If you have never tasted a stevia leaf, you probably won’t believe the level of sweetness this herb provides. It just doesn’t seem possible. A single, delicate green leaf placed on the tongue does nothing. Start chewing and you’d swear you just downed a spoonful of sugar! Let’s find out if this is a plant you can add to your garden or foodscape.
Native to Paraguay and the surrounding tropical regions, stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is also known as sweetleaf. Stevia is the model used to create several ‘natural' sweeteners, except that most of them are not what we gardeners would think of as natural. The majority of these stevia plants are grown in China and the leaves are so highly processed that there is little left besides the sweetness. [Being 200 times sweeter than sugar, stevia packs a powerful sweetness punch, processed or not.] Using the unprocessed leaves as a sweetener, on the other hand, adds several different compounds, called glycosides, plus antioxidants, and we all need those!
The stevia plant
Being a tropical member of the sunflower family, stevia loves the heat. This tender perennial prefers USDA Zones 9 - 11, and is grown as an annual elsewhere. Stevia grows best under the same conditions as basil. Like basil, stevia needs some protection from the high heat of our California summer. Plants can reach 1 to 4 feet high and wide, depending on temperatures and the local microclimate.
How to grow stevia
Stevia plants can be grown from seed, but results are hit-and-miss, as germination is tricky. If you decide to try your hand at seed starting stevia, begin indoors, 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost date. Seeds germinate best at temperatures between 68 and 75°F. Fill pots with a light potting soil or peat mixture. Press seeds into the soil and cover with perlite. This will protect seeds from the air and help the soil retain moisture, but provide seeds with the light they need to germinate. To avoid flooding seeds into the corners, water by misting heavily, at first.
Like peppers, stevia plants benefit from the use of a waterproof germination mat. This gives them the heat they need to get started. Cover the pots with plastic and check twice a day to ensure that the top 1/2-inch of soil remains moist until germination occurs, which should take 10 to 15 days.
Stevia needs well-drained soil. This makes them an excellent choice for large containers or raised beds, where high quality potting soil provides plenty of macropores and micropores in the soil. During summer heat, these plants need almost daily watering. Allow the soil to almost go dry before watering again.
If you allow your stevia plants to go to seed, you can collect seed heads or let them grow where they fall. If you collect the seeds, discard light-colored specimens, as they are probably not viable. Most often, new plants are started from rooted cuttings.
Stevia pests and diseases
Outside of greenhouses, cutworms and sugar addicts are stevia’s only serious threats. In close quarters, aphids, whiteflies, and thrips can can become a problem.
You can use stevia leaves fresh from the plant or you can harvest and dry them for later use. The sweetness remains unchanged in either case. Leaves are at their sweetest just before flowering. Once the plant flowers, leaves do not taste as good or as sweet. Each plant can provide you with approximately 1/2 pound of dried leaves each year.
Stevia is used to sweeten teas and other beverages, fruits, yogurt, custards, salad dressings, and many other liquid-based foods. Stevia can be used to replace some, but not all, of the sugar in baked goods. [Sugar has certain chemical properties that are needed in baking that stevia cannot provide.]
Before adding even more sugar to your diet, how about adding stevia to the garden, instead?
There’s no mistaking the licorice flavor of anise.
Anise or star anise?
Before we begin, let me clarify that we are talking about anise (Pimpinella anisum L. – anise burnet saxifrage), and not star anise (Illicium verum). Anise and star anise are not related. They do, however, both contain anethole, an oil that gives them their strong flavors. In each case, people often mistake the fruits from these plants for seeds. Tiny anise and star anise fruits are schizocarps. A schizocarp is a type of fruit that splits in half when dried. The two halves of a schizocarp are called mericarps. Star anise has a distinctive star-shaped fruit, while anise fruit is oblong.
Anise plants are herbaceous annuals that start out as bright green mounds. Then, feathery leaves shoot skyward, much like fennel. Being umbellifers, these cousins of carrots, dill, and celery have flowers that are large, flat clusters of tiny flowers that pollinators and other beneficial insects love. Plants can reach 3 feet in height.
How to grow anise
Being native to the eastern Mediterranean and Southwest Asia, anise is a warm weather, full sun crop. It prefers loose soil with good drainage, and a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.7, so it is better suited to raised beds in the Bay Area, unless you have improved your soil structure with plenty of aged compost. These plants have a taproot, so they do not transplant well. They can be grown in containers, as long as the pot is at least 8 inches deep and wide. Seeds should be planted 1/4-inch deep, at least two weeks after the last frost date. Thin plants to 12 inches apart. [Unless you really like anise, your family will probably only need one plant.] Regular irrigation is important, but an occasional top dressing is the only feeding these plants need.
Anise pests and disease
Larva of the wormwood pug, a small brown moth, will feed on anise foliage, but that’s about it. The oils that give anise its delicious flavor are the same components that most pests find offensive. Anise plants also have no major disease issues.
Anise leaves can be harvested as needed. Seed heads should be snipped while green and hung upside down in a warm, dark, dry location until they are completely dry.
Summer savory is an herb that deserves more attention.
It has a unique earthy flavor similar to marjoram, thyme, and mint. It is commonly used in bean, fish, pork, barbecues, and poultry dishes. Summer savory is also a primary ingredient in herbes de Provence. The ancient Greeks believed that satyrs lived and frolicked in fields in savory. You may or may not see any satyrs in your savory patch, but it is still worth adding to your foodscape.
Summer savory is an annual cousin of (and sweeter than) perennial winter savory. It tends to grow to one foot in height and drapes nicely from containers. When your summer savory plants die off in winter, fear not! Summer savory readily self-seeds. Native to southeastern Europe, summer savory is slow to germinate, but worth the wait. I grow summer savory in a tower. It also grows well in small containers and on sunny window sills. Bees and other pollinators love the tiny white and lilac-pink flowers and the flower heads end up tasting pretty amazing in meatballs!
How to grow summer savory
Summer savory (Satureja hortensis) prefers at least 6 hours of full sunlight, well drained soil, and a daily drink of water. If the soil dries out too much, the plant will bolt and go to seed. Seeds need a little light to germinate, so only cover lightly with soil and use a mister to water until seedlings emerge. That should take two weeks. Place plants one foot apart. They can withstand light frost and will produce well into winter with just a little protection.
Harvesting summer savory
Summer savory leaves can be used fresh or dried. Simply snip off what you need during spring and summer. As the growing season winds down, you can cut the plant off at ground level, hang it upside-down in a shady, dry space and allow the leaves to dry. Pillow cases work well.
Well, there you have it. Yet another easy to grow plant that you can add to your landscape
Marjoram is the soft-spoken cousin of oregano.
Marjoram is a tender perennial herb that can do well on a window sill, in a tower or other container, or tucked away in a quiet corner of the garden. These plants also make nice rock garden additions and they look (and smell) lovely next to walkways and in parterres. The Greeks and Romans used marjoram as a symbol of happiness, and it certainly puts a smile on my face whenever it turns up in my foodscape.
Uses for marjoram
Marjoram leaves have been a culinary herb for a very long time. It is slightly more mild and piney than its boisterous cousin, oregano. Marjoram is used to make herbes de Provence and za’atar. Marjoram also attracts many beneficial insects, including butterflies and bees, with its tiny white, pink, and lavender flowers.
An herb by any other name
Marjoram (Origanum majorana) has been around long enough to have several names to differentiate it from oregano (Origanum vulgare), including sweet marjoram and knotted marjoram. Oregano is also known as wild marjoram. Other varieties of marjoram include:
Marjoram is best started in pots. Seeds should be covered only lightly with soil. Keep the soil moist until seeds germinate, being careful not to wash them into a corner of the pot with miniature floods of water. Marjoram prefers full sunlight and loose soil. Plants should be hardened off before installing outside, and spaced 18 inches apart. Marjoram and oregano are both members of the mint family. As such, they tend to spread underground using rhizomes. This makes them a good ground cover plant, as well. Marjoram has semi-woody stems that lend themselves nicely to cascading out of hanging pots, or as a low shrub. While technically an evergreen, cold temperatures will cause them to lose their leaves and frost will kill the above-ground portion. One way to protect your plants and keep the garden attractive in winter is to cut the plants back to ground level and cover with a winter blanket of mulch. Come spring, those delicious new leaves will come right back for another year. Luckily for those of us in the Bay Area, marjoram prefers alkaline soil, which we have in abundance. Marjoram never needs fertilizer when grown in the ground, and it rarely needs watering once established.
Marjoram pests and diseases
I have found whiteflies and spider mites to be the biggest problems for marjoram. Those tiny sap suckers leave behind speckled, bleached out leaves that don’t look at all appetizing. You can fight back with a spray bottle filled with soapy water or diluted horticultural oil. (Dormant oil is too heavy.) Aphids, cutworms, mealybugs, and thrips may also try feasting on your marjoram plants, but a forceful spray of water can every morning can usually displace most of these pests. Though rarely affected, fungal diseases such as dodder, damping off, downy mildews, powdery mildew, rust, and botrytis blight (grey mold), can occur on marjoram.
How to harvest marjoram
Just as your marjoram plants begin to flower, snip off the upper portions and hang them in a shady spot to dry. Garages work well. Guest room closets work even better. I like to believe that the gentle aroma helps guests enjoy a restful sleep. That might just be me.
Try adding marjoram to your garden or landscape today for many years of fragrant, delicious beauty.
The golden threads of saffron currently sell in the Bay Area for $130 an ounce. That works out to over $2000 a pound. And you can grow your own. For free.
While you can certainly buy saffron for less, there’s no denying that it is one of the world’s most expensive spices. One of the biggest reasons for these prices is that harvesting the threads is very labor intensive. Also, it takes approximately 4000 flowers to create one ounce of saffron threads.
What is saffron?
First, a quick flower review: the male part is called the stamen, which is made up of the anther and filament. The stamen usually surrounds the female part, or the pistil. The pistil is usually in the center of a flower and is made up of the stigma, style, and ovary. Saffron threads are the dried styles and stigmas of a specific crocus flower species.
How saffron crocus plants grow
Farmed primarily in Iran, saffron crocus plants prefer full, blistering sun in the summer, heavy rains in spring, and they can tolerate a surprising amount of cold in the winter. The two things they don’t like are shade and soggy soil. Saffron crocus flowers are sterile, which means they cannot produce viable seeds. Instead, crocus plants reproduce by creating corms. Corms are similar to bulbs. Each corm lives for only one season, but each one can produce up to 10 cormlets. Cormlets are usually small and brown, covered with a fibrous coating called a ‘corm tunic’.
How to grow saffron crocus
Plant your saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) bulbs in June in a sunny, well-drained location. Keep in mind that these plants will continue to propagate (potentially) for decades. Crocus corms should be planted 3 to 6 inches deep, depending on the variety, with the pointy end up. Once a bed of saffron crocuses is established, these cormlets will need to be dug up and divided every so often, to prevent overcrowding.
Saffron crocus pests and diseases
Squirrels. Of course, squirrels. Also, rats, moles, birds, nematodes, and other bulb eaters can damage crocus corms in the ground. The only diseases that seem to affect crocus are rust and corm rot.
In mid-autumn, purple blooms will begin to emerge. Each morning, check your crocus plants for new flowers. Within each flower, you will find three golden saffron threads. Gently pluck them from the flower and place the threads in a paper envelope so that they can dry in darkness. I keep my saffron threads in my spice cabinet, where it is nearly always dark and dry.
These unobtrusive flowers spend most of their year underground. Come fall, dark green spikes emerge, followed by lovely purple blooms, and a jackpot for your spice cabinet. Put some in this year for yourself!
Photo of saffron crocus by Liné1
Dill’s delicate fronds and distinct aroma make it a useful addition to your landscape.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) is an herb that is related to celery and is known for elevating pickled cucumbers, asparagus, and green beans to new heights. Did you know that dill oil, extracted from seeds, stems, and leaves, is used to make soap?
