dividing comfrey

One excellent way to become more self-reliant about improving soil fertility is to grow comfrey. Comfrey is a perennial herb, related to borage, also known as knit-bone or boneset…also known as a terrible weed. Amazing how terrible weeds like dandelion, nettle, comfrey, are actually so terribly good at taking care of our needs. Comfrey’s taproot plumbs the depths of the earth, bringing up more minerals and well-balanced goodness than a hen can poop. Certainly more than chemist could mix.

When I have plenty of comfrey, I shall plant it around my fruit trees to pull up nutrition from deep in the soil; then cut back the leaves from time to time (say, when they’re a couple of feet tall) to mulch the tree. Their broad leaves shade the tree roots, too, thank you.

I’d feed it to my chickens, and the goats too.

I’d make a comfrey tea to feed to other plants, as you would with nettle – simply cover with water, or not, put a lid on it, and allow to decompose til liquid. Then dilute to use. Smelly yet effective.

If anyone in my family shatters a bone again, boneset makes an excellent poultice.

Now, I’d like to have plenty of comfrey plants, but one must tread the line carefully. Common comfrey will self-seed until there’s nothing in your garden but its offspring, and once established, that root is determined to stay. On the other hand, Bocking 14 doesn’t self-seed very well, so it stays put – then if you want more comfrey, there’s nothing to do but dig it up and divide it.

Luckily, that’s easy. Have a look.

dividing-comfrey

To propagate comfrey, dig up a healthy plant over a year old. Pull apart and even cut your root pieces, plant them just below the surface of the soil, and keep them watered. At the lakehouse, some creature regarded this as a root vegetable buffet, so it may be worth laying an old screen on top for a bit if you’ve got voracious squirrels or other root thieves lurking.

Then let everyone thrive on your useful weeds.

artichoke harvest

Growing artichokes is very much like a long friendship of the sort that, once established, requires little and gives a lot.

I longed to grow these gloriously elegant, edible flowers. I did try, in London – not enough sun, too many snails. And in Sussex – another failure, do start the seeds in late January! One must be patient with an artichoke’s youth, though if you really have started early enough to catch some cold weather, you may see flowers that summer. Finally at our lakeside garden, the seedlings sprouted very well, and grew into tender adolescents.

A year later they took off with impressive splendour and soon we harvested the giant buds. To prepare them, we cut the base flat, and stand them in a bit of water, covered, to steam for a very long twenty minutes, during which there is plenty of time to melt butter and squeeze lemon into finger bowls.

When a low leaf pulls softly away, it is time. With our largest mixing bowl ready in the center of the table to catch the great leaf-pile, and tiny bowls of lemon butter at each place, we pluck petal after petal from the outside of the artichoke, dipping, scraping teeth over leaf to graze the softest bit. More patience required, but the sweetest kind. This is most definitely a seductive food. I help the children when they reach the heart, prickly on one side and still protected under tiny leaves on the other. If you pry at a slight angle, with a sharp knife, you can separate the itchy prickles from the artichoke heart without much trouble. Then a buttery, lemony chin is inevitable, as is a bit of rapture.

All this for a bit of water, a haircut in late summer, a mulch before winter. Resilient plant. These artichokes may be our companions for twenty years! What a pleasing thought.

plant labels

We’re sowing seeds to catch the early springtime in a coldframe set upon the sunny deck. I wanted a robust and beautiful method for marking our seedlings as they grow and move out into the garden. We’re trying out a couple of natural materials.

stone-labels

First, bound for planters and pots, smooth stones with a bit of white ink. I’m fond of calligraphy, but simple printing would look lovely as well.

chamomile-label

Some offcuts of cedar are just the thing for marking a veg patch, for they’ll last many years in wet weather and will develop a silvery patina along the way. Nothing toxic near the edibles, I say. Or anywhere else, ideally.

tomato-labels

I like how the shape of this wood lends itself to displaying information. On one plane, ‘tomato’ and the next, ‘jaune flamme’ or ‘indigo rose.’ Latin plant names might be quite lovely too.

labeled-frame

All our little seeds tucked up in bed.

planting blueberries

Luck was on our side when we heard that a blueberry farm in Victoria was changing hands. The new farmers invited local folk to dig up several varieties of mature blueberries and take them home, for just a few dollars each. (Send me a note, Victorians, if you’re reading this in early May, and I can give you their details to get your own. There’s a few left.)

blueberry-farm

Just the sort of day for a blueberry farm adventure. You’ll want to get at least two or three varieties, as they produce more berries when they have friends.

blueberry-dig

You can get away with planting, or transplanting, a blueberry most of the year in this coastal climate. Dig down at least the length of a spade, all the way round, leaving a sizeable root ball.

blueberry-lift

When it has worked loose, get the spade right under and push hard to lift it.

blueberry-carry

We were so sore from carrying a dozen of these beauties, with all their earth. We lined the cars with tarps, but you could bring a large bag to move a plant this size too.

blueberry-farm

Best to bring a picnic on this sort of trip, not unlike blueberry-picking journeys in midsummer.

blueberry-transplants

The little blueberry and strawberry plants I’d put in on a sunny spot welcomed a few more plants. There’s Reka, Bluecrop, Duke and Liberty in this mix. I dug quite deeply and widely, mixed in some rich compost and a bit of homemade bone meal, and mulched with pine needles to give them the acidity they like. The heavy spring rains have kept them well watered in. Fingers crossed for a big crop!

We are delighted to have berries put in at the lake. We may always pick at a local farm for preserving, yet it’s such a basic pleasure to eat fresh fruit from our own garden. Do you have a berry patch?

handbuilt rhubarb forcing pot

Perhaps you’ve heard me talk of the rhubarb pot, that essential of the Victorian kitchen garden, and one of those beautiful objects that functions so simply to extend the growing season. Forcing rhubarb to reach for the light, warming and protecting it to set it growing earlier, and producing a fine, sweet, early fruit – this is the purpose of a rhubarb pot. Looking elegant in a walled garden is a fine off season occupation. When I saw the other potters handbuilding giant pots, I had to try making one myself.

patting

Enormous thing. It will shrink by almost a quarter as it dries, mind. Mine is unconventional not only in being handbuilt, where most rhubarb pots are thrown or cast, but it is also singular in using white clay, where terracotta is traditional. Still, it ought to do the job, or at least be sculptural. Let me show you something of the technique I learned.

press

The trusty press.

pressed

After wedging the clay, and adjusting the height of the press to a good thickness, say, half an inch, the clay is flattened in the press.

compressing

A rib is used to compress the clay on both sides, to smooth and strengthen it.

slip

As with any handbuilt thing, scoring and slipping connects the pieces – wide slabs that we slice and stand up and curve to meet. Any repairs later can use paper slip. Wonderful fortifying stuff, just wet clay with paper soaked til fibrous, not unlike papermaking.

applying

Just a slight overlap is connected. Scored, slipped, pressed, then worked smooth. Applying the next piece to the outside makes the thing wider; to the inside curves it in. Many of the potters built the piece half way up, then flipped the entire thing and worked on it that way – but because a rhubarb pot is entirely open at the base, and only curves in at the top somewhat, I left it.

bat

Knocking the clay into shape is one of those most gratifying tasks. It is amazing how much shaping can be done with a bit of brute strength and courage, as the clay doesn’t simply move but compresses. This bat is wrapped in twine to discourage the clay from sticking to it while it is the consistency of cool butter.

dart

I still needed to remove some clay with darts, work redolent of dressmaking. By this time I was standing on a step stool to reach into the pot, turning it on a lazy susan.

muriel

Isn’t it a wonderful process? I adore the wheel and must be torn from it. Yet somehow this technique felt more compelling than a coil pot, and the proportions are fascinating to me. Consulting with my friend and mentor, Muriel, the potter at Winter Creek. I’m so lucky to study with her. She talked me through the most wonderful bit of throwing, to make a handle for the lid.

You might like to watch a Victorian thumb-sprinkler being thrown, another fascinating bit of historical pottery.