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 (Lamiaceae) is a huge family, with over 7,000 species. 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 prefer easy access to moisture. 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 near San Jose, California, 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 if that's what you have. 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.
Native to South and Central America, nasturtiums are rugged plants that provide lovely edible blooms.
The history of nasturtiums
When nasturtiums arrived in Spain in the 1500’s, they were called “Indian cresses” because of their peppery flavor and their use in salads. Nasturtium flowers have been gracing gardens since Roman times. Back when the Romans defeated an army, they would set up a trophy (tropaeum) pole on which they would hang the shields and helmets of the losers. Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum) earned their Latin name because, to Carl Linnaeus*, the rounded leaves reminded him of shields and the flowers looked like blood-stained helmets. (The word nasturtium literally means “nose tweaker”.)
The botany of nasturtiums
Nasturtium are perennial and annual dicotyledons, depending on the variety and local conditions. There are climbing and bushy nasturtiums. Nasturtium stems are somewhat succulent and the roots can be tuberous. One particularly rugged variety from Chile, T. polyplyllum, survives at altitudes of 10,000 feet! (Most of us would be out of breath and a bit wobbly at that elevation!)
Nasturtium flowers can be yellow, orange, reddish-brown, white, red, or even blue. Flowers have five clawed petals, with the bottom three looking different from the top two. Each bisexual flower has 8 whorled stamens. Nasturtium seeds look like naked nuts with three segments. Leaves may be rounded or deeply lobed. Leaf stems tend to be rather long. There are about 80 species of nasturtiums. Nasturtium are the only members of their genus.
How to grow nasturtiums
Until recently, it was believed that nasturtium seeds required scarification (damage to the seed hull) for germination to occur. We now know that this is not true. Seeds can be planted directly in the ground after the final frost date. Seeds should be planted 10-15” apart and 1” deep. Water regularly, unless a drought-tolerant variety is selected. Nasturtiums prefer well-drained or sandy soil. They perform best in full sun or partial shade. Once nasturtiums are established, you can easily end up with far more plants than you need. When this happens, simply transplant seedlings into a nice little container and gift them to family and friends!
Uses of nasturtiums
All parts of the nasturtium plant are edible, but most people only eat the flowers. The flowers look lovely in salads and add a nice peppery flavor to stir-fry. Nasturtium flowers contain the highest amount of lutein of any edible plant. Lutein is an antioxidant that protects the retina from free-radical damage by blue light, helping prevent macular degeneration. Unripe seed pods can be pickled in spiced vinegar and used like capers. The tuber of the Mashua variety (T. tuberous) is used in the Andes as a major food source.
In herbal medicine, nasturtiums are used for their expectorant and antiseptic qualities. They are believed to promote the formation of new blood cells and to relieve chest colds.
Nasturtiums attract butterflies and other pollinators. They can also be used in companion planting as target plants, to distract pests such as cabbageworms and mites away from more vulnerable plants. Nasturtiums are believed to repel Asparagus beetles, squash beetles, aphids, Mexican bean beetles, cabbageworms, and whiteflies.
Nasturtiums readily self-seed and they take little or no care once established. Add these lovelies to your garden or windowsill for some bright, flavorful blooms!
* Carl Linnaeus created our modern system of naming plants and animals in something called binomial nomenclature.
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
Every part of the borage plant, except the roots, is edible. 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.
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. You may want to wear gloves, however. 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.
Do yourself and your local honey bee population a favor and start growing borage today!
Basil is one of the most rewarding 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, temperatures must be at least 70ºF for basil 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 have planted basil slightly east of a small apricot tree, in patio containers, and in a partially shaded tower. Our summers get very hot and basil performs well in each of these locations. 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. You can also use succession planting to increase yield. Basil can be started from cuttings. Simply pinch off a stem and place it 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 and for good airflow. A 2-3” layer of mulch placed around 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. Buy a pack of seeds and share with friends.
Basil pests & diseases
Aphids, spider mites, nematodes, cutworms, slugs and snails, mealybugs, and fungal diseases can all cause problems on basil. Adding a ring of wood ashes around each plant may protect them against cutworms, and dusting plants with diatomaceous earth can reduce mealybug damage. Planting nasturtiums nearby is said to entice aphids away from basil. Apparently, aphids prefer nasturtiums, so you get more basil. Whether it works or not, the nasturtiums are lovely and tasty, all on their own. Row covers can be used to protect basil from many of these pests.
Ensuring good air flow between plants and proper watering make a big difference in basil health. Too much water can cause root rot diseases. Allow plants to dry out between waterings. Stem rot, Fusarium wilt, bacterial leafspot, gray mold, and damping-off disease can also infect basil. A relatively new disease, basil downy mildew, has made its way to California. Be on the lookout for purple or gray spore growth on the underside of leaves. Infected plants must be destroyed.
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 repurpose 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 truly 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!
Lavender has been used to sooth upset stomach, irritated skin, and bad hair days for over 2,500 years.
Like other plants in the mint family, the essential oils found in lavender have sedative, antiseptic, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. The word ‘lavender’ comes from the Latin verb which means ‘to wash’ or ‘to bathe’.
Lavender flowers are used in sachets, soaps, linen spritz, soup, and frosting. These edible flowers can be candied and used to decorate baked goods, or added to teas, chocolates, and cheeses. Some people swear by lavender as an insect repellent, rubbing the leaves on skin or clothing. I don’t know if it works but I imagine it smells better than bug spray.
