Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Herbs For Hanging Baskets

Herbs can be grown in hanging baskets to great effect; my fool proof plan for keeping them in tip-top condition begins with a liner, I use coconut fibre liners these days, but you could use hessian sacks, old wooolies, and even empty compost bags they’re usually black on the inside, just make sure the inside faces out and prick a few holes in the plastic for drainage.

Before I add compost, I place a saucer - or in my case a shallow dish - in the base of my basket, a trick my Grandad taught me when I was first learning to garden over 40 years ago, WOW I'm getting old! Hanging baskets are notorious for drying out quickly on hot summer days, so anything you can do to help retain moisture in the basket will help. I also add water retaining crystals, I use a type called Gardman Nutrigel - Water Retaining Crystals & Plant Food, the crystals which hold water are also pre-mixed with plant food that lasts all season which feeds your baskets throughout the growing season.

Next add a good compost suitable for hanging baskets, I’ve had great success with Horizon Organic Peat Free compost in the past but it’s got harder to obtain locally, so I favour using Westland Jack’s Magic All Purpose Compost, it’s enriched with seaweed and is a multi-purpose variety. I’ve seen good results so far and the herbs seem to like it and thrive. For best results pick low growing herbs for your herbal hanging basket, tall growing herbs won’t thrive in a basket.

Plant your herbs up fresh every season, previous seasons plants can be reused, the chives in my basket are from last year’s display, I divided them and replanted in fresh compost. Keep baskets well watered and harvest regularly to keep the herbs producing new leaves and looking their best. If you don’t use slow release plant food, make sure you feed your herbs every 3 weeks or so during the growing season. I purposefully leave gaps and add seeds of herbs such as nasturtiums, basil and alpine strawberries, so new things emerge in the baskets as the season progresses.

You can plant baskets with just one variety - a basket of variegated lemon balm can add a splash of colour to a shady spot - or have themes. The basket I planted up above has a ‘Sunday Roast’ theme, chives, marjoram, oregano, sage and 2 varieties of thyme, are all ready for adding to meat and veg for roasts. You could add garden mint or an excellent flavoured prostrate rosemary like ‘Blue Lagoon’ to the mix if you like, which will hang down the sides of the basket. Different themes you can try include: - Chamomile, chocolate mint and lemon thyme for herb teas, Italian herbs for pizza and pasta, herbs for the BBQ or add calendula, lavender and thyme to an herbal first aid basket.

A few years ago I visited Yorkshire Lavender and came across a cracking idea for herbal hanging baskets using single varieties of butterfly lavenders in baskets to make aromatic balls of colour. Something I’m keen to copy this year for hanging near my new seating area. That idea led me to think about ways to showcase single varieties of herbs and I’ve hit on the idea of tying two baskets together that have been filled with compost, and I've experimenting with lawn chamomile, small leafed basil Piccolino, and tiny leaved and highly aromatic, creeping Corsican Mint to make single herb balls, much better than those artificial ‘herb’ balls that some people seem to be favouring these days, even if you do have to keep watering them!

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Old Apothecary Remedy Measures

I have a collection of 19th and 20th century books on herbs and some from the 18th century, as regular readers to my other Herbal Haven blog will know, and through the wonders of the internet I’ve discovered examples of herb texts and manuscripts that date back to the 10th century and beyond. Sadly many of the recipes and formulas for herbal remedies that they contain, appear to be written in a foreign language that is all Greek to me lol!

For example William Bowker's 19th century "Valuable Herbal Prescriptions" book is filled with drachm and grain weight measurements, along with pints and ounce measurements. Other books like Peter MacEwan’s "Pharmaceutical Formulas: the Chemist and Druggist’s’ Book of Useful Recipes for the Drug Trade" contain the same drachm, grain and ounce measurements, as well as containing plenty of formulas that contain old apothecary measures, as can be seen from the photo below.

What Were Apothecary Weights & Measures?

First we need to define what the old apothecary weights were, but before I can do that, I have to add a caveat, my examples below only apply to the UK. The old herbalists who wrote books in America employed a different set of weights and measures, so it is important that you know from where the person writing the book you’re reading comes from, and also which market the book was intended for.

For example in the UK, 1 Pint in apothecary measurements was equal to 20 imperial fluid ounces of water, or approximately 568.26ml. In the USA a apothecary measurement of a pint was 16 fluid ounces approximately 473.18ml. So if you are reading “Elixirs and Flavoring Extracts” by 20th century American Eclectic Medicine practitioner John Uri Lloyd and a recipe calls for 1 pint, you’d need to work your recipe on 16 fluid ounces (473.18ml).

If the book you're referencing is by 19th century English Medical Botanist George Slack for example, and a formula calls for 1 pint of a liquid such as 'Spirits of Wine' then you'd add 20 fluid ounces (568.26ml). Unless, and this is where it starts to get complicated, the recipe in the English book is citing an American reference, if that is the case make sure you chose 1 measure and add the corresponding measures to your recipe.

