Wild Spaces in Urban India
With lots of sunshine and a good monsoon season, plants in India grow quickly to take over any empty space available. Buildings are vulnerable to creeping plants but also small trees and grasses, I love the way this tree has managed to cling to the side of this building, and the grasses that have formed a soft layer over the brickwork.
Our flat in Uttar Pradesh is in a very congested town, full of noisy traffic and dusty roads. Our landlady owns an emply plot of land next to our flat, and when we moved in earlier this year, the land was dry and barren and being used as a rubbish dumping tip. Before the start of the summer, we spent several days clearing all the rubbish and cutting back the few trees and bushes that were growing. I came back to India after the main monsoon season to find a lush, green plot of land, full of birds, butterflies and a variety of plants and flowers. We asked the landlady if the plot usually springs into life each monsoon and she said that no, she was so surprised to see its transformation this year - in all previous years it has always been very bare with only a papaya tree and a couple of bushes, the rest staying a short scrubland with brown/green grass. The climate has been a little hotter than seasonal averages and maybe a little dryer this year. The only change to the land has been the clearing of rubbish that had gathered by the wall, some scattering across the rest of the plot.
Plants need a clean place to live and thrive too and once they are established all sorts of other wildlife follows. The papaya tree has more than double the number of papayas than previous years and I've been counting several species of butterfly. The plants are so thick and deep that I'm not sure I will venture in now, they will be giving some great shelter for snakes. Luckily, we can watch the wildlife from above and don't need to risk going in!
These are photos of some amazing trees, protected in the middle of a busy town. First of all I thought there were vines growing around the main trunk, but the on closer inspection, these are growing out of the main trunk and supporting the weight of the larger branches.
There were two trees growing here and when I looked up, I saw that they had connected to eachother in an arch.
Wild Food Walks in India
I travel over to India periodically to visit my husband, usually I have to time trips between harvests and this time I headed out just after elderberries and will be returning to the UK just before all the later hedgerow berries, ready after the first frosts.
We have a flat in a large, busy town in Uttar Pradesh and we try and get out to the countryside as often as we can. Last week, we took a short trip into Utterakhand and visited some lovely villages in the foothills.
My husband showed my some of the wild food he would pick and eat as a child. Below is a picture of the berries I tried, they were slightly similiar to blackberries, but not as juicy and with large pips that you spit out after eating the flesh. I noticed that, like blackberries, these berries were growing in the most sociable hedgerows - those next to main thoroughfares where most people were passing. The yellow flowers were recognisable along roads and the main paths we were taking through the villages.
I've found several different species of nettles - I didn't pick any to cook up and am not sure how they would taste in soups, pestos etc. In the UK, I only pick the very young nettle tops and the plants over in India all looked pretty established at this time of year. Could possibly make a good nettle beer but I'm not sure of the legalities around home brewing out here. These nettles below were very tall and stringy, others I have seen have had leaves as large as the palm of your hand.
I was hoping to pick up a bottle of buransch juice whilst I was up in the foothills, this is a bright pink cordial that tastes delicious and has many health benefits - it's made from rhododendron flowers and really worth stocking up on. I love flower syrups and make several of my own with british hedgerow flowers. The rhododendron bushes grow in the wild all over the foothills in the Kumaon and Garwhal regions that we visit and in season, people all over the region will be making buransch juice. We found out on this trip that we were too late to buy any until next season, but we managed to stock up on lots of other syrups including ginger, plum and lychee.
Growing my own Spices
I believe that, when preparing food, all fresh ingredients should be sourced as locally as possible. Except for fresh lemon juice, all the ingredients in Wild England products are sourced within the UK and most within 10 miles of my kitchen.
I also believe in growing as much of my own food as possible - and I try to cultivate mainly hertiage and heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruit - they are best suited to our climate and soil, and also have amazing flavours.
When it comes to herbs and spices, I have been experimenting with how many I can grow myself. I have a large collection of British wild and cultivated varieties of herbs on my allotment - but have also been trying to grown some exotic spices, that would otherwise need to be imported. Since you only ever need small amounts, even exotics can be grown when you have a spare windowsill in the house.
My ginger plants have been in the conservatory, but I think as the temperature dips, I'm going to move them to a sunny windowsill inside the house. They are best left for one season before starting to harvest the root. The large, bulbous root will start peeping up above the soil, and small amounts can be harvested.
Plants in various stages of growth:
I have read that ginger is best grown in very shallow pots - forcing the root to grown more - I read this after planting these particular plants and I think the pots are too deep. I'm going to maybe wait until they are dormant before re-potting, so I may have to keep them a little cool for a while and then try and transfer them.
I also have a cardomom plant, this does not produce seed pods, but does produce wonderfully fragrant leaves that can be used to infuse milk and cream for desserts, custards, ice-creams and cake fillings.
