The last week has been such typically British weather – changeable! There have been moments when three jumpers were needed and moments of none. It made me think of one of the things I like best about going on holiday to warm sunny places (distant memory!), which is knowing that you don’t need to pack jumpers or raincoats!
This is a tricky time for us gardeners. We are desperate to get planting all those lovely summer tender plants – the tomatoes, the courgettes, the bedding plants, the exotic perennials. But it is still too much of a risk. This week we have had several frosts, something we found to our cost when we discovered some of the potatoes had been nipped by Monday night’s frost.
This blackening of the leaves is alarming and reminds us that potatoes are a tender crop, originating in the heat of South America, but this amount of damage is not too much of problem and these plants will recover. Not all the varieties were affected which is strange. Perhaps some are more susceptible or perhaps it is because these were the last to be planted. A couple of further frosts were predicted later in the week so we took the precaution of covering them with a bit of fleece which stopped them shivering all night.
Covering crops with fleece is a really useful thing to do at this time of year, even for the less tender veg. As well as the cold nights we have had gusty winds recently which many plants, especially young ones, hate. Giving them a bit of wind protection until they are growing away strongly can avoid a sudden slow down of growth and produces healthy, vigorous plants which are better at resisting pest attack.
Of course some vegetables love warmth and hate cold winds to such a degree, they are far more successful if grown in the protection of a greenhouse or polytunnel all season. This year we are growing melons, aubergines and chilli peppers in the polytunnel, as well as some of the tomatoes. It gets so hot in there we need both doors open most days just to stop everything drying to a crisp.
Melon (Cucumis melo)
Aubergine (Solanum melongena)
As we edge closer to the date for putting out tender veg such as the runner beans, it is a good time to put up bean supports. This year we wanted to make our supports in as sustainable a way as possible, so we used hazel poles coppiced from our nut bushes in January and tied them together with strong lengths of jute string which can eventually go on the compost heap and the compost can be used for next year’s beans – how about that for recycling!
The frame needs to be very robust to withstand the weight of beans in full leaf. Time will tell if we have done a good enough job!
To the left of the bean frame there is now a big space where we have taken out the purple sprouting broccoli that was so productive for about 4 months when there was little else to harvest. Successional sowing and having something ready to go into every vacated space is one of the great skills of vegetable gardening. I don’t know we have quite got the hang of it yet!
The ornamental side of the gardens are getting better week by week and would really appreciate an audience. And will have soon I hope……….! Various plants caught our attention, including this fabulous Mahonia in the Cullen garden.
This plant has stunning spikes of fragrant yellow flowers in winter. Once these have finished you get this lovely reddish new growth and a crop of purple/blue berries. You can see why it’s common name is Oregan grape. Many people dislike Mahonias because their foliage is very spiky and unpleasant to handle. It can also become tall and spindly if not pruned after flowering to help it thicken out. Personally, I am happy to put up with these failings to enjoy the very welcome winter flowers and this architectural display in the spring.
Other plants looking good at the moment include the sweet rocket or Dame’s violet (Hesperis matronalis)
The bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) in the vine border. The leaves turn a red colour in autumn which is the origin of it’s common name.
And the first of the Oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) along the top terrace. They will soon make such a show in the flowery mead.
As many of the plants get taller and taller, desperate to get as close as they can to the sun, our thoughts turn to staking and supporting them, to avoid the inevitable flop and disarray which is so disappointing after all that promising vigorous growth in early spring.
Some plants, like this tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) are beginning to poke through the hazel supports we constructed a couple of months ago. Soon these supports will disappear from view and will provide just enough strength for the stems to avoid the need for any other type of support.
Other plants, which grow from a tap root and have a single stem, are unsuitable for this kind of twiggy support. An example is the teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) in the dye border. These look as though they need no support, with their strong vertical growth and thick stems, but later in the year, when the ground is very hard and dry and the flower heads make the stems top heavy, they can easily blow over in any strong winds so we give them a stake each, like a walking stick for them to lean on!
The stake doesn’t need to be the height of the plant. Giving it support low down but the flexibility to wave about higher up is perfect. Other plants we treat in the same way include the Woad, the hollyhocks, the cardoons and the clary sage.
Blossom of the week
This week my blossom choice is the medlar (Mespilus germanica). A lovely, delicate but large blossom which has a simple, understated charm and looks lovely when the sun shines through the leaves.
Plant of the week
As you will have seen, we are getting to the point where there is more and more competition for the title ‘plant of the week’. This week’s choice is comfrey (Symphytum officinale).
Whilst comfrey may not have the ‘wow’ factor of other plants it is an interesting and useful plant – and the bees love it! The species name of ‘officinales’ or ‘officinalis’ indicates that a plant has a long history of being used by people and could be bought in shops/pharmacies. It is derived from the Medieval Latin noun officina, a word for the storeroom of a monastery in which provisions and medicines were kept. When Linnaeus created his system for naming plants in the 18th century he used ‘officinales/officinalis’ for plants with an established medical, culinary or other use, such as Salvia officinalis (sage), Melissa officinalis (lemon balm), Calendula officinalis (pot marigold), Althaea officinalis (marshmallow) and Valeriana officinalis (valerian).
Comfrey has many common names, including knitbone, boneset, woundwort and bruisewort. It has been used for centuries for its bone-mending qualities, for its healing effects on ulcers, and for its general soothing effect on the mucous membranes. Comfrey has been well studied in modern trials, several of which support its efficacy in reducing back pain, inflammation caused by sprains, and for pain relief and increased mobility in osteoarthritis of the knee. Comfrey contains toxic chemicals that can cause severe liver damage if taken internally, so it is only recommended for external use.
