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Hedgerow boughs are bent with hips, haws, sloes and berries. Positively dripping with nature’s bounty. Some say it’s indicative of a harsh winter waiting in the wings but it may be down to the preceding dry warm months of glorious sunshine. Either way I couldn’t resist helping myself to the shiny purple jewels hanging seductively from the corner of my garden. I considered making jam but elderberries, I read, are at their medicinal best when taken raw. They are a fantastic source of vitamins C and A. Pick only the fully blackened berries as unripe ones are very unpleasant and may make you ill. You will recognise the plant from its lovely cream blooms earlier in the year.

To make my elixir I gathered 300g of berries. I removed only the fully ripened berries from their stalks by combing my fingers through the heads and gave them a rinse under the tap. Then I placed them in a kilner jar with a dessert spoon of raw honey, poured over enough brandy to cover the berries and secured the lid. And that’s it. I’ll leave them to sit in a dark cool place for at least 4 weeks, preferrably 6 weeks if the household can fend off winter bugs for that long. When the brandy has extracted all that fruity goodness I’ll strain the liquid. Maybe I’ll add more honey, but it’s not really meant to be knocked back by the glassful. I plan on taking it a teaspoon at a time when there’s even a small hint of a sniffle. Its medicinal powers are so strong that I’m willing to tolerate the potentially toe-curlingly woeful taste. Small compensation for a clean bill of health!

Before you reach for the branded pharmaceutical fix make that short trip to nature’s medicine chest and gather some elderberries. You’ll be thankful for your boozy berry cure when the tickley throat and sniffy nose set in!

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I’ve been very quiet on the blogging front of late. Don’t be too hard on me – I have good reason. Our world has been topsy turvey for several weeks not with not much let up in sight. The builders are in. Yes, following a month of having our wooden floor dismantled to fix a leak we are now extending to add a granny flat. A year of changes all round as “granny” prepares to join us here. So yeah, there’s been a lot of disruption and heavy lifting of furniture. Not to mention the noise and dust, blah, blah, blah…….

Anyhow….. as we have been forced to move our shared studio to a more compact space I’d been going through years of accumulated items reserved for that extra special project that never quite manages to manifest itself. I hate to chuck stuff away. The more obscure and downright useless the object the more potentially interesting that special project is going to be. So with steely resolve to free up some space I set to the difficult task of decluttering. I struggled with an ancient bag of musty Letraset* fonts (mine) and architectural symbols (Z’s) and just as it landed on the for-God-sake-just-BIN-it heap Cathy Dineen’s email pinged in my inbox. Cathy is an extraordinarily talented illustrator who just happened to send out an unusual request for any Letraset that may be gathering dust in design studios around the country. She had plans to transform it into a beautifully crafted piece of art. I emailed straight back- I just love it when junk is rendered useful! I got to meet Cathy over a cuppa and hand over what could have been wheelie bin bumph to be creatively upcycled into something incredible. AND I got a beautiful hand crafted gift in return. A more than fair barter methinks.


I came home to my builder infested house oblivious to the Kango hammering and plaster blobs on my floor. With my original Cathy Dineen pottery pieces I was well pleased with myself. Not only had I done the sustainably responsible thing I’d made a lovely new friend in the process.

*Letraset was used by dinosaur designers such as myself before the invention of computers for rendering text on visuals. The letters/images were rubbed onto the surface. They are essentially obsolete and I imagine kinda hard to come by. I don’t miss them.

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Last year I made a delicately flavoured cordial from the flowers of the elder. The delicious syrup was used liberally for all sorts of  sweet treats- in cakes, puddings (especially good in gooseberry crumble) and cocktails. As our hedges are once again heaving with the large fragrant blooms I’m inspired to find more uses for them. I have read about the skin toning and wound healing properties of elderflowers. Apparently they are rich in tannins which stimulate the epidermis and are said to be great for blemishes and dry skin. This sounds like just the ticket for my dodgy skin. And so, it brings me to a recipe of a topical kind: elderflower facial toner.

Harvesting elderflowers

  • Pick the flowers on a warm sunny day to ensure optimum nectar level.
  • Handle them gently so as not to shake off too much nectar.
  • Do not wash. Leave them sit for an hour or so to allow the creepies crawl away to safety.

Elderflower skin tonic

Homemade elderflower skin toner

Pick about 15 heads. Remove as many as the stems from the little florettes as possible and place in a heatproof jug. Pour over about 300ml of boiling water (preferably filtered) and let sit for half an hour. Strain with muslin (I used a coffee filter) and decant into a clean sterilised bottle. I found my filter trapped a lot of pollen some of which I placed back into the bottle. After all, I’m guessing this is where a lot of goodness is. To ward away any bacteria I put a few drops of citricide grapefruit seed extract in it. Again, I’m not sure this is necessary as it is best stored in the fridge anyhow.

Apply the toner after washing your face. It smells a bit potent, not in an totally offensive way, but leaves my face feeling nourished and ever so soft. As for banishing the blemishes…well, we’ll just have to wait and see! If anyone else has tried it- I’d love to hear about it.

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This morning on my customary bowl of porridge I enjoyed a glug of nettle syrup. I can assure you that it’s not as unappetising as it sounds. Like maple syrup it is caramely sweet but with just a tiny hint of nettle essence. If you weren’t aware of it’s pedigree you would never guess that nettle leaves were the main ingredient. It is both a treat and a tonic and so easy to make. I adapted the recipe from a beautiful and much cherished book that my sister bought me.

