An hour snatched in the garden

Honesty from Sarah Raven

The start of term and the only time I have to spend in the garden is an hour snatched here and there away from the busyness of back to school routines. Ironically I could do with spending all day in the garden to keep my stress levels under control but, an hour is better than no time at all. This afternoon I’ve begun to grub out an old hedge which was getting rather spindly and untidy, picked up all the windfall apples and planted some honesty seedlings to bloom next year. I have a mixture of purple and white which will look gorgeous and provide those lovely translucent seedpods which can be dried. My granny used to call honesty the money plant and I remember using the seedpods as money when playing shops as a girl.

Simple pleasures.

I’ll be replacing the hedge either with some step over pears or low-growing box. I haven’t decided yet but there’s joy to be had in the planning. Working at mother nature’s pace is good for the soul. I’d do well to remember that when I’m back in the classroom tomorrow.

Plant of the month: August echinacea

One of the beauties in the August border is echinacea, so called because of the way the seedhead resembles a hedgehog or sea urchin. I’m not a fan of the pink variety but I love the jewel-like red and orange hues and the zing of the lime green. Perfect for the end of summer, particularly this one with its uncertainty about the months ahead, as documented every day in the news. Folklore has it that carrying Echinacea will provide inner strength during trying times. Cut and placed in a vase it will draw prosperity into the home and protect the family from suffering in poverty. Ideal right now then. Plenty of people need echincea in their gardens and in their lives.

It’s a fabulous plant for pollinators too if gardening for wildlife is important to you – and why wouldn’t it be? Natural rainfall is usually sufficient for its needs but you’ll need to water in new plants in the current climate and it likes a nice mulch in the winter, but it usually doesn’t need much in the way of care. It will return year after year and if you don’t deadhead it, it will feed the finches and other small birds through the winter and what seeds are left will sprout new plants in the spring. What’s not to love?

You may have come across tinctures of echinacea in the pharmacy. Herbalists recommend it to shorten the duration of the common cold and flu, and reduce symptoms of sore throats, coughs and fevers. It is also said to help boost the immune system and help the body fight infections. Here’s the recipe for a homemade version. Bear in mind, I’m not a medical herbalist – but all of us have survived this far using this to boost our immune systems.

Echinacea tincture

1. Harvest echinacea leaves and blossoms. Avoid picking any which have started to wilt ot die back. Fresh and vibrant is what you’re looking for. Rinse them well under cold, running water and allow to air dry.

2. Weigh your leaves and flowers and place in a mason jar, adding food grade alcohol (190 proof) at a ratio of 2:1 . You want twice as much alcohol as flowers and leaves.

3. Screw on the lid and give it a good shake. Then unscrew and push all the flowers and leaves down beneath the alcohol so everything is submerged. Put the lid back on the jar and let it sit at room temperature for two weeks.

4 . Every time you walk past your jar, give it a good shake!

5. After two weeks strain out the flowers and leaves through a fine mesh colander and bottle up the liquid into amber bottles, preferably the ones with a dropper lid. Store in a cool cupboard.

6. Use as required. In our house at the first signs of illness, we take 1.5 mls or one dropper full every hour until symptoms cease. Alternatively you could dilute in a small amount of water or tea three four times daily.

A slight nip in the air

plot in late Summer
Sitting in the garden with a coffee this morning, there is a definite nip in the air. I have a sense that the year has now turned – and so have I.  A prolonged dry spell brought a premature end to a fair few plants this year and there are some bare patches in the borders. Blackberries and autumn fruiting raspberries have put in an even earlier appearance than usual and I am already sweeping up leaves. Now the dahlias, rudbeckias and echinacea have their time in the spotlight. The blues, pinks and purples of early summer have given way to the deeper, richer hues of burgundy, orange and yellow. We can see the results of our neighbours’ annual sunflower growing competition poking above the fence and we have a bumper apple crop to deal with.

I’ve always loved this time of year. Harvest festival was my favourite as a child and, as you know, I am an avid chutney maker at this time of year. There’s something primordial about building your storecupboard for lean times ahead. It’s the very beginning of the move from outdoor-living to more time spent indoors, from looking outwards to inner reflection. As I get older, spring seems to have taken on a new attraction for me, a reminder that I have another year to enjoy but autumn will always be my favourite. Ever a fan of the bitter-sweet, of pleasures which have been hard won and may be transient. It’s a reminder to make the most of the good times before harsh reality sets in, to live in the moment but to plan and prepare for the future at the same time.

Of course now is the time for preparing to go back to school, to give in to my stationery fetish and think ahead to the new school year. This year we have no children going back to school – only three preparing to return to (or begin) university. We’ve swapped shoe and uniform shopping for touring the charity shops for suitable crockery and utensils. I am returning to school however and there’s a lot to be done in the next two weeks to be ready for the busyness of life in an academy trust comprehensive with its crazy work hours, endless focus on driving up improvement and data, twilight revision sessions, meetings and marking. Lots of marking. I sense that somewhere in the last two years I have changed. I sense a nip in the air and am returning to school with a heavier heart as well as the usual August teacher dreams of not being able to find your classroom, locate our resources, remember the names of the children or keep order in the classroom. I suspect this might be the last time I go back to school after the summer. I have changed and new adventures beckon. But for now, I’d better get on with the preparations.

Plant of the month: May foxgloves

One of the most positive things about gardening is that you live in the now and look to the future simultaneously. Never is that more tangible than at this time of year. As May is burgeoning into June all my biennials are beginning to bloom. As I watch them I sow the same varieties (often from last year’s collected seed) to plant out in the Autumn. These will be next year’s blooms. The perfect cycle.

I sow sweet william, sweet rocket and honesty every year. Forget me nots self-seed prolifically in our garden as do my particular favourites – foxglove although I usually sow some as well. We have several shady parts of our garden and these do well in shade or sun so are one of my utility plants for early Summer. In places here they are surrounded by ferns and campanula; in others by bronze fennel or quaking grass; some do their thing among euphorbia and sweet woodruff. I love them all and the folklore that accompanies them.

Foxgloves contain digitalis and other cardiac glycosides and so it’s best to use gloves when handling the plants. These chemicals affect the heart. It’s poisonous although recorded poisonings from this plant are very rare. In fact an old Welsh legend proclaims the foxglove’s connection to the most celebrated physicians in Wales. Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could use that famous Welsh rhetoric on her. He returned every evening looking for her and eventually he asked advice from a wise man. The answer was cheese – inevitable if you’re attempting to attract a Celtic woman, I’d have thought. I’d go a long way for a decent hunk of cheese. Sure enough the cheese gift worked, she came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.

The sons grew and Rhiwallon’s wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told him he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejewelled magic box. The three sons opened it and found a list of all medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous physicians in all of Wales.

Foxgloves are fairy plants too. In the Scottish borders, foxglove leaves were strewn about babies’ cradles for protection from bewitchment, while in Shropshire they were put in children’s shoes for the same reason. Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky, either because it robs the fairies of a plant they love or they allow the devil into the house. I never pick them for the vase because they do such sterling work in the garden. These flowers are universally connected with women. In Roman times, the foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora and has been associated with midwifery and women’s magic ever since.  In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets – we all have a few of these – but by the Victorian era they had become a much more negative symbol of insincerity.

Easy to sow and excellent self-seeders, foxgloves are well worth starting off now to flower next year. It’s good to have something to look forward to.

Plant of the month: April forget-me-nots

The garden is just beginning to burgeon with a multitude of perennials and so I’m spoilt for choice when deciding on a plant for April. Wild garlic? Tulips? In the light of my belief – and experience – that gardening is not all about hard slog, that nature knows best, that no plant will thrive in the wrong place, and that everything in the garden must have a resonance or a use – preferably both- I have plumped for the humble forget-me-not.

