Showing posts with label Herbs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Herbs. Show all posts

31 Mar 2023

Revisiting an immune boosting tea from the herb garden


And, finally, there was tea ...

It's probably a bit early for all the herbs in this tea to be available in the garden but as many of my friends and family have colds at the moment, it seems timely to revisit this delicious tea.  

Some readers may remember this tea ... I initially wrote this as part of a look back at May 2020 in the garden - a time when we needed all the immune support we could get! So, if these plants are not flourishing in your garden yet (take heart, it won't be long), bookmark this post to come back to it.  And while the plants are available, pick and dry some of the leaves to store for winter colds. 

And if you don't already grow these plants, can I suggest that all of these are well worth growing?  Lemon balm is so easy to grow, loves shade and still it tends to self seed vigorously.  I now also grow Lemon Verbena - it's a glorious herb, and I keep the lemon balm shorn to a more manageable blob. 

Five herbs to steep in a teapot for a delicious immune boosting herb tea - achillea, calendula, mint, lemon balm, thyme.

An Australian permaculture channel posted a video for what they call 'Immune-i-Tea' ... a delicious immune boosting drink made from garden herbs.  To my delight, I found that I had all of the necessaries in my herb garden.

Just five herbs needed in roughly equal quantities, a small handful of each of yarrow (achillea), calendula flowers, mint, thyme and lemon balm.  Put into a large teapot, cover with boiling water and put the lid on.  Leave for at least 10 minutes and then pour.  It was surprisingly thirst quenching, tasty and uplifting and, I imagine, would also be lovely chilled. I think I may never buy another herbal tea bag.

4 Apr 2020

End of March in the Veg Patch

Narrow garden within a low wall, with soil for growing food plants, surrounded by paving.
Hardly a vision of beauty, although this space will fill up fast.

Isn't it lovely the way our gardens are giving us hope and keeping us sane, carrying on regardless while the world beyond the garden gate is mostly off limits? Even if the weather isn't good, I like to have a wander around the gardens here most days and feel much calmer for it. I'm lucky that I have two gardens to look after - the veg patch and the car park garden - plus a few borders including the triangle by the washing lines which is mostly maintenance free (although there are some gaps crying out for new plants).

14 Apr 2019

A Sunday stroll around the Veg Patch

A quick blog post from me this chilly but sunny Sunday morning as I have strawberries to plant and a herb garden to sort out.

Huge sage in a pot at the southern end of the veg patch this morning

We've certainly had some weather this week - warm sunshine, chill winds, blue skies, grey skies, rain and even hail, all in the last few days. There may have been thunder at one point. I keep humming that Disney song about April Showers and hoping for another warm summer like last year.

I woke early to a chill, blue-ish sky sort of day and, given recent unpredictable weather, thought I'd start with a stroll around the veg patch with my camera. A lot can happen in a week and I've not spent much time there as I've been planting up the new layout of the other garden I look after, the Car Park Garden, a space that I can actually look out onto.

So what's happened while my eyes were averted? The veg patch is looking lovely having positively burst into blossom. Chive and wild garlic buds are shooting up, peony stems are now about 12 inches high, sweet cicely herb is in flower, and lovage and comfrey are growing with a vengeance. I say vengeance because both really need to be kept in check. 

There was a lot of colour from spring flowers (although the tulips have mostly come up blind this year and the daffs are pretty much finished), a few bees and ladybirds, and a surprise in the form of my first asparagus spears popping their heads up.  It won't be long before I'm enjoying fresh purple spears with a poached egg for breakfast - yum! It seems early for asparagus but it's only a week ahead of last year, when we'd already had a couple of weeks of very warm weather to tempt the spears into action.

Purple broccoli has now finished. I was buzzed by several bees as I dug them up - they'd been enjoying the flowers but I need to clear the space for this year's crops. And I've left a kale plant to flower for them. I'll collect the kale seeds to grow some micro greens later on.

As expected, the Morello cherry trees are now smothered in white blossom, as are the pear and quince trees. Some calm weather to encourage pollinators to linger would be good but with a ground level nectar bar from forget me nots, honeywort, honesty, achillea and erysimum flowers to feed on, would they notice the clouds of blossom above?

I spotted the Honesty (Lunaria annua) seedlings last summer and gave them room to grow.  Lunaria was introduced to the garden a few years ago because I love the papery seed pods at the end of the year and bees love the flowers. And as they're a biennial, the plants flower much earlier than annuals - one way to have a succession of flowers in the garden!

A little bit of Honesty ... 

I'm very behind with seed sowing but now that warmer weather is promised (at least for the next couple of weeks), I'll be opening up the seed box this week and possibly also planting out my overwintered sweet peas.  It's supposed to be 19°C/69°F by next weekend - I don't want to tempt fate but I think I'll leave my sunhat within easy reach.

30 May 2018

An unexpected historic herb garden in Southwark

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden on chapel foundations

At the end of last week I visited Borough Market near London Bridge to hear a talk on planting for urban bees as part of the Chelsea Fringe Festival. Southwark Cathedral is next to the world famous market and I'd read on the London Open Squares website that there's a herb garden in the churchyard. It's sited on the 14th century foundations of the original Priory chapel and planted with herbs that the Augustinian Canons would have used for cooking, strewing and brewing, or medicinally in the nearby 12th Century St. Thomas' hospital (named for Thomas Beckett, now the Herb Garrett Museum).

18 Mar 2018

Six hero herbs for an evergreen kitchen herb garden

For two days this week the weather here was gloriously uplifting - warm air and spring sunshine - and about time too, you might think! But with settling snow falling over London again today, I'm appreciating six herbs that seem to simply shrug off the worst of the winter weather. These six evergreen herbs can be grown on a windowsill, balcony, or garden and provide freshly picked flavours for my kitchen all year round.

I confess I've never had much luck growing herbs indoors; there's simply not enough good light in my flat - it switches from shade to full sun or vice versa depending which window I'm looking out of. I'm lucky to have a small balcony though and if I didn't have that, I'd anchor planters onto the window sills. Of course I also have herbs in the veg patch garden but when it's cold and dark, it's much nicer just to reach through a door or window.

Tried and tested over the years, I've successfully grown these particular kitchen herbs year round on my third floor balcony, with no extra heat or protection. This past week I've had to clear my balcony completely before it was thoroughly jet washed as part of ongoing building works so all plants have been temporarily removed to the garden downstairs for safety. They’ll withstand ice and snow but not the blast of a powerful water jet!

So these are my six hero herbs; the trick with all of these is to make sure that the compost they’re in is kept just moist but well drained. Waterlogged or parched plants will not survive!

Parsley (Petroselinum)

With more vitamin C in its leaves than an orange, this is the herb I’m never without. The curly leaved variety is what I grow on my balcony. The seeds can be slow to germinate so I buy a supermarket herb and transfer it straight out of its pot and into good quality compost in a planter. It needs to acclimatise/recover from its hothouse start in life but, if the weather's warm enough, it can go straight outside. Watch out for those night time temps though! The roots are free to grow and the plant thrives. Parsley is biennial, so tries to flower in the second year, at which point I replace it.

Celery Leaf (Apium graveolens)

Assuming you like the taste of celery (I do), this is a perfect alternative to celery for the windowsill  or container gardener. This biennial herb is hardy down to -12°C so will happily sit through all but the harshest winters. I add a few leaves to salad but mostly use it in stocks and soups. Edible seeds follow pretty spring time flowers and are delicious ground with sea salt when dried. Sow seeds in spring for a continuous crop.

Bay (Laurus nobilis)

Over time, these can grow huge when planted in the ground so I prefer to keep mine contained in a pot to restrict its size. I bought a small lollipop bay some years ago, repotted it into a similar sized beautiful terracotta container and now replace the top inch of soil every year in spring. Bay likes its roots to be pot bound so it's a perfect container herb. Adds a subtle flavour to casseroles, a classic addition to bouquet garni, and intriguingly good in rice pudding.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

I love having aromatic sages in the garden but, on my balcony, I grow Common Sage for cooking with. As a Mediterranean herb, it’s well suited to the rigours of life on the edge - the crosswinds of an urban balcony can be very damaging to plants - but sage, as with other grey/green or silver leaved plants, takes these conditions in its stride. Growing in a container keeps it at a manageable size, and it makes a tasty addition to vegetable dishes - I particularly love it with squash. It’s also reputed to have anti-aging properties, need I say more?

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

It looks and smells amazing in a winter wreath but that’s not why I grow it. I have an Italian friend who makes a delicious pizza topped with thin slices of potato, chopped rosemary and cheese. It’s one of the classic ‘Scarborough Fair’ four and is excellent for aiding digestion which is why it’s so great with lamb or other fatty meats. It’s versatility extends beyond the kitchen and I love fresh sprigs steeped in warm almond oil to make a muscle soothing rub.

Thyme (Thymus)

The natural habitat of this hardy evergreen herb is paths, rockeries and cliffs so it’s not only a classic culinary herb but perfectly suited to balcony or container life.  My favourite is the low growing creeping thyme in the veg patch garden which I pick from regularly; on my balcony, for ease of access, a small upright thyme is grown in the window box at the edge for maximum light.  This summer I'll switch that out for an orange scented thyme (Thymus 'Fragrantissimus') which I've read is wonderful with sweet dishes, and possibly also cocktails! All thymes can be used for cooking but also medicinally - an infusion of the leaves makes a soothing tea for sore throats because of its antiseptic properties.

And, last but not least, soil for containers:

Good soil is at the heart of every successful garden. Because the substrate that I grow these container herbs is rarely changed, I use a soil based compost such as John Innes No.3 mixed with perlite for added drainage and, during spring and summer, water in an organic liquid fertiliser every few weeks.

What are your hero herbs at this time of year?

