Year of Grace, Day 22. Fun guys

I am trying to ignore the horrendous ruckus caused by all sorts of construction work and machinery going on outdoors. It’s now the second phase of renovation work on the main pipe carrying Bonn’s drinking water from the mountains. The first phase lasted for months in the spring. Can I find it in myself to be grateful for this day? I can only give it a try.

Thanks to the new pipe, I can be assured that my water supply meets hygienic and environmental standards. Many old houses in Bonn, more than a few dating to the 1800s, have lead or copper pipes. Residents prefer not to risk being poisoned and drink bottled mineral water instead. The house where I live is of more recent build and I find water straight off the tap quite good tasting. There is no lingering chemical smell or any kind of unpleasant smell at all. And, surprisingly, it actually tastes sweet. So yes, I can ignore the dust and the noise – I just close all the windows and not too much gets through the triple glazing. And I can thank the local Water Board that they are looking after our water as best they can.

Speaking of water, it is raining gently this morning – the kind of slow, prolonged watering that plants love. I am filled with grateful praise because I have some new plantings that would appreciate this. One plant in particular is intended to combat goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria). Goutweed, also known as Snow-in-the-Mountain, has been used as a shade plant, or as groundcover where nothing else will grow. It is exceedingly aggressive and is such a thug when it gets near other plants. It is notorious for being almost impossible to eradicate, even with chemicals, which I don’t use. I have found that its roots tightly encircle those of the roses and eventually choke them and stress them out.

This anti-goutweed plant is Tagetes minuta and is also a beloved condiment and addition to sauces in Peruvian cuisine, where it is called Huacatay. In Mexico apparently, this herb is also used as a cold remedy, as it has anti-viral effects. In the garden, aside from combating goutweed, it also deters nematodes, just like its other Tagetes cousins.

Ever since Sarah Raven, famous for her flower arrangements, discovered that a planting of Tagetes minuta cleared a plot of goutweed, she and other seed sellers in the UK have been inundated by orders, and it has become difficult to get hold of seeds, even here in Bonn. Consequently their price has also gone up. Nevertheless I am thankful to have managed to buy a packet of 10 seeds (yes, just 10!) from a group of garden enthusiasts in nearby Cologne. Fingers crossed, these seedlings will get to flowering stage and set seed before the frosts. And then I will have more to sow in spring.  Watch out, goutweeds! Your days among the roses are numbered.

Moses Pottery

The Moses pottery and workshop in the Eifel.

Further on the water theme, I am thankful for some EM porcelain beads that I received from a potter friend who crafted them himself. Michael Moses has been creating lovely pottery in the Eifel region, not far from Bonn, for decades, where he lives and works in a wonderful half-timbred house with his wife, Verena, a superb textile artist. EM stands for effective microorganisms, a mix of beneficial fungi, lactic acid bacteria, and other microorganisms developed by the Japanese microbiologist Dr. Teruo Higa.

“The concept of effective microorganisms (EM) was developed by Professor Teruo Higa, University of the Ryukyus, Okinawa, Japan…. EM consists of mixed cultures of beneficial and naturally-occurring microorganisms that can be applied as inoculants to increase the microbial diversity of soils and plant. Research has shown that the inoculation of EM cultures to the soil/plant ecosystem can improve soil quality, soil health, and the growth, yield, and quality of crops. EM contains selected species of microorganisms including predominant populations of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts and smaller numbers of photosynthetic bacteria, actinomycetes, and other types of organisms. All of these are mutually compatible with one another and can coexist in liquid culture.”(

The microorganisms in the beads, despite having gone through the ceramic firing process, have the ability to restore the original integrity of water and other fluids, as well as preventing lime build-up. So far I have been using them in flower vases. Thanks to these EM beads – I use three per vase – the water doesn’t get all fouled up. We all know how funky-smelling water in flower vases can get.

Ceramic beads impregnated with Effective Microorganisms.

Ceramic beads impregnated with effective microorganisms.

The beads are also recommended for putting into water kettles. I haven’t put any in mine yet, but I am now going to. The green tea that we drank with Michael and Verena used water that had been treated with them. The taste of the tea was extraordinary — no bitterness — as even green tea can be — and the tea as it passed into my mouth felt silky soft. So to report on the effect on my morning coffee today – though cautiously I say that perhaps what I sensed with this morning’s coffee is similar to the placebo effect. I detected a brighter note in the taste of my cup of Elan Amaro Gayo. I shall be keeping note on how subsequent cups will taste.

I might even try putting one or two in the washing machine. The EM beads are recommended anywhere that water is present — the dishwasher and even ponds. And in the latter they are claimed to do the most remarkable job of keeping the water clear. Once I have a pond, I shall be putting these EM beads to the test. In my little garden pond (2 m X 3 m, 1 m deep) in the UK, I had used small squares of straw supplied by the Ryton Organic Gardens to keep the water clear of algae, though not very successfully.

Such an interesting characteristic of symbiotic microorganisms – this ability to maintain clarity in water and to bring out the taste of my favourite coffee to best advantage this morning! I am grateful to Michael Moses for introducing Prof. Higa’s remarkable EM into ceramic beads with their functional fungi and other microorganisms.

