The Canny Gardener

how to grow, cook and use plants, plus some philosophy!


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A bitter sweet experience

Bitter gourd or karela (in India), is a unique vegetable-fruit that can be used as food or medicine.  As the edible part of the plant Momordica Charantia, it is considered the most bitter among all fruits and vegetables.  My children hate it but I’ve persuaded them to eat it. It has such a bitter taste which is difficult to acquire easily. So why would anyone eat such a vegetable?

In traditional Indian medicine, bitter gourd has used for a range of diseases, including colic, fever, burns, chronic cough, painful menstruation, skin conditions including wounds and assist childbirth.  In parts of Africa and Asia, the bitter gourd is used prevent or treat malaria and viral diseases such as measles and chicken pox. The plant grows well in the tropical climate and is found in Indian grocery stores in the West.  However, people are not aware of its amazing properties when they look at the strange warty surface of the gourd- indeed it is neither attractive to look at or to eat.

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Fresh bitter gourd which can sliced thinly and eaten with lemon and salt but don’t eat too much of it- mild abdominal pain or diarrhoea can result

But research has proved that it has amazing medicinal properties- including fighting Type-2 diabetes and cancer.  In January 2011, the results of a four-week clinical trial were published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology , which showed that a 2,000 mg daily dose of bitter melon significantly reduced blood glucose levels among patients with type 2 diabetes, although the hypoglycemic effect was less than a 1,000 mg/day dose of metformin.  The gourd contains at least three active substances with anti-diabetic properties, including charanti, which has been confirmed to have a blood glucose-lowering effect, vicine, an insulin-like compound known as polypeptide-p and lectin. Lectin is an appetite suppressant that reduces food intake and consequently thought to be a major factor behind the hypoglycemic effect that develops after eating it. In clinical trials in the USA show that extracts from bitter gourd can kill breast cancer cells and prevent them from growing and spreading.

Bitter gourd can be taken in several forms- a fresh fruit (squeeze some lemon juice and sprinkle salt), juice, and the seeds can be added to food in a powdered form. In traditional Bengali foods, it is eaten fried with turmeric and salt- this makes it quite palatable.  It can also be boiled with the rice, then the gourd eaten with some salt.  Some of the bitterness is lost this way.  Fresh or dried and made into tea- the Japanese like it this way and the tea is actually not bad at all- much of the bitter taste is gone especially with a teaspoon of honey in it.

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Fried bitter gourd with turmeric, chillies and salt.

Alternatively, bitter melon extract can be bought as a herbal supplement in health food shops. But because the gourd reduces blood sugar, the dose will need to be watched carefully and it is best to start with a small amount.

But considering everything it is an amazingly versatile medicinal plant. I’m trying to grow some from the seeds I’ve saved when summer comes and let you know how that goes!

 


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Colourful winter vegetables

It is said that one must eat all colours of the rainbow for a healthy diet.  It may seem that in winter this is not possible but by visiting local shops, I’m discovering a variety of vegetables of all colours. Here are some- purple cauliflower and red carrots.

The great thing about these vegetables are that because they have so much flavour, they can cooked very simply- roasted with some olive oil, steamed, pulsed into soups or even eaten raw.  They don’t need much flavouring- just salt and pepper will do.  The photographs show the purple cauliflower and carrots roasted. Also, shown is a simple soup of broccoli with some stilton (left over from Christmas).  I also chopped up the leaves and stems from the cauliflower and made it into stir fry with rice- my zero waste effort.

Cauliflowers are good for a healthy heart, and purple ones, which get their colour from anthocyanins- flavonoid pigments that also give red cabbage, purple carrots, and many berries- give the same health benefits as these ‘super foods’.  It is said that anthocyanins can help with rheumatoid arthritis, due to their strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.  Cauliflowers contain 46 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 gram serving and they also contain Vitamin K and calcium- all good for warding off winter colds and aches and pains.

PS- I haven’t grown them but I’m supporting small farmers and buying locally- so that is really a canny thing to do!


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Learning from traditional cuisines

This month of January is ‘Veganuary’.  People are being encouraged to eat vegan foods, or if they can’t bear that, at least vegetarian foods. A vegan diet involves cutting out animal products like meat, fish, dairy, cheese and eggs. According to the Vegan Society, conducted in 2018, there are around 600,000 vegans in Great Britain, most of whom are women.  There are also ‘life style’ vegans- people who won’t wear leather, or using cosmetics made from animal products even if these are organic or use eco-friendly methods of production. Being Vegan has been even declared a philosophical belief- this month a court in Norwich ruled that it had been a violation of the UK’s 2010 Equality Act after a worker said he was fired for raising concerns that his employer’s pension fund was being invested in companies involved in animal testing.