The best evergreen herbs to grow for health beauty and taste
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10 Mar 2018

A Winter's Tail

UrbanVegPatch: Crocus in snow, spring flowers
~ What a difference a week makes! ~

Dare I say that I'm moving on from winter?  Too soon? I hope not.  This time last week the garden was still under a couple of inches of snow and the wind froze water into long icicles on street signs. For London, that's very unusual - the last settled snow was in 2012.  I didn't dare hope that open flowers or tender leaf buds on fruit trees would survive the big freeze but it seems that a week of winter followed by a few days of mild sunshine has kickstarted the garden into spring.

So far I've identified only one casualty and that's a 3 year old pineapple sage. Being a half-hardy perennial, it really doesn't like temperatures to drop below 10ÂșC and, growing quite large, had been planted into the washing line/drought garden borders, ie, out in the open. Having now defrosted, it's now looking rather, well, dead. I'll probably need to replace it but will try pruning it to see if that promotes any new growth. Both my aromatic sages (Blackcurrant and pineapple) were bought as small plants in 9cm pots and quickly grew to several feet in size so I'm not feeling the loss too much.

Bizarrely, the blackcurrant sage not far away in a corner of the veg patch seems to have survived, possibly because it has a low wall on two sides. At the northern end of the veg patch, tender scented pelargoniums will need to be pruned back but are also showing new growth in the shelter of the low wall.  Such a small thing but it makes a big difference.  Urban gardens and small spaces can often provide just enough warmth and shelter for less hardy plants to survive, even without a greenhouse.

UrbanVegPatch Kerria japonica flower buds in March
~ Kerria japonica, reliably early with buds of pompom flowers ~
In the new garden where many of the plants are still in pots, I grouped the pots together in the shelter of a hedge to maximise chances of survival. It seems to have worked as my Mum's agapanthus have perked up along with herbs such as lemon balm, mint and celery leaf. Bay, of course, is reliably tough but even the quince-in-a-pot has got tiny buds about to unfurl. Tiny details but I can't help it, I still find it so exciting when the garden wakes up in spring!

~ Lemon Balm in the sheltered garden, not in leaf yet in the veg patch ~ 

During the past week it's been lovely to see that hellebores, crocuses and daffodils have bounced back and I'm amazed at the speed that other plants have shown themselves. Wild garlic leaves are now about 3 inches tall (not long before they'll be added to pesto), broad bean seedlings have peeked above the soil and sweet pea seedlings, not there yesterday, are suddenly an inch tall.  When did that happen!?

It looks as though with just over a week to the spring equinox, winter might finally be moving on after one last lash of its icy tail. Perfect timing to start sowing some brassicas. What's everyone else up to in the garden this week?

Wild garlic, aka Ransoms or Allium ursinum (Bear Garlic)

21 Jun 2016

Ch-ch-ch-chive talking

chive flower

I love that the rain has made all the flowers bloom spectacularly, especially the purple pompom flowers of chives - they look so good against the green leaves and the bees adore them.  Such is my admiration for this noble herb that I planted a clump in my 'drought' border (the hose doesn't reach there) among perennials, grasses and alpines - to be looked at, not eaten.

The other clump sits, appropriately, in my herb bed where it's currently flowering prolifically.  Every plant (not just chives) is genetically predisposed to perpetuate itself which is why it wants to flower and thus set seed. To thwart my chive into flowering for longer, I deadhead as soon as the flowers start to fade so that new flowers are coming up all through the summer to delight my bee visitors.

The petals of the flowers can be eaten and taste, rather obviously, like sweet onions.  Just pick the individual bulbils off the head and scatter over a salad - with other edible petals, if that's your thing.  For a simple lunch, I like to chop the leaves into an omelette (add cheese as well if you like) and scatter the petals over the top as a garnish - delicious, quick and more sustaining than a packet of cheese and onion crisps!

Of course, all this ch-ch-ch-chive talking is so I can introduce an intriguing dressing that I came across recently - chive flowers with honey and cider vinegar. (Thank you omnipresent Swedish furniture company, recipe below.)  It allegedly pairs well with rocket and mustardy oriental leaves like mizuna and tat soi. Alternatively, it can be used to dress a warm potato salad or pan-fried bok choy, spinach or cabbage.  Mmm, I like the sound of that! (I'm a big fan of eating my greens.)

I haven't tried it yet as I've been on a juice diet to boost my energy levels for the last eight days but am excitedly anticipating making this dressing tomorrow evening for my first salad in a week!

Honey + Chive Flower Dressing:
(Makes 75ml)
10 fresh chive flowers
1 Tbsp honey (a light honey is best, eg blossom or acacia)
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp olive oil or cold pressed rapeseed oil
Sea salt + freshly ground black pepper

Put all ingredients in a blender and whizz to an even texture. Season with salt and pepper. Pop into a nice jug and use. Simples.

Why grow chives?  Apart from being a very useful kitchen herb, chives stimulate the appetite and, by extension, digestive juices. Useful for anyone feeling under the weather and less like eating.  Also, chives have antioxidant properties (great for zapping those free radicals) and the leaves are mildly antiseptic.