They grow like weeds in our garden, popping up in the veg patch, in the borders at the base of rose bushes and in the gravel near the kitchen door. I have never planted them and remove plenty to avoid them taking over but who am I to turn down a free plant, particularly when they have such poignant folklore attached to them?

They are symbols of fidelity when separated from a partner – no chance of that any more with the husband working from home- Forget-me-nots also symbolize protection and luck. It’s believed that they have the power to protect humans against witches, which is always handy around these parts. King Henry IV used this flower symbol as his lucky charm during his exile in 1398, and ever afterward. As for their name, the narrative reads that a knight in armour died trying to pick the flowers from a riverbank for a lover, only to be swept away in front of her, his words ‘forget me not’ carried by the breeze. As any safety manager will tell you, doing anything in a full suit of armour requires a risk assessment in triplet. Clearly said knight was a bit too spontaneous. Another story suggests that the forget -me-not was the last to be picked at the games when the flowers were named, and its plaintive cry gave the flower its name. Bit needy if you ask me and somewhat reminiscent of Alistair Cooke when we were picking teams for rounders at school. (I heard he took to the gym at university and ended up rowing rather successfully).

More recently this simple flower has been the symbol of International Missing Children’s Day and of the Alzheimer’s Society. And as both my mother and my mother-in-law – neither with us in person – had Spring birthdays, it’s the perfect flower for our April garden. I like its association, the delicate colour of the flowers, just right for this time of year although I crave bolder jewel colours later in the season. I love the way it looks so natural next to the cowslips near the compost heap at the bottom of the garden and I love its short, pointed leaves reminiscent of mouse ears. (The genus name Myosotis comes from the Greek word mus and otos – mouse ear). These delicate blooms more than earn their place in any cottage garden but they are toxic to humans – so don’t be tempted to prettify a salad with them. Butterflies and bees in the eco-garden will love them however.

Plant of the month: March primroses

Long as there’s a sun that sets, Primroses will have their glory – Wordsworth

Although there were plenty of daffodils in bloom in the garden for St David’s Day this week, it’s the primroses that I love to see in March. We have a patch under a hazel along with bluebells, cowslips and grape hyacinths. They bloom well for a couple of months before the canopy of the hazel develops, bringing cheer to shady parts of the garden. Edible plants, you can pick them to garnish a cake or a spring salad – they taste like lettuce. All of the primroses I have in the garden have developed from some plants dug up by a friend. They spread prolifically. I’ll be sharing the love with my neighbours soon, so that they don’t take over.

Primroses were prized plants in days of yore by those who made their own cures and potions, being useful as remedies for muscle aches, rheumatism, paralysis, jaundice and gout. Combined with beeswax it makes a salve for burns or an ointment for treating spots and wrinkles (useful) and it’s even been made into a tea to treat insomnia (not necessary as I’m always shattered when my head hits the pillow). The leaves and flowers of the plant can be used both fresh and dried. Roots were only used when dried, and a special infusion of the roots was used to treat headaches.

I wasn’t at all surprised to learn primroses were considered sacred by the Celts, who carried them to ward off evil spirits. They thought primroses held the keys to heaven. Another old superstition claimed if you ate the blossoms of a primrose you would see a fairy and large patches of primroses were portals into the ‘faerie realms’. They are traditionally associated with Easter in Britain although the my Irish ancestors were just as likely to link them with Beltane (May Day), using them to decorate the threshold but never bringing them inside if the hens were laying or hatching eggs indoors.

Whatever you believe, primroses are true harbingers of Spring. It may be bitterly cold outside today but when the sun shines and you’re out and about you can feel that the season has turned. The annual weeds have sprouted; there are leaf buds aplenty and with a rug slung over my shoulders or across my knees I can enjoy a mug of coffee in the garden.

Emerging from Winter

It’s a late postcard this week. Half Term has allowed for a lot of much-needed sleep, reading and recuperation. The weather has been pretty wild – a mix of high winds, relentless but gentle rain and the odd moment of watery sun. It is a metaphor for my work life right now.

