Screaming for attention

It is almost as if the gardens knew they would be opening to the public this week and are screaming out for attention. The rose hedge (Rosa ‘Wild Edric’) greeting our visitors as they walk from the car park onto the site is in full bloom and full scent and what a welcome it makes.

In the walled garden, the honeysuckles on the trellis are flowering like never before. Look at me, look at me they seem to be saying, starved of attention for the past couple of months.

One of the lovely qualities of the walled garden is the juxtaposition of wild, informal areas with neat formal ones, as illustrated in these two photos of views through the nuttery and across the knot garden.

This is quite unusual in a walled garden of modest size (0.6acres) like ours, but makes it a garden of surprises and a good one to explore. Several of our younger visitors have been seen chasing around playing hide and seek this week, a perfect pastime in a garden with paths, hedges, bushes and so many choices for direction of travel.

Some people may have been missing the big events at Cressing this year. Not so our wildlife, and there is a bit of re-wilding going on in Dovehouse field, now awash with oxeye daisies which would normally have been mown to form the car park by now.  

The simple beauty of the oxeye daisies in this meadow scene is hard to beat in many ways but the Cullen garden has opted for the knockout, in your face glory of the peony ‘Bartzella’ this week, with its massive ruffled lemon blooms that are hard to miss.

This peony is one of the intersectional hybrid peonies, crosses between tree peonies and herbaceous peonies and said to have the best features of both. They were bred by Japanese horticulturist, Dr. Toichi Itoh, in the 1940’s but sadly he never lived to see them flower. The foliage of these plants dies back in winter to leave a low, woody framework. The flowers, largest of all the peonies, are produced over a long period and do not need staking and the foliage stays attractive until the autumn before they fall.

Equally stunning in my view are the Aquilegias and there are still some wonderful examples on show, this one in the Custodian garden behind the farmhouse.

Most of our roses are one time flowering old roses so how fortunate our gates have opened just as they are starting to flower. Another month of lockdown and they would be over! 

Our modern repeat flowering roses, being historical youngsters, are banished from the walled garden but appear in other places around the site. This David Austin shrub rose, bred in 2005, is called Gentle Hermione, a lovely delicate pink rose flowering along the bakehouse border.  It is described as having a strong, warm myrrh fragrance but the scent doesn’t carry in the air in the same way as the intoxicating roses of the walled garden.

Not everything in the walled garden is looking as lovely as the roses. Our bay topiary in the nosegay garden is looking like many of us at this stage of the restrictions, decidedly shaggy and dearly wishing for a good haircut!

Blossom of the week

Elderflower (Sambucus nigra)

This very common, rather unpleasant smelling shrub in the honeysuckle family was once regarded as one of the most magically powerful of all plants. If you burned it you would see the Devil, but grown by the house it would keep the Devil away! It could charm away warts and vermin and the branches were often used as switches to protect cattle from flies and disease and leaves attached to horse harnesses to do the same.

Elder has always been a highly regarded source of home medicine and it’s wood has many practical uses but nowadays most people know it for it’s flowers and berries. The flowers can be eaten straight off the bush but can also be made into fritters. Known in Market Harborough as ‘frizzets’ (a name we might currently adopt for our lockdown hairstyles!) they are made by simply dipping the freshly opened umbels in batter and frying for a few minutes. The sweet muscat flavoured flowers are said to contrast wonderfully with the crisp batter. Elderflower cordial is easy to make and elderflower champagne, though a little more tricky, is one of the best country wines. Later in the year the berries can be made into a rich, dark wine (reputed to be very good for sore throats), hedgerow jams and autumn pickles.

Not bad for for a straggly, short lived and foul smelling shrub!

Wildlife spot

For me, one of the delights of the past few months has been the extra time available to sit and watch the wildlife in the garden. This week it has been the dragonflies in our pond at home that have caught our attention.  First it was the emerging emperor dragonflies, which climbed out of the water early each morning, attached themselves to a vertical leaf or stem, and emerged as adults a little while later, leaving their rather ghoulish looking exoskeleton behind.

