A trip around the herb garden – Bay

 

 

Spending as little as five minutes in nature every day exposes us to natural light and helps us slow down and get or daily rhythms in sync. I’m particularly fond of walking on the grass in bare feet. I’ve blogged about this before. January is perhaps a bit extreme to indulge this too much so a wander round in boots, clutching a hot drink and looking for signs of life is more my thing. The bulbs are poking through; the snowdrops are in bloom; weirdly there are still some rosebuds clinging on – pretty strong evidence of the way the seasons are crazily mixed up now; and many of my herbs are still looking good.

Herbs are the first plants I remember growing and picking as a small child. My granny had an old Belfast sink in the garden where she grew mint and a lavender hedge over which she used to spread her hankies to dry in the summer. It was herbs that I grew on the windowsill of my student digs and now they take up more than their share of space in the garden. This year I’ll try to feature one herb a month, tell you about its history and talk a little about how I use it. Queen of herbs Jekka McVicar was showing deep love for her bay tree (above) over Christmas and the bay I transplanted from the allotment into the front garden is looking mighty healthy so let’s start with that.

Bay has a long and noble history. The ancient Romans and Greeks used to make crowns out of true bay leaves (Laurus Nobilis) to crown great and accomplished people – kings, war heroes and Olympians. As a teacher I’m honour-bound to point out that the term ‘baccalaureate’ originates from this giving of bay leaf crowns to signify success, as does the term “poet laureate”.

One of the constituents of a traditional bouquet garni, used to flavour soups and stews bay leaves are in regular use in my kitchen. Dried bay leaves that are more than six months old are pretty pointless in my experience. Pick them fresh and keep them from anywhere from a week to a month for optimum use.

Or try this recipe suggestion I picked up from Borough Market when visiting the East End in-laws
Bay two ways: try bay leaves infused into the milk of a rice pudding along with a little cardamom, which highlights that menthol and eucalyptus quality further; alternatively tuck it in  among forced rhubarb. Its gentle scent will work its way into those pink batons as they release their juices and cool. It’s easy and comforting. Give it a go.

Indoor gardening

I’ve taken my plants back to school today – a mixture of succulents, indestructible spider plants and potted bulbs like these crocus, which I snapped last year, cheering up the gloomy north facing window in one of our rooms at home.

Over the next few weeks they’ll be joined by some seed trays because my classroom windowsill is THE perfect place for starting off the annual cut flowers, herbs and a few veggies that will be planted out into my garden beds once the frosts have passed.

Indoor gardening has become really popular, especially among millennials, who may not have access to a lot of outdoor space but want to grow a few culinary herbs. In fact windowsill herbs was the first kind of growing I did as an independent adult in my student digs. Along with the obligatory yukka and spider plant there were a range of mints to make tea and some basil jostling for position on the windowsill.

I’ve even grown some peashoots for students to munch. The only down side is that my classroom is miles from any water source.

Potted bulbs and gardening

 

 

December 20th -Potted bulbs and gardening

Paperwhites for Christmas with glass baubles from Sarah Raven. It’s a Country Gate tradition – even though there are bags of tulips in the garden shed which still need planting, a million leaves blowing around the garden which need to be bagged to make leaf mould and sweet peas to sow in the greenhouse. If it ever stops raining, I will get out in the garden for a green workout as an antidote to the mince pies!

Salad crops for winter

Winter Purslane

Apparently that old packet of seeds I discovered down the back of the dresser were viable after all.

Winter purslane (or miner’s lettuce) will grow happily through even the coldest winter and will keep on going into the spring. Delicious even when it flowers in spring – although don’t let the flower stalk get too long before harvesting.

I grew a small bed of this at school once and the gardening club munched on  it voraciously at the end of our sessions.

Full of vitamin C and a delightful splash of green in the winter garden when not much else is growing.

Bumper crops

it’s been a good year for elderberries. One of the plants I’m going to miss most on the allotment is the huge elder tree which has provided me with a good crop of flowers in spring and berries in early autumn. Fortunately there are numerous foraging opportunities within a stone’s throw of home as I have no room for an elder in the garden. Since writing about elderberry cordial and pontack I’ve discovered the delights of elderberry tincture, which is – if anything – even easier to make.

Elderberry tincture is a delicious homemade medicine which can be taken when you feel a cold or virus is about to take hold, making use of the plants antioxidant, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties. Strip the ripe berries off the stalks into a glass jar and cover with  brandy.  Leave for two weeks, shaking every day. Then strain the mixture through a sieve lined with muslin, bottle up and label. Take  1-3ml 3 times daily as required.

Delicious and oh so good for you.

The Germander Hedge

It’s time to clip back our rampant germander hedges again so that the road bike, which is in almost constant use, can get down the garden path. This is a carefully timed operation because it is such a bee magnet and I want to wait until there are oodles of other feeding stations for them in the garden before it gets a haircut. Wall germander is one of those old-fashioned plants that does not get much of a mention nowadays but with many gardeners worried about declining bee populations it comes highly recommended from the physic garden.

It was Catherine from  Pepperpot Herbs who first suggested it to me. I was looking for some box plants to edge a new cutting bed in the garden and she mentioned germander. I took her advice and ordered a batch. It grew so well that I went back the following year when I was making a second bed for more.

