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Raw materials for tussie-mussie making outside the American Museum's herb shop

On the whole, I’m a pretty rugged sort of person. A disproportionate amount of my gardening time seems to be spent hammering scaffold boards together, or powering my way through waist high weeds at the business end of a petrol strimmer, or hauling improbably deep tree roots out of pits in the ground.

But the anti-bramble gauntlets, steel toecapped boots and safety helmet hide a more delicate soul. The soul of a person who likes tussie-mussies.

I love the word tussie-mussie. I always think of it as an Americanism: their version of our more prosaic nosegay (bit prim, that) or posy. But the Americans came to tussie-mussies late, around two centuries late in fact, when New England ladies took to carrying them on their way to church. The word was first coined in 15th century England, long before we even knew there was an America (there is an excellent rundown of its meanings, including one rather surprising one I won’t mention here as it’s a family-friendly blog, here).

The 1400s were a time when gardens were inescapably useful, usually tended by monks (if the gardens were big) or peasants (small) and producing herbs for strewing, medicine and particularly scent. Things were very smelly in Middle England. Pomanders were one solution: containers, usually wooden, occasionally more elaborate, laced with perfumes and spices (oranges and cloves came later).

Roses, borage, lily of the valley and bellis

But if you were a peasant you couldn’t afford such luxuries, so your only option was to fall back on the little herb patch scratched from the ground outside the back door of your hovel. A little bunch of herbs and scented flowers held in the hand close to the nose (hence nosegay) was just the thing to take your mind off the stench of open sewers, old food and – at a time when the threat of plague hung noisomely in the air – things you really didn’t want to think too much about.

These days tussie mussies are seen mainly at weddings. But I think they’re long overdue for a little revival. I came across the ones in the pictures at the American Museum, where they pop them in the ladies’ loos. Think I might do the same here: our bathrooms do occasionally smell a little mediaeval (sorry, I know, too much detail, but the house has two teenagers in it, that’s all I’m going to say).

To make your tussie-mussie:
1: Pick your scented ingredients from the garden, preferably in the morning when their essential oils are at their most concentrated. Most of the plants you’ll need are probably already growing in your garden (if not, plant some straight away as they’re among the most lovely you can grow).

Love this warm orange rose glowing among the cooler shades

I’m talking lavender, rosemary, mint (in pots), deeply scented roses (the apothecary’s rose, Rosa gallica officinalis, for authenticity). Lemon verbena and lemon balm add a citrussy note, while sage and artemisia are more savoury; scented-leaf geraniums come in peppermint, rosewater or orange scented.

2: Start with the centrepiece – usually a rose; then surround it with stems of a contrasting flower (say, lavender). Then a layer of a herb – rosemary perhaps? – and keep going, building up your posy in concentric circles around the central flower, until you have a substantial fistful.

3: Tie the whole thing together with fine string, pulling it tight to hold your posy together, and finish off with some raffia or ribbon if you like. Or stop after the string and pop your tussie-mussie in a small jar of water (those square mustard jars look nice), then tie the ribbon round the top of the jamjar and pop it on the bathroom windowsill.

Power to the people

(c) Jeffrey Tischart, Jr.

You won’t be gardening long before you feel the need for a little electricity.

I don’t mean excitement: goodness, there’s quite enough of that what with mouse invasions and that branch falling on my greenhouse roof and stoving in several panes at once. And positive things too, like the gorgeous Ensete ventricosa (deep purple banana) which arrived on my doorstep as a foundling (unwanted gift from a non-gardener); or the loquat tree which miraculously survived losing every single branch in the heavy snows of winter 2011.

No, I mean power: the juice which runs your greenhouse heater, or lets you install a pump in your water butt so you can run a hose off it, or makes a heated propagator and thus transformation of your seed-sowing life possible.

This is rather tricky if you happen to be gardening on an allotment, say, or just a long way from the house. I kind-of manage with a Heath-Robinson extension lead from the garage through a missing pane in the window and hooked up out of strimmer reach along the fence. It’s all a bit dicey, though. It’s also expensive: I’ve never dared to work out how much it costs to have my all-singing, all-dancing propagator running all spring, let alone the greenhouse heater, but it’s my bet that it accounts for quite a big chunk of our winter electricity bill.

All this is not very sustainable, and goes against the grain of my generally low-impact attitude to life. If I’m trying to cut food miles to nearly zero, it makes no sense at all if the only way I can do that is by sucking energy from a power station burning its way through tons of fossil fuels. I want to get as close as possible to zero energy miles, too.

