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, 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.

Project Buzz

IMG_3528pic courtesy of Sara Willman

We all need to do our bit to help the bees. My penchant for cut flowers and herbs mean that there is usually plenty for bees to forage on in the garden but I’ve only recently got back in touch with my wildflower habit. My first proper school project was about British native wildflowers. For months in the summer of 1974, I scoured the area with my mum’s polaroid camera photographing wildflowers in the fields around our house, identifying them and writing about them in my notebook. I may even have picked the odd few and pressed them into the book too. (Always a rebel!) Of course back in the ’70s there were plenty of wildflower meadows around the country. We took them for granted like getting a bottle of dandelion and burdock from the pop lorry on a Thursday, fish and chips on Friday and washing your hair on a Sunday night.

Over the Summer I have made hundreds of seedballs with various children at farm shops, fetes and National Trust properties. (Thankyou Seedball for the raw materials.) I have planted up wildflower verges and basked in the bee heaven that is my allotment cutting patch. Now it’s time to spread the bee message with my school gardening class. We have been the grateful recipients of all sorts of bee friendly plant goodies on Freecycle – buddleia, echinops, lavender as well as avid sowers and growers of cornflowers and wallflowers. The bees should be very happy to call in on the garden at Fitzmaurice Primary School next year.

I’ve become friends with the bee keeper at The Courts in Holt where I developed a bee trail back in August for children to find out about planting to attract bees. This means I now have a ready supply of beeswax for candlemaking and to add to calendula petals and olive oil to make a magical salve.

I’ve visited lots of hives in various gardens and listened to tales of woe from last year when the weather was so awful. I’ve even contemplated installing a hive or two of my own but the regs on my allotment agreement prevent me keeping livestock (and bees are livestock apparently).

Yesterday I learnt of another exciting bee promotion project so I am honour-bound to pass it on to you, dear reader. Alys Fowler (late of Gardeners’ World and rebel gardener) and Steve Benbow (London beekeeper) have collaborated on a book. “Letters to a Beekeeper”. You’ll find out all about it here. More than that, you can help make this book a reality by directly funding its publication by pledging in advance for a copy in a number of ways. This book appeals to me because it’s about gardening in a way that looks at the bigger picture, breaks a few rules along the way and has grown out of a shared passion for growing food and keeping the bees happy even in the most uninspiring of areas. If you are excited by the idea, you know what to do. I can’t wait to read it.

I’ve already started planting next year’s bee cafe by expanding my cutting patch and the bee trail at the Courts is to become a regular fixture during all four seasons. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone planted an all seasons garden for bees?

Hetty Hyssop and the Case of the Missing Bouquet Garni

The Courts_July2011 003
Thanks to all the lovely children, parents and grandparents who came to dabble in a bit of herblore at The Courts in Holt today. Professor Rosemary Spongle had plenty of help to find the missing herbs and the Orchard Room was a truly relaxing place on probably the hottest day of the year so far.
I promised to post up the recipes for lavender bath milk and lavender bath bombs so that anyone can dabble and experiment over the holidays.These recipes will work just as well with other fragrant plants. Chamomile or jasmine works well in the bath bombs or try rose petals in the milk. And if you’re feeling adventurous, try adding some food colouring.

Bath Bombs
300g bicarbonate of soda
150g powdered citric acid
5 tablespoons dried lavender (or alternative)
12 drops lavender essential oil (or alternative)
witch hazel

Sift together the bicarb and citric acid until well blended. Mix in the oil and dried flowers.
Spray or squirt on some witch hazel. You’re aiming for a mixture which is wet enough to stick together but not so much that it starts to fizz.
Press the damp mixture into silicon moulds, bun tins or large ice cube trays. Small is good for little hands and silicon is great because you can turn the contents out easily.
Leave to harden for up to an hour. Ours took 15 minutes today.Then turn out onto greaseproof paper and allow to harden further.
When fully set, pack up into paper and tie with raffia or store in an airtight glass jar. Great for you or to give away as presents to your friends.

Bath Milk
200g powdered milk
120g Epsom salts
12 drops essential oil (rose or lavender)
a handful of dried rose petals or dried lavender flowers

Mix together the milk and salts. Add the oil and dried flowers/petals and give it a gentle stir. Store in an airtight jar where it will keep for up to a year.
Scatter a handful of the mixture under running water for a lovely relaxing bath.

And for those of you who like to eat your lavender, there’s a knock out recipe for lavender scones here

And finally a little request….if any parents took pics of their children getting stuck in and are prepared to let me have one or two for my records, I’d be really grateful. Perhaps in exchange for a free place on one of Forest School workshops I’m running at Hartley Farm in August. Email me at if interested.

I’ll be back at the Courts on Thursday August 15th following in the footsteps of the great Victorian Plant hunters and making wild art on the 22nd. Hope to see you there.