This weekend we saw the first adult visitors, flying over the pond, selecting the best place to lay their eggs. This one is a male, broad bodied chaser dragonfly, who patrols the area while the female lays her eggs, chasing off any rivals. He continues to patrol and guard the newly laid eggs for many days afterwards, perching on any suitable upright plant to keep a close watch with his 360° vision.

Plant of the week

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Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

There are some stately groups of foxgloves flowering in the medicinal border at the moment as well as some lovely white, pale pink and dark pink ones flowering along by the top terrace.

Foxgloves seem to have no end of common names, including fairy petticoats, fairy thimbles, witches’ gloves, fox bells, floppy-dock and dog’s finger! They are biennials (or short-lived perennials) which prefer a humus-rich soil in partial shade. 

It was used against scrofula throughout the Medieval period. Infusions were also made from the leaves to treat sore throats and catarrh, and a compress of leaves was made for bruises and swellings.

In 1799, physician John Ferriar showed that digitalis slows the pulse, and increases the force of heart contractions and the amount of blood pumped per heartbeat. The active ingredient digoxin is used today to treat some heart disorders.

Quiz

I wonder how many of you had a go at the hardy plant society garden quiz the other week?  The winner scored 123 points and Alison missed by a squeak with 121 points. It was way too hard for me. How well did you do? Here are the answers for those who want to check.

GARDEN QUIZ – Answers

Last week’s answers

These four species names indicate whether the plant originates from the northern, southern,  western or eastern part of the world (in relation to Europe), and we asked which was which:

orientalis/orientale means eastern

australis/austral means southern

borealis/boreale means northern

occidentalis/occidentale means western

Sometimes the name is telling us something about the smell of a plant. These plants are all grown at Cressing, and have species names which mean ‘sweet scent’, ‘very fragrant’, ‘strong smelling’, ‘musk-like’ and ‘bad smell’. Did you work them out?

Helleborus foetidus – ‘bad smell’

Malva moschata, Rosa moschata – ‘musk-like’

Myrrhis odorata – ‘very fragrant’

Ruta graveolens, Anethum graveolens – ‘strong smelling’

Mentha suaveolens – ‘sweet scent’

Other names refer to the location where a plant might be found in the wild, so they are useful for gardeners trying to adopt a ‘right plant, right place’ approach! In the following list the species names indicate ‘of the mountains’, ‘from marshes’, ‘near the sea’, ‘of woods’ and two of them mean ‘of the field’. How did you do with these?

Caltha palustris – ‘from marshes’

Knautia arvensis – ‘of the field’

Crambe maritima, Armeria maritima – ‘near the sea’

Malva sylvestris, Myosotis sylvatica – ‘of woods’

Centaurea montana – ‘of the mountains’

Acer campestre – ‘of the field’

This week we have a vegetable quiz for you.

  1. What is the British name for these vegetables?
  • Zucchini
  • Eggplant
  • Rutabaga
  • Cilantro
  • Scallion

2. What vegetable do these varieties belong to?

  • Pentland Javelin
  • Alicante
  • Scarlet Emporer
  • Ailsa Craig

3. Which vegetable was the first to be canned?

4. Ipomoea batatas is the scientific name of which large, starchy, root vegetable?

Edible of the week

Oak (Quercus rober)

Apparently the leaves, bark, acorn and even the twigs of the oak have culinary uses. This recipe for oak leaf liqueur looked interesting!

Makes approximately 1 x 70cl bottle

You will need:

About 2 big handfuls of fresh pale-green young oak leaves

70cl bottle white rum

225g granulated sugar

Collect the oak leaves on a dry day, strip from the twigs, wash and dry. You’ll need a sealable glass container that’s big enough to take all the ingredients; simply pop them all into the container, seal, then leave for a month before straining the alcohol from the leaves into a clean sterilised bottle. Serve poured over ice, or with soda water. 

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So more of a ‘drinkable’ than an ‘edible’ this week!

The book also has a recipe for oak schnapps – but you have to wait 18 months for that to be ready!

