Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Capillary Action in Plants and Beyond

When I made my makeshift capillary matting, I promised an update.  Here's  a photo of my tomato today--it has not dried out since I made the matting and we have had some sunny days, and the water in the pan around it has gone--someplace.

I also promised in last post that I would get on with my short story. I did.  So having been good, and between hanging laundry on the line, I want to share a metaphor with you. It occurred to me yesterday that ideas move with capillary action.

I began my gardener's apprentice blogging because I was working out a bundle of ideas centred around how much land it takes to live on. Political analysts and demographers are telling us we'll reach about 10 billion population but we'll be able to manage it because having people cluster in cities will free up land elsewhere for food production or wildlife--I note the 'or' in their presentations.  Even if we have a place to put all those people, I am not convinced that any land freed up will not be so degraded or compromised that it is of not much use to us or to any wildlife that manages to survive. Moreover, I can't help seeing in my mind's eye the post apocalyptic megacity of Blade Runner. So just how much land does it take to live on? I'm working on that.

The first realisation about what would have to change was about storing food.  Modern houses do not have larders. We have become accustomed to shopping for food and storing it temporarily in any season.  My first step for larder-dom in my house is, for now, to use a cupboard in the garage.

But that is just a small step in my larger investigation. I am concerned about hunger or food insecurity in a land where there is food aplenty. I am concerned as well about the stereotyping and stigmatizing of folks who do not have the luxury--and it is a luxury-- of planting out raised beds in their back gardens and using a cupboard in the garage for a larder.

Yesterday I was gratified to hear on BBC Radio 4 on the Food Programme about three food bloggers--all of them on benefits and all foodies. They had a lot to say that interested me and contributed to my long term questioning, which I hope by capillary action to reach folks who make the decisions that affect us all on a larger scale.

A girl called Jack (http://agirlcalledjack.com/) is luckier than many. She knew how to cook and she knew also how to write and how to take some political action. Not all the folks in the queue for the food bank are so lucky.  She realised that and has put her skills to work in showing others how to cook simply and inexpensively in a tiny kitchen. Her hard work and skills are being rewarded now with a book contract, which I hope will be a help to her and to all those who face the same hard choices she does.

'Austerity cook' has now entered the lexicon and, hopefully, with the same pride and satisfaction as folks nowadays say 'make do and mend' referring to the wartime scarcity and the resourcefulness it engendered. Equally as important, I want to put a little counterimage to the stereotype of  slackers and do nothngs in the line at the food bank. One of the women interviewed said that no matter how much the volunteers tried not to make them feel impoverished, nonetheless a sense of failure sometimes dogged their steps. I would like to suggest that if we turn out a young adult who does not know how to cook the basics, then it is we who are the failures.

Along with how much land is the question of what skills to make it work for us? Whatever the future offers, whatever we choose to call the curriculum, a familiarity with food and seasons and simple preparation should be a part of that.



Thursday, July 25, 2013

On the Way to A Short Story

On the way to the folders where I have short stories and starts and fragments and ideas and exercises, I decided to take a photo of bean and the chard I picked for lunch. I am notorious for doing and or manufacturing perfectly reasonable things to do on the way to where I am meant to be. Even now when I usually have only myself to account to, so I'll share a
My only broad bean to have germinated
wee note with you and then lunch and down to business, I promise.

First, here's how Bean looks now. I know he has outgrown his little seed tray, but I am afraid of jinxing his progress with transplanting. I know I have to. Tomorrow.

And here is my Bright Lights Swiss Chard--or Chard as it is known here or sometimes leaf beet. It is called Bright lights because the stems come in colours--red, yellow, white--and a lovely stripey which may or may not have been intentional. I had heard about it from another gardener but am seeing it for the first time here.

The chard transplants from my friend in Mongolia were the first to be ready and I have enjoyed some few leaves tossed into rice or mac and cheese.  The seedlings I planted in front bed with flowers are catching up. In both cases I have noticed that the plain chard grows heartiest and the red seems to bolt. Bolting is something I associate with cool weather crops--such as spinach-- when the weather gets too hot for them--something not likely to occur here despite a couple warm days--so why bolting? and why more the red than any other colour--just coincidence? and what kind of hanky panky underground has led to pink-stripey chard?

Bright Lights chard the red and white striped may be an invention of the chard talking among themselves underground.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Capillary Matting

You can get fancy capillary matting from larger garden centres or from the internet, but in the far north of Scotland, garden centres are not large;  even with the internet it can take a long time/or be expensive to get things delivered up here.

