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March in the Garden 2018

March arrives and with it comes more challenging weather, with ‘Beast from the East’ versions 2 and 3 bringing yet more snow, wind and ice.

The first weekend of the month saw the Bath House once again being used as a music venue for Congleton Unplugged. First to perform were The Midnight Specials, a three-piece acoustic band with guitar, fiddle mandolin and double bass. They filled the room with sounds of Americana, country blues and more. This was our first evening performance and with snow still lying on the ground it was pleasing to see twenty people turn up to make a full house.

The Midnight Specials

The following day we had an excellent solo acoustic set by Phil Maddocks, doing some of his classic songs mixed in with new work from his most recent album “Knock and Run”.

Phil Maddocks

We decided this year to hold our annual fund-raising quiz night in March, rather than late in the autumn. As usual the Young Pretender hosted the pie supper and quiz event; but this time our Chair, John Cockell, devised the questions and acted as quiz master with a variety of interesting questions including a whole section on Congleton itself! A good night was had by all and we raised over £100. Thank you to all who took part and to those who provided raffle and quiz prizes.

Quizzical John

As ever at this time of year, there is much forward planning for the months ahead. The snow having finally vanished, on a cold but bright day the team managed to rebuild the fence that blew down last month.

Restoring the Fence

The garden team have also been busy digging over the wild flower bed, a task that has to be done each spring to remove the more invasive weeds and loosen the soil ready for a top up of fresh wild flower seeds. This is back breaking work, but it brings rewards later.

Digging the wild flower bed

Over the last two years we placed willow hoops around the pond to protect the area and restrict access to the water’s edge. However, they have to be replaced on a regular basis, so we have invested in iron hoops that we hope will both look good and serve the same purpose for much longer.

Putting in the new hoops

Despite the fierce weather this month, tiny pink heads of cyclamen could be spotted among the fading snowdrops under the trees, and the small but colourful crocuses pushing their way through the snow reminded us of the sheer vitality of plant life in the spring. We look forward to the year to come. [See below for more information about Cyclamen coum]

Crocus in the Snow


Cyclamen coum

Cyclamen coum

Not to be confused with other cyclamens of taller stature and later flowering, the tiny pink petals of Cyclamen coum are among the earliest garden flowers to appear. Their low growing habit and almost miniaturised blooms make them easily overlooked amongst the shiny yellow winter aconites and the bright white bells of the snowdrops. They take a while to establish in any number, and hate being dry in the summer; but they tolerate some shade and don’t mind a north facing spot, while their brave splash of colour is a welcome sight from December right through March. Cyclamen coum is native to areas around the Black Sea from Turkey to Bulgaria and the Mediterranean from Turkey to Lebanon.

While the larger cyclamen hederifolium had naturalised in the UK by the 18thcentury, cyclamen coum has only recently appeared as a garden escapee, and so you will rarely see it in the wild. But if you want to see the impact these tiny blooms can produce, half an hour’s drive south from Congleton brings you to the Trentham Estate, where they encircle several large conifers in the Italian garden.

Medicinal Uses of Cyclamen
Several varieties of cyclamen have long been used in herbal medicine and by homeopathic practitioners. Extracts of cyclamen have been prescribed for colds, migraine, infected wounds, ringworm, headaches, oedema, indigestion and menstrual problems.

Recent (2012) pharmaceutical studies suggest that extracts from Cyclamen coum in a nasal spray may benefit  people with acute rhinosinusitis (sinus infections).

WARNING It is always dangerous to self-medicate with natural plants, and an American homeopathic physician advised, in a classic reference book for homeopathy, that large doses would produce violent purging and vomiting.


Acknowledgements – thanks to the following for much of the above:  [image of Cyclamen coum]

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February in the Garden 2018

Just as we start to think that spring is on its way we get a blast of arctic air with icy temperatures and snow. This is quite unlike the traditional weather rhyme that goes: “January brings the snow, makes our toes and fingers glow;
February brings the rain, thaws the frozen pond again.”  
This year has been in the reverse order . And even before March, traditionally a windy month, strong winds have blown down the fence at the bottom of the site.

This hasn’t enhanced the view!

Flattened Fencing

Working at this time of year is difficult, especially when so many of us have come down with the flu! On the few days that we can get on site we do our best to continue with work in hand. Ros is determinedly carrying on with the cobble path whatever the weather throws at her! It is surprising how much skill is involved in an apparently simple task, but Ros is becoming ever more confident. She getting on so well, in fact, that we are running out of home-dug duck stones and will have to buy more.

