Diary - 04/05
Diary - May 2004
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May 2004


The photo above shows the lower herb bed, looking out towards the view across the valley and the Rissington Hills.


In the photo above you can see the lower herb area


The photo above shows the upper bed and the magnificent, typically English, countryside view you get from here.


This shows the approach to the summer house as you walk down the field, and you can see the view of the english countryside beyond.

13th May - took a half day’s holiday from work to give a talk on herbs to Sutton Coldfield United Reform Church “Thursday Group”. I picked a selection of herbs from my garden and passed them round to the lively group of 25-30 pensioners. After they’d touched and smelt the herbs, I talked about the different forms they could be used in, illustrating this with three different kinds of tea, two tinctures and a couple of herbal vinegars for them to taste. There were lots of comments and wry faces as they passed round the tea-cups, but they were very interested and asked lots of questions. One woman came up afterwards to talk about her recent operations and I steered her gently towards consulting a qualified herbalist in her local area by contacting the National Institute of Medical Herbalists.

May Bank Holiday - The glorious weather prompted another burst of frenetic activity in the Cotswolds – painting the summerhouse, gate and railings, general weeding and taking first cuttings from vigorous plants like back horehound. The beautiful towering angelica was finally dying, so that was also consigned to the hedge, in the hope that its seedlings will surprise me next year. I spent much of Sunday afternoon and Monday morning mapping the herbs, including those growing wild around the pond and making a list of all the different varieties of trees within “The Sanctuary” boundaries. Oak, crab-apple, hazel, elder, ash, willow and hawthorn had been added to by my father when he first bought the farm in the late 50s and early 60s with rowan and field maple and now I was adding my own ancient fruits with mulberry, quince and medlar as well as more medicinal varieties  - agnus castus, gingko biloba, Balm of Gilead poplar and witch hazel.

At 11 o’clock May Bank holiday morning, the bees swarmed. The ferocious buzzing drowned out any other noise and a huge black cloud of bees rose from below the ash trees and circled their way down the fence before lifting over the oak tree canopy and disappearing in a long, black stream into the distance. It was an awesome sight tinged with sadness that the swarm would be lost and there was nothing could be done about it. An email from the bee-man’s wife that evening told us not to be dismayed. Bees are wild creatures and the bee-man accepted that his bees would sometimes go towards improving the stock of wild bees in a neighbourhood.

May summary report

Looking out at the mizzling rain today, it is hard to imagine that the last three days have been so glorious. I spent the Bank Holiday catching up on jobs down on my parent’s farm, where I have my second herb garden. I spent some of the time mapping out where all the different herbs and trees are within the boundaries, so that I can leave diagrams for both my parents “Which herb was it I was supposed to do something with?” or anyone else who visits while I’m not there.

It was an interesting experience trying to identify all the plants. For the life of me, I couldn’t find the madder I know I planted at Easter and the woad I’d thought I’d missed removing turned out to be an alecost, another new arrival this year! I’ve also lost the mandrake I planted two years ago, but the masterwort has reappeared after a year in hiding with two new plants at the back of them. Maybe this year they will surprise me and flower!

On the top herb bed, I trimmed back the mugwort, which was threatening to overwhelm one of the three new hop plants, which are slowly beginning to climb their custom built hazel frame. I had to searched within the depths of the mugwort to discover a few frail tendrils of St John’s wort and valerian officinalis and it looks as if the marjoram has gone the way of all flesh unless the flowers betray its presence later on in the summer. The lemon balm is flourishing, unlike the large victim of frost down in the bottom garden, as is the purple sage, which I meant to harvest before I left, but forgot. The New England Aster are growing well and hopefully next year I shall try drying the flowerheads and adding them to my cough mixture or tincturing the darkest ones. The little hedge of lavender had put forth tiny flower shoots which I hope will provide scent for anyone brushing past. They are rather overwhelmed by the yarrow and the Russian and common wormwood, which are very dramatic with their silver foliage.

I have been very disappointed with the yarrow. I bought some hoping to expand my options for harvesting the local wild population, which is quite scarce around the farm, but last year it had no scent or flavour, so I was loathe to use it. This year, when I crushed some of the leaves, the smell was a long time coming, but was definitely there, so perhaps it is growing stronger year by year as it adapts to different conditions. It is certainly flourishing and will probably take over the whole bed if I let it!

The final herbs (not mentioning the many wild flowers which grow with out permission! – white campion, red campion, white dead nettles, thistles, nettles, speedwell etc) are heliotrope, which always reminds me of the faithful governess in Elizabeth Goudge’s “A Little White Horse” and her delicate constitution and mullein. I’m hoping to be able to dry the latter more effectively this year as it went very brittle and difficult to handle last time. I’ve not dared to sacrifice a living root to tincture yet as my access to the plants has been so few and far between, but it is supposed to be wonderful for restoring slipped discs and other back problems.

Along the fence, sheltered by a backdrop of long grass, brambles, nettles and other delights I have planted a gingko biloba tree, an agnus castus and a twisted hazel, which is finally growing after two years of being eaten off by invading lambs! The agnus castus must like it’s new position because I could swear it has grown at least six inches so far this year! There is also a witch hazel tree next to the swing, which I originally bought because the trees are being over harvested elsewhere. Now that it is finally out of it’s protective cage (it, too, had to survive being eaten by enthusiastic, errant sheep!) I’m surprised how much like an ordinary hazel tree it looks as I was expecting something far more exotic.

