Monday, 31 October 2011

Less urban, more space!

The wait for a garden is over! Despite my best efforts to make the most of having barely any outdoor space, mainly by cramming our windowsills full of pot plants, my partner and I have decided that much as we love our flat we would really like to live somewhere which has a garden. I'm itching to get my hands into the earth and extend my growing beyond the limits of containers and He would like a sunny seat on which to drink a beer and relax whenever the weather allows. After some searching we've found what we have hoped for, but for what we can afford it means moving out of Bristol, although not too far.

This means that our excitement about the new house is tinged with sadness at leaving the city location we've enjoyed so much over the past two and a half years, especially walks along the harbour-side and meals out with friends in fantastic nearby restaurants. There is also the feeling of connectedness which comes from living in a city you love. We're both countryside folk by birth and upbringing, with formative years spent on farms and in woodlands, but have found ourselves stimulated and at ease with Bristol's combination of creative buzz and relatively relaxed pace of life. Our mutual passions for good food and good wine have brought us into contact with so many talented and inspiring people - connections which I hope we'll be able to sustain.

Listen to me! We're only moving five miles out of the city and it sounds like I'm moping, when in reality I can barely contain the excitement of what this change will mean. I will have a garden to play with! Not huge, but big enough to grow all sorts of useful plants; herbs, vegetables, fruit, flowers. What's more, we may even be lucky enough to have escaped the lengthy allotment waiting lists in Bristol and get our hands on a plot at the site just down the road.

So, it looks like a significant change for this blog too, as my horticultural horizons expand. I have an aim in mind, to only grow plants which are edible or medicinal, or perhaps useful in some other way. I'll try to find heritage or little-known varieties and unusual species, but not for novelty value as much as for the joy and trial of experimentation, with an emphasis on sustainable growing methods, craft and fun.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Home-made cloches for winter salads

Well, these little home-made polythene cloches haven't exactly stilled my envy of those with space for a full-size polytunnel, but at least they should enable me to extend my growing season for salads into the winter months.

A little while ago I decided to get a new shower curtain as the one in place at the time was definitely past its best. Rather than throw the thing away I thought I could probably use it somehow as the plastic was still transparent enough to let light through and I hit on the idea of making some 'tents' with it to put over my wine box growing containers. I found some metal hoops in a garden centre which fit the size of my wooden wine boxes perfectly and cut pieces of the shower curtain to cover the hoops which I then stapled in place with an ordinary stapler. I did the stapling while the hoops were in place in empty wine boxes so that I could be sure everything would fit together.

After filling the wine boxes with compost I sowed a few rows of hardy salads and winter greens in one, and planted previously grown seedlings (of the same) in the other. After giving the compost a good watering I slid the metal hoops into the corners of each box so that the compost surface was completely covered by the cloche. At the same time I planted garlic cloves into another box, but left this one uncovered.

Seedlings of mustard and lettuce have germinated well and need thinning out now. Older plants of salad onions and chard are further back.

Land cress and Claytonia (miners lettuce) were planted as plugs grown in module trays.

So far, the weather seems to have been unseasonably warm this autumn and everything under the cloches has grown exceedingly quickly without any real need for the protection they provide. It will be interesting to see how the cloches and the plants hold up as the weather turns colder and whether or not I can keep them cropping on into the spring.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Sprouting a sweet potato

This is my first blog post in a while. Having started a new job at the beginning of October I've been getting into a new routine and the last few weeks seem to have flown by. But while watering a few dry spots on my windowsill today I noticed how well the sweet potato I've been sprouting is coming on and felt compelled to write about it. My partner is trying to fill his large and sunny office windowsills with plants while spending as little as possible, so I've been trying to grow all sorts of interesting edibles from scratch. Apparently, you can eat the leaves and young shoots of sweet potato plants so even if we don't get any tubers we'll still have something to munch on.

As the nights are starting to draw in and temperatures are getting colder it may seem an odd time of year to be growing a sweet potato, being that the plant originates from South and Central America and generally prefers warm growing conditions with plenty of light. However, when I decided to try sprouting a supermarket-bought tuber back in August I was more concerned with whether I could persuade it to produce a shoot than how I would keep it alive through the winter!

After some research on the internet it seemed best to try sprouting the tuber by suspending it in a container of water, pointy end down. I used corn-on-the-cob spikes stuck into the sides of the sweet potato but I think skewers or cocktail sticks would work just as well. I also used an organic sweet potato as I thought it would be less likely to have been treating with some kind of anti-sprouting compound. I read that scrubbing the tuber beforehand can also help to remove any anti-sprouting treatments.

The shape of the tuber and the arm-like spikes I had stuck in its sides made my sweet potato look a bit like  a creature so I gave it some eyes too!

The growth you can see in the picture has taken around two months to develop. Most of that time the tuber was only growing roots, which took a while to get going. Now that leaves have sprouted the growth seems to be more rapid. I now have to decide what to do next - should I just pot up the tuber into one container of compost or slice off come of the shoots and try to get those to root? Maybe I'll do both and write a future post about which works best and whether I can keep the sweet potato alive through the winter.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A week in the herb field

                           The herb field at The Organic Herb Trading Company

In my previous job I spent over two years growing a range of different herbs, and for most of that time I was propagating them - starting off new plants from seed, cuttings or division. The work was enjoyable and absorbing and my experience of the plants was deepened by the intimacy of helping them to procreate. We were producing herbs for sale and to make sales easy everything was grown in containers. This enabled me to develop an understanding of a certain way of growing, one requiring a high degree of care and attention to the plants and a number of artificial measures to ensure their healthy growth into maturity, but I found it limiting in that I had no practical experience of how to grow these plants in the soil.

With some time on my hands before starting a new job I decided it was about time I tried to get to know herbs on their own terms, with their roots in the ground, leaves in the rain and flowers in the sun. After making some enquiries, a friend recommended that I spend some time at The Organic Herb Trading Company in Milverton, Somerset, where I could work as a volunteer in return for food and lodgings.

I arrived in Milverton just after eight on a Monday morning, having spent the previous (rainy) weekend staying in Exmoor. Driving just out of the village we turned off the main road into a lane which ran up a hillside and into the car-park of Organic Herb Trading - I was surprised to see a number of cars and a reasonably large building which I later found out housed the main part of the business; offices and space for the processing of herbs which were imported from various parts of the world.

The caravans were tucked around the corner above the car-park, and it was there that I found Sarah, the only employee paid to work in the herb field full time. She welcomed me and showed me to the caravan which would be my home for the week and where I unloaded my bags. It was well equipped with its own kitchen and plenty of space, plus an outdoor covered area with a table and seats and decking made from pallets. The compost loo and shower I would be using were over in a building beside the factory, and I was glad I'd brought my torch for making the journey after dark.

              The seating area outside my caravan surrounded by a bed of culinary herbs

Our main job for the day was weeding - there isn't much else to do in the herb field when it's raining because the herbs can only be harvested in dry weather. The herb beds are organized in blocks, with rows of herbs running across a south-facing slope. At this time of year most of the plants have finished flowering, but there were still the bright orange flowers of Calendula to contrast with the fading purple-pink petals of Echinacea. 

The funny thing about weeding in a herb field is that so many of the weeds are herbs themselves, growing either from seeds already in the soil or from nearby crops which have seeded around. Sarah decided that the Sheep Sorrel weeds could stay as they would be useful and could easily be transplanted to another bed for cultivation. She'd recently needed dandelion to harvest for a pet food producer so there were plenty of these around too.

Our weeding the following day was more heavy-duty, clearing brambles and nettles from the sides of two blocks of beds and cutting back overgrown Buddleia. And the rain continued. Happily, the weather changed on Wednesday which meant we were able to get some harvesting done, so we spent several hours cutting comfrey into harvest sacks, weighing and recording. In total we harvested 149 kilos of comfrey leaf! We then had to process the comfrey by chopping it (using an old chaff cutting machine) and dividing it up into boxes to go into the dryer.

Thursday was spent with the compost heaps. We turned one between us and built another, using a mixture of wood chippings and herb waste from the factory - bags of powdery material made up of anything from nettles to ginger. It was a physical and satisfying day. Friday was sunny and perfect for harvesting Calendula flowers, which was probably my favourite job because I seem to get great enjoyment from picking things. Spreading out the flowers on screens to dry was such a joy - the bright orange petals are exquisitely soft on the fingertips and I felt like I was experiencing one of life's most innocently sensual pleasures.

              Calendula flowers laid out on a screen before being transferred to the dryer

Another great pleasure of the week was how good everything I ate tasted when I was truly hungry from physical work. Sarah and her partner Mike grow lots of vegetables around the caravans and I had the privilege of being able to use whatever they had grown. The tomatoes were astonishingly good, as were the cucumbers - warm and fresh and all the more delicious for having never seen a refrigerator. I think I ate more tomatoes in one week than any human probably should, but saw no ill effects from it!

I also had the pleasure of a tour around the tincture-making department with a herbalist. Although new herbal medicine legislation has greatly reduced the number of tinctures made at Organic Herb Trading, there was still enough going on for me to be fascinated by the equipment and the smells of the oils and tinctures.

All in all it was a wonderful week. Sarah was fantastic company and taught me a lot about field-grown herbs. I have never seen such healthy sage and rosemary plants, and the whole field buzzed with life and vitality. The plants showed me that they don't need to be fussed and mollycoddled when grown in the ground - given healthy soil they will go on producing crop after crop, some of them for years on end. I have come back re-inspired by herbs and how they can help us to heal.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Saffron on the Windowsill

Growing herbs in a limited space can be more rewarding than growing vegetables for the simple reason that they offer the chance of a kind of self-sufficiency. No matter how productive my tomato plants or my radishes are I know I will be buying many more of them to eat than I can grow in the space that I have. This means that while my home-grown produce takes a star turn at the occasional meal it is never more than a fleeting accompaniment to food from further afield. Not so with the herbs! The intensity of flavour in each rosemary leaf, sprig of mint or cup of chopped parsley means that a little herb goes a long way - or at least far enough that my containers provide enough for my needs. I won't be harvesting any horseradish until autumn next year, but when I do there should be plenty of root to see us through a winter of roasts with homemade horseradish sauce.

To extend this herbal self-sufficiency further I have decided to try growing the spice renowned for its flavour and expense, saffron. I've only cooked with it once before, but my reasoning is that as most recipes recommend it is used sparingly, I may be able to grow enough to serve my needs.

I ordered corms online, trusting that I would be sent genuine saffron and not any other kind of crocus, as saffron is the only species which produces edible stamens. Hopefully, when they flower it will be obvious whether they are true saffron or not from the size of the stamens and from the look and shape of the flowers. The corms are rather beautiful in themselves, heavy for their size with a silky, papery surface. Some of them have rather promising-looking small white shoots beginning to push outwards.

I have planted the corms a couple of inches deep in three-litre sized pots, five corms per pot. Hopefully, this will give them enough space to grow a decent root system without swamping them in a container which is too large. I gave them a light watering to settle in the compost and put them on a sunny windowsill - now all I can do is wait. Apparently, they will flower sometime between October and December of this year, fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Late Summer Harvests

Growing in containers means I've got limited space to play with, and I can't really get going with autumn and winter vegetable crops until the summer ones have finished. I have to decide how long to keep the summer crops growing before I remove them to make way for the next batch of vegetables. My windowsills are crowded with seedlings which need to go outside so that I can keep them growing while it's still relatively warm.

At the moment I'm harvesting tomatoes from four large plants growing in two bags of compost, but they're taking their time to ripen and I'm considering picking them green for chutney or ripening them indoors. I'm also picking radish pods whenever I go out to water the containers. They're juicy and crunchy and sometimes surprisingly hot, with a hint of the flavour of raw cauliflower. Chard and red mustard leaves are now large enough to be picked for salad.

Happily my late nasturtiums are flowering - I thought I hadn't sown in time but I now have rich blood-red flowers hovering amongst the dark green leaves like snake heads. The name of the variety is 'Cobra' which now seems very apt.

As for the herbs, the peppermint is forming a large productive plant which is giving plenty of tips to pick now for tea, and will give me lots of leaves to dry for tea in the winter when I cut it back in a month or so. I've already cut back the lemon balm, garden mint and feverfew. Yarrow and skullcap are both still flowering under the shade of the tomatoes, and the horseradish is producing large, leathery leaves. Winter savoury and rosemary are looking less happy, as they love hot, dry weather. I will try potting them up with plenty of grit to give them a boost.

On the windowsills, my next batch of parsley is coming on, as well as salad burnet, which has a lovely cool cucumber flavour. And I'm growing Plantago coronopus as a new perennial salad leaf to try, which is nearly ready to pick. My little myrtle bush is covered in green berries which I'm hoping will ripen, although I'm not sure what I will use them for as I won't get enough for myrtle gin. They are purple when ripe, quite tasty but somewhat astringent.

I'm also bringing on some tree onion bulbils ready to go outside next year. This is an interesting perennial onion, Allium cepa proliferum, which forms bulbils at the top of its leaves in the summer that will root to produce new plants.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Hawthorn Berry Tincture

I've never made a herbal tincture before, but I had the opportunity to taste a number of tinctures while participating in a herbal medicine evening course in the spring, and while most of them tasted somewhat less than delightful (as you might expect) the hawthorn berry tincture stood out as being rather more pleasant. The hedgerows are full of haws at the moment because hawthorn trees, most commonly Crataegus monogyna in the UK, are often abundantly productive.

Of course, herbal tinctures are not necessarily supposed to be delicious, but instead beneficial in terms of promoting health and well-being. Before continuing I should state that I am not a herbalist and not qualified to prescribe or recommend any herbal medicine, I simply intend to share my thoughts and doings regarding my use of herbs at home. The advice of a qualified medical professional should be sought where any health problem is of concern. As for foraging for herbs, plant identification is crucial - you must be confident that you know what you're picking. And it makes sense to tread lightly at all times, be grateful for what you find, never take more than you need and don't strip a wild plant or dig one up.

Hawthorn is a remarkable plant which is renowned as a heart and circulatory system tonic, especially when taken regularly over a long period of time. It appears to improve the circulation around the heart and helps to support and maintain the health of the heart muscle. I've never suffered from any heart problems, but after learning more about the heart and how it works (worth a post in its own right) this incredible organ seems to be so crucial to general good health, both physically and psychologically, that I'm very happy to look after mine a bit more!

Hawthorn's beneficial effects are only seen when a preparation is made from the whole plant material - laboratory efforts to isolate specific chemical compounds have been ineffective. According to most of the information I have read, it is best to make a tincture from flowers, leaves and berries, but as I've missed the flowering stage I'm making a tincture from the berries which I will use to steep leaves and flowers that I'll pick next year.

My first task was to head out and pick some haws. I found plenty in a hedgerow in Ashton Court Estate, Bristol, and commenced picking. It was a pleasantly meditative way to spend an hour or so and I was intrigued at how the berries varied from tree to tree, some were round, others more elongated and their colour ranged from bright red to deep maroon. I also picked some blackberries as I went along.

Starting off the tincture itself was just as easy. I filled a jar with the berries and poured in enough vodka (40% proof) to cover them, before putting on the lid and giving it a shake. I'd saved a brown glass bottle with a screw cap which made a perfect tincture jar, as the dark glass helps prevent light damage to the tincture. I labelled the jar with the date and what it contains and put it in a cupboard. All I need to do from now on is shake the mixture once a week for six to eight weeks and then strain off the liquid, which will be my tincture.

I'll blog about the first tasting when it's ready and include some of what I've learnt about the heart and how it works.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Abbey House Gardens

Having worked at a busy herb nursery for the last couple of years, the frantic growing season usually passed me by in a blur of watering, feeding, propagating, potting and pest hunting. Now that I find myself with a (hopefully short) hiatus between jobs which has happened to fall at the tail end of the summer, I'm trying to make the most of the opportunity to visit some gardens in the area before the blooms fade.

So yesterday I headed off with a friend to Abbey House Gardens in Malmesbury. Right in the heart of the hilltop town the gardens surround the beautiful grey stone Abbey House, home of the Pollard family since 1994. The gardens were once cultivated by Benedictine monks and Ian Pollard's work in developing them has successfully combined these historical influences with more contemporary garden design.

