Planting a herb garden – history, food and wellbeing

Now that there is some warmth in the spring sunshine, I have planted a herb garden.  It’s a very small herb garden – a vintage Belfast sink and a couple of pots – but it’s attractive and will serve my purposes.

The Belfast sink has been empty over the winter – when we moved house last autumn we emptied out the old herbs which were well past their best, ready for fresh ones this season.  It’s lovely to see it fully planted up, beside the back door so that it’s in easy reach of the kitchen, in a corner which is a suntrap.  The challenge is to remember the watering!

Colour photograph of a Belfast sink planted with herbs, and a green watering can.

The choice of herbs for sale was a bit limited so early in the year, but the plants were in very good condition, and there’s room to pop a couple more into the gaps later in the season if I find some.  I chose two purple sages, one oregano, and two thymes (one gold, one silver).  The sages will grow quite tall, so I put them at the back, with the oregano in the middle, and the thymes at the front.  They will spread, and be able to trail over the edge of the sink.  I also bought Moroccan mint, and a medium-sized rosemary – as mint is invasive and would take over the whole sink given half a chance, and as rosemary grows large and is long lived and will soon outgrow the sink, I have put each in a separate pot.  Ideally I’d also have some chives and some tarragon, although I’ve never had much luck with growing the latter, and maybe some flatleaf parsley (which I use where recipes call for coriander, which I don’t like).

Growing herbs has a long and venerable tradition.  Used for thousands of years for culinary, medicinal and ritual purposes, they have been an enduring part of human civilisation and their cultivation is an international phenomenon.  Much of what we know in the West about herbs and their uses was written down by medieval monks who grew herbs in the physic gardens of their abbeys, and a significant proportion of modern medicines have their origins in herbal compounds, so growing them today feels like connecting with the past.

So what of the herbs in my garden?  Let’s look at their history, uses and properties.


Its Latin name, Salvia, comes from salvare, to cure, so its medicinal reputation is long-established.  It has been used to treat sore throats and digestive problems.  Clinical trials in 2011 suggested that sage’s reputation of being helpful in the menopause may have scientific backing, as a trial reported its effectiveness in reducing hot flushes.  Originating in the Mediterranean area, sage is grown around the world, thriving in warm sunny locations – so my suntrap by the back door should suit it well.

Perhaps best known in Britain for its role in sage and onion stuffing, sage is strongly-flavoured and I use it a lot in casseroles, as well as torn up and tossed with buttered pasta.  Being a ‘lady of a certain age’, I also drink it as a tea (although as I’ve only had the plants a few weeks, it’s too early to report an improvement in symptoms!).


Another native of the Mediterranean (this time the Middle East), this is also a sun-lover.  Its antiseptic qualities made it a medieval cure-all, and the first settlers to New England took this herb with them.  I like it with chicken, fish, or pasta, and it is delicate enough not to swamp subtly-flavoured foods.  To me, this is a real sunshine herb – just crushing the leaves and sniffing your fingers will give you a lift.


Prescribed by the 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper as a treatment for whooping cough in children, thyme has long been regarded as having antiseptic properties and being useful in respiratory conditions.  It’s a staple culinary herb (although incredibly fiddly to prepare, as you need to strip the tiny leaves from the woody stems) and gives a fresh, warm flavour which is hard to beat.  Pretty much all ‘mixed herbs’ include dried thyme, but it’s less potent when used fresh and partners well with rosemary, oregano and sage.


The Moroccan mint I’m growing is a kind of spearmint, so it’s warm in flavour rather than cool peppermint.  Its culinary uses are almost endless – salads, mint sauce, cakes, desserts, cold drinks, and mint tea, for example.  Humans have used mint for a long time – it has been found in Egyptian pyramids dating from 1000 BCE, and the Greeks and Romans used it – but curiously it only came into widespread use in Western Europe as late as the 18th century.  Medicinally, it has been used to aid digestion, and specifically to deal with wind, which may be the reason for the popularity of after dinner mints!


