2011 Summer

Summer into autumn

The north part of the east garden has been reserved for a collection of medicinal plants which should begin to take shape next year. One of the first to go in was the marsh mallow Althaea officinalis which took well and is now flowering (below).



While it grows wild in coastal ditches and marshes, though rarely in the north, the name officinalis indicates the connection with herb gardens, where it has long been grown for the mucilages (in its roots and other parts) that are used in poultices and ointments, and also at one time in confectionary. The plant has a waxy appearance, puts out shoots late and flowers late around here.

A few small plants of the labiate family have been finding their way into the garden in the last few years. While meadow clary has been in and around the meadow for years, and the corn mint was one of the many plants introduced through the Institute's seedbank research, the marsh woundwort (see below) seems to have found its own way in, but a plant that we think is a calamint, the wild basil Clinopodium vulgare also appeared recently. Unusually for wild labiates in this region, it has its flowers arranged in tight clusters, or whorls, around the stem. Like other labiates, its flowers attract insects, but once the petals wither, the mass of teeth and hairs must deter many that want to eat the growing seeds. In the photograph to the right, each calyx tube with its five teeth is 2-3 mm across.

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Late August 2011

The first photograph, below, shows the post-deluge carnage of the heritage and modern cereals in front of the giant cotton thistle. The tops of the tallest cereals, emmer and spelt, are about six feet above the soil. Only the modern wheat (variety Tybalt) survived the wet and wind of mid-August intact and upright without support. 



Seed has formed and matured on all the cereals. It will soon be harvested and stored for next year. What to eat and what to store was once one of the big decisions in agricultural life. If you were hungry enough to eat the lot before sowing next spring, then you had no crop the next year. 

Despite the weather's thrashing, the heads of the heritage cereals retain their architectural grace. The photograph right shows part of the great lax panicle of the black oat, also known as bristle oat, Avena strigosa.  It grows vigorously, but its grain is a small proportion of its total mass.This oat is one of the ancient cereals of Britain, and though hardly grown now, is occasionally found as a feral plant in some areas of the north. Each black 'grain' is about 2 mm wide. The Living Field got the seed for this black oat (and also emmer and spelt) from Orkney College two years ago. 


Many of the flowering plants in the garden are now well past flowering and into full seeding. Only a few, such as the tansy Tanacetum vulgare are still in full flower (below right). Its small, yellow button heads, each about 1 cm across, distinguish it from all other composites growing in this area. This individual may have descended from bits of stem and root brought to the garden a few years ago, refugees from zealous roadside manicuring. It's a perennial, but seeds freely.  

Tansy unblocks channels to your senses. Rub and smell the leaves - they have a strong, almost biting, aromatic scent, not unpleasant.  The plant has been cultivated on a small scale for thousands of years to flavour food, dye cloth and cure various ailments. 

In the garden here, it shuns the meadow and hedgerows in favour of open ground or cracks and crevises. This year, we established a permanent clump of it in the plant dyes section and will add another in the medicinals section in the autumn. Its flowers offer food to bees and other insects well into September.


The woundworts are another group that extends flowering into late summer. The hedge woundwort is as oderous as the tansy, but with the smell of small dead things - voted the most stinky plant in a competition here at Open Farm Sunday 2010. Its relative, the marsh woundwort Stachys palustris, is neater in architecture and not smelly. Marsh woundwort are uncommon in many areas of the croplands, but frequent where moist ditches have been left by fields or roads.


A few plants of marsh woundwort established themselves in the garden, in shade, a few feet from the pond (photographs above). Their reproductive spikes continue extending upwards as they flower - they still have open flowers at the top while seed is maturing at the bottom. As with other labiates, they are much appreciated by pollinating insects.

Prehistoric women and men were no pansies when it came to eating wild plants as salads, garnishes or flavouring. They had their pick of wild garlic, sorrel, dandelion, hairy bittercress, tansy (see above), various mints, lady's smock and herb bennet (thanks to T. Darwin). And we still do today, so there's no need to settle for blandness - bit by bit you can open your mind to the taste of herbs. 

