Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Haste to the Festival 8-10th September

All our energies are currently focused on the eighth Celebrating Herbs Festival to be held at Wynyards Farm, GL54 2JR from Friday 8th to Sunday 10th September. 

Following their recent exposure on BBC's Countryfile Summer Diaries on Wednesday 30 August, Bourton on the Water Men in Sheds will be joining the festival on Friday morning to help with any last minute preparations before we kick off with the Intensive, "Forgotten Herbs" with medical herbalist, Ali English from Lincolnshire at 2pm.

Members of Sky Symphony Kite Display Team will be on hand throughout the festival to help children create their own kites and display their amazing talents in the Cotswold skies. 

The festival will comprise a variety of talks, workshops and herb walks. Internationally aclaimed herbalist, Anne McIntyre, will be joining us on Saturday afternoon to discover the herbs of the Sanctuary.

Saturday evening will be a lively occasion with an hour of Open Mic followed by the West Midlands band, Goodall.

This year we are introducing a new children's programme and we're delighted Bruce Lowe can join us for two drum workshops at 12.30pm each day.

Sunday's events will highlight more of our forgotten herbs and a history of magical herbs from the Greeks until present day with David Sutch. 

To see the full programme go to

During the festival I shall also be signing copies of my new herb book, Playing with Herbs . This is a culmination of the last fifteen years working with others who want to learn more about our wonderful plant allies.

More details about Playing with Herbs can be found here

Monday, 8 May 2017

What are you harvesting now?

Once again, a year is racing by and the fifth month already begun. If we turn away and blink, another plant has bloomed and disappeared while others stay with us for a longer duration.

I always think of May as the green month as there are so many different tones of a single colour. Each tree has its own particular shade building up a living palette amongst the landscape. In hedgerows, crabapple has thrown a white garment over her branches and the hawthorn blossom is glistening brightly against the vibrant leaves. We’re still waiting for elder and crampbark flowers but they will soon be here along with the blushing pink of dog rose.
For me, May heralds the urge to harvest. Plantain, cowslip and ground ivy from the fields, hawthorn blossom and leaf from the hedges, daisies from the garden lawn, fresh marjoram, lovage and mint for my cooking and ground ivy to dry for green powder. Errant nettles have been thrown on the compost to add nitrogen to next year’s soil but there may still be time for another harvest from the Sanctuary’s strongest gift.

Before I gather, it is always a good idea to review my larder and decide what I actually need rather than succumbing to the overall urge to forage. I know plantain will be in my future but I’ve also made use of elder leaves from Sanctuary prunings. A tree had grown over the path, making it impossible for my father to pass safely on his mower, so we cut back branches and I have made two batches of infused oils. These could either be used in a general bruise salve but I saw a recipe recently for an insect repellent so there is an opportunity to try making something new.

Broad-leaf thyme has begun to flower and the purple sage is finally looking alive, so I shall be gathering both for a new elixir to replace the amount we’ve used recently whilst suffering from a nasty cold and cough. I am so grateful for my store of elderberry elixir, fire cider vinegar and various cough syrups. When you’re feeling ill, you need the remedy immediately rather than making fresh and having to wait for several weeks.

I am waiting for my St George’s mushroom tincture to finish the six-week alcohol extraction phase. This is the first year I have gathered this variety of mushroom which grows all over my five-acre meadow. One of my apprentices picked the first basket after April’s workshop and I gathered the second for drying just over a week ago. These will be added at the decoction stage so the water and alcohol can be combined for a full-spectrum extraction. St George’s mushrooms can be used against thrush, so I’m looking forward to adding this medicine to my anti-fungal collection.

Another remedy which is about to be made is a chamomile vinegar. This helps to guard against fungal infections in difficult to reach body crevices. The plants emerged as tiny, self-sown seedlings which I transplanted into a single large pot. Now they resemble a green triffid swaying in the breeze already over a foot high. I’m waiting for them to flower in the next week or so before I gather most of the aerial parts to infuse in cider vinegar.

Although most herbalists talk about using chamomile flowers, I have always used the entire aerial parts to good effect. Last year, I experimented in collecting only the flowers and whilst they are lovely in tea, I feel the rest of the plant is just as efficacious and shouldn’t be wasted.

May is also the last month for sowing this year’s herb seeds. A second batch of ashwagandha have been scattered from a single cherry in case the germination of those planted at the beginning of April is not sufficient. It took me a while to find where I’d hidden the holy basil seeds, still on their dry stalks but hopefully they will be showing themselves in a couple of weeks.

With the very cold weather, germination this year has been horrendous. Only two of my motherwort seeds grew and none of the pleurisy root. Someone in Manchester offered to share her woad seeds and those are now good sized seedlings which will be planted out at the Sanctuary in a few days, along with Californian poppy and self-sown chamomile. I have still to decide what to do with milk thistle and the plague of borage seedlings. Both are too large to remain in the vegetable beds for much longer.

