Monday 11 July 2011

Summer abundance

I have never grown as many plants from seed as I have this year. Tomatoes, salad leaves, peas, runner and French beans, basil, two types of spinach, radishes, courgettes, butternut squash, ashwaghanda, holy basil, sweet clover and pokeroot from home produced and bought in seeds.

I’ve also never given away quite so many plants as well – runner beans,
St Johns wort, Michaelmas daisies and other assorted herbs. It was when I was potting up the third batch of St Johns wort plants from the garden and handed over a particularly succulent marshmallow plant that the thought crossed my mind, “If I give away so much, will I have enough for myself?” The compulsion to give was too strong. The plants must go.

There is a Native American tradition which Stephen Buhner describes in his “Secret Life of Plants”. When the tribal medicine man arrives at a home where healing has been requested, tradition demands that the spouse of the person should give away all possessions as gifts to other members of the community. The act is performed before the healing commences in anticipatory gratitude.

Other beliefs teach there is no need to hang on to possessions, because whatever we need will be provided by the universe. I know I don’t have the confidence yet to practice this philosophy, but this year is showing how abundance can be the flipside of gifts freely given.

In response to my plants, I have been given new varieties of tomatoes and lots of chilli plants. The basil seeds which grew so easily and magnificently were a gift during a workshop on seed planting and propagation during a Mercian Herb Group meeting in March. Sharing the runner bean plants has brought me closer to many people I value as friends.

I really should not have worried about having enough St John’s wort. The main bed of plants flowered on June 12th, almost two weeks before their normal day of 21st June. There are already three jars of oil infusing on the sunny windowsill in the kitchen and my first batch of tincture is already a glorious shade of crimson. The recent torrential rain combined with ten days absence in Northumberland and Newcastle has played havoc with my ability to pick the flowers every day, but I know there will be enough for my needs and to give away.

Spending the weekend with my parents enabled me to visit the Sanctuary and see which herbs were ready for harvest there. I missed the last of the apothecary’s rose petals (and Chris wouldn’t let me gather from the three briar rose bushes heavy with blossom at Beamish Museum!), but the William Shakespeare were still blooming even though the petals were heavily waterlogged. I gathered as many as I could and dried them by the kitchen rayburn. They are now infusing in cider vinegar waiting to show their colours at Herbfest on 23rd July.

The walk down to the Sanctuary was also a kaleidoscope of colours provided by ladies bedstraw, red & white clover, knapweed and plantain accompanied by a variety of butterflies, damsel flies and grasshoppers. I watch so many wildlife programmes bemoaning the loss of native habitats. I am so fortunate to have a meadow blooming at my feet!

I’ve already dried two harvests of catmint and ox–eye daises, but more was waiting for me along with a palette of colour provided by weld, wood betony and hyssop. Helped by the three people who attended the Saturday workshop, we picked purple sage, SJW, betony, goats rue, motherwort and enjoyed a wonderful tea of lemon balm and calendula flower.

Janey brought her carding pads and set to work on the wool we boiled for lanolin over Easter. The conclusion was that the wool was really only fit for felting rather than spinning, but it still leaves a wealth of possibilities for future crafts.

I had less than two hours on Sunday to complete my gathering and weeding after preparing Sunday dinner and before we had to pack everything up to come home. I intended to remove the last few docks from the new herb bed, but found myself harvesting and weeding skullcap instead. I also gathered a tiny basket of heartsease which I set to dry for a “hope” tea in the future.

Bees were everywhere – white and yellow/orange-bottomed bumblebees and honey bees. I watched them feeding from red clover and motherwort, climbing around the plant to suck the nectar from each individual floret. Their activity was so different from their sister bees collecting pollen from wide open evening primrose flowers or even St John’s wort flowers, where they appeared to brush their tummy over the pollen or wrap pollen strings around their whole bodies – something I’d not seen before.

The stand of motherwort was so beautiful. I kept looking at it wondering what I could make with it. I’d already gathered enough for vinegar. I have tincture and oil left from last year and it was far too hot and my time severely limited, for me to gather any more. So I left the strawberry and cream pink motherwort and the deep blue of the hyssop to the bees.

It is hard to accept you can’t do everything, especially when colours and scents call seductively to gather and process. There will be further opportunities. The calendula and bergamot are still a long way from flowering, so they and the tansy will greet me when I return in August.