Project Buzz


Did you know that bees are responsible for one in three mouthfulls of food that we eat? They may be small but they are vital. The poor weather last Summer saw many hives of bees lost – including those at the Courts Gardens in Holt where I am running school holiday activities for children on Thursdays over the next few weeks.

 We started today with ‘Project Buzz’ all about being a friend to bees.This year, with new occupants, the hives at The Courts are doing well and we aim to keep it that way.  We’ll hunted down some bee friendly plants which will keep them fed all year round, made some wildflower seedballs thanks to  these guys to take home and sow in the Autumn, played a few games and even making beeswax candles.

Next week we’re making things with herbs and helping Hetty Hyssop solve the case of the missing Bouquet Garni. The fun starts at 11am and it’s free to National Trust members. (Normal entry fee applies to non-members.) And if you didn’r make it today and are looking for ways to keep the bees happy, check out this link for information and advice on how to plant a bee-friendly garden.

A passion for garden thugs

lemon balm shoots

Yes. I know it’s been ages ….but when there’s no time for blogging there’s more time for lots of exciting projects. You will be informed in due course. (What a tease!)

I admit to having a bit of a soft spot for some garden thugs – mint, borage. lemon balm….you know, the kind of plants that once planted never seem to go away and benefit from a bit of roughing up and restriction. Tough love rules where these fellas are concerned.

It won’t have escaped your notice that I’m also a succour for a plant that is multi-purpose. If it smells good, tastes great, is good for you and holds its own in a bunch of cut flowers I’m a fan.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), a member of the mint family, is considered to be a calming herb helping to reduce stress and anxiety, promote sleep and  improve appetite.  Even before the Middle Ages, it was steeped in wine to lift the spirits, help heal wounds, and treat venomous insect bites and stings. I happened to mention that it helped with stressful situations and found several pupils at school snacking on the odd leaf around exam time last year. (Using it to make tea or sorbet is better.)

As you see from the pic, we’ll have to wait a bit for lemon balm in abundance but the taste of Summer is only weeks away. Jekka’s herb cookbook has several recipes for lemon balm but my all-time favourite use for it is not in her book. Jekka. let me enlighten you, my friend. The delights of lemon balm pesto await. I can’t remember where it came from but I do know that I’ve twiddled with the original recipe, as is my wont. Here it is for when your garden and the supermarket carpark is over run with the stuff.  You won’t regret it.

Lemon Balm Pesto

2 packed cups of lemon balm leaves

3 cloves garlic

1/2 cup walnuts

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice (fresh)

3-4 tablespoons olive oil


Easy peasy method… Combine the lemon balm, garlic, and walnuts in a food processor. Give it a quick whizz until everything is finely chopped, but not completely pulverised. Add the lemon and slowly drizzle in the oil while the machine is running. Add salt to taste.

Use some elbow grease method…. Finely chop a 1/3 cup of the lemon balm with the garlic. Continue chopping the lemon balm, a 1/3 cup at a time and working it in. 

Once all the lemon balm is mixed in, start incorporating the walnuts into the mix. Keep chopping until everything is very finely mixed. It should take about 20 minutes and should leave you glowing nicely.

Place everything in a bowl, add lemon, oil, and salt. Stir to mix well. 

Meanwhile during #britishflowers hour on Twitter a week or so ago. (Monday 8-9pm, for the uninitiated) someone happened to mention Lime Balm in cut flower arrangements. There’s a lime version? My ears pricked up. I had to have some.

Guess what? Everybody wanted some but nobody had any. Cue finding the detective outfit in the dressing up box. I AM the reincarnation of Miss Marple without the ability to knit obviously. And so, my friends, I can reveal that I will soon have some seeds in my possession courtesy of a roundabout route involving my lovely stateside sister.

I will publish developments and may be in the market for some swopsies. Watch this space.

Taking stock

It hasn’t been the best of growing seasons……..potato blight, tomato blight, garlic rust, bumper slugs, poor fruit crops – you name it; some gardener is talking about it. Now’s the time of year to look back over the successes and failures of the past year and to plan for the next one – in growing terms at least.

One of my long term plans has been to grow more fruit. Gradually we have filled the boundaries of the garden with espalliered apples and pears and found space for a small orchardy-type thing with quince, greengages and plums.In view of the wierd weather I am keen to plant local varieties which do well on our heavy clay soils or late flowering varieties which, by all accounts, have done much better than others this year.

So I’m on the hunt for two apple trees to swell the numbers. One is *Celt* which was popular during the forties and is reputed to have been developed in Melksham, about 5 miles away from here. The other pictured above (thanks to Nick at Habitat Aid)  is the lovely ancient *Court Pendu Plat* whichI first came across at the Weald and Downland Museum and has been their best cropper by far this year. It’s a late flowerer and dates from at least the early seventeeth century and possibly much earlier than that. (Think Romans).

I’m hoping both will do well for me and will provide me with a good crop to take with me when running my *Dig for Victory* and *Romans at Home* school workshops next year.

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