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October 25 2012 5 25 /10 /October /2012 14:28




Every now and again we hear reference to a mysterious figure known as Pope Joan. Her dates are contested: some suggest that she reigned from 853-855, but others suggest that she reigned  in 1199 for two years. Joan was said to have been a very scholarly woman of English origin who disguised herself  as a male to avail herself of the educational opportunities available to men but not women. She was said to have been an enormously successful scholar who succeeded in becoming a great teacher at Rome and was elevated to the papacy, only to be found out when she went into labour in public, whereupon she was executed by an irate mob. Most scholars now regard this story as a myth, but what is the truth behind it? We can never have certainty in history, but what is the weight of the evidence.


Firstly, popes send out streams of letters and edicts, but there are none in the name of this pope,. She is said to have taken the name John Angelicus, and is sometimes confused with John V111. There was an a slightly later  pope of that name who was renowned as the pope who led the papal ffleet to battle against the attacking Muslims. This story forms no part of the Pope Joan tale. Some think that she might have been John  V11, but this misdates her more fully.Secondly, if she reigned from 853-855, she would have clashed with the eastern patriarch Photius, who detested the papacy and considered himself superior to the Popes. Were the pope to have proved an imposter, Photius and his supporters would have given maximum publicity to it in the writings of the Orthodox  church. But there is no mention of the story.


Anastasius the librarian, writing about the time that Pope Joan was said to have existed, is said to have mentioned her in his chonicles, but it is noteworthy that not all copies of this chronicle mention her, the only ones being later versions. Some might suggest that Anastasius' writings were edited to delete mention of Pope Joan, but there is no evidence of deletion in any of the copies.


One  mention of Pope Joan comes in the writings of Martin Polonus, a Vatican official who died in 1278, who wrote a historical chronicle which mentions Pope Joan. However, not all copies of Martin's works contain mention of Pope Joan. Furthermore, the copies that do seem to change in style when they mention her. Mention of her  reign is in a handwriting distinct from the rest of the chronicle and seems to have been clumsily inserted in a space at the bottom of a page. An earlier mention of Pope Joan comes in the writings of Marinanus Scotus, 1028-1980, but not all copies of his manuscripts contain the story. Again we are looking a problem common with mediaeval writings, insertion of later material into an earlier document


There is also the problem of dating. Leo 1V died in 847, to be succeeded three months later by Benedict III. There seems to  have been no space for the reign of Pope Joan, although devotees still argue that the dates were adjusted in the manuscripts. Hincmar of Rheims tells of how an emissary sent to Leo learned on the way to Rome that the Pope had died and then on his arrival presented his letter to Benedict III. There is no  room for Pope Joan here.


there are some legends to be dispensed with. VAtican processions do not go down a certain street in Rome, which is said to be because it was where the female pope was found out. A better explanation is the more prosaic one that it is too narrow. Similarly there is the story that the pope at his consecration sits on a chair with a  hole in it so that his maleness can be proved  by a cardinal who feels underneath. This is a myth.


A more credible account of Pope Joan comes in the writings of Rosemary and Daniel Pardoe: The Female Pope, the Mystery of Pope Joan, who argue that a more plausible date is between 1086 and 1108, when there were several anti-popes elected in the generally confused situation at the time. An anti-pope who may have been a disguised female cannot be ruled out, but there would need to be some evidence of it, which there is not. Onofio Panvinio, a sixteenth century Italian historian, suggests that the legend may have arisen in relation to the utterly corrupt court of Pope John X!!, [955-964]who had several mistresses, one of whom was a lady called Joan, who was apparently very influential. She d a very influential assistant, Sister Pascalina, who was sometimes nicknames the she-pope.


There seems to be no room for a genuine Pope Joan, but there is sometimes truth behind a legend. It may have been the case that a senior Vatican official was actually a disguised woman and was eventually found out. It is also a sad case that some people have the sex organs of both sexes to a greater or lesser degree, though true hermaphrodites are rare. Most of these people are more one than the other, though they are generally infertile, so the story of Pope Joan giving birth would not be credible if this was the case. Was there a senior figure who was one such person.


