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”

Summer Drinks with Herbs

Monthly Feature MAY 2014

With the warm weather on the way and herb gardens beginning to produce lots of those flavorful fresh herbs, it’s time to get creative using more of your herbs. Why not create refreshing summer sodas or cocktails with your herbs? It’s as simple as combining some sugar and water, heating the mix until the sugar melts then adding herbs to steep. That’s it!

Here are more detailed instructions:

Simple Syrup:

Equal parts sugar and water
Combine sugar and water, heat and stir to dissolve.
When sugar has all dissolved, remove pan from heat, cool and store in fridge until needed.

Herbal Simple Syrup

After syrup is made, add coarsely chopped or torn herbs and steep until the syrup is cool.
For a stronger infusion, add more herbs or steep longer.
Strain, label and store in fridge.


Picture courtesy of Oh My Veggies Blog– great ideas for using simple syrups

 

 

 

Summer Herbal Soda:

Add about 1 tablespoon Herbal Simple Syrup (or to taste) to an 8 ounce glass
Fill glass with ice and sparkling water, tea or juice. Garnish with herb or a piece of fruit.

The possibilities are endless. Any herb you like the flavor of can be used.  Continue reading “Summer Drinks with Herbs”

Lemon-y Herbs for Summer

Monthly Feature APRIL 2014

Last month I wrote about Lemongrass, so this month I thought I’d continue with the lemon theme and discuss a few other lemony herbs. Lemon flavored herbs are great for summer: they make light and refreshing iced tea, add bright notes to grilled fish and seafood and combine well with salads.

Here are my favorites!

Lemon Verbena, Aloysia citrodora

Lemon Verbena Flowers

A perennial shrub from 3 to 6 feet tall, Lemon Verbena is also known as Lemon Beebrush due to its attraction to bees when in flower.

The leaves will freeze and fall off the plant at 32 deg. F, but the wood is said to be hardy to -10 deg. F. Since I don’t live where it gets that cold, I have no experience with such low temperatures. I do know, my Lemon Verbena comes back every Spring on the old wood. So, if yours freezes, do not prune the woody stems all the way down. Prune for shape, if you like, but know new leaves will soon populate the old, woody stems.
In containers, I’ve found the smaller woody stems to also freeze, but new growth reliably comes from the root system.

Lemon Verbena can be a bit of a lanky, leggy grower and a bit of Spring pruning can help shape the plant. Left on its own, it’s not the most attractive plant in the herb garden. The flavor of Lemon Verbena, however, easily makes up for any lack of physical beauty.

In the garden in the Southern US, give Lemon Verbena some afternoon shade and it’ll be very happy, providing you with lots of leaves for tea and cooking. If you have a bee garden, Lemon Verbena is a good addition. The flowers are very attractive to our little pollinating friends. It makes sprays of white to pinkish flowers. Very attractive in arrangements, too.

I like to refer to Lemon Verbena as The Queen of Lemon Herbs! It’s flavor and scent is most like a real lemon, giving it the ability to make terrific tea, hot or iced. Used in cakes and cookies, it adds a distinct lemon flavor.

Here’s a recipe I found using Lemon Verbena in a muffin recipe with another summer favorite, zucchini:

Lemon Verbena and Nut Muffins

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp grated lemon peel
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 1 cup packed shredded zucchini – do not drain
  • 12 lemon verbena leaves, sliced finely

Into a large bowl, put the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, lemon peel, cinnamon and nuts.
In another bowl, beat the eggs with a fork, beating in the milk and the oil.
Add to the flour mix and stir well.
Then add the zucchini and lemon verbena and stir all together.
Grease mini-muffin tins and then fill 3/4 full.
Bake at 400 deg. F for 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of the tins.
Test with toothpick.

Glaze: juice the 2 lemons from above and add enough confectioners sugar to make a thin glaze. While the muffins are still hot, dip the tops in the glaze and set on wire rack to drain.

Recipe from In the Kitchen at Shale Hill Farm Continue reading “Lemon-y Herbs for Summer”

Lemongrass

Originally Published March 2014

Lemongrass Plant

Lemongrass

  • Botanical Name: Cymbopogon citratus (sim-bo-PO-gon si-TRA-tus)
  • Family: Poaceae (Gramineae) (Grass)
  • Hardy in Zones 8 – 10. Note: I am in Zone 8b and have lost lemongrass over the Winter. Most years the tops freeze back and new shoots emerge from the root zone when the soil warms up sufficiently. But, not always. So, if you live in an area where the hardiness is questionable, grow your lemongrass in a pot and protect it during the Winter.

Lemongrass is a tropical grass native to India and Southeast Asia. It has ornamental, culinary, cosmetic and medicinal value. It likes lots of sun and water. Even here in Texas where many plants wilt in our hot late summer sun, Lemongrass thrives, given enough water.

It is a clumping type fountain grass. It is not a running type grass, so it is non-invasive. The clump can grow 3 – 4 feet across and up to 5 feet tall. Attractive in containers, it can be grown anywhere as an annual. Use it in combination planters for its dramatic effect. Protect it during the Winter for continued growth. It certainly can be grown as a houseplant with good drainage and lots of light.