How dill grows
Dill can reach a height of 2 to 4 feet, making it only slightly smaller than fennel, which has a similar feathery growth. Dill’s leaves are wider and more firm than fennel’s. Flowers are white or yellow umbels (think umbrella) that attract many beneficial insects. Dill seeds look like tiny brownish-grey orange slices. Once dill begins producing seeds, leaf production is over and the plant will soon die. Worry not, dear gardeners! Dill reseeds itself so easily that you are nearly assured of a new crop from seeds that fall to the ground. To collect seeds for kitchen use or future crops, remove seed heads and hang upside down over a bowl or in a pillow case. Seeds will fall when they are mature and the flower head can be added to the compost pile to feed next year’s generation!
How to grow dill
Dill is a biennial that is normally grown as an annual. Dill does not transplant well, so site selection is your first step. Dill prefers lots of sun, though partial shade can be tolerated. Shadier sites will result in less bushy plants. You can easily grow dill in a container that is at least 12 inches deep. This will make room for dill’s taproot. (‘Fernleaf’ is a dwarf variety best suited for containers.) Seeds should be planted 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep and the soil keep moist until seedlings emerge. Seedlings should be thinned to 12 inches apart. Once plants are established, the soil should be allowed to dry out between waterings. Side dressing plants with aged compost during the growing season will provide important nutrients. (Side dressing simply means dumping an amendment around a plant and watering it.)
Dill pests and diseases
Dill has very few pests, thanks to the volatile oils that give it its flavor. Tomato hornworms and parsley caterpillars may be seen and can be handpicked. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) or insecticidal soap can be used to treat severe infestations. Dill is relatively disease-free.
So many dishes will be enhanced by dill leaves, simply snip off what you need. You can also dry dill leaves for later use by placing cut leaves between cloth napkins or paper towels, laid on top of nonmetallic screens, and storing in an airtight container. Dill leaves can also be frozen. You can keep harvested leaves fresh by wrapping them in a damp paper towel and refrigerating them for up to a week in a sealable container.
Growing dill for yourself is easy and rewarding! Give it a try!
No self-respecting baked potato would consider its raiment complete without freshly snipped chives. Chives can elevate even the simplest dish, and they look lovely, growing on a window sill.
Chives are members of the onion family. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are edible perennial bulbs. Their tender green spikes are frequently offset by purple spherical blooms that are equally edible. Many beneficial insects are attracted to the flowers, as well. Plant them once and they will provide many years of flavorful beauty.
How to grow chives
Chives are so easy to grow that they are an excellent children’s activity. Chives prefer well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0-7.0 and full sun. I have had chive plants perform equally well in partially shaded clay. This herb is tenacious - I’ve even had chive plants return after being decimated by chickens! Plant seeds 1/4 inch deep and water well. Light is not needed, at first, but seeds must be kept moist and at a temperature of 60-70°F to germinate. Chives make excellent container plants and they transplant easily, once seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall. Established plants can and should be divided periodically to avoid overcrowding. To divide a chive plant, gently dig the entire plant out of the ground and pull it apart into smaller clumps, or you can leave it in the ground and sink a shovel down through the middle, removing a portion to be transplanted elsewhere. You will want at least 5 - 10 bulbs in the clump to be moved. Once established, your chive plants will readily self-seed.
Chive pests and diseases
The only pest I have seen on my chives is an infrequent visit from individual slugs. Onion maggots and thrips are said to cause problems, but I have never seen them. Damping off disease, powdery mildew, and pink root are also said to attack chives, but not in my experience. I think, in this case, the chive plant is the anti-pest. In fact, European gypsies traditionally hang bunches of dried chives to ward of evil and illness!
Snip off however much you will be using, as close to the base as you can without damaging the rest of the plant. If your chive plant starts looking worn out, especially in late winter, you can cut the entire plant to a height of 2 or 3 inches to stimulate fresh growth. If you harvest more chives than you need, you can snip them into small bits, lay them between layers of cloth or paper towel to dry and then store in an airtight container.
Herbs are excellent additions to an edible landscape or a windowsill garden, and chives are the easiest of the edible herbs to grow. Get yours started today!
Summer iced teas, winter colds, and many fruit and fish dishes are all made better with lemon balm.
This easy to grow perennial herb is a member of the mint family, which means it is a rugged, tenacious, and fragrant addition to your foodscape.
Using lemon balm
Also known as cure-all, sweet balm, and honey plant, lemon balm adds a soothing lemon flavor to teas, tinctures, and steam. Traditionally, lemon balm has been used to treat digestive upset, anxiety, thyroid disease, Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, high blood pressure, sores, and even insect bites. Scientific research has demonstrated that lemon balm does provide some significant benefits (besides making a great cup of tea):
Unlike other herbs, lemon balm loses much of its flavor when dried, so fresh is better. I just learned that there is a lemon balm pesto recipe - I’ll let you know how it tastes in an update.
How to grow lemon balm
Once lemon balm is established, it will readily self-seed, so choose a site that has room for it. Individual plants can reach 2 feet in height and width. It can also spread vegetatively, where twig ends touch the ground and develop roots. Unlike many other members of the mint family, lemon balm does not spread using stolons (runners). Regular trimming will keep lemon balm plants healthy and attractive. You can also grow lemon balm in a container. My in-ground lemon balm has always stayed rather low-growing and has been pretty year-round (even after frost!) with just a little bit of trimming. Lemon balm normally dies back in winter above-ground, but comes back in spring. Lemon balm seeds require light and warmth (70 °F) to germinate, but the mature plants prefer some afternoon shade. Lemon balm prefers rich, moist soil with good drainage, and a pH of 6 to 7.
Lemon balm attracts honey bees!
The scientific name of lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, is a reflection of how much it attracts honey bees. The word ‘Melissa’ is Greek for bee. Small flowers, which can be white, pink, red, or yellow, appear each summer, packed with nectar. Many beekeepers throughout history have planted lemon balm near their hives. Whether you keep honey bees or not, attracting them to your garden is sure to improve pollination and production.
Add lemon balm to your garden, landscape, or balcony for healthier bees and a happier you!
I ran across this word while researching soaker hoses, and was intrigued.
