Plum harvest

This year the harvest has been very good from our little plum tree.  We reckon 8 or 9 kg, leaving the uppermost branches for the birds and beasts to feed upon.  This means there have been lots of delicious happenings:

Plum jam:  225 ml water and 700g caster sugar to each kilo of stoned, halved plums.  Simmer the plums in the water for 20 minutes until the skins start to come off.  Heat the sugar in the oven in the meantime, to help prevent crystals when it hits the plums.  Add sugar and stir, simmering for another 15 minutes or so until all crystals have gone and the sugar is completely and utterly dissolved.  Then boil hard for 10 minutes and start testing for the ‘wrinkle effect’ when dropped onto a cold place and pushed with a spoon.  Pour into sterilised jars, cool, seal and label.

Plum jam with orange and chili:  add powdered, i.e. ground up in a pestle and mortar, dried orange peel.  We dried our own from organic oranges – so pungent!!! Thereof 2 teaspoons, and 1/2 teaspoon very, very hot dried flaked chilies we got from the Indian grocer’s.  These to each kilo of plums, in the initial shimmering stage.  Yum!

Plums in vodka, folk method:  fill a large Kilner jar with halved, stoned plums and press down.  Fill the same jar with good quality vodka.  Seal and leave for at least two weeks.

Plums in brandy:  fill a large Kilner jar as before.  Add one tablespoon light muscovado sugar to about 200ml Courvoisier and let the sugar dissolve.  Add this to the jar, then top up to the top with straight Courvoisier.  Both jars should be filled right up to level with or above the top of the plums.  Leave for about 2 weeks, or longer.

Herb garden

Oh my word, the excitement at 2GC!  We have had our garden rejuvenated by the wonderful Hamish at The Secret Herb Garden in Edinburgh. No website as yet for them, they are brand new, but we have visited their herb nursery, with thousands of plants and incredibly tidy poly tunnels (enormous!) and lots of quirky sheds.  Hamish handles the plant side of things, everything organic, tenderly cared for, albeit with a brisk, no-nonsense manner, and LOVED into thriving health.  That loving plants has an effect on their growth, well-being and potency may sound derisory for those of the cult of Scientific Proof, but is a well known fact for the herbal community.  Few of us would use herbs that had not been loved and cared for.

Hamish’ wife Liberty runs the other side of the business, antique and vintage gardening tools, furniture and gardening and home accessories.  These are mainly housed in the scattering of sheds and outbuildings.  She has a marvellous eye for what feels good to live with.  She has also just given birth to a beautiful daughter (a couple of days old now) so their official opening may be delayed a couple of days 🙂  Watch this space for more info on their opening.

Our garden inhabitants, however, are now swaying gently in the Edinburgh breezes, with newly settled herbs giggling their way into the freshly enriched soil, getting to know their neighbours.  They went in last Friday and are already growing considerably.

I’m sitting in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society rooms on Queen Street as I write this, so I am touring the garden from memory.  Photos to follow, but here are the herbs gracing our quirky plot.

As we come out of the garden room, the bed on the left side of the steps houses Lilly of the Valley, and lots of smallish pink geraniums – they are established inhabitants, and look a little like American Cranesbill, but the leaves are slightly larger, I think.  There is a large clump of tall buttercups looking magnificent behind the L of the V.  A couple of drifts of Hostas and some lovely silvery green furry leaved beings – what are they called? Behind all these is a wonderful Camelia against the wall.

On the other side of the steps are the Wild Strawberries – masses of them – and lots of small leaved ivy drifting over the wall. I have to curb this one’s enthusiasm as she wriggles her way into the wall, in the familiar ivy-like way.  Alchemilla mollis loves it here – I think she is also called Lady’s Mantle. At the back some Welsh poppies, self seeded, and drifts of self seeded Geranium robertianum.

In pots climbing the steps are Salvia officinalis (Sage),  Thymus vulgaris (common Thyme),  Rosmarinus officinalis (common Rosemary), a large black Peppermint – this is a Mentha piperita vulgaris – two large Melissa officinalis (Lemon balm) and another very leggy Rosmarinus.  This is a wonderful pot, as under the Rosmarinus there has appeared another self seeded healthy, straggly, ebullient Geranium robertianum – Herb Robert.

