Tag Archives: Riverford Organic

An experimental Bee House

Last year, I watched, fascinated, as Mason Bees (Osmia bicornis) made nests in tubes in a commercially produced Bug House situated in a local community garden, the Leechwell Garden. This Bug House is meant to be educational and so has been placed in a prominent position. This brings with it the risk that it will be subject to some attrition; indeed the removable tubes were tampered with both last summer and this spring and the Bug House was knocked off the wall twice during the winter.

I wanted to build another Bug House for the Leechwell Garden to be put in a less vulnerable place but it proved impossible to find a suitable position. I went ahead anyway and placed the new Bee House at the bottom of my garden which is about 100 metres from the Leechwell Garden (as the bee flies).

Experimental Bee House beginning of season
The Experimental Bee House at the beginning of the season (March 2015). I hope you can see the two vegetable boxes with the sides of the top one insulated with recycled vinyl floor covering, also the protective roof. Two cassettes with tubes are in place in the insulated top box . The garden still looks dormant although a few daffodils are visible.


My aim was that this experimental Bee House should be made from recycled materials so that it could be replicated by others at minimal cost. I looked around for suitable materials and one day as I was passing the Totnes shop of Riverford Organic, our local organic grower, I saw some vegetable boxes in the window. These looked ideal to make the body of the Bee House so I contacted them and they kindly gave me two boxes. The boxes were not fully sealed, needing insulation and rain protection, so I went to CarpetRight in Newton Abbot and they kindly gave me some samples of vinyl floor covering. I used these to insulate the sides of the new Bee House and to give it a roof. I found some logs, stones and bricks to provide ballast and stability as well as providing potential homes for insects. I sited the new Bee House so that it caught the early morning sun.

I wanted to provide tubes for the bees to nest in and had hoped to use inexpensive bamboo canes from the garden shop. Although I was able to cut up the canes, I found they were filled with soft material and unusable. I, therefore, had to buy solitary bee tubes from Wildlife World, my only outlay.

Experimental Bee House Cassette
One of the cassettes holding the bee tubes. The tubes are organised in to an old mineral water bottle and secured with a cable -tie. Four of the tubes contained mason bee nests from last year.


The tubes were organised in to cassettes. Each cassette was based on an old mineral water bottle cut down below its spout but long enough to protect the tubes. About 20 tubes were placed in to each cassette and these were secured using a cable-tie. I put out two cassettes in March, each containing four tubes with nests from last spring in order to give the new Bee House a start. A third cassette went out on May 28th when I thought the bees needed extra capacity but only two tubes were filled.

Experimental Bee House end of season
The end of season view. In two cassettes most of the tubes have been filled, in one cassette put out later two tubes were filled. Some tubes where the seal was broken have not been refilled.

After I had made the cassettes I read that plastic is a poor choice because it is not breathable but by that time it was too late to change design. Despite this, the new Bee House seemed to have functioned well and many of the tubes were filled by hard-working female bees during spring 2015. This is described in the previous post.

I once knew a man with cardoons ………..

Each week we have a vegetable box delivered to our house and back in August I got a surprise when I collected the week’s box from our front path. A large flower lay across the colourful array of carrots, lettuce, beetroot and other vegetables. I felt a little like Sophie in der Rosenkavalier but this wasn’t a rose; with its spiny stem and its rich burst of purple florets it looked like an artichoke flower. But I was wrong – a neatly printed card told me helpfully that the flower was from a cardoon.

The cardoon flower


A cardoon? I had a vague recollection that this was some kind of exotic vegetable. I looked at the flower more carefully and I could see that the head was smaller and spinier than an artichoke although the colour and shape were quite similar.

Some artichoke flowers


The card told me that the flower was a special gift and, if we wanted to nurture it, we should place it in water in a rustic glass bottle. Rustic glass bottles are in short supply here but we have a rustic-ish vase so that had to do. The purple flower did look beautiful sitting on our kitchen table and I was inspired to find out more.

The cardoon flower in its rustic-ish vase.


