Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

The Natural Chemist

by Hannah Stephenson

As new research reveals we still have a lot to learn about medicinal plants, garden expert Chris Beardshaw gives Hannah Stephenson the lowdown on top apothecary planting...

As a teenager, Chris Beardshaw was a keen sportsman, running half-marathons for his county, destined to achieve great goals as an athlete.

Suddenly, within the space of 10 days, his feet swelled up so chronically he couldn't walk. The condition spread to his ankles, hands and wrists. His case was a mystery and, after numerous trips to specialists and consultants, he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

His choice was to undergo major surgery on his toes and lower joints, or face a lifetime in a wheelchair.

This is where his interest in holistic treatments began - he changed his diet, eating fewer vegetables which exacerbated his symptoms, such as aubergines, red peppers and tomatoes, cut out red meat, red wine and dairy products and started investigating the power of herbal remedies.

"I went through four-and-a-half years of being explored," the award-winning garden designer and broadcaster recalls. "I became used to being a curiosity. They were never able to get a full diagnosis on the type of arthritis.

"I had gold injections, radiotherapy, hydrotherapy and tried Voltarol-based products. Some provided short-term gain, but four weeks later the condition would return."

He found that comfrey cream, arnica and devil's claw helped alleviate his symptoms to a degree, but the whole experience made him think more about the healing properties of plants, some of which he now grows in his own garden.

While one in six of us can recognise echinacea, which is used to produce cough and cold remedies, even fewer of us know how to recognise a safe herbal remedy, according to new research from Potter's Herbals. Yet many plants that can help us maintain our wellbeing are so easy to grow and we may already have them in our garden.

Common plants which Chris recommends and uses for his own wellbeing include:

  • Lemon balm: "It's very easy to grow - once you have it in the garden you'll never get rid of it. It's a herbaceous perennial which grows vigorously and has a hawthorn-like leaf. You harvest the leaf tips from May to mid-summer and make a tea out of it. Tip on boiling water, let it steep for three minutes and when it's cool enough, drink it. It has a citrus zing to it which cleanses the palate and is uplifting. It's also good for improving circulation."
  • Rosemary and thyme: "Grow them hard, don't overwater or overfeed. Don't grow in a rich garden compost, grow them in a soil-based compost like John Innes No 2 which is less fertile and has a more mineral-rich structure to it. The plants will stay dwarfed but will be more concentrated in their components. Put them in the sun to intensify the oils. Rosemary and thyme can break down fats in the body, they serve as a remedy for bad fats. So if you're eating fatty barbecued meats, take some sprigs, crumble them in your hands and throw them over the meat, not so they burn but so they are warmed."
  • Black peppermint: "It's the most potent form of mint. Grow it at the back of a herbaceous border and let it run forward. When it starts to invade other plants, rip it out and use the bits you've ripped out in salads or in tea, as a digestive promoter and to alleviate bloating. Alternatively make it into a compress, hold it on the skin and use it on sunburn. Keep it wet. Mint doesn't like to dry out. It will also need feeding."
  • Lavender: "Lavender is anti-bacterial, so it's good to wash your hands in a tea made of lavender. It's good for fungal infections, if you've hit your finger while gardening and you have bleeding under the fingernail, it will clean the skin and cuticles."
  • Tansy (Tanacetum - a member of the Aster family): "This produces tiny yellow flowers with 'shaving brush' heads. The leaves are an insect repellent. It will grow to four to five ft and is very good if you've got pets because at this time of the year there are lots of tics and fleas about. Harvest the leaves and take a bunch and wipe them down the side of the cat or dog, just behind their ears. It's a sun-loving perennial, so grow it in sun at the back of the herbaceous border."

Best of the Bunch


This effective trailing perennial, combines well with almost any colour scheme, its tiny white flowers draped over window boxes or spilling out of containers and cascading over hanging baskets. You can also grow mauve varieties and it spreads quite effectively in containers so is great as a fill-in. It will do well in sun or light shade in multi-purpose compost, but keep it well watered throughout the summer months, trim and feed it occasionally to keep it going. Good varieties include B. 'Snowflake' and B. 'Snowtopia'.

Good Enough to Eat

Growing Gooseberries

Delicious gooseberry fools, coulis and even gooseberry-based sauces to enhance rich, sweet meats will add a zing to summer dining. They are among the easiest soft fruits to grow and there are hundreds of classic green, red, yellow or white types, along with mildew-resistant or thornless ones, which can be grown as bushes, fans, cordons or standards. They should be planted in autumn or early winter in full sun or light shade in well-drained soil. Once planted, dress with high potash fertiliser in spring and mulch with compost, water well in dry weather and start harvesting from late spring onwards.

Water hanging baskets and containers twice a day in extended hot weather

Take Rose Cuttings

Layer honeysuckle, wisteria and passion flower by bending the shoots down to the ground, slitting the stem, dusting with rooting powder and burying this end in the soil, holding it in place with a large stone

  • Water blue hydrangeas regularly with a colourant solution to ensure they remain blue next season
  • Support the new growth of dahlias
  • Sow lettuce weekly to continue the harvest throughout summer
  • Don't let runner beans dry out and, as they ripen, pick them regularly to ensure they don't become tough
  • Plant out leeks raised from seed once they are the thickness of a pencil
  • Top up your pond with a hosepipe as water evaporates in the heat
  • If grass is drying out, leave the box off your mower and allow the clippings to remain on the lawn, which will help conserve moisture

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph