Garden remedies for teenage angst

With three teenagers in the house I’ve listened to a fair amount of talk about the plague of spots. At times the bathroom has resembled a chemist’s shop with endless tubes and jars, most of which were uncomfortably expensive, and all of which promised miracle cures within a few days.Image

There were considerable expectations of benzoyl peroxide-based creams with which friends at school had experienced wondrous results, but it quickly became clear that my kids’ fair northern skins found this remedy unbearably harsh and the after effect was super-dry red-raw faces. Consequently I was relieved when Leeds Metropolitan University published the results of their herbal experiments last year.

In a nutshell they discovered that thyme steeped in alcohol for several days produced better results than many remedies on the market, including benzoyl peroxide. (See http://www.leedsmet.ac.uk/about/thyme-for-a-more-natural-cure-to-acne27032012.htm ) Having plenty of thyme in the garden, and knowing that it likes nothing better than a harsh trim on occasion, I thought it was worth a try. There were two risks, first that I was descending too quickly down the slippery slope of Worzel Gummidge wackiness and would soon reach the point where in olden days I would have been burnt at the stake, and secondly that it wouldn’t work at all and so my teens would have additional reasons to view my horticultural exploits with scepticism and the odd guffaw of laughter. However, a small bottle of alcohol costs around a euro in the local supermarket, which was so much cheaper than the last shopping expedition to the chemist that the gamble seemed worth it.

After washing the thyme I crushed it into a clean screw-top jar until it was full (Mercadona pasta sauce jars are perfect) and topped it up with alcohol. A day later the whole thing had turned a lurid shade of green. The following week teen-testing began.

A year down the line all I can say is it certainly works as well as anything else. Our family isn’t blessed with great skin, but I have had no more requests to go chemist-shopping and the only additional expense has been cotton-buds with which to dab emerald ointment on the offending eruptions.

As with the pulp in Aloe Vera leaves, which is fantastic for healing skin problems and especially burns, the colour is a drawback so it’s best to apply it at night. However, the thyme mixture smells a good deal better than Aloe Vera and is easier to keep at the ready in the bathroom.

 Another garden remedy I heard about recently was to use lemon juice in a facial steam clean. It’s said to be great for removing dirt and oil whilst not being too harsh on the skin, so I’ll give this a try next time there are cries of, “OMG look at my face, I can’t go out today!” 

After wind, plants need some love

After all the wind the island has experienced during the past ten days, I noticed many of our plants and trees had leaves that looked dead around the edges. Although we’ve enjoyed some refreshing rain, large shrubs and trees become dehydrated far quicker by wind than by drought, and unhappy leaves are a sure sign they’ve been affected.Image

So, in spite of the rain, most of my garden (apart from the vines) has been treated to a little extra water plus a good dose of copper spray on their leaves (including the vines).

Copper spray acts as a general fungicide so plants that are susceptible to black spot or mildew will benefit from regular use. Citrus trees and avocados, in particular, seem to become glossier almost over-night following treatment. When you visit your local garden centre you may see tell-tale bluish-brown dollops on plant leaves. This reveals that they’ve been given their strengthening medicine recently.

If there are late heavy rains, after vines and trees have already produced dense leaves,  the risk of mildew is increased. This problem ruined all our grapes a couple of years ago. After this experience we discovered that a thorough copper spraying could have saved both leaves and fruit before the problem became acute. It’s also useful on pear and apple trees if you see any evidence of fire blight disease. This is when the tips of leaves and shoots blacken and droop into crook shapes. Remove and burn any black parts and then spray the whole tree with copper spray, reapplying in a fortnight if the tree is still looking poorly.

Although copper spray is certified for use by organic gardeners, if you wish to go even further down the green road some gardeners claim that liquid seaweed achieves much the same results. This is said to work by boosting beneficial fungi which then counteract any bad ones.

Courgettes and the dreaded wood louse …

Courgettes do well in Mallorca and I often end up berating myself for producing too many as they don’t freeze or store well, and by their final demise the family can be in open revolt about finding another one gracing the dinner table. In this situation it’s a godsend that the hens will happily feast on the excess so I can convince myself they’re not being wasted. To be honest, the hens are invaluable at soothing my conscience about “throwing away” all left-overs.Image

Back to the courgettes though, this year although the plants are very healthy, so are the wood lice. In fact every female wood louse within a kilometre radius appears to have told her friends that there’s a courgette patch close by ready for them to dump their collective off-spring in. As every big yellow bloom pokes its head out of the leaves, it’s instantly filled with tiny woodlice which start devouring the courgette as soon as it’s as long as a toothpick. I object to harvesting half-eaten vegetables so I’ve taken to picking them when I see the first signs of wiggling in the shrivelled flower, but the infestation still seems to be getting worse.