On a final note, because chives are hardy perennials they die down in winter so here's a couple of ways to have some for the colder months.

Herb butter - mix 4 tbsp of snipped chives into 100g unsalted butter.  Beat well to mix, add 1 tsp lemon juice. Freeze and use within 3 months.  Delicious on a jacket potato.

Ice cubes - but not with water! This is something I would never have thought of but read about in 'Jekka's Herb Cookbook'.  Cut chives late morning, nice green leaves only, wash and dry on kitchen paper. Snip the leaves into individual sections of the ice-cube tray; once full, put the tray into the freezer - do not add water! Freeze for 48 hours.  When that time's up, transfer to freezer bags. Get the bags ready as the cubes will defrost rapidly, take the tray from the freezer and immediately pop the chive cubes into the freezer bag and return to the freezer straight away. These portion sizes are ideal for a winter omelette.

Personally, I'm loving the idea of chive ice-cubes - hope this post has been useful to a few folk!

25 Jan 2014

The alternative wedding cake and some marmalade

Ah, Saturday!  I spring out of bed with the energy of having two whole days to play before Monday. Time to cook, think about the garden, relax … and so, perusing Twitter in my pyjamas this morning, a link to a recipe for Kumquat marmalade caught my eye.  I have a few kumquats that need to be used up and the recipe seems simple enough. (Making Seville orange marmalade can be such a faff.)

Remember the wedding a fortnight ago when my 'Pussycat'  niece got married to her 'Owl'?.  Instead of a traditional wedding cake they chose a tower of artisan cheeses - a wedding cheese cake.  The Lamorna cheese cake looked fabulous on the website, a vision of foliage and flowers. The cheeses are shipped without the decorations, which is where I came in.  The original idea was to put fresh herbs around each layer but a quick check of the veg patch gave me only bay, french and curly parsley, rosemary, marjoram, a few chives.  I felt some colour was needed to bring a bit of sparkle to the party.  So, after a dash to the shops, pomegranates, physalis, tiny white roses and kumquats were added to the stash.

I'd pictured myself artistically styling the cheeses in a manner to befit a House & Garden photo shoot. As it happened, I was allowed at the unopened box of tightly wrapped cheeses only FIVE minutes before the bride and groom stood in front of The Cake for the line up!  No pressure there, then.

I ran back to where the other guests were leisurely quaffing champagne, gathered an impromptu creative team (my son and another niece, both adult) and, in a frenzy of unwrapping, lifting, chopping, placing and sweeping up - this is what we came up with.

Not quite the glorious vision in my head. But possibly the best 5 minutes work I'm ever likely to do! And you can see why there are kumquats left over.  We chopped them in half and used them as 'feet', leaving me half a bag for marmalade.

PS. I'm guessing the cheeses were absolutely delicious. After the meal and speeches, and the cake being cut, I went to greet a cousin and returned to see just an empty platter and a few herbs … all cheeses eaten!  C'est la vie.

27 May 2013

Eat with your eyes

After spending a couple of hours sorting out my photos from the Chelsea Flower Show (post coming very soon!), I wandered down to the veg patch on this beautiful sunny day.  I've been a bit busy recently so I'm pleased to see that the garden is doing it's own thing and looking very lush without me (apart from a bit of watering and transplanting).

As I uprooted a couple of tiny orache seedlings, the word 'lunch' popped into my head.  I gathered a few more seedlings, added some white viola flowers and a few blue borage flowers, a pinch of herbs*  - feathery fennel, lime mint, celery leaf, lemon balm (a mistake), sweet cicely (yum) and golden oregano (because the colour is stunning).

Herbs 27May

Back upstairs, with the herbs and leaves being refreshed in a bowl of icy water, I picked a few outer leaves** from Lollo Rosso, Saladin and beetroot growing on my windowsills.

Windowsill Lettuce

On my tiny balcony, baby leaves of frilly red mustard, bijou lettuce, black peppermint, nasturtium (Blue Pepe, Empress of India and variegated Alaska, but sadly no flowers yet), coriander (yum), flat-leaved parsley and chives were collected and added to a wash bowl.

Balcony leaves & herbs

As I cleaned and finely chopped, little pebbles of Jersey Royal potatoes boiled in a pan, after which they were glazed with Spanish olive oil, Cornish sea salt and garden mint.  Many of these didn't make it to the plate - I adore warm new potatoes!

The leaves were drained, dumped into a clean tea-towel and dried by swinging said cloth back and forth. All was plonked on a plate, the flowers and a few herbs added over the top, more olive oil drizzled over the top, a squeeze of lemon and ....

Nearly there salad

... no, needs a bit more colour.  Into the fridge where I unearthed some cherry tomatoes and baby orange peppers.  Nice.

Salad finished

Yum.  Healthy.
Until I found the ice-cream.