For liquid measure, or liquid capacity, the basic unit was the gallon, which was divided into 4 quarts, 8 pints, or 32 gills. In the U.S. a gallon, also known as a wine gallon, is equal to 231 cubic inches (cu in.). A British imperial gallon is measured as the volume of 10lb of pure water measured when it is at the temperature of 62°F and was equal to 277.42 cubic inches (4.55 Litres approx). As you can see British units of liquid capacity were approximately 20% bigger than the same American units. The U.S. fluid ounce being 1/16th of a U.S. pint; the British unit of the same name is 1/20th of an imperial pint.

Apothecary weights were a system of units of mass that were used by apothecaries and druggists throughout the English-speaking world before 15th, and were based on the grain weight a unit of weight equal to 0.065 gram, or 1/7,000 pound avoirdupois. The avoirdupois system abbreviated avdp. is a measurement system of weights which uses pounds and ounces as units, it was first used in the 13th century and was then updated in 1959 and is still in use today in most English speaking countries. Grain weight was one of the earliest units of common measure and also the smallest, it is a uniform unit in the avoirdupois, apothecaries’, and troy systems.and each weight had its own symbol which to the person not schooled in the system can look like hieroglyphs.

One grain = gr.
On Scruple (20 grains) = ℈
One Drachm (60 grains) = Ʒ
One Ounce (437½ grains) = ℥
One Pound (16 ounces) = ℔
One Pint (20 ounces) = O abbreviation for Octarius
One Quart (2 pints) = qu
One Gallon (8 pints) = C abbreviation for Conguis)

16th century apothecary formulas also contained references to Handfuls which were abbreviated to M.j. Half handfuls written as M.β and little handfuls written as P.j. to further complicate matters, a handful measure was literally what you could hold in a cupped palm, you can see the problem with consistency using that unit of measure, due to the varying sizes of hands.

I have to say that despite reading and seeing references to handfuls having been used as a measure of weight in the Apothercary system since the 16th century, it is fairly uncommon and so far I have found no definitive proof of what the exact measure was. I have discovered references to another measurement for dry weight used around the same time called the lock which was used to deter the amount of dry weight goods that a person could grasp in one hand, and further discovered that the Greek word drachmē means “handful.”

Moving to the late 19th century, and the introduction of the 1878 British Weights and Measures act that required apothecaries to use the avoirdupois weight system that had been around since the 13th, instead of apothecaries’ weight, initially to measure goods that they sold, and then subsequently for using to measure medicines as well.

Up until the late 19th century the drachm was known as the dram, when the new system was put in to place the spelling of dram was changed to ‘drachm’ to mark the difference between the avoirdupois ‘dram’ and the apothecary ‘drachm’. In 1971 the use of apothecary weights was formally abolished and chemists and druggists used the metric system to measure out and make up medicines.

Old Formulas also made use of roman numerals for quantities the roman numeral for 1 is i, 2 is ii a ½ was denoted as ss so if a formula called for 3½oz it would be written ℥iiiss, in some formulas, a lower case j is used but it still has a value of 1. Walter Bastedo explained in his 1918 book “Materia Medica: Pharmacology: Therapeutics Prescription Writing for Students and Practitioners”.

Roman numerals of prescriptions small letters are employed as: iv = 4, xlviii = 48. In writing, small letters are used for one (i or j), five (v), and ten (x), and capitals for 50 (L), 100 (C), and 1000 (M); and it is customary to draw a line above all the letters making up the number, the dots of i and j being put above this line. In a number with terminal one, as one, two, three, seven, or eight, the last letter is printed j, or written as i with a stroke projecting below the line, e. g., ij, iij, vij. This is to signify that it is terminal. Errors have been made because of a comma inadvertently added, and even because of some mark, such as a fly-speck, upon the paper. The dot over the terminal one is an additional check; for if all the letters i and j are not dotted, the pharmacist may be in doubt as to the number intended. As v, x, 1 and c are not dotted letters, it is incorrect to place dots over them.

So to translate the formula for Tinctura Aromatica in the above photo: -

Calling for: -

Cassia Ʒx ℈ij
Ginger Ʒiv ℈j
Galangal Root Ʒij. gr. x.
Cloves Ʒij. gr. x.
Cardamom Ʒij. gr. x.
Rectified Spirit and Water of each enough to make Ʒxvj.

You would need the following amounts: -

Cassia 10oz + 2 scruples (0.0914oz (total approx. 286g)
Ginger 4oz + 1 scruple (approx. 114g)
Galangal Root 2oz + 10 grains (approx. 57g)
Cloves 2oz + 10 grains (approx. 57g)
Cardamom 2oz + 10 grains (approx. 57g)
Rectified Spirit and water 16 fluid oz

A further example from Bowker’s book is for a formula for pills to be taken at night time to ease an ulcerated stomach, which called for: -

Solid Extract Cascara - 2 drachms
Capsicum – 1 drachm
Extract of Chamomilla 2 drachms

All to be mixed with gum mucilage and made in to 4 grain pills making them approximately 0.26g each by weight.

