It seems so hard to believe it is Easter weekend in so many ways. Firstly we are all locked away and unable to see our friends and families as we normally would and secondly this weather has felt more like mid June than the beginning of April! I can’t remember when it last rained and our gardens are crying out for water already.
Consequently, watering has been a major feature of our work this week. In both the walled garden and the vegetable plot we used sprinklers for the first time this year.
Apart from giving the plants a much needed drink, this also softened the ground and made it much easier for us to weed through the medicinal border the next day. The plants are growing fast in this area now but haven’t yet covered the ground sufficiently to smother the weeds unfortunately. The comfrey leaves are large enough for a first harvest to make some comfrey plant feed. Find out here if you have some comfrey and want to try it.
To make watering a little easier in the community garden we have installed some extra porous pipe which can be left gently dripping onto the plants while we get on with other things. It is very useful for permanent or semi-permanent planting such as the fruit beds and for young salad crops where slow, steady watering is desirable.
After a concerted effort on the rabbit fencing last weekend, Pete managed to get it finished, all except the backfilling of the trench. And very impressive it looks too.
With the area now secure, we could start the fist seed sowing on the no-dig beds, which included carrots, beetroot, spring onion and peas. The idea of the fleece covering is to increase speed of germination and to protect tiny seedlings from the harsh wind that whips across our field. It will be removed in a week or two and possibly replaced with a cover of fine mesh to protect against insect and bird damage. Unfortunately, fleece doesn’t keep slugs out so we will need to be vigilant for signs of the slimy creatures nibbling our seedlings over the next few weeks.
Another important job has been cutting back various herbs such as the curry plant, the lavender and the sage. This is necessary to prevent them become old and woody with all the new growth on the top. It can look rather brutal to begin with but the plants soon recover and put out new growth, covering the ugly bare stems in just a few weeks. So long as there are signs of live growth below the cut you can be confident it will regrow (honest!)
It has been really helpful to have Paula working with us in the gardens this week. Here she is, accompanied by a rather large family of hedgehogs, or so it appears!
She was cutting back the cotton lavender in the knot garden. As you can see, we cut it down to the bare stumps, which takes some courage, but prevents it from becoming too straggly later in the year and choking the box hedging. Not all herbs can be pruned as hard as this but it works well for our cotton lavender (Santolina chamaecyparissus). For more information on how to prune your herbs see here.
Apart from being smothered by overgrown cotton lavender, our box hedging is at risk from another problem this year.
This leafless section is the result of damage from the box moth caterpillar, noticed for the first time last summer.
A serious new pest of box trees, first identified in 2007 in the uk and particularly prevalent in the south of the country, the caterpillar can completely defoliate box plants and is a worrying prospect for many gardens with formal box topiary. We are on the look out for the first signs of this year’s caterpillars when we will be ready to take action. Read more about it, including current thinking on control methods here.
We have installed a pheromone trap in the nosegay garden and will be monitoring male moth numbers carefully over the coming weeks as an indicator of when further action is necessary.
Blossom of the week
On a happier note, my blossom of the week must go to the Pear (Pyrus communis) in the walled garden, looking very beautiful at the moment.
Pear trees are a member of the Rose family along with apple, quince, almond and plum. The pear is one of the oldest domesticated fruits, and the world’s second most cultivated deciduous fruit tree after the apple. The two main types of pear, Asian and European, both produce a similar sweet smelling blossom, but there are some ornamental pear trees that do not bear notable fruit and instead produce blooms with an offensive aroma. We grow one in the walled garden called the Plymouth pear (Pyrus cordata), a rare species only found growing wild around Plymouth.
Pear trees are an ancient fruit with cultivation that pre-dates the Christian era. In Tudor times they were the next most favoured fruit after apples. They were mostly eaten in tarts and pies but were also made into Perry, mainly by people who could not afford to make cider. Medieval pears were hard and sour and made a more vinegary drink than cider. Alexander Neckam, a prolific 13th century writer and theologian described them as ‘cold hard fruit’ without the colour and sweetness of apples.
With the gardens looking prettier by the day it is such a sadness that they are hidden from public view at the moment. They are trying their best to impress, so here are a few pictures to give you a glimpse of what’s happening.
The wild flower areas in the nuttery and flowery mead are at their peak with masses of cowslip, snakes head fritillary and native tulips.
The Cullen garden is looking splendid with its show of daffodils in the sunshine.
The walled garden orchard is looking smart after its first mowing of the season and the lovely fruit tree blossom.