Ros cobbling in the snow

Despite all our efforts the drainage company still continues to let us down, and we can go no further with our building project until they do their part. We have meanwhile purchased a portable toilet, so that as soon as the drains are laid we can have at least some basic facilities.

One advantage of the cold snap is that it has given us a chance to take some snow pictures. On a crisp dry day, the sun shows up the tracery of the mature trees and lights the snow lying on the young yew plants framing the shelter.

The shelter in the sunshine

The Bath House garden looks so different through the changing seasons; and even in winter, if you can brave the chilly temperatures, it rewards you many times over.We leave the teasels even after the seeds have gone, as they are so architectural, and they have even survived the snowstorms. I was waiting for one of our robins to appear so I could take a classic photograph, but for once he did not put in an appearance!

Snowy landscape with Teasel


Weather Lore
The British are always ready to talk about the weather, and we have dozens of sayings and rhymes about it.  I learned the one quoted above when I was a child in the ‘fifties, at  a tiny village school in north Yorkshire. I also learned this one – Candlemas is an old Christian  festival celebrated on 2nd February:
If Candlemas day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
If Candlemas day be cloudy and rain,
Winter has gone and will not come again. 

I don’t think that worked this year, but here’s a saying that has been very true this month: “When the wind is in the East, ’tis good for neither man nor beast”.  But what about: “Snow like cotton’s soon forgotten; snow like meal – expect a great deal” ?

I think Jerome K Jerome, the comic writer, put the whole topic in perspective:
” The weather is like the Government, always wrong.”

If you’re interested in finding more weather lore, and whether it’s scientifically proven, there are plenty of websites to look at. Here are some that I’ve found entertaining:


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January in the Garden 2018

A New Year, but the same old weather: cold, black, cold, damp, cold, wet! Week by week it’s been a struggle to do very much in the garden at all. The gardening group instead met at Ros’s house in order to paint our salvaged Edwardian wrought iron garden railings. These we intend to place around the garden shelter quadrants. As for construction work, even when Nick wasn’t suffering from the nasty cold that affected many people in town, it just wasn’t the weather for building.

Bringing some cheer in the dismal days  was a surprise visitor to the town. The Prince of Wales, accompanied by the Duchess of Cornwall, came to visit community groups in the town and see the statue of Treo the army sniffer dog, which is located on Lawton Street almost immediately below the archway to the Bath House & Physic Garden. Five of our volunteers even received invitations to meet the royal couple. Vanessa, Lynda and Lyn were among those present at The Old Saw Mill community hub to show him the town’s apple press; while John and Nino were at the Town Hall as part of the successful In Bloom team. By coincidence, Prince Charles is the patron of several building preservation trusts – not, unfortunately, ours!

Vanessa meets the Duchess at the Old Saw Mill

In the garden, the snowdrops* are starting to show their heads above the cold ground: dainty they look, but how hardy they are! Now that they are becoming more established they create a wider display as you enter by the main gate, under the lime and sycamore trees. Our hellebores, mentioned in last month’s blog, are also continuing to bloom. We eagerly await the other winter and early spring bulbs that will soon follow.

The snowdrops beneath the trees

We always try to reuse whatever we find on the Bath House site, such as creating a path from the dozens of small stones we’ve picked out of the ground; and turning our green waste into compost. Last year we cut down several small trees, mainly holly and hawthorn, to make space for our proposed new building. Instead of just burning the logs, we stacked them neatly over the well. This wood pile will probably provide a temporary home for insects, even small animals, but we do have other plans…

Logs awaiting transformation!

It’s our hope that these branches, once dried, can be turned – literally – into small wooden items, that we could sell to raise funds for our project. All we need now is a friendly local skilled wood turner – please tell us if you know of one!

*We wrote about the medicinal properties of snowdrops in the February 2016 blog. JO

Not just a pile of old logs
What’s in that pile of wood cuttings in the corner of your garden, or under the hedge by the footpath you walk along to school or work? Quite a lot probably! You could find  beetles, woodlice, and other insects and insect larvae, not to mention spiders and centipedes…  interesting plant life, such as moss, lichens and fungi…  small animals like shrews, even hedgehogs… amphibians such as toads. And birds will certainly visit such an excellent source of food.

