Category Archives: edibles

An Entertaining Lecture on Herbs at Merrifield Garden Center

Yesterday I attended Merrifield Garden Center’s free lecture on herbs and was pleasantly surprised by the great speaker and the event itself: part entertainment and part educational. Merrifield is known for its free seminars in the spring, which I have promoted on my website for years. The herb lecture was at the Fair Oaks location, which has a spacious room on the second level of the garden center. I arrived early and was surprised to find pastries, brownies, fruit, cheese, crackers, and coffee! Sarah, a Merrifield employee, created this lovely feast and topped it off with an eye-catching display of herbs. Apparently she is known for making such creative displays and generous offerings of refreshments. Sarah was a hoot!  She talked to everyone and encouraged people to submit their drawing on time!

I discovered that at each seat there was a handout on herbs, a 15% discount coupon to use that day or the following day, and a form to complete for the drawing. I did not know there would be a coupon and a drawing but I could tell there were plenty of “regulars” who knew the drill. They seemed to know each other and had been there many times. The mood was so friendly and jolly I almost thought they were part of a gardening club. Filling up on pastries, we completed our forms and dropped them in a large glass container.

At 10:00 am, right before the lecture, Peg Bier, also a long time Merrifield employee, drew slips of paper several times. I did not keep count but was surprised that there were several drawings, not just one. Winners could have their choice of circus tickets or a Merrifield gift card. I did not win but I did use my coupon to buy something after the event.

Peg then introduced our speaker, Nicole Schermerhorn, co-owner of A Thyme to Plant at Lavender Fields Herb Farm (wearing dark brown in the photo). A Thyme to Plant is a wholesale operation near Richmond, growing and selling USDA-certified herbs and vegetables. Her nephew manages Lavender Fields Herb Farm, the retail garden center that focuses on herb classes and demonstrations. Nicole was very entertaining and down to earth – I could have listened to her for more than an hour. She sprinkled her slide presentation with funny learning experiences and witty conversations with her husband. Nicole provided a lot of detail on cultural requirements, including growing herbs in raised beds, while her handout had information on specific herbs. She was very nice about answering everyone’s questions and offered to stay afterward. A few of the interesting tips I learned were: there are 200 varieties of rosemary but only a few are hardy in Virginia (Arp, Salem, and Hill Hardy); Vietnamese coriander is a heat-loving substitute for the cool-loving cilantro; and parsley is the most nutrient-packed herb one can grow (does not matter if curly or flat leaf). I liked the fact that there was a handout to take home about specific herbs and recommended varieties plus cultural requirements on the backside. If you are new to gardening or new to Virginia, I recommend attending Merrifield Garden Center’s free seminars, especially Nicole’s talk on herbs.

Starting Cool Season Veggies in Northern Virginia

Here is a handy chart courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange. Seeds or transplants of cool season veggies can be planted when the temperatures are at least 40 degrees, which is March and April in Virginia.  There are two types of cool season veggies. Hardy types can withstand a heavy frost and  temperatures as  low as 40 degrees so they can be planted two to three weeks before the average last frost. In Northern Virginia, the average last frost date is between April 10 and 21 so I arbitrarily pick April 15 to be able to remember. That means that I can either directly sow seed into the ground the weekend of March 25 (because I work during the week) or (having started the seeds indoors) I can plant the small plants into the ground. Semi-hardy plants can withstand a light frost and prefer slightly warmer temperatures toward 50 degrees so they have to be planted later, two weeks before average last frost date which would be the weekend of April 1. If a severe temperature drop would to occur, I would protect the plants by covering them with empty 2-liter plastic soda bottles that had bottoms cut off.

cool-season-crops-infographic

Fall is the Time to Plant Yellow Potato Onions

yellowpotatoonionFall is the time to plant yellow potato onions. Also known as perennial onions, yellow potato onions are edible, like onions, but perennial as in once you have them, you will always have them. I first heard of potato onions (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) from Pam Dawling, manager of the Twin Oaks Community farm in Louisa, VA. She, along with folks who live there, grow a variety of vegetables on 3 ½ acres to feed the 100 people who live in the community. Just reading her blog gives me a lot of great ideas and information on growing vegetables here in Virginia, although on a much smaller scale. I looked to her neighbor Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) in Mineral for a source of potato onions. SESE sells vegetables, flowers, and herbs that do well in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast (i.e., our hot and humid summers) which makes them a good source of seeds and plants for my area. They too have a blog, a website, and a print catalog full of information for growing veggies in Virginia.

