Category Archives: herbs

New Herban Lifestyles Series of Classes at U.S. National Arboretum

Interested in learning more about herbs? Check out the new Herban Lifestyles series of presentations at the U.S. National Arboretum. This series of presentations is designed to help you learn new ways to incorporate herbs into your everyday life. You can register for all the events or just select particular events. Some are free, some require a fee. Some are in the National Herb Garden while others are in the Visitor Center Classroom at the Arboretum. Below is the list for this year.

Herbal Bitters: Sweeter than You Think!
August 4, 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
National Herb Garden

Discover the benefits that bitter herbs offer, from jazzing up your favorite cocktail to aiding digestion after a heavy meal. A variety of hand-crafted bitters will be available for tasting. This program is part of the Under the Arbor series and is free. No registration required.

Herbal Salves: They’re the Balm!
August 11, 10:00 am – 12:00 pm
Visitor Center classroom

Learn how to make herb infused oils for use in soothing salves. The healing properties of various oils and herbs will be covered, and participants will get to take home a jar of salve made in class. Fee: $35 ($28 Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA) members). Registration required.

Hot, Hot, Hot! The Secrets of Herbal Aphrodisiacs
August 18, 10:00 am – 12:00 pm
Visitor Center classroom

Herbalist Joan Greeley, owner of Plant Wisdom Within, will instruct participants in the creation of mojo-enhancing herbal concoctions. The weather isn’t the only thing hot this summer! Due to the mature nature of this program, registrants must be at least 18 years old. Fee: $35 ($28 FONA members). Registration required.

Cold Comfort: Herbs to Aid Immunity during Cold and Flu Season
October 20, 10:00 am – 12:00 pm
Visitor Center classroom

Join herbalist Whitney Palacios as she teaches participants how to make syrups, teas, and other herbal preparations that fortify and nourish the immune system during the winter months. Fee: $35 ($28 FONA members). Registration required.

Herbs – They Make Scents!
October 27, 10:00 am – 12:00 pm
Visitor Center classroom

Learn how to harvest and prepare herbs to create fragrant herbal incense cones and powders. Participants will create their own blend to take home. Please bring a small container to safely transport your freshly made incense. Fee: $35 ($28 FONA members). Registration required.

Additional herb presentations by Herb Society of America units:

Under the Arbor: Lemon Herbs
September 8, 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
National Herb Garden

A refreshing drink on an early autumn day. Tasty citrus cookies after a light lunch. What could be better? Discover how the South Jersey Unit of the Herb Society of America creatively incorporates lemon-flavored herbs into every day culinary fare. Free, drop-in, no registration required.

Under the Arbor: Chile Pepper Celebration
October 6, 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
National Herb Garden

The weather may be cooling down, but the National Herb Garden will turn up the heat during its annual Chile Pepper Celebration. Join Herb Society of America members and National Herb Garden staff as they present chile peppers at their finest. Experience the fire with colorful varieties that don’t hold back! Free, drop-in, no registration required.

Under the Arbor at the National Herb Garden, U.S. National Arboretum

Basic Culinary Herb Recipes To Try This Summer

This summer, as you cut and harvest your culinary herbs, consider these simple recipes to try. Print this and tape on the inside of your kitchen cabinet (along with the list of herbs you are growing) for easy reference.

Herbal vinegar

tarragon is often used in herb vinegars

Wash one cup of herbs, allow to air dry. Pack leaves (can use stems too) in quart glass jar with wooden spoon. Fill with 3 to 3 ½ cups vinegar to one inch from top. The vinegar should be 5% acidity and best types of vinegar are white or red wine vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or apple cider vinegar. Push down with spoon and bruise leaves. If a metal lid, first cover with plastic wrap, if plastic lid, just close. Store in dark place for 4 to 6 week, shaking every few days. Taste to see if too strong, add more vinegar, or too weak, add more herb. When done, strain leaves out and pour liquid into clean bottles and add a sprig of fresh herb for decoration. Label.

