How to Plan a Garden – the basics

How to Plan a Garden – the basics

How to plan a garden – getting started

When I first started to garden, I went about it very haphazardly. I’d sow things here, there, and everywhere and did not pay much attention to what it said on the seed packages.

That’s how you learn – or rather, that is how I learned. I hope you are smarter than that!
Plants have likes and dislikes and different nutritional needs. Some like it cool, others hot, some don’t really care. Some are fussy, and some are persistent – they are all different, and it makes sense to get to know them. So, now I spend a lot more time thinking about the garden, and its needs, as well as mine.

Here are some things to consider:

Climate or Microclimate?

Before you plant anything, try to really understand your garden.

Do you know your growing zone? Or, do you live in a microclimate with weather patterns that don’t match the hardiness index? How much rainfall do you get? Which are the driest months? Have you traced the path of the sun through your garden at different times of the year? Do you know the sunniest and the coldest spots?

Growing zones

You can find out about your local growing zone with a simple google search. Due to climate change, such zoning is no longer completely reliable. Talk to the farmers or neighbours and listen to their observations.

I made my first plot in a south-facing spot, but later realized it was actually the coldest part of the garden. It lies lower than the rest of the garden and forms a dip where all the cold air collects.
Climate change has shortened our winters and made them milder. But we often get a late frost, even if the weather had been warm and spring-like for weeks.

Soil

Do you know what kind of soil you have? What is the pH level? Is it loamy or does it drain freely?
Plants don’t like wet feet. If you want to grow nutritious vegetables, concentrate on optimizing the soil. That alone will have a huge impact on your harvest.

Once you know your basic perimeters, it is time to choose your seeds. Part of the excitement of growing your own food is that you can experiment with unusual varieties. But always make sure, your local conditions match their requirements.

Friends or Foe

Certain species don’t like to grow next to each other, while others are friends. If you take the time to pay attention to their preferences, you will end up with a much happier garden. (I will write a separate post about this topic).

Getting the most out of the available space

Some plants mature quickly, while others take a long time to grow. But you can make the most out of your limited space by using a technique called ‘intercropping’.

Intercropping simply means sowing fast-growing crops like radishes among rows of slow-growing veggies.

 

 

Also see Gardening Jobs for January

 

Foraging Chickweed

Foraging Chickweed

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Once winter has settled in, foraging has come to a standstill. We have to rely on previously gathered supplies. Except, if you are lucky enough to live in a temperate climate zone, there may be at least one herb that defies the elements. You might have spotted it in your veggie plot: a little sprawling herb with heart-shaped leaves and star-shaped flowers that belongs to the Pink family known as Chickweed.

Chickweed is fairly hardy. It defies the elements and can pop up early in the year when other herbs are still asleep. 

 

Chickweed is one of those herbs that gardeners love to hate. They try everything to get rid of this persistent ‘weed’ that pops up anywhere humans have toiled to cultivate the ground. It is only natural. 

 

Chickweed is one of those herbs that blush at bare soil and quickly spread out to cover mother earth’s nakedness. Chickweed binds the soil, prevents it from washing away and drying out – the consequences of standard gardening practices. 

 

Alas, as soon as this little healer herb appears, gardeners grit their teeth and start a crusade. How dare this audacious herb invade their plot?

 

But instead of battling it, you could welcome it as a gift. Chickweed is a blessing, not just for the earth but also for us. It is rich in chlorophyll, minerals, and vitamins that are sorely needed at this time of the year. And all we have to do is clip its tender tops. 

 

Chickweed has a mild flavour and is incredibly versatile. It can be used like alfalfa to garnish sandwiches, soups, and salads. It can also be incorporated into omelets, fillings, sauces, dumplings, or quiches – the possibilities are endless. But it should always be used fresh and finely minced, as the stems can be somewhat stringy. When cooking with Chickweed, bear in mind that it cooks down to practically nothing in no time at all, so just add it at the last moment and don’t cook it for long. Overcooking would only diminish its benefits.

 

Chickweed also offers some valuable medicinal properties. The old herbalists describe its effect as cooling and soothing. They used it as an expectorant for afflictions of the upper respiratory tract, like an irritable cough. The same cooling and soothing properties also calm inflamed sores, rashes, itchy skin conditions, and burns. Traditional herbalists used it to make ointments and poultices for treating eczemas, boils, and abscesses.

 

Sometimes it is made into a tincture, but fresh works best. If you want to concentrate its effect, it can be juiced. But it does not keep very long. It can be frozen, but that will diminish some of its goodness. 

 

Warning: some people have reported allergic reactions to Chickweed collected from chalky soil. Like many other members of the Pink family, Chickweed contains saponins, and these can be toxic in large quantities.

Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice is upon us – the longest night is here!

It has been a difficult year. I hope you and yours have found a way through. The Winter-Solstice marks the darkest point, the longest night of the year. 

The trees have lost their leaves and all signs of life have retreated below ground. The countryside is bare. The sun barely rises above the horizon and shines only a feeble light. Birds have departed. The Earth has entered hibernation mode.

Yet, at these dark times, we find cause to rejoice! For deep within the Earth, a tiny light has been born! Fragile as a baby in its crib the new sun-savior god has returned.

We are at the threshold of a new cycle. As yet, we do not know if the baby will grow. Nevertheless, where there is life, there is hope.

In the old days, the 12 days of Christmas marked the time when the veil between the worlds is thinnest – corresponding to the 12 days of Mid-Summer. Spirits and ghosts are passing through, howling frightfully during the night. The period of celebration culminated on January 6th, when, according to the Christian tradition, the Three Kings finally found the stable where the sun-god had been born.

The Solstice is a time of reflection, of sharing the memories of the summer past and of gratitude. The year may have demanded heavy sacrifices from all of us, but it has also let us realise that the things we took for granted are what is truly matters. The crisis is not over, but there is hope on the horizon. During this quiet space we can reflect on what we want to manifest next year and how we can make things better, not just for ourselves, but for the community of which we are a part.

Winter Solstice is a festive time despite being the shortest day and longest night.  It marks the turning point and harbors the promise of things to come. Especially so this year as it coincides with the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction, which will be visible for the first time in 800 years December 21, 2020.

This is a time to count one’s blessings and to celebrate hope. The wheel of time is turning. The light has returned. Let us cherish this little flame of hope so it may grow strong and return life to Earth once more.

Frankincense (Boswellia sp.)

Frankincense (Boswellia sp.)

Featured image by Mauro Raffaelli, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Plant Profile: Frankincense

Frankincense is well-known as ‘that stuff that is burnt in church’. But what exactly is it, and where does it come from?

In common parlance, ‘Frankincense’ is often used as a generic term for all kinds of incense, but botanically, it refers to oleoresin sourced from  Boswellia trees.

Description:

The Boswellia genus has its greatest distribution in tropical regions of Africa and Asia. It comprises small shrubs or trees that are rich in fragrant oleoresins and well-adapted to arid and inhospitable terrain.

Four species are classified as Frankincense trees:

  • Boswellia sacra (syn. Boswellia carteri, southern Arabia)
  • Boswellia serrata (Indian Frankincense, syn. Boswellia thurifera)
  • Boswellia papyrifera ( Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan)
  • Boswellia frereana (Horn of Africa)

The Biblical Frankincense is derived from Boswellia sacra, a small, shrubby desert tree with pinnate leaflets and thorny branches found in Oman. It lives on rocky slopes and ravines.

In India, Boswellia serrata is the most common variety. It is a more stately tree that usually has divided trunks.

Small, 5-petaled whitish-yellow flowers appear in axillary racemes. The trees frequently seem to be growing directly from the rocks and boulders to which they cling with adaptive, disk-like swellings at the bottom of the trunk. But these adaptations only develop in response to the environment, if necessary.

Excessive harvesting reduces the number of flowers and the size and viability of the seeds. Cattle and camels browse on the leaves and branches, especially in times of drought.

Name:

The name ‘Frankincense’ probably came from the old French expression, ‘franc encens’ meaning ‘valuable incense’. Frankincense is also known as ‘Olibanum’, which derives from the Arab word ‘al Luban’, meaning ‘milk’, an allusion to the milky sap that turns into Frankincense when it dries.

