Lockdown Crafts – Kokedama Heart Wreath

Took part in an on-line workshop last week to create this lovely kokedama heart wreath. Very appropriate for Valentine’s Day or for a wedding. The Japanese art of kokedama literally means moss-ball. Plant roots are enclosed in a ball of moist soil which is then wrapped in moss and secured with wire or decorative twine.

Start by twisting together three strands of thick decorative wire wire secure the ends by twisting together. Gently form into a heart shape.

The technique is to wrap your wire heart with moss incorporating small plants as you progress. Each plant and it’s moss wrapping must be firmly secured by wrapping florists reel wire around each section. I used small succulent and ivy plants.

Add some colour to the wreath by attaching dried flower heads with florists glue. I used helichrysum flowers.

Finish the wreath by wiring in some pieces of pussy willow to emphasise the shape of the heart and adding a ribbon hanging loop. The wreath can either be hung outside (in which case there is no real need to water it). It can also be hung inside and should then be watered once a week by leaving in a shallow tray of water for a few minutes then draining.

The wreath should last for many months and can have plants added or replaced at any time. I really would recommend trying kokedama to create beautiful creations for your home or garden. Many thanks to Alison Cooper of The Flower Studio – Manchester who was an amazing tutor. Also to the Cheshire Area of NAFAS who have kept everyone in local flower clubs sane during lockdown with fantastic programme of talks, workshops and demonstrations.


Herb Talks

Would your garden club, WI or U3A group like to book one of my herb talks? I have now developed a number of special interest talks on herbs and am currently booking talks around Cheshire into Lancashire, Staffordshire and W Yorkshire. Here’s some details of the one- hour talks I have available:

Enjoying Spring Herbs from the Garden

A celebration of Spring and the many herbs we can grow and enjoy from our own garden. Cultivation tips and the history of each herb will be covered. Then I will look at the many uses of these fantastic plants from culinary, cosmetic to household. I have been growing herbs for more than 25 years so have plenty of stories to tell!


Enjoying Autumn Herbs from the Garden

This follows the same format as well the spring herbs talk but is all about the gorgeous herbs which give us pleasure into the autumn.



Edible Flowers

The new trend in eating! Learn how to cultivate and prepare a host of beautiful flowers which will transform the most ordinary dish into something special. Adds a real WOW factor to celebration food and dishes for every day.


Fantastic Food and Drink from Garden Herbs

Learn how to cultivate a continuous supply of fresh herbs for the kitchen to use in some great dishes and drinks. Many of the recipes I will talk about are mediterranean, middle -eastern or Asian in origin. Starters, main courses and desserts will all feature plus some totally delicious cordials and cocktails.

John Gerard – The Tudor Herbalist from Cheshire

This historical talk is based on the life and work of perhaps the most revered and most-quoted English herbalist. He was born in Willaston nr Crewe and his career escalated rapidly culminating in his appointment as herbalist to the Royal Court. His famous herbal, The Historie of Plantes published in 1636, is a joy to read. My talk covers both his life and an exploration of some excerpts from the herbal on garden herbs we still grow today. Much of his writing is light-hearted and amusing.


Christmas Herbs

Discover the traditions, tales and origins behind the beautiful herbs we associate with Christmas and the winter season. Winter is about richly scented herbs, eucalyptus, cloves, cardamom and orange to name but a few. From frankincense and myrrh to the holly and the ivy I will talk about traditions and beliefs surrounding these wonderful herbs and explore their many uses today.






Winter savory

Looking for new and unusual herbs to add to your herb garden? try winter savory. This tasty semi-evergreen perennial herb, latin name Satureja montana, has been used in food flavouring for over 2000 years. The Romans used it to flavour vinegars and sauces and they introduced it to countries across Europe. It was also used as a strewing herb to introduce pleasant perfume into houses before good drainage and sewage systems were invented! Culpeper’s herbal noted that it was a good remedy for colic.

img_5188Today winter savory is used as a flavouring in the production of salami. In the US it is known as “the bean herb”. It’s flavour is really complimentary in bean dishes and it also avoids some of the “unsavoury” windy after effects of eating beans.

Another good tip for using this herb is that the leaves, dried and ground, can be used to season food and replace both salt and pepper in the diet. A real advantage for anyone on a low-salt diet.img_5191

Once planted and settled in your herb garden, winter savory will be with you for many years. It may be propagated from cuttings to increase your stock. The photos show how beautiful the tiny flowers are when magnified.


Summer afternoon tea – rose geranium cake


This recipe is perfect for a summer afternoon tea. I baked it recently for a herb-themed lunch party.

