30 May 2018

An unexpected historic herb garden in Southwark

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden on chapel foundations

At the end of last week I visited Borough Market near London Bridge to hear a talk on planting for urban bees as part of the Chelsea Fringe Festival. Southwark Cathedral is next to the world famous market and I'd read on the London Open Squares website that there's a herb garden in the churchyard. It's sited on the 14th century foundations of the original Priory chapel and planted with herbs that the Augustinian Canons would have used for cooking, strewing and brewing, or medicinally in the nearby 12th Century St. Thomas' hospital (named for Thomas Beckett, now the Herb Garrett Museum).

My paternal grandmother and generations of her family before her lived in this area on the south bank of the river Thames, and my cousin married in this cathedral, all of which makes these streets very special to me, especially the buildings and areas that modern life hasn't yet touched.  I like to imagine that I'm seeing what they saw in their daily lives and reconnecting with my genetic past. So, after the talk, I headed straight for the herb garden, a dose of local history, and a wander along memory lane.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden , Box, Thyme, Lungwort

To my way of thinking, a garden without herbs is not complete. Whether as part of an edible garden, or a few pots on a windowsill or door step, to have herbs to pick is a joy.  I started with a packet of curly parsley seeds (still the most used herb in my kitchen); then, like most people, added a few more familiar culinary herbs to the garden. But fate wasn't going to let me off the hook there - a chance purchase of some Monarda from a plant sale prompted further research and I started to realise there was a wide world of medicinal and edible plants out there waiting for me to discover.

I'm fascinated by the folklore of herbs, their alternate names often indicating the historical use of the plant.  Monarda, also known as Bee Balm, has the most fabulous and exotic looking flowers as well as being useful as a tea, an antiseptic and attracting bees. The plant is occasionally known as Bergamot but, confusingly, it's not the same as bergamot found in Earl Grey tea - that's oil from the Bergamot Orange! I planted it next to fennel, mint and golden oregano, an uplifting sight in the summer garden. My love affair with herbs had begun, together with what I suspect will be a lifelong journey of learning.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden Ruta graveolens
~ Rubbing the leaves of Rue, also known as Witchbane or Herb of Grace, may cause skin to burn when exposed to sunlight.
Properly used, it's an effective balm for fibrous ligament injuries such as Tennis Elbow. ~

But, back in the churchyard, the herb garden beckoned. I was curious to see what was growing as the small garden is primarily an educational resource used to teach local children about the role of herbs in the development of medicine, chemistry and pharmacology. (Lucky children!)  Impressively, for a children's educational garden, poisonous herbs such as Foxglove (Digitalis), Columbine (Aquilegia) and Rue (Ruta graveolens) are growing there - perhaps as part of the Shakespeare botanical trail. (William Shakespeare lived in this parish - to be near the Globe Theatre perhaps? - and his brother Edmund's gravestone is in the church.) Most herbs are labelled with the common names they would have been known by so visitors see Lungwort, Madder and Woad rather than the Latin names. There are no information boards so you have the pleasure of finding out for yourself just what these herbs are for - or try and guess their use!

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden

Sweet Woodruff, also known as Master of the Woods, (Galium odoratum) is labelled just 'Strewing herb'; it smells of hay when picked and dried so historically was used to sweeten a room by spreading (strewing) across the floor. I grow it as a vigorous ground cover under the fruit trees but recently learned that this herb is traditionally used in Germany to make May Wine and is also good in vodka jelly.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden, foundations, pillar bird bath

As far as I can tell, the garden was created in 2015 with advice from the Herb Garrett Museum. The design gives a nod to medieval knot style gardens with most of the herbs planted inside four large box (Buxus) edged beds, a couple of which were further subdivided. Sadly, a few of the box plants had succumbed to blight and should, I think, be pulled out, for aesthetics if nothing else. Germander (Teucrium) would be a good substitute; on a trip to Jekka McVicar's herb farm some years ago I was told she used this herb instead of box edging in some of her designs.  At the time of St. Thomas' Hospital, an infusion of the flowers was believed to cure gout.

