Monday, 10 October 2011

A golden harvest

How did we get to October already? The golden light of disappearing rays of sunshine is has brought an unmistakable warm glow to sedums, grasses, Japanese anemones, and even the intense blue of aconitum looks somehow a little less icy cool. And that final burst of heat, or late arrival of summer, was most welcome, but the weather looks like it's reverting to type now.
It's been a long while since the last post. I've been a little out of action: in hospital for nearly two weeks, and now on bedrest. But never mind the cancelled holiday plans, it's playing havoc with my autumn bulb planting schedule. If this strict regime of horizontal life continues, I'll be lucky if I get any tulips in at all this year, never mind the daffs and crocuses. I haven't even ordered them yet.
But I recently wrote a piece about the wonderful work they do at Thrive for the October issue of Which?Gardening and it's time to call on that knowledge. 'Focus on what you can do, not what you can't', is the guiding principal at Thrive. Bearing this in mind, I am definitely able to lie here and order lovely plants online; and direct my husband where to plant them.
On the upside, the garden has been amazingly fruitful, despite my midsummer concerns. A healthy crop of tasty pears, some truly outstanding figs (as tasty as if they'd been plucked off a tree in southern Italy), and really good tomatoes - a mix of sungold and felicia, grafted varieties I was trialling; the sungold win for flavour. Good potatoes too. And I'm particularly proud of my Spanish Pimientos de Padron, grown from seed this year. These have graced a couple of home-cooked tapas meals so far and have been wonderfully spicy - dry pan fried with a little salt; a delicious starter.
Hopefully all this this bounty is a good omen for another much anticipated harvest: I am expecting twins, and they still have a way to go before they are fully ripe.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The heat of the moment

A riot of colours is the perfect antidote to the colour of rioting. London has been a strange place this past week. For the the first time in some 20 or so years of living here, I felt unsafe in my own home, just a few miles down the road from Ealing. But with no decent local shops worth looting, we seem to have escaped trouble, for now.
A flipside to the dark destruction, Kew gardens on Tuesday was a surreally peaceful haven in West London, the Duke's garden borders joyously exuberant with agapanthus, heleniums and other late summer flowers. People were strolling in the sunshine, as if nothing untoward was in the air.
At the end of the week I went to deepest South London to the lavender fields just south of Croydon, with my friend Dan. Who would have thought this picture, worthy of a provencal perfume-makers' field would be sitting on the outskirts of a burning borough? Mayfield Lavender is definitely worth a visit and again, picnickers and pleasure-seekers made all those troubles seem far away.
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And on Sunday I dodged Surrey road closures (due to the Olympic bike trial) and went to take a look at the late summer exuberance of the borders at Wisley. Now is a great time to see them in their full glory. 

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Summer harvest

It's not ideal, growing vegetables and fruit in a north-facing garden. But, against the odds (and the south facing back wall) our pear tree is dripping with fruit again, for the second summer. I know I should remove a few to allow it to concentrate its efforts, but I haven't got the heart to - I would prefer many, but smaller fruits. The fig tree is also looking quite abundant, probably thanks to the early heat of the summer - hopefully this latest blast of hot weather will finish them off nicely. Fig and pear tart, I'm thinking?
But I'm glad I'm not trying to be self-sufficient. My summer cropping so far totals about four courgettes, a smattering of blueberries, a few bowls of salad, a handful of chard leaves and a few stalks of rhubarb.
I left the work allotment behind when I opted for redundancy and I miss collecting lunch and dinner ingredients before heading home. For such an inhospitable location with everything against it, we used to do quite well - the onions and garlic were a revelation. But I had to let it go. My co-founder Linda has also left now, so it's in the capable hands of Tamsin and @katebradbury.  This is the photo that Paul Debois took last winter as part of his Land Girls project, which is a nice tribute. 

