Category Archives: herbs

DeBaggio’s Herb Farm and Nursery in Chantilly Is Closing

It is sad news that DeBaggio’s Herb Farm and Nursery in Chantilly, VA, is closing. It was a great place to visit for buying herbs and other plants. Because it was far from my home, I would make an annual trek in the spring to buy unusual culinary herbs to try in my garden. Years ago, I used to go to the location in Arlington, home of Francesco’s father, Tom DeBaggio, who started the business.  I have fond memories of picking few quite a variety of herbs in his driveway and bringing my mom and future mother-in-law (must be over 20 years now). I want to wish Francesco and Tammy good luck in their new adventures but I will miss the best herb specialty nursery in the area. I have updated two tabs on my website to reflect this change: the list of nurseries and the culinary herbs resources.

Celebrate National Chocolate Mint Day!

Today is National Chocolate Mint Day and for gardeners that translates into the chocolate mint herb (Mentha x piperita forma citrata ‘Chocolate’). Mints are herbaceous perennials. They are extremely hardy but must be grown in containers. All mints will take over your garden if you plant them in the ground.

Chocolate mint has textured leaves and dark brown to purple stems. The leaves are green but the new growth is darker, with veins that are brown to purple. The leaves really do taste like chocolate mint, which kids love. In my family, we make a syrup out of the leaves and pour it on fresh strawberries (see recipe below). We also put minced leaves in a store-bought brownie mix, chocolate cake, and chocolate chip cookie dough to add the mint flavor. The leaves are great for garnishing fruit salads, desserts, cakes, and cupcakes. They can be used fresh or dried for making tea, or adding to coffee or hot chocolate.

This is a great plant to have in order to make gifts. The stems root very easily in water so you can either pot up the rooted stems or just give cuttings to friends. We have given away pots of chocolate mint with a recipe card attached. Because the cost is minimal, pots of chocolate mint make a great gift for your children’s teachers.

Mints can tolerate shade and prefer moist soil. They can be grown in dappled shade or morning sun and afternoon shade. If there is a dry period in the summer, make sure the container is receiving enough water. They grow to a few feet tall and flower in the summer. The small flowers are edible and can be used as a garnish. They also attract beneficial insects, bees, and butterflies. Deer leave the plant alone. Chocolate mint also can be used as the “spiller” in a container with summer flowers.

Syrup

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

Some Like It Hot and Some Like It Cold

warm season tomato plants for sale in March will not like the cool evenings if planted in the ground

One of my first lessons in growing vegetables and herbs is learning the plant’s preference for temperature. To keep it simple, there are cool season and warm season crops. Getting to know what the plant prefers determines when to buy/plant, what to buy/plant, where to buy/plant, and when to harvest/eat!

In the mid-Atlantic area, typical cool season plants are anything in the cabbage family (cabbage, broccoli, collard, Brussels sprout), lettuce, pea, kale, chervil, dill, cilantro, leek, scallions, radish, spinach, arugula, beet, pak choi or bok choy, carrot, mustard, parsnip, turnip, and Swiss chard.

cool season lettuce for sale in March will like the cool temperatures if planted in the ground

Some can continue to grow well during the summer such as spring onions and Swiss chard. Other cool season lovers “bolt” when it warms up in May/June. For example, cilantro will bolt, that is, flower and set seed, in May. This is good if you want the seed, also known as coriander, but bad if you want to continue to harvest the leaves. When the plant bolts, the leaves become bitter and eventually the plant will die because it is an annual.

Most people associate the warm season edibles with summer itself. These include tomato, basil, fennel, eggplant, pepper, corn, summer/winter squash, zucchini, melon, watermelon, cucumber, okra, and pumpkins. These will not tolerate the frosts we may get in the spring evenings so it is best to start them outdoors after the last average frost date in mid-May.

Frequently you will see both types of plants for sale as early as March. These photos were take at a local hardware store in March last year. Basil, a summer lover, is especially sensitive to cold. If one were to purchase these basil plants and put them in the garden unprotected they may die because there is still the likelihood of frost in early spring.

basil plants for sale in March may even die from a late spring freeze

In my zone 7 garden, the cool season plants/seeds should be started outside in mid-March to the beginning of April. The warm season plants/seeds should be started in early May to the end of May. If you do not know what your vegetable or herb prefers, there are several ways to figure this out:

Read the seed packet or label
Read seed catalogs
Research on the internet
Read local gardening books
Visit garden nurseries and ask knowledgeable staff.

The books I found most useful books for this area are listed below and are easy to get from the library or bookstore. Knowing the plant’s preference will help you figure out when to start your seed and/or when to purchase plants.

The Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook by Ron Kujawski & Jennifer Kujawski (Storey Publishing, 2010)
The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast by Ira Wallace (of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange) (Timber Press, 2013)
The Year Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour (Storey Publishing, 2011)
Gardening in the Mid-Atlantic, Month-by Month by Andre and Mark Viette with Jacqueline Heriteau (Cool Springs Press, 2008)

broccoli for sale in March will thrive in the cool season

A New “Orange” Lemon Balm: Mandarina

Lemon Balm ‘Mandarina’

Three weeks ago I posted an article on lemon balm to celebrate National Hot Tea Day. Lemon balm is an herbaceous perennial herb with a lemon flavor that makes a great hot tea. Out of all the herbal teas, it is the one that tastes the most like black tea, very much like Lipton. Since then, I have been reading the incoming seed catalogs to plan my 2020 Virginia garden. Much to my surprise, the Burpee catalog is offering a new lemon balm called Mandarina. This is a lemon balm with an orange flavor. Think Constant Comment. I can’t wait to try this. Although they are selling plants, I ordered the packet of 100 seeds so I can divide and share with my friends. The catalog description says it is hardy to zone 4 with an “alluring fragrance and attractive foliage. Perfect for large, mixed patio containers.” I suspect Mandarina is grown much like my lemon balm plant: morning sun and afternoon shade. My lemon balm is a perennial bush in the garden bed but these plants could be grown in a container as a filler or spiller. Both would make great caffeine-free teas but think of the possibilities in the kitchen! Mandarina would give an orange twist to stir fry chicken, fruit salad, pound cake, sugars, syrups, and more! Try Mandarina this year for an orange twist on an old lemon favorite.

Lemon Balm ‘Mandarina’

Photos courtesy of W. Atlee Burpee Company. This is not a paid advertisement and no products were received free with this article.

Celebrate National Hot Tea Day with Lemon Balm

lemon_balm (2)Out of all the herbal teas, lemon balm tea taste most like black tea, without the caffeine. I use the leaves for hot or iced tea either alone or as a base to which I add more pronounced fruity flavors from other plants. In the spring and summer, I pick the leaves as I need them or shear the entire plant down.  The plant revives quickly and a second shearing can be done before the fall. The leaves dry well so I can make lemon balm tea all year round.

One of the easiest herbs to grow, lemon balm is a perennial bush grown for its lemon scented leaves. Lemon balm thrives in morning sun and afternoon shade in my Virginia garden. Hardy to zone 4, lemon balm co-exists well with other plants in the garden, serving as a beautiful green “landscape edible” but also as a pollinator plant. Its botanical name, Melissa officinalis, refers to the bee attracting white flowers (“Melissa” is Greek for “bee”) and long-serving medicinal qualities (“officinalis” refers to historical medicinal value). Actually, lemon balm’s medicinal value has been known for more than 2,000 years but for my family I tend to focus on lemon balm’s culinary uses. Fresh leaves add lemon flavor in baked goods like pound cake, muffins, scones, and cookies. Lemon balm can also be added to fruit salad, sorbets, butter, cheese, fish, and chicken dishes.

Lemon balm is easy to grow from seed but also cheap to buy as a small plant in the spring. If a friend has it, get a stem cutting and root it in water. As a member of the mint family, lemon balm roots easily but this species is not invasive. Try growing lemon balm to brew a hot cup of tea to celebrate National Hot Tea Day!

New Downy Mildew Resistant Basil Plants on the Market

Devotion Basil

Basil lovers are in luck this year. There are four new sweet basil varieties that are resistant to downy mildew. Downy mildew disease has affected basil for a decade now, destroying the leaves so much that gardeners have to throw away their infected basil plants.

The four new downy mildew resistant (DMR) basils developed by Rutgers University are Rutgers Devotion DMR, Rutgers Obsession DMR, Rutgers Passion DMR, and Rutgers Thunderstruck DMR.

Downy mildew disease was first reported in Florida in October 2007. It has since spread to field-grown and home-grown plants across the country. The disease appears as yellow leaves and a gray cotton appearance under the leaves (the spores). There is no treatment since these plants were meant to be eaten. Gardeners must throw the plants away at first sign to prevent infection of other plants.

Sweet basil has been more susceptible to the disease than Thai, lemon, lime, and the spice types of basil. This suggests that these other basils are genetically resistant to downy mildew. Researchers at Rutgers spent many years crossing sweet basil with these plants in order to provide the sweet basil with the same resistant genetic makeup. These basils were developed through traditional crossbreeding efforts, not genetic engineering. The four Rutger varieties still look, grow, and taste like sweet basil and can be grown in the garden or in containers. There is the possibility that home gardeners may see some disease spores under the leaves and yellow discoloration on the upper side but all they must do is snip off these leaves. The entire plant does not have to be thrown out.