Butter

Wash herbs, let dry. Take a stick of unsalted butter out of the fridge, put in bowl, and let come to room temperature so is soft. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the chopped herb, do this to taste. Depending on the leaf, may have to cut into small pieces. Can put in a container to keep in fridge for 2 weeks or roll into saran wrap like a log and freeze for up to 6 months.

Syrup

Put one cup of water and one cup of sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer. When sugar dissolves, turn off heat, add large handful of herb leaves. Bruise with wooden spoon by smashing against side of pot. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes. When cool, strain leaves out and pour syrup in glass jar and store in fridge for up to 2 weeks.

mint has a variety of uses in the kitchen including sweet syrups

Pesto

Pulverize in the blender 2 cups washed fresh basil, 4 cloves of garlic, (chopped), and ½ cup olive oil until pasty. Add 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, blend again. Can freeze in plastic ice cube trays or flat in plastic bags.

Marinade for meat

rosemary is great for marinades

Depending on the amount of meat can change the quantities but the ratio is 1/4 cup of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of vinegar like a wine vinegar, ¼ cup water, a dash of salt (like soy sauce), a dash of sugar (honey or brown sugar) and about a cup of fresh herb leaves (tear leaves apart if large). Have meat sit in this mixture for at least 30 minutes. Drain and cook meat.

Herb paste

If don’t need pesto, make basil paste to preserve

Can use this as a frozen base for pesto and then add the fresh garlic and Parmesan cheese to the thawed paste or a frozen base for stew or soup. Clean herbs but make sure are completely dry as water and oil do not mix. Blend in the food processor 4 cups of herb leaves to ¼ to 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil to make a paste. Freeze in bags or plastic ice cube trays. There should be some texture to herb so is a paste and not pureed like liquid. Good with savory herbs such as basil, parsley, and cilantro. If using a “sweet” herb like mints, may want to try sunflower seed oil instead.

Herbs in the Garden Attract Beneficial Insects and Pollinators

small thyme flowers

The herbs in my garden live among the annuals, perennials, vegetables, and shrubs. I have not designed a separate, formal herb garden and now every new herb plant gets tucked in any space I can find. If I remember and have time, I harvest the leaves for teas or for cooking. If I forget or get too busy, the herbs just thrive without me. By summer, they are blooming along with everything else but that’s okay, they still serve a purpose. Even if I didn’t get to harvest them, they are helping the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and beans by attracting beneficial insects.

In addition to attracting pollinators such as bees and butterflies, flowering herbs can attract beneficial insects that will destroy the “bad” bugs. These beneficial insects are either predators, i.e., they eat harmful bugs, or parasites–they lay their eggs in or on the “bad” bug which release larvae that consume the bug.

Many of these beneficial insects are small, thus preferring easily accessible nectar chambers in small herb flowers. In many cases the adult insects need the nectar and pollen of the herb flower while the “babies” or larval stage eat the insects we don’t want in the garden. For example, the larval stage of ladybugs, which look like mini alligators, consume aphids, many beetle larvae, and spider mites, among others. One can attract ladybugs into the garden by planting cilantro, dill, fennel, oregano, thyme, and yarrow so the adult form, the ladybug, can enjoy the pollen.

pollinator on oregano

Lacewings are beautiful slender green insects with translucent wings. Their larvae, known as aphid lions, eat a large number of aphids –thus they have a lion’s appetite — and many beetle larvae to name a few. Lacewings are attracted to angelica, caraway, tansy, yarrow, dill, fennel, and cilantro.

Parasitic wasps are small, non-stinging wasps. There are many types but they all destroy pests by laying eggs inside or on the pest. The eggs hatch to release larvae that consume the prey, eventually killing it. Parasitic wasps will destroy tomato hornworms, bagworms, cabbage worms, Japanese beetles, and squash vine borers. The wasps are attracted to dill, fennel, lemon balm, thyme, yarrow, and cilantro.

Tachinid flies look like houseflies but as parasites, they destroy many kinds of caterpillars, Colorado potato beetles, cucumber beetles, Mexican bean beetles, and Japanese beetles in the same manner as parasitic wasps.  The flies prefer cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, feverfew, and chamomile.

