Since we started the garden, we’ve been trying to find ways to connect with the London College of Fashion – as we are on their land, after all. We began with the dye beds then we made thread from flax and our latest venture is to collaborate with the college on several workshops introducing the garden activities to staff and students. Our first session was last night when we did a swift tour of the garden in the gathering gloom and collected plants and seeds to draw in the warmth of a beautiful studio overlooking Mare St. Neela gave us some ideas to free up our drawing – using sticks, crocosmia stalks and ink – as well as different ways of interpreting and investigating objects, like imagining we were ants crawling over the plants. An hour’s drawing was nowhere near enough. It was so absorbing. We got some fabulous inspiring drawings so we’re planning on running a regular drop-in session for botanical drawing using seasonal plants from the garden and using a variety of techniques to explore and ‘see’. Let me know if you’d like to come.
We like to try things out in the garden. We’ve had a go at crops for fibre and grain: flax and wheat grew well and an ancient type of barley, bere, was successful – though was then eaten by mice. We’ve also sown nuts and legumes from the grocer; the walnut and pistachio trees are doing well and we got a tiny handful of chick peas this year originally from a pack of dried ones. They shrink to nothing – and are too precious to eat anyway. We grow Asian herbs and leaves such as shiso, pineapple sage and tree spinach – and coriander, of course. We’ve also had some success with sweet potato.
We’ve had failures. I’ve never managed to get saffron crocuses going and the ginger I tried rotted, the tea seed never germinated and every year I failed to grow melons. I’d sow them in the richest soil in the most sheltered spot and they always defy me.
This spring I found an old packet of water melon seeds from Lidl. There were 2 left in the packet so like Jack (of the beanstalk)’s mother, I just chucked them onto some soil without much hope of riches. This is how it went.
Nat from the garden and I went on a brilliant seed workshop run by Garden Organic a few weeks ago. With the debate about GM swirling around us (why shouldn’t we breed plants which are disease-resistant or can produce more crops?) it was good to go back to basics and trust our own gardening instincts, expertise and experience – and help increase seed diversity.
Seed saving is pretty easy. Farmers and gardeners have been doing it for thousands of years – and by saving seeds from the best plants and the ones which are best adapted to our local environment, we are doing our own bit of genetic modifying; though doing it our way means we’re not subject to patents, unwanted cross-pollination or plants not turning out true. We can also make sure we are diversifying our seed pool. In Europe the seeds we buy have to be certified, which means that older varieties, less popular ones or, perhaps less productive ones stop being produced. By saving our own seed and sowing or swapping them, we keep varieties alive – and can even develop new ones ourselves suited to our local conditions.
Vegetable seeds are highly bred because we want reliable crops. Commercial seeds are often hybrid F1s bred from two plants with particular qualities. One parent might be heavy cropping while the other might be resistant to a particular pest. If you sow seeds from an F1 plant it will revert to one of its forebears and won’t be what you expect at all. At this point I wish I’d paid more attention to the Gregor Mendel pea lesson at school. So rather than go into the science (which I can’t anyway), I thought I would put down some starting points about seed-saving. I learnt a lot more but don’t want to overwhelm with information.
1. Understand how your veg are pollinated as you want to avoid cross-pollination (where pollen from a flower has fertilised a seed from a different plant). this can result in a monster – or, at least, something you weren’t expecting or wanting. Some, like tomatoes, are self-pollinating so you don’t need to worry. Others are insect or wind-pollinated and more likely to cross-pollinate so you might need to isolate those plants or plant only one variety.
2. Avoid inbreeding. Plants will revert to their original version if they inbreed. Everything that cross-pollinates will do this so save seeds from lots of different plants – choosing the best, of course. Twenty plants are recommended, though, of course, this is not always possible because of the lack of space.
3. Plants which won’t cross-pollinate or which doesn’t matter if they do: tomatoes, French beans, peas, peppers, aubergines, lettuce. These are, therefore, the easiest to save seed from.