The cardoon originated in the Mediterranean region and is grown for its fleshy, leafy stems which feature on menus in France, Italy, Spain and North Africa. It was a popular vegetable in 19th century Britain but has long since fallen out of favour. The cardoon plant can grow to impressive heights and with its spiny, silvery-green foliage it’s worthy of a John Wyndham novel. It’s such an imposing plant that it can also be used to provide ornamental interest to a garden and with its many, showy, purple flowers it is a bee-favourite. When the cardoon is grown as a vegetable, the fleshy stems should be blanched by piling earth around them or by covering them with brown wrapping paper. This removes much of the bitterness that most varieties suffer from. Some people also recommend blanching the prepared stems by boiling in water. I believe there are new less bitter varieties available now.

Guy Watson with cardoons


Cardoons do not come high on most people’s agenda, so how did a cardoon flower find its way to our veg box? The missing link is Guy Watson, the boss of Riverford Organic who deliver our veg box. Watson is a great enthusiast and very keen to try growing forgotten or exotic vegetables. Cardoons are his latest thing and he has grown a small plot of them on his Devon farm. Our gift flower came from this plot and the vegetable has been available to buy this autumn from Riverford. Some nice publicity for his efforts came from Xanthe Clay of the Telegraph who made the pilgrimage to Devon to meet “farmer, veg-box supremo and Martin Shaw-lookalike, Guy Watson” and spent a happy time learning to prepare and cook the sinister vegetable. Xanthe was won over by Guy’s cardoons and asserted that, after removing the stringy bits and cooking until tender, the cardoon is “delicately, addictively delicious, distinctly artichoke-y” and “baked in a creamy, cheesy gratin they tasted sublime”.

Xanthe, you have convinced me. I will try some cardoons when I get a chance but I am still wondering what the relation is between the cardoon and the artichoke. Superficially, the two plants look rather similar but when you get down to the important business of eating them, they are quite different. Globe artichokes are grown for their edible immature flower heads and I can still remember my horror at being presented with an artichoke for the first time in a little restaurant in south west France. Luckily I was with a friend who knew what to do. Artichokes are an important commercial crop in Southern Europe, North Africa, California, South America and China. Cultivated cardoons, as we now know, are grown for their fleshy stems and stalks and are cultivated on a smaller scale in Northern Italy, Spain and Southern France. To complicate matters further, there is another member of the family, the wild cardoon, a smaller, spinier plant that grows in countries around the Mediterranean.

End of season artichoke flower heads


So, how did these seemingly related but actually rather different plants arise? More than twenty years ago, a scientist from the University of Madrid spent some time on this question. She examined a very large number of artichokes, cultivated cardoons and wild cardoons, growing in different locations, looking at their shape and structure. She concluded that all three were variants of the same species Cynara cardunculus. Presumably the artichoke and the cultivated cardoon were derived from the wild cardoon by selection for the desired characteristics. A recent study by a team of scientists from Italy used modern genetic techniques to examine the relationship between the three variants. They concluded that the globe artichoke and the cultivated cardoon were indeed both derived from wild cardoons, probably growing in Sicily or North Africa. Domestication of the artichoke started earlier and was probably under way in Roman times. Domestication of the cultivated cardoon began later but the wild cardoon was also the progenitor.

Let’s finish by returning to the man with the cardoons, Guy Watson. His latest venture is to bring Riverford to London at the Duke of Cambridge pub in Islington. Cardoon fritters have recently been on the menu!

Brussels sprouts are for life, not just for Christmas!

Brussels sprout closeup

Here is an article I wrote for the December edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Rather like dodgy politicians, you either love or you hate Brussels sprouts and everyone has their opinion. So, I was amused to see that Riverford, the Devon-based supplier of organic vegetables has produced an ironic Advent Calendar featuring pictures of Brussels sprouts. Don’t despair though, behind the pictures of these controversial vegetables there are little doors which open to yield a mouth watering chunk of chocolate.

What is it about Brussels sprouts that so divides opinion? For some, the experience of overcooked, boiled sprouts, sulphurous, bitter, sludgy and barely green is irreversibly damaging. For others the unfortunate windy side effects of the miniature cabbages mean they are to be avoided at all costs. A growing army of sprout-evangelists, however, recognise the health giving properties of the vegetable especially when cooked properly.