Thanks to Lesley Bremness and her wonderful book ‘The Complete Book of Herbs’ for providing the inspiration. For this dish you will need a plant of the gorgeous scented geranium Attar of Roses, the leaves contain a beautifully scented rose geranium oil which gives a subtle rose flavour to cakes during baking.


Prepare a standard Victoria sponge cake mix. Line the base of each of the sandwich tins with 8-10 Leaves of Attar of Roses scented geranium. Bake the sponge cakes then turn onto a cooling rack. Carefully remove the leaves and discard. When cool spread one of the cakes with whipped double cream flavoured with rose water. Spread the other cake with rose-petal jelly (I found a wonderful artisan version in a local supermarket) and sandwich the sponge cakes together. Place a few scented geranium leaves on top of the cake. Dust with icing sugar then carefully remove the leaves so that an impression of their outline remains. Decorate with rose petals and scented geranium leaves. Serve at room temperature and enjoy watching your guests clear the plate!



A Tour of Three Gardens with Sarah Raven

Everyone who is into gardening has their own “must-see list” of beautiful gardens to visit. For more years than I can remember three fantastic gardens, Sissinghurst, Great Dixter and Perch Hill have been right at the top of my list. Imagine finding a tour which included all three! Last autumn we booked on one of Sarah Raven’s garden tours, which Sarah hosted together with her husband Adam Nicolson. It was much more than just a tour it was a great and memorable event.

Sissinghurst White GardenThe tour began with an evening visit to Sissinghurst which is a huge advantage as anyone who has tried to photograph the garden when it is full of day visitors will testify. Adam was certainly on home ground here as he lived at Sissinghurst as a child, the castle having been purchased by his grandparents Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in 1930. They created the garden together over many years with Harold mainly designing the lay-out and Vita totally immersed in creating the incredible planting. The White Garden is usually the focus for visitors, the planting combinations here are soft, luxuriant and were luminous in the dusk.

Sarah gave us a short talk on the creation of the garden and then we had time to take our photographs and wander to the more distant areas. Later we climbed the tower which gave us a stunning view of the total estate and Adam amused us with tales from his family history.

The Herb Garden at Sissinghurst is, surprisingly, one of the more distant areas of the formal gardens. The yew hedges which now surround the herb garden were planted in 1934 and Vita started planting herbs in 1938. Development was slowed by ww2 but, after the war, work on the garden was resumed with twenty beds being created. Probably the most photographed feature of the garden is the stone chamomile seat built by Jack Copper, the Sissinghurst chauffeur, and christened Edward the Confessor’s chair by Harold and Vita.

The “Persian Carpet” of creeping thymes was originally planted by an inspired Vita in 1948 and is still retained today. The herb beds contain over a hundred varieties of herbs and are replenished as necessary to ensure the garden is full of interest for visitors throughout the season. Certainly in October they were full of interest and colour. Our first evening completed with a delicious herb-inspired dinner in the Barn Restaurant.

Day two began with a visit to the wonderful garden of the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter. Tours of the garden were given by Sarah and Rachel, a full time gardener at Dixter. The garden is truly inspiring in that it throws many garden design conventions to the wind with the jungle-planting of the tropical garden and widespread use of vibrant (some may describe as clashing) colour combinations. Christo was a friend of Sarah’s father and his off-beat view of what a garden should be was a key inspiration to Sarah. Fergus Garret and the team at Great Dixter work hard to keep his vision alive.

The last visit of our tour was to Perch Hill, the home of Sarah and Adam. The Cutting Garden is probably the feature most readers will be familiar with, Sarah published a beautiful book of the same title. The garden was a breathtaking mass of cut flowers for use in the Flower School. It was alive with colour in October with gorgeous dahlias and late perennials. My favourite combination was ammi majus, molucella and deep purple clary sage.

We had a short talk from Sarah and Adam describing their search for their dream home and how hard they have worked over the years to create the stunning garden we see today.
The Herb Garden at Perch Hill has been recently designed and planted on a south-facing sun-trap alongside the large barn. The garden is slightly sunken and this together with heat radiating from the red brick paths ensures it becomes truly sun-baked during the summer months. A beautiful old olive tree provides the centrepiece for the garden, contrasting beautifully with a generous swathe of deep burgundy shiso.

Herb Garden- Perch Hill

The Herb Garden-Perch Hill

The herb garden is bordered by English roses companion-planted with varieties of flowering sages. Pots of lemongrass and huge domes of the scented geranium, Attar of Roses, were placed around the edge of the herb garden. These are used to make teas for workshop delegates.