“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” said Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Since antiquity rosemary has been believed to help strengthen the memory, and it is still used in Greece in the homes of those preparing for exams.  Another herb which likes hot, dry conditions, rosemary has a pungent, invigorating flavour and aroma – and the white, lilac or blue flowers are adored by bees and other insects.  I have always grown rosemary, and use it generously in cooking.  The traditional partner is, of course, roast lamb, but I use it (either as whole sprigs, removed before serving, or finely chopped) in almost anything that’s going to be cooked for a while – casseroles especially.

Photograph of a chopping board with chopped herbs and a large kitchen knife.

Whilst the whole ‘grow your own’ phenomenon may require more space, time and energy than many of us have available in 21st century Britain, it’s possible to have a herb garden in the smallest of spaces – in a pot or in a window box, or even indoors on a windowsill at a pinch.  And nothing beats the pleasure of cooking with herbs that you have grown and harvested yourself.


Too Much Stuff – a decade of decluttering

I recently read back through all my old blog posts (on this and other blogs) and was rather embarrassed to find a theme, going back almost a decade.  From 2011 I have, at regular intervals, been writing about decluttering.  Not decluttering in the abstract, but my own attempts at achieving a simpler life with less Stuff.

Since then, I have moved house no fewer than five times, and am about to move again.  Each time, I have spent days, weeks, months, sorting through Stuff.  I have benefited my local charity shops to the tune of many hundreds of pounds worth of donations.  I have made a lot of people happy with my cast-offs.  I have spent much more than was necessary on house moves, because of the amount of Stuff which needed to be packed and moved each time.

I have read a lot of blogs and books on decluttering (I even have a friend who is a professional declutterer, and if I’d met her earlier in the process I might well have engaged her services!).  I have internalised Marie Kondo’s principles (I even rolled my socks up for a while).  I have read books on Stuff, agonised about Stuff, packed up boxes of Stuff, and driven countless carloads of Stuff to charity shops and recycling centres.

What have I learned?

I had a shocking amount of Stuff.  No, really, I did.  It’s obscene.  After nearly a decade of active decluttering, I still have a home that is far from sparsely furnished and which contains plenty of books, art, clothes, kitchen and tableware, and sentimental items.  I think I’m just about there, though, finally.  This is probably an acceptable amount of Stuff for a woman of 50 in the UK to own.  I’m just acutely embarrassed about how much Stuff I had.

I am ashamed of how much money I spent on Stuff.  There have been many things I have not done in my adult life because I felt I couldn’t afford it.  But the purchase price of the Stuff I have decluttered would have paid for all of those ambitions, with plenty to spare.  I appear to have chosen Stuff above Life.

I have a powerful emotional attachment to Stuff.  This takes two forms:  firstly, I feel responsible for it – I can’t just dump it, it’s my responsibility to make sure that it is rehomed/recycled/sold on to someone who will use it.  It’s partly an environmental thing, and partly something I haven’t quite got to the bottom of yet, which is around a kind of anthropomorphism of Stuff, whereby each item is something I have called into being and now it’s my duty to do right by it.  Odd, isn’t it?!

Secondly, I have discovered that I feel really uneasy about not having much stuff.  Reading books on minimalism makes me feel acutely uncomfortable.  How can having only a few clothes, and sleeping on a mattress on the floor, be something to aspire to?  It just evokes images of refugees, and living in squats, and I can’t imagine how somewhere so Spartan could ever feel homely.  A lot of thinking, and long conversations with my long-suffering partner (who has never in her life had Too Much Stuff, and is rather bewildered about the concept – why would you want to have more Stuff than you actually need?!) has made me realise that the Stuff is, for me and for many other people, tied up with a lot of complex emotions.

A lot of my Stuff relates to creative projects, which get mixed up with issues around identity.  If I decide to do or make something, I first get “every book ever written on the subject” (I quote my partner!), and every bit of kit/materials/tools I might conceivably need.  When (as is often the case) life moves on and I don’t get round to completing the project (or, all too often, even starting it), the Stuff is a silent reproach.  It’s not just about the wasted money, but it’s about mourning for the project that never happened – and for not being, after all, the kind of person who would have done that project.  If I get rid of my wool and my loom, I am also getting rid of my identity as an aspiring textile artist.  Stuff and identity become intertwined.

