We were the first to arrive. One of the three beds opposite Wilkos, they said.
Propped up against one of the beds, we wondered if we were the sum total of the Incredible Edibles team, but we were soon to be welcomed by Mark, Chris and Bernie armed with forks, spades, trowels and bags. We felt very underdressed, our kit comprising only boots and gloves.
Still we went with the flow, hoping we’d survive this effort for the revolution, and promised to be better prepared in future.
The revolution, disguised as gardening, has invaded Brighouse.
At the moment it is a very small army that meets bi-weekly. As Mark explained, the party of volunteers tends to be between two and six people. Our presence brought this week’s total to eight. A jolly gathering of diverse individuals, tasks were cooperatively discussed and with a larger group than expected – we divided into two teams.
The first of the teams remained in the town, the second attended to the beds on the canal towpath. We remained with the first team, led by Mark.
The initial task created the first conundrum for the day. Weeding existing beds was the agenda, but it soon became evident that some agreement on what counted as a weed, and what didn’t, was needed. Mark’s knowledge, derived from his more professional role in local parks, helped us to distinguish groundsel from a sow thistle and of course, the edible from the non-edible. One of my favourite wild flowers, tufted vetch, I learned is a legume. It has a beneficial symbiosis with soil bacteria and also acts as a nitrogen fixer, which benefits the quality of the soil. According to PFAF, the seeds and leaves are edible. However, being a small flower it would be difficult to harvest in sufficient quantities without threatening it. Seems best to use as a companion plant.
The plant that caused most disagreement was coltsfoot. The leaves of the plant have a liquorice like flavour that was traditionally used to treat coughs and asthma. Nancy Arrowsmith (2009) describes a typical recipe for coltsfoot cough drops: 2oz of leaves boiled with a quart of water until the quantity is reduced by half. 4 cups of sugar are added and boiling continues until the ‘hardball’ stage. The mixture is then poured onto a buttered cake tin or buttered marble slab, then cut into shapes. When cool, they are dusted in sugar (or slippery elm powder) to prevent sticking when stored.
Some members of the group reminisced about a sweet they’d enjoyed in childhood – Coltfoot Rock. This is now a recognised regional product (like Wensleydale Cheese) and is manufactured by Stockleys Sweets in Lancashire, using a secret recipe. I’ve been charged with the task of seeing if I can purchase some from a traditional sweetshop close to home. I’ve never had the commercial version, but I did try a homemade variant a friend once made for his children. It was – well – like liquorice.
If there were specimens of coltsfoot removed before the exchange of childhood memories, I didn’t notice anyone removing any afterwards. This may not be a great idea for the main plants in the beds, a range of perennial herbs and annual vegetables planted in order to create interest and colour throughout the year, coltsfoot can be invasive.
We moved to the old health centre where the largest beds were for the second and last of our tasks for the evening – potato harvesting. About half of the potatoes were gathered and new sprouting spuds replaced them. We brought some of them home with us, so I’m planning a saag aloo with green lentils for dinner this evening. We have some perpetual spinach in the garden which will work with the community grown potatoes!
Reference: Arrowsmith, N. (2009) Essential Herbal Wisdom: A Complete Exploration of 50 Remarkable Herbs, Llewelyn Publications.