Summer Pruning for Herbs

 

 

Mexican Oregano loves the summer heat! Picture taken at The Herb Cottage
Mexican Oregano loves the summer heat!
Picture taken at The Herb Cottage

Here in my area of Texas, from mid summer until at least the end of September, it is very hot, humid and stressful for our plants, even the hardy herbs. (It’s stressful for the gardener, too… but that’s a topic for another discussion!)

One way to help our herbs survive the summer weather is to prune them back so they don’t have so much plant matter to keep hydrated. It is easier for the roots to deliver water to shorter stems and the plant stays looking healthier and prettier, too. 

Herbs That May Need Pruning

Mints

peppermint_lg
Healthy Peppermint Plant

Mints tend to become leggy by this time in the summer, unless you’ve really been using them a lot to keep their growth compact.

I find this is the perfect time of year to prune the mints back. The intense heat of late summer here in Texas is not kind to mints. So, I like to prune off the long growth and dry it for use in iced teas and allow the plant to put on new growth from the roots. This practice gives the plants some rest from having to pump so much water out to the ends of the stems during the hottest time of the year.

You can prune all the way to the ground, if you like. They’ll come back beautifully, provided you keep the plants watered.

Mint Flower- don't be afraid to let your mints flower. The flowers bring beneficial insects to your garden. Use the flowers in teas and drinks, too!
Mint Flower- don’t be afraid to let your mints flower. The flowers bring beneficial insects to your garden. Use the flowers in teas and drinks, too!

 

This is also a good time to divide your mints. Whether they’re growing in containers or in the ground, you can dig sections out or dig (or de-pot) the whole plant and see where new little sections have started themselves. Clip those off the main plant and replant or repot them. If you see brown or shriveled roots on the main part of the plant, prune those off, too. Then, repot or replant the main plant- or discard it if it looks tired or if the center of the plant has died out.

 

This mint need pruning! I'll take it all the way to the soil line.
This mint need pruning! I’ll take it all the way to the soil line.

 

Just remember to keep all the plants watered well after pruning,  transplanting or dividing and you’ll be rewarded with new growth in just a few weeks. Meanwhile, you have the dried mint for your tea.

Oregano/Marjoram

Blooming Greek Oregano. Picture taken at The Herb Cottage
Blooming Greek Oregano. Picture taken at The Herb Cottage

By this time of year, my oregano and marjoram have flowered or are flowering. Since these are perennial plants, you can enjoy the flowers and leave them on until they are played out. Flowers from the oregano family bring beneficial insects to your garden and they are pretty. If you like, you can clip them for cut display or use them to flavor your cooking.

There are several types of oregano designated a ‘flowering oregano’ or ‘ornamental oregano’. These are cultivars that have been bred for their more dramatic flowers. Alas, some of the flavor has been lost from these types and they are best used as hardy ornamental landscape plants.

Blue Oregano. Not great flavor, but a striking plant when in bloom!
Blue Oregano. Not great flavor, but a striking plant when in bloom!

Whichever type of oregano you are growing, after the flowers fade, the plant doesn’t look its best. The stems can become leggy and the spent flowers are rather unattractive. So, now’s the time to prune the flower heads off. You can also prune the whole plant back if it’s gotten too big or needs shaping.

Terribly overgrown Greek Oregano. Lots of bare stems. I'll prune to the soil level here and dry the leaves for use in the kitchen.
Terribly overgrown Greek Oregano. Lots of bare stems. I’ll prune to the soil level here and dry the leaves for use in the kitchen.

There is rule of pruning which says for best results, don’t prune more than about 1/3 of the growth of the plant. This is true for some plants, like a large Rosemary, roses and other shrubs. But, many herbs can be pruned all the way to the ground when they’ve gotten out of control. Which ones, you might ask? Here’s a list of some common herbs that can be pruned all the way to the ground, whether you’re growing in pots or in the ground:

  • oregano
  • marjoram
  • mints
  • lemon balm
  • catnip
  • chives/garlic chives

Continue reading “Summer Pruning for Herbs”

Pollinators

Swallowtail Butterfly on Dill
Swallowtail Butterfly on Dill

We hear a lot of talk now about the importance of pollinators. There have been numerous articles encouraging us to plant for pollinators in our garden and landscapes. And, what a good idea that is! Bees, butterflies, even flies can all serve to pollinate our plants. 

Many of our food crops need pollinators to form the fruits and vegetables we eat daily. Some vegetables are wind pollinated, but most are pollinated by insects. Have you ever grown squash or cucumbers, seen lots of flowers on your plants but had few or no vegetables form? The main reason for that is lack of pollination. Those crops, the circubits, have both male and female flowers. The pollen needs to be transferred from the male flower to the female one for the fruit to form. That’s where the bees come in. While they are after the pollen for their hives, as a side benefit, they transfer pollen from flower to flower creating the magic that makes our squash and cucumbers form. There would be no Hallowe’en Jack O’ Lanterns without the bees!

borage
Bees love Blue Borage!

Pollinators also help the plants set good, viable seed. By cross pollinating within a species, strong seed is created to carry on the best traits of the current generation. 

Sometimes, though, the pollinators create unwanted crosses in the garden. If you’re growing several types of squash, for instance, and want to save the seed, having the plants too close together can cause cross pollination and the resulting seed is not the variety you thought it was. Sometimes these hybrids turn out OK, but most often they are not very tasty. 

I usually grow several types of basil in the garden. I have had volunteer seedlings come up that look like sweet basil but have a distinctive lemon flavor due to the bees bringing the pollen from the lemon basil to the sweet basil. 

Peppers are notorious crossers. If you save seeds from sweet bell peppers that have been grown close to hot peppers, you might have hot bell peppers from the seed you plant next season! 

Pollinators for every garden

Spanish Lavender Plant
Spanish Lavender is a short lived evergreen perennial for me

 

Continue reading “Pollinators”

Spring!

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.

Tired Pea Vines!
Tired Pea Vines!

 

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 Lavender, Thyme and Rue!
New Lavender, Thyme and Rue!

 

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.

Cucumber, Melons, Okra

In the herb beds, new growth is everywhere!

IMG_0315
Texas Bluebonnets love The Herb Cottage!

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.

Los of little basil! 4 varieties!
Los of little basil! 4 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.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia
African Blue Basil- Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

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.

 

Continue reading “Spring!”

Wild and Weedy Apothecary

If you saw a book with the above title, would you pick it up and look at it?

Well… I did and now I have it here with me.

Here’s how I acquired the book- I attended the Texas Renaissance Festival with my sister-in-law earlier this month. One of our favorite shops is Creative Life Booksellers, not too far inside the front gate. The shop is filled with books, calenders, coloring books, cards, book marks, tarot cards and more on subjects as varied as dragons, faeries, pirates, Celtic history, the Renaissance and, of course, herbs.

The herb book selection is small, but there are always books I don’t have, and such is the case with The Wild and Weedy Apothecary by Doreen Shababy.

Book Cover

The book contains “recipes” for healing uses of herbs, simple teas, food recipes using herbs and a lot about harvesting and using herbs found in your own area. Then, there is an encyclopedic listing of herbs with remedies and recipes for each listing. For instance, under A, you will find the following– Alliums, Anise, Apple, Aromatherapy and Aunt Carols’s Manicotti– each with a recipe or useful commentary

The aspect of this book I like most, besides the content itself, is the tone. It’s friendly and helpful rather than pedantic or authoritative. It feels like you’re sitting at the kitchen table with Doreen over a cup of herb tea, discussing the herbs you’ve used, have growing in your yard or nearby outdoor area and herbs you’re interested in but have yet to grow or try. There’s no feeling of having to rush through this book. The information is easy to access and to use. It’s one to keep handy and think of when you’re feeling a cold coming on, flu-like symptoms, have irritating bug bites or one of your kids has a sore throat.