As each year progresses, time available to describe what is happening diminishes as necessary practical tasks increase. Even though we may not be able to capture each action in words, memories continue to store treasures against more difficult times.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Looking after the Sanctuary

Having land brings its own responsibilities. It is not just about digging, planting, weeding and harvesting. Every season of the year brings new tasks. Winter’s end is the time to clear away dead growth from the previous year and make any repairs which are needed.

A decade ago we planted thirty-five new trees; red and green alder, wild cherry, silver birch, rowan, cherry plum and eating apple. Very few of them survived, succumbing to rabbits, deer and being choked by brambles and nettles. The wild cherry is doing well, producing its first blossom in the spring of 2016 and we have had two apple harvests.

In 2012, we noticed how dark the pond was, surrounding trees were shading everything. They needed to be cut back. Other saplings had planted themselves next to larger trees and needed to be removed. We held a “Tree Working Day” in the February when most of the unwanted field maple and three self-seeded ash trees were cleared and cut up with the help of apprentices, friends and family.

The tree removal went very well, making the areas around the pool much lighter. We were able to build a designated firepit which has hosted various workshops and other events. The seats are part of the ash trunks.

In the intervening time, the rate of new growth from the trees which were supposedly removed has been educational. The trunk stubs are now producing straight young poles which will be useful in the next few years for fencing or other purposes.

Many of the trees in the Sanctuary and around the spring field are pollards. Their ages range from two to four hundred years old. Even though their trunks may be hollow, the tops still grow new branches.

Pollarding is an ancient practice of woodland management. In woods, trees would be maintained according to their finished height. Oak, Elm and Ash were the three trees commonly found amongst woodland upper storey. They would be allowed to grow to an acceptable height and then any branch which grew above that would be harvested every ten years.

Hazel, short leafed lime and holly were the most commonly coppiced trees in the under storey; hazel being particularly favoured as a multi-purpose wood. The central trunk is cut down to encourage the tree to send out straight branches from the bottom of the trunk. These are harvested every decade and can be used for a variety of purposes such as hurdle making or charcoal.

In 2007 we planted two short-leaf lime and two spindle trees in the area across the stream where elder, walnut and willow also grow. The lime won’t be coppiced or pollarded as we hope, one day, there will be lime flowers to harvest.

If you want to harvest wood but still use the majority of your land for pasture or growing crops, the easiest method was to grow trees around the edges of fields and pollard them by cutting off the branches just above the height where cattle, horses or deer could browse new growth.
Pollarded trees need to be harvested every ten years, otherwise the poles grow too large and their weight can bring an ancient tree crashing down during a storm. We lost one of our ancient willows this way in 2016 even though it had been pollarded regularly.

If you look at the ash and willow trees around the Sanctuary, all the willows are pollarded. The corner ash trees, which delineate field boundaries, have been left to grow normally, while the ones along the fence line have all been pollarded. The ash tree growing by the spring head was self-sown in the last hundred years when the farm was being rented and pollarding was not considered.

The ash trees were last pollarded in 2012. That year’s group of apprentices included someone with woodlands management skills and he, very kindly, agreed to take on the task of pollarding the ash trees during March before the sap rose.

The amount of wood removed was more than we anticipated, requiring our 1950s Fordson tractor to be started up for the first time in a decade to clear up all the small branches into a huge pile of brash to be burned at a later date. The ash poles were stored in the cattle shelter at the top of the field and the withy poles split to make rails for a new fence around the top of the pond.

The ash harvest is now almost gone, providing fire wood for festivals and wood burning stoves and we have new ideas for the iron shed, which started life as a munitions shelter during the second world war.

This year our main concern has been the removal of dead trees, a medlar planted in 2006 and a hawthorn which was part of the original rectangle of hedges planted around the two oak trees centuries ago. (Why this area was enclosed will probably never be known.)

The other constant management issue is brambles. Last year we removed the briar patch growing over the wire fence into the field. It had encroached nearly ten feet into the field and although it provided shelter against prevailing westerly winds, it needed to come out. We have lots of other brambles to harvest for root vinegar, flower essence and blackberries.

This year it was the brambles growing around the sides of the ponds. They had completely encased the two springs outlets with their moss-covered lime towers and needed to be tamed.

The Sanctuary has three main springs running through it. The first provides water for the farm, flowing away down a small stream which eventually joins the River Dikkler in the valley. The other two are fed into the pond via two pipes. There is also a pipe from the stream which can bring water into the pond when it is being filled up. This pipe has been blocked for several years and water has leaked into the soil causing the ground around the wash house and one of the oak trees to become very muddy.