The unhappier I am, the more I crave being surrounded by my Stuff.  It needs to be my own stuff – not just clutter, but things that I have chosen to have in my home.  Even if there are far too many of them for the space available.  Somehow, it makes me feel safe.  This has made decluttering even more difficult, as it’s usually initiated by stressful events (moving house) which are precisely when I’m likely to be more emotionally dependent on my ‘shell’ of Stuff.

Whilst the last few years of my life could hardly be described as peaceful, they have nevertheless been years of growing happiness and contentment.  And I have recently discovered that I have reached a tipping point.  The burden of having all this Stuff – paying to have it moved, paying to store it, keeping it clean and in good repair, and generally having it take up brainspace as well as physical space – has finally outweighed the emotional benefit of having my Stuff around me.   I no longer need my ‘shell’.  No, I’m still not going to sleep on a mattress on the floor if I can help it, but I’m finally able to follow William Morris’ dictum: “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

So, where does that leave me now?

We are preparing to move house (again).  This time, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, the only things I’ll be moving are things that are either useful or beautiful (or, in a few cases, family Stuff of which I am currently the custodian).  No “but I might still do that project” Stuff, no “but it might come in useful” Stuff, no “but it took me ages to track that book down ten years ago” Stuff, no “but that was really expensive, I can’t get rid of it” Stuff.  Less Stuff, more space.  Less Stuff, more experiences.  Less Stuff, more life.

Where did the year go?! Sudden Autumn

After a brief Indian Summer, I am suddenly very aware that Autumn is here – the depth of colour in the trees is becoming distracting as I drive along country roads.  It will not be long before I am sweeping fallen leaves out of my newly-constructed pond.  This is, and always has been, by favourite time of year.  Somewhere around early September, usually, I am aware that the year has turned, and that the torpor of summer (even a nasty cold wet one like we’ve had) is about to give way to the excitement of Autumn.  At the other end of the year, the same thing happens in February as it suddenly becomes Spring.  But Spring has lots of fans, and does not need enthusiasts for its beauty and vivaciousness.  Autumn seems to have fewer acolytes, but I am definitely one.

Curiously, I find Autumn invigorating.  Not only is it the new year for academic courses, which have, one way or another, been a major feature of much of my life, but there is a sense of nature getting ready.  The swallows and the martins head off for summer quarters.  There is the prospect of the murmurations of starlings on the Somerset Levels to look forward to.  The boughs are laden with fruit and berries like a giant open-plan larder.  It feels as if they year is gathering in its supplies for the winter to come.

I’ve bought logs for the wood-burning stove.  I joined my neighbours in a collective apple juice pressing day which resulted in unfeasible numbers of bottles of wonderful juice.  I have pureed apples and frozen the results, to liven up porridge on winter mornings.  I have picked raspberries from the garden.

The garden – ah, yes.  The garden was supposed to be like a scene from The Good Life by now, but sadly I got flu in the Spring and lost 6 weeks of gardening time at a crucial time, and then engaged two consecutive gardeners to help me deal with the resulting jungle, only to have them not get back to me for, literally, months.  By high summer it was a seriously daunting project and way beyond me, but fortunately my lovely neighbour put me in touch with the delightful Jan from who has been doing her magic over the past couple of months, and I am now optimistic of being able to get the veg patch up and running for next year.  This garden has all manner of hidden treasures, so the year has not been completely a lost cause as I have had the chance to see what is here already – moving in during Jan/Feb meant I hadn’t a clue what I’d inherited.

One garden success has been the pond – a tiny pre-formed liner, intended as a wildlife pond.  I have to mention in dispatches here the heroic J who dug and installed it for me (with remarkably little bad language) on a muggy summer’s day.  The tiny frog which has already taken up residence in it is very appreciative too!  All manner of other creepy-crawlies have moved in as well, so I shall be interested to see what develops.  I built a bench and got a table for the garden during the summer, so next year I can sit and watch pond life in comfort!  I’ve been consciously planting for wildlife, with lavenders and buddleia, as well as for my own consumption in the herb bed.  I look forward to sharing pics of the first pickings from the vegetable patch next year – I’m looking at growing broad and dwarf beans, chard, salad leaves, garlic, spring onions, possibly some carrots and potatoes, and whatever else takes my fancy when I peruse the seed catalogues.  Meanwhile, in the next few weeks I need to plant up the big pots of tulips for the back doorstep, and alliums and fritillaria in the garden.  I got a bit overexcited about buying bulbs this year…


All change – new year, new home, new start – the opportunities for simplicity

Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed the absence of new posts recently.  This reflects a time of upheaval in my life, both professionally and personally.

