Winter Work

It will be rather cloudy across southern England with outbreaks of rain, this turning heavy and persistent in places during the afternoon. Elsewhere there will be some sunshine, but also blustery showers…

Yesterday was miserable; a grey sullen day. A day to keep moving, working. Laying more wood chip on paths, sorting out beds ready to plant out garlic. And in between, stopping to have a cup of tea and a natter in the tea hut.

Such a difference today, mild in the sun. We’re preparing the potato beds; layers of seaweed; grass cuttings; crop remnants, topped off with a layer of composted wood chip from the paths. This will be left over winter, in preparation for planting potatoes in the spring.

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Food For The Birds

Plants (or some plants) were necessary to a degree that we are forgetting.[1]

Chickweed; from the Old English cîcene mete, cîcene-mete chicken food.
Daisy; from the Old English dægeseage (about 1000, in Ælfric’s Glossary), and dæges êage day’s eye, in allusion to closing of petals in the evening, and their opening in the morning.[2]

Days of sunshine days of rain, the week passes and we’re here, again working in the physic garden. We have a routine now, time set aside; this week we’ve concentrated on the areas where Chickweed and Daisy should be growing. Chickweed, most troublesome according to John Hutchinson, but also of considerable economic and biological interest, representing a high stage of evolution. The seeds provide food for small birds nearly all the year round.

Chickweed, unsightly for some, disruptive; Daisy, a familiar flower in the memory, a flower of childhood meadows, but not welcome in the garden. Both are valued here, but no longer where they should be, no doubt casualties of over enthusiastic weeding in the years since the herb garden was established. The planting plan tells us where they should be, so do the small metal plaques growing out of bare soil. So, with hand forks and a small trug, we go for a walk around the Priory grounds, by way of the orchard where we find what we’re looking for, and then back to the Physic garden.

A man, walking through the garden, is surprised that we should think of cultivating rather than weeding out these perennials.
‘Of all things. Can’t get rid of them in our garden, thought of spraying but haven’t, yet.’
‘Good. You shouldn’t spray.’
The conversation turns on weeds and why we might want to eradicate them.
‘Nothing but a Nuisance, why would you want them in the garden, growing over everything’.
It depends on what’s considered a nuisance, an eyesore. We wouldn’t have a herb garden if we agreed with that point of view; most of the plant here being considered too unruly, would overrun the bedding plants, colonise the lawn.
‘And anyway they’re unnecessary now, we can call in at the chemist, can’t we?’
But he thinks we’re doing a fine job tidying this part of the Priory, taking care of our weeds.

Chickweed (Stellaria media); this unassuming plant has a long history. Sir Harry Godwin, in The History of the British Flora states, Stellaria media has been recorded from the Cromer Forest Bed series […]. It is apparent that S. media has been persistently native up to and through the Weichselian glaciation, […] The numerous interglacial records give striking proof of the plant’s capacity to exist here independently of human influence. Troublesome as this plant might be to some, it’s been here at least as long we have, and thrived, been useful too.
Gerard recommends: The leaves of Chickweed boiled in water very soft, adding thereto some hogs grease, the pouder of Fenugreek and Lineseed, and a few roots of Marsh Mallowes, and stamped to form a cataplasm or poultesse, take away the swellings of the leg or any other part. He also states, the leaves boiled in vinegar are good against manginesse of the hands and legs.
James Britten and Robert Holland in their Dictionary of English Plant Names (1886), under the entry for Chickweed, say, the name was formerly applied to many small plants of similar habit, such as the annual species of Veronica […]. 
For Geoffrey Grigson, Chickweed is everywhere, winter green and happy even in the coldest months.

Daisy (Bellis perennis), Wordsworth’s little Cyclops, may be older, or rather the Asteraceae family to which Daisies belong, research into fossil pollen found in Antarctica suggesting that the Asteraceae family is about 80 million years old. The dating of this fossil pollen, together with similar finds in Australia and New Zealand, is helping to show how the Daisy family spread across the world, and the potential influence on the evolution of pollinators. Asteraceae is believed to have played a major role in the diversification and evolution of animals such as bees, hummingbirds and wasps.
For Maude Greave, the Daisy along with Ox-Eye Daisy, had a reputation for healing fresh wounds. Gerard suggests Daisy, which he calls by its English name Bruisewort, as a remedy to, mitigate all kinds of paines. A decoction, made in water and drunke, is good against agues, inflammation of the liver and all other inward parts. The decoction, in ale rather than water, was a common folk remedy for jaundice. Contemporary herbal medicine recommends the Daisy, often as a tincture, or as a tea, for a range of ailments including coughs, colds, and intestinal inflammation.

