A garden is the best alternative therapy.

Posts tagged ‘herbs’

Walking in the Garden and Enjoying Life

We have a small yard and a small garden, but I love to take walks through the garden and take close looks at the plants I have growing there.  There’s always something new that keeps me interested and reminds me why I started gardening in the first place – I enjoy growing things!  Yeah, there’s never a lot going on in the garden and what ever does happen does so at the pace of flowers, bees and snails, but that’s another reason for the garden.  It has become a quiet, meditative spot to reconnect with nature.    Slowly, the garden has grown from an herb garden to a few flowering plants, to a vegetable garden, a butterfly garden and I keep adding plants.  My wife jokes with me saying that I’m addicted to planting stuff.  I can think of a thousand other things that are more harmfully addictive, so I  don’t think (and really, SHE doesn’t either) that that’s a bad thing!

I thought I’d share some of the garden with you today.   Tomorrow, I’ll share a little bit more.  There’s just too much to write about and photos to share to put it all in one post!

Starting at the veggie bed, the continued growth is easy to see.  The cantaloupe is working its way up the trellis I made a week and a half ago.  Every morning, a new batch of bright yellow flowers open up, which brings in the bees and wasps.  If you can believe it, all of these vines (except for the little bit on the far left of the photograph – that is cucumber) are from one cantaloupe plant.  I’m having a hard time believing it myself!

the cantaloupe a week and a half ago

cantaloupe trellis Sunday - click to enlarge

Walking around the corner of the house to the back door, the few flagstones I put by the back stoop have sweet alyssum and yellow thyme between them.  The dainty white flowers just keep going and going.  I’m not sure how long alyssum will last in the coming months, but they make a lovely addition to the garden – one that the bees really like.  The stones keep us from trampling the grass and making a dirty/muddy mess.  If I had my way, I’d put a lot more down and maybe add some stepping stones, too, around the yard.

flagstones and alyssum - click to enlarge

sweet alyssum - click to enlarge

Right past the back stoop, the herb garden is overflowing with chives, oregano and parsley.  If you look really closely, you can even see some thyme sticking out between the chives.  In the pot on the right is some spearmint and the pot on the left, against the wall, is peppermint.  In the other pot on the left, I have stevia growing.  I take a leaf of peppermint and a small piece of stevia and chew them together for a peppermint candy-tasting treat.  They are wonderful steeped together in tea and do not require any sugar.  In fact, as I write this, I have a little indigestion and that sounds like a great calming tonic.

herb garden 5/1/11 - click to enlarge

The parsley is over three feet tall and blooming crazily.  It attracts myriad flying insects including flies, wasps, bees, yellow jackets and more.  They all love its sweet nectar, which is why I leave it there.  The black swallowtails do not seem very interested in it so far this year.

parsley flowering - click to enlarge

The Greek oregano is standing about 18″ tall now and the first flower clusters have started to open.  They will also be a welcome treat for winged friends of the garden.  I’ll let them flower until they’ve had enough, then trim them back to within several inches of the ground.  Oregano leaves are great when dried – even stronger than fresh – so I’ll be sure to hang the leaves to dry and bottle them for later use.

Greek oregano flowering - click to enlarge

Last year, I had only three chive plants and I used them so much that they really didn’t get very big.  This year, I decided to plant six of them.  I still use them regularly, but they are so prolific that they far surpass my needs!  They do, however, make a nice border and I should send up bright pink flowers as we get further into the warmer months.  I’m anxious about that.  The flying insects really love chive blossoms, and they’re also wonderful to eat.  I’m going to make chive blossom vinegar with some of them when the time is right and I’ll be sure to share that with my readers on the blog.  Suffice it to say for now that the wonderful pink color of the blossoms bleeds out into the vinegar and imparts its characteristically mild, garlicky-onion flavor.   This is a great base to make homemade dressing or as a splash of flavor in chicken marinades.

