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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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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Open Squares day

The open squares day is a great day to visit gardens in London- big or small.  London’s hidden green spaces open their gates for public enjoyment and discovery.

The very first London Garden Square Day took place in 1998, with 43 gardens taking part.  The aim was to draw attention to the contribution that green spaces made to the city- in fact, almost half of London is green.   The open Squares days offer opportunity to explore those private and more secret gardens which are not generally accessible to the public and to join in the community events taking place.  Caroline Aldiss, a resident of Collingham Gardens at the time, founded the event in 1998-9 with the support of the London Parks and Gardens Trust and English Heritage. She thought that a day when all the green spaces could become open to the public, would be good event for the summer and for people to become interested in gardens and gardening.

This year I visited St. Mary’s secret garden in Hackney with its wonderful array of tables selling home-made produce such as jams and chutneys, honey, plants, bird houses, tea and cakes. Along with the buzz of people, bees and birds, it was a lively atmosphere and inspirational.  For over 25 years, St. Mary’s Secret Garden has offered a safe space where people with support needs  and the local community can get hands-on experience of gardening,  gain a sense of inclusion and receive the benefits of horticulture and other eco-therapy activities.

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A quick homemade insect spray

Each summer, my olive tree and other plants get mealy bugs and woolly aphids.  Now I abhor both of these.  Looking up the Internet suggestions on how to get rid of these in the most eco-friendly way, If found the use of soap solution along with physically touching the stems and picking them off.  How ghastly- I’d never touch these! I have been cutting off the branches each year and that has also helped with pruning.  But this year, the tree appears to give off snowy showers when I shake it and I didn’t even feel like pruning it.  I’ve tried the home made soap solution but I think the solution needs to stick to the infestation to be effective. I’ve tried vinegar solution but don’t like the smell.

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This year, while thinking about the ‘stickiness’ aspect of the solution, I found some unused Ecover floor cleaner.  I added 25% cleaner to 75% water along with a pinch of turmeric to act as disinfectant (total 500ml).  IMG_7678

When I sprayed this, the foam actually stuck to the branches and nodes where the insects were.  You need to shake the bottle from time to time as the turmeric tends to settle at the  bottom.  Almost immediately I noticed that infestation was gone!  IMG_7681

I will have to wait and see if it does return but the olive tree looks amazing now.  You have to be careful not to spray surrounds but as you see that my tree was next to wood, it  was okay.  Also, don’t spray edible plants with this spray.  Ecover floor cleaner, which has linseed oil as an active ingredient, claims to have the following eco-credentials:

  • Fresh perfume from plant based ingredients
  • Cleans floors effectively and quickly
  • Excellent natural floor care and protection against staining
  • No petrochemical based ingredients
  • No residue of unnecessary chemicalsFast and complete biodegradability (OECD-test 301F, full product)
  • Minimum impact on aquatic life (OECD-test 201&202, full product)
  • Against animal testing
  • Suitable for septic tanks

I am not advertising for Ecover as this was just an experiment but I thought it was better to use this than sugar soap and WD40 which also some people have used as insecticide.

The cost of Ecover is £3-50 for 1L, so my spray works out to be less than 1pence for 500ml.

Someone else tried my solution for her rose bush and says it has worked on the aphids.  So you can try it and let me know if it works for you in the comment section below- good luck!

PS- as an added advantage, I use this mixture to quickly spray and clean up wooden floors and non food use areas.


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Become a bit untidy

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Its officially summer and time to work on the garden.  The recent storms and previously unseasonal snow in February and March plus two travels, made my garden a bit untidy.  I felt a bit embarrassed by it all, but today as I went out, I saw what I had been missing.  There were bees flying around, spiders making their nests, earthworms in the soil and many other insects going about their business.  Birds such as sparrows, pigeons and gulls floated about in the air.  There was a real eco-system there which I had not recognised. Even tiny patio gardens have a way of making a complete micro eco-systems which are a part of the much bigger eco-system we live in.  Even inside the home, there are spiders, ants etc which are part of an eco-system which help you- spiders eat other harmful insects such as moths and mites; while ants can take away bit of food that you can’t see.  I’ve got all these and feel fine with it.  What about your home?


