hap boards and squared paper

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Morning has broken in Sandwick and a jolly fine one it is too.  Today I will be mostly knitting in the Hub and doing some natural dyeing.  But yesterday was all about the technical stuff.  Sometimes it is when you are forced down a route you had not planned upon that the journey becomes most fun.  Yesterday was a case in point.

I had not been able to get one of the classes I had hoped for, it had sold out in minutes.  So as my second choice I opted for Dressing Shetland Knitwear, in other words how to block your knitwear once you finally get it off the needles.  When I first began to knit I was desperate to wear my creations, I didn’t want to have to wait for them to be blocked. But now I understand the magic that takes place when the knitting, upon which you have  bestowed some of the best hours of your life, is transformed from mere knitting to a thing of beauty – and a thing that actually fits – blocking can be a dark art too!

I, like most knitters, usually block with pins.  This involves finding a very large unoccupied double bed or a room with a huge clear floor upon which no animal (two, four, six or eight legged) will roam unhindered and then painstakingly shaping and pinning and reshaping and repining, stopping for tea, resuming the pinning stopping for gin to lift the sagging soul and finally accepting that this is the best that can be achieved (and that sleeve hanging over the side of the bed will be fine really).

Rachel and Freya Hunter put a stop to that pain.  It will involve Stuart (a) doing some magic with 4 x 4 and creating a hap board and possibly “investing” in a jumper board (if I can find one for sale) but it will be worth it.

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This hap is about 5ft square.  That is a lot of hap!  Once washed and spun dry a single piece of mercerised cotton is threaded through the edges (being careful to thread through a couple of rows of knit to ensure the yarn doesn’t snap as it dries!)

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Once all the loops are wrapped around the pins it is time to start pulling and stretching to ensure that the hap is evenly laid across the board.  It is slightly scary pulling something so beautiful so tight but the yarn (in this case 2ply jumper weight) is strong – AS LONG AS IT IS DAMP!  If you let it dry and pull tightly it can snap so keep a spray bottle to hand if it feels as if it is drying before you have finished the adjustments.

The hap board is a VAST improvement over pinning on the floor.  Not only is it far easier to adjust and obtain a neat square (or circle) but it stands upright so takes up almost no space and as it is open to the air on both sides it dries faster and more evenly.  Stuart has been given his instructions!

The jumper board was a thing of wonder and beauty, but also rather hard to obtain (believe me I have been trying).

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This too is fully adjustable and ensures an even blocking on both sides.  I think creation of this may be beyond even Stuart, but if there are any joiners out there who would like to give it a go, please let me know.

Lacework has to be blocked, even the most beautiful work (which mine is not) has a tendency to look like a dishcloth until it is given the blocking treatment.  But did I ever think about using a board for lace scarves?  Reader I did not!

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First we folded this cockleshell scarf in half and tacked the sides using running stitch.  Then it was pulled over the end of the board and adjusted until the sides were flush.  Three lengths of yarn, each four times the length of the end of the scarf to the end of the board were threaded through each peak (again make sure you thread at least two rows in).  Then the thread was carefully pulled and tied with a slip knot and the peaks adjusted until they were exactly (ish – we weren’t entering our scarf in a competition where symmetry is measured in mm!) the same length and matched on the back on the front.   How simple, yet how clever is that?

Finally hats, gloves, socks and mittens.  Meet Fred.

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This is my 2019 Wool Week Roadside Beanie.  Traditionally hats would have been blocked on balls but a balloon (ecological caveats notwithstanding) enables you to match the hat size to your own head.  Measure your head where the brim will lie.  Blow up the balloon to the same size, thread waste yarn through the edge of the ribbing and fit the damp hat over the balloon (and in my case insert ear plugs as the noise is horrible!).  Tighten the waste yarn.  Face optional.

There was time for a very quick cheese and pickle sandwich and then I hotfooted it (with Fred in tow) up to Market Street for a workshop designing a stranded colour work motif for a shawl based on flowers from the Shetlands.

I had no idea what to expect and Felicity of Knitsonik  did not disappoint any of my rather wobbly expectations of what I might be able to achieve.  First we had to choose our colour.  No problem there, orange please.  And then our flower.  Fox and Cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca).

