Plant Portraits

I love poppies, and I particularly love this gorgeous orange one, Papaver rupifragum. The insects love it, too.

P rupifragum and visitor

Convolvulus can be a menace in the garden, but this one is charming.


I love eryngiums. This steely colour is fabulous.


When I first got this plant I was excited because I thought it was Geranium maderense, but it’s actually a close relative, G palmatum, also found in Madeira, and I think perhaps more beautiful, though less spectacular. I have seen this growing wild in Madeira. It’s a modest self-seeder and almost hardy. I’m very fond of it.

G palmatum


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Some Images from Wickham Place Farm

I haven’t updated this blog for a long time due to family reasons, but it’s time to rectify that. I hope I can remember how to do this! I thought I’d start by uploading a few photos.

It’s coming up to that time of year when gardeners watch the weather forecast with trepidation. One sharp frost and that’s the wisteria over for another year.


Cotton grass

Yellow flag


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5:2 Grow Along Seed Choice – Courgettes

Go to the garden centre and you’ll be presented with a bewildering display of seeds from several suppliers. Open a seed catalogue, and the choice is even broader. The beginner gardener could be forgiven for buying the one in the prettiest packaging, or running from the shop screaming. So in this blog post I’ll tell you what I grow and why, and making other suggestions.

The first source of confusion is the term “F1 Hybrid”. This is where two different parent types of the plant, with specific characteristics are crossed such that the offspring have these specific characteristics. Because this cross-fertilisation takes a lot of intervention by the plant breeder, the seeds tend to be more expensive than seeds from plants allowed to be fertilised naturally such as by bees. Sometimes they are a lot more expensive. So are they worth it? The answer is a cop-out on my part: It depends.

For courgettes the answer may well be “yes” because cucurbits are susceptible to a number of diseases like cucumber mosaic virus (which can also be carried on passionflower) and the problem that bugs me on my dry, well-drained soil; powdery mildew. This last nuisance is basically as the name describes, a powdery coating on the leaves which renders them unsightly and less effective. When I had an allotment on heavy clay, it wasn’t a problem until the very end of the season, November time, so I could get away with growing the cheap and cheerful, open pollinated “All Green Bush”, but my soil is now very well drained, and Essex gets the same amount of rainfall as Jordan, so the plants are often water-stressed. (By that I mean going short of water.) Water stress makes the plant more susceptible to powdery mildew. Making the soil more water retentive helps, which is another benefit of manure, regular watering would also help, but in a busy lifestyle, that’s not always possible, so the next option is to grow courgettes which are resistant to mildew.

Soon after moving to Essex I discovered “Astia” by Johnson’s seeds. ( These grew well for me in my back garden until the trees grew up and the neighbours built an extension. They are still a favourite of mine, and are indeed milder resistant. At £2.49 for ten seeds, it’s easy to think they are too expensive, but the seeds remain viable for a good number of years, even past the “use by” date, if stored cool and dry, so a packet lasts me several years, because I only grow one or two of each variety. So for about 50p I get two of the plants I want, with a backup if these get damaged by pests, and less worry about disease.

My labelling tends to get lost in the garden, I am ashamed to say, so I can’t say how disease resistant other varieties that I have tried are, except that one year my yellow ones were distorted and I strongly suspected cucumber mosaic virus, so the plants had to be destroyed. This does not mean all yellow ones are vulnerable, so if you fancy yellow ones, give it a go. I’m not sure that yellow ones are quite so prolific, but may be wrong there. The round courgettes are good for stuffing, but I have had problems cutting them from the plant – a variety to grow if you have room for several plants, perhaps, but if you are committing to one plant, I’d opt for a green, disease resistant one.

“Defender” F1 is supposed to be resistant to mosaic virus, so if you grow passion flowers, that might be a useful choice. I would also choose it if bryony grows nearby, as white bryony is in the cucumber family, though poisonous. (

I don’t think I have tried Defender, but I have tried Primula, which, like Astia, is mildew resistant. Midnight is a useful courgette because it grows well in tubs. Black Beauty has fruit with lovely dark skin.

I used to grow one called the Lebanese courgette, but haven’t done so since moving to Essex. It had a wonderful flavour.

I have tried Patriot and Mikonos, both of which grew well, but one of which was not good for mildew – if only I could remember which one.

A couple of years ago I grew Striato D’Italia, (Seeds of Italy) and they were very good to eat. I tried them because I got the seeds cheap at the end of the season. Unfortunately I left the rest of the packet in the greenhouse in the searing heat and fear they might be dead. I’ll see.

I see from the seed catalogues a couple more which might be worth trying. Black Forest F1 has a climbing habit, so would do well with support, say, against a fence, and Parthenon, which is tolerant of gloomy British summers. I have no personal experience of either, but know that productivity of ordinary courgettes in shady positions is compromised. They need sunshine to form the female flowers.

Sowing the seeds is simple. I use a peat pot and a mixture of John Innes No 2, Horizons Peat free Grow bag and perlite. The instructions suggest planting 2 per 3 inch pot, removing the weaker one, but I don’t bother because often there isn’t a weaker one and it’s hard to kill a seedling. And with F1 seeds, that’s expensive waste. If the seedling looks poor, though, don’t plant it out.

The seed packets also say you can sow direct, but this is risky. Vermin can steal the seed, slugs just adore young courgette plants, and the vagaries of the weather mean it’s easy to lose such plants. I sow inside, but do this too early and you can end up with leggy seedlings like this, unless you are blessed with a greenhouse. (I have a greenhouse but it’s stuffed with plants and just now hosts pesky rats which are causing havoc. Tin foil to bounce back the light on a window ledge is passably good, but often it’s better to wait for a short time. The plants will catch up.

