Monday, 30 July 2012

How not to grow garlic!

The garlic bulbs I've harvested this summer were planted last autumn, when I still lived in Bristol. Because I had no ground to grow anything in at the time, I tried growing garlic in compost in wooden wine boxes outside our flat. The photograph shows the result of my efforts with a standard-sized bulb alongside for comparison.

The garlic bulbs produced are disappointingly small and only some of them have divided up into cloves within the bulb. This year I will be doing things differently, growing garlic in the ground on my allotment, but I think it's worth looking at where I went wrong last year and how a better crop of garlic might be produced from container growing.

Firstly, the garlic cloves I planted were from shop-bought garlic intended for cooking, not growing. I have had success in the past growing garlic I bought from a market stall, but I grew it in the ground not in a container. This year I'm planning to buy some bulbs sold specifically for growing on, although hopefully I will be able to use some of the cloves I grow for planting in future years.

Secondly, I am aware that I tried to grow too many cloves for a small space. Perhaps the bulbs would have developed properly if I had planted fewer of them and they had more room to grow. The container was certainly deep enough for growing garlic, but by planting too many cloves there may not have been enough nutrients in the compost to sustain their growth. (I recognise this tendency in myself to plant and sow too densely with other crops too - I find it difficult to thin out sowings and often underestimate planting distances when setting out plugs. Hopefully, recognising it will help me to correct it!)

Also, I planted some winter salad crops (like winter purslane and rocket) between the rows of garlic, so although there was no weed competition maybe there was still too much competition from my other crops, especially as it was all in a container!

It's possible that not all of the bulbs divided into cloves because the weather wasn't cold enough through the winter here. I've read that garlic is best planted in the autumn so that the cold winter temperatures stimulate the bulb to divide. Last winter was very mild in this area so despite my autumn planting it seems the garlic did not get that stimulation.

So lessons learnt for planting garlic this year - buy suitable garlic, get the spacings right and don't try to plant other crops too close. I can't do much about the winter weather except hope it's cold enough!

Monday, 23 July 2012

Drying Herbs to Make Tea

As my Calendula officinalis plants on the allotment are producing so many gorgeous flowers at the moment I've decided to harvest them for drying to make tea. The recent improvement in the weather has helped with this considerably because flowers are best harvested when they are dry, ideally on a sunny day. I'm usually able to fill a bag with flowers whenever I go to up there as picking the flowers encourages the plants to produce more in their efforts to reproduce and set seed for the next generation.

On a small scale, I find the best way to dry herbs (flowers and leaves) for making tea is to lay the plant material out on paper in a cardboard box and keep the box somewhere dry but away from direct sunlight. I've been turning the Calendula flowers over from time to time to help them dry evenly, usually once or twice a day when I remember to. Gradually the petals will darken in colour and curl up, starting to fall away from the flower base as they dry out. Once the petals are completely dry I'll gather them all up and store them in a container somewhere dry and dark. Hopefully I'll have enough Calendula tea to be able to give some away as Christmas presents.

Calendula is an anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal herb and can be used externally (as a lotion, poultice or balm) to treat skin infection or injury, or internally. Drunk as a tea it helps with indigestion and menstrual problems and it has a lymphatic action which can help clear up skin problems. The tea is simply made by pouring just-boiled water onto one or two teaspoons of flowers and infusing for ten minutes or so. The infusion takes on a delicate, sunshine colour which is very warming and brightening when made from dried flowers in the darkness of winter.

I've also been harvesting peppermint for drying. Before the plants start to show signs of flowering I cut them back to the base and lay out the stems in boxes as with the Calendula above. As the leaves dry out they become crumbly and come away from the stems easily, ready to store for winter use when completely dry. The mint plants will carry on growing and should give me another crop or two before the cold weather comes.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Edible or medicinal plants I pass on my walk to work

On my route to and from work I walk along pavements, down footpaths and across fields. I'm always interested in (and distracted by) the plants I pass as I go, especially the ones I can recognize as either edible or medicinal (or both). My journey home from work today took much longer than usual because I decided to photograph as many plants as I could for this post (the photos are intended as illustration only and not as an aid to identification, best consult a good field guide).

Wild oregano (Origanum vulgare
Lovely to see this in flower.

Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)
So common it is easy to overlook, but an important medicinal plant.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Young leaves are good in salads, dried leaves and flowers make a great digestive tea.

Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)
Soothing, mucilaginous herb. Good to eat too.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
Traditionally used to flavour beer. Often found at crossroads.