Hover or syrphid flies look like small wasps because they have yellow bands but they don’t sting. The adults–the flies–will “hover” as they drink nectar from dill, fennel, feverfew, lavender, mint, yarrow, and cilantro flowers. The larvae will consume aphids, cabbage worms, other caterpillars, and mealy bugs.

hover fly in the cilantro

Herbs also help beneficial insects by providing pollen and nectar when other annuals or perennials are not blooming yet.  For example, cool season herbs such as cilantro and chervil bloom in the spring, providing an early source of pollen to beneficial insects.

Many aromatic, perennial herbs, such as oregano, thyme, and lemon balm, are not eaten by deer and small animals so they become permanent fixtures or “houses” for beneficial insects. Plus herbs are usually planted in bunches or become small shrubs, providing a large “neighborhood” for these insects.

a beneficial insect attracted to agastache

However, despite the number of plants in the garden, these insects will only stay if there is a need, i.e., food for them, and if the surroundings are hospitable. Beneficial insects seek large populations of bad bugs in order to feed their own population. Some beneficial insects wait to lay eggs until there is enough “food” so it may be that the appearance of many aphids is the trigger to have ladybugs increase their own population because they now know there is plenty of “food.” In other words, if there a lot of aphids on bearded irises, wait to see if many ladybugs will arrive on the scene to correct the problem before reaching for an insecticide. Spraying chemicals may kill or alter the balance of beneficial insects. It is now known that plants that are under attack by bad bugs release chemicals which are signals to the particular type of beneficial insect that would be needed to correct the problem. There may be a little or minimal plant damage in order for the beneficial insects to receive the signal to come to that plant.

Herbs can be useful for their flowers as well as their foliage. Planting several different types of herbs in the garden helps protect the rest of the plants against pests.

 

Basil: More Than Just Pesto

Pesto Perpetuo basil

I cannot imagine a summer without basil; it is the essence of summer. But I don’t limit myself to just one — there is a family of basils in my garden. I grow lemon, lime, sweet, Thai, holy, and cinnamon, just to name a few. It seems that most people only know sweet basil and only one use: pesto.  Granted sweet basil has become the poster child for this plant, but there are many different types to explore.  The genus Ocimum has more than 30 species. Within the Ocimum basilicum, there are more than 40 cultivars.  All of these can be used in a variety of ways both in the garden and home.

Basil is an annual, herbaceous plant that prefers warmth, full sun, and well-drained soil. If I think of basil as an annual plant that also flowers, I can imagine how to use the different varieties. Also, classifying basil into five basic categories makes it easier to select a particular type for a particular function.

  • sweet green foliage (the green plant we always associate with pesto such as Genovese or Italian large leaf)
  • small leaves and dwarf size (spicy globe basil, dwarf Greek basil, Minette, or Pluto)
  • colored foliage (purple leaved Purple Ruffles or Dark Opal or light green/cream variegated Pesto Perpetuo)
  • colorful flower heads (Thai Siam Queen has purple stems and fragrant purple flowers), African blue (many prominent purple flowers), or cardinal (purple stems, purple/red flower heads)
  • fragrant leaves (holy, lemon, or lime).

Some basils overlap into more than one group. For example, cinnamon basil has fragrant leaves, purple stems and veins, and deep pink flowers. This plant provides scent and flavor as well as color.

cinnamon basil

The following are suggestions for using basil. The exact species or cultivar depends on your personal preference and availability in your area.

Basil as a Container Plant

All types of basil can be used as container plants either for green, variegated, or purple foliage, or colorful flower heads. Basil comes in different sizes from 8 inches to 4 feet so make sure the maximum height is in proportion to the container. Companion plants must also like well-drained soil and the container should have drainage holes. I had a few extra holy basil plants that I stuck in the same container as my bush beans and both are thriving.

basil flowering in container with ornamental pepper

Basil as an Annual in the Garden

All types can be used as an annual in the garden bed, either for green, variegated, or purple foliage or for colorful flower heads or simply to fill in a gap. If you think of basil as a flowering annual like a marigold, you could plant them in the same type of location. My Thai, lemon, and lime basil have filled the gap left by my bleeding heart plant, which goes dormant in the beginning of the summer. In particular, the dwarf basils are best for creating a tight edging effect. They have small leaves, similar to boxwood, and are great for delineating a garden bed in the summer. Spicy globe basil is often used to outline a garden bed.

purple basil

Basil as a Cut Flower in a Vase

The basils that are grown for colorful flower heads or dark foliage are beautiful in flower arrangements. For example, Thai and African blue provide purple flowers and Purple Ruffles provide purple leaves.

