May 2009


This is the first proper harvest – ‘proper’ in that it is something I’ve sown and grown myself. I’ve been sowing and sowing for weeks now and this is the first result. Radish and rocket from my mid-April sowings, alongside red-ribbed sorrel, parsley, lemon thyme and chives from what was already in the garden, with a light splash of olive oil and sherry vinegar.

And Rosemary Beetle was his name. (If you’re keen on the Latin, it’s Chrysolina americana). And this means a new addition to the swarms of pests trying to thwart my plans of container-garden-self-sufficiency.

Remember, they look pretty, but they're evil.

Remember, they look pretty, but they're evil.

I was giving He-who-lives-with-me a tour of my domain when he remarked on the colourful bugs. I looked at them and had a funny feeling of foreboding – that I’d seen them before and that they were not good news. They are very beautiful – they look like exquisitely embossed metalwork beads hung through the rosemary leaves – but they are also nasty little critters who want to eat my beautiful herbs.

Unsurprisingly, Rosemary seems to be their favoured host but they’ll also chew on lavender, sage and thyme: some of my most precious things. So it was time to capture the beasts.

If you want to eat your herbs at some point in the next two years or more (uh, yes) then you don’t want to be spraying nasty chemicals on them. Instead it seems the only solution is to collect them by hand and exterminate them with said hand, or heel-of-boot. I shook them onto a big bit of plastic and then tipped them into a tub.

Apparently, there should only be adult beetles around right now, and they’ll spend the next month or two just sitting around eating, so I hope that with due diligence I can catch all the buggers before they start breeding. A thorough inspection today turned up ten: nine on the rosemary and one on the sage.  Apparently the thyme and lavender were not on today’s menu. A late evening sweep-through turned up one more on the rosemary, who was added to the rest of the day’s spoils.

“The sense of death is most in apprehension; And the poor beetle, that we tread upon, In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great  As when a giant dies.”

“The sense of death is most in apprehension; And the poor beetle, that we tread upon, In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great As when a giant dies.”

Now here’s my problem – and the current subject of my philosophising –  I cannot bring myself to squash them. All I need to do is tip them out on the patio and stamp on them. I could even put my fingers in my ears and close my eyes if I really wanted, but I still can’t do it.

This is illogical for so many reasons:

  • As far as I know they are of no use apart from their attractive appearance, and are not an integral part of our ecosystems. They’re fairly recent visitors to these shores, arriving from Southern Europe in 1994 apparently, on a mission to frustrate British gardeners’ hopes and dreams. I’ve decided their aesthetic attraction makes them even more sinister – flaunting their shiny shells so we sit back admiringly while they breed their evil armies.
  • Mother-of-frugilegus spends many a merry hour on her homestead squishing all manner of pests between her fingertips, her favourites being lily-beetle, rosemary-beetle and vine-weevils. I think this is a good thing that she is doing and I admire her fortitude/murderous relish. Mother knows best, so why can’t I follow her example? – especially when I could use my foot if I can’t stomach the fingers.
  • But this is silly too. Just because my foot is slightly further away from my brain than my fingers it is not somehow more detached from me. I can’t pretend I have less responsibility for my foot than my fingers. Which brings me onto my next point…
  • I’ve squashed hundreds of aphids between my bare fingers in the last few days (and probably forgotten to wash my hands before lunch).  Why should beetles be different? They’re a bit bigger which might make it more like killing a real living sentient thing, but that argument doesn’t bother me when I’m eating a chicken – or a fish, with all its metallic prettiness. And the beetles are even more free-range and organic than the dearly-departed chicken.
  • I’m prepared to catch a fish for food, and I like to think I’d be able to wring the chicken’s neck so I could eat it for my tea – that’s quite an important part of my not-quite-codified ethics of meat-eating. But it can’t be that beetle-murder is unacceptable because I wouldn’t be eating the beetles after killing them. That’s not relevant – they’re a pest and it’s them or my herbs.
  • At this stage, I should note that my eleven captives are sitting in the airless tub I put them in earlier today (with just a sprig of rosemary for comfort). I’m secretly hoping they’ll have run out of air by morning – even though I’d be no less responsible for their death if that happened – and perhaps suffocation is even more unpleasant than being trampled underfoot?

Which leaves me feeling tremendously illogical. The only thing I can think of is that my imaginings of the crunch a beetle would make is overriding all rational thought. But that doesn’t help….

PS. If you’ve found some of these little critters, let the RHS research project know.

PPS. The title of this post is the start of a beautiful children’s poem by AA Milne, which is fun to read out loud and always makes me smile.