At the top of the steps the new herbs have taken up residence.  In the narrow bed on the right we have planted a couple more Rosmarinus, and two beautiful Aloysia citrodora (Lemon Verbena), with a strong lemony scent.  Lots of medicinal properties, and we use it in tea.  I haven’t looked at alcoholic extraction as tincture yet.  Next in the bed Hamish has separated a length by pushing slates deep into the soil – this is designed to provide at least some kind of containment … this is to keep our wonderful new peppermints in check, as they tend to take over every available reachable inch in their joie de vivre.  The other side of P mint is a large Tarragon – I use it in cooking, haven’t ever heard of its medicinal uses.

The upper part of the garden has widened beds either side of our ‘lawn’, which is now a happy playground for dozens of Taraxicum officinale (Dandylion) and rather a lot of moss.  I even found a diminutive Plantago major (broad leaved plantain, the one you get on well trodden paths).  We mow every now and again, and pick Taraxacum leaves often.  On the right, there are against the wall a Buddleia (good for butterflies, don’t know anything else about it except that it gets pruned vigorously every year as we fear being consumed by it as it grows to gargantuan proportions).  Two apple trees give us a little fruit every year, and a hydrangea and a rose (all I know is that she is red and climbs well) spread themselves along the wall.  In front of the Buddleia we have our first new Dipsacus fullonum (Teasel), which is already growing vigorously.  A half moon in front of that is home to a drift of Achillea millefolium (Yarrow), with their unbelievably beautiful leaf structure.  Next along are six Armoracia rusticana (Horseradish) – Hamish’ tip for harvesting and preparing follows below.  before the compost box we have planted a large rhubarb clump (Rheum) behind a Myrrhis Odorata (Sweet Cicely) – which you can tell from the extremely poisonous Hemlock (Conium maculatum) by its markings at the base of the leaves, which have a milky white mouldy look (not mould) and its wonderful aniseed scent.  At the front we have Pulmonaria officinalis (Lungwort?) gifted from our neighbours on that side.  Edging that whole bed at the front we have a wiggly drift of Allium schoenoprasum – Chives – waving their purple heads over the Taraxacum.  The other side of the compost bin we have Symphytum officinale another Dipsacus and some more Pulmonaria (Comfrey, Teasel and Lungwort).

On the left we have two lovely species of Tropaeolum (Nasturtium), one bright orange and one red, tipping over the little wall onto the tiny terrace with our table and chairs.  Tropaeoli edge the bed all the way round to the end, interspersed with and eventually taken over by Achemilla mollis and of other Alchemilla species.  At the back we have a lovely white rose, a Japonica, about whom I know nothing – I thought she was a quince tree until Hamish put us right!  – then a big plum tree (with loads of plums coming.  Last year we hardly had any but the year before she produced enough for several pounds of jam).  Next to these along the wall we have a white and a red Camelia, some Lonicera purpusii and another pretty, common climber, whose name I have forgotten, big pinkish flowers… Gone.

In the front we have leading on from the terrace a swathe of Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm) and in front of that Tanacetum parthenium (Feverfew), one a very gold coloured species and one the common one, which seems to have the same name.  Amongst these and in front of them we have some Thymus vulgaris and Thymus citriodorus (Common and Lemon Thyme), and on from there a couple of lovely Scutellaria – not sure which species, must check with Hamish – some Agastache foeniculum (Aniseed Hyssop) and a small drift of amazing Lemon Bush, who Hamish sourced when he went to South Africa.  As far as I can tell this is the Lippia javanica.  It has an incredibly strong lemony, medicinal scent – think antimicrobial, antiseptic, cleansing.  Hamish uses it for flu and bad colds.  It is obviously very rich in essential oils and I shall try producing a hydrolate with my home-made still.

Big breath, as this is a very exciting bed.  Further along, we have our old Foeniculum vulgare purpureum which is sprouting purple fronds with gusto, beside an enormous Inula helenum (Elecampane).  In front of these, Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s Wort), in which the amazing red glow under the leaves is clearly showing through.  Finally, Artemisia vulgaris (Mugwort) – woo hoo!

Now, at the far end, the garden raises a step and then tapers to a point.  At the step we have a new box hedge at either side, and beyond the ground is covered in soft bark.  On the left there is our gigantic cherry tree, opposite our Yew, and left and right half circle vegetable beds, raised with willow walls which we wove ourselves (bizarrely, very proud of that).  At the moment the veg bed on the right houses our Digitalis plants, some self seeded Geranium robertianum, rescued from a patch that was to be the the home of someone else, and a couple of Helleborus niger, which were quarantined as they had a bad case of white fly.  We clean them off every day, hopefully we can save them.  The other veg bed is awaiting inhabitants – not sure yet what we shall plant.

