Plants in the classroom

Plants affect your mood. They lower anxiety and blood pressure, decrease stress levels and increase concentration. Perfect in a classroom, then. All of us have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature. Biophillia has been big news for many years. Some GPs have started to prescribed time in nature as a cure for stress; gardening is a well-recognized therapy for PTSD and depression; just putting your hands in the soil stirs up microbes in the soil and inhaling these microbes can produce serotonin which makes you feel relaxed and happier.

I am so lucky that my current classroom overlooks a city park. In my last school, it overlooked the science technician’s greenhouse and the approach to the playing fields. The seasons change in front of my eyes through the window from one term to the next. But I do love filling my classroom with plenty of indoor plants too.

At this time of year, when daylight hours are limited, it’s good to remind yourself that Spring is on the way. A few pots of bulbs are an effective aide memoire. If you’re uber-organised, you’ll have ordered bulbs in the summer, had them delivered in the Autumn, potted them up at weekly intervals and stored them in a cool, dark until the shoots appeared, brought them out into a bright spot and watched them grow. Less efficient individuals can pick them up for a few pounds ready – planted at a supermarket or garden centre.

Whichever option you choose, once they’ve bloomed, leave them in a corner somewhere to die back and you can pop them in the ground to enjoy again for many years to come. I like the idea that pupils at all the schools I have ever taught at have been able to enjoy bulbs I’ve planted, long after I’ve moved on.

Brighten the January days with some hyacinths, daffs or crocuses, perk up your mood and, if you’re a teacher, you’ll be helping your students to concentrate too.

Plant of the month : January Snowdrops

I’ve decided to feature one plant from my garden every month this year. They’ll be easy-to-grow cottage garden plants, good for bees and other pollinators and often native to the British Isles. This month it’s the humble snowdrop. These beauties are popping up already. I remember them blooming more in February and March in my youth. Symbolic of innocence, purity and hope, they really are the perfect flower for January. When all the excess of Christmas has been cleared away, there’s an innate need to pare back and simplify. In current times it’s also good to reflect that something so delicate can tough out the coldest month of the year, adapt to freezing conditions by drooping their flowerheads down and opening up again when the temperature rises. It’s a lesson for us all.

They’re native European plants, although I think they were introduced to Britain by the Romans – along with ground elder. (I know which I prefer in my garden.) There’s folklore attached to the snowdrop too – formed after the fight between the Winter Witch and Lady Spring, symbolising Spring’s ultimate victory over Winter. The Victorians thought of them as a sign of death however – probably because they grow prolifically in churchyards – that they shouldn’t be cut and brought indoors, believing they brought bad luck to farmers, affecting cow’s milk and discolouring butter. I don’t tend to cut snowdrops for the vase. Maybe it’s the influence of my deep agricultural roots or just a feeling that these flowers are better featured when nodding their heads outdoors.

Plant them in partial shade or full sun, pointy side up in groups of 25, about 3 inches deep. Wear gloves, because the bulbs can irritate skin. I prefer to plant in the green in March, rather than from dry bulbs. When established, allow them to die back (letting the leaves go yellow) before cutting them back. When uber-established you can dig them up and divide them, spreading the love around your garden or giving them away to friends and neighbours. They do well under trees in our garden before the leaves form a canopy.

If you don’t have snowdrops in your garden this year, mark a place where they could go and order some to plant in the green in March. Then this time next year you’ll be watching them poke through the soil, a harbinger that the days are lengthening and spring is on its way.

Mistletoe and no wine

I’ve given up wine for Lent but to compmensate one of my Christmas presents arrived in the post yesterday. It’s an exercise in patience. I’ve wanted to try growing mistletoe for years – what with it being sacred to the Celts – and now I have the chance. I have plenty of mature host apple trees (including one called Celt)nbut it will take a few years, some patience and a fair amount of luck before I’m harvesting for Christmas.