The recipes for food are for wholesome dishes with easy to find ingredients- or with ingredients right out of your own garden. There’s lots of family history tied up in food and recipes in general, and Ms. Shababy generously shares some of her family with us.

All in all, I consider this book a great find. I’ve been slowly going through it skipping from section to section as I think of herbs to look up or recipes to try.

If you’re into reading blogs, Ms. Shababy has one here.

One more book that is a little unusual that captures my imagination is an Almanac, as it follows the Calendar, rather than an alphabetical pattern. It is by Susan Wittig Albert, author of the China Bayles herbal-infused mystery series set in a fictitious Texas Hill Country town called Pecan Springs.

Book CoverThe book is called China Bayles Book of Days.

Each day of the year has a discussion of a particular herb, usually with a recipe or two to accompany it, often with gardening advice. There is a wealth of information in this book. You can read it year after year as the entries follow the calander and thus, the seasons, rather than any particular year.

There are myriad herb books that have been published, from Culpepper’s Herbal published in 1649, to the many colorful books of the present. Some are herb growing guides, some are food recipe books using herbs, some are strictly medicinal, some are about crafting with herbs, while many are a combination of the varied aspects of the world of herbs. Whichever is your choice, there are books to help you learn more and deepen your knowledge and appreciation of this vast world. Whatever your interest in herbs, it is all rooted in the plants, the soil, the natural world around us.

I hope you’re enjoying the holidays with family and friends.

CELEBRATE THE SEASON!

green line

QUOTE FOR THE MONTH
C.S. Lewis said “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

Beyond Basil Pesto

Monthly Feature JUNE 2014

 

Fresh Basil in the garden.
Fresh Basil in the garden.

Pesto made with fresh basil leaves is an easy and quick way to preserve the summery goodness of basil. Frozen, it keeps for months and has so many uses. In our household, fast food is cooking some pasta and tossing it with thawed basil pesto, leftover veggies- especially roasted or grilled- and adding a green salad. Voila! Supper!

If you like using pesto to mix with pasta, to top bruchetta, add to vinaigrette salad dressings or to flavor grilled or roasted vegetables, expand your choices by making pesto with other herbs, nuts, seeds and even leafy greens. Try different combinations such as basil with parsley, parsley with spinach, cilantro with parsley, lemon basil alone or mixed with standard basil or parsley… get the idea?

You can add different oils, nuts, seeds and cheese to alter the flavor to your liking.

You don’t absolutely need an electric food processor or blender to make pesto, but it really speeds up the process. Any of the following recipes can be made with a morter and pestle. And, a food processor with its wider, shallower bowl works more easily than a blender. Either will do, though. With a blender, you just have to stop and push the food back onto the blades more often than with a food processor. Just be sure the blades have stopped turning before you stick a scraper or spoon into the jar.

Don’t do what I did one time…. and stick a wooden spoon in the jar before the blades stopped turning. The spoon was jerked from my hand, bounced out of the jar, sprayed oil and basil everywhere and broke the spoon inside the jar. I threw the whole mess away and had to start over so I didn’t have splinters in the pesto. Plus I had to wipe up oily basil from the counter, floor and other surrounding surfaces. I reiterate…. wait until the blades have stopped turning before sticking the spoon in!!! 

Any of the tradtional dairy cheeses in the following recipes can be replaced with vegan varieties, just so long as the cheese is hard enough to be grated. Seeds such as sunflower or pumpkin can be substituted for the nuts. Roasting the seeds or nuts before use will bring out their flavor.

To roast raw seeds or nuts, spread them on a cookie sheet and place in a 350 deg. oven for 10 minutes, stirring and checking frequently to avoid over toasting. Or, place the seeds or nuts in a dry fying pan, I use cast iron, on a hot burner and stir around until you can smell aroma from the oils released from the the seeds or nuts. Do not over brown. Roasted nuts and seeds can be stored in an air-tight container or frozen.

