Rainy day gardening.

Interesting reads for garden addicts.

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Struggling with cold, wet, clay soil?

What is a herb?

A herb is a useful plant. It might be an annual, biennial or perennial herbaceous plant, a shrub, tree, climber or succulent.

Herbs are used as flavouring in cooking, curing meats, cooking oils, soft drinks, liqueurs, beers and teas. They are also used in cosmetics, medicines, insect repellents and cleaning products.

Many herbs have multiple uses. For example, a hardy Lavender such as Munstead might be used as a flavouring in a cake, an ingredient in a cola drink, an essential oil for aromatherapy, a constituent of soap, shampoo or hand cream, or as insect repellent and perfume in a wardrobe.

Garden plants like honeysuckle, clematis, camellia, ceanothus or phormium that we may think of as purely decorative are, or have been, useful medicinal species in other parts of the world for centuries.

History, Myth and Magic

The uses of herbs for food and medicine have their origin in pre-historic times. Neolithic diets included wild fruits and herbs still used by medicinal herbalists. Until travel and trade expanded, each region of the world relied on native wild plants for flavour and healing.

In Great Britain, native meadowsweet, St. Johns wort, cowslip, primrose, self heal and so on would have been the herbs used until Roman times. The Romans brought Mediterranean herbs- myrtle, bay, rosemary, lavender, thyme and sage. Strong flavoured herbs such as rosemary and hyssop masked the taste of meats that were not refrigerated. These herbs also contain small amounts of antibacterial compounds.

The range of herbs used increased during the Middle Ages when the monastery gardens included plants for cooking, medicines and dyes for textiles. In the 16th century herb gardens began to be planted by universities for teaching botany and medicine. Modern gardens such as the Eden project continue this tradition.

There are many myths and legends surrounding individual herb species. Their properties must have seemed magical before science could provide an explanation for the flavours, cures and poisons in them. For example, it was believed that only a witch or pregnant woman could grow parsley, and the Romans thought its use would discourage intoxication in banquets. The Greeks associated parsley with death and decorated tombs with it.

Cooking with Herbs

Fresh, soft green leaves of herbs such as basil, coriander and parsley are best added to hot dishes at the last moment otherwise their flavour and textures are lost. More substantial herbs such as rosemary, bay and sage can be added at the beginning of the cooking time so that their flavours permeate the dish. Many salad dishes are improved by adding fresh herbs or herb dressings.

What to eat with what?

This depends on individual preference and chefs are always creating new recipes, but here are a few classic combinations:

*   Basil with tomatoes
*   Bay with meats, soups and stews
*   Chervil with salads and egg dishes
*   Chives in salads, with eggs and soft cheeses
*   Coriander with spicy dishes, often including rice
*   Dill with fish, eggs and pickles
*   Fennel with oily fish and fatty meats
*   Lovage in soups and stews
*   Mint with lamb, potatoes and other vegetables
*   Oregano with pasta, tomatoes and savouries
*   Parsley with many savoury foods and salads
*   Rosemary with lamb, pork, poultry
*   Sage with pork and in sausages and stuffings
*   Tarragon with fish, poultry, eggs and salads
*   Thyme with savoury dishes, chicken and in preserves

Amounts of herbs to include depend on individual taste, but generally larger amounts of fresh herbs are needed than the equivalent dried ones. Many herbs will freeze well, but basil needs to be used fresh from the plant.

Growing Herbs in Containers and in the Ground

Most herbs grow best in a sunny situation, sheltered from north and east winds. The majority do best in well drained compost or soil.

To grow herbs in containers use a Multipurpose compost with added John Innes and mix in at least one third by volume of horticultural grit. Use a container with good drainage holes and do not overwater. Plants can be given liquid feed in summer.

Growing herbs in the ground is easy as long as the soil is well drained. They need no manure or special feeding and thrive on being clipped and harvested for your use. Many herbs, such as rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme and oregano are Mediterranean plants by origin and thrive in hot, dry summers.

The few herbs you can grow in shade or partial shade include sweet cicely, sweet woodruff, bugbanes, mints and wild strawberries.