garlic chives - click to enlarge

stevia (a.k.a. sweet leaf) - click to enlarge

The rosemary bushes are getting so big.  Now that the farmer’s market is going here in Round Rock, maybe I should trim them back and share some with the community.  There really is so much to go around!  It is such an easy plant to maintain, it grows year round and is one of my favorite herbs for flavoring!   Pictured here is the prostrate rosemary bush, not the typical variety for cooking … the one I use for cooking is the Tuscan Blue cultivar (rosemary officinalis).  The rosemary bushes are part of my herb garden, but I have them planted right in the middle of the butterfly garden.  Where they’re located, the wind constantly whips through them, stirring up the delightful smell of rosemary and wafts it through the yard.

prostrate rosemary - click to enlarge

Come back to the garden tomorrow for updates on the butterfly garden!

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Harvesting and Drying Herbs: Lavender, Oregano, Thyme and Marjoram

The gorgeous lavender flowers kept the bees very busy the past couple of weeks, but I noticed that the majority of the blooms had faded and the bees were absent Saturday morning.  According to some sources, lavender flowers should be cut when the flowers first start blooming, in order to have the highest level of oil retained in the dried flowers.  I couldn’t take the lavender away from the bees, though.  So, I waited until most of the flowers were spent, then cut them down in the morning when the oil is at its highest.   I bundled the flower stalks up using some rubber bands, then hung them to dry upside-down so that the oil  drains down from the stem, concentrating in the dried flowers.  All-bloomed-out, they still smelled wonderfully pungent!

Spanish lavender blooming

The above picture was the lavender in bloom just a couple weeks ago – it was such a gorgeous, deep shade of purple.  Each one of the flower stalks run down to the plant, where I cut each one right above the green foliage.  This is what it looks like now:

Lavender after a trim, 4/25

Hopefully this will urge her to send up some more blooms later in the season.  Here’s what the bundles of dried lavender looked like:

In the meantime, the herb garden was just overflowing.  I needed to make room for a couple new plants, but first, I seriously needed to do some harvesting!  If you will remember, last year I had two basil plants in the back.  They produced so much basil that I still have several ziploc bags full of dried leaves.  Basil is best fresh.  It’s OK dried, but it loses a lot of flavor.  I won’t ever eat all of the dried, especially not now until November when this new plant dies.   With two plants, however, we just had too much for the three of us to consume. So, I only bought one this time around …  In the place of where the other plant was last year,  I put a dill transplant.  I saw it at the nursery and thought, why not?  We eat dill at least a few times a month, so that makes sense.  Plus, it attracts butterflies as well.

Herb garden 4.25.10, before its cut

another view ...

Harvesting is a little time-consuming lately!  At least, more so than last fall.   There was so much to cut, it took me two hours to cut, sort and bundle to dry.  The sage was pretty buggy, especially the one that was flowering.  Every one had sugar ants, fire ants, green loopers – that probably took me the longest just to rid the blooms of bugs.  I wanted to hang them upside down and see how they dry.  But yeah – bugs galore.  Obviously everyone is very happy, as the sage didn’t seem to be any worse for the wear.  Needless to say, I didn’t harvest any sage.  That’s okay, too.  I have a large jar full of dried leaves from last fall.  The oregano was probably nearly 12″ tall in some areas.  I cut it back as much as 8-10″ in most places, especially near the back where the chives are trying to get more light.  I had a full bowl of two types of oregano.  They smelled outstanding.  The marjoram was just harvested a couple of weeks ago, so I only cut a small bundle of that.  And, I had the largest thyme harvest I’ve had to date!

one of two bowls (10" wide) of oregano

this gets covered with a bag and hung in a dark closet until dried - 7-10 days

Herb garden 4.25.10 - after!

Herbiliciousness

The herb garden is going crazy!

Herb garden 4/3/10: German Thyme, Greek Oregano, Mexican Oregano, Curry, Sage, Chives, Marjoram

The Herb Garden: June 6, '09 (left), Sept. 6, '09 (center), and April 3, '10 (right).