But luckily I have a new allotment project to tap into while I wait for a plot of my own (there's at least another 6 years to go on the waiting list...). The People's Plot is a local community allotment, which we're just clearing and getting ship-shape. 
At home I can't quite get the balance between growing food and purely ornamental flowers in my tiny space. I am greedy for both and the flowers seem to be winning this year. I didn't weed out all the self-sown sunflowers, so I have been harvesting bunches of the gorgeous ones in the picture for a few weeks now. But they take up a lot of room and nutrients in my limited soil space. I also let my sole artichoke bud flower - I did contemplate eating it, but the bees are loving it, so it feels like a noble sacrifice. And I'm delighted to see some blue agapanthus making a rare appearance, having only flowered once before in the past five years. Also, particularly gratifying in the floral department, my lovely climbing rose is having a second flush of blooms.
But my tomatoes, even the grafted ones I am trialling, are still resolutely green and small. I have heard about other tomatoes ripening outdoors elsewhere in London, but mine aren't evening deigning to blush.
Still, there are potatoes yet to be unearthed from their growing bags and the climbing french beans are on their way. It's only the first days of August, so there are a few edible things are yet to come. Perhaps even a ripe tomato or two; if I am patient.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Urban physicians

I went to the Urban Physic Garden the other day. It's a follow up to last summer's Urban Orchard project at 100 Union Street, SE1. Using recyled wood, donated plants and other temporary structures, including the mossy cross below, a roving Rambulance Cafe, and all the plants grouped into medicinal wards to demonstrate which can be used to treat various ailments, it's more than just a whimisical play on the idea of a plant hospital. This corner of southeast London has a history of medicinal treatment and, of course, it's a bit of a hommage to the Chelsea Physic Garden, just a mile or so downriver. Of course, it's also a very nice spot to grab a bite to eat, and just sit for a moment amongst some unexpected greenery. If you're inclined, there's a load of fun events and talks going on  and you can read up on all the plant uses too.

I love the idea of a pop up garden, using temporary space and temporary growing techniques, especially in an area that has precious little green space. Congratulations to the talented Heather Ring and Co. for pulling it off a second year in a row, with tight funding. They have a great vision for city gardening - making use of unwanted space and finding homes for unwanted plants. I think it just might catch on, but visit before August 15, when it shuts up shop for this summer.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Olympic park

I had my first visit to the new Olympic Park this week. Here is a small part of it. It's being touted as the biggest new park in London, since the Victorians started building green lungs for the poor of the city, and allows LOCOG, to tick off quite a few green boxes. For example, gullies planted with wildflowers and designed to funnel rainwater run-off. Reed bed filtration systems, new wetland habitats, (I predict some very happy East London frogs); a couple of thousand new native trees planted (some of them not looking so healthy); and here's a close up of some of the gorgeous bee, butterfly and insect friendly flowers that are being incorporated into meadow planting designed by Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough from Sheffield University with Sarah Price.
They have used sustainable wood for the benches, recycled aggregate and vegetable-oil based adhesive for the paths. There has been lots of cleaning up of the Lea River, cleansing of contaminated soil and lots of earth moving to sculpt some impressive new hills in a very flat landscape. In 12 months time, it will look very impressive and it will fit in neatly with Olympics legacy policy.
But as with all great spectacles, there is a darker side: a thriving allotment site was bulldozed to make way for the park;(apparently the plots will be allowed to 'return' after the funfair). This is being completely glossed over because of the bountiful 'greenness' of the park. And then, after all the millions spent before the Olympics, the care of the park will fall back into the hands of the local authority. I don't know if anyone has noticed, but parks and green space maintenance is right at the bottom of list of priorities for most councils in these austere times. Is it going to go the way of the Green Bridge and Millennium Park at Mile End?  I hope not.
But sport is what it's supposed to be all about. And on that note, I will say that the Velodrome or Pringle building, is really rather gorgeous.  Posted by Picasa

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Lillies, turf and Hampton Court

