Get on Down


Down in the Dumps
Next time you are feeling a bit down in the dumps, get down in the mud. Its official, mucking around in the garden beds and borders can alter brain function to keep you feeling happy. It has been known for generations that the great outdoors was a healthy place. In the past, patients in institutions would have farm work, gardening, and recreation outside as a standard part of treatment. Van Gogh produced some stunning outdoor paintings while at Saint-Remy sat on a chair in the garden looking at the scenery.  Now there’s scientific evidence that to back up the theory that microbes in the soil are a natural antidepressant.

The microbes in soil tweak the same neurons that are stimulated by Prozac and other antidepressants.  The soil -Prozac connection surfaced a couple of years ago from Dr. Chris Lowry and his colleagues at the University of Bristol and University College London. They exposed lung cancer patients to a common, inoffensive microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae, found in soil. The patients unexpectedly reported increases in their quality of life, including a brighter mood. The researchers wondered if this effect was caused by stimulation of neurons in the patients' brains that produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical.

The scientists said that one might derive soils benefit directly by rooting around in a vegetable garden, or by eating lettuce or carrots picked from that garden.

Hygiene Hypothesis
The soil-Prozac connection fits with a recent idea in medicine called the "hygiene hypothesis." According to this concept, exposure early in life to the bacteria, fungi, and viruses found in common, everyday soil is necessary to stimulate our immune system. When children are exposed to the stew of microbes in dirt, their immune systems become stronger. The immune system also learns to ignore substances like pollen or the dandruff of pets, which can trigger asthma and allergies.
Researchers have shown, for example, that children who grow up in dirty environments such as farms have a lower incidence of infections, asthma, allergies, and eczema later in life, compared to those raised in urban environments in which parents try to keep them squeaky clean and bombard them with antibacterial sprays and wipes constantly.

Filth Diseases
Dr Larry Dossey wrote recently “For a century and a half we have waged merciless war on filth through public health measures such as public sanitation systems and water purification programs. These developments have been enormously successful. The increase in lifespan in modern societies is due largely to the reduction of death rates from diseases such as typhoid and cholera, which in nineteenth-century were called "filth diseases."

“We have to wonder, however, if we have gone too far in our obsession with hygiene. Throughout our evolutionary history our ancestors lived in intimate contact with dirt, and its influence, we now see, was not all bad. We evolved in the outdoors, and we are beginning to glimpse the price we are paying for shutting ourselves off from nature.”

All we need to do is go for a walk in the woods, grub around in our vegetable garden, or weed our flowerbeds, we get a dose of the good bugs simply by inhaling, so breathe deeply when you garden!

Nature deficiency disorder
Nature deficiency disorder has been proposed as a term for the problems we create when we build a wall between the natural world and ourselves. Dr Dossey is highly susceptible to this malady. “When I spend too much time indoors, I become increasingly moody and morose. There's only one cure: take a hike, go camping, or root around in my veggie garden. These activities are more than a hobby; they have become an essential part of my life and an important element in my personal health plan.”
Antidepressant medication can sometimes be a treatment of choice. It can work wonders, and in some instances can be life-saving. But if your doctor advises you to get dirty in the beds and borders instead of taking a pill to perk up your mood, you know they are on the cutting edge of the healthy gardening revolution, go with it.

Throwing Vegetables


 All mine....

I’ve always thought myself quite generous. I’d give my time doing a bit of voluntary work; I’d look for lost puppies and help the elderly across the road. I’d also do the odd bit of gardening for people, usually voluntarily again, be wary of finding a career you love, you could find yourself working just for the love of it. 

I think my days of generosity are getting very limited in the vegetable patch. Once I would have planted surplus amounts of seed and young plants and then be inundated with such a vast surplus I would be walking up and down the street with my wheelbarrow full of so much produce I would be knocking on doors asking if anyone wanted a bag of courgettes or carrots. If I had any leftover I would throw them at people on the way home in the hope they would take them home and cook them up for their tea. Not anymore.

This year I think I have mastered the art of successive planting and limiting the amount of plants I propagate. I have stopped growing root vegetables altogether, apart from beetroot.  I just eat the young fresh leaves of these plants and don’t bother with anything I can buy in the shops for 50cent a bag like carrots. 

I do have some rogue potato plants but they are popping their heads out of the compost bin so I will leave those for a while to see what happens. Potato sales are down this year by over 8% apparently. The main reason for this is that they need preparing, so it’s not just me that doesn’t like peeling.  It’s rice that is getting more popular, mainly because it’s straight out of the bag and goes well with our liking for curries. The other interesting fact is that the people interviewed in the research say they prefer rice because there is no “waste” They don’t have compost bins then with the looks of it.