Looking back at early pictures of the garden, it is clear that they are thriving.  There isn’t much room for the basil plants anymore, but I’m going to put them in anyway.  They could use the competition.  In the center picture, you can also see the broccoli seedlings – of which we are still enjoying harvests.  The mint cuttings there were put in the ground and have taken over the corner of the yard.  Also pictured are rosemary cuttings, which are also pictured below.

The sage plants have certainly rebounded from just a couple of weeks ago.  They didn’t care much for the wet winter, but the warm, sunny weather we’ve enjoyed lately have really turned them on.  🙂  As you can see, they’re preparing to flower:

The culinary sage getting ready to flower

You can see by these pictures how dense the garden has become.  Look at how prolific the oregano is – there’s no stopping it.  It snakes in and around the other plants, finding more sunshine towards the edge of the bed.

Sage, Curry and Thyme (oh, and oregano poking through)

Marjoram bush and sage

Thyme, Sage, Oregano and Chives

The parsley is taking over and needs a trim.

Spearmint and peppermint

The lavender is finally blooming as well!  It is a fantastic sight to see the lavender stalks shoot up, then two little “bunny ears” stick out the top before the entire bud bursts forth with dark purple blooms filled with yellow pollen.

Spanish lavender blooming

Lavender bloom up close and personal

Can't get too much lavender

My daughter took this of a bug sitting on the lavender

Last fall I took rosemary cuttings and planted them. They've got lots of growth now.

Spring Plans

Wow, it is hard to believe it has been two months since my last post.  The wedding and the holidays made everything a whirlwind.

I spent almost no time outside minding my plants during this time and it wasn’t until yesterday that I finally went into the backyard to assess everything.  Surprisingly, despite the hard freezes we’ve endured, and despite (or because of!) my neglect, the plants are doing okay.

I harvested herbs to use for dinner, trimmed some dead portions of the parsley and mint plants, pulled up a dozen carrots for dinner and did some composting.   The carrots were outstanding.  My daughter couldn’t stop commenting how good they were, both their texture and their flavor.  I don’t know which variety was which, but they were both good.

I still have about a hundred carrots out there still maturing.  The broccoli plants – all nine of them – have lost a couple leaves here and there, but they are maturing still as well.  They have not started to flower.  I expected them to start flowering towards the end of December, but the cold weather set in and their growth slowed.  Perhaps now they’ll flower and I may be enjoying some broccoli in about a month.

The spinach plants continue to disappoint.  They are developing more leaves, but they are still very small.  Still, I can’t say that they are stunted – just growing extremely slowly.   Even the lettuce is really slow, and they started off good.  I’m going to blame it on the cold weather and less sun.  I’m hoping the plants will soak up this good weather and take off.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

The herb garden is looking kinda sad.  The two sage and two thyme plants look like they didn’t fare the freeze too well, but there is a lot of new growth so I’m not worried about them.  The rest of the herbs are fine.  Wait – I don’t know if I wrote this or not, but I did have to pull up the basil after the first frost, and put some potted rosemary plants in their place for the time being.  I’ll plant more in the Spring along with more chives.

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As for Spring planting, I’ve got plans to do it all again.  Right now I have 36 seeds sown inside.  I sowed them this past Sunday and last night the Broccoli was already coming up.  I still need to go and get some lights, but for now they are sitting by a sunny window.  I’ve got six seeds of each of the following sown as of 1/17 (all organic seeds):

Tendergreen bush beans

Blue Lake bush beans

Ring-O-Fire cayenne peppers

Cal Wonder orange bell peppers

Calabrese broccoli

Bloomsdale spinach

I’m probably really early on the beans (generally you want to transplant after four weeks), but I have plenty and can sow more later if need be.  The peppers I’ll grow inside until April before putting them out because they are so tender.  The broccoli and spinach both have a limited window of opportunity right now and I have to have them well-established by the end of March or I can forget about it.

Within the next few weeks, I’ll also be planting more lettuce.  I’ve got the three varieties (Red Sail, Cosmo Savoy and Buttercrunch), but I’ll also be trying an organic lettuce mix as well.