It goes against all the ideas of “knowing what’s in your food” to annihilate them with some devastating toxic mix of chemicals, so I consulted the internet for a remedy that allows me to feel “greenish” whilst still murdering them in their thousands.

The first information to pop up is that I should love my louse as, not only are they related to crabs and lobsters, but they act like earthworms in the garden by breaking down soil and compost. After that comes a post entitled: “How to look after a pet wood louse”. I am beginning to feel that my genocidal instincts are embarrassingly out of place.

But … there really are far too many of them for all of us to live in harmony, however useful they may be on the compost heap.

Finally, a post on how to kill! The wisdom seems to be to put in a drip watering system so that the ground is never damp, as they really like soggy soil. However, as a quick fix, put out boiled potatoes, orange shells and over-ripe strawberries on a damp newspaper. This banquet should lure the babies away from your courgettes, or other fruit and veg, during the night. In the morning roll up the heaving mass of squidgy news print and throw the whole thing in the hen house for them to breakfast upon, or on the compost heap if you’re feeling philanthropic.

I hope it works!

Pesto Paradise

Finally it’s warm enough for basil seeds to germinate outside. With the first glimpse of their little green heads, every spare pot in the house has been filled with compost and pressed into action – to say we love pesto could be an understatement.

For me, the smell of basil brings a smile, it’s an aroma that conjures up everything that’s relaxed about summer.Image

Anyway, to get down to the business of growing it: in my book, the classic large-leafed basil is the only way to go, however, if you have a passion for a more aniseed flavour buy the slightly crinkly-leaved variety. One seed packet can easily provide sufficient for pesto and salad usage throughout the summer, plus 20-30 packets of frozen pesto stacked in the freezer so that pesto-addicts need never go without.

Fill your pots with compost and sprinkle the seeds over the surface before covering with a thin layer of compost and gently firming down. Keep the compost moist, but not drenched, until you see a haze of green shoots. When the plants have produced their first crop of large leaves, pinch out the top shoot to encourage them to expand sideways and stop them from going into their seed-producing stage too quickly. As with lettuce, the trick is to keep harvesting the leaves as you need them, letting the plant rest and produce some more while you harvest off other pots.

I thought this was what everybody did until a friend of mine asked to take some basil home with him at the end of a barbecue.

“Sure,” I said, beginning to turn to go into the house for a bowl. Before my jaw even had time to hit the floor, he had snapped off four or five plants – he was a chef, not a gardener! Guillotined basil doesn’t live, but had the plants just had their leaves removed they would have continued to produce for one or two months more. While I may not talk to my plants – at least not when anyone’s within earshot – I do advocate being kind to them, it keeps them alive!

Try to remember to water your plants a couple of hours before you intend to pick leaves, then they are nice and plump, bursting with flavour and at their best for eating.

Personally I don’t like too much oil in my food which is why I always freeze pesto rather than keep it in oil in jars. Small bags take up very little space and make an easy instant meal with a bit of pasta and salad. If you are unfreezing your home-produced pesto in the microwave, do watch it carefully as it unfreezes very quickly and isn’t nearly as good if it’s “cooked”.

To make one bag (enough for about 400g of pasta)  I put a clove of garlic, small handful of pine nuts (or since they’ve become so expensive, almonds), and some ground black pepper in a small food processor. Top this with basil leaves until they’re at the top of the container without being pressed down. Place 3 or 4 chunky slices of parmesan on top of the leaves and drizzle with a little olive oil. If the mixture is too rough add some more olive oil until it is the consistency you like. Either use it immediately, or scoop it into a small freezing bag and keep for later. For variation, pop in a few dried tomatoes to the mix, it makes the flavour even “warmer”.