Although I ordered the potato onions in the spring when I ordered seeds, I knew they would not be shipped until the fall. My shipment arrived right before Labor Day and the bulbs were wrapped in a white plastic netting, along with a 4-page pamphlet on cultural requirements.

According to SESE’s pamphlet, potato onions should be planted in early to mid-November for my Northern Virginia area.  Because they are bulbs, it is best to plant them in a well-drained, sandy loam soil with a neutral pH. They are heavy feeders; nitrogen should be applied when leaves are 4-6 inches tall but not during bulb formation.  The bulbs should be planted with ½ to 1 inch of soil above the bulbs and a 2-3 inch layer of mulch to control weeds and protect against temperature extremes. Rows should be 6 inches apart. I have not decided where to plant them yet but I know I will have to find a full sun, weed free area that I can water often.

By summer 2017, the bulbs should have grown and divided to produce many more bulbs. Each individual bulb should form a cluster of bulbs at the base, which visible in the shipment I received. After I dig up the bulbs, I have to cure them, and then select the large ones to use in the kitchen, like an onion, and re-plant the smaller ones in the fall (hence perennial). I am looking forward to trying these in the garden and cooking with them next year.

Success with Eggplant This Year!

eggplant (2)On June 13, I posted an article about my frustrations with growing eggplant here in Northern Virginia. I had tried several times only to be defeated by flea beetles or improper pollination. This year I tried growing them in EarthBoxes and I am pleased to say it worked. Not only do I have plenty of eggplant but my family loved my  eggplant parmesan! I really like eggplant as a summer annual in the garden: structurally, the plant provides large striking leaves and dark purple fruit. Now I am inspired to grow different varieties and to try different eggplant recipes. Maybe even get a few more EarthBoxes!

Believe It or Not: Now is the Time to Plant for the Winter Garden in Virginia

mustard

mustard

August is the time for harvesting and enjoying the summer’s bounty in the vegetable garden while thinking ahead to a winter’s garden. Even though it is hot and humid, planting carrots, green onions (scallions), and cole crops such as cauliflower, broccoli, broccoli raab, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and collards will give great yields in cold months. Later or by September, also consider planting spinach, Swiss chard, radish, turnip, and Asian or hardy greens such as mustard, tatsoi, mache, and kale. You still have time to plant garlic: that’s in October.

To determine when to plant look at the “days to maturity” on the seed packet. Count backwards from the average first frost date (Halloween in Northern Virginia) to determine when to plant. But the difference between fall and spring planting is the “Short Day” factor, which may not be addressed on the seed packet. If you are going to plant seed, you have to add 2 weeks to the numbers on the seed packet to allow for the cooler night temperatures and the shorter day lengths.  For example, to sow spinach seeds add the 7 to 10 days for germination, 35 days to reach maturation, and 14 days for the Short Day factor for a total of 56 to 59 days. Therefore, the latest one can sow spinach seeds is the beginning of September. The length of time would be shorter if nursery transplants were used instead of seed because they have a head start.

mache

mache

Also, find out the best temperature range for seed germination (start indoors versus outdoors), keep the seeds moist during dry times in the summer, and get to know each crop’s tolerance for cold (soil and air) to know if you should provide additional warmth with row covers. Good sources to learn more about fall/winter gardening are the local extension offices.

Virginia Cooperative Extension

Fall Vegetable Gardening publication #426-334

Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Dates #426-331

University of Maryland Extension

Planting Dates for Vegetable Crops in Maryland #HG16

Vegetable Planting Calendar for Central Maryland #GE-007

Successes in my Virginia Garden: July 2016

Cardinal climber among oregano and sage

Cardinal climber among oregano and sage

July is a good time to take stock of the garden and determine what worked and what didn’t. This year I tried growing cardinal climber because I have banisters and rails in several locations on my property. Cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida) is a flowering vine, grown as an annual in Virginia. It is easy to grow indoors in the spring from seed which I obtained from Renee’s Garden. In May, I transplanted them outside and trained them up to the banisters with yarn. They learned quickly and began to wrap themselves around the banisters. Now that it is hot, they bloom every day in full sun. The flowers are bright red and simple but I discovered that they add a pop of color against the other plants. The leaves are very lacy and the vines are light enough to weave into neighboring plants (I like it when two or more plants tumble into each other’s space).  Cardinal climber is a winner in my book.