This picture of a misty morning walk popped up from one of my friends over the last few days; it also speaks to me. A little bleak but there is a clearly defined, if very muddy and slippery path and when the sun does eventually break through, it will be a glorious day.

The garden tidy up has begun. I always keep the borders protected by leaves from our trees over winter and leave places for wildlife during the worst of the weather. Small bunches of tete a tete daffs nod their heads near the kitchen door. Grape hyacinths and primroses sprinkle the ground under our ancient hazel; the snowdrops are dying back heralding the start of spring. I can see the bluebells burgeoning and we’ll have a good crop of wild garlic under the hedge this year. I no longer have a greenhouse and so seed sowing will have to wait for a few weeks.

Whatever the weather, there’s always hope in the garden and with lighter evenings we’ll have time to absorb its positivity.

Plant of the month: February hellebores

As January melts into February, the Winter garden is just getting going. A busy, stressful week at school has been made almost bearable by the scent of delightful Daphne, drifts of snowdrops and an array of crimson and purple hellebores planted beside the front door. I love the way they nod in the breeze; I appreciate that you have to gently lift up the heads to see their delicate beauty; I’m eternally grateful that they thrive in shade and withstand much of the late-Winter weather despite their apparent flimsiness. Best kept away from icy winds, they are content in our tiny, North-facing, front garden where the sorrowful, pendulous flower heads bring hope that winter is finally broken. A metaphor for this teacher right now.

Hellebores have an interesting backstory. Brought to Britain by the Romans, like many of the popular plants in our gardens, in the early days of medicine hellebores were used as a purgative or to treat gout and high blood pressure. (I’m hoping for a few more gout-free years!) Actually, they are extremely toxic in high doses; some historians believe that Alexander the Great died from a hellebore overdose. Inevitably for a poisonous plant it has associations with witchcraft but there is also the charming tale of the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) sprouting in the snow from the tears of a girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem. (Perhaps a few will sprout from my tears after a twelve hour working day and a boot load of marking.) In Greek mythology, the daughters of the king of Argos by ingesting hellebores were cured of a madness that caused them to run naked through the city, crying, weeping, and screaming. The madness of the classroom hasn’t reached such extremes so far but my little patch of hellebores provide solace and succour every time I return home.

Snowdrops, magpies and the end of winter

pic by Sally Tonkin

Christmas seems a lifetime ago; COVID has reared its ugly head again at home and in the classroom; my marking mountain never seems to get any smaller and every time I want to get out in the garden, the weather turns or I have too much school work to do. I have been in danger of losing my sense of perspective and, worst of all, my sense of humour. BUT the start of Spring is just around the corner; there have been two magpies in the garden for the first time ever; the snowdrops are blooming. This beautiful photo from a Facebook friend reminded me to check out our snowdrops at the bottom of the garden this weekend. I hadn’t spotted them until now, what with leaving for work and getting home in the dark every day. A tiny habit which reset my internal barometer from stormy to fair.

I’ve written about the start of Celtic spring – Imbolc – before. I started this blog thirteen years ago at this time of year around Candlemas when I was looking for a new project. The urge to embrace the green shoots, shake off the winter blues and start new projects, spring clean, clear clutter in the house and in the garden is strong but I’m going to have to resist for the time being. In the garden it’s probably a good idea to wait for warmer weather anyway. Pollinators are often wintering in dead leaves and hollowed out stems so it’s best to let them bee (sic). In the house, clutter clearing as my husband sorts through the endless contents of my in-laws house moves very slowly. The major spring cleaning work this year has been internal in the letting go of ways of being and working that are no longer fit for purpose and are certainly not conducive to wellbeing.

I’ve set myself a long-term goal. By Spring next year I hope that much will have changed about the way I spend my time, my priorities will be different and I’ll feel more grounded. I’m in it for the long haul. Evolution not revolution. Not my usual approach but all the better for that I think.

Imbolc blessings for the week ahead.

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.

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