Until now I've never got my head around these old weights and measures, until I converted a set of measures of mass and capacity into modern day metric based on a list of old weights, measures and equivalents taken from Harold Wards "Herbal Manual" from 1936, below I’ve given approximate metric equivalents for today which I hope the reader will find of use?

Apothecaries Measures of Mass

1 Grain = 0.0647g
20 Grains = 1 Scruple (1.295g)
3 Scruples = 1 Drachm (3.885g)
8 Drachms = 1 Ounce (31.08g)

Measure of Capacity

1 Minim = 0.059ml
60 Minims = 1 Fluid Drachm (3.6ml)
8 Fluid Drachms = 1 Fluid Ounce (2.84123ml)
20 Fluid Ounces = 1 Pint (0.568 litre)
8 Pints = 1 Gallon (4.5459631 litres)

Equivalents in Domestic Doses

1 Minim = 1 Drop (0.059ml)
1 Drachm = 1 Teaspoonful (3.6ml)
2 Drachms = 1 Dessertspoonful (7.1ml)
4 Drachms (½ Fluid Ounce) = 1 Tablespoonful (14.2ml)
2 Fluid Ounces (5 Tablespoonsful) = 1 Wine (sherry) glassful (71.0ml)
5 Fluid Ounces (8 Tablespoonsful aka a Gil) = 1 Teacupful (142.1ml)

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Growing Mint

Mint can be a rather unruly thug in the garden if it’s left to its own devices, but the human race has had a soft spot for this herb dating back to around 1,000 B.C. The Romans believed the consumption of mint would increase their intelligence; the ancient Egyptians used it as part of their funerary rites, and in medieval times mint was used to cure mouth sores and dog bites. It’s helped to whiten teeth and prevented milk from curdling. The Elizabethans used it as a strewing herb to keep fleas at bay and it’s also been used to help deter ants.

In Greek myth, Minthe aka Menthe and Mentha was the name of a beautiful water nymph pursued by Pluto, the God of the underworld. When his wife Persephone found out about the dalliance she turned Minthe into a plant that would be trodden underfoot. Having been caught in the act, Pluto could do nothing but accept his wife’s vengeance.

The Roman, Pliny the Elder, advised scholars to wear a crown of mint to aid concentration, but he also warned lovers that it was contrary to procreation. The Greeks, however believed the opposite - their soldiers were warned to avoid mint during a war as it was feared that increased love-making would diminish their courage. Mint is said to bring luck and helps to increase your money prospects if a few leaves are rubbed into the purse. Mint has been used to cleanse and protect the home from disease and negativity and is also a traditional folk cure for a headache; the cure was achieved by rubbing a few mint leaves on the forehead.


Mint is an herbaceous perennial with a square stem like other members of the labiate family, and has spikes or whorls of flowers in summer; the flowers come in a variety of shades including white, through to purple with a wide range of pink and bluey lilac shades in between. In height they range from 15-90cm. Most of the plants cultivated today originated in the Mediterranean, but only a handful of varieties can be sown direct from seed e.g. Spearmint, Peppermint and Curly Mint, the rest have to be raised from cuttings. Saving seed from your pineapple mint, won’t give you true to type plant, but will revert to the plant the cultivar was crossed with, so take stem or root cuttings of mints.

Most mints grow year in year out, only needing to be lifted, divided and replanted or given a top dressing of fresh compost, they will grow in almost all soils types and situations, so long as the soil is not too dry or too cold.Mint actually prefers soil which is slightly acidic and will thrive in heavy clay soils also. Mint will grow well in pots so long as you keep it well watered, don't allow it to dry out and re-pot it occasionally! Most mints have aggressive spreading roots and, unless you have the space to let them roam, they need to be restrained by some means such as planting them in containers that are buried in the soil to help contain their roots.

Propagating mint is very, very easy and both are a good way to help rejuvenate your mint plant stocks, both methods are a good way of getting kids involved with gardening as they give quick results. 

Root Cuttings - Mint puts out stems under the ground that sprout roots to anchor the plant, and to help it self propagate. To make fresh plants harvest several 2"-3" pieces of these rootlets and lay them on top of a pot of fresh compost and then cover lightly with compost leave water and leave for a couple of weeks. Pretty soon you will see new plants emerge that can then be used to replace older mint plants, or give them to friends.

Water Cuttings - Another quick and easy way to propagate mint is to take cuttings from the mint plant. You'll need a glass or a glass jar, I use one of our drinking glasses, you'll also need some water, you can use tap water but some areas have chemical nasties added to the water that can interfer with the root growth, you can use clean rain water but I always use bottled spring water when taking my cuttings.