Vanilla Cream marigold with Cossack Pineapple ground cherry

Vanilla Cream marigold with Cossack Pineapple ground cherry

The other winner flower this year is ‘Vanilla Cream’, part of the Alumia series of French marigolds from Park’s Seed. I started the seed indoors in the spring although it was not necessary, I could have started them outside later. In May I plant them outside in a row in front of a vegetable bed so the lawn service crew wouldn’t get too close to the veggies with the weed wacker. The marigold plants have filled out nicely. Each bushy plant has several blooms at a time. The flowers are unusual for a marigold, they are anemone-shaped and bright yellow. I like the fact that they are a clear solid yellow — they glow like beacons in the garden.

ground cherry

husks pulled back from ground cherry fruit on spoon

Speaking of yellow, this year I grew Cossack Pineapple ground cherries. I bought seed from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and started them indoors under lights in very early spring. I was surprised at how well they germinated. In May, I transplanted several in my tomato patch and although I thought I gave them enough space I did not realize how fast they grew. Mine are a few feet wide and tall and completely cover the ground. Members of the tomato family, the fruit is small like a pea covered in a papery husk. The husks are green on the plant and gradually turn yellow and drop to the ground. I have learned that some of the ones on the ground are empty, maybe something got to them before I did, so I gather the ones on the ground and gently touch the yellow ones on the plant to see if they will drop into my hand. The fruit really does taste like pineapple but without the zing so more like a cross between a pineapple and an apple. They can be eaten raw, used in desserts, or used in savory dishes like salsa.

These are just a few success stories in my garden, more to come!

You Can Grow That: Hyssop for the Fourth of July

hyssopToday’s “You Can Grow That” falls on July 4. “You Can Grow That” is a collaborative effort by gardeners across the nation to encourage others to grow something by posting about a plant on the fourth day of the month. Because today is Independence Day, I chose to write about hyssop, a popular colonial herb. Hyssop, Hyssopus officinalis, was introduced to the Americas by John Winthrop, Jr., in 1631. It is documented that he brought hyssop seeds, along with other herb seeds, from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is also documented that Quaker farmer and America’s first botanist, John Bartram, grew hyssop in Philadelphia. George Washington grew this herb at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s records mention hyssop at Monticello. Bernard McMahon, a Philadelphia nurseryman, included hyssop in his list of kitchen herbs in his book, The American Gardener’s Calendar, published in 1806.

Traditionally, hyssop has been grown for medicinal and culinary qualities. Hyssop tea helps with chest congestion. As an antiseptic, hyssop has been used to heal wounds. The leaves have a menthol taste and can be used to flavor green or fruit salads, make tea, or used in preparing meat or game dishes. Flowers are used as a garnish or in salads. The leaves and flowers can be used fresh or dry (they dry well). Hyssop also is used in perfumes, liqueurs, and wines and as a strewing herb.hyssop

Today, hyssop is popular as a landscape edible and beneficial plant for pollinators. Hardy to zone 3, it is a perennial in my Virginia garden which is partly why it was so popular with the colonists. It comes back year after year and seems to be deer and pest resistant. I certainly have had no problems with mine. Hyssop has dark green, lanceolate leaves that are opposite to each other on the stem and each pair is at right angles to the one above, giving a whorled appearance. The plant is bushy if left to grow to its height of 2 to 3 feet but can be clipped to be a border plant. Mine rewards me with purple flowers from June through August but there are white flowered and pink flowered types as well. The flowers are small but many on a stem, which can be cut for flower arrangements.

Hyssop can be grown in full sun or morning sun to afternoon shade, in well-drained soil, with little or no fertilizer. It is easy to grow from seeds, cuttings, or division and usually the large nurseries will carry it in the herb section in the spring to early summer.