I’ve been ‘doing’ garlic for a few days now, and I’ll get back to it in a moment, but before I do I’d like to tell a cautionary tale about Chamomile and the trouble it can cause. I was sitting at my desk reading Eric Block’s book on garlic – the one I mentioned yesterday – and I was drinking a cup of chamomile tea, and because my mind tends to hop about a bit I started to read the label on the tea packet and saw that it simply said “Chamomile Flowers”. Given that I was already in full-on sceptical mode because I was trying to get my head around some truly challenging material (a.k.a my own scientific shortcomings) the thought floated into my mind that there was no latin name and therefore no way of knowing what I was drinking. I know this is a departure from my love for English plant names, but in this instance Chamomile could be Matricaria recutita – German chamomile, or Chamaemelum nobile – Roman chamomile; related and similar but with slightly different properties. Nearly all the authorities treat the two plants as being virtually identical but one (Andrew Chevalier) says the Roman Chamomile is more bitter, and the tea is more often made from German chamomile. That squares with our experience in the summer when we made tea from our own (Roman) plants and the resulting brew was unpalatably bitter.
So there is a difference between the two plants, but whether it could be discovered from a used teabag was another matter altogether. But fortunately I discovered that the flowers differ in that the centre of the Roman chamomile flower is solid whereas the German chamomile has a hollow centre to the flower. Time for scalpel and magnifier and – hey presto – as the photo shows, the tea bags contain German chamomile.
Back then to garlic – and some attempt to figure out whether it works or not. Block’s monograph cites a pile of papers and it would be fair to say that the scientific verdict came back as a definite maybe but can’t be sure. I guess some of the wilder reaches of the advertising hype will not stand proper scrutiny, but some more research I came across suggests that at least one problem may be the lack of standardisation of garlic products used for research. The link leads to the whole paper and it’s worth a read even if you’re not (like me) used to the language.
Tonight we’re off to a Bath Natural History Society meeting on the Purple Emperor butterfly given by Matthew Oates who will probably talk about the rewilding of the Knebb estate. Should be good.
All this rain! On the other hand, my incarceration in the flat has given me time to catch up with some reading, and I’ve immersed myself in David Hoffmann’s “Herbal Medicine”. Slowly, slowly the pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place and the inter-relatedness of all things is showing itself wherever I look. In some ways I’m a million miles behind, especially when it comes to the complex decisions that phytotherapists need to make. But in other ways I feel pretty confident – the field botany, the Latin names and even the knowledge of where to look for plants have all been easy to adapt. In fact the extension into a related field of study has served to make plants even more interesting. The knowledge that a plant can function as so much more than a tick in a flora, but be a visual delight, a sign of the underlying soil conditions, a signal of ecological health or sickness, of ancient human habitation or recent of soil disturbance, not to mention its history, the literary references to it, its use as a food, flavouring and medicine. It’s lovely that we can grow some of these herbs on the allotment, and it’s especially lovely that some of the plants with the most potent applications to human health are the least showy; often regarded as weeds. The capacity of plants to synthesise complex molecules from very simple ones is a miracle, and I’ve discovered the oral and worldwide cultural history that sustains herbal medicine goes back thousands of years, and which must make it one of the longest ever citizen science experiments.
I’ve also decided that rather than try to engulf the whole subject like a basking shark, it makes more sense to investigate plants as I find them, and possible uses as I need them myself. That way I don’t have to develop a fizzing brain and the certainty of my inadequacies through limited experience.
I’ve done a few of my own experiments, by gathering, drying and storing a few very easy ones and I’m pleased that the specimens I dried have kept their colour and survived for just under five months in a dark cupboard without any apparent loss of quality. I’ve even tried a few completely safe things on myself – all this is beginning to look like a CV but really it’s not – I’m just sharing how exhilarating it is to be so immersed. One highlight yesterday was to order up three herbs from a supplier to test on myself.
The Potwell Inn allotment is turning out to be a laboratory in which the plants do all the work and, at best, we’re the cleaners and porters who help out. Not only are we not the experts in all this, but it transpires that the plants don’t much need an expert. As allotmenteers we provide room service for the plants, a bit of weeding and feeding here and there and perhaps a bit of pillow plumping while they get on with doing remarkable things.
It hasn’t all been a trip down the primrose path, though. While I was confined to the flat I got on with a few more computer moving jobs and while I was setting up a redirect on one of my old email accounts, I inadvertently created a logical argument that repeatedly copied copies of copies of emails back to their original senders, and one poor friend received 135 of his own emails before I noticed something wrong and pulled the plug. So If you happen to be one of the afflicted ones, please accept my apologies. As one of the victims said – ‘what is it about old people and technology?’ – I hope we’re still friends!
Then yesterday evening we went off to the AGM of the allotment society. The business part of the meeting was chaired with great efficiency so it was over in 3/4 hour and then after the inevitable tea and cake we had a talk given by Rob Solari from the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm. Talks can be anything from lethally sleep inducing to full-on loin girders. Rob’s talk fell into the second category and in about an hour we realized how much we still have to learn about growing garlic. So much so that we were planning to change our whole approach by the time we got back home and by this morning we’d got a much clearer idea of what we would try to do this coming season.
What was also fascinating was some of the biochemistry of the health benefits of garlic. Raw is better than cooked, for instance, although that’s intuitively true. But I hadn’t known how much better it is to crush rather than chop the garlic. I didn’t know that an infusion of elephant garlic leaves can deter slugs, or how to grow truly giant bulbs over two seasons, or that garlic shouldn’t be grown with peas, beans, asparagus, sage or parsley – hmmm – a bit of plant moving called for there; or that hardneck scapes taste lovely. Isn’t it terrific to listen to someone who really knows their subject. I was so inspired I googled up a scientific monograph on garlic and bought it online. Luckily Rob has a stall at the Christmas Market here and we can buy the bulbs we now know we need to plant.
