Winter work in the Physic Garden

Alexanders: The Smyrnium olus-atrum is wild throughout Southern Europe, in Algeria, Syria, and Asia Minor.
Origin of Cultivated Plants, Alphonse De Candolle. 1908

Winter work continues in the physic garden; cutting back and clearing, beginning to replant where necessary, and starting to weed again. The Alexanders (Smyrnium alusatrum) are beginning to emerge, both where we want them, and where we don’t, a large patch appearing in the wood chip path we’ve laid. A vigorous plant, it was introduced to Britain by the Romans, thrived and became naturalised. Of all the Umbellifers used as vegetables, this was one of the commonest in gardens for nearly fifteen centuries, and it is now abandoned. (De Candolle, 1908: 91)

Alexanders medicinal, and culinary use, has a long history. Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC) was aware of, and wrote about it’s  medicinal value. Pliny the Elder (c. AD 23 –  AD 79) notes that, among other remedies, Olustrum, usually known as hipposelinum, is particularly repulsive to scorpions. The seed of it taken in drink, is a cure for griping of the stomach and intestinal complaints, and a decoction of the seed drunk in honied wine, is a curative in cases of dysuria (painful urination).
Columella, (1st. century AD), in his treatise on agriculture states that, Alisander […] ought to be sown in seed, in a place that is well trenched, especially hard by a wall; because it rejoices in a shade, and thrives and grows strong in any place, how indifferent so ever: and when you have once sown it, if you do not pull it all up by the roots, but leave, and set apart, stalks of here-and-there for seed, it will last an age. He also gives detailed instructions for preserving and pickling the root.
Gerard notes both the medicinal and culinary uses of Alexanders. He quotes Dioscorides who, saith that the leaves and stalks are boiled and eaten, and dressed alone by themselves or with fishes, [ and ] in our age served to the table raw for a sallad herbe.

A common garden plant, and versatile, but its usefulness was on the wane by the 17th century, beginning to be replaced by celery, with which it shares some similarity of taste. Also of ancient origin, celery was considered a medicinal plant until the early years of the 17th century, when it’s food value became increasingly recognised, and European growers began cultivating it as a vegetable for the table, initially for the rich. Lewes Sturtevant, writing in The American Naturalist (1886) notes that, Ray in his Historia plantarum, 1686, says the smallage transferred to culture becomes milder and less ungrateful, whence in Italy and France the leaves and stalks are esteemed as delicacies, eaten with oil and pepper.
By the early 18th century celery had became more widely available; Alphonse de Candolle, commenting on the disappearance of Alexanders states that, At the end of the eighteenth century the tradition existed in England that this plant had been formerly cultivated; later English and French horticulturists do not mention it.

Cultivation techniques; plant breeding; changes in eating habits, all affect the fortunes of plants. While there are directions on the web for foraging the plant in the wild, and plenty of recipes too, Alexanders is no longer cultivated as a vegetable; the plant remains an echo of older practices and diet.




It’s in the Soil

…attempts to define a landscape necessitate judgements of cultural value, and throw up issues of power, authority and pleasure…[1]

The sun shone briefly, before clouds gathered, and rain set in again. We seek shelter in the shed, but not for long; the forecast is for heavy showers and that’s what we’re getting. The site appears deserted, maybe a little neglected, but it’s the season, the time of year. Standing on this hillside, or sitting drinking tea by the fire pit, we seem to have the valley to ourselves. But look again, there’s a scattering of people working their plots between the showers. Someone walks along the track though the valley, a small group passes by on their way to one of the allotments run collectively; during any day there will be people moving about this valley.

New plot holders, above us, have been clearing the skeletal remnants of a polytunnel Joe erected years ago, the plastic sheeting long since disintegrated. Other people moved on after he died, stayed a short time, then left, and with each successive leaving the plot became more neglected, abandoned to bindweed and nettle; it’s now being slowly cleared. Joe’s long since gone, but his presence is felt in the tap he installed by diverting water from the mains, or so he told us during one of our many disputes over access to water. He’d leave a pipe permanently attached to water his tomatoes in the polytunnel. An arson attack leveled his shed, left the Sycamore badly damaged and dangerous.

From the outside, maybe to someone walking the perimeter path, this site probably looks ramshackle, but what they don’t see is a process of constant change and renewal that this common ground undergoes, nor the histories that this land holds. Thinking about Joe, Arthur, talking to Gladys, who’ll soon be 92 and still working her plot; from the outside these lives, and the memories they carry with them of this landscape, remain invisible.