African blue basil

Basil in Potpourri and Dried Flower Arrangements

Basil produces a tall, sturdy flower stalk that dries well and can be used in dried flower arrangements. The leaves or flowers can be used in potpourris, especially the more fragrant leaves such as cinnamon basil. When I cut Thai basil and fresh flowers such as dahlias for a vase, I can throw away the dahlias after they have past their prime and put the Thai basil flower spikes in another vase with purple gomphrena as a dried flower arrangement. A basil flower has a rigid calyx, like a socket, that holds the small delicate flower like a lightbulb. Once the flower is past its prime, it drops out and the rigid calyx remains.

Thai basil

Basil as a Pollinator Magnet

Basil’s small flowers are attractive to beneficial insects and bees. Birds, such as goldfinches, love the seed heads. I grow lemon basil in a container on the deck to attract the finches so I can see the birds up close through my kitchen window.

Basil in the Kitchen

Usually a sweet basil such as Genovese is used in pasta, eggs, pesto, soups, salad, and vegetables, but you can try any type of basil.  I use lemon basil with fish and Thai basil with stir fried chicken and vegetables. Thai basil is often used in Asian cuisine because it keeps its flavor at high temperatures.  Holy basil often is used in Indian cuisine and the sweet basil is often used in the Italian cuisine. There are so many cuisines that employ basil and so many recipes it is best to obtain an herbal cookbook.

sweet basil

The purple basils work well in vinegar or oil for color and scented basils such as cinnamon can be used for flavor in either a vinegar, oil, or marinade. I use the cinnamon which has a purple tinge in homemade vinegar and give it as a gift to my family.

Sweet basil is good for butter and the spicy types are good for honey and jellies. I let a stick of butter sit at room temperature for a few hours and then swirl small pieces of sweet basil into it for use on breads and rolls. (This also makes a good gift).

Lemonade, cocktails, tea, and fruit juice pair well with basil. Try adding the spicy, cinnamon, lemon or lime flavored basils to these drinks for flavor or just make a cup of tea with basil leaves.

Basil flavors cookies, pound cakes, and breads (rolls, muffins, flatbreads). I use the sweet basil for flatbreads and dinner rolls and the lemon, lime, or cinnamon for pound cakes. For a real conversation piece, sometimes I decorate a cake with basil flowers, which are edible. The actual flower is small and within the calyx so I have to pull the flower out from the calyx with tweezers. This takes time but is good for a special occasion when you want to “wow” folks.

Basil can be used in sugar syrups for fruit salads, desserts, and drinks. This is especially good with cinnamon, lemon, or lime basil. Make a sugar syrup by bringing to boil one cup of water and one cup of sugar with one cup of leaves and then simmer for 15 minutes. Drain through a colander to remove the leaves and let the syrup cool before using. Keep the syrup in a jar in the refrigerator to have on hand (throw out after a week or two).

glass jar of basil sugar syrup

Another way to “wow” family and friends is to sprinkle strips or ribbons of lemon, lime, or cinnamon basil leaves on fruit salads and/or add the small flowers to the fruit salads (again pull the actual flower out with tweezers).  As mentioned before, coat fruit salads with the sugar syrups or intersperse a leaf with chunks of fruit on a kebab.

Try growing several basils in your garden this summer. They are easy to find at the local nurseries or visit two local herb nurseries: Debaggio’s Herb Farm and Nursery and Willow Oak Flower & Herb Farm.

