Winter Solstice and Gardening

Winter Solstice

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.

Winter Solstice
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.

Winter SolsticeWinter Solstice

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.


cat_coversThe 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.








Overgrown Garden


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.

Basil Siam Queen.JPG

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. 

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Cover Crops- Nature’s Fertilizer

Improve your soil naturally

The use of cover crops dates back to ancient times. Over 2500 years ago, the Japanese and Chinese noticed that many crops grew and produced better following the growth of certain other plants.

There is a finite amount of nutrients in soil, and with every harvest, nutrients are removed from the system and put into your vegetable or flower. This removal of nutrients and organic matter from the garden is what makes adding nutrients back into the soil necessary.

Cover crops improve soil health because they add organic material and nitrogen, bring buried nutrients to the soil surface, break up hardpan soils, improve water percolation, suppress weeds, increase microbial activity and diversity, and reduce some soil pests. By sowing cover crops, you are essentially growing your own fertilizer in addition to improving soil quality!

The Herb Cottage carries Botanical Interests Seeds for cover crops for all seasons:

Soil Builder Peas/Oats:

A dynamic duo of peas and oats that improves your garden’s soil fertility and structure. Sow in the fall, 6 to 8 weeks before your average first fall frost, or spring, when the soil is at least 40ºF.

Crimson Clover: A hardworking cover crop for your vegetable garden that fixes nitrogen for improved soil fertility. Sow in the fall, 4 to 6 weeks before average first fall frost, or spring after the average last frost date.

Common Buckwheat: In just a few weeks, grow your own green manure for healthier soil that is more productive.Spring through fall, when soil temperature is above 55ºF.

Cover Crop Clover

Cover Crop Clover

Cover Crop Common Buckwheat

Fall Gardening- a Joyous Time to be in the Garden

vegmedleySeptember 2015

Gardening magazines and blogs this time of year, the Fall, are telling us how to put the garden to bed, preserve our harvest and settle in for the winter. I admit there’s something very cozy about cleaning up the vegetable, herb and perennial beds, covering them with a nice layer of leaves or mulch and letting them rest until next spring.

However, nothing could be farther from the minds of gardeners in the mild winter regions of the U.S. and elsewhere. This is the time for our lovely cool season herbs and vegetables to flourish. Instead of cleaning up the garden and putting it to bed, for us it’s time to clean up the garden and get it ready for another growing season.


I love the fall planting and growing season. The days are cooler so it’s much less stressful to be in the garden and the types of herbs and vegetables that grow so beautifully are healthy and flavorful, too. Think of broccoli, kale, cabbage, carrots with herbs such as dill, cilantro, fennel, chervil and celery leaf to add flavor and depth to recipes.

Even here in Texas, with our mostly mild winters, I love to do soups and pots of beans during the winter. Our non-air-conditioned kitchen is so much more pleasant than during the summer. And, on cold days, a pot simmering on the stove helps keep our old farmhouse warm.

Planting a fall garden can be done with transplants or by direct seeding. Direct seeding, of course, is more economical, but lots of people like to start with transplants. Finding specific varieties in transplants may be difficult, and starting your own from seed isn’t difficult. But, of course, it’s up to you how you want to start your garden. Root crops- beets, carrots, radishes… are best direct seeded and you’ll almost never see transplants for those.

If you’re planting in an area that was used for a spring and summer garden, you’ll want to add some fertilizer in the form of compost or a dry fertilizer that can be mixed with the soil. It would be helpful to have mulch available to spread around any transplants you use. Direct seeded crops should be allowed to come up a bit before mulching.

Fall crops such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale may attract little green worms that will devour the new leaves.

Cabbage Looper
These little guys can devour a small seedling overnight! Keep a vigilant watch out for them!

These are known as cabbage loopers and are the larva of various moths.

A handy, completely non-toxic way to deal with them is to cover your crops with a spun row cover material. This is a lightweight fabric that lets in light and water, but keeps the moths away from the plants so they cannot lay their eggs on your crops. There are several brands on the market and it’s getting easier to find at many retailers or on-line.

Another way to combat the little buggers is with a product that contains the ingredient Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). Bt is certified for use in organic production and only targets the worms. It destroys the worm as it chews on the leaf. Bt is found in quite a few garden products now in ready-to-use spray, a concentrate that you mix with water or in a powder form. Be sure to follow all directions on the package.

Go ahead and jump into the Fall gardening season with joy! The weather is cooling off, many of the bugs are gone and the crops you can grow now are so nutritious and varied, you’ll never get bored with your harvest.

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Growing Perennial Flowers From Seed

Perennials are those plants that last year after year without needing to be reseeded or purchasing new plants. Generally, perennials are divided into 2 groups: evergreen and true perennials.

Echinacea or Cone Flower
Echinacea or Cone Flower

Evergreen varieties are those that don’t freeze down every Winter. These are mostly found in milder Winter areas, although many shrubs and a few flowers will be evergreen in colder climates. And, of course, “Evergreens” like pines, fir, cedars, etc. are called that because they are Ever Green!