Nettle Syrup

Here’s how I went about it:

I picked about 1kg of fresh nettle tops and placed them in a large saucepan with 2 litres of water. A handful of lemon balm leaves also went into the pot. I brought the water to a boil and simmered for an hour. Then I strained the lot through a piece of muslin and placed back in the pot with 800g of unrefined caster sugar. The spent leaves went onto the compost heap. Carefully stirring in the sugar I brought the heat up to a gentle rolling simmer until the liquid began to thicken. This took about 30 minutes. Then, after cooling, I decanted it into sterilised bottles/jar. I ended up with about 1 litre of syrup.

You really have to taste it to believe how surprisingly lovely it is. I even went as far as making some snazzy labels to tempt my reluctant family into giving it a shot. After much cajoling it eventually got the thumbs up. I urge you to get out there and gather some nettle tops before they they flower and make the most of one of our hedgerow heros. Let me know how you get on!

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This is “Be nice to Nettles Week” in the UK. So, put down that strimmer and slowly step away from the nettle patch. Not only will you save yourself some strenuous labour you will doing you and your garden a great service. Nettles (Urtica dioica), you may be surprised to learn, are one of our native hedgerow superfoods prized for their detoxifying effects. A real Spring tonic to get the system back in gear after winter. They pack a powerful punch of of silica, have vitamins A, D, K and also a considerable amount of calcium. They are a rich source of iron and can be cooked and eaten in place of spinach. Ironically, nettle pollen is a major cause of hay fever but the root of the plant itself will relieve the symptoms due to its antihistamine properties.

Nettles support over 40 species of insects, most notably the small tortoiseshell and peacock butterfly larvae.  The nettle weevil feeds exclusively on the plant eating both roots and leaves helping to keep the patch in check. A plot of nettles will provide shelter for aphids over winter and the resulting springtime swarm is a welcome source of food for blue tits and ladybirds early in the season. Nettle-loving insects rely on the stinging hairs of the nettle leaf for protection from hungry livestock. Whereas insects can move about freely on the leaf between the stinging hairs, grazing cattle will avoid ingesting the plant for fear of painful stings. Even the nettle seeds produced in late summer attract many seed-eating birds. All in all it’s a year-round winner for biodiversity.


A useful Nettle Infusion
Infusion differs from a tisane in that it is brewed for a longer time. Take only the young light green growth at the top of the plant before it goes to flower. Steep a large bunch of freshly snipped nettle tops in 1 liter of boiled water that has been left to stand for a few minutes. Leave overnight. The following morning strain the liquid and drink throughout the day. I like to gently reheat it and sip from a thermos flask with a dollop of manuka honey to soften the earthiness. It is, without a doubt, an acquired taste. Until you grow to love it (and you will!) a sip can resemble a mouthful of dirty dish water. Any leftover liquid can be used as a hair rinse. The silica in the infusion adds shine and prevents dry, flaky scalp and is a terrific home-made conditioner for your locks.

I also make a nettle fertiliser every year by steeping swathes of nettles in buckets of water. I place a rock on top of the leaves and secure the bucket with a lid. The whole lot is left to stew for a few weeks. Be warned: when the lid comes off you’ll be met with a slightly offensive whiff- not for the faint-hearted. Like most good fertilisers it ain’t pretty, but your plants will love it.

So show a little compassion for the nettles in your garden- you’ll be well rewarded!

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LED lights ChristmasChristmas festivities are fast approaching. Time to dust off the decorations and to jolly up your environs with tinsel and flashing lights. If your Christmas lights have been with you since that time in your life when Santa was as real as the tooth fairy then it may be time to replace them. Older lights are likely to be incandescent bulbs and, although reasonably cheap to buy, they use far more electricity than the newer LED versions. So if you are replacing or adding to your Christmas light collection consider the benefits of LEDs.

Benefits of LED lights
But LED lights are not just for Christmas! Recently we replaced some of our spot lights with Panasonic LED bulbs. We were pleasantly surprised at how much LED technology has improved. The light is soft and atmospheric in comparison to the glaring cold light of the first generation spots we installed a few years ago. The cone of light is 36 degrees – suitable for most applications. The LED spot uses a mere 4 watts compared to its halogen equivalent of 35 watts, giving us an impressive energy saving of 89%. Brilliant!

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Planting Trees - illustration. © Mizz WinkensMy cousin Triona reminded me that yesterday was National Tree Day (incidently, Triona is a terrific tree painter). This is a day when primary school students around the country put their usual classroom studies to one side to celebrate trees. This annual event encourages children to experience and appreciate the natural world around them. A fantastic initiative.

We tend to overlook the importance of trees. Of course we love their majestic serenity and delight in their seasonal displays. But they are so much more than that. They work so hard for us. You could call them mother nature’s batteries- harvesting and storing energy from the sun. We in turn can use this energy to our advantage by burning the wood as fuel, by building things and even by eating it – more commonly fruit but in some cases leaves and even sap.

You could also call them mother nature’s lungs. Not only is each leaf a highly effective solar collector they also purify our air by absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and releasing O2. As modern day living produces ever more harmful levels of CO2, logic would prevail that we plant more trees….but I promised I wouldn’t preach….

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