Luckily for me there are a lot of people out there applying their considerable skills and invention to solving the problem of providing energy in the garden without having to rely on conventionally-supplied electricity. The solution, it turns out, is solar: makes sense, when you think about it, since everything else in the garden relies on sunshine too.

It may surprise you that not all are colossally expensive, either (though some are). Here are a few of the sunny solutions I’ve found lately for all your gardening energy needs.

A solar greenhouse: heat your plants and your house

High Budget: Photovoltaic glass greenhouses
Oh, I covet one of these. It makes a lot of sense: turn the glass in your greenhouse (by definition, sited in a sunny spot) into a solar power generator.

A solar greenhouse produces around 600-900 kW/h each year – that’s around a third of the average energy required to run a whole house, and rather more than you’d use for running a greenhouse heater through an average winter. And yes, before you ask, they do work when it’s not sunny (and that means through November to February) – just not quite as energetically (sorry) as in summer, that’s all.

Cost: around £7,000 for a 10x8ft greenhouse

The answer to your watering prayers

Low Budget: Solar irrigation
I spotted this one at the Edible Garden Show earlier this year and it struck me as one of those ideas that’s so obvious you wonder why nobody’s thought of it before. You want to do more watering when it’s sunny, right? So that’s when you’re using your water butt pump most often. So why not use the sun to switch it on?

This automatic system runs roughly every three hours (that’s the time it takes for the solar panels to recharge the battery). You can adjust it via the drippers so your plants don’t get swamped: once you’ve got the delivery level right, your greenhouse or container plants are watered automatically once every three hours when it’s sunny, and less often (because it takes the battery longer to charge) when it’s cloudy. Genius.

Cost: about £80

State of the art hotbed made from a load of old junk

No Budget: A recycled black radiator and a bit of spare piping
Now this is the kind of ingenuity blokes in flat caps on allotments are famous for. Spotted on the Leeds and District Allotment Gardeners Federation stand in the Great Pavilion at Chelsea: a solar powered hot box made out of an old radiator painted black, an ice cream tub, and a load of old piping.

To explain (as best I can, as I’m a little hazy on the details, not possessing a flat cap or being a bloke): it’s based on the principle of the back boiler, an old central heating system used in houses. You paint your radiator black and mount it in a sunny spot encased within a box made out of recycled double-glazed windows, so the heat it absorbs is insulated. The water in the radiator is heated by sunlight and rises up the pipe, across the top of a raised bed and then down underneath the soil, linking back up with the radiator in a circuit so the heated water is continuously driven around and under your crops. Oh, and the ice cream tub is inserted into the pipe and acts as a vent.

This is the equivalent of having a heated soil cable underneath the soil, warming it to balmy temperatures and allowing you to germinate seedlings early, keep things going for longer, grow heat-lovers like watermelons… oh, all sorts of uses, and you don’t have to so much as flick a switch. You can’t exactly turn it on and off, or adjust it in any way – but I can’t see why you’d particularly need to.

Cost: Nothing, unless you count the few quid for the icecream.

As the bulldozers rumble in and we leave Chelsea for another year (pause for a muffled sob into my hanky): a gallop around some of the many, many little flashes of inspiration I spotted this year.

There’s always something that gives you that ‘ooh-must-try-that’ feeling; and of course particularly perfect demonstrations of some technique I’ve heard about before but never really seen in practice.

So here’s my round-up of things which caught my eye at this year’s show for bringing that touch of Chelsea bling to your veg garden.

Just goes to show: you can recycle anything. This wall in the 'Tour de Yorkshire' small garden (silver-gilt) had a layer of re-purposed bike wheels

Diamond-trained apples in the lovely Pennard Plants mini veg garden (gold) in the Pavilion. You train them like cordons but with a 45 degree turn where they hit the edges: tie them together in the middle and they'll naturally graft into a diamond-shaped trellis

You always find something new to grow at Chelsea. This is caigua, also known as achocha (Cyclanthera pedata), found on the Robinsons stand (silver-gilt). I've grown this before, but the closely-related 'Fat Baby' variety (C. brachystachya) which produces softly spiny fruits (they taste of green peppers). This one makes smooth-skinned fruits and tastes more like a cucumber. Must try.

Want wooden raised beds but curvy rather than boring old straight? Here's your answer: the NUS Student Eats stand (silver-gilt) made theirs out of wooden blocks, easily curved into very good-looking round raised beds.

Well. Silly me. I've been making paper pots out of tatty old newspaper for years, but I never thought of doing it from gardening magazines. This is what I spotted on a trade stand: baby-leaf salads planted in lots of gorgeous flowery paper pots. Genius.

