Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A fun herb identification task

Here's a fun thing for December. How many herbs can you identify in this bunch? The winner will have his or her name tweeted. :)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

My bee garden

Lavender, feverfew, white horehound, wall flower, echinacea, nasturtium, rue, sweet william, thyme, hyssop, mexican sage and celandine grow in the bee garden.

The bees particularly love the white horehound flowers which are actually very inconspicuous. Many butterflies flit happily here too and the garden feels very much alive.

Many of the plants are self seeded. Even the echinaceas self seeded and I had small plants growing in the cracks of the paving! I like the wild effect which self seeding brings, and which insects love. It gives me so much pleasure to see how many insects enjoy and make use of the plants in my garden, I can only encourage everyone to do the same, and give the pollinators a poison-free environment.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Organic veggie gardening

Peas, red cabbage and broad beans, flourishing under shade netting.

Last summer the sun was so strong that my vegetables were burnt to a crisp in just one day. Then I was given the book "Companion planting" by Margaret Roberts, in which she states that her father predicted 30 years ago, that one day the sun will be too strong to grow vegetables successfully. There is a picture of her veggie garden under shade and she says that they love it. I decided that this is the only way forward and went out to buy white shade netting for the top and green for the sides. I want to keep the chickens out at the same time.
The white shade netting gives 12% shade. Obviously veggies need the sun in order to grow so I decided to start with that, and see how the veggies like it. I can always go up to 20% if it is still too hot. On a hot day one can immediately feel the difference under the netting - it takes the "edge" off the heat.

Red cabbage and Calendulas seem to be happy together.

The combination of red cabbage and calendulas is my own idea, and it seems to be a success. The red cabbage is forming beautiful heads and is hardly affected by insects. The Calendulas' leaves are quite chewed up, but I spotted a white eye eating insects off them, so there is quite some harmony there. I still have to make more use of companion planting, but so far everything seems very happy anyway. I am careful to rotate crops, and put beans in after brassicas to nourish the soil.
Peas looking happy.

The chickens scratched in the veggie patch through most of the winter, so I reckon the soil was nicely fertilised by the spring. I picked enormous broccoli heads which weighed more than a kilogram each. It is so nice to know that the broccoli has never been sprayed! Also there wasn't a single bug on it. Generally I don't have a bug problem at all. I think the chickens get rid of most slug and snail eggs. I hope that the garden in general is a harmonious place for all insects, so that there is no domination of one type over another. One  grub that is annoying is the cut worm, and to avoid it I place collars made out of yoghurt containers around seedlings.
You can see in the picture here that a seedling succumbed to a cut worm and is lying neatly severed. I was not expecting that to happen, so a bit belatedly have protected the others (I hope). I try to grow as many veggies from seed, but also get seedlings from a local supplier when I need a head start. It's a good idea to get tomatoes in as early as possible to avoid blight, so I started some of my seedlings in July. There are already small tomatoes on some of them. The bed pictured here is not under shade but gets afternoon shade. It is for tomatoes, basil and aubergines. Time will tell if they too need shade.

Can you spot the visitor to the compost heap?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Organic orange marmalade - the herbal way.

This marmalade has still got some way to cook. The bubbles are much too big.

In my opinion, breakfast isn't breakfast without orange marmalade on toasted home made bread.
I like to take advantage of winter fruit and make enough marmalade to last for the whole year. It's also appreciated as a gift by my family and friends. I buy organic oranges and organic sugar from Woolies. I like to use Artemisia afra (wilde als) herb to give it a more bitter flavour. If you don't have wilde als, you can use Leonotis leonurus (wild dagga) or Marrubium vulgare (white horehound), but as these are much more bitter than wilde als, use them more sparingly. Try ten leaves of either.


10 organic oranges
2kg organic sugar
Juice of 6 organic oranges
10 large sprigs of wilde als (optional) see pic>
2.5 l filtered water


Top and tail the washed oranges, cut in halves and finely slice. Cut the slices into quarters. Boil the water and add the wilde als. Infuse for at least an hour. Strain the water and add to the sliced oranges. Heat the mixture until it starts to boil, then switch off the stove and leave over night.
Next day add the orange juice and sugar, and bring the mix up to the boil again. Simmer until it has reduced by about a third and has very small bubbles on the surface.

Test it by putting a small amount on a saucer in the fridge for a few minutes. If it wrinkles when pushed by a spoon it is ready.
Put it into warm, clean jars, and allow to cool. Once it is completely cool you can put the lids on, label and store in the cupboard for many delicious breakfasts. You can tweak this recipe by using some lemon juice or extra bitter leaves, just be brave and experiment.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lime blossom tea