I do not think that there was a real Pope Joan. But the issue has no bearing on whether or not there should be women priests. I believe that women should be allowed to be ordained as priests and even bishops, and if this is so there could in theory one day be a woman pope. There probably will be, but I don't think that it will be in my lifetime




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October 3 2012 4 03 /10 /October /2012 19:31




Recently a fragment of papyrus was presented to a conference in Rome, in which Jesus is reported as speaking about his wife. The fragment, written in Coptic, the language of ancient Egypt, is small and hard to read. Elsewhere in the fragment the name Mary is mentioned, but that could refer to either Mary Magdalene or Jesus' mother. So is this evidence that Jesus was married? Karen King, who presented it, does not think that it is evidence, as she believes that it is a late composition, probably from the fourth century, so it is not a document from Jesus' time.


The fragment itself is limited as evidence? Is it genuine? Probably not. Professor Francis Watson of Durham University thinks that it is a modern forgery. His grounds for thinking this are that the text seems to be taken from a variety of early Christian documents, one of which is the gospel of Thomas, an early text. Furthermore, he detects a line break at exactly where a line break occurs in a modern copy of the Gospel of Thomas. For this reason he believes that the text  is forged, though he is yet to be fully certain.[Catholic Herald  28Sept 2012]


Yet the issue of Jesus' marriage will not go away. Occasionally we hear talk of Jesus' being wed to Mary Magdalene. What is the evidence in favour of this claim? John's Gospel tells of how when Mary met him after the resurrection she made as if to touch him, which suggests that she was used to physical  familiarity with Jesus, [John 20:18.] The Gnostic gospel of Philip, a late text not deriving from Jesus' time, speaks of Mary as enjoying physical intimacy with Jesus, often kissing him on the lips. [The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, Weidenfield and Nicholson 1979, p64.] This gospel is familar to us through the Nag Hammadi texts, a collection of papyrus documents and fragments found in Egypt. It dates from the third century A.D, so it is not as old as the four canonical gospels. This text has been criticised on the grounds that the Gnostics were promoting Mary as a rival to the apostles, and thus grounding their teachings in the testimony of one closer to Jesus than they were. Clearly, as the church was basing its testimony on the witness of the closest companions of Jesus, a good polemical tactic was to find the testimony of someone closer than they were.


There is also the fact that Jesus was often called rabbi by those who addressed him, and it is the case that Jewish rabbis are supposed to be married. In this case Jesus should have been married to someone, probably from an early age, otherwise he could not have qualified as a rabbi.


On the other hand, the evidence against is strong. The earliest Christian writings are the letters of Paul, and later on the synoptic gospels. They never mention Jesus'  having had a wife. The oral tradition of the Christian community never speaks of Jesus as being married. Talk of his marriage comes from quite late. The tradition that he married Mary Magdalene and went to live in Gaul, modern France, is a mediaeval legend intended to prove that the ruling dynasty of France, then the Merovingians,  were descended from Jesus and therefore had special legitimacy. Serious scholars discount it.


Furthermore, it is quite possible that Jesus had a close relationship with the Qumran community of the Dead Sea scrolls. Consider, he was a rabbi, but he does not seem to have attended an orthodox rabbinical school,  so he may have studied at a less orthodox Jewish site, such as Qumran. At Qumran there was a tradition of celibacy for the spiritual elite, those who could handle it. Thus it is possible that if Jesus had been a member of the Qumran community and part of its spiritual elite, he  was a celibate.Certainly, if he was married there is no mention of his having had any children.


The gospels speak of Mary Magdalene belonging to a group of woman who provided for Jesus from their personal wealth and ministered to him. This is significant, as if Jesus was married to Mary, she and her wealth would have legally become his property, but the gospel speaks of it as hers, [Luke 8:1-3.]Certainly they do not identify her as anything other than a member of Jesus' personal band of friends.


Ultimately, we can never have certainty about the past. The weight of evidence seems to favour the earliest texts, which are the canonical gospels, and these do not provide any evidence of Jesus' marriage Thus it is unlikely that Jesus was married, but there remains a theoretical possibility that he was.







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September 8 2012 7 08 /09 /September /2012 19:30



Every year those of us living in temperate climates experience the Autumn fall, and it gives us a great soil improver for the garden. How can gardeners use leaves to help them enrich their soil?


