The Culinary Garden - 10th June 2020
The garden never looks better than it does in the first week of June. It is downhill from now on, for while there are still many highlights to be had over the summer, never again will the garden as a whole look so neat and tidy. Everything now is clipped and contained, and growing where it should; but hereinafter it will all become overgrown and straggly and increasingly unmanageable, and the weeds will get stronger and more troublesome. This week is rather like the start of semester, when everyone is bright and alert and ready, only to become ragged as more complexities and burdens, like weeds (or baby rabbits), erupt to disturb our equilibrium.
Though the spring bulbs are a distant memory, gone for another year, the early summer flowers are sparkling. I have a splendid crinodendron hookerianum (Chilean Lantern Tree), whose large red lantern-shaped flowers are at their best in June. But it is the perennials that take centre stage. Aquilegia, in my garden, are the star of the show just now, complemented by the pink spikes of persicaria and the clouds of thalictrum. Another great performer, though always the chorus and never the principals, are the perennial geraniums, with their pleasingly palmate leaves and constant colours from purple, blue through pink to almost white. Geranium pratense are the sort that grow in clumps and can be up to three feet tall. We have four or five varieties. Johnson’s Blue (with the truest blue) and the far taller G. Splish Splash (pale blue with white splashes) are the ostentatious ones, but they flower only once – the former fully at the moment, while the latter is on the brink. In the end, better value is had from the less showy but repeat flowering varieties, like G. Ann Folkard (who sounds like a character out of Anita Brookner), and the shorter pinkier G. sanguineum-types which are spreading ground cover with flowers coming the whole of the summer. They are indispensable, if undervalued – the horticultural equivalent of nurses, care-home workers, porters, delivery drivers and the like.
But oh my eyes, the poppies. The large scarlet oriental poppies demand attention. Though I do find something disconcerting, disturbing even, about Papaver Orientale, which when in flower bring to my mind the smile of the Joker in the Batman films, when at his most erratic and unpredictable. But they look good mixed with gowans, where the red and white create a sort of wild meadow effect. Far more calming to the spirit – and I am finally successful with them – is Mecanopsis Grandis, or the Himalayan blue poppy. There is no other blue in the botanical world to compare with the iridescent electric blue of this breath-taking plant. It has taken some years since I put them in as plug plants for flowers to appear, but this year a single plant threw up three tall stalks, which I have guarded like newly drafted exam papers, and all three are now hosting flowers which arrest the eye like no other. There really is nothing like gardening for teaching you patience.
The cotoneasters, even those with small almost invisible flowers are presently alive with bees though the feast lasts, for them, only a couple of weeks (the berries keep the thrushes going in the autumn). The soft fruit bushes too are in full flower giving the bees more in the way of early summer bounty. The thornless bramble is beginning to get out of hand – it spreads underground and is wildly vigorous – but its white strawberry-like flowers held aloft are a joy to behold in early June.
It is not just the bees that are feeding in the garden. We are too. I gave up on growing vegetables years ago: it’s hard work, and the last straw was when A brought home a large bag of shop-bought leeks on the same day I was digging up our home-grown ones. “Why would you do that?” I asked. “They were 30 pence” came the unanswerable reply. However, we do harvest a lot of herbs and leaves, most of which come back year after year. We follow Oberon, who said, “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine: There sleeps Titania sometime of the night.” Woodbine is honeysuckle and eglantine is briar, whose hips make a good tea full of vitamin A. Both grow well here and their tea, like sleep, is nature’s sweet restorer. So too do mints and lemon balms (Melissa officinalis), the latter far less invasive than the former. It makes a subtler tea than mint, which we use in the gin.
The most statuesque herb we have, and the one we use most, is lovage, the leaves of which can be added to soups and stews and sauces to give an earthy taste, rather like cloves but not so anaesthetic. Chop it and sprinkle it over new potatoes, or any pasta dish, as if parsley: this will buck you up like Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo. Rubbing the leaves gives your fingers a clean outdoorsy smell that lingers like an expensive (but manly!) cologne. And just now it is throwing up its flower spikes – umbels of unimpressive dirty white flowers, but the stiff stalks can reach six or even seven feet high, so they have a presence not to be ignored. This is a surprisingly unrecognised, forgotten, herb today. Every kitchen garden should find space for lovage.
And there are a number of (much smaller) weeds that have medicinal uses. The ugly docken, as everyone knows, calms nettle stings. But so too does feverfew, a much prettier little plant with yellow leaves and pincushion white flowers. Taken internally it allegedly helps with asthma, arthritis and skin problems. Some sources even say it helps to overcome infertility (in men) and menstrual problems (in women). Can’t say I’ve tried, but as either a mild laxative or a headache cure I can vouch to its effectiveness. It is not lemon balm, “as soft as air, as gentle”, in the words of Cleopatra as she embraced the asp, so I wouldn’t take feverfew for pleasure, finding the taste rather bitter. Even more bitter to taste is tanacetum (common tansy), a sort of yellow aster which is good for getting rid, they believed in the olden days, of intestinal worms and unwanted pregnancies. Again, haven’t tried, and wouldn’t recommend. Meadowsweet, a hedgerow native, is also used for colds and heartburn, though I’ve never myself ingested it. It’s considered a weed, but its fluffy flowers and pleasing leaves means that I don’t rush to remove it.
Wild rocket appeared in the garden some years ago and has never left, notwithstanding our frequent pickings. The wild sort is more powerfully peppery than the sort you buy in bags from the shops. There are in fact lots of weeds that are edible, chief amongst which is probably our old friend, the nettles. They make a fine soup, though on their own I find the taste too powerful, preferring to use them to add flavour to things like potato soup. I use them more often to make a nitrogen- and iron-rich fertiliser for the soil: stick them in a bucket of water, leave for two to three weeks, and then add a cup of the resulting seriously smelly sludge to the watering can for the pots and baskets. And I always leave some nettles growing, because many butterflies like to use them as nurseries for their caterpillars. A far less welcome weed, pernicious and impossible to get rid of, is ground elder, or bishop weed (regularly voted Britian’s most hated plant). Like racism it spreads hidden but quickly by fast growing roots which, however much you dig them out, will always leave shards to regrow and sprout again. So I took some delight to discover that you can boil it like spinach: even though it is not in fact so tasty it deserves to have the life boiled out of it.
An indoor plant grown to be eaten is that subcontinental favourite, ajmo. It has a pungent taste, rather like caraway, which I am not particularly fond of, though A, with his PIO visa, is. My mother-in-law deep fries the leaves in a tempura batter, or sometimes just ghee, which does not strike me as particularly healthy; but then the old witch deep fries red hot chilli peppers and expects me to gorge on them. But you don’t have to eat ajmo to enjoy it, for it is a decorative houseplant in its own right, being vibrant green with tight leaves, and almost succulent to the touch. It tends to wither as the winter goes by, but it is the easiest plant to propagate by cuttings: remove shoots cleanly from the plant with a sharp knife, and dangle the cuttings in a glass of water placed out of direct sunlight. Within a week or so roots will have developed, and you can plant them on. Keep snipping and rooting the main shoot and you will keep the supply going indefinitely. I always take more cuttings than I need, for they make unusual gifts to be given to western recipients, for whom it is an unfamiliar plant, and unfamiliar taste. Cultivation should be a mix of traditional and new experiences.
Finally, the lawyer gets the better of me, and I feel obliged to add that you ingest any of the culinary plants mentioned above at your own risk: in fact, unless you know what you are doing, best not to.