From my Hide
To garden or not to garden…
David Holt-Biddle learns how NOT to grow things.
I have used this column many times to describe our almost total failure to grow anything to eat down here – I am of course talking salads or herbs, not your serious stuff. Some seeds just never made it above the surface of the dune sand that is our garden, some wriggled up a bit and then sort of curled up and died, but most, very definitely most, were destroyed by the monkeys. We tried, endlessly it seems, potted gardens on the front and the back decks and little walled off areas downstairs in the garden proper. They virtually all met the same end – monkeys.
Then along comes this book, Culinary Herbs and Spices of the World* by one of South Africa's best-known botanists, Professor Ben-Erik van Wyk. First question: why is a botanist interfering in things that belong in the kitchen? Well, if I may quote the prof, "It is a blessing to be among those who are able to experience food as much more than just a means of staying alive". I like that. Importantly, however, the prof's book is sub-titled, "Identification, propagation, cultivation, culinary uses and flavour ingredients", so, a few hints on where we've been going wrong, perhaps?
This really is a super book, certainly not a recipe book, but very definitely a most useful guide to the world's herbs and spices, more than 120 of them. Each double page gives the scientific name (the order is by the scientific name), the common names in English and other pertinent languages, a description of the fruit and the plant, its origins, its cultivation (that’s what attracted my attention) and harvesting, then its culinary uses, flavour compounds and some other notes. The opposite page is all photographs and I must say the photography in the book, much of it by Prof Van Wyk himself, is outstanding.
Now, that bit about cultivation. I found lettuces and stopped right there. Some hints: "Well drained soil, cool conditions, heating causes bolting and bitter taste". Well, that's enough as it is, but no mention of monkeys. I moved on to parsley to find that we've been doing it all wrong, like it hates being transplanted. Rocket: "Amongst the easiest of herbs to grow", well, not with monkeys around. Chillies: oh, dear! I could go on, but I won't. The point is there is some excellent advice and it's quite obvious that some things are better suited than others to our climate down here and therefore our gardens.
There are other less obvious items in the book, like naartjies, coconuts and even opium poppies, but I don't think we’ll go there. It's a great book, whether or not you need to spice up your life. Cheers!
PS: I heard a wonderful nickname for one of our favourite birds the other day. There's a bird in the garden that sounds like a squeaking wheel and we've never known who it was. It's the Wheelbarrow Bird, our beloved Olive sunbird. How very appropriate.