There is nothing quite like the sensory overload that hits you when you walk into a floral marquee. First there's the perfume of literally thousands of blooms that overwhelms you; then you start to look at all the myriad plants; and then you just want to buy them all there and then.
It's probably just as well that on Press Day at Hampton Court, most of the nurseries are either still finishing off their displays, or they're putting their feet up before the public show days start. So, you can't find anyone to buy anything from. Tempting me were the divinely decadent lilies. I adore them, but after those vile lily beetles ravaged most of the ones I've ever tried to grow, I won't try again (I'll leave the lily display to Stephen next door - perhaps he's been sending the red devils over the fence?). The foxtail lilies, Eremurus, were also stunning - like a big curtain of feathery plumes, but they are a must only for the freest-draining sunniest spots, which I sadly cannot offer.
Elsewhere, there were some good show gardens overall, but my favourites were the two with probably the least plants in them. The World Vision & Plantify Garden, is really a conceptual design to promote awareness of child poverty, with the very tactile turf globe and it's convex mirror image sitting in a black pool. And Tony Smith's Diamonds and Rust garden, all undulating turf and smoking artificial turf tubes. Neither the type of garden you should try at home.
If you were going to try out some stuff at home, the British Heather Growers sunken garden was a beautiful design solution for a small garden with steep level changes - and a very up-to-the-minute way of growing heathers as a green wall (byebye seventies island beds). And although the Bulgarian +359 was not very sophisticated, it did remind me of sunny rooftops and bright floral displays in Europe. I liked the shape of the terracotta pots - even the begonias looked quite fetching.

Anouska Feiler's upside down conceptual garden was fun and creative; and who can argue with a sea of blue agapanthus?

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Tough plants for tough places

Once of the best gardening lessons I ever had was from the esteemed designer, Jill Billington, who pointed out sagely that plants don't read books, so the only real way to see if they work in a particular spot is by trial and error. I find this a useful, comforting and entertaining gardening attitude (as long as you're not spending tons on very expensive plants). It's particularly liberating when it comes to guerilla and community gardening, because anyway the books never take into account the added complications of dog and human abuse, the  usually horrendously poor soil, lack of watering, feeding and any real tlc at all. Plants out there in the city need to be very thick-skinned and able to fend for themselves.
In my encounters with community gardening I have found out the following: penstemons, billed by the RHS website as "easy to grow in any fertile, reasonably moist, free-draining soil in full sun or light shade" will also flourish in the poorest of rubble-laden soil (yes, it is free-draining), that is prone to drought; in fact, just to really annoy me, they do much better than the same cuttings in my own garden.
Some plants positively thrive on neglect. I have battled with rosemary for years, trying different varieties, in pots, in soil, new cuttings. But my biggest success is a tiny cutting stuck into rubble-soil on top of a neighbourhood wall; it's going great guns now, clearly happy in the illusion that it has escaped to some craggy mediterranean hillside.
Meanwhile, the oleander I donated to the same wall-garden, hoping it too might think it was at  home on some mediterranean roadside, is sick and struggling when it's supposed to be 'tolerant of poor soils and drought'. Hollyhocks in the same spot thrive unravaged by snails, unlike those in my garden and look quite healthy (apart from the bindweed).
Another other top performer is red valerian, although it doesn't seem to self-seed quite as merrily outside my garden as it does inside - I'm hoping for the same look around my neighbourhood as those pink and white festooned lanes in the countryside, where valerian has found its way into every nook,cranny and crevice. But for sheer persistent flower-power you can't beat it - it literally doesn't stop from early May right through to September (in fact I almost get sick of it) and the bees and butterflies love it. Lychnis coronaria on the other hand will self seed anywhere, and manages to look rather exotic in a sparse guerilla border with its velvety leaves and blooms. My other sexy stalwart is the  fabulous geranium psilostemon in the picture - it never seems to stop producing gorgeous bright magenta pink flowers all summer in sun or shade.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Tomato glut