We’ve been trying to find the source of the leak for a couple of years to no avail. This workday, Chris, with the help of one of my apprentices’ husband, Graham, managed to rod through the pipe with various tools (eventually resorting to a plastic hosepipe!) until water began to flow again. We hope this will help to dry up the mud. If not, there may be a new spring to discover and reroute before the oak tree is permanently disabled.

We are always grateful for the help provided by apprentices, family members and friends which enable us to keep the Sanctuary a safe and vibrant place for everyone to enjoy.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Preparing for winter SADness

People of all ages find the transition into winter and the months until spring arrives difficult. The urge to hibernate is strong but in busy, modern society it becomes more and more difficult to achieve.

There are several simple and practical strategies which can be put into place to help allay the different forms of darkness. Much of these are around behavior, which many people find challenging. If you rant and wail against doing something different or changing your comfortable habits think about this: If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.

If there are issues which you find unhelpful in your life, then this time of approaching and preparing for winter can be your opportunity to ask yourself, “Is what I am doing helpful or might there be a different way of achieving what I want that I could explore?” Changes don’t have to be major, small steps can lead to amazing outcomes.

If you know you suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), consider investing in a SAD lamp or SAD bulbs which can be fixed into ordinary lamps. Those who have them say they make the world a brighter place in the winter.

Make sure you go outside every day, preferably between 12pm and 1pm, to expose yourself to the maximum light possible during winter months. Children and adults benefit from outdoor exercise so they are physically tired when bedtime approaches. Even if you work in the centre of a city, try to discover your local parks or canals which can be reached during a lunch break.

At weekends, go for a walk which includes lots of trees. There is something very comforting about woodland which will hopefully have a positive effect on your mental health. Notice the colours of leaves, barks and buds. There can be an amazing variety, even in the depths of winter.

Think about what you are eating. It is tempting to increase your intake of calories in the form of warm, comfort food with lots of carbohydrates. We may have needed to increase our bulk to see us through the lean days of early spring a hundred years ago, but it really isn’t necessary now.

Instead, increase your protein intake. Make lots of nourishing soups and stews. They may take time but if you invest in a slow cooker, they can be prepared the night before or in the morning and then enjoyed later. If you have a freezer, always make double or triple quantities so you can freeze the excess and have something to eat when you don’t feel like cooking.

Homemade broth produced either from bones or vegetables can help keep your immune system buoyant.

Bone Broth
Chicken carcass or large beef/lamb or pork bones
2 tblsps cider vinegar
3 bay leaves
Bouquet garni of anti-viral herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage)
10 peppercorns
3 or more cloves of garlic crushed
1 onion peeled and sliced and or leeks
3 celery sticks
Cover the bones in a large saucepan with water. Add 1-2 tablespoons of cider vinegar to help release the minerals from the bones. Add anti-viral herbs e.g. rosemary, thyme, sage, bay. (1 pinch of each herb plus 1 or 2 bay leaves) peppercorns for flavour, onions and leeks for pro-biotic stimulation of good gut bacteria, celery sticks (at least 3) for prevention of gout and help with arthritic or inflammatory conditions. DON'T ADD SALT.
Bring to the boil and simmer for at least one hour. If you are using large mutton or beef bones put aside 3-4 or more hours making sure the liquid level doesn't drop too much. If making stock in a cookpot/slow cooker, simmer all day on low. Strain the stock and use to add a mixture of vegetables or vegetables and meat. If the bones have meat left on them, use it in the soup. Alternatively the stock can be frozen in small quantities and used as a nourishing drink or sauce base later.

Nourishing Vegetable Stock
If you are vegetarian or vegan, you can still make a nourishing stock by cooking vegetables, herbs, roots and mushrooms together for long periods.  Start by dicing at least half an onion per person and sweat in olive oil with at least two cloves of garlic. Add half a pint of water or vegetable broth per person together with a large handful of peeled and chopped seasonal vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, cabbage, celery, corn, turnips, potatoes and fresh or tinned tomatoes. Add one small handful of seaweed per person to provide seasoning and to strengthen the immune system. Finally add one ounce fresh, or one-half ounce dried mushrooms per person (any kind) together with dried or fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, marjoram, and sage) and tonic roots (Siberian ginseng, astragalus, burdock, dandelion, chicory, yellow dock, American ginseng).  Bring to the boil and simmer for an hour. You may wish to remove the roots before serving.

Try to eat your evening meal at least two hours before you plan to go to bed so your body isn't trying to digest the food instead of preparing to sleep. If you do eat late, it is possibly better to delay bedtime until your stomach is less full. Try to avoid eating foods containing tyramine, such as bacon, cheese, ham, aubergines, pepperoni, raspberries, avocado, nuts, soy sauce, red wine, late at night as they might keep you awake. Tyramine produces a brain stimulant. If you do feel hungry near to bedtime, choose something like bread or cereal which releases serotonin; this will help you relax.