We let the garden lead us and ignored the map in the leaflet, making own our way round - I much prefer to explore a garden bit by bit. First we came to the knot garden, satisfyingly neat, clipped box hedges were filled with bright colour. An intricately clipped square knot of box and germander at the base of a standard tree really intrigued us.

We then passed through the carved stone 'Saxon Arch' onto the upper lawn, overlooked by the walls of Malmesbury Abbey and with every border gloriously filled with roses. We followed the hedge around behind the lawn, passing crab apples red and yellow, and carried on down between herbaceous borders full to bursting with summer exuberance. The stew pond full of enormous koi carp held our attention for a while, and although I'm sure these aren't destined for any stew it's an interesting demonstration of the monastic history of the garden.

The herb garden of raised beds is enclosed by 'cloisters' of climbing plants, a staggeringly effective mass of flowering clematis, roses and fruit cordons. We were compelled to sit for a while and drink it in, although as herb growers we were itching to dive in and cut back the perennial herbs which had finished flowering.

On the far side of the house the character of the garden instantly changes. The control and precision of the lines and planting in front of the house relaxes into naturalistic woodland sloping down to the river. We meandered along the shady path downhill, crossing the River Avon on stepping stones. Following the path we came to a deliciously secluded waterfall before emerging into the sunshine at the summit of a little hill looking across the river and back up towards the house. Heavy rain the day before had given the river water an eerie opaqueness which contrasted with the blue of the sky.

I could keep writing, but I'll end by saying that the garden will be worth a visit when the autumn colours arrive, and again in spring to see the laburnum tunnel in full glory. Filled with unusual sculptures, inspired planting and even with its own resident tortoise, this garden reminded me of the power of a great garden to influence mood and induce calm, even in a town centre.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Seed Sowing for Autumn

This week I'm planning to do some seed sowing to keep my containers full with plenty of tasty leaf crops growing on into the autumn and winter. Late summer is the perfect time to sow any vegetables which would readily bolt if grown in spring and early summer. Bulb fennel, oriental vegetables like pak choi, lettuce and salad brassicas are all likely to run to flower if they are grown too early in the year. This isn't always a bad thing - radishes left to flower will produce tasty, edible seed pods which can be eaten raw, and sometimes it's interesting to see vegetables in flower which would normally be harvested before they reach that stage of their life cycle. But for the most part, the flavour of leaf vegetables and herbs like mint becomes bitter and unpalatable when they are flowering.

I will be sowing the following seeds this week:

White Stem Salad Onion 'Feast' - bred to yield very long white bulbs, giving an onion that looks like a small leek.

Rocket - a variety bred to be mild in flavour

Land Cress - with a flavour similar to watercress, this salad plant is supposed to be very hardy, growing even in winter

Mustard Greens 'Osaka Purple' - dark purple mustard greens, very hot when raw but mild and tasty when cooked. Supposed to be very easy to grow and cold hardy.

Winter Pursane (Claytonia perfoliata) - easy to grow, hardy, produces crunchy, succulent leaves

Turnip Greens 'Rapa Senza Testa' - Another easily grown leaf crop, leaves can be eaten raw or cooked

Winter Butterhead Lettuce 'Winter Marvel' - this is a cold-resistant lettuce which will carry on producing leaf under some protection through the winter

I have already started growing some Giant Red Mustard which is ready to prick out into rows in a container. The seed I had was old but has germinated well. Also germinating already are parsley (flat leaf) and salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) which has a surprisingly delicious cucumber-flavoured leaf.

I once heard parsley described as more of a vegetable than a herb - it is certainly a nutritious addition to a salad or soup, but this often makes me wonder about the distinction we make between herbs and vegetables. Plenty of fruits and vegetables are hyped as 'superfoods', containing antioxidants and vitamins in abundance, with health benefits which would rival that of any herbal supplement.  While often seen merely as flavour-enhancers, the herbs commonly used in cooking contain compounds which help the body to digest and absorb the nutrients it is ingesting. Good health comes from eating as wide a variety of plant foods as possible, however we choose to define them.

