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In the unlikely setting of a unit in a commercial estate, we are talking micro-herbs, herbs and salads in general. They are growing all around us.
Urban gardener Ellie Donovan has just moved from another similar location and tells me she never thought there’d be such a demand for her organic micro greens. ‘“The chefs love them,” she says. She started with lots of varieties but is now down to six, the ones the chefs really like!
The urban garden!
She has been boosted by the signing of a new contract with the Market Lane group of restaurants. Market Lane’s original venture in Oliver Plunket Street will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year and no doubt their other restaurants Elbow Lane (and its micro brewery), ORSO Bar and Kitchen, and the spectacularly situated Castle Cafe will join in.
And it was at the cafe in Blackrock Castle that Ellie first began to work with the group. Here she set up a small kitchen garden and now the cafe is self sufficient and look after it themselves. She has also grown some hops in a confined location at the top of Elbow Lane. “All the Market Lane places are excellent. I love them and we have a great relationship.”
Recycled fish boxes
It is a confidence building relationship too and that will help Green Space expand. But it's hard going on your own!
More hops for the brewery are in the pipeline. She will be using an enclosed outside patch of concrete close to the unit and will be growing lots of plants, probably including hops, in pallets that she has been collecting. And the garden at her country home will also help her ambitions to grow more outdoors.
One of the advantages in being in a commercial centre is that it is something of a community and people tend to help one another out. For instance, a nearby unit gives her used fish boxes and they are ideal for her business.
Ellie uses coco fibre (also known as coir) as a growing medium. It is a natural product and hers includes rooting hormones. And then she also uses liquid fertilisers. At present, she is using tap water but plans are in hand - indeed some of the gear is in place - to replace it with rain-water. And another plan is to get a solar panel on the roof.
She is getting used to the particular environment of her Ballyvolane unit, learning day by day. She lost some lettuce overnight during the recent spell of very hot weather. She is pretty happy with the natural light but also uses some hanging fixtures that give close to a natural light. And she has heat mats in place for propagation.
Hydroponics in action
And what does she grow? Well lots of little herbs (some larger ones too: Rosemary, Sage, Lemon Balm, Lemon Verbena, Parsley...). The micros include Basil (four or five varieties), Coriander, Chinese and other chives, Rambo purple radish, and more. Also salads such as Mizuna, Wild Rocket, Mustards, Pea shoots etc.
And she’s always experimenting, trying something new. So be sure and watch this Green Space!
Shortly before Christmas I bought the newly published Herbarium by Caz Hildebrand. It covers 100 herbs with text and illustration. The Mare’s Fart and Dirty Dick are among the details
Most of us will know that Pissabed is a common, very common, name for the Dandelion. But it is also called Naked Ladies, Twitch ballock, Hounds-piss, pen-arse, Bum towel and, yes, Mare's Fart. Its proper name, and this is given for every herb in the book, is Taraxacum species.
And Dirty Dick is one of the names for Fat Hen, also called Lamb’s Quarters, and White Goose. In Latin it is Chenopodium Album and was “the food supplement of primitive peoples”.
Herbs are used in cuisine but also for their curative properties. Got the hiccups? Then get yourself some honeysuckle. A headache? The Meadowsweet is what you need as it contains the key ingredient for aspirin.
And then there’s Alecost, originally very popular in the 16th century and used for flavouring ales and spiced wines. Herb celery is grown for its leaves and speaking of leaves. Ramsoms (Wild Garlic) is a favourite food of brown bears (be careful when foraging!).
It is a fascinating subject, with the odd myth or two. Take Tarragon, for example. If you use it, do so sparingly. Had Catherine of Aragon been less reckless in its use, her marriage to Henry VIII have had endured. At least, that’s the poet Ogden Nash’s version, though perhaps he just needed a word to rhyme with Tarragon! After all, he said “too much Chablis can make you whablis"!
It’s not all fun in Herbarium. Some serious bits. Takes Monkshood for example. This is extremely poisonous, the toxins once used to kill wolves.
And then there’s the Wasabi alarm! It may not wake the dead but, in 2011, a group of chemists won an Ig Nobel Prize for inventing a “wasabi alarm” to wake deaf people, using the herb’s powerful scent!
Each of the 100 herbs in the book has a page of text devoted to it, mostly a general history. Practical information is listed on the side, under four headings: Grow, Eat with, Try, Heal.
For instance (and I’m being very brief here), you are told that dandelion grows freely, Eat them with beetroot, lettuce, bacon…, Try them sautéed as you would spinach, and for Heal, a concoction of dandelion can be helpful for osteoarthritis, acne and psoriasis.
At the back of the book, there is a quick guide with headings such as Wellbeing, Beauty, Symbolism, Flavours, Cocktails (try mint with strawberry, kiwi and rum), Salads, and many more.
Herbarium is colourfully illustrated with each herb having an illustration to itself. The author says herbarium “echoes the history of herbal illustration, but with the intention of taking it forward, achieved by using a contemporary style, inspired by Modernist design, simple geometric forms and vibrant colours. I love the patterns that come through.”
I must say, I love the patterns too. But, beware, while they are gorgeous and striking, they are not necessarily true to life. You’ll definitely need an illustrated growing/foraging guide as well as this lovely and worthwhile book if you are to journey among the herbs.