An exhibit on herbs for eating and cooking started this year in the raised beds. Those grown so far are the common, mostly introduced herbs such as parsley, sage, thyme and oreganum, and some less known, including fennel and lemon balm. The plants are not yet well grown, but you're free to nibble.The photograph right is of the bright green leaves of parsley. More wild plants used as culinery and salad herbs will be added in autumn and in spring next year.


The meadow has been a bit subdued this year. The nitrogen fixing legumes that gave such colour and interest in 2010 had almost disappeared. Hardly any red clover Trifolium pratense or kidney vetch Anthillis vulneraria, but we expect they are not gone, just resting. The yarrow Achillea millefolium, cock's foot grass and lady's bedstraw Galium verum have set the tone since spring (photographs below).



The lady's bedstraw, its yellow flowering stems above left and in the meadow right, is yet another of those plants that has many uses both in medicine and dyeing. It's been harvested from the wild and grown in semi-cultivation, as it is now in the meadow and the strip between the glasshouse and hedge just outside the entrance to the garden, where it grows bushy, a couple of feet in height.

And finally here's a moody scene of wild carroty heads, dead willow herb, hedge and thundery sky.



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Mid August 2011

Middle to late August is the time to see the flowering and fruiting umbels of the wild carrot Daucus carota. The recent deluge and strong winds have flattened those growing near the paths with nothing to hang on to, but most of the plants in and around the meadow may have bent a little from the base of the stem but are otherwise unharmed.  



The photographs above show (top) a group of plants having flowering and fruiting umbels, (bottom left) an umbel in full flower from above, about 15 cm across, with its concave, almost spongy-looking surface and dark red centre spot, and (bottom right) one seen from the back, having almost finished flowering. Soon the outer branches of the umbels will curve inwards, enclosing the many small, bristly fruits and looking like a round wicker basket with a hole at the top. The wild carrot in the garden reappear each year without any help. They are much favoured by insects. Wild carrot is uncommon as a weed in fields, but the cultivated variant, if left to set and drop seed, will occasionally appear in a later year as a volunteer weed.

The brassica plot in the arable section continues to yield its diverse produce. The plants with the big tubers, reddish on the outside, are widely known as swedes but locally as neeps (photograph right) and are huge and still growing. This variety was bred at the Institute. The leaves have the bluey-grey look of the cabbages rather than the bright green of the turnips, but swedes are in fact the same species as oilseed rape (Brassica napus). The swede variant has been bred to bulk its lower stem rather than put its effort into many oil-bearing seeds, but if swedes are left the next year to seed, they will look much like a scrawny oilseed rape. The yellow flesh when boiled and mashed is traditional with haggis and tatties but is a delicious cooked vegetable in its own right.


The cotton thistle has grown into an eight-foot giant and still amazes with its mix of cotton-down and spiny armour. The photograph below (Living Field collection) is of the main 'rib' of one the branches, sheathed in threads of down. The rib is about 2 cm across.



Three of the tall-growing heritage cereals - emmer wheat, spelt wheat and black oat - were badly thashed about in the recent deluge. They more or less all fell over, one of them on top of the much shorter modern wheat in the adjacent plot. The tall cereals have now been given extra support and continue to fill their grain. The other heritage cereal - bere (barley) - grew shorter and sturdier this year than last and was less affected by the wind and wet. But the mix of modern and heritage cereals in this small plot shows the benefit in this climate of the long term efforts by plant breeding to reduce the length of the stem, increase its straightness and resistance to bending  and concentrate more than half of the mass of the plant in the ear or head.

The heritage cereals such as emmer (right) have not had the same attention from plant breeding as have modern wheat and barley, and though they are much less used as crops, there is no denying the flowing lines of their architecture.   


