Time to get weeding

Having spent the whole of April longing for the merest drop of rain, mother nature has decided to dump what has felt like our whole months allocation in the last couple of days of the month! April showers have felt more like April downpours, making us very grateful for the gardener’s shelter and the polytunnel. Mind you, we found it was already occupied by two visitors who have not been excluded from the garden, at a safe distance of course!

The very welcome rain means less watering but more weeding (there is another side to every coin!). The weeds have come up like a rash and we are keen to nip them in the bud before they get big root systems which are more difficult to pull out and suck valuable nutrients out of the soil. The Tudor garden has a host of plants many people would consider weeds but we purposely avoid weeding them out because they were once had a valuable use. Weeding involves knowing which plant is in the right place and which is in the wrong place – the best definition of a weed. In our nettle patch a nettle isn’t a weed, in the veg plot it is!

Weeds, just like any other plant, can be beautiful things and have the funniest names. This one is called Silybum marianum. It has beautiful leaves, streaked with milky white veins, giving it the common name, milk thistle. The flowers are also beautiful, purple, thistle like and dramatic. It is the most well-researched plant in the treatment of liver disease. Silymarin, the active ingredient, has been used to treat alcoholic liver disease, viral hepatitis, and toxin-induced liver diseases. But here, next to the vegetable garden is a nuisance waiting to happen if we don’t do something about it!

Weeds are opportunists – they take advantage of any patch of bare soil and immediately colonise it. It is nature’s way of healing a scar, binding the loose earth and stopping it from washing or blowing away. Imagine a piece of bare ground left to itself. It would soon become dominated by grasses, nettles and thistles, then by brambles and briars and shrubs, later to be replaced by tree saplings. In just a few years we would have scrubland and in a decade or two, deciduous woodland. All we gardeners are doing is arresting nature’s inevitable progression and fighting a losing battle! Some seed can stay dormant in the ground for centuries. Others, like this milk thistle produce so many wind blown seeds, it takes only a few windy days at the right time to proliferate its seeds for miles around and years to come. If you remember the field of dandelion heads we showed you in our blog just a couple of weeks ago, by the following week they had all turned into dandelion clocks and by now they are long gone, nestling into bare patches of ground in our own gardens no doubt, ready to start the next generation! The key to dealing with these wind dispersed weeds is to nip the heads off before they set seed but the day I put deadheading the dandelions on Dovehouse field onto the jobs list in the porta cabin is the day you need to tell me to retire!

At this time of year it can seem as if we weed a patch of ground, turn our backs, and they have instantly returned! An endless task and why it is always something on the task list from this time of year until the end of the growing season.

Some of our hardest to control weeds are the ones that reproduce by their roots as much as their seed. Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) is one we look out for at all times and we never expect to eradicate it entirely. Learning to live with and tolerate some weeds is not a bad thing to do, and certainly makes gardening less stressful.  But this kind of perennial weed with very long roots that can re-grow from tiny sections left in the soil can be a real nuisance in a garden because of its growth habit of twisting around other plants to assist its progress. We dig it out whenever we see it, removing as much of the deep root as possible or keep pulling it out to starve it of energy.

However much we dislike our garden weeds and the perpetual job of weeding, without a doubt they are plants to be admired for their exuberant zest for life and tenacity. We may prefer to spend our time cosseting our slow growing, rare to set seed alpines and orchids maybe because it makes us feel like clever gardeners, but the real success stories are those plants which thrive and proliferate in the most inhospitable conditions without a moment of care from us. Take this clump of red campion for example, growing with gay abandon on our bonfire site, where we dump all our rubbish to be burnt. I couldn’t grow a clump like this in the garden if I tried!

Apart from weeding, several other jobs have been done in the gardens this week. The final stage of assembling the fruit cage was to attach the roof netting, a rather wet task for Paula and myself in the rain, and one where we greatly missed some of our taller volunteers!