Firstly, leaves decay differently from plant remains. When you compost plant debris it breaks down primarily by bacterial action; however, leaves decay more slowly and do so by by fungal action. You should therefore not include leaves and plant debris in the same composter. You want separate bins for your compost and leaf mould. Leaf mould is also slower to make than compost is. In a few weeks a hot compost heap can have provided some quite good compost, but the leaves will take a few months to decay. Some leaves take longer than others do. Certainly sycamore leaves take more time than most.


You can simply use leaves as a mulch. If you have a fruit tree, you can spread leaves around its base. Spread them in a thick layer to ensure that none of the ground is showing, but do not have them massed against the bark, as mice may hide in the leaves and nibble the bark. With a young tree a spiral guard is useful to protect the bark. Wet the leaves  thoroughly after laying them down, so that they will be less prone to blow away. Eventually the leaves will break down, but they will have added some useful organic material to the soil. However, they are not a great source of plant food, but they are a good weed preventer. They do not prevent weeds indefinitely, for as they decay strong weeds will force their way through. But this does not prevent the mulch from being useful.


If you are making a  leaf mould bin, you can make it in the same way as a compost bin. I made one out of canes, wire and string. I lashed it all together very firmly, and it survived some quite horrific winds one winter. It should be exposed to the elements,as water is an important factor in fungal decay.  Of course, you do not need to make a bin. You can simply use black plastic bags. Fill them with leaves, tie a knot in the top, but then the knack is to press down the middle to make a dent.This allows rainwater to accumulate and drip down onto the leaves, giving them the water that the decay process needs.


It  is the leaves of deciduous trees that you should use, as they are the ones that naturally drop. Green leaves are richer in nutrients than those that go brown before they drop. Ash leaves are ideal, as they drop when green. Beech leaves are brown before they drop and provide very little nourishment to the soil.


Leaf mould is a good soil improver. It is not sufficient on its own, as you need manure and compost as well. but it is a part of a gardener's arsenal

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August 30 2012 5 30 /08 /August /2012 19:20



Well, summer is officially over, and it is time to tidy up the allotment. It has been a good year for weeds. The rain has often kept us indoors and the weeds have taken their chance. That's what a weed is: a plant growing where you do not want it. It is biologically no different from the plants that we grow in our gardens. There is no special biological category  for weeds.


Many weeds are edible and were eaten as part of the ancient diet right up to the modern period. Some foragers stil eat them. Some are plants that were once in favour and have been abandoned. Take ground elder. This was introduced by the Romans and for many years was a staple part of the British vegetable diet. It has a taste of parsley, but has now been abandoned and is simply seen as an invasive weed of gardens. Fat hen and good King Henry [to be distinguished, please, from bad Henry, a very poisonous woodland plant, also known as dog's mercury] were both eaten as part of the stone age diet. They are often found growing in hedges throughout the British Isles. Jack by the Hedge is known as garlic mustard and was once widely eaten. Young netttles are full of mineral salts and if added to a stew  or soup quickly lose their sting in the cooking and are extremely edible. You will not need to add salt to a soup or stew in which you have added nettles. A good book on edible plants will tell you what you can and cannot eat, and it is a good idea to obtain one and familiarise yourself before you go foraging. It is important even for experienced foragers to take care and be sure on identification before they pick.


Yet weeds are useful in other ways. Take an example. I picked my onions, which were large and plentiful, then went off for a week in Grasmere. When I returned the weeds had taken over the onion patch. What should I do? Pull every one? Not at all. I am not using that bed over winter, so I am going to leave them. They will make good ground cover before I put the plot to bed for winter by putting tarpaulins over it. As ground cover they protect the soil from damage by heavy rain and ensure that nutrients in the soil are retained in the plants' cells rather than washed away. I can compost the weeds  and this way retain the nutrients.The roots of the weeds penetrate the soil during the winter period and help to maintain its structure, as they create passages fore air to circulate. Nettles have deep roots which delve down into the soil to bring to the surface nutrients that most other roots cannot reach. Hence composting your nettles brings minerals into the compost.


