It’s fair to say that the wide range of salads and oriental herbs and greens that I grow is down to the travels and research of my food and garden writer hero, Joy Larkcom.
It is because of her curiosity, discoveries and subsequent growing, that wonderful herb and salad leaf mixes, Oriental herbs and greens, and cut-and-come again growing methods, and much else besides, have come into our gardens and kitchens. I use her book Oriental Vegetables, the complete guide for the gardening cook, as a basic bible for growing and using the many wonderful leafy greens that keep my salad colander full even in winter.
Another of her books that has accompanied my herb and salad gardening down the years is The Salad Garden, which was fully revised and updated for publication in 2017. Herbs, edible flowers and wild plants and weeds with edible uses, are all welcomed.
More recently published is Just Vegetating, a memoir that explains how she became a journalist and began her personal route to growing edible gardens. The grand vegetable tour was the start of the journey. The grand vegetable tour in a caravan with took her family through Europe in search of home-grown vegetable, fruit and herbs.
Just a few days ago the Garden Museum published the account of its Archivist Rosie Vizor who recently visited Joy in Cork to continue the wonderful task of documenting and bringing back Joy’s archive to the museum.
I loved her description of Joy’s instructions for travel to her home in Cork. Finding the right turn off…. those of us who have visited her in Cork know how easy it is to miscount the telegraph poles and having to return to go to start counting again!
Eleanour Sinclair Rohde (1881–1950) was a prolific writer about herbs, vegetables and gardens in general. I think I would have liked to know her. In another precious publication of mine, The Herbal Review, Volume 9 No 1, there is an article by Timothy Clark of Netherhall Manor, Soham, accompanied an evocative image of Eleanour.
The list of titles she published is lengthy with the first, A Garden of Herbs, published in 1920. This was followed in 1922 by The Old English Herbals and in 1924 by The Old English Gardening Books. My copy of The Old English Herbals is the 1972 Minerva Press edition, which the flyleaf proclaims was limited to 500 copies of which mine is number 320! Her most celebrated books were probably The Scented Garden published in 1931 and Gardens of Delight in 1934. I particularly like three smaller format books she wrote on Uncommon Vegetables, Culinary and Salad Herbs and Rose Recipes.
She was also a designer of herb gardens and a hands-on grower of herbs and vegetables. One of her herb gardens is included in Culinary and Salad Herbs. She was also, early in her career, a student of Maud Grieve at The Whins and, as noted by Catherine Horwood in Gardening Women, they brought the first herb garden to the Chelsea Flower Show of 1919.
I feel sure that gardening and her writing gave her the solace and focus that so many of us derive from our garden connections. Her beloved only brother was killed in October 1914, a loss she never quite came to terms with.
The Cottage Herbery is a North Worcestershire treasure. I can’t remember exactly when I first met Kim and Rob Hurst, who have been growing and selling herbs and herb seeds for 43 years. Theirs was always an exciting stand to visit at RHS Chelsea Flower Shows, at Malvern and other fairs, such as the Rare Plant Fairs, Farmers’ Markets and Food Festivals, local to their nursery. At Chelsea their medals changed from Bronze to Gold in 2000 and 2006.
The thyme bed they created is one of my stand-out memories of their show-going days. As one visitor to their stand suggested: “It looks so inviting, I could just sink into it!”
Kim always references Madge Hooper of Stoke Lacy Herb Farm and Barbara Keen of Valeswood Herb Farm, Little Ness, as the twin mentors and supporters of their early herb enterprise.
They moved into a converted hop kiln on their nursery site in 2009, and have created a sublime garden where climbers reach for the sky on the extant supports of old farm buildings, and perennials rise and fall at their feet, making in a sea of colour.
The calendulas in my garden are seedlings from them and the bright pop of orange even today (mid-December) gives me huge pleasure. Calendula is firmly embedded in the nursery’s signage and logos and they have become calendula experts, saving seed and growing so many strong colour variations. Kim has photographed the zingy variations and is selling them in packs of ‘Myriad of Marigolds’ greeting cards.