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Early August 2011

The chicory Cichorium intybus returns to full flower each year in late July and August. It likes those unkempt, grassy areas near the entrance and by the field gate. Look closely at the intricate structure of the composite flower head with its range of blue and mauve.

Chicory rarely grows in the croplands here. The botany books suggest it is probably native to Britain but introduced in the north. Ours was but we're not sure where it came from. Its strong wiry stems and blue flowers distinguish it from all other composites in the garden. The best time to view the flowers is in the morning; they tend to close, though not all and not completely, later in the day. Its roots, when baked and ground to a powder, give the flavouring added to coffee in some parts of the world, while the young buds can be cooked as a vegetable or salad. There are many varieties or cultivars grown as vegetables or in small scale production.

The teasel Dipsacus fullonum has also been around since the garden started, but needs a couple of years undisturbed, since it becomes established in the first year, flowers in the second, then dies.  The small rose-purple flowers with purple anthers stick out at various places, usually in  bands around the head. Bees and other insects visit frequently when the head is in flower.The dead stem and head are strong and spiny and usually remain through the winter. The photograph right is a close-up of a head when the flowers have finished and withered; each 'cell' is 2-3 mm across. 

Crops of the brassica or cabbage family (Cruciferae, now Brassicaceae) are grown each year in one quarter of the arable sequence. The cabbage plot is well stocked this year with rows of broccoli, cauliflower and various cabbages, which are all domesticated cultivars of the wild cabbage Brassica oleracea.



The wild species, or possibly naturalised descendents of a previous cultivated variety, live as perennial plants right next to the sea, for example on and above coastal cliffs in Angus (look near Auchmithie) or Fife (near Crail).The wild cabbage is by no means the only crucifer to yield useful cultivars. The wild turnip and wild mustards are others. But a more unusual one, growing again after last year's successful outing, is the abyssinian mustard Crambe abysinnica, which bears oil in its seeds, just like many other relatives in the crucifer family. One plant turned up in our seedbank studies a few years ago and the plants have been grown from that. It is visible in the photograph above as a light green haze of stems, just beyond the rows of cabbages and in front of the meadow at the top of the picture. 

A vegetable plot has been cultivated in the west garden for the last two years by SWIIS Foster Care. The plot has potato, leek and onion, beans, various plants of the marrow family and sunflowers (photograph right). The sunflowers are garden variants of the genus Helianthus, and belong to the composite plant family (now Asteraceae) like the chicory, cotton thistle, corn marigold, mayweeds, groundsel and nipplewort. Despite the differences in colour, size and showiness, the sunflower and chicory have the same basic structure - the ray flowers around the margin and tubular flowers in the centre. 


An finally, here is a close-up of a chicory flower head (Living Field collection). Each tube with the vertical blue stripes is about 1 mm across.


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Mid July 2011

The poppy Papaver rhoeas, corn marigold Chrysanthemum segetum, cornflower Centaurea cyanus and mayweed Tripleurospermum inodorum, sown this spring in a small plot of the west garden, are now coming into full height and flower (photograph below, Living Field collection). The plot was established to display cornfield annuals which have now been displaced from the perennial meadow.



Other weeds of arable fields, including fat hen Chenopodium album and corn spurry Spergula arvensis, both present in the soil seedbank, emerged at the same time as the sown annuals. The soil of the plot will need to be disturbed every year to prevent perennial plants taking over.

The meadow in the east garden is now in full flower. The trend of the broadleaf plants to move to the fringes continued this year to the extent that there is now little wild carrot Daucus carota or musk mallow Malva moschata (photograph right, Living Field collection) in the centre. In contrast, the field scabious Knautia arvensis remains in profusion throughout the meadow, providing for pollinator insects.

All the plots in the arable 'rotation' have grown well, so much so in the case of the fallow that it had to be tilled recently to set back the weeds. The heritage and modern cereals, the potato varieties and the different kinds of brassica are all looking good in mid-July. 

