Saturday, 31 July 2010

Anatomy of a Flower Arrangement

How often does a garden plan go awry only to find that you have something equally as good, if not better, instead? This is what happened to one of my designs, a large area taking up almost one quarter of a walled kitchen garden.
.


.
Formal beds, surrounded by box(wood) hedging and topiary, were planted to create what was to be a tisane, or herbal tea, garden. All the plants were supposed to be suitable for making infusions for either medicinal or culinary use. Something went wrong and, for reasons unknown, half the plants either died or refused to flourish. In desperation, we turned it into a cutting garden where flowers could be harvested for arrangements for the big house - actually, the mystery house I used to dream of as a child. I have written about this house before and the tale of my arriving there two hundred years after I had died....

. .

Concentrating on those plants that survived the initial planting, I decided to see how they would cope with being used as cut flowers and the result was much better than expected. The flowers were cut in the middle of the hottest day of this year so far - not ideal conditions - and then plunged up to their necks in water for the rest of the afternoon. They looked poorly and drooping when first arranged but perked up overnight and now, ten days later, look as fresh as ever.

.

.
Much of the structure is created with a framework of Artemisia 'Powis Castle'. I find that to get the best results it is necessary to prune this shrub down to ground level each spring. They then produce long wands of stunning silvery foliage. A bitter herb used for all sorts of ailments, I would have to feel very ill before I would consider drinking a tea made from this!
.
At this point, I should stress, that I am no herbalist so I do not recommend that you try out any of these plants without deciding for yourself whether they will do you good or kill you instead.
.
.
Hemp Agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum, is a British native plant, normally found growing in damp places but quite happy in the garden border. The Joe Pye of America, it is claimed that it is good for many different ailments but especially good for gout.
.
.
A big surprise, was this Spearmint. In the cutting garden it has grown exceptionally tall (and like all mints, proving rather invasive) with attractive, fine flowers. This is, of course, one that I can safely recommend for use as a culinary herbal tea, very refreshing on a hot summers day and good if you suffer with indigestion.
.
.
Lavender needs no introduction. Oddly enough, because of soil conditions, I thought they would struggle in this garden. Instead, they have thrived.
.
.
Marjoram, another common herb that grows wild in England on sunny banks, also needs no description from me. It is our best bee and butterfly plant in the garden, even outrivalling Buddleias. We grow it in huge patches throughout the garden.
.
.
Leaving the best to last and the biggest surprise of the lot! Marsh-mallow, Althaea officinalis, another UK native. This was the first time I had grown it and it is now one of my 'signature' plants that I try to incorporate into every design. Related to Hollyhocks but only about half their height and very much more delicate in every way, except one - they are as tough as old boots!
.
.
Beautiful, downy, soft-as-velvet leaves and the merest hint of pink flowers, they require no staking, suffer from no pests or diseases and grow year after year, getting ever stronger. And, of course, you can always make marshmallow sweets to eat from their dried, powdered roots.
.
.
This recipe comes from my old herbal, although I have never tried to make them:
2oz marsh mallow root, 14oz fine sugar mixed with gum tragacanth and enough orange flower water to bind altogether. Quite what you do after that I have no idea - perhaps just eat them?
.


Add to Technorati Favorites

Monday, 26 July 2010

Blogging One Year On....

Greetings from the secret valley! Today is a special day for it is exactly one year since my very first post.
.
.
the secret valley
.
When I began blogging, it occurred to me that, as what I was writing would be in the 'public domain', that someone might read it. However, deep down, I didn't think that anyone would. It is a constant surprise that it is read and that the number of viewings is in the thousands rather than just half a dozen or so. Thank you so much.
.
Like many of you, I write for my own pleasure but, knowing that the words are read, I do make some effort to write coherently and, hopefully, interestingly - not always, I fear, with success. The secret valley is always a source of inspiration and, sitting at my computer, I look out across the fields to the trees and the little, winding river. The photo below is what I see every day and never forget just how lucky I am.
.
.
view of the secret valley from my desk
.
And so, one year on, you have followed me through the seasons:
.

.

in the cold

.

.
and as the weather warms
.
You have followed me on my travels:
.