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But then the hard work began, how to turn the idea of the flower above into a motif that can be repeated throughout the shawl using the colours not to paint a picture of the flower but to represent the flower throughout the shawl.  Much chewing of pencils over squared paper and much creation of strange pacman like flowers but I got there in the end.

I’m not explaining this very well I know.  Maybe it’s best to have a look at Felicity’s website!

However these are my colours

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I would love to show you my finished motif.  But sadly I didn’t finish it!  However, I now think I know what I am doing and have the resources to start the multicoloured swatch.  Watch this space.

Now time to get my tam out and get those needles clicking.

Love Gillie x

 

 

 

 

gowns, gardeners and gongs

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Advice I was given yesterday.

  • Don’t eat the black pudding (ignored that already at breakfast today)
  • Be nice (excellent tenet)
  • Don’t work for anyone you don’t like (I will add a codicil of “unless you have no choice”, rent and food are not luxuries)
  • Say yes (presumably unless you don’t like the person asking)

Notwithstanding the fact that these are huge generalisations and there will be plenty of exceptions to prove the rule, I have added some of my own already, as far as advice for graduates as well as mere Certificate holders such as me they are more succinct and more relevant than much of the stuff that has been doled out to me over my many years in many very different educational institutions.

I rather wish I had a video of the man in question during his talk / speech / stand up routine, as James Alexander Sinclair , reknowned stand up comedian, garden designer has a wicked twinkle in his eye that belies his sober appearance and is an accomplished choreographer, taking control of the stage that we, the graduates had merely marched across, certificates in hand, only moments earlier.  However, pop over to his website for a photo – he looks rather good in a floral headress, and perhaps read his blog to get a little taste of his way with words.

My journey to the lecture hall at RBGE on 12th September began something like this.

Me (observing husband deep in contemplation of expensive fishing tackle on a well-known on-line auction site):  Do you remember how helpful you found the herbal healing salve I made you?

Him (not looking up from piscatorial porn): Hmmmm

Me: I wondered if I should apply for that course at the Edinburgh Botanics I was telling you about.

Him: Hmmm

I signed up on the spot.  And so I morphed from Mum to Professor Smellie Sprout and have never looked back.  Regular and observant readers will know that in October 2020 I take the next step in my herbal journey and start training with Nicki Durrell at The Plant Medicine School in Cork with a view to becoming a fully fledged medical herbalist.  I certainly didn’t see that coming when I told my school careers advisor (in all seriousness) that I wanted to be a spy, or as a fall back, an actress.

And so,  almost a year later Stuart and I arrived at Edinburgh airport from ten days in northern Spain at some silly o’clock hour and crashed out in our Airbnb, chosen to be within walking distance from RGBE, we didn’t think we were going to be up to much travelling the following day!

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Dress (suitably botanical) ironed, hair tamed as best I could I presented myself for registration.  Gosh, there were a lot of people, and they all looked as if they were very knowledgeable.  I was in awe of those that held little tickets that declared they had completed a course in botanical illustration, what witchery is that?!  But lo, I spied a handful of my fellow Herbalogy Certificators (?) and then there we were, clutching our order numbers seated alphabetically by course ready for the off.

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I have been to a number of graduations of my own and more speech days and prize givings than I care to remember.  There were three speakers …..

But the Herbology Gods were smiling, nay they were laughing. First up was David.  If ever there was a perfect example of why Garden Design (new career) is better for the soul than Banking (previous career) it was David.  Pim followed with a wonderful pictorial summary of the MSc in Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants which left me wondering if there was room for a Colombian field trip in the Herbology Certificate too!

Next up was Mr Sinclair above and then suddenly it was all over and we were being marshalled for photographs.

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Health and safety alive and well – this was our photographer in the aptly named cherry picker.

It perhaps says something about our particular group that we had all noticed that there we had two drink tokens per person for the reception, and there was rocky road.  I believe there were other nibbles but champagne and rocky road did it for me.

And now  …. ?  Well who knows but for the time being I shall keep saying yes and see what happens.