All this leaves me with a bridge to cross, because I have a visceral dislike of raw garlic – and I’m not the only one; one of our allotmenteering neighbours spent the whole talk with a giant handkerchief pressed to her nose. But the health benefits are so well established it would be marvellous if I could develop a taste for it. RS Thomas used to eat bulbs of the stuff, but then not many people wanted to talk to him, with or without garlic breath. I used to work with twin brothers, welders, who would eat raw onions with a penknife as if they were apples, but I’m not sure I could stop myself from gagging. However, the experiment must be done! I’ll say the missionary’s prayer ‘ “Lord, if I get it down will you keep it down?” and my new life will begin – or not as the case may be. But I had a quick look at one scientific paper earlier on, and I read a section from James Wong’s book “How to eat better” and all is not lost because there are workarounds that I can experiment with.
And just to finish, we were given some black garlic to try and it’s beyond delicious. It’s ‘fermented’ at 60C for a month at high relative humidity and it emerges as a sweet black mildly garlic flavoured paste. You could eat it with a teaspoon it’s so good.
Actually that’s not quite true because we’ve been eating new season garlic for quite a while as the main batch dried in the greenhouse. The picture shows about half the crop, and the results show that the variety Early Purple Wight was the most successful of the three varieties we tried. We’d thought that most of the alliums were a bit of a disappointment this year, and we dug up the onions when they appeared to be suffering from some kind of (unidentifiable) affliction. However, less fearful (diligent?) allotmenteers left their affected plants in and many of them have recovered and now look well, so maybe we were overcautious, but the combination of twisted and wilting foliage with softness in the sets suggested some kind of rot. We found no evidence of fly infestation at all. so that’s another one to put down to experience. There’s a lot of “no idea” in gardening if we’re honest, but plants are amazingly resilient and can come back from the brink. It’s been so dry this season, and it’s been difficult to give the plants enough water. When we planted the leeks out a couple of weeks ago they looked terribly sorry for themselves, but even the sickliest have pulled themselved into the ground and are looking more vigorous now. Our sage plants, particularly, respond to ruthless pruning with loads of new growth. Parsley seems to hate being watered from above with a rose, and most of our plants seem to prefer a good soaking straight from the can at ground level. There’s a mass of detailed experience that comes into play on the allotment, and so many things that can go wrong – but the rewards are immense, and we don’t beat ourselves up too much if we get it wrong. Life’s too short to waste with gloomy reflections on the inevitable failures.
So it’s been water hauling, garlic peeling, thinning out and weeding in the warm sunshine. I had to get the strimmer out yesterday to deal with a couple of out-of-control paths and a big patch of nettles on an adjoining plot. Actually I’m quite happy to have nettles around the place because, as my friend Rose says, they’re not weeds – they’re habitat. However they’re also deep rooting mineral miners and great as accelerants in the compost heap and so I took half of them for the heap in the hope that they too will regenerate with fresh new growth. But strimming in hot weather is a pain and it’s fearfully noisy and smelly with exhaust fumes. We’ve now got four abandoned allotments neighbouring ours and when I put up an insect barrier to protect the eastern edge of the plot from strong winds it was soon decorated with airborne seeds. How much habitat is too much? We have much discussion about what it’s appropriate to put in the compost bins and my rule of thumb is to exclude bindweed and couch roots and any weeds that have actually set seeds, but bung the rest in, roots and all, mixed with all our kitchen peelings, tea leaves, eggshells, shredded paper and cardboard. Since I don’t encourage the heap to get too hot it probably doesn’t kill seeds, but since we don’t dig, thereby bringing new seeds to the surface, most of the seeds that germinate when we spread compost are easily hoed off.
While we were in Cornwall rediscovering the meaning of chilling out we decided to limit time on the allotment to something more manageable. Naturally that resolution didn’t get much further than the allotment gate, and yesterday we were there for best part of six hours, but with fresh peas available I couldn’t resist making a risotto when we got back. I can’t pretend it was a vegetarian dish because there was home made chicken stock and a little pancetta along with the arborio rice, shallot and parmesan. I always use butter rather than oil in this recipe, and I always add a splash of white wine in the early stages. There’s something very comforting about pulling up a stool and a glass of wine to drink while I keep the risotto moving in the pan. But some, at least, of the ingredients had come straight from the allotment and we finished off with a pile of summer raspberries from a neighbour. Beware of allotmenteers bearing gifts, they’re usually about to go on holiday! Our corner of the site is a small and unofficial cooperative where we take mutual obligations seriously, so no free lunches then, but you can get away for a break without worrying too much about the plot!
My newly revived interest in medicinal herbs has led to our son’s partner calling the flat “Hogworts”!
We’re soon reaching the first birthday of the day we took on the other half of the allotment. We’d been waiting for it for over a year during which it fell into ever greater disrepair, and broadcasting its weed seeds over the entire area. The previous tenant, although he’d completely lost control of it was strangely unwilling to let it go and so we had a number of ‘Uncle Jim’ moments with him including a couple of larcenous visits before he finally disappeared. Continue reading “The Allotment”
Even as I write this there’s a bit of an inward groan – it’s so, well …. everyday. There’s very little breathless excitement about allotmenteering, after all a potato is just a potato and you’d need to be a bit of a propeller head to get excited about the minutiae of varieties. But that’s just the way it is – you need to keep on keeping on. Continue reading “Autumn jobs on the allotment”