.

Grafton Street, Dublin, Ireland

.

.

Lee Bay, Exmoor

.

You have met my family:

.

.

The old nags

..

and the very special She-dog

.
And you have witnessed my gardening:

.


.
my successes....
.
.
....and my failures
.
But best of all, through blogging, I have met interesting people from all over the world, from all walks of life and I am all the richer for it.
.

.

and sometimes I still can't get the spacing right between paragraphs - is it me or is it Blogger?!

Add to Technorati Favorites

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Cooking: Cherries and a Tongue Twister

It has been a good year for cherries. Despite the hard and late frosts, which continued well into May, there has been a bumper crop. And, for some reason, the birds have been kind enough to leave them for us humans to harvest. There is the appearance of something exotic, or even of decadence, in the cherry's shining, red orbs hanging in profusion. Perhaps because we see it all to rarely.
. .
One rather plump bird has developed the taste for cherries. Henrietta, the tamest of our Lavender Pekin bantams just can't get enough of them! Fortunately, the others show no interest and, not being the brightest of creatures, Henrietta hasn't considered flying into the trees to eat even more.
.
.
Today was a cooking day - I love cooking but have no patience when it comes to following recipes, occasionally with unfortunate consequences. Luckily, today was one of the better days. Having picked the cherries, I had no idea what to do with them, so sat outside in the sunshine stoning them, waiting for inspiration.
.

.
So much juice came from the fruit that it was necessary to strain it off. I thought of jam and other weird and wonderful ingredients to add to them. In the end, I just cooked them gently until their skins were tender, then added sugar and stirred in some mixed spice and some cinnamon. It made a pulp that will go down a treat with vanilla ice cream or with some natural yoghurt for breakfast tomorrow.
.

.
So what to do with the juice? First thought was to throw it away but, apart from the waste, I knew that Rhonda from down...to...earth, would not approve. Her blog is so inspirational, I highly recommend it to all that want to try and live -even just a tad - more simply. Warmed through with sugar, a few chilli flakes (I only wanted it to have a slight kick, not blow my head off) and some vanilla essence, it has become the basis for several potential options. Below it was poured over crushed ice and topped up with chilled tonic water to make a beautifully, refreshing drink for a hot, summers day. The colours were an unexpected and added bonus.
.
.
Next, the tongue twister: Geviklte Kichlach. I have had the great fortune of having a Jewish grandmother - if you have never had one, I suggest you find one that you can adopt. For apart from spoiling their grandchildren rotten, they are the most superb cooks. Geviklte Kichlach, which translates approximately, to 'twisted little cakes', Grandma would make for my every visit.
.
The recipe is more a pastry one than a cake recipe and it is very simple. I use spelt flour and baking powder as my partner has a wheat intolerance - spelt, despite being a type of wheat, is often ok for people with digestive problems.
.
.
Mix 4 oz butter with 4 oz curd cheese and 6 oz flour (if not using self raising, add two teaspoons of baking powder). Roll out thinly to an oblong and spread with jam. Then sprinkle currants over the top and some ground cinnamon and roll into a sausage shape.
.
.
You can elongate the sausage, if need be, by rolling it with your hands like plastacene. Cut into thinnish slices. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 190 until golden - about 10 minutes. Once cool, dust with icing sugar (it does need this additional sweetness, so don't be tempted to leave it out). The undusted, currant free version, sitting on the marble slab is a special treat for She-dog!
.
.
You don't like it? Well, as Grandma would have said, "You will like mine - now eat!".
.
.
Please remember, overseas visitors, that the measurements are in British ounces and the oven temperature is in Centigrade.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Friday, 16 July 2010

A Sting in the Tail

This year is proving to be one of extremes. Weather wise, first it was snow, then late frosts, then rain, more recently drought and scorching temperatures. And it also seemed to be a similar situation with wildlife. The tree blossom and wild flowers have been amazing with every month some new blooms outrivalling those of the previous month's.
.