If you’re looking for a low-maintenance plant for edging and keeping the soil inside a potager bed rather than spilling over the path, one which is great for bees and butterflies, which will grow low and dense, which smells good and is useful then germander is the one for you. (I use the dried stems in pot pourri and wreath projects.) It is drought-tolerant (handy this summer), not overly fussy about its soil and looks good all year round. What’s not to love? I think it was used to treat gout in days gone by, despite a suggestion that it can cause liver problems. Fortunately we have no need for its herbal properties but it’s here to stay. A stalwart of the physic garden.

 

 

 

Elderflower cordial

elderflowers

I’m a bit late making elderflower cordial this year due to making the move back to classroom teaching, directing Emma at the Tithe Barn and taking on a plethora of last minute GCSE tutees needing support in the run-up to their exams. Fortunately, along with the weeds, there are plenty of elderflowers still at their peak on the allotment. Elderflower cordial is SO easy to make and perfect for a home-made gift to make, bottle up and package beautifully for your favourite teacher.

Here’s how.

Take a large bowl and wander around the hedgerows looking for elderflowers. For maximum relaxation I recommend going alone and wearing long gloves to avoid nettle stings and brambles, which seems to surround all the elder in my neighbourhood.

Head home, inspect the elderflower heads carefully and remove any insects. Small children find this bit fascinating. Place the flower heads in a large bowl together with orange and lemon zest. For every 25 elderflower heads use the finely grated zest of 3 unwaxed lemons and 1 orange. Keep the juice in the fridge overnight (about 150ml ).

Bring 1.5 litres water to the boil and pour over the elderflowers and citrus zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.

Strain the liquid through a scalded jelly bag or piece of muslin and pour into a saucepan. Add 1 kg sugar, the lemon and orange juice and 1 heaped tsp citric acid (if using). I don’t bother because it involves a trip to the chemist and an inquisition to ensure that you mean no evil intent with said chemical.

Heat gently to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.

Use a funnel to pour the hot syrup into sterilised bottles. Seal the bottles with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks.

Label and tie a ribbon around the top and you have the perfect end of school year gift.

Dilute with still or sparkling water, use to make ice lollies or drizzle a little over gooseberries or fruit salads.

Plant potions

Calendula salve, an easy make for children
Calendula salve, an easy make for children

Today at The Courts, despite a forecast of torrential rain and thunderstorms we had a lot of fun under the trees making ‘plant potions’. To many children ,particularly those who have experienced the delights of forest schools, plant potions usually means mixing up mud, sticks, leaves and water to make a sludgy brew. It’s great fun. Today however, rather a lot of children and quite a few interested adults went home clutching bags of beautifully scented pot pourri and recipes for comfrey feed, calendula salve and hints and tips for drying flowers, cooking with lavender, how to make dandelion jelly and why nettles are good for you, good for the wildlife in your garden and have dozens of uses. There are a thousand and one useful things that can be made from your flower patch

I promised a few people that I would pop up links to posts I’d included previously. Just click on the appropriate highlighted links above. I also said that I would include the recipe for calendula salve, which is one recommended to me ages ago by permaculturist and all-round good egg Carl Legge. Click on Cally’s Plant Potion Recipes for the recipe sheet we handed out today. Thanks to Jane Ingram for the design.

With a little supervision, even young children can make something useful and which looks professional enough to give as a gift. Calendula is one of those plants which has been used by herbalists since ancient times. It is known to have anti: allergic; inflammatory; microbial and oxidant properties. So it’s perfect for treating cuts and grazes bruises, sores and rashes. We always keep a jar handy in a kitchen drawer.

Calendula is one of my favourite flowers. It looks so jolly, is great for bees, cuts well for the vase and as well as made into a salve it can be eaten in salads or, as my granny used to do, added when making butter to make it beautifully yellow. The seeds are rather quirky too and look almost as though they might crawl out of your hand. They are easy to sow, grow well and self seed prolifically. Children can also collect the seed very easily and pack them up to give away to friends. A perfect addition to any garden, as far as I am concerned.

50 things to do in the holidays

haunts of the summer holidays
haunts of the summer holidays

This holiday was always going to be a busy one with trips to family we haven’t seen since before Christmas, promised beach trips, rugby camps, youth club camps, a study week (for Mum), decorating and work to be accomplished. There’s been little time to get bored.

Thursday work space at The Courts
Thursday work space at The Courts

As you see, I’ve been back this year working for the National Trust on Thursdays running free activities for explorer families who have a whole summer to fill with great memories and plenty of material needed for that all too familiar first homework *Write about what you did in the Summer Holidays*.

We’ve already taken part in the Big Butterfly Count and made colourful butterfly feeders, found out about bees and explored the benefits of growing one of my favourite flowers Calendula. Did you know that it was used on the battle field in the civil war to help the wounded and that my great granny used to use it to give the butter she made a fabulous golden colour? These days it gets used by me as a cut flower or to make calendula salve but whilst it’s growing on my allotment the bees love it. It’s a great plant for children to grow because you can collect the seeds so easily and grow more next year….and spread the love to your friends by giving them some seeds in a pack you’ve decorated yourself.

This week whilst I am on a study week at Oxford University the Wild Art session is being run for me by Lucy but I’ll be back for the last Thursday of the holidays to tour the kitchen garden at the Courts, with its cucamelons, electric daisies, red flax and quinoa and to show children how to make an edible pea shooter.

summer fun - 50 things to do
summer fun – 50 things to do

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