Love Gillie x

 

 

 

dog days with a dog

In the early toddler days of summer I took you on a photographic tour of my garden after a couple of days of heavy and relentless rain.  Despite, or perhaps because of the downpour there was unexpected beauty to be found everywhere.

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I love this leaf.  Has it arrived, or is it about to embark?

The toddler is now grown and the musty, earthy smell of the early  morning indicates the arrival of autumn.  So before the season fully turns please join me on a wander around the late summer garden.

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Fuchsia, or as I called them when I was a child – Dancing Ladies.

2019-08-26 15.26.26The last of the summer lettuce.

2019-08-26 15.28.22Hide and seek playing sweet pea.

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Waiting for the grapes to ripen.

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Green, grassy-smelling hops.

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The sunflower hedge, heads up and soaking up the rays.

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Peppermint in flower.

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Not long now.

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Hawthorn berries bring colour to the hedges.

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Wild Carrot, open and closed.

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Blowsy dahlia.

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Agapanthus dancing in the breeze.

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The beginning and the end of the roses.

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Peppery nasturtiums.

2019-08-26 15.29.34Francine and Mylie waiting for me to move out of their way.

Enjoy the dog days of summer.  Maybe even with a dog …

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Love Gillie x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

professor smellie sprout

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I have several nicknames, my husband endearingly calls me the Septic Ferret, this has nothing to do with my personal hygiene but was a result of his response to me calling him a lazy old goat at precisely the moment during an episode of Blackadder in which Baldrick had clearly done something unspeakable.  Such billet doux as we send each other (please remember to feed the dog/electrician arrives at midday/we are out of  milk) are invariably signed off sfx or luvlog.   Beat that Cyrano de Bergerac.

However, it is  my most recently acquired nickname that is relevant today.  Professor  Smellie Sprout.  Again this has nothing to do with overcooked Christmas vegetables.  This name was given to me by my knitting group on hearing that I had recently completed a certificate course in Herbology at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.  .

[Oh and I got a distinction by the way] 

Much mirth ensued until I cured a very swollen ankle with my sore muscle salve , and offers of beatification followed.  Sainthood is not my thing, I couldn’t keep up the good behaviour for a start,  but herbs most certainly are.

[Did I tell you I got a distinction?]

So in October 2020 I start fours years of training to become a fully fledged, officially registered Smellie Sprout at the School of Plant Medicine in Cork.  In the meantime I need to keep my hand in so I have been writing up  my Materia Medica.  I imagine most people write up theirs electronically.  I don’t, not least, because come the apocalypse when the internet is but a dimly lit memory my Materia Medica will still be going strong.

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Even its box is a thing of beauty, and apparently an office appliance no less.

On one of the first mornings when I could wander around the garden without the need for wellies and waterproofs I began to take photographs to attach to the notes.  It’s surprising how much medicine you can plant in your garden.

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Verbena officinalis  Vervain.  The subject of my first monograph.  One of the oldest sacred herbs for the Romans, Greeks and Druids.  Useful for tension headaches, migraine and may also have a role, in conjunction with some antibiotics, in the control of MRSA.

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Hypericum perforatum  St John’s Wort.  Well known as an antidepressant it is also an important external wound healer.

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Tanacetum parthenium Feverfew.  Best known for the treatment of migraine (and its ability to self seed with gay abandon) it is also an anti-inflammatory and is used in the alleviation of arthritis pain.

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Borago officinalis  Borage.  One of my favourite garden herbs, so pretty and a delicious addition to summer drinks.  A cooling herb it was once called “cool-tankard”.  “Borage for courage” is an oft-quoted expression indicating its ability to restore life and vitality to the  downhearted and those weighed down by mental exhaustion.

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Artemisia verlotiorum  Chinese Mugwort.  One of the many medicinal Artemisia, one of the digestive bitters and strongly linked to the female reproductive system.

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Artemisia absinthium  Wormwood.  Forever to be linked to the era of Toulouse Lautrec and the apparent hallucinations brought on drinking copious amounts of absinthe.  The hallucinations were believed to be the result of the high levels of thujone in the plant, although that has now been debunked.  Today its extreme bitterness makes it a valuable member of the digestive bitters group of herbs and may also help the body cope with infection and fever.