Parterre comes from 17th century French par terre, which means ‘on the ground’. A parterre is a level space within a garden or landscape that is dedicated to a formal artistic arrangement of flower beds. Most parterres feature gravel walkways and tiny hedges.
Knot gardens are one type of parterre. Knot gardens are usually very formal arrangements of culinary herbs and aromatic plants that have been planted into the shape of various types of knots, within a square space.
Knot gardens were very popular during the 15th century Renaissance, becoming even more elaborate during the 17th century Baroque period. Simple knots evolved into intricate arabesques of plants with varying colors, textures, shapes, and sizes.
Plants commonly used in parterres include: thyme, lemon balm, chamomile, rosemary, violas, germander, hyssop, and Calendulas.
While most of us probably don’t have the time or the space to create these intricate designs, there’s no reason why we can’t enjoy looking at images of parterres around the world and draw inspiration for our own gardens.
I would love to see some before and after photos, if any of you have tried your hand at parterres in your landscape!
Germander is a rugged, woody, fragrant variety of plant from the mint family.
If you are looking for a handsome, drought tolerant plant that can grow in pretty much any soil, consider germander. Full sun, partial sun, clay soil - germander doesn’t seem to care. And the deer leave it alone!
Germander actually refers to an entire genus of plants called Teucrium. These plants are from the Mediterranean and eastern Europe. They grow wild in poor, rocky soil, so our California clay and drought are no problem.
There are several varieties of germander to choose from:
Germanders of all types feature sturdy pale green to grayish-green to foliage. These evergreens, can have tiny flowers, like rosemary, or flowers on spikes. The leaves of some varieties can be very aromatic when crushed or brushed against. The color, structure, and fragrance have made germaders a popular choice for formal knot gardens and parterres. Their low maintenance durability make them excellent border plants, ground covers, and landscape anchors.
Butterflies, bees, and other pollinators love germander flowers for their pollen and nectar. Germander can be grown in containers, indoors or out. Most germander varieties tend to get leggy, so pinching off or cutting stems just above leaf intersections can promote a bushier growth. Germander’s characteristics make it useful in many ways:
How to grow germander
As a member of the mint family, germander is easiest to grow from cuttings and division. You can simply pull a piece of existing plant from the ground and put it in some moist soil. New roots should be visible before long. You can also snip a stem and treat it the same way. If you grow germander from seed, it may take a month for them to germinate. I don’t know about you, but a seed that takes that long to break ground is often forgotten about - especially if I forgot to use a plant marker. Take a look at germander the next time you visit a garden supply store. They normally have several varieties available. Germander pests include mites, rust, powdery mildew, and leaf spot, but healthy plants are generally able to fend for themselves.
Do you have room for germander in your garden? I'd love to see photos!
Parsley - it’s not just for restaurants any more.
As a kid, I always turned a suspicious eye toward that sprig of greenery on my plate. My mother urged me to try it, so I did. Unfortunately, my young taste buds were not impressed. The mildly bitter bite of parsley was not my idea of delicious until many years later. Now that my taste buds are older and wiser, the refreshing tang of parsley adds a bright balance between flavors, cleanses the palette, and spices things up. If that weren’t reason enough to add parsley to a landscape, parsley packs one heck of a nutritional punch and, hey, it looks nice in the garden!
Parsley is a central Mediterranean plant, which means that it grows well in California, as long as it is protected from our scorching hot summers. Parsley makes an excellent shade garden or container plant. You can even grow it on your kitchen window sill for easy access and nice color if you have strong enough sunlight.
Parsley is related to celeriac and celery, which explains its Latin name (Petroselinum crispum), which means ‘rock celery’, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to grow than celery. Parsley prefers well-drained soil that is kept moist, but my plants seem to grow under just about any conditions. In spite of my heavy clay soil, I have several parsley plants that thrive under roses, trees, and shrubs. Research has shown that parsley also repels asparagus beetles, making it a good companion to asparagus and tomato plants.
Growing parsley does require some patience if you are starting from seed. Seeds should be planted 1/2 inch deep, 6 inches apart, and they can take 4 to 6 weeks to germinate. Germination rates are pretty high, so growing parsley from seed is the most cost effective method. While you’re at it, plant some extras and give young plants to family and friends as gifts!
In tropical areas, flat-leafed and curly parsley are grown as annual herbs. In more temperate regions like ours, parsley is biennial. Biennial plants take two years to go from seed to seed, but some of my parsley plants keep on growing for another year or so. In addition to leaf parsley, there is a variety called Hamburg root parsley (P. crispum radicosum). Root parsley is grown for the taproot, which looks, cooks, and eats like a white carrot. (I may have to try that!)
Parsley plants allowed to go to seed provide habitat, pollen, and nectar to honey bees and many other beneficial insets, some swallowtail butterflies, and even goldfinches.You will probably also end up with many free, randomly placed parsley plants next year!
If flavor and looks weren’t reason enough to grow your own parsley, the CDC says it’s a nutritional gold mine. They ranked parsley at #8 as a food that reduces chronic diseases, such as cancer, coronary disease, and osteoporosis. To learn more, check out the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s nutritional analysis website that allows you to look up the nutritional value of pretty much any food. Just 10 sprigs of parsley provides 22% of the RDA for Vitamin C and 200% of Vitamin K.
It’s pretty. It’s durable. It’s good for you. And it tastes good.
Where’s your parsley planted?
While walking across Spain in 2016, I came upon an albergue (something like a hostel) where someone was using a riding mower. There wasn’t any grass, but the air was filled with a sweet, powerfully refreshing smell. Rather than caring for a lawn, this family had a yard filled with mint!
Now, mint is an amazing plant. It is crazy invasive and comes in many varieties. We’ve all heard of spearmint and peppermint, but did you know there is a chocolate mint? I have one growing in a leaky, handmade, stone pond that came with our property. Visitors are always amazed when I urge them to chew on a leaf - instant peppermint patties! I have also learned that there are apple, pineapple, orange, banana, and ginger mints. Needless to say, I am intrigued!
