Signs of Spring: Allotment Progress

My family got an allotment last year, late spring so it was a rush to get it all planned out, tidied up and planted. It has been a learning curve and good experiment for me, giving the freedom to practice some degree of permaculture discipline (mixing plants together at least), growing some plants native in the wild here that we don’t have space for at home, and likewise with some vegetable crops. I went today to look over things, having not been there at all myself since the end of Summer/early Autumn, and was encouraged by the state it is currently in, despite all the rain we’ve had. Like my last post on foraging, I want to share some pictures and take you through what I grew, what I found in the way of weeds, with some information again on uses and benefits of plants here and there.

First I noticed how well the garlic was doing. Especially with a pandemic spreading at the moment, being stocked om homegrown garlic will be useful. Onions coming up to the right as well, there should be spring onions but I saw no sign of them. Other than that it’s mainly cleavers/goosegrass growing here. This time of year cleavers should still just about be tender enough to be edible, I plan to gather all the cleavers on the  allotment soon and have them in salads, steam them with a meal or dry them for teas. I may consider making a tincture too. Cleavers are good for swollen glands, tonsillitis, bladder irritation, as an ointment for burns or dry skin, and as a poultice for burns, blisters, nettle rash and open sores.

We had a change around after last year’s harvest, if I remember correctly this patch was where some of the maize and purslane was, along with carrots, turnips, radishes and beetroot. Radishes did well enough, beetroot did really well, turnips were OK but the carrots were a bit of a disaster. Apparently they need poor soil to grow properly, they also got infested with something and rotted.

Garlic is useful as an antibiotic, to cleanse blood, reduce blood pressure and clear catarrh. Take as protection against common colds, dysentery, worms and typhoid.

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I also came across plenty of red dead nettle throughout the allotment. This is best eaten in early spring, is very common. Uses: astringent, diaphoretic, diuretic, purgative and styptic, as a poultice or as bruised leaves to treat cuts and wounds and for bleeding. As a tea to promote perspiration and discharge from the kidneys in treating chills. The related white deadnettle is good for periods, irritable bowel, cystitis, catarrh and diarrhoea (as a tea) and for burns, bruises, splinters and cuts (as a poultice), I would presume the two most common dead nettles have reasonably similar medicinal properties.

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A good mix of useful “weeds” in the same picture: Stinging nettle, read dead-nettle and cleavers. Around here is where I had (summer) Purslane and the rest of the maize growing, both of which did really well. I don’t know if I can expect the purslane to coem back or not, but I’ll be growing it again either way. Same with maize.

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Here is the strawberry patch (multiple varieties, including alpine strawberry). We planted several herbs here, including ones supposed to go well with strawberry (sage I think). Rosemary and lavender planted further back, this is where we planted rhubarb and gooseberry too. The kale is still looking healthy, it grew in abundance last year after I scattered a load of seeds from some kale we had growing in a pot in the garden (that didn’t produce much leaf due to lack of space). They did really well, despite being eaten a bit at first, goes to show it’s often not worth worrying about pests that much, sturdy plants like kale still do well. Sweet cicely and alecost were planted here too.

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A close-up of the strawberry plants. I guess as it gets drier in spring we’ll lay straw down again. We also have several growing at home in hanging baskets. Wild strawberry leaf can be used in a tea to treat nervousness, anaemia, diarrhoea and as a tonic for kidneys. The fruits make a good iron supplement, and can be drunk for cool fevers apparently.

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The kale patch. We will probably cut back these tall woody stalks soon. It really took over last year, I think this year we will try to make regular use of it through the summer so we don’t struggle to keep on top of it quite so much. It almost swamped the sweet cicely, but didn’t seem to harm it at all.

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The alecost, doing well. We planted one up here, and another by it after it got too big for the garden. Alecost was historically used in brewing, hence the name, and has a pleasant minty aroma and taste, but is also quite bitter. Leaves have culinary uses, can be used as a natural insect repellent and as potpourri. Leaves can be used in tea to treat catarrh, colds, upset stomachs and cramps and to ease childbirth. Crushed leaves relieve the pain of bee stings, and can be used to make a salve for burns and stings.

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I was delighted to see the sweet cicely coming up again and looking very healthy. I love this aromatic and delicious plant. I used it mainly to infuse vodka last year along with other native herbs and plants found in the wild. This year I plan to use it more with food ans for medicinal uses and in tea. It has many culinary uses and makes a good natural sweetener, the whole plant is good as a tonic, particularly the root soaked in brandy apparently, and works as a mild antiseptic and digestive aid. The root when infused is “enigmatically listed” in old herbals as a valuable tonic for girls aged 15 to 18, and the boiled root was used to strengthen the elderly. If you like anything with an aniseed taste/smell, you will love sweet cicely. Seeds can be collected and used too.

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The sage nearby. It looks like it suffered a bit, but there is still enough healthy growth. Leaf can be used to whiten teeth and as a mouthwash. Sage leaf aids digestion, is antiseptic, anti fungal and contains oestrogen. Useful for treating diarrhoea. As a tea is good as a nerve and blood tonic, reduces sweating and soothes coughs and colds.

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The rhubarb is looking nice and healthy.