Lime blossom
This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons

Tilia cordata
Lime blossom is the flower head of the Tilia tree, a highly scented tree when it is in flower which has inspired poets and song writers.  In Europe the tree is a favourite and lines many avenues.  It is the national tree of the Czech republic and the Slovak republic. Some specimens are estimated to be up to two thousand years old. In France the flowers have been used traditionally for a tea called “Tilleul”.  A monofloral  honey from the lime tree is extremely highly valued and often used in medicine.
Lime tree flowers  contain flavonoids, mucilage, tannins, volatile oil, saponins and sugars. The tea tastes quite pleasant and is very soothing for the digestive system. The mucilaginous effect is useful for respiratory problems and the tea has been traditionally used for fevers, flu and colds.  Lime is antispasmodic, sedative and hypotensive. I t can be used for fever, headache and anxiety. It is often specifically used for high blood pressure associated with hardening of the arteries. The rich flavonoid content has a strengthening effect on blood vessels, and is generally antioxidant.
In my practice I like to make a flavonoid tea which is preventative against vascular damage and strengthening for the cardiovascular system in general. Herbs containing rutin such as rue, elder flower and buchu;  solidago which I have previously written about, and lime blossom would make up the perfect tea.
So how about a nice cuppa? In a world where everything is about "pick me up", it makes a change to have something to relax and have health benefits. Tilleul tea is available from many good tea companies.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Nasturtium pesto

Nasturtiums are very plentiful at this time of the year. They are packed with nutrients like iron, vitamins and minerals and contain chemicals called glucosinolates, (similar to what we find in broccoli and brussel sprouts), which have antibiotic and antioxidant actions. Nasturtium is excellent for people with chest problems and Madaus, a company in Germany make capsules from it, for treatment of antibiotic resistant lung and bladder infections.

One can eat both the leaves and the flowers raw in salads. The leaves are very strong when eaten alone, but on a sandwich they don't burn the mouth, but add a great flavour. They certainly are more nutritious than ordinary lettuce.
 I invented this pesto recipe to preserve as many of the rich nutrients of the leaves for as long as possible. I find it quite delicious. I am going to freeze quite a lot for use in the summer, because by then the nasturtiums in my garden are finished.

Nasturtium pesto: 200g freshly picked nasturtium leaves. (Check for aphids and brush them off. There is no need to wash the leaves if they are grown away from a road.) 250ml good quality olive oil, 100g pumpkin seeds, 50g fresh garlic, 1tspn Ina Paarman Chilli and Garlic salt. Method: Place the olive oil in a blender and add the nasturtium leaves gradually until they are all ground up. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend until smooth. If you wish you could add 50g or so of parmesan cheese which would make it even more delicious! This is very nice instead of butter on a sandwich and good on toast as a snack. Best of all it's very good for one's health!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The life and death adventures of my bantams.

The two "old girls" with the three young bantams.

Here in suburbia my bantams face all sorts of life threatening events, both from within the property and from outside, as we live opposite farm land. At present I have five bantams. Two are old girls, at least ten years of age, and very healthy and fit. Three (which were four) are newcomers, hatched out by one of the old girls a couple of months ago.

I have been keeping chickens for many years now, so long that I can't remember when I started. Over the years they have met their end by various means. One who used to sit on the wall under a creeper to lay her eggs, fell off stone dead one day. She would have needed a post mortem to find out what the cause of death was. One or two drowned in the pool. Several were swiftly finished off by my own dogs. I found one black hen in bed with my first male pointer. Naturally it was no longer alive, and my shriek of horror was enough to remind him for the rest of his days, that chickens are not for catching.

Luckily and amazingly, despite the fact that they are hunting dogs, they are intelligent enough to learn that the chickens are mine, and "not theirs!" So mostly they tip toe around the chickens,  alternately eyeing me and them. If for some reason there is an alarming flapping of wings, even the best trained dog will get excited and his instincts will take over, so vigilance is called for in this regard. Just recently I found one of the little bantams dead around the corner and another with a severely injured neck. Initially I blamed the dogs for both incidents, but later I reasoned that the dogs' powerful jaws would not injure the fragile bantam's neck without killing it, so I placed the blame on a very ugly cat that I spied prowling around. I reckon the cat had got hold of the chicken and in the ensuing racket and flapping of wings, one of the dogs joined in and killed one of the other chooks. This was punished by extreme measures! Both dogs were scrupulously ignored for 24 hours and neither got their bedtime biscuit.

The injured chook was wrapped and placed in a basket to heal. I soon realised that her injuries were not life threatening when I found the basket empty and her missing. But I soon found her and kept her isolated  and warm for a couple of nights. She spent the next couple of days huddled in the sun. She drank lots of water, sitting for hours beside my pond, dipping her beak in and tipping her head back to get the water down. Once she started eating again I knew the worst was over and now she is perfectly fine with just a few ruffled feathers around her neck.

 I learned many years ago that chickens heal very well. We had at the time, a snow white  bantam chicken. On a moonlit night it was so white it was  luminous. Naturally this meant that any cat or mongoose could zoom in on it very easily, and one night I was woken up by the most awful, blood-curdling scream and flapping of wings that sent my heart into frantic palpitations. I realised there was nothing I could do as the desperate shrieks disappeared around the corner of the house. Next morning I followed a trail of white feathers around the house fully expecting to find the chicken lying half eaten on the path. Much to my astonishment it was huddled up under a bush, rather bald in patches with a few scrapes, but otherwise fine. She made a complete recovery. Unfortunately she met her end at the hands of a mongoose some time later, and disappeared without trace.