4. Plants which easily cross-pollinate are spinach, chard, beetroot, sorrel and sweet corn, which are wind pollinated (which is why the GM debate about corn rages)
5. Know whether your crops are annual or biennial (flowers and sets seed in the second year). As veg growers the are many plants we don’t let flower because we eat ’em before they have a chance to reproduce themselves, but some are well worth letting go for the spectacle – as well as the seed. Carrots (see picture) are especially beautiful and alliums such as leeks and onions.
6. Don’t choose plants to take seed from with bad qualities, so if your lettuce has bolted, don’t take the decision to leave it to seed – because it’s a bolter! Choose a plant which has characteristics you want to reproduce.
7. You need to dry and store your seeds in conditions that are opposite to growing, so dark, cold and dry.
8. Test your seeds on a damp paper towel to check germination. Some seeds, like parsnips, are only viable for a year. Others will last for a decade.
Once again we were lucky with the weather and once again Jane and Dellores on the cake stall triumphed in selling a luscious variety of baked temptations – beetroot brownies, courgette and parmesan muffins, chocolate and mint cake, apple cake, spinach tart and more delights than you can shake a pea stick at. They flew off the table, earning us £100!
Swatches of material dyed using plants from the garden.
Liz set up her rust-dyeing – and general natural dye guru – stall and gave a demonstration to the Edible Gardens tour of how to dye using rusty old things – and tea.
We had a steady stream of visitors and buyers of raffle tickets for our home-grown hamper.
Jan won the raffle. It wasn’t fixed, honest.
Most exciting was that one of our frogs made an appearance for the visitors.
It’s hard to hate the caterpillar. Maybe because there’s something Alice In Wonderland about it or because it’s such an odd word. Maybe because it is often hairy and not slimy like slugs or creepy like earwigs or because of its alien-like (or are aliens like caterpillars?) life-cycle; they go from the egg to larva (the caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis) to the butterfly (which delights us all) and carry on like that ad infinitum. David Attenborough told us in July that butterflies were having their worst year since the 70s ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/jul/12/david-attenborough-butterfly-count ), though apparently not these cabbage butterflies (see the happy collection of their caterpillars below).
Caterpillars can do a lot of damage to leafy plants and organically-inclined gardeners have a constant battle with wanting to save our precious brassicas (kill the caterpillar!) and wanting to save the planet (don’t kill the caterpillar!). The one in the picture above (soon to be/previously a cabbage butterfly) has decided, with its friends or relatives, to vary its diet and feast on nasturtiums. Caterpillars can get through a lot of leaves, and that inhibits the plants’ ability to photosynthesise. It also means there is less leaf for you to eat.
I’m willing to sacrifice the nasturtiums (they are strangling my herbs anyway) and even the kale (who needs kale in summer?) but not my red cabbage. So what do I do? What I should have done, the organic gardener’s first resort, is to check the leaves more often so that I could spot and squish the eggs. I could also have killed the caterpillars at this stage and then composted them. I was too squeamish for that. The last resort would be to spray with a microbial pesticide which contains living micro organisms (such as bacillus thuringiensis Bt) which will kill the caterpillar through its gut. It is safe for other insects, so less damaging environmentally than usual pesticides. But I’m not going to do that. My airy fairy idea is that this caterpillar population explosion will provide delicious and nutritious food for birds and beetles and that a balance between the caterpillar’s role as pest and and as food will come.
Borage is more versatile than just an addition to Pimm’s. Bees and other pollinators love it and it is a herbal remedy which has been used for centuries. It was thought to dispel melancholy and impart courage; Crusaders were given borage-laced wine when they left for war. The flowers can also be used for a dye – as well as to repel insects. It is also edible. Borage seeds are a good source of omega 3 oil (often sold as starflower oil) and can make an alarmingly blue oil or pesto.
To make a borage pesto, treat the flowers as you would a normal basil pesto: put the petals in a mortar with some sea salt and pound them to a paste. Gradually add sunflower oil (milder than olive). Use it with pasta.
Other edible use: Borage and Spring Onion Frittata.