There’s a lot of hocus-pocus surrounding the growing of mistletoe. In essence the reason why most attempts fail from Christmas boughs is that the berries dry out or are stored in the dark or are sown at the wrong time in December or January. For best results well-stored juicy berries need to be squidged onto the branches of a mature apple tree in February or March. Some will be eaten by birds or slugs at any time before they are established and you’ll need at least one male and one female plant to ensure a supply of berried mistletoe in the future.

The seed needs to be squeezed out of the berry – you’ll find they stick onto you rather well. Then remove as much of the jelly-like substance as possible, as the seeds seem to germinate better when fairly ‘clean’. They’ll stick on perfectly well with only a little of the ‘glue’ remaining. Young branches, from 2 to 6 cm diameter well away from the centre of the tree are best. Stick 6 or so seeds onto the branch. Label them with a plant label tied to the branch (I know I’ll forget which branch I used and initial growth is tiny. Try to plant as many as possible, at least 20 berries at once, divided between 4 or so branches.

Germination is easy apparently. Whether or not they survive is in the lap of the gods.

Dreaming of a purple patch

February into March is all about snowdrops and daffodils in the garden but I’m ready for that purple patch that follows. Perhaps it’s the need to move on after months of the limbo of online and in-school teaching. Usually I savour the here and now but the thought of Spring sunshine, more time spent outdoors and a bit of colour in all our lives is a strong fillip right now.

In fact, the tulips I planted during the Christmas holidays are beginning to poke through the top of the pots where I stowed them. In this cottage garden, tulips are planted in trenches to be harvested for indoors or in pots to be enjoyed whilst sitting on the terrace with a cup of coffee. In borders they tend to flop and look somewhat unkempt. Not unlike me after weeks of teaching and no visit to the hairdresser.

Pink primulas and garden planning on a rainy day

A rainy walk today and not really a day to be doing more than taking a quick jaunt around the garden. These primulas are loving the rain and there is plenty of plantlife burgeoning. There is some frost-damage to prune away on some of the shrubs which had started putting on new growth and a general tidy up and weed to do. I’ve made a start and hope to get that finished before the end of Half Term.

I’m going to hold off on sowing seeds in earnest until April but I might get a few sweet peas underway before then. The ground is too wet to work so I’m getting my garden fix from planning and ordering a few snowdrops in the green to pop in ready for next year. It’s a great time to do it now when you can easily see the gaps where they should go.Another few weeks and there will be too much growth. Planting them in the green also builds stronger plants. Whatever the season or the weather, there’s always something to do in the garden.

Tree pruning, winter sunshine and a full log store

Yesterday I ran around doing errands in snow flurries; today the winter sunshine is streaming through the kitchen window as I teach my classes. We had a visit from the tree surgeon this morning to give our trees a bit of a Winter prune.

The laburnum at the front is beautifully shaped after a year of being nothing short of bedraggled. And the hazel has afforded a few extra logs for the fire and some bean poles.

Its the kind of day which provides food for the soul. Sunshine, stores to plunder in the future and everything neat and tidy.

Snowdrop walks, woodpiles and bee berets.

I’m missing my visits to National Trust properties to wander among the snowdrops so this beaut picture from The Courts gardens in Holt, where I have spent many a happy hour was a boon when it popped up in my timeline. The snowdrops in my own garden are nodding their heads vigorously in today’s strong winds. Yesterday in Wiltshire was positively barmy,when I did a spot of weeding and planted two new daphnes in shady parts. I’ve never known a year when annual weeds were so prolific in February. The urge to sow seeds is strong but with no greenhouse I’m holding off outside until April, though I may start a few on the kitchen windowsill before then. In the meantime the garden jobs include some tree pruning to reshape the laburnum, quince, apple and greengage trees and to coppice the hazel. I’m also marking spots where I want to sow more bulbs in the autumn. If I don’t mark them now, by midsummer, when the borders are romping away I will have forgotten. I’ve ordered some Patty’s Plum poppies for a neglected spot and some more hellebores.I can never have enough of these in the shadier parts of the garden.