* I wouldn't normally put this many herbs into one salad but was in the mood to experiment having just read Jono's post on Lemon Balm.  With hindsight, adding lemon balm to this salad was every kind of wrong. I only put a tiny bit in and yet it still dominated. It's probably best to use it sparingly by itself where it can take the floor and shine.  Parsley, cicely and chives on the other hand were delicious.

** I'm not yet brave enough to 'cut and come again', leaving the plant to reshoot.  For now, I'm happy to just pick the large outer leaves with the comfort of being able to see what's still to come.
Michelle over at Veg Plotting, who started the Salad Challenge, has written a great post on different ways of harvesting your home-grown salad.

18 May 2013

How to cheat at growing herbs


I use a lot of herbs in salads and my cooking and, until the growing season gets going in late spring, I find myself paying for pots of supermarket herbs knowing there is every likelihood that they'll keel over before I've finished using them. This seems to be especially true of my favourite herb, coriander (which you may know as cilantro).

It's been the same story with parsley, thyme and chives - in fact every bought herb!  But no more.  I have a built in windowbox on my balcony, just 9 inches depth and width (front to back) with a length of 70 inches. At the beginning of winter, I transplanted some shop bought parsley into the windowbox thinking this might lengthen its useful life by a week or so.  It's still flourishing.  Several weeks ago, I did the same with a pot of coriander.  Same story.  In fact, both have grown and are looking very lush. 

So, whether you want to avoid the wait for home-sown herbs or simply to extend the life of your shop-bought herbs, here's how to do it.

As soon as you bring pots of supermarket herbs home, take off the cellophane wrapper, give them a good watering if the soil feels dry and prepare a hole in your planter, terracotta pot or window box.

If you're starting a planter from scratch, use multi-purpose compost - and, if you have any, add several handfuls of perlite or grit added for drainage.

The hole should be at least a third larger than the pot the herb came in.  A tiny sprinkling of bonemeal well mixed into the soil at the bottom of the hole will help the roots to establish in their new home. (Don't worry if you don't have any.)

Take the herb out of its pot, carefully tease out one or two roots if necessary, and place in the hole.  Put the soil back all around the plant, gently firming it in and making sure that the plant is sitting at the same soil level as it was in its pot.  Gently water the soil all around the plant to settle the soil around the roots - and don't forget to keep the soil moist (but not wet) by checking daily to see if more water is needed. (Do this by pushing a finger about 2 cm into the soil; if the soil feels dry, the plant will need watering.)

There.  That should take all of 10 minutes, or less, and give you weeks of lovely fresh herbs*.


Herbs produced for supermarkets are intensively grown with too many plants in the pot to survive beyond the seedling stage.  There simply isn't enough space or nutrients in the pot for the herb to grow well.  By transplanting into a bigger space, the roots can seek out more nutrients and the plant not only survives but thrives! 

*Coriander, parsley and chives respond well to having the occasional stem snipped off and will reshoot (but not forever), especially if the soil around them is kept moist (but not soaking!).  Coriander doesn't normally reshoot, so I imagine that this is because, as the plant is trimmed, smaller seedlings have access to light and air and so grow. Whatever the reason, it works - and it's so great to have fresh herbs on hand!

4 Dec 2011

Walking in a winter wonderland

The veg patch in early December.  As mentioned in yesterday's post, the slow onset of wintry weather has been kind to my veg garden (if not to me - I'm suffering with the beginnings of a winter cold today).

December strawberry
As seen on 2nd December - the last strawberry of the year?
Looking back to this time last year, it seems that I'd run out of things to say (!) and had suspended blogging activity. That probably means that all was quiet on the veg front and I remember that I didn't grow any veg through the winter - even my garlic and onion sets were planted out in the spring.  I recall heavy snowfall over south east England making it challenging to get to a family christening in Kent in early December.  I managed to drive there but was amazed at the sight of snow drifts in Central London and the Kent countryside under a blanket of thick snow!  This year is different.  My chilly, sunny, "winter" walk around the veg garden on Friday showed my echinacea (and primulas) flowering; if that wasn't crazy enough, I also found this just blushing strawberry (a one off feast for the slugs, I expect).

In the herb bed, fresh herbs are still available: sage, parsley, oregano, lemon thyme, fennel.  Nice to be able to put off buying fresh herbs in the shops, although most home-grown herbs can be dried, or frozen in ice cubes, for use in soups and stews throughout the winter. I should really make time to do this.

December Herb collage
Clockwise from top left: sage, fennel, rosemary, oregano with thyme at back
A few other edible treats are keeping the garden alive:  chioggia beetroot, just a couple of sweetcorn cobs (yes, still!), horseradish root (really must dig all this up this year - it's a spreader and will regrow from the smallest root; I want to grow it in very large pots next year as it's a magnificent sight, very structural, but the roots can go very, very deep!) and, hopefully, a few Vivaldi and Charlotte spuds. The potatoes seem to have resprouted after I thought I'd emptied the tub in the summer.  Apparently I overlooked a tuber or two.  I've left them to grow because, well, you never know ... !

December Ready to eat collage
Clockwise from top left: sweetcorn, beetroot, potatoes, horseradish
And that's not all - this year I have my winter veg to look forward to!  I'm hoping for a few Tozer (purple) brussels sprouts before christmas (they're tiny at the moment) then, providing the weather isn't too severe, I'm looking forward to cauliflowers, kale and more sprouts in the springtime.  On a whim in early October, I bought some brassica seedlings then didn't have time to plant them out (this coincided with visits to my mum in hospital).  Not to waste a perfectly good plant, I've popped them into raised beds that I'd previously topped up with well-rotted horse muck or compost and we'll just have to hope for the best. All being well, this will give me some spring cabbages and PSB next year - and I also have a big box of seeds to think about over the coming months.  The winter doesn't seem so long when you still have veg growing!

22 May 2011

The Sunday Saturday Snap

Oh dear, this is not getting off to a good start, is it?  The Saturday Snap appearing on Sunday ...  Not that I've been slacking off, no no. I have been completely distracted by the balcony pigeons breaking through the defences and sitting on my bean and sweet corn plants (supposed to be planted out this weekend). Heartbreaking.  I have therefore been up a ladder with my drill trying again to close the gaps and Keep.Them.Out!

Onto finer things...  The Saturday Snap this week is continuing with the herb theme:

Sage flower

Sages are flowering everywhere at the moment, on my balcony, on the allotment, in the Veg Patch.  The flowers are so beautiful, how could I resist a quick snap? There's a lot more to sage than meets the eye, it being both a culinary and medicinal herb and greatly attractive to bees. Most people will know of common Sage (salvia officinalis) but there are many interesting varieties, pineapple sage and blackcurrant sage (with beautiful red flowers) to name but two. And now, a few facts:

  • Sage is an evergreen herb which you can harvest throughout the year as needed. Leaves picked in the spring (before flowering) have a mild, warm flavour; after flowering the flavour is stronger and more tannin. 
  • Buy any pot of sage in the spring, dig a hole slightly larger than the pot (best in a sunny spot outdoors), firm in and water. Very easy to maintain, it will thrive in either ground or container.
  • Container grown sage should be planted in a free-draining loam-based soil in a pot with plenty of room, such as a tall 'long tom' pot.
  • Sage will need watering in very dry weather but does not like being too wet in the winter so don't stand on a saucer if container grown.
  • Sage grows quickly and will get big within one season (given enough root room) but can be pruned back in the Spring if it gets too straggly. Don't prune in the Autumn as it may not recover from frost damage.
  • Despite pruning, sage can get very woody so replace every five years.
  • Beware! over use of Sage can have potentially toxic effects.

And, for my sister, Using Sage:
  • Traditionally used with chicken (think sage and onion stuffing), this herb also works well when cooked with potatoes, onions or squashes, such as pumpkin. I've also read that it goes very well when cooked with liver but, as I don't like liver, I'll leave that for those that do!
  • Sage butter is made by frying the leaves until crisp in either melted butter or a blend of butter and olive oil and this sauce can be used over gnocchi or ravioli stuffed with squash.
  • Medicinally, sage has antiseptic properties and is used to relieve sore throats and colds. Make a sage tea by infusing one or two leaves in a flask of hot water, strain and add some honey or lemon juice (to make it more palatable!).
  • Jekka McVicar, in her New Book of Herbs, advises that sage is known to be astringent, antiseptic, antispasmodic and a systemic antibiotic.  As well as being used to treat sore throats, it is also used for poor digestion, hormonal problems and to stimulate the brain!  
  • Jekka McV also writes that Sage arrests the ageing process - but, NB the last point in sage facts, above! 

Credit where it's due: a lot of these facts have been gleaned from one of my favourite books Grow Your Own Herbs in Pots, written by Debbie Schneebeli Morrell, a friend from York Rise (the street, not the flats) and from a little book I've just reviewed: Grow Your Food: A Guide for Complete Beginners. My review is in the post before this, also quickly found here.

14 May 2011

The Saturday Snap...

I'm introducing this as a new feature on the blog - a regular weekend gallery for photos. I always have a camera of sorts to hand, whether indoors or out and can't resist pressing the shutter button! So, to start with, today's offering is...

Kitchen basil May

This is the basil that sits on my kitchen windowsill.  With the sun streaming through the window onto its leaves this morning, it inspired my Saturday shopping list towards salads and pasta dishes.  I happened to have a cup of tea in hand while I skimmed through the Waitrose Kitchen magazine for ideas (I love cooking but get bored eating the same tried and tested recipes) and, serendipitously, there was a small column about keeping potted basil at its best:

  • Keep in a well-lit, protected area away from cold draughts.
  • Water when the leaves start to wilt and the compost is dry - it only needs a little water, especially in winter.
  • Stress the plant by not giving it too much warmth and light - it will fight harder to survive and this strengthens the flavour. 
  • When using the leaves, tear them off with your hands as using scissors or a knife may blacken the stem and bruise the leaves.
  • To encourage bushy growth, occasionally cut back the stems to just above a pair of new side shoots.

