Spring just has to be the most exciting time of year for us gardeners.
The equinox has passed and the sun is climbing in the sky offering us longer days, more sun to help our plants grow and milder days to work in the garden.
Oh, I know many of you are still in the grip of Old Man Winter, but, Spring will come soon enough. Have you started your seeds yet? Planned this year’s garden? Started cleaning out the beds?
Here in the South, our gardens are transforming, with the end of our winter crops of leafy greens, root vegetables and green peas clearing space for warm weather crops such as beans, cucumbers, squash, melons, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and the like.
I’ve been harvesting Snap Peas for weeks.
The vines are looking a little peaked now and I think it’s time to cut the pea vines and plant something else in that tub. Since I grew peas, which added lots of nitrogen to the soil, I’ll grow a heavy feeder such as a Tomato, Pepper or Eggplant in that tub.
New herbs are being stocked here at The Herb Cottage just in time for Spring shows and markets.
People are making their way out to the farm to get the best selection of herbs and vegetables, too.
In the herb beds, new growth is everywhere!
Of course, since I let our State Flower, the Texas Bluebonnet, grow wherever it pleases, the beds are full of them now. I’ll have to wait another few weeks until they fade and throw their seed out before I can replant my favorite warm weather annual, basil.
In the greenhouse, I have seeded traditional Genovese Basil, but also lemon, lime, Holy and Thai varieties.
Each type has a different aroma and flavor. Watch for it at my markets starting in mid to late April.
This year I also have African Blue Basil, which I ordered in for a local bee keeper. He said his bees love it the best. So… if you want to attract bees to your gardens and yard, plant some African Blue Basil for them. Most people find the flavor of the African Blue variety too strong for cooking, but it makes a fabulous landscape plant for the bees and for cut flowers. It’ll bloom until frost! If you live in a frost free area, African Blue Basil is perennial! Start more plants from cuttings, as the seed is sterile.
African Blue Basil isn’t just for bees. It’s a great butterfly plant as well.
In fact, most plants that bees like are also favored by butterflies.
Growing any type of garden involves many aspects of life: patience, learning, physical activity, sight, smell, taste, and risk are what comes to mind.
One learns patience by planting a tiny (or large!) seed and waiting for the seed to germinate, watching it grow, caring for the plant it becomes then enjoying the fruit of the plant whether it be a fragrant stalk of lavender or tasty leaves of thyme, a zinnia or an iris, tomato or cucumber, or a cherry or a peach. You can’t hurry Mother Nature.
Learning all you can about gardening in general or whatever it is you like to grow may lead you beyond the garden into family history to learn whether your grandparents grew a garden, and if so, what kinds of plants they grew.
You may become interested in the history and lore of herbs or the stories behind heirloom vegetables. You may turn to the very basis of gardening and begin to study botany, soil composition, organic growing or any of the many facets of the insect world. There is no end to the avenues that are open to you when you begin to look at your garden as the start or continuation of an education.
If you garden with children, the lessons are endless. In the end, though, they are the same ones we learn as adults when we garden.
Get into the garden and pull weeds, hoe your vegetable rows, spread more mulch, prune the errant branch, deadhead those marigolds (save the seed heads for next year, or just crumble them through your fingers to sow seeds for later in the season), dig a new bed, mow the lawn…. gardening is great exercise.
Why pay for an expensive gym or spend time indoors on a machine when you have the best of all gyms right out your back door?
Gardening involves weight training… just lift a few big bags of mulch or turn your compost pile. Gardening involves stretching… bend at the waist and keep your knees straight when you pull weeds to stretch the hamstring muscles. Then, do some squats and pull some more weeds or harvest those strawberries off the ground. Hoeing and raking are terrific aerobic activities. And, after your workout, look at the results– a weed-free herb bed, healthier vegetables with more mulch or a neatly trimmed lawn. Then, sit back with a cool beverage and admire what you’ve done. You’ve earned it.
Don’t let the books, magazines and Internet take you so far from your garden and plants that you lose sight of why you started a garden in the first place.
For it’s there, walking through your garden in the early morning seeing the dew sparkle on the rose petals, touching the soft leaves of the lamb’s ear, smelling the oregano and rosemary, eating those crunchy and sweet snap beans right off the vine, and, especially, getting your hands dirty with that wonderful, rich, loamy garden soil…don’t you wish you actually had that kind of soil??… that you really experience the garden.
It’s why you spend so much time poring over seed catalogs, searching Internet gardening sites, combing nurseries for just the right plant. You’ve created your own little Eden right there where you and those you invite into your realm can see the best that nature has to offer. You’ve tended and coaxed and weeded and pruned and watered and worried and even though the garden is never done, always in flux, you can see and touch and smell and eat the results of your efforts.