There is a definite whiff of spring in the air. My friend’s chickens have started laying; I drove home from school in daylight for the first time in months and even sat outside with a coffee on Friday in between online lessons. But it’s still good to light the fire of an evening. We replenished our woodstore for the second time this winter. A full logstore is a thing of beauty and a log fire is the perfect accompaniment to Six Nations rugby and the mountain of GCSE and A Level marking that is currently occupying my Google Classroom.

This term has flown by despite one day being pretty much like another in the world of online teaching. This week was enlivened by the COVID Russian roulette of being on the in-school teaching rota and my good friend Helen popping round en route to the supermarket to drop off a beautiful handknitted red beret embellished with bee and flower. Looking at the forecast for this week, her timing couldn’t have been better.

Packets of positivity

Now that the days are getting lighter, I’m going to sow a few sweet peas in pots in a sheltered spot to plant out in Spring.

I used to sow sweet peas in individual root trainers but now I sow a few in a deep pot, the kind in which I start the dahlias off. The don’t mind the cold but I protect them from the worst of the rain until they are ready for transplanting.

Something to look forward to next Summer.

In a pumpkin pickle

The whole world is carving pumpkins – or so it seems. Nothing wrong with that , except the staggering amount of pumpkin pulp that ends up in landfill every year. That makes me sad when there is absolutely NO NEED for it. So how do we deal with this little pickle?

Teach your children to be responsible. At the very least pop your pulp on the compost heap. If you don’t have one, start one. You’ll find plenty if advice here.

Just one postscript to the ideas above – if you’re leaving it as a snack for squirrels or birds, pop it off the ground. Hedgehogs will suffer if they munch on it. And if you’re lucky enough to have a hedgehog visit your garden, you’ll want to look after him or her.

We usually make pumpkin soup with plenty of ginger and chilli to cut through the gloopiness of the pumpkin. A warming treat on a dreary day and uber-freezable too. Recipe below.

You’ll need
1 tablespoon olive oil, 50g butter a small pumpkin, peeled, de-seeded and diced, 2 onions, diced, 3 cloves garlic, crushed, 1 red chilli, finely chopped, a thumb-sized piece root ginger, grated, 900ml vegetable stock, 50g coconut cream, pinch coriander leaves to garnish.

  1. Heat the oil and butter in a pan, then over a medium heat sweat the pumpkin, onion and garlic for 5 minutes.
  2. Add the chilli and ginger, then cook for a further 5 minutes.
  3. Add the hot stock, bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until the butternut squash is soft.
  4. Blend in batches until smooth.
  5. Reheat gently before adding the coconut cream. Season to taste and serve garnished with a few coriander leaves.

Delicious.

Time for a trim

A trip to the hairdresser is long overdue. I’m beginning to look like Hagrid’s little sister but a text message from Annie who has been cutting my hair since she left college has reminded me that I have only twenty-four hours to wait. To celebrate I have given one of our lavender hedges a bit of a trim.

My love of lavender is well-known. It’s such a versatile plant; I’m partial to a lavender scone and harvest copious amounts for pot pourri and sleep sacks. Above all, it’s good for the bees. And yet it’s only comparatively recently that I have learnt to prune it properly.

I grew up being told never to cut into the woody stems or it wouldn’t flower again but even the most careful pruning would often result in a hedge with some gaps and less than luxuriant growth. I had to replace plants every 3-4 years.  Then I had an epiphany. I decided to cut back my lavender plants to about 9 inches, even into the wood when I pruned in August. I reckoned there was a 50:50 chance of survival and was prepared to replant if necessary. It wasn’t!.

Now when I prune the lavender in August when the flowers have turned from blue to grey and the bees have had their fill I’m not afraid to prune back into the wood, to just above some fresh shoots The plant pictured is one I planted 15 years ago. Proof that a good trim can keep a plant healthy and looking good. I hope the same it true for humans.

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