Why you should be eating your weeds

Wild Garlic in flower

This week it started to feel as though we have finally made it past the hungry gap. The early months of the year are well known for having slim pickings when it comes to fresh food. Our stores of roots, tubers and squash are starting to dwindle. During February and March, apart from the stalwart kale, few plants are still standing in the kitchen garden. 
The first warm weather of the year brings a welcome break with fresh spears of sprouting broccoli and the tang of rhubarb. By the end of April we are starting to bring in tender asparagus shoots and early sowings of salad. It won’t be long and there will be peas, beans and strawberries to fill our bellies. Unfortunately, it takes months of meticulous planning and careful attention to grow. Thankfully, Mother Nature is currently feeling particularly generous. 
Nettle soup

Recently, I’ve been able to take advantage of a new crop of fresh green shoots. I have been supplementing my diet with flavours directly from my surroundings. I was stunned by how delicious pasta could be with a dressing of pesto made from the wild garlic, unaware of its anti bacterial qualities. I’ve discovered a love of the luxurious, ‘silky’ texture of nettle soup, and didn’t realise it helps reduce inflammation. I have been enjoying the fresh, cucumber-like taste of cleavers added a water bottle, oblivious to the cleansing effect it provides.

In the coming weeks I’ll be indulging tastes from my childhood with lashings of elderflower cordial. I might use my weeding to provide me with dandelion root coffee. I could make Jack-by-the-hedge sauce for my Sunday lamb roast. I’m looking forward to an Autumn filled with roasted hazelnuts, blackberry jam, and sloe gin. If I’m lucky, I might even find a few tasty mushrooms for a Sunday fry up. 


It’s easy to forget that every one of our cultivated crops has been carefully selected from a wild relative. The wild plants that fill our countryside are perfectly adapted to the variable British weather. They rarely suffer from problems with pests or diseases and do not need our constant care and attention to flourish. Before we had the luxury of a supermarket to provide our every need, the average person would need to have an impressive knowledge of the plants that grew in their vicinity and their many uses. In times of scarcity they would have provided a valuable supplement to our diets. 

These skills have been gradually eroded by the progress of technology, but in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in their use. Chefs eager to give a stamp of seasonality and locality to their cooking have rediscovered the culinary delights just outside our doors.

We should be careful about how we pick. Always choose a safe site, away from any pollution. Only pick things you can positively identify and are abundant. Only pick a small part of the total ‘crop’ and trying not to take the whole plant, so it can still survive and reproduce. In many ways, rather than depleting our dwindling wild life, foraging could provide a valuable way to reconnect people with nature. By spending time identifying, noticing and eating these plants, we greater appreciate their value and vulnerability. Rather than encouraging people to ransack the countryside, it can help us to further understand the interconnectedness of life, and strengthen our desire to protect and conserve it. 

Looking on the bright side

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence” – Helen Keller

I think that gardeners must be natural born optimists

The process of sowing a tiny seed, no bigger than a speck of dirt, in the vague hope that after 6-months of careful care, it may finally become a meal for my family is, to say the least, ‘looking on the bright side.’

Our instincts urge us to do it. We are full of hope and good wishes and, despite the many challenges we know this seedling will have to endure over the course of its life, we are still convinced that it can make it all the way to maturity and succeed in fulfilling its destiny.

Our intellect tells us it can be done. We have read all the information on the packet, researched this plants needs in books and on the internet, and from many years of repeating this process, we know for sure that it can be done. 

We put to one side the threats of slugs, aphids and rabbits who all want to devour our crops. We ignore the omen of impending plagues of blight, mosaic virus or mildew and continue with our quest, sure that this little one will be the one that makes it.

This rose-tinted view of the world is not without its pitfalls.

Just this last week, struck by the bug of optimism that hatched during the recent warm weather, I had been lulled into a false sene of security. Inevitably this resulted in frantic evenings spent wafting a thin veil of horticultural fleece over my little babies in the vague hope I would be able to fend off Jack Frost’s icy touch.

It’s not unusual to get the occasional frost in April, or even early May, but it can be nerve-wracking at a time we are hoping to give the best possible start to our current brood. It is rare that it will cause major catastrophes in the garden. There may be a few young shoots, nipped in the bud, a premature thinning of fruit, or a minor setback for early potatoes. Thankfully the early losses are likely to be offset later in the year. The reduced yield of grapes I can now expect from my vines will be offset by the fact that any fruit they do now produce will be much juicer and sweeter as a consequence of their more focused energy.

After growing our own food for millennia we have carefully adapted our systems to try to optimise our yield. Our ingenuity has developed advanced technology such as glasshouses and heated propagators, which allow us to further extend the growing season, extracting every possible growing day out of the year. Our instincts however are urging us to start planting our tender fledglings at the first sign of good weather, despite knowledge and experience nagging at us to do otherwise. 

Our behaviour is influenced much more than we could ever realise by our environment and situation at the moment of making a decision. We are only able to base our decisions on what we have seen or know. Even for the most experienced of us, our limited frame of reference will often fail to take into account the whole range of possibilities and their relative probability. This inevitably leads to overconfidence and a natural tendency in us all to over estimate benefits, whilst underestimating risk.

This tendency of human behaviour was studied for many years by the social psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who called it ‘Prospect Theory’. Their theory states that people make decisions based on the potential value of losses and gains, rather than the actual probability of the final outcome. 

During the initial phase of decision making, the possible outcomes are ordered and set against reference points. This allows us to create a frame where lesser outcomes may be considered losses and greater outcomes as gains. The next phase is evaluation. People tend to calculate a value (or ‘utility’) based on the range of potential outcomes and choose the alternative which appears to potentially deliver the highest utility. We are often biased towards avoiding losses, as we know they will hurt us more than any gain will make us feel good. This is known as ‘loss aversion’. This principle is used to explain why the same people will often buy both lottery tickets and insurance, although statistically the beneficiaries will always be the companies that are selling them. 

But once in a while, a gamble pays off. A gossamer thin layer of horticultural fleece proves to be the dividing line between life and death, protecting the seedlings from the ravages of the cold, so they can live to fight another day. 

Enthusiasm is contagious 

By just spending a bit of time with people who are really ‘into’ something you will quickly find yourself aligning with their position on the subject. I often drag my poor wife to look around gardens. I will stop by a plant that interests me, but before and I can launch into a lengthy lecture about what it is and what it does, she will repeat the same story back at me. I think after spending so long living with a gardener, she might be becoming one herself. (Either that or I need to learn some new stories)

Recently, I was lucky to be able to spend some time in the presence of a group of experts. Last Friday I took a group of garden journalist to visit to Caerhays Castle near St Austell in Cornwall. Caerhays is home to amazing collections of Magnolias, Camellias and Rhododendrons and we were lucky enough to have a tour of the estate given by the owner Charles Williams. 

The original collection at Caerhays was established by his great-grandfather J C Williams who funded plant collecting trips by Ernest Wilson and George Forrest to China. The sheltered location and mild climate of the garden made it the ideal testing ground for the many new and exotic species arriving in the country and the collection quickly grew. In response to the interest in these plants the Rhododendron Society was formed (now the Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia group) over 100 years ago. When they made an exhibit at Chelsea flower show last year to celebrate their centenary, the great grandchildren of the original founders were still highly active members.

With such a wealth of unique plant material, the garden has for many years been part of a breeding program to develop new cultivars. They were the first to develop the Camellia x williamsii hybrids, and the parent plants used to breed more hardiness and vigour into the genus, can still be found by the back door of the castle, alongside the hybrids they created.

We were blessed with blue sky for the day of the visit and Charles took us on a personal tour of his garden. It wasn’t long before he broke away from the well-beaten path and was leading our group, tramping across carpets of primroses and bluebells towards an inconspicuous but incredibly rare specimen such as an evergreen oak from Japan, originally collected by Forrest, and the only example of it in the country. Many of these plants could so easily be overlooked without the expert guidance of someone who has spent their whole life working in this garden. We were taken to see the Micheleas, close relatives of the magnolias, and shown the difference of fascicle length, which can be used to distinguish them if you an expert, or the striking difference in scent if you are an amateur such as myself. 

What was clear throughout our visit was how much passion Charles has for his plants. It became clear that he lives and breathes this garden. He explained how in the past, there had been little in the way of planning of the layout of the garden, but that they would plant a few of each, and see where they survive. The stories he told about each plant brought them to life, almost as though they were close members of his family. He told us that much of his knowledge had been gleaned from the estate archives and the previous head gardener, Phillip Tregunna, who had unfortunately not written a lot of it down. I hope Charles is making detailed records to preserve this information for the future, as there can be few people who have quite such a detailed knowledge of these plants.

The word enthusiasm is derived from the Greek, and originally meant ‘to be possessed by gods essence’. In a way, when we we are filled with enthusiasm for something, it is a kind of possession which has inspired us to become entirely dedicated to discovering every aspect of our chosen subject. I find it enormously rewarding to be around enthusiastic people and they will often inspire and motivate me to be better myself. If we can sustain our own enthusiasm and, like fire, it spreads to others, it will make it even more rewarding for ourselves.

As the famous author Dale Carnegie once said “Flaming enthusiasm backed by horse sense and persistence are the qualities that will most frequently make for success.”

Building better habits

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit” – Aristotle

I am a creature of routines and rituals. Whilst I enjoy indulging the occasional impulsive whim, most of my days would be fairly easy to predict. 

Every day, I wake up at a similar time and complete the same morning routine. I do a little physical and mental exercise before I check my phone. I write my diary whilst I have the same breakfast. I make the same sandwiches before I set off at a similar time and take the same route to work. When I arrive I have a short routine of making a cup of tea, stretching and meditating before I check my to-do list and set off into the garden to start my work for the day.

Don’t get me wrong, every day is unique, with something new to see, something new to learn and something different to enjoy, but by creating a regular structure to the day and making these activities habitual means I now do them as if on autopilot, freeing the rest of my concentration, willpower and energy for more cognitively demanding tasks.

One habit I have developed and refined since I started at Dew Pond House is my end of day routine. The process of cleaning and returning the tools to their correct place in the shed and tidying my working area each evening as I work my way through a mental checklist means I am reassured that all the tasks for the day are finished and everything is back where it should be.

When I used to do gardening rounds I had the annoying habit of leaving one tool behind in the garden when I left. In many cases this would be somewhere we may not be returning to for another two weeks. I quickly built a routine where tools were checked off the van at the start of a job, and back on at the end, to reduce the need for return trips. 

The topping and tailing of the day with these routines makes me feel as though I have given the day the best possible start, and have completed everything I need to at the end of the day. I can then switch off from work for the evening without any nagging thoughts I have forgotten to do something. 

They are not always good habits. Like many people I have developed the annoying habit of reaching to check my phone whenever I feel my attention waning from the task in hand. The trouble is, making bad habits is just as easy as making good habits. So how can we go about building more useful habits?

The first step is identifying our habits. By taking notice of our regular patterns of behaviour we can start to notice the different elements of the ‘habit loop’ and find a way to convert our routines into beneficial ones.

We first need to identify the triggers that initiate our repetitive behaviour. By recognising the ‘trigger’ and the routine associated with it, we can use that same trigger to prompt another, more beneficial behaviour.

The middle part of the loop is the behaviour itself, the action we want to alter or replace with a new routine.

The final part of the habit loop is reward. If the reward when we perform our routine behaviour is positive, it will become associated with that behaviour and we will naturally want to repeat the action the next time we experience our trigger. 

I recently used this principle to train for a half marathon. I hated running when I was younger, but have since managed to create a habit loop that enabled me to train regularly and last weekend, I completed my first ever half marathon.

Usually my alarm would go off and I would get out of bed to turn it off. One of my initial reactions would be to start checking my email, and before long my concentration was lost to it. Simply by placing my running kit by the phone I knew what needed to be done and I was quickly able to replace the habit with a new one. There were days when I struggled to stick to it, but I reassured myself every step I took was one closer to my goal. Eventually I began to look forward to my run. The run itself got the blood pumping and the drop in blood pressure gave a shot of endorphins which acted as a reward. When I got back, I would give myself a glass of juice as reward, and post my run details on Facebook. I know for many people it may seem annoying, but the little kick of dopamine I got every time I received a virtual pat on the back from one of my friends as a like or comment meant the reward was further reinforced throughout the day, making me even keener to get out and run again.

Even after I have completed my goal of running the half marathon, that positive habit of wanting to go for a run before I dip into my phone each morning is still there and will become even easier every time I complete the loop. Now I just need to create a new habit that will stop myself checking my phone every few minutes during the day.

Water and the garden

This year, spring has been fairly dry and apart form the occasional shower we have had quite a few dry days. The rapid warming of the atmosphere in the spring will inevitably bring more typical weather. In March and April, the weather can change rapidly and a warm, sunny day can quickly change as the garden is battered by sudden sharp showers. It’s no fun getting caught out in the rain, so I recently replaced my old, torn and leaky waterproofs for a brand new pair. Unfortunately, if there is anything that is guaranteed to bring about a spell of good weather, it is preparing for the worst (and vice versa).

Perversely, I hope that the rain does come at some point. Water is essential to life in the garden and a dry Spring could trigger that sanction most feared by British gardeners, a ‘hosepipe ban’. Whilst I can keep my seedlings and potted plants going with a watering can, keeping the newly planted shrubs from drying out will become an endless task. I recall being told, when i was training as a gardener that; ’watering a garden is like adding salt to soup, too little or too much and it is all ruined.’ 

Thankfully, in temperate climates like the UK, we know it is never long before we will see the rain again. Our green and pleasant land is only this way because of an abundance of water. In areas where rain is much more infrequent plants have to adapt to make the most of things whilst the going is good. The deserts of California have recently come alive as the rainstorms have triggered a rare ‘superbloom’ when everything tries to complete its life cycle of growing, flowering and setting seed before the valuable resources disappear once again.

The ‘Dew pond’ is central to the story of the estate where I work. Originally, the garden would have been part of the common, used by locals to graze their livestock. Dew ponds were constructed by digging a large hole and lining the bottom with puddled clay so the rainwater would collect and provide a place for the livestock to drink in the summer. There is still a chain of ponds across the common, and we are lucky enough to still have one in the garden, after which the house was named. 

When the garden was re-planted, the pond had fallen into disrepair and had become little more than a swamp, over-run by vigorous plants and silted up from years of fallen leaves. The pond was cleared, relined and is now replanted with plants suited to the damp conditions like rodgersia, petasites japonica and rheum palmatum. The margins are now filled with reeds, flag irises and pontaderia, and the deep water has floating lily pads where the moorhens are often keen to build their raft-like nests. It is now home to a huge range of different wildlife. In addition to the pair of moorhens that call it home and a couple of mallards that make regular visits we have several species of newts breeding in the pond. In the summer, the air above it becomes filled with dogfights between the many different dragon and damselflies. The pond is possibly one of the most biologically diverse places in the garden as it provides so many different habitats, from bank to margin, to deep water in just a few meters.

Water can be gentle and graceful, able to fill whatever vessel it is placed in and when calm it exudes the essence of tranquility. It can also be incredibly powerful, able to carve huge gorges through the earth and rip chunks of coastline away from the mainland. This makes it one of the most powerful of the elements.

Water is so fundamental to life, it’s no surprise that almost every culture has celebrated it and personified it by creating hundreds of aquatic deities to worship. The reverence of water takes many forms, from the awesomely powerful Poseidon of greek mythology (Neptune in the roman) who was also responsible for earth quakes, the well-dressing of the peak district, or the beautiful mermaid-like ‘Selkies’ of Scots folklore who might decide to run off with your husband, or wife unless you discover their seal skin like coat.  When I was growing up, we would often be warned away from stagnant, green water, for fear that ‘Jenny Greenteeth’, a river hag with green skin and sharp teeth might grab your ankle and drag you under. I think it was probably more to discourage us from playing in a dangerous place. 

In his book ‘Waterlog’, the great nature writer, Roger Deakin, tried to travel the British isles, swimming our rivers, lakes and the sea as he went to discover more about our relationship with this element. One of the most poignant feelings I got from reading his book was just how disconnected we have become from the water that surrounds us. Throughout the book he describes how people were shocked when they found him doing something as perfectly natural as swimming in a river. His passionate writing inspired me to try swimming in more lakes and rivers myself. After years of swimming lanes in a bland municipal building, to be able to see the world from a ducks-eye view feels liberating, subversive and allows us to reconnect with this powerful element in a uniquely tactile way. 

The urge to create

One of the strongest drives we experience, is our desire to leave our mark on the world, the materials, tools and medium are almost irrelevant. Whether it is through a picture, a piece of music, a sculpture or the written word, we often find fulfilment in the power of sharing our experience through our creations.