To be honest, it's not a "pretty" garden - the planting is too haphazard to see the original layout - but that same jumble has produced some lovely eye-catching combinations - a deep red rose with feverfew on one side and calendula on the other, breadseed/opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) just appearing between Woad, Madder and Dyer's Chamomile; Sweet Cicely separates bronze and green fennel; sage, nigella and lavender co-exist in a half bed.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden,roses, feverfew, calendula

The woad flowers (Isatis tinctoria) were almost over, leaving the plants dripping with unripe seeds (below, right) but Madder flowers were covered in bees busy harvesting pollen. Providing forage for bees would have been an important consideration for any priory keeping hives for honey.  A lot of the plants have the ability to self-seed so close planting possibly helps to reduce the amount of weeding needed but must make for some interesting changes each year - especially as the beds are loosely defined as 'Edible' or 'Medicinal'. 

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden, bee on Madder flowers, Woad seeds

There was so much to look at, excite, identify (and puzzle over!) in this little garden that time stood still for me and I was there a lot longer than intended! As you can tell, I absolutely loved it. I felt like I'd stumbled into a secret garden, with the pedestrians and traffic on nearby London Bridge fading into the distance.

I'd say the garden is well worth visiting, especially if you love churches and local history. While there, take inspiration from the shade borders outside in the churchyard, and linger inside the church as well. (Lovely and cool on a hot summer's day!) I was fascinated to discover quite how ancient this site is - excavations for the annexe built in 2001 uncovered 12th century foundations from the Priory, a 13th century stone coffin, 17th century Delft kilns, and a Roman road - all left where they were found for the public to see. There was even, once, a roman villa here; some of the paving is now incorporated into the floor in the choir. I was still there when Choral Evensong started and spent a few moments in quiet contemplation listening to the music - the acoustics in the church are superb as is the architecture. Definitely, if you're in the area, go.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden, White foxglove in flower

Southwark Cathedral is very close to London Bridge tube station, Borough Market, and Guy's Hospital. The Tate Modern, Millenium Bridge, Globe Theatre and the Golden Hind ship are a short walk away.  The herb garden is at the eastern end of the cathedral courtyard.

20 May 2018

Six on Saturday: Mid May in the Veg Patch

Honey bee on chive flower

May is the token first month of summer and it's been a corker.  Everything that looked a teeny bit dismal in the middle of April has burst into life, seeds are germinating, bees are buzzing and it's a real pleasure to be outside in warm sunshine.  This is a novelty as I usually associate May with the sort of unpredictable weather that makes it hazardous to plant out beans and sweet corn that I've nurtured indoors. This year I've sown my sweetcorn seeds straight into the ground having seen last year that direct sowing produced much stronger plants than those I transplanted.

That doesn't mean that I don't have plenty of seed sowing going on indoors - my windowsills and balcony are filled with seeds in paper pots. The downside to that is that paper pots are so easy to make, and plastic trays readily available as drip trays, that it's highly probable that there won't be enough space for all the plants I've sown.  I'm going to guess I'm not alone in this ...

My six for this Saturday:

This first flower opened today; I think it's Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). It reappeared in the quince tree bed after I cleared a huge amount of dead scented geranium and overgrown golden oregano from the area in late spring.  To be honest, I had no idea it was there although I remember putting a small plant in a few years ago, had daisies that summer and then nothing for the past couple of years. I guess clearing the ground gave lingering seeds the chance they needed to germinate!  (And this morning the flowers were a magnet for aphid eating hoverflies - win:win!)

Purple asparagus stems

I harvested my second round of Purple Pacific asparagus (five stems!) at the beginning of the week; they were sweet and delicious.  I only have three crowns left from the original five in my square metre bed so thought that might be IT for this year but noticed today another three stems pushing through. Exciting (and delicious) times! It feels so good to be gathering food from the garden already after a winter of very little.

