GARDEN PHILOSOPHY: The Garden versus Nature (and phoney nature-lovers)

For those who might have been worrying about the mouse in the garden shed and my attempts to catch it, you can rest easy for now. So far, if anything, that mouse has been making a fool out of me. While there likely may be more than one mouse, I shall think of them as just the one, and call it Jerry, in honour of the fact it is making me look like a right Tom.

To catch Jerry I bought some mouse traps of the killing kind, from a reputable company who shall remain nameless as their product, it turns out, is rather mediocre. These mouse traps are supposedly ready-baited with pieces of yellow plastic that apparently look like cheese to the mice. I was suspicious of this wonder gimmick, as setting a piece of bread on a mouse trap is not exactly rocket science, but I couldn’t find more basic traps anywhere. If anything, I figured the pathetic cartoon-looking piece of cheese on the traps might make Jerry die of laughter.

Unsurprisingly, the plastic cheese attracted nothing. I then began setting food on top of the plastic cheese, such as pieces of flapjack or pork pie. I would return the following day to find the food gone, but the traps otherwise undisturbed. Clearly Jerry is one agile little mouse! This has failed several times, even after securing the food tightly on the trap. Hence so far, all I have succeeded in doing is to feed Jerry.

Some may wonder, why be so cruel? Why not use humane mouse traps and release it someplace else? At the risk of offending some readers, humane mouse traps only suit people who are either in denial, own a pet snake, or are willing to make the mouse someone else’s problem.

Leaving aside the snake owners, some seem to think that upon being released in a forest or park, a mouse will rejoice at being given the opportunity to live a long and contended life in the heart of nature with its animal friends, when in fact the mouse will probably get devoured by one of its bigger ‘friends’, unless it rapidly manages to find another house to move into, at which point it becomes someone else’s problem. Mice live in human habitats for the same reasons humans do, namely shelter, safety, warmth and relative comfort. Just like you won’t find many humans willing to move out of their house to go live in the forest, most mice would also be a little pissed off at having it forced upon them.

Many urban-based nature-lovers have a somewhat Disney-fied idea of what nature is. They imagine an enchanted forest with golden rays of sunlight shinning through the branches, birds singing in tune as they whirl in the air, squirrels play acting like happy children, funny little ants busily working away in rhythm, while the trees all sway in unison as they join in the magical dance of nature. This misconception can easily be remedied by spending two or three days camping out in a forest in the rainy season, but the above mentioned nature-lovers would probably never do such a thing, as forests lack certain basic essentials, such as a roof, four walls, fitted kitchen, power sockets, central heating, wifi…

Don’t get me wrong, I do love nature, and I have spent quite a few rainy nights sleeping out in a forest with nothing but a tarp for shelter (cold and miserable yet strangely contented), but I have to somewhat leave those thoughts aside when I’m in the garden. Organic gardening still requires turning over soil, ripping up weeds, chasing off pigeons and squirrels, disposing of slugs and greenflies and other pests. Those who disagree with me are usually the same who don’t do any gardening but are still willing to eat what gardeners produce. This year I have easily killed thousands of greenflies, squashing them with my thumb, and I won’t lose sleep over them. I kill slugs by stepping on them or feeding them to the birds; some people may find this cruel, but I find it preferable to blanket spraying the garden with pesticides to kill everything, pest or not. Gardening, even organic, is not an exercise in nature loving; it requires some degree of ruthlessness as the gardener firmly dictates what can and cannot grow in a particular patch, and punishes little trespassers of the rodent or bug kind. I’m trying to discuss this idea without going down the path of mentioning extreme (and anthropomorphistic) animal rights, but the ideas are relatively similar. I certainly won’t torture the slug to get information from it (“Who sent you? Who do you work for?! We have ways of making you talk!”), but neither will I ponder over its rights to live, start a family, have access to free education and a pension for when it retires. It’s a slug.

Similarly, while I have been growing fond of Jerry’s antics, I’m not going to let him poo in the shed, or dig holes into our pumpkins, and neither am I willing to do the cowardly thing by moving him to become someone else’s problem. I’ll be a big boy about it, get my hands dirty and deal with him myself. That’s the real way of nature, it’s not an overly-friendly place, feel free to disagree.