The seeds are oblong and flat, and are best sown on edge so water doesn’t gather on the flat surface and rot the seed, not that I think it likely, so long as you don’t over water the seed. They take about a week to come up on a warm window sill. I sow mine in peat pots, but these are vigorous plants, so shortly after germination I pop the pot into a larger pot of compost, and keep it well watered. The problem I have is that I end up without enough room.


Cucurbit family seed. In this family they're al the same basic design, just the size and  shape differs . The root comes out of the pointed part.

Cucurbit family seed. In this family they’re al the same basic design, just the size and shape differs . The root comes out of the pointed part.

I push the seed into the compost, pointy bit downwards, and on edge.

I push the seed into the compost, pointy bit downwards, and on edge.

I push the seed down into the compost, about a centimeter deep.

I push the seed down into the compost, about a centimeter deep.

Germination usually takes about a week.

Germination usually takes about a week.

These big , fat leaves are the cotyledon leaves, which should be big and fat, not mean and yellow. You can see the first true leaf just coming out on the courgettes top left. In fact, these are a little bit leggy, which isn't ideal. They need more light. The pots are tiny and these plants will need putting into bigger pots very soon. I'm always pushed for space in the propagator, which is why I use the small fibre pots. They reduce transplant root damage

These big , fat leaves are the cotyledon leaves, which should be big and fat, not mean and yellow. You can see the first true leaf just coming out on the courgettes top left. In fact, these are a little bit leggy, which isn’t ideal. They need more light. The pots are tiny and these plants will need putting into bigger pots very soon. I’m always pushed for space in the propagator, which is why I use the small fibre pots. They reduce transplant root damage

Although with the 2 square yards garden you’ll only need one plant, it’s always wise to have a backup plant in case the first gets nobbled.

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5:2 Grow Along

One of the favourite dishes in Kate Harrison’s  5:2 Facebook group, especially on fast days, is “courgetti”, long strips of courgette either steamed, boiled briefly, or stir-fried. It takes the place of pasta and is delicious.

Courgettes (zucchini) are one of the easiest and most productive vegetables to grow, producing all summer long. Another vegetable which is very productive is runner beans. Climbing French beans are also good. I thought it would be good fun if we had a “5:2 grow along” to encourage people who haven’t grown any vegetables before.

To grow one courgette plant and a wigwam of runner beans, all we need is two square yards/metres of garden space in a sunny position. I don’t have this, which is why I took on an allotment, and now I have space for all sorts of interesting foods.

For those who lack suitable garden space, beans and courgettes can be grown in large tubs, but are very demanding with regard to watering and feeding. If you have to use tubs, 18inches in diameter is the minimum, realistically, and it’s better to get cubic shaped tubs or the flat bottomed straight sided ones, especially for the runner beans, because once they start to grow they are vulnerable to being blown over. Some people create very attractive mixed tubs of beans, tomatoes and other things like nasturtiums. The best compost for this is John Innes no 3, but be aware that this is not completely pat free. New Horizons grow bag compost is a good choice. Be generous because the moisture stability is greater with more compost.

I’ll be working on the principle of 2 square yards, one square yard will hold the courgette plant, the other will hold a wigwam of beans. If people have more space they could grow more courgettes and beans, or different crops as well. I will be going right down to basics, so I hope those who are experienced gardeners will humour me.

Both beans and courgettes are sensitive to frost and even cold weather, so they are started off quite late in the gardening year. The gardening books will say you can sow direct, but slugs love young beans and courgettes, so it’s safer to start them off in pots on a window sill or a greenhouse. Beans should be sown about two weeks before the last frost, but I tend to start them earlier than this and protect them if a frost is threatened. In the south of the UK it’s unusual to get frosts end of May or early June, but it does happen from time to time.

We have a couple of weeks before we need to sow the beans and seeds, but now is the time to prepare the soil.

One very important aspect of digging is the removal of perennial weed roots like couch grass. An uncultivated allotment, even one covered in mulch, will fall victim to re-infestation of this beastly grass from the paths surrounding the plot within a year.

Couch grass roots. Remove all you see.

Couch grass roots. Remove all you see.

Starting off

  1. Pick a sunny spot in the garden. The sunnier the better because courgettes form more female flowers in full sun.
  2. Mark out 2 square yards with boards or canes, and if this is part of a lawn cut round the edge to a depth of about 2 inches, preferably with a half-moon cutter, but a spade will do. (The problem with a spade is it’s slightly curved to the edge won’t look so straight.)
  3. Divide the grass inside the marked out area into approximately eight inch wide strips with the spade or half-moon.
  4. Lift the turf by sliding the spade under the grass, a couple of inches thickness. It should peel up like orange peel. Put the turfs to one side. Keen gardeners rot this down to produce loam for potting etc. It can also be put in the base of the trench.
  5. We could just dig the surface over, rake it flat, and let it settle before planting out, but beans and courgettes are hungry plants and a bit of soil preparation will be beneficial. So I’m going to cover single digging, double digging and trenching.

Single digging, double digging, “bastard trenching” and trenching.