And, yes, there is risk in the garden, just like in life. Your new seedlings can be eaten by grasshoppers or rabbits. Deer may come and dine on the new shrub you just paid too much for. Early blight may attack your tomato plants. Corn ear worms may spoil the succulent ears you’ve been waiting so patiently for. A hail storm may come and smash down the corn stalks. You can experience a drought, complete with water rationing, so your plants don’t look their best. You have to pick and choose which to water. There are many risks in gardening… you may have chosen a poorly adapted variety of vegetable or flower, or planted a sun loving rosemary in the shade and it’s just not doing well.
But we learn by making many, many mistakes. It is said if you don’t kill many plants, you’re not gardening!! I don’t know about that, but I do know that experimenting is part of the fun of growing and if you don’t try, you’ll never know what will grow in your garden. So, try a new tomato variety or a new flower that you have to purchase mail order because no one in your area sells it, or even grows it… yet. You may start a new trend. Nothing ventured, nothing gained…. right?
Finally, the one aspect of gardening that encompasses all gardeners is HOPE… OPTIMISM.
What is it other than hope that keeps us planting season after season? We may think of last year’s failures, but still plant for the future.
Each gardening season is an opportunity for success, a little better than last time. As you plan your next garden, you bring all the skills you have or are learning to make the best garden yet. Each new garden is the best garden yet!
And, to me, that’s why we garden!!
QUOTE FOR THE MONTH
We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
Growing your own plants from seed is so rewarding.
Planting seeds and watching for them to germinate is one of my favorite aspects of having a plant business. I grow most of my own plants from seed or cuttings. I buy a few small starts in from other growers, but mostly I start all my own stock.
I sell seeds from Botanical Interests for several reasons. One is their seed packs have beautiful artwork depicting the mature plant. Two is their prices are very reasonable. And, three, is they have fabulous Customer Service. Also, they are into seeds and gardening!! They clearly love their business and the seeds they sell to us.
There is lots of support for us sellers on their website, so I’m sharing the information about successful seed germination, below.
Many people I talk to at markets tell me they don’t grow from seed because they’ve never been successful or it takes too long. Well, I can’t argue with the time factor. Growing plants from seed is not for those who thrive on instant gratification. BUT, growing from seed has many rewards.
Personal satisfaction has got to be on the top of the list. Self sufficiency is a close second, especially if you’ve saved the seeds yourself from a previous crop or gotten seeds from another gardener. I have trees in my yard I started from seed! I am more connected to those trees because I started them myself from a small seed.
So! Gather up a few seed packs and try your hand at seed starting. It’s not really that difficult. Yes, there are some particular requirements, but many seeds germinate easily. One thing to remember, though, fresh seed germinates best. So, if you have seed packets hanging around that are over 3 years old, your rate of germination will be very low… and disappointing. Spend a little $$ and get some new seed to assure you have good results.
Most of the varieties in The Herb Cottage seed collection are easy to grow, whether you are looking for herbs, vegetables or flowers. I only charge $2.00 for postage no matter what size or order. So! Let’s get growing this Fall!
Getting the Best Germination
Botanical Interests assures that you are getting the highest quality seed in every packet. We buy from reputable suppliers, pre-test all of our seed by an independent laboratory before packing, and only accept seeds that exceed USDA standards. Some seeds are easier to grow than others. It is important to follow all planting recommendations on the back and inside of the packet. Below are some tips to ensure you get the best germination of your Botanical Interests seeds.
Keep moisture consistent – Keep soil damp, and cover with clear plastic or a clear tray until seedlings appear. After the seeds are sown and begin to absorb water, even a short dry period can be detrimental.
Sow at the correct depth – The seed depth measurement listed on the back of the packet is really important! Some seeds need a generous 1″ of soil covering them in order to germinate. Others shouldn’t be covered at all and should only be lightly pressed into the soil. For these, light must reach them to spark germination. It’s also possible to plant too shallow. Some seeds germinate best when they are well covered and in darkness. Generally, the smaller the seed, the more shallow it must be planted.
Prevent pathogens – Every gardener will eventually be hit with ‘damping-off’ fungus. Seeds will rot in the soil and not germinate, or they will sprout thin, spindly stems, then simply fall over and die. This disease can spread rapidly and wipe out an entire flat in a short time. The first step in preventing this unfortunate situation is to use clean pots and trays for planting. If you are re-using containers, be sure to wash them well, then sanitize with a 10% bleach solution (9 parts water, 1 part bleach). Never use garden soil from your yard to start seeds indoors. It will likely contain fungal spores. The best option is sterile seed starting mix from your local garden center.