She has also written two books packed with facts and tips about the histories and uses of herbs, Hidden Histories of Herbs and A Taste of Herbs. I enjoy dipping into both books to re-read the backstories of the herbs I love to grow.
Kim says that all those years of growing and showing must have rubbed off on their daughter India, who set up a successful flower business Vervain Flowers (Vervainflowers.uk), running courses and creating flowers for weddings and other events. It is great to see how the next generation takes a fresh route into a love of plants.
Anna Greenland (on Instagram as @annagreenland) is not yet on my bookshelf, but I feel certain it won’t be long before she compresses her great herb knowledge into a series of books. For the moment magazine articles, blogs and Instagram posts are the platform for her insights about herbs. We have met at flower shows and more recently at the laidback and quirky Alde Valley Spring Festival in Suffolk. Anna has moved from her Oxfordshire garden to set up a new garden in Suffolk around the old threshing barn that she and her husband are renovating. She is planning a herb garden to use as a teaching space.
Her herb enthusiasm developed while she was Head Gardener for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir. Her fascination started with the herb garden there and in particularly with the medicinal section dedicated to his mother, as well as the polytunnels brimful with lemon verbena plants.
Her next step was to set up the large herb garden at Soho Farmhouse where she combined culinary and medicinal herbs. At RHS Hampton Court in 2018 she won Gold and Best in Show award for the category for the ‘Herbs for Preserves’ garden that she designed and built. Here she showcased the food preservation skills of our ancestors.
Since moving to Suffolk she has been busy running workshops and demonstrations around subjects such as Nourishing herbs, Herbs for Wellbeing and A Gardener’s Herbal Kitchen.
I followed her instructions for making Fire Cider in a September Instagram post. And I am about to strain and decant the brew and hope it will boost my immune system in winter.
It is great to know that the herb baton is in such good hands and I am looking forward to seeing Anna’s new herb garden as it develops.
With thanks for Anna for the photos.
Anne Stobart combines impeccable research, teaching skills, medical herbalism and permaculture in her medicinal agroforestry project at Holt Wood in Devon. At Holt Wood, purchased in 2004, Anne and Kay have over many years converted a former Sitka spruce plantation into a medicinal forest garden. At first Anne made herbal products as gifts for friends but now sells them under the title Holt Wood Herbs. One of the trees they planted was the American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), which has less spectacular flowers than the dazzling forms of H. mollis beloved of winter gardens. Ever since I first used witch hazel as a tangy refreshing toner I have been fascinated as to its origins. Anne and Kay run a series of events and courses and attending one and learning about the distillation of medicinal tree bark in the future is high on my ‘to do’ list!
For the moment I am content to read about the project at Holt Wood. I am waiting for the proof of Anne’s latest book, The Medicinal Forest Garden Handbook: Growing, Harvesting and Using Healing Trees and Shrubs in a Temperate Climate, due out in spring 2020. Her previous book Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England, suggests the origins of her interest in medicinal barks. Anne founded the online research group The Herbal History Research Network and is a contributor to another online research resource, The Recipes Project, an international group of scholars interested in the history of recipes, ranging from magical charms to veterinary remedies.
(Thanks to Anne for the use of the image of Holt Wood.)
I moved to Suffolk in 1986 and started a three-year City & Guild Course in Amenity and Decorative Horticulture at Otley College of Horticulture. My then new garden was three-quarters of an acre; we decided to plant a four-square herb garden with brick paths and a sundial at the intersection of the paths. Everywhere I went I heard about Caroline Holmes and her herb nursery. I know I bought herbs from her and heard her talks at various shows or garden clubs. We became friends and colleagues, as you do in the world of herbs and horticulture.
Caroline’s two main herb books, A Zest for Herbs (Mitchell Beazley, 2004) and the RHS Herbs for the Gourmet Gardener (2014), are on my shelves. Each holds much information on these plants that were central to her business and her burgeoning design practice.