The cat and I have found a delightful character cottage in a small town in Somerset, near to the M5 and mainline railway, and at the heart of a thriving community with shops and services.  I wanted to find somewhere that would be a real home (rather than just somewhere to live) as I embark on this new life, so I was delighted to find somewhere which was not a soul-less new-build on an anonymous estate.

The cottage comes with a nearby garden, complete with potting shed, and there are already two big vegetable beds and scope to grow-my-own on a significant scale.  There is a wood-burning stove to supplement the gas central heating.  And a lock-up garage/wood store across the road.  I appear to be all set up for The Good Life…

I moved from a large house, and so I haven’t needed to get much in the way of furniture.  However, living in big houses for the last several years has inevitably resulted in Too Much Stuff, and this has been a wonderful opportunity to galvanise me into action – the biggest decluttering exercise of my life is underway!  Ebay, Gumtree, charity shops and the dump have all been involved in my campaign to reduce my Stuff by at least 30%, and preferably 50%.  Fortunately, the timing coincided with the Christmas and New Year break, which has given me time and space to do at least a couple of hours’ decluttering every day, and make significant inroads into my Stuff.

I have before me, therefore, a challenge and an opportunity.  I may not have actively chosen this whole ‘life begins at 45’ experience, but I am determined to embrace what it offers me, and the first thing it offers is choices.  What do I want in my new home?  How do I want to live my daily life?  I am being offered the chance to live much more simply, which (as readers of this blog will know) is something which has been exercising me for some time.  This is my chance to make a fresh start in the way I live.  I have often said that I aspire to William Morris’ maxim to ‘have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’, and now I have the opportunity to put it into practice.

The white goods do need to be bought new because I really need them to be under warranty.  The other bits and pieces I am consciously buying mostly vintage or second-hand.  I acquired a handsome day-bed on Gumtree, and a leather armchair on eBay.  My bedroom curtains are being re-purposed from a pair of 1950s Welsh wool blankets.  I am now the proud owner of a very beautiful Deco chest of drawers, which I expect will outlive me.  And I am being very disciplined about how much furniture, and how much Stuff, will fit into a small cottage and still allow me enough space and order to actually live in it.  And work in it – the second bedroom (with stunning views!) will be my studio and office.

So – over the next few months, I hope this blog will chronicle my first steps in my new life, and I hope you will accompany me as I make choices, face challenges, and work out how to live simply in my new home.

Blogs and websites on sustainability, mending etc

Recently I met up with a good friend whom I have not seen for a while, and in between exploring the lovely vintage shops in the St Catherine’s area of Frome and enjoying a little something at the Diva café at Black Swan Arts, we were talking about issues like sustainability, mending, visible darning, ethical fashion and various related topics, and she wondered who was blogging about things like that. So, naturally, I asked on Twitter, and a deluge of responses came back to me! So, just in case anyone else is wondering the same as my friend, here are some of the blogs and websites I have come up with.

Based in Bath, Scrapiana offers what she describes as ‘scraps & scribblings on sewing, thrift, upcycling & vintage haberdashery’.  She also has a comprehensive Blogroll with links to lots of relevant websites.

Jen, based in Wiltshire, blogged about her year of making do and mending, rather than buying new.  This brought her quite a bit of publicity!  Her blog now continues to explore sustainability issues.  She also has a helpful Blogroll of links.

Tom, who is originally from the Netherlands, is based in Brighton and is a leading light in the visible mending movement.  He writes and runs workshops on darning (I had no idea there were so many types of darning until I read his website…).  He is also an accomplished and innovative knitter.

Based in London, Jo has an impressive background in historical and theatrical costume.  Her website is the shop window for her alteration/conservation service and commissions, and her workshops.  Lots of titbits about looking after your clothes, mending, alterations etc.

