Native Brith herbs: Part 1

Anxious thoughts and shivers of excitement are simultaneously nipping at my subconscious, if don’t give them the attention they crave soon, they will run me ragged. This harrying of my mind is not unreasonable, in just under seven weeks time the RHS flowershow, Tatton will commence.

After a couple of years break I am returning as an exhibitor…with a shed! This is a bit of a change from my usual creations which have always been edible gardens. My first was a small garden (6×4 m) called Eat my garden and featured a whole raft of edible plants. Then followed The Herbal Tea Party (a name I nicked from an excellent Manchester nightclub I used to dance the night away at; the garden was a little more demure). Then came The Cider House Rules, a design that called for a lot of research and consequently a lot of cider drinking, all in the name of art you understand.

Then I did some edible exhibits in the Prize Vegetable Pavillion (ah the jokes just make themselves!). I remember the last time I was there. I was titivating the herbs, adding the finishing touches, when who should come careering into the tent on a motorised scooter than the Queen of herbs herself, Jekka McVicar. Had I not had my nose in the blooms and my backside in the air I would have spotted the incoming and exited fast.

After circling my stall, no more than once, she came to an abrupt halt.

“What British natives do you have here? ” she quizzed me.

Hmmm British natives? I remember thinking, well there’s me. No, she means the herbs, of course she means the herbs, Oh bugger I’ve no idea.

It was at that exact moment that the frothy, creamy blooms of Achillea ageratum, tickled by a welcome breeze, shimmied into my line of vision.

“English mace” I declared, resisting the urge to whoop victoriously. English mace, one of my favourite herbs, now even more so, Oh how I adore this fine plant. And now, the Queen of herbs, this font of knowledge of all things herbal will look upon me fondly as her prodigy and bestow her favour upon me.

My elation was short lived my daydream dashed. This fraudulent herb is an interloper, it’ a Swiss native! Why oh why is it not called Swiss mace?!?!

Realising I was on a very sticky wicket I glanced at my watch, muttered the immortal words “Oooh is that the time” and hightailed it out of the marquee. She never saw me again.

I hadn’t given this episode much thought until recentlywhen I found myself tripping through a Cretan gorge where sage and thyme grow madly. The air is fragrant and filled with the sound of bees that buzz across the valleys. Hillsides are peppered with bee hives and the sticky, golden honey is available to buy from berry brown locals who sit and dream in the sun. These herbs are happy here, they grow well, a perfect example of right plant right place.

I don’t mind where my plants come from, after all I’ve no time for UKIP and my borders are open to all. It was seeing how the Mediterranean herbs flourished in their native habitats that got me thinking. So often the herbs we want to grow here in the UK struggle because of the climate yet our British natives thrive. I’ve decided to explore our homegrowns and introduce a few more into my own garden not just to satisfy my own curiosity but to ensure that if I bump into ‘you know who’ again, I’ll be much better prepared!
Wild Angelica

Legend has it that the beautiful characteristics of Angelica were revealed by an angel, hence the name. It is,   without doubt a delightful, architectural plant that can grow to 2 metres tall. Stiff, slender stems bear fresh green leaves and large umbels of white flowers are produced in summer. Angelica thrives in moist soil and is often found growing wild on riverbanks.

Cultivation

Grow in rich, moist soil in partial shade. Very attractive to bees.

Culinary uses

Young shoots taste similar to celery and can be added to salads and soup. Angelica seeds are traditionally used to flavour gin, vermouth and chartreuse. We bought a bottle of something fiendishly alcoholic in France a few years ago. It was a delightful green colour but alas, we cannot quite remember what it was other than something potent with Angelica.

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Where the wild things are

I’ve gone rogue, feral, off piste as far as gardening is concerned, I’ve taken to walking on the wild side and fear I may not return. Tangle-woods carpeted with bluebells and peppered with the glistening, white globes of wild garlic flowers have turned my head. Hedgerows, awash with frothy mayflower, have lead me to secret places where birds sing, creatures creep and nature revels in springtime splendour.