Another great recycling idea: this old pallet has been upcycled into a herb planter. Stand it on its edge, nail invisible 'shelves' between the slats, attach to a wall or fence and slot pots of sage, mint, thyme and rosemary into the gaps. Perfect no-cost vertical planting for even the tiniest spaces.

Have you seen anything like this before? These new lipstick-pink ornamental strawberries could be the new bedding: those dayglo flowers are followed by plenty of sweet fruit, too

Tulbaghia violacea: well known as a pretty ornamental border plant, but I found this one on the NUS Student Eats stand and discovered a whole new excuse for growing them in my veg garden. They're also known as 'society garlic' - those strappy leaves have a pungent flavour almost indistinguishable from garlic, yet it doesn't make your breath smell. And while you're enjoying the leaves, the plant produces this...

...lovely, isn't it?

How the heck do you think they get them to look like that? And by May, for heaven’s sake?

Just look at the lettuces on the South West in Bloom exhibit in the Great Pavilion at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this week, winners of a shiny gold medal and the award for best exhibit to boot. And the cabbages, and the kohl rabi, and those beans. Flowering! Already!

If you’re at the show, don’t miss it: along with the Pennards Plants exhibit (silver gilt) and the Hooksgreen Herbs Beatrix Potter garden (gold) – of which more later – it’s a little vision of sheer veg-growing heaven.

Not so little, in this case. Those lettuces are the size of footballs. I’d struggle to get them that size at any time of year. The pak choi was bigger than a cabbage, too. Well, one of my cabbages, anyway: on the same exhibit they had cabbages you’d struggle to fit in a wheelbarrow, massive, flawless ‘Romanescu’ cauliflowers, blemish-free curly kale and fatly-sprigged calabrese, too. In late May. It’s enough to make a veg gardener throw in the trowel.

In the spirit of fearless journalistic investigation I hunted down the man responsible and extracted his secrets. His name is Terry Porter: on the face of it, a mild-mannered gardener for Suttons, but I wasn’t fooled for a second. Clearly he’s a wizard straight out of Harry Potter. Professor Sprout, perhaps.

Obviously they’re all grown under glass, but there’s more to it than that. Apparently you grow them in big containers on Mypex (that’s the heavy-duty weed-proof woven membrane with the blue criss-cross lines you sometimes find on the roll in garden centres).

That way they’re in very rich compost from the start. Plus – and this is crucial – the slugs don’t get anywhere near them, so they never suffer the slightest nibble of a setback. Then you water them a lot (it helps to have staff for this bit) and practically force feed them as far as I can tell. Hey presto: giant cabbages by May.

It doesn’t quite stop there: Terry told me he grows two or three times as many as he needs, and successional-sows for months timing it so that in perfect conditions he would have a full quota of plants reaching maturity on any day from a few weeks before the show, to a few weeks afterwards. That gives him the insurance he needs to guarantee there are enough immaculate plants on display for the show itself, whatever the weather.

So if it’s a good spring and everything’s ahead of itself – rather like this year – he’ll have his late sowings to fall back on. But if we’d had something like 2012 with its freezing cold March, even if the plants are slowed down the early sowings will still be ready for the show.

It does, of course, mean a lot of jettisoned veg: he told me he was on his third batch of calabrese, having rejected the first two because they were ‘showing a bit of yellow’ – that is, just loosening up the heads far enough to start thinking about flowering. You or I, of course, would still eat them at this stage and never mind the petals: but this is Planet Chelsea where calabrese heads are always a perfect uniform green, tightly closed and not a hint of a sliver of a petal anywhere.

The Romanescu caulis, meanwhile, were coming on so fast that he took a risk during build-up and planted them out when they were still only the size of tennis balls – medal-bustingly small, in other words. But, he said, in the heat this week (and humidity in the Pavilion) the heads were swelling almost before their eyes. By the time I saw them, just after the judges had been, they were cauli perfection.

Of course this kind of growing isn’t exactly practical for anything other than to meet the ultra-demanding standards of a gold medal winning display at Chelsea. The rest of us have to make do with cabbages the size of dinnerplates rather than dustbins.

But it’s a sobering snapshot of what it would be like if everything in the garden were perfect: if there were no slugs, and no cold snaps, and no urgent family crises which meant you forgot to do the watering yesterday.

It’s fantasy gardening – a vision of the impossible. But it does make you realise quite how many setbacks those little seedlings you’re planting out in the garden at the moment have to soldier on through. It kind of makes you grateful you get anything at all to pick at the end of the day.

It also makes you a little easier on yourself: if you need to mollycoddle veg this much to get them that good, then you can ease off any ambitions to grow giant cabbages outside at home. It’s a kind of licence not to be perfect. Thanks, Terry.