In mild Winter areas, there are many evergreen types of flowers and shrubs. They don’t bloom all year, but the plant remains green even when dormant. Some of these bloom in the winter and are dormant in the summer and some are the opposite.

True perennials are flowers that grow and bloom in a particular season, usually the warm weather- spring or summer- and then the growing parts freeze down with the first frost. The frozen parts can be cut down to near the ground to neaten the garden.

If there are seed heads, however, like on some of the smaller sunflower types or Echinacea, aka Cone Flower, those should be left for the birds to feed on in the Winter. They can be cut down in early Spring when the seed heads are empty and new growth is peeking up. These perennials then start new growth in the Spring- early for some, late for others- and grow and flourish for another season.

Perennials can be the backbone of a flower bed because even after the flowers have faded, the plant still sports foliage that fills in during the rest of the season. Perennials are generally slower to grow from seed and may need up to 3 years to create a full size, mature plant.

Here’s an old gardening adage about perennials planted from seed: The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap!

If you’d like to grow perennials from seed, it takes patience. If you plant them in the garden when they’re small you can fill in around them with annuals until they attain their mature size.

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

Four Tips for Perennial Success from Botanical Interests Seeds

  • Sow perennials that do not need *stratification 8 to 10 weeks before your average first fall frost. This allows time for the seed to germinate, and plants to establish a root system large enough to survive the winter.
  • Sow perennials that need stratification after a hard, killing fall frost. This ensures that they will not sprout until the following spring.
  • Mark the spot. Label the area of sown seeds.
  • In a dry winter be sure to water late summer and fall-sown perennial seeds and seedlings just as you do your trees.

Check your Botanical Interests seed packet for specific instructions on stratification! Don’t forget to look inside the seed packet for more information!

*Stratification is the process of helping to break the seed coat of a perennial seed. In nature it is done by the cycles of cold and rain. We can recreate that process ourselves by placing seed in a moist growing medium and placing the seed in the fridge for a few weeks. Then, removing the seed and allowing it to germinate at a warmer temperature. Here’s more than you ever wanted to know about seed stratification!

Here at The Herb Cottage, I don’t sell too many perennial flower varieties. Echinacea or Cone Flower is one I do sell. I sell mostly annuals because they’re so easy from seed. Here’s an article on Fall Seeding of Annuals.

There are some herb varieties that fall under the perennial or evergreen category in mild Winter regions such as rosemary, oregano, parsley- technically a biennial- stevia, Mexican Oregano and a few others that are very slow to germinate.

Rosemary and Oregano Plants
Rosemary and Oregano at The Herb Cottage

They can be successfully planted in the Fall to come up in the early Spring and grow out as the weather warms.

I find it very rewarding to grow perennials from seed because of the time it takes. I feel my patience is greatly rewarded when I have a mature perennial successfully growing that I started from seed!

Herbs in the Kitchen

Originally Published October 2004

Fall….. autumn….. vernal equinox. To me, fall brings images of the late afternoon sun slanting into the chicken house with a warm glow as I close the flock up for the night. Darkness falls earlier and earlier. It’s always surprising to me how fast the days shorten once the equinox passes. It’s a time of thinking about colder days ahead, comfort foods in the kitchen and baking to warm up the house a little.

I do very little baking in the summer. In our farm house with an air conditioner used only in the bedroom when it’s extremely hot and sticky over night, the kitchen (and the rest of the house) stay very warm for about 3 or 4 months. We do lots of outdoor cooking and quick meals. But, during the cooler months, the kitchen again releases those wonderful aromas of bread, cookies, stews, bean pots and sauces.

Many people don’t think of herbs as an ingredient in dessert food or sweet treats. We all know herbs are used liberally in dishes like stew, casseroles, pasta sauce, soup and roasted fowl or meat and, of course, tea. But, baked goods are a perfect place to incorporate more herbs in your meals. And, remember, herbs are not used only for flavor. Many of the common culinary herbs we use every day have health benefits. The seemingly small amounts of herbs used daily add up to give the body added immune properties, vitamins and other health benefits.

I have favorite herbs for desserts and sweet treats and like to experiment, too. An easy way to incorporate herbs in baking is to find a quick bread recipe that is rather plain. Then, chop some lemony herbs to add to it. Or, if you don’t want little green specks in the bread, steep your lemon herbs in the required liquid over night, remove the herbs and use the flavored liquid. I think either lemon balm or lemon verbena works best for this type of recipe. For a holiday splash, instead of using lemon herbs, use the flowers and leaves of pineapple sage. You’ll have red and green speckles throughout the bread.
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Shungiku, Edible Chrysanthemum

Monthly Feature JANUARY 2013

Even though it’s winter, we have been having a warm spell for weeks. I know there is cold weather yet to come, so I’ve continued seeding some cool season crops as well as the warm season crops for Spring. Lettuces and salad greens make quick crops here in our cool winters- most varieties can be harvested in as little as 25 days, for baby leaves. Combined with hardy herbs such as parsley, chervil, salad burnet and cutting celery and colorful edible flowers, it’s easy to make an attractive, tasty and healthy salad from the garden.


