A Sordid History of Seeds Part II: The Soil Association

I’m pleased to announce that I have been commissioned to write about seeds, how they are legislated, and their history for the Soil Association; you can read my piece here. This post was inspired by, and partly based on, some writing that I did last month.

I am very glad that these articles have resonated so well with the growing community, and would love to hear people’s experiences elsewhere in the world, particularly from growers who save seed.

If you care about food, then you should care about seeds: who owns them, who controls them, and how it affects our lives and our environment.

I will be delving into this subject more deeply in the near future: how seed hegemony keeps developing countries in poverty cycles, how the number of leaves on a head of lettuce can be patented, how small groups of innovative growers have been circumventing these laws and keeping stronger, indigenous varieties alive, and ensuring we have good food stock for the future.

Incidentally, if you are based in or near South London and you are interested in saving seed, then visit Glengall Wharf Garden, a community garden that has pledged to become a safe haven for open pollinated, non hybridised GMO free seeds. They will be holding a seed swap at the end of the month — March 22nd — they are very friendly, and you will learn an awful lot, so do go along!


A Brief History of Sourdough Bread, and a Simple Recipe to Make Your Own

sourdough loaf boule preserved lemon rosemary homemade baking bake bakery baker loaves bread realbread
It is possible to make beautiful sourdough loaves cheaply at home. Here is a rosemary and preserved lemon sourdough loaf I made recently.

There is an unfortunate tendency in marketing to make bread-making sound like a dark art. Sourdough in particular is touted as a luxury product for the few, when, in reality, it is something that we can all have a go at making at home. The commercial baker will always have the advantage of specialized equipment – particularly ovens – but you can achieve some wonderful results with a regular oven. Teething troubles aside, take heart, as you’ll be working with far more sophisticated kit than your ancestors (who probably invented their bread by mistake anyway).

Whilst the craft of the professional baker is humbling to behold – and certainly is to be admired – there is nothing to stop you making perfectly good loaves at home with your own wild yeast; we’ve been doing it for thousands of years.

Though sources differ (bread-making leaves behind little evidence), the Sumerians – people from the southernmost part of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) – are credited with the invention of sourdough-leavened bread in around 6000 B.C.[1], though some sources date this at around 4000 B.C.[2]. The method of mixing sourdough with unleavened dough was transferred to the Egyptians in around 3000 B.C.[3]. From here, the Egyptians invented bread moulds and ovens[4], but it is not clear how prominently sourdough-leavened bread featured in their cuisine, as bread made from emmer wheat has such a dense crumb, rendering the visual examination of samples difficult[5]. The oldest leavened bread identified in Europe dates between 3560-3530 B.C. and was discovered on the Swiss side of the Jura, near Lac de Bienne; it has a lovely round shape, which you can take a look at here[6]*.

Continue reading

Green Manures: Why Don’t We Learn From Old Wisdom?

clover green manure crop nutrients soil leguminous nitrogen-fixing
Above: clover, a common nitrogen-fixing green manure crop used to return nutrients to the soil

Approaching a new plot of land is a daunting matter. Particularly in London. I have heard of people uncovering mattresses, televisions, and all manner of things lodged deep in this damp, clay soil.

Sadly, at a time when ‘vintage’ remains vogue, I doubt I am going to uncover any butler sinks any time soon. A shame, as they are lovely things in which to grow more vigorous species, like mint and nasturtiums.

The garden to which I’m tending this year is less than ten years old. The soil, whilst full of happy, healthy worms and traces of mycorrhiza (the parts of mushrooms we don’t tend to see), is very clay, clumpy, and generally in need of a lot of love. I can see where the garden is trying to come into its own, and have observed which species are doing well, but it could still do with a helping hand when it comes to building the soil.

It is no accident that we are starting to pay more attention to our soils and the way that we grow our crops, at a time when we are having to refine our growing and farming practices to meet the demands of burgeoning populations and climate change.  We are only just beginning to examine soil composition and its flora and fauna in earnest, and it is perhaps our increased understanding of these relationships that has led to zero-till and no-dig methods gaining popularity. Both are topics that I will examine in future.

Continue reading

A Sordid History of Seeds: Swapping, Swindling & Why We Must Save for the Future

swap seeds: borlotti, painted lady, carlin peas, mr bounds
Seeds swapped and saved this year, including (L-R): Borlotti, Painted Lady, uknown, Carlin Peas and Mr Bounds

Despite the biting cold and the snow, February is a time of year that I always look forward to. It is the time when the scribbles and marginalia of the previous year’s notebooks start to turn into the shoots and leaves that will eventually make the crops of the coming year. It is a time when I get to enjoy the excitement of cracking open last year’s bean pods, enjoying each little snap of nature’s answer to bubble wrap. It is also the time of year that major seed companies most look forward to, as growers around the world buy seed in anticipation of Spring.

The unquestioned hegemony of seed companies over what people grow is something that I have always found very strange. When so much of what we grow willingly offers its seed, it seems weird and wasteful to buy new seed year after year. So why do we do it? Well, naturally, the problem started with the Victorians. The Industrial Revolution led to a number of major advancements in the practice of agriculture and horticulture, including the mass-production of glass, the invention of chemical fertilizers, and the birth of the large-scale seed supplier. The impact of these changes was unprecedented, allowing growers around the world to produce bigger, more resilient crops earlier in the year.

The scientific spirit of some of these plant breeders was commendable, with a number of their observations contributing to our current understanding of botany and plant reproduction. Some of them even enjoyed correspondence Charles Darwin.

Continue reading

Sapindus, saponins, toxicity & why nature isn’t always best

horsechestnuts aesculus hippocastanum fruit
Aesculus hippocastanum, more commonly known as the horse chestnut. Contains high concentrations of the saponin aescin, which has proved useful in the treatment of inflammatory and venous ailments.

After yesterday’s post about sapindus and soap nuts, I thought it important to write a short aside about why natural is not always best, even if this runs contrary to the modern mantra. Yesterday evening, I received a message from a dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a biophysicist.

Whilst I knew that saponins were renowned for their frothing properties, I was not familiar with some of their other attributes. As my friend put it, saponins are made up of amphiphilic molecules – half of the molecule likes to be in water, whilst the other likes to be in lipids. This allows them to solubilize lipids and oils, cleaning up grease”. Great. What these chemicals are also capable of doing, however, is destroying cells by altering their membranes. As said friend affirms, “they are probably used by the plant in defence against bacteria and fungi” and, like other soap-like chemicals, are a bit toxic to the environment. In fact, so effective are some saponins at killing fish, that they are employed by indigenous peoples for fishing to this day, in places ranging from Guyana to the Indian subcontinent.

So where does this leave us on the subject of soap nuts as an alternative to washing detergent? Well, firstly, I would be interested in running a comparative toxicity test to determine whether all things are equal. Presuming that they are, as my friend says, I can still see advantages in soap nuts, not only for their affordability, but also for their reduction in processing, packaging, and the possibility of composting them once spent. I presume that not all saponins are made equal, and that interesting, more local alternatives could be found in soapwort, saponaria officinalis, or the humble horse chestnut, aesculus hippocastanum (yes, I was glad to find out that they were good for something, too!). So I have some experimenting to do. Continue reading

Sapindus: a natural alternative to washing powder (and just as effective)

soapnuts sapindus saponins.jpg
Soap nuts, the dried fruit of the Sapindus plant, contains high concentrations of saponins and tannins.

Over the last year or so, I’ve become particularly conscious of the amount of unnecessary chemicals we put into our water systems, so I’ve been looking to make a few changes to my habits to see what I can improve on a microcosmic scale. In this instance, I wanted to find an answer to the kilos of washing powder that I use every year, and to see if there was a cost-effective alternative that didn’t require an increase in labour. I appear to have found the alternative: soap nuts.

Part of the lychee family, soap nuts are the berries of the sapindus tree. The etymology of this plant is a contraction of the plant’s origin and its soapy properties, coming from the Latin sapo, meaning ‘soap’, and indicus, denoting its Indian origin (though some similar plants can be found in North and Central America).

In his book Ethnopharmacology of Medicinal Plants: Asia and the Pacific (2007), Dr Christophe Wiat states that “the plant abounds with saponins and tannins, hence the antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, cosmetic, and expectorant properties”.  The berries feature in a number of folk remedies throughout Asia, from the treatment of skin complaints, to the washing of hair and fine silks – however, in this instance, I just wanted to get my washing clean.

Continue reading

In Praise of the Quince

quince fruit peckham
Quinces foraged in Peckham, South London, 2014.

The first time I stumbled upon a quince tree, I thought that I had discovered the Holy Grail of pears. Golden against grey Cambridgeshire skies, they looked like the juiciest, sweetest fruit that I had ever come across in a city. Frustrated with my diminutive stature, I realized that there was no way that I would be able to reach them (despite numerous attempts with the crook of my umbrella), and began to concoct a plan for how I might.

Several weeks later, walking through the streets of South London, I came across the mythical fruit once more. Ever tempting (and ever out of reach) I was beginning to understand why the fruit was believed to be the temptation of Eve.

I returned with the aid of two strong arms and a picking device, crudely and ingeniously fashioned from the remains of an invasive buddleia plant and a plastic bottle. To our delight, the device worked, and while we worried about our merry missiles bouncing off car roofs, we savored the sweetly-ripe smell that arose from their downy, waxen skin. But this is where the magic ended. As I sunk my teeth into the flesh and brought the fruit around my tongue, I was met with a fluffy, floury texture and thought that I had in fact bitten into some kind of deceptively delicious-smelling fruit hybrid. Despite my sadness at the hoard of bad apples, I kept the fruit, deciding that they would probably work well in a pickle or a preserve irrespective of the texture. I was right.

A little reading revealed that the fruit I had picked were in fact quinces, and that my instincts to pickle them had been correct. The quince does not yield its gifts willingly, and the heady bouquet of flavors that tempts us in the first place needs coaxing from its flesh. We owe the name of one of our most prized preserves—marmalade—to the Portuguese word for quince, marmelo, derived from the Greek μελίμηλον (melimēlon, or “honey fruit”). It was the Greeks who first discovered that cooking quince over a low heat with sugar or acid would cause the resultant reduction to set, and it is from this point that we can trace most modern jams and pickles.

Continue reading

Cider Vinegar: Mother, Is That You?

cider vinegar mother.JPG
The ghost of the vinegar ‘mother’ can be seen floating at the top of the jar.

The vinegar has passed into its second month, and it seems that all is going well. The ‘mother’ is starting to form at the top of the jar, which lets me know that everything is working as it should be. I’m quite excited about the presence of this strange, ethereal substance, as it will have a lifetime far longer than this vinegar if I play my cards right.

Once the vinegar is finished to my tastes, which may be another few months yet, I will be able to remove the mother, wash it, and use it as a starter culture for other vinegar projects. I am quite keen to make some attempts experimenting with wine and berry vinegars next, as it will allow me to have greater control of the flavours. Equally, I intend to incorporate some foraged herbs in the process to see how that affects the results. I will update with my findings.

For more information about how the vinegar was made, click here.

Urban Gardening & Homemade Seed Plugs

One of the main challenges I’ve faced living in London is that I have had to move around a lot. Whilst this has had some benefits (ummm…?), the main set-back is that I have had to plan my growing on a temporary basis. Restricted outdoor space means getting creative, too. However, even when I’ve had little more than a windowsill, I have managed to yield some excellent results, so don’t let this hold you back. It’s just a matter of planning and picking the right crops to suit your space. On one windowsill a few years ago, I grew salad, spring onions, calendula, cornflowers, radishes and herbs with great success. It’ll depend which way your window is facing, amongst other things, but a little research can go a long way.

broad bean seeds
Above, seeds from last year’s broad beans. Community gardens are a great place to exchange seeds with locals and to get growing advice.

A good resource at your disposal is your local community garden. Most boroughs have them, and many of them hold courses with opportunities for hands-on practice that will push your skills to the next level.  If you are in South East London, I cannot recommend Glengall Wharf Garden enough. They are kind, patient, interested and interesting, and have provided me with a wealth of invaluable information. They hold a number of courses throughout the year, and provide gentle, encouraging guidance to everyone from the most seasoned gardeners to complete beginners.

Although I have done a lot of sowing-and-growing during my relatively short time on this planet, I like to consult books on even the most basic of things just to familiarize myself with alternative methods. It provides me with a way to troubleshoot if and when things go wrong (they often do!), and it is very satisfying when new, experimental methods work out well. We all have something new to learn, and, it seems, even the experts miss a trick every now and again. I came across one such instance recently when reading through the Veg Patch: River Cottage Handbook No.4. Diacono often talks about using Jiffy propagation plugsto start his seeds off. Whilst these are indeed effective (and perhaps useful for growing on a commercial scale), it seemed silly to me, because there’s a resource available in most households (except, perhaps, some vegan households!) that is superior, and a good reuse of household waste: egg shells.

egg shell seed propagation plugs
Egg shells make for great seed propagation plugs. Above, a dozen broad bean seed plugs I made a couple of days ago.

Making an egg shell seed starter is easy, read on for my guide to making your own.

Continue reading

New Year’s Frustration & Garden Planning

Broadbean pod

For many people, the New Year heralds a sigh of relief with its promise of clean slates and forward-thinking, yet for me, the month of January is always filled with frustration. Its etymology contains happy nudges towards the actions associated with the New Year: namely, rejuvenation and reflection. Specifically, January is related to both the double-headed Roman god of new beginnings, Janus, and the fearsome warrior-goddess Juno [*for those interested, see P.S. for etymology/history]. But for me, January is a waiting game lodged between the two of them. Having reflected on last year’s successes and failures, and having planned most of the whats-and-wheres for growing in 2015, I am very eager to start getting my hands dirty.

My garden notebook, where I keep plans, growing notes, and names of varieties, among other things. Particularly high up my list is the anticipated arrival of sweet cicely, Myhrris odorata, and the opportunity to experiment sprouting seeds from prime fruit and vegetables that I had the fortune to eat last year, including one of the juiciest marmande tomatoes that I have ever eaten. All being well, I am also hoping to start growing a quince tree.

Although there are still things to be foraged at this time of year — from tansies to incredibly tardy apples — the excitement of the heights of the mushroom season has died down considerably, and I find myself like a child counting down to Christmas thinking about the seas of wild garlic that will soon surface again from the deep. Happily, the relative quiet of the outdoors has had me creating all kinds of fermented concoctions at home: from staples such as sourdough to yoghurt and delicious beer.

Continue reading