After retraining in Horticulture and Fruit Culture at Otley in 1978/9 she set up a specialist herb nursery, Caroline Holmes-Herbs (1979-1995) with a commercial contract to root thousands of sage cuttings.
She soon realised that telling the stories behind the plants to garden groups was a good way of selling them. Next up she was invited to run study days at the then Museum of Garden History, now the Garden Museum. Some 40 years on and herbs are still woven into her work, with lecture tours in France and Italy, garden history modules for the University of Cambridge ICE.
The Poison Garden at Alnwick Charlemagne beds at the Church of Notre Dame de Calais, France Apothecary’s Garden at Yalding in Kent
Among the gardens that she designed are The Poison Garden at Alnwick and the Charlemagne beds at the Church of Notre Dame de Calais, France. During the initial planning for Alnwick she liaised with the Home Office to obtain permission to plant, under lock and key, a specimen of cannabis. In 1992, she designed a number of gardens including an Apothecary’s Garden for the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now Garden Organic), at its former Yalding site in Kent. She is also a past Chairman of The Herb Society.
(Thanks to Caroline for use of images of her garden designs.)
Malcolm Dickson of Hooksgreen Herbs has been growing plants for around 25 years but in 2004 began to specialise in herbs, selling at shows and plant fairs in partnership with his son Thomas. I have great plants from them particularly a purple foliage Szechuan pepper tree. And I am hoping to buy one of their blackcurrant mint plants in spring.
The Master Gardener award… and the show stand
Their first display won a silver medal at Southport in 2006 and their first RHS medal was a silver at Malvern Autumn 2007, followed by their first gold medal at Gardeners’ World Live in 2010. This led to an invitation to exhibit at Chelsea Flower Show in 2011. Hooksgreen has won the RHS Colin Spires award for the best Display of Herbs during a show season on five occasions and on 2016 were appointed RHS Master Grower.
The website, hooksgreenherbs.com, is very important to the business with over 70,000 visitors, so Malcolm is devoting time and money to renew and revamp it for 2020. Although they are not going to be at Chelsea they have two displays at Tatton Park including a large display of herbs and an exclusive display of Salvias (sage).
They run open weekends in May (23-24) and June (27-28), that offer a chance to peruse the nursery and have tea and coffee and home made cakes! I’d say: “Make a beeline for one of the open days and see the range of herbs here and enjoy the cake!”
I think I can safely say that I have known Jekka McVicar VMH long before Jamie Oliver dubbed her ‘Queen of Herbs’ – almost since the beginning of the herb-growing enterprise Jekka’s Herb Farm, which she and husband Mac set up in 1985 at Rose Cottage, Alveston.
Prior to this she had grown herbs in the back garden of their semi in Bristol. From 1991 until this year she has exhibited at shows winning an awesome tally of medals of all hues, including her first Chelsea Gold in 1995.
In her first book, Jekka’s Complete Herb Book (Kyle Cathie, 1994), she said she wanted to convey to readers some of the pleasure that working with herbs can bring. And she delivered that by the trowelful, since in its various editions that book’s sales reached 1 million by 2004. In all she has published seven books, the latest of which is the handy-sized A Pocketful of Herbs (Bloomsbury Absolute, 2019).
One of the books that I enjoyed the most was Good Enough to Eat (Kyle Cathie 1997), with photographs by my photographer-friend Derek St Romaine, with food styling by his wife Dawn.
Why this book is such a favourite is that I wrote an article about the family and the herb farm and met her children Hannah and Alistair, both of whom I have enjoyed seeing grow up, year on year, mostly at shows. I have seen Hannah become a talented and accomplished artist and print-maker, specialising in modern botanical prints, one of two of which are in my home. Her work is visible in much of the company’s branding, including seed packets, mugs and carrier bags. Alistair’s childhood management of the family’s vegetable patch, interest in cookery and in the environment (he has a PhD in Climate Change from Imperial College, London) have now combined.
So it was with great pleasure that in March 2019 I attended the launch of A Pocketful of Herbs and the start of Alistair’s Food For Thought supper clubs.
There have been many changes and so many successes along the way (all charted on Jekka’s newly re-branded website and elsewhere), including being a former President of the Herb Society. In 2019 Jekka and Mac (he of many titles and talents – financial director to kitchen porter, builder to proofreader) must be so pleased that Hannah and Alistair have joined them formally in the family business, contributing to the re-branding as Jekka’s, to take it forward.
I should add that there are also two canine studio assistants, Tansy and Rufous.
For years I have wanted to visit Poyntzfield Herbs, which I think must be one of the most northerly herb nurseries in the United Kingdom, at Black Isle By Dingwall, Ross & Cromarty. Sadly I have not yet made the trip, but hope that next year I might get there. Duncan Ross, its owner, is a specialist medicinal herb grower. He set the nursery up in 1976 and later was joined by Yoriko, now his wife, who came to the garden as a student from, Emerson College, a biodynamic college in West Sussex.
Duncan started with around 70 species, a number that has increased over the years. He offers seed and plants from around the world, but also grows many that are native to Scotland, such as spignel (Meum athamanticum).
Many of the unusual seeds and plants, especially those in the ayurvedic tradition have arisen from material collected while on plant-hunting expeditions in Japan and in the Himalaya.
He has written many books on herbs including Herbs of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Recently, just before my first to visit to Japan, I found his book Herbs of Japan, invaluable. It was good to know in advance of my trip what many of the plants I would see in gardens and shops were used for. His descriptions offer insights and explanations that go far beyond growing instructions. I was also pleased to discover that I have been growing many of these herbs in containers or in my greenhouse over the years. One in point is Japanese ginger (Zingiber mioga) in a container for many years. This year I think I might plant it out and actually harvest some of the flavoursome root, which Duncan describes as less strong than ‘root ginger’. Another is shiso (Perilla frutescens), which even today I am harvesting from the greenhouse for a winter salad.
In 1995 two of his chives, Black Isle Blush and Pink Perfection received RHS Awards of Merit.
My advent herb inspirations are a mix of people, plants, books and places… in no particular order…and this one is the last! So apologies to those I haven’t been able to include this year… but here are a few I couldn’t leave without mentioning.
There is Norfolk Herbs (@norfolkherbs on Instagram), which began selling herbs in 1986 as Mill Farm Pot-Pourri. One of their great assets were the terracotta pots made by potter Chris Dunne, who has now retired. Norfolk Herbs has almost sold out of the remaining stock. (@norfolkherbs on Instagram)
The Edible Garden Nursery (@edible_garden_nursery_ on Instagram) at Whiddon on Dartmoor, Devon is owned by Chris and Jenny Seagon. Their enterprise started in Suffolk as Laurel Farm Herbs in 1985. In 2013 they relocated to Devon and now only sell edible plants.
The Chelsea Physic Garden (Instagram @chelsea_physic_garden), London’s oldest botanic garden, was established by the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries in 1673. Behind old brick walls it has a very secret garden atmosphere, despite the fact that it is now open to the public. I remember when it was open rarely and you could only visit with someone who had access. It is a treasure-trove of herbs, some 5,000 medicinal, herbal, edible and useful plants – trees, shrubs, herbaceous and annuals. The photos here were taken at the opening of the Edible and Useful Garden in 2012.
Books: there are so many I haven’t included… one in particular that I take on and off my bookshelves regularly is Homegrown Tea by Cassie Liversidge (Instagram @cassie_liversidge) which is packed with information about growing, harvesting and making tea with so many herbs and plants that you are likely to grow in your garden or greenhouse.
And then there is Lesley Bremness of Netherfield Herbs, Suffolk. Her book The Complete Book of Herbs (Dorling Kindersley/Guild Publishing, 1988) showed us in colour exactly what a particular herb looked like from flowers to roots. It was a densely packed book, highlighting every facet of herbs. And many of the delicious recipes were created by my friend Ruth Bolton (Instagram @suffolkfoodie).