Over the past couple of months, I have been experimenting with some of the plants that I have gathered and dried from my garden.
Much as I love working with raffia, exploring and developing ways to use the plants that I grow or that grow naturally around me, has always been an important area of my work. I hope that in time, I will only work with local plants, but I need to learn some more first and I also need more space if I am going to be able to process enough plants, to last me all year round.
With this in mind, we are planning to move in the next few weeks, to a property where both myself and my husband have room to expand our creative dreams and where we can potentially hold workshops, so that we can share our passions with others.
As any of you that have bought and sold houses will know, it is rather all-consuming, taking up time and energy and no matter what your intentions may be, it is always very stressful!
As a result, I haven’t done all of the things that I would have liked to have done with my plants this year, but my work has provided me with a welcome relief from the mental and emotional strains, of taking the next big leap in our lives.
And of course, everything that I have learned this year makes me more prepared for next spring and summer. I already feel excited thinking about it and I can’t wait to sit down and plan both my craft garden and our kitchen garden, over the winter months.
So, what have I learned over the summer?
One of the big things for me, has been how much I love working with Phormium Tenax (New Zealand Flax). I did a little bit of work with this wonderful plant last year, when a neighbour kindly gave me some partially retted leaves.
I finished retting them and then spent a very long time, trying to separate and clean the fibres. The results were very beautiful, but the time involved in processing the fibres, would have made it highly impractical to do much work with it. You can see the resulting basket in Baskets from my Garden
Thankfully, I’m not that easily put off!
This year, another kind islander helped me to transplant some phormium tenax, from their garden to mine. I had intended to try using the leaves for weaving, in the way that they are traditionally used in New Zealand, skipping out the need for stripping those fibres.
I quickly discovered that not all varieties are as suitable for this kind of weaving as others! And after watching a short documentary on the National collection of these plants in New Zealand, I realised that I had a lot to learn and that my new plants, were not going to give me wonderful weavers.
I was going to put all thoughts of using phormiun tenax to one side, when I came across a photograph online, of someone using a wire brush to strip the fibres from some lily leaves. There wasn’t any information to go with the image, but it was enough for me to rush to the hardware store on the next island and buy myself a big wire brush!
The results were fantastic! Within minutes of working with leaves, freshly cut from my plants, I had a big pile of fibres, ready to be dried out and stored away for basket making. No retting, no struggling to separate fibres with my fingernails – here was my light at the end of the tunnel.
The resulting fibres are a wonderfully rich, auburn colour and need only a brief run under the tap, to be ready to use.
I set about making a little twined basket with the fibres. I began by using some of them to make cordage for the spokes and then used one or two strands (depending on thickness) for the weavers. It was an absolute joy to work with and I am processing what I can from my small plants, to use over winter.
These are most definitely added to my list of plants to grow, in my new garden.
I was also keen to continue my work with dandelions, this summer. As those of you who regularly read my blog will know, I have used various parts of this fantastic little weed, for craft already this year, I made the petals into paper and beads and then then used whole flowers to create a beautiful yellow dye, which I used on both raffia and fabric for my dyers quilt.
With my children helping, I gathered an enormous amount of dandelion stems, once the plants had finished with their seed heads. These were dried on my racks and carefully stored away in paper for later use.
I found that the stems didn’t need to be refreshed before using – they retained a waxiness that made then perfect for cordage making.
I stitched the cordage together into a coil basket with some cotton thread. I realise now, that I could have used phormium tenax fibres for the stitching, eliminating the need for any materials, other than those found in my garden.
This humble little plant, that is so readily available, is useful in so many ways and will always be welcome on my land.
I also did a lot of experimental work with the ribbed plantain, which grows everywhere on the island, earlier in the season.
The stems can be used for weaving or if retted and blitzed in a food processor, can make a kind of paper.
Another yellow dye, can be made from the stems, less of a sunshine yellow than the dandelion, but still very nice to use.
I hadn’t tried using the leaves though and there are so many in my garden, that it seemed a shame to waste them. So I gathered some and put them on the drying rack. Just like the stems, the leaves get considerably darker as they dry out and I found, that they could be used straight from the rack, to make cordage.
