Saturday, 31 March 2012

Ode to lungwort

This is an ode to one of my favorite early spring flowers: lungwort (pulmonaria). They can brighten up a large plot of brown bare soil after winter, and it grows and spreads really easy. The plant is especially interesting because one stem can have different colors of flowers, from blue to pink, which gives a very playful and whimsical effect. The plant especially stands out because of the leaves, which are soft and speckled with light spots. 

Next to their aesthetic values (at least to us), it is also one of the oldest herbs used in folk medicines in Europe. It has a funny history: the shape of the leaves was compared to lungs, and the spots resembled affections on the bronchial tubes. From this, our ancestors did not only deduced the name lungwort, but also its use as a medicine for bronchial illnesses. And indeed, as later scientific studies revealed: lungwort contains substances that soften (dry) coughs, bronchitis and other lung complaints! Coincidentally (or perhaps symbiotic?), this plant grows exactly in the seasonal change from winter to spring in which many people suffer from colds and coughs.

The parts to use from this herb are the leafs during blooming time. You can make tea out of it, prepare it as vegetable or in soups, and it looks (and tastes) pretty in salads as well. I would definitely take this one home with me!

Bibliography: Verhelst, Geert. 2010. Groot handboek geneeskrachtige planten (4e druk), Wevelgem: BVBA MANNAVITA, pp. 459-60.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Making friends with nettles

If there is one plant that is absolutely hated in gardens, it is nettle. It overgrows large areas in a short time, it is hard to remove (with meters of roots under the ground) and the worst thing: they sting! Who hasn't had the irritating experience of red and white itchy bumps on the skin while playing or walking outside? 

However, let's try to make the best of it. The lower side of the leafs do not have stinging hairs; picking the plants here does not result in itchiness (it asks a little care to master this though). Also, nettles form a perfect nursery for caterpillars. Even though they are not that preferred in a vegetable garden, they grow up as pretty and pollinating butterflies. Economical uses of stinging nettles are the ability to produce yarn, cloth, rope and paper from the fibers. Furthermore, nettles can be found as colorant or vegetarian rennet in our food, and it can be made into a natural insecticide and soil improver. 
The most positive and practical part of nettles to me is their nutrient value and, yes, their edibility. After cooking, the leaves are not spiky anymore, and - while saving expenses at the supermarket - you are weeding some nettles from your garden at the same time! The herb contains several vitamins, of which mainly vitamin C, and it is a rich source of iron, calcium and fibers. A traditional important use of nettles is their depurating and detoxifying quality. In medieval times it was therefore used especially for (vernal) fatigues and in spring cures. So now is exactly the time to try this plant out for ourselves! 

I will share with you my first nettle soup experience. To find good edible nettles, pick them in spring; the fresh, green plants are not yet affected by diseases or insects. Also be careful to pick them from a clean place: no dog fields, near cars or where herbicides have been sprayed. Pick the nettles with gloves or with even more protection, because they are able to sting through cotton or plastic bags.
For our soup: pick a lot, they shrink like spinach when you cook them. At home, fry onions and garlic in plenty of butter. Add the washed leaves of the nettle (caution is asked when picking the leaves from the plants here!) and pour water and vegetable/herb broth over it. After a couple of minutes cooking, blend it, add some cream and season it as you like with salt, pepper, herbs and/or lemon. Another tasty variation is to add chickpeas before you blend the soup. Serve it with home-made croutons or Parmesan cheese. An even easier way to use nettle is to pour boiling water on the fresh leaves and drink it as tea. I bet you will approach our stingy friend differently from now on! 

Bibliography: Verhelst, Geert. 2010. Groot handboek geneeskrachtige planten (4e druk), Wevelgem: BVBA MANNAVITA, pp. 563-7.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Bedroom nursery

Spring is coming! That means: time to plant our first vegetables! Since the weather in the Netherlands is very unreliable, we will cheat and take care of the youngsters in a moderate and regulated place. We cannot risk sowing in open ground when a period of serious frost can lie in wait; it will distress our garden and kill our freshly sown plants. Next to that we have plenty of room and sun in our window sills serving as an excellent greenhouse-wannabe.