In times of yore when labour was cheap, the vegetable garden of the Big House would be trenched to get a very deep bed for growing. This made a highly productive plot but some people feel this is a waste of time because it disrupts the soil layers and the beneficial microbes that live in the soil. Other people think it’s a waste of time because it’s hard work and labour intensive. So why do it? Perhaps the most important reason is to break up a “hard pan” layer in the soil. This hard pan acts as a barrier to roots and drainage, which can result in poor growth. A hard pan forms for a number of reasons. One is ploughing to a certain depth for years. Compaction from heavy machinery in new build houses causes similar problems, especially on clay soils. You will know if you have a clay soil because if you squeeze a handful of it, it can be moulded like dough.

Few people do proper trenching nowadays because it is such hard work, so instead we double-dig or “bastard trench”. People say it’s called bastard trenching because it’s a bastard to do, but that’s a joke. It’s “bastard trenching” because it’s not the true trenching, but does almost as well. I think it’s more polite and more explanatory to call it double digging.

When digging a plot, it’s handy to have a tarpaulin or, say, a split open compost bag, or even a few buckets, because to do a proper job, we need to move some of the top soil to one side temporarily and it’s good to be able to place it on or in something. I like using buckets because we need to move this top soil from one part of the plot to another, but in two square yards this is not going to be an issue.

Gardeners talk in “spits”. A spit is about the depth of the spade blade, approximately 8 inches. This also approximates to the depth of “top soil”, which is the fertile layer where the microbes work. This is valuable and ideally should not be mixed with the next layer, which is “sub-soil”. Top soil is the top layer, sub-soil is the layer underneath that.

If we want to single dig, we need to take out a gully one spit deep, and put that soil to one side on the tarpaulin. We then dig the next few inches of soil and turn it over into the gully, adding any compost or manure as we go. The turves from the surface can be laid, face down in the gully before the next spit of soil is turned into the gully, thereby burying it. When we get to the other end, we can put the soil from the first gully that we placed onto the tarpaulin into the last gully.

If we want to double dig, we dig the first strip as before, storing the soil on the tarpaulin.

Dig the top soil out to form a trench or gully one spade's depth ie one "spit". Save the soil in buckets, wheel barrow or tarpaulin. This will be used at the end of the digging process.

Dig the top soil out to form a trench or gully one spade’s depth ie one “spit”. Save the soil in buckets, wheel barrow or tarpaulin. This will be used at the end of the digging process.

We then take the fork and dig over the subsoil layer in the gully, breaking it up to improve drainage.

Fork over the base of the trench to the depth of the tines.

Fork over the base of the trench to the depth of the tines.

At this point it helps to add compost or manure to help keep the sub soil open and not compacted.



We can also place the turves upside down in the trench. Then we dig the next strip and turn it into the first gully, adding a bit more muck if we wish.

Turn the top soil of the next strip into the first gully, adding more manure if wished

Turn the top soil of the next strip into the first gully, adding more manure if wished

We then fork over the bottom of the next gully, adding muck, then dig the next top soil strip onto that, and so on. When the end is reached, the soil removed from the first strip is placed in the gully formed when digging the last strip.


For most gardening purposes this double digging is sufficient. In theory the soil is now cultivated two spits, sixteen inches deep. In practice, it’s often less than this because it’s hard work getting the gully eight inches deep, and even harder work getting the fork all the way into the soil in the base of that gully. We tend to skimp on the depth.

Trenching is where the soil and the top sixteen inches of the subsoil is cultivated, ie 3 spits deep. It’s not really worth trenching a 2 square metre plot, partly because of the effort involved, and partly because we may just end up making a sump for the rest of the garden to drain into. (If you’re not interested in this part, skip the next couple of paragraphs.)

When trenching, the top soil is removed to the width of two strips, and stored to one side, then a single strip-wide area of sub-soil is dug out to form a step down into a gully two spits deep. The sub-soil which has been removed is stored separately from the top soil heap because it’s less fertile and less “alive”. The base of this deep gully is forked over, breaking up any hard pans in the process, and adding manure at the same time. Effectively the soil is cultivated three spits deep. (Two spades’ depth and one fork depth.)

The subsoil layer of the second strip is then dug forward into the forked-over deep gully, and the next strip of top soil is dug forward on top of the turned over subsoil, leaving the next two-spit deep gully ready to be forked over. It is important to keep the top soil layer on top and the sub soil layer underneath.

When we get to the last strip, the sub soil on the tarpaulin is added back, and then the top soil. So we’ve dug the soil down a couple of feet but without muddling up the soil layers, and we have incorporated plenty of sub soil.

As you can surmise, this is hard work to do properly and involves a lot of earth moving. We seem to end up with more soil than is possible from a small bit of land!

It is worth doing on an allotment, especially if the ground has been ploughed for years, because that forms a hard pan. It’s especially important if we’re planting permanent crops. I did it on parts of my new allotment and I can tell you it was demoralising and exhausting. I needed to do it because there was a hard pan and I was building a fruit cage.

You can often see the differences between top soil and subsoil. The top soil is often darker and richer because it has more humus, ie broken down plant material. Sometimes there is no way to double dig a patch because the bedrock is so close to the surface. This was the case in my old allotment.

Double digging or trenching should only need to be done every few years.

Plot Ready

Whichever method we have used to cultivate our plot, the resulting bed should be lovely, weeded earth ready for the courgette and bean plants. But we need to either let the soil settle a bit or tread it down with our heels to get rid of air pockets. Because this could compact the soil it’s best to wait until the soil is dry and crumbly.

At this point most garden books will tell us about the different soil types, sandy, clay or loam. But the solution to most problems is muck. Muck will help to retain water and nutrients in a sandy soil, muck will help break up the impermeable nature of clay soils. Muck is great, but not if it’s too fresh. So next, I shall be talking manure.