Then again, for the time being, Jerry is winning this particular battle. I expect him anytime soon to drop an anvil on my head and set my foot on fire, before setting Spike the bulldog after me to run me out of the garden.

CG GARDEN VIDEO TOUR

For those of you who have never seen the garden for real, we have uploaded a short video tour of the garden on youtube. It’s nothing amazing, but it gives a general idea of the garden and the work we’ve undertaken in recent months. You can see it here.

Perhaps a cold and bleak day in December does not show the garden at its best, but that in some ways is just part of year-round gardening, plus we’ll hopefully have a chance in the Spring to make another video showing the garden in full bloom.

Incidentally, the celeriac soup mentioned in the video was pretty good. I said celeriac soup, but by the time we had it going  we also added in a potato, two parsnips and a leek, and Leo kindly brought in some bread and chicken that he fried at home, while I prepared a salad from the garden lettuce and nasturtiums, adding some pickled onions from last summer’s crop. We ended up with a feast, feeding a party of five, and it tasted all the better for preparing and eating it out in the cold, enjoying the coming winter for what it is.

On another note, people who litter seriously need to evolve and learn how to use a bin.

ON A FORAGING TRIP

Having already discussed how to get started with foraging, taking advantage (once again) of the unusually warm weather we had, CG organized two foraging outings in North London at the end of November, as an introduction for beginners. We went foraging along a wild path that goes over a railway tunnel, still within London and easily accessible. I had initially expected that we might be able to identify four or five edible plants and actually be able to pick one or two of them. Turns out I had underestimated what nature can offer, as well as what the warm weather had kept going in season. Here is a list of what we found, although not all were in season. The items marked with a (P) require special preparation before consuming.

Out of season
Lime tree leaves
Beech nuts
Apple tree
Plum tree
Acorns (P)
Hawthorn leaves
Wild rose flower

Still in season
Clover flowers (P)
Blackberries
Raspberries
Hawthorn berries (P)
Rowan berries (P)
Rosehip (P)
Sloe berries (P)
Nettles
Dandelion
Goosegrass

This was all done leisurely in the space of a couple of hours, including taking the time to pick sloes and hawthorns. Given a little more time and searching we probably would have found some mallow, dock leaves, fat hen, sorrel and comfrey, as well as some jew’s ear (a type of mushroom). A little further afield we may have even found some sweet chestnuts, wild strawberries and hazelnuts (if all out of season). Those who came on the outing with me may notice I have omitted one plant from the list. There was indeed another plant we found that is extremely poisonous but has one edible part, but for safety I won’t mention it by name.

Just a year ago I would probably only been able to identify about eight of these plants and only known about the edible qualities of five of them (no prizes for guessing which ones). It goes to show that a little bit of knowledge and practice goes a very long way, all the better for getting to enjoy the outdoors in the process. Bushcraft skills are there for all to learn and enjoy, the key is realising just how easy it is to do so. It sounds corny, I know, but it’s true.

GARDEN NOTES: Confessions, onions and pumpkin soup

Bloody hell, we got a lot done today!

First, however, I have a small confession to make. For about a month I really thought I had cocked-up the whole garden plan, having planted the winter veg without taking into account the need to rotate the crops. Yup, I was worried, as I realised that I had planted the broad beans in last summer’s bean bed, the chard was still where it had been this summer, and the only available bed left to plant onions and garlic was . . . well, you get the idea.

Luckily, a bit of jigging around and all was well again. Last week, as we harvested the last leeks from the onion bed, it left it free for us to transplant the broad bean seedlings there, also planting a few more that we had growing in a tray in the shed. Then, this week, having harvested the turnips and the last of the radishes, it freed up that bed into which we could move the chard. The turnips, by the way, were a complete failure, barely growing to the size of a fingernail. Perhaps I just planted them a little too late in the year, although I would have thought that the unusually warm weather this autumn would have more than made up for that. I guess I was wrong!