Tips for Starting Seeds in Your Garden: Planting in the Spring

lettuce in container

Recently, I posted an article called Tips for Starting Seeds for Your Garden. The post was about starting seeds and the importance of distinguishing between warm versus cool season plants or seed. It further explained how and when to sow seeds for warm season plants. This is the second part of the post: a focus on cool season plants.

Starting Seeds in Ground or Containers

In my zone 7 Northern Virginia garden, there are many vegetable and herbs that I can start growing outside in early spring. This means I don’t have to start them indoors under lights. Not only do these particular plants prefer cool temperatures, a light frost should not harm them. I tend to start most of my cool season plants by seed in containers on my deck. Container soil is warmer than ground soil. Also, it is easier to check on them by walking on a wooden deck than to have to trample through wet, soggy soil in cold weather. By summer, most of these types of plants have bolted (i.e., flowered and gone to seed so leaves are bitter). After pulling and discarding into the compost pile, I re-stock my containers with warm season annuals such as different types of basils and bush beans.

When to Sow Seeds in Early Spring

Using davesgarden.com and my zip code, I calculated my average last frost date to be April 30. March and April are still cool and there is a possibility of a frost or even snow. From the list of cool season plants or seeds I want to grow, I calculate which I can start at what number of weeks before April 30 and which would benefit from containers on the deck or directly into the soil. If a seed packet does not provide this information, try asking your local extension agent, online seed catalogs, or read a printed seed catalog or a gardening book. A few online seed catalogs that provide quality descriptions for this are Burpee, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Botanical Interest, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Renee’s Garden.

chervil

chervil is a spring herb

Sowing Often for Continuous Harvest

For some cool season crops, sowing every couple of weeks ensures a continuous harvest until summer. For example, our family likes to eat lettuce and spinach so if I start sowing in early spring and again every other week, I will be able to continue to pick leaves for a family of four up until summer. By summer, the weather will be too hot to germinate spinach and lettuce easily.

spinach seedlings

direct sow spinach seedlings in container

Check if the seed package recommends growing in soil or if they can be grown in a container. If you only need a little arugula, grow in a shallow container. If you only need one borage plant, grow in a larger container (it is a larger plant). Chervil is so ephemeral it is best to grow in a medium container so you can access and harvest as much as possible. For plants that tend to flower and drop seed, I find it helpful to have a patch set aside. I have parsley, cilantro, and calendula patches in the backyard so I sow the seeds directly in those patches. Of the plants below, peas are the only ones that need vertical structure. They should be planted next to a trellis and “trained” to wrap around it. I grow sugar snap peas in the ground next to a wire trellis but there are some variety of peas that can be grown in containers with stakes. Here are common cool season plants that can be grown by seed:

  • Alyssum
  • Arugula
  • Asian greens
  • Beets
  • Borage
  • Calendula
  • Carrots
  • Chervil
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Endive
  • Greens
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Lettuce
  • Mache
  • Mustards
  • Nigella
  • Pak choi
  • Parsley
  • Peas
  • Radish
  • Spinach
  • Sweet peas
  • Turnips

My Cool Season Seed Plan

Just before March 15

Burpee and Botanical Interests Sugar Snap Peas: Soak overnight in water and then plant seed in small plastic pots with soil. When 2 inches tall, transplant outside in ground against trellis. No need for indoor lights.

March 15

April 1

  • American Meadows Scarlet Nantes carrot, sow in large deep container on deck and in ground
  • Renee’s Garden Slo-Bolt Cilantro, sow directly into cilantro patch in ground

April 15

  • Repeat lettuce, seed, radishes, and kale
  • Start borage in large decorative container
  • Start arugula in medium container
pak choi

direct sow pak choi seeds in ground

 

Tips for Starting Seeds for Your Garden

melons

Tuscan melons get a head start when start seed indoors

Starting seeds now for the garden is tempting. Racks of seed packets with their pretty images of fresh vegetables and cut flowers are like heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. Each packet is a morsel, a promise of something good to come. Starting seeds is like eating chocolate, who can resist?