Give herbs plenty of space to grow and they will reward you with ample leaves and flowers to harvest.

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Why, asks someone on Gardeners’ Question Time, do gardeners never talk about clay soil without also adding the word “heavy”? And is there even such a thing as a light clay soil? That’s a great question, and since none of the GQT panel attempted a satisfactory answer, I thought I’d have a go.

It’s such a good question because soil is mostly particles of rock, and the rock is basically the same whether your soil is clay or sand, so how can a clay soil be heavier? The answer lies not in the rock particles, but what’s between them.

In a sandy soil, the rock grains are about the size of granulated sugar (coarse sand) or caster sugar (fine sand), while silt particles are about the size of icing sugar, and clay is about 10 times smaller still. And just as the particle sizes vary, so do the sizes of the spaces between them; a sandy soil has big spaces, a clay soil has very small ones.

Even though the size of the spaces varies a lot, the total amount of space doesn’t vary nearly as much. In fact, rather surprisingly, while a loamy soil is about 50 per cent space, a sandy soil has slightly less space, while a clay soil has slightly more. And since space doesn’t weigh anything, that makes a “heavy” clay soil even harder to explain.

The solution to the conundrum is water. While it’s actually raining, the space in any soil is full of water. But as soon as it stops, most of the water in the large pores of a sandy soil drains away. But the water in the tiny pores of a clay soil is held tight by capillary forces, so it hangs around.

So, since the space in a sandy soil is mostly air, and the space in a clay soil is mostly water, and water is heavy, a clay soil is indeed heavy, and there is no such thing as a light clay soil. And that, Roger from Oxford, answers your question. You’re welcome.

Nor do gardeners often mention clay soil without adding the word “cold”, and again the explanation is exactly the same. It takes a lot more energy to heat water than it does to heat air, so although all soils are cold at the end of the winter, a sandy soil heats up faster than a clay soil as the weather warms up. Hence clay soils are cold soils, at least in the spring.

But do not despair. Clay may be cold and heavy, but all soils need some clay. Silt and sand are no more than inert ballast, while most soil chemistry takes place on the surfaces of clay particles, which carry a negative electrical charge. As a result, positively charged ions are absorbed on to the surface of clay minerals.

This provides a store of minerals, including many needed by plants, such as potassium, magnesium and calcium, that is available to plants when needed.

This storage is crucial because plants need a lot of potassium, and although most soils contain abundant potassium in minerals such as feldspar, this is not available to plants. As feldspar weathers, potassium is released, but would be quickly washed out of soil by rain if it were not held by clay particles.

In fact everything is quickly washed out of sandy soils, so although clay may be cold and heavy, sandy soils are often described as “hungry”. Both may be improved by adding organic matter, but a soil with plenty of clay will always be more fertile.

Article by Ken Thompson and reproduced from the Daily Telegraph

Forensic Botany  -  Do you know what it is?

An introduction by Anne Webb who will be giving us a talk on the subject in February 2022


In normal circumstances [remember those?], you would have been looking forward to a talk about Forensic Botany...at least I HOPE you would have been! This relatively recent addition to the forensic science toolbox has got me excited. Very excited.

Forensic Botany is the knowledge of plants helping the police to solve crimes. The Botany bit is an umbrella term, as you probably already know, for a wide discipline of plant science. This talk concentrates on a couple; how growth of certain plants can help in saying how long a body has been somewhere and how pollen, seeds and fungal spores can tell the story of a crime scene, what has happened and where.

Let me give you an inkling of what can be deduced simply by knowing your plants.....

"She won't be buried under the ground at all. She's in a hollow, off the path and will be covered over with birch twig litter...".

I suspect that if Mystic Meg had walked in to a police station and told the duty Sergeant, that he might have asked her to take a seat, and made her a cup of tea whilst he called a cab .... but this was not Mystic Meg's vague psychic prediction but what Professor Patricia Wiltshire was able to tell police, by analysing the soil from a suspect's belongings! That is why I'm so excited by this topic.

If the subject of Forensic Botany didn't seem to be your thing before, I hope you are now looking forward to the talk. See you all in February 2022.