The A.S.APOTHECARY Distilling Garden at Ashurst Organics in Plumpton is beautiful at this time of year. All of the plants are in flower and the heady scent of dry grasses, soil and floral abundance is redolent of english summertime reaching its final peak before Autumn’s decline. August is a month of intense activity at the farm as plants are maintained and petals are gathered for use in our products. Tara Gould went to visit Head Gardener Miranda Beith and Gardening Assistant and Maker Fern Middleton to discuss the highs and lows of managing a working garden sustainably.
I know this is one of the busiest times of the year for you but can you tell me more about core jobs right now?
Fern - It’s ongoing. Harvesting is at full tilt because all of the plants are flowering, so there is a constant need to pick.
Miranda - At this time of year everything comes at once. Today we’re picking calendula which flowers from June through till as late as the end of October. We are constantly weeding, cutting things back, dead heading and picking Calendula and Rose to produce more flowers. In a few weeks we will be picking elderberries. At the moment I’m teaching Fern to soft prune which means taking the dead heading further down the stem in order to produce more. The roses are tired at this time of year. I call them working roses and they work hard for us. But we look after them well.
How does being organic effect how you run things?
Miranda - We don’t use any chemicals so all the weeding is done by hand which can be back breaking but it’s worth it! We feed the roses with organic rose food, spray the leaves with liquid seaweed and use loads of manure in spring. And we compost everything all the time.
Fern - Composting is one of the main features of sustainable gardening. We have three compost bins, all at varying rates of decay. Also organic farming attracts the bees. We always leave flowers for the bees, we never strip the flowers. The bees love the lavender. Then they pollinate too.
Miranda - We are all dependant on each other. it’s very much about being aware of the cycle of life. Composting demonstrates that cycle.
What are some of the challenges you experience?
Miranda - The elements! You can’t pick if it’s raining because the petals need to be dry or they rot. Wind knocks roses over. The recent heat has been difficult to work in, especially when you’re outside picking and deadheading for hours. You learn to go with the flow, you wear a hat or a raincoat and Wellies. You try to be versatile but that’s not always ideal when you’re manning a working garden. For example everyone wanted calendula in the spring but that snap of very cold weather halted everything, there were very few flowers. But the soil here is really good and it’s a lovely sunny spot so overall the conditions are excellent.
What are some of the highlights of working here?
Miranda - Being outside! I love that. And seeing things grow. There is no better feeling than planting a seed or cutting and witnessing its development into a healthy, robust plant. I’ve created a herbaceous mini border to increase diversity and attract more pollinators. I’ve also added salvias, grasses and sage.
Fern - One of the best things for me is the sense of connection to plants and nature. It is so therapeutic. It can be hard work but the plants are also working hard too. I love all the different types of roses and calendula, there are different colour flowers of both which makes for more complex plant therapeutics for the products and also creates a beautifully colourful garden.
Today I’ve been watching you pick calendula, collected in big baskets and then poured out onto the barn table to sort. Can you tell me a little about this process.
Miranda - We separate the petals from the flower head, with both roses and calendula, but chamomile is used whole. We then either dry, freeze or distill the botanicals. The calendula goes into an infusion, but that’s done by Amanda or Jules at the shop. Amanda taught us to distil because now she’s in Harris it’s harder for her to get to the farm to do it herself. So we’ve been steam cleaning and sterilizing the still and distilling roses and lavender. Distilling the roses to make rose water and from the lavender we get oil as well as flower water.
I know we don’t dilute or blend the plant ingredients we use because we want high potency, natural products, so out of interest, how much product do you need to make flower water or oil?
Miranda - A lot! 21 bags of roses for a single batch.
Lavender, rose and calendula are used in many of our most popular products including our Aromatic Waters, Face Cream, Body Elixir, Facial Serum, Body Lotion, Wild Beauty Balm and Therapeutic First Aid Balms.
Read more here about Amanda’s design process - how plants become products and the creativity behind this journey.