An environmental writer and campaigner, George Monbiot, says that ‘the protein content of beef  is just 25%. And beef generates more carbon dioxide per kg than a return flight from London to New York ( Beef creates 1250kg per kg of protein as opposed to 986kg of CO2 per air passenger)  There other environmental costs of beef such as livestock feed, packaging, transportation, disposal of waste, etc. So were the Indians on to something when they declared that the cow is ‘holy’ and that beef should not be eaten?  In fact, one third of Indians are vegetarians and most of the ones that eat meat, do not eat beef.  Did that belief have some practical consideration because livestock also need large areas for grazing?  Land management is a crucial issue for the 21st century- at present, most countries have more areas set aside for grazing than for forests. In Africa, this is causing havoc and on a planetary scale, it is causing desertification, climate change and changes in the water tables.

Eating meat is considered a move up the social and economic scale, so when people become rich they start eating meat.  But eating too much meat, especially red meat, is also creating health problems. In the Philippines, the social attraction of eating meat is so high that poor people will eat recycled meat- called Pag Pag, this is meat that has been thrown out from restaurants and homes, eaten by rats and contaminated by other waste. It is washed, cooked again and sold. Why should people eat such meat? Where is the desperation? Filipino food is actually quite healthy with a combination of meat and vegetables and combines the cuisine of the East with the West.  When I commented about this, I got so much abuse from people that I had to leave the facebook group.

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Another aspect of healthy eating is portion size. In my village, rice, legumes and other grains used to be measured out using this wooden cup. When I first saw it as a child, I thought it was a bit mean!  But now, having measured the container, I realise that a portion of that cup is the same size as the cupped palm. That is amazing! So again traditional wisdom knew that portion sizes needed be cut down and created this wooden cup for measuring exact amounts per person.

 

There must be other traditional wisdom in ancient cultures all around the world. If you know of other aspects, please write in the comments below.

PS: So considering their traditional diet, would Indians be more environmentally friendly than a European who is consuming beef and flying as well?


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Why I love my fake Christmas tree

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My 16 year old plastic Christmas tree

My neighbours buy ‘real’ Christmas trees while I have a fake one.

First of all, why do we have fir trees inside our houses during winter festival? It is the most illogical thing to do!

Perhaps the concept of the Christmas tree came from the  Paradise Tree, representing the tree in the garden of Paradise, which was used in medieval German Mystery or Miracle Plays that were acted out in front of Churches on Christmas Eve. Fir trees were first used as Christmas trees about 1000 years ago in Northern Europe.

The first person to bring a Christmas Tree into a house, in the way we know it today, may have been the 16th century German preacher, Martin Luther. In many parts of northern Europe, cherry or hawthorn plants (or even a branch) and brought inside in the hope that they would flower at Christmas time. People also made pyramids of woods which were decorated to look like a tree with paper, apples and candles. Sometimes they were carried around from house to house, rather than being displayed in a home. Early Christmas Trees could been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains.  Anyway the custom has stayed and people love the seasonal decorations and especially the children love the spectacle of the Christmas tree.  So there is no getting away from not having one- what ever form you decide.

It has been calculated that artificial Christmas trees are made of plastic and PVC, shipped over from China. So there is a carbon cost of manufacture and transportation plus the energy cost of the materials. Added to that, artificial Christmas trees aren’t recyclable, so if they’re thrown away, they will end up in landfill.

According to the Carbon Trust, a two metre artificial tree has a carbon footprint of around 40kg, more than ten times that of a real tree that’s burned after Christmas. In other words, you’d need to re-use an artificial tree 10 times to negate its carbon footprint, yet it’s estimated that fake trees are used only four times, regardless of improving quality.

But if you’ve used your fake Christmas tree more for more than ten Christmases, then you are ‘carbon neutral’. I’ve used my Christmas for 16 years now, and it still looks good.  All the decorations also have been used for more than 16 and also were lent to someone when they didn’t have any.

While my fake tree is stored away for the year, my neighbours have to go and buy a tree- there is car use involved while the tree itself might have been transported from Scotland or somewhere even further.  Most real trees also come wrapped in plastic which also has to be disposed off.  Then there is the problem of the disposal of the actual tree especially if you haven’t got the space in your garden or even a garden (which is increasingly the case in city apartments). After the new Year, the streets are blocked by irresponsible people even though the Council offers collection for a small fee. So to avoid the fee, these people throw the trees anywhere.

This is where the fake tree is better in my opinion- the more you use it, the less it costs financially as well as ecologically. It stays in its cardboard box, handy for the next time it is needed.

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This is what one of my neighbours decided to do with a fake fir- looks good and deters many bugs!  Better than throwing a fake tree away.

Postscript: This was published last Christmas by BBC about a boy’s ‘Worst Christmas ever’

Ros Bruce, from Essex, said her 10-year-old son got an Xbox One for Christmas, and he and a friend had spent weeks planning what games they would play together online.