I've been trying to grow saffron with some success. I managed to harvest a couple of fronds, however, many of my bulbs ended up producing lots of leaves and very little flowers.
I will be in India for much of October, visiting my husband in Uttar Pradesh - I'm hoping to pick up some spice growing advice and will give any updates!
Heirloom Tomatoes vs Commercial Seed
I've been trying out several varieties of tomato seed this year. I didn't have enough room in the greenhouse for all the plants and put some of them on the allotment. The bowls below are the harvest from the allotment and have been out all season. The bowl on the left is an heirloom variety - specially selected for short, cooler summers - it germinates at cool temperatures and fruits early. The tomatoes on the right are from some commercial seed I bought at a garden centre - often the varieties that are offered in garden centres are commercial varieties that are not suitable for British climates and growing outside or in unheated greenhouses.
I had a fantastic weekend at Abergavenny Food Festival - beautiful weather, wonderful customers and lots of gorgeous food!
This year, I was firmly planted behind the stall, we were absolutely swamped the whole weekend and didn't take a look around until right at the end - I caught the local wine stall just in time and have come home with a beautiful bottle from Frome Valley Winery.
Lots of best sellers this year and I'm straight back in the kitchen making the most of apples and the last few raspberries. Then I'll be waiting for the first frost before harvesting the later hedgerow fruit - rosehips, hawthorn berries, sloes and rowan. Blackberries are already out and I will be making the most of them before I head off next week - I'm away in India visiting my husband - I have to time my visits around harvests! I'll be back in time for rosehip syrup, hawthorn berry tinctures and rowan jelly.
Wild raspberries galore - our allotments seem to be the perfect site for wild raspberries, and all the plots are being taken over with them! I'm adding them to desserts and cooking them up for a lovely savoury jam ready for Abergavenny Food Festival this weekend.
Just spent the afternoon surveying my wild and non-wild pieces of land. The wild land that I have access to for harvesting and cultivation is an acre of land, once completely cleared around 20 years ago and since then, has been left to itself and has become a young woodland.
I am trying out wild farming in amongst the trees, shrubs and plants already growing there. Without any effort at all, I have harvested over the past few years, wild rose, blackberries, wild currants, hazelnuts, nettles, elder flowers and berries and wild oregano.
My allotment on the other hand has taken a lot of effort. First to dig up the grass that had very efficiently covered the whole plot since the last user had left it vacant, and then throughout the year, constantly battling with slugs and resigning much of this year's crop to them and the local rabbit population.
Before and after photos showed all the good work at the beginning of the year....
Lots of digging later.....
And then hours of work planning companion planting, sourcing heritage seeds, sowing, nurturing, planting out - then - two months of monsoon rain in June, July, slight dip in motivation, slug attack, rabbit attack, possible deer attack, more slugs, less motivation, and you have this.....
Keen eyes will spot the leeks that were interplanted with onions and carrots - all eaten by slugs (and where did I read that onions and garlic deter slugs - the giant slugs on my plot ate all onions and all garlic). In the distance are my companion flowers - marigolds, chamomile and nasturtiums. They all did very well, unfortunately their companions did not and my crop of soft fruit and vegetables again sustained local wildlife populations.
Anyway, things that did do well:
Rhubarb - a very long season for rhubarb this year and I have kept the whole family in stock with lots of rhubarb preserves.
Mange tout and short season tomatoes - both from my favourite seed suppliers www.realseeds.co.uk - they stock only heritage and heirloom varieties, and all of them suitable for growing in UK climate and soils (unlike many of the commercial varieties sold in large garden centres - these tend to be the varieties large agribusiness use and the varieties are chosen for their packing and transportation qualities rather then flavour). The tomatoes spent their whole summer outdoors, uncovered and I've been harvesting fat, red tomatoes for a few weeks now.
Wild Rocket, sorrel and chard - wow, have been having amazing, peppery, tart salads. The rocket was from the hairy pot company and has done really well - it's grows as a large plant with several main, tough stems and sends out lots of lovely rocket shoots.
Yarrow, plantain (not a planned allotment harvest, but due to circumstances outlined above, became one of my most prolific harvests), chamomile and marigold - lots of multiple harvests and I have been drying them for teas and also preserving them in honey, brandy and glycerin to use throughout the year for various medicinal purposes.
Next year - I'm planning to divide the several enormous rhubarb plants I have and the rest of the plot will be given over to wild farming.
Beautiful sunny day, perfect for collecting elderberries. I'll be preparing them for elderberry vinegar and elderberry syrup - and will be making enough for my own store cupboard as well as friends and familiy. Both the vinegar and syrup are great for keeping colds at bay through the autumn and winter, and they're absolutely delicious too!
Just over one week to go until Abergavenny Food Festival! We're very busy in the kitchen cooking up some delicious treats.