Queen of herbs Jekka McVicar reveals some secrets about the healing properties of herbs and offers wellbeing design ideas in her forthcoming Chelsea Flower Show garden

AWARD-WINNING herb grower and RHS ambassador Jekka McVicar comes from an era when you really didn’t go to the doctor unless you were seriously ill.

If you had a nasty cough, mouth ulcers, upset tummy or other minor ailment, McVicar’s mother would go into the garden, pick out a number of herbs, make teas and tinctures from them and wait for them to work their magic.

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And this is what has given the multi-award-winning plantswoman the inspiration for The Modern Apothecary, her first show garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016.

The idea for the garden came about over a lunch when McVicar and her friend, a GP, were discussing how people go to the doctor for an immediate fix and no longer use their own natural remedies.

“Herbs are gentle, but might take longer. As a child, I was brought up in a family where you never went to the doctor unless you were seriously ill. So if you had a sore throat, Mum always made the tea out of sage.

“I wondered, ‘Could we square the circle between medicine and us?’”

She’s hoping gardeners will start to grow the types of healing herbs she features in her show garden, and is also providing some inspiring design ideas for wellbeing in The Modern Apothecary.

A cobbled pathway running through a large circle of planting is designed so if you walk on it bare-foot, you will give yourself some stress-busting reflexology in the process.

In each corner of her show garden is a hawthorn tree, but they aren’t placed there just to be visually pleasing, says McVicar, who has won 62 gold medals as a floral marquee exhibitor at the show.

“If you look into any research about (Rudolf) Steiner (Austrian philosopher), you realise you never have a corner if you’re feeling depressed. You always can flow round a garden. It gives you space to move. If you have a corner, you have to make a decision and that makes you anxious.”

The hawthorns are also known as ‘bread and cheese’ because you can eat the leaf, which is good for strengthening the heart.

A large central circle of planting is split in two by the cobbled path, while two seats are strategically placed near scented plants within the herb garden.

“In Ayurvedic medicine, you are encouraged to sit in a herb garden to heal, so that you are well. It’s all about sitting and breathing.

“The most important thing is the rhythm of the garden, for the benefit of our wellbeing. Wherever you are, if you sit still without a phone, without an iPad, and just breathe, it is amazing.”

A water feature provides a soothing focal point, while the whole garden is overseen by a sculpture of Asclepius’ staff, which is the symbol of healing.

At the back of the garden are columns of Taxus, or yew, from which taxol is derived and used to treat ovarian and breast cancer. And a wall of espalier pears is planted because it has been proven that pears help prevent Type 2 diabetes in women.

Other plants include hops (a sleep aid) and roses (rose hips for vitamin C), while the path is lined with fragrant lavender, for relaxation.

“One of the key features in the garden will be rosemary, because it’s just been proven that rosemary is as good as ginkgo for the memory. Drinking rosemary tea in the morning really clears your head and settles your stomach.

“If you ever get a cough, all you need is a sprig of thyme and a sprig of hyssop, pop them into a cup, add boiled water, let them steep for five minutes. If you have mouth ulcers, make the infusion from sage, which also feeds the brain.”

McVicar is also planting a herbal ley in the outer area of the garden made up of UK native wild flowers with grass.

Deep-rooted chicory and other plants help drain the soil.

“This modern apothecary is what we can do for ourselves today.

“The seeds are widely available — people can grow their own apothecary in their own garden.”

St John’s Hospice in north west London is sponsoring the garden, which will be transferred to the hospice after the show.

* RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from May 24-28. For more, visit rhs.org.uk/chelsea

BEST OF THE BUNCH: DAPHNE MEZEREUM

The Northern Echo:

THIS upright deciduous shrub comes into its own in late winter and early spring when clusters of fragrant purplish-pink flowers appear on bare branches. These are followed by red fruits in summer.

Growing to around 1.2m (4ft), it also has attractive grey-green leaves and is ideal for winter interest in a cottage-style border.

Grow it in sun or partial shade in a slightly alkaline, moist, but well-drained soil.

Mulch to keep the roots cool and prune after flowering, taking out the dead wood.

There are also evergreen daphnes, including D. bholua, which bears pinkish-mauve late winter flowers against a backdrop of lance-shaped dark green leaves, and D. odora ‘Aureomarginata’, which produces sweetly scented reddish-purple flowers in winter.

GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT: WALL FRUIT POLLINATION

The Northern Echo:

THE flowers of trained wall fruits such as nectarines, peaches and apricots – which need a warm, sheltered spot to give them any chance of eventually producing fruit – may come long before the bees, which is when a little human intervention is needed to pollinate them.

Even if insects are about, if you are protecting your tender fruit trees with fleece then they won’t be able to get to the flowers.

So grab yourself a small soft artist’s paintbrush on a dry, sunny day and lift pollen from one flower, placing it in the centre of another to aid the process.

If you don’t have a self-fertile variety, as with most apples and pears, you’ll need to take the pollen from one cultivar and transfer it to the flower of a different one.

Alas, you won’t know until the fruit begins to swell whether the technique has worked or not.

WHAT TO DO THIS WEEK

Prune bush roses, especially hybrid tea and floribunda varieties, to prevent them becoming bare at the base

Protect new shoots and developing foliage of tender shrubs and trees from frosts, keeping old net curtains or horticultural fleece handy to spread over plants at risk

Sow seeds of brassicas such as Brussels sprouts, calabrese and summer and autumn cabbage in a nursery bed

Lay a thick layer of mulch such as compost over the surface of beds and borders to suppress weeds and conserve moisture

Prune outdoor vines before they start into growth

In the greenhouse sow a tray of Primula obconica to raise flowering pot plants

Re-cut worn or damaged lawn edges and replace them with new turf

Lift, divide and replant congested clumps of established perennials

Leave a full can of water in the greenhouse to take the chill off it before use

Deadhead winter and spring bedding and early-flowering bulbs which have finished

Remove invasive plants from the pond and thin out those which have outgrown their space