Back to my vegetable saga
I have been  in the very lucky position of having ‘just enough’ growing that I don’t feel the need to oil the wheelbarrow and load it up. It’s all quality produce that would cost a lot in the shops too. Every morning I harvest a large bag of salad for the day which consists of 5 types of lettuce, mustard, mange tout, spinach, beet leaves, coriander, spring onions, basil, sugar snap peas and pea tops, nasturtium leaves and any other herbs I see. The result of the ‘pick and come again’ method is miraculous for the garden; nothing is getting out of hand or growing too large. To me one of the beauties of growing your own is that you can eat the smallest, freshest produce and not have to wait until it’s grown as large as the main growers need to do to make money on them.
The broad beans are fantastic and last for ages on the plants so there’s no rush to eat all of them at one time. The runner beans and waxy French beans have just started and are being extremely well behaved too.  I’m not sure if I will ever get a surplus this year. If I do then I might take up freezing the crop or making some sort of chutney. 

I’m afraid this year, giving bags of veggies away is fourth on the list of ‘Things I can do with surplus stock’ I will just about live with the guilt.

Get Rich- Quick!
Here’s my latest ‘Get Rich Quick’ scheme. A Chamomile Lawn Empire. I bought some genuine non flowering plants from a grower earlier in the year and have been patiently taking cuttings to increase my stock ready for selling them on E-Bay.   These Chamomile plants are related to the variety produced In the 1930s by Dorothy Sewart who lived in in Cornwall.   Her garden chamomile spread to form a low growing plant which never flowered. It formed a fragrant, neat, rich green lawn which did not turn brown in dry weather. I have a nice big patch growing and it’s lovely to walk on I must say. I’m not sure if it will catch on or not and I am not sure they will be as successful as the terracotta pots last year. I might end up just giving the plants away which might help to restore my impression of being generous with plants so it won’t all be for nothing.

Check out the stock on EBay... type in 'chamomile lawn'..... 

Hedgerow Medicine


I thought I’d pick some meadowsweet too.

I was having a walk in the park this week with the dogs and a friend when all of a sudden they all ended up in the grass and shrubbery. The dogs were chasing a resident pigeon as usual but my friend was in there for a different reason. She had spotted a clump of Meadowsweet flowers “These make a great tea and has natural aspirin in it” she tells me coming out of the undergrowth.   “You can just dip the flowers into a cup of hot water or make a glycerine mixture from it to take on a teaspoon”.
My friend went on a nature walk with a group of ‘Feed Yourself from the Hedgerow’ people and it looks as though things have stuck.  

Of course the first thing I did when getting home was to boil the kettle and pour it over the flowers. It tasted a bit like it smelled, sweet and sickly, but with a hint of insects. One recommendation if you try this at home is to keep the flowers in the sun for a bit to let the little critters escape before you dip the flowers into the cup. 

My friend went on to tell me a few more fascinating facts about some of our common plants. One of them being St John’s wort, the plant the pharmaceutical companies love.  My friend explains “St John’s wort has become well known as a herb for treating depression and SAD, but it is far more than that. An old antiseptic wound herb and was the main plant of St John, the sun herb of midsummer and a protector against evil and unseen influences. In modern terms, it strengthens the nervous system and the digestion, protects the liver, is antiviral and reduces pain; it is a plant for support through life-cycle changes. It’s no wonder the pharmaceutical companies want to keep it for themselves.

What about leaves? I hear raspberry leaves are good ?  
“Both raspberry and strawberry teas are good”. She continues. “Raspberry leaf tea is well known for strengthening the uterus prior to childbirth, and for relieving painful periods. It is also an effective and soothing remedy for ‘flu and fevers, helping reduce the aches and pains that go with them.
This tea is a good source of calcium and other minerals, making it a health-enhancing alternative to regular tea. Raspberries, especially wild ones, are very high in salvestrols, a class of cancer-fighting chemicals.” 

How about strawberry leaves?
“Strawberry leaf has a mild, fruity flavour and is one of the highest sources of naturally occurring Vitamin C available. As with raspberry leaf it makes a very pleasant spring tonic and is especially beneficial to pregnant and nursing mothers and to young children. It is very soothing to the stomach. Harvest young leaves in good condition, throughout the spring and summer, but particularly during blossoming for the finest flavour. Again, use either fresh or completely dried leaves, as strawberry leaf suffers from the same toxic change as raspberry leaf during the drying process. Its safety as a tea is not in question when the leaf is entirely dry or fresh, but not between the two. Only use about 1 teaspoon of leaf per cup.

