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.

Sage

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!).

Oregano/marjoram

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.

Thyme

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.

Mint

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!

Rosemary

“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.

 

Today is not World Book Day

Yesterday was World Book Day.  For various reasons which I won’t bore you with, I managed not to realise this until the evening, by which time it was a bit late to blog about it/post #shelfie pictures on Twitter along with the rest of the reading and writing community.

But it set me thinking.  One of the commissioning editors for whom I write a lot often commissions articles about World/International Days, and the range of topics I’ve researched and written about over the past few years is amazing.  I thought I would share a few of them with you.

International Women’s Day (Sun 8 March 2020)

This day has been around for a long while – it was first marked in 1911, and initially focussed on women’s right to work without discrimination.  Inevitably, it soon also started to campaign for women’s right to vote.  Following the day’s adoption by the feminist movement in the 1960s, the United Nations declared it an International Day in the 1970s.  It continues to raise awareness of issues affecting women around the world, which we might have hoped would have been addressed by now: inequality and discrimination, the impact of war and displacement, sexual violence, and the lack of access to education.

World Day Against Child Labour (Fri 12 June 2020)

A more recent development is World Day Against Child Labour, which started in 2002.  Its focus is the global extent of child labour, and the campaign to eliminate it.  The 2015 Sustainable Development Goals include a global commitment to end “child labour in all its forms” by 2025, but currently over 200 million children around the world work, many full-time.  This matters, not only because it deprives them of the chance to be children and to play, but because it means that they are denied the opportunity to go to school, and traps them in a cycle of poverty.  In the West we probably think of child labour in terms of having a paper round, or being a child actor, with legal protections in place.  Worldwide, however, 70% or working children work in agriculture, often hard and dangerous work.

World Bee Day (Wed 20 May 2020)

With so much publicity for the pollinator crisis over the past few years, we can’t fail to be aware that there’s so much more to bees than honey.  Until I began researching for this article, though, I hadn’t appreciated that as much as a third of world food production depends on bees for pollination.  This makes it very worrying that 10% of bee species worldwide are facing extinction.  Although there is dispute about what is causing the decline in bees, with possible culprits being the varroa mite, other viruses, diseases and pests, climate change, and neonicotinoid pesticides, the statistics suggest that bee numbers are down by a third in the USA, with significant losses being reported elsewhere including Europe.

It’s not all doom and gloom though – this is one area of environmental crisis where ordinary people like you and I can make a difference.  Bee-friendly gardening, providing bees with flowers which yield plentiful and easily-accessed nectar, can help to boost the health and numbers of these essential creatures, whose future survival is so closely entwined with our own.

World Braille Day (Mon 4 January 2021)

On this day in 1809, Louis Braille was born in France.  He was blinded by a childhood accident, but applied his intellect to the problems he faced, and by the age of 15 had created a system for reading and writing.  A system of military night-writing had been developed by Charles Barbier, at Napoleon’s request, to provide a tactile way for soldiers to communicate silently and without a light source.  It consisted of sets of dots which encoded sound.  Louis adapted this into a matrix of ‘cells’ of raised dots, 3 high by 2 wide, which can be used to read (and, with the right equipment, to write) in any language.

World Braille Day was declared by the United Nations to celebrate the system’s role in giving independence to people who are blind and visually impaired, and to encourage its use.  Sadly, there is a world shortage of trained Braille teachers, and Braille writing equipment is expensive.  Some years ago I was able to get funding to produce a Braille version of an adult education programme I had developed, but was saddened that so many users said this was the first time they had been able to take part in learning on an equal basis with their sighted colleagues.  I found that public bodies and businesses rarely use Braille to make their premises and services independently accessible to blind and partially sighted users – often the only place you will encounter Braille is on the buttons in the lift.

World Toilet Day (Tues 19 November 2020)

This day is particularly dear to my heart – having had IBS for 30 years, I have a personal interest in the provision of toilet facilities, and am the proud owner of a RADAR key which has come to my rescue many times.  I know how lucky I am to live in a country where flush toilets are the norm, widely available, and safe.