Mint is a member of the Lamiaceae family. This is a huge family, with over 7,000 species and people have been using mint plants for, well, forever! Mint is cousin to a surprising number of familiar herbs and other plants: basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, bee balm, lemon balm, lavender, savory, and even your desktop coleus plant and the mighty teak tree! Lamb’s ears, hyssop, self-heal, catmint, salvia, horehound, chia, skullcap, wild bergamot, and bugleweed are also members of this clan.
Most members of the mint family have square stems, small flowers, opposite leaves, and volatile oils that make them taste and smell so wonderful. If you look at any of the mint family flowers up close, you will see that they each have four stamens and five petals that are fused together, with two petals pointing up and three petals pointing down. Most mint plants are perennial.
Mint is super easy to grow. They love the sun, but can handle partial shade, and are drought tolerant. That being said, I find my chocolate mint plants, while nearly indestructible, prefer regular watering during the peak of our California summer. Because mint can be so invasive, you may want to try it for your own lawn replacement, or, for a more restrained planting, use mint in containers. I have found that mint is easiest to grow from cuttings. (If you live in the Bay Area, I am happy to share cuttings of my chocolate mint!). All you have to do is cover the cutting lightly with good soil and keep it moist until new roots start growing. Left to their own devices, mint plants will spread everywhere, using rhizomes, at or just below the soil surface. The real problem with mint is stopping it.
Mint juleps anyone?
Tarragon is a lovely licorice-flavored herb that requires very little care.
Traditionally used to flavor fish, chicken, and omelets, tarragon is a must-have ingredient when making béarnaise sauce. It can also be snipped into salads, deviled eggs, potato salad and enough other recipes to make growing this easy-to-care-for herb an easy choice.
Types of tarragon
There are two types of true tarragon: French and Russian. French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa) is the culinary herb, while the Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides) has no flavor. In both cases, the plants will grow up to 24 inches tall and 12 inches wide, with slender leaves and tiny green flowers that never open. The Russian leaves are somewhat larger than the French. There is also a Mexican tarragon which isn’t really a tarragon at all, but it does have the licorice-flavored leaves so it can be used as a replacement for French tarragon. Mexican tarragon is related to marigolds. To avoid planting Russian tarragon by mistake (as plants are sometimes mislabelled), have a taste. Unfortunately, many seeds are mislabelled, as well.
How to grow tarragon
Tarragon requires nothing more than occasional waterings and good drainage to provide lush growth. It is easiest to buy seedlings or to take divisions from established plants. Follow these steps to divide an older plant:
Tarragon performs well in containers for the first year, but it needs to be planted in the ground after that. The container limits root growth so much that the plants lose their flavor. Regular watering is the key to the production of tenet new leaves. Tarragon tolerates alkaline soil, making it an excellent choice in the Bay Area. Tarragon can be grown in full sun in cooler areas, or it can be added to an area with dappled sunlight or a shade garden in areas with really hot summer days.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) is the popular breakfast sausage and turkey stuffing herb.
Since ancient times, sage (a member of the mint family) has been used to ward off evil, improve fertility, combat the Plague, sooth bug bites, cure snake bite, and calm nervous conditions. Whether it actually does any of these things is beside the point, once the smell of sage emerges from your kitchen.
Sage is a perennial culinary herb that can be grown outdoors in any area with a Mediterranean climate (and indoors everywhere else). It grows very well in containers. Sage is a rugged, forgiving plant. It has a long growing season and, being an evergreen, can withstand colder temperatures than more delicate herbs, such as basil. Unlike many herbs, sage leaves retain their flavor even after the plant flowers.
There are several varieties of sage. Some can grow as large as 2 feet in all directions, while other cultivars are more compact. Some varieties have a more spreading character, making them a fragrant ground cover. You can even plant pineapple sage, which really does smell like pineapple! Sage leaves are normally grayish-green, but they can also be yellow, purple, rose, or cream colored. Leaves are somewhat crinkled (rugose) on top. The underside of the leaves is nearly white and fuzzy. Sage flowers can range in color from purple and blue to white or pink. These edible flowers make nice additions to salads and they can be candied as cake decorations.
How to grow sage
Sage can be grown from seeds, cuttings or layering. Growing sage from seed is a slow process. It can take up to two years to reach full size. It’s a pretty plant, if you are not in a rush. Seeds should be planted 1/8” deep and the soil kept moist until sprouting begins. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings once the true leaves appear. Sage can also be propagated with cuttings or layering. Layering simply means tipping an established stem downward until it touched the soil. Instead of growing new leaves, roots should begin to appear at each of the buds.
Like most herbs, sage prefers a sunny location with excellent drainage. Too much water is really the only threat to sage plants, as most insects find sage’s aromatic flavor distasteful. Sage prefers a pH of 6.0 to 7.0.
Mature plants should be spaced 2 to 3 feet apart. Planting sage near carrots and cabbage can be beneficial by deterring cabbage loopers and cabbage worms. Also, the flowers attract pollinators and the plants themselves make lovely additions to the landscape, whether you enjoy the flavor or not.
Italian cuisine simply wouldn’t be the same without the heady aroma and complex flavors of dried oregano leaves.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is a member of the mint family. Like other mints, oregano is a hardy perennial herb that has a place in any plot or container garden. Oregano is also known as wild marjoram, being a close cousin to sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana). The two herbs are interchangeable in cooking.
The variety of oregano grown determines its flavor. The most commonly sold variety, Origanum vulgare, is relatively bland, as are O. unites and O. syriacum. For the best culinary flavor, try planting one of these oregano varieties:
Origanum v. ‘Kent Beauty’ has a lovely trailing growth habit, making it perfect for hanging gardens and containers.
How to grow oregano
Oregano prefers hot, dry, sunny locations and well-drained soil. Oregano can be grown indoors or out and it performs well in containers. While plants can be started from seed, it is usually easier to propagate oregano using cuttings and root division. In cold areas, oregano is grown as an annual. In spring, seeds can be started indoors and then transplanted outside after the last frost date. Plants should be spaced 12 - 18 inches apart in full sun. Water culinary varieties moderately. Ornamental varieties will need little or no water.