Jobs for the week

Watering

Well, the principle job has been watering, watering and more watering at Cressing (and at home!) this week. With no rain forecast it looks as if next week will be the same.

Ideally water plants early in the morning, to avoid evaporation loss during the day. On warm summer days, evening watering is also likely to be effective, the dry soil soaking it in readily and low humidity at night reducing risk of disease. Because we have so much to water at Cressing we are having to water during the middle of the day too – not ideal, but needs must.

Weeding

One advantage of drier weather has meant that weed growth has generally been reduced (apart from in all the areas we keep having to water!). Weeds can be hoed off as they germinate, rather than letting them get bigger. In this hot, dry weather the weed seedlings can be left on the surface to dry out and shrivel up in the sun.

Tomatoes

Those being grown as cordons should have the sideshoots (which form at the leaf axils) removed. Do this when they are quite small, by rubbing them out with your forefinger and thumb and it won’t be such a shock to the plant. Once the first truss of flowers has faded and fruits are setting, feed weekly with a high-potash fertilizer.

It has been lovely to see some of you visiting the gardens this week and enjoying this lovely late spring weather. We have plants out for sale once again and the community garden is beginning to produce a good selection of fresh seasonal veg for you to take home, including the first of the new potatoes and strawberries. With more good weather on the way please consider paying us a visit this week. We and the gardens have missed you!

Re-opening

The exciting news for this week is that the site has re-opened to the public and just in time for everybody to see the garden as it reaches its peak! For the time being, public access is to the grounds and walled garden, with the tearoom, visitor centre, barns and other buildings remaining closed. Opening times are 9.00am – 5.00pm.

It has been lovely to welcome our first few guests to the gardens, including Jan, our beekeeper and Mike, another beekeeper who will be joining us as a volunteer soon. Our willow lady looks a little alarmed at Mike’s failure to observe social distancing!!

Keeping our visitors and staff safe has been our top priority while getting ready for re-opening. We have had a shuffle round of the plant tables to allow more room for people to browse and to prevent a bottle neck at the entrance to the walled garden.

Plenty of benches are available for people to sit, enjoy the garden and contemplate at a safe social distance.

We also have a smart new bench installed in front of the farmhouse, donated by a visitor in memory of a loved one. The Cullen garden provides a further choice, with benches or the picnic tables if you want to bring your own refreshments.

We have been less excited about the discovery of some other, rather unwanted guests to the walled garden this week. This is the caterpillar of the box tree moth, Cydalima perspectalis.

Needless to say, this one won’t be getting a bench in its memory! It is a rather beautiful and striking caterpillar but has a voracious appetite. Where larval numbers are high it can disfigure ornamental Box and topiary and can defoliate plants completely. We have lots of box hedging in the walled garden, as those of you enlisted to do the annual clipping will agree!

The thing to look for is patches of cobwebby leaves like this:

Hard to spot at first, the black headed caterpillars wrap themselves in this silky webbing as a protection while they set to, munching the leaves.

The moth is also attractive, although we haven’t seen any or caught any in our pheromone trap yet.  Catching the male moth in a pheromone trap is a very good way of monitoring how many are around and indicating when further action is needed. We have spent some time examining our box hedging this week and squishing any caterpillars or leaving them for the birds. Blue tits are very fond of them, apparently, and we think at least one family is taking advantage of our predicament.

Holes in Tudor walls come in handy sometimes!

Box moth has almost certainly been introduced with imported Box (Buxus spp) plants for our nursery market. An Asian species, this moth was first recorded in Kent in 2007, since when the species seems to be gradually increasing in frequency. In recent years it has gained a strong foothold in Essex, Surrey, Hertfordshire and parts of Berkshire. The moth has now been recorded widely over large parts of England and the first sighting in Scotland was in 2018.