Gail Harland, writing in the Weeder's Digest, speaks of beneficial weeds, which are broad leaved plants that do not compete with crops. She cites studies that show that Brussels sprouts growing among weedds had fewer aphids than thsoe growing in bare soil [p30.] Some weeds, such as crow garlic, if grown near carrots confuse the carrot root fly with their powerful scent. This protects the carrots. Some weeds provide cover for ground beetles that can prey on insects harmful to the crop.


There is a happy medium to be struck. Eliminating every weed is impossible, and trying to do so loses some useful plants; on the other hand you cannot let them grow wild. Some weeds, for example Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam and giant hogweed have to be eliminated, and nettles make a painful presence on any plot. Bindweed strangles other plants. All of these have to be eliminated. On the other hand ground elder makes a perfectly pleasant contribution to your salad, as do dandelion leaves. Just make sure that you don't pick the wrong types of weeds. As I said, a good guidebook  is very useful, indeed essential if you are inexperienced.



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August 14 2012 3 14 /08 /August /2012 17:19




The book of Acts, written sometime between 70 and 80 A.D. records Jesus' ascension into heaven. After he had departed two men in white, angels we suppose, told the apostles that Jesus would return in the same way. Since then Christians have expected the return of Christ, but they do it with varying degrees of expectancy. Some think that it will be soon, others do not, and the rest, the group in which I find myself, don't know and don't speculate. Indeed, the date of the second coming becomes less relevant as one grows older. As I point out to various fervent people who come to my door asking whether I believe in the end of the world, I am sixty two now, so unless the return of Christ/end of the world  happens in the next thirty years or so, I am not bothered.


Most of those who speculate about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ overlook one saying of Jesus just before he ascended, "It is not for you to know the times and seasons that the Father has appointed by his own authority." [Acts 1:7] Yet this has not stopped Christians seeking clues. St Paul speculated about the return of Christ in 1Thessalonians 4:13-18, when he imagined that this would be a dramatic event when the saints would be taken up to meet Christ in the upper air. Paul was imagining the scene in terms of Jewish eschatological expectation. [Eschatology is the theology of the last things: death, judgment, hell and heaven.] It is this image that has given rise to the belief held by certain Protestant/evangelical groups that there will be a rapture, when the saints will be taken to Christ and the unsaved left for a period, during which there will be tribulations, after which some of those remaining will be saved.  Belief in the rapture is found among biblical literalists, but those who see the Bible as containing some symbolic elements, are not as likely to take up this belief. I am not a biblical  literalist, so I do not commit myself to belief in the rapture. But I do not deny it.


Others pore over the Book of Revelations, sometimes known as the Apocalypse, looking for clues as to the end. The trouble is that this book was written in deeply symbolic language dealing with the major problems faced by the church in its time.The infamous term 666 is a code for the Roman emperor. Certainly the writer expected that the vicious persecution being suffered by the church in his time would presage an imminent return of Christ, but this did not happen, and soon Christians were beginning to realise that the long yearned-for  return would not be soon.


Some people imagined that there would be a millenium before the end of the world, in which Christ would rule a wonderful earth of all the saved. But even this is the subject of disagreement. Premillenialists believe that it has not happened yet; post millenialists believe that it has already ocurred in the church; and the two are at loggerheads. It must be said that this conflict is within the evangelical movement, as it has not raised its head in Catholicism or Orthodoxy.


At times throughout history people have tried to discover the Bible code that will reveal the dates of the return of Christ, but no such code has been found, as it does not exist. As we recall, Jesus said that we were not to know the times and dates, so why would God have included them in a code? Predictions of the date of the second coming of Christ have always failed, so it seems that attempts to decode the book of Revelations always fail.


Jesus said that there would be wars and rumours of wars before the end, but when has there been an age without war? Christians would be persecuted before Christ returns, but there has rarely been a historical period when this is not happening. Today Christians are the world's most persecuted group, but this is not new.So nothing can be concluded about the second coming of Christ from the state of affairs at present


What is the wisest path for a Christan? It is to accept that Jesus will come again, but that we do not when or how. We must in the meantime go on working and living well, aware that our personal death is more likely to be before the return of Christ than not. I will finish on a personal anecdote. In 1991 I was awaiting my year seven class one morning when some children burst in very excited. They had heard that the world was going to end at 9:20 a.m, a man on the television had said so. My response was "It is either is going to end, or it isn't. If it doesn't end, you will need your exams; and if it does, this is Religious Education, so you will be needing it in twenty minutes. So either way, let's get working."




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August 9 2012 5 09 /08 /August /2012 10:59




Worms are often regarded as a gardener's friend, as they break up and aerate the soil. However, there are different kinds of worms. The earthworm that you might see wriggling when you dig up a clod of earth is very different from the worms that you find in compost or manure heaps. There are a few kinds of these worms, but very common are brandlings. These are notable by the fact that you can see delicate stripes on them, as you can see in the picture above. They are biologically adapted to the warmth of manure/compost heaps and cannot live in the cooler soil, so when you see a TV gardening presenter casually chucking a worm from his/her compost heap onto the garden, he is doing it no favours.


Compost worms can be found in any compost bin or heap, but there are specific worm composters available that can be ourchased. The simplest can be a bin with holes drilled for the worm liquid, but there are more complicated ones.


The advantage of a worm composter is that it is enclosed to stop the worms escaping, and therefore it can be used to digest cooked food [not meat.] which in an open compost heap would attract rats. Worm compost is very rich and benefits the garden enormously. So the gardener would be advised to have a worm composter. But it is so rich that it is applied sparingly rather than in great piles.


The basic design of all worm composters is to have a space at the bottom for the liquid that the worms excrete to be collected. This is drained away by means of a tap. It smells vile, but it is incredibly rich. You mix it in water at about ten to one or less and  spread it around the allotment/garden. Spread it widely.


All worm composters have an area just above the liquid reservoir that contains inert substances for the worms to be safe in. You can use shredded paper, dried leaves or straw. Worms detest acidity and so do not use peat or anything that is acidic.


Start adding food in small quantities just above the safe area. Sometimes mix a little lime in to make the material sweet, as this counters acidity in the food. When the bin is full to the top, you will find the worms in the top section, extract them to another bin set up in the same way as the first one then begin the process again. Spread the worm compost onto your garden. Remember that as it is so rich you cannot simply fill a pot with it and use it instead of soil. It is a soil.  Some gardeners collect the worm eggs for reuse, but they are small and hard to find.


A worm composter is a valuable addition to any allotment or garden. They are commercially available, but it is possible to make one.

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July 16 2012 2 16 /07 /July /2012 12:13



The issue of GM crops [genetically modified] has sprung up again after several years of quietness. One side tells us that these crops can feed the world and produce untold benefits; the other says that they are monstrous and should not be permitted. Who is right?


Humans have been genetically modifying crops for millenia through the process of breeding, in which crops with desired characteristics are selected and bred together, while others are discarded to become either extinct or rare varieties. The difference between this traditional breeding method is that scientists can now take a gene from one species and insert it into another to produce what they believe is a very desirable outcome. Objectors made the valid point that all these crops ahad been tested only in the laboratory, but field trials on how they fared in the broader ecological system were lacking, so we could not know of any unpredicted consequences that might arise when they were sown.


So what is the problem? Genetic modification is neither right nor wrong in itself. It is to be evaluated by the assessment of its consequences for humans and the environment as a whole.Take a recently proposed crop, which is under trial. Scientists are trying to insert a gene into cereals that enables their roots to produce the nodules that fix nitrogen into the soil. This can have great benefits for cereal growers, as they will not need as much expensive nitrogen fertiliser  to add to their soil, saving them much cash. Objections might be that there could be unpredictable consequences that will arise later when these crops are grown. But there might not be. Living on fear of change is not an acceptable way to operate.


Yet we must also be wary.Scientists are human and make mistakes. They work for research firms that have a vested interest in their products success, and so scientists can be under financial pressures to conceal embarrassing data. It is very easy for humans to let their financial interests sway their judgment.


Perhaps the issue is not that crops are genetically modified, as there can be beneficial and harmful genetic modifications, but the overall game that is being played by the GM producers. A few years ago crops were being modified to be resistant to herbicides and pesticides  produced by certain companies. These were broad spectrum poisons that killed indiscriminately, creating ecological deserts in which only monocultures were growing. They overlooked the organic principle that the soil is a living reailty, a vastly intricate eco-system which sustains itself. They killed friendly and unfriendly creatures alike. Bees were subject to poisonous intereference in their immune systems, jeopardising their vital role in pollination. This sort of GM modification was performed in the interests of companies with no respect for the environment.It was and is destructive of the eco-system on which all life depends.


There are further issues. For millenia farmers have saved seeds, but GM companies have tried to establish a seed monopoly, despite the efforts of ecological campaigners, such as Vandana Shiva, to prevent them. The aim seems to be to control the sale of GM seeds to farmers, making them buy new seed every year rather than produce their own. Effectively this is serfdom.


There are other problems, notably the problem of resistance. Take for example the Greenhouse Whitefly, Trialeurodes vaporarium. In parts of Britain this has become resistant to pesticides and now is very difficult to control by chemical means. Farmers speak of the spread of super weeds, which have become resistant to the herbicides produced by the seed companies. These are the unpredictable consequences which the envrionmentalists fear.


The problem may not be GM crops themselves, but the game that people play with them. I am using the word game in the philosophical sense of a pattern of activities with a purpose. Maybe there is some good that can be accrued from GM crops, but can we trust the GM companies to work in the interests of environemnt and people at alrge rather than their own profits. I very much doubt it. It is not that we should not trust scientists, but that we should repose unqualified trust in no one, business people, scientists, governments and eco-campaigners alike . None has a monopoly on wisdom, we must all realize that we have much of it to seek and that we rarely find it when pursuing our narrow financial interests.  We must tread carefully in this matter.



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June 6 2012 4 06 /06 /June /2012 18:41



Last year I read an advertisement for an American pest control company. which offered to elimnate bumble bees. The bees, which they classed as a kind of giant moth, what a mistake, were presented as pests. Are these people for real?These bees are not pests, not moths and are some of the most effective pollinators around. In fact, they are said to be pollinators one hundred times as effective as honey bees. If we humans want out plants pollinated, we can do no better than encourage and protect the many species of bumble bees. They are the large, fat,  fuzzy bees that hover round our plants. It is important to say that they have no sting and that there is nothing that they can do to harm a human. To encourage them we can purchase ready made bumble bee hotels, nests of tubes, or we can make them ourselves. On my allotment I found a group of them were nesting under an old pallet, and I got massive fruit set that year, as they returned my hospitality by pollinating my fruit trees.


Ladybirds are very useful, as they eat aphids. They are lethal predators, but to humans they create no threat at all. There is no need to create special habitat for them. They seem good at finding their own.


Encouraging birds is important. Blue tits can be encouraged by providing nesting boxes to be nailed to trees. They repay your kindness by eating sawfly and codling moths, whose larvae can ruin your fruits. A small box with a bit of straw and hole for entering and leaving is all they need. The hole should be large enough for them and too small for predators.


Slugs and snails are major enemies, and here is where frogs and toads come in. A small pond containing frogs is ideal. Be clear, though, frogs do not spend their day in water. They hide in undergrowth and only go to water to mate. I have found frogs as I have been turning my compost heap, where they have been feeding on insects. Frogs and toads feast on slugs and snails. To keep them ensure that you get a pond and find some frogspawn and place it in the pond. This is because frogs and toads return to to mate in the pond in which they were born . So unless you do this they will wander. Your pond should contain some vegetation and be deep enough to protect them from marauding herons, of which there are plenty in the area where I live, near the Mersey and the Bridgewater and Manchester Ship Canals.


Hedgehogs are a great friend to gardeners. They are nocturnal and eat slugs at night when they are at their most active. Au untidy corner with a pile of leaves near some trees, or a hedge are the ideal places for them to nest. It is, however, difficult to attract them to your garden. They have to be in the vicinity and at least one must be seeking a territory.


A garden is your private space, a place for life, but need this life just be plants. There is room for freindly mammals, amphibians, insects and birds in the garden.



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May 19 2012 7 19 /05 /May /2012 19:35



Weed is not a biological classification. It merely denotes a plant that humans do not want where it is growing. Some weeds were once used as food plants. Here I am going to identify weeds common in urban situations which may be legally picked and safely eaten. It is important to recognize that law affects foraging. You may not pull up a wild plant by its roots except on your own land. Hence burdock, which is a good edible root, is not included in this list of edible weeds. You must also beware of misidentification, hence I have avoided cow parsley, as it might be misidentified with poisonous species by inexperienced foragers. Never pick a plant to eat unless you are sure that it is the one you think it is, and have a good field guide to check any  identification, if necessary. also you are legally obliged to gain permission if you venture to forage upon someone's land.