Here are some suggestions for websites to visit,  where you can find more about how dead wood is really full of life, and doing a great conservation job.



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December in the Garden 2017

As the year draws to an end we are naturally much affected by the weather. The month started with damp and wet conditions, followed by early spells of frost and snow. Though the volunteers tried, it wasn’t possible to do a great deal in the garden itself. Even Nick was held up trying to build a brick chamber for our water harvesting collection tap. But the weather gave us a new, and beautiful, view of the garden.

Garden in the snow

With the above in mind it was a good thing that one of our normal gardening days was taken up with our annual Christmas Party. This year we were at a new venue, The Old Saw Mill in Back River Street, where the volunteers laid on a delicious three course Christmas lunch, along with mulled cider and Christmas carols. Our thanks go to all those at the OSM who welcomed us and helped to make it a most enjoyable team event.

Christmas cheer at the Old Saw Mill

The garden at this time of year is mostly about potential, rather than performance, but there are hardy plants that bloom, and even scent the air, over winter. We have recently applied for some funding to improve on the garden’s year-round appearance, and we hope to add such beautiful specimens as the Christmas Rose to our site. [See below for more information on Christmas Rose].

Christmas Rose

Each year closes with reflections on what has gone before; and each year I feel that even more has been achieved than the year before! This is all down to the terrific volunteers we have, and to the growing support that we now receive from the community and the council. Thank you all, and may 2018 be a great year for you too.


Christmas Rose     Helleborus niger
Native to eastern and south-eastern Europe, and a member of the large plant family that includes the buttercup, the hellebore has been a feature of British gardens for many centuries, though grown originally as a medicinal herb rather than for its beauty. It should not be confused – very easily done on the Internet! – with the completely different plant Veratrum which is also known as hellebore, particularly in the USA. Both plant species are very toxic, but please note that this article is about ‘our’ hellebore, the Christmas Rose, or its close Helleborus relatives.

Hellebores tolerate, and indeed prefer, the shady conditions that are the death knell to many plants, and so can often be seen in the bare soil under trees in the gloomy days of a British winter. The large glossy evergreen leaves are an architectural addition to the garden all year round.

The botanical name Helleborus is believed by some to derive from Greek words that mean ‘food for a deer’. Niger refers to the colour of the roots, giving it the alternative common name of Black Hellebore.

Myth and Magic
Christmas Rose doesn’t naturally flower until January, but this name may have been established during the period before changes to the western European calendar. One legend says it sprang up through the snow when a little girl wept because she had no gift to bring to the Christ child.

A Greek myth says that the daughters of the king of Argos, cursed with madness by the gods, were cured by drinking a remedy made from the milk of goats that had eaten – and vomited – hellebore. The Roman writer Pliny advised that before picking the plant you should draw a circle around it and offer up prayers to the gods.

Some sources refer to a unique magical property of Helleborus niger: walking on, or through, powdered hellebore sprinkled in the air or on the ground will make you invisible. It’s difficult to know how such a belief could possibly have arisen!

Medicinal Uses
The root was used by the ancient Greeks to make an extremely effective laxative, but the hellebore is itself so poisonous that it really was a kill-or-cure remedy. Modern herbalists use helleborus niger preparations in very small doses as a diuretic, thereby offering a slower, less violent and less deadly way of ridding yourself of unwanted nutrients, but you are strongly recommended not to try self-medication!

Western medicine in the Middle Ages – and even later – was based on four ‘humours’ or essential fluids: black and yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Any imbalance of these humours caused ill health, and the excess of the relevant humour had to be expelled from the body. For example, blood-letting, often using leeches, remained a popular ‘remedy’ into the nineteenth century. Cases of ‘melancholy’ and ‘madness’ were attributed to an excess of black bile: taking a potion made from black hellebore would cause the body to reject this bile. (And no doubt much else.)

Handling the plant, particularly the seeds, without gloves can cause irritation and skin burns. Ingesting it in any but the tiniest dose can cause violent vomiting and diarrhoea at best; and, at worst, death.