Brussels sprouts are members of the brassica family along with cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale. Sprouts are descendents of wild cabbage and although it is not known how they originated, by the 16th century they were popular in Belgium and their popularity spread to other temperate parts of Europe. Despite our love-hate relationship with sprouts, 40,000 tons of the vegetable are sold each year in the UK, a quarter of those sales occurring in December. That’s a lot of sprouts so where do the problems arise? In my experience, it’s how they are cooked that matters. Your Granny may have told you to trim them, cut a cross in the bottom and boil in water containing a little baking soda to maintain the green colour but I subscribe to Nigel Slater’s view that “The trick is to keep them well away from boiling water”. I suggest choosing small, fresh sprouts; clean, trim and shred them before stir frying in olive oil with garlic and chilli and a dash of soy sauce. But of course it’s all personal preference.

Let’s now take a closer look at the good and the bad sides of Brussels sprouts. Leafy green vegetables such as brassicas are good for us because they contain plenty of vitamins and fibre and sprouts are particularly good sources of vitamin C and vitamin K. We are all urged to eat fruit for its vitamin C content, the vitamin being a well known essential nutrient. Did you know, however, that weight for weight Brussels sprouts contain more than twice as much vitamin C as oranges?

Vitamin K has an essential role in blood clotting, facilitating wound healing; it may also help build strong bones. For most people, the high vitamin K content of sprouts is a healthy bonus but it can cause problems if you are taking anticoagulant drugs. An extreme example of this effect occurred to an Ayrshire man with a mechanical heart who was taking anticoagulants to prevent blood clots. In December 2011, he was rushed to hospital because his anticoagulants had stopped working. Apparently he had eaten a large plate of Brussels sprouts and the pro-coagulant vitamin K had counteracted the effects of his drugs.

That’s the healthy side of sprouts; now let’s look at their darker side. Part of this is the “windiness” that some people experience after eating Brussels sprouts. You probably didn’t want to know this but Sainsbury’s has compiled a “Top of the Pops” of windy vegetables: sprouts made third place beaten only by Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips. The “windiness” of sprouts arises because our stomach and small intestine lack the molecular machinery to digest them fully so they arrive in the colon only partially digested. Bacteria in the colon do contain the correct chemical scissors so they set to work on the sprout remains and produce gas. To add to the problem, sprouts contain sulphurous compounds and when these are broken down they lend the gas an unpleasant odour. I leave the rest to your imagination or experience.

As if that weren’t enough, sprouts are also renowned for their bitter taste. Brassicas and particularly Brussels sprouts contain bitter tasting compounds called glucosinolates. These sulphurous compounds are thought to act as natural pesticides protecting the plant from insects. Humans find the glucosinolates bitter and this contributes to the bad reputation of sprouts. Worse still, when sprouts are boiled, glucosinolates are released in to the cooking water where some break down to smelly sulphurous compounds and that’s the odour we all remember.

I need to add in their defence that not everyone finds sprouts bitter and this seems to be, at least in part, down to genetics. As long ago as 1930, it was realised that the ability of humans to taste bitter substances had a heritable component. People who could detect bitter substances were very likely to have other family members with the same ability. The family link was so strong that it was used as a paternity test before DNA testing was available. Now we know that detection of bitter taste depends on the number of taste buds on our tongues and the presence of receptors on the taste buds that detect the bitter substances. As a result some people taste the bitterness of Brussels sprouts more than others, accounting in part for the differences in opinion about the vegetable. Children also seem to have a greater ability to detect bitter taste compared to adults so perhaps they are not so fussy after all. The bitterness of sprouts may, however, be a thing of the past as the agrochemical companies have been working hard to breed new sweeter varieties.

Lastly, as you tuck in to your Christmas Brussels sprouts, spare a thought for Linus Urbanec of Sweden who holds the current Guinness World Record for eating the vegetable. To win the record, he ate 31 sprouts in one minute!