The community garden is looking smart and full of promise for later abundance. The onion plot was weeded and watered this week and it looks like we will have plenty of onions this year!
While there is still some moisture in the soil and maybe the chance of some spring showers (fingers firmly crossed), we took the chance to reseed some patches on the knot garden lawns. Covering with fine mesh or netting prevents the seed being gobbled by hungry birds before it has a chance to germinate.
My incredible edible this week is the sea kale (Crambe maritima) which grows happily at the front of our pumpkin patch.
Considered a vegetable delicacy and once abundant along the south coast in the eighteenth century, sea kale is a rare sight in the wild today. For centuries it was harvested from the south coast beaches by coastal dwellers who would eat the young shoots, especially where they had been naturally blanched while growing up through the shingle or sand. In some places, locals would watch for the shoots to appear in the early spring and heap seaweed or sand over them to make the blanched shoots extend even further. It became so fashionable in markets of Covent garden and on the continent through the 19th century it was almost harvested to extinction and was in serious decline in the wild by the mid 20th century.
So, what was all the fuss about? I set out to find out this week by picking some of smaller shoots and steaming them to accompany our tomato pasta.
Verdict – rather like cabbage or what you might expect cauliflower leaves to taste like. Not unpleasant but I can’t say I would take a long trip to the seaside for the privilege! Maybe I should try blanching it next year.
Plant of the week
Whilst there are a number of contenders for this title it seems most appropriate to award the honour to this beauty:
Pulsatilla vulgaris is looking lovely in flower at the edge of the nosegay garden, with its beautiful silky petals. They grow best in well-drained soil and full sun. The Pulsatilla flowers around Easter time and its common name ‘pasque‘ derives from the word ‘paschal’ which means ‘of Easter’. Another of its common names is ‘Anemone of Passiontide’; again reflecting its flowering time. We’re pleased to see that our little clump is flowering right on schedule this year!
This seems a good moment to look back to some aspects of how Easter would have been celebrated in the medieval and Tudor periods. The marking of the seasons was a good excuse to make merry. Easter lasted for 17 weeks in medieval times, with Easter Sunday in the middle. People would have eaten the last of the salted meat, together with whatever fresh meat was available.
Eggs that were forbidden to be eaten during Lent became part of the celebrations again at Easter when they were used in the baking of simnel cake, which was decorated with 12 balls of marzipan to represent each of the apostles.
Giving eggs of varying sorts as gifts at Easter itself has a long tradition. In 1290 the household of King Edward I bought 450 eggs to be coloured, covered in gold leaf and distributed among his royal entourage. Amongst ordinary people pace eggs (from the French Pasque, which means Easter) were often exchanged. These were hard-boiled eggs, dyed with vegetables/plants such as beetroot (red), Pasqueflower (green) and onions (yellow). If you would like to try this yourself (and have actually got some eggs to spare!) have a look at this National Trust guide https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/easter-crafts-how-to-guides
Jobs for the week
Now is a good time to sow seeds for tomatoes to be grown outdoors. The seeds will need to be sown in a heated greenhouse or on a windowsill inside and grown on under cover until mid to late May. Sow the seed thinly in a small pot and cover with a little more compost. Water carefully and then cover the pot with cling film or a plastic bag until the seedlings appear. If you do not have much growing space outside then there are many compact ‘bush’ varieties of cherry tomatoes which will grow really well in a patio container, or even a hanging basket!
You can also sow a range of summer salad crops now, such as lettuce, rocket and radish. Many of these can be sown outside now into a prepared seed bed or a patio container. Make sure the compost doesn’t dry out, and watch out for slugs and snails when your little seedlings appear.
We have been busy cutting back lavender, cotton lavender, hedge germander etc at Cressing this week, and now is a good time to cut back these and various other plants in your own garden. Plants such as Salvia and Penstemon which had their top growth left on for winter protection can now be cut back to strong growth lower down on the plant.
Answers to last week’s quiz
GOOD KING HENRY
Pumpkin originate in North America
Artichoke and Asparagus originate in Europe
Potato originate in South America
Pepper (as in the spice) originates in Asia. Sweet peppers and chillies originate in South America
This week’s quiz
This week’s quiz takes its inspiration from the many rainbows which have appeared in windows, on walls and even pavements as a sign of hope and togetherness during the current crisis.
Can you identify this kaleidoscopic selection of Cressing plants?
Plenty to keep us all busy over this Easter holiday weekend and beyond. Enjoy your gardens, stay healthy and have a very Happy Easter.