The power of imagination and creativity are probably some of the greatest and most unique qualities we are born with but unfortunately, as adults, our creative pursuits are not always encouraged and even more rarely developed. When we are children we have plenty of time for play, to tell stories, make up games and draw pictures. Through our schooling and the rigid systems that are used to measure our relative achievements in maths, science or the languages, the focus starts to become more about the collection and memorising of facts, rather than how these tools can be used to best effect.

Innovation is always a product of creativity. It is only when we are able to step outside of the normal narrow confines imposed upon us by society and think or act in a different way that we can create something truly unique. 

In his 1943 paper “A theory of human motivation”, Abraham Maslow espoused his theory of a ‘hierarchy of needs’. This is often described as a pyramid, with the most fundamental needs at the bottom. The pyramid starts with physiological needs like food, shelter and sleep. The next level of the hierarchy is safety, including personal security, financial security, health and well-being and resilience against adversity. Once our physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the next level of the hierarchy is love and belonging, found through friendship, intimacy or family. We all have a need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance from a social group, otherwise exclusion can lead to social anxiety or eventually depression. The next level is self-esteem. We often feel a strong desire to be recognised and respected by others. This could be through a profession, charitable works or a hobby which give us a sense of contributing to a cause greater than ourselves. In some people this may manifest itself as a need for status, fame, prestige or glory, but in others it will manifest itself as a need for competence, mastery, independence and freedom.

The top hierarchical level of the pyramid is occupied by self-actualisation and self-transcendence. This is possibly the hardest both to pinpoint and achieve. It refers mainly to a person feeling that they have managed to fulfil their potential. This can be very specific to different individuals. Maslow returned to this aspect in later years in many attempts to refine and redefine it. He came to the conclusion that this is where the human need for spirituality arises from, our need to relate to “oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos” (Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York 1971, p. 269). It is here that we find our need to express our experience through creation.

Gardening is one creative activity people of any age, ability or knowledge level can enjoy and get something from. To create a garden is to mould our environment, cultivating the wilderness and using the materials of the natural world to create our own vision of paradise. The process of shaping the earth to form a space, of growing a plant from a tiny seed, of nurturing and caring for it all are creative acts and through practicing them we can gain that sense of self-actualisation and self-fulfilment we search for. Ultimately, this is why we are driven to garden. 

A different perspective 

Last week, I was lucky enough to have a visit from a group of garden design students at the garden where I work. Since it was first constructed, the estate has acquired more land, and the new areas are soon going to be developed. The students were asked to visit the new section of garden and come up with ideas for its redesign. 

I have been taking care of this area since it became part of the estate, so I was on hand to answer any queries about the garden they might have. It was fascinating to see their reactions to the space and the kind of questions they asked. It offered me a unique ‘second opinion’ on the garden that I don’t usually have access to. When we try to see something from a different perspective, it can be as though we are seeing it for the first time again. Things become so much more interesting, with a whole new world of detail revealed.

This part of the estate has become home to my veg patch, compost heap and log stack. It comprises the more ‘functional’ and less ‘attractive’ elements of the garden. There is a large lawn, which I have ensured doesn’t get out of hand, but I don’t spend a lot of time on it. The students all noted it is now mainly made up of moss and weeds. What they couldn’t see was that during the spring it is transformed into a patchwork quilt of colour, buzzing with bees as the prunella, daisies and black medick start to bloom. In summer, when the formal lawns nearer the house are starting to flag, the moss means it still looks lush and verdant. 

Yesterday, I shared the picture above with my friends. It is a close-up, taken of the same moss that has come to dominate the lawn. I thought it was an interesting image, showing the huge variation of colour and texture in something we often overlook. It struck me how by looking at the moss in a different way, what appeared to be a problem to one group of people, becomes an object of beauty when it can be viewed from a different angle.

It made me think about how our upbringing and social influences effect the way we think, creating our own unique cognitive biases. These are the cultural and social ‘filters’ through which we view and interpret everything in the world around us. We are often led to believe that many things in life are black or white, right or wrong. Unfortunately, as we learn from experience, it is rarely that simple. Depending on our perspective, it is quite possible for something to be both right and wrong at the same time, and it can easily alternate between the two over time. A ‘judgement’ can only ever created by a person making a judgment at one moment in time, and as such it will never be free from their influence.

By trying our best to see things from a different viewpoint, we can hopefully build up a more detailed picture, and perhaps gain a better understanding of exactly what it is we are seeing.