A refreshing cup of tea – back on the menu

A refreshing cup of tea - back on the menu

I forgot to dry the leaves of my lemon verbena (Hierba Luisa in Spanish) this winter, so it’s been a while since I’ve been able to enjoy a lovely cup of tea. However, with the recent rains it has sprung to life and lemon verbena tea is back on the menu. This is another plant that does very well in pots and can give a wonderful scent to your balcony for much of the year. Once established it can grow up to 3 metres in height. Don’t be shy of giving it a good prune when it becomes scraggly and making use of any cuttings or unwanted base shoots in the kitchen.

Sink or Swim?

ImageOur first “training session” since we announced we wanted to sail round Mallorca got off to an inauspicious start when we developed a magnetic attraction to a mudbank  a few metres away from the boat slip and were completely unable to tack smoothly out of the inlet with the style and grace we felt our mission required. Eventually Nick jumped over the side, took hold of the painter and towed Rocky out, to the amusement of a gentleman on a nearby motorboat.

                “Is that how it’s meant to move?” he asked as he bent over a couple of 150hp engines.

                “It’s easier than any other method at the moment,” Seb replied as Nick flopped back over the side.

                The water was freezing and the experience made us realise that there are a few items we need before we begin a 160 nautical mile trip. Number one on the list is a second paddle! This morning our parents announced they are going to get us a PLB (personal locator beacon) which one or other of us must have strapped to our leg at all times. It will send out a GPS signal if we activate it which alerts rescue services, and our parents, if we get into serious trouble. It will be better for us than an EPIRB which becomes automatically activated if it’s submerged, as there’s a strong possibility we may be submerged fairly frequently.

                However, there are also other things that we are going to have to beg or borrow from Very Nice People if we don’t manage to win the lottery before July 6th. We definitely need some of the modern light lifejackets if we are to avoid frying; a role of sail repair tape is also a good idea as the sails are none too new and will be lucky to escape without a tear or two; a bailer would be useful in addition to our sponges plus a few small shackles in case any more of our split pins break on the stays, like one did today. We’d also like to find someone who could print Mediterranea’s logo on a long burgee that we can fly from the masthead. We have some of the charity’s stickers to put on the side of the boat but we’d like to make their logo even more visible.Image

                Kay Halley from Portals Nous Universal Bookshop was our first Very Nice Person to give us practical help, she’s already done some laminating for us and we will be taking our charts there for the same treatment once we’ve sliced them up into dinghy-sized coastal portions.

                Food is one of Nick’s preoccupations, and the possible lack of it at any point on the route lead him to announce that he would “beg if necessary!” So if anyone sees a very tall teenager accosting strangers with the words, “I’m growing, please feed me,” it would be very kind if you could throw a crust in his direction to give him the strength to continue on his way to find a shop. Even on our minor sail today, substantial ship’s rations were packed and the only remaining evidence of them when we arrived back were a couple of banana skins.

                Seb’s mum has just given us a couple of passes to Palma Boat Show so we’re off there now to see if we can drum up some more support for SailAid before we have to begin studying again.

If you would like to sponsor us, please get in touch through the blog or Facebook and we will get a sponsorship form to you at the speed of light.  Alternatively, it is possible  to donate directly to the Mediterranea bank account at Banca March in Portals Nous (Account Name: Organización no gubernamental Mediterranea, Account Number: 0061 0178 52 0048520111) or via PayPal through the www.mediterraneaong.com. Please put your name and “SailAid” on any donations through the bank or paypal so we know who all you great people are.

Lemon cake, with plenty of zest!

Lemon cake, with plenty of zest!

If you don’t want to waste your lemon zest when you freeze cubes of lemon juice, here’s a lovely recipe that uses lots of it. You can either use this cake mix for muffins, or to make two 18cm sandwich sponges (put lemon curd or chocolate filling in the middle), or as a lemon tea loaf (boil 5tbsp of lemon juice with 25g of sugar until it is slightly thickened and use as a glaze on the top).
Basic lemon sponge recipe: 200g self raising flour, 1 tsp baking powder, half a tsp of salt, 220g sugar, 120g butter (softened), 2 tbsp of grated lemon rind, 3 eggs, 100ml milk.
Method: Grease your tins and heat the oven to 180ºC. Mix all the ingredients together and bake until a knife comes out clean (the timing will depend on whether you are doing muffins or cakes so keep an eye on things). If using a lemon glaze, prick the cake or muffins with a fork and then apply the glaze liberally so it sinks into the sponge. Leave the sponge to cool in the tin before turning out.