I absolutely love the the inky darkness of this cordage. It’s so different from other plants that I have used.
I decided to stitch the cordage together with phormium tenax fibres, which looked very like thin strands of copper against the dark plantain leaves.
I wasn’t entirely happy with the quality of my work on this one, but I was convinced that plantain leaves were going to be a lovely addition to my basket making materials, so I have gathered and dried lots more!
Of course, I couldn’t leave out the daffodil leaves, that I spent so long gathering and hanging up to dry in the springtime. They don’t make great weavers individually, but layered up and plaited together, they can be a wonderful resource for basketry. I particularly like the rich golden colour of them when dried.
You really do need to take the time to mellow these before use, by wrapping them in a damp cloth and leaving for a few hours or overnight. If you try to use them dry, they will just break.
I never realised before, what a rich floral scent, daffodil leaves have. It filled the whole house as they were drying and was still strong when I reopened the paper packages.
Again, I stitched the plait together with phormium tenax fibre. This time I made a little lid for my mini basket and whittled a single bead from sycamore, for the top.
I was in a playful mood with this one, so I also added some dried sea lavender flowers from our garden, around the rim.
This little basket didn’t really give me enough room to fully explore the possibilities of daffodil leaves, but plans are being made to create a plaited hat, something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. At the moment I’m thinking of something rather 1920’s in style.
It is hard to know how much work I will be able to do over the coming months, as we are planning to buy a derelict house and will have to spend some time in temporary rented accomodation. But wherever I can work, I will, and of course nature always provides us with opportunities to create.
So that brings me rather more up to date and I will do my best to get back to more regular posting here, as it helps me to keep track of my thoughts and my progress.
For now, I will get back to a fortnight of natural dyeing, which I will share with you next time.
Well, it’s been a while since I last sat down to write here and during that time, our garden has filled with flowers and vegetables galore!
My blog has taken a back seat these past few weeks, as we have been busy planning for the future. We know that we need more space for growing food and now space for growing flowers and other plants that I can use for natural crafts, has also become a priority.
Yet, even though we are feeling the need to expand our efforts, our small walled garden has produced so much more this year, than in our first season, in 2020.
I learned a lot about growing things last year and small successes built my confidence. This year I started a lot more seed and jumped into growing flowers with both feet. Who doesn’t love a garden full of flowers? Many of the flowers that I have grown this year have natural crafts in mind, but we have also grown edible flowers.
These beautiful blooms have brought us so much joy over the last couple of months, with myself and my children checking each day to see what is newly opened. We now have the luxury of always having full vases in the house, which makes my heart sing!
This seasons vegetables have also brought much satisfaction, with our dinners often being picked just before we eat them. Homegrown veggies taste so different from the ones that you bring home from the shops, because they are so, so fresh!
My youngest two particularly delight in harvesting our crops and I am so glad for them, that they get to help with growing our food. What a rich and valuable learning experience it is, to plant a seed, nurture it into a full grown plant and then enjoy the results of your efforts.
We grew our tomatoes indoors again this year and were once again rewarded with a bountiful crop. Our new cold frames worked out really well and meant that we could reclaim our porch as space for people rather than plants (although my collection of house plants has started to expand in there!).
Of course, gardening has its ups and downs. I was so cross with myself, for taking my eye off the ball, when a week of bad weather hit. We lost two thirds of our peas to the wind, which could easily have been prevented if I hadn’t been distracted by other things.
Fortunately, I was staggering my peas through the season, so although we lost many plants that were full of young pods, we didn’t have long to wait, for others to take their place.
I have been growing several plants, just for drying and they have all done really well in the slightly wild coastal conditions of the Orkney Islands.
The everlasting strawflowers and sea lavenders (statice), just keep flowering, meaning that we can keep enjoying them in the garden, while I also gather some each week for craft.
It really is remarkable, how they still look so fresh when dried, retaining those fabulous colours. What a treat they will be when the flowers of summer fade away and the darker autumn/winter days return.
I have also been growing some Scabiosa Sternkugel, whose beautiful flowers give way to stunning seedheads. These have also been added to my drying racks for use later on.