Boswellia serrata - Indian Frankincense

Dinesh Valke from Thane, India, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

History

Familiar by name, yet obscure. The source of Frankincense has been shrouded in mystery since long before the birth of Christ. The origins of its use are uncertain, but it is well-documented that Frankincense was widely used in the Egyptian Temples to honour Ra and Horus. On her epic journey, Queen Sheba brought along numerous Frankincense trees as a special gift for King Solomon. Unfortunately, those trees were doomed. Frankincense trees only thrive in arid conditions and are limited to a specific geographic range. But, it’s the thought that counts. The gift was a significant sign of honour and respect.

Incense fuelled the economy of the Arab world, much as oil does today. Towns positioned at strategic locations along spice or incense routes prospered considerably from this trade. In the Ancient World, Frankincense was more valuable than gold. The obscurity of its origin gave rise to wild tales. Frankincense trees were said to be guarded by dragon-like creatures, ready to strike out at any intruder. Keen to protect their fortunes, traders had invented such terrifying stories to deter enterprising and adventurous young men from going off in search of the trees.

But, scare tactics aside, the long journey across the desert was indeed as dangerous as it was lucrative.

Tree Stewardship

Oman, Somalia and Ethiopia are the most important suppliers of Frankincense today. As in the days of Solomon, the most common use of Frankincense is to honour the Gods. While the average annual quantities used have decreased since Solomon’s times, science has found new applications. Harvesting is still done using the traditional method of bleeding wild trees. Although uncultivated, individual trees ‘belong’  to particular families who live nearby (by unspoken agreement). These families look after the trees and claim the right to harvest them.

In the ancient world, all Frankincense trees were considered the property of the King. It fell on him to negotiate the harvesting rights with the merchants, for a percentage of the profits, of course. Studies show that families who take a ‘guardian’ role towards the trees are more likely to use sustainable practices. Unlike the roaming harvesters, who don’t care much about the welfare of a particular tree, any desert dweller will naturally want to protect the source of their livelihood.

Harvesting

Harvesting Frankincense is a time-consuming process. Several deep incisions are cut into the tree trunk, and a small piece of bark is removed. (According to modern research, more than five incisions causes considerable stress to the trees.) This wounding causes the tree to ‘bleed’, and a milky white substance protrudes that seals and heals the wound to prevent infection. After three months, the resin has hardened enough to scrape off the tree trunk. This ‘bleeding’ process is repeated three times to obtain the highest quality Frankincense. Only the resin collected from the final bleeding is rated as ‘superior quality. Once solidified, the resin is sorted into tears and grains of different colours and sizes. The quality is determined by the degree of opacity. Resin destined for distillation is shipped off while still slightly sticky inside. This indicates a high concentration of volatile oil.

Medicinal uses:

Most Frankincense is used for religious purposes. But it also has a long history as an ingredient of medicines and cosmetic preparations. Early writers such as Pliny, Dioscorides and Avicenna have recorded such uses of Frankincense as were common in their time. But in time, the therapeutic properties had been all but forgotten – until some years ago, when new studies found Frankincense effective for a wide range of hard-to-treat diseases.

The ethnomedicinal applications of Frankincense are very diverse, ranging from dental disease to skin conditions, respiratory complaints and digestive troubles. In the Ancient World, every part of the tree was used: root, bark, bud, flower, fruit and resin and essential oil.

Astringent

The powdered bark was used to make an astringent paste for swellings (oedema). Mastitis was treated by boiling the dried or fresh gum in the patient’s own milk to form a thick paste for topical application.

The bark’s astringent properties are used in ointments for treating sores and chapped skin. Emperor Nero is said to have used a pomade made from a mixture of resin and wax to disguise the tell-tale bags beneath his eyes that appeared after a night of excess.

Vulnerary

The charred, powdered bark was kept as a first aid application for wounds. Mixed with water, it made an instant dressing for injuries and burns. If available, the fresh bark was also used for this purpose. The lotion provides an excellent antiseptic wash to clean dirty or infected wounds.

The bark was also used for setting broken bones. Two pieces of the wood were used as splints, with strips of Frankincense bark wrapped around them to hold in place a bandage that had been soaked in soft resin. The drying resin helped to provide firm support for the mending bone.

Child Birth

Frankincense also played a role in women’s medicine. Chewing the bark alleviates morning sickness. A potion made from snakeskin and resin dissolved in wine was said to ease difficult or prolonged labour. Frankincense was burnt for 40 days during and post-partum, to protect mother and child. Squatting over the smouldering resin was said to restore muscle tone and support healing of any laceration, and speed recovery from the strains of labour.