With both beans and chard out of said bed, we finally had a new space to plant white onions, garlic and shallots. While all this was going on today, the stove was burning away as we prepared our first on-site pumpkin soup of the season. Roshan chopped up our smallest pumpkin which we then boiled and mashed, adding in a chopped red onion and a yam that we happened to have handy. The soup was a little too salty to my taste, so I sweetened it with a little apple and cinnamon jam I made last summer. It turned out delicious and went down well with our work team. As for the seeds I put some aside to dry – ready to plant next spring – and the rest I pan fried with a little oil and am munching on right now as I write this post.

As a final bonus, the compost bins have now been repaired and are more solid than ever, set for at least another three years. With the end of term approaching and the cold weather (finally) coming in, it is good to know that all these jobs are now done and we are more or less on seasonal track. Just three months ago I remember wondering just how we were going to fill all that space in the beds over the winter, and now we’ve pretty much got most of the garden beds with something on the go, so we must be doing something right.

COMPOST: A fine line between talking waste and talking shit

 At CG we naturally love compost, and most of our soil comes from our own three-section compost bin where we put both plants and kitchen waste. But one has to be sensible about what goes in, such as making sure that meat or cooked food doesn’t slip through, unless you want to attract every rodent in the neighbourhood. Rotting food and compost waste are not the same thing. Many a bag of kitchen waste donated to us has been spoilt by the the presence of meat, bread, pasta, etc. It is neither good for the compost, nor is it pleasant to pull out when we do find it in the compost.

When making compost, a good balance needs to be struck between soft and hard waste. If you only put in kitchen slop, you will end up with a big pile of yucky poo, to quote the technical term. If you just put in brown sticks, you will end up with a pile of wood, pure and simple. Neither is particularly useful or practical for the purposes of making compost. So balance is the key. Some smaller brown materials, such as dried plants, leaves and thin twigs can be added to thicken the mix, but what you don’t want is a whole load of brown sticks and branches being added, as these will simply sit there for months if not years and clog up the compost. You could always use them as firewood and then add the ashes to the compost, but just make sure that you only add in wood ash, and not coal ash which is not good for compost. Green wood from tree branches can be added to the compost, but you need to chop and snap it into smaller pieces first and bury it in the compost where the constant moisture and warmth will help break it down. If you just leave whole green branches on top of the compost, the green wood will simply dry out and then you’re stuck with the wood problem again.

On one occasion, while turning over the compost, I noticed that it stank to high heaven. This apparently is one such indicator that the compost waste is unbalanced – too much kitchen waste and not enough green and brown materials. I hence collected a load of weeds, grass and leaves, adding them into the mix. Also, having just pruned one of the trees in the garden, I added in the green branches, chopped up into tiny pieces. These materials helped absorb the excess moisture, and within 24 hours the smell was gone, even after turning the compost over again.

In the absence of urinals in the garden, we do on occasion have a little wee-wee on the compost heap, to use another technical term, as the nitrogen content of urine is beneficial to the compost (in moderation). But that’s where we stop. Someone did ask me once about the self-sufficiency benefits of using excrement for agriculture, citing that in feudal Japan, human waste was considered a highly prized form of fertilizer (due to them not having much livestock on their land, hence not much manure). The trouble with that theory is that while the inhabitants of ancient Japan ate a very healthy diet of vegetables and some fish, what we eat these days creates a form of waste that is not comparable. In any case, leaving feudal Japan aside, one generally ought to make a clear difference between manure and poo. Think of manure as a form of fertilizer that partly comes from the carefully selected or treated waste produced by certain animals, usually herbivores, such as cows. On the other hand, think of poo as a bacteria-ridden health hazard that comes out of most humans and household pets. You can use the former to grow vegetables; you can use the latter to inadvertently create a typhoid epidemic that could wipe out half of Northern Europe. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but an important one.

The use of kitchen waste, believe it or not, was a recent source of debate at Common Ground, as one of our members raised the issue that non-organic kitchen waste should not go into the compost bin. Their argument had some basis to it, saying that we should maintain the organic rule in every aspect of the garden, but I had my reservations. So we had a discussion about it in one of our recent committee meetings. My arguments against only having organic waste were as follows:

1) The rule had never been properly adhered to in the past, so much so that I wasn’t even aware of it until that other member mentioned it.