Different manures have varying amounts of nutrients, which is a bit academic when we are mostly limited to whet we can get hold of. I am fortunate to be a quarter of a mile from a riding stables which produces tons of well-rotted manure which can be taken for a small sum of money. It’s well-rotted and straw based – perfect. The snag is that every so often the well-rotted manure is covered up by the next lot of muck from the stables, which means gardeners in the know excavate through the new to the old.


My allotment is six miles away, which means I have to either take this manure in the car, which adds a certain bouquet which is not to everyone’s taste, or rely on the manure which is donated to the site.

The on-site manure is fresh and the bedding material is sawdust.

Sawdusty fresh horse manure is all right as a mulch but can cause nitrogen robbery if dug in

Sawdusty fresh horse manure is all right as a mulch but can cause nitrogen robbery if dug in

Woody material, if dug into the soil as it is, will rob the soil of nitrogen. This is because the soil bacteria need nitrogen to break down the wood or straw. It needs to be rotted down with added nitrogen before it’s dug in. That nitrogen can come from things like grass clippings, or (whispers) human wee diluted ¼. The horse will already have started this process.

Such material must not be dug into the soil, but it can be laid on top of the soil as a mulch because the mulch is rotted down by fungi and this does not cause the same nitrogen depletion. I find this does not get very hot when decomposing.

If you can get hold of well-rotted manure for your two-yard garden, great. If not, don’t be tempted to dig in the fresh stuff. Instead, invest in a proprietary manure like “6 X”, pelleted chicken manure, or visit the local recycling amenity (ie the dump) where you should be able to buy bags of the compost made from recycled green waste.

I had the frustration of going to fetch some of the well-rotted manure, only to find them dumping the newer manure. As you can see from the photo, this was steaming hot. When it’s like this, that heat can burn roots, and the concentrated nature of the manure also scorches the roots. It’s not useable straight away if it’s too fresh. However, that heat can be used in a “hot bed”, and I may well be trying that this year.


One other technique that it’s a bit late to employ this year is a “bean trench” or trench composting. Beans enjoy a water-retentive soil, so many gardeners dig a trench in the autumn, line it with newspaper, then add kitchen waste into the trench. This will have decomposed by the time the beans are ready to plant out


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Some Thoughts on the BBC Horizon Programmes “What’s the Right Diet For You?”

I’ve always had a great deal of respect for the way the BBC addresses nutrition and diet in some of its programmes. In the past they have compared people’s progress on diets such as Atkins and low fat diets. And I’ve been a big fan of Horizon for many years, though lately the presentation seems trivialised and sensationalised.

Just recently there was a series of three Horizon programmes purportedly tailoring diets to the reasons why people are overweight. The series was highly promoted as ground breaking experiment and the biggest of its kind, so I really looked forward to it, particularly in view of the excellent programmes by Mosley for Horizon a couple of years or so ago.

Maybe I missed something, perhaps I should watch the programmes through again in case I have, but my initial impressions are:- Overall I was disappointed with the series of three, though I felt that some of the tests or demonstrations comparing the groups, or looking at how people respond to foods were very interesting, and more significant and applicable than the “right diet for you” comparisons.

What disturbed me was the lack of controls with these experiments, which turned the programmes into little more than ratings-grabbing showmanship. What a waste. I hope that behind the scenes some real science was done, even if it didn’t make it to the actual programmes. The experts obviously know their subject and I suspect it was the production of the programmes which turned it from a well-rounded experiment to a rather superficial presentation. Horizon is a shadow if its former self.

The basic idea behind the programmes is a sound one. People gain weight for different reasons, and unless those reasons are addressed, losing weight will be well-nigh on impossible. Horizon divided the people into three groups; emotional eaters; constant cravers and feasters. They also devised an online test so that viewers could assess themselves.

Emotional eaters are those who overeat when they are upset.

Constant cravers are always hungry, never satisfied. They have “hungry” genes

Feasters are those who once they start eating, they don’t stop. They tend to eat more than they need at mealtimes because the “full” signals from the gut are flawed or interfered with.

The BBC selected 25 people for each group from the many applicants. I presume, though they didn’t say so, that they matched them between groups so that as far as they could, they were comparing like with like. I suspect also that they selected people who showed a strong tendency for one reason, unclouded by the other two reasons. As soon as I heard the groupings I thought, “But I’m all three of those.” And quite a number in the 5:2 Facebook group felt the same, or when they did the online test got a result saying they were none of the above. However, if you’re wanting to compare groups you need to weed out those who might skew the results by having more than one reason for their overweight. But Horizon should have said so, because people may be misled or bewildered by thinking they are none of the above or all of the above from the rather crude, magazine-style questionnaire on the website.

Horizon gave each of the groups a diet purportedly tailored for their reasons for being overweight.

The Feasters were given a high protein low glycaemic index diet since protein promotes satiety whereas easily absorbed carbohydrate undermines satiety.

The Constant Cravers were given a two day modified fast diet where their intake was restricted to 800kcals for two consecutive days in a week, and they could eat ad lib the rest of the time, but healthy eating along Mediterranean lines.

The Emotional Eaters were given a traditional restricted calorie healthy eating diet with group support.