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Until death do we part

I have been very guilty of loving my houseplants too much- by overwatering, over-fertilising and doing every other over-the-top thing.  I have lost many plants and also money.  So now I have reduced what I buy- though I still love to have plants in the house.  Contrary to the view that houseplants hugely increase the amount of carbon dioxide during the evening and night and therefore it is not good to have them inside the house, it has now been calculated that they only increase it by a very small amount.  This amount of carbon dioxide does not have any health disadvantage and the benefits of having house plants outweighs everything else.

During the late 1980’s, NASA did some research on houseplants as a means of providing purer and cleaner air for space stations. The plants filter out certain harmful compounds in the air and make it much healthier to breathe. My top three maintenance free and double use houseplants are-

  • Spider plant (which can absorb 90 percent of the toxins inside the house by absorbing mold and other allergens, small traces of formaldehyde and carbon monoxide; and best of all, live on practically nothing and yet produce ‘little babies’ that can be detached and given away as gifts!)
  • Aloe vera (the juice of which can be used for burns and insect bites)
  • Peace Lily (which improves the indoor air quality by as much as 60 percent by reducing the levels of mold spores, keeping bathrooms free from mildew and absorbing harmful vapors from alcohol and acetone.  The peace lily also produces beautiful white or pale flowers- bonus! And after reducing my watering, it has finally produced a beautiful flower after many years of being flowerless.
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Over the years, I have drastically reduced the numbers of houseplants but I was still overpowering them with water.  But simply keeping water levels low or watering them every 2-3 weeks works well.  A tip I got about watering houseplants when going away was to leave an ice cube in the pot- this has also worked well.  This time was the first time I didn’t find my houseplants nearly dead from overwatering after I returned from a three-week holiday (previously I used to sit my houseplants knee deep in water!).  My nearly dead poinsettia has even come back to life with glorious red leaves as you see below. I am now working on the orchid on which I will report later.

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Easy pumpkin seed snack

It is autumn and pumpkins are readily available.  Use them for your Halloween pumpkin and then make pumpkin soup from that.  But don’t throw the seeds or the gooey stuff around the seeds.  That gooey stuff attached to the seeds can be taken out easily using water as this Youtube video shows.  The gooey stuff can be thrown into your compost and the water used for the plants (so don’t use running water to clean the seeds as the video shows but use a bowl of water instead)  The cleaned seeds can be used for snacks.  Many of the recipes use shelled seeds and some don’t- you can use what you prefer.  Due to some health issues, I can’t have the shells so I have used bought pumpkin seeds for this recipe but you can do the same with your seeds with shells. I have also let go of the olive oil used in many recipes because it is not good in the heat but used coconut oil instead. You need much less oil this way.

Heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade.  Put your oven tray in for a few minutes to warm it, get it out and then put a tiny (I used a teaspoon) of coconut oil. It will melt.  Spread the oil around the tray evenly and then put in a teaspoon of cajun spice or you can use garam masala.  Mix the oil and the spice and blend in the seeds so that you have a even one layer of seeds on the tray.  I also sprinkled some Himalayan sea salts on the mixture- again a small amount.

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Stick the tray back in the oven for about 10 minutes or so until the seeds have turned crispy and become a lighter colour.

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The finished seeds should have golden light colour- see the difference in the photos above and below.  Then they are done. They are so yummy, low fat, free (if you have the pumpkin) and so simple to make! Its great party food plus very healthy-with nutrients ranging from magnesium and manganese to copper, protein and zinc. They also contain plant compounds known as phytosterols and free-radical scavenging antioxidants.

Because these are high-fibre seeds, they’re able to boost your fibre intake, helping you reach the ideal amount of 50 grams per 1,000 calories consumed and keep your bowels clear.  You can also take them as snacks for work or to the park because pumpkin seeds are highly portable and require no refrigeration.

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