As with chocolate, however, some restraint is needed. February feels like it is time to sow seeds. Surely a garden center full of seed packets is sending us a message. But before you start, here are a few tips on when to start which particular plant. This is a two-part article: this article will explain the difference between cool and warm season plants and when to start warm season plants. The subsequent article will cover cool season plants.

Learn which plants prefer warm versus cool weather

The first step is to make a list of what you want to grow and/or your seed packets. From that list, identify which plants prefer cool or warm temperatures.

For example, if you wish to start seeds of tomatoes and cilantro, mark tomatoes as a warm season plant. Plant tomatoes outside when there is no danger of frost. Cilantro prefers cool weather and can tolerate a light frost.

If you don’t know, ask your local extension agent, look online at seed catalogs, or read a printed seed catalog or a gardening book. A few online seed catalogs that provide quality descriptions for this are Burpee, Johnny’s Selected Seed, Botanical Interests, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Renee’s Garden. Just type in the plant name in their search bar and don’t worry so much about the cultivar for now.

tomato

Tomato transplants in an Earthbox in May

Learn your average last frost date

Focusing on the warm season plants for now, identify your average last frost date. Using davesgarden.com and my zip code, my risk of frost in my Northern Virginia zone 7 garden, is from October 13 through April 23. I am almost guaranteed not to get frost from May 9 through September 29. I arbitrarily picked April 30 as the day when I can move my transplants from inside to outside to harden off. Picking the end of a month makes it easy to remember and to calculate weeks.

Using April 30 as the marker, count back the number of weeks it takes for that seed to germinate and reach transplanting size. This information should be on the seed packet but if not go back to the original resources I listed above. My tomato seed packages say “start seeds 6 to 8 weeks before average last frost” or “before transplanting.” Keep in mind that this is only to get a jump on the season. You can always start seed outdoors after the danger of frost has past but quite a few weeks of growing season would be lost. Six weeks from April 30 is mid-March, which is when I would sow my tomato seeds in small containers under lights.

Purchase lights to starting warm weather seeds indoors

Starting seed by a window does not provide enough light. The seed container has to be just a few inches under the florescent tubes or special grow lights. Therefore if you are interested in growing from seed, invest in lights but you can use cheap fluorescent tubes from hardware stores. Once you turn on the lights, you keep them on for 14 to 16 hours every day until you move the plants outside.

Decide which seeds to start under lights

Your indoor light system becomes prime real estate. Within the category of warm season plants, identify which seeds should be started indoors in this prime real estate section, i.e., need a head start before the end of April. Separate that list from those that could be started outdoors in the beginning of May. For example, because beans germinate and grow quickly to produce a harvest, start them outdoors in May and save the prime real estate for tomatoes that need a month and a half head start. Identify the number of weeks recommended for starting seeds indoors for each plant. Usually one starts tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, onions, celery, and Brussels sprouts indoors to get a jump on the season. Start beans, corn, watermelons, zinnias, sunflowers, summer squash, cucumbers, pumpkin, and basil outdoors in May.

roselle

Roselle is a tropical plant that needs a head start

This is an example of what my list looks like for starting seeds of warm season plants under lights. I will try several varieties of pepper, tomatoes, and melons, which takes up even more space under the lights.

March 1: Eight weeks prior to average last frost date of April 30

March 15: Six weeks prior to average last frost day of April 30

April 15: Two weeks prior to average last frost date of April 30

New Cultivars of Wintergreen for Bright Red Berries

This week I attended the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS), an annual horticulture trade show at the Baltimore Convention Center.  MANTS is one of the largest shows with over 10,000 attendees and almost a thousand companies exhibiting at booths in the Convention Center. The companies are wholesale, they are not selling directly to customers or the press like me. However, I enjoy attending because it provides me a glimpse of new products and plants and trends in the gardening world. This year, I discovered several new plants and gardening products which I will describe in future articles.

One plant in particular stood out for me.  I was struck by how many times I saw Gaultheria procumbens in containers either as a decoration or as a new cultivar. I have seen the species for sale in local nurseries before but they were always so small and scrawny I never bought them. The plants at MANTS were large with exceptionally large berries.

