Melanie Dool’s gardening column in association with Orchardstown Garden Centre
ALL plants including food crops and those growing in the garden were weeds at some stage. Humans changed that by starting to cultivate edible plants and animals near the homestead so they could have a ready supply of food near to hand.
A near perfectly preserved body was recovered in Tollund bog, Denmark, in 1950 and an analysis of his last meal contained linseed, barley, persicaria, black bindweed, fat hen, gold of pleasure, hemp nettle, wild pansy and corn spurrey. These and other seeds were then spread from their natural location by accident or deliberate means by animals and humans, which has given us the rich variety of wild flowers that we have today.
I do not like weedy gardens but enjoy them elsewhere where they fascinate me, including in the Burren where there is a greater variety of species than most other areas and I often wonder how they manage to grow and survive, competing with other aggressive perennial weeds and in that harsh climate. Interestingly, most soils contain many thousands of seeds, which can remain viable for centuries and during that time some will germinate as and when the conditions suit them.
The majority of weeds selected by our forebears were food crops but some were cultivated for medicines, cosmetics and floral decorations. Foraging for food is a newish trend promoted by food writers and up market restaurants but as you can see it is not a new discovery and is just a small stab at doing what previous generations did naturally. I would say that we are so far removed from nature that if we were to embark on foraging for food we would die of starvation.
The best balance is to go out for some fresh air and casually forage the well-known plants to add to your meals and, in time, you will become more expert at the practice. Do not expect to gather a full meal from the wild but be happy that you can treat them as additives to your dishes.
The ‘Long acre’ is a country term to describe the approximately 327km of roadside verges where it was a tradition for people to let their animals graze for free. It is an extremely nutritious area and largely not used in this way anymore, except for a tiny percentage of people and also a place to forage for some food crops, such as picking blackberries. It is advised that roadside foraging be undertaken down little used roads to avoid micro-contaminating elements from vehicles.
The nice thing about foraging is that it is a seasonal occupation and carried out during the growing period, which for practical purposes is from about Easter and finishes with summer fruits and mushrooms in late September. I think it is nice to include freshly collected food in your everyday meals and any surpluses can be preserved in the traditional way or it might be easier to just freeze in bags or containers. Collect Dillisk, Carrageen, sea beet and lettuce, rock samphire and others from coastal areas and bilberry from the hills and in between are a huge amount of flowers, foliage and fruit that can be added to your collection.
*for those unaware of weeds, I suggest you stick to those that you can easily identify or have someone experienced with you as, some plants are poisonous.
TIP OF THE WEEK
The main garden activity is to be out there enjoying yourself and just admire the plants that you have grown during the last few months. Maintenance is down to keeping plants well watered – we do this late in the evening for best results. After that, include a feed every two weeks and pick off dead flowers to encourage more and harvest any fruit and vegetables if you have grown any. If you have any queries or comments you are welcome to share them with me on 051-384273 or [email protected] and if of general interest I will include it in a future article.