Six on Saturday: 16 Jan 2021: let there be light!

Mid January. At this time of year, I often feel like a participant in the Chinese communists’ famous 6,000 mile trek, the long march to freedom of the 1930’s, except that instead of the emergence of Chairman Mao as undisputed party leader, it’s the emergence of spring that we are marching towards (and perhaps freedom from the tyranny of Covid-19!). So let’s keep marching folks, the way seems long, but there are only two more Six on Saturdays until February! On this endurance feat, am keeping my spirits up with some good music (am flitting this week between Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and The Best of Bryan Ferry & Roxy Music), many cups of tea, some nice food and planning a new world order (or do I mean planting schemes?).

I’m going to start with some snow, a brief white interlude:

1 A dusting of snow. We were promised snow in Brussels this week, and this is all we got, it lasted for all of two hours on Thursday morning. I was mighty quick to get the camera, before it all melted. Honestly, I was expecting better, but hey ho, perhaps next time.

2 LED Plant Grow Lights. A new bit of kit! Arrived this week, can’t wait to try them out when I start sowing in February. Hopefully, goodbye leggy seedlings. It clips on easily to the window ledge, has four flexible arms, dimmers, timers for 4/8/12 hour bursts and a remote control! Cool. Here my Aloe is enjoying the full spectrum light. I feel like joining it.

3 Gaultheria mucronata berries. These are still doing well in their big blue pot.

4 Garlic. Planted in the veg bed in October, it’s pushing through healthily now. I counted about ten, which I think is how many cloves I planted.

5 Geum ‘Scarlet Tempest’. Already showing buds, this one flowers quite early in April. Although I lost two plants in the summer drought, one survived and I divided it into three, and planted these divisions in my new purple-orange themed border. They are a cheerful sight in flower – as shown in the second photo taken last spring.

6 Borage. Right plant, wrong place. I have decided that borage can’t grow in the veg bed. Simply gets too big, even though it’s an excellent decoy for blackfly/aphids, which left my veg alone last year, going for the borage instead. I love it though, so I’ll find a new place for it, but this fellow and his friends are going to have to come out. I wrote a post about borage, you can see it and photos of its brilliant blue flowers here. It’s worth growing not only for the beauty of the flowers and the bristly foliage that glimmers in morning sunshine, but also for its value to pollinators: scientists have found that after a bee visits a flower, it refills with nectar within two minutes, making it like a busy service station for bees!

To finish off, I’d like to thank readers for the great comments made on my post on herbs last week. I used all the herbs I mentioned to make this rather delicious topping for bread: chickpeas, red onion, lemon, olive oil, salt, pepper and all the fresh herbs I could lay my hands on. It felt like a taste of summer. That’s all from me this week. Check out the Prop’s site for lots of interesting Six on Saturday reads from all over the globle. Till next time.

Borage: bread for bees

Shimmering in the morning light

Bring some elven magic into your garden with borage (Borago officinalis, also known as Starflower). It seems to have walked right out of one of the flower fairy books I had as a child, with its bright blue star-shaped blooms perfectly displayed in a silvery haze of hirsute nodding flower heads. When you get up close, it really does look otherworldly, but even from afar it’s what catches my eye when I look out of the sitting room window in the morning towards the veg patch, as it is perfectly silhouetted by the morning sun.

There are many reasons to grow this beautiful annual herb. First of all, it is absolutely adored by bees and other pollinators too, hence it is also known as ‘bee bread’. So, if you grow it with your veg, you can be sure that you won’t have any problems with pollination. Apparently, if you have a honeybee colony, borage gives the honey a wonderful taste. My neighbour has a hive, so I wonder if she’ll taste the difference this year (I may have to demand a taste test).

A bee buzzes in for a nectar-rich snack

Borage also has an interesting history. Native to the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region, it was prized by the Romans, who introduced it to Britain (along with a great many other plants). They used borage tea mixed with wine to give courage to their soldiers before battle. Victorian ladies also drunk it in a ‘claret cup’ with various alcoholic additions to ward off the blues. The sixteenth century herbalist and gardener John Gerard says of the leaves and flowers, when “put into wine make men and women glad and merry, driving away all sadness, dullness and melancholy”.

Borage oil continues to be used today in herbal treatments and is said to alleviate stress associated with cardiovascular conditions. The leaves are also nutritious, high in minerals like calcium and iron, and can be added to salads. I would only use the very young fresh leaves, as the older ones are a little bit too hairy! Or you could simply use the flowers, which look wonderful mixed with nasturtium and calendula flowers.

I love making ice cubes with the flowers for snazzy summer drinks. Simply pick fresh flowers, pop them into your ice cube tray, add water and freeze. If you want, you can add other aromatic edibles, like sprigs of mint, rosemary or thyme. Last year, I made a batch with viola flowers, which look perfect in a glass of sparkling elderflower cordial.

A pretty ice-cube with viola. Borage flowers work really well too.

Borage suits naturalistic planting schemes well, and in my little veg patch it does take up a bit of room, as these are bushy plants reaching up to 60cm tall, but for me it’s no great sacrifice given both its beauty and its pollinator credentials. As you can see, my plot is home to flowers almost as much as it is to veg: I try to let in as many of the pollinating plants as possible, on the condition that they don’t impede the growth of the vegetables.

Borage grows among shallots and self-seeded calendula, just coming into flower

As a little aside, I was delighted to find some self-seeded chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) in the patch, close to the borage. Goodness knows how it got there, but that’s part of the magic, right? I managed to pick just enough flowers from plants around the garden for a cup of chamomile tea.

Cheery self-seeded chamomile

So, plenty of reasons to find a nice sunny spot for borage. Once it’s in, it will be there for years, as it’s a reliable self-seeder, without being overwhelming. It seems to grow happily in clay. If you can, place it where it catches the morning sun for that shimmery, silvery effect.

Borage flower up close