Jekkas

Happy Herbal Days

Do you know that glow? The one you have when you emerge from a few hours surrounded by plants and herby wisdom? It’s a glow of possibility and positivity. A visit to Jekka’s Herb Farm created that glow for me.  

Herbetum 

If you’ve ever felt slightly cheated by the disappointing selection of plants in the standard herb section of a garden centre or nursery, hoping to be inspired by an unusual variety or unknown specimen, they are all put in the shade by the selection at Jekka’s.  

In the Herbetum (Jekka’s term for ‘a collection of herbs’ – much like an arboretum is a collection of trees, the ‘etum’ part denotes a collection), herbs are arranged by family with many varieties of each so you’re able to compare and contrast, consider and select. There are mints, oreganos, rosemarys, lavenders, thymes …. .

Thyme 

So many thymes to get to know, Sherbert lemon thyme was certainly new to me, and yes, it does smell fizzy and citrusey. Bee McGovern, from the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH), took us on a walk-about of the Herbetum to illustrate her talk. Stopping at the thymes, she emphasised their potency, only a little is needed in cooking. Medicinally they are a wonderful deterrent being anti-microbial, anti-viral and anti-bacterial. They’re good for chest infections which can be treated with a steady intake of the herb, about five cups a day of thyme tea. To make the strong taste of this more palatable, she recommends adding ginger, lemon and honey, including lemon rind as this is antibacterial (I discovered another recommendation for lemon rind later in the day too …). 

One of the many thymes

Rosemary 

In the rosemary bed you can see the three main types – prostrate, arching and upright – a rosemary for every occasion. They have grown substantially over the short time they’ve been planted and the horrendous weather we had over this winter and spring has given them a beating. Jekka’s solution: prune them back to take the weight off, then watch all the new growth they put on over the year. Rosemary we know well, especially as a culinary herb, but have you ever used rosemary flowers as a special ingredient on their own? We were encouraged to taste one, finding them so highly flavoured, pungent, floral and sweet. Try blending these into mash potato and see how the family react.  

Rosemary ready to be chopped back

Mint 

There are four beds of mints, with ten varieties in each – that’s forty different mints you can smell and photograph, and add to your wish list. Most are available to buy, it’s lovely to wander up and down the nursery rows to find a luscious pot of the ones you’ve selected. Jekka grows shrub plants for two years before potting them up for sale, so you’ll be taking home a good, healthy, hardened-out and well-established plant.

From previous visits I have happy examples of Tashkent mint, Peppermint and Guernsey mint; I’m now happy to have a thriving strawberry mint in my herb bed, one you don’t find in an average garden centre. I also really liked Mentha ricola, the Swiss mint, which makes a great peppermint tea as it’s not so firey so better for those with a tender gut. Jekka’s recommendation for a good mint tea is to blend spearmint and peppermint 2:1 and use boiled (not boiling) water, leaving for five minutes to infuse. Any left-over tea can be frozen to add a burst of mint to summer drinks, or used to create jellies. Jekka is full of ideas on how to sprinkle herbs through life. 

One of the mint beds

Herb Garden 

Along with the Herbetum, it is also a pleasure to wander around the newly created decorative Herb Garden. It has been created as a gravel garden with a four inch high metal strip creating the boundary and containing a half soil/half gravel base. These beds were finished in May 2023, my visit took place just before they’d completed their first full cycle through the seasons, but already looked very well established and clearly telling their story.  

Of course Jekka has extensive experience of creating show gardens, and there are always plants from Jekka’s each year in Chelsea gardens. Those show gardens do mostly get transferred to a permanent setting – including her ‘Modern Apothercary’s Garden’ (from 2016) which is now at St John’s Hospice in London – but it’s lovely to see a garden that has been created in situ and designed with a mind to how it will evolve over the years.  

Impressive now, it’s only going to get better as the plants will be allowed to truly make themselves at home. Jekka explained how the natural course of self-seeding is expected to change the blend of plants in their own way. There’s already a self-seeded cardoon, and others that were presumably dormant seeds in the compost, including white viola and verbena bonariensis. The likes of cornflowers and nepeta will self-seed and the garden will be allowed to re-wild itself. Only those that threaten to be too dominant will be removed. Jekka and her family are as fascinated as us to see how things will progress. It certainly makes a good reason for another return visit, not that I’d need much persuading.   