2) The rule is difficult to enforce, short of creating a squad of compost cops.

3) The presence of residual pesticide and fertilizer in non-organic kitchen waste is marginal, probably no greater than similar contamination through the air and tap water.

4) The earnest intentions of the rule have little to do with the reality of gardening in Central London. The production of good compost, essential to the garden, is slow enough without starting to restrict what kind of vegetables and fruits can go in.

5) The rule goes against the community spirit of the garden, I for one felt that turning people away for bringing the wrong kind of compost sent out the wrong message. (Honestly, how shitty would that be?).

I’m glad to say that other members present at the meeting agreed with me and we voted against making the compost heap organic-only. Democracy in action, ladies and gentlemen! This small incident does however raise a more serious issue about the difference between the garden’s vocal idealists and the doers. Without wanting to sound too harsh, in my time tending to the CG garden I have often had to listen to the opinions of people who tell me what I should be doing but who are not willing to come and do it themselves. This doesn’t just concern the garden, but all aspect of life; as an old colleague of mine used to say: it may sound good but it looks better. In this media and internet fuelled world, it seems that everyone has an opinion about everything and feels the need to share it with everyone else. Some refer to it as the democratization of society. I think of it more as the proliferation of hot air – everybody talking and nobody listening. While I can’t do much about the way the world is going, I can at least instill a simple rule in the garden: first show that you are willing to do, and then we can start discussing ideas.

If ideas, hollow talk and empty words were fertile, we would no longer need a compost heap.

BUSHCRAFT FOOD: ACORN OR DANDELION COFFEE?

It’s not a tough call, to be honest, but I may as well hold out the suspense for what it’s worth and mention making both, as I tried to recently.

Making acorn coffee is fairly simple if a little labour intensive. You need to pick the acorns while they are still green, but only picking the larger ones that come easily from off the tree. After the boring task of de-shelling the acorns, you have to boil them to remove the excess tannins, chop them up and then roast them until they are crumbly and brittle, ready to crush into a rough powder. You would then prepare it like you would fresh coffee.

The only trouble is that acorn coffee generally tastes horrible. It is basically just bitter brown water. And if you boil the acorns several times you end up with slightly less bitter brown water, still a million miles away from a good cup of joe. I know you can’t be too choosy when it comes to bushcraft food, but as coffee is not particularly nutritious there is no point making it unless you are going to enjoy it.

Now dandelion coffee is something else entirely. The coffee is made from the roots of the plant, which is a little more difficult to get than one might think. For one thing, make sure you find a plant that is not located anywhere likely to be directly exposed to weed killer, pesticides or excessive car fumes. Then you might notice that unless the surrounding soil is soft, dandelions roots have a pretty firm grip, and are likely to break when pulled out, so digging around the plant to extract it whole might be necessary. You are after the main thick central root. This will need a good clean after which the white root pulp needs to be hung to dry in the sun or over a heater. I chopped the roots up and hung them of a single piece of string to keep them together. Once dry I then roasted the roots in an oven until they were golden brown and brittle. I say, brittle, they were still tough as hell. I had hoped at that point to crush them into a powder, but they weren’t having any of it, so I had to resort to slicing them into smaller pieces using a very sharp knife. This tempts me to think that I probably should have cut them into tiny pieces before roasting them, but I’m not sure if they would have then been prone to just burning off in the oven. Anyway, I eventually had my pieces of dandelion roots. Just like for the acorn coffee, I placed the chopped dandelion roots in a percolator and prepared it like fresh coffee through the power of steam, though I’m sure boiling it in a pan would have worked too.

I was hoping it would taste better than acorn coffee, but I wasn’t prepared for something that tasted so much like coffee – instant coffee, oddly enough – that halfway through my cup I had already forgotten this was made from dandelion roots. I was even able to recycle the used roots to make another cup.

So there you have it. Dandelion coffee is the way forward, just save the acorn coffee for people you don’t like.