And today, this blog post from Donna Druchunas in Vermont, USA on making things, materialism and the future of the planet.

That little lot will probably keep you going for a while, but meanwhile, if you know of any other good blogs or websites on these themes which you would like to share, please use the comments box to suggest them.

Right now, I am off to do some more knitting on a project which is re-using yarn salvaged from an old jumper – the ultimate in recycling!

Live simply, so that others may simply live

I have been – again – mulling over the whole issue of living simply.  The quotation from Gandhi which is the title of this post is quite a challenge.  I know there are no easy, glib answers, and no doubt many readers of this blog will take issue with my views and those of the blogs I link to.  The catalyst for my current musings was the pointless deaths of hundreds of textile workers at the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, who died, it would seem, as a direct result of our insatiable desire for cheap stuff.  I do wonder whether any of the clothes I have worn over the years which bore the label ‘Made in Bangladesh’ were  made by those workers.

Thanks to a re-tweet by @scrapiana ( I found this blog post from Toft’s Nummulite and it makes for interesting reading.  The links within it are worth following up too – the short film on The Story of Stuff is about a coffee-break long and although it is American, with increased globalisation and related issues, it’s certainly relevant to us in the UK 6 years after the film was originally made.  The graphics are very cool too!

From the point of view of fashion, and the buying choices we in the West might make, there is a link to another blog post, which is one analysis of the criteria for purchasing clothing.  There has been a huge amount written about this in the past few years, but this is quite a good introduction.  I appreciate the acknowledgement that there isn’t one ‘right way’ to prioritise factors when making a purchasing decision – but it is helpful to have an overview of the issues, and the possible unintended consequences of our actions.  My own priorities include other factors – I try to buy  British-made (well-nigh impossible at my price point) to support the local/regional/national economy but also so that I can be sure that the workers who made it had some rights, healthcare, education etc – or at least made on this continent to reduce the distance it’s transported.  I try to buy wool, cotton, linen or (at a pinch) viscose to reduce petrochemical use and allow for composting when eventually at the end of their useful life (I also think wearing natural fibres is healthier).  I try to buy clothes I know I will be able to maintain (no dry clean only) and repair (I am reasonably skillful with a needle).  Badly-made clothes, with skimpy seam allowances and badly-finished stitching, will not last and are not worth the investment of resources in making them, let alone buying them.   I know I need to research more about the impact of dyes and the dyeing process.  I buy a lot of clothes in charity, second-hand and vintage shops (although, being quite tall, and also a larger size than was common before the last couple of decades, means that most older clothing does not fit me) and eBay, and I have more relaxed views about the country of origin of clothes which I am not buying new – after all, they are getting a second use for their sea-miles.  I don’t always succeed in buying the way I would like to, partly because the sourcing of clothing which would meet these and other ethical criteria is enormously time-consuming, and also because I do have limited means (not that buying something expensive necessarily means it has not been made in a sweatshop, but simply because buying a UK made cashmere jumper, say, although it will last for many years if looked after carefully, nevertheless represents an initial outlay not far short of a week’s salary).

The Story of Stuff quotes Victor Lebow’s article for the Spring 1955 issue of The Journal of Retailing, and I find it chilling that the foundations of the consumerist treadmill that has had such a huge impact on the world could have been laid with such calculation:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

What price living simply, so that others may simply live?

Glamping, North Devon style – the Vintage Vardos at Fisherton Farm

It started with a Tweet.  I was in search of a half lamb for the freezer, and knowing what a wonderful lot of smallholders, farmers and other interesting folk follow me on Twitter (@FabrikantArt, by the way), I tweeted asking if anyone reasonably local to West Somerset could help.  I promptly had a response from Gavin Doyle at Fisherton Farm, asking if I’d be prepared to come as far as North Devon.  I checked out his website ( and knew I just had to follow it up.

Gavin and Jemma (also an artist) aren’t just farmers.  Sure, they have a herd of pedigree Simmenthal beef cattle and a flock of Zwartbles sheep (of which more later), but they have also developed the most amazing concept in glamping – glamorous camping, for the uninitiated – in the form of a secluded dell with three vintage vardos, or traditional bow-topped gypsy caravans.