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Verbascum thapsus  Mullien.  Unsurprisingly also known as Aaron’s rod, it provides dramatic structure in the garden both when flowering and as a dry autumnal stem.  Primarily a respiratory remedy, reducing inflammation and increasing fluid production. During a long and nasty viral infection this summer I drank mullein tea every day and can confirm that it is an excellent expectorant and soothing plant.

2019-08-23 08.45.08Leonurus cardiaca  Motherwort.  A member of the mint family, the clue is in the common name, motherwort has a long association with the female reproductive system and motherhood.  Its Latin name indicates its use as a cardiac tonic.

2019-08-23 08.45.30Foeniculum vulgare Fennel.  Almost ready to harvest the seeds.  A carminative, aiding digestion, antispasmodic and often used to relieve colic.

2019-08-23 08.41.17Matricaria chamomilla  Roman Chamomile.  This isn’t doing quite as well this year since the husband “weeded” my original plants earlier this summer.  These are the replacements and with only two flowers thus far my  harvest will be very low this year!

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Lavendula sp Lavender complete with friend.  I’ve been cutting and drying all summer, we have about six bushes which have been very productive this year.

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And here it is drying in the kitchen.

Time to write up all the notes now.

Love Gillie x

gooseberry

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When we first moved into this house, back in 2000, my husband got a great deal on some gooseberry canes.  He likes a good deal, these were the days before the internet and online selling really took off and much joy was derived from scouring the weekly Ad-mags for bargains to help in the two year rebuild and renovation of the house and grounds.  So we were the proud owners of some 50 gooseberry canes.  Yes, that is correct, no typo.  Fifty canes.

We had the space and there was a perfect spot for them by the secret garden.  However, as even the most beginner of gardeners will know.  Gooseberries need to be pruned and trimmed or they turn into sharp-thorned triffids.

Ours became, over time, sharp-thorned triffids, and the sharper the thorns and the triffidier (I do like that word) they became the less inclined we were to brave the gooseberry patch and whip them under control.

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I wasn’t expecting much of a harvest this year.  I was mistaken.  We have had several small bucketloads already and there are plenty more to come.  Thus far I have made mackerel and horseradish sauce for the lovely fresh mackerel Stuart has been catching.

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Then gooseberry and lemon curd, gooseberry fool and still there are more to come.  So if you are passing, pop in and go home with a bag of goosgogs :_

Gooseberry and Horseradish sauce

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  • Gooseberries – a good couple of handfuls
  • Caster sugar to taste
  • Horseradish – I used homemade fermented horseradish but you could use fresh grated or a standard jar of creamed horseradish

It’s hardly a recipe but here goes.  Put the fruit in a heavy bottom pan with a splash of water (only a splash). Add roughly one tablespoon of sugar to each handful of gooseberries.  Stir over a gentle heat until the fruit is soft and squishy.  Add horseradish to taste, I like it quite hot, but even if you don’t, a little gives it a lovely zing.  Cool and pour into clean jars.  Keep in the fridge and use within a week.

Gooseberry Fool

  • Gooseberries
  • Caster sugar to taste
  • Double cream
  • Full fat greek yoghurt

Another recipe that is hardly a recipe.  Prepare the fruit as above.  Whip the cream until stiff.  Add yoghurt, I use equal quantities of whipped cream and yoghurt.  Stir in cooked fruit.  Pop in a bowl and put in the fridge for at least an hour before serving.

Gooseberry and Lemon curd

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  • 500g gooseberries
  • 100ml lemon juice
  • 125g unsalted butter
  • 450g granulated sugar
  • 4 medium or 5 large eggs

This is a proper recipe and comes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Place the fruit in a heavy bottomed pan with the lemon juice and cook gently until squishy.  Push through a fine sieve to obtain a puree.

Put the puree, butter and sugar in a Bain Marie and heat gently until the butter is melted and the mixture rich and shiny.

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Leave to cool, you don’t want gooseberry scrambled eggs.

Beat the eggs and whisk into the cooled fruit sugar and butter mixture.  Replace over the Bain Marie and stir constantly until the mixture is thick and creamy.  If you have a thermometer, it will need to reach about 84C before it starts to thicken.  Don’t be tempted to rush this stage, or it will curdle.  If it does start to curdle whip it off the heat and whisk as fast as you can and cross your fingers!

When thick pour into sterilised jars and spread thickly over your breakfast toast!

Love Gillie x

 

herbal loose ends

At this time of year you can usually find me either grubbing around in the garden and hedgerows collecting herbs or in the kitchen infusing, decocting and generally making remedies for the year ahead.

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Today was a catch up day.  I have several tinctures that are ready to be bottled up.  A tincture is a simple method to harvest the medicinal qualities of a herb.  All you need is the herb itself and base solvent.  The most common solvent is alcohol as it has the ability to dissolve almost all the constituents of most plants and acts as a preservative at the same time.  If you prefer not to use alcohol then vinegar or glycerine can be substituted.  Vodka is my preferred tincture solvent, a minimum of 37-40% proof.  I have bought much stronger vodka in Romania and Latvia where is was quite reasonably priced compared to the UK.

The common home method for making a tincture is to fill a small jar with the chopped herb and cover with the solvent liquid.  There are guidelines for different ratios of herb to solvent (see Hoffmann or Bartram for details).  I tend to use the common method but I do make a note of the strength of alcohol used.

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Earlier this summer I had put aside :

  • Turmeric
  • Ginger
  • Chilli
  • Chickweed
  • Lemon balm
  • Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
  • Hawthorn leaves
  • Motherwort
  • Dandelion leaf and root
  • Lemon balm and basil in witchazel

So  much of this morning was spent bottling up and labelling.  I add the plant (Latin name if there is a risk of confusion), date of bottling, solvent and place the plant was harvested.

The first three (turmeric, ginger and chilli) are part of my personal treatment for muscular strain in my upper arms/shoulders as a result of hypermobility.  I’ve made a very effective salve using these three ingredients and was interested to see if the tincture taken internally was as effective.  I’ll do a post on the salve later this month.

Chickweed and lemon balm are both exceptionally good for skin irritations.  Mugwort is bitter tonic and helps with digestive disorders, stimulating bile production whilst also providing a carminative action reducing gas in the digestive system.  Hawthorn (more commonly the berries but also the leaves, I shall harvest the berries later in the year) and Motherwort are both cardiac tonics and whilst everyone knows dandelion as a diuretic few also know that it is an excellent source of potassium thus negating the need for potassium supplements required when synthetic diuretics are prescribed. (See Bartram or Hoffmann for detailed information on the herbs listed).  Finally some of you will remember the lemon balm and basil witchazel tincture as the basis of my first attempt at home made insect repellent.  I’ll let you know how it works!

The lemon balm infusion was ready to be turned into a salve.

  • 60 ml Lemon balm infused oil
  • 6 mg beeswax granules

Add both ingredients to a bowl over a pan of gently simmering water and stir until the beeswax is melted.  Pour into clean jar and leave with the lid off until the salve is solid.

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Now, I have to bottle up the rest of the tinctures and get out in the garden and do some more harvesting, the sage and verbascum are vast and the mint needs my attention!

Love Gillie x

 

 

 

an english country garden

… in the rain

I seriously considered putting on wellies just to walk round to the orchard to let out Mylie and Francine.  Seen here in sunnier days at Easter

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Francine on the right and Mylie on the left.

The rain seems to be endless and I wonder if I will ever sit outside with a book and enjoy the garden.  But let’s be honest, the long, hot summer of 2018 was an aberration and this is a more traditional English summer.  So here are some pictures of the beauty of an English country garden in its more usual “habitat” … the rain.

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The flagstones under the garden table, where we will not be eating supper tonight.

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Rosa rugosa holding up against the rain, not so delicate after all!

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Leaf sailing on across the overflowing water butt.

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Snail hiding in the fallen rose petals.

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Bounty in the garden.  Woad, fennel, motherwort, mugwort, artichoke (globe and Jerusalem), runner beans, peas, yarrow.

It may be wet, but it’s still beautiful.

Love Gx