Friday, 21 October 2011

Herb Gardening by Claire Loewenfeld

I didn't think I could possibly need another general book on herbs but I bought Herb Gardening (at the very wonderful Slightly Foxed Bookshop on Gloucester Road) because it's one of the more comprehensive I've found.

The book starts with some brief chapters on herbs in general, then each individual herb is described under several headings: Virtues, Description (or Appearance), Growing, Harvesting and Uses. Several headings are self-explanatory; Virtues covers folklore, medicinal properties and other interesting facts, while Uses gives directions on the preparation of simples (medicinal and cosmetic) and, in the case of the kitchen herbs, a recipe, or other comments on its culinary uses.

There are two useful charts at the back, on growing and usage. There are a couple of inclusions which might be slightly unexpected - for instance, rose hips, which were much used as a source of Vitamin C during WW2* - and the range considered is wider than the usual kitchen-garden list: there are some plants here which we'd normally consider to be wildflowers or weeds. If you wanted to create a herb-garden like those of earlier centuries this, in conjunction with one of the early Herbals, like Mrs Grieve's, would be an excellent and practical reference work.

* As a child in the early 1960s, our school took part in a national scheme to collect rosehips - we would go out every evening with bags and, at the end of the week, the total would be weighed. There were lots of wild roses growing around the small Scottish torn where I grew up and we collected huge quantities which were sent off to be made into delicious rosehip syrup. I think the practice had stopped by the time I left primary school.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Out of season

This cowslip should be flowering in spring, but here it is in my garden in September, trying to clash with the (admittedly rather limp) violas - this pot was prettier earlier in the year when, under the clematis which is its main occupant, there were violets and crocuses. The bowl below is more the kind of thing I'm aiming for when it's at its best - but the pot above is meant to be resting at this time of year (although you can see I made an attempt for summer interest with some lobelia which totally failed to grow in our cold summer).

I like doing this kind of gardening in miniature. That alchemilla seedling will have to go, it'll take over completely any minute!

Friday, 19 August 2011

Bugged by inconsistency

It's official, I'm thoroughly inconsistent. Yesterday I was delighted to find that the hens view earwigs with voracious enthusiasm. Then I came in and spent ten minutes rescuing and trying to photograph a grasshopper. You can see it if you peer closely at the middle of the picture. It's a field grasshopper, chorthippus brunneus, I think.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Time marches on

Two  months since I've been here! Obviously, life is so uneventful that there is simply nothing to say, I'm just swimming serenely along with my feathers only slightly ruffled by a passing breeze - or else, it has been so frantic that I haven't had time to sit and write. And it's the latter, I'm afraid, there's just too much to try to fit into the day - it doesn't matter how hard you try to organise work, noting schedules and deadlines and calculating to be sure that one job will be finishing as another arrives: authors don't work like that, and it all manages to come along at once. Add in a funding emergency, and that's it - the garden is utterly neglected, apart from four courgette plants limping along anaemically. What is wrong with them I can't imagine, except that it was cold and wet when they were planted. True, the strawberries have been tremendous, and the one cucumber was delicious. I don't mind that only two of the hens have been laying properly, because we still have more than enough eggs (who's got time to cook?).

I've been pleased, too, with the dozen pelargoniums I bought as plug plants, which are all growing healthily, and the sweet peas are a pleasure. If I haven't seen many butterflies, I've enjoyed the moths at dusk, and we've had an influx of scarily large beetles (as yet unidentified: I think some kind of ground beetle, and yes, I do know what they are not - not stag beetles or chafers; this is a beetle I haven't met before, and no, I didn't take its photograph...). Earlier in the month we heard quail calling, which was exciting, and the grey partridges creak away in the evenings. For a week or so, a red-legged partridge took to yelling its head off on a fencepost in the paddock. Was it trying to intimidate the hens? Or just out-shriek the competition? One morning I woke about 5 because there was so much noise outside my window - it was five blackbirds on the lawn, all scolding a partridge which was looking singularly unimpressed.

The most pleasure has come from a family of garden warblers who are constantly a-flutter around the house, tiny delicate birds with heavy eye-makeup and personalities out of all proportion to their scale, and the swallows - all day the sky is alive with them and the count of the phone lines is up to at least 50. OH says that when he is mowing they play chicken with the tractor, actually flying underneath it as it makes its steady progress round the paddock. There is certainly plenty for them to eat.

 And the rain it raineth every day (but at least these streptocarpuses are doing quite well...)

Thursday, 26 May 2011


Last week I was visiting the APs in Devon and took the opportunity to do a little pottering in the garden - the weather was mostly mild and sunny, and the terrace was busy with deep blue damsel flies, orange tip butterflies, even the occasional small blue. My mother and I amused ourselves by counting bird species actually nesting in the garden - we got to well over 30, a count that includes ravens, jays, sparrowhawks, nuthatches...I've just done a similar count for home, and achieved similar numbers of very different birds (and because our northern garden doesn't include many large trees, the way the Devon one does, I expanded our area to include the fields immediately surrounding us, so the buzzards count here, but not in Devon). As I'm writing this at my desk in the window, a pair of bullfinches - regular visitors attracted by my rather laissez-faire atttitude to dandelions - landed in the ash tree opposite.

The high point of the Devon visit, though, was a sighting unlike any I've experienced before: as I walked across the terrace there was a tremendous kerfuffle as two birds hurtled into a pittosporum bush, shrieking their heads off. A high piercing note, an unmistakable screech of fury, and the minute bird emitting the racket was positively bouncing up and down on his branch. Yet despite his tiny size he was highly visible, because he was raising and flashing his crest, a violent streak of fiery orange that flashed in the sunlight. I watched spellbound for several minutes while he bounced and flashed, until the object of his wrath burst from the depths of the bush and fled across the wooded slope below the terrace. The owner of the spectacular headgear was a goldcrest, one of the enchantingly named kinglet family, and our smallest songbird:

Photo from Wikipedia

How such a tiny bundle of fluff could make such a noise I can't imagine, but the picture above does give some idea of the brilliance of his crest. In the past I've struggled to see these elusive creatures, which are more generally "sighted" by tracking their creaky tseeping cry (what Wikipedia calls "a subdued rambling sub-song" - love it!) to a bush and then peering into the murky interior to see the odd flick of a wing - they like dense bushes like yew, and nest in conifers, which makes them especially hard to see. I believe we may have them around us here in Northumberland, I think I heard them in the woodland a couple of fields away, but the tree cover around our garden is not heavy enough for them to visit us here.

I'm back home enjoying the sparrows - my mother is delighted that they now have a regular pair, and envies us our rambunctious flock of more than thirty. Who would ever have thought that sparrows could be rare?

Monday, 25 April 2011


A very young Scotch Dumpling, a cooking apple with glorious flowers. The fruit are less appealing to look at, being pale green and knobbly, but I like the pleasant apple froth it creates when cooked.

Easter weekend was uneventful, which was nice, and we had some welcome rain on Saturday evening. Oh yes, and the swallows are back, they arrived on the 20th. Lovely to see them.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Thoughts of warmer days

It has rained steadily all day and feels dreich and horrible. Yesterday wasn't quite so drear, and I went outside for a while to see how the various bulbs I'd planted in the autumn were doing, and for a bit of tidying up. A slightly unwelcome discovery (but not a surprise) was that my acidanthera (gladiolus callianthus) corms had all rotted. They should have been brought in for the winter, in fact, but they flowered incredibly late, standing well into the mild days of last November, so I was caught completely by surprise when the snow arrived towards the end of the month. I got back from London to find them under a foot of white stuff and, at that point, I'm afraid they were doomed. If I want more this year, I'll have to buy more.

I despaired, in fact, of them ever flowering, they are really too exotic for our northern summers. But they're so pretty (you can just about tell from the not-very-good photos) and were such a pleasure during the short autumn days, that I may decide to try again. Actually, they only cost about the same as a bunch of supermarket flowers, and we could see them from the house, so I have nothing to complain about really.

The bottom picture shows how gracefully they grow, but you do spend a lot of time looking at those leaves getting longer and thicker. Next time I will grow them in tall pots, with the corms packed quite tightly together, I think. I have a tendency to space bulbs too widely in pots, as though I was planting them in the ground. I'm only slowly learning to wedge them all in as tightly as possible (like they do when selling them in pots). Habits of frugality die hard.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Home to roost

I know not everyone takes pleasure in having a rookery next to their home, but I enjoy our neighbours most of the time, and often stop to watch them when I'm shutting up the chickens for the night. This is only a very small part of the flock that musters in waves in the pine trees before they all finally set off to spend the night in the woods below us. I do dissuade them from eating at the bird table, though, as they frighten away the smaller birds.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011


"Softly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon"

The rest of Walter de la Mare's poem is not very appropriate, since it talks about a harvest moon, I think, and this one wasn't very silver-y. Actually, the way it was cradled in the branches of the tree made me think of Sir Patrick Spens: 

"I saw the auld moon late yestreen
Wi' the new moon in her arms"

I hope in this case it doesn't betoken a "deidly storm"! We've had enough weather for now.