The enjoyment for me comes from growing plants with which I can have more than a passing acquaintance. The intimacy of watching a plant grow from seed to maturity at close hand is only deepened when I can appreciate its beauty, savour its aroma and relish its flavour.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Autumnal August

It's one of those typically British summer days which make August feel more like October. The grey cloud of a rainy morning has failed to lift and we're left with a cool and overcast afternoon. Never mind - I've got fresh peppermint tea in my mug and lush, leafy basil growing on my windowsill, both happy reminders that there are some good growing days left before the evenings start coming early and frosts threaten.

Out in the little yard behind the flat the tomato plants I'm growing in compost bags seem intent on sprawling way beyond the boundaries I've tried to set for them with canes and string. Even my efforts to restrict their growth by pinching out tips and side-shoots don't seem to have reigned in their exuberance. They're bearing plenty of fruit too, so I'll keep up the twice-weekly liquid feeds with Maxicrop and hope we get some sun soon to speed up ripening.

The gently trailing stems of winter savory (Satureja montana), happy in its little pot, sparkle with tubular white-pink flowers, bright against the pungent green foliage. They are a delicious treat when I go out to water the containers, sweetly fragrant with a peppery finish - I keep meaning to scatter them over a salad, but can't resist eating each one I pick. A bunch of its annual cousin, summer savory (Satureja hortensis), came in the veg box last week and I used it yesterday with Adzuki beans, parsley, onions and tomatoes to make a summer bean stew. Another astonishingly good food and herb combination which works well in both the eating and the digesting of the dish.

Winter savory is a perennial herb found in the Mediterranean region (although possibly originating from central Asia), happiest in a sunny spot with good drainage. Its taste and aroma are often compared to that of thyme, with a pungency when fresh which disappears on cooking. Like summer savory it is fantastic cooked with beans and pulses, but it's also a good match for meats and fish. A versatile herb which deserves to be much more widely known and used, it is definitely one of my favourites. Bees also love it and it yields an antiseptic essential oil used in aromatherapy.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Why Herbs?

Why write about herbs? Herbs are a uniquely fascinating and generous group of plants to grow, use and learn about. Most of us who cook at home are familiar with using herbs in various forms and several commonly used fresh herbs are now standard supermarket fare; stocked alongside vegetables and salads they are bundled into plastic bags or potted to grow and cut when we need them. We use them for flavour and aroma, to lift an otherwise mundane dish beyond its basic ingredients, or to add authenticity to world cuisine - think of sage and onion stuffing or lemongrass and thai basil in a curry.

Herbs are also well-known for their medicinal properties; from headache relief to providing modern medicine with some of the tools to help fight cancer, many pharmaceutical drugs are based on or derived from chemical compounds identified in plants which can help to heal us. Whole areas of alternative medicine have grown out of the various ways that herbs can be used, including aromatherapy, homeopathy and herbalism. Around the world many communities rely on herbal remedies for health.

Herbs also link us to our social and scientific history. Medical herbalism forms a major (and often political and controversial part) of the history of modern medicine. Botany arose from the attempts of plant hunters, herbalists, doctors and scientists to identify and classify the plants they were using and discovering, many of them medicinal herbs, from all around the world. A wealth of folklore surrounds the traditional uses and customs associated with herbs and native plants in almost every culture on earth, much of which is being lost as we move further away from traditional ways of living.

Herbs are beautiful enough to be grown as ornamental plants in their own right. Fennel and Goat's rue are perfectly at home in garden borders bursting with herbaceous perennials at the height of their summer bloom. Creeping Thymes tumble over rockeries, fragrant favourites of bumble bees and gardeners. Height and structure come from shrub Myrtles and Rosemary, or even trees like Elder and Bay.

Herbs are also recreational in more prohibited ways. The capacity of plants to produce substances which affect our bodies even extends to the alteration of our state of consciousness and our experience of reality. Mind-altering herbs are still used in traditional cultures to commune with ancestors and spirits as a very real part of daily life, whereas modern attitudes towards medicinal herbs have come to include an element of fear - herbs can have powerful effects on the body and if used incorrectly can cause harm and even fatality.

Herbs delight us, heal us, intoxicate and feed us. They link us to our history and folk traditions and provide us with ways to rediscover our cultural roots. They blur the boundaries between food and medicine and continue growing as weeds even if we disregard them.