Comfrey leaves are very rich in nutrients and can be used to make an organic liquid feed which is high in potassium (great for promoting fruit and flowers in plants). There are instructions here if you fancy giving it a try: https://www.gardenersworld.com/how-to/grow-plants/how-to-make-a-comfrey-feed/
News from the beekeepers
Jan French, our head beekeeper, sent this update from our apiary.
This week we took delivery of two swarms of bees donated by members of Braintree Beekeepers’ Association. I put them into small nucleus hives to keep them warm and safe until the colonies are big enough to be transferred into full-sized hives. One of the swarms has a tiny black queen, named Queen Antoinette after Antony who caught the swarm. The other is a beautiful big bronze queen called Queen Johanna after John who caught this rather large swarm.
Both colonies are doing well and to encourage them to stay at Cressing Temple, I fed them some liquid syrup so that they will start to build comb where the queens will lay eggs and the workers will store the honey. Fingers crossed, we should have some honey later in the year!
Those of you who have been coming to collect vegetables may have noticed a small hive on top of the portakabin. This is a bait hive to catch a passing swarm so we can restore our empire to three hives. The idea is that scout bees will be attracted by the smell of old used comb and as their natural home would be in a hollow tree, they are more likely to favour somewhere high up. If we manage to get a third hive, perhaps you would like to suggest a name for the queen.
So far both colonies seem to have nice temperaments and not at all like our usual grumpy bees! I haven’t been stung once.
Edible of the week
Globe Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus scolymus group)
This is another vegetable I have grown for years but never been brave enough to try! It is quite an intimidating looking thing, not really enticing me to eat it! I had to snip the spines off the tips of all the leaves before I brought them home – they are vicious!
Thistles—in the form of artichokes and cardoons—have been on the human table since at least the days of ancient Greece and Rome. According to Greek myth, the artichoke owes its existence to the philandering Zeus who—on a visit to his brother Poseidon—spotted a gorgeous girl, Cynara, bathing on the beach. He fell instantly in love, seduced her, made her a goddess, and took her back with him to Mount Olympus. Cynara, however, lonesome and missing her mother, soon took to sneaking home to visit her family. This duplicitous act so infuriated Zeus that—in a fit of temper he tossed Cynara from Olympus and turned her into an artichoke. The modern scientific name for artichoke—Cynara cardunculus—derives from this luckless girl.
According to the Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny, artichokes had a number of beneficial medicinal effects, among them curing baldness, strengthening the stomach, freshening the breath, and promoting the conception of boys. Though Pliny doesn’t mention it, it was also purportedly an aphrodisiac. Well, I have nothing to report on that score, but the ones we tried were suprisingly tasty, baked in the oven with olive oil and salt and pepper. It is not a vegetable I would choose if I was hungry (Luckily I had made pizza as well) but it is certainly something we would try again and with a bit more confidence next time.
If you fancy having a go, there are more coming on the plants all the time and they should go on producing flower heads until July. The hearts have a creamy consistency and a pleasant, slightly nutty flavour. Apparently, if picked young enough, they can be eaten whole, stem and leaves, the lot. Why not try them like the Romans who ate them pickled in honey and vinegar, and seasoned with cumin.
Answers to last week’s mystery garden objects
This week’s quiz is something a bit different. It is a gardening quiz devised by the Shropshire hardy plant society as a fundraiser for Nursing and caring charities. Beware, it is fiendishly difficult but good for wiling away several lockdown evenings! Perhaps we should make it a group effort and pool our gardening knowledge?
Jobs for the Week
Keep an eye on the weather forecast and be ready to protect any half-hardy or tender plants if we are forecast overnight frost. Some horticultural fleece draped over vulnerable plants should give them enough protection at this time of year.
Give plants which might need it the support of a stake or some sort of framework now before they get too big. Something else which can be done now is the so-called ‘Chelsea chop’ (carried out in late May when we would usually be having the Chelsea Flower Show). Lots of herbaceous perennials can be cut back now by between a third and a half. This will have the effect of creating a more compact plant (so less need for staking) with more, but smaller, flowers. Flowering will also be delayed, so you can use it as a technique to stagger flowering if you have more than one clump of the same plant. Some plants which are suitable for this treatment include:
Achillea, Anthemis tinctoria, Echinacea purpurea, Helenium, Nepeta (catmint), Phlox paniculata, Rudbeckia, Sedum (upright, strong-growing forms such as ‘Herbstfreude’), Solidago (golden rod)
After cutting back remember to give the plant a good water.
We have been enjoying the flowering of some of our biennials at Cressing, with the honesty (Lunaria annua) and the sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis) looking good in the nosegay garden and the foxgloves just about to start flowering in the medicinal border. Now is a good time to sow biennials to get plants which will flower next year, and they are a really useful group of plants for filling the gap between the spring bulbs finishing and the summer perennials getting into their stride. Some other biennials to try include: Sweet William, hollyhocks (strictly speaking a perennial but better grown as a biennial), wallflowers and Iceland poppies. These can all be started off in a seed tray during the next month or so and don’t need to be in a greenhouse.
Hopefully you will be back at Cressing in time to help us harvest some of the seed from our biennials!
So that’s our round up for this week. You may be thinking it all looks grand and well under control in and to be honest we are quite pleased how well we have kept up with the jobs far better than we were expecting at the start of this. But however lovely the gardens may be looking and however neat and tidy we are managing to keep them, there is something missing. Cressing Temple has always been a place for people, a living, working, thriving community, and at the moment it is quiet, still and rather lonesome. What makes a garden is more than the plants and the design and the forces of nature. Cressing needs YOU, the people who love it, care for it and bring it to life. Let’s hope it won’t be long before you can join us again.