Take a piece of you mint plant which is long enough to fit in your container usual around 6" in length. Ensure you remove the leaves from any part of the stem that will be under water, if you leave them they will rot and you'll get a slimey mess in the water and not healthy young roots.  Trim the stem with a clean knife or scissors just under a leaf node - a leaf node is the area underneath where the leaves grow on the stem (see photo to the right) your rootlets will emerge from the leaf node areas that are under the water in a few days if the weather is warm.

Depending on the conditions your cuttings are taken (sunlight, water type used etc.) you could have a new mint plant(s) to pot on in 1 - 2 weeks. Other herbs can be rooted this way and I'll add information on this very soon, but mint is one of the quickest to root using the water method, making it ideal for children who want to see quick results.

Problems & Pests

Mint can fall prey to pests such as frog hoppers and aphids and some diseases, the main ones are the fungal disease Mint Rust (Puccinia menthae) and a strain of Powdery Mildew (Erysiphe biocellata). Mint rust appears as rusty coloured blotches on the leaves, at the first sign, pick the leaves off the plant and get rid of them, I pinch out the whole stem to be sure. Don’t allow the spores to get into the soil, and don’t put the infected plants in to your compost bins. You can use a fungicide to treat the rust but NEVER on mint plants that you plan on consuming.

Powdery mildew generally appears when the plants are very dry and suffering from water stress, keep the plants well watered and make sure that air freely circulates around them to keep mildew at bay. Should your mint plants become infected, spray with a simple solution of 1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to 1 litre of water.

There are mint varieties which can be resistant to mint rust available if it’s a problem in your garden look for varieties such as Tashkent, Moroccan and Curly Spearmint from the spicata mints and Swiss Ricola and Black Peppermint from the piperitas Mentha's.

The Mint Leaf Beetle (Chrysolina menthastri) can also cause quite a bit of damage to mint plants. Despite the fact that each beetle is no bigger than 5-10cm long, they have a huge appetite for mint foliage. They're most active between May and August, in late Summer if you look closely at the mint you may also spot the larval stage of the mint beetle, a blackish, squidgy-looking grub which also munches its way through the mint leaves. This pest will also chew on other plants in the labiate family such as Lemon Balm, Catnip and Hyssop. The only successful way to eradicate these beetles is to pick them off and 'squish them' or find another way to dispose of them.


Over 30 species belong to the mint-family. The most common types used to breed new varieties are Peppermint (Mentha piperita) with its dark green leaves, reddish stems and lavender flowers, and Spearmint (Mentha spicata) which has lighter green, pointed leaves and pink flowers and is gentler on the stomach for lots of people. Some find peppermint too strong and an irritant, spearmint is milder. There are several hundred varieties of mint worldwide, and more are being added all the time, as well as the two already mentioned, varieties include: Apple, Grapefruit, Lemon, Camphor, Cinnamon, Orange, Bergamot, Corn, Field, Water and Basil.

Herbaholic’s Favourites

My two favourites by far have to be ‘Bowles Mint’ - which was the very first mint I ever came in contact with, even today when I smell it, it takes me back to my childhood and the lamb roasts cooked by my mum on Sunday's, accompanied by fresh mint sauce from the garden. Bowles was the only ‘herb’ my dad grew and for me it’s THE mint to make mint sauce with, I’ve tried others but I always come back to Bowles.

My second favourite mint is ‘Chocolate Peppermint’, which makes what has to be one of my favourite herbal teas, the chocolate flavour seems to intensify when you dry the leaves, it never fails to give me an ‘after eight’ moment, and the taste is refreshingly indulgent, try using it to flavour homemade ice-cream.

I grow a lot of ‘Moroccan Mint’, its lovely as a tea either hot or cold and I chop it and use it sprinkled on cous cous and salads. I have favourite mints that I use for making pamper treats and household items, ‘Eau de Cologne Mint’ is great added to pot pourri to deter flying beasties, it makes a rather nice addition to a foot bath as well. Although I’m becoming fond of ‘Lavender Mint’ for that purpose these days, the scent of lavender is very pronounced, with the mint it’s like having two of my favourite herbs in one. ‘Swiss Ricola Mint’ is a really good mint to use in a facial steam when you have a cold; its minty camphor aroma is great for clearing stuffy sinuses.

There are a few mints I grow mostly for their decorative value, ‘Silver Mint’ is one of them, the leaves are like soft velvet, inviting you to stroke them, they have a soft spearmint aroma and make an excellent pot plant placed near a seated area in a sensory garden. ‘Corsican Mint’ is a semi evergreen, creeping mint with tiny leaves and tiny mauve flowers which prefers a moist and shady spot for optimal performance. I grow it in pots buried in the path, when its stepped on, it releases a pennyroyal like aroma.

