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.