Briggs Nursery had a display of Berry Cascade and Cherry Berries. Cherry Berries has very large red berries, almost like cranberries, while Berry Cascade had berries appearing the entire length of the stem, forming a cascading effect. Because Briggs is a wholesale nursery, you would have to ask your garden center to order these if they don’t already have them in stock.

Cherry Berries

Berry Cascade

Monrovia, a plant company that sells directly to consumers via their website and through garden centers, had beautiful, healthy plants in their signature containers. Their website features two types: Very Berry and Red Baron. Red Baron has more and larger bright red berries.

Monrovia’s Gaultheria plants

I was lucky to find Peppermint Pearl at MANTS. Peppermint Pearl is unusual in that the berries first appear white in the fall and change to pink by early spring.

Peppermint Pearl, already turning from white to pink

Botanical Collections, a wholesaler of Kew pottery from London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, used the red berries of Gaultheria to show off their products.

Red berries add color to Botanical Collections’ pottery

And here is another photo of Gaultheria modeling this container.

Gaultheria procumbens, also known as teaberry or wintergreen, is a groundcover that prefers shade and moist, acidic soil (think “woodsy environment”). Hardy to zone 3, Gaultheria is an eastern North American native plant. It blooms small, white flowers in the summer followed by the berries in the fall. The berries can last until spring and are edible but it is the leaves that produce that aromatic wintergreen scent. Native Americans used the leaves to make a medicinal tea, hence teaberry, to alleviate pain (much like aspirin).  The name wintergreen comes from the fact that the plant is an evergreen. Its green leaves turn bronzy red or purple with the cold weather and remain above ground throughout the winter. Although the plant should be grown outdoors, its red berries make it a great holiday gift plant. Now that there are new cultivars with even larger berries, I will have to add Gaultheria to my Virginia garden as a native herb evergreen groundcover with winter interest!

Cutting Celery: A Cold-Tolerant, Neglected Herb

In November, when I was pulling out the blackened tomatoes and peppers, I noticed a spot of green to the right of the veggie bed. One of my favorite herbs was still going strong despite the frost.  My three cutting celery plants were green with beautiful, feathery leaves.

I use cutting celery in the kitchen quite frequently – unlike celery you buy in a store, cutting celery can add a spicy, pepper-like flavor to meals. Cutting celery (Apium graveolens var. secalinum) looks more like parsley than the stalk celery (Apium graveolens var. dulce) that one purchases in a grocery store. This small, bushy plant has short, hollow stems and plenty of parsley-like leaves. Cutting celery is a very old herb, more popular in European and Asian countries (sometimes it is called Chinese celery). It is not difficult to grow but probably difficult to find as a plant here in the Washington DC area. I start mine from seed under lights, several weeks before the last frost in the spring. I then plant them outside in May, in a very moist area. This particular area is a depression in the veggie bed where rain water collects making the soil moist enough to keep the celery plants happy but too wet for my other vegetables and herbs. Celery needs a constant supply of moisture and a few shots of nitrogen in the summer.

I cut the stems as needed, leaving the plant in the ground. After washing and chopping, I add leaves and stems together to stir fry dishes, soups, stews, and egg and potato dishes toward the end of the cooking period.  Cutting celery has a very strong flavor, more pungent and spicy than stalk celery, much like black pepper. Sometimes I add about a spoonful to a green salad to add that peppery flavor in small amounts. I also sauté chopped celery with diced green pepper and tomato to add to fish or chicken. The leaves can be used as a garnish, either in a drink like a straw or under the entrée, like a roast, on a platter.

A member of the carrot family, cutting celery is a biennial but in my zone 7 garden, I treat it as an annual. Although it is hardy, it sits in a very wet area that will freeze soon, which could kill the roots.  It is better for me to treat my plants as annuals and plan to start a few more from seed each year. If we had an unusually mild winter and my plants did survive, they would flower and set seed, which I could save to grow the following year.

 

Discovering the Many Uses of Sage: Sage Butter Pats

washed but not quite dry sage leaves

For those of you who reach for that jar of dried sage once a year, I encourage you to grow the sage plant in your garden. You will discover that sage is a wonderful plant to have in your garden – its foliage adds texture and interest and you can pick the leaves to use in the kitchen whenever you need them.