As the carrots are pulled up, I’ll sow more through February (Big Top and Danver’s Half-Long).

I’ll also be starting Mexican Mint Marigold/Tarragon as an addition to the herb garden, and to attract more bees and butterflies.  I should do that in the next week or two.

I’ll be buying transplants for tomatoes and green bell peppers.  It seems they’re a lot easier that way.  I can’t do that until April.

At the first of March, though, I will sow seeds for Black Beauty zucchini, Yellow Crookneck Squash and Straight Eight Cucumbers.

If all goes well, I should have a total of fifteen different veggies and about ten herbs.

The cuphea was dead, not surprisingly.  Since we may only get a couple of light frosts the rest of winter, I went ahead and pruned it back to about two inches above the dirt.  It may come back, it may not.  I probably should have mulched it.

The lavender is no worse for the wear and the wildflowers are growing profusely along the back fence.  They should put up a good show in a couple of months.  I can’t wait!

Bountiful herbs!

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There's nothing like the smell of fresh herbs!

I harvested sage, basil, Greek and Mexican oregano, marjoram and thyme this weekend.  For those of you growing herbs for the first time, check out my three latest blogs about how to harvest these wonderful culinary delights!

How to Harvest Oregano and Marjoram

Mexican oregano before trimming

Mexican oregano, before trimming

the marjoram has become "leggy" due to not enough sunlight

the marjoram has grown “leggy” due to increased shade

Greek oregano covers the ground and surrounds the thyme

Greek oregano (center), before trimming

Oregano (also called wild marjoram) is a well-known culinary herb which is best known for its use in pizza, spaghetti and a number of Italian dishes incorporating tomato bases.   Oregano, like basil and sage, is a member of the mint family and is a perennial in our area.  I planted two varieties: Greek and Mexican.  Oregano’s cousin, Marjoram (or Sweet Oregano as it is sometimes called), is also a perennial that is hardy in our area.    Marjoram is the main ingredient in store-bought Italian seasoning and in Herbes de Provence and has a characteristically delicate, sweet flavor that is at its best when added late to a dish so that the flavor isn’t lost.  Both oregano and marjoram dry exceptionally well, with their flavors intensifying instead of dissipating like herbs such as basil.   Personally, the woody and floral perfume of freshly dried marjoram is heavenly and its flavor on chicken is truly wonderful.   It goes well with lavender.  While I use the Greek oregano for Italian cuisine, I think the Mexican oregano truly shines when combined with spicy tomato dishes because of its bold, peppery flavor, so I generously add it in along with crushed red pepper to just about any Mexican recipe.   It pairs nicely with cumin and cilantro.

Both types are fairly drought resistant and had no problem surviving the record Texas summer we had here in Austin this year.  With watering every five days or so, the two types of oregano cultivars I planted have since become the most prolific growers in the garden, sending out spidery legs of fuzzy leaves all around the surrounding plants.  The oregano would surely grow out over the sides of the garden wall if I didn’t trim it regularly.  The one marjoram plant I have does not grow as quickly as the oregano, but this is largely because it is shaded more by the basil plants than the oregano.  Nonetheless, it is one of the more fragrant plants in the garden and has been producing small white flowers for several months now.  Unlike basil, flower production in marjoram does not alter its taste, so I’m happy to let it flower and capture a few pics when I can.

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marjoram flowers smell and taste good, too

Oregano is also highly valued because of its medicinal virtues.  For some time now, Michelle and I have used oreganol extract for its antiseptic and antifungual qualities.  We take a dropper full when we start to feel physically run-down or feel like we’re coming down with something.  I’ve used it applied to a toothbrush with toothpaste to fight mouth infection, canker sores and alleviate tooth pain.   It is also useful as an antiseptic/antifungual topical ointment – whether applied to a cut, ant bite, athlete’s foot or nail infection, Oreganol truly works.  Like thyme oil, the a major constituent of oregano oil is thymol, so oregano oil/tincture can also be mixed into a powerful mouthwash [thanks to Jonathan for correcting me here – the major constituent of oregano oil is carvacrol).   I hope to be able to harvest enough oregano to make tinctures I can use for these purposes, but I will continue to use Oreganol due to its effectiveness.