Well, not juicy, red ripe tomatoes, but definitely a glut of plants. Can't give 'em away and most diasppointingly they were not hot sellers at the fundraising plant sale last Saturday - curse those Gardeners' Delight that are so easy to grow and the whole grow-your-own trend. Now that more folk are in on the secret of growing food, they have no reason to buy my lovely homegrown plants!
I am gradually finding homes for them - the Vicar has pledged to take on a few and donate to the plant fund. Hallelujah!  Which is good news as so far we have £34.60 in the coffers, but have just been invited to apply for match funding from the council. This may well be the last year they have any money spare at all for green spaces, so hopefully we can get some Friends of the Burial Ground trowels into that pot and do truly something transformative.
It's a long haul this urban community gardening lark; equal parts heartening to see volunteers turn up and people dropping by to see what's going on and soul destroying to see plans for a 10-storey block of flats that will cut light dramatically and substantially reduce the charm of the strange little green space at the end of my road. That's another battle to come: maybe if we can create a beautifully planted space it will add more weight to our objections? But such is gardening and living in London - always under threat from planners with no imagination except for building more retail and residential developments.
Still, it was heartening, if rather damp, visiting some great spaces in Hackney on Open Garden Squares weekend  with Ian, Vic and young baby Kitty, who at 2 months old, was on her first garden visit. The Dalston Eastern Curve Garden  (pictured up top) is a triumph of greenery over derelict space with food growing, pizza oven and a welcome covered area. Farm:Shop is a fine demo of hydroponic growing in the smallest of spaces, with chickens on the roof and a polytunnel in the back garden; and Fasset Square (below), is a heartwarming tale of residents transforming a mattress-swamped dumping ground into a restored Victorian garden at the heart of the neighbourhood - and reportedly being the inspiration for Albert Square in  Eastenders.

So they officially announced a drout a week ago. Great - and now that we have caught up with all that missing rain, can the summer sun return please?

Monday, 30 May 2011

No cake today

There's untapped soap-operatic potential around NGS open days, particularly those multiple gardens that open on the same day in the same street.
I've been to two quite different days in the last week. The first was to the fve gardens on Kew Green, where you buy one ticket and it's all organised in a very neighbourly - and orderly - fashion with riverside garden gates open to allow acces through interconnecting gardens and garden no. 4 doing all the tea and cakes. So you get to see five gardens of similar size and how they deal with that long-thin garden conundrum. Mostly they opted for the long and winding path through several different areas of sun and shade, with  long deep borders, all the garden admin - and a spot of beekeeping - going on in generous shady compost areas at the back.
Plantwise, being a stone's throw from the Botanic Gardens, the borders were clearly the work of passionate gardeners and there were a few surprises that looked like they might have jumped the fence. An amazing Arum dracunculus in two of the gardens. Garden number five may have lacked a little in the planting stakes, but made up for it in garden art, with this amazing summerhouse below and a beautiful sculpture by Barry Hart who was Henry Moore's tutor. Plus the tantalising tale of Henry Moore visiting and possibly starting an affair with the lady at no. 67.  I made a mental note to go earlier in the afternoon in order to sample the best of the cakes.

On Sunday, four houses on Chiswick Mall opened their gardens. I often wander along this prize piece of of Thames river frontage past the gorgeous unaffordable houses, consoling myself with the thought that it wouldn't be much fun to have to worry about flooding all the time. With the chance of a peek at what's behind some of the front doors, I discovered that quite a few of the houses have fine backgarden views of Chiswick brewery, which also would not be top of my house wishlist. However, this year, there was a bit of an open gardens battle raging (quite politely mind), with two extra gardens opening specifically for the Red Cross, not the NGS. That made for quite a lot of garden visiting.
Disappointingly, the NGS gardens didn't do a group ticket. The lady on the door of the first garden somewhat grumpily replied that it had never really worked out that way. I suspect I wasn't the first person who'd asked and that it points to a bit of neighbourly rivalry. Call me a cheapsgate (husband often does), but at £2 a visit, it starts to add up. I know it's all for charidee, but I dashed out the house with only a fiver and some loose change, so I had to choose four.
Gardens number 2 and 3 were the most interesting, with a wonderful conservatory/greenhouse that ran the length of the garden wall at the Red Cross open garden. I was also impressed by a magnificent twisted Eucalyptus and this Fuchsia magellanica in the NGS one. Not a favourite of mine, but this one had so many flowers it looked like it was dripping with fairylights.

