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.

 

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New Year’s Day

Today we’ve been cutting sycamore for posts, and hazel for binders, to tie in the new hedging whips; clearing dead vegetation and filling the compost bins at the back of the plot; collecting woodchip to lay on paths, then sitting in the shed drinking tea, watching rain sweep up the valley.
It’s been a good day, if a bit damp and grey, and we made time for one more cup of tea, and watched the light fade.

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On a Wintry Day

 

Wintry showers spreading south during the morning…

There’s never a moment of inactivity on this allotment site, even on the bleakest of days. Yesterday was sunshine, wind and rain, sleet too, but still there were people working their plots; our neighbours across the valley stacking boards to replace rotten ones they’re using as terracing. We’ve continued to use felled sycamore to repair our beds through the winter; the results, a softening of outlines, an irregularity after the severe regimentation of scaffolding boards. The beds meander rather than sit grid-like across our plot, but then again we were never ones for squaring off, so the felled logs continue an arrangement that has evolved over time.

We often find the seaweed mulch scattered across the paths bordering the fruit beds. Sitting quietly by the shed drinking tea, we watch a blackbird root through, then select a strand of seaweed from a pile ringing a gooseberry bush. The seaweed is pulled away and the blackbird methodically picks at the strand. A Robin scratches and pecks at the wood chip on the path.
Then the rain sets in again & we decide to take shelter in our ‘new’ greenhouse. The frame was given by a neighbour on our site, the glazing we acquired through Freecycle, and where it didn’t fit we cut and patched with scavenged polycarbonate, securing it in place with gaffer tape where necessary. It withstood the wind yesterday, which is a good sign. Now it just needs plants.

Between showers we managed to weed and began to prune the sage bushes, but then we were engulfed by a hail storm and decided that we’d done enough for the day.

hail storm_allotment

Winter mulching

Non-gardeners treat late autumn & winter as ‘dead’ garden time, while growers see it as possibly the busiest part of the gardening calendar. We’ve been clearing old crops, trying not to over-tidy our perennials so insects have somewhere to overwinter & birds can still harvest seeds, whilst mulching beds in preparation for spring planting.

It’s also a time to strengthen social ties; we were recently over to see Phil & Anne, to collect horse manure from their stables. We could buy it by the wheelbarrow load via our allotment society, which we do when we run out, but we don’t mind shovelling horse manure, playing with Mutley, their Collie, and catching up with Phil and Anne. We gain from our connection with people we’ve developed a relationship with despite, or possibly because, our outlooks can often be quite different.

The allotment society manages the woodlands on the allotment perimeter and we’ve been using some of the felled timber to edge our raised beds where the old scaffolding boards have rotted. Years ago, scaffolding boards were free, not any longer. Scaffolders are cutting up older boards to reuse or selling them to recycling yards that then re-sell them at eye-watering prices. Aesthetically, the uneven nature of the felled timber softens the outlines of our beds; not so regimented, but then, we were never ones for plumb lines and straight edges, with meandering lines across our plot changing over time & use.

Local arboriculturalists provide the allotment site with a regular supply of wood chip, in season. It’s getting low at the moment but dig into the remnants and there’s a good load of older rotted wood chip turned compost we’ve begun using to mulch the potato and garlic beds. A top layer of this rotted woody compost over seaweed, green waste from last year’s crops, and manure on the potato beds should rejuvenate them after intense cultivation & make for wonderfully rich soil.

 

late light allotment

Taking Stock

We’re south west facing, gardening on the slope of a valley. The soil’s rich on the valley floor, from years of adding, working, improving, and we’ve managed to enrich the chalk ridges up the valley side too, but the soil’s still not as good as the lower beds.

Because of the aspect, we’re in sunshine a good part of the day, and catch the late evening sun too, and so we’ve decided to build another shed at the top of the allotment; the soil, what there is of it, is poor, mostly chalk ridge. So we scavenged joists from a building site nearby, enough to construct a large platform. The shed’s yet to be built but it’s enough at the moment to sit up here on a winter afternoon; it’s peaceful, relaxing.

A couple of days ago we sat watching one of our resident Robins feeding from a fat ball we’d crushed into a tray. In the middle of the garden, just below the existing shed, Blue Tits, a Blackbird, and a pair of Jays fed from birdfeeders hung on one of the apple trees. A Robin pecked at the debris, below.

We’ve been repairing beds, pruning and weaving the hedge on both sides of the allotment, and excavating to begin making a pond. We need space to grow, but we also need places to sit, relax, enjoy the variety of wild life that will hopefully colonise the area as the pond becomes established. Still, it’s early days, nothing but a hole in the ground and a mound of earth and muddy chalk at the moment.

The allotment’s often quiet at this time of year, a few people scattered across the site, but otherwise not much evidence of activity. It’s lovely sitting on the platform, and we can imagine the shed, which will be built, one way or another, over the winter, assuming we can find one on Freecycle, or maybe by word of mouth.

 

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Pruning: The principal Art of a Gardner

The principal Art of a Gardner, consists in pruning: for which observe these rules:
Learn first to know the bearing buds from the leafe buds, & those which will be fruite-buds next yeare; sparing all the fruite buds on standard Apples, Peares & wall-fruite with discretion.
(John Evelyn, Directions for the Gardiner: 106).

I am sadly lacking in that discretion about pruning implied by John Evelyn. However, I can learn first to know a fruit bud from a leaf bud by asking advice from more experienced gardeners, as, until now I would be loath to count myself a Gardner, in Evelyn’s sense.

February is cold, but there’s plenty to do: repairs, refelting the shed roof, cleaning tools, preparing beds for spring planting, tidying, getting things in order, feeding the birds. Pruning has never seemed to be one of them, as I’ve not had the confidence to tackle it properly. But this is when we should be pruning our fruit trees. I’ve always meant to do it – through the winter months to February, March at a stretch. Instead, we’ve taken the worst course, hacked branches off when they’ve got in the way or were broken, damaging our smaller apple tree through neglect born of ignorance of its needs, of how we might encourage healthier growth. Continue reading