Take Comfrey

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‘Knitbone’, ‘bruisewort’, ‘boneset’ and ‘knit back’; these are just some of the folk names given to Comfrey, hinting at its long history as a medicinal herb. It was widely used to promote the healing of wounds and fractures, hence its common name, which is a corruption of the Latin ‘con firma’, alluding to the plant’s ability to knit bones back together. The botanical name Symphytum derives from the Greek word for ‘unite’. The leaves contain allantoin, a substance which can help tissue, bones and cartilage to grow. These were ground up and made into a poultice for wounds, while the roots were also grated to make a sludgy material used to pack around broken limbs.

The leaves have also traditionally been infused to make tea, or boiled and served as a wilted green vegetable. Today, although there is much debate about the safety of ingesting the plant, Comfrey ‘tea’ is still widely used by gardeners as a fertiliser, due to the success of its extensive root system in ‘mining’ the soil for nutrients and minerals. In particular its foliage is rich in potassium. (See http://permaculturenews.org/2010/10/01/the-wonderful-multi-purpose-comfrey-plant/).

Most books say the first blooms on Comfrey – a member of the Borage family – appear in April, but here on the South Coast it is already coming into flower. I am excited to have several plants in our new garden and think the bell-shaped creamy white flowers very attractive, even more so because of Comfrey’s beneficial properties. Not everyone is a fan, though. In her book Wild Flowers, Sarah Raven reveals that she regrets introducing Comfrey to her herb garden as it can quickly become invasive on heavy soil. There is a cultivar of Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) called Bocking 14 which is sterile and therefore does not set seed which has become popular to prevent such invasion. On our chalk soil, the common Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) does not seem to have spread much since last year.

Mature Comfrey plants can be cut several times during the growing season and added in small amounts to the compost heap or used to make a liquid manure high in potash.

To make Comfrey ‘tea’ (for feeding plants not people):

  1. Cut the leaves with shears and chop coarsely into a bucket or container.
  2. Steep in water, placing bricks or another heavy item on top and leave for several weeks until they form a dark liquid.
  3. Dilute by about 15:1 before using as a liquid fertiliser.

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A veg plot in an hour (or two)

Oh how I envy all those allotment bloggers out there who have dug over large symmetrical beds ready to sow this year’s goodies. Although I dream of one day joining their hallowed ranks, this year I have neither the space nor time. My bog roll broad beans have been sitting on the kitchen windowsill growing leggier by the day until I decided they could not wait a moment longer and casting work and household chores aside I headed out into the glorious sunshine to make a home for them.

The bed I have chosen is far from ideal. It faces east and at this time of year only gets sun early in the day, although its sunny period extends later in the season. It also resembled what Little Weed #1 described as ‘a public cat toilet’.

IMG_2054Undaunted by these concerns, with only an hour to spare I set to work with the spade like a woman possessed, added some lovely horse manure, raked it over with a child’s rake which turned out to be perfect for the job and created a pretty fine tilth if I do say so myself.

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Then, eye on the clock, I speed-planted the broad beans (‘Bunyard’s Exhibition’), which required a little staking so leggy had they grown. The tripod of hazel sticks I have reused for the last five years has another year in it yet I reckon, so I inserted that too, awaiting ‘Enorma’ runner beans a couple of months hence. There is also room for some leafy greens and of course the carrots and calendula which the Little Weeds will be planting soon. Job done.

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Shed heaven

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Now that Spring is here it will soon be time for a job we have been putting off all winter: clearing out the shed. We have a large, but extremely tumbledown shed at the end of our garden. When we moved in, it was already a quarter full with detritus left by previous occupants, old bed heads, chicken wire, a coal scuttle and a shelf of distilling jars inexplicably filled with snail poo but no snails. There was also a strong and unpleasant odour which we quickly identified as rat poo. With no time to spare before the removal men descended, we swept it all into a corner before the shed was filled almost to the brim with old car seats, a roof box, boxes of unwanted files, bikes and numerous bits and pieces of garden furniture. To be honest, I’m not really sure what we will find in there when we eventually drag it out into the light of day, before embarking on the unpleasant job of clearing the rat poo away and getting the council round to check if we need to lay down poison.