The first two make sense, but after the first programme I was worried that the emotional eaters had drawn the short straw with the diets. It didn’t seem very different from what has been trotted out as the answer to obesity over the last 50 years – you know, the diet which obviously hasn’t worked because sticking to it in the face of emotional upheavals is difficult. Any straying from the tight restrictions can then lead to low self-esteem (thoughts like, I’m greedy, I’m a pig, I’ve no self-control, I deserve to be fat/unhappy because I’m useless and everyone else is better at dieting than I am and I’ll always be fat so I might as well pig out on this chocolate because I’m miserable and I just can’t do this – type destructive thoughts and negative emotions). I didn’t think that group support alone would be sufficient to help this group, not long term, though having diet buddies can help – after all, what is the 5:2 Facebook group if it’s not a support group? I thought that unless the emotional side was addressed, the Emotional Eaters group was on a hiding to nothing. It wasn’t until the second programme that the BBC mentioned the group was offered additional support in the form of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.

Before I go into my other reasons for disappointment in the programmes, I will mention something that caused me unease regarding the coverage of the emotional eaters. The programme singled out two ladies who had some traumatic childhood memories associated with food. My concern is that anyone who, using the self-analysis questionnaire, came out as an emotional eater, might now be looking for some childhood trauma that triggered their emotional eating – looking for something to blame. Something that might not be there. But emotional overeating doesn’t necessarily stem from childhood traumas associated with food. It’s far more likely, I think, to relate to our responses to stressful situations. It’s far more likely to be due to the way we handle stress, and that is due to the way our brains are wired during foetal development, and how our anxieties are dealt with during nurturing. But I’m not a psychologist, so what do I know?

It would have been far more useful to cover some strategies for dealing with stress. I suppose they did mention exercise, but that isn’t a strategy for dealing with full-on in the face stress at the time.

They did an interesting test where they sent some of the emotional eaters and some from the other group(s) out on a simulated driving test, a very stress-inducing situation. They showed that after the stressor, the emotional eaters were producing more of the stress hormone cortisol, and that they ate considerably more than the “control” group. That was interesting, but alas, it’s not that well controlled. I would like to have seen them compare all three groups’ eating before the stressor and afterwards. I would like to have seen them demonstrate that the emotional eaters ate more than they had previously. As it stands, all they showed was that the emotional eaters ate more than the control group, but that may or may not be due to the driving test – they could have eaten more as a group than the others just due to chance or just because they ate more normally. Poor controls, and rather disappointing. Perhaps they did do that but they certainly didn’t show it in their “ground breaking” TV programme.

Something that was better done was splitting the Feasters group into two, feeding one group on protein rich, low GI food, and the other group on carbohydrate laden, high GI, low protein food, and showing how the high GI carb meals left them unsatisfied and how they went on to eat more. But I would like to have seen them do the same experiments with the other two groups because I think we can all experience this, it’s just exaggerated in Feasters.

I also thought the experiment where they compared how constant cravers focus on food far more than the others was very interesting. With our obesogenic environment where food is not just available at every turn, but pushed at us with cleverly constructed, psychologically clever adverts, constant cravers have a very difficult time.

But my main frustration with the series stems from this: I would like to have seen how all of the groups responded to all of the experiments and all of the diets. As it is, what the BBC did was preselect people, and give them a diet which was aimed at addressing the reasons, then try to demonstrate why that diet was the right one for that group because of their subsequent demonstrations and experiments. That’s not good science.

What they should have done is compared how each group does on each diet. How would the emotional eaters have done on a high protein low GI diet? How would they fare on intermittent fasting? How would the other groups do on the other diets? We will never know because they were only tested each group with the one diet. They should have been tested on all the diets to see if the one designed for them was the best.

This would have been further complicated by the fact that when we start a diet there is a honeymoon period where we are losing weight and it’s not too hard. So to do a properly controlled experiment they would have had to start some cravers on the high protein diet, some cravers on the intermittent fasting diet, and some on the traditional diet with group therapy, and so on with each of the groups, then change the diet to another, and then to the third diet, and see how well each group did with each diet. And they should have done it blind. Obviously whilst this is more scientific it’s also a heck of a lot more complicated and expensive.

As it is, though, the programmes did not show that any one diet was the best for any one group, despite all their headlines and big talk. They just showed that each diet worked for each group for a short period of time. That’s disappointing because most people will lose weight on a diet at first. It’s the long term weight loss that matters. It’s disappointing because the programme purported to demonstrate exactly that – that a specific diet was right for a specific group. They did not show this.

There will be people now who have done the rather shallow questionnaire on the website who have decided they are one sort or another, who now feel they have to follow the diet purportedly (but not proven to be) best for that type of person. Based on bad science.

I noticed also that the BBC did not say which group had lost the most weight by the end of the three months. If these people were matched, then that would have been a very interesting observation, more so than the fact they had lost lots of weight. It might have been the most significant result. Maybe they didn’t want to tell us because maybe one group’s loss far outstripped the others.

The good thing about the programme was that it showed that we are overweight for different reasons and that one diet strategy does not fit all. It also showed how it is very difficult to stick with any diet, and that we should get away from this atmosphere of blameworthiness that goes with being overweight. Someone who is not a feaster or a constant craver will not be able to understand this drive to eat, when they themselves are satisfied and find it easy to stop. Someone who is not a stress-head will not understand the drive to eat high sugar high fat foods after a stressful experience. Hopefully this series will have shown the non-overweight person why. That is presuming that people who are not overweight actually watched the programme (I suspect not – why would they?)

Being overweight is not a positive lifestyle choice, it’s because our genes and psychological makeup can make fighting being overweight very hard, harder for some than others, especially in the face of cheap, instantly available processed foods and seductive advertising. That doesn’t mean that being overweight is unavoidable, but it does mean we have to move beyond the obvious reasons (too many calories in, too few calories out) and start addressing the underlying reasons specific to that person. The Horizon programmes were a big step in the right direction, but were wholly inadequate in addressing what is the “right diet” for us.