I have always been fascinated by fungi of all kinds: edible and non-edible, beneficial and harmful alike. I am thankful that their interaction with other microorganisms can affect human as well as plant, soil and water health in mutually beneficial ways. (Btw EM has been used in Penang, Malaysia to clear slime and mud from flooding, and the horrible stench they produce.) I shall be reading more about EM and their symbiotic effects for an alternative, chemical-free way to farming and gardening. I am thankful that we have such amazing living organisms in our midst. We are only just beginning to discover what they are truly capable of. Fungi are truly fun guys. :-).

Article on Effective Microorganisms released to clear mud, slime, and unpleasant odors in Penang, Malaysia.

Article in the EM Journal on effective microorganisms released to clear mud, slime, and unpleasant odors in Penang, Malaysia.

Weeds and living with them

It’s been a while since my last post. I’d been busy with the World Cookbook as well as trying to live harmoniously with the diversity of weeds in the garden. Weeds, as my plant production professor once said, should be the first plants a gardener should get to know. The Oxford Online Dictionary defines a weed as a wild plant growing where it’s not wanted or that disturbs the growth of domesticated plants. I take the view that a weed is a plant whose beneficial uses are yet to be discovered. For readers gardening in Germany, I give the German names of these weeds, just in case you should come across them in conversation with neighbours. Take the dandelion (Löwenzahn, Taraxacum officinale), for instance — whose presence is not welcomed by those aspiring to perfect lawns. I love the cheery look they give to my backyard meadow (the ground and grass are too uneven to be called a lawn). It’s bound to become more appreciated now that its healing power has been demonstrated. An extract from its roots has been found by Canadian researchers at the University of Windsor to be effective in killing leukemia cells. DANDELIONS ON LAWN NACHTIGALLEN

Weeds are supposed to be able to tell us a lot about our soil. (However, as I was later to discover, some published information should be taken with a pinch of salt). Stinging nettles (Brennessel, Urtica dioica), ground ivy (Gundermann, Glechoma hederacea), germander speedwell (Gamander-Ehrenpreis, Veronica chamaedrys), corn chamomile or field chamomile (Acker Hundskamille, Anthemis arvensis) and buttercups (Scharfer Hahnenfuss, Ranunculus acris) can indicate nutrient-rich soils. As does red campion (Rote Lichtnelke, Silene dioica). Moist soils are apparently preferred by creeping buttercup (Kriechender Hahnenfuss, Ranunculus repens), of which my backyard has a very big population.

To deter weeds, I have opted not to use any agrochemicals. Glyphosate, which was claimed to be harmless as it breaks down once it touches the soil, has now been found in groundwater, which means that in actual fact it takes a long time to break down.  Its damaging effects, including to DNA and its association with cancer, have caused it to be banned in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. When we moved here last year, weeds had flourished unrestrained in the long-neglected garden. Stinging nettle clumps were almost 2 metres high, ivy thickly covered the tree trunks, and tangled brambles and bindweed were everywhere. A superficial clear-up was all that could be done before winter set in. As a rule I like to leave a new garden pretty much untouched throughout the first year to see what will come up. It was wonderful to have snowdrops, tulips, lady’s smock (Wiesen-Schaumkraut, Cardamine pratensis), vetch, creeping speedwell, clover, and buttercups. I thoroughly enjoyed the cheerful sight of dandelions all over the lawn. Here at the edge of the woods, a wild-flower meadow, wanted or unwanted, just happens. It was, however, more difficult to appreciate goutweed (Giersch, Aegopodium podagraria). While their white umbels set off the pink roses very well, I suspect they stressed them out.


Goutweed umbels look nice in a spring bouquet, but their thuggish manner with the rose bushes is not welcome.

The rose stems were thick with scale, their leaves pale and misshapen, and badly punctured by capsid bugs. I’ve had to cut down the ailing bushes to spare the healthier ones. I tried a weed-fighting strategy recommended by other gardeners. After digging up as much as I could of the goutweed and bindweed roots, I covered the ground with cardboard sheets, topped them with a thick mulch of grass clippings, and just left everything to disintegrate.  I left the stems of the roses free of mulch. In the past months, no goutweed has appeared. Without access to light, it’s supposed to lose its will to live. Come spring we shall see if this has really worked. Goutweed was once an anti-gout remedy, and its leaves are edible (if you haven’t sprayed them, that is). “If you can’t beat them, eat them” can be an alternative strategy. The country-life magazine Mein Schoenes Land (May/June 2012) featured a Wild Herb Strudel with a filling made from leaves of stinging nettle, goutweed, and wild garlic (Bärlauch, Allium ursinum). Young, tender, unsprayed leaves of stinging nettle and goutweed can be prepared much like spinach.

There was a low edging of flowering wild geranium or herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), that brightened the path alongside the house, but the city council slashed them, which was a pity. On the other hand, they left the stinging nettles on the opposite bank untouched. Later I was glad they did, as among the nettles I discovered corn cockle (Kornrade, Agrostemma githago), considered rare here now, cornflower (Kornblume, Centaurea cyanus, and red campion. I’ve trimmed the flowers off the stinging nettles to encourage new leaves so that certain butterflies can lay their eggs. It won’t be long now before the weeds stop active growth. This first year of living with weeds has taught me that despite the received wisdom that stinging nettles, vetch, clover, and speedwell grow on nutrient-rich soil, I realize now that the soil in this garden is so very far from rich. The wildflower seeds that I’d sown, which are supposed to do well even on poor soil, had really struggled. My soil is definitely poorer than poor. For the coming seasons, I shall have to supply the garden generously with compost.