We enjoyed a second delicious dinner served in the barn at Perch Hill, a really convivial atmosphere presided as all agreed how wonderful the two day event had been. During dinner Sarah asked us to partake in a little market research to help her select varieties for her plant catalogue (which is a complete inspiration). A glorious group of labelled dahlia specimens was laid out for us to judge our three favourites in order of preference.

We left Perch Hill under a blanket of stars and the complete silence and stillness of its enviable location.

Visit Sarah’s website at sarahraven.com for details of upcoming events but don’t think about it for too long, they sell out very quickly.

Marie Nui Garden Rarotonga

Marie Nui Garden Rarotonga

We discovered this tucked away paradise garden on a recent visit to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Whilst taking the lovely old bus around the island (there are only two routes, clockwise and anti-clockwise) we spotted a sign for the Marie Nui garden.


Avenue of Heliconia

Tucked away down a track, almost hidden from the road, the approach to the garden heightens the expectation of what lies beyond.Then a breathtaking avenue of heliconia comes into view, each tree dripping with flowers. Well the entrance certainly had a WOW factor. The path leads to a small clearing where the visitor prepares for the next assault on the senses….the garden does not disappoint. A mass of giant torch gingers some 15ft tall, the flowers of rich deep red surround tables of the Hidden Spirit cafe.

We worked our way slowly around the 7 acres of lush planting not wanting to miss any small part of this magical place. A white arch smothered in fragrant jasmine led into the wedding garden. Two bridges over a small stream provided approaches for brides and their grooms to the heart-shaped lawn where the ceremony would take place. Heavily perfumed Frangipani trees  surrounded the area.

A herb patch contained rosemary, fennel, and Siam basil all growing abundantly and looking very much at home. Vivid  leaf colour from croton, coleus and dracaena almost took over from the flowering plants. One came across many secluded little corners at which the scene was perfected by Buddhist style ornaments.



The Marie Nui garden is owned by Kira and John, an Australian couple who came upon the piece of land some time ago and had the vision to plant this beautiful garden. The Cook Islands are just about as far away from the UK as it is possible to go, a four hour  flight from New Zealand, crossing the international date line. If you are in this part of the world, visit this hidden gem, Cook Islanders are wonderfully welcoming people.


Grow Your Own Wedding Flowers

Grow Your Own Wedding Flowers

I know what you are thinking as you read the title to this post…phew that’s some challenge! This sums up my first response when my son casually asked me one autumn evening “mum would you like to do the flowers for our wedding? we haven’t much cash and thought you may like to grow some and now that you are going to flower arranging classes?” I hasten to add I had just walked through the door after my fifth class so the prospect was horrifying.
Strange things happen in the head if you are someone who relishes a challenge. By the next morning I was already thinking “well maybe I could do a few arrangements to help out”. I have always been a glass half-full person and believed anything is possible if you try hard enough so, you guessed it, one week on I was poring through stacks of seed catalogues planning what could be grown in the time available (this was November and the wedding was in July).Flower Arrangements 405

Books on Wedding Flowers were borrowed from the library, thankfully the happy couple showed a distinct preference for informal ‘country garden flowers’ There was one colour constraint, no pink flowers, the bride had a total aversion to pink. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about how many of our summer flowers are pink but during my feverish catalogue searches it sure felt like about 75%. Anyway, a very nice colour scheme of purple, lilac, white and green was chosen. Seeds were sown as early as possible, the conservatory floor turned into a mass of seedlings (no greenhouse available).
Planting out was followed by several nights of worriedly running out with fleece to protect against late frost. I have never fed, nurtured and willed plants to grow like I did that summer.

By July the garden was packed with sweet peas, ammmi majus, sweet-smelling stocks, molucella, cleome, larkspur, zinnias, gorgeous spikes of antirrhinum ‘The Bride’, Cosmos ‘Purity’, white mallow and many more. Confetti was made from rose petals and lavender. YouTube was avidly consulted to fill the still yawning gaps in my knowledge and proved to be my saviour on many occasions.

Then disaster struck, a horrendous storm three weeks before the wedding destroyed about 60% of the sweet peas! completely sodden masses were hanging from the supports. With a very heavy heart and, I admit, some tears the plants had to be heavily cut back in the hope that new flowers would generate. Miraculously, everything else seemed to have escaped serious damage. The moral to this is always always have a reliable wholesaler lined up just in case things go wrong.
Anyway the week of the wedding arrived, three nerve-wracking days were spent putting together all the arrangements and transporting a van and car packed with flowers the 80 miles to the venue. Was it all worth it? you bet… the sense of achievement was fantastic, the bride and groom were delighted. A small selection of the photos show some of the arrangements. Would I do it again?…I did 10 months later for our daughter’s wedding. Look out for my second article on wedding flowers which features pedestal arrangements.

