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.

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.

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.

Making plans for next year

I’m filling in my 2021 diary, making plans for next year – I’m an optimist- determined to bring some balance to my life.

2020 did not bring the opportunity to spring clean the attic, clear cluttter, redecorate the entire house or learn Swedish. Neither did I sit back and reevaluate during lockdown. School life, if anything was busier than usual. The box of tulip bulbs in the garden shed that has been awaiting planting since October is a testament to that.

So what of 2021? More walking, more cooking, more gardening, directing a play, more family time, home improvements maybe finally getting that part in The Archers and, God willing, everyone staying healthy. All these are going in the diary before work commitments. Today’s first step was to pot up some paperwhites (finally) and to order these fragrant beauties for the garden – two more daphnes, a Carolina allspice and a winter honeysuckle.

Aftrr all, teaching is just a job. There. I’ve said it. Probably for the first time in my life. It’s what 2020 has taught me.

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.

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