Obsession Basil

Basil is an annual herb, easily grown from seed. In the Washington DC metro area, start growing basil outside after the last frost, usually mid-May. Basil likes full sun, warmth, and well-drained soil. The plants can benefit from fertilizer mid-summer especially if they are being harvested often. Basil should be harvested or pruned to encourage branching and more foliage and to prevent flowering. Home gardeners can find the Rutgers Devotion DMR and Rutgers Obsession DMR from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and Stokes Seeds.

Photos courtesy of Rutgers’ New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.

Local Resources for Gardeners Interested in Culinary Herbs

According to the Herb Society of America, herbs are “plants (trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, biennials, or annuals) valued historically, presently, or potentially for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal qualities, insecticidal qualities, economic or industrial use, or in the case of dyes, for the coloring material they provide.” I am particularly interested in “plants valued for their flavor,” i.e., culinary herbs. This is a work-in-progress guide to culinary herbs resources in the Washington DC metropolitan area.

The following are the local public herb gardens, sources for buying herbs, societies, magazines, and books. The asterisk indicates that the locations listed also offer herb events, classes, and workshops. This is not all inclusive, there are other groups and businesses such as master gardeners and nurseries that provide herbal presentations. These are listed on my local monthly events tab on pegplant.com.

Public Herb Gardens

National Herb Garden, U.S. National Arboretum, Washington DC*

National Library of Medicine’s Herb Garden, Bethesda, Maryland

Green Spring Gardens (Potomac Unit donated the Doris Frost Herb Garden in 1995), Alexandria, Virginia*

Meadowlark Botanical Garden’s Herb Garden, Vienna, Virginia*

U.S. Botanic Garden and the Bartholdi Park, Washington DC*

The Bishops Garden at the National Cathedral, Washington DC.

The Franciscan Monastery’s garden, Washington DC (annual plant and herb sale in April)

The Green Farmacy Garden, Fulton, MD*

Plant and Seed Sources

See pegplant.com for a list of nurseries and a list of seed sources. Most local nurseries sell herbs in the spring. Two nurseries that specialize in herbs are Debaggio’s Herb Farm and Nursery in Chantilly, VA, which is only open from spring to mid-summer; and Willow Oak Flower and Herb Garden* in Severn, MD.

The Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America sells herbs at the Friends of the National Arboretum plant sale at the U.S. National Arboretum in DC, in April.

The Franciscan Monastery has an herb and plant sale in April.

The Baltimore Herb Festival is in May at the Leakin Park, Baltimore, MD.

Blooming Hill Lavender Farm specializes in lavender and has an annual lavender festival in June as well as other herb-related events throughout the year, Purceville, VA.*

Smile Herb Shop, College Park, MD.*

Societies

The Herb Society of America, Ohio. The website has many resources and a library of webinars.

The Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America is the local unit for the Washington DC metro area. There is a membership form on the website or come to a meeting as a guest.

Magazines

The Essential Herbal magazine (a website, blog, magazine).

Herb Companion was bought by Mother Earth Living which keeps the content on their website. Herb Quarterly, can subscribe or buy at Barnes & Noble.

Culinary Herb Books, chronological order

Botanical Baking: Contemporary Baking and Cake Decorating with Edible Flowers and Herbs by Juliet Sear, 2019

The Herbalist’s Healing Kitchen: Using the Power of Food to Cook Your Way to Better Health by Devon Young, 2019

The Kitchen Herb Garden: Growing and Preparing Essential Herbs by Rosalind Creasy, 2019

Grow Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker, 2019

Beyond Rosemary, Basil and Thyme: Unusual, Interesting and Uncommon Herbs to Enjoy by Theresa Mieseler, 2019

The Herbal Kitchen: Bringing Lasting Health to You and Your Family with 50 Easy-to-Find Common Herbs and Over 250 Recipes by Kami McBride, 2019

A Taste for Herbs: Your Guide to Seasoning, Mixes and Blends from the Herb Lover’s Garden by Sue Goetz, 2019

Herbal Handbook for the Homesteaders: Farmed and Foraged Herbal Remedies and Recipes by Abby Artemisia, 2019

The Art of Edible Flowers: Recipes and Ideas for Floral Salads, Drinks, Desserts and More by Rebecca Sullivan, 2018