Lastly I thought the pockets of alchemilla dropped into the paving in my fourth garden was a nice idea to steal, although the exuberantly planted border on the right looked  imbalanced next to the neat clipped lawn and horizontal paving. It just didn't quite work for me. I had no money left for cake or refreshments, but have to say there was a lack of home-made sponge on offer, so my purse and my waistline were spared without too much of a sacrifice.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

My Chelsea shopping list

My only regret about my day at Chelsea Flower Show yesterday was that I didn't get to a betting shop. For the second year in a row I predicted (along with most other people, I'll admit) that Cleve West's Telegraph Garden would win best in show. And it most deservedly did. But I didn't put any money it. Shame, but well done Cleve.
My snap below doesn't do it justice. Although it's a show garden, built to last a week, it has the quality of a garden that stays with you and makes you want to return to spend time in it. I loved the sculpture columns and the jewel-like planting - acid sharp colour combinations of  flowering parnsip (Pastinaca sativa) fennel and valerian, and achillea, punctuated by pockets of the heart-stopping ruby-coloured Dianthus cruentus. Cleve, I think you might have launched a dianthus revival, and a new planting trend this year: no big drifts and blocks of colour, nor a prarie-style meadow a la Piet Oudolf. This planting was like a new, natural take on the mediaeval-style flowery mead - it felt fresh and contemporary. I think we might be seeing more of this. 

Of other hot of the press horticultural fashion must-haves this year: flat topped trees - the mulberrys in the B&Q garden were gorgeous.

Green walls are now positively commonplace, as are bug hotels. But in between dodging the hefty gusts of wind and accompanying pollen dust from the plane trees (you could tell when it got people right at the back of the throat as the showground reverberated with polite Chelsea coughs), there was much to covet.
I would like to have taken home with me most of the Kevock nursery display, the scent of the Dutch hyacinths and these plants I'd not really come across before:

Phlomis tuberosa, 'Bronze Fleming'

This Cirsium heterophyllum that is bigger, pinker and more upright than rivulare, although Alys Fowler told me they flop badly in the rain.

And this Geum tangerine that was one of those plants that seemed to crop up in lots of gardens and nursery stands. Here it nestles next to one of Nigel Dunnet's dry stone walls.
I would love some of Tom Hoblyn's beautiful Italian lava pots with a pale glazed interior so that they look like rock pools; I heard him say they are about £1000, so I'll have to buy a lottery ticket for those. I also loved the lovely burnished steel pot in the Power of Nature urban garden.

Things I'd leave behind - the crazy golf landscaping in the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne creation (surprised it got a gold). The crane that lifted Diarmuid Gavin's pod - couldn't it have sat on stilts? And those partition walls in the Bradstone urban garden.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Seedlings, the Spar and the Vicar

Phew. A week on from Sunflower planting day in the graveyard, the seedlings are not only still in situ, but apparently thriving; and the first showings of the Pictorial Meadows seeds are peeping through. I have high hopes for a dazzling display in late summer.
Planting day was a very positive urban gardening experience. We had a good turnout of about a dozen local folk to plant out some 75 seedlings (we held a few back in case we need to replace them at a later date...). Organising these things is a bit like throwing a party - for the first 15 minutes I was worried that no one would turn up. But there were some new faces and some passers-by who stopped to find out what was going on. The sun shone, David the Vicar stopped by on his bicycle to see how we were getting on (on his way to watch the cup final), and the man from the Spar in over the road that nobody shops in, kept ferrying buckets of water across to us to top up our watering cans. It was guerilla gardening meets The Archers Christmas Panto. Luckily I caught the council maintenance team before they had a chance to weed out all the seedlings a few days later - they don't really know what they're doing. Next month, we're having a plant-sale fundraiser - the garden looks like a very small nursery at the moment with all my seedlings and cuttings. We'll be selling plants to raise money to buy trees.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Well hello poppy

Back home again and it's amazing how in just a few days the garden has moved on a season. Husband did quite well on his watering chores while I was away. The alliums are already fading and the sweet rocket is now positively luminous with purple blooms.  And sadly, the last petals on my favourite tulip of the year - the marvellously frilly Cummins pictured below - have crumpled and the equally gorgeous, crepe-like oriental poppy is now the camp centre of attention in my backyard.