Unless the obesity epidemic is sorted, in a few years’ time the NHS will be unable to cope with all the obesity and metabolic syndrome related illnesses. Many people, especially newbies in Kate Harrison’s 5:2 Facebook group were very confused by the Horizon prgramme’s intermittent fasting diet for Constant Cravers. With 5:2, the limit of calories on fast days is 500kcals for females, 600kcals for men, or ¼ of their total daily energy expenditure, and the fast days can either be back to back or non-consecutive. In the Horizon Right Diet programmes (NOT the Mosley Horizon programmes) the intermittent fasting was 800kcals for two consecutive days and intended to induce ketosis. They are not quite the same but both are valid forms of fasting.

And does the Feasters’ result mean we should all be eating stacks of protein? Well, maybe not, because animal protein is associated with higher levels of IGF-1, a growth hormone associated with an increased risk of cancer [ref example]. Low GI is good, though, but that’s nothing new.

Despite being an “Emotional Eater” (but only just) I will be sticking with intermittent fasting, thank you. I see no benefits in the other diets the Horizon Right Diet programme presented per se. But there are tweaks we can do to make each intermittent fasting diet individual for us, those highlighted by the Horizon programmes. This approach is something I have been advocating over the last couple of years or so, without actually dividing people into rather contrived subsets. Most of us are not one specific type. We are a mixture. So to my mind, the default diet which we are most likely to stick with is intermittent fasting.

Our food choices with that way of eating could be tweaked such that, for example, if we know we can’t stop when we start eating, we know we should fill up with protein and low GI, and eat slowly (but bearing in mind the problem with protein). If we are a constant craver, then perhaps we need to avoid tempting places, or have some useful low calorie snack to distract us from the processed food snacks we end up being tempted by time and again. “I can eat that tomorrow” is a very handy concept. And if we are emotional eaters, then maybe we should be seeking some emotional support so that when something stressful happens that might derail us from any diet, including 5:2, we can deal with the stress effectively without abandoning our long term weight loss/weight maintenance strategy. And this, I fear, is where we are sadly lacking. Where do we find such help? Books on CBT? Counselling? Groups of diet buddies? This wasn’t made at all clear in the programmes.

One good thing with 5:2 is that because it’s intermittent, we get away from the “I’ve broken my diet I might as well give up” attitude. With 5:2, if a fast day doesn’t work, we can dust ourselves off, maybe ask ourselves why, try to address any issues, and do a fast tomorrow.

(For more on IGF-1 and protein, have a look at the work of Valter Longo and the work of Luigi Fontana.)

(For some  books on coping with emotions:


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Perhaps I’m being partisan when I say that English apples are the best, and the best of the best are those which were on the tree a few moments ago.

When I was six, my family moved to a lovely, rather shabby 1930s house with a number of mature apple trees, some so mature they were frankly moribund. Each of us was assigned a tree. Dad had the majestic Bramley, Mum had an early type which never kept long, my brother had one which ripened next, my sister’s tree was a sort of golden delicious type, but never thrived, and mine was a Charles Ross, a glorious apple which was reminiscent of Cox, but which isn’t so fussy, and which keeps right up to Christmas. For some reason, Father Christmas used the same apples in the foot of our Christmas Stockings.

I planted my first apple tree when my husband and I lived in High Wycombe, bought in the sales and transported home in our Ford Cortina, tree head out of the window, my nerves in tatters. I tried to make it into an espalier against the fence, but we moved house before it came into fruition. In Wantage we planted a Family Apple tree with three different varieties, Spartan, Hubby’s favourite, Cox, which was lovely, and a cooker – Granadier, I think. I also planted apple trees on my allotment. Alas, we moved to Essex, and the next home owner cut down the family tree, but the trees on the allotment are still thriving, though too far away to benefit me now.

I planted a quince when we arrived in Essex. I figured that I could buy apples, but quince are hard to find. I didn’t know much abourt quince, so half-heartedly tried to espalier it. Quince are spawlers, and it resisted all attempts to keep it upright. Last year it was just beautiful, and laden, but I had to cut it back, which upset me. However, I did strike a cutting. Such a pity we’re only allowed dwarf trees on my new allotment or I would plant it there. I might just take it over there but keep it n a pot. This year I have just four quince from the old tree, but oh, the fragrance is divine.

My quince last year

My quince last year

My current garden is too cluttered to add apple trees, though I have tried in pots, including a Charles Ross, the same as I had as a child, but it’s not very productive as yet.

The trouble with growing up with apples is that the thought of buying apples at supermarket prices for supermarket quality is anathema. Worse, the varieties available are very limited, and apples like Cox are often a mockery of what a real Cox should be.  They don’t really look like Cox and they don’t really taste as a Cox should, to the extent that I wonder if they really are Cox. Perhaps it’s something to do with the soil.

When we moved here found one or two wilding trees to forage from, and a friend had an orchard which supplied our apple pie needs for a time. After acquiring my dehydrator, I wanted apples to dry, particularly as Beloved Husband loves dried apple. But not at supermarket prices because it’s not economical.