We are all temporary occupants; some will last a season, others, like Gladys and Georgina, stay for years, working, shaping the ground, but always in the knowledge that this land is not ours, doesn’t belong to us, isn’t our private property. The longer we stay, working, shaping, improving the soil, the more we hope the next occupants, strangers to us, will appreciate the work we’ve done over the years, and build on it, but maybe not. Looking at the photograph one of the site reps gave us when we first took on our plot, it has changed beyond recognition; perhaps those who follow us will do the same, and make it theirs for however long they choose to stay. For Crouch & Ward how we relate collectively through the unselfconscious landscape that [we] create […] is part of [our] individual and collective identity. It is and should remain public land, ground that we have responsibility for, land held collectively.

winter allotment view

 [1] Matless, D. (1998) Landscape and Englishness. London: Reaktion Books, p 13

Pond Life

The pond is still a hole in the ground. The weather’s been miserable and we both have hacking coughs we can’t seem to shift.

A week or so ago when we last worked on it, a neighbour passing by asked if we’d be puddling clay to line the pond. It’s a possibility, a nod in the direction of older methods, but labour intensive and would need some thinking about. The cost can be prohibitive too, and there’s also the aftercare to think about. The pond will need to be kept, full to the brim so that the clay never dries out and cracks around the edge. It seems, from our reading that the puddled clay technique might work for a community garden/allotment, where a number of people can be called on to work the clay, compacting it until all the air is removed forming a dense watertight material. Although, relying on voluntary help can bring its own issues. So, constructing a pond using puddled clay is probably unrealistic, but an interesting idea and it set us thinking about what is meant by a traditional technique; what its values are in a contemporary context.

As a construction technique in Western Europe puddling clay is relatively recent. In the mid 18th century, James Brindley is credited with developing the technique in the UK, the process used extensively in early canal construction.
During the same period, Catherine the Great of Russia encouraged an open door policy of immigration to Russia. Germans, particularly those suffering from religious intolerance, took advantage and colonised the Lower Volga region and other areas in Western Russia, absorbing the vernacular style of building on the Southern Russian Steppes; low-roofed, and rectangular, the houses were constructed of puddled clay amongst other materials.

The repeal of the open door policy in the late 19th century resulted in a shift to migration to the USA. In the early 1870s two GermanRussian subgroups began emigrating to America: The Volga Germans settled primarily in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Black Sea Germans located in North and South Dakota. Members of both groups, particularly Mennonites, later settled in the western Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Unlike many other ethnic cultures, German-Russians were accustomed to the harsh environment and relatively flat, treeless Great Plains landscape, which topographica lly is similar to the steppes of western Russia. Using indigenous resources in a region notorious for inadequate building materials, the settlers erected sturdy clay and stone residences, churches and outbuildings in both rural and urban areas. […] Two techniques were used for constructing load-bearing walls: puddled clay, in which clay was layered on a stone foundation, and rammed earth, in which an earthen mixture was compacted between wooden forms.

The vernacular style absorbed by German-Russians during the 18th & 19th centuries is part of much older construction traditions. In a blog outlining the History of Khwarazm, an area covering the present day regions of Usbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan in the north, to Iran and Afghanistan in the south, the writer states that as early as the 5th & 4th centuries BC The characteristic features of Khwarazmian architecture—its massive scale and sparing use of exterior ornamentation—derive from the general use of building materials made of loess clay, such as pakhsa (unfired puddled clay) and mud bricks.

In Ten Sketches of Russian Peasant Life 1916-18 published in The People of Great Russia, John Rickman, a country doctor with the Friends War Victims Relief Unit, observed that peasant huts, will be fashioned out of clay and mud, puddled together by the feet of the girls, who […] stamp and churn the slime to the accompaniment of songs until it reaches the right consistency, and then tread in straw as a binder, […] The stiff clay and straw mixture is then laid out on a smoothed piece of level ground, patted to an even thickness and cut with the edge of a spade. He describes the subsequent construction of a house using these sun-dried blocks.

It’s questionable whether such construction methods can easily sit alongside modern time-constraints, as well as the evident physical efforts needed. We’re not sure we want to develop ‘thighs of iron.’ So although puddled clay has a long history as a construction material, we think we’ll give the technique a miss. Time spent growing vegetables to eat seems a better use of our efforts.