June 2015 - Week 2 in the veg garden

"Elder is the Lady's tree - Burn it not or cursed you'll be"

A few months ago, whilst hedgelaying with a SusCred group, I was told not to burn Elder because 'it is the witches' tree'.  It also has the reputation of being the tree on which Judas Iscariot hanged himself.  Clearly this species carries a powerful and varied public relations message.


Personally I wouldn't go out of my way to burn Elder as it is not a good fuel and I wouldn't want to upset the Lady in any shape or form. However I must admit that until recently I pretty much thought of Elder as a 'weed' species that was readily spread around by birds (and badgers).  That didn't stop me picking a few of the highly scented flowers to make elderflower champagne at this time of year.  You will find many and varied recipes for this on t'internet.  Generally I try to clean the flowers up a bit - remove insects and obvious crud.  Also I use many more flowers than the recipes suggest and steep them for days.  If you do make this yourself then make sure that you use containers that can withstand a lot of pressure - maybe plastic fizzy drink bottles or sparkling wine bottles.  Using normal wine bottles is extremely dangerous and when living in a student house we had some very spectacular explosions that could have caused severe injury.  A 20 litre keg of elderflower champagne goes down well at one of our big summer parties.  You can adjust the alcoholic content by varying the amount of sugar.

A more fashionable use of elderflowers is the cordial.  Cordials are essentially flavoured syrups with sugar acting as a preservative.  Someone recently told me of a travelling family that follows the elderflower harvest through Herefordshire and Worcestershire as the cordial is now being made on a scale that gets it into the supermarkets.  Elderflower is very refreshing and a bottle of cordial is an excellent thing to have in the store cupboard.  I tend to pasteurise my cordials to increase their life.

Some friends also insisted that a cordial of the berries was good for keeping off colds.  I make a version with additional cloves, which I think is a very good winter drink, but blackberries also work well with elderberries.

So I'm now a friend of the elder tree.  I've brought a couple of the dark leaved versions.  They look nice but I'm not sure about how much fruit I'll get.  I'm also going to train my existing, bird-sown, elder bush along a fence line.  I think I'll also try to grow about 5 metres of elder hedge to about 4 or 5 feet high.  I'm hoping to make the new plants from cuttings of the existing one.

Preserving herbs - Greek Oregano

(Origanum vulgare not origanum majorana, which is sweet marjoram)


Greek oregano is one of my favourite herbs and I use it almost every day.  I consider it to be the essential herb for pizzas as it combines very well with tomatoes and onions. If you like to roast mixed vegetables, or maybe just potatoes, in oil then sprinkle with Greek oregano.  I also use it in salad dressings.

Greek oregano is easy to grow from seeds.  It likes a site in full sun, very much like thyme.  In the polytunnel I put it along paths and in corners that are not suitable for other plants.  It is fairly dormant in winter and I try to harvest the spring growth just before it flowers.  You can harvest 2 or 3 times during the summer.   The plant benefits from some trimming otherwise it will become woody.

Most herbs are probably best used fresh and lose some of their qualities when dried.  Parsley is perhaps the best obvious example.  Greek oregano is the opposite as drying produces an extra attractive intensity to its scent and taste.


I've developed some rules of my own for drying herbs.  Firstly, try to pick the herbs clean so that you do not have to wash them.  Don't try to dry them in full sun as they will lose colour.  Ensure that they are well ventilated otherwise they will start to rot.  Be very careful about drying them over heat, otherwise you may cook them.  I've never used a purpose-made dessicator but I have tried using the bottom oven of a Rayburn and this needs great care in order to get the temperature correct.  Nowadays I hang up the oregano in bunches.  Some people put a paper bag around them to keep off the dust.  The herbs hang until the leaves crumble at your touch.  Then I crumble the leaves off the stem and rub through a sieve.  You will be surprised at the reduction in volume from the original bunch but don't worry because you don't need much oregano.  A small jar lasts me most of a year.  This method works for other similar herbs such as sage, although I wouldn't try to sieve sage.

Summer green manure

Any gardener needs some awareness of their soil condition and fertility.  This is particularly true of veg gardeners who actually remove soil nutrients in their harvest of crops.  It is also even more true of organic gardeners who are not going to use easy-fix artificial chemicals to adjust their soil condition.

It has long been know that rotted animal dung adds fertility and structure to soil but there is less awareness that some plants can be grown directly on the land for the same purpose and this is called 'green manure'.


Perhaps the most commonly used green manures are legumes, which include the pea and bean family and clovers and vetches.  The roots of these plants host micro-organisms that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and so increase soil fertility.

There are other reasons to use green manures.  They prevent bare soil from being colonised by weeds or from being compacted by wind and rain.  In the winter they can soak up nutrients that would be leached out by rain.  When the green material is dug over and returned to the soil it improves the soil structure.

Initially I was using a mix of grazing ryegrass and clover as a winter green manure.  This must be dug back into the soil when it starts to grow in Feb/Mar.  If you leave a green manure to get too established it can be difficult to dig back into the land.  One other problem with rye and clover is that I found that the clover is difficult to germinate after mid-September.

I've now started to experiment with summer green manures.  Why not try to cover up all bare soil with trefoils, vetches and clovers?  I have sown clover under raspberries and this is doing well and clover and trefoils under brassicas.  Why waste all that sunshine beating down on bare soil?

Books - John Seymour's 'Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency'


Between the ages of 18 and 25 I went from being an Accounting student to becoming a tree planter who lived in a housing co-op and went on occupations of nuclear power station sites.  John Seymour's book was passed around my circle of friends and I'm sure that it had a great influence amongst the 'green' community at the time.  It was on many green anarcho-hippie bookshelves. This book was published in 1976, before the spread of the ideas of global warming or peak oil and the invention of the word permaculture.  Everything in straight lines - no keyhole garden beds here.  Nevertheless it has generally survived the test of time well, perhaps because its author is so knowledgeable and well respected. Its subject matter goes way beyond gardening and is perhaps spread too thinly but items such as the vision of the one acre homestead remain very powerful.  An absolute classic and a good read.

This week in the garden

Weeding everything - particularly onions, parsnips and soft fruit.  Clearing out winter/spring growth from the polytunnel and establishing tomatoes, squashes, capsicums and beans.  Planting out beans, salads, herbs.  Sowing more beans, salads, herbs.  Harvesting potatoes, broad beans, salads. Potting on kale and broccoli.  Watering.