The indoor tomatoes have been planted in the polytunnel. Thanks to Paul for growing these on at home for us.

The outdoor tomatoes are coming on well and the spares will be available to you in a couple of weeks time. To plant tomatoes outside you need to wait until the risk of frosts has passed or be ready with some fleece to cover them over if any frost is forecast.

Despite the continuing state of lockdown we have been thinking ahead to more normal times when visitors will return to Cressing. We are hoping that the community veg garden will be producing lots of crops by then and we will be able to make use of our fantastic new produce barrow to display it.

This has been handmade by our friend Allen and is a thing of beauty as you can see. It will look wonderful filled with our fresh veg and flowers and hopefully will attract many new customers to our site. Thank you Allen for doing such a good job for us.

With the rain, long days and warm sunshine, many of the crops are putting on fast growth now. We were able to take our first crop of cut and come again lettuce this week. These lettuces were sown as clumps in modules and planted out without thinning about four weeks ago.

The idea of cut and come again is to take two or three cuts from each clump of plants, leaving just a few centimetres to regrow as you see below. After about three cuts the plants will be exhausted, we will pull them up and by then should have others coming along to replace them in succession. Put straight into a plastic box or bag and put in the fridge, these mixed salad leaves stay fresh for many days.

Edible of the week

For my edible of the week I am returning to the subject of weeds. This is Orach or mountain spinach (Atriplex hortensis), a plant we grow every year in the walled garden, with the minimum of care (like all good weeds!) but I have never tried to eat it.

A member of the Amaranth family, orach is also known as Garden Orache, Red Orach, Mountain Spinach, French Spinach and Sea Purslane. A native of Europe and Siberia, it is one of the most ancient cultivated plants. It was commonly grown in Eurasia for many centuries until spinach became the more favoured leaf vegetable. It is  grown as a warm-weather alternative to spinach because it is more tolerant of heat and slower to bolt in warm weather. It is a hardy annual, producing thousands of seeds every year that survive the winter and come up each spring everywhere! We never have to sow this plant. It reliably appears each year and we simply weed out what we don’t want. And like so many weeds, what an attractive plant it can be. If left to flower and set seed it produces the most wonderful display of seed heads in the autumn.

So how to eat it? My choice was to make a mushroom and spinach risotto, using the Orach from Cressing and flavoured with home grown tarragon.

It was really rather tasty and something I would definitely try again. The orach turns green when cooked but it releases its red colouring into the cooking water, or in this case the risotto rice, which turned a rather attractive shade of pink! The orach has a nice flavour, mild and a bit earthy like spinach and was very easy to pick and cook.

It is so satisfying to cook with things home-grown. I couldn’t quite manage the mushrooms but I am working on it. With the new compost bins we made at the start of the lockdown I am trying to produce some high quality compost using horse manure to speed up the process. A couple of days after layering grass cuttings, horse manure and clippings from the garden into one of our bins, the temperature shot up to 72°C, hot enough to grow pineapples and too hot to hold your hand in for very long – not that I would want to plunge my hand into a heap of horse manure!

It stayed at this temperature for about a week while billions of bacteria and fungi multiplied rapidly to work on the organic matter. It has since come down to a still hot, but not so extreme 62°C, for a more gentle cooking for the next week or so. During these times when we have become much more aware of the devastating harm microscopic life can do to us, it is good to be reminded that much of it is far from harmful and indeed essential to the job of waste recycling. It really is quite remarkable that this huge pile of once living material will soon be reduced to something to support new life once again.  I will be using it to grow field mushrooms I hope.  I have some mushroom spawn bought from Kings Seeds waiting in the fridge and perhaps I will  be growing my own  mushrooms in the autumn. I will keep you posted.

Blossom of the week

Not having the wow factor of some of the other blossom I have been featuring, this week’s choice is that of the quince tree (Cydonia oblonga). It is sparsely produced on our little three year old tree and partially obscured by the rapidly expanding new leaves.

