Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Friday, 18 February 2011

VP's VIPs: Jekka McVicar

'Queen of herbs' Jekka McVicar hardly needs my introduction. Her dozens of gold medals from shows such as Chelsea, her commitment to organic growing and championing of herbs makes her a familiar face all over the world. I'm lucky that I live just a few miles from Jekka's Herb Farm and could easily pop over for a chat last Friday.

We started off with a tour of the farm where we were constantly followed by Hampton and Borage, the McVicar's dog and cat who are inseparable companions. Everything outside had been power washed ready for the new season and I caught occasional glimpses of Mac, Jekka's husband at work. I get ridiculously excited when I visit nurseries, even when they're relatively empty like they are now. Jekka joined in my excitement: It's a fantastic time of the year: we're frantically sowing seeds and everything's pushing their noses up through the soil.

In the heated greenhouse Claire was busy sowing thousands of seeds and many thousands more were already pushing their way through the compost. It was exciting to see many of the trays sporting pink labels (and many of the plants in the polytunnels) as these are earmarked for the three Chelsea show gardens which Jekka is supplying with plants this year: the M&G Investments Garden by Bunny Guinness, the B&Q Garden by Patrick Collins and Laurie Chetwood and Marney Hall's Skyshades Garden. Occasional red labels amongst the pink showed these trays will be used for Jekka's own displays for Malvern and Chelsea. No she isn't returning to Chelsea's Grand Pavilion, she'll be returning to her booth.

Well that's not quite true: I can exclusively reveal that Jekka will be returning to Chelsea's Grand Pavilion. As she is the chair of Moderation. The first woman ever to be appointed and she'll be performing the same role for Cardiff and Malvern's floral marquees :)

Now on with the interview...

As you grow over 600 varieties of herbs, your definition must be pretty broad?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'herb' as a plant of beneficial use to man. That's good enough for me.

What's new at the farm this year?
I'm growing much more of the range and bulk of the plants in the larger 1 and 2 litre pot sizes. People want plants which they can use straight away (the supermarket effect) and will look good immediately when planted out or in a garden pot. I can provide twice the size of plant for just £1 extra, which customers also like.

I have a wonderful new hot bath which I'm using for sterilising mint roots using the RHS approved method to prevent mint rust (6 minutes at 44 degrees centigrade). I'm also experimenting with it to see what temperature kills root aphids, but not the plant. They don't harm the plant that much, but it doesn't look good from a customer's viewpoint.

You recently advertised a number of vacancies, have these been filled now?
We just have one horticultural worker vacancy left. We need someone who loves plants and wants to learn all about growing them. We're horticulturalists here: we grow healthy plants and have the knowledge to advise where they'll grow to their best, their maximum height, spread etc. for a gardener to buy and grow for their enjoyment.

Your Herb Cookbook was very well received at its launch at Chelsea last year, do you have any more books in the pipeline? (Patient Gardener suggested one on medicinal rather than culinary plants)
Sadly none on the horizon: there needs to be a TV tie-in for anyone to say go as the writing world is in such turmoil.

What are you launching at Chelsea this year? NB another exclusive announcement coming up...
My new range of whole leaf herbal teas* (whole leaf is definitely the way to go judging by my cup of refreshing lemon verbena tea - Ed). Hanna's (Jekka's daughter) designed the packaging, which is also biodegradable, unless you go for the fantastic kilner jar store cupboard size ;)

You seem to be adding quite a number of non-herby things to your range e.g. your gift cards last year.

Yes, I've tried extending the season for my herbs, but I've decided not to fight nature any more and just stick to a March to August plant season. Anything else we can add to the range which extends the season in other ways is helpful. The books, gift cards and seed collections were a natural step. Now I'm introducing organic teas which are big on flavour. Hannah's also designed new aprons for us to use at shows this year and these will also go sale as well as a new tea towel.

Back to herbs: which ones are good for this time of year? (i.e. winter months)

Any of the evergreens such as rosemary, bay, myrtle and this year's crop of chives. I made bay ice cream last week it was delicious.

Isn't bay a bit peppery for ice cream?

No, it's a wonderfully warming flavour. I made a bay custard and converted it to ice cream, inspired by the guys at Casamia.

I think I might have lost my myrtle this winter :(
You probably haven't: you need to cut it back really hard in a couple of months time when the weather's warmer and it should re sprout from the bottom of the plant. The same applies to any member of the olive family.

The Constant Gardener would like to know which herbs can be grown in the shade?


Avoid the silver leafed varieties as they need the sun. I have a north facing bed here which hardly gets any sun at all where Tashkent mint, sorrel, Afghan chives, fennel and skullcap all do well. Oh and myrtle if it's grown against a wall. Others to consider are salads - as shade prevents them from bolting, coriander, sweet woodruff, meadowsweet and parsley. Rosemary can do well if the site gets some sun.

Which herb deserves to be better known?

Savory - both summer and winter as they're much more prolific than thyme. Also Hyssop - so versatile as it can be used in soups, stews and casseroles.

Any other top tips?
  • Borage is a good companion plant for runner beans: their yield will be increased as the blue flowers attracts bees, as any blue flower does and this in turn ensure better pollination of the beans.
  • Always keep secateur blades sharp and clean. This minimises the size of the wound and helps the plant to recover more quickly and cleanliness prevents disease.
  • Bicarbonate of soda spray is excellent for treating downy mildew should the usual preventative measures break down
Do you have a 'room 101' herb?
Just like my favourites it all depends on the time of year :)

And finally, who or what inspires you?
Beth Chatto - her exhibit at Chelsea was truly extraordinary: until then everything was displayed in pots and hers was like a garden. AND she hasn't retired, but is still going strong. Christo (Christopher Lloyd) inspired me to use red in my displays and Penny Hobhouse for her wonderful colour combinations. Fred Daws who judged my first ever exhibit at Bath Flower Show ** - he advised me to grow specimen plants.

That's about it for today - thanks so much for finding time for me to come over and see you :)

NB Jekka's Herb Farm isn't usually open to the public, but her next Open Days are April 1st, 2nd and 3rd 2011. In the meantime you can also follow @JekkasHerbFarm on Twitter (one of the better business adopters of the medium in my opinion) and read the monthly diary on the website (as well as browse that oh so tempting catalogue). Fans across the pond will also have the chance to see Jekka in June when she will be giving the keynote speech at the Herb Society of America's AGM in Pittsburgh.

* = whole leaf herbal tea is definitely the way to go judging the cup of refreshing lemon verbena I had. Jekka did tell me what's in each of the three teas she'll be launching (Bright and Breezy Brew, 3pm Tea and Goodnight), but that would spoil the fun of you finding out wouldn't it? ;)

** = sadly Bath Flower Show is no more - a victim of the recent council cuts.

14 comments:

  1. And love her slots on local radio.

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  2. What a fantastic interview, VP! I am a fan of Jekka McVicar, have several of her books, and am thrilled to bits that you got to do this--and that you live not far from her farm. Learned a lot in this piece...

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  3. That's why my sorrel went! I have a packet of her cards from the Hampton Court flower show - too pretty to use, I keep them to drool over ...

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  4. great interview! it leads me to remember that i am still on a quest seeking herbs/veggies which don't mind indirect sun &/or damp feet. will be trying out spearmint this season. i also enjoy sring nurseries. one can feel the energy of new seeds raising thier leaves towards the sun.

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  5. Really enjoyed reading the interview and will definitely be taking notes and giving more herbs a try in the garden this year. Thanks.

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  6. oooh you asked my question! Thanks VP! That's fantastic, I have a lovely plant list for my new (shady) herb garden now :D

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  7. Good interview.
    I grew summer savory for the first time last year and it was great, lots of it and a lovely addition to lots of things. Want to try the winter version now.
    Sorry to hear about the Bath flower show - I will miss it.

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  8. I really appreciated the advice on herbs for shade too. Thanks for the interview - it's fascinating

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  9. Really interesting, VP - I look forward to finding out what's in the teas. What a shame Jekka has no more books in the pipeline - I'd be interested in one on medicinal herbs too.

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  10. Great interview. It must be so nice to live so close and being able visit the nursery.

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  11. I've just had a blissful daydream in which I got the remaining job at Jekka's and learnt all about growing herbs from the experts. Think I will have to make do with getting to one of the April open days. Interesting that she has given up trying to extend the season. Thank you for undertaking such an onerous trip on our behalf ;-) You'll have to let us know if you Myrtle sprouts up again.

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  12. Hermes - good point :)

    Jodi - I'm thrilled to bits I did it too :)

    EE - the cards are lovely...

    Petoskystone - spearmint's a good 'un. I beginning to believe I need to visit a nursery at this time of the year every year. The new season's optimism is most invigorating

    Jason - welcome! So glad this has inspired you - I look forward to seeing how you get on

    CG - I couldn't leave out such a good question!

    Lu - I use winter savory a lot. Savory makes beans less windy too ;)

    Victoria - glad you like it

    Juliet - I think the blends are great. Just realised that James Wong is covering the medicinal side of things

    Fer - yes, I'm lucky :)

    Plantaliscious - we all have those daydreams! I must remember to do a post on my olive/myrtle cutting back in a couple of months time. I had to do it on my olive last year and it came back strongly

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  13. A lovely interview :) I went to one of Jekka's open days last year, and came home with a bootful of lovely plants. It's interesting (although rather depressing) that even Jekka can't get a book deal at the moment!

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  14. Emma - I wish I'd known you were going, it would have been good to meet up! And coming home with bootfulls of plants from there is the norm :)

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