‘Ginger Mint’ has variegated leaves that add colourful golden yellow splashes to break up greens, the flavour to me is more lemony than ginger, its one I grow but don’t use in the kitchen. ‘Curly Spearmint’ is a pretty mint, but the flavour just doesn’t really do much for me. Unlike the variegated ‘Pineapple Mint’, which I use it primarily as an ornamental, in tubs amongst summer annuals as a foil for the bright colours, but I do harvest the leaves to add to fruit salads and float in summer drinks, it has a flavour that is more fruity than minty but it’s lovely nonetheless.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Making Your Own Herb Scented Ink

Long before we communicated with each other using electronic mail and texts or interfaced via tablets, laptops and PC’s the written word was the favoured means of communication. Just like now communications and documentation occurred without ink, initially man communicated by painting on walls, he made marks and symbols and these evolved into letter writing.

The Ancient Greeks are believed to have perfected the method of using a writing stylus to make marks on wax tablets that were used to record important events, the Greeks were also the first culture to write messages that resemble the handwritten letters we are familiar with today in around 1,500 B.C.

Wax tablets were left behind in favour of parchment and ink and inks for writing on parchment were perfected by the Chinese, ancient inks were a mix of soot, lamp oil and gelatine derived from animal skin. To these basic ingredients natural dyes from plants, fruits and minerals were used to create many different colours of ink around 1,200 B.C.

Between the 16th and 20th centuries adding fragrance to inks became popular, and inks were scented with oils, resins and fragrant flowers, their perfumes offering a delicate, intangible fragrance to the writers personal letters, those fragrances wafted out to the recipients nose as soon as the envelope was opened and the perfume lingered mysteriously over the pages to be smelt time and time again. Lovers used fragrant inks like lavender and rose and tied their letters in bundles with ribbon.

While most of us no longer write anything but shopping lists or small notes, some people do still use ink to write letters and cards to friends and family. If you’re amongst them then you may like to make your own scented ink? It can be made rather quickly and can be used to add a personal touch to your letters and cards. There is something unique and special about getting a handwritten letter where the scent evokes memories of the person writing it.

Making your own scented ink is easy, there are two basic methods, of the two I prefer the second method. I find that the perfume is a lot stronger using oils than when using a decoction. Use method 1 if you want just a subtle hint of fragrance.

Method 1 - Using Lavender Flowers


15g Dried Lavender Flowers
6 Tbsp. Distilled Water
1 Small Bottle Blue Ink

Method: Using a pestle and mortar lightly crush the lavender flowers to help release the fragrance, but not too much that they become powdery, once crushed put the lavender into a saucepan with the water and bring it to the boil, then let it simmer for about 30 minutes or until you have just 2 tablespoons of liquid left. Allow the scented water to cool and then strain the flowers through muslin or a fine nylon mesh and squeeze well to ensure you get all the liquid out. Stir the lavender decoction in to the ink, bottle the ink, label and use to add a touch of fragrance to your written correspondence.

Method 2 - Using Lavender Essential Oil


50ml of Blue or Lavender Blue Ink
5ml of 95% Denatured Alcohol (If you can’t get that then use vodka at the highest proof you can get)
5ml Lavender Essential Oil [5ml is approximately 100 drops]
2 old teacups or small bowls

Method: Begin by putting your 5ml of alcohol/vodka into one of the old teacups and add your essential oil(s) and mix the alcohol and oils thoroughly. It’s very important to make sure that the oil and alcohol are completely blended together at this stage, because if they don’t become thoroughly blended then the oils won't blend with the ink and they will separate out.

In the second teacup add your coloured ink and then slowly and steadily stir in the perfumed alcohol mixture, I use the bottom of a pencil (flat end not pointed drawing end) to stir the ink/perfume mix as I slowly add the two liquids together.

Pour the perfumed ink into a clean glass bottle or jar and shake it thoroughly, your ink is then ready to use. Note: If you store the ink for any length of time the oils and ink may separate out, simply give the ink bottle a shake before use, with the lid on of course! The above method makes 60ml of scented ink.

Homemade inks can be partnered with a writing pen or quill and some pretty writing paper for giving to people who like to write letters. You can use any oil and corresponding ink colour, orange to make orange scented ink, peppermint in green ink, rose oil in pink ink and patchouli in brown ink. Alternatively make a personal blend adding a little cinnamon to the orange for festive letter and card writing. Ylang-Ylang or Jasmine for romantic letters, in fact any combination you chose. I like using the following combinations: -

Lavender and Chamomile
Rose Geranium and Frankincense
Patchouli, Orange and Cinnamon
Peppermint, Lavender and Rosemary

N.B. It’s worth noting that when you add the alcohol and oil blend or the scented water to the ink it will change the inks colour and make it lighter, you are in effect thinning out the ink. So use dark coloured inks for best effect, light inks may look washed out once the perfume solution is added. Alternatively if it is washed out, add a few drops of a darker coloured ink until you achieve the desired colour.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Herbal First Aid For The Garden

Ladybird = Good Bug

Scale Insect = Bad Bug

The idea of 'Companion Planting' is familiar to most people these days, we know that planting Basil in with our tomatoes can improve their flavour and planting French Marigolds (Tagete patula) will deter whitefly from our toms. Using herbal medicine to treat people and even animals is something that is widely accepted and practised in our historical past and currently, but using plant based medicine to cure plants seems to be something that isn't so well known. My latest Garden News article focuses on using herbs as first aid for the garden and in it I mentioned a few DIY herbal garden remedies you can make for yourself,  so I thought it would be a good idea to add the recipes to my blog for those that want to have a go at making the recipes and trying them out for themselves.