Eyes

Its antiseptic properties have also been used to treat ophthalmic diseases. In Ethiopia, the soot of the resin is believed to be beneficial for the eyes. Sore or tired eyes are fumigated with the smoke.

Teeth and gums

The resin was chewed as a ‘therapeutic chewing gum’ to stimulate the gums and treat dental infections such as gingivitis.

Stomach problems

A bark decoction makes a stimulating and cleansing tea. The inner root of young trees was chewed as a remedy for stomach problems. Buds and fruit were used as a cleansing tonic for the digestive system.  A decoction of Frankincense resin, cinnamon and cardamom, settles an upset stomach. 

Other uses

Even the incense was used therapeutically. The smoke acts as an expectorant and clears phlegm from the head and chest. It purifies the air and relaxes the patient while soothing their pain, especially severe headaches.

Frankincense smoke is a powerful insect deterrent, a  property that helps prevent serious diseases like malaria or dengue fever.

Frankincense is said to improve memory and dispel lethargy. An old recipe for an epilepsy treatment recommends boiling it in with hare’s lungs in white wine.

Modern uses

Modern research has focused on Olibanum’s anti-inflammatory properties, particularly to treat rheumatoid arthritis and soft tissue rheumatism. Frankincense extract is also effective for gastrointestinal diseases such as colitis and Crohn’s disease.

Censer

OTHER USES

Perfume

The clean, fresh, balsamic fragrance of Frankincense has perfumed our world since ancient times. Originally, the term ‘to perfume’ derived from the Latin ‘per fume’ meaning ‘to pass something through the smoke’.  Clothes were fumigated, not only to give them a pleasant scent but also to kill any pathogens. Perfuming is essentially a cleansing practice.

Today, the perfume industry uses Frankincense essential oil as a fixative to scent soaps, detergents and countless cosmetic articles.

The ancient Egyptians were pioneers in cosmetics and perfumery. Among other things, they invented the eyeliner known as Kajal (Khol). Khol was made from charred powdered resin mixed with waxes, oils and other substances. It was believed to protect and improve vision. Modern versions are still available, but no longer contain Frankincense.

Fresh, soft Frankincense resin can be used to seal minor cracks in pottery and other utensils. The gum hardens upon drying.  In combination with other resins, it has been used to caulk ships.

In Ancient Egypt, Frankincense and Myrrh were essential items in the funerary rites used to embalm the mummies in preparation for the afterlife.

Gardening Jobs in December

Gardening Jobs in December

Gardening Jobs in December

It’s December, and gardeners are longing for spring! The garden has gone into hibernation, and there isn’t that much going on out there. Or so it seems.

But wait, there is always something to do!

 

Sowing

Yes, in the midst of winter, you can do some sowing: if you live in a comparatively mild climate zone, you can sow broad beans outdoors – or under cover, if weather conditions are harsher.
Frost hardy lettuces, such as lambs lettuce and Asian salad mixes, are also good winter crops.

You can get a head-start on some long season crops like chillies or aubergines. But you might need a grow-lamp to ensure they are getting enough light.

December is the perfect time to start onions from seed. Sow them indoors to give them a nice head start.

If you have a tunnel or greenhouse, you can start garlic in trays to plant out later.

 

Harvest

Harvest your winter veggies now. Leeks and Brussels sprouts are ready now.

Any young Brassicas you might have outside are at risk to be eaten by hungry birds. Cover them with netting and remove any yellow leaves to prevent mildew and other fungal diseases.

 

Trees and Bushes

 

Pruning

Prune apple and pear trees, and berry bushes, such as Black Current, Red Currents, White currents and Gooseberries.

 

Planting

Winter is the best time to plant bare-root trees and bushes. Think of the wildlife when you make your choice! Hawthorn, Rowan, Hazel, Elder, and Guilder Rose provide food for hungry birds.

Speaking of Wildlife…

Many animals are hibernating. They might be sleeping right under a pile of leaves or under the compost heap, so don’t disturb them until spring.

The birds are hungry all through the winter. Keep the bird feeders topped up and put out some water – they still need to drink!

Prepare for spring by building nest boxes and insect hotels.

 

Planning

Winter is dream time. Think of the summer to come and what you would like to harvest next year. Planning the garden early means you can sow and plant much more efficiently and harvest all year long.

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