Since I’m always looking for additional greens to add to a salad, I thought you might be, too. A couple of years ago I discovered a versatile green known as Shungiku, Edible Chrysanthemum, Garland Chrysanthemum, Chop Suey Greens and many others. This is a salad green that can grow in the cool of our winters as well as into the warmth of Spring. The bright yellow flowers add a splash of color to the mix. These greens can also be lightly steamed, braised or added to soups as well as eaten fresh.

Pic courtesy of Dave’s Garden

Shungiku is easy to grow in ordinary garden soil or a container. It grows to about 20 – 24 inches tall and covers itself with the cheery little flowers. You can direct sow it or start it indoors for transplanting when ready. It can tolerate a light frost. For a constant supply of the tender, young leaves, sow every 3 weeks or so, with your other succession planted salad greens and you’ll have an unusual, tender and flavorful addition to your cool season salads.

Like many vegetables, Shungiku is good for us. Along with the various lettuce varieties, this edible Chrysanthemum is considered a bitter herb. Bitters aid digestion by stimulating bile production in the intestines. Heavy and fatty foods are better digested when bile is present upon ingestion. Hence, the practice of serving a salad course before the entree– to allow the body to become ready for the heavier course which in Western European tradition would include meat, gravies and potatoes.

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Winter Holiday Herbs

Monthly Feature DECEMBER 2014

Holdiay Collage

The holiday season is upon us!


Shopping, decorating, getting those handmade gifts and cards ready, cleaning for company, cooking and baking cause a flurry of activity. If you have young children, their excitement can be contagious, making the upcoming holiday even more fun for the whole family.

The stories of the holidays make great telling or reading, too. Some families read ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas’ every Christmas Eve, other families tell the story of Hanukkah each year, while still other families cherish the meaning of Kwanzaaor other winter holiday celebrations.

These celebrations are what help us connect to our history, our families and cultures.

Winter Scene

Spending time with your herbs is a perfect way to slow down, catch your breath and become involved in age old traditions. Whether you’re cutting herbs for drying and making into bundles to decorate your packages or to give as culinary gifts or you’re making herb tea and cookies for a small gathering, just having the herbs around you, smelling them and handling them can help you relax, remember your summer garden and think about next year’s growing season.

Holiday Candle
I like to incorporate herbs in all I do for the holidays. I add herbs to sugar cookie and shortbread recipes, give gifts of herb vinegar, serve herb butter with holiday meals and of course use herbs in stuffings, soups and other main dishes. Decorating with herbs adds fragrance and history to your winter holiday. Herbs are a connection to our past. They have nothing to do with crowded malls, shopping, over used credit cards and canned holiday tunes coming out of loudspeakers.

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December 2002 – Madder Than a Wet Hen

Madder than a wet hen…

Have you ever heard the expression, “Madder than a wet hen”? I don’t know how that expression came into use. My hens don’t seem to mind the water a bit. Today is a cold and rainy day, but I made my mucky way out to the chicken yard to open the doors for the birds. There are ducks housed with the chickens and I knew they’d love to be out in the mud and rain, no matter what the temperature. Did the chickens stay inside where it was dry, where I spread their scratch grain? No, not those chickens. They wandered outside in the rain and mud to peck around and enjoy the cold. I don’t expect them to stay out very long…. but, go out they did, got wet and kept their even temper.

The weather today is conducive to staying indoors putting on a pot of soup or stew, baking savory bread or sweet, buttery cookies, curling up with a book or even going over your garden notes from last season. I’ve learned to actually keep notes on growing conditions both in the greenhouse and the display gardens. I track germination times, hardiness, water needs, sun or shade preference and mature size of different plants. If you like using a computer, set up a database for yourself listing your plants, various characteristics, notes throughout the season, and perhaps where you acquired the seeds or plants and the cost. You can include anything that you would find helpful to evaluate your plants. It gives you a way to evaluate new plants and old favorites. Continue reading “December 2002 – Madder Than a Wet Hen”

October 2002 – Savory Soup, Hearty Stews, Warm Crusty Bread

Savory soup, hearty stews, warm, crusty bread….. just the fare for those cooler fall days. Wouldn’t fresh thyme make a tastier soup, fresh rosemary make a more satisfying stew and how about some fresh homemade herb bread?

In this issue I’ll give you some tips and ideas about over wintering your favorite herbs indoors so you’ll have fresh, tasty herbs for all your fall and winter culinary delights.

I know we southern gardeners can grow most culinary herbs outdoors all winter. In fact many of these herbs come back to life in our cooler fall and winter temperatures. The summer heat and humidity take their toll especially on thymes, lavender, sage and even parsley. Fall brings the color and flavor back into the herbs that have been stressed by summer.

Don’t forget about the herbs that absolutely will not grow well or at all in the south during the summer. We wait for fall to replant cilantro, dill, nasturtiums, salad burnet, and in some cases, even parsley. If you’re a southern gardener, enjoy the fall, recompost those beds, seed or transplant your cool season herbs and relax in the mild temperatures.

INDOOR HERB GROWING Continue reading “October 2002 – Savory Soup, Hearty Stews, Warm Crusty Bread”