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                                                Wild garlic flower

In my own garden the lawn is looking radiant. I love the golden yellow dandelions that are scattered throughout the long, lush grass. Shining like miniature suns they’re such merry little things I don’t want to cut them down.

The forget-me-nots that flourish in my garden will not be forgotten. Dainty flowers in the most captivating blue, arch gracefully on fine stems setting their seed far and wide. Not content with filling the border with their exuberance, they are running amok in my neighbours garden. I’m looking forward to seeing how far their journey takes them!

These self-seeders are amongst my favourites, asking nothing from me they give everything in return. Popping up here, there and  everywhere they are like natures whisper, her gentle reminder to relax, loosen life’s reins a little and live free.

The borage will be up next, another blue beauty. The bees love these starry blooms as much as I do and the whole garden will be buzzing. I’ll just pick a few flowers to freeze in ice cubes, where their simple beauty will be momentarily captured and enjoyed in the summer sunshine.

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Borage flower

Dandelions, wild garlic, forget-me-nots and borage are all edible. Every part of the dandelion can be enjoyed leaves, stems, flowers and roots and trust me, you won’t wet the bed!  The young leaves are the sweetest and are delicious fried up with bacon and served on a potato cake. For a more exotic dish why not dip the flowers in batter and serve as dandelion fritters.

I use wild garlic leaves to make a pesto. Pick a large bunch of leaves and rinse them well before placing in a food processor with 130 mls of olive oil, 50g of toasted pine nuts and 50g of grated parmesan cheese. Whizz it all up until it looks like a green paste, adding salt to taste, resulting in a pesto with one heck of a kick!

Forget-me-not flowers are edible and can be crystallised in sugar and used to decorate cakes. Borage flowers too can be used as cake decorations but I prefer them frozen in ice, bobbing around a cool glass of Pimm’s.

 

I’ve got thyme

Ah I do love a good pun! This title was inspired by a facebook conversation I was having with some of my arty friends. The conversation centred around this beautiful watercolour painted by or own Karl Fletcher.

 

 

karls peter pan

Copyright Karl Fletcher 2015                            www.facebook.com/watercolourjournal

Karl loves to paint on old books, letters, envelopes, sheet music, ledgers, any suitable ephemera that has history.

This piece, painted in an old edition of Peter Pan, is all about time. Hook is forcing the lost boys to walk the plank when suddenly the sound of ticking stops him in his tracks. Tick- Tock Tick-Tock Crocodile has arrived and Hook falls in a heap. Time is catching up with him like it catches up with us all.

I spent three days this week giving myself time, it wasn’t easy.

Harping back to my injured eye I was told to ‘take it easy’ for a couple of weeks. I managed a week. Then the guilt, the lack of self-worth, the anxiety came rushing in. I even asked my lovely GP friend for advice. “Two weeks, really? Do you think a week is enough?”

“Take the  two weeks off ” he said “with a bottle of Scotch!”

Bloomin’ heck that was Doctors Orders! And still I baulked. What’s happened to me?

Am I baulking now? No. Have I got a bottle of Scotch by my side as I write? No. Have I got a bottle of Bourbon next to me? Yes. Jim Beam infused with cherry, it’s very delicious, and there’s a fire burning in the grate.

My three days were a life saver (actually the following two days were too, I passed my Forest school first aid training). For the first few days I decided to take time. I walked for miles looking at trees, flowers, blossom, rivers and hedgerows, in absolute wonder. Walks that should have taken an hour took three. I sank into nature, like you would a comforting bed. I didn’t want to garden it, change it, make it my own, I revelled in the freedom of the natural world and I loved it!

So where does this leave me as a gardener? In my job I’m constantly battling. I’m battling the weeds, I’m trying to keep shrubs under control, I’m trying to maintain order in the garden, I’m always trying to gain the upper hand.

