Like many who find themselves socially isolating in the days of coronavirus, I have been busy in the vegetable garden. The difficulties of shopping, coinciding with the start of spring proper, have reminded many of the importance of a good vegetable patch. This may become even more important in the financial collapse and recession we are likely to meet after the plague has settled.
I had been planting and sowing and found that I needed labels to identify what I had put where. Without labels I would never know what had failed to grow in each bare patch of earth. Normally these labels are scattered about the greenhouse and garden scribbled with hopeful names which only occasionally become useful. But now that I needed some there was not one to be found. I could not go into town to buy new tags, as in nobody’s view could this be seen as essential travel. I needed to improvise.
Fortunately we buy a number of sheep licks each year. These come in large tubs with colourful plastic lids. These are often pressed into service as frisbees for the dogs but I realised that they could also help in my predicament. Five minutes work with some scissors and we have wipe clean colour coded plant tags and less plastic that will need to be dealt with as waste.
In miserable times, such as these, simple successes like this do tend to raise the spirits slightly.
It was really rather unsettling. The coincidence seemed too unlikely to be simply chance. I was clearing a path between the house and the lower meadow where the goats graze. To make the rather monotonous work a little more enjoyable I was wearing headphones and listening to a random mix of the music I stored on my phone. I was enjoying listening to old favourites and realising that, if I was not careful, I could be mistaken for an old hippy. As I worked in the dark undergrowth The Byrds’ version of “Turn, Turn, Turn” was chosen. This Pete Seager song is one of my favourites, it was on his “The Bitter and the Sweet” LP and this is perhaps why enjoy it so. It is bitter-sweet. There is a deep melancholy in the music, but it is balanced by equally strong feelings of hope. There must be death if we are going to be able to have births, like the seasons, life is a circle, and everything has its appropriate time. The lyrics are directly from the Bible and the only words Pete Seager added were the final “It’s not too late” and the three words “turn, turn, turn”.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Like many people I feel that the opening guitar work evokes thoughts of 1968 and the Summer of Love, Woodstock and the Hippy movement. But in addition, I always think of this as the farmer, or smallholders, song. I know that the guidance is suitable for everyone (we all need to know that our lives will change, that we will grow up, have children, grow old and then die) but I feel that it is resonates especially strongly with those who work on the land where these seasons are even more obvious.
So what was the coincidence that happened with this song that caught me unawares? Just after the song had started I was clearing below a very bushy aralia shrub. As I cleared the brambles and nettles a small clump of white caught my eye. It was a small patch of cyclamen, shining brightly now the sun could penetrate the gloom below the bushes. It was cyclamen, coum f. albissimum (Ashwood Snowflake) to be more precise, and its name should help explain the reason for my surprise. This cyclamen is named because of its white colour but also due to its flowering season. Usually this plant flowers in mid- to late-winter, from January to March. It really is not the right season to catch sight of its delicate flowers. Here was another reminder this year that we are clearly messing up our seasons. We have had heat and drought such as we have not seem for two generations, the hay crops have failed to grow as there has been inadequate rain (In North Wales!), insects which should have died in the winter survived through and plants that we never expect to flower in this region start to show their colours. I was aware we had some large spiky evergreens as they attacked me each day as I tried to get past them on the way to the greenhouse or chicken sheds. I was in two minds as to whether I should trim these or root them out. I knew the goats liked the leaves but could see no other reason to keep them, particularly as they regularly stabbed at my legs. Then suddenly this year, never seen in this garden for at least a generation, they suddenly bloomed revealing themselves as Adam’s Needle (Yucca Filamentosa). This is a plant that like a dry soil and open sun, things that should be scarce in this reason.
The song is correct; “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose”. Our agriculture and lives depend on this working together of the seasons and the knowledge of man. But now it seems we have potentially damaged our seasons and our usual skills can’t just be applied as before. When I saw this little white flower, peeking out 6 months early, and listening to The Byrds, the melancholy of the song was suddenly amplified. Perhaps it is too late, maybe we have damaged the gifts we were given, perhaps our season is drawing to a close. But, then again, perhaps, hopefully Pete Seager’s words will hold true :-
At the risk of sounding big headed I would like to announce that I have solved one of the major problems facing humanity today: ‘What to do with the Jerusalem Artichoke ?‘ As everyone will know this is a cunning and devious vegetable which starts its nefarious plans by the very choice of its name. This ugly tuber has no special link to Jerusalem nor the Holy land. This is simply a trick to fool you into believing that it has saintly properties : it does not. The term ‘Jerusalem’ probably arose from the Italian name for the plant – “girasole” – the Italian name for the Sunflower. And herein lies the truth, the “Jerusalem Artichoke”, this dreadful plant, is no form of artichoke at all, it is a form of sunflower masquerading under the name Artichoke to suggest to the unwary gardener that it is pleasantly edible. However, early in its history people discovered that while is can be eaten there is a question as to whether it should be eaten.
The carbohydrate in the Jerusalem Artichoke is stored as inulin. Decent, pleasant root vegetables such as the potato or parsnip store their carbohydrate as starch. This is why we like to eat them; the starch is easily digestible and this is the reason that I, and millions of others, am overweight as the starch in these root vegetables are an easy way to get far too many calories into your diet in a single sitting. Inulin, on the other hand, can’t be digested by us so it is left to the bacteria in our large intestines to do the job. These bacteria do this with gusto, creating a lot of gases in the process which gives rise to flatulence and bloating. In 1821 it was written in Godard’s Herbal that Jerusalem Artichokes “which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men”. So we were warned many years ago !
But in addition to the tricks with its name there is another way that this loathsome plant continues to trick gardeners into growing it. Though it tubers are unsightly its flowers are rather pretty and, most importantly, no matter how poor a gardener you are, no matter how much you mistreat and neglect this plant, it will still happily grow and thrive. Dig a hole, drop them in, cover and then just forget about them, they will grow. Months later you will have large impressive plants with pleasant flowers for no effort whatsoever. If we just left it at this there would be no problem. But, unfortunately, people feel tempted to pull up the roots, reveal the tubers and think “how will I cook this ?”. The answer was it doesn’t matter, whether you fry, roast or boil, the result is a disappointing mush that doesn’t even repay the modicum of effort that you put in. That is until now !
I have discovered a way of using the Jerusalem Artichoke that is better than leaving it in the ground or tossing it directly into the compost heap. Firstly scrub the tubers to take of the soil that covers them. This will reveal the tubers in all their horror. They look like something from the “Day of the Triffids”, this is the way they are meant to look.
Next take a potato peeler and slice the tuber into thin slivers. Place these on a dehydrator tray and sprinkle salt over them. It is important not to omit this step. If one does one will be rewarded for your labour by something that tastes a bit like paper. (If you follow this step then, after all your work, you will have something that tastes a bit like salty paper). Next dehydrate the slivers overnight.
Once the Jerusalem Artichike has dehydrated you will have a subsitute for crisps ( or potato chips as they are called across the pond). It is not a great substitute but they have a couple of advantages. Firstly they are low fat and low carb which is helpful to some on diets like myself and secondly they are not that great tasting which helps with the tendency to overindulge that is so easy with real crisps.
A possible final advantage might occur if one has guests. Sometimes my more cultured guests turn their noses up when I put out the Cheesy Wotsits or Monster Munch as nibbles. These would look sufficiently homemade and rustic as to appeal to them (and there will be more wotsits left for me). As I said, I don’t want to be big headed but I suppose it won’t be long until that call comes from Sweden with the information about the Nobel Prize.