If you would like to know the full story, I would be delighted to come and talk to your garden club or society and also demo some of the techniques and tips I learned along the way.Flower Arrangements 366

The Apothecary’s Garden

The Apothecary’s Garden


My garden was christened with this title some 20 years ago, by my kids actually! They used to be amused at seeing their mum arrive home from work completely stressed out (high pressure job in the pharmaceutical industry) dash out into the garden, grab a sprig each of chamomile, lavender and lemon balm, crush and inhale deeply then the cares of the day would fade away. The garden was still fairly new at that time a quarter acre plot into which I cram as many herbs as possible, old roses, annual flowers for cutting and basically anything else I have a fad for, the current one is grasses. The garden at the front of the house is laid out in four box-hedge beds around a sundial bed. The beds contain a happy mix of herbs, roses and perennials. I also squeeze in some annual flowers for cutting.


Felicia – one of my favourite old roses

More old roses are grown in a separate bed with campanulas, alliums and nepeta. The shady part of the garden houses woodland planting my favourites being the hellebores.
The herbs are grown in raised beds with separate beds for medicinal, culinary and aromatic herbs. Can you spot a certain grey persian cat called Portia.FullSizeRender (8)I’ll be including in my blog highlights of the garden throughout the seasons plus posts on how I use herbs from the garden in cooking, for simple medicinal remedies, and for cosmetics.
The Apothecary’s Garden is not an ordered garden or a designer garden, it doesn’t open under the National Garden Scheme, it’s just my sanctuary where I grow all my favourite plants and through my posts I want to share all the highs and lows with you.

Lockdown Crafts – Make your own soap

The periods of lockdown we have all had to deal with over the past year have made us all think of new hobbies we could take up to help pass the time at home. Soap making for me started as a necessity when arriving back from Cuba in March last year the day before the first lockdown. The first couple of trips to supermarkets were “Mother Hubbard” experiences of empty shelves, not only food but the nation seemed to think that soap and cleaning materials would never be available again!

So…out of the cupboard came a soap kit I had been given as a gift some time ago but never got around to doing anything with it….you know how it is. Well this kit was the real deal, soap making from scratch using raw materials shea butter, sunflower oil, coconut oil and sodium hydroxide (often known as lye). This last material is the one to watch, it is extremely corrosive so protect yourself with gloves and apron and watch your kitchen surfaces. I did all the mixing in a deep enamel sink.

The fats, shea butter and the two oils are melted carefully in the microwave and, if you have a thermometer, the temperature should be about 50-60 degC. Otherwise heat until melted but not smoking or boiling. Make a solution of sodium hydroxide by adding the powder to the amount of water specified in your kit. Safety glasses are a good idea at this point. The sodium hydroxide heats up as it dissolves so be careful. Now the exciting part…..slowly add the sodium hydroxide solution into the heated oils stirring continuously until the mixture becomes thick like custard. Mine thickened really quickly but it can take up to 30mins.

The next stage is called the Trace. Your soap reaches Trace when drizzling the mixture from your spoon leaves a distinct outline in the mixture. The initial reaction is now complete and it’s time to add fragrance. I decided to make a unisex fragrance by using Lemongrass and Ginger essential oils. it depends how much perfume you want, keep adding until the aroma is right for you. I added approx 2mls Lemongrass oil and approx 0.5ml Ginger oil because I wanted the lemongrass to be the dominant fragrance with just a hint of spice.

The soap is now ready to pour. I used one bulk rectangular plastic mould as supplied with my kit. The soap is left to set overnight then carefully turned out of the mould. If it doesn’t come out easily stand the base of the mould in a container of hot water for just a few seconds, no longer as your soap will start to re-melt. I left my block of soap overnight again to dry out then I cut it with a soap wire I had bought on-line, this gives a really neat finish to your bars of soap.

The bars of soap must now be left to cure in a dry airy atmosphere to cure for 2-3 weeks. I put mine on a baking tray lined with baking parchment. During this time excess water evaporates from the soap. Use gloves to handle it at this stage as it may still be caustic.

Make someone’s day! Hand-made soaps make lovely little gifts for family and friends. I wrapped mine in clear cellophane and my other-half, who is a whizz at all things IT printed cute little labels for me.