Apparently too much water will dilute basil's flavour so it's best to try not to water it for a day before using - something I was previously unaware of.

By doing all of the above, I've managed to keep one basil plant (supermarket bought at the beginning of 2010) going right through the winter months! (Admittedly, it has just about had it now and, once they've flowered, the leaves turn bitter.)

I've most recently used basil in a make-it-up-as-you-go-along pasta dish which turned out surprisingly well and was a big hit with my teenager.  If you want to give it a go, I've typed up the recipe here.

20 Apr 2011


What a difference 10 days of hot weather has made to my herb bed!  One Sunday afternoon recently, I was strolling around the veg patch with my camera in hand. There's a little wall built around it, the kind that small children like to climb onto and walk round with a hand held ... and which provides a nice perch to rest on for weary gardeners. Seeing how untidy the herb bed looked, I jumped up onto the wall to take the photo below so I could have an aerial view of how to reorganise these plants.

I hadn't got round to doing anything to this bed (it largely looks after itself) but the herbs had survived the winter and started re-growing.  Parsley had appeared, I think from seeds shaken from last year's (bolted) parsley, and birds pecking at the dried sunflower heads had dislodged seeds which are now growing.  Mint cut back in February has bulked up nicely, thyme and golden oregano have spread since being planted last year, the monarda has come back (originally just one tiny shoot bought from a plant sale), the fennel is getting wonderfully fluffy and strawberries have rooted from runners escaping from the nearby pot.  But it's all a bit higgledy-piggledy and, well, messy.  In need of re-think. So, while I prepared other nearby beds for sowing, that's what I did. I thought, but I didn't actually do.

And this is what the same bed looked like today, just 10 hot and drought filled days later:
I think any hopes that I may have had of rearranging my herbs have to be abandoned for this year!  The horseradish is beginning to grow tall and looks (at least from the side view) more like sweetcorn!  It's all starting to grow like Topsy with several plants threatening to crowd each other out.

From the back:  horseradish, monarda (bee balm), fennel, parsley, sunflowers - with a sprig of rosemary peeking in from the right!

So, organised?  I don't think so!  My dilemma now is whether to try and move the larger plants (monarda and fennel) to give them more space but I suspect they wouldn't survive the move at this stage. It's still early enough to start again with the fennel and, perhaps, also the parsley. I'd be glad of any suggestions from anyone who's dealt with similar.

Back at home, the window-boxes on my balcony are prepared and ready to sow. I've removed perennial plants and put in fresh compost so that I can grow lettuce, radishes and herbs upstairs, near to the kitchen, where they'll be handy.  I read somewhere that viola flowers are edible so I've treated myself to a tray of violas to grow amongst the lettuce, but mainly because I think they're very pretty.

I'm having a little break for a few days as I'm off to visit relatives over the forthcoming weekend. Hope this lovely weather continues (although I wouldn't mind some rain!) and wish you all happy gardening and a relaxing bank holiday weekend!  Caro xx

13 Apr 2011

Lush ...

I shouldn't be pleased with this photo because this plant should have been dug up and regrown from a new bare root. This is my horseradish in it's second year. I bought this as a teeny, tiny (and wonderfully verdant) plant last spring from the herb section of a well-known home and garden store. I plonked it into a corner of my herb bed thinking only of the lovely culinary treats to come in the autumn.  Belatedly I read the label: "grows up to 60 cm". Oh. And it did. Putting the rest of the herbs in the shade. Whoops.  

Now the smart thing would have been to lift the plant after first frosts, divide the root (replanting a few for this year) and pop the big root - which apparently looks like a parsnip - into a plastic bag in the fridge for food use.  I can't quite remember what went wrong there, except that last year was Not Good in the garden and, sidetracked by a new job, by the winter my gardening willpower had turned into gardening won'tpower.

Best intentions to get on with the job in the spring were foiled by downpours on my days off.  Strangely, digging in very wet mud in the cold and rain is not high on my list of favourite activities.  By early March it was all too late.  Little curls of green leaves were sprouting and after an experimental dig around it's base, I found out why the plant has a reputation of taking over the garden. Spreading roots.

Five weeks on and it's looking very lush, here it is behind the fennel - it's going to be another good year for horseradish!  It is a very magnificent sight when fully grown but I had planned to move the herb bed to the other end of the veg patch and grow sweet corn in the space left behind.  Time for a rethink?  I'm pottering around today in the garden, which is the best place I know of to reformulate my plans.

11 Jun 2010

West End (gardening) Girl

Teenagers and tourists alike love the West End of London.  I don't.  I find it crushed, rushed and expensive.  In my garden and home, I'm in my comfort zone.  But, combine a free gardening event with a classic bookstore and I'm chucking aside my prejudices;  yesterday evening, I sallied forth from the Veg Patch towards Foyles (biggest bookstore in Britain) for the chance to pick up some good gardening tips.  (Despite everything you read here, I really am a novice at this.  Oh?  You knew that already.  Damn.)