.
Now it seems July is to be the month of wasps. There are hundreds in the garden, indeed probably thousands, and they are everywhere. And if that isn't bad enough, the very hot weather we've been having seems to have made them far more aggressive. Normally they do not prove to be troublesome until the fruit ripens in late summer, this year it's different. And I've already been stung once this week which is very bad news for me - I suffer from a severe reaction, although never yet been hospitalised, fortunately. I keep my drugs and sprays with me - and a mobile phone, in case help is needed - and also keep my fingers tightly crossed. This, like the recent advice from a doctor to stay indoors, is not too much help for someone who earns their living by gardening.
.
.
Fifteen wasp nests in four days has surely got to be a record and so I have been keeping the pest control man busy. It's a pity to destroy them but better I get them first than the other way round! I remind myself that during the spring they live on aphids and the like and are, therefore, valuable pest controllers themselves. Then I remind myself of the pain, discomfort and swelling, and sometimes injections I get, and they have to go.
.
.
I commended myself on my bravery, taking these photos, as the wasps went into the attack as the chemical jet entered their nest. But such is my devotion to get a new post out - I'm becoing a true blogger news hound!

. . .

My heightend awareness of wasps this week made me also notice these holes in a deserted timber garage. They were the homes of a small colony of wood wasps. Unlike the common wasp which live communally in their hundreds (the largest of our nests turned out to be the size of a football), wood wasps are more solitary, each one occupying their own chamber.

. .

They are quite placid compared to their aggressive cousins and, I believe, unable to sting a human being. The largest ones look terrifying but this species was small, about half the size of the common wasp. There are about 500 species of solitary wasp in Britain and I can't identify any of them. I felt totally at ease photographing them inches away and they completely ignored me. Perhaps word had got round what I did to them further down the secret valley!
.

. ..

I'm now looking forward to the first frosts and a wasp free winter!


Add to Technorati Favorites

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Scabious: Wild and Tame

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am very fond of garden plants that have not been messed around with too much. By that, I mean I generally prefer the simpler flowers. So-called 'improvement' is so often just another word for vulgar, blousy and big - although there are occasions when I have a need for both the blousy and vulgar!

Scabious are a delight regardless, whether they are growing in the hedgerow or the border.
.
The secret valley is awash with scabious, as well as other wild flowers, at the moment. The dry weather seems to suit them for they are looking just perfect. They seem to be everywhere - they especially like roadside verges but also grow in odd pockets of wasteland on very poor soil. But it is not just the secret valley where they are found, for the whole of the Cotswolds seems to be a haze of powder blue. In fact, they grow pretty well throughout the British Isles although they are much more scarce in Scotland.
.

I have found photography and blogging has improved my powers of observation for it is only recently that I noticed that the scabious has quite hairy stems. These feel quite soft to the touch, so it was with some surprise that I learnt that they are closely related to teasels, whose hairs have been modified into sharp, protective spines.
.

However, it was only when looking at these pictures that I noticed how the flowers open from the outer edge and then work there way inwards. Obviously, my powers of observation have still some way to go!
.

As garden plants, in my opinion, they are superb. Always tidy, never need staking and, with regular dead heading, flower continuously from mid June onwards. In the photos below, scabious is being grown in a cottage garden border (this is Scabiosa caucasica but still pretty!) amongst pale pink Icelandic poppies. The scabious is perennial and will grow again every year, the poppies are annuals. I just threw some poppy seed down amongst them and, as the poppies were mixed colours, removed any that turned out not to be pink. Simple!
.
As an ingredient for containers they are unrivalled, too. Here, in huge one metre square pots, they form an underplanting with Salvia nemerosa and small flowered petunias beneath the (very) light shade of Cornus controversa 'Variegata'. This scabious is an improved form of our wild flower - it is dwarfer than the type.
.
.
The Five Spot Burnet moth flies in daylight and is everywhere at the moment. They especially seem to like feeding on the scabious, choosing these above the profusion of other wild flowers. They are very pretty and when the light catches them at the right angle, the black ground of their wings become irradescent, similar to the 'black' feathers of the magpie and farmyard cockeral.
.
.
Going.....
.
Going.......
.

Gone!
.
Like many plants, occasionally a 'sport' arises. Driving home today, I noticed just two white flowered scabious growing by the side of a country lane. Beautiful!



Add to Technorati Favorites