Sunday, February 19, 2012

Putin, Stalin, Hitler, Vavilov

Nikolai Vavilov, the Russian food plant seed scientist who was starved to death by Stalin (see blog entry "From Russia With Love") and whose genius caused Hitler to send an SS squad to attempt to steal his work for Nazi Germany during World War II - may yet see his legacy destroyed by current Russian boss Vladamir Putin.

Vavilov, the world renowned bio diversity scientist, whose work will play a huge part in feeding the planet in decades ahead, invested his life into a seed bank (the world's largest) contained at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station in St Petersburg - currently the world's largest bio diversity plant depository.

Vladimir Putin however, is believed to be behind efforts to sell off the huge farm for property development wealth and thus destroy the world's largest source of biodiversity and thus most of our protection against future food crop issues. Putin has power of appeal over the closure but the land from the Vavilov centre's farm spans vast acres on the edge of St Petersburg and thus provides vast real estate wealth to whomever can cash it in.

Online information in the english language about the Vavilov Institute's future ceased around about the time Putin's efforts to close it were eminent. If you don't know what this is about, educate yourself...find out online. It is vitally important. One man saw what was coming and made plans, now another is destroying the legacy of this true world hero.

Find out about the impending destruction of the Vavilov seed bank - more than one third of the world's saved seeds - and make a proper protest to your country's Russian embassy.

Protect the work of Nikolai Vavilov - who starved to death so future humanity might eat.

Make Sure Your Basil Ain't Faulty

The second part in this series deals with herbs that like a wet soil.

Basil is dead easy to sprout from seeds and it likes plenty of water but it also likes plenty of sunshine. Temperate conditions outdoors in an Irish or British climate swarm the slugs and promote disease - fungus and mould - so keep the plants on indoor window sills in full sun or in greenhouses and give them plenty of water. When you're starting off your seeds on windowsills or under glass, make sure they're sown widely apart or they'll cluster tight together and come down with a fungal disease. it can do well outdoors in a temperate climate in well watered and fed containers and beds from May onwards. You will need to take account of the pests who will wipe it out this tender juicy verdant without adequate protection.

Basil will eventually stretch skyward and flower. Prolong its useful life by pinching off those rangy long stalks and flowers as they appear. Once they get too stretchy and stick like, it's time to chuck them. Sow a load of basil every three weeks or so to keep tender plants coming on. Resist the urge to eat them fresh. The smell is fantastic! When in containers they're prone to mites (a whitish web) or aphids. Kill this problem by spraying with lightly soapy water - leaving the plant sit for half an hour and then rinsing it's foliage. Pick the leaves, tear them up fresh and throw them on pasta. Mmm!

Watch out for some of those runner herbs going native...

Fennell and Dill
A doddle to grow anywhere. Great for fish and these look really good in summer, attracting plenty of bees with their flowers. Be warned though, they grow high - in the case of fennell up to four or five feet. They need a good sunny spot. The seeds, which taste of aniseed, can also be harvested, dried and stored. We use it for fish. Cut back hard at the end of every year. And try and keep it controlled or corral it in or else you’ll find yourself picking bits of fennel out of everywhere for years to come. It produces thousands of seeds and spreads them well.

Mint/Lemon Balm
We’ve grown both regular mint and lemon balm. We’ve made our own mint sauce and icecream. Our own mint laiden Mohitos. Crush a handful and bring it to your nostrills…mmmm!  It likes rich damp soils and should be cut back hard to keep the fresh green leaves coming. Be warned though - and do take this very seriously - this plant is a thug which will take over your whole garden without adequate control. Never, but never plant it freely in the ground. Put it, not only in a planter on a patio, but also if you can, in a planter with no drainage holes. This plant has to be seen to be believed. It sends out runners through the bottom of pots and over dry pavement to reach soil. Once it gets "free range" in open soil, Frgeddaboudit!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Herbal Remedies - Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

Food gardening has lost thousands of enthusiastic newbies to the pungent temptation and false promise of a "herb garden." 

For some reason, many of those who decide to try the hobby will consider herbs to be an easier option to carrots or beans. To the newbie, herbs are a toe dipped in the water of grow-your-own without properly being immersed. A herb garden is something they've seen in glossy magazines and on lifestyle television and to the amateur, it's a patch where their wishlist of useful culinary ingredients will live harmoniously together and thrive - thus providing myriad fragrances and flavours within a handy grab of the kitchen stove.

What a load of Horseradish!

Years ago and in this very frame of mind, my first herb garden went something like this: The rosemary and sage died because the ground was too wet. The spearmint, which loves wet soil, took over, shooting up everywhere with its underground runners and became almost impossible to control. The parsley and thyme got crowded out by the mint and the coriander bolted. The fennel shot up and free seeded all over the place causing me to end up pulling unwanted fennel twiglets out of every corner of the garden for the next five years. The basil didn't ever have a chance to get faulty - it was massacred on day one by the slugs.

A load of horseradish yesterday.

Contrary to popular belief, a successful herb garden - that is, with all the herbs sharing one bed - is an almost impossible feat to manage. The plants we commonly lump together as “herbs” are in fact a thoroughly diverse bunch of characters who hail from many different parts of the globe. As a result, they require a thoroughly diverse set of growing conditions.