One caution: the blades are very sharp, as with many grasses… that’s why they call them blades! So, when pruning or tending to your Lemongrass, gloves are useful. Always rub the leaf from the bottom up to prevent being cut by the blade. Continue reading “Lemongrass”

Herb Tea- Beyond Mint

Originally Published April 2014

Spring has come to most of the U.S. by now, with gardeners busily planting new gardens and tending perennials that overwintered.

peppermint

 Even here in my part of Texas where winter is but a shadow of the sesason much of the country experiences, Spring excites gardeners. Markets that I’ve attended this year have shown herbs to continue to be very popular. Many people are planting them for the first time, so I answer a lot of questions about harvesting and use of culinary herbs.

Herbs growing at The Herb Cottage
Herbs growing at The Herb Cottage

One of the most enduring questions I receive from new herb enthusiasts is “Can I make tea from Orange Mint or Basil Mint or Pineapple Sage or Lemon Thyme or Lemon Verbena or….? ” Of course, you can, I always answer. Why not? You can make tea from any herb whose flavor you like, even if it’s not considered a “tea herb”, such as mint, lemon balm or lemon verbena, for example.

 

Keeping that in mind, I thought I’d review some of the tea herbs I grow and enjoy. Even those of you readers who have grown and used herbs for years may find some combinations you haven’t tried. So, read on!

 

This is what makes Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger Tea red!
This is what makes Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger Tea red!

One of my favorite summer tea blends is a sun tea made with Hibiscus sabdariffa flowers, also known as Roselle or Jamaica, Lemon Grass, Orange Mint and a little Fennel. Many people are surprised to learn I add Fennel to this tea blend. It adds an unusual flavor that cannot be readily identified as anise if it’s used sparingly.

Another anise-flavored herb that can be added to a tea blend is Mexican Mint Marigold, also known as Texas or Mexican Tarragon, Tagetes lucida. If you live where French Tarragon grows well and you have it, you could use that, too.

Fennel growing at The Herb Cottage
Fennel growing at The Herb Cottage

 

 


I use fresh ingredients in my sun tea, except for the Hibiscus flowers or if I’m adding green tea, and the proportions vary somewhat from batch to batch,  as I simply go clip the herbs I want, add them to the gallon jug, add water and set it out in the sun for about 4 hours.

That said, here’s my recipe for a gallon of sun tea with the ingredients mentioned above (amounts are approximate!):

 

  • 1/2 cup dried Hibiscus sabdariffa flowers
  • 1 large handful of fresh Orange Mint
  • 2-3 stalks fresh Lemon Grass, either clipped into 3-4″ sections or simply folded so it fits into the jar
  • 1 leaf stalk fresh Fennel, about 6″ long, unless you really like the anise flavor, then add more
  • 3-4″ stem of fresh Stevia- more if you like it really sweet. Optional

Crush the fresh herbs a bit with your hands or clip them into smallish pieces – 2-4″ – long and add them to a gallon jar. Fill the jar with water. Set out in full sun for about 4 hours. Strain the herbs out, chill and enjoy, garnishing with mint or any of the other herbs you used and/or fresh fruit.

Pineapple Sage, Salvia elegans

Pineapple Sage likes to grow in part shade in my climate
Pineapple Sage likes to grow in part shade in my climate

 

is a shrubby plant that, in my garden, grows best with part shade. I find it a bit of a water hog in the hottest part of the summer, but I grow it anyway because I love the bright red flowers and I like to use it in tea. The flowers and leaves can both be used for tea. The flowers can also be used in baking and add a festive touch to pound cakes, sugar cookies and other light colored baked goods. Pineapple Sage makes a wonderful tea by itself and as part of a blend.

 

 

 

 

We don’t usually think of the savory herbs so much for herb tea. But, I find the flavored Thymes make a delicious addition to herbal tea blends. Lemon Thyme adds a bright, deep lemony note to teas with mint or standard green tea.

You can also use Lemon Thyme when brewing tea from “regular” black tea such as Lipton’s, Luzianne or any other black tea.

Lime Thyme adds a mild savory, citrusy flavor to tea
Lime Thyme adds a mild savory, citrusy flavor to tea

Lime Thyme is not as popular an herb as the lemon variety, but it packs a fresh, citrusy flavor. It’s wonderful used with green tea, or with any of the mints or Pineapple Sage. Hint: try it on chicken, fish or in a fruit salsa.

Another Thyme I like for tea is Lavender Thyme- did you even know there was such a plant?

Lavender Thyme has a big flavor in a small package!
Lavender Thyme has a big flavor in a small package!

 

This low growing plant has very tiny, fleshy leaves with an aroma like a savory lavender. It’s terrific added to mint tea or with a blend of lemon herbs.

 

 

 

I hope I’ve sparked your imagination a bit and you’ll try some of these herbs- and more- in your own herbal tea blends this summer. If you like sparkling beverages, make your tea extra strong by adding more herb material- not by steeping it longer- you want to avoid bitterness- and then dilute the tea with sparkling water. Yummm… refreshing and flavorful. 

For an adult beverage, try adding rum to a tea made with Mints and Pineapple Sage, with or without sparkling water. Vodka or gin goes well with any of the minty, lemony herb blends.

herbtea_graphic

QUOTE FOR THE MONTH

Smaller than a breadbox, bigger than a TV remote, the average book fits into the human hand with a seductive nestling, a kiss of texture, whether of cover cloth, glazed jacket, or flexible paperback.

-John Updike, writer (18 Mar 1932-2009)

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”