Vervain (Verbena officinalis)
Such a beautiful herb. Sorry the picture isn't very clear!

Red clover (Trifolium pratense)
Another plant that is good for food and medicine.

Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris)
Flowering amongst the grass and clover.

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)
Spires of golden yellow emerge from the base of a bramble hedge.

Nettles (Urtica dioica)
Another common one, good as a vegetable and as a medicinal tea.

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea)
Used as a herb, as a medicine and to clarify beer.

There are many other useful plants that I walk past, such as dandelions, poppies, elder, brambles, beech, horse chestnut, hazel and greater plantain, and probably many more that I have forgotten or don't know. I really enjoy the sense of connection I get from being able to identify wild plants, but at the same time I'm aware that identifying a herb is only the start of the process of getting to know the herb and how to use it, especially as a medicine.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Hawthorn tincture completed!

Last week I completed the final stage of producing my own hawthorn tincture. Having made a tincture from hawthorn berries last autumn (by steeping them in vodka) I then used this as the liquid (or menstruum in herbalist-speak) to soak fresh hawthorn flowers and leaves that I picked in May. I have written about both of these processes in previous posts. All that remained to do was to strain off the tincture from the plant material, and having done that I now have a complete hawthorn tincture which I am storing in a brown glass bottle in a cupboard to prevent any damage that exposure to light may do over time. I used a sieve to strain off the tincture, giving the soaked flowers a good squeeze by hand to get as much liquid out as possible, but a tincture press would be the best way to extract the maximum liquid content from the plant material.

The resulting tincture is dark, rusty-red in colour, with some floating sediment (probably due to my rudimentary straining method) and smells distinctly autumnal, rich, rounded and fruity. It tastes surprisingly sweet with a hint of astringency at the back of the tongue.

I decided to make a hawthorn tincture because it seemed like a straightforward choice for a first tincture. I knew I could identify the plant and would have easy access to the plant parts I needed to collect for use, as hawthorn trees are found in almost every native hedgerow here. In terms of its medicinal qualities, hawthorn is a heart and circulatory system tonic which is reputed to improve the circulation of blood through the heart and is beneficial to the action of the heart muscle. I tend to assume that my heart is fairly healthy due to my age and my active job, but it will be interesting to see whether I can feel any benefit from taking the hawthorn tincture daily.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Why I work with plants

I'm always interested in the stories behind how people come to discover their passion in life, perhaps because it took me a while to find my own. This story isn't about which courses I've studied and which jobs I've had, it's about a moment in my life that sparked a process of realisation which led to where I am now and which continues to lead me.

Travel means different things to different people. Sometimes people travel because they are searching for love, or for adventure, sometimes as an escape, or as a way to learn more about the world. There are wonders out there, natural and man-made, and many different ways of living to be experienced and explored. I think all of these things motivated me to travel to Nepal.

In 2006 I joined a group of volunteers from the UK and the US taking part in a seven month long community-centred programme organised by a charity called SPW. We travelled to Nepal in January and after a month of training in a village just outside Kathmandu (the Nepali capital) we were placed with Nepali volunteers in village communities in the Terai, an area of Nepal which borders India. We began teaching in our placement schools and working with community groups on environmental issues, trying to build a rapport with local people and establish links with other charities working in the area.

Several months into our placement the strikes and civil unrest which had been simmering for some time boiled over into a revolution which led to the downfall of the Nepali monarchy. In the midst of this the charity we were volunteering with pulled us back to Kathmandu for our own safety, despite the fact that most of the major protests were concentrated there, as we could be flown out of the country at short notice if the situation deteriorated even further. We spent a month under curfew in a hotel in the city, able to leave the building only for short periods of time.

Gradually things normalized enough for us to return to our placements and continue the work we had started. Unfortunately the disruption to our program meant that most of the volunteers felt they could no longer continue until the end of the seven months, and I seriously considered leaving for home too, although I did not. I'm glad that I managed to complete what I had set out to, partly because it meant that when the programme was finished I could leave Nepal on my own terms, with good memories of my time there and a sense of completion.

Those good memories meant that I was very happy to have the opportunity to return to the country, this time as a tourist rather than as a volunteer, to stay with a friend there for a couple of months. We were staying in Kathmandu and trying to organise a mountain trek, which involved getting a permit for entry to the relevant national park. We also discovered that it was compulsory to hire a guide or porter through a registered travel agent - something I didn't have enough money for if I wanted to stay in Nepal for as long as I'd planned. It seemed like our trek would never happen.