You can make fresh pesto every time you need it, but it’s very easy to make a bigger batch when the basil or other herbs and greens are at their peak.

Pesto freezes wonderfully. I like to freeze it in ice cube trays overnight then transfer the cubes to a big plastic freezer bag. One cube is one serving of pesto to mix with pasta.

Be sure to mark the bag with the type of pesto inside. Parsley, basil, cilantro, spinach and arugula can all look alike after they’re frozen!

Some people leave the cheese out when freezing pesto and mix it in after the pesto is thawed. I’ve never done that. My pesto is ready to go when it’s thawed. It tastes great and the texture and color is perfect!Following are some recipes to get you started, along with info and ideas for uses of pesto, storing and freezing. Continue reading “Beyond Basil Pesto”

Easy Pesto

 

  • 2 cups clean basil leaves (you can use all one variety or mixed varieties, according to your taste)
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup nuts. Pinenuts are traditional, but I use pecans because they grow here on our farm.
  • 1/2 cup grated hard cheese such as Parmesan or Romano, or a blend.
  • 5-8 cloves of garlic, according to your taste
  • Approximately 1/2 cup olive or other vegetable oil. This amount can vary depending on how much cheese and nuts you put in.

 

Food Processor:
Add all ingredients and process until you have a smooth, well-mixed pesto. The consistency should be similar to that of mayonnaise.

Blender:
This is a little more work than using a food processor, but makes an equally delicious pesto.
Place about a quarter of the basil leaves in the jar adding 1/2 cup oil, the nuts and cheese. Blend (I use the puree setting or high setting.)
You’ll need a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to push the mixture down onto the blades fairly often. —Don’t do what I did one time…. and stick a wooden spoon in the jar before the blades stopped turning. The spoon was jerked from my hand, bounced out of the jar, sprayed oil and basil everywhere and broke the spoon inside the jar. I threw the whole mess away and had to start over so I didn’t have splinters in the pesto.

In other words…. wait until the blades have stopped turning before sticking the spoon in!!!

After you have that first mix pretty well blended and the nuts are well ground, just keep adding the basil leaves about a handful at time until all the leaves are used up. If the mix is too thick, add a little oil to thin it down.
It doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth. In fact, I like the pesto a little coarse so I can see the leaves, but the nuts should be well ground.

To preserve the pesto, I fill ice cube trays with the mixture and freeze it over night. The next day I remove the pesto cubes and store them in a plastic bag or tub in the freezer. One cube is one serving.

Pesto can be made with other leafy green herbs. Parsley mixed with basil is tasty. Cilantro and parsley is very good, too, especially with chicken enchiladas or even Indian food like curry.

May 2002

Summer has arrived already here in Texas. It seems we jumped

from a pleasant warming trend to hot, sticky, windy days overnight. And, it’s only May. What will it be like in August…… or September when the rest of the country is cooling down and it’s still hot as blazes and the humidity is stuck at around 95%? I remember conversations like this last year. And it was hot and uncomfortable in August and September. We all survived…. and complained the whole time.

We do need rain, though. The storms pounding other parts of Texas and the country have not reached us. “They” say we have a dome of high pressure over us that prevents “lifting” to produce storms. We have plenty of moisture in the atmosphere, “they” say…..(I could have told “them” that. Just go into the garden in the morning and try to breathe. The air is heavy and the sweat just rolls off the body…. and it’s only 8 a.m.!) ……. but there’s no lift to the atmosphere. What, not enough hot air here in Texas?….. please.

So, what’s a person to do? Complaining about the weather is only beneficial to get a conversation started around here, it doesn’t change the weather outdoors. One way to stay cool (and hydrate the body) is to drink herbal iced tea during the hot days and evenings. I’ve been experimenting with various lemon herbs for my daily tea drink. So, I thought a discussion of lemon-flavored herbs would be appropriate. Continue reading “May 2002”