Acknowledgements    Thanks to the following for much of the information above:


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November in the Garden 2017

Though much of the colour of summer is now a distant memory, the shades of autumn continue to add to the beauty of our site. Once again we were visited by a local art group who were able to relax and draw our garden in its golden overcoat. We are fortunate in having ‘inherited’ several different species of trees and shrub, and have already added to the mix to help us create a garden fit for the future. One example is the yew saplings we planted this time last year, near the garden shelter, which when mature will add structure and colour for many years [See below for more about Yew]. Yews are densely branched, offering protection and nesting possibilities for small birds, and the fruits are a food source for other birds and small mammals. Even the leaves, toxic to most creatures (including humans), are eaten by some caterpillars!

An ancient yew tree (courtesy of Woodland Trust)

November is always exciting for us, because it is time for the annual Royal Horticultural Society ‘In Bloom’ Awards. I was very pleased to attend the awards ceremony, held in Southport, to see the Bath House & Physic Garden awarded Grade 5, Outstanding. This was the second year running that we attained the highest award possible, other than the cup itself! It was also an opportunity to put our display boards to good use, showing a wider audience what we are doing.

In Bloom awards

The following day brought more good news for the whole town of Congleton, which won Gold in North West in Bloom as well as Best Large Town in the North West 2017. As a contributing garden, we were delighted to have helped in these achievements. Next year Congleton will be competing in the national Britain in Bloom 2018. Well done to all those who have once again put hundreds of hours into creating such an outstanding floral town.

Our certificate!

We have had quite a busy year for events, and November was no exception, with a fund-raising music concert in the ancient coaching inn, The Lion and Swan. First on stage was the excellent local singer songwriter Dougie Francis, followed by the equally good Punkfloyd, a local Pink Floyd tribute band. In between we had music from DJ Sweet and poetry from Sean Worth. Thank you to all concerned for giving their time free of charge, helping us to raise £150 towards our funds.

PunkFloyd in action


Yew Taxus baccata
There are only three native evergreen conifers in the British Isles: Yew, Juniper and Scots Pine. However, since it has no resin, and does not produce cones, the Yew is not a true conifer. Each seed is held in a separate fleshy ‘aril’, like a bright red cup-shaped berry, open at the top. All parts of the tree are highly poisonous, except the flesh of the arils, but even the seeds they contain are also extremely toxic.

Densely branched, yew trees live for hundreds or even thousands of years, probably longer than any other European tree. Left alone they often grow wider than they are tall, but can be trimmed for hedging or clipped into fantastic topiary. Many still survive in forests, and they are popularly found in city parks, (the Victorians loved planting trees), on large country estates, and in many churchyards. Locally, you can see an ancient yew at the parish church of St Mary in Astbury village. And, at Little Moreton Hall, the National Trust are currently restoring a yew hedge, somewhat younger but also interesting.

There has been some scientific dispute over how to measure their longevity, as most old yews become hollow, so trunk rings cannot be counted in the traditional method. But yews are recorded, strangely misshapen as they might be, as over a thousand years old. Yews produce aerial roots to support the crown as the heartwood decomposes, which can develop into a firm new trunk within the old hollow shell, thereby prolonging its life.

Myth and Magic
Because of its evergreen quality and longevity, the yew has long been an emblem of everlasting life in both pagan and Christian belief. Branches of yew symbolising resurrection and new life have also decorated churches at Easter and New Year.

Shakespeare called it ‘the dismal yew’ and his witches bore ‘slips of yew slivered in the moon’s eclipse’.  It was associated with doom and death, perhaps understandably!

Yew trees were probably important in druidic rituals, such as Beltane, and yet they are grown in many churchyards. There is a wide range of theories about these churchyard yews, quite fascinating but too many for me to include here. If you’d like to find out for yourself, start by looking at the entry for Yew in Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica; and also at this website:

Medicinal Uses
Yew trees contain poisonous alkaloids, called taxanes, which in recent years have been developed into powerful anti-cancer drugs. The very first taxane drug was made from the leaves of our (European) Yew, and then taxanes from the bark of Pacific yews were developed into a second drug. Taxanes can now be created synthetically, but yew leaves are still used in the process. Specialist firms collect them, and the National Trust, for instance, provides them with yew hedge trimmings for this purpose.

Homeopathic yew tree products are also available, and other remedies have been made in the past for asthma, bronchitis, hiccup, indigestion, rheumatism and epilepsy.

Never make a home remedy with any part of the yew tree. Fatalities have been recorded from even a small dose.  

Other uses
The wood is very hard and durable, and polishes well. It was used widely for long bows in the Middle Ages, as well as being a popular choice for furniture-making to this day.


Acknowledgements  Thanks for much of the information above to

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