Once that is done, I have dreams of an idyllic writer’s shed following in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman and many more. Perhaps a green roof to replace the corrugated plastic covered in moss and leaf mould currently providing minimal protection from the elements. A little desk in the south facing window where I can sit looking out over the garden on warm days. It seems a distant dream at the moment, but with some elbow grease should be achievable by the summer.

Then, as Virgina Woolf wrote of the journey from Monk’s House (just down the road from us) to her writing lodge: I “shall smell a red rose; shall gently surge across the lawn… take my writing board on my knee (for which read laptop); and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday.”

Zippedy-doo-da

My oh my what a beautiful day.

  

Spring has sprung and this year it is extra sweet because it is our first in our new garden. Every time a plant comes into flower it feels like a gift: purple crocuses, cheery narcissi, heavenly hellebores, pretty snowdrops, zingy Mahonia zipping through the fig tree, bright Bergenias, delicate plum blossom and the divine smelling Daphne odora.
   
    
   

 

The first cut is the sweetest

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It’s Harry Potter mania in our house at the moment. Little Weed#1 and Middle Weed can’t get enough of all things Hogwarts and for a while I thought that was why I had selected a variety of sweet pea called ‘Nimbus’ this year (after Harry’s broomstick, the Nimbus 2000). Then I remembered visiting the Gold medal winning Eagle Sweet Peas stand at Chelsea last year, where I was particularly struck by a variety called ‘Lisa Marie’ after the owners’ daughter, described as ‘plum on silver’ (in the middle of the photo above). Nimbus, by Kings Seeds, is a similar colour combination. Having chosen this variety of Lathyrus odoratus for its appearance, I opted for the heavily scented purple blue ‘Alan Williams’ to grow alongside it.

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I have only just got round to sowing my sweet peas this year. As Eagle Sweet Peas advise, there is no need to soak or chit the seeds. I just planted mine in well-watered seed compost, probably cramming a few too many into a pot. They are now on the kitchen windowsill waiting to germinate and to be planted out in a month or so once I’ve pinched out the growing tip to encourage side shoots. I had great luck with sweet peas in our old garden where the soil was only about 10cm above chalk (although I did grow them in a raised bed), and am hoping to repeat that luck in our new garden.potted-sweet-peas

In her Garden Book, Vita Sackville-West recalls how the original Lathyrus odoratus was sent from Italy in 1699 by a Father Franciscus Cupani to Dr Robert Uvedale, headmaster of the Grammar School at Enfield, Middlesex. Dr Uvedale had a fine collection of foreign plants which after his death were sold to Sir Robert Walpole for his garden at Houghton in Norfolk. Vita advocates growing this original wild sweet pea, arguing, “the wild pea is not showy, in fact its pink and purple are very washy and the individual flowers are small, but they have a certain delicacy of appearance and the scent of even half a dozen in a bunch is amazing”. She recommends leaving the wild sweet peas to “scramble up twiggy pea sticks in a tangle and [be] kept entirely for picking in an unwanted but sunny corner of the kitchen garden”. At the end of the season these wild peas can be left to set their own seed for the following year. English Sweet Peas sell a variety called Sweet Pea Cupani Original, which was collected from the wild in Sicily in about 1975, which has all the original characteristics of Father Cupani’s original, as well as other heritage varieties.

For me, sweet peas are redolent of midsummer and romance. My mother grew hundreds of sweet peas for our June wedding 10 years ago, sowing them in October, and overwintering them in a cold frame. Thanks to her efforts, they flowered at just the right time (of course it is very important to pick the flowers regularly to ensure a constant supply and to prevent the plants from setting seed) and we had beautifully scented bunches of sweet peas on every table. This year we are planning a garden party to celebrate a decade of marriage and I hope to have my own sweet peas ready by then!

Front garden flâneur

I have a confession to make: I am a front garden flâneur. That’s the fancy French term for it, you may prefer the plain English nosy parker.