If you mix your own, some gardeners like to sterilize their soil in the oven at 180-200 degrees F for 30 minutes to kill off any of the fungus. If you try this, be sure to put soil in a shallow flat or pot, no deeper than 4″ and keep covered tightly with aluminum foil while baking. Use a baking thermometer to gauge when soil reaches 180 degrees F, and do not over-bake. NOTE: I have never done this! But, I use new potting medium to start my seeds.
After sowing seeds, be careful to keep your soil moist but not soggy. If possible, water from below by pouring water into the liner tray or use a flat with a wicking mat.
Indoors, air circulation is also an important tool in preventing fungus. Place a small fan near your flat and keep it blowing on “low” during the day. Point it near the flat, but not blowing directly on it where it could dry out the soil quickly. Finally, if you have sown a lot of seeds in a small amount of space, be “brutal” and thin out the seedlings when too many germinate. Closely-packed, tiny stems provide the perfect environment for fungal growth.
Light Requirements – Indoors, be sure to keep your fluorescent grow lights on for at least 16 hours a day. This is important as artificial light is not as strong as sunlight, and some seeds need good light exposure to germinate. Conversely, some seeds will only sprout in darkness (as noted on packet). Be sure to cover them to the recommended depth, and turn your grow light on as soon as you see seedlings.
Temperature – Indoors, if your trays are close to a window, be sure to monitor them so they don’t bake in the heat and dry out, or get too cool. Some seeds require a specific temperature range for germination to occur. For example, pepper and tomatoes, although easy to grow in most settings, will do better with a heat mat underneath until they sprout. Conversely, sweet peas will germinate better in a cooler room that is only 55-65 degrees F.
Hard Seed Coat – Some seeds have hard seed coats and require “scarification” for germination to occur(i.e. sweet peas and morning glories). In nature, their hard seed coat helps to keep them viable longer. The fluctuating weather conditions of winter and early spring help to break down this coat naturally. There are two easy methods of playing Mother Nature and “scarifying” them yourself. You can soak them for 24 hours or nick them with a file before sowing to weaken the seed coat. See packet instructions for varieties requiring this extra step.
Stratification for Perennials – Some perennial seeds specifically require the fluctuating winter conditions of cold and moisture to germinate. You can often “trick” them into believing that they have gone through a winter by sowing them in pots with moist soil and placing them in the refrigerator for a few weeks. You may also have good luck by sowing them directly in the ground in the fall, so they can go through natural winter conditions outside. To do this, scatter them on the ground in the place you want them to grow. Follow recommended planting depth and then tamp them in firmly. An occasional watering in that area throughout the winter may be beneficial in dry climates. You may also try sowing them in containers outdoors. Even in cold climates, this can be quite effective. Try using large plastic pots filled with potting soil. Sow your seeds as noted on the packet, then cover with plastic and put them in a protected location. About once a month or more frequently during warmer periods of winter, give them a sprinkle with a watering can. Come spring, you may have a head start on your garden containers!
Food preservation is a skill somewhat lost in our modern lives. It is, however, a handy skill to learn. If you’re concerned about the future of our modern civilization, learning to store food without refrigeration or freezing is essential. Even if you don’t think we’re facing the next apocalypse, pickling is a fun and easy way to preserve food.
Homemade pickles make great gifts and there’s nothing like gracing your table with homemade pickles to make you feel like a culinary super star!
Here’s an easy to understand graphic that gives all the basics.
Peppermint doesn’t really get the respect it deserves, in my estimation. It’s commonly found in most herb collections and many people eschew it due to its invasive habit.
And, it’s not new! Or exotic! Or called a SuperFood.
But! Peppermint is a herb for all around use! I hope you long-time herb lovers will find new information here. And for those of you who have recently discovered the wonderful world of herbs, you will find some ways to use peppermint you weren’t yet aware of, growing tips and other useful information.
Peppermint is a perennial mint with coarsely serrated leaves which can reach more than 2 inches (5 cm) in length. The stems are square and can be from green to reddish in color. The flowers are pink to red, form in the leaf axils of the upper leaves and are placed in whorls of loose spikes. The whole plant can reach to 36 inches (1 m) high in a favorable environment.
True Peppermint is a sterile hybrid between Water Mint, M. aquatic and Spearmint, M. spicata.
This means that Peppermint does not produce viable seed. So if you see Peppermint seed for sale, you will not get true Peppermint by growing it out, but, rather, a form of Spearmint with, often, a less than pleasing aroma and taste.
Because the mints which make up Peppermint are themselves somewhat variable, not all Peppermint smells or tastes the same. If you find a Peppermint that you really like, the best way to keep it going is through vegetative propagation: stem or root cuttings, ground layering or division.
Other Mints in the Peppermint Family
Mints in general are very promiscuous, crossing with each other when in flower at the same time. This habit can cause your mints to lose character over time, so if you have a mint you especially like, keep it isolated from its brethren, or you may lose the properties of it that you like the best. The following are either found cultivars or man-made ones that are popular.