Some weeds are widespread on gardens and allotments. The commonest garden weed is dandelion. All parts except the stem may be eaten. The flowers and leaves can go into salads, and the roots, are edible.  They used to be ground and used as a coffee substitute, but this seems to be out of fashion at the moment. Nettle is edible. Nettles have deep roots that mine minerals from the subsoil, and they are very nutritious. Only pick the top, young leaves early in the year, when the levels of oxalic acid are not high. Add them to stews. The sting disappears during boiling, but beware, they are very salty, so the stew might not need added salt. Found also in many gardens is ground elder. This was introduced as a salad vegetable by the Romans, and was used until parsley replaced it. It is still useful as  a salad ingredient, and it is said to taste somewhat of parsley.


Chickweed and shepherd's purse are common in gardens. They are small, flimsy plants that seem to offer little nutrient, but they are edible and can be fried. The Chinese stir fry shepherd's purse. They take a couple of minutes in a frying pan or wok.


Dock is a member of the cabbage family and some people eat it. I have eaten it but regard it as famine food. It takes a long time to cook and is not particularly good, though some people eat young dock in dock and nettle pudding, which is eaten early in spring, when the plants are still tender and young.


Fat Hen and Good King Henry are widespread hedge weeds growing all over Britain. Along with their relatives, the Oraches, they used to be widely eaten and still make good salad ingredients.


Foraging is an interesting activity and an entertaining way of adding to your diet, and if you are interested there are plenty of books on the subject. Richard Mabey's Food for free is excellent, and River Cottage publish the River Cottage Handbook series, which is excellent, as you would expect from River Cottage

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May 9 2012 4 09 /05 /May /2012 10:18






Currently I am responsible for teaching horticulture to special needs children in a special school, and part of my task is to advise non-specialists who teach it as one element in their teaching load. One of them recently came to me with a request for ideas for his year 8 class. Something interesting, perhaps. I suggested a three sisters bed.


Native American women used to garden while their menfolk hunted, and they early on discovered the merits of companion planting. This is opposed to the system in which each bed is a monoculture that is rotated round over the years. You plant more than one species of vegetable in the bed, putting together plants that can support each other in some way. This is a method becoming more popular with the organic movement and with Permaculturalists, who prefer to grow plants together rather than in discrete beds.


The Native American women grew beans of various kinds, but they knew that bean stalks needed supporting, so they grew them alongside maize, which we know as sweetcorn, so that the strong maize stems would support the beans. However, women dislike weeding as much as men do. and they knew that between the tall stems weeds would spring up, so they planted pumpkins as low growing ground cover. Their broad size and wide-spread leaves shaded out the weeds. This is an example of companion planting in which the plants are in symbiosis.


To make it effective you neeed to space the seeds out, and it may be a good idea to propagate in pots. Leave enough space for the pumpkins [squash will suffice just as well. It is a good idea to give the pumpkins a start ahead of the taller plants, as their young seedlings might otherwise be shaded out. The beans should go in slightly after the maize has developed. This is because maize, especially in colder climates, requires a longer time to grow, and so that the beans will have something to support them. Remember that beans cannot stand frost, so plant only after the last frosts are over, which in Britain should be May at the earliest.


It is advisable to plant maize in blocks, rather than rows, as this aids pollination. This is because maize is wind pollinated, as you can tell from its small flower, so in a block it has  a better chance of spreading polen around than in a row, where the pollen of the plants at the end of the row is just blown away. In Britian gardeners often shield maize[ sweetcorn] to protect it from winds, and they do this with fabric screens.


This kind of bed, however, is greedy for food, so it takes much manure and compost to get a decent crop. Be unsparing with the applicaton of these important substances. Before you plant apply them as  abse dressing, and during planting be ready to apply fertiliser on a regular basis. Remember, pumpkins can grow huge and so need masses of food and much water.

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Published by frankbeswick - in Garden & exterior
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