Oregano thrives in soil with a pH between 6.0 - 9.0, making it an excellent choice in areas with alkaline soil. Fertilizer is generally not needed. Plants can grow from 8 inches to 2-1/2 feet in height and width, creating a bushy shrub or a trailing growth, depending on the variety. Oregano flowers are bluish-purple or white.
Oregano benefits from regular pruning. While plants are still small, pinch off tops down to a leaf node to encourage a bushier growth and to prevent legginess. In winter, established plants can be cut back to ground level. Since oregano is food, think twice about using any chemical pesticides.
Oregano pests & diseases
Aphids, spider mites and fungal diseases can all cause problems on oregano. Ensuring good air flow between plants and proper watering make a big difference in oregano health. Too much water can cause root disease. Allow plants to dry out between waterings. Monitor plants for aphids. Aphids can be dislodged with a strong stream of water from the hose. Planting nasturtiums nearby can entice aphids away from oregano. Aphids prefer nasturtiums, so you get more oregano! Row covers can also be used to protect oregano from many pests.
Harvesting & storing oregano
Leaves of oregano provide the best flavor if harvested before the plant goes to flower. Simply grab a handful of stems and cut below your hand. Then, rinse the cut bundle to remove any dust, insects or microorganisms, shake off the excess water, pat dry and gently wrap the bundle with a rubber band. Hang in a cool, dry, shaded area until completely dry, just as you would with lavender, lemon balm, and many other herbs. Unlike basil and rosemary, oregano really gets its flavor punch during the drying process, so fresh use isn’t recommended. Once the leaves have dried out completely, they can be removed from the stems by rolling them between your hands over a sheet of wax paper. Store in a dark, dry location in an airtight container. (I use spice jars that used to hold something else and that have been thoroughly washed and dried.) Properly dried and stored oregano can last for a year.
Oregano as folk medicine
Oregano has been used in folk medicine for a very long time, but there is no scientific proof that it actually helps in traditional treatments for respiratory, digestive, or nervous disorders. Research is being conducted, however, on oregano’s usefulness as an antibacterial and against liver cancer.
In most gardens, oregano can continue for several years, self-seeding it’s deliciousness and pretty flowers with minimal effort and water.
Thyme is one of the easiest herbs to grow.
Crumbled into scrambled eggs, baked with chicken, or simmered in a favorite spaghetti sauce or stew, the sweet, savory aroma of thyme adds a delicious level of complexity to even the simplest dish.
Thyme is a woody, aromatic evergreen herb. Cousins to mint, thyme and oregano are the foundation herbs used in many Italian dishes, herbs de Provence, and bouquet garni. As an added benefit, the tiny fragrant flowers are big favorites among honey bees and other beneficial insects.
How to grow thyme
Thyme prefers hot, dry sunny locations, with well-drained soil. It is an excellent foodscape addition to areas affected by drought. Thyme grows well in containers, especially unglazed ceramic pots that allow the soil to dry out completely.
Thyme can be grown from seed, cuttings, or by dividing root clusters. If growing from seed, simply follow the directions on the package. Cuttings can be placed directly in loose soil. Root clusters should be placed with the crown (where the stem meets the roots) at the same level as the surrounding soil. Thyme plants should be watered regularly as they are getting established. After that, they need little or no care.
These hardy plants can withstand freezing winters and scorching summers. Thyme prefers a slightly alkaline soil.
Pinch growing tips to keep plants bushy. If a thyme plant becomes too tall or leggy, it can be cut back by 1/3 in spring. Just be sure to cut above some new growth, or the stems may die.
People have been using thyme since the ancient Egyptians and there are currently over 50 varieties of thyme available. Put simply, there are ornamental thymes and culinary thymes. Some of the more popular edible varieties include:
The ancient Greeks believed that thyme was a source of courage and it was placed under pillows during the Middle Ages to ward off nightmares.
According to companion planting claims, thyme is said to repel cabbage moths, but I have not found this to be true. Supposedly, tomato hornworms and whiteflies are also offended by thyme, but I haven’t found any definitive proof.
Thyme oil does have antiseptic properties that may combat minor bacterial and fungal infections. According to Medical News Today, washes made from thyme can help get rid of acne and rubbing your skin with thyme may prevent being stung by the Asian Tiger mosquito, a West Nile virus and Zika virus carrier. These and other potential health benefits of thyme are currently being studied.
Borage, or Starflower, is an easy-to-grow cucumber-flavored herb that thrives just about anywhere, even in areas affected by drought. Honey bees will flock to any garden with borage, improving pollination of nearby crops.
Native to the Middle East, borage was believed to ‘gladden the heart’ and to bring on bravery and courage - who doesn’t need more of that? The star-shaped flowers emerge pink or pale purple and then darken to bright blue. A white flowered cultivar is also available.
Borage (Borago officinalis) is an annual that grows very quickly from seed, reaching a full size of 2-3 feet in just a couple of months. Borage grows so fast that it can become top heavy and individual branches may fall to the side. But don’t worry - those spaces will quickly be filled with new stems and abundant bright blue flowers. Pinching back stems can prevent plants from becoming top heavy.
How to grow borage
Borage seeds can be sown directly in the ground after the last frost date. Seeds should be covered with 1/4-1/2” of soil and kept moist, but not soggy, until sprouts emerge. Overwatering is the biggest mistake gardeners can make when growing borage.
Borage prefers well-drained soil in a semi-neutral pH, with full or dappled sun, but it is often found thriving in the worst possible locations. Once borage plants are established, they need practically no care at all. Due to its tap root, borage is not suited to growing in containers. If that is your only option, use the largest container possible and pinch stems back frequently.
Select a dedicated site when growing borage because it reseeds readily, which means it will be around for a long time. Adding a thin layer of mulch each fall will feed and protect the next year’s generation. Temperatures permitting, borage plants will be a popular favorite of honey bees all summer long. Planting borage near cucumber, tomatoes, brassica, beans, grapes, summer squash, peas, and strawberries can significantly improve pollination and production.
Borage is an excellent addition to any butterfly garden and its calcium and potassium content benefit compost piles.