She said they had been downloading a game since 09:00 GMT – and by 23:40 it was still not ready.

“He has spent most of the day in tears,” she said.

“He says it’s been his worst Christmas ever.

“I think Xbox should compensate us all.”


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The food of the Pharaohs

As a child, I used to love shelling peas- a task handed by my mother to our small fingers. Many got eaten straight away instead of being handed back for cooking. Nowadays, we get ready shelled frozen peas which are convenient.  Peas are associated with fish n chips, Sunday roasts, pea soup, and many Western foods. However, it is surprising to note that peas actually arose in Greece and the Middle East- Greece, Syria, Turkey and Jordan. Ancient finds also indicate that peas were eaten in Egypt, Georgia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India from 4800- 1750 BC.   In the second half of the 2nd millennium BC, it appears in the Ganges Basin and southern India.  Due to trade it spread further east- Japan, Korea, etc. and also West.

Peas have given rise to stories (The Princess and the pea, Five peas fairy tale, etc.) and proverbs (two peas in a pod, peas thrown against the wall, etc.) and is much loved all over the world.  In the world of science, peas provided the basis for the theory of genetic inheritance. In the mid-19th century, Austrian monk Gregor Mendel’s observations of pea pods led to the principles of Mendelian genetics.  Gardeners love the beautiful and  delicate pea flowers. They attract bees which not only pollinate them but also produce honey.  They are fairly easy to grow in a small plot of land or in a container.

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A bumble bee hard at work on pea flowers

 

The most common type is the green garden pea (English peas) and the smaller, French petit pois.  Nutritionally, peas are high in fibre, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin K, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, iron, zinc and lutein.  Though starchy, the glycemic load of a single serving of peas is estimated to be about 4, making them a low-glycemic food. For me, I find that eating some peas stops me craving for any sweet dish afterwards.  So I add to many foods that I cook.  It is an inexpensive food that is always in my freezer and I can add them towards the end of the cooking. As they have been frozen, they retain the vitamins and other goodness.  Here are some foods I cooked using peas.

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Indian pulao with peas

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Home made Paneer (Indian cheese) and peas

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Eggs and peas

 

 

 


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What I have learnt about ‘biodegradable plastic’

‘Just put it in the compost heap- and it will biodegrade!’  That is what I have heard from enthusiastic proponents of biodegradable ‘plastic’.  But now I’m cautious about doing that.  This is after my experiment trying to actually compost this stuff.

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As you see in the photo above, this is what the plastic bag looks like after more than a month inside the pot.  I filled the bag with dried and green leaves, hoping to start the process of biodegradation.  But it remains as strong as ever with no signs of disintegration. My friend used a large ‘hot’ composter and she also found that the ‘vegware’ she threw in haven’t composted at all.  I have since learnt that these bags require specific environmental conditions to biodegrade. Most require an industrial composting facility.  If accidentally mixed with regular plastics, compostable ones contaminate the recycling process.

Keep Britain Tidy has complained, ‘The drive to introduce bioplastics, biodegradable plastics and compostable plastics is being done with limited emphasis on explaining the purpose of these materials to the public or consideration of whether they are in fact better from an environmental perspective than the plastic packaging they replace.’  I also saw report from the BBC where a biodegradable shopping bag could still carry a full load of groceries after submerged in water for three years or buried underground for the same time. In some ways these are worse than the normal plastic ones because they come with the myth that they are somehow more benign to nature.

I was recently offered a ‘vegware glass’ at a charity meeting. When I asked for a proper glass, the woman said, ‘But these are compostable- and it’s all a part of a circular economy’.  I replied, ‘Please show me where your composter is.’  She said the office didn’t have one. ‘So you expect me to take this home and compost it?  What if I don’t have composter?  What happens if the vegware doesn’t break down?’  She didn’t have the answers and so reluctantly led me to the kitchen and gave me a glass.  Whether it is vegware, or biodegradable- it is also a single use item.  Single use items should be banned- our planet is not big enough to take in all the rubbish we throw in it.


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Using green mulch

In these days of climate change with extreme heat and lack of rain, even in the UK, one has to think about how to keep plants hydrated.  I went away for three weeks recently and had only just bought a lavender plants before leaving.  I was worried about it dying while I was away.  So I used a weed- nettles which grow well in my terrace- to make a green mulch.

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The green mulch would not only save the soil from drying out but also as the nettle dried out, it would nourish the soil.  It also would prevent other weeds from growing in the pot. I had first learnt about green mulch from some Cuban organic farmers who had used it during the ‘crisis’ days to grow urban food but had never used it myself.

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Almost four weeks later, this is the result.  The plant looks healthy and has grown well while the nettle has dried and become part of the soil.  Some small weeds have grown in the pot but those will also form part of the new green mulch.  This was so effortless and economical that I’m going to use it again and again.