Plant care 

Four pomegranate plants act as sentinels in this garden. Jekka is rightly proud of these, she told me they were grown from seed taken from a fruit she’d bought in Tescos – testament indeed to her interest, care and ability to raise thriving plants. Jekka is an advocate of ‘Feeding Fridays’, all her plants are given a regular weekly feed. While my sporadic weekend lifestyle makes it easier for me to maintain consistency with ‘Thirsty Thursdays’ I have made a nettle brew for my plants and am noticing their appreciation of a regular weekly feed. I imagine it’s not just the food but the attention they respond to. By enacting a regular pattern, you notice difference and become more aware of the plants’ needs.  

Plant wisdom 

As well as a variety of visiting guests on Jekka’s open days – with walking tours focused on medicinal herbs and bees – Jekka will aways give a talk to share her wisdom, eagerly received by all. Of course this talk changes with the progression of the seasons as she’ll bring in the stars of the moment to illustrate her talk, with tastings encouraged for those who are brave enough (red hot water pepper anyone?).  

Borage 

One of the stars in the talk I attended was white flowering borage, an interesting cousin of the more familiar blue-flowered herb. Recommended as a beautiful plant for the evening garden where it catches the moonlight. Borage has an association with courage. Jekka told us how in Roman times women would brew borage tea for their sons to drink when they went off to war, it made them high.

Curiously, this story was mirrored for me later that day as I’d chosen to follow on my tour at Jekka’s with a gin tasting at the 6 O’Clock gin distillery just down the road. (Jekka collaborated with them in 2018 to make a special edition herbal gin with lemon verbena, swiss mint and rose petal from the Herbetum, sadly now out of stock). In their fascinating introductory talk about the history of gin they referenced the ‘dutch courage’ which the English battalions learnt about by observing how each dutch fighter drank something fortifying from a flask. It was from this that gin was introduced to Britain.

Borage has prickly leaves (an indicator that the seed pressed from borage seed is considered a ‘rough’ oil when used in skincare), however these dissolve on the tongue if you’re daring enough to try. It tastes of cucumber, a very fine option to flavour gin. Jekka also makes a cold borage soup by sweating down the leaves, adding stock and then folding in crème fraiche. Chilled in the fridge it is very welcome on a warm summer day. While the white flowers don’t look quite so striking in an ice cube as the blue borage flowers, they do look spectacular scattered over strawberries.  

Bee McGovern had also focused on borage, clearly a favourite of hers as she has chosen it to feature in the logo for her herbal practice, because of its associations with courage and joy. Despite all the correlating evidence, there is still no scientific explanation as to why the plant has this property. Bee sees this as one of the things that makes plants such powerful allies for us – they have wisdom that we don’t.

Bee had advice for each plant we looked at on how best to extract its active components. For ‘fleshy’ borage she advised creating a tincture through alcohol extract, rather than using it dried. Her rule of thumb when working with alcohol infusions is to leave them for two weeks for flowers and leaves, or four weeks for more woody material or roots. Borage’s high water content will reduce the alcohol levels of the tincture, so it can be give at a dosage of one or two teaspoons per day

Gotu Kola 

It’s always lovely to be introduced to a new herbal ally, or a new way to bring a herb into your repertoire. Something many of the audience had not come across before was Centella asiatica, commonly known as Gotu Kola, Indian Pennywort or Tiger Grass, with crinkle-edged, heavily-veined, disc-shaped leaves held on long tendrils. Bee encouraged us to pick the leaves in a cut-and-come-again style as a go-to resource for relieving brain fog (especially for the hot-headed) with its cooling and grounding nature, as well as helping heal tissue. Another high water content herb, this can be tricky to dry so a dehydrator is recommended. It is possibly easier to make a tincture. Otherwise the plant can be overwintered indoors so it is always accessible in its fresh form.

Advice and inspiration 

There were so many points of wisdom in the talks, and plenty of ‘aha’ moments – like why mints kept in a pot sometimes don’t fair well in winter: they won’t grow to the edge of the pot so there’s always a gap where the cold and rot can get in. I was even able to get Jekka’s advice on my leggy lemon verbena plant: check the stem to see where the growth is and cut below the growth spikes, do this in Spring to ensure a full Summer’s growth.  

After my truly herbilicious day of botanical bliss, with plants stowed in the boot of the car, I picked up my packets of seeds and copy of Jekka’s new ‘100 Herbs to Grow’ book from the cafe/shop. A peep inside showed her inscription wishing me ‘Happy Herbal Days’. Too true.  

… O, and that other tip with lemon rind. This one came from the 6 O’Clock Gin team, they told us we don’t need to put the whole lemon slice into gin. Most of the aromatics are in the rind so use just that, and a twist of rind is such a pretty garnish.