Apple peeler

Apple peeler

I bought some “horse apples” from a local farm shop, and these dried very well. Nothing “wrong” with them as apples, and I could process them with my apple peeling and slicing machine.  This cores, peels and slices in one action, and is based on an old Victorian design. I resented the goodness going out with the peel, and discovered that I can make the machine just slice and core. The unpeeled slices seem to dry just as well as peeled, and it doesn’t affect the eating quality.Apple rind. No sulphur, just apple

Every year a  “Pick Your own Apples” sign springs up on the B1022 just after Tiptree Heath, and every year I have intended to locate the PYO, but the signs are like mushrooms, there one day, gone the next. This year I finally got round to it and I’m so glad I did. I arrived at Daymens Hill Farm on the way back from dropping my daughter at work, rather too early, though I didn’t know that at the time. The sun was still low in the sky and there was a faint mist turning the light golden. Although the picking season was already a fortnight old the trees were still laden with apples. The pears were hanging down and glowing like baubles in the early morning light, and the grass was damp with dew. It gladdened my heart.

Mellow fruitfulness at Daymens Hill Farm

Mellow fruitfulness at Daymens Hill Farm

The idea is to grab a bucket and, carefully cupping the apples, detach them from the tree and nestle them in the bucket. To merely “pick” them would be disrespectful. The temptation was to fill several buckets because they looked so luscious, but I resisted, picking a few favourites like Spartan, Red Pippins, and proper Cox. There were also Crispins, a variety I haven’t seen for years, and several other traditional varieties.

The pears were gorgeous too, epicure pears you rarely see in the shops, as well as that stalward, the Conference.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The fruit was also good value for money when I came to pay for them.

We should, as a nation, be proud of our apple heritage. We should be picking our own from farms like this. But instead we buy apples from the supermarkets, often with air miles attached, or which may have been in cold storage for a long time. Why? Particularly at this time of year, why, when we have the glory of such orchards up and down the country? To taste an apple straight from the tree is one of life’s pleasures and yet so many of us miss out because we just can’t be bothered. And that includes myself. Fourteen years it took me to find this place. Fourteen years!

We should cherish what we have before we lose it.


The PYO is at Daymens Hill Farm, Grove Farm Road, Tolleshunt Major, Essex, CM9 8JZ, phone 01621 817479 – 815327 The card I have says 10.00am – 4.00pm daily. but I was told 10.00am – 2.00pm, so best check.

Have a look for local PYOs and check out October Apple days near you. The Hyde Hall apple day is on 18th & 19th October 2014

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Nuts About Nuts

No posts for ages, then two in a row.

Last year I found a supply of foragable sweet chestnuts. The nuts were very small, but looked edible enough.  I gathered some but never got round to eating them, and they dried out. I discovered that I could break off both the dried shell and the furry husk, which tastes dry and bitter if left. This leaves a small kernel that I could rehydrate, boil and use as a vegetable. I was contemplating returning this year, but have found a supply of much better ones. This lot I gathered in about five minutes, and look forward to roasting soon.

Sweet Chestnuts, last year's dried out nuts and this year's.

Sweet Chestnuts, last year’s dried out nuts and this year’s.

I’m very surprised such lovely big nuts were available in such profusion. Perhaps people don’t know what they are, or perhaps they distain them in favour of nice clean supermarket nuts. Perhaps they fear contamination. I wonder if we, as a nation, have completely lost touch with the countryside or the foraging potential of parkland.

Last year was a mast year and there were loads of acorns on Tiptree Heath. I was too busy to gather some, which is a shame because there are none this year. Acorns, as they stand, are toxic because of the high concentrations of tannins. Toxic to humans and to horses, so it would have benefitted the ponies if I had reduced their risk of consumption. Fortunately the ponies on the heath are sensible about acorns and didn’t eat them. In the New Forest, sadly, horses die every year from eating acorns. (Pigs, on the other hand, love them and can digest them.)

So if they are toxic to humans, why would I gather them? Apparently the bitter tannings can be leached out of the nuts. I fancied trying this, mostly out of gastronomic curiosity, but also because it was one of the staple foods I read about when researching Gladiatrix.

In the US acorns are sweeter, and have been a mainstay of the indigenous peoples.

A few weeks ago I also foraged for hazelnuts. Then a dear friend gave me some from her garden. I have a dream one day to plant an orchard and nuttery. I think I shall be opting for a cultivated variety of cobnut. They are lovely when fresh, with a particular milky texture that has vanished by the time the nuts come in for Christmas.

Wild and domesticated hazelnuts

Wild and domesticated hazelnuts

Certainly nuts seem to be a better way of obtaining concentrated nutients than gathering miniscule seeds


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Fat Hen Chenopodium alba

Fat Hen and Family

I took on an allotment last year, and one of the prevalent weeds is “Fat Hen” Chenopodium alba. Knowing that it’s giant relative Quinoa is used for “pseudograins”, I wondered if the seeds of fat hen were edible, but last year couldn’t find this out and when I asked the question on a forum, was warned off from trying them.

If only I’d known I had the answer at home already in Jekka McVikka’s Herb book. It is edible. So this year I decided to try both the young leaves and, later on, try harvesting the seed. I also grew its cousin “Tree Spinach” which is very similar but has leaves which are pink when young.

Tree Spinach

Tree Spinach

The first startling discovery was that fat hen leaves are actually nicer than spinach. I had to overcome that instinctive suspicion of new foods, but once that forkful hit my mouth, I was delighted and wondered why we don’t grow it instead of spinach. I think the answer is that it’s fiddly to pick and goes off quickly.

I left a few plants and they have gone to seed. The seed is spherical and black, but enclosed in a coat which on some looks like tiny beetroot seed (they are in the same family). On others it’s easier to rub the coat off. The flowering tips can be eaten like asparagus, and I did include one or two in a stir fry and they were palatable, but I had so much else to eat I neglected these as a food source.