Parts of the cereal and fallow plots can just be seen at the middle right of the photograph below. The clump of plants with white flowers at the near centre-left is mostly wild carrot that has migrated out of the meadow, the edge of which appears near right. 



The single cotton thistle Onopordum acanthium, in front of the gate in the view above, has grown to about 8 feet in height and is now opening its flowers. 


The cotton thistle's impenetrable spiny flower 'buds' that were present at the beginning of July have started to unfurle to show purple flower heads composed of many tubular florets (right, showing a 4 cm width across the centre of a head, Living Field collection). This big thistle gets a lot of attention, particularly from children who are amazed by the furry-leathery leaves, the armoury of spines  and the great size of the whole plant. Insects and spiders find places to hunt and hide in its architecture. Now they have turned their attention to the florets. Just about visible in the photograph are  two black bodies of insects and a lacework of threads, presumably left by another visitor and connecting the florets. Those florets in the centre have yet to open.   


Finally, here is another view of the new plot for cornfield annuals, showing mostly the blue flowering heads of the cornflower.



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Early July 2011

Following last years's successful foray into plant dyes and dye plants, the Living Field decided to start a permanent dye plants area in the garden so that material would be available each year. The area is just getting established. Many of the species are perennials that die back in the winter and so will take a few years more to reach their full size. The dyer's greenweed Genista tinctoria, shown right in flower, is one of the perennials. It's a member of the legume family, and so fixes atmospheric nitrogen from the air, and looks a bit like a small version of the broom that grows in the field boundaries hereabouts. The dyer's greenweed is native to the UK but is uncommon in the wild this far north.


Other perennials include the madder, which is struggling after being transplanted in April, and alkanet which is starting to feel at home. Some are biennials - they grow vegetatively one year and flower the next - and one such is woad Isatis tinctoria, which was badly set back by the severe winter, but is now being encouraged to flower so that seed can be collected for future years. The woad produces a haze of many small brassica-type flowers and distinctive pods (photograph right). Still other dye plants are annual, or weakly perennial, so have to be grown each year from saved seed. Some of the most showy - the dyer's chamonile and dyer's coreopsis - will reach their peak of  flowering in late July.


All manner of strange things turn up in the Living Field garden, many of them uninvited but most of them welcome. One such is the cotton thistle Onopordum acanthium, several individuals of which appeared in the year the garden was opened, 2004. Where they came from nobody knows, because they are uncommon in this area and have not been found elsewhere on the farm. Possibly they were in the seedbank, buried in the soil, and opportunities arose for them to emerge during the construction of the garden from a muddy corner of field.  The Onopordum's of 2004 were so impressive that we forgot to collect seed, but last summer, 2010, two or three new plants emerged, one of which survived the winter and is now about 7 feet tall (photograph below right) and growing.



The flowers are not out yet, but the composite heads, each several centimetres across, make an impressive show (left above).


Heritage and modern cereals were grown again from seed and took well on transplanting to their small plots in the arable 'rotation'.  This year, there is spelt and emmer wheat, modern bread wheat, black oat and modern oat, and bere and modern barley, all grown from saved seed. The bere has been particularly impressive this year, extending fast and flowering a couple of weeks before the modern barley.  The photograph below shows the newly headed modern barley in front of a line of bere, which is about a foot (30 cm) taller. The ears of the modern barley are bright green, compared to the more straw-coloured ears of the bere, which have already bent over and are much more awny. There is even more difference in height between modern bread wheat and the emmer and spelt.



At Open Farm Sunday, 12 June, Mother Gill's Concoctions displayed bread, bannocks and biscuits made from the various cereals. Really tasty they were too - no more white sliced for me. Thanks to the Agronony Institute Orkney for the original seed of the emmer, spelt and black oat, and to the miller at Barony Mill, Birsay, Orkney for the samples of bere seed and meal used at Open Farm Sunday.

All photographs - Living Field collection.


Geoff Squire for enquiries on this page

Gladys Wright for further information on the garden 


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