Growing flowers from seed has really captured my heart this year and my list of flowers to grow next year is growing by the day.
If you don’t grow your own veggies and flowers from seed, I urge you to give it a try. I knew nothing when I started and most of what I know now, has just been from trial and error.
You won’t find neatly ordered rows of vegetables or flowerbeds that have been planned for colour, size and shape. My methods and results are everything mixed in together, in no-dig beds and I love it!
The hugelkultur bed that my kids made as part of a project on permaculture, last year, is absolutely crammed with plants. Chives, spring onions, spinach, nasturtiums, sea lavenders, poppies, coreopsis, beans, pak choi, wild pansies and others I’ve probably forgotten, all growing together and full of the constant and busy hum of the island’s bees.
There have been times this year when I have felt like I haven’t been succeeding in the garden. Late snow, dry but cold grey days and slugs and caterpillars aplenty, have tried their best to hinder our efforts. Oh and I mustn’t forget that wind, but as I sat and watched the sun come up over our small but packed kitchen garden this morning, I couldn’t help feeling pleased to see so much life, all grown from seed.
It is a simple pleasure and one that I want to go on experiencing year after year.
It was with great excitement that we received a box of hatching duck eggs through the post, nearly six weeks ago. We have often talked about keeping ducks over the years, but prior to moving to the Orkney Islands, we lived in built up areas, where poultry and fowl were restricted.
We purchased a small incubator (The Brinsea Mini II Eco), which is supposed to be suitable for up to 8 eggs. I think it would be possible to fit 8 eggs in, but I wouldn’t like to see it come hatching time!
Fortunately, we only had six eggs and our kids had a rota to turn them three times a day for nearly four weeks. We watched the temperature and humidity, scared of making any little mistakes. The constant whirring of the incubators fan, made sure that we were always reminded that we had ducklings, quietly growing in the corner of our living room.
Three days before hatch day, we put the incubator into lockdown. This is the point when the eggs become particularly sensitive to any change in temperature or humidity and opening the incubator can dry out the membrane. We increased the humidity, as we didn’t want any problems with hatching.
The next day three of the eggs pipped. It was so exciting to be able to hear the ducklings and see the eggs moving from time to time.
We had our suspicions that two of the eggs had not developed, as they were a noticeably different colour and since increasing the humidity, a rather nasty smell had started to waft out of the incubator. I realise now, that I should have candled the eggs before going into lockdown, but we were worried about damaging them, by handling them too much.
It was over twenty-four hours later, before the first duckling zipped it’s egg and saw it’s first glimpse of the world. A beautiful yellow duckling, we knew that this one was half German Pekin. All of our eggs were from Cherry Vale mothers, but they had a mix of two fathers, with the other being an Indian Runner.
Sure enough, duckling number two was brown and yellow – so now we had one of each.
By this time a fourth egg had pipped, but as we approached the 48 hour mark since no.3 had pipped, I became anxious that it was having difficulties. No.3 had pipped at the small end of the egg and I was aware that this could be a problem. I had read a lot about the importance of leaving ducks to hatch by themselves, unless absolutely necessary. It was getting really stressful, so I checked in with The Highland Homestead, who had supplied our eggs, to get some advice. I was just preparing to step in, when I saw that no.3 was finally making a push for freedom and a few minutes later, Clover arrived.
I was just going to relax a little and wait for no.4 to arrive some time the next day, when I noticed that the hatched ducklings were having some real difficulties, with the tiny space inside the incubator.
Our first to hatch, Tonka, was having to sit on top of Flax, who had become trapped in a very awkward position, between the remnants of shell. We watched anxiously as poor Flax lay with Tonka sat on her head!
Eventually, they managed to rearrange themselves, but a short time later, Tonka, became stuck between the thermometer and the roof of the incubator. Tonka was clearly in distress at this point, so I made the decision to move Tonka and Flax to the brooder, leaving Clover to dry out some more in the incubator.
I knew that this would put no.4 at risk, but there didn’t seem to be any other choice.
The three that were hatched seemed to be doing really well, with more space and all fluffed up nicely. The following day, no.4 started to break free, but it only got a little section of egg loose. I could see that the membrane was yellow and knew that opening the incubator to free Tonka, had dried out our last ducklings membrane, trapping it in it’s egg.
