Spring is here so it’s time for a look back on the successes and failures of last year. While focusing on failure is not always a good thing when it comes to gardening it serves as a reminder of what I did wrong…again. This time last year the sage was in a terrible state and the thyme was for all intensive purposes dead. Well, the sage recovered and the thyme? It made a miraculous comeback as a result of some severe pruning and tearing up of dead roots followed up with some intense neglect.
The thyme, peculiarly, has no aroma at all. I can crush the leaves in my hand and…nothing. It’s as if the relentless Ayrshire rain has washed the scent away. Not even the butterflies were that interested in the purple flowers they usually feed on. That could have been because they were more interested in other areas of my garden. Which brings me to…
…caterpillars. Last year was the year of the caterpillar. Hundreds upon hundreds of the little blighters which decimated the mustard greens, the kale and the cabbages. To be fair I had completely forgotten I had grown cabbages and was in fact expecting purple sprouting broccoli. The problem was that as soon as I inserted the label into the ground my two year old helper would swiftly pull them out again. I mistakenly decided that as I hadn’t planted much I would remember what was in the ground. I never remember. Still, despite expecting broccoli and getting cabbages it’s still upsetting to find wizened stumps. I can only blame myself though as I was complacent and then just far too late getting the netting out.
Despite the glorious summer the greenhouse didn’t really fare any better. The cucumbers were like snozzcumbers, the basil was riddled with aphids and the beef tomatoes rotted on the vine before they even ripened. The yellow cherry tomatoes, however, were like beads of sweet nectar. I say this every time I grow tomatoes but I have never, ever, eaten shop bought ones that come anywhere close to that delicious. The other greenhouse successes were the ants. They thrive in there and will defend their space with some aggression. Only the cat seemed to be able to enter the greenhouse without being swarmed.
I do find my garden retrospectives verge on the bleak and depressing and every year I still think that this will be the year of my gardening success. I have planted beetroots, onions and leeks for the last three years and none have ever grown, yet I still plant them, moving their location every year, because one day I am convinced will get it right and they will grow. Maybe this year?
While I’m still desperately waiting for spring to fully arrive in South Ayrshire its delay has bought me more time in terms of preparing the garden, planting seeds and planning what I want to make for my herbal dispensary. Its has also given me the opportunity to complete my annual review of garden casualties. It’s been heavy this year. Unsurprisingly the aromatic herbs have taken a hit. The oregano, marjoram, red thyme and the delicate Corsican mint haven’t made it this year. Aromatic plants generally prefer well drained soil and a bit of warmth and not the water logged soil, snow drifts, frost and ice we have had of late so really it’s not a huge surprise. If I had kept them in pots I might have been able to salvage them by keeping them wrapped in bubble wrap or even taken them indoors.
The red and green sage, normally so robust and tucked away in a more sheltered spot has taken a hammering. Usually at this time of year it is full of new growth and looking quite confident and perky. They were looking scorched, blotched and straggly and required a move and some tender attention but they won’t regain their youthful looks. I think the solution here might be to take cuttings in autumn and simply remove the old plants but I’ll wait and see whether they recover at all. I’m hoping they will as I have a few preparations I need them for.
(sage after some pruning)
We’re usually a healthy bunch with only the occasional sniffle and sneeze but for the last fortnight two adults and a toddler have been floored by coughs and high temperatures, something I’ve just not had to deal with with a wee one before. Hauling myself to the cupboards and fridge I realised to my horror that my once resplendent herbal remedy selection has been slowly depleted, or is so out of date and dusty, that I had nothing to draw on. No teas, no syrups or glycerols, no juices, no tinctures or powders, no essential oils. Nothing. It was a wake up call.
I cant remember a time in the last decade when i didn’t have at least the basics of a first aid dispensary to hand. How has this happened? My intention on graduating was always to make and create my own dispensary from scratch. To gather, preserve and store all the beautiful plants and be able to share them with friends and patients as well as using them at home. Working full time and then looking after a baby meant that it all went on hold. No more! I have a toddler who can gather, muddle and stir so no more excuses. To spend the year preparing my own herbal dispensary will be a joy. It’s not instantaneous (because I will be gathering the plants seasonally ) and it involves patience (something I’m always working on) and time but this way I get the prime plants, hand picked by me and made using the best ingredients.