It would be easy once you've spotted something growing or munching on your herbs, to blast it away with the chemical version of a shotgun, but if you intend to eat them, an environmentally friendly approach to pest and disease control is required. Many herbs contain protective chemicals within their roots or foliage which can naturally tackle pests and diseases, for example T. patula mentioned above, exudes a natural chemical thiopene into the ground that kills off any bad soil nematodes in the soil surrounding them. Using the naturally occurring chemicals in many of our herbs aerial parts and roots can help combat a string of common garden pests and diseases. Don't forget to encourage good bugs such as Ladybirds, Lacewings and Hoverflies into the garden by growing nectar rich flowering herbs such as those covered in my herbs for bees article.  I've put together a short video below that shows 12 herbs that can be used as herbal first aid for the garden with small factoids and tips, click on the YouTube video below to view it.

‘Anti-Vampire Garlic Spray’

Garlic contains a good dose of natural sulphur so as well as being a perfect deterrent for controlling mealy bugs, aphids and other little 'vampire' sap sucking insects, it will also act as an antibacterial agent and can help prevent fungal diseases.

100g Garlic, Minced or Finely Chopped
30 ml Liquid Paraffin or Vegetable Oil
1 Tbsp Horticultural Liquid Soap
10 ml Garlic Essential Oil
470 ml Water

Don't worry about peeling the garlic first, use the whole cloves, skin and all! To get the highest yield of natural oil from the cloves, bruise them first, use the flat of a large kitchen knife, put your knife flat on to the garlic clove and hit the knife with your hand, this will make the garlic release more of its natural oils and the sulphurous chemicals we want in our spray. To make up this recipe, soak the minced garlic in the liquid paraffin/vegetable oil for 24 hours at room temperature.

After 24 hours, strain the garlic from the oil and using a spray bottle that holds 1 litre or more, pour the garlic infused oil in to the spray bottle, next add the horticultural soap, you can use washing up liquid if you don't have any, next add your garlic oil and then slowly pour in the water. Put the lid on the bottle and give the spray a vigorous shake to mix the oils and water together. Spray onto plants you wish to protect, never spray in full sun as the plant will scorch. Keep the spray in fridge or a similar cool place to prevent it going off, this spray can last up to 2 months if stored correctly.

Herbal Spray's

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)  - With its built in insecticidal properties yarrow is an excellent herb for turning into a spray to help deter pests such as aphids, it's also  an excellent natural fertiliser and believe it or not compost activator! To make a yarrow spray put 150g fresh chopped Yarrow leaves and flowers into a pan with 500ml water and bring to the boil, once boiled, turn off the heat and leave the yarrow 'tea' for 24 hours, after this time strain and plant material out and add the 'tea' to a spray bottle to which you've put a teaspoon of horticultural soap in to, put the lid on securely and shake the bottle to mix.  Use as a spray to deter aphids and other soft bodied pests as needed.

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) - Chamomile doesn’t just make a relaxing tea; you can use its fungicidal properties as a foliar spray to prevent damping-off disease and planting it in amongst other plants will help to boost their health. To make this spray make up a strong brew of chamomile tea, from fresh chamomile if you can get it, if not dried will do, leave to steep for a few hours (the longer the better), once cold add to a spray bottle and spray at the first signs of damping off disease or other fungal diseases. This spray will keep in the fridge for a few days but is best made up fresh when you need it.

Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) - This is a super spray to help deter asparagus beetles, tomato hornworms and other leaf cutting/chewing pests, that can make a mess of your your roses and other plants. Make up in the same way as the Yarrow spray substituting Marigold leaves and flowers for the Yarrow. Spray at the first sign of attack.

Neem Tree (Azadirachta indica)

Blackfly on Crampbark

Magic Neem Mist

Last weekend I visited a friends garden and she told me all about the new Neem (Azadirachta indica) spray that she'd been making and using on her garden, I was amazed at the results she'd obtained with this, I dubbed it a magical cure all. My friend happily shared the recipe with me and offered the following tips with my readers. "I have found my Neem spray especially good for reducing white fly on Stevia plants in the greenhouse (it does not completely eliminate them - but gets them to tolerable levels) or you can also use a service like the power pest control to eliminate all these bugs and insect from the greenhouse . Also for deterring slugs on dahlias and on hostas. It is also good for reducing blackfly on sweet cicely, ox-eyed daisies and valerian flowerheads. It's prevented the decimation of my Cramp bark shrub with the dreaded Viburnum moth caterpillars at the beginning of the season and also saved the Mullien from Mullein moth caterpillars - this year I've had the most and healthiest looking complete leaves I've ever seen on the Mulleins! Also using the Neem Spray on my roses I've found that they have less black spot fungus."