Made in America

Vernon Mount Garden, The American Museum

One of our more endearing habits as a nation, I always think, is our liking for small, seemingly random museums. Places like the British Dental Association’s museum in Wimpole Street, London, home to a collection of 19th century dental floss. Or the London Sewing Machine Museum, in Balham, where you can marvel at the sewing machine once owned by Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter.

Further afield there’s the Cumberland Pencil Museum. And on Merseyside, the British Lawnmower Museum (including ‘lawnmowers of the rich and famous’ and the frankly unmissable water cooled Egg Boiler Lawnmower).

And then there’s the American Museum in Britain, near Bath, which is where I was last weekend.

Why anyone would think it necessary to set up a museum about America in the United Kingdom, I have no idea, but I’m rather glad they did. All the more so since they’ve swerved satisfyingly away from the temptation to do a dry history of America thingy (we’ve got Google for that) and instead have opted for an eclectic pick’n'mix of American culture that embraces American Indian teepees, an arboretum based on trees the first settlers would have seen on their epic journey to the West Coast, some of the most amazing quilts I have ever seen and a Kaffe Fassett knitting exhibition.

Oh, and a really rather wonderful 125-acre garden, especially the Mount Vernon bit of it. This was an understated, chic design of sweeping parallel paths, planted with what at first glance looks like a pleasing selection of run-of-the-mill perennials.

Look closer, though, and you start to find some unfamiliar leaves, and flowers you can’t quite place. This little garden is a showcase for all sorts of US plants which are all but strangers to this side of the pond. Many are edible, used by American Indians as medicine or valued for their nutritious berries.

Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)

I now totally covet twinleaf, Jeffersonia diphylla – also known as rheumatism root. Just look at those leaves. They remind me a little of the Podophyllum foliage plants I also adore but can’t grow as the slugs like them too much. Apparently these have pretty white flowers, too, and they’re happiest in damp shade in limey soils – they’d find my garden absolute heaven, then. They earn their place in the kitchen garden for their medicinal uses: Native Americans used them as a root tea for treating rheumatism, and also in poultices.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) was a more familiar name, though I’d never seen the plant in the flesh, so to speak: I’ve been tracking it down for my own garden. It’s an invasive weed at home, but though vigorous, quite well behaved here and makes a really handsome clump of tall stems topped with fat tails of shiny red-black berries. It’s actually poisonous if you just eat it raw, but after thorough boiling you can eat the young leaves: there’s a recipe for battered pokeweed here. The berries make a good red dye: apparently the Declaration of Independence was written in pokeweed ink. And if you make a tincture from roots and/or berries you can treat just about anything from cancer to rheumatism and syphilis.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

I have skated on thin ice before on this blog regarding cultural stereotyping and how plants resemble the people in the nation they come from. But it’s hard to resist. All I’ll say is that American plants tend to be big, brash, sometimes a little badly behaved, but always with some redeeming quality which makes you put up with them because they’re such damn fun. Here are a few more I’d always make space for in my veg garden:

Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) and Saskatoon (A. alnifolia): lots of aliases for this one including juneberry, snowy mespilus and shadberry. Both make gorgeous small garden trees, what with frothy spring blossom, coppery young bark, good autumn colour etc etc etc. But we’re interested in the gleaming blue-black berries: smaller on the serviceberry, bigger and sweeter on the saskatoon (though you’ll have to spend time tracking one down in this country).

Pattypan squash: We only grow courgettes (zucchini) as summer squash in this country, but the Yanks are past masters at all kinds of squash, gourds and pumpkins and know there are lots of other types of summer squash too, just like courgettes to process and eat but coming in all manner of different shapes and sizes. These are among the very prettiest. I grew brilliant yellow patty pans one year and couldn’t stop taking photos of them: they were delicious, too.

Pattypan squash

Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa): soon arriving in a garden near you, these are sneaking up on the uber-chic Japanese wineberry for the prize of most covetable trendy thing to grow in UK kitchen gardens. Another good ornamental shrub – 2m tall airy stems, large green leaves, good autumn colour, white blossom in spring – someone has discovered its purple-black fruits are more nutritious than blueberries. They’re too tart to eat raw but cook them up and they make beautiful jams and cordials.

Blue Lake French (string) beans: Hailing from a place called Okiah, California, by way of Oregon, these are my very favourite climbing beans. Sturdy, prolific, sweet and crunchy, very reliable and string-free, they keep the best till last: leave pods on the plant to dry and you’ll get the best haricots of any French bean I know. Shuck them out and store in a jar somewhere dark and cool, and they’ll beef up your stews and soups all winter.

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