And what would happen if I stopped? If I stopped fighting? What would happen? The weeds would creep in, I would probably do less ‘work’, I may drink more bourbon. Is this such a bad thing? My favourite gardens are, after all, the wildest ones, my favourite haunts, the woods. My favourite past-times are open fires and stories about faeries and elves.

The natural world grows, develops and changes over time. It doesn’t twist and turn fighting against it. It flows, like I once flowed, like a lolly-stick on the river of life.

There’s lessons to be learned here. The thyme in my garden creeps slowly, unnoticed across pathways. Then suddenly, gloriously, in summer it blossoms and blooms into a carpet of blooms; providing sweet nectar for insects and a wonderful surprise for me.

There’s a wildness to nature that isn’t reflected in my life; and I want it to be. I want to change like the seasons, blow like the wind and live a life that is truly free.

 

 

 

A shady sanctuary

I am suffering from iritis. I have not, as the name may suggest, suddenly developed an irrational desire to avoid the Iridaceae family at all costs, nor do I break out in an itchy rash when faced with the species. On the contrary I am enchanted by the depth of colour and intricate markings that nearly all iris flowers display. It’s my own iris that’s the problem; not the ones in the garden, I trust they are behaving themselves, it’s the one in my eye that’s not.

I won’t bore you with the details but, needless to say, getting smacked in the eye by the branch of a large, established climbing rose bloody hurts. My battered iris is taking time out to recover and, thanks to the twice daily dose of pupil dilating drops, looks like its been out partying all night.

Like a stuck shutter on a camera my eye is letting in too much light and the glare of this glorious spring sunshine is proving too much. I spent a few days whingeing, scriking and moaning then realised it wasn’t helping and decided instead to make a few alterations to my daily day.

A recent extension to our house has increased the amount of shade in an already shady, north facing back garden and it’s been making me fractious. Now I have discovered this neglected gravel courtyard, that sits in the permanent shadow of the house, is the perfect place to escape the glare of the midday sun; it has become a calm and peaceful sanctuary.

Recent musings, whilst perched on a shady step sipping tea, have resulted in a decision to fill this space with all sorts of plants; plants that wont just tolerate shade, they will positively thrive in it. Already mentha requienii, more commonly Corsican mint, is creeping in. This tiniest of mint loves a damp shady spot and soon spreads across pathways and over stones, releasing its fresh, cool-mint fragrance when trodden underfoot. Soon it will be joined by plantings of ferns, ivy, tiarella and alchemilla mollis; I adore alchemilla especially after it has rained; droplets form in the dips of the leaves making tiny mirrors for the faerie-folk that will surely dwell in this part of the garden.

Soon I will be visiting another place of enchantment when I go to my favourite bluebell woods. These are not listed in the Saturday supplements under ’10 Best bluebell walks’, they are not advertised to all and sundry and I’m glad. Go on an organised walk through the woods with a group of perfect strangers and you’ve lost the magic, killed it stone dead. Instead I urge you to run from the hurly-burly, mercantile world of nature tourism and find your own secret place; a place where the trees whisper to one another and a silver ribbon of water trickles and trips across the forest floor.

For now my crepucsular activities continue down on the plot; beetroot and parsnip seeds are sown as day fades to dusk. In the half-light the rhubarb looms large and I pick several juicy stalks. Sweet Cicely, growing nearby looks lush and flavoursome.  Squeeze the leaves and you will release the unmistakeable scent of aniseed, a flavour that turns to sweetness during cooking.These two plants are best friends; add a handful of leaves to stewed rhubarb and you can halve the amount of sugar needed in a delicious crumble.

Sweet Cicely can be found growing wild in hedgerows but try and propagate it at home and it’s a different story unless, of course you don’t want it and then it will self-seed prolifically all over your plot. The young leaves look very similar to cow parsley and, more worryingly, hog-weed which is deadly. My advice is to cultivate a Sweet Cicely in your garden, it’ll last for years and may, if your lucky, set seed.