The Herbalist’s Kitchen: Cooking and Healing with Herbs by Pat Crocker, 2018

The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion: The Ultimate Guide to Growing, Preserving and Using Herbs by Amy K. Fewell, 2018

The Art of Cooking with Lavender by Nancy Baggett, 2016

The Culinary Herbal: Growing and Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker, 2016

Homegrown Herb Garden: A Guide to Growing and Culinary Uses by Lisa Baker Morgan and Ann McCormick, 2015

Cooking with Flowers: Sweet and Savory Recipes with Rose Petals, Lilacs, Lavender and Other Edible Flowers by Miche Bacher and Miana Jun, 2013

Edible Flowers: 25 Recipes and an A-Z Pictorial Directory of Culinary Flora by Kathy Brown, 2012

Eat Your Roses: … Pansies, Lavender and 49 other Delicious Edible Flowers by Denise Schreiber, 2011

Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs by Herb Society of America, edited by Katherine K. Schlosser, 2007

The Edible Flower Garden by Kathy Brown, 1999

Edible Flower Garden by Rosalind Creasy, 1999

Edible Flowers: Desserts and Drinks by Cathy Wilkinson Barash, 1997

Living with Herbs: A Treasury of Useful Plants for the Home and Garden by Jo Ann Gardner 1997

Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate by Cathy Wilkinson Barash, paperback 1995; hardback 1993

Herbal Treasures: Inspiring Month-by-Month Projects for Gardening, Cooking and Crafts by Phyllis Shaudys, 1990

Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton, 1987

The Pleasure of Herbs: A Month-by-Month Guide to Growing, Using and Enjoying Herbs by Phyllis Shaudys, 1986

Fennel: A Multitasking Herb

fennel in the summer with caterpillar in right corner

I grow fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, in my Virginia garden for many reasons. As an accent in the garden, fennel grow easily from seed to a few feet tall. Sometimes, they are erect and sometimes they bend from weight to weave among the perennials and shrubs. Their tubular stems mingle with the pumpkin vines on the ground or rest on top of the chrysanthemum shrubs while their green, fern-like foliage peak through the zinnias.

Throughout the summer, I can harvest the foliage for use in the kitchen. The leaves have an anise flavor and are good for flavoring fish and chicken dishes and root vegetables. Snips of the foliage can be sprinkled on salads, soup, eggs, and tuna salad sandwiches.

In the summer, the fennel blooms with large, star-burst like structures, comprising many small yellow flowers. These attract beneficial insects and pollinators, good for the rest of my garden. Sometimes, I clip the flower heads for floral arrangements but I always let some flowers go to seed.

In the fall, I clip the seed heads and put them in a paper bag. I save some seeds for sowing next year and some for the kitchen. The seeds have medicinal qualities (the foliage does not) and are often served at the end of the meal in restaurants to help with digestion and to freshen the breath. Eating the seeds or making a tea from the seeds can relieve flatulence, bloating, gas, indigestion, cramps, and muscle spasms. Fennel seeds are also called “meeting seeds” because when the Puritans had long church sermons they chewed on the seeds to suppress hunger and fatigue.

fennel as a filler in the garden

In the kitchen, seed can be used whole or ground or toasted in a dry frying pan. Seeds can be used as a spice for baking sweets, breads, and crackers, or in sausage, or herbal vinegars and pickling. The seeds have the same anise flavor but are so sweet, they taste like they are sugar-coated. For me it is like eating small candies, especially tasty after drinking coffee.

I also grow fennel for the caterpillar form of the black swallowtail butterflies. The caterpillars love to eat the foliage and it makes me happy to grow food for them and to support the butterfly population.

Sometimes the fennel comes back the next year, it really depends on the winter. I have heard that in warmer climates it gets out of control but in my zone 7 garden, it has not been an issue. After a hard freeze, when I am cleaning up the garden, I cut back the old fennel stalks revealing new foliage at the base. In December, the new foliage is just as lush and green, providing me with more fennel for my recipes as well as a nice garnish for holiday meals.

fennel seeds in the fall with the mums

Fennel is easy to grow from seed and should be sowed directly in the garden. The plants have a tap root and do not like to be transplanted. The plants prefer full sun but can tolerate some shade and they need well-drained soil. Treat them like summer annuals and sow seeds every year.

fennel in December

I should point out that there are two types, Foeniculum vulgare, which is the leafy one I grow, and Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce, which is the bulbing type. I have grown the bulbing type before but not for the accents it provides in the garden bed. The bulbing type is a shorter plant with a bulbous base so it is harvested for the bulb before it flowers and sets seed. The bulb is often sliced fresh for salads or cooked with fish and vegetables. One could consider the bronze fennel a third type, it grows like the leafy fennel only it is a dark bronze color, not bright green. Bronze fennel also can be used in the kitchen.

