Thursday 3 September 2009

Harvest ramblings

Despite the weather, harvest is upon us. No matter how large or small our productive plots, there is something to gather, preserve and enjoy. I thought I would share some of my recent activities.

Surprisingly, I harvested nothing during our time away apart from some wonderfully sweet blackberries and a few nettle seeds. Cornwall grows the largest ribwort plantain I’ve seen, but there seemed little point in gathering armfuls as I did two years ago when there was nowhere to keep it dry and relatively warm. Instead I caught up with embroideries I’ve been meaning to do for the past 15 years – starting but never finishing until last month.

Usually I make a new corn dolly to celebrate the harvest, but this year I drew one and embroidered it instead. I also drew a picture of the three pine trees we could see out of the caravan window. I can’t draw in any sense of artistic merit, but my little attempt at folk art brings me pleasure if no-one else!

Since our return, my free time has been taken up with birthdays and harvesting. Last week we celebrated my mother’s 81st birthday. I made new cockerel cushions for my father to give her and she liked them and the new teapot, milk jug, mugs and plates – all with blue cockerels on them - I’d found in Bakewell back in May.

We were at the farm again for the weekend for a herb workshop. Eight people came and made flower essences, comfrey and meadowsweet double infused oil, nettle salt, wild bergamot flower honey, bergamot leaf elixir and various vinegars and tinctures. The weather was kind and during our herb walk around the beds, we looked at meadowsweet, spotted orchids, burdock, white horehound, lemon balm, Solomon’s seal, calendula, motherwort and several other herbs.

The wasps’ nest behind the summerhouse had been deserted, but this didn’t stop the wasps being out in force, attracted by all the honey we were using. When everyone had gone, I managed to pick some hyssop, skullcap and white horehound along with a few dandelion roots.

After tea, I took my mother down to Condicote, where we used to live and where her brother and nephew still farm, so I could raid their purple sage plants. I finished the evening by collecting yarrow from around the garden. I was afraid it would all have gone to seed, but I managed to find some newly flowering plants.

On Sunday morning I picked flowering mullein stalks and dug rosettes to make mullein root tincture. It was really difficult digging the new plants as the hens decided they had to investigate everything I was doing as they couldn’t afford to miss any insects or seeds I might dislodge in the soil!

I also managed to pick some seed-heavy nettles from the field which will probably be the last ones I dry for this year. I already have several jars put away along with three or four from last year, so there should be plenty to munch my way through for the rest of the year or to give away to those in need.

My uncle gave us some of his cream out of a huge bowl while we stood in his kitchen. It was so thick; it turned into butter with just one whisk of the beaters when I worked it on Sunday morning! It took me back to my childhood whisking cream into yellow gold, then painstakingly squeezing it with a large knife to remove the buttermilk. With only one housecow, butter making was a very infrequent task in our household, but we relished the new butter when we had it.

On Bank Holiday Monday, Chris went off to spend a happy day at Greenbelt with his cousins while I took a deep breath and began my herbal task list. Herbs which had been drying in the kitchen and summerhouse were brought onto the garden bench to be checked for mildew and either discarded or placed in glass jars in the larder.

Although I still have to do something with a large bag of assorted dried herbs sitting in the summerhouse (nettles, dead nettles, ground ivy and red clover), sage, burdock, St John’s wort, thyme, calendula, apple and spearmint were all dealt with. I also decanted three jars of vinegar (milk thistle, motherwort and mint), put up some St John's wort and mullein root tincture and made some meadowsweet oil from last year's dried leaves and flowers.

The mint vinegar tasted and smelled so wonderful, I picked some more mint and put up another jarful, together with a small jar of rose petal vinegar using the last 3 roses in the garden and a sprig of spearmint.

The hawthorn trees in the garden have produced the most amazing large, ripe haws this year, so I took time to pick enough to put up 1 jar of brandy, 1 jar of liqueur and 2 jars of vinegar. Chris kindly took his stepladder on Tuesday and picked more haws, which took me two evenings after work to prepare more liqueur and vinegar.

When researching a particular herb, it is not often I find an appealing recipe and have all the herbs to hand. This happened on Tuesday when looking up the properties of horehound. Maud Grieve said a popular cough medicine was made with hyssop, white horehound, marshmallow root and liquorice.

I still haven’t had the courage to dig any marshmallow roots, but the plants are prolific in leaves, flowers and seeds at the moment, so it didn’t take long to pick a large handful to go in the syrup mix along with half my hyssop and horehound bundle and a large stick of liquorice I bought at a French farmers market in Solihull a few years ago. The resulting syrup was incredibly bitter, so it’s been put in the larder to wait for an unsuspecting guinea pig with a dreadful cough!

The remaining hyssop and horehound was mixed with brandy and honey for a cough elixir. We shall see which is the more popular!

My first priority yesterday was to make some St John’s wort salve for a Tabler friend who is suffering the aftermath of transverse myelitis. I mixed a small amount of yarrow oil with the SJW and will be interested to know how useful he finds the salve.

I split my yarrow harvest in two and made some more oil with the older stems and a tincture with the fresh green leaves and flowers. Now I just have nettle roots to tincture and dandelion roots to pickle tonight and this current batch of herbal preservation will be over.

It is very satisfying to see my hot cupboard full of vinegars and liqueurs, but I need to start decanting tinctures and elixirs soon as there is no more shelf space and I’ve run out of large glass jars!


Dreamseeds said...

You are making some amazing things Sarah!

Medicine Women Gather said...

Wow! I love your blog, would you mind if I added a link to ours at

Sarah Head said...

Thanks Kristena!

I'd be happy for you to link from your blog to mine, medicine woman:)

Unknown said...

so inspiring- i have a small harvest this year, our first year in this house, with only a few weeks until our little one joins us! i'm going home right now to get started!!

many, many blessings. i enjoy reading your blog!

Anonymous said...

I love your blog. It brings back memories from my childhood.

My maternal grandmother had a way with plants. Her "cottage" gardens were beautiful; there was always a place for the faery folk. Her Irish roots :).

I inherited her storyteller ways and love for herbs.