UK imports of live plants have increased by 71 percent since 1999. There are now more than 1,000 pests and diseases on the UK plant health risk register. Plant pests and diseases have become more ferocious and more persistent in the UK over recent years. Diseases such as ash dieback and those caused by Phytophthora, as well as pests such as box tree moth and horse chestnut leaf miner are causing significant changes to our landscape and horticultural practices. The risk of new plant pests and diseases is associated with increasing volume and quicker movement of traded plants and other material, imported from an increasing variety of sources.

One thing we, as customers can try to do, wherever possible, is to buy UK grown and sourced plant material. This is difficult and often more expensive when faced with the tempting array of exotic imported species offered cheaply by our local garden centres. Another thing we can do is to promote the growing of UK native species as we do at Cressing. Growing your own, from seed or cuttings, is another option and one many of us have been turning to in this lockdown while garden centres have been closed.

Other news, if you can call it that, is that we have started tackling the next section of path pointing, in a effort to find a more effective solution to path weeds than spraying. We have stopped using Glyphosate weedkiller in the walled garden and its use is being discouraged across all the country parks. We have been using a new weedkiller based on acetic acid (vinegar) which has been partially successful but needs frequent re-application, is not without it’s own risks and is expensive for the expanse of brick paving we have in the walled garden. Re-pointing is a far more permanent, though back breaking, option so we will attempt it in stages over the next year or so (please don’t let that put you off returning to volunteering!).

For other weeding work we are pleased to have Wilf, our willow gardener helping out in the pumpkin patch after his long winter rest in the wellhouse. You are doing a good job Wilf – faster faster!

Still on the subject of artistic willow work, Alison has added a rustic feel to our potager with this support for the narrow leaved pea (Lathyrus sylvestris).

Blossom of the week

Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus spp)

Such a beautiful flower, such vicious thorns, loathed and loved in equal degree, the blackberry is a plant known to us all, with the tradition of blackberrying going back thousands of years (blackberry seeds have been found in the stomach of a neolithic man dug up at Walton-on-the-Naze!). The blossom is a promise of fruit later in autumn when, if we are still doing our walks in the countryside, we will be taking our baskets and risking scratches from thorns to gather enough for the odd blackberry and apple crumble in the winter.

We are doing things a little easier at Cressing. This blossom is from a thornless variety called ‘Loch Ness’ growing in our new fruit cage, supported by wires strung between posts. The fruits are larger than the wild variety and they are said to have a lovely flavour. Picking will be  very easy from the thornless upright canes and it should crop from mid-late August to mid-late September. There are many new cultivars of thornless blackberry on the market and some have been bred to take up less space, making them an option for smaller gardens or allotments.

Edible of the week

Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus)

This has been on my ‘must try’ list for years but somehow it has never appealed, looking for all the world like a roadside weed and failing to tempt me.

However, I am told it is an excellent spinach substitute that is perennial, unfussy and unfazed by pests or diseases, so here goes, time to find its hidden charms!

Also known as poor-man’s asparagus or Lincolnshire spinach, Good King Henry is a close relative of the weed Chenopodium album, which as its common name – Fat Hen – suggests, was used to feed birds. More aristocratic family members include the trendy Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and it is in the same family as spinach and amaranth.

The name, good henry, may be to distinguish it from Bad Henry (Böser Heinrich in German) who was a malevolent spirit described by the Brothers Grimm. Bad henry is also the name given to Mercurialis perennis, generally known as Dog’s Mercury. The Good Henry of German folklore performed household and other domestic chores in return for a saucer of cream (he can come to my house any day!). Bad Henry, of course, would turn milk sour like Puck or Robin Goodfellow in English folklore.

This plant becomes increasingly bitter as the season progresses so now seemed like a good time to try it. The young spring shoots (that appear from April) can be eaten much like asparagus. Cut the first 20cm growth, remove any leaves and steam it as you would asparagus. As the seasons progress eat the leaves and the unopened flower buds as a broccoli substitute.Some recipes suggest soaking it in salty water for a time before cooking to draw out the bitterness, as done with aubergines.