I have been lucky ( not with the Sweet Cicely I still only have one plant) I haven’t suffered any permanent damage to my eye and in a week or two it will be just fine. Until then I will wander about in the half light, enjoying the peacefulness of the evenings, engulfed by nature that never fails to fill me with an extraordinary sense of well-being.

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Musings about muck

Nothing makes a gardener happier than discovering a huge pile of horse manure, warm and steaming, has been dumped, within wheelbarrowing distance, of their plot. Nothing. This rich brown, crumbly stuff, with its unmistakeable aroma, is like a drug to us and we will do ANYTHING to get our hands on it.

I had been alerted to the delivery after discovering a message on my answer phone from a ‘Marjorie’, probably not her real name; my mother had also spotted the pile and phoned me up in what can only be described as ‘an anxious state’. “They’re taking it all!” she cried. “There’s a man has been back four times! If you don’t come and get some now it will all be gone!”

I assured the aged relative that there would be plenty enough to go round and if not, I knew of another supplier. I draw the line at buying it already bagged as there are plenty of places where one can turn up with a wheelbarrow and a shovel and take away the really good stuff for free. However providence had provided and I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, or indeed any other orifice, so I hot- footed it down to the allotment just as dusk was falling.

It’s an odd time to be on the plot; denuded of people and machinery the thrilling sounds of birdsong comes to the forefront. The melodious, flute-like call of the blackbird is unmistakeable as he heads home to roost leaving the robin to carry on bob,bob bobbin’ as darkness falls. This chirpy red-breasted chap continues to forage for worms and grubs in the dimmest of light; triggered by light levels he is the first to burst into song in the morning and the last to quieten down at night.

The clew of worms, so readily available in this heap of dung, will soon be spread across plots providing a veritable feast for wildlife. Those that escape the dinner plate will tunnel down into the earth mixing and aerating, channelling goodness to where it’s needed; at the roots.

I’ve been a bit tardy in getting seeds sown this spring, deterred by the seemingly endless winter; however this now seems a Godsend as I can dig this very well rotted muck straight into my soil replenishing it in time for the growing season. Rumour has it this matter has been decomposing for four years, a rumour that has caused much excitement amongst the plot holders. We can dig it in now knowing it will improve the soil structure and add essential nutrients. Maybe this year someone will harvest a record breaking pumpkin or produce dahlias good enough to show, if that’s what razzles your berries.

If there was a prize for the tallest cardoons my neighbour would have won. Weirdly I hadn’t noticed these giant, scraggly seed-heads before, it was only when I turned to marvel at the splendorous sunset that I took notice. The sky was awash with colour; hues of pink and orange blurred together like watercolour and the tall cardoon stems stood silhouetted and beautiful.

I have a certain mistrust of cardoons and globe artichokes for that matter. The tap root of a cardoon can grow ridiculously deep so once you’ve planted one there’s no going back. Artichokes, through no fault of their own, have fallen out of favour with me. I have my reasons which, one day I will share with you. Needless to say they involve RHS flower shows, the BBC, something directors call ‘jeopardy’, heartache, triumph and a bucket load of blood, sweat and tears.

However eight years on I’m softening a little, warming towards the artichoke. I have a couple of young plants in pots stuffed between tubs of spring flowers; the silvery leaves are a pretty foil for pastel peach hyacinths.

Eating globe artichokes is a faff. Following a lengthy 30-40 minutes in a steamer, smother with bernaise sauce then remove each petal and slide the soft fleshy part through your teeth; it’s fiddly, time consuming and, quite frankly, I can think of better foods to eat.

But it’s not all about me. To encourage and maintain a well-balanced and harmonious edible garden it’s as much about giving as it is about taking. This season I give my soil manure, a rich treat of goodness. This season I will plant globe artichokes, for the myriad of tiny insects that relish the seed heads. This season I will take time to sit back and look, listen and savour the magnificence that this incredible natural world has to offer.

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Who stole spring?

Right, that’s it, who stole spring? Can we have it back now please because this perpetual cold and gloom is annoying. I want to admire the daffodils that are, for once, not heralding the arrival of spring but they don’t stay still for long enough in this buffeting wind.

