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


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

Poppy Days

Several people have asked about the article I wrote for the local press about the Centenary Poppy Campaign. Here it is in full.


pic courtesy of Sara Willman or possibly her mum.

My life revolves around the seasons and always has done. I like it that way. In September you’ll find me in the kitchen chopping apples for chutney with a pot of sunflowers on the window ledge. In October there’s usually some pumpkin soup on the stove whilst paperwhite daffodils are being carefully stowed away in a dark corner ready to pop up and brighten those dark midwinter days. In November I’m baking the Christmas cake whilst wearing a bright red poppy. It’s the one and only time in the year I tolerate unseasonal,artificial flowers.
The wearing of a cornfield poppy to commemorate those who have given their lives serving and defending our country in wartime is popular and widespread. Many of us understand the reasons for the choice of the red,’Flanders’ poppy (papaver rhoeas) as a symbol of remembrance. It seems so right and the sight of a field full of them never fails to kindle thoughts of those who didn’t return to walk in the fields at home. It can move me to tears far more easily than the millions of paper and silk poppies sold at this time of year.
Next year is the centenary of the start of The Great War. Consequently the Royal British Legion is seeking to celebrate the spirit of the fallen by covering the entire country in bright red poppies in August 2014. They want to create swathes of real poppies across fields, along motorways, in gardens, hedgerows and school playing fields and pockets of poppies in pots, planters and window boxes. This is the Centenary Poppy Campaign (formerly the Real Poppy Campaign) for which funding was sought from the Heritage Lottery Fund. (As we go to print this has been rejected.) But the organisers are determined to press ahead. Here’s where members of the public have a part to play. Doubtless many companies will jump on the bandwagon and start selling wildflower seed mixes with ‘commemorative’ poppies for next year but only The Centenary Poppy Campaign guarantees that profits go to benefit Royal British Legion projects.
We’ve heard a lot recently about the decline of wildflower meadows and the resulting difficulties for honey bees and other pollinators. In response to this pockets of wildflowers are beginning to spring up along motorways, on the edges of towns and even in gardens and window boxes. Anyone who visited the Olympic Park during the Summer of 2012 will bear witness to the breathtaking beauty of large swathes of wildflowers. The Olympic Park meadows which were created under the direction of Professor Nigel Dunnett in time for the London 2012 Olympics will continue to develop and delight visitors for many years to come. It’s a legacy of which we can be proud.
Earlier this year sixty ‘Coronation meadows’ were identified across the UK as part of a coronation anniversary campaign to restore threatened wildflower meadows, which have decreased by 97% since the 1930s. The project, led by the HRH the Prince of Wales and three livestock and wildlife organisations, will use seed and green hay from sixty designated ‘outstanding’ wildflower meadows to recreate new local ones, thus preserving the individual characteristics of each meadow.
On a smaller scale we can all create a patch of wildflower heaven and there are a plethora of initiatives, companies, charities and individuals to help. Many seed companies have started to sell special meadow mixes; social enterprises like Project Maya, which aims to promote sustainable agriculture are creating seed balls to encourage quick and easy planting of small areas of wildflowers by individuals, schools and community groups. I’ve even spent a couple of days working for the National Trust with children making balls of wildflower seeds to sow to encourage bees and butterflies. There have been moves seeking to increase the biodiversity of roadside verges countrywide by not mowing until the wildflowers have set seed. Now it’s the turn of the Royal British Legion to harness this awareness of the importance of pollinator friendly wild areas and promote their cause at the same time.
I like the joined-up thinking which has lead to this initiative. It’s a creative way of commemorating the fallen of The Great War, whilst at the same time enhancing the environment in a cost-effective, ‘green’ and sustainable way and increasing the biodiversity and beauty of small pockets of the land. As a one-off project it requires few resources, little time and no great knowledge of gardening. Moreover if you want to support the initiative but can’t do more than donate to a packet of seeds, the Royal British Legion Riders branch will cast the poppy seeds on your behalf to ensure national coverage.