Culinary uses of borage
Some gardeners are put off by the tiny hairs found on borage, but those hairs give the plant a glistening appearance and they won’t hurt you. The cucumber flavor of young leaves can be included in salads and older leaves can be chopped up for soups or sautés. They can also be brewed for a refreshing tea.
The honey-flavored flowers can be added to salads for a splash of color or candied and used to decorate baked goods. You can even freeze borage flowers in ice cubes for a delightful summer soirée! Borage seeds are cultivated for their oil and the flowers are frequently included in potpourris. In Italy, borage is used to stuff ravioli. Frankfort, Germany boasts a delicious green sauce made from borage. Every part of the borage plant, except the roots, is edible.
Do yourself and your local honey bee population a favor and start growing borage today!
Basil is one of the easiest culinary herbs to grow, indoors or out.
This member of the mint family may not be as rugged as many of its cousins, but you’ll be glad you planted basil when it’s dinnertime!
Basil seeds are used in Thai cooking and the leaves are used to make many amazing dishes. Aromatic basil leaves, julienned with mozzarella and fresh tomatoes, make a delightful summer Caprese salad, and what would pesto be without basil?!!?
There are many varieties of basil. Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is the most common, but you can also find these varieties:
How to grow basil
As a tender annual, basil needs temperatures ofe at least 70ºF to grow. Start too soon and you’ll just waste seeds. Basil loves hot weather, but may benefit from a little afternoon shade if your summers are really scorching. I plant mine slightly east of a small apricot tree and the basil does well there. If you are growing basil in a container, be sure to use one that is large enough to hang onto some moisture.
Start seeds indoors, 6-8 weeks before warmer temperatures are expected, to get a big head start on the growing season, increasing yield. You can also start basil from cuttings placed in a glass of water. This is an excellent way to make many plants out of a single plant!
Basil seeds should be planted 1/4” deep. The soil should be kept moist, but not soggy. In 5-7 days, seeds should germinate. It is easy to recognize basil seed leaves because they look like two capital D’s, facing away from each other.
Seedlings need 12-18” between plants to reach full size. A 2-3” layer of mulch place around the young plants will help retain moisture and reduce weeds.
Basil needs 6-8 hours of sunlight a day and it prefers well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0-7.5. Depending on rainfall and temperatures, basil will need to be watered deeply every 7-10 days. Since basil is food, think twice about using any chemical pesticides.
(BTW, ignore basil plants for sale in the grocery store. They look lush and full, but what they really are is overcrowded and root bound. If you try to separate the plants, it will damage the roots too much. Leave them the way they are and they will simply choke themselves to death. Even if they survive, air flow problems can lead to fungal disease. I use organic, non-GMO seeds from High Mowing Seeds.
Basil pests & diseases
Aphids, spider mites, nematodes, cutworms, slugs and snails, mealy bugs, and fungal diseases can all cause problems on basil. Ensuring good air flow between plants and proper watering make a big difference in basil health. Too much water can cause root disease. Allow plants to dry out between waterings. Monitor plants for aphids, slugs and snails. Aphids can be dislodged with a strong stream of water from the hose. Slugs and snails can be handpicked or baited. Adding a ring of wood ashes around each plant can help protect them against cutworms and diatomaceous earth can reduce mealybug damage. Planting nasturtiums nearby can entice aphids away from basil. Aphids prefer nasturtiums, so you get more basil! Row covers can be used to protect basil from many of these pests.
Basil makes an excellent companion plant to asparagus, carrots, sweet peppers, and tomatoes. Apparently, asparagus beetles, carrot flies and tomato hornworms don’t share our love of basil. While there is no scientific proof, many gardeners believe flies, mosquitoes and whiteflies are also repelled by basil. Whether it works or not, I can’t plant enough of this delicious herb!
Snip fresh leaves any time they are needed in the kitchen. If more than a few leaves are needed, or if the plant is getting leggy, cut just above a pair of leaves to stimulate new branching. Regular trimming will keep the plant productive. The basic rule of thumb is to pinch a stem just above a pair of leaves as soon as a stem has 5 or 6 leaves on it. If basil is allowed to go to flower and seed, the leaves may begin to taste slightly bitter. (The bees will love it, though!) Basil flowers are edible and they look lovely in a salad or candied and used to decorate baked goods.
Basil leaves can be dried or frozen. To dry basil, cut the stems and rinse off any dust, insects or microorganisms. Then pat dry and hang the basil stems upside down until the leaves have dried out completely, just as you would with lavender and other herbs. Once the leaves have dried out completely, they can be removed from the stems by rolling them between your hands over a sheet of wax paper. Store in a dark, dry location. (I use spice jars that used to hold something else and that have been thoroughly washed and dried.) To freeze fresh basil leaves, rinse them off, pat dry and remove from the stem. Leaves can be frozen whole (not recommended) or pureed and then frozen in ice cube trays for easy portion control. My very favorite use for basil is pesto, which can transform everyday pasta, chicken, or pork into something truely delicious!
If you have a large container, you can create a lovely miniature herb garden by planting parsley, chives, oregano and basil together. The spiky chives, trailing oregano and bushy parsley and basil make a lovely arrangement that tastes even better than it looks!
If you grow nothing else, grow herbs.
Herbs require minimal care and they repay your efforts in spades. Not only do they add flavor to food, but many herbs can be used to make excellent teas, fragrant sachets, insect repellants, and home decor.
Like other plants, herbs can be annual or perennial. Perennial plants keep coming back. while annuals tend to die off each year and must be replaced. Most herbs require a lot of sunlight. If you are growing indoors in containers, you may need to supplement light. Herbs are well-suited to container gardening, or they can be put in the ground. Below, you will find basic information for several popular herbs.
At my house, we can simply never have too much pesto, so basil gets its own raised bed. Basil is a bit more delicate that many other herbs, so don’t plant it outside until well after the last frost date. It grows nicely indoors, as long as it gets enough light. As your basil grows, you can pinch it off just above where two leaves are emerging to stimulate two new stems to grow and produce more leaves. Basil is delicious, but is also has some surprising health benefits. One-half cup of fresh basil provides 98% of your Vitamin K daily requirement and the oils in basil have been shown to inhibit several species of bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.
