Thursday, 3 March 2011

Plants for a healthy living


The active gardener can derive immense benefits to a healthy life style from his garden.
The exercise value alone can be significant but add in the fresh air and sunshine, the home grown fruit and vegetables free from pesticides and then the visual pleasures of flowers and scents and you have a great start to a healthy life.
Home grown produce will be free from the harmful pesticides and herbicides used as routine on commercial crops. Crops grown in UK come under very strict control ensuring that only safe and approved pesticides are used, but imported crops from all over the world do not have the same regulations and controls as we have here, so food health is a gamble. If you grow your own food crops you reduce the need to buy imported foods.
Even a small garden or allotment can provide a small family with most of their annual needs in fruit and vegetables and cut flower for the house with good cultivations and careful planning.
The Scottish diet gets a bad press, however, a lot of effort goes into promoting healthier foods and into encouraging people to cut back on the high fat fast foods, junk food, and fry ups in favour of  eating  more fruit, vegetables, nuts and grains.
The availability of cheap instant food has allowed people to take the easy option with the minimum of cooking. However in time, we may well revert to a healthier diet as promotion runs at full tilt with good and entertaining cookery programmes on TV on a daily basis.

I was one of the lucky ones. My father came from rural Poland where there were precious little shops so people grew their own produce. He always had the garden filled with fruit and vegetables and had an allotment all his life. I got to appreciate the taste of fresh fruit and vegetables at an early age. However, there was always a bit of wicked temptations in youth. It was normal on a night out to have six pints followed by a donar kebab, but with my healthy background I only had five pints and a single fish, nae chips. Well, you have to start somewhere.

The Problems

The human lifestyle has evolved a lot faster than our bodies’ ability to keep up with the changes. A lot of our food is refined, processed, treated with chemicals, and supermarkets have taken over as our main suppliers. Their concern is profits, not healthy food.
Our diet is responsible for the massive increase in poor health from heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer and hypertension.
Everyone knows the answer, but it is not easy to change the old habits of excessive drinking, smoking, junk food, too much TV/computer and not nearly enough exercise.
It is very hard to leave the car at home, and not watch those very interesting TV programmes, but with a wee bit of Scottish determination and will power we can make a few changes.
The body does need some fats to function properly, so the occasional chip is good for us, and a wee nip or glass of red wine every so often, purely for our medicinal needs will keep us in good form.
It’s all about moderation.
Then if you can combine more exercise into your routine your on the right track. After an hour at the gym I was ready for my shower, but my daughter wanted an extra fifteen minutes. She had been counting calories and knew that it would take fifteen minutes of lost calories to burn off the large slice of gateaux she had waiting at home as her reward.

The Foods

As I have always had a garden it has been easy to integrate plenty of fruit and vegetables into my daily diet, especially from early summer onwards.
Forced rhubarb started the season stewed and added to my morning muesli or in puddings and crumbles.
My muesli has added sultanas, dates and many nuts, so I am well on my way to achieving my daily five portions of fruit and vegetables. Later on fresh picked berries are added over the summer and autumn months. Frozen berries are used for a mixed fruit compote which complements, breakfast and desserts.
Lunch and dinner may well be a salad with home grown lettuce, tomatoes, and radish or a cooked meal with cabbage, turnip, onions, garlic, sweet corn, beans, beetroot or whatever is in season.
Preparation of foods is important to get the best out of them. Do not wash food excessively otherwise some vitamins existing on the surface may be lost. Go easy on the creams and yoghurts with fresh fruit as the calcium in these can lock up some of the beneficial vitamins and minerals.

The Superfoods

It is beneficial for healthy eating to include as wide a variety of foods as possible as they all have different levels of nutrients, and several are known to be very high in antioxidants and specific vitamins and minerals.
Superfood status is given to those possessing the greatest levels of a particular feature, or having a wide range of health benefits.

My garden will always have the following essential crops.

The chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa comes at the top of my list. It has the highest level of vitamin C and anthocyanins, an antioxidant that gives the berry its black colour, than any other plant. Antioxidants are very beneficial to sufferers of some cancers, heart disease, ulcers and many other conditions.
Blackcurrants come close behind with very high levels of vitamin C, then saskatoons and blueberries.
Rhubarb is a must have plant that can be used all year round with forced, fresh and frozen sticks. This was covered in last weeks feature.
Garlic is used in cooking numerous dishes to impart its attractive pungent flavour, but as a health food, it is said to help sufferers of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and some cancers.
Cabbage and all the other brassicas including Brussels sprouts, broccoli and kale are available all year round. They also have high levels of vitamin C, dietary fibre and multiple nutrients useful against heart diseases, cancer and inflammation.
Kale is especially nutritious with powerful antioxidant properties.
Beetroot is delicious in soups and savouries and is very high in antioxidants, magnesium, sodium, potassium and vitamin C. It is important for cardiovascular health, and has been shown to lower blood pressure.

Demand for allotments shows that the message is getting through for the need for a healthier lifestyle, but in Scotland we still need more people to jump on the bandwagon.


Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Rhubarb, The next Superfood


Rhubarb is finding a new lease of life in the modern world. Its popularity has waxed and waned over the years, but its value for medical purposes is extremely high so it is undergoing scientific research all over the world for a host of uses. It is also valued for its culinary uses in stews, jams, crumbles, compote and chutneys. It is a very healthy food being high in anti-oxidants, calcium and potassium and as scientists are finding out it releases high levels of polyphenols when baked and stewed, and these may have a beneficial effect against some cancers.
These are early days as research is ongoing, but it does seem that our humble rhubarb may well become a very important superfood, and just as important is the fact that it does make a delicious jam, an exotic stew and a crumble to die for.


Rhubarb has been in use for thousands of years though mainly as a medicinal drug. The Chinese dried the roots, which are cathartic and astringent, for use as a laxative and other ailments.
Other rhubarb species were found in Mongolia, Tibet and Siberia, but did not possess the same medicinal properties as the Chinese species. The Greeks and Romans imported it from China for   medicinal uses, then in the thirteenth century the explorer Marco Polo brought it back to Britain from China as it was highly valued as a drug.
It was not until the early nineteenth century that it was used for culinary purposes. A south London nurseryman and strawberry grower was looking for ways to use the new imported product sugar. Rhubarb stems were a waste byproduct from the rhubarb drug trade, but he discovered that they could make a delicious sweet tart just as popular as his strawberry tarts. He found a new market and the rhubarb we now know took off.
It was very easy to grow so soon became very popular in every garden as a readily available food
known as the poor mans fruit amongst the working classes.
In 1817 in the Chelsea Physic Gardens some roots were accidentally covered over with soil. Several weeks later they discovered the tender bright red blanched stems that had a superior flavour to the outdoor rhubarb, and so an industry in forcing rhubarb started initially around London.
Later a new rhubarb industry emerged in Yorkshire known as the rhubarb triangle from Leeds and Wakefield to Bradford. They had the best clay soils, a woollen industry to supply shoddy, an organic manure, a coal industry to supply cheap heating for the forcing sheds and a road and rail network to get the product to markets quickly. They also claim the superior flavour comes from their Yorkshire water, just as our whisky industry in Scotland relies on our pure highland burns.
During the last war its popularity faded as sugar imports were very restricted, but as countries recovered, it had a brief resurgence until cheap travel allowed the import of fresh new tropical fruit from all over the world. Rhubarb just could not compete.
However we are now turning full circle as food hygienists discover just how healthy rhubarb is. Almost every allotment plot holder now has his patch of rhubarb and demand is very strong as people are now very keen to live a healthy lifestyle.


Rhubarb roots and stems are high in anthraquinones, especially emodin and rhein, with both cathartic and laxative properties, and cooked stems have high levels of polyphenols, an anti cancer chemical. The roots also contain stilbenoid compounds useful in lowering blood sugar levels.
Research with rhubarb properties is covering gastric cancer, leukaemia, improvements to blood clotting, and reducing hypertension during pregnancy.
The high fibre content may help some people with high cholesterol levels. Some extracts appear to have anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy affects.
However the leaves are very toxic as they contain oxalic acid, so must never be eaten, but are perfect on the compost heap.
Ongoing worldwide research is covering a vast area of medical problems.