Often wild strawberry grow poor soil conditions, such as sunny, dry, gravelly, or sandy slopes, where many other plants would not cope well at all. Try to avoid harvest altogether in these areas, and instead harvest in areas with more abundant growth. Domestic strawberry leaf makes a tea with all of the same properties, though perhaps not as strong. Be sure if harvesting the domestic sort that the patch is free of chemicals.”

Rosebay Willow Herb
One of my favourite summer hedgerow plants is the Rosebay willow herb. I think it stems from my early youth when I used to play on the railway embankments where these plants flourished. They can be invasive but I love the tall slender stems with the reddish pink flowers. Can these be used medicinally I ask?

“This beautiful native plant is stunning enough to be grown in any garden and yet is considered a weed. It has not been used much in medicine in recent years but was a favourite of the American Eclectic physicians in treating diarrhoea and typhoid. Its soothing, astringent and tonic action is wonderful for all sorts of intestinal irritation, and it makes a good mouthwash.”

I might just try that. As a mouthwash, thankfully I don’t think I have typhoid.

The usual disclaimers apply here I must add, these tonics should be taken cautiously at first and medical advice sought before!

So Much To Do.....


Reusing an old bag as a planter

I have so much I want to tell you this week. I wrote a list and by the time I finished the page looked like a cartoon scroll rolling to the ground and bouncing across the room. I’ve never had such a productive week in my long history of gardening. I think it must have been the couple of weeks of dry weather followed by the rainy spell… everything just seemed to wake up, me included. 
Where to Start?
Let me start by talking about nasturtiums. We got a two packet of seeds last year of both the variegated and non-variegated types. There weren’t many of them and like most things that are in short supply, I tended to value them quite highly, I even saved some of the seeds before the mice got them. I needn’t have bothered; the whole garden is full of these bright invasive plants. They are growing in the tunnel, in the vegetable patch, along the path and in most of the pots. I don’t think we have many mice around here. I like them there’s no mistake, but they are being classed very closely as weeds at the moment as they twine themselves around the kale and peas. I do have some very well behaved perennial nasturtiums from Klaus. They are far better behaved and have lovely compact leaves. I might be growing those in favour of the annuals in future. 

The rain also brought on the weeds. Thankfully most of them are annuals and as I am keeping on top of them I can put these into the compost bin. Any long tap rooted perennials or weeds in flower or gone to seed will go straight into a bag to be recycled. It has proved by this year’s infestation of tomatoes that seeds aren’t killed off in the bins as the temperature doesn’t get hot enough. I don’t want to take any chances.

Old Sports Bag Planter
I have quite a few plants struggling in small pots and decided to relocate them into larger containers so their roots can spread. I have put one of the aforementioned perennial nasturtiums into an old vintage fire bucket and a coleus and geranium into an old sports bag. I was going to throw the bag out as the zip doesn’t work, so I am reusing it for at least a year before it gets put into the bin. I need to watch them both though because the fire bucket doesn’t have drainage holes and the bag dries out quickly in the sun, although it’s amazing how much compost fits into it, I shouldn’t have to water it more than a couple of times a week.

I’ve also put the mother in laws tongue outside, it lives quite happily indoors throughout the winter but definitely loves the fresh air and sunshine, and again, I have to watch the watering as there is no drainage.

Ferns seem to be thriving in the humid weather and I have found that they respond well to having their older leaves cut off. This action seems to promote new fresh growth as opposed to spores as well as keeping them from taking over the pathways. 

The fabulous Deutzia X hybrida 'Mont Rose’ shrub benefits by being cut back and that’s what I have done to mine, next year we should see another great show to attract the bees.

Into the vegetable patch
The courgettes have now burst into life after a slow start. I thought we weren’t going to get a crop but the first one was fried up today, delicious it was too. The broad beans are ready to eat as well, in the past I’ve held on until the pods discolour a bit but we’re eating them younger and fresher this year.
It won’t be long before the sugar snap peas are ready; they are similar to mange tout but have more succulent small peas inside and are guaranteed string free. The beans too are stringless varieties and they have now reached the top of the nine foot bamboo poles so I have nipped out the growing tips so they can concentrate on giving us a good harvest.

Successive sowing seems to be working for me this year. Usually it’s just something I read about that other people do, but this year I have been attentive and planted out more spinach, mange tout, peas, basil, coriander and beetroot. 

To finish off this week I will be putting the cacti outside to get some rainwater and as per Klaus’s instructions have held back until the last minute to plant out the purple sprouting broccoli seeds. It was hard; I have been looking at the packet for a long time. Hopefully by doing it this late will ensure that they don’t get eaten or go to seed before the spring.

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