Garden remedies for teenage angst

With three teenagers in the house I’ve listened to a fair amount of talk about the plague of spots. At times the bathroom has resembled a chemist’s shop with endless tubes and jars, most of which were uncomfortably expensive, and all of which promised miracle cures within a few days.Image

There were considerable expectations of benzoyl peroxide-based creams with which friends at school had experienced wondrous results, but it quickly became clear that my kids’ fair northern skins found this remedy unbearably harsh and the after effect was super-dry red-raw faces. Consequently I was relieved when Leeds Metropolitan University published the results of their herbal experiments last year.

In a nutshell they discovered that thyme steeped in alcohol for several days produced better results than many remedies on the market, including benzoyl peroxide. (See http://www.leedsmet.ac.uk/about/thyme-for-a-more-natural-cure-to-acne27032012.htm ) Having plenty of thyme in the garden, and knowing that it likes nothing better than a harsh trim on occasion, I thought it was worth a try. There were two risks, first that I was descending too quickly down the slippery slope of Worzel Gummidge wackiness and would soon reach the point where in olden days I would have been burnt at the stake, and secondly that it wouldn’t work at all and so my teens would have additional reasons to view my horticultural exploits with scepticism and the odd guffaw of laughter. However, a small bottle of alcohol costs around a euro in the local supermarket, which was so much cheaper than the last shopping expedition to the chemist that the gamble seemed worth it.

After washing the thyme I crushed it into a clean screw-top jar until it was full (Mercadona pasta sauce jars are perfect) and topped it up with alcohol. A day later the whole thing had turned a lurid shade of green. The following week teen-testing began.

A year down the line all I can say is it certainly works as well as anything else. Our family isn’t blessed with great skin, but I have had no more requests to go chemist-shopping and the only additional expense has been cotton-buds with which to dab emerald ointment on the offending eruptions.

As with the pulp in Aloe Vera leaves, which is fantastic for healing skin problems and especially burns, the colour is a drawback so it’s best to apply it at night. However, the thyme mixture smells a good deal better than Aloe Vera and is easier to keep at the ready in the bathroom.

 Another garden remedy I heard about recently was to use lemon juice in a facial steam clean. It’s said to be great for removing dirt and oil whilst not being too harsh on the skin, so I’ll give this a try next time there are cries of, “OMG look at my face, I can’t go out today!” 

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Pesto Paradise

Finally it’s warm enough for basil seeds to germinate outside. With the first glimpse of their little green heads, every spare pot in the house has been filled with compost and pressed into action – to say we love pesto could be an understatement.

For me, the smell of basil brings a smile, it’s an aroma that conjures up everything that’s relaxed about summer.Image

Anyway, to get down to the business of growing it: in my book, the classic large-leafed basil is the only way to go, however, if you have a passion for a more aniseed flavour buy the slightly crinkly-leaved variety. One seed packet can easily provide sufficient for pesto and salad usage throughout the summer, plus 20-30 packets of frozen pesto stacked in the freezer so that pesto-addicts need never go without.

Fill your pots with compost and sprinkle the seeds over the surface before covering with a thin layer of compost and gently firming down. Keep the compost moist, but not drenched, until you see a haze of green shoots. When the plants have produced their first crop of large leaves, pinch out the top shoot to encourage them to expand sideways and stop them from going into their seed-producing stage too quickly. As with lettuce, the trick is to keep harvesting the leaves as you need them, letting the plant rest and produce some more while you harvest off other pots.

I thought this was what everybody did until a friend of mine asked to take some basil home with him at the end of a barbecue.

“Sure,” I said, beginning to turn to go into the house for a bowl. Before my jaw even had time to hit the floor, he had snapped off four or five plants – he was a chef, not a gardener! Guillotined basil doesn’t live, but had the plants just had their leaves removed they would have continued to produce for one or two months more. While I may not talk to my plants – at least not when anyone’s within earshot – I do advocate being kind to them, it keeps them alive!

Try to remember to water your plants a couple of hours before you intend to pick leaves, then they are nice and plump, bursting with flavour and at their best for eating.

Personally I don’t like too much oil in my food which is why I always freeze pesto rather than keep it in oil in jars. Small bags take up very little space and make an easy instant meal with a bit of pasta and salad. If you are unfreezing your home-produced pesto in the microwave, do watch it carefully as it unfreezes very quickly and isn’t nearly as good if it’s “cooked”.

To make one bag (enough for about 400g of pasta)  I put a clove of garlic, small handful of pine nuts (or since they’ve become so expensive, almonds), and some ground black pepper in a small food processor. Top this with basil leaves until they’re at the top of the container without being pressed down. Place 3 or 4 chunky slices of parmesan on top of the leaves and drizzle with a little olive oil. If the mixture is too rough add some more olive oil until it is the consistency you like. Either use it immediately, or scoop it into a small freezing bag and keep for later. For variation, pop in a few dried tomatoes to the mix, it makes the flavour even “warmer”.

A refreshing cup of tea – back on the menu

A refreshing cup of tea - back on the menu

I forgot to dry the leaves of my lemon verbena (Hierba Luisa in Spanish) this winter, so it’s been a while since I’ve been able to enjoy a lovely cup of tea. However, with the recent rains it has sprung to life and lemon verbena tea is back on the menu. This is another plant that does very well in pots and can give a wonderful scent to your balcony for much of the year. Once established it can grow up to 3 metres in height. Don’t be shy of giving it a good prune when it becomes scraggly and making use of any cuttings or unwanted base shoots in the kitchen.

Mint with pasta – great until basil comes along

Mint with pasta - great until basil comes along

It’s still a little too early for mounds of lush green basil and my store of frozen bags of last year’s pesto is now very thin. However, mint is in abundance and can make a wonderfully refreshing pasta sauce in the interim. Boil about 350g of pasta according to packet instructions. Take a large handful of fresh mint sprigs, strip the leaves into a food processor, add 3 or 4 good lumps of parmesan, a tub of creme fraiche and a good grind of black pepper. Wizz it all together and then add a couple of tablespoons of the pasta water to loosen the mix. Add either a couple of handfuls of peas, or some asparagus to the pasta a couple of minutes before the end of cooking time, or add some cherry tomatoes directly to the sauce. When the pasta and veg are cooked, stir in the mint sauce and eat!

All herbs are perfect for the mini-gardener who only has space for a few pots on a terrace, and good herb pots make a greater impact on your cooking than anything else. Try to keep herbs together that like the same conditions, for example put mint, parsley and chives in one pot and keep it in an area of partial shade, while putting oregano, thyme, marjoram and basil in areas with plenty of sunshine.