It’s April tomorrow for goodness sake and Easter. I remember a few years ago sitting outside, our family tucking into a giant chocolate, eager to devour it before the warm sun melted it away. Not this year, I fear it may snow.

If I don’t get some seeds sown soon the kitchen garden is going to be a little bare this coming year. I’m going to have to brave this weather and retrieve the seed propagator from the shed at the bottom of the garden…Wish me luck.

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Phew I’ve made it and found a tin full of seeds tucked away in a corner too. I’m quite taken by these four packets that came free with Gardens Illustrated magazine, the colours look great together. I’m a little bit tempted to grow them in my cut flower border on the allotment but foxgloves are toxic and I don’t want them getting into my edibles. I’m going to grow this peachy collection in my back garden instead. The borders need re-stocking after I had a bit of a garden re-arrange. I often think we are perfectly happy changing the decor in our homes and moving the furniture around but our gardens tend to stay the same, for years. Mine however needed a re-jig following an extension, the position of the back door changed completely altering the dynamics of the garden. A year on I’m just getting used to it.

So the funny thing is I went to the bottom of the garden to get the propagator to sow some seeds so we don’t starve this year. I’ve ended up finding some seeds that won’t feed us and don’t need sowing in a propagator! Ah the joys of gardening, just like the weather utterly unpredictable.

How to plant a spring herb container

One of the questions I am often asked is “What’s your favourite herb?” It’s a difficult one to answer because there are just so many to choose from. It’s a similar question I once asked of Lord Ashbrook whilst interviewing him in the grounds of Arley Hall, his family home in Cheshire.

“Lord Ashbrook what would you say is your favourite plant in these magnificent  gardens?” I began.

“Well that’s an impossible question to answer” he retorted. “That’s like asking me to  choose a favourite friend!”

It was an excellent response and, looking back, I should have high fived him and shouted “By Jove Lordy you’re absolutely right old boy!”

But I didn’t, I just thought ‘Blimey that’s not the most auspicious start to an interview’ and carried on regardless.

My choice of favourite is influenced by the season and the plants attributes at the time. For example; in summer I adore the intoxicating fragrance of sweet marjoram, I cannot resist stroking the soft buds and inhaling deeply. In winter I choose bay leaves as my favourite, the flavoursome leaves add flavour to the pot when little else is growing.

In early spring my favourite is rosemary. Such a forgiving herb because, as the year progresses, she fades into the background becoming a foil for other, prettier plants. But for now, she captivates me. Festooned in a cloak of intense blue she revels in the preposterous cold and teases me into believing better times are on their way. As if by magic the sky blue buds begin to unfurl just as the wild creamy yellow primroses burst into flower; this blue and yellow palette is a match made in heaven.

When flowering herbs are looking their best I gather them together and grow them in a container close to the house; they like a sunny spot. For my spring display I have chosen a small lollipop bay tree as a centre piece and under-planted it with trailing rosemary ‘Severn Seas’ and wild primrose primula vulgaris, white rosemary, lemon balm and myrtle.

 

 

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First choose a container with drainage holes at the bottom, add some extra crocking to the bottom as these herbs don’t like wet feet. I’ve chosen a wooden box and lined it with roof tiles to stop the soil falling through the cracks. Interestingly the tiles are referred to as rosemaries.

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Fill with a soil based compost like John Innes No3 and add some slow release fertiliser. Position the plants and fill to the top.

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Water and place in a sunny spot. Mine is right by the front door.

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I use rosemary in a variety of dishes including lamb, roast potatoes, stews and casseroles, it’s also good in shortbread and biscuits. Have a look in recipes at the top of the page for details on how to make lemon, rosemary and black pepper shortbread, it’s delicious. The primrose flowers I crystallise and use to decorate cup cakes for a spring celebration.

When these delightful herbs have finished flowering plant them in the garden where they will continue to flourish, ready to surprise you again next spring.