It comes from the best part of a decade spent pushing a buggy along urban streets, trying to soothe a baby or toddler to sleep, or merely escaping the house before I go mad, and passing the time by ogling other people’s plants. Now my buggy pushing days are numbered (Littlest Weed turns 3 in just over a month), I will have to find a different excuse for sauntering aimlessly past and sticking my nose over the wall.

It must be hereditary. My mother used to excruciatingly embarrass me by wandering right in to strangers’ front gardens for a good sniff and on occasion to help herself to a cutting or two. When the owner emerged to see what this strange woman was up to she would merely smile and compliment them on a fine plant specimen. I have not yet reached this stage of the disease.

On routes that I take every day I begin to feel a sense of ownership of favourite plants – I look forward every year to the series of quite different Philadelphus on the school run, and I miss the garden near our old house belonging to a wonderful woman in her eighties that put on a glorious show of crimson tulips each spring (she told me she planted them when her husband died – in 1980!)

I am not sure of the privacy aspect of posting pictures of other people’s front gardens – they are already on view after all but I still feel I should ask permission. If I summon up the courage I might turn it into an occasional series.

In the meantime here are a few pics from my own front garden – much weeding is required – but I am pleased to see the 100 plus bulbs I planted in the autumn poking through. The beautiful blue Iris reticulata ‘Clairette’ I put in are already brightening up February, while the Daphne odora which came with the house turns walking up the garden path into a divine experience every time.



The Bergenias are coming into flower;


And one of the three hellebores I planted last year has produced two dusky pink flowers (please ignore the weeds);


Later in the year we have lovely roses (that reminds me I must prune them). They are not to everyone’s taste though. Last summer a passerby irritated by roses tumbling down from our quite high garden wall at head height took it upon themselves to prune it for us!

I love Christmas because despite the lack of flowers in bloom, people actively invite you to look at their outdoor space with wreaths and fairy lights galore. I particularly liked this idea by one of our neighbours to hang dried orange slices from a Rosemary (I hope they don’t mind me posting it but it was right on the street).


I would love to hear from you about your front gardens – then I wouldn’t even need to leave the house to indulge my flâneurism!

Garden bites #2 – Bog roll beans

What to do with all those toilet roll tubes? As a family of five we produce a lot of them, so I have been meaning to re-use them as biodegradable seed pots for some time, and this weekend I finally got round to it.

The first step was to clean out my mini-outdoor greenhouse after the winter. On an unseasonably warm February day this was a pleasant task.


Then I filled my small collection of bog roll inners (a mixture of Tesco, Waitrose and Aldi if you’re interested – wonder if it makes a difference) with seed compost. I have bought a new bag for the spring but decided to use up some old stuff first. 

Now to get sowing my broad beans. I opted for Bunyard’s Exhibition, said to be a reliable cropper. I poked the dried beans down to the requisite 5cm depth – hard to believe they will turn into new plants but here’s hoping. According to the packet you can plant them in a greenhouse or under a cloche in February, but I have decided to cosset mine, so after a generous water it was off to the kitchen windowsill.

Seedy weekends

So far February has been a month of work deadlines and half term (aaaagh) limiting my ability to get going in the garden. But my appetite has been whetted by the appearance of a solitary flower on one of the three hellebores I planted last autumn;

 By palest purple crocuses appearing in the lawn behind the trampoline;


 By the lemony sweetness of our inherited Daphne odora (I’ve always wanted one and there it is); and by the first snowdrops;

 At weekends I have managed to sneak in a little preparation for the gardening year ahead.

First stop our local “Seedy Saturday”. This was mainly dominated by Middle Weed who made the most of having me to herself to indulge in cress head planting and clay modelling.

 When I finally managed to snatch a few moments to myself I threw myself at the nearest seed stall and bought everything on my wish list in 5 minutes flat. This included first early seed potatoes, main crop seed potatoes, broad beans ‘Bunyards Exhibition’, ‘Meteor’ peas, ‘Cosse Violette’ purple climbing French beans, ‘Enorma’ runner beans, chives, purple sprouting broccoli, lemon balm, borage, ‘Nero di Toscana’ kale, ‘Nero di Milano’ courgettes (what’s with all the Neros?), rainbow chard and two varieties of sweet pea in silver and blue (‘Nimbus’ and ‘Alan Williams’). My mother who had come along for the ride, shook her head sagely and said ‘You’ll never plant all of those’.