Foyles have recently received the London's Green Corners award from the Conservation Foundation for their Urban Gardening window, and asked Neil from Seed Pantry to put together a little 'round robin' of info for keen beginners to start them off growing veg, salads and herbs.  The result was a brilliant evening of top tips served up by Neil,  Issy (Fennel & Fern) and Deb (Carrots and Kids).  It was well attended and, for me at least, it was a treat to meet Issy and Deb whose blogs I read.  (They said they knew of this blog but I think perhaps they made that up, y'know, just to console me.)  Meeting them made me think how lovely it would be to get together with other bloggers and have a chat over a decent cup of coffee … but, hey ho, we all have busy lives.

Now, I know you'll be interested to hear some of the Good Ideas which were shared yesterday - I forgot to take a pen as I left the house in a mad, scatterbrained dash, so this is a bit of what lodged in my head.

Coffee grounds: gritty texture disliked by slugs - use as a mulch around beans, cabbages, etc; it will not harm the plants and is good for the soil.  Also, add to your compost heap to speed things up.

Eggshells:  crushed eggshells are also a slug deterrent. (Wash them first though or you might attract vermin.)

Tomatoes:  Soak tomato seeds overnight before sowing as this helps germination. Pot on when roots can be seen coming through drainage holes.  When about 12 inches high, pinch out the side shoots to keep the growing energy in the central stem and repot shoots straight into compost.  Water twice a day for a week (tomatoes grow new roots from their stems, who knew?) and give new tomato plants to less green-fingered friends.

Tomato Blight:  Ah, yes.  The Big One.  Issy recommends spacing them well apart, leaving a corridor of air between plants.  Blight is an airborne fungus that loves a bit of humidity so keep things fresh and dry.   Don't get your tomato leaves wet when watering (rainfall is okay as it can't be helped). Cut off the lower leaves when the plant has set fruit - this also helps deter blight.

Pea Shoots:  Had a few of these to nibble.  V. Good.  Don't buy seeds, look in supermarket aisle for boxed dried peas.  (I think they're with the pot noodles, not with the dried beans, etc, which is where you'd expect them to be.  Apparently Asda sell the same variety -- Leo -- as Alys Fowler uses.)

Basil:  is an annual herb, need to resow every year. Will happily grow from seed.  Sow seed into pots every few weeks to have a continuous supply on your windowsill.  Likes an open window for fresh air. (I never knew this before but, I guess, you know it makes sense.)  Water when top soil is dry.

Chives:  Those big pom-pom flowers not only visually pretty up a salad but can be eaten, which sounds … um… interesting.  Chives sown from seed this year will be big enough to eat next year.  May keep going year on year if you shear off the top in the Autumn.  Can keep using even after flowering.

Rosemary (and other woody herbs):  Benefit from a cut back in Autumn or Spring to keep them going.  Cut back leaving a small amount of that season's growth to spring back to life next season.  (Can be grown tall rather than bushy, so I'm going to give this a go on my balcony, using lots of drainage crocks under the compost.)

Storing herbs:    1) Freeze into ice-cubes; surprisingly, this includes basil.  2) Pick leaves and dry in microwave.  Experiment with timing - a minute or two should be enough.  Not Sage though, it may catch fire!  3) Pick a bunch, tie with string, hang upside down to dry.

:: This is Sage in flower; rather beautiful and a magnet for bees ::

Not enough space?  Grow herbs in a hanging basket:  line basket with moss, then a plastic liner (poked through with holes) then compost.  Plant in rosemary, oregano, thyme, lemon balm, etc.  Mint should have it's own basket because of invasive roots.  Deb recommends Roman Chamomile for it's heavenly scent, also good for tea.  Hang it by the front or back door for a welcoming smell on coming home.  Keep baskets well watered.  (Learn more about Chamomile here from Jekka McVicar.)

Newspaper plant pots:  Make with a rectangle of newspaper wrapped firmly around a drinking yogurt bottle:  fold long side over by 1 inch, wrap round container, fold base in firmly, remove pot.  Fill with compost and seeds and firm down. Done. Put into a base container until ready to plant out and, as with toilet rolls, plant out whole thing.  (Sweet shops are usually glad to get rid of the plastic boxes that 'penny' sweets come in.  Cut lid off and wash before use.)

Recycled Propagators:  Use supermarket plastic fruit trays -- the sort you get, say, as a punnet of strawberries or cherries -- fill with compost, sow seeds, water and put the lid back on.  Keeps all moist and warm until germination.  (And fits on kitchen windowsill.)

So there we have it. I'll add more if anything else bubbles up through the fog of my thinking.

I'll leave you with a Fabulous Friday pic of a herb that didn't get mentioned yesterday but of which I'm inordinately proud because it seems to be doing so well: my horseradish (dig up in autumn, leaving bit of root in ground and will grow again next year).  I'd love to know if you have a plant that makes you smile when you see it!

Have a lovely weekend -- wishing everyone good gardening weather!
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