It is a fact that when chickens are free range, they lay their eggs all over the place, and one is regularly searching for their nests. My dog is very good at finding them and to my great annoyance snaffles the eggs if I don't get there first. A few years ago one of the chickens made a nest under the nasturtium against the wall in my veggie patch, where it is nice and sunny and warm. She was extremely broody and wouldn't leave that nest for anything. I even removed all the eggs, but she remained firmly at her post! She sat there for many weeks, and one day I went to check on her. Her eyes were closed and she was as still as death. "Oh you poor little thing," I said feeling very sad, "You've died on your nest." I took a stick and prodded her just to make sure......and her eye opened. I admit I jumped from shock before I started laughing.

The juvenile bantams  are extremely adventurous, unlike the two old girls who never venture into the front garden. The three scratch about together all over the garden, even going out of the property into my neighbour's garden, where there is a resident dachshund. I'm sure it's a very funny sight  seeing me sneaking about in the neighbours shrubbery with my arms wide open, trying to coax them out of harm's way, and back to safe territory. The other day they were outside the fence in the street foraging under the trees when a man walking his dog started yelling at the top of his voice as his dog made a bee line for the chooks. There was a mad scramble of man, dog and chickens before they got back through the fence and scurried off as fast as their little legs could carry them. I'm sure the guy was very relieved!

I have some extremely heavy fencing material which I have curved around my one compost heap. Imagine my absolute horror, when coming around the corner of the house the other day, to see the fence had fallen over and squashed flat  beneath it were the familiar colours of the young bantam's feathers. I uttered a very loud, "OH NO!" and rushed forward. To my amazement the little head was poked up between the wire square and it's eyes were blinking! I lifted the piece of fence up and gathered the poor thing into my hands, thinking at the very least the legs, which had been at an awful angle, were broken. Not at all. After a few minutes of intense quivering in my hands, the little thing started to struggle and wanted to be released. Off it went in perfect form.
I meanwhile, take about half an hour to calm down after these incidents. A decent dose of Valeriana is called for. Thank goodness I'm a herbalist.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Pecking order

One of the best things I did a couple of years ago, was to put clear glass in the bathrooms instead of the frosted. This gives me a very good view of the activities in the garden as my bathroom overlooks the busiest area, namely the chicken coop.
Not too long ago my one bantam hen sat on seven fertile eggs that I got from a neighbour. Three of the eggs came out of a nest in her garden, and four came out of her fridge, having been collected a few days before. Out of this lot hatched four chicks. And amazingly they were all hens. There are photos of them in this blog, so do have a look. Sadly one of them was killed by my dog the other day, so now I'm being extra vigilant. This was a first such incident.
Anyway to get back to my story. The chicks grew up and when mother hen eventually decided that they were big enough to fend for themselves, she literally pecked them out of her life. No longer were they allowed to share the perch at night, but have been banished to sitting on top of the coop. If the chicks get in her way at feeding time, they get a vicious pecking, so I place two piles of food - one for the elders and one for the juniors. Even the juniors are subjected to the odd jab from the smallest of the three. Talk about sticking up for yourself!

 Once they have had their fill, the doves come and have a meal. The doves too have their pecking order, with the larger Cape turtle dove chasing away the laughing dove. The chickens often chase the doves away if they decide to come back for a snack. It's very funny to watch them hurl themselves at the doves, and the doves flap away to sit and watch until they can have another turn. Amusingly, sometimes the doves have a way of opening their wings to make themselves look bigger, and strut around briefly like that while they feed. This could be because the sparrows are waiting! Not long and they come and force their way in between and eat the seeds that get pushed out to the edges.
There is often a huge squabble at this stage, especially when other birds like weavers join in.

Once the birds have eaten, along comes a rat family. Mum, dad and two kids. Initially I was rather horrified, but I've got used to them now. They live in the woodpiles in my neighbour's garden and visit for a breakfast and some supper. I am not going to poison them, because they will make a nice meal for the Burchell's coucal and any owls that might visit. My neighbour recently fixed a wonderful owl box onto the house where the visiting barn owl stayed for a few days (see previous posts) and we are very hopeful that an owl will find it inviting.

It is very amusing to see how the turtle doves chase the rats away, but the funniest thing I've seen so far is when the smallest bantam torpedoed itself out of the bushes towards one that was nibbling away - and almost reached it to give it a peck. It was hilarious and left no doubt as to who rules the roost here!

My ten year old German pointer Lila is a very patient old girl and stands for ages by the chicken coop waiting for the emergence of any rat......

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Herbs in food as medicine for winter.

Herbs in food as medicine for winter.