I saved some seed in a cloth bag (made from an old pair of trousers) and dried the seed off before rubbing it between my fingers and winnowing it. What a chore, and, as this was at home, I fear I might find rather a lot of seedlings next year. No matter; caught in time it makes a good green manure. However, as a means of separating the seeds from the chaff, it was unsatisfactory because it was time consuming.


James Wong on quinoa says that quinoa has saponins coating the seed which need to be removed before consumption. He whizzes his quinoa heads in a food blender, which does the job of washing the seed and bashing it out of its coat. So I whizzed some different fat hen seeds up with the stick blender.

Whizzed up seeds

Whizzed up seeds

The water frothed up, so I think there are saponins in the fat hen, too, which I wouldn’t want to eat too much of. The foam held many of the seeds in suspension, so I passed it through a sieve. Alas, the sieve holes were large enough to pass the seed through, so I had to find a finer sieve. But once washed, the seeds were far less foamy. I think the thing to do for this “water winnowing” is to whizz the seed clusters up then wash the seeds through a cloth. This does not get rid of the “chaff” though, which might be tolerable with freshly harvested seeds for soup, but not for dried – perhaps. So I left the seeds soaking to see if the good seeds would sink.

Some seeds sank

Some seeds sank

They did, and they didn’t. I decided the ones which didn’t might be duff, so tipped them away. After a lot of faffing abut and rinsing and discarding, I was left with a teaspoonful or so of seeds, and still some chaff. I boiled them for 10 minutes + then turned the heat out and let them sit for a while. They were still crunchy. So I cooked them up some more. Still crunchy.  I’m beginning to think they’re not worth harvesting, except as seeds for next year. And then only the giant spinach, so I can eat the leaves. The fat hen will come back of its own accord, of that I am sure.

I think the basket of seeds will go in the green bin, but I will save the ones I harvested the other day. They might be OK used like poppy seeds on bread – except that I grew bone fide poppy seed for that. If I were really hungry I might consider it, might add them to soups etc as recommended, but I have beans and  other things to give me carbs and protein from the allotment, and foraged nuts are far more satisfactory.

I have the feeling I shall find seedlings everywhere.


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I have mentioned my dehydrator before (linden Tea). I thought I’d post a couple of pictures of the dehydrator and blackberry & apple leather.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The unit gets quite warm on top – I can use this to dry other things as well, such as herbs and these beans and peas, which will be used in soup come the winter.

Inside there are five shelves. This number suits my needs.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For leather the shelves have to be covered in a Teflon membrane. This is expensive but tough.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once the leather is dry I finish it off without the membrane. This latest batch has not gone well – too dry and brittle.


Better too dry than still damp, though, or the leather will go mouldy.


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Alys Fowler Talk

Last autumn I went to a talk on foraging by Alys Fowler, held at Writtle and hosted by Edible Essex. You may recall that the previous year I went to a similar talk by James Wong. Alys Fowler’s talk was very enjoyable and interesting. Though I forage for fruit like blackberries and apples, I am still wary of other wild food and hoped this talk would increase my awareness of what is edible in our environs.

Alys pointed out that people who forage actually see more on a walk than those who are just walking. This is an interesting point, because people who walk regularly have bigger brains than those who are sedentary. Perhaps just recognising plants as foods stimulates the brain even more. I certainly see more, or should that be observe more if I’m out with the camera looking for something interesting to photograph. The next startling remark was that wild greens contain much more Omega 3 oils than cultivated greens. Man has bred out the omega 3 oils in exchange for shelf-life. So there are good reasons to gather a few wild greens when out for a walk. The snag is that foraged greens go off quickly.

Alys showed a photo of wild rocket growing against a wall. I didn’t know it’s perennial and this makes me inclined to grow it, especially as I now have an allotment. I grow ordinary rocket in pots but it often gets munched on by flea beetles. Wild rocket is evergreen so can be overwintered under a cloche. Even more reason to grow it, if only to lift an ordinary salad. Is Iceberg the most boring salad leaf ever? Unfortunately it’s cheap, keeps well, and the rest of my family prefer it. I think it’s fine as a salad base but look forward to adding more zingy herbs.

One thing Alys didn’t talk much about is the legalities of foraging (though this is covered in her book). There was vague mention of seeking permission from the land owner, but no discussion as to how to go about this. I haven’t a clue who owns which fields around me, nor am I up to speed on land protected by SSI status. At one point Alys mentioned picking Chaenomeles quince in a car park, and another, more significantly, of picking walnuts on a housing estate where fence bars had been prised apart to allow access. I don’t suppose it matters of you only take a little and the produce would otherwise go to waste, but when does foraging become pilfering? Someone used to pilfer all the apples off the trees I planted on my old allotment and it upset me. As I was listening to Alys I realised that most of my foraging could be done in my garden and allotment, when it came to greens. That way I was relatively certain about there not being any additions from dogs (not so sure on the allotments because some dog owners need training). I recognised sow thistle on my allotment and thought perhaps it could stay if it was edible. (It didn’t because it grew old and coarse.) I will look more favourably on the dandelions in the garden, though.

Being an impecunious author I was tight fisted and didn’t buy the books there and then, partly because last year if I’d waited I could have got Wong’s book far cheaper than the £20 I paid for it (£8 was the lowest I’ve seen it) and partly because the family were nagging me for suggestions for Xmas and these books seemed like a good idea. I did receive them for Xmas, am delighted with both of them, and went on to buy Miles Irving’s book on foraging. I’m astounded at how many of our wayside weeds are edible and hope to get round to posting alimentary adventures more frequently. Continue reading


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