Orange Mint, Mentha piperata f. citrata ‘Orange’– Hardy perennial grows up to 32 inches (30 cm) with an indefinite spread. Small, pale pink flowers. Large rounded leaves, oval, dark green, can be tinged with purple. Citrusy scent.
Black Peppermint, Mentha piperata– Hardy perennial grows up to 2 feet, (60 cm), leaves pointed, oval and toothed on the margin, dark plum brown tinged with green.
Grapefruit Mint, Mentha X piperata var. citrata has very rounded, fuzzy leaves, grows taller than many other Peppermints and has a citrus-like flavor.
Chocolate Mint, is a cultivar of Peppermint that smells and tastes somewhat of chocolate. It is a favorite for sauces to be served over ice cream. It has shiny, dark green leaves and dark stems.
Most mints are easy to grow and Peppermint is no exception. In fact, many people consider it a garden pest if it escapes into the landscape. Of course, that definition is in the eye of the beholder. If you really like Peppermint Tea or want to make Peppermint Essential Oil, you’ll need lots of Peppermint leaves, so a rambling plant may be just what you need. If not, mints grow quite well contained in pots or hanging baskets.
Peppermint likes cool moist roots and to grow into the sun. If you live in a desert area or the hot, humid Gulf Coast South, as I do, mints can tend to fail in the heat of the summer. My recommendation is to grow your mint where the plant gets morning sun and afternoon shade, especially in the summer. Under a deciduous tree is perfect- Winter sun, Summer shade.
If you’re growing your mint in a container, you can give it lots of Winter and early Spring sun, then move it to a spot where it’s shaded from the searing late summer sun. Or… you can move to Seattle or Milwaukee or Pittsburg and grow your mint in full sun where it will thrive and try to take over the neighborhood.
Peppermint is hardy to Zone 5 and grows in a wide range of soils. It likes water and does well where herbs that need better drainage will not do well. I’ve seen it growing happily under the drip of a room air conditioner or near a faucet in the garden. In containers, it still needs decent drainage. Don’t neglect to water it.
For best results with Peppermint, it’s best to divide and replant an established plant every 3 to 4 years. Cut plants back after flowering to encourage new leaf growth. Leave the flowers until they fade, though, as they attract butterflies and beneficial insects such as hover flies to the garden. In high heat areas, cutting your Peppermint back in late summer will cause fresh, new growth to come out once the fall weather arrives and you’ll have a new crop to harvest.
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year because the earth’s axis is tilted farthest from the sun and, therefore, is also the longest night. Our ancestors took this very seriously, as darkness presented more danger as well as cold due to lack of sunlight.
Stonehenge marks the Winter and Summer Solstice
Many cultures and religions celebrate the longest night of the year with rituals involving fire, light, noise, singing- anything to lessen the impact of the darkness and to encourage daylight to return with the continuation of the cycle of the earth.
BRIGHTON, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 21: People carry lanterns at the Burning The Clocks Festival on December 21, 2011 in Brighton, England. The annual celebration is enjoyed by thousands of people who carry paper lanterns through the streets of Brighton culminating on Brighton Beach where the lanterns are burnt and the Winter Solstice is marked.
As gardeners, the short days of Winter cause us to look forward to the Spring planting season. One way we while away the short days until Spring is to peruse new seed and plant catalogs coming in the mail. As the days slowly lengthen, all seems possible in the upcoming growing season
When I buy seeds, I usually order on-line, but I use the print catalog first to carefully look at my choices for the upcoming season. Somehow, I think the paper catalog allows for more contemplation and comparison, than on-line listings.
The problem with those colorful photographs and glowing descriptions is, of course, that we order much more than we can fit in our garden space or than we have time to tend.
But… what’s a gardener to do? This is the perfect time of year to sit in a cozy house with a hot beverage and a stack of seed catalogs to thumb through and dream with. Each catalog has exciting new varieties to offer. Each variety of tomato sounds tastier than the last. Each piquant pepper will add just the right note to your salsa. Each new flower color will add just the right touch to your garden.
African Blue Basil
There is a danger in all those pretty pictures and descriptions, each plant seeming like the perfect choice for your garden. Not all plants do well in all parts of the country, in all soil types and in all situations. So, before you get completely carried away, there are a few things you should take into account when looking at seed and plant catalogs.
In keeping with my attempt to bring healthy eating and living to readers, I thought the article on Chia Seeds would be of interest. Chia seeds are not exotic nor hard to find, nor expensive. They are grown here in the U.S., are not endangered or imported. And… they have myriad uses.
I like them sprinkled on my homemade cereal and in muffins and quick breads.