inches of compost on the wider middle bed and the two narrower side beds, using my copper rake.

There was enough compost left to do the parts which we couldn’t mulch because they had pots on them. I was amazed that one big and one small heap could produce enough compost to cover all of the beds in here. This makes me feel confident that I can produce enough at home for the spring mulch next year – one of my plans for the garden is to try to make it as closed-loop and self sufficient as possible.

The mulched polytunnel!

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I planted most of the tomatoes. I grow them up strings (made from baler twine) put under the tomato when I plant it and attached to more baler twine stretched across the crop bars – the same string that I hang my washing from. Most of these tomatoes are not tied up yet because I want to replace the top twine with fresh string.

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Then we celebrated by sharing a cider.

Over the week I have continued planting the tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatillo, some aubergines and cape gooseberries. There are still more aubergines, sweet and chilli peppers, melons, basil, other herbs and edible flowers to plant tomorrow and Thursday. The garlic here is a bit thin, I think because I planted it amongst the cabbage plants and it has got too dry – a lesson learned there. Some annual weeds are popping up, so I’ll hoe those tomorrow morning too. It’s good to hoe off weeds before they get too big, or even before you even see them. Charles was told this old gardeners’  saying: “If you hoe when you have no weeds, you’ll have no weeds.”

Here is the polytunnel this evening, a view from each door.

And inside the tunnel…

I’ve harvested the potatoes too, looking forward to some of these for tea.

Rocket first early potatoes
Rocket first early potatoes

 

 

 

 

Riverside Community Garden, Cardiff

I enjoy having the opportunity of visiting urban community gardens, especially as we live in a very small town surrounded by countryside. There are two allotment sites here and a community orchard (planted by Charles, myself and some friends) but not much that combines community and growing. Most people in Bruton have some sort of garden, there are a lot of local growers and farms, so I think there is less need in the countryside.

How to make tooth powder

I first came across the idea of using a powdered clay based toothpowder when I met a woman selling it at the Offgrid Festival three or four years ago.  Until then, I had been using a  fluoride free toothpaste from the local whole food shop (no artificial sweeteners, SLS etc) which was fine – however trying this was a revelation! It made my teeth feel really clean and felt so much healthier and pleasanter in my mouth than toothpaste. I love making things for myself rather than buying them where possible (I had to buy the ingredients but you know what I mean…), it lasts a long time, is cheap to make and can easily be stored in old jam jars, so doesn’t require any fancy storage or equipment.

When the powder ran out, I bought Bentonite clay from  Earthfare in Glastonbury in order to make my own using just three ingredients – Bentonite clay, sea salt and bicarbonate of soda. This toothpowder keeps my teeth clean, helps to remove toxins and also can help (according to what I have read) remineralise my teeth. It is also very cheap and easy to make.

Bentonite clay naturally detoxes and can help eliminate toxins, it is also full of minerals which are beneficial for gums and teeth.

Bicarbonate of Soda, which gently whitens and polishes teeth, is an ingredient found in many commercial brands of toothpaste too.

Sea salt is also rich in minerals, removes tartar, whitens teeth and is beneficial for oral hygiene. I make a sea salt mouth wash sometimes, a teaspoon dissolved in warm water, a technique recommended by my dentist.

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You need:

1 tablespoon of sea salt, finely ground (mine is pink because I used Himalayan sea salt)

4 tablespoons Bentonite clay

4 tablespoons bicarbonate of soda

A glass jar

Put everything in the glass jar.



Shake it to mix well!


And there you are – a jar of toothpowder. If you like, you could add some finely ground dried mint for flavour but I like it just like this. I keep a small jar of this in my bathroom cabinet, refilling it from the larger jar when needed. This helps to keep the powder dry and fresh.

To use, just dip your toothbrush in the powder and brush and rinse as normal.

Please read the disclaimer!!

Front Garden Project

My favourite part of the front garden has three raised beds made four years ago, from timber treated with organic oils from Osmo, because I have grown so much food there. This part of the garden was a weed-infested rockery when I moved here. A few years ago I removed the rockery plants and mulched it, hoping to grow veg but hit two main problems – the soil is very shallow and on top of builders’ rubble (from an extension in the 1970s, it is quite a bit higher than my neighbours’ gardens for this reason) and the most enthusiastic bindweed I have ever experienced, which appears to have roots deep into the centre of the earth!

Wooden sided raised beds are a good solution here as they increase the soil level by 8 inches. I originally filled them with a mixture of well rotted manure and municipal waste compost and now top them up with an inch or so of well rotted compost every year. The paths are mulched with sawdust, a free waste product from a local carpenter.

spreading the compost in 2015
spreading the compost in 2015

Next to these beds is a smaller one made with wooden offcuts where I planted a beautiful little cherry tree and opposite, another growing space  has different enthusiastic weeds:  enchanter’s nightshade and ground ivy. Here I grow teasels for the goldfinches – they self seed like crazy but the seedlings are very recognisable and easy to remove. For me, is worth growing a few plants for the pleasure of watching the feeding finches all winter.

Our pond is old and was overgrown and leaking 14 years ago when we moved here – it still leaks and can be very low in the summer. This doesn’t deter the frogs who return every spring around Valentine’s to lay their frogspawn. They are back a week earlier this year.

Although I don’t want it to be too pristine, the paved area needs a good weeding, particularly around the pond. I hope to encourage more interesting plants in the cracks. I have struggled with keeping on top of the weeds here due to lack of time mostly as I was working part of almost every weekend for the past 3 years. The weeds seem to grow like triffids in my front garden the moment my back is turned, so it is quite a challenge!

The plans for the front garden include:

  • mulch along the hedge with light excluding plastic mulch for a year, to try to get rid of the enchanter’s nightshade
  • make a wildlife area along the front on the garden, next to the pavement
  • grow more up the walls
  • grow some more pond plants (I have bought seeds for this)
  • grow food in pots to make more use of the paved area
  • weed!!
  • sort out the side of the house to make more effective storage and hopefully grow things too
  • see if I can install a water butt so I don’t have to lug watering cans from the back garden
  • paint the shabby bits down the side of the house

I think there is plenty of scope here to make an even more productive growing space which looks colorful and welcoming.

Homemade fertility – Comfrey

Here in Somerset and across much of England comfrey grows wild, providing an important source of food for bees feeding from the clusters of droopy flowers and other wildlife including moth caterpillars and ladybirds. The large hairy leaves can be spread as a mulch, added to the compost heap (make sure there are no seeds otherwise it will invade everywhere), dried for winter use and made into an excellent plant food. Comfrey is a key element in making more of fertility for the garden at home.

 

Comfrey roots which reach deep into the soil, it is rich in minerals and healing properties – one of it’s traditional names is ‘knit-bone’. I make comfrey oil from the root and shall blog the recipe when I make it soon.


Comfrey is incredibly invasive, it is best to grow Bocking 14 at home. At my allotment I have a battle every year with invading comfrey planted by a previous allotment neighbour, right on the edge of my plot. Every few weeks during the summer and autumn I have to remove it to stop it spreading. There is plenty of useful comfrey along the top of my plot and in the hedgerow there. At home, I have some Bocking 14 and also the dreaded invasive sort, planted when I first moved here and thought it was the less invasive sort. Most of it has gone but some persists.

The plants growing in my garden and allotment receive an annual mulch of an inch or two of well rotted compost, either homemade or manure, which provides them with enough food for the year and they don’t need any addition liquid feeds. I use comfrey in the compost heap and to make a potent feed for plants growing in pots and will be exploring ways of using it more widely as I try to make most of the fertility needed at home in the back garden.

As well as comfrey, nettle and dandelion leaves are good additions to this potion – make sure there are no seeds though!

The usual method of soaking comfrey leaves in a bucket of water for 2 or 3 weeks works well but the resulting liquid is notoriously smelly. You simply put leaves in a bucket, cover with water and put a lid on, wait for 2 weeks, strain and use.

 

Another way using no water makes an intensely powerful brew but without the smell and is very easy.

You will need one or more containers with holes at the bottom – plant pots are good – and a bucket.

Stuff the pots with comfrey leaves (plus nettles etc if you are using them).

Put a brick in the bottom of the bucket for drainage and stability. Add your first pot and squish the leaves down.

Add the other pot/s.

Store somewhere dry and safe. I usually put a lid on top of the uppermost pot.

After several weeks, the leaves will have rotted to produce a dark liquid. Store in a sealed bottle or use immediately. Dilute in a watering can 1 part comfrey liquid to 20 parts water.

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(These photos were take a couple of years ago at Charles Dowding’s garden, Homeacres, for an article I was writing for Permaculture Magazine)