Eating seasonal foods and eating according to the seasons is a sensible idea for health reasons as well as reasons pertaining to our planet. Winter is a time when we need to keep warm, so warming, comfort-style foods are going to be the most effective in this regard. The Chinese believe we should eat according to the seasons and actually have five seasons, the extra one being Indian summer.
In nature plants differ according to the seasons in that in autumn and winter many plants “die back” storing the nutrients in their roots, before sprouting anew in the spring. Herbalists make use of this by harvesting many roots at this time when the level of nutrients and chemical constituents is at its highest.
Chefs are not usually focussing on the health properties of the dishes they prepare, but unknowingly as they add herbs for the flavour or their dishes, they are adding health giving properties. It would be good if they knew more about these!
In cookery, root vegetables are used more during winter for making stews, roast vegetable dishes and as accompaniments for heavy meat meals. Such hearty fare is warming and nurturing but can be stodgy and acid forming. The extra starches in winter food can also be mucus forming, which makes people more susceptible to catching colds and flu. Herbs in cooking can lessen the side effects of winter food by subtly helping the kidneys and liver. At the same time herbs bring unsurpassed flavour to most dishes.
I believe in cooking from scratch. This means I have most herbs and spices in my kitchen, to blend and use as the dish demands. Most of the meals I cook start with one or two chopped onions sautéed in olive oil. This is the ideal time to add herbs that are rich in aromatic oils such as torn fresh bay leaves, thyme, sage, rosemary, garlic and ginger. The heat of the olive oil, helps release the aromatic oils of the herbs. I never use a high heat, rather a low heat that sweats the onion and herbs to release the juices into the olive oil. Herbs rich in aromatic oils usually have very good antiseptic, antibacterial and antioxidant properties. They will protect against flu and colds when used regularly. They also help to keep blood vessels healthy and encourage good circulation.
The same principle applies to spices – which are anyway regarded as herbs by herbalists. Lightly frying them releases the flavours, and using them regularly can help the circulation, especially garlic, chilli and ginger, and act as antiseptics too. Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory and is something one can use in many dishes, either hot or mild curries for example, for easing the pain of arthritis.
For colds and flu good old chicken soup to move mucus and to hydrate the body, is still the best. Antiseptic herbs like sage, thyme, oregano and garlic, with parsley and celery as blood cleansers, make the perfect medicine. Garlic, wasabi and horseradish break down mucus, and are great for people with chronic sinus problems.
Bay leaves, celery, parsley and lovage are diuretic and good for the kidneys. They also help for arthritis, so regular use can supplement other treatment. Rosemary, ginger and garlic are excellent for the circulatory system, and will enhance memory if there is poor blood flow to the brain. Thyme is a powerful antiseptic, good for treating coughs, even better when combined with garlic,and healthy for the liver. Bitter herbs such as chicory will also help the liver function better.
Most herbs go well in a soup or with meat dishes. Starting off a soup with onions and bay leaves gives it a wonderful flavour. Add some cloves for an interesting contrast, and don’t forget lovage which is unsurpassable as a soup herb. Herbs in food put small amounts of antiseptic into your body every day, as well as boosting elimination of waste by stimulating the liver, kidneys and circulation. This in turn keeps you looking healthy, as the skin benefits from the antioxidant and stimulating action of the chemical constituents of the herbs.
Try to vary your cooking on a daily basis by choosing a different herb or combination of herbs. Tonight for example I'm doing chicken with sage. The sage that you see in the photo above will soon be in the pan giving off its wonderful flavour before I add the chicken and garlic. And some crispy fried sage leaves as a garnish will add the final delicious and healthy touch!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mexican sage attracts bees and sunbirds

Mexican sage, also called Mexican bush, velvet sage, or more properly, salvia leucantha, is a lovely perennial bush that produces velvety purple calyx and white or purple flowers in mid-summer. The Mexican sage is native to Mexico and South America, but is now also grown in the US. It does best in temperate zones, where it will remain evergreen throughout the year. In areas with frost or snow, Mexican sage tends to die back to root level, but bursts forth again when the weather turns warmer.
The leaves on a Mexican sage are shaped like lances, and lightly coated with fine hairs. They’re usually pale green in color and combined with the soft white down on the leaves they give off an attractive silver appearance. Leaf length is between one to five inches (2.54-12.7 cm). As summer approaches the Mexican sage produces long stalks on which clusters of purple calyx grow. Calyces (plural of calyx) are not flowers, but are cuplike precursor to small white or purple blooms of the Mexican Sage. The purple calyx and the flowers of the plant make them attractive to both butterflies and hummingbirds.

Credit to wiseGEEK for this text
Salvia leucantha
This salvia is very easy to propogate, either by cuttings or division. It blooms prolifically in autumn and needs to be cut back after blooming. This one is about 1m tall. It is delightful to see the sunbirds enjoying it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

What phytotherapy can do for you.

Phytotherapy or herbalism is probably the oldest medical practice in the world. In South Africa it is a registered profession, and to become registered, a university degree in Phytotherapy is required. At present the university of the Western Cape is the only university in South Africa which offers the program

Most phytotherapists use dried herbs and herbal tinctures or tablets. Medicines are formulated and prepared by the phytotherapist. The phytotherapist also can make a syrup, cream, lotion or ointment for a wide variety of internal or topical applications. Most medicines and topical medicaments are formulated specially for the individual.

What can you expect when you visit a phytotherapist?

  • The first visit takes about an hour, maybe longer
  • A complete history is taken - that means questions are asked about your whole body
  • A medical examination is conducted
  • If necessary blood tests, scans, or other tests may be requested
  • Diet and lifestyle will be discussed
  • Herbal medicine will be formulated and dispensed 
  • Treatment will be explained
Herbal medicine is most effective when dispensed and formulated by a phytotherapist. It is much stronger than the over-the-counter medicines and the dosage is correct for the condition. It is also specific to your body's needs. Self medication with herbal remedies is often a complete waste of money because of poor formulation of the product and inadequate potency.