Meanwhile, I'm even more behind with my potting on. This year, for the first time, I have almost run out of plastic pots. I must have gone overboard on my seed sowing - sunflowers, tomatoes, courgettes, chard, beetroot, marigolds, molucella, sea kale, basil, cosmos. Quite a lot for a small town garden. The loft bathroom-cum-greenhouse is full and the garden is littered with some of the lucky ones that are being  hardened off. I think I might have had a good hit-rate with my seeds this year.
Where will they all go? Some will go to a plant sale to raise funds for our newly inaugrated Friends of St Mary's Burial Ground Group and, the sunflowers will be planted out tomorrow in our monthly gardening session. So at least I will regain some pots...

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Greenest city in Europe?

I'm in Madrid for a couple of days and it's beautiful here. My guidebook tells me it's the greenest city in Europe. Surely not ? I thought it was London.  I've been to Madrid a few times before and haven't come away with especially green memories - it's the small streets and tall buildings (and the shops, bars and restaurants) that made an impression on me. I dismissed the comment as one of those things guidebooks tell you. But my Spanish friend Teresa who lives here and is an adoptive Madrileno (and who I would trust a thousand times more than any guidebook), says it is technically correct, because of the vast Casa del Campo park that is now included within the city borders.
And if I lay out my map, I have to concede that the proportion of tiny streets to green does look pretty high. A rough count on Googlemaps view, offers up around 32 listings of parks. I haven't been able to whizz round all of them - a challenge for another time. But I have revisited old memories of the city and found new greenery.
Of course, I went to the Retiro Park - the green heart of the city and the perfect hub on Sundays (when shops are still mostly closed and the city is at leisure) for all the runners, rollerskaters, dogwalkers, promenaders and the overspill from the museums. The  Parque del Ouest attracts a similar crowd, but fewer tourists as it's more of a neighbourhood park, but quite a special one, with a  small Egyptian temple and a great monument to the Spanish Civil War.
The Botanic Gardens are a more peaceful retreat and a must for the plant geek like me - I love a garden with labels. I like to secretly test my knowledge (and scare myself that my memory is going to pot) and then spot a new plant I've never come across before. I didn't know that botanists have split sedums into two groups and the familar garden varieties, Autum Joy etc are now Hylotelephium. And the Abelia triflora impressed me with it's gorgeous spiced jasmine scent produced by tiny flowers.  Meanwhile the English Border - that would be in full sun at home, is in semi-shade, as those familiar perennials would fry in the hot bright Madrid sunshine.
Shade is what Madrid's green spaces do so well, from the long tree-lined boulevards with towering plane and horse chestnut trees, to the paths and grassy areas in the parks - all creating delicious cool wells of space to provide a retreat from the heat. And if I thought that English gardeners were masters of clipped and pruned hedging, I may have to revise this judgment too. Smaller green pleasures this trip have been the abstract hedging outside the Prado in the picture above and this example of high baroque cloud pruning in the Retiro.

But perhaps my favourite discovery was the pretty andalucian style courtyard designed by the painter Sorolla at his house, now a museum. He's a wonderful painter - fantastic light in his work. And the one plant label in this garden told me that the Spanish common name for Cercis Siliquastrum, the judas tree, is Arbol del Amor - tree of love.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Battersea Park: then and now