On my list are some dried herbs, syrups, ointments, aromatic waters, juices (to freeze); I’m looking at making remedies for coughs, colds, flus, bruises, chapped skin, chilblains, sunburn… as well as some preventative mixes. It will simply be practical remedies made from locally grown, mainly wild, herbs. I hope you’ll join me as I build my medicine chest, It should be exciting.
Two years of neglect, two harsh winters and a cold spring have taken their toll on this garden. Overgrown, mossified, dilapidated and depressing to look at just about summed it up. My grand plans for a medieval herb garden have never progressed beyond wistful thinking and the reality of a two year old and a maniac dog suggests that perhaps retirement will be the time to put that dream into action. Still, vegetable plots which produce, well, vegetables and a herb bed not solely consisting of fennel and St Johns Wort (which spreads like a weed!) would be a pleasant enough start. I don’t ask for much.
The simplest solution seemed to be just to strip everything back, again; a blank canvas from which I hope inspiration will leap. I have no plans but rather a desire to keep on top of weeds and plant a mixture of pretty and practical. I’m thinking that a garden suitable for people and wildlife is not a bad place to start.
I’m desperate for inspiration so it’s out with the gardening books. The garden which held such promise in the spring was a disaster. Lack of time, poor planning, appalling weather and more slugs and snails than I have ever seen wreaked havoc. We got a handful of runner beans and two tomatoes this year and that was it. No winter crops got planted and for the first time since we moved here there is no kale in the ground. No kale! This has become a weekly exclamation as one of us remembers that there is indeed no kale. It’s galling to buy those shredded plastic bags of stalky kale from the supermarket when in previous years we have had glorious Cavolo nero to harvest. All we can do right now is flick through the books and pretend that next year we will be organised.
There is much emphasis on ‘seasonal living’ in modern society. It would appear to be a way for us to desperately reconnect to the world around us, but usually what it refers to is seasonal eating. I think, I feel it is so much more than this. It is about what we eat, the way we cook it and how we eat it. It is about gathering, observing and preserving the plants and foods around us. It is about embracing the qualities of each season and going with them rather than against. It is about the colours and textures of each season. It is about adjusting what we wear and what we surround ourselves with. It is about creating or breaking traditions. Surely seasonal living must reflect every aspect of our life?
In the garden it is impossible to fight against the seasons, although we all try; my approach to herbal medicine, what I eat, what I make, they all reflect the seasons a little but, as my old school reports to say, ‘could do better’.
It’s not always easy in our supermarket dominant, consumer driven, work orientated digital world to always connect with the world around us but it’s not an impossibility. It’s not even about unplugging completely, if you can see a tree you can follow the seasons.
As from the beginning of this month (the start of the old new year) my goal is for this to be the year to fully embrace all things seasonal. Will I find contentment and a better understanding of nature? Or, in this modern society, am I headed for frustration and disappointment.
While spring tends to effortlessly blend into summer the transition from summer to autumn always feels clunky and jarring. The sudden jump from warmth to early morning frosts is harsh and unrepentant. The day might eventually warm up but then I’m left confused and overdressed. That’s the thing though, it’s the confusing overlap of the seasons. Do I wear gloves and a hat or a T-shirt? Do I eat aubergines, fresh tomatoes and salad or something altogether more stodgy and warming? Whichever I pick will undoubtedly turn out to be wrong.
This transition is the hardest mentally to deal with. While the days seem to take forever to lengthen it can feel like 2 hours has been shaved off in the space of a week. It’s just cruel.
But the dark short days, the relentless wind and rain, are part of a cyclical year. Autumn should not be viewed as an ending but rather a new beginning. A time of year when we are enforced to retreat inside earlier, to sit by the fire (or flicker of the television screen), to go to bed earlier; in short to start taking things easy. The hard work of the year is done, the planting, the weeding, the harvesting and now is time for gentler activities. Most humans are not that great at sitting back (while others, we all know one or two, are far too proficient). We have constructed a society where we are all expected to be busy all of the time, to work through the daylight hours and often well into the dark, to never take time off to recuperate from illness and if we dare to relax then we at least have to feel guilty and uneasy.
To give in to autumn is the only way to adjust to this cold new world. Days off should be spent gently shuffling through the fallen leaves, eating crumpets and drinking bladder popping volumes of tea, gathering the last of the berries, curling up in blankets and reading a good, or incredibly bad, book. We’d all be happier for it.