Rhubarb grows best on well drained but moisture retentive clay soils that have been well manured and deeply cultivated. They love moisture, heavy feeding and regular picking to encourage new leaves to continue to form. In mid summer any glut can be cut and stored in the freezer.
Crowns with two or three buds are planted out in winter about three feet apart in well prepared soil.  They are usually planted in odd shady corners but actually grow better in full sun. Do not pick off any leaves in the first year. They will then grow and crop for up to five years before needing dug up, split up and replanted.
Timperley Early is the earliest variety, Stockbridge Arrow and Queen Victoria follow on and then Cawood Delight is a late but with the best deep red stems.


It is easy to extend the season by forcing some roots every year. Rhubarb needs a cold dormant period in winter to rest, so dig up mature roots after  three to five years old in mid to late winter and place them somewhere in warm darkness. Keep them moist, but don’t water the stems otherwise they could rot. I use a space adjacent to my new compost heap which is warm, but another excellent spot is under the greenhouse staging with light excluded with black polythene. Sticks are ready for picking in four to six weeks. Always twist and pull them, do not cut them off.
When the crop is finished put the old crowns on the compost heap as they will be spent.


Rhubarb crumble, pies and tarts are most peoples favourite and stewed rhubarb with custard is heavenly, but these are well established so need no further mention.
However try rhubarb and fig jam. It is fantastic and so different from the normal traditional jams.
Then extend the recipes with a compote of rhubarb and blackcurrants or rhubarb and strawberries in the ratio of three times rhubarb to one portion of blackcurrants or strawberries. This compote can be used with breakfast muesli, or with desserts in custards, yoghurt or as a sauce with a dessert sponge, cake or tart.


Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Winter Work Never Ends


We seem to be going through a hard spell for any keen gardener.  Last autumn came late and before I had a chance to gather up all the leaves the winter arrived and dumped at least two feet of snow everywhere. Many weeks later the snow melted very reluctantly, but there has been no warm sunny days to dry up the soil surface to allow digging, or other outdoor activities to proceed.
Any outdoor gardening tasks have to be planned in advance with an eye on the weather to take every opportunity to get outside if there is a few hours of dry weather.
The severe cold has taken its toll on a few plants, with my Fuchsia Mrs Popple really looking lifeless right down to ground level. She did that last year, but grew back up again from the crown. However, my palm tree, Cordyline australis has been dropping a lot of leaves and my Date palm, Phoenix canariensis, which just survived last winter looks deathly.
A garden is full of extremes as the hardier plants show their ability to survive. Aconites have started to germinate from natural scattered seeds and my Saskatoon seeds which I had to put in the cold greenhouse to keep them away from mice have also started to germinate.

The first flowers

My first snowdrops have appeared just as soon as the snow melted. It is very welcome to see the beginning of life in the garden. Aconites, Hellebores and the crocus species are all showing a bit of colour with the promise that they will open up their blooms as soon as we get a few warmer days.

Winter vegetables

The allotment has continued to provide a good supply of winter vegetables including Swedes, savoy cabbage, brussels sprouts, my last parsnip and leeks. The cold put paid to my Swiss chard and kale which I will miss in my stir fries, but I have just learnt that chopped up brussels sprouts are a very useful addition to the stir fry wok. I just have enough beetroot left for one more pot of soup, but I am amazed that they have survived unharmed underneath their blanket of snow for so long.
Onions in store are still quite firm, but all our eating apples are finished. Bramley apples stored in apple boxes in a cold garage are still very plentiful and used frequently for crumbles, sauces and pies. Any second rate apples are chopped up and simmered slowly to soften  then strained in a jelly bag to make pectin. This is used to help set strawberry, saskatoon, and apricot jams. Any other apples beginning to look not at their best are chopped up for the blackbirds.
Our last stored pumpkin will be kept a few more weeks before the soup pot comes out. I will also retain the seeds for this years pumpkin plants.

