Category Archives: herbs

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.

 

 

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day: Pineapple Sage

Currently, my pineapple sage plants (Salvia elegans) are blooming in my garden, their bright scarlet flowers are attracting butterflies and hummingbirds. Members of the salvia or sage family, pineapple sage plants are herbaceous, tender perennial herbs. I have two pineapple sage plants, which I bought last year as tiny babies, and I often use their leaves and flowers in the kitchen.

From spring to fall this year, these plants grew fast, developing many lateral branches. Now they are 4-foot high shrubs, several feet wide. All season long, I harvested the leaves and used them fresh as well as dried them to store them. The leaves add a fruity flavor to many different types of beverages (makes a great hot tea), jellies, baking (line a pan with leaves before pouring the pound cake batter or cut leaves and add to batter), muffins, cookies, chicken dishes and chicken salads, butter, cream cheese, ice cream, sorbet, smoothies, etc.

From September to now, these large shrubs are blooming beautiful edible flowers that can be cut for a vase or used in the kitchen as well. Interestingly, the buds begin upside down. Red petals poke through a nodding green flower stalk and then as the stalk moves up more petals poke through until the stalk straightens up to be raceme of bright red tubular flowers. Pineapple sage flowers have the same type of sage or salvia bilabiate (two lips) flowers but larger. The flowers can be used as a garnish, frozen in ice cubes, beverages, fruit salads, butters, cookies, cupcakes, muffins, baked goods, and cream cheese.

In my garden, nothing seems to bother my pineapple sage plants. They are in moist, well-drained soil but one gets more sunlight than the other and I noticed that it has grown much bigger. They seem to prefer light dappled sun or morning sun and afternoon shade. They need space so they it is best to plant them in the back of the garden as long as there is a path to be able to pick the leaves and flowers. I have read that they are hardy to zone 7 and I have also read that they are hardy to zone 8. Surviving the winter is a 50-50 proposition here in my zone 7 Northern Virginia garden. Last winter, I did not do anything to protect them but the winter was mild so I was lucky that they survived. This year, after the frost kills the leaves, I will cut the plants back to stubbles and put down several inches of mulch to ensure their survival. If I had a sun room or a greenhouse, I could have taken cuttings a few months ago to pot up and bring inside.

If they don’t make it, I will buy more next year and will keep an eye out for cultivars such as Golden Delicious, which has golden yellow leaves; Tangerine, which has rounded leaves and a citrus scent; Frieda Dixon, which has salmon pink flowers; and Honeydew Melon, which has melon-scented red flowers with lime green leaves. Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD, has a stand of Golden Delicious plants that are blooming right now.

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day occurs on the 15th of the month. Garden bloggers around the world post their articles about blossoms in their garden. #gardenbloggersbloomday