28 March 2012

News from the Hedgerows

Herbage, herbivore, Dejeuner sur l'Herbe: we're not talking about herbs here. Herbaceous, Culpeper's Complete Herbal, herb gardens: we are talking about herbs but only some of the time. How confusing! When my neighbour Julia announced that she was taking a degree in herbalism I thought she meant a degree in herbs. Could it be that big a subject? Everyone except me probably knows that a herb doctor is one who practices healing by the use of herbs. And herbs can mean a plant which is herbaceous, ie a non-woody plant that dies down each season, or a plant valued for its medicinal, savoury and aromatic qualities. So it's bigger than just herbs - there are wildflowers, weeds and 'garden worthy' plants too.

The greening of the hedgerows adds to the general sense of lung-filling joy in spring and herbalists I dare say, feel it even more intensely. 'A lot of the fresh green leaves of the moment are full of vitamins and minerals,' Julia points out. 'They are edible spring greens, traditionally very exciting after a winter of potatoes and turnips.'

We take a walk up the country road that we live on to see what's bursting into life. There are nettles and there is galium (aka sticky weed, goose grass, cleaver). Nothing very exotic. But no, the galium is 'looking tasty' so we gather some, and the nettles in turn are 'feisty' which is how we like them. With their fresh green tips they do look more appealing than usual and we gather some with the aid of gloves, for a very quick dose of goodness as well as a taste test.

Julia often refers to herbs (you know what I mean) as a 'she' or a 'he'. It's a personal thing. 'Nettles are feisty grandmas who keep everyone in line.' They are also seen as a protective plant. Anything that crawls in there will be kept safe: very grandmotherly.

We pass by some colt's foot (above) on the way back and Julia is quite excited to see it here. To me, its big spurred coltish stalks say WEED and Julia admits that it is 'madly invasive' and not for cultivation. But it is still a wonderful plant because it stops the cough reflex when a person is going through the last hacking stages and the chest just feels wounded and sore.

I need to be reminded of the finer point of nettles and of galium while the kettle is boiling.
'Nettle is anti-inflammatory and it's also a blood tonic: use it after long-term illness or blood loss.' Or drink nettle tea because you like it. Cooled tea can be poured on the hair to give it a pro-shine and anti-hairloss boost. Julia adds four nettle leaf tips to boiling water and we let it steep. There's something a bit tingly about the whole process and I can't help thinking abut the word 'nettle', a derivative of 'needle'. It smells like wee.

Galium smells like grass. It is an excellent lymphatic tonic and its tea is very effective when the glands are up. It also helps to shift fluids which need shifting. It tastes, smells and looks like chlorofyll: a pure green pigment experience for herbivores. Nettle tea on the other hand is really rather lovely, especially when someone else has done the picking and preparing.

Julia is also known on twitter as Botanical Bird@juliathompson15

23 March 2012

Brand Recognition at Uppingham Market

'We've been wondering, are you from Friends of the Earth?'

The main reason I stake my pitch at Uppingham Market every Friday is that it's always fun, even in winter. I also feel that it's a wholesome, non-electronic way to do some marketing, in its truest sense.
So it's interesting to discover how far the good word has spread, and whether there is any point in being there at all (besides selling the odd high-quality item).

More intrigued passersby:
'I've never seen you before, are you new? (no).
'Your stall is kind of new-modern-old, that's how I'd describe it.'
'You and your ancient history stall,' (getting warmer).
 My favourite quote was today, just before the perplexed Friends of the Earth people.
'Are you a charity?'

One Friday an older lady from the knitting community reported with some glee: 'They're all talking about how expensive your tea cosies are!'
'Well it's very nice to be the talk of the town,' I said, feeling a bit like Oscar Wilde.

22 March 2012

Hovel Update

Due to pressure from the council the Blanche Dubois-style shed featured on March 10 this year has been pulled up off the ground and set a-right. It is nailed shut but looks blameless enough and there is talk of African marigolds for the planter. Its handsome bone structure has been restored with a bit of creosote and engine oil and it is hoped that it will leave the next council inspector in raptures. But in our muckraking capacity here at News from Nowhere we predict that the finicky finial has made it so banal that it will never be looked at again.

18 March 2012

But I Want it Now!

Planting a fritillary meadow is a bit like creating a Capability Brown landscape: it is a selfless gift for future generations. There are so many potential hazards it really is a case of survival of the very fittest of the very fit. At Brooke Hall thousands of bulbs were planted the autumn before last and the following spring pheasants pecked off the handful of blooms that made it. Digging around there in the autumn I found very few bulbs but lots of tunnels as well as buried walnuts. So, they've got pheasants, mice and squirrels out to get them, and then there is the small matter of growing conditions.

When I took a tour around Highgrove a couple of years ago I was looking forward to seeing the vast swathes of tulips. They were gone, having sat too uncomfortably in their sustainable surroundings. The tulips were replaced with fritillaria, but the ground had been so well-prepared previously that the 'frits' failed. Too much drainage.

Nancy Lancaster planted some in a badly drained part of her garden when she lived in Northamptonshire in the 1920s and 'they eventually seeded themselves.' She didn't plant that many. So, take a handful of bulbs and give them perfect conditions, then try to forget about them. Each new chequerboard bloom will be a very pleasant surprise.

14 March 2012

The Decisive Moment

In a second or two the verges of middle England will be completely yellow-fied, and we're not talking about the daintier shades. After that, the breathless arrival of midsummer. But wait. News from Nowhere brings you some subtle specimens in a woodland setting, the best place for spring. You can almost hear these daffodils opening and they're not in an obvious hurry. Tomorrow however they will be blazing away with the rest of them and may not even be noticed after a while. Carpe diem.

