The growing season for our skincare garden is nearly over. We have been at work on the farm since March and in the last five months the garden plot has seen rapid growth which is now bearing flowers and seed heads.
So far we have sown, grown and harvested blue and white borage, calendula, fennel, clover, chamomile, yarrow and some thyme. There are also abundant orchard fruits, especially apples to make apple cider vinegar tonics and toners. The long, hot days have been interspersed with torrential showers and colder nights. Spring and early summer were very warm - sadly some seedlings did not make it, but on the whole germination rates and growth were good.
These botanicals have been dried either in wooden trays lined with paper, or tied in bunches with string and left outside to hang from wooden racks. What is really important when drying herbs and flowers is to ensure lots of warm air circulation - they start fermenting if damp and the mould creeps in.
We harvest early in the morning or later in the afternoon on a warm day, never after rain as you don't want moisture on the plant matter.
The flowers and leaves will be used to create oil macerations for skin and body oils and for soap making. We are using base oils such as hemp, rapeseed, borage and flax grown in the South West of Britain to create skincare products that have a sense of place and quality. If you buy imported skincare preparations you don't know how long the product has been in the processor's factory, on the distributor's shelf, in the hold of an aircraft, in the cargo of a ship, in the back of a lorry etc. It's like strawberries imported from Peru. They are nowhere near as the fresh, ripe strawberries from the Hay Penny Market Garden stall at Bridport Saturday Market.
There is also a growing movement, as part of the #zerowaste and #zeroplastic campaigns: dried plants as gift box packaging. It's not as daft as it sounds. Opening a gift box of soaps to find the filler contents are not made of paper, corn starch or air filled plastic pouches, but dried flowers is good for the planet and the soul.
Once the flowers and leaves have been harvested, some plants may be left in situ as “cut and come again” varietals or left to go to seed, to provide free volunteer seedlings for next year. The garden is run on permaculture, no-dig lines, so a light raking in is all the top of the soil gets before it's put to bed.
The borage, clover and phacelia in our patch are still flowering profusely and the bees and other pollinators are feeding avidly. The apple and plum orchard trees are bearing fruits and there is renewed interest in malic acid and plum kernel oil as effective ingredients to make skin toners and moisturisers.
The clover and phacelia are excellent green manures, and after flowering can be lightly dug in, or left in situ and covered in mulch. They help fix nitrogen into the soil and increase its fertility without the need for adding artificial fertilisers.
Like in many gardens in rural or semi-rural land where compost heaps are open to fields, there were weed seeds in the original compost that was spread on the patch last year. We have tried to remove as many weeds manually by the root or at least deadhead them to prevent further seeds reaching the ground and germinating. There are still quite a few weeks of warm weather left and negligence at this point can wreak double havoc next year.
Certain weeds, like cleavers, plantain and dandelions, are not that invasive and easier to manage, but others, like thistles, ground elder and bindweed, need to be pulled out carefully and systematically (or smothered) and placed on a totally separate heap which is then covered with bark and left for invertebrates. If mixed with compost for planting the cycle of weed despair begins again and you’re trapped in a loop.
There will be a general cutback, and a strimming in between rows, but invertebrates need somewhere to hide and the many inhabitants of the garden need a home over winter. There has to be a balance between tidiness and sustainability - we share this patch with countless ladybirds, beetles, butterflies, hoverflies, frogs and toads.
Soon, the bamboo canes will be removed and left in a corner for the ladybirds to nest in over winter. Cardboard, straw, leaf and bark mulch will be layered in between rows to cover the soil and restore tidiness. The plot will be reused to sow winter vegetables.
The evenings are drawing in very slowly and we are quickly heading towards the latter part of summer. Closure is just as important in the garden as the first plantings of spring - if you close the season well then the gardener returns to a plot filled with biodiversity and readiness for the next season.
It’s time to create more products and to get ready for Christmas production in the workshop.