Paul Richens, of the renowned Skip Garden led a workshop at Cordwainers looking at what we can grow at this time of year. He gave us a fascinating talk which got us thinking about rainfall, light levels, temperature and local conditions – and the useful seasonal benchmark of Guy Fawkes night (5th November) as the real end of the growing season in London. Still time to put in a crop of radishes. Even then we can still grow microgreens and plants that will survive – or even thrive in – the winter. Brassicas mostly, winter lettuces and ‘oriental’ greens such as mizuna (if you like that mustardy heat). We then went to the garden and took root and stem cuttings from mint and a scented pelargonium.
We ran another of our weed walks — or plant safaris — last week. At these events we look at plant families, how plants grow, their habitats and the great variety and resilience of wild plants. After ambling about inspecting and wondering at the above, we then study the plants further by drawing them.
People get scared of drawing but drawing is the least of it. The looking is the most of it. And we want to encourage looking (and the wonder which comes from looking) at the intricacies and complexities of even the ‘simplest’ weed/wild flower. You should probably spend 60% of your time looking – more than drawing. If you do that, you are more likely to end up drawing what you actually see, rather than what you expect to see.
One tip Neela Basu, our tame artist, gave us for drawing is to examine the way and direction a plant grows and, rather than draw its face (or flower) first, start at the bottom near its roots and work our way up and try to express the way its energy propels it upwards or around.
Our group, with a wealth of knowledge about growing between them, had a head start with the looking as they were familiar with the habits and patterns of plants. They produced some fantastic drawings.
Thanks to Capital Growth for arranging it and to Steve Ellis for the photographs.
Our annual woad and indigo harvest and dye workshop was an evening of gentle delight. It involved curiosity, experiment and awe at that magical transformation of plant into colour. We also harvested our flax and ate amazing scones with home-made jams. Sometimes you can imagine that all is right with the world.
We did two pots – one of woad and one of Japanese indigo, which usually gives a stronger colour but we found the woad was just as potent this year. Thanks to Steve for taking the photos.
After my visit to Michel Garcia’s dye garden in Provence I was inspired to make inks so we ran a small workshop in our office/studio on Well St using ingredients I bought there. We used cochineal beetles, insects that live on the nopal cactus. Cochineal beetles have been used across Europe to colour textiles and to make pigment for paints and inks. Today in Mexico and Peru they cultivate the cactus to harvest cochineals to make the colour additive E120. We also ground up oak galls (for brown and added iron for black), buckthorn + alum for green), sophora flowers from China for yellow and logwood for violet.
It’s long been my ambition to make a record of all the ‘weeds’ growing along Mare St. I say ‘weeds’ but really I want to rehabilitate them and rename them as wild plants. Finally we got round to it. We roped Annie Chipchase, a local urban ecologist, in to lead a group of us to look at, identify and draw what we found. We started at a short stretch of unprepossessing road round the corner from the garden: Weston Walk. It’s more of an alley — often strewn with hair from the salon that backs onto it, as well as chicken bones from the chicken shop, dumped rubbish bags and occasionally furniture. I’d noticed, though, that a leaking pipe had provided an environment for moss to grow so I thought it would be a good place to begin our hunt. In this short road we found 23 varieties of plants growing in the cracks and up the walls. We were so absorbed, we hardly had time to explore or record what was growing on Mare St. We wondered at the resilience of these plants growing in the most hostile environment – and will never look at the cracks in the pavement in the same way again.
There are several ways of getting warm. We tried three. The first was to make a small fire.
The second was to eat cake.
And the third was to go into the shed and lick a chilli seed or two and learn a lot more. For our second Grow A Gardener workshop this year, we ran a session on basic seed-sowing followed by a master class by the knowledgeable, interesting and resourceful Raul Couselo. He grows chillies indoors but it is also possible to grow outdoor varieties in London (bring them in in the winter). Chillies are often difficult to germinate. They need a long period of warmth with a soil temperature of at least 18 degrees C. Raul has designed a fail-safe seed propagator using a bit of folded cardboard in which you put your seeds, wrap it in a plastic bag and put on somewhere warm. He gets 100% germination (as opposed to my rate which is about 30%).
Once the seeds have germinated, transplant them to pots and place them on damp cardboard in a mini greenhouse made from a croissant box placed on an electric blanket.
Raul gave us some brilliant tips.
Once they have grown and produced flowers, to get more even, bigger and better crops of fruits, hand pollinate with a paintbrush. It’s much easier than it sounds. Just move pollen from the stamen to the stigma. Use different brushes for different plants to avoid cross-pollination.
Soak cardboard beneath pots to keep plants moist.
Add good quality soil to water so that you are watering your plants with nutrients. Comfrey is too strong!
Prune chillies. They are perennials and benefit from the stress.
Save seeds from shop bought chillies as well as your own.They may not come true but you can experiment. You must!