Freezer foods

The idea of a freezer is that you can have a wide range fresh fruit and vegetables all year round and to supplement any meagre winter supplies from outdoors. We have had such good outdoor crops that we are not making any serious impact to the stored crops other than to give meals some variety.
French beans, sweet corn, kale, pumpkin puree and every soft fruit grown are still ready in abundance. Jams and compote are used daily and Saskatoon pies for special occasions.
Aronias are used for jam and smoothies.
There is an awful lot to be said for growing your own fruit and vegetables. They are harvested when ripe and often eaten within minutes of picking. The flavour is intense, they have been grown without any harmful pesticides and there has been precious little air miles used up bringing them to the kitchen table.
The freezer allows us a fair bit of our fresh crops to be tasted out of season. This is a very healthy option. We get the exercise from cultivating and growing them, fresh air, sunshine, (as well as wind, rain and snow) and allotment life is a very sociable pastime.
We may not get a lot of crops out of season, but do we really want them?
I was enjoying my Scottish grapes from August to December when the last of the Black Hamburgs finally disappeared. Naturally grapes from the supermarket replaced my own crop. I then realized just how good my own grapes were compared to those imported grapes which were rather tasteless and neither juicy nor as sweet as my Scottish ripened grapes.
It is the same with tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, brambles and raspberries from every corner of the globe. They may look perfect, but try eating these hard, tasteless and not very sweet berries with no guarantee about which pesticides were used in their production.
Getting an allotment is the healthiest option.

Early sowings

Sweet peas sown two weeks ago are now through but I will grow them hardy in the cold greenhouse. Now is the time to sow onions and tomatoes. I grow my tomatoes on a windowsill for a few weeks hoping to transfer them to the greenhouse during a mild spell, but getting ready with some supplementary heating on any cold nights.

Soil cultivation

Continue with spreading manure and compost and getting it dug in as long as the ground is dry enough to work.

Pruning and shredding

Pruning has continued with the peach tree, roses, fuchsias, apples and pears. To make room for my new dwarf Cherry Cherokee and outdoor grape Solaris on a south facing fence, I am removing a mature Pyracantha and some shrub roses.
Many other garden shrubs are getting a prune to keep them in shape, remove old wood, overcrowded or weak shoots and encourage younger wood and flowers.
All of my prunings will get shredded and added to the compost heap. These get mixed with autumn leaves, grass cuttings, kitchen vegetable waste, old bedding plants and compost from hanging baskets, and growbags.
The compost heap will get turned at least once, or twice if I can find the energy. It is very hard work, but very helpful in producing brilliant compost. This will be ready in about  nine months.


Wednesday, 9 February 2011



My first gardening memory from childhood involved roses. It was one of those unforgettable experiences, even for a four year old. My grannie, bless her soul, sent me, complete with bucket and shovel, up Harestane Road running after the grocer’s cart, knowing that at some stage his horse would do what horses have always done whether in a field or in the street. This was an opportunity not to be missed as she had a border of hybrid tea roses that would soon be the envy of her neighbours after this tousled haired laddie struggled back with his steaming bucket.
My first gardening lesson, roses are gross feeders and a perfect rose may involve a lot of hard work but the rewards can be immense.
My horticultural career took me all over Britain and every new house came with a garden that just had to have roses somewhere. A garden for me would not be complete if there were no roses.
Hybrid Teas and floribundas can go in beds and borders, shrub roses can provide shelter and privacy and ramblers and climbers can go on walls and fences. You can even get varieties suitable for ground cover.

My first roses

I had always been very ambitious and keen to learn my craft and rose growing was at the top of my list, but they were very expensive to buy on an apprentice’s pay. It was easier for me to join the Royal National Rose Society who then gave you a book on rose growing, varieties and propagation. I ordered 100 Rosa canina briers and decided I would bud my own roses. I only had a broken pen knife to perform my budding, but the book was good and I managed to get 82 roses from my 100 rootstocks.
At college in Essex I did a dissertation on rose rootstocks discovering that Rosa canina was out of favour as it produced suckers too readily and now the favoured rootstock was Rosa laxa. Someone down south was also experimenting with Rosa multiflora rootstock which proved to be superior to all the others, but was not commercial on account of having a small neck which was difficult and slow to bud. However I had all the time in the world so I got hold of these and produced my best roses ever.
It is now difficult for the amateur gardener to get hold of rose rootstocks as they are mostly grown in Holland, so we can propagate our roses from hardwood cuttings.  They are fairly easy to root. I covered this topic two weeks ago, but you can still see it on my blog, the Scottish artist and his where I archive all my articles.