Forcing these alien bedfellows together in the same garden bed, sets you on a hiding to nowhere. Setting the newbie on this particular road to nowhere are those plants from hot housed supermarket stock which are pre-programmed to die of shock a few seconds after you bring them home.

And so, weeks later, finding themselves dazed and in possession of a thick rampant rug of spearmint digesting the remains of a half a dozen former herb bedfellows, the newbie says: "Sod this grow-your-own thing, I’ll stick with watching Strictly Come Dancing.” 

And gardening loses them forever.

Some disillusioned newbies walking away from gardening forever yesteday

Herbs are actually not so difficult to grow once you get them from the right source, treat them as individuals and provide each one for their different whims and needs. They may be lumped together in the "herb" family by the cookbook, but out in the garden the're a mixed bunch - some are tough evergreen shrubs, some are tender annuals. Some will die without copious amounts of water while others will die because of it.

So to help readers understand what’s what, today I’m kicking off a three part series which should enable you to get the very best from herbs. I'm starting with what I call the "dry" herbs - Rosemary, thyme and sage.

Roasting Rosemary

Rosemary is perfect for roasting with vegetables and meats, in particular for lamb and chicken. It originates in the Mediterranean where it is often used as boundary hedging. Its pungent oil has antiseptic qualities and can be used for many purposes other than cooking. Boiling it in water, straining the mix and allowing it to cool for example, makes an antiseptic mouth wash while and boiling it in water with the addition of some soybean oil makes a perfect hot oil treatment for dry hair.

Med born rosemary hates Irish weather and soils. So it often languishes and dies because its sparse needs are not understood. Rosemary likes a fine dry soil with a preference for lime - a higher ph which can be achieved by lacing the soil with lime granules. Wet soil rots it to death from the roots up. I find that it does best in well drained situations like raised beds or better still, in containers where its conditions can be more easily regulated.

Usually I don't use terracotta planters because in the summer months they act like ovens - warming up the soil inside and causing it to dry out super fast. But for this very reason, I keep my two rosemary plants in big terracotta planters where they stay dry and raised. They like to be sheltered from winds and they also require the sunniest position you can get in the garden otherwise they get spindly and weak. Full sun is an ingredient necessary for them to produce that essential oil that we want for our cooking. For the same reason, don't let your rosemary get crowded by other plants.

Rosemary baby!

Cut it back hard in mid summer to keep the tender shoots coming and to prevent it becoming leggy and woody - a state in which it produces less shoots. You can dry out sprigs of it by hanging them upside down in the kitchen for two weeks. Pull off the dried leaves and grind them to powder with a pestle and mortar and you have a powder to flavour up any roast.

You can grow rosemary from seeds but it's probably easier to buy a plant at a garden centre. Buy a bushy example with lots of shoots. You can propagate them through cuttings by trimming off a tender sprig about half way down. Remove the leaves leaving only a "tuft" on the very top of the cutting plant it into damp soil to help it root. 

I dug up a mature rosemary still clinging to its root ball and then sliced it in two right down the middle with a sharp spade. The two parts separated and transplanted perfectly. Once damp and frost is avoided, rosemary is a tough customer.  One of the more versatile aspects of rosemary is its ability to be uprooted and transplanted at any time of year.Though do move it to a greenhouse to protect it through the winter months in a temperate climate.

Stuffed With Sage
There's no stuffing without sage, another sunshine and lime loving perennial which gets by Irish conditions. Used for seasoning fatty meats for the most part, it's also long known for its healing qualities and has anti fungal qualities. Sage comes in broad and narrow leaf varieties, the former for drying and the latter for cooking with fresh. It grows around two foot in height and needs full sun. Crowd it out and it fades fast. But when it does catch on it will need regularly cutting back. You can pull out clumps of it and move them elsewhere. When my sage (located in a raised bed which I use for salads) spreads too far I pull out the excess and try to plant it on in protected public places.
Get wise to sage
Sage is easily grown from seed in a greenhouse or sunny windowsill where it requires humid conditions (cover it in clingfilm) to germinate. Second year plants are the highest in oil and generally produce a better harvest of foliage.
It can be propagated using cuttings and should be cut back hard in mid summer and again a month later to prevent it from becoming woody. It will require a spread of about two feet. Frost will scorch the leaves black but usually the plant will come back again. Constantly soggy soil however will kill the plant so it's best kept in a raised bed or in a container.

Bunch of Thyme

Also a lover of dryer soils is the spriggy sweet smelling herb thyme which can be quite tricky to establish but does well once it does. Great with pork and in stews, thyme is also a great flavour to combine with eggs, pasta, tomatoes, olives and garlic. Thyme can survive happily through droughts and freezing conditions but like the above herbs, hates boggy or wet conditions.

Thyme should be planted in containers or raised beds and because of its low slung gait (about six inches high) you need to watch out for it being crowded and overshadowed by other plants and weeds. It’s perfect place is at the very front of a rockery or raised bed.

Thyme you got growin...

Trim it back hard in early spring and again after it flowers to prevent it becoming woody. Now and again it will establish itself in cracks in paving or in stray containers. Thyme is best left alone so apart from its above needs, don’t fuss over it.  Cut your sprigs for the table halfway down, leaving three inches or so remaining on the plant. It will become more productive this way.