Arriving on a gloriously sunny day in early April, we followed Gavin’s directions and parked at the farm.  We were immediately welcomed by Gavin and Jemma, and before they could even get the kettle on, by the world’s tiniest shepherdess, who insisted that we come and meet the orphan lambs who had been bottle-fed and were now skipping around the barn – a terrific advertisement for the value of farm life for bringing up small children.

Tea drunk and cake eaten, we were taken to meet the cattle – including the very handsome and truly vast bull – who were still indoors as, after this everlasting winter, the grass is still not ready for them.  Simmenthals are beautiful, placid creatures with serious faces and long tan fringes of hair in their ears, and in return for coming to inspect some new humans they were happy for us to admire them, rub their noses and scratch their white, wavy foreheads.

Omorga Veron 1


Then we walked up the lane and into a rural idyll – when visitors arrive to stay in the caravans, they leave their cars at the farmhouse and Jemma walks with them up the lane, while their luggage follows courtesy of Gavin and a vintage red tractor.  Up the lane, with no idea of where we were going – left into the field gate, remembering to close it behind us, down the field, round the end of the fence – and there they are!  Three brightly-painted vintage Gypsy caravans, grouped together at the foot of a sloping meadow, complete with little stove-chimneys and tiny curtained windows.

Fisherton Farm by Andrew Ogilvy Photography

Fisherton Farm by Andrew Ogilvy Photography

Fisherton Farm by Andrew Ogilvy Photography

I think the pictures speak for themselves – the whole concept is utterly charming.  The quiet is profound – the walk from the farm is only a couple of minutes, but you walk into another world.  Just below the caravans, in the bottom of the dell, is a real campsite complete with fire, seating under an awning, camp-cooking facilities (all you need – pans, crockery – is here, in large hampers), even a rope-swing over the brook.  In summer, when the trees are in leaf, the campsite is protected from all but the very worst weather.  Think Famous Five meets the Boden catalogue, with the charm and styling of Pretty Nostalgic Magazine, and you’re getting the idea.

Fisherton Farm by Andrew Ogilvy Photography

Dear reader, I must make a confession.  I hate camping.  I decided at 21 that I was too old for roughing it.  I simply could not see the point of being uncomfortable and away from proper sanitation, when you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself on holiday.  The sheer gorgeousness of  the Vintage Vardos is evidenced by my comment in the car on the way home, that I could actually quite see myself having a wonderful break there.  The vans themselves are a joy – lovingly restored with amazing attention to detail, fabulous colours and textiles, and surprisingly Tardis-like in their spaciousness.  The setting is delightful, peaceful and beautiful, with (should you actually want to drag yourself out of the hammock between the trees and go exploring) swathes of beautiful North Devon and Exmoor just a short drive away.  Even the boring bathroom bits are quirky and effective – a shingled hut at the top of the meadow which boasts two composting toilets (no, don’t groan – these really work and are not smelly, I promise!) complete with library, and a shower (based on a huge vintage 1940s shower pan).  Granted, you probably wouldn’t want to stay here in the middle of winter, but in the summer months I can’t imagine a more romantic, charming and memorable experience.

Fisherton Farm by Andrew Ogilvy Photography

The camp is rented out in its entirety, so it’s just your party there at any one time – the vardos can sleep up to 12 .  See the website for more details.  If you are suffering from holiday ennui, are tired of city life, want to spend good old-fashioned quality time with the children, or want to get away from it all with a group of friends, this might just be the answer!


Oh yes, the sheep.  As if I’d forget!  (Anyone who follows my textile art blog will know that I am, to put it mildly, a bit obsessed with sheep).  The original purpose for going to Fisherton Farm was to pick up half a lamb for the freezer.  The resident sheep at the farm are Zwartbles, a large bitter-chocolate brown breed with white socks and a white blaze down the face (Dutch zwart=black, bles=blaze) which were developed in the Netherlands for both milk and meat.  Being half-Dutch myself, I am especially interested in this breed.  I have worked with Zwartbles fleece and wool, and was keen to try their meat too – it is dark and lean, and apparently even people who aren’t keen on lamb like it!  I have yet to put it to the test (the first installment is defrosting as I write) but I’m looking forward to it very much – and will report in due course!