I moved the now fully dry Clover to the brooder and prepared to help no.4.
It was a really tense few minutes, as I carefully removed small pieces of shell, watching for any signs of bleeding or blood vessels. It was quite incredible to uncover little Sorrel’s eye and see her looking at me, as I removed enough shell for her to free her head. At that point, she was able to wriggle out of her shell and I quickly popped her back in the incubator to dry.
It was such a relief to see her doing really well and moving about.
As soon as she was dry, she joined the others and now that there didn’t seem to be any risk of harm, I removed the last two eggs and candled them to check for ducklings. I was very relieved to find there were none and that hatching was complete, with four happy, healthy ducklings snuggled up together.
A week and a half later and they are very much a part of the family. All of our kids adore them, from our 3yr old, all the way up to our 19yr old. They are growing at an astonishing rate and everyday we have to change things around to suit their new size and ability.
It has been a really rewarding experience for us all and we look forward to seeing them in their proper feathers, roaming around our garden.
Spring is a plentiful time for collecting plant fibres to use in basketry and dyes. You may have seen in my earlier post, Making Dandelion Paper and Dandelion Beads that the petals of these wonderful springtime weeds, can be turned into a wonderful textural paper and a fun craft activity for children. The sunny and under-appreciated dandelion, has uses beyond its flowering time, however. The stems grow incredibly long as they go to seed and can be hung in bunches of 5-6, to let them dry for later use.
I have also found that they dry well laid flat, as long as the air can circulate all around them. I have done this on homemade frames, made from reclaimed wood, with linen scrim stretched over them. The frames fit onto runners above our stairs, where they dry beautifully and quickly – thanks to the warm air rising through the house.
If picking the long stems, wait until the seeds have dispersed, to ensure a good crop the following year.
Once dry, the stems can be used as they are for twining, or can be made into a beautiful cordage. The variety of colours in these stems ranges from deep purples, through pinks and of course pale greens. It is worth noting however, that these will fade in time to a lovely golden colour.
The flowers, stems, leaves and even roots of the humble dandelion, can be made into natural dyes. These vary depending on which parts of the plant that you use, how you prepare the dye, the accompanying mordant and whether you are dyeing plant or animal fibres.
Greens and yellows can be expected and my own efforts this year, produced a fantastic bright yellow on raffia, which has been a joy to work with.
There are other plants around during late spring, which are starting to fade and can be used for basketry. I made dye with our daffodil flowers earlier in the year (Daffodil Dye and a Basketry Experiment), but I was equally excited about gathering the leaves.
Daffodils need to retain their stems and leaves, until the time that they begin to yellow or brown, as the bulbs take goodness from these to produce next years flowers.
Of course, as soon as they start to go, it is a huge job to collect and dry them all. I have found that these leaves will not tolerate being dried horizontally. They will just get spoiled by dark patches of mildew.
This can also be the case if hung in bunches. So instead, I have been hanging them individually on washing line, stretched along our walls.
I had no idea, until this year, that daffodil leaves have such a strong scent. The whole house has been filled with a strong floral smell during the 2-3 weeks that they take to dry out properly. If you are drying some yourself, hang with the cut base of the stem hanging down. Once dry, the leaves can be wrapped in paper and stored until needed.
I like to braid them in threes and fours and use them for coiling. You will need to mellow the leaves before use, by wrapping in a damp cloth and leaving overnight.
Perhaps New Zealand Flax, might not be in everyones garden, but here they grow well. So well in fact, that they become enormous and huge numbers of leaves need to be stripped out of the established plants, to keep them in order.
I was lucky enough to be given the spring clear-out from a neighbours plants. The leaves are ideal for weaving. They can be cut into strips, bent and folded or even retted, so that individual fibres can be stripped.
I think I have a great deal to learn about this plant and its uses, but for now I contented myself with making a harakeke whetu ( a traditional New Zealand woven star).
As spring comes to a close and summer begins, a whole new supply of natural fibres are coming into season, so fill up your walls with nature’s bounty and you will have plenty of natural craft supplies, to keep you going through winter.