Right at the end, under more boughs and branches, we have our woodland triangle, with Galium odoratum (Woodruff), Teucrium scorodonia (Wood Sage), Allium ursinum (Ramsons) and another beautiful Dipsacus at the end.  A couple of the Allium look as if they have been lunch for someone – I suspect Phoebe or Cleo as much as slugs and snails – but given that she is expected to elbow her way gloriously into all that space and will have to be gently restrained, I am not too fearful for her fate.

Did I say photos to follow?  There will be.

Nearly forgot Hamish’ tip, entirely serious for harvesting and preparing the root especially of Armoracia rusticana (Horseradish):  wear a snorkel with goggles, snorkel well up.  This goes a long way to preventing injury and distress 🙂

Dandelion Spring Tonic – Taraxacum officinale

Another year, another spring tonic.  Whilst we are supping last year’s Spring Tonic of Dandelion, Cleavers and Chickweed tinctures, for next year I have started the Dandelion tincture.  Again following the folk method, whereby you don’t have to measure or weigh.  This works for Dandelion, but not necessarily for other plants.

Step one:  harvest your dandelion.  This needs to be done with respect for the plant – it is giving me its medicinal properties and it is crucial that I have its agreement in this.  None of the to me abhorrent practice of using nature as a ‘resource’ – I actually ask each plant whether it is ok to use it.  There is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ quite clearly discernible after asking, much in the same way that we search for a ‘gut feeling’ on tricky issues.  Very seldom do I encounter a ‘no’ but I move on when I do.  I found our garden strewn with glorious Dandelion heads, luscious leaves and strong roots.  Excellent!  Here they are, harvested and washed.

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During the washing, the herbs also have to be scumbled, that means picking out all ‘foreign’ bits, including bits of grass, other plants, one errant woodlouse I found, dead leaves, anything that is not the herb you are using.  The next task is to dry them thoroughly, given that the ratio of water to alcohol in a tincture has to be fairly exact – even if one is using the folk method.  This means using the salad spinner, first for three large batches, then a tiny handful at a time, to get most of the water off the plant material.
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Then I spread the leaves and roots out on a dry towel and roll them up carefully, pressing and squeezing gently to mop up the remaining moisture.

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After this they all get chopped, chopped, chopped, into the tiniest bits I can manage.  Chop.  And again, chop, chop, chop.  When I lose the will to live as a human chopping machine, I pile them all into a sterilised Kilner jar, press them down, and fill the jar to the top of the herb with 40% vodka. Then the whole mixture is turned out into a large bowl and blitzed with the hand-held blitzing machine, whereupon it is returned to the Kilner jar, as shown below, taking up rather less room than before.  Not because I sprayed vodka and Dandelion all over the kitchen, but because smaller bits take up less room.

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Now it gets labelled and sealed.  Labelling involves giving the Latin name at least (Taraxacum officinale), so there is no confusion, the method (folk), the strength of alcohol (40%) and the date upon which the tincture will be ready, namely 14 days from the making of it.  I shall shake it twice a day, with intention, until it is ready to be strained and bottled (sterilise the bottles!), and labelled in exactly the same way as before.

Phoebe (asleep) and Cleo (coquettish as ever) in a rare moment sharing a nest.  The common denominator is my brand new cardigan 🙂IMG_1213

Gardening time

If you look at the photo above, you will see a corner of our tiny garden in Edinburgh.  It proceeds up the steps from the garden room and the library, around the corner to the first level where we have a table and a couple of chairs for al fresco dining, and up again onto the long triangular lawn.  This ends in a bricked point with a large cherry tree and a wrought iron bench.  All the gardens between the backs of two crescents are walled on all sides at chest height.  We are South-East facing, rather damp and don’t seem to get a lot of sun.

Here it is that we would like to grow some veg and more herbs.  We are having to get some professional and organically sympathetic help in as despite our best efforts to date, not much seems to grow except for a couple of helleborus and some honeysuckle.  We are up for raised beds and more dwarf fruit trees to join our apple and quince. The weather seems to be brightening, so we shall see.