I went for a simple steam of the leaves, stems and flower tops, which we ate with some baby broad beans from the Cressing plot and a mushroom curry. The result doesn’t really deserve a photo (cooked, they looked like a any other pile of greens!) but the taste was pleasantly acceptable, if not remarkable. I can imagine the bitterness being too strong for our tastes later in the season but I might give the salting technique a go.  Given the ease with which it grows, and the fact this is a perennial vegetable with far less work involved than its closest rival, annual spinach, I think it is worth a place in the perennial veg patch. Good old Henry has gone up a notch in my estimation!

Plant of the Week

Flax 

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Flax (Linum usitatissimum) has been grown since 5000BC for its stems, which yield linen fibre, and for its seeds, which contain 30-40 per cent linseed oil. The sails of ancient Greek ships were made from linen, and the words linen, linseed and line are all derived from the Latin linum and Old English lin, meaning flax.

In ancient Egypt, linseed oil was important for cooking and burning in lamps, but today its main use is as a fast-drying oil in paints. Over the centuries, two strains of flax have been developed: a tall one with few branches and flowers, that yields long fibres; and a shorter one with numerous flowers and seed capsules for oil production.

Culpeper wrote ‘The seed, which is usually called linseed, is emollient, digesting, and ripening; of great use against inflammations, tumours, and impostumes (pus-filled sores), and is frequently put into fomentations and cataplasms for those purposes. Cold-drawn linseed oil is of great service in all diseases of the breast and lung. It likewise helps the colic and the stone.’ Modern scientific research has shown potential for extracts from flax being successfully used to treat cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal disorders. There is also interest in the use of the oil against breast and prostate cancers.

At Cressing we actually grow the perennial form of flax (Linum perenne) rather than the annual form (Linum usistatissimum) as it looks similar but is a bit easier to grow! Although the seed, oil and fibre of the perennial flax can be used, they are inferior to the products of the annual flax.

Quiz

For this week’s quiz we are looking at plant species names, and how they can often reveal something about the plant’s origins, habitat or appearance.

These four species names indicate whether the plant originates from the northern, southern,  western or eastern part of the world (in relation to Europe), but which is which?

orientalis/orientale

australis/australe

borealis/boreale

occidentalis/occidentale

Sometimes the name is telling us something about the smell of a plant. These plants are all grown at Cressing, and have species names which mean ‘sweet scent’, ‘very fragrant’, ‘strong smelling’, ‘musk-like’ and ‘bad smell’, but which is which?

Helleborus foetidus

Malva moschata, Rosa moschata

Myrrhis odorata

Ruta graveolens, Anethum graveolens

Mentha suaveolens

Other names refer to the location where a plant might be found in the wild, so they are useful for gardeners trying to adopt a ‘right plant, right place’ approach! In the following list the species names indicate ‘of the mountains’, ‘from marshes’, ‘near the sea’, ‘of woods’ and two of them mean ‘of the field’. Can you work out which is which?

Caltha palustris

Knautia arvensis

Crambe maritima, Armeria maritima

Malva sylvestris, Myosotis sylvatica

Centaurea montana

Acer campestre

Answers next week.

Jobs for the Week

Greenhouses

Under glass temperatures can get very high so it’s vital to shade young plants, open ventilators, windows and doors whenever possible and damp down to prevent the air becoming too dry.

Cuttings from shrubs

Softwood cuttings can be taken of most shrubs from now until July. Cut shoots about 8 – 10 cm long, cutting just above a bud or leaf. Put them in a plastic bag straightaway to stop them wilting. Trim the cuttings below a leaf joint and remove the lower leaves. Five or six cuttings can be put in a 12cm (5 inch) pot which has a 50:50 mix of compost and vermiculite or grit. Water the pot, them cover it with a polythene bag (held off the foliage with sticks). Put in a sheltered spot out of direct sunlight. The cuttings should root within six to eight weeks.

Plant out tender vegetables

Plant out runner beans, French beans and courgettes now that the risk of frost is hopefully past. If you don’t have any, we’ve got some for sale at Cressing Temple!

Now we have opened our gates again many of you can come and visit, to see for yourselves what is going on. We would love to see you and have a chat at a safe distance. We look forward to catching up with all your news.