I mean to prove her wrong and have since added two types of heritage tomato (Gardener’s Delight and Purple Calabash), Sarah Raven’s Nigella ‘Moody Blues’ and wildflower poppies and some children’s seed packets of carrots and calendula for the little weeds.

Now all I need is for half term to be over (just the one Roman shield to make) and I can get planting.

Garden bites #1

Like most of us I have many competing demands on my time and often I can only get out into the garden for half an hour or so. But those half hours soon add up. If you single out one task and complete it, you can get a great deal of satisfaction. This weekend in between ferrying children to piano lessons and giving in to their demands to see ‘Sing‘ at the cinema, I finally managed to deal with this ugly patch by the front door which has been bugging me all winter. 

Half an hour later (well an hour if I’m honest) it was transformed into this: 

Ok, maybe it’s not exactly reached the dizzying heights of garden transformations yet, but getting rid of all those dead and mouldy Crocosmia leaves and uncovering the green shoots of unknown bulbs underneath has inspired me to make plans for later in the year for this spot which we and our visitors see every time we enter or leave the house.

I’m thinking a lovely old-fashioned red rose against the wall, maybe Souvenir du Docteur Jamain. Then something sweet-scented for brushing past on summer evenings – sweet peas, jasmine or Nicotiana, or maybe all three.

Then a plant or two that we can pick and eat as we go past – nasturtiums for their ‘nippy biscuit’ leaves and welcoming orange hue, a pot of tomatoes and some borage for its lovely edible blue flowers. Watch this space.

Bohemian Rhapsody

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This week my mum and I went to see the novelist Charlotte Mendelson talking about her new non-fiction book about her tiny North London garden, Rhapsody In Green, to the Lewes Literary Society.

Charlotte was warm, exuberant and funny, making fun of her own ‘pre-war vowels’, and made me feel a lot better about my own – very imperfect – style of gardening. She declares in the Prologue to her beautifully written book – there are no pictures and it doesn’t need any – that this is not a book for anyone who likes a neat and pretty garden, low maintenance plants or who can measure their garden in acres. Instead she urges anyone who nurses “secret dreams of self-sufficiency, of orchards, livestock and Little House on the Prairie-style preserving” to come closer.

As her own garden measures just 8m x 4m, she only grows plants that she and her friends and family can eat, but these she grows in abundance; “in an ordinary year: eight types of tomato; five varieties of kale; golden raspberries; twenty kinds of lettuce, chicory and Asian greens; Italian climbing beans; about fifty herbs and a few flowers, all edible”. She also talked about the lies she tells to her nearest and dearest about how long she spends in the garden – “This won’t take long”; “Just give me another hour… or two.”

What appeals to me most is that she gardens for herself, with passion but without adhering to any rule book. She does not possess a greenhouse or even a potting shed and lives “in the only house in North London without windowsills”, so grows all her seedlings “on the mat by the back door”. Her children are long-suffering, urging their mother to stop dawdling to admire plants on the way to school, and demanding cheese toasties rather than the homegrown fare she serves up to them.

She also demonstrates that gardening is a suitable pursuit for writers – something I knew already living in Sussex where Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West gardened – but which it is always nice to be reminded of. There is something very freeing about her garden writing, reassuring her reader that it is ok just to get out there and do whatever feels right in the garden. Unlike Charlotte, I love growing flowers as well as fruit, herbs and vegetables, but hearing her speak and reading her book has inspired me to grow them all together in a glorious jumble.

Having recently moved to a new house and garden, I particularly like her paragraph about getting to know her garden: “In my excitement I had already read enough to know what people do when they inherit a garden: they leave it for a year until, after flowering and dying back, the garden’s bones (they always say ‘bones’) emerge… Oddly, that is not how it turned out.” Instead she plunges right in. I think I will follow her advice.

charlottemendelson.com/rhapsody-in-green/