In the kitchen, use the foliage for:

  • green salads
  • fruit salad (nectarine/apricot)
  • egg dishes
  • soup and chowders
  • chicken salad or tuna salad
  • Dips and cream sauces
  • yeast breads
  • fish, put a fish filet on bed of leaves and broil or mix leaves with butter and drizzle over the fish
  • vegetables such as root vegetables, peas and potatoes
  • Combine with parsley, chervil, and thyme or make a fennel, parsley, thyme and lemon juice rub for white fish

Seeds can be used for:

  • Fish soup/stock
  • Cucumber salads
  • Soft cheeses
  • Bread/biscuits/crackers
  • Sausage mixtures and pork dishes
  • Pickling vegetables
  • Marinades for meat
  • Bean, couscous, lentil or bulgur wheat dishes
  • Potato salad
  • Dry rubs or spice blends/powders

Celebrate National Cookie Day with Herbal Cookie Recipes!

December 4 is #nationalcookieday so here are three recipes for cookies that include herbs!

Lemon Thyme Cookies

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

¾ cup sugar

2 ¾ cup all-purpose flour

½ tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp salt

1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves

2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest

1 egg

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Optional Icing: 2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest, 2 cups confectioner’s sugar, and 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

thyme

Directions: In large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt, set aside. In another large bowl, beat butter and sugar with mixer and then beat in thyme and 2 teaspoons lemon zest. Add egg and vanilla. Reduce mixer speed and add flour mixture. Roll dough into 1 ½ inch diameter logs, wrap, and place in freezer for 30 minutes. Line baking sheets with parchment paper, slice 1/8-inch rounds and place on sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.

When cookies have cooled, can top with icing. Mix the confectioners’ sugar, fresh lemon juice, and 2 tsp. of lemon zest and spoon over cookies.

Herbal Shortbread Cookies

1 cup unsalted butter, cut up and at room temperature

½ cup sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ tsp salt

1 tbsp. herb of choice: try calendula petals, lavender flowers, rosemary, or lemon balm

calendula

Directions: Beat together butter and sugar, add flour, salt, and herb. Mix and then roll out onto floured surface, so is about ¼ to ½ inch thick. Cut shapes such as circles and then put on ungreased baking sheet, bake at 325 degrees for about 25 minutes.

Lavender Cookies

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

1/3 cup light brown sugar

1 ¼ cups self-rising flour

1 tbsp dried lavender flowers, crush with mortar and pestle

Pinch salt

lavender

Directions: Cream butter, sugar, and salt and then add flour and lavender. Mix and let sit in fridge for a few hours. Then place dough onto floured surface, roll to 1/3-inch thick Cut into circles and place on greased baking sheet, bake at for 400 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes.

lemon thyme cookies courtesy of Tonya LeMone at Perennial Gardens, Utah.

Chives: A Perennial Herb for the Kitchen

chive plant in November, after hard freeze

We had a hard freeze a few days ago and my chive plant still looks great. I cut some foliage, washed with cold water, and snipped little pieces to add to our pierogies. That is what I love about herbs: you can just pop in to the garden, cut a few leaves, and add a punch of flavor and a dash of color to your dishes.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are a must in the garden. They are foot-tall, perennial herbs that can be incorporated within a garden bed, taking up little space. Although chive foliage will die back in the winter, they are one of the first herbs to emerge in early March and are still looking good now in November despite the freeze. Chives are also easy to grow and easy to divide. From one plant, you can divide again next spring to create more for the garden or to give away to friends.

chopped chives on pierogies

Although chives can be grown in a container in the summer, I have mine in my garden bed, which is in part shade with soil that is on the moist side. Usually we are harvesting the foliage for the onion flavor but the pink-lavender, clover-like flowers are edible as well.

In my family we prefer to cut fresh chives for potato and egg dishes, rice, chicken, tacos, quesadillas, and tomato soup. We also make chive butter by stirring in chopped chives to soft butter – butter that has been sitting at room temperature. We refrigerate the herb butter in a container or wrap into a log and freeze. This can be done with soft cheeses as well.

about to mix chopped chives with butter

The chive foliage can be preserved in the freezer, dried, or in ice cubes. Chive foliage and flowers can be used in herbal vinegars. Chives are so versatile in the kitchen and so easy to grow in the garden, there is no reason not to have them in your garden.

chive butter, rolled for freezing and to later give as a gift