12 March 2012

Dream Hovels, Part 2

Conversions (i)
They have been adjusted over the years without being given the full 'remodel'. A window where a door used to be, an arch closed up to make a smaller door. Often, a stone building has been turned into a taller building of brick as well as stone. Practical considerations, (and no upvc in sight) but still this altering has not been enough to keep the roof on.
The above building was used for gardeners' kit in recent memory and in days of yore there had been a cosy fire. A shelter or retreat in the kitchen garden before the gardeners were moved to the boiler room for their breaks.

Conversions (ii)
This brick building looks as though it was originally intended for animals, then converted for a person - with glass windows added - before being taken over by animals again.
With its flat earth floors and brick feeding troughs it is perfectly comfortable and gust-proof. Ready to move in, if you don't mind sharing with sheep.

10 March 2012

Dream Hovels, Part 1

Buying a brand-new shed for the allotment would never do. Even paying someone else for one - well, it would be impolite to talk about that. This shed near Oundle in Northamptonshire has a tree attached, so there is really no need for a solid roof and when there are no windows why bother with a door?

Could this be a fixer-upper? It's a very fine line.

08 March 2012

Application of logic in the potting shed

A logical guide to terms and conditions when gardening under glass:

Perlite =  drainage aid. Mix half and half with potting compost.
Vermiculite = water absorber. Belongs on the surface, not in the midst. If sowing fine seed, add a solid layer of vermiculite over the mixed compost and sprinkle seed over it. The seed will fall down the cracks and germinate (if it feels like it). Sow bigger seed before adding a layer of vermiculite to the surface.
Seeds which will only germinate in the dark = don't worry about that.
Cold stratification = seed which needs a cold spell before germinating. Add seed to damp vermiculite and keep in a jar in the fridge for a few months. Just leaving it in its packet in the fridge = fail.

07 March 2012

And Another Thing

The final hedging item of the season. Any minute now I'm going to plant a hedge, having collected fifty hornbeam 'sixty-eighties' from Dave Stanley at Uppingham Market last week (they've been heeled in). He excels in being glum but even he was twinkling slightly in the watery sunshine of early spring. Or late winter. When I mentioned to the deputy head gardener at Brooke Hall about a month ago that I was planning to put in a bare root hedge there was a sharp intake of breath and a warning that it must be done within a week. She almost shrieked when I told her the other day that I hadn't planted them out yet, or even received them.

At the weekend I did some emergency work on roses and I felt very proud and organised. Mentioning my good deeds to a couple of people later, they looked astonished and said in unison, 'I want to prune my roses but I thought it was too late! Are you sure it's okay?' I hadn't given this much thought but my roses were all over the place and causing health and safety concerns so I pruned them and - it's still winter. We went to see The Nutcracker on Sunday, if proof were needed.

David Austin's catalogue advises that for winter pruning, 'January and February is the best time.' Except in colder areas in which case: wait. Thankfully, this is not an RHS written exam so the answer to worried people is, 'Yes, it's okay.' And the head gardener at Brooke Hall hasn't done his yet.

05 March 2012

Nick's Common Logic

On planting out: 
'They'll be all right as long as they grow.'

01 March 2012

More Life-Enhancing Hedges

There are few hedgerows in my part of the world which haven't had the basket effect applied at some point. When a hedge becomes very old and worn out a farmer will call somebody like Bob Bakewell to re-lay it. The wood is split within an inch of its life and forced over at 45 degrees and held in place with a weave normally applied to basket edging. It is not about aesthetics of course... A laid hedge is impenetrable and strong, to keep livestock in. The fact that small animals and birds inhabit these small thickets is a happy by-product.
A laid hedge in this patch of middle England is made most often from from blackthorn, quickthorn and ash. The raw material can be ridiculously hard to work with. The sedate village of Medbourne has been given a bit of drama at its limits with this steep and savage piece of cutting and bending  (above and below). What was once a line of trees, is now a surprising hedge.

Bob Bakewell works 'by the chain'. A chain is the length of a cricket pitch and a chain is a day's work. Hedge laying is also called hedge cutting and hedge cutting competitions do happen amongst enthusiasts (and all hedge cutters are). The local hunt puts money towards the competitions but does not fund the regular trimming of hedges any more, though it once did.

People have hedges laid at the back of their houses but only when their garden is next to a field; they are never seen by the front door. The basketry quickly grows over and hazel wattling is neater. Even wattling though is slightly frowned upon in a village like mine where everyone reads the Daily Mail except the vicar, and Twentieth Century Suburban is clung to in the face of Latter Day Rustic.

A Stand of Trees, Explained*

Somewhere near Creaton, Northamptonshire: this stand, and the one behind it, is on a former dairy farm. It is for standing under (or itching one's back) and it makes sense in summer and winter.
And a hedge, a few miles away from the stand. I will always associate perfectly cut hedges with Northamptonshire. Evidence would seem to suggest that scissors have been used, though the cutter is simply a skilled machinist, with better equipment, and certainly a sharper blade than that used on the hedge below, at Brixworth. A 'flailed' hedge done with neither skill nor sharpness.
In her recent tv series about wild flowers Sarah Raven focussed on this part of Northamptonshire as having destroyed its hedges with more abandon than any other county. We know that after WW2 the government paid for farmers to explode, uproot and burn hedges in the name of greater yields, and that this had a horrible effect on wildlife and wild flowers. But it can be said that the hedges that were left after the great flattening are at least exquisitely maintained. On the whole.

*See Hunting News, comments