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.
Filed loosely under the title, ‘Herbaceous Perennials’, lined along the rowed troughs of your average plants nursery are an enormous array of tough, prolonged-flowering key border stock. From the early-starting pulmonarias, through mid-Summer leucanthemums all the way to the last of Autumn’s purple aconitum displays, these are the key players that a gardener can rely on, and this year even more so than ever.
Working in a garden that requires a great deal of annuals grown from seed each year in order to fill the cutting beds and border gaps with (among a hundred others) larkspur, zinnias and cleome, a bad year can result in more than just a few less flowers. If sunlight is consistently low, as it has been this Summer, the annuals struggle to get going. Most of my cosmos, for example, are only just now reaching full flower and the sunflowers are a mere 1.5 to 2m tall – miniatures compared with last year.
In fact it’s the later and usually more prominent annuals that have suffered most this year. Those growing from an early (undercover or cloche) sowing were lucky with enough Spring sunshine to give them a good start in life, also making the most of the slug-dormant period. However as the season progressed, the light levels waned, and the later annuals were sowed into gloom.
This is where the trusty perennial falls neatly back into favour. New shoots returning each year from a well-developed underground powerhouse of roots are reliant so much less on what is happening above ground. Even in the worst of Summers, sturdy structures of colour will rise up from those muddy, senesced clumps that have been sleeping dead in the ground all through the Winter. For me these are the dependable backbone of the flower garden.
Taking a brief rest from darting, which it has been doing relentlessly over the pond all week. Now well into September if something buzzes by me in the garden with great volume it’s usually one of these or a hornet. As with the butterflies this year I was beginning to doubt I’d see many hornets at all, but all of a sudden they’re everywhere on the wing; if not hovering over the Ligustrum flowers that they seem to love. The queens hibernate in the log pile near my shed, as I found out with great surprise in my first month at the garden, while shifting some of the wood.
Yesterday morning I got to the garden early to finish some paperwork in the shed. Tired after a busy weekend away camping along the Pembrokeshire coast, and finding it hard to concentrate, I decided to have a look at how things were going up in the small patch of woodland at the top end of the garden. A regular walk around the garden is an important practice and helps you keep everything in perspective, however, like so many gardeners, I often end up finding an excuse not to do it and turn my attention to some other job that needs doing. So it was nice to put aside a bit of time just to wonder about and take things in again.
The morning light was bright, showing through all the various greens and there was even a very slight frost lingering on the wood floor. It felt surprisingly Autumnal walking along the paths. I noticed quite a few changes that had taken place quietly in my absence- mushrooms on the chippings, brand new fox holes and fruits developing for the first time on the young sweet chestnuts. Overhead in the robinias a pair of crows were calling to each other, along with a solitary magpie from behind the old wall; all projecting the familiar sounds of Autumn, even more so once the trees lose their leaves and the sound is reverberated further. A pair of nuthatches were also scrambling up and down one of the taller black locusts; for a non-migratory bird it’s funny how they seem to disappear completely after Spring each year and return to view in the Autumn. Can’t imagine where they go.
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..