That being said, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) does not recommend lavender for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, or to pre-adolescent boys, due to potential hormonal problems. For some people, lavender can cause skin irritation. And some people just don’t like it. For those who do, this easy to grow perennial can add color to your landscape. Lavender also provides pollen and nectar for many beneficial insects, especially honey bees.
How lavender grows
Being from a rocky Mediterranean region, lavender prefers hot, dry weather and loose, coarse soil. The root system tends to be significantly larger than the above-ground portion of the plant. These plants can live for 50 years and, being a mint, they will spread using underground runners, or rhizomes.
There are over 35 species of lavender, with more than 250 named varieties. Generally, they are categorized as either ‘hardy’ or ‘tender’. Hardy English (or Dutch) lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia or L. intermedia) are the most commonly grown. These varieties are hardy to Zone 5. Tender lavenders include Spike, Wooly, Egyptian, Spanish, and my all-time favorite, French lavender. Tender lavenders generally cannot handle frost. If an especially cold period is expected, tender lavenders can be protected with a cloth cover or an umbrella. Hardy varieties are better suited to Zones 1-4. When shopping for lavender, be sure to look at the label for the botanical name, so you know what you are getting.
How to grow lavender
Lavender can be grown from cuttings, layering or root division. Before installing a new lavender plant, however, you need to select a good site. Lavender does best where there is plenty of air flow, loose soil, and sunlight. Also, these plants will spread, so you may want to put them in large containers. Container planting is particularly useful in areas with cold winters, as you can move plants into protected areas for the winter.
Because air is so important to lavender, be sure to work the soil so that it is loose enough to dig into it with your hands before planting. Also, keep mature size in mind. Some varieties can reach 5’ across. Lavender prefers slightly alkaline soil, with a pH between 6.7 and 7.3.
Lavender uses a lot of phosphorus, so bone meal is a good soil amendment if your soil test indicates a lack. [This is highly unlikely west of the Rocky Mountains.] Mindful weeding during the first 2 years of a lavender’s life will go a long way toward ensuring a healthy, long-lived plant.
Lavender pests and diseases
Lavender grown in compacted soil with poor drainage will commonly end up with root rot, black mold, and other fungal diseases. Top dressing around lavender plants with aged compost or wood chips can improve drainage over time. You can also mulch around lavender with light-colored stones or oyster shells, which will reflect more light up into the plant. This will help reduce the chance of fungal disease. [If your soil already contains plenty of calcium, the stones are a better choice.]
You may occasionally see frothy areas on your lavender plants. These are caused by spittlebugs. If spittlebug infestations become troublesome, simply spray them off with a hose. They are not usually a significant problem.
Lavender winter care and pruning
Many people think their lavender has died over the winter, but this is rarely the case. In early autumn, simply cut back the green portion of the plant until only a couple of inches of green remain. This will help your lavender look nicer during the winter and it will stimulate lush growth in spring.
Some lavender plants fall open in the middle, in a behavior known as ‘sprawling’. This happens when the weight of new growth is more than the plant can support. In the wild, this is a great behavior because it allows new shoots resting on the ground to generate new plants. In your landscape, however, it won’t look as nice. You can prevent sprawling by pruning back 1/3 of the plant in spring, then pruning back 1/3 of the new growth that follows. This will create a nice shape and it will help the plant remain upright and full.
Lavender should be harvested when the florets first open. Snip off flowers just above a leaf pair to encourage new growth. Long-stemmed hardy varieties can be bundled and hung upside-down in a dark place to dry. Shorter-stemmed tender varieties, which tend to lose their flowers as they dry, can be threaded and hung in a pillowcase, so none of the flowers are lost.
I use my guest room closet for drying lavender. It stays dark and I like to think the aroma is soothing to overnight guests.
Lavender is a lovely addition to stumperies, rock gardens, and sensory gardens.
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.
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.
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.
No, deficit irrigation doesn't refer to tossing the national budget into the ocean.
Instead, it is a method used by growers to increase the amount of sugar in foods such as tomatoes, basil, pomegranates, and peaches.
Plants have flavor because they contain sugar and volatile chemicals. Aroma plays a major role, as well, but we will leave that for another day. The volatile chemicals that generate flavor are used by plants as defense mechanisms. The pungent taste of many herbs is a perfect example of strong flavors being used to discourage herbivore and insect feeding. As water levels within a plant are reduced, those flavors get stronger. This is where deficit irrigation comes in.
The opposite of dilution
When the water supply is significantly reduced, sugar and flavor molecules become concentrated. More water means less sugar and flavor per plant, while less water means more flavor. It's a simple matter of dilution.
Some crops are bad choices for deficit irrigation. Cucumbers, melons, and other members of the squash family are more likely to turn bitter than better without adequate irrigation. For crops well suited to this practice, there is still a downside. Improperly done, deficit irrigation increases the risk of stunted growth and smaller fruit. Start too early and you end up with fruits and vegetables that are weaker, drier, and not what you were hoping for.
In the case of backyard tomatoes, it's a good idea to significantly reduce watering as the fruit begins to turn red. This way, the size is already reached and flavor is in full production.
Deficit irrigation also helps conserve precious water resources.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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