And truth be told I like being able to go out to the garage or the loft and get bits and bobs and make things. So when I read on the internet that you could make capillary matting at home from found materials, I went rummaging.

First, for non gardeners, capillary matting is something that transfers water by capillary action (remember dyeing Queen Anne's Lace flowers blue with food colour--that was capillary action.) This is handy for a variety of reasons: propagating seeds because they need a steady supply of water or, in my case, watering a thirsty tomato.

I miss the taste of red ripe juicy tomatoes right from the vine--my vine, so I have tried various things over the years to get tomatoes up here.  This year two of the luckier hand me down transplants are living in the sun room.  When we get sun, it gets very very hot, so I have been watering them 2 or three times a day and still I came home one day to find my big tomato crumpled into an un-plantlike geometry.  Fortunately, he perked up with water, but tomatoes not only need a lot of water they also need a consistent supply of water.

The DIY capillary matting said wool or J cloths or something that can hold water and stay wet without rotting away.  I have a lot of wool, so that was a no brainer.  I picked a not very pretty sweater partially felted and handed down to me when my friend moved on for the matting.

The matting needs to rest on top of something that does not soak up water--I used a plastic freezer bag stuffed with bubble wrap. And this matting and the island it covers needs to be in a larger container that can hold water.

The plant sits atop the island and the moisture from the matting is taken up by the soil in the pot. That's the theory at any rate. Tune in later to see how the thirsty tomato and the hard working recycled sweater get on.

Monday, July 22, 2013

County Show Fever

After nearly 10 years, I finally caught the County Show fever.  As always, I was late in catching it. Others had talked about it for weeks and planned their projects and had a lifetime of experiences to draw on.

But in my own way I was overcome with the excitement of being part of something that everyone else was doing. I was chuffed to have been encouraged by someone whose opinion I valued.

And so in this fever, I laid out and made a felted cushion in one day--that has to be my chief claim to fame because the cushion did not win any kind of recognition at the show.

As I laboured over the cushion, I heard strains of Beach Boys, 'Be True to your School' in my head.  Why Beach Boys? Why that tune? Well, be true to your SWRI just does not scan and I am and always will be a bit more familiar with Beach Boys when I search the juke box in my mind.

So although not much copp at the show or for my WRI, nonetheless I take away what I think the competitions are really meant to encourage--I can do more than I think I can.  The judges inside our heads are always more difficult to overcome, so facing up to the outside ones helps us take on the bigger challenges.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Not since Jack has a bean been so eagerly awaited.  Yes, of course, there were meant to be more, but birds and other mysteries of the soil and the secret lives of seeds took their toil.

These are first photos of Bean. I am pleased to be able to report that he has now fully emerged and spread his leaves and grown the first hair on his stalk.  Perhaps my collecting recipes for broad beans has been premature, but I have faith and along the way have collected a bit of knoweldge, too.  I have been the ancient mariner of bean-itude buttonholing my garden friends. Next year I'll be better acqainted with the wonderful world of bean seeds.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Compost Bin!

Compost is so important both for saving what we have--organic material is getting scarce; and for minimizing waste. So I am chuffed to have my wizard of eco-engineering Roy Sibley once again featured by one of his creations--an expandable, easy-open compost bin.

A home now for leaf mould in the making and comfrey juice--thanks to other gardening pals.


First Harvest. Well, harvest is a bit optimistic, it was more like a rescue, but I got to eat it, so harvest it is.  I know I am not alone in suffering from the windy, cold, wet and generally grim weather and I tell myself that I am learning how to solve gardening problems--a lot of them-- and intense ones, so I can be better prepared next time. I do believe. I do believe.

Wind.  Caithness is known for its wind. I have most of my veg sheltering in the lee of the house with willows on the other side giving a bit of screening. The wind, however, has just snapped its fingers at my meagre defenses and battered any plant that stuck its head above the parapet of the raised bed. Enter the wizard of improvisation and existing materials, aka Roy Sibley. I talked with my hands--as I often do--and before I knew it, he had made a chicane from stakes and wind screening lying about the place.  The elegance of the design means no gate was required, no massive construction.  I know the wind will flatten it sometime but for now, it is much quieter. Hooray for chicane-ry!

One wee chard, however, was stuck in a draft.  And he was the one to add to my mac and cheese for dinner tonight.  I left an inch above ground so perhaps it will rise again and I put some wind protection over top.