April 17, 2011
It’s been many weeks since I’ve done one of these, but as I’ve just sown some in my garden it felt like a good choice to kick start the series with.
Borago officinalis is an annual plant and prolific self-seeder which can grow to 1m tall and just generally seems to take up a lot of space within very little time – perfect for filling up an empty space with colour. It’s a fantastic companion plant, both attracting beneficial insects and repelling the tomato hornworm. The leaves are rich in potassium, which is needed for fruiting, so it’s a good idea to use the leaves as a mulch around potassium-hungry crops such as tomatoes, peppers, courgettes and squashes. The leaves are also edible, but they are hairy and tough so best picked when young if being used in a salad (shred them finely in either case). They have a cucumber-like taste and were traditionally used in the preparation of Pimms before cucumber and mint became the norm.
The seed of the “Starflower”, as it is also called, is the highest known plant-based source of gamma-linolenic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid thought to be beneficial for the treatment of arthritis, eczema and premenstrual tension. Hemp seed, Evening Primrose and Spirulina are among the other more well-known and widely-sold sources of the same substance.
Borage flowers are a curiosity in themselves as they start off pink, turn to blue in the mid-summer, and often revert back to pink as the summer draws to a close – the latter is thought to be the effects of UV on the flower. They work beautifully as a garnish in salads or cold soups, on cakes or frozen into ice cubes and added to summer drinks. Thanks to Eggs on the Roof for Gazpacho recipe and illustration.
January 28, 2011
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is one of the most common European weeds, considered a real pest in agriculture because of its ability to take over whole crop fields, particularly competing with small grains like barley. In a smaller garden, however, it can be controlled by hand-picking and used as a leaf or salad vegetable.
Unlike most edible “weeds” like Dandelion or Fat Hen which can be quite bitter, it has a mild lettuce-like taste when eaten raw, but it also great for cooking as an alternative to spinach. Like Spinach, it disintegrates quickly when cooked, so 2 minutes of simmering in some olive oil and garlic is plenty.
In the urban landscape, you should be able to find Chickweed alongside any green space or tow path, and you can identify it by its line of thin hairs down one side of the stem (the similar-looking but non-edible Cerastium has thin hair all over the stem). It has small star-like white flowers, and grows in a creeping mat quite close to the ground. It’s available more or less year-round, with the exception of periods of frost.
Chickweed has been used medicinally for centuries – homeopaths recommend a chickweed compress for treating skin conditions including eczema and psoriasis (you can prepare this by boiling a large bunch of the herb for a few minutes in a small amount of water, wrapping it in a cloth and then wrapping it around the affected area).
January 11, 2011
Elaeagnus x ebbingei is a common evergreen shrub, recognisable by the beautiful silver underside of its leaves. It’s generally grown as an ornamental, but is incredibly valuable in the permaculture garden as it produces huge amounts of edible red berries in April and May, when few other fruit are available – these berries are widely used both in Chinese medicine and cooking. Thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, a liquid extract of the fruit is used for the treatment of arthritis.
It’s also a nitrogen-fixer, being one of the plants with the Rhizobia bacteria on its roots, and so has the added benefit of increasing your soil’s fertility when grown on a vegetable patch, while not really needing any attention or nourishment of its own.
If you locate an Elaeagnus hedge in your area, it’s worth keeping an eye on it towards late spring, as it really fruits very heavily. Pick the berries when they turn a deep red; any lighter than that and they’ll be fairly acidic. At the centre of the berry is a single seed covered with a fibrous coating – the seed is edible but you’ll probably want to spit out the tough coating.
06.05.11 See here for an update on recipes to try with your harvest.
December 2, 2010
The vast majority of vegetables we cultivate in the UK are annuals, or are grown as annuals, meaning that a seed is sown, the plant grows, flowers, fruits, sets seed and dies in one year. The problem for the gardener is that the whole process of sowing seeds, tending to seedlings and warding off slugs and other pests from young tender plants must be repeated the following year in order to get a new crop.
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November 22, 2010
Akebia quinata, native to Japan, China and Korea, tend to be grown as ornamentals but do produce incredible fruit that look like a sort of cross between a fig and an aubergine. The problem with growing them in the UK is that they flower in early spring when late frosts can damage the pollen and there are few pollinating insects about anyway, and so they rarely fruit in this country. I have two of these in my garden, and both did flower last year, so I’m going to have a go at hand pollination next year. I’ve been told the fruit’s pulp has a mild custard-like flavour.
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November 14, 2010
Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are a fantastic hardy annual (not to be confused with the genus Nasturtium, which includes watercress and is entirely unrelated). Not only are the young leaves and flowers delicious and beautiful in salads (think rocket but more so), but you can also make “Poor Man’s Capers” from the seeds (real capers are the salted and pickled buds of the perennial caper plant, Capparis spinosa).
Pick the seeds before they’re ripe (they need to be bright green, not dark brown) and soak them in salted water (50g salt/450ml water) for two days. (Do leave a few seeds to ripen fully so that you have more to plant next year or to give to your friends).
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