While I was out on Friday, two bags of Dalefoot's new Bulb Compost were delivered to my door.  At the Garden Press Event back at the end of February, I signed up for a couple of bags to trial and this is perfect timing as I have an old tub of lilies, about to flower in about 4 inches of ancient compost.  I found a rather more lovely pot for them,  put 4 inches of delicious fluffy bulb compost at the bottom, then the bulbs (lifted wholesale from the old pot with just a teensy bit of loose compost brushed away) and topped everything up with more bulb compost. Back in the garden they were given a good watering.  It's a good feeling to shower a bit of love on hard working plants!

 Crisis averted! Seeds vs seedlings vs plants is a daily juggle on my tiny balcony with no space to spare. I'm sure we all know that one, yes? It's a squeeze out there and a tiny tray of coriander seeds that had recently germinated after a very long wait was, I thought, safely balanced ... but, as I squeezed round the door ...  Oops a daisy!  Luckily I had pots and compost to hand (in my living room, of course - welcome to second floor gardening) so quickly potted them on.  Whew! A quick save which seems to have worked, in fact is probably very timely!

Achocha seedling

I've grown Achocha, a South American member of the cucumber family, for a number of years now.  They always grow really well in my veg patch, getting around 6 hours of sunshine a day (when available!) and can get up to 20ft (around 6 metres) long. So this year, I decided to grow something else unusual and give achocha a miss.  Or not.  Yesterday I spotted several self seeded achocha plants growing behind the broad beans, looking very strong and healthy and I'm not one to waste a good plant.  So I'm going to need more than one arch this year as the other unusual edible I'm growing is Luffah (aka bath sponge but edible fruits when young) and with the current number of sunshine hours will grow as big as the achocha - yikes!

Lastly (sixthly?), the oca gifted to me by my friend Tanya who writes the Lovely Greens blog (also check out her You Tube channel) has emerged overnight.  So looking forward to this one; it's a first time growing this for me.

Enjoy the weekend weather everyone - let's hope it lasts - and may your gardens be ever bountiful.

16 May 2018

A bumper year for fruit?

Pear blossom in April

Now that the last of the fruit blossom has dropped - quince excepted - my current obsession is to walk around the garden checking for fruitlets.  I've been gardening in the veg patch for almost a decade now and this has become a bit of an annual ritual.  I'm looking after ten fruit trees (apples, pears, plums, cherries and quince) as well as soft fruit and it's incredibly frustrating to see beautiful blossom fall to the ground before being pollinated. So, every spring, I'm on the lookout for fruit set. It's a hazard of urban gardening that any wind is funnelled between buildings, creating challenging conditions for insects to pollinate and blossom to stay put on the tree.  This year though, I've got a good feeling that the crazy weather so far this year might just have been the perfect thing for the fruit trees.

Bitter cold kept the trees dormant until early April and then we leapt into a confusing spring that alternated between warm sunshine and heavy rain - perfect for giving the trees a steady supply of water and warmth to wake up buds on the branches. Our trees are self fertile but fruit better if pollinators are around so a few days of warmth helped there too. Time will tell whether those pollinators were more interested in the tulips, daffodils and forget-me-nots rather than fruit blossom! It's crucial that plants are well watered when fruit is setting, something of an annual challenge for me as there is no easy access to water in the veg garden. So when it rains heavily, as it did last weekend, I just end up smiling.

(A little bit of botany: once the flower has been pollinated, water is directed to swell the pericarp which then slowly expands  around the seed or stone to make the flesh of apples, pears, cherries, etc. Without sufficient moisture, the pericarp withers and the fruitlet falls from the tree.)

This year I also made a start on pruning out congested branches in the centre of the plum and pear trees, back in the depths of winter; I wanted to see if better airflow through the centre of the tree canopies would improve things. Branches that were crossing over, heading into the middle of the tree or those poker straight 'water' shoots were all removed.

Growers Tip:
There's still more pruning to be done so the plan is to have another go at the end of summer.  Around this time trees begin their winter dormancy so energy is going back into the roots instead of the branches. Late summer pruning  allows trees to be shaped without promoting more growth. Stone fruit, such as cherries and plums, should be pruned, if needed, at that time anyway to reduce the risk of succumbing to airborne viruses.

Clockwise from top left:
Pretty cherry fruitlets, plums, apples, apple blossom

So after all that, has it worked? Probably too early for certainty but recent signs have led me to be cautiously optimistic of some fruit this year. Plum trees planted at the start of the veg patch nearly a decade ago, have never fruited; pear numbers have been sketchy at best. This year though with warmth, watering and better airflow, I'm seeing tiny fruitlets swelling in a very positive way, even on the plum tree.  In past years, with no plum fruit to harvest, I've threatened to chop down the plum tree then relented and given it another chance. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this was the year that the tree rewarded my patience?

Conference pear fruitlets
Several very round pear fruitlets on both pear trees.
What's going on?
And, in other news, there looks like being plenty of apples and pears - although some of the pear fruit look more like apples which is definitely weird. Ironically, as I don't eat sour cherries, the cherry trees are always laden with fruit as Morello cherries do well in our east facing border. The quince still has blossom (just) with plump little velveteen swellings behind; last year the tree produced five viable quinces but all developed some kind of rot before they could be picked. Very disappointing. I'm hoping for much, much better this year.

9 May 2018

Awaiting Edith

Iris 'Edith Wolford' flower bud

There is so much to be amazed at in the garden at the moment.  I tidied up this border (the 'Washing Line' border) over the weekend, including taking old leaves off the iris rhizomes so I know for a fact that there were no flower buds there.  Just fans of sword shaped leaves which, in itself, adds to the overall visual interest.  And then, yesterday, these appeared.  Whoah, how did that happen?! (I'm guessing a few days of hot sunshine might have helped.)

Given the speed that the flower stem appeared, I'm now on a daily watch for the flowers themselves. This is 'Edith Wolford'; she's a classy Iris germanica, reliably flowering in May/June, and has been slowly spreading out across this border since I brought her home from the Chelsea flower show a few years ago.

I didn't realise how much I loved Irises until I saw Edith on the Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants stand.  It was a must-have, love-at-first-sight, moment.  She's a beauty with creamy yellow standards (the upright petals) and blue-violet falls (the downward petals) with an orange beard in the centre - looks a bit like a hairy caterpillar!  A stunner in the looks department and her presence in this border brings together the purple alliums, Erysimum Bowles' Mauve, lavender, Perovskia, etc, with the yellow flowers of Santolina (cotton lavender), alpines and yellow-green New Zealand flax.

The 'Washing Line' border in late May 2017 - see what I mean about blending with the rest?

Growers tip:
Something I learned during my Capel Manor days was that the top of the rhizomes (the roots that look like raw ginger) need to be exposed and baked during the summer in order to promote flowering the following year.  I made the mistake of covering the rhizomes when I first planted Edith and had no flowers the following year - swiftly corrected when I knew better! Since then (years 3 and 4, 2016/17) I've had more and more flowers, several on each stem, so am eagerly anticipating Edith's arrival this year.

The Back Story:
I wish I knew more about the naming of irises because I'd love to know who Edith Wolford was/is - I do love a bit of background. The name suggests a character from James Joyce or E.M. Forster but I like to think that she was a renowned actress, a diva, a famous beauty; the reality is probably that she was a pillar of the community, a friend or beloved relative.  My internet search reveals only an elementary school in Colorado, USA.  Do tell if you can shed some light!

Irises were originally purple (or so I've read) and represent royalty and wisdom - hence inspiring the French Fleur-de-lis symbol. Yes, that does translate as lily flower but irises were classed as lilies until the 18th Century.  The flowers were known long before that, being discovered by the Pharoahs of Egypt when they conquered Syria and also known to the Ancient Greeks who named the flower for Iris, goddess of the rainbow; to this day, irises are placed on graves to form a passage between heaven and earth.

I've only the one iris for now but every year think that I need some more, maybe a reflowering or later type. Hands up - anyone else in the Iris Appreciation Society?

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