The bins are ready to be filled with seeds and beans. We will keep you posted what it will be for this year.

Preparing for summer picnics

You cannot imagine how I crave for summer picnics right now! Deliciously snoozing in the sun, laying on the grass, eating french breads and sun-dried tomatoes; or watching the sun go down, drinking wine, wrapped in a blanket. And of course, barbecues should not be forgotten. Dreaming about this makes me able to sit out winter. Especially a nice, soft, flowery patch of grass is requisite for spending those summers. Even better is it when the field consists of patches of moss; plaids are definitively not needed then. I cannot grasp the current paradigm of the 'perfect' moss-free lawn. There exist even special herbicides, techniques and year plans to kill the tiny first signs of bryophita in one's lawn. 
Now, when the last cold got out of the ground and the snow had transformed into rain, I find it time to make myself a stretch of grass. Hopefully moss will find it pleasant to grow there too. Here is what I did (it is my first stretch of grass and it is still growing at the moment, so I cannot tell you for now if it is a correct way of doing it):

Grass needs quite some nutrition. Before winter, we mixed the soil in our garden with dung from the neighboring petting zoo and extra black soil. We covered it with wood chips and other shredder residue. Because of this mulch-cover, the ground was constantly scalding and snapping the plant materials to make a fertile arable land. So this first demand could be checked off the list. 

The second one was to make the soil fresh and permeable, since grass does not like wet feet, and we do not like to sit on humid ground. We ploughed up the soil and mixed some sand with it (watch out you don't cut these long, slimy buddies in two with your spade). Sand makes a perfect drainage; between the tiny stones the water can seep far into the ground.

The third step is to level the plot and remove big stones and root. We did this by raking it, and we leveled it by eye. After this we tamped the soil by walking over it step by step. 
Having prepared the soil, it's sowtime! It goes best when you grab some seeds in your hand and sprinkle it loosely back and forth. It's very meditative. Do not cover the soil completely. When you're finished, rake the soil to cover the seeds a little and to distribute the seeds more evenly where needed. Now let it rain and you're done!

Just a few side notes: make sure you make the lawn in a rainy period, because it needs a lot of water to sprout. When there is too much sun and warmth, the grass seeds will dry out immediately when laying on the surface. On the other hand, a little warmth is needed to make the seeds sprout.

The accompanying barbecue made of left-over bricks will follow later. Promise.


Updated 23-3-2012 (after two weeks of sun and sprinkling): It grows!!!

Friday, 9 March 2012

Post-winter treasure hunting

When the weather allows us to take a step outside our homes, and the temperature is high enough to be able to work with our hands without mittens, it is time to check out the garden. We hereby declare the gardening season opened!
So, what plants did not survive, and which ones are sprouting already? What can we do already now? What should be changed? The garden looks pretty brown and miserable right now. Cold destroys the cells in the leaves and stems, which give them this jelly structure and brown-greyish color. However, there are already some greens and even flowers coming up here and there, but most of them require a very close look. It is fun to inspect the garden and look for the first signs of life, and it is really rewarding if you find something beautifully tiny. 

Underneath and between the grey leaves are little flowers such as coltsfoot, but also the better known ones such as hyacinths, snowdrops and daffodils. Coltsfoot is one of the few species that blooms before it makes leaves. It is also a medicinal plant which is especially useful in this season for it relieves coughs and throat sore (don't use the flowers though). Witch hazel is by the way the first shrub that blooms. It has tiny pink flowers which can only be seen if you look very, very closely. 

Not only the flowers are pretty, also the forming of leaves (columbine in the picture) and buds on trees show interesting shapes; cosily folded into each other, waiting until the cold runs over to open proudly and powerfully. 
The main activities to carry out right now are cutting off dead stems and leaves from previous growths, and uncover the new plants. It helps the sprouts to catch the most of this season's scarcely available sun, and the remains will be slowly transformed into nutrients and used by the plants to grow. It is the essence of spring cleaning: making place for a fresh new start.

P.s. Unexpectedly we discovered even more tiny treasures that colored our garden: