June-August, 2021: garden diary

Shhhhh … don’t tell anyone, but our garden’s full of drugs!

For a start there’s the Poppy, a well-known source of opium and morphine. I’m fairly sure ours are the wrong variety, but I will confess to currently being addicted to some rather crunchy bread rolls produced by Tesco, with poppy seeds scattered all over their tops. Could it be true that “Poppy seeds contain small quantities of both morphine and codeine”? [source: Wikipedia]. Hmm … makes you think.

Then there’s Feverfew. It can create a bit of a headache for gardeners, as after a few years this herb spreads quite widely around the garden, with seedlings proliferating until eventually they have to be treated as weeds. It’s quite a pretty plant though and, according to folklore (though not yet confirmed by science, apparently), it’s a very effective cure for headaches, including the ones it causes. Just try to ignore the possible side effects of dermatitis, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, flatulence, mouth ulcers, etc., etc.

If the use of Feverfew sets your heart a-flutter, you can always talk to your doctor about some kind of medication to restore your pulse to its normal rate. The pharmaceutical world seems to have narrowed down the production of products derived from Foxgloves (Digitalis); but ‘Digitalin’ is still prescribed for a number of heart-related complaints such as atrial fibrillation. But I don’t think I’ll be getting out my test tubes just yet.

Down by the little pond, we watched a plant with very large, coarse leaves appear from nowhere. Neither of us had ever seen it before but eventually Lynn identified it as Burdock (Arctium) which, as well as being a quite important ingredient of the beverage Dandelion and Burdock (which can still be found for sale, eg in Sainsburys), is taken by many to treat all manner of bodily ailments – as a diuretic, for instance – though, again, the medical profession beg to differ on its efficacy. Its prickly heads, known as burrs, have been known to trap small birds and condemn them to a slow and painful death …

Got a cough? Allow me to introduce you to our pot of Thyme. This is a herb with many genuine medicinal uses, and Thyme tea is sold commercially if you don’t want to go to the trouble of growing your own. It smells good, can be used as a disinfectant and, like the apples, pears, rhubarb, blackberries and other fruits in the garden, it contains vital vitamins.

Of course, many so-called remedies are simply passed on in folklore, with no scientific evidence to back up the claims made about them. Thus I will not be trying out our Elderberry (Sambucus) next time I get fever, rheumatism, a burn or the common cold!

But there are some plants that really do seem genuinely valuable in the manufacture of prescription drugs. Valerian produces bright red flowers in our garden – though I gather there are other varieties – and blossoms for many months during summer. Below the soil surface it forms a dense mat of closely woven roots which can be extremely hard to dig out. It’s Valerian’s roots that are widely used for the preparation of numerous products, including anti-convulsants and products to help with sleep disorders.

We’ve seen quite a few species of butterflies this summer; but none more so than the sudden clouds of Painted Ladies, which appeared almost overnight towards the end of August. They were everywhere …

… but most notably, as always, in the Buddleia (the “butterfly bush”).

I cut the buddleia back hard in autumn 2020. In the past, in previous gardens, I’ve pruned them in early Spring, but this one was so massive that I had to take action urgently.

Our Hydrangea in the front garden was hit by frost in the early part of the year, but it recovered really well and is showing no sign at all of lasting damage.

Our Mock Orange (Philadelphus), growing in partial shade, produced a spectacular fountain of fragrant white blossoms in May and June. The photograph doesn’t really do it justice.

If you follow my blog, you may recall my planting of the five old-fashioned David Austin roses in November 2019. I ordered them as bare root plants. The rose bed is finished now and the roses are maturing. I think one or two of them suffer slightly from not being in direct sunshine for long enough each day; but most put on a beautiful show and some are still in bloom months later.

This has been another great year for roses elsewhere in the garden, too. I love the pillow-soft, pink mottling of this one, for instance.

Here are some of the others, all growing in the front garden.

Here’s the climbing rose next to our conservatory door. Wasn’t quite as spectacular as last year because of the high winds, but we tied it up for support and it recovered fairly well.

Vying with the roses for attention in the front garden, along with the Cosmos, Canterbury Bells, Sedum and Petunias, the Achillea have maintained a vibrant display of reddish shades for months on end. These were amongst the various perennials I bought from Thompson & Morgan as plug plants (a great purchase at about £9.99 for 36 plants, by the way!). They’ve finally gone over and I’ve pruned them back, thinking I was dead-heading. Time will tell whether this was adviseable. Lynn thinks not …

Personally, I’ll think they’ll be fine. Plants just love to grow … see how a single Lobelia seed has grown up and spent the summer squeezed in between the courtyard wall and the concrete floor …

… and how these Japanese Anemones have performed a similar trick down the side of the house.

And below the birdfeeder, a single Sunflower seed made its own bid for freedom.

Above the Lobelia, adding more splashes of bright colour to the black-and-white of the walls and woodwork, are a couple of hanging baskets, which this year we planted up using bought plants and seeds. Our time has been limited because of preparing for our intended house move but we think the simple mix of Petunias, Lobelia and Begonias works quite well.

Meanwhile, back in the fruit and veg. patch, there are still some broad beans to be had, along with beetroot, tomatoes and courgettes, including one rather odd-shaped specimen. Now, at the end of August, we can watch the six sweetcorn plants as their corns swell and ripen on the stems.

The new flower border, full of the plug plant perennials that I nursed through the winter, eventually matured and reached a point where it looked quite dazzling. Here it is on the way to that point.

But the problem arrives when things won’t stop growing! A lesson for the future – plant sparingly at first, and add new plants only when longer-term gaps are clear to see. I do love the Gaura, a plant we’ve not grown before, which has continued to flower in the border through the summer months but it has eventually rather overwhelmed the area with its long, wavy stems carrying beautiful white flowers. It’s ended up looking rather straggly and untidy, unfortunately.

So, as Summer turns into Autumn, we begin final preparations for our planned house move. With property as with gardening, things don’t always work out as intended. But we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

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China bans tutors: levelling-up or dumbing down?

Xi Xinping

On the face of it, two recent moves by the Chinese government appear to be aimed at promoting greater freedom and opportunity for its citizens.

The one-child restriction imposed on couples in 1979 was relaxed to two in 2016 and extended to three in May this year. China’s population of 1.4bn is ageing rapidly and growth is very slow: so the brakes are being taken off. And last month a tranche of strict regulations on for-profit tuition was brought in, supposedly to quell the rampant expansion of profit-based tutoring which has imposed huge financial burdens on a society obsessed with ensuring academic success by its children.

The Chinese tutoring sector is vast – worth an estimated $120bn, according to press reports – and for the most part comprises a network of both indigenous and worldwide corporations, as well as smaller firms and private individuals. “Training centres” – non-government funded, profit-based organisations offering extra tuition to parents prepared to pay for evening classes and weekend tuition for their kids – abound across China.

Exact details of the new restrictions are due to be released next month: it’s not entirely clear whether state schools will be made to add additional tuition themselves, for instance. What is known is that there will be new guidelines on how much homework can be set by state schools, more standardization of the curriculum across the provinces and, with a few exceptions, far less involvement by non-Chinese firms. There will be much-reduced emphasis on the teaching of foreign languages. Clearly there will be less pressure on children, who will benefit from a more healthy study:life balance, as extracurricular tuition in the evening, at weekends and during public holidays will be banned. This will reduce advantages gained by children of better-off parents. Crucially the removal of most of the additional financial burden on poorer parents (they can’t buy something which is no longer being sold) will no doubt assist in the strategic objective of encouraging people to have bigger families.

But what about other effects of these moves? A larger working population will ultimately provide this authoritarian state with the ability to increase productivity. Will China need quite so many high achievers in the years to come? Or does General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Xinping (top right), see advantages in strengthening the proportion of blue-collar workers in the population?

And does this clampdown on the exertion of direct foreign influence on the teaching of core subjects signal yet more strengthening of the state’s cultural protectionism? Despite the 2 million strong internet censorship organisation, the internet in China is certainly leaky, for example via VPNs. But there’s another much more overt influence: Chinese students studying abroad.

Around 216,000 Chinese students currently study in the UK. According to Global Times, “the number of entrants from China for higher education in the UK each year since the admission year 2012-13 has exceeded the number of all EU countries combined and continues to rise […] ‘Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University of China, told the Global Times … that ‘as the relationship between China and the UK continues to decline, the UK obviously doesn’t want to cut off exchanges with China on a cultural level, as Chinese students are still a major income source for its education sector'”.

xi2425

Hong Kong protesters throw eggs at Xi Jinping’s portrait on National Day

The Communist ethic, and traditional Chinese beliefs and customs, have been increasingly pressurised by the interplay involved in the globalisation of trade, external social media influences and a more highly-educated populace. It is more vulnerable to internal critique and revisionism than ever before.

So … watch this space. The CCP has seen how a creeping Westernising of values, the uprising in Hong Kong and the imposition of trade tariffs can threaten its security. A future for China which is more inward-looking and more self-sufficient may well be on the hidden agenda of these recent moves.

Picture credits

Xi Xinping – Palácio do Planalto, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hong Kong protesters throw eggs at Xi Jinping’s portrait on National Day – Studio Incendo, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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