Caffeine is another stimulant, which stays in the blood stream for several hours. If you have trouble getting to sleep after drinking tea, coffee or strong chocolate, you might like to try some caffeine free drinks or herbal teas. Too much alcohol also makes you restless, so a nightcap might not be a good idea. Alcohol and coffee are also diuretics, disturbing your sleep during the night because you need to go to the toilet.

To sleep effectively, the body must prepare for sleep, so establishing a good bedtime routine is really helpful. The hour before bed should be spent “pottering”, not concentrating and try not to include any stimulating activity.

On days when things are particularly difficult, take a bath before you go to bed. To that bath add a concentrated tea brewed from lavender, catnip, lemon balm and chamomile. Try drinking a small cup of chamomile tea half an hour before bed. Soak for a while in the bath but once out, you must go straight to bed, maybe read for ten minutes then lights out. No TVs, phones, electronic games or anything else in the bedroom and the bedroom must be dark.

On those nights when your brain insists on talking to itself in ever decreasing circles, keep a dropper bottle of passionflower tincture by your bedside. The dose is one dropperful and it will shut your brain up and let you sleep. You can use this with children, especially during times of stress such as exams or after a bereavement.

You may have to make the tincture yourself by either growing the Passionflower (Passiflora incarnate) in a heated greenhouse or buying the dried herb and infusing it in vodka for three weeks. I doubt you will be able to buy the tincture anywhere in the UK unless you obtain it from a qualified herbalist or import it from abroad.

The herbal combination noted to address SAD issues developed by the American herbalist, David Winston, is equal parts of St John’s wort with lemon balm. This can be taken as a tea, a combined tincture or glycerite, or as a syrup.

SAD Syrup
1 l water
20 g dried lemon balm or 50g fresh chopped herb
20 g dried St John’s wort or 50g fresh, chopped herb
Grated rind and juice of one lemon
450 g sugar
Put herb in water with grated lemon rind, bring to a boil, let simmer 20-30 minutes, strain. Clean out pan, pour liquid back into it, let sit on minimum heat until you only have 20ml left Add sugar, simmer until sugar has dissolved, add lemon juice, pour into sterilized jars or bottles, seal and label.

I usually make my syrup from fresh herbs which I bruise or chop, I use aerial parts of both plants. Normally I only use the flowers of SJW to make oil and tincture, but I often make the syrup when the plants have gone to seed, so I use seed heads, flowers and some of the stalk.

Remember lemon balm only has a shelf life of 6 months when dry, so if you buy some from a supplier, ask when it was picked. You should also pick the leaves before they flower, but if most of my plants have flowered when I make syrup, I try to pick as many secondary shoots as I can (shoots which grow up from stems cut earlier in the year).

The dosage for SAD syrup would be around 1tsp three times a day. Don't use this syrup if you are already taking SSRI drugs for depression or if you've had a bad reaction to SJW in the past. Some people who take medication for migraine conditions find it can bring on a migraine.

Making remedies from herbs you have grown, harvested and stored will always be more effective than store bought because they have experienced the same environment as you and you know what you're getting.

Take care with anything which contains valerian. Although it is a common sleep aid, 10% of people who take it find it stimulating rather than soporific. You really need a whole weekend to see which way it affects you personally. (I have a blog post on this here).

I always think of valerian as top of the herbal sleep tree. I suggest people start with chamomile, lemon balm and catmint first (singly). Lemon verbena can be used interchangeably with lemon balm.

Here are some very pleasant combinations you could try.

  • Lemon balm and lime flower
  • Lemon balm, chamomile and spearmint.
  • Lemon verbena and marshmallow leaves

These herbs can all be used with young children over the age of two

If you are looking for soporifics, then field poppy, californian poppy and wild lettuce can all be tinctured and given in drop doses with a maximum dose of 10 drops.

To make a californian poppy tincture, use the whole plant, roots and all - remove all soil, chop of and cover with vodka in a jam jar for 3 weeks. You can make your own tincture by purchasing dried herbs from a reputable supplier (Try Neal's Yard or Just Botanics if you are in the UK.)

Californian poppy tincture and scullcap tincture can be used for anxiety during the day, again in drop doses. The poppy is also suitable for pain relief in two hourly doses. If you don't want to use alcohol you can use a glycerite instead but their shelf life isn't as long. Be aware that Californian poppy may show up in random drugs test so if your job or driving depends on clean drug tests, you may want to avoid the preparation.

I hope you will find something helpful from what I've suggested and have a "good" winter.