Sage is a perennial plant, it will survive our zone 7 Virginia winters. It is an inexpensive plant to purchase in the spring from local garden centers. Mine have lived for many years and are drought and deer resistant. Sage prefers full sun and does not need a lot of care or fertilizer.  Although sage is not grown for its flowers, it does produce small lavender-colored flowers that attract beneficial insects and pollinators. There are many different types of sage but Salvia officinalis is the best one for culinary and medicinal use. This type has green, textured leaves that inspired me to make butter pats.

To make the butter pats, I clipped leaves from my sage plant and immersed in a large bowl of cool water to clean. Although I do not use sprays in the garden, I always submerge my herbs in water for at least 20 minutes to drown out any type of hidden pests. While the leaves were soaking, I took a quarter of a stick of butter out of the fridge and placed in a bowl to come to room temperature. When the leaves were “air dried” (not dried for preserving but dry as in no water left on the leaves) and the butter was soft, I put the butter in a bag, clipped the corner, and spread the soft butter on a leaf. I then put another leaf on top, much like a sandwich. These were placed on parchment paper on a tray and put inside the fridge to harden.

sage “sandwiches” with butter inside

The next day I experimented with a baked potato but these sage butter pats could be used for other vegetables or rolls, as a garnish, or for actually serving butter. The top leaf pulls off easily revealing the leaf pattern on the butter.

top sage leaf removed to reveal pattern on butter

Because the sage leaves have long stems, the entire sandwich leaf could be placed on a potato for guests to pull the top leaf back. Guests can pull the leaves off and place aside or fork the entire sandwich into the potato to have a buttery, sage-flavored baked potato for Thanksgiving dinner. Try sage butter pats to “wow” your guests!

sage butter sandwich on baked potato

Aloe Vera: The Plant That Keeps on Giving

Every May, I put my aloe plant outside on the deck to enjoy the summer sun and warmth. Aloe vera thrives despite my neglect, I barely remember to water her. By autumn, she has produced many “pups,” crowding inside the small pot, eager to escape. When the nights get too cold for them, I upturn the entire the pot, gently pull apart each pup, and nestle each into a small container of soil.  I replant the mother and move her in to my house while I box up the pups to bring to the office. Within hours of placing the box in the office kitchen, colleagues have helped themselves to a new plant, armed with growing instructions I have printed on strips of paper. My colleagues love free plants, needless to say it is much like leaving cookies in the kitchen. I have brought in baby aloe plants each fall for several years now and it is a joy for me to share as it is for my coworkers to receive.

Aloe vera is a succulent, perennial herb well known for healing burns. Snapping a leaf in two reveals a gel-like liquid that when applied to the burn offers pain relief and a fast healing process. The leaves actually have three sections: a thick outer rind, a thin slimy layer of cells, and the inner gel. Just beneath the rind is a bitter yellow substance called aloin, which causes intestinal irritation creating a laxative effect.  The inner gel is used to help with burns, sunburns, or as a skin moisturizer. Diluted with water, this gel can be ingested to sooth intestinal irritation. Although aloe’s beneficial effects have been documented for thousands of years, it was not until U.S. researchers discovered that aloe gel could quickly heal burns caused by x-rays and ultraviolet rays in the mid-1930s that interest soared. Today, aloe is recognized as an excellent first aid kit for disinfecting minor cuts, insect stings, and burns but researchers are still studying the plant. Aloe gel has more than 75 nutrients and 200 compounds.

Growing the plant is simple as long as you give it warmth and sun and good drainage. It can be grown indoors as a houseplant provided it gets sun, as in a southern exposure window or a sun room. It needs little water, I just let the rain water it outdoors. It will not tolerate the winters here in Virginia so in the fall before the nights hit forty degrees and below, bring it back indoors and then back outdoors in May. I have not fertilized mine but then I am a lazy fertilizer. I don’t try to ingest the leaves but I do use my plant for kitchen burns — I just cut off the outer leaf and slice in half to release the gel.