Those without glasshouses can throw stones

Those without glasshouses can throw stones

Here’s an in-progress shot of the mini-greenhouse I’m trying to fashion out of repurposed materials.

It’s an old set of shelves (8 yrs of use, working out at approximately £1.25 a year), that I don’t need any more and so has been in pieces for the last three months. And just the right depth for seed trays!

I removed the middle shelf and most of the slats on the top-shelf (the middle one in the picture is removable). I then found some nails of an inappropriate length in the bottom of my tool-box, and bodged a few of the spare pieces together to create a roof-frame. Somehow managed to do this at just the wrong time for my neighbour’s piano practise.

My craftsman brother is not allowed to examine this, or he will have bad dreams.

So far, I’ve tacked some bubble-wrap along the back, which is against a wall. The next step is to reclaim some clear plastic for the other sides, though I might need to expand the skeleton to give whatever I find some more support.

The plan is that this will allow me to propagate a lot more seedlings at one time – and will be a more satisfactory arrangement than taking over the kitchen with pots of mud – a kitchen which really doesn’t get quite enough light anyway. And maybe it will allow me to get away with some rather late sowing too.

That is, assuming I ever get any further with it…  Anyone throwing away clear plastic in West London? I shall ask freecycle.

The line-up

The line-up

Look, look!

These potatoes were planted at the start of April and are pretty happy looking veg. I shall be very happy too when they are on my plate.

I went online last night and spent all my pocket money on interesting varieties of seeds. I should be feeling guilty about my extravagance, but instead I keep re-reading all the mouth-watering and weird and wonderful names on my order forms, and dreaming of the delicious brown parcels to open next week.

The rampant sorrel

The rampant sorrel

I decided today that it was time to do something with my two huge clumps of sorrel. For a while I’ve been feeling guilty about not making any use of it, while it just sits there growing and growing, and growing some more.

Sorrel after a bath

Sorrel after a bath

Extra impetus came from inspecting the toppling flower stems and seeing the soggy leaves underneath. I cleared those up and cut back the thick ribbed stems, hoping that such a severe haircut will help encourage fresh new growth – though this will, of course, also perpetuate the cycle of guilt.

Still, I pulled off a bucket of the large green shield-shaped leaves, and mixed me some pesto.

Gunk from the green giant

Gunk from the green giant

One litre jug of torn sorrel, a few big fat glugs of olive oil, 3 cloves of garlic, one handful of pine nuts, a few sprigs of parsley and the end of a lump of parmesan, was whizzed up and stirred into egg pasta, with more parmesan on top.

One generous portion for me, and another for the fridge.

Pasta with sorrel pesto

Pasta with sorrel pesto

I’ve never eaten sorrel before but I like lemony tangs and acid flavours, so was optimistic. I enjoyed the unusual flavour which I still can’t quite put my finger on. It is bitter, and it does have something of the lemon about it, but there’s something very much of its own too, which I can’t find a satisfactory description of.

Anyway, I’ll try soup when I next make some stock, and will also be mixing it with other salad leaves. As for the pesto, I think I overdid the sorrel quantities, and next time I’ll tone it down a bit, or add some other ingredients – perhaps something with a bit of sweetness. Any ideas?

Just add water

Just add water

tea for one

tea for one

I’m now watering and tending umpteen green things, but none that I have planted with my own fair hands (read muddy, nail-bitten, in place of fair) are yet ready to be plucked.

However, my little patch of London green was blessed with a fair few herby delights already (and if I’m honest I didn’t really look at the interior of the flat; I just saw that Rosemary and Sage were growing happily and slapped down the deposit).

So I cannot take credit for my first harvest, but I did take pleasure. Instead of a dry old teabag, this cuppa of peppermint was only two minutes old, and tasted as green and fresh as it looked.

(And it looked much much greener than I was able to capture on camera)

Make this yourself at home

Step one: Grow mint. A windowsill, a pot of mud and a helping of daylight is all you need, but give it a garden and it will take all you offer. Mint spreads: if you want to to keep it under control in your garden, plant it in a pot in the ground to confine its territorial lust. Find a bit of mint that you like the look of and swipe a bit. A sprig in a glass of water is all you need to get going; you’ll have roots within a few days.
Step two: When it’s grown a bit, pick yourself a sprightly sprig.
Step three: Check for greedy caterpillars, aphids and other things that, while probably nutritious and tasty in their own right, spoil the visual effect when they’re floating around in near boiling water. Rinse under the tap if you’re that way inclined.
Step four: Add hot water. Sit contemplatively while your tea infuses.
Step five: Drink your tasty green water. Feel purer. You’re probably feeling so pure by now that it’s time for a trip to the pub.

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