Around the summerhouse veranda there is wall germander (bought originally because it is a gout plant and my husband developed that condition in his hand before I learnt about the contra-indications because of the polyalkaloids which might cause liver damage) which is on the Herb Society’s list of endangered species. It is a beautiful dark shiny green and in the summer has deep blue spikes of flowers. Next to the wall germander is my solitary rosemary bush, as all the others in the main herb garden were caught in the February frost. It looks quite healthy and seems to be growing well, but I am worried that my weeding will actually bring it and the apothecary’s rose to the attention of the rabbits, who might decide they like the flavour!

At Easter, I decided to split the marshmallow plant since it was never as tall as the one in the home garden. The two stalks by the summerhouse are totally dwarfed by a stray aquilegia which has self seeded, but the bees are so enamoured of the nectar that I am loath to pull it up just yet. The half I transplanted to the banks of the stream have shot up and look very healthy. I don’t think the rabbits like them as they’ve never been eaten off.

At the front of the veranda is an enormous comfrey plant. I have stopped making oils and tinctures from the leaves and now try to use plantain for all my “knit bone” needs. The bees were going wild in the flowers and the green and white of the comfrey against the purple of the aqualegias was quite stunning! I must have counted at least six different kinds of bumble bees over the weekend, from totally black ones to a smaller variety with a lemon coloured body.

I’ve planted an early flowering lavender next to the seat by the main herb garden and this year it has doubled it’s size. It got badly eaten by something (probably rabbits, maybe badgers) last year and never really recovered. It’s supposed to produce two lavender crops if I cut it back hard after it flowers the first time. The seat is in the shade of a mulberry tree and I’m desperate for it to start flowering and begin producing fruit! Both the quince and the meddler trees have flowed copiously this spring and the quince still had a few large white flowers that look like old fashioned cottage roses. I’m hopeful they will set and produce some interesting fruit in the autumn.

When I counted the plants in the main garden, it came to over thirty. There are the usual culinary and medicinal ones like thyme, sage, chamomile, chocolate mint and chives, which are there because there was nowhere else to put them at the time, but most of the herbs are ones I use regularly or am trying to learn about. I have two sorts of Echinacea –angustifolia and pallida, but the pupurea always disappears when my back is turned. The beautiful purple coneflowers are so striking in the late summer and autumn along with the yellows and golds of the calendula, the white fluffy flowers of the boneset and huge pink Joe Pye Weed. The skullcap is spreading nicely, which is great because I used a lot of tincture last autumn when my daughter was suffering. It is one of the nicer tasting tinctures and goes well in orange juice! Unfortunately, the calendula have decided to self seed where they felt like it, rather than the bed I’d left for them to grow in, so I planted out the milk thistle seedlings into the space instead! I’m hoping this year to make more use of the leaves in salads as they are supposed to be very nutritious (once you remove the spikes with a pair of scissors!).

The angelica is towering above everything and the flower heads were covered with all kind of insects. I’ve decided to leave the seeds on the plant this year in the hope that I’ll get some seedlings coming up next year. I’ve already taken off some leaves and hung them up to dry along with some burdock leaves from the wild plants which grow around the pond. In the shade of the angelica, I’ve planted Solomon’s seal and wood betony, which seem to be quite happy, as is the Chinese and ordinary liquorice and agrimony. The hyssop is producing a veritable hedge and I’m looking forward to the blue flowers in the summer. I’m just hoping it won’t overwhelm the vervain by the side of it. The motherwort and the goats rue are vying for who can grow the fastest. The motherwort has self seeded masses of seedlings, which I would love to give away. The pennyroyal and white catmint are just about holding their own at the very front of the bed.

Wormwood, black horehound and tansy are three other plants which are running rampant at the moment. I harvested the black horehound (noticing it’s aweful smell for the first time!) and the tansy and they are both now hanging up to dry, but the wormwood has been attacked by blackfly quite badly, so I shall have to wait and see what happens before I chop it down. The white horehound looks a bit leggy, so I shall wait a little longer before I take the shoots for cough mixture.

Amidst all the different shades of green, the tiny tricolour flowers of the heartsease look quite exquisite in the early summer sun. It really does do your heart good to see them as the birds sing in the surrounding trees and the springs trickle gently into the pond or down into the stream. The black cohosh seem to be growing well, with the delicate leaves flickering in the breeze. A couple of woad plants escaped my earlier cull, but I have decided to leave them alone for the moment. Their near relations are flowering happily in a bed of their own down by the bottom hedge.

The hawthorn sprays were dropping their blossom on the grass all weekend and to our amazement, the tree which had been brilliant white a week ago was now a deep shade of pink! We put it down to the influence of the new beehive which is situated close by. For the first time in nearly thirty years, there are flowers on the rowan tree, so we have great hopes there will be red berries in the autumn. There are eleven different kinds of trees in the grove surrounding the pond behind the herb garden, thirteen if you count the wild gooseberry and dogrose bushes. The elder are the most numerous and will be flowering soon, the great white pancakes still green promises. Then come the ash, hawthorn and crab apple, whose blossom is already starting to set fruit. There is also an eating apple tree and a Balm of Gilead poplar, which seems too young yet to produce the resinous leafbuds I bought it for. The presence of two field maples was a surprise, as was the self planted young willow tree on the banks of the pond, so slim compared with its three ancient neighbours. Over them all tower the two enormous oaks, with a third oak leaning backwards on the lower boundary. They are already over three hundred years old and we hope that their presence will protect the glade for several hundred years to come.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from such a beautiful and peaceful place. On the Monday morning at 11 am, the bees suddenly began to swarm. We watched them swirl in front of the hawthorn blossom before passing overhead in a deafening buzz as they followed their queen away into the vast unknown, grasping the opportunity to return to a wild existence amongst the fields and trees. In my heart, I followed them, retaining my freedom to roam even while I am sitting in my office watching traffic in the rain!


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