Herbal medicine has many advantages:

  • It facilitates body functions by nurturing and balancing the various organs
  • It doesn't block functions to "normalise" physiological states
  • It is not alien to the body and side effects are very rare
  • It is nutritious as well as healing
  • The chemical constituents of herbal medicine are "recognised" by the body as most of them are abundant in nature and foods
  • Certain herbs have strong effects on certain systems, either calming or stimulating
  • It can be used together with allopathic medicines, which may be necessary in some conditions
  • It is non-polluting once excreted and will not harm our waterways
  • In many instances it is scientifically validated by research
  • Progress can be clinically evaluated by blood tests, scans, endoscopy etc
  • The use of herbal medicine strengthens the immune system and does not cause antibiotic resistance
Herbal medicine is very efficient for acute or chronic disease. It can eliminate the need for antibiotics in acute situations and with the guidance of a practitioner. Recovery is in line with what nature intended - no quick fix.
Above all herbal medicine is really green and planet friendly.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Golden rod

Solidago canadensis

My Golden rod has been growing in the same corner of the garden for about 15 years. Without much attention or water, it puts on a beautiful display every year. It also times its blooming with the first rains of autumn after the long drought of summer. Usually it blooms before the rain, but sometimes the rain is first. This year it has been blooming for a while and today I harvested it while it is at its peak. Tomorrow rain is forcast.

Some has gone into a vase, and some is left to dry for herbal tea. One lot is tinctured fresh - picked, stripped and put into a 2 litre jar with alcohol, all in the space of an hour. This way I get the best quality tincture. Finally some is left for the bees because they love it. But I must admit, there were not so many today when I picked. Usually they buzz around me, and stay on the picked blossoms. I hope they were busy elsewhere - not fewer in numbers.

Golden rod belongs to the daisy family Asteraceae. If one looks closely at the flowers they are made up of clusters of miniature daisies. The flowers are rich in flavonoids (flavus = yellow) and are good for the vascular system in strengthening blood vessels. This is helpful for allergies, as capillary stability and strength are important in protecting against allergens. It is also an excellent herb for varicose veins when taken regularly.

The main medicinal use of golden rod is as an anti-catarrhal and diuretic. It is a peculiar coincidence of the herbal pharmacy that many herbs which are beneficial to the chest are also beneficial to the urinary system. This dual benefit can be very useful when a chest infection occurs as the kidneys are automatically disinfected by the herb that is used for the cough, and in turn the kidneys can play a role in ridding the body of fluid accumulated in the lungs. Golden rod directly increases renal function and can be used in cases of nephritis, but only by an experienced practitioner.

Solidago canadensis with Leonotis leonurus

Golden rod is an old traditional medicine for the kidneys and is used for kidney gravel and inflammation. It can also be used for cystitis. Traditionally Solidago virgaurea was the herb used, but canadensis has been shown to have even superior medicinal properties. It's hardy, beautiful and medicinal - nature's gift to us.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rather healthy, scrumptious rustic cookies.

These cookies are "rustic" because I'm too lazy to roll out the dough and cut them with a cookie cutter. The photo shows the latest batch which I made after discovering that I had no more sesame seeds. Hence the lack of seeds in them. :)


500g stone ground brown flour
200g butter
1/4 cup olive oil
200g organic brown sugar
100g honey
50g coconut
50g oats
50g sesame seeds
100g ground or finely chopped almonds
pinch sea salt
1 free range egg


Rub the butter into the flour until it is finely dispersed. Add all the dry ingredients and mix well. Finally add the honey, olive oil, egg and a little milk to make a stiff moist dough that holds together well. Break off tablespoon sized bits, roll into balls and place on a tray lined with baking paper. Press them flat with a fork.

Bake in a hot oven 200 deg for 25 minutes or until pale golden brown. My oven is very large and not super hot so 200 deg in a smaller oven might be a bit too hot. Be careful!

Yummy. These cookies are high in fibre, protein rich and low in saturated fat. They are nutritious for growing kids and ideal for the lunchbox as a healthy treat.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

My special visitor

This beautiful owl perched on the down pipe under the eaves of my house yesterday. I love owls and was very privileged to have him sitting there!! Can anyone identify it? I think it may be a grass owl, but the face is much darker than usual.


Today is the 2nd of March and the owl is still here. So he's now "my owl". An owl box is on the agenda! I will be updating as things develop. Yesterday I went outside to watch as he started the night hunt. It starts at about 7:45. Prior to that there seems to be quite a bit of grooming. (Just in case he meets someone?) Suddenly he launched himself and flew to the corner of the house where I was sitting just below my bedroom window. He landed on the downpipe by the window, and seemed to be scrutinising the wall ( lots of body movement - it was now deep dusk). During the day it is very obvious that this corner is home to many geckos. Could he be looking for a favourite snack? Then he hopped onto my open window. I realised that if this were to happen in the middle of the night when I was in bed, I might get a serious fright!!
After this he flew onto the gutter of the roof and made a huge squelching pee or poo. It turned out to be a white stain on the brickwork below, when observed by my dogs and me next day. At this point I went inside. But when I popped out some time later he was launching himself from the day time perch and making trips into the neighbourhood. Next day the pellets on the ground prove that he caught enough to eat.