This is not the kind of blossom that grabs your attention from afar but it has a simple beauty and delicacy which is well worth a close up view. And probably by next week it will be gone, so it is one to watch out for and hope the pollinating insects have been doing the same.

We are well into nesting season and we have been enjoying watching the busy activity to and from our bird boxes, but many birds choose to be more enterprising and build their nests in less purpose made locations. We have a pair of blue tits who have taken residence in the eaves of our house and a pair of doves who have chosen a well sheltered spot at the top of our drainpipe. In the wheat barn this week Paula and I were surprised to see a huge pile of twigs piled up in the corner.

Looking up into the beams we saw what looked like the start of a twiggy nest.

We can only assume some poor couple have been assiduously collecting material for their new home, only to find they weren’t getting very far as it all tumbled off the ledge to the floor below! I wonder how long they will persist before they realise this wasn’t a good choice?

Jobs for the Week

The very welcome rain will of course have also been welcomed by the weeds! Try to keep on top of newly emerging weed seedlings before they have a chance to really get a hold in your garden.

Plant summer flowering bulbs such as lilies, freesias and gladioli in containers or in the garden. If you have lots of gladioli corms it can be a good idea to plant about 15 at a time every 2 weeks from May to July to get a succession of flowers.

Now is a good time to prune rosemary. To keep it nice and bushy prune it lightly after flowering. Regular pinching out of sprigs of herbs such as thyme and rosemary for cooking throughout the year will also help to keep them compact.

You might possibly have noticed some small beetles with metallic purple and green stripes on your rosemary. These are rosemary beetles; an insect that eats the foliage and flowers of various aromatic plants, such as rosemary, sage, lavender,thyme and some other related plants.

Light infestations do not seem to do serious damage to the host plant, but if you find that they become a problem then you can follow the RHS’s advice for control: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=555

Plant of the Week

Ajuga reptans

Ajuga reptans (Bugle) is looking good at the moment in the pool garden with its purplish-blue spikes of flowers. The species names of ‘reptans‘ and ‘repens‘ both indicate that a plant has a creeping habit of growth – such as Elymus repens (couch grass). Ajuga reptans is a good groundcover plant for damp soil in a shady spot.

In the Middle Ages bugle was regarded as a ‘cure-all’ plant with a diverse range of uses. Remedies made from bugle have been used for treating persistent coughs, ulcers, rheumatism and all kinds of liver disorders. One of its other common names is ‘carpenter’s herb’ as it can staunch bleeding and possibly heal cuts, because of its tannin content.


Last week’s answers

Quotes from Shakespeare featuring plants:

The seasons alter: hoary headed frosts fall on the fresh lap of the crimson rose: And on old Hyem’s chin and icy crown an odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds is, as in mockery, set.

Midsummer Night’s dream

When daisies pied, and violets blue, and ladies smock all silver white, and cuckoo buds of yellow hue, do paint the meadows with delight.

Love’s Labours Lost

There is a man haunts the forest that abuses our young plants with carving Rosalind on their barks: hangs odes upon hawthorns, and elegies on brambles: all, forsooth deifying the name of Rosalind.

As You Like It

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance: pray you love remember, and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue for you and here’s some for me. We may call it herb of grace o’Sundays. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died.


Cesario, by the roses of the spring, by maidhood, honour, truth and everything, I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride, nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.

Twelfth Night

The newly emerging leaves were those of the walnut tree (Juglans regia)

The bee visiting our insect hotel was the red mason bee.Red mason bees are common and familiar throughout most of the UK. They get their name from their habit of nesting in cavities between brickwork, although they also happily frequent solitary bee hotels.

This week’s quiz

This week’s quiz involves some picture clues to the names of various birds – answers next week!

Into May, one of the loveliest months of the year and one of the busiest for us gardeners. Enjoy your garden tasks and experiments, whatever they may be.

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