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Gardening From Afar

(Written for an online Herblore email-list)

I have an English suburban garden in the Midlands and my soil is acidic and full of pebbles. After the Normans invaded, the land my house and garden stands on belonged to the King as part of one of his manors. Eventually it became a farm and for many years it was a rose nursery until the land was bought for housing and a new secondary school. Our house was built in the middle of the 1950s, a year after I was born. We bought it in 1980 and have remained here, raising our children. It is only the past six years that the garden has been turned over almost exclusively to herbs.

There comes a time in every herbgrower's life when the realisation dawns that there is not enough room in the garden to grow everything you would like to. It may just be a question of space, with trees and hedges overshadowing the borders, or it may be the soil is the wrong type for the herbs you favour to nurture yourself or your family and friends. In my case it was thyme which failed to thrive in an acid-based soil and echinacea augustifolia, the immune stimulating herb which makes your tongue tingle, which disappeared two summer's running before I discovered that its native habitat was the limestone plains of northern America. St John's wort, another limestone loving herb didn't seem to mind where it was grown as long as the sun caught it.!

With limited space there was also the worry of introducing herbs notorious for their invasive ways, such as comfrey, yarrow and the many variants of the mint family that I was anxious to experience.

The plea went out to my long-suffering parents and various herbs found their way into their flower beds. The thymes flourished in the limestone soil of the Cotswolds and my parents began an education in identifying such herbs as vervain, pokeroot, white horehound and the endangered goldenseal. They helped with the wildcrafting of rosehips, elderflowers, burdock, nettles and dandelions and patiently waited for the tinctures to mature in their dark cupboards, before decanting them and waiting for me to pick them up.

I talked about taking over their vegetable garden, but they insisted it be grassed over, since weeds and mice were making a mockery of any peas and carrots they tried to plant.. It was therefore a great surprise to be telephoned one day by my father who announced that he had just dug me a herb garden in the bottom field, near to the three springs that fed the farm water supply. The area had always been covered with nettles, and a favourite bonfire site, but now as the ash had subsided, he mowed it with the baby tractor (exchanged with a fellow woodworker in return for a spare motor lying around the barn), and then dug it over. He was well pleased with the dark loam that emerged from the undergrowth. Now all it needed was some plants.

On my next visit, I took down echinacea, gravel root, boneset, lemon verbena, hyssop, vervain, lemon balm and rosemary plants. Each of these plants, apart from the echinacea, had companions, which I kept in my own garden to compare how well they grew over the coming months. I also scattered some rows of calendula seeds and planted out herb seedlings grown from a free packet courtesy of the Sunday Times. An electric fence had been placed around the plot to deter rabbits, badgers and other night-time visitors who might be partial to some free medicine, but this had to be disconnected before I could enter the ground and plant everything out. My father warned me he had planted potatoes around the edges, so I tried to leave a gap to give everything enough room to grow.

Unfortunately the electric fence couldn't withstand an onslaught of wild munkjack deer who decided to sample the enclosed delicacies. Amazingly, most of the plants grew back, only the echinacea augustifolia disappearing once again!

When I finally made it back to the farm at the end of August to harvest and weed, the full scale of my difficulties became apparent. Some of the herbs I'd planted were new and many of the plants growing strongly could not be identified. Wild flowers were growing in profusion and I had great difficulty in deciding which to leave and which to pull up. The flourishing woad was finally identified by taste and next year I hope to view the beautiful yellow flowers.

Finally I learnt some valuable lessons. Always identify your plants with labels, weed on a regular basis and make sure you leave plenty of room for summer profusion! It has been a worthwhile experiment and hopefully next year an even greater degree of control will increase the harvest.


Sarah Head - email


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