Today feels like Spring. There’s a haze over the sky and all around birds are calling and moving as if all of a sudden taking nest building seriously. There’s a woodpecker tapping furiously in one of the robinias fifty yards away and I’m in a t-shirt. This time last year the magnolias had finished, every tulip was either in full show or going-over, and the garden was fast accelerating into mid spring vigour. This year however, the colour is still yet to arrive. No tulips out and even the early Iris’ haven’t finished flowering yet. Just shows how dramatically our climate can vary. Never been so thankful for hellebores before!
Although invariably a favourite of every other gardener, Cerinthe has only more recently become a plant I enjoy growing. It takes quite a while to get going and only really fills it’s allotted space by early Autumn, but once it has, the long drooping stems pay back their return in abundance – and make an ideal filler in a cut flower mix. I saved a handful of the last stems before composting the now enormous bulk of Medusa-like clumps. The foliage is very similar to that of the Sedums, the small flowers like comfrey or Pulmonaria.
It’s quickly becoming a week of ‘finding other things to do’. While the sky drops buckets at very short intervals I’ve had to resort to residing either within the shed or the greenhouse. Now, as Autumn is set firmly in motion with the first flutters of leaf-drop and the draining of colour all around, the bulk of my heavy seasonal work is also just getting going. I’m one of those gardeners who likes to cram the big jobs in during the end of the year, rather than in the early part of the following year. I prefer to put the garden, as much as is possible, well and truly to bed in Autumn, allowing for a slower and more enjoyable lead up to Spring. This means chopping the borders down, getting the bulbs in, mulching etc. I think it’s a technique or ‘style’ that has hung on in my practices since my days of dreaded garden maintenance employment; swapping the mower for heavy bags of rotted horse-manure for the last push up to Christmas. A couple of years ago this meant mulching in the snow. And so this unprecedented week of downpour hasn’t really come at the best of moments. But then it never does, and there are always jobs waiting to be tackled in these particular periods.
One such ‘shelved’ task is the collecting and sowing of honesty seed – Lunaria annua. I’ve had one eye on my honesty plants for the last couple of months, watching the seed heads dry out and silver to their most recognised form. The seeds inside, in fact, have been clearly ripe for some time, showing through their thin, papery containers. As the rain began to put an end to my morning of cutting back the borders, I decided to finally get round to sowing next year’s honesty in the greenhouse.
I find that nature usually lets you know when the right time to sow has come. From the first Spring flurry of germinated ‘weed seeds’ to the new beginnings of biennial foxgloves in the early Autumn, you’re generally shown when plants are happiest sown. An even more basic rule of thumb states that early flowers (primroses, digitalis, cornflowers, wallflowers) are sown late the previous year, and the later Summer flowers (cosmos, cleome, dahlia, poppy) are sown early in the Spring. Lunaria is in the first category; it’s bright and vibrant pinks and whites forming a welcome display by mid April. So by now (September) the pods are opening up and dropping seed intended to germinate before the cold kicks in, over-Wintering in the beds, ready to flower the following year.
I would say, however, that due to the significant lack in seed pod-cracking sunlight this year, the natural process is a little delayed in getting going. Late-July to August is usually the time to be sowing on your collected Lunaria seeds, at which point they are dry and tough. This explains also the less shimmering, silver appearance to my honesty seed heads this year; the excessive wet making them unlikely to fulfil their annual role in the Christmas dried flower display. Never mind.
Taking the cut stems inside, with radio 4 on the go, I went abut separating the seeds and sowing them into damp compost in nodules.
If the seeds are ripe they will come away from their thin sheeting really easily. They’re held tightly between two layers which can be peeled apart. Each moon-like disk (where the name, ‘Lunaria’ is derived from) will contain somewhere between 3 and 6 seeds. Once sown, they can be covered with a thin layer of compost and placed in a warmish environment (unheated greenhouse or conservatory window is fine) to germinate. Depending on how Autumn develops from here on I will either then plant my seedlings out prior to the deep freeze, or they’ll go out into a cold frame to be planted early next year.
A month or so ago I spotted a patch of meadowsweet that had crept up unnoticed at the back end of the top meadow. It must have been growing there for some while as the scattered stalks were well into flowering. It’s not a plant I see in this garden very often, other than the cultivated variety we have in the long border (Filipendula rubra), as the soil conditions are generally too dry and free draining. However, there is one area in that top meadow that was once the site of a small pond. Having been dug up and re-landscaped some time before I started at the garden, you wouldn’t know it had ever been there, save for the particular plant species that show up from time to time. Among these have been the usual indicators of damp ground; docs, nettles, various lamium and now the newest arrival, meadowsweet.
Meadowsweet thrives in the damp and fertile areas of British grassland. It’s a Summer fixture up and down the West-Welsh lanes that surround the family home in the Towy valley, which is the ideal perma-sodden ground it loves. If you crush one of the flower heads in your fingers there comes a distinctive sweet smell followed by an unmistakeable waft of antiseptic – the reason for its notoriety as ‘one of the most sacred of the druid’s herbs’. In fact it’s herbal and medicinal uses are widely listed, and great in number. According to Julie and Matthew Seal, co-authors of the informative and super-handy, ‘Hedgerow Medicine’, meadowsweet helps sooth arthritis and rheumatism, dispel uric and oxalic acid, is used to tackle gout, mouth ulcers and bleeding gums and aids pain relief, forming the synthesised basis for aspirin. Also listed in the book are traditional methods of using the herb, including a pretty simple tea intended to settle the stomach and help you feel ‘Summer’s heat and brightness return’. Sounded pretty hippy to me but I did want to see what it tasted like.
The process of converting the plant into tea is really just drying, which is simple enough, but does take quite a long time. I cut a bunch from the meadow, quite close to the ground so as to keep the longish stalks, cleaned away any dirt and dead leaves, and hung them with an elastic band in the shed. I’ve learned through experience that an elastic band is always more favourable than string when hanging plants to dry. As the moisture departs, the stems often shrink, slipping loose from the tie and dropping over the floor.
Once the bunch has had a long while drying -mine were at least a month- they can be cut down and then crumbled (all parts, minus the stems) into a container.
Tea dried and prepared, I brewed a spoon-full through a strainer and enjoyed a mug at home. It’s not too bad at all. The flavour is distinct and you can definitely taste the Summer. It does feel like it ought to be doing you some good too. Certainly no bleeding gums anyhow, Summer’s heat and brightness, possibly..
Unfortunately the winds had claimed the top half of one of the apple trees in the meadow. I had debated with myself, all the preceding week leading up to my holiday, over whether or not it would be wise to thin the fruits that were beginning to weigh down the bows, in case there was a tough wind while I was away. Wise, frustratingly, it would have indeed been.
Removing the broken young limbs cleanly with secateurs, I collected up the premature apples, still developmentally inseparable from the spurs. Other than a handful of lepidopteran-invaded, destined for the compost, I took the small haul home and followed Hugh’s simple steps to a redeeming apple chutney, to make the best of a fairly dismal situation.
Lesson learned. Although, early apples do make a bloody good chutney..