30 ml Sightly Warmed Neem Oil
1.25 Litres Warm Water
Dash of Washing Up Liquid.

Simply mix all 3 ingredients in a garden spray bottle. Keep the mixture in the airing cupboard in the spraying or some place warm prior to use to avoid the oil solidifying. If allowed to get cold neem oil becomes solid. Shake before spraying. Spray under leaves if at all possible, this will mean that the neem solution will not get washed off in the rain and any pests that hide under the plants leaves will get a nasty taste in their mouths!

Comfrey Liquid Feed

Comfrey makes an excellent albeit stinky liquid feed for the garden , pick a handful of leaves and place them in a container with enough water to cover them. Cover the container and leave to ‘cook’ for 4 weeks in cold weather or 2 weeks in hot weather. Then, holding your nose, strain and squeeze the leaves to extract as much liquid as possible Use as a foliar feed at a rate of 3floz (90ml) Comfrey liquid to one gallon (3.5 litres) of water. Comfrey can be invasive, try growing the Russian Comfrey variety ‘Bocking No. 14’, this variety is one of the least invasive and has a good resistance to rust which can be a problem with Comfrey.

Nettles are very mineral rich with high levels of silica and calcium, a nettle infusion sprayed onto plants will act as a tonic, and help improve their disease resistance. Leave the infusion to ferment like Comfrey liquid and it an be used in the same way as a mineral rich foliar feed. You can do exactly the same thing with Nettle (Urticara dioca), they are very mineral rich with high levels of silica and calcium, a nettle infusion sprayed onto plants will act as a tonic, and help improve their disease resistance. Leave the infusion to ferment like comfrey liquid recipe above and it an be used in the same way as a mineral rich foliar feed.

Gardeners Hand Cream

10g Marshmallow Flowers or Leaves
10g Chamomile Flowers
200ml Mineral Water
10g Beeswax, Grated
10g Shea Butter
50ml Calendula Infused Oil
10 Drops Lavender Essential Oil
5 Drops Tea Tree Essential Oil
5 Drops Orange Essential Oil
5 Drops Benzoin Essential Oil or a Vit E Capsule to act as a preservative.

1) Put the marshmallow and chamomile into a pan with the mineral water, bring to the the boil then leave to simmer for 10 minutes. Take it off the heat and allow it to become lukewarm, then strain the herbs from the liquid, measure 40ml's of the herb infused water and pour it back into the pan.

2) Using a double boiler heat the Calendula oil, Shea butter and Beeswax gently together until melted, once melted, reheat the herbal infusion made in stage 1 until it's almost boiling, and add it to the oil/butter/wax mixture a little at a time whisking it together with a hand-whisk or an electric mix until all the 'water' has been whipped into the oil/butter/wax mixture.

3) Whisk in the essential oils and the contents of the Vit E capsule if using, pour the cream into clean sterilised jars and seal. Use after washing hands or as a barrier cream prior to tackling tough garden jobs.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Dog's Mercury (Mercurialis perennis)

Dog's Mercury is a native of the British Isles and a member of the Spurge family, it's commonly found  in shady woodland areas. The green flowers (see photo below) are tiny and grow along spikes, an interesting thing about this plant is that the male and female flowers grow on separate plants. The dark green leaves are oval and slightly pointed with a rounded 'teeth' edge. Dog's Mercury shouldn't be confused with Annual Mercury (Mercurialis annua) sometimes called Garden Mercury which is an edible pot herb which seems to have been confused with Dog's Mercury by the likes of Gerrard and Parkinson and the herbal archivists of their time.

It's a plant that occurs across Derbyshire, the above photo was taken at Crich Tramway Museum in April 2007. This weekend on a visit to Calke Abbey, I noticed that the Dog's Mercury there was beginning to emerge, which triggered me to post some information on this herb/plant. To date, Crich is the only place I've witnessed just how invasive this plant can be, along with the Ramsons it forms carpets of lush green growth in the spring that seems to smoother out everything else.

According to Maude Grieve, the juice of the whole plant, freshly collected when in flower, mixed with sugar or with vinegar, is recommended for externally treating warts, and for inflammatory and discharging sores, and also, applied as a poultice, to swellings and to cleanse old sores. Although I wouldn't want to apply it to my hands in the event that I may end up putting them in my mouth and end up ill or dead!