Oregano and marjoram are harvested the same way.    I follow the main branch to a point right above a set of leaves and cut there.  This will produce a greater number of branches and a more productive plant.  As always, I make sure never to trim more than a third of the plant at any given time.   Unlike the marjoram, the oregano likes to “snake” along the ground, spreading out tentacles of branches.  These branches then form small roots on the underside, which will eventually root itself to the new location.   This can easily be used to one’s advantage when propagating plants as each rooted section can be cut off from the main plant, dug up and replanted.  One can also force the plant to root in this way by covering sections of the branch with a small amount of dirt then digging out the section a few weeks later, severing it from the main plant.

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trim the marjoram branch above a set of leaves

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a meager marjoram harvest, but it smells divine

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oregano – trim the same way as marjoram

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Mexican oregano harvest

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Greek oregano harvest

Like thyme, I bundle the oregano up with hemp cord and hang dry.  They take only a few days until they are ready.  Store in a sealed jar in the pantry and crumble the leaves when needed for the strongest flavor.

How to Harvest Thyme

thyme plant #1 before trimming

thyme #1 before trimming

No herb garden would be complete without one of my personal favorites, thyme.  Thyme is a drought-tolerant evergreen plant originally from southern Europe that is valuable both for its culinary versatility and medicinal qualities.   I have two English Thyme plants in the herb garden, also known as common thyme (I wish I had two more!).   I use this herb in a wide variety of foods on nearly a daily basis, including marinades, rubs, sauces, vegetables, pasta, olive oil, potatoes, soups, dressing, pizza and lots more.   The main constituent of the essential oil of Thyme is thymol, which is also the main antiseptic ingredient in Listerine mouthwash.  Various cultures have used thyme for its antiseptic and antifungual properties.  It is also quite effective as an expectorant, aiding those with colds or bronchitis.  I plan on making tinctures of my harvested thyme and trying out a few different recipes.

Thyme plants are easy to propagate by layering.  To do this, simply cover a vine or section of vines with a small amount of dirt, pat down and water lightly.  Come back in a few weeks and that section will have rooted.  At that time, simply cut the section from the main plant, dig up and replant.

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thyme plant #2 before trimming

The two tiny thyme plants I planted in late May survived the long hot summer and have really come to life this fall.   The particular plants I have produce a corkscrew like pattern of vines that curl around and up more than they bush out.  When they start reaching eight to ten inches tall, I like to cut them back a bit.  As always, the general rule of thumb I follow is not to trim more than a third of the plant at any given time.   I also take time to unravel the vines from themselves every once in awhile, allowing it to bush out a bit more.

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trim anywhere along the less woody branches, right above a set of leaves

One tip I learned is to spray the plant down with water the afternoon or evening before trimming to wash any debris away and give the herbs time to dry off before trimming and dehydrating. At first, I tried washing my herbs after picking them and they were difficult to dry that way. This method works much better. Another tip: harvesting the thyme first thing in the morning ensures the highest concentration of oils in the leaves as the oils withdraw into the stems and branches throughout the warmth of the day.

Trimming thyme is extremely easy.  The main part of the plant produces more woody vines and branches that I do not touch, but all of the newer growth can be trimmed back anywhere along the vine.  I trim mine right above a cluster of leaves, which forces the vine to branch out and produce more growth to be trimmed in the future.

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thyme plant #1 after trimming

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thyme plant #2 after trimming

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harvested thyme branches - tie together in clumps and hang to dry

Drying thyme is also very simple.  I wrap the cut thyme in small bundles with hemp cord and hang them to dry.  The small leaves of the thyme branches dry fairly quickly – faster than the the other herbs I harvest – and retain their flavor through dehydration and storage.