Battersea is one of my favourite London parks, dating back to when I first saw the Pogues play there in the mid-1980's, when it was more of a fun-fair-and-festival type of park in those years pre-gentrifcation. Then years later I lived up the hill and it was my refuge and escape and the destination for many a dogwalk. It's still a gem to rival those big green spaces North of the river: Regents Park, Primrose Hill, Kensington Gardens and Hampstead Heath.
I always like to drop in when I'm passing through and I went to see Dan Pearson's new winter garden there. It's so freshly planted that it was a little eclipsed by the surrounding froth of bluebells, tulips and newly green trees. A winter garden is at its best when there is no competition really. But it's great that Battersea has commissioned some new design and planting that doesn't hark back to it's Victorian heyday.
But I think that come next January, this latest planting of his in London will be a welcome refuge, with lots of hellebores, ferns and woodland delights nestling at the foot of some 20-odd white-stemmed birches and a cluster of wonderfully bent and twisted stems of some old lime trees that look as if they have been there for years - perhaps they have? I don't really want to think ahead to next winter already, but at least this gives me something to look forward to when the bleak days come round again.
Dan has been writing eloquently (as ever) about his ex-garden in Peckham and about green oases in the city these past few weeks. It's obviously a chance to plug his new book, but he does sound a little wistful for a small patch of urban green now that he has moved to Somerset and is surrounded acres of countryside. Ah well, I won't feel sorry for him, but thank him for leaving with a flourish of public planting..

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Herbal enlightenment

Today I learned that to get the blue dye from woad, Isatis tinctoria, you have to dig up the plant, put it in a bucket of water and pee on it. The water turns blue, you strain the plant debris and you have your dye; it's also a very pretty plant (see above), so two reasons to grow it. I also learned that angelica is one of the main ingredients in gin (I knew about the juniper). And sempervivums can be used on small cuts and grazes in the same way that you use aloe vera, for the succulent juice that oozes from the leaves once cut. 
Okay, so sempervivums are not strictly considered to be herbs, but if a herb is a plant that is valued for medicinal or culinary purpose, for its scent and flavour and special properties, then that would cover a very large slice of the horticultural firmament.
Of herbs you have probably never heard of: Stevia was used by the Aztecs as a sweetener, and it's 30% sweeter than sugar. The reason we haven't heard much about it, apparently, is that the politics and countries involved in the sugar trade have deliberately opposed its growth. Something to investigate further.
Meanwhile, the little known Meum athmanticum, a member of the carrot family is a native British herb, eaten by crofters in Scotland to stop them feeling hungry. And Tagetes limoniae gives off the most amazing scent from the merest brush of its leaves.
These are just some of the  fascinating herb facts I learned at Jekka's Herb Farm. It was a special visit, in my newly freelance capacity, to sample her new range of teas that taste as good as they look - you've gotta love a tea that has blue cornflower petals in it. Jekka is a very generous fountain of knowledge, makes great marjoram biscuits as well as teas and growing all those herbs. I could hardly keep pace, but I'm looking forward to the next pub quiz with a special round on herbs. I will be quite smug about knowing all the answers.
Here are some of the acres of seeds trays at Jekka's, which I love for the geometry. I wish mine looked so orderly.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Garden Classroom

It doesn't get much more seeds-and-the-city-ish than taking over a neglected rose garden on the Islington/Hackney borders and transforming it into a beautiful, vibrant space to teach kids about nature, wildlife and growing food. That's what The Garden Classroom is all about and thanks to a tip off from Joe Swift, who is their patron, I went to meet founder Marnie Rose today to find out more about the project.
It all happens in King Henry's Walk Garden, tucked away off the charmingly-named Balls Pond Road. There's a small flower garden, woodland walk, pond, raised vegetable beds and a whole range of fruit trees growing against the wall,  as well as some small allotment plots which are rented out to the local community. This place is humming with growing, learning and gardening.
It's an inspiring story, because the first aim when Marnie got together with a few other local residents in 2004 was  to raise money to turn a sad rose garden in to a loved community garden. It was a tucked away  abused space that left visitors feeling threatened. Out of this project they realised there was a real need for inner city kids to learn about nature and the Garden Classroom started in 2008 and they now work with most of the local primary schools running curriculum related learning sessions outside the classroom.
The learning outside the classroom movement seems to be getting stronger and stronger. When you get results like the primary schools with a typical inner city demographic (50% getting free school meals) earning prizes for their science achievments which are directly linked to their outdoor lessons - it's a very positive story.
I know there are many parallel stories for the urban green community spaces in London and I hope I'll have a similar story to tell about St. Mary's Burial Ground in a few years and about The People's Plot (about which more to come).