Dog's Mercury is cited in some of the old herbals, but it was abandoned as a medicinal remedy as it was found to be lethal for internal use. Culpeper speaks strongly about the poisonous qualities of Dog's Mercury, and adds, with some contempt: ' The common herbals, as Gerarde's and Parkinson's, instead of cautioning their readers against the use of this plant, after some trifling, idle observations upon the qualities of Mercurys in general, dismiss the article without noticing its baneful effects. Other writers, more accurate, have done this; but they have written in Latin, a language not very likely to inform those who stand most in need of this caution.'

Something I did find of interest given my latest herb project to discover native herbs and wild plants to dye with was a snippet in Maud Grieve's "A Modern Herbal" that says when Dog's Mercury is "steeped in water, the leaves and stems of the plant give out a fine blue colour, resembling indigo. This colouring matter is turned red by acids and destroyed by alkalis, but is otherwise permanent, and might prove valuable as a dye, if any means of fixing the colour could be devised. The stems are of a bright metallic blue, like indigo, and those that run into the ground have the most colouring matter."

Something to look into and given the abundance of Dog's Mercury around these parts, I won't be without a plentiful supply to experiment with, all I need to do is donne the marigolds and make sure I don't put my fingers in my mouth when I experiment!

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Pineapple Weed (Matricaria discoidea)

I was just going through some folders of photos and came across some of Pineapple Weed, the image took me back to my childhood in Manchester where this deliciously fragrant herb used to grow abundantly on the waste ground. I recall picking small bunches of it and spending an afternoon squishing the flowers to release the fruity pineapple aroma, still to this day when I come across the plant I can't help but gather a piece to crush and sniff. Its also called Rayless Mayweed and as far as I can tell isn't a native of the UK, despite cropping up everywhere, I haven't been able to find out when it was introduced into this part of the world, so if anybody knows please let me know?

Beyond the scent of this fragrant wild plant I'd not investigated any further, its a useful 'time travel' plant, (wait I can now officially refer to it as a herb whooo hooooo!) time travel in so much that one whiff and I'm a kid again without a care in the world peddling around on my tricycle, but I digress... Out of curiosity just now I decided to look and see what I could discover about any potential uses for this fruity scented darling and was amazed to discover that it's perfectly edible!

You can eat the flower heads either raw or cooked, although what you'd put them in... Mmm wait, I can see them scattered on a chicken and pineapple salad or cooked in a light syrup and used to garnish fresh summer fruit salads, oh boy I can't wait until June when they'll be ready to harvest. Apparently the dried flowers are used to make tea which has a lovely pineapple scent and taste, which could be useful info to know for those people who don't like chamomile tea. They may prefer Pineapple Weed tea as it is sweeter and milder than chamomile. I can't wait to try for myself, and to think all these years I've done nothing but smell it! It can also used as an insect repellent, so would make a great addition to pot pourri and moth bags etc.
The flowering plant is antispasmodic, carminative, galactogogue, sedative, skin and vermifuge. Sadly it is rarely used medicinally these days, but in the past it was used to treat fevers, infected sores and stomach upsets. In some parts of the world it is still used to treat diarrhoea something it has in common with its counterpart Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), it is similar to chamomile in many of its medicinal qualities but much milder. It is also used to help ease flatulence, and is good for colds and menstrual problems. Externally it can be added to creams, salves and decotions used for treating itchy skin and sores.

I was amazed to discover on some of the American herb blogs that people have been experimenting and using pineapple weed for ages, in the UK it isn't one of the plants that spring to mind to harvest from Mother Nature's Larder unlike nettles, wild garlic and jack by the hedge, nor is it one that is focused on, which is bizarre as its so common, maybe its because its name self-brands it as a weed, therefore people avoid it? In the UK we seem to have a severe distrust of wild plants, everything we don't know is poisonous and to be avoided.

Okay there is sage wisdom in avoiding ingesting plants we know nothing about, and I'm always saying "If in doubt, DON'T", but where's the natural curiosity? And why isn't the media here exploring more wild plants, and showing us what we can eat from the wild? Helping people explore free food and seasonal delights beyond the common ones e.g. nettles, dandelions etc? Maybe the public will become more curious as the credit crunch bites deeper and they'll explore more wild plants? We can hope for more educational programmes, maybe even local councils will do more nature forage walks, now that I'd like to see! But since WWII in England we seem to have lost not only the ability to identify the wild free food, but those not in the know seem to scorn upon the collection and use of wild plants, so I won't hold my breath, and anyway if the public don't latch on to the benefits of all this free bounty, it'll mean more for those of us who understand its worth :)

I recall when I was little being told not to eat wild blackberries because they had worms inside, the same Auntie told me not to pick dandelions because they would make me wee the bed and I believed her, you tend to believe what adults tell you when you're 6! I was 15 before I discovered that blackberries and dandelions are not only safe to pick, they can do you more good than harm.

- Both Pineapple Weed and Chamomile are related to Ragweed and can actually cause violent allergic reactions in people who suffer from hay fever.