Spring is most certainly here. The fruit trees are shrouded in delicate blossoms, bulbs are bursting through the soil in vibrant colours, the bees have awoken, and the birds are making an almighty racket as they nest in the roof!
Yet all is quiet in the kitchen garden. It’s that time of year when nearly all the winter crops have been harvested and this year’s crops are just starting their journey, most of them growing quietly in the greenhouse, a few newly transplanted into freshly-mulched earth. Many of the beds lie empty. Aside from the last remaining romanesco and leeks, there’s nothing left to eat. We’re entering that barren time of year known as the hungry gap.
But while the kitchen garden withdraws from the spotlight, the wild garden seizes its moment to shine. There are so many wild and wonderful plants coming into their own right now – or weeds as many will dismiss them as – which are tasty, healing and growing in abundance. I found these wonders hiding in the garden over the last few days…
There are many different uses for these plants, but here’s what I’ve been doing with them…
Borage, or starflower, is a medicinal plant that has been used over the centuries to treat everything from nervous conditions to insect bites.
We like to see borage growing in the garden as it encourages pollinators (the bees love it), but we have to keep an eye on it as it can spread like wild fire! Although the leaves and stalks are also edible, I tend to favour the pretty blue flowers which look lovely tossed into salads or used to decorate cakes. My favourite way to use them is sprinkled in glasses of Pimm’s!
Also known as Jack by the Hedge, this common wild herb is easy to identify with its small white flowers and heart-shaped leaves which release a garlicky scent when crushed. The leaves are antiseptic and were once used medicinally to treat wounds and ulcers.
I use the leaf as a salad green, or it can be added to soups and stews.
There are so many uses for this health-boosting herb, and yet most people pull it up furiously as soon as it appears! The flowers, leaves and roots are all edible and contain different nutrients.
I use the leaf and petals sprinkled into salads (be sparing with the leaves, they can be a little bitter), but dandelion can also be used to make wine, tea and syrups, and you can cook and eat the roots as you would carrots.
As a child, I knew this as sticky-weed; we’d throw handfuls of the plant at each other in the playground and laugh when it clung fiercely to our clothes. These days, I infuse a handful of cleavers overnight in cold water and strain the next morning to make a refreshing drink which I sip throughout the day. It is said to purify the blood and help support the lymphatic system.
Dotted all over our lawn, daisies are a very common sight. I like to add the flowers to salads or sandwiches. Anti-inflammatory and circulation-boosting, the plant can also be made into a restorative tea.
Look beyond their sharp teeth and you’ll find a wonderful ally. A nutritional powerhouse that’s high in iron and vitamins A and C, it’s my favourite wild plant to forage. Nettle pesto is my preferred way to use them (I made my first batch last weekend which I’ve frozen), but I also dry the leaves for tea.
Stinging nettle has been used to treat a wide range of complaints including eczema and arthritis, as well as seasonal allergies including hay fever. (Curiously enough, Ade had developed hay fever during the last few years we were living in London. I thought he’d suffer even more once we’d moved to the country, but it’s actually gone away. Could it possibly have something to do with the stinging nettle he now includes in his diet?)
So, this is how I’m using the wild flowers that are currently popping up in our garden, but there are many more uses for them. It’s easy to dismiss them as weeds and get rid of them, but I’d always encourage you to try to identify them and learn about them. They often have nutritional value or healing properties, and even if they’re not useful to you, they’re probably a valuable food source or habitat to something hiding in your garden.
Tell me about your weeds and what you do with them!
7 thoughts on “The Wild Garden”
Stinging nettle is native. All others are naturalized. Most of our mustard is the common sort that the Spanish brought though. It grew as a cover crop under the orchards of the Santa Clara Valley. Borage is uncommon, so I will pamper it if I ever find it growing in a situation where it can stay. On rare occasion, I find it at work, but in situations where it must be removed. That is plenty for me. It lived on the edges of the garden at the home in town, but never proliferated. I suppose that if I want more of it, I will grow it intentionally. As much as I prefer white flowers, I actually prefer borage to bloom blue. It just looks right that way. White is not so pretty for it. Because I do not like the texture of borage, I prefer it to be cooked, such as fried with with other greens. Mustard, as well as its relatives, grow in profusion right outside, and in an abandoned baseball diamond at work. It is nice to be able to collect it in varying forms, depending on preference at the time. I can collect new leaves for fresh greens, or mature leaves for cooking. Mature leaves from bolted plants develop that bitter flavor with a more substantial texture. Tops of blooming stems are good also, even if the flowers are already opening. Wild radish is similar, and just as variable. Turnip greens are the best, but are uncommon, less variable, and not as good once they bolt. Dandelions live in the baseball diamond also, but mostly get ignored. I do not like them fresh, so only cook them. They tend to stay low to the ground, so need to be washed vigorously. They are only available into spring, and then get shabby and bitter by summer. Cleavers likewise get ignored. They are less substantial than other greens. If I collect enough to make one pot of that puree soup, there is not much left. That is enough though. I would say that the daisies are useless, but a neighbor adds the dried floral buds to tea, like a bland chamomile. I prefer chamomile or feverfew, but will not argue with those who know much more about herbal tea than I do. Stinging nettle is perhaps the favorite here though. Although it is not as substantial as the mustard and relatives, there is quite a bit of it. Unfortunately, it does not last long. It is best through late winter and about now, but soon blooms and dries up. I really should collect and dry it. I pulverize the dried leaves into a powder.
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Wow! So many lovely wild plants to work with, and it sounds like you really know how to make the most of them! ☺️
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Well, there is a lot to use. There is no need to make the most of it. Actually, most of it goes to waste. I should dry more of the nettle. It makes a nice green flour like powder that can be added to vegetable stock. I suppose that I could can some of the greens, but with so much growing wild for most of the year, there is not much need to.
Thank you for pointing out the benefits of the weeds in the garden. I would never have thought of using them for nourishment. For me it is a real eye opener! Looking forward to more news of the garden over the summer!
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Now, I never thought of using dandelion root like carrot. In the autumn, I dig them up, roast them and then grind to a powder which I boil with milk to make ‘coffee’.
I love nettle soup and I also make cordial with nettles. Last year, I fancied making some yarn from the stems but so far the stems are still awaiting the final stages of being processed.
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I must try making dandelion ‘coffee’, I’ve never actually made it myself. It’ll be interesting to see how the nettle yarn turns out.☺️
Thank you! I hope you do try the coffee 😊