However, despite the United Nations declaring in 2010 that access to sanitation and water is a human right, over a third of the world’s population still doesn’t have access to a safe toilet.  Over a billion have no toilet at all.  Amazingly, more people own a mobile phone than have access to a toilet.

This lack of safe toilets has enormous implications worldwide.  Firstly, there are the health implications, with diseases such a cholera and dysentery being spread because of inadequate sanitation, and untreated sewage contaminating the environment and the food chain.  Secondly, one fifth of schools have no toilet facilities, effectively preventing girls from attending once they start menstruating.  And thirdly, women who have no alternative but to engage in ‘open defecation’, especially after dark, are vulnerable to attack and rape.  World Toilet Day seeks to address a subject which can be taboo or socially unacceptable, but which is really about basic human rights.

A number of organisations are involved in providing toilets where they are most needed.  One which I have supported is WaterAid – see https://www.wateraid.org/uk/the-crisis/toilets for more details.

 

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.

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.

http://scrapiana.com/

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.

http://mymakedoandmendyear.wordpress.com/

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.

http://tomofholland.com/

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.

http://thedressdoctor.co.uk/

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 http://sheeptoshawl.com/buried-alive-in-stuff/ 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!

The online vintage community

A friend of mine has recently opened a shop in Wellington, Somerset (3 Mantle Street TA21 8AR), selling painted furniture, Autentico chalk paints, and offering workshops in paint techniques.  I must admit to a little ambivalence about painted furniture (I’ve seen it done badly too often, in my view wrecking otherwise perfectly nice pieces of furniture) but when it is done well, and on appropriate furniture, it can be delightful.  I am very impressed with Cato Cooper’s paint technique, and also with the paint she sells and uses (personally I prefer the finish to Annie Sloan), and she doesn’t distress everything to within an inch of its life!

But talking to Cato, and encouraging her to use Facebook and especially Twitter to promote her business, has made me take stock of how I use social media and how it has benefited me.  I must admit to not being a fan of Facebook.  I use it (as an individual, not for my business) to keep in touch with a few friends, but keep it fairly compartmentalised.  My Twitter account, however, is indicative of my passions – art, heritage crafts, vintage, rural.  Through Twitter, for example, I have sourced rare breed fleeces for felting and spinning, I have found out about a living willow course (and enthused about it afterwards), booked myself onto a print-making course, found stockists, and I have come into contact with a huge, overlapping community of like-minded people with shared interests.

I have particularly enjoyed discovering the thriving online community of vintage enthusiasts out there.  March will be the first anniversary of #vintagefindhour, which has expanded to an hour and half because it has been so successful!  It takes place 8.00-9.30pm on Wednesdays, and is the brainchild of Sarah-Jane at www.vintagehomeshop.co.uk (see my earlier blogpost about meeting her).  Using the hashtag #vintagefindhour, Tweeters from all over the country (and beyond) share their vintage finds and treasures, things they have just bought/found/inherited/restored, and show things they have for sale.  The feedback is prompt and enthusiastic, and all manner of conversations and connections are started.

It is especially nice when people who have got to ‘know’ each other on Twitter actually get to meet up in real life! My first ‘TweetUp’ was last summer at the Giant Flea Market at the Bath & West showground, where vintage Tweeps from Somerset, Bristol and France got together – some stall-holders, some just visiting.  The next #vintagefindhour TweetUp is planned for Easter Saturday, when many of us will be converging on the Vintage Bazaar to be held at the Cheese and Grain in Frome, Somerset.  Plans are already being made for buying and selling (saves on postage!) and putting faces to Twitternames.

Meanwhile, I have encouraged @CatoCooper to engage with Twitter to raise her profile in the online vintage community, and have been re-tweeting pictures of her shop and furniture.  Already, because of Twitter, she is selling handmade bears produced by another vintage Tweeter in Devon!  I had been concerned, when we moved to Somerset 16 months ago, that it would take a long time to find people who shared my interests, and that I would be quite isolated for a while – not a bit of it! A few minutes a day on Twitter give me access to scores of interesting, funny, clever and inspiring people who are ‘into’ to same kinds of things that I am.