Snip, snip, snip and your baked potato is transformed! Chives are one of the easiest herbs to grow. They make an excellent kitchen window plant or they can be grown outdoors. As a perennial, it will come back, year after year. The onion-scented flowers are edible and they add a nice color to salads. Chives should be planted 12-18” apart and you can expect them to slowly spread on their own. Water regularly and make sure the soil provides good drainage.
It wouldn’t be salsa without cilantro, and your body will thank you for adding this pungent herb to your collection. Cilantro has been shown to suppress lead accumulation and, if it goes to seed, you have coriander! Cilantro grows easily from seed and can reach a height of 18-24”. Plants should be spaced at least 10” apart and they make excellent companion plants to spinach, beans and peas. It repels (or distracts) aphids, spider mites, potato beetles and whiteflies. Cilantro prefers soil that drains easily and LOTS of sunlight, but the roots do not like being disturbed. This tends to cause them to bolt and go to seed.
Lemon balm is a lovely, easy to grow, flavorful perennial herb that can grow pretty much anywhere. Traditionally, lemon balm tea has been used to reduce digestive upset and restlessness. Run your hand over the leaves and you’ll see why. The aroma is calming and that’s because the oils on the leaves have sedative properties! Like other members of the mint family, lemon balm can spread. Mature plants can be 2-3’ tall, but some varieties grow more like a ground cover. Lemon balm can be grown in full sun or partial shade and it does best when it is cut back (harvested) regularly. Unlike many other herbs that increase and improve their flavor when dried, lemon balm is best used fresh.
Spearmint, peppermint, and chocolate mint love to grow in shady, moist spots in areas facing drought or extreme heat. Otherwise they can grow well in full sun. These plants will spread like crazy, so containers are a good idea. Also, mint tends to get leggy, so regular pruning will help keep it attractive. Mint has long been a popular culinary and medicinal herb. You may be surprised to learn that thyme, oregano, lemon balm, lambs’ ears, salvia, lavender, rosemary, sage, summer savory, anise hyssop and basil are all members of the Mint family (Lamiacaea)! You can start mint from seeds, tender new growth, or rooted stems that have touched the ground.
Another member of the mint family, oregano pairs perfectly with tomatoes. Oregano has been used for centuries to treat respiratory and digestive problems. Oregon can grow in some pretty awful soil, as long as the drainage is good and it’s not too dense. Generally, oregano prefers to be dry. Oregano grows easily form seed. Mature plants may reach a height of 12-18”, but many varieties stay close to the ground. Oregano makes a lovely hanging plant, as well. New oregano plants don’t have much flavor. It takes time and hardship for an oregano plant to reach their full potential. Leaves should be harvested only after flowers appear.
Parsley is a kitchen mainstay and an excellent source of Vitamins A, B12, C, and K. Parsley is a biennial, which means it takes 2 years to go to seed. Parsley seeds should be soaked in warm water overnight before planting. Since parsley has a taproot, it prefers a rather deep pot. Once established, you can snip off bits as you need them - or snag a quick vitamin boost or breath freshener, as you garden. You can grow parsley in full sun or partial shade. They make great kitchen window plants, for easy harvesting!
This plant is a workhorse, indoors or out. Run your hand over its branches and the heady aroma expands around you and it stays on your hand for a good while. Rosemary is excellent on pork, beef, in soups, and chutney. According to WebMD, rosemary is also used to aid digestion, ease gout, eczema, and joint pain, repel insects, and it can help wounds heal more quickly! It’s supposed to reduce age-related memory problems, but I don’t remember how… To grow rosemary, get the smallest plant you can find, or take cuttings from tender new growth, put them in rich soil, and water lightly and frequently, at first, to help them get established. You can also get new plants from branches of existing shrubs, where they have touched the ground and put down new roots. Be forewarned, a mature rosemary plant can easy become 3’ tall and 5’ wide, with the right growing conditions. Honey bees and other beneficial insects love rosemary, but it seems to repel undesirables. (If you live near me and would like a cutting, just let me know.)
Turkey dressing, sausage, and some cheeses just wouldn’t be the same without sage. If taste weren’t reason enough, research has shown that consuming sage can lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels and improve your thinking process! Sage plants prefer rich clay loam and they can get pretty big. A healthy, mature sage plant can reach 3’ in diameter and in height, so plan accordingly! Sage needs plenty of nitrogen, so regular feeding with blood meal is a good idea. Be sure to harvest leaves before the plant flowers for the best flavor.
Tarragon has a shallow root system, so it makes a lovely container plant. It is a good source of potassium and it is said to be able to treat digestive problems and to fight certain bacteria. Tarragon is excellent on fish, vegetable dishes, egg dishes, in soup and white sauce. Once you get a tarragon plant established, you will have more of this herb than you will know what to do with. While it is growing, you won’t smell the distinctive aroma. It’s not until the leaves are harvested and oils become concentrated that the scent will become obvious. Tarragon can reach 2-3’ in height and it prefers moderate sun or a little shade during the hottest part of the day. Propagation is easiest through root division.
There are several types of thyme and they all smell delicious! There are upright and trailing varieties . This woody plant adds flavor to Italian dishes, marinades, eggs, and stews. Thyme oil is used to relieve stomach upset, sore throat, and as a germ killer in mouthwash. Thyme does not grow well from seed. You are better off starting with a young plant. Thyme prefers slightly alkaline soil, so it does well in the Bay area. Thyme is one of those plants that really does best if you leave it alone. It’s oily, woody stem, like rosemary, has evolved to hold moisture in and to repel pests. Interfering with its natural processes isn’t necessary. Thyme makes a lovely container plant. Mature plants can reach 12-18” in height and should be placed 18-24” away from other plants, to give it the room it needs to grow. Once a thyme plant is established, you can snip or break off branches as you need them, without harming the plant (within reason, of course). Since thyme grows slowly, weed control is important early in its life. You can mulch with straw to slow its competitors.
If there are any other herbs that you would like to grow, let me know in the comments section.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!