I feel so honoured to have this beautiful creature staying here. Every time a neighbour starts up a weed eater or lawnmower, I'm thinking, "what a noisy world this is". I just want this owl to feel like this is a safe haven.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Tomato sauce

One of the harvests from the veggie patch is a mix of Italian plum and Italian beefsteak tomatoes. I had to share the harvest with birds and mice. It's rather nice not feeling angry as a bulbul munches happily on one of my juicy ripe tomatoes especially considering the harvest wasn't that great. I rather enjoyed watching him and felt good that my garden is a source of healthy unsprayed fruit and veg.

There is no set recipe for my tomato sauce but it goes something like this:

Saute a very large chopped onion in some olive oil, with three or four freshly picked bay leaves. You want to get the flavour of the bay leaves into the olive oil.
Add a kilogram or so of fresh tomatoes. I don't even cut them, they will break down. Simmer very gently until the watery tomato juice has reduced by half. Now add several whole cloves of garlic.
Pop into the garden and pick some fresh basil and some fresh oregano or marjoram. Add as much as you fancy to the mix. Add about 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice, some khoisan sea salt, black pepper and some organic brown sugar to taste. Not too much sugar!
Reduce the whole lot a bit more until it is no longer watery. Rub through a sieve, or do it the lazy way like me and use a machine. I use my Bosch which has an attachment for this purpose - at least it works very well.
This sauce smells so good while it cooks that you'll want to cancel all dinner plans and make pasta instead. I'm going to freeze mine to enjoy with guests next month.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Plastics in the ocean

All photos (except where noted) courtesy of Paul Joyce,
Sea Education Association

Plastics in Our Oceans

by Kimberly Amaral
Strolling through the average supermarket, shoppers find literally hundreds (if not thousands) of items to make their lives easier. Individually wrapped snack cakes, plastic baggies to store sandwiches for lunch, unbreakable soda bottles, and disposable razors, diapers, and shampoo bottles. Unless specifically requested, even the bags we use to carry home our goods are often plastic.
To humans, these are items of comfort, if not necessity. But to marine animals, they can be a floating minefield.
Photo by K. Amaral
Plastic--whether it be for a container, a wrapper, or the product itself--has become an everyday part of our lives. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--plastic is also the material diabetics use for their disposable syringes; arthritic patients have for their replaced hips; and construction workers wear to protect their heads.
But when plastic reaches our waters, whether it be plastic bags or drifting fish nets, it poses a threat to the animals that depend on the oceans for food. To a sea turtle, a floating plastic bag looks like a jellyfish. And plastic pellets--the small hard pieces of plastic from which plastic products are made--look like fish eggs to seabirds. Drifting nets entangle birds, fish and mammals, making it difficult, if not impossible to move or eat. As our consumption of plastic mounts, so too does the danger to marine life.
Before the days of plastic, when fishermen dumped their trash overboard or lost a net, it consisted of natural materials--metal, cloth or paper that would either sink to the bottom or biodegrade quickly. But plastic remains floating on the surface, the same place where many genuine food sources lie--and can remain so for 400 years. Plastic is durable and strong--precisely the qualities that make it so dangerous if it reaches the ocean.

It can get there from here

But how would a syringe that a diabetic uses make it into the ocean? If plastic objects make it into the main sewer system (say, by being flushed down the toilet, or carried by the rain into a street drain), and the water treatment plants are overwhelmed by excessive rain, then those floating objects can float right out to sea. This is precisely what happened on the New York and New Jersey beaches in 1988, when medical waste was floating up onshore. After an unusually dry spring, litter began accumulating on the streets and in storm sewers. When heavy rains arrived in mid-summer, they swept the streets clean and overloaded combined sewers. After floating out to sea, the debris was blown back onto the shores.
In a more direct route, boaters may dump their trash right into the sea. In the past, this has been the main cause of plastics in the ocean. In 1975, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 14 billion pounds of garbage was being dumped into the ocean every year. That's more than 1.5 million pounds per hour. More than 85% of this trash was estimated to come from the world's merchant shipping fleet in the form of cargo-associated wastes. According to the Academy, the United States could be the source of approximately one third of this ocean pollution.
Fortunately, since the last day of 1988, it has been illegal for ships to dump plastics into the ocean. But that law is difficult to enforce, and cannot account for the thousands of miles of driftnets and other gear set by fishermen, which can ensnare and kill birds diving for the fish below, or come loose, only to be discovered later by an unfortunate humpback whale.

It's a great big world out there

Anyone who's been on a boat far from the sight of land will tell you how enormous the ocean feels. Wouldn't this debris simply get dispersed, virtually eliminating the possibility of an encounter with a marine animal? The answer is no. While the ocean does disperse the trash, it also runs in currents, which can keep the floating trash traveling constantly in "gyres," concentrating it in areas where currents meet. The largest of these movements, is called the central gyre. It moves in a clockwise circular pattern, moving inside the Gulf Stream, and dominates the western North Atlantic. Studies begun in 1984 have tracked how these currents keep plastics migrating, with heavy concentrations in the northern Sargasso Sea (coincidentally, a favorite spawning place for fish). The Northeast United States, "upstream" of the central gyre, has currents that keep most of the locally generated marine debris local. Usually the only ways to escape this constant circular pattern is if the plastic decays enough to sink, or lands onshore to be (hopefully) picked up by a passer-by.
And apparently, the ocean isn't large enough to avoid marine life encounters with debris. Plastic's devastating effect on marine mammals was first observed in the late 1970s, when scientists from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory concluded that plastic entanglement was killing up to 40,000 seals a year. Annually, this amounted to a four to six percent drop in seal population beginning in 1976. In 30 years, a 50% decline in Northern Fur Seals has been reported.
Elephant seal entangled in fishing line. Photo by John Domont.
Courtesy of the Center for Marine Conservation.

These curious, playful seals would often play with fragments of plastic netting or packing straps, catching their necks in the webbing. The plastic harness can constrict the seal's movements, killing the seal through starvation, exhaustion, or infection from deep wounds caused by the tightening material. While diving for food, both seals and whales can get caught in translucent nets and drown. In the fall of 1982, a humpback whale tangled in 50 to 100 feet of net washed up on a Cape Cod beach. It was starving and its ribs were showing. It died within a couple of hours.
Along Florida's coasts, brown pelicans diving for fish sometimes dive for the bait on a fisherman's line. Cutting the bird loose only makes the problem worse, as the pelican gets its wings and feet tangled in the line, or gets snagged onto a tree.
Plastic soda rings, "baggies," styrofoam particles and plastic pellets are often mistaken by sea turtles as authentic food. Clogging their intestines, and missing out on vital nutrients, the turtles starve to death. Seabirds undergo a similar ordeal, mistaking the pellets for fish eggs, small crab and other prey, sometimes even feeding the pellets to their young. Despite the fact that only 0.05% of plastic pieces from surface waters are pellets, they comprise about 70% of the plastic eaten by seabirds. These small plastic particles have been found in the stomachs of 63 of the world's approximately 250 species of seabirds.
Wildlife is not the only area to suffer from the effects of marine debris. Plastic bags are the leading external cause of marine engine damage in Massachusetts. Other plastic items foul propellers and interfere with fishing tackle.

What's being done about plastics

In 1987, a law was finally passed restricting the dumping of plastics into the ocean. The Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (MARPOL) went into effect on December 31, 1988, making it illegal for any U.S. vessel or land-based operation to dispose of plastics at sea. It is part of an international treaty, where countries representing at least half of the shipping fleet tonnage in the world agreed to Annex V of the treaty, preventing "pollution by garbage from ships." It prohibits the dumping of plastics anywhere in the ocean, and the dumping of other materials, such as paper, glass, metal, and crockery, closer to shore.
The plastics industry has also stepped in, taking measures to reclaim plastic resin pellets that often get lost during production or transport. The Society of the Plastic Industry has produced many public service ads for trade magazines, and was a strong supporter of MARPOL Annex V.
Plastics manufacturers are also investigating ways to create "degradable" plastics. Although all materials eventually break down, a plastic soda ring can take up to 400 years to biodegrade. So researchers are working with two types of degradable plastics: photodegradable and biodegradable.
Photodegradable plastics are made to become weak and brittle when exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods. At least 16 states--Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island included--have passed laws requiring six-pack holders be biodegradable (these are marked by a small diamond between the rings).
Biodegradable plastics are made with cornstarch, so bacteria and other organisms eat away at the plastic, breaking it up into smaller pieces. Neither of these methods, however, solve the problem of plastic in the oceans, since they are only broken up into smaller pieces--creating an even more dangerous situation for animals that mistake smaller plastic pieces for food.
Perhaps the most effective method right now for solving the persistent plastic problem is beach cleaning. Coastal cleanups gather volunteers to collect trash that has washed up on the beach--or has been left by beachgoers to be carried out by the surf--and removed it from the marine cycle.
The Center for Marine Conservation has been coordinating coastal cleanups since 1986. (The first nationwide cleanup took place in 1988, just four months before the MARPOL treaty took effect. Canada and Mexico joined in on the act in 1989.) The CMC also keeps careful track of all the debris that is collected. Data cards list 85 debris items in eight categories: plastic, styrofoam, glass, rubber, metal, paper, wood and cloth. During the 1993 coastal cleanup, over 3.1 million pounds of trash was collected--more than half of that was plastic.
The CMC also divides their data into debris found, listing the "dirty dozen"--twelve items found most frequently:

    1) cigarette butts 2) paper pieces 3) plastic pieces 4) styrofoam 5) glass pieces 6) plastic food bags 7) plastic caps and lids 8) metal beverage cans 9) plastic straws 10) glass beverage bottles 11) plastic beverage bottles 12) styrofoam cups
Debris that can be traced to recreational fishing and boating, galley-type wastes, and cruise ship debris all declined in 1993--perhaps a glimmer of hope resulting from the MARPOL treaty. The laws, enforced by the Coast Guard in the United States, are difficult to monitor. Instead, they rely heavily on an educational campaign, bringing about "voluntary compliance through awareness."
There is still much debris floating around our seas and endangering marine animals. But as more laws are passed, and as more people become involved in projects like beach clean-ups, perhaps the only plastic will be in our supermarkets.

What you can do

1) Look for alternative materials or avoid excessive packaging when deciding on purchases. Use paper bags, milk and juice in cardboard, and cloth diapers. Insist on paper bags and glass bottles.
2) Recycle. Many communities currently offer pick-up recycling programs for #1 and #2 plastics. Other forms of plastic may be accepted by a local recycling business. If your community doesn't have a recycling program, contact your city or town hall to request one.
3) Educate others about the problem of marine debris, enhancing "voluntary compliance through awareness."
4) Get involved. Locate or start a coastal cleanup in your area.

For Further Reading:
    Campbell, Lee Anne. "Plastics Are Forever." Nor'easter. Fall 1989. Weisskopf, Michael. "Plastic reaps a grim harvest in the oceans of the world." Smithsonian. March 1988. R. Jude Wilber. "Plastic in the North Atlantic." Oceanus. Fall 1987. O'Hara, Kathryn J., Suzanne Iudicello, and Rose Bierce. "A Citizens Guide to Plastics in the Ocean: More Than a Litter Problem." Washington, D.C.: Center for Marine Conservation, 1988.

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  • Monday, January 17, 2011


    This beautiful dragonfly is the same blue as agapanthus when in flight. I have a small pond with two koi, which is surrounded by mini agapanthus and the dragonfly loves it there. It is a delight to see it visit this part of the garden which was created to be a very peaceful nook for contemplation..... Luckily it can be observed from the deck above too.

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    Herbs for bees

    Most of us have probably not spent too much time observing insect life. Since I have been alerted to the bee crisis in the world, I have taken the trouble to observe more, which plants seem to attract bees. Here are some of them:
    The bees were working hard in the lavender this morning. Makes me want to plant even more!
    Chicory flowers are very popular with bees. I let my chicory self seed and it comes up all over the place. The leaves would not be too popular with most people because of their bitterness, but a small amount added to a salad really makes the salad much more interesting, and is good for the liver at the same time.
    Evening primrose

    Evening primrose flowers are absolutely loaded with pollen, and attract night flying insects more than those that fly in the day, because they bloom at night. But this morning I took this picture as the bloom was starting to fade. Exquisite! Other herbs that attract bees are thyme, basil, clary sage and sage, marjoram, oregano, melissa and many of the mints. There are many more, but this is a start! 

    Friday, January 7, 2011

    Oats and sunflower seed loaf

    After the intensity of my last posting, here is some light relief in the form of a new recipe I developed for a loaf that turned out to be moist, of lovely texture and healthy, especially for those with high cholesterol.

    Oat and Sunflower Seed Loaf

    Baking bread is an intensly satisfying and grounding activity. It has (in my view) another element to it, and that is liberating one from the monopoly of bread providers in general, and taking a step towards independence. So many of the world's practices involve one's dependence and it is extremely difficult to break away from many of them. Apart from that, most commercial bread is full of additives which are blatantly unhealthy for one. Even the "healthiest" seed loaves are loaded with chemicals. Bread is such an important food for busy households, but is the source of daily toxins for the majority of growing children.

    I prefer to buy food where there is no label to read. If it needs a label ( such as baked goods), I rather make my own. This bread's "label" only has a few ingredients, and they are all recognisable.


    One and a half cups of (organic) oats soaked in 2 cups of boiling water until the mixture is cool
    1 kg stone ground brown flour
    Half a cup of (organic) sunflower seeds
    1 sachet instant yeast
    2 teaspoons sea salt ( I use Khoisan)
    1 free range egg
    One and a half cups of luke warm water.
    2 tablespoons olive oil


    Place the flour and sunflower seeds in a mixing bowl and add the salt and dried yeast. Mix thoroughly. Make a well in the centre, and add the cooled oats, egg, olive oil and water. Sometimes one needs a bit more water depending on the flour used, but only add a little at a time. Mix well into a nice dough. (I use a machine to do this and knead for 5 minutes). If you knead by hand, you will have to knead for quite a while until your dough has an even distribution of small bubbles in it, and is no longer sticky, but smooth and elastic. Allow the dough to rise for at least an hour in a warm place, or until it has risen to double its size.

    Punch the dough down and knead it briefly. Divide it into two and shape it into loaves. You can either place the shaped loaves on a baking tray lined with baking paper or in baking pans which have been greased. I have two non stick baking tins and I merely flour the loaves very well, and don't need to grease the tins.

    Allow the loaves to rise again until about double in size and bake in a very hot oven  200 deg c for about 30 - 35 minutes.

    PS. I add the egg and olive oil because I find it improves the texture. The bread keeps very well for a week wrapped in a cloth. You can also keep it in the fridge. I freeze one loaf so that I don't have to bake every week. ENJOY!