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I am actually not sure if this is Tansy or French Marigold, I will edit when I know. Apparently French Marigold (Tagetes) has a sturdy stem and a pungent smell, which this does, so I am leaning towards it being that. We had both growing last year, though, and didn’t really make use of either. I plan to this year. French Marigold uses: Scent deters white fly from tomato plants, flower can be boiled to produce a yellow dye, root can be used to repel eelworms, flowers can be dried for potpourri. Tansy uses: Leaf can be stewed or rubbed on meat for rosemary-like flavour,  plant good as a general insect and pest repellent, hung indoors to repel flies, use cosmetically as an astringent (not great for sensitive skin). Tansy flower and leaf infused are good for bruises, rheumatism and sprains.

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The rosemary is looking very well. Many culinary uses, of course. Can be boiled to produce an antiseptic solution for bathroom cleaning, Stimulates blood circulation in the bath, and can be used as a hair rinse. Good as potpourri and laid between linen. The leaf aids fat digestion, is good for circulation and eases pain by increasing blood supply where it is applied. Good for aches and rheumatism, and as an antiseptic mouthwash. I love this herb. One of a few I have used to make an alcoholic tincture as well.

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We didn’t have much luck with gooseberry last year, but to our surprise it seems to be coming back alright. We may plant another.

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The lavender is looking healthy too. Lavender makes a great potpourri, air freshener moth deterrent. In tea soothes headaches, calms nerves, dizziness. Particularly as an oil is good as an antiseptic, mild sedative and pain killer, and to treat bites, stings and small cooled burns.

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The fruit plants – blackcurrant, szechuan pepper, aronia and honeyberry if I remember correctly, which didn’t produce much last year. They seem to be doing alright.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of my visit was seeing hairy bittercress growing as a weed throughout the fruit cage. Very tasty, One of the “nine sacred herbs” of the Anglo-Saxons, like other plants in the brassica family, it contains many health benefits. It is a good source of vitamin C, beta-carotene and possibly lutein as well (known for helping reduce visual health issues such as cataracts), and contains glucosinolates which help remove carcinogens from the body. I won’t let any of this go to waste.

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Salsify I planted last year is looking healthy, is good to pull up to eat through winter. I plan to have it with seafood soon, it is known for having an almost “oyster”-like taste. I like the root chopped and fried in butter. I planted both types, the “mammoth” variety, with blue/purple flowers, that are very striking, and the Spanish schorzonera variety, which produces a yellow/orange flower, I think. Last year I left some in the garden to produce flowers, you get A LOT of seeds from them, so this is worth doing. I aim to leave a few in at the allotment for this too. Very sustainable. A good thing to plant so you have something to harvest in winter, we just haven’t got round to using it yet.

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Artichoke is looking very healthy, hopefully we will get some globes on it this year. This area is where we had more maize and the squashes growing. Further along, the squashes were very successful, and produce a good yield for a long time, through summer into autumn, and the seeds can be collected too. Worth growing.

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The chard is looking really healthy, this is another leaf that lasts really well over the winter in colder, milder climates like mine. It’s in the spinach/beet family, so will contain similar nutritional properties, is a good source of iron. We will keep growing this for sure.

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Because everything was a bit swamped by the squashes and marrows in this area, which we didn’t really organise so well, we neglected the romanesco plant I planted in the middle. I was pleasantly surprised to see it still going strong, with a head on it even. Not sure how good this will be for eating now, but it’s a good sign.

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I was very glad to see the dittander, also known as pepperweed, doing very well. I love this plant, it’s a very fiery, peppery leaf, and makes a great horseradish or pepper substitute, nice to have in for salads and meals through the summer. Grows very well here. Presumably has similar medicinal properties to radish and mustard.

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The horehound is doing really well. I didn’t really make use of this last year, it’s in the mint family and is again another plant once used in brewing. Has a bitter taste, is liked by bees, chopped with honey is supposed to be good for a cold or cough in the early stages. A cold infusion is good for digestion, heartburn and intestinal worms.

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The comfrey is showing some life. This grew to a good size last year, and we set aside plenty in a bucket to make fertiliser with. We have a native type growing at home in the garden, this one we bought is actually a hybrid between the European native and Asian comfrey, called “Russian comfrey”. I find the younger leaves delicious cooked, and have had them in my own “wild frittatas”. Comfrey should not be taken internally for more than six weeks at a time, due to the toxic alkaloids it contains, apparently the introduced Russian comfrey contains the most toxic one, I have just seen this recommended more for external use, to it is probably best to consume only the native variety. I have seen the consumption of the root in general not recommended. As a poultice comfrey is great for broken bones, sprains, bruises and surgical scars. As an ointment or oil, it is good for arthritis, rheumatism, tendonitis, glandular swellings, pulled muscles, tendons, ligaments and injuries.

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Near the comfrey we had dill growing as well, which did very well, and produced a lot of seeds, there is no sign of it appearing yet. We also grew beans and garden beans in this area, which did very well.

I hope you have found this an interesting and informative weed, I wanted to give an idea of what you can expect to still be growing and starting to appear at the end of winter, in terms of both hardier plants suited to a mild climate like Britain’s and wild weeds too.

I aim to write more articles like this on both home produce and foraging in the future. It’s hard, and pointless, to practice permaculture on allotment you are renting, but it’s still good experience and useful skills learned.

Sources:

Hedgerow Medicine – Harvest and grow your own herbal remedies – Julie Bruton-Seal, Matthew Seal

The Complete Book of Herbs – a practical guide to growing & using herbs – Lesley Bremness

Wild Food – Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman

Foraging – Pocket Guide (Wild Food UK) – Marlow Renton and Eric Briggane