Geoffery Grigson, in The Englishman’s Flora, explores our relationship with plants, through their own human dossier, those common names that speak eloquently of the role plants have, or at least had, in our daily lives.
Among the local common names Grigson lists for Chickweed, are; Clukenweed, Cluckweed, Clukenwort, in Northumberland, Mischevious Jack, in Somerset. For Daisy; Little Open Star, Little Star, in Somerset, Mary Gowlan, in Northumberland. Naming is knowing, expressing an intimate connection with our immediate environment.
First published in 1955, when many of the local names listed might already have become obsolete, An Englishman’s Flora acts as a record of that passing, and in the process, underscores a loosening of ties with the local and familiar, perhaps inevitable in an increasingly urbanised society. We can remake these connections, through our work in the physic garden, which otherwise will remain, to many, merely a collection of weeds.

[1] Grigson, G. The Englishman’s Flora, London, 1987
[2] Barnhart, K. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, London. 2000

 

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Autumn Harvest

We’ve begun seaweed collecting, so it must be Autumn.

The change in seasons slows activity across our site, yet we look around and wonder if we’ll ever get our plot ready for spring; tasks over Autumn and winter are the difference between having leafmould to use next year, or a supply of compost to refresh over wintered brassicas as Spring returns. Soon the hedges will lose their leaves, revealing their structure beneath, enabling pruning and pleaching to begin again; the rhythms of the year embedded in repeated tasks, but each year, slightly different. The wild flower areas will change this year, and parts of the hedge need replacing, replanting. We’ve moved the rhubarb crowns, replanted artichokes, rescued the hollyhocks from an onslaught of comfrey.

The greenhouses weren’t even built until this spring; their presence has created a whole new layer of possibilities. A new dynamic, as oriental brassica seedlings move from cold frame to greenhouse for harvesting over winter; hardy annuals wait their turn to be moved into the new cold frame, their winter quarters. Flowers are now allowed as much space over the seasons as vegetables, sown and planted in rotation to ensure nectar and pollen sources at key times.

The light shifts, leaves fall, are collected, we harvest the last of the beans for drying & sowing, pick herbs, drink tea.

At home, our pumpkins join our apple harvest, the cat makes himself space to sleep amongst them.

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Hen’s Eggs and Manure

Today we’ve been collecting more manure from Phil for our pumpkins, and came away with eggs from their small flock of hens. A fox got into the coop late last year & wrought havoc, as they do; these are a new flock just beginning to lay, producing beautiful pale blue eggs. Time spent collecting manure is also time to catch up with Phil and Anne, & play with Mutley, their young collie. He demands attention as usual, so time at the stables is divided between throwing a battered ball for him, and filling manure bags, then drinking tea.

During the last few days we’ve been preparing beds, lifting the last of the leeks, dividing bunching onions, re-planting some, harvesting most. One of our neighbours has sycamores growing on her boundary; we cut down the smaller trees for her and used the timber for terracing. There’s sycamore and ash, apple trees too, on the unassigned land bordering the lower entrance to our site. The sycamore needs removing as we’re planting the area with native species (mainly Ash & Hazel); the allotment association is managing the area as a long term project for the production of Hazel & Ash poles, an attempt to cut down on the amount of bamboo we buy in each year.

Using the felled sycamore, we’ve created another bed near the top of our hilly plot, dug out of the chalk & filled with the manure we’d collected, plus seaweed – we plan to try sweetcorn & courgettes here; we have also cleared land for a second greenhouse. It has to be constructed by May as the tomato seeds have germinated & are growing strongly. At the moment we have a frame and several panes of glass, so in the coming weeks we’ll be skip hunting, looking on Freecycle to source polycarbonate to complete it. For now we will concentrate on getting the frame rebuilt.

 

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