No more lists, I swear – well just one then.

 

I was determined not to compromise what’s supposed to be a relaxing break, so I left binoculars, cameras and books back at the Potwell Inn and came down to Heligan with nothing more than a mobile, a notebook and a pen. When we set out on a walk in the sunshine this morniing I lasted about six paces at proper ‘going for a walk’ speed before I noticed the abundance of rather early wildflowers and that was that. At best I’m an indifferent botanist, and so identifying the most ordinary things takes an age but, on the other hand, I like the ordinary. So there were mouse ear, bluebell, red campion, herb Robert, violet, celandine and wood anemone, all growing within a small area and there were many more, including primroses, marsh marigolds and little spurges. I had to stop. Heligan has a series of different habitats and attractions and today we spent most of our time in the woodlands.

IMG_5212Yesterday I forgot to take the camera and so I couldn’t photograph the navelwort – or pennywort as it’s also known; its Latin name is Umbilicus rupestris, and there were several noteworthy facts we found out.  Firstly I’ve always seen it on walls and never looked for it anywhere else, but here it’s quite common at the bottom of tree trunks.  Secondly its succulent leaves are apparently good to eat and thirdly if you scrape the back of the leaf off it exudes a sap that has healing, coagulant properties and will – if you care to try –  adhere to your skin like a natural elastoplast. Isn’t that fascinating?

IMG_5218Back at the veg garden we made a list of the 23 varieties of potato they’re growing this year.  Yesterday’s tour leader talked a little about these heritage potatoes and said that although they all tasted good, they were tricky to cook correctly and if overcooked they would become waterlogged and collapse. Many of these varieties, regardless of their quality, are not on the EU permitted list and so cannot be sold. We’re growing three of their varieties this year on the allotment, along with two more modern cultivars.  But we really envied the space they have here to experiment. After we’d finished the list we sat enviously in front of their rhubarb patch.  Again, so much space – and yesterday we tasted rhubarb in a way I’ve never even thought of – in a salad. I suspect it was very lightly ‘fridge pickled’ and we both thought it was delicious – time for an experiment in the Potwell Inn kitchen. I think the starting point for us will be a poaching liquid with raspberry vinegar, water and a little salt, brought to the boil and simply poured over the sliced rhubarb. I’ll report back later.

IMG_5222Then we moved on to the apples where we had a good look at the pruning method they’re using here. It looked very like the Modified Lorette ststem that we last saw in the National Trust gardens at Dyrham Park.  It involves cutting back very hard in the winter and then again in the summer.  It’s not a system either of us knows but it looks very productive.  The gardener at Dyrham Park said it was very slow to establish but, on the other hand it seems capable of sustaining excellent crops. So much to learn! So many lists!

 

 

Meet ‘the widowmaker’

IMG_5194If you detect a certain look of distaste on Madame’s face, it’s just what anyone might look like when they’ve just heard something that compels a rearrangement of the neural networks. How many of us go to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in search of Downton Abbey -you know, six residents lovely frocks and fifty servants –  or perhaps in search of a lost time of horticultural innocence. I’m so exercised thinking about the poisons that we’re pouring on to the earth in the 21st century, that it really never occurred to me to enquire too deeply into what they were putting on it in the early 1900’s. So – meet what our guide today claimed was known by the gardeners as “the widowmaker’. It’s an ordinary hand operated spray, through which the gardeners dispensed weedkiller and insecticide. Substances like sea salts, waste manufacturing products, and oils were used as weed killers. In the late 19th century, additional materials such as carbon disulfide, borax, pyridine and other coal-tar derivatives, mercury, strychnine and arsenic trioxide were used, not to mention nicotine of course. So let’s not get too breathlessly sentimental about late 19th and early 20th century horticulture it was as much a product of the industrial revolution as any other aspect of life.

IMG_5192However, a century later – now we can see what havoc industrialised agriculture can wreak on the countryside and its ecology – anything before 1945 is going to look better than what we’ve got now.  Time for a cheerful picture. Here we’re looking at about half of just one of several gardens dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables at Heligan and you can see some rather vast rows of shallots.  This is the bed we photographed in the autumn under four or five inches of seaweed straight off the beach.  We had a conversation with the head gardener and she was very reassuring,  so we mulched our asparagus bed with a car-load of seaweed from North Wales and, just as she said, the seaweed has almost disapeared and we have a very healthy growth of second year asparagus. We’ve taken and eaten just a few spears but the bed will be fed and left alone for the rest of the season, just keeping an eye out for asparagus beetle which decimated our neighbours’ crops last season. Allotmenteers face the same challenges as the old gardeners of Heligan in controlling pests and we’ve turned our backs on synthetic chemicals, but we did have to use natural pyrethrum twice last year, or face the destruction of our plants. It was applied early in the morning when the impact of any drift on passing insects would be minimised, and the asparagus itself was not in flower. We try not to let the perfect drive out the best. Short of a major infestation you can often pick enough beetles off plants to set them back.