There are a number of ways to get involved. Early birds who registered for free seeds will receive a pack and all schools will get an education pack to help them on their way. B & Q have agreed to sell packs of poppies and to donate all profits to the fund. Some communities are giving away packs of campaign seeds as part of a wider awareness campaign demonstrating the impact of The Great War on their locality. Or you can get seeds online from http://www.realpoppy.co.uk, where you will also find out further details. You can choose to buy 1000, 5000 or 10000 seeds at a time and, if correctly cast, a flowering rate of 85% is estimated.
Once you have your seeds, here’s how you go about making it all happen.
• First of all don’t be tempted to sow your poppy seeds too soon. Aim to stagger your plantings from late April to July of 2014 and, provided that the soil is tilled or loosened, you should have poppies blooming well into October and have a good show on August 4th, which is the ‘big day’.
• Poppies will grow in most soils but will not reach their full height unless the soil is disturbed or raked over. This is important to remember for consecutive years when they could easily become choked out by competing grasses or struggle in compacted soil.
• Poppies hate to be overcrowded. The easiest way to sow large areas is to mix a pinch of seeds with a handful of sand and broadcast sow them. (Think of honing your discus throwing technique.) For smaller areas a more controlled approach is to sow a couple of seeds every 5 inches or so and rake them in. If you do this in May, you should see shoots within a week. Keep them moist and they should romp away in mid summer, provided that the sun shines.
• Tempting though it is to take part in a spot of guerrilla gardening, it’s best not to sow your poppies near agricultural land to reduce the need for farmers to use herbicides to destroy the poppies should they become prevalent in fields of wheat, oil seed rape or barley. Don’t sow on sites of scientific interest or public access areas without the permission of the landowner. It’s soul-destroying to see your beautiful poppy patch strimmed to the ground before it’s really got going.
For a thing of beauty for one year only, that’s all there is to it. But I like to get my money’s worth out of a packet of seeds. How do you keep your poppies flowering year after year?
If your vision is for beautiful red poppies bobbing away among golden heads of grass put all thought out of your head of happily tossing a few handfuls of seeds on bare ground, freecycling the mower and putting your feet up. Poppies have a penchant for cornfields for good reason. They grow and set seed. The corn is cut and harvested. The field is ploughed and up they spring again in the disturbed soil. It’s labour intensive. These days you’re more likely to see beautiful poppies growing in the midst of road works than anywhere else.
Cultivating cornfield poppies successfully in a garden relies on choosing an area with poor soil and ensuring that it stays that way. If it’s too rich, up come the weeds to squeeze the life out of your beautiful flowers. Our most successful poppy patch at home has emerged as a result of sowing a homemade mix of field poppies, pot marigold (calendula), borage, cornflowers and sunflowers. The first three will self seed quite happily (and prolifically) but you’ll need to re sow the cornflowers and sunflowers annually. And, if you find the weeds and grass taking over, harvest all the seeds and start again next year. On a small patch (or in large pots) this is easy.
I’d like to see Bradford on Avon ‘planting the town red’ in 2014.Elsewhere in Wiltshire a group in Malmesbury has already taken up the baton and given away 1,000 packets of poppy seeds to members of the local community. Members of Malmesbury and Villages Community Area Partnership (MVCAP) have started The Great War Project which will highlight the experiences of local people before, during and after The Great War and build something positive for the future. Their first initiative is to get poppies blooming across the area.

In Bradford we’ve already flexed our community growing muscles with an edible planter in Lamb Yard, a successful community agriculture project and veg box scheme at BOACA on the Bath Road and the transformation of the railway station with creative planting. At Fitzmaurice School, where gardening is now on the curriculum we hope to be sowing a modest poppy meadow in the grounds and also sending each child home with their own poppy pot to nurture. Details of our progress will be published in the local press, on the school gardening website and on here. We are only too happy to share our experiences and offer advice to anyone who would like to join in and sow their own poppy patch. I hope you do.

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