Rose varieties

Specialist rose nurseries in Scotland, England and Ireland have been breeding new roses for years so there is no lack of choice. In the early years there was an emphasis on producing floribundas, then trying to get floribundas with hybrid tea type flowers. There has always been a demand for a good red rose with scent, a strong head and several flowers per stem. E. H. Morse is hard to beat,  but other colours proved to be a bigger challenge. Bicolours became popular such as Piccadilly, then the vermillion colour appeared with Super Star many years ago. There are now excellent varieties to be found in just about every colour.
We are now in a different environment with sulphur free clean air better for humans, but also better for all the main rose diseases. Most of the chemicals previously used to control rose diseases have now been withdrawn. Breeders need to concentrate on strength and disease resistance in rose breeding so we can grow good roses without the need for chemicals.
However we are not there yet as I see many varieties still listed as disease free which I have had to grub out due to debilitating attacks of blackspot. Both shrub L D Braithwaite and climber Golden Showers have had the chop due to die back after a blackspot attack. Margaret Merril is a lovely white scented rose that is great early in the season until mildew gets a hold, then it struggles badly.
Every one will have their favourites, so my choice is purely down to what gives my garden the biggest splash of colour.
E H Morse is my best red, Dearest, a floribunda my best pink, Miriam my best white with a pink blush.
I have grown many shrub types and now use some of them on walls and fences as climbers. Dublin Bay is a brilliant red, but has no scent unlike Gertrude Jekyll, a deep pink with the Old English rose scent. If you need a very vigorous climber, the old variety Mme Alfred Carriere, introduced in 1879, is very reliable and puts on a spectacular show of off white scented flowers all summer.

Rose Planting

Roses thrive in well manured clay loams. It is a good practice to double dig any area to be planted with roses to break up the subsoil, aerate it, improve the drainage and incorporate manure or compost. When digging deep do not bring up any clay to the surface.
Climbers planted against a house wall will need removal of any builder’s debris and replaced with some good top soil. Work carefully as there may be services going into your property. Break up any consolidated hardcore below planting depth as the plant will be very happy to grow through this and still thrive.
Planting bare root plants can be done from November to the end of March, though nowadays it is more usual to purchase container grown plants that can be planted at any time. Make sure all bushes are given a good soak before and at planting to get them off to a good start.
Give the bed a dressing of a general fertilizer as roses are gross feeders and will respond to feeding.
Spacing can be as close as 18 inches for dwarf bushes or six to ten feet or more for climbers and ramblers.

Rose pruning

Hybrid tea and floribunda roses are pruned in the dormant season from late November to mid March, though with global warming this period is getting shorter.
Start by removing weak shoots, dead snags and any shoots growing up the centre. Providing there is several strong young shoots remove some older branches. Finally prune the young shoots to an outward growing bud about six to twelve inches from the ground.
Roses can be relied on to recover from bad pruning. If you prune them very lightly they will just grow into a larger bush but still flower perfectly well. If you prune them too hard you will keep the bushes smaller, but you could kill a weak variety.
Back in the mists of time I had a three month rose pruning session covering the north west of Dundee open spaces. Roses were at the height of their popularity and all local authorities crammed them into every available space. There was no time for any finesse, forget secateurs, this was a hand shear job cutting every bed to two feet from ground level. Although I was armed with my copy of “How to grow roses” from the Royal National Rose Society my knowledge from the book got me no Brownie points, so I had to do as I was told
That summer I went back to check on all my mutilated rose beds. They were all fantastic, full of flower. We should have won Britain in Bloom. I nearly threw away my book.
Roses are very tough, they can take a lot of ill treatment and still come back with glorious colour.

Shrub roses need very little pruning, only enough to prevent them getting too straggly.

Rambling roses flower on long shoots produced the previous year, so after flowering remove the older shoots right back to the base and tie in the new young shoots. These will flower the next year.

Climbing roses flower the same as bush roses, but produce longer shoots. These are used to form a framework of both young and older branches. However keep the plant rejuvenated by removing some of the older shoots every year. Make sure there is always some young wood around the base so the climber can flower from top to bottom. If the shoots are quite long try arching them horizontally to reduce upwards vigour and encourage flowering.