Frustrated, tired and sweaty from walking through dusty city streets in the midday heat from office to office, I began to feel suffocated by the seemingly narrow-minded bureaucracy, the even narrower streets and the relentlessly noisy traffic, and this seemed to bring back the trapped feeling I'd had during that month under curfew in the city when the country was in turmoil. This feeling settled into me and I felt low for several days without really understanding why. In an effort to cheer up, my friend and I took a walk to get out of the hotel room which led us down a road we had walked down many times. The road was bordered by a high wall with a single opening - an archway in the grey stone with a plaque to one side saying 'Garden of Dreams'. For some reason, we decided not to pass by this time but to go in.

The sheer relief I felt on entering that garden is difficult to describe. My mood instantly lifted and I felt calm and relaxed, not just psychologically but physically too. Perhaps I had been feeling homesick and being in a garden provided a familiar sensation that made me feel as if I were at home again. I struggle to remember any precise details of the planting or design, but I do remember stone and water, fragrant flowers and inviting benches, and a balance of eastern and western influences. I have a photograph of myself swinging on a swing there, looking happy and child-like.

Visiting that garden gave my spirits and energy the lift that was needed to help me make the most out of the remainder of the time I spent in Nepal, and I did see the mountains after all. Stepping through that stone archway into the 'Garden of Dreams' was enough to show me that gardens and the plants they contain have a kind of fabulous power that should not be underestimated.

It didn't take much more of a mental leap for me to realise that a career in horticulture would fulfil almost every aspect of what I wanted from my working life. I could be outdoors doing a physical and practical job as well as explore the more creative side of growing, from garden design to floral displays and even botanical painting. My fascination with biology and the complexities of the environment we live in could easily be satisfied by applying myself to plant biology, pest and predator insect interactions, and understanding the way environment affects plant growth. Sustainability, food security, human health (both physical and mental) and community resilience are all linked to the plants we grow and how we grow and use them.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Ryton Gardens

Since learning of its existence while studying an organic growing module on my horticulture course four years ago, I've wanted to visit the Garden Organic garden at Ryton. Last weekend, having travelled up to Rutland for a friend's wedding party, we took the opportunity to pay Ryton Gardens a visit on the way home.

Luckily we arrived just in time to join a free tour of the gardens with the Head gardener Andy. This really made our visit as we had a proper introduction to various sections of the ten acre garden and the thinking behind the creation of each area. The gardens were quiet for a Sunday in June - the skies were overcast with the suggestion of imminent rain so our tour consisted of six plus Andy, which meant we could easily ask questions. Mostly those questions were about slugs and how to control them, with this being the wettest June ever recorded in the UK and slug and snail populations soaring.

We spent some time talking about how to use compost and how to make it, as well as looking at various (smelly) liquid feeds made by soaking bags of comfrey, nettles and manure in barrels of water. Then we moved on around the garden, from the herb garden to the tropical garden (a collaboration with local people based on plants grown in the gardens and allotments of  immigrant communities living in the UK), and on to the Biodynamic garden via a lovely small allotment-style plot and a fantastically useful Keder House, which is a kind of polytunnel made from insulating bubble wrap with drop-down sides for ventilation.

We talked about all sorts of organic growing techniques and tips, including the potential benefits of using a biodynamic sowing calendar, collecting water, the importance of crop rotation, encouraging beneficial insects, no-dig growing and seed saving, as well as the importance of wasps. We also had a satisfying scrumping session in the soft fruit garden, tasting some amazing raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries (some were just ripe enough to eat raw), blackcurrants and tayberries.

Everywhere we went, beds of vegetables and fruit bushes were surrounded by ornamental planting, sometimes subtly, sometimes in wide borders full of colour.

The rose garden was heady with fragrance at this time of year and there were lots of small greenhouses dotted around the gardens filled with tomato plants promising the riches of fruits to come. Beyond the cultivated areas were banks of nettles and other 'weeds' providing habitat for all sorts of beneficial insects.

I didn't necessarily come away from Ryton Gardens having discovered anything radically new to me as I've worked in organic growing and continue to try and expand my knowledge of organics through reading and in practice in my garden, but it is always inspiring and encouraging to visit gardens like this one and see what they do and how they do it. I came away especially inspired to collect more rainwater in the garden and make more compost! I also came away with a plant - comfrey Bocking 14, which I'll plant at the allotment for making liquid feed.