It was here too, at Heligan last year, that we first saw a hotbed in action and again we were sufficiently inspired to build a small one ourselves and in spite of a few mistakes on my part (like getting too little straw in the manure) it’s providing us with salad onions, beetroot, radish and lettuce which appear to love their warm environment.

We’re staying on the campsite adjoining the gardens.  I’ve never mentioned the campervan before. We call it “Polly” which, confusingly refers to Alfred Polly the hero of the Potwell Inn. On the right our inflatable kayak that gets us to some epic birdwatching spots on local canals.

Apart from visiting the gardens, as always when we’re in the van I’ve been doing some serious reading. This time it’s been Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding”. It’s a brilliant book that raises all manner of questions and ideas for us. My head is spinning with challenges, not least because instinctively I’m a tidiness freak (only) when it comes to the allotment. I have to remind myself that my idea of rubbish could often be better described as habitat. Once again, I’m trying to bridge the gap between what can be done on many hundreds of acres and our 250 square metres, and I know there is a link, but we just haven’t worked it out yet.  I remember one of those annoying management catchphrases – “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and it’s true.  Reading Tree’s book, I understand perfectly what so many of the objectors were getting so exercised about.  One decription of culture that really impressed its usefulness on me was “the way we do things round here”. Changing the way we do things involves for most of us – especially for me – the sense of overriding long held prejudices and instincts. But ‘bring it on’ I say – for the first time in years I’m beginning to feel optimistic.

A surprise flavour with pesto

IMG_5120This photo is pretty out of date because, in the intervening period since it was taken, the chillies have been removed from the heated propagator and the basil put back in for a bit of a holiday in the sun which resulted in them growing rapidly. There are a number of different varieties of basil and this is the first year we’ve grown anything except the normal “Classico” type we’re used to buying in the shops. Franci seeds have a pretty wide selection for the UK market but I’m sure there are many other suppliers, and this year we added their ‘Basil bolloso napoletano’ to our list. It’s impossible to compare the performance of the two types because we treated them rather differently.  The fact is, any basil seems to love heat and light.

So – confession time! we have experimented with sowing basil in pure composted manure, in peat free Sylva Grow and in a proprietary John Innes. This weekend we’ll be trying a 50/50 mix of composted manure and vermiculite. So far at least, the best performer for seed sowing has been theJohnInnes.  We spray it weekly with fairly dilute seaweed fertilizer, and it’s obvious that the most vigorous growth comes in the heated propagator set at 20C with 12 hours of overhead artificial daylight. Now I’d add that I’m no expert in this and I’d hate to lead anyone down the wrong road but it seems to work for us.

Anyway, yesterday we took our first big harvest of basil and in order to get the required weight for a batch of pesto we mixed the two types together.  It was quite the nicest pesto we’d ever tasted.  The Neopolitan variety added a subtle fennel flavour and it was so nice I’d never want to go back to the pure Classico. In fact we resolved on the spot to sow some more varieties to see what other delights could be there.  I’ll never tire of the simplest of pasta sauces, and pesto is so adaptable.

And today we drove down to Cornwall to one of our favourite places – the Lost Gardens of Heligan.  More photos tomorrow.

 

Lost Gardens of Heligan III: Celebration

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I’ve written quite a bit already about the ethos of Heligan, but there’s something else I want to explore, and that’s the need for proper celebration in our lives. Now I know that “proper” is a weasel word that usually means ‘the way I think it ought to be done’, but there’s more to it than trying to force my own sense of ‘the way things should be’ on to everyone else. Many years ago we had one of those extraordinary autumn seasons when the blackberries were so prolific that we picked forty pounds, which we took back to my parents house without having any idea what to do with them. What I remember most clearly from the occasion was the overwhelming urge to give thanks for the generosity of the uncultivated hedges.   Continue reading “Lost Gardens of Heligan III: Celebration”

Lost Garden(ers) of Heligan

_1080653There’s a reason for changing the usual name of these gardens.  We’ve just got back from 5 days in Cornwall which we spent entirely in exploring the gardens – they’re that good. We first visited in the summer with some of our family including the three grandchildren.  They raced around having fun and doing what happy children do and we would not begrudge them a single moment of that mad ecstatic reception of a new place -in truth I wish we could all recover it for ourselves. But there was much more than novelty and ‘visitor experience’ going on there, and that was what we spent last week exploring. So this posting may well turn into several as I turn the days over in my mind. Continue reading “Lost Garden(ers) of Heligan”