Category Archives: Herbs

Basil – Nature’s Weather Station

Last week the weather stations were forecasting freeze warnings. The nights were cold and some in the lower Susquehanna valley did a freeze, but not me. The garden had a touch of frost, but nothing that killed all of the plants.

While the growing season is coming to an end, I like to know when a light frost and a killing frost have hit the garden. Over the years I learned that there’s one plant that’ll let me know what’s been happening in my yard and it’s much more accurate than any weather report. That plant is basil.

Basil After a Light Frost

Basil After a Light Frost

At this time of the year I find that basil doesn’t have quite the same flavor that it did in August and early September. But I always leave at least one basil plant in the vegetable garden to use as a frost indicator. Basil is very sensitive to cold weather. The lightest frost will cause some of the plants leaves to turn from green to a brown-black color. There is no way that you can miss the effects of frost on a basil plant.

While there was talk of freezing weather, the vegetable garden only got a light frost. I could tell because only the top of the basil plant was brown while the rest looked fine. Pepper plants right next to the basil were untouched – even though they’re sensitive to frost, they’re not as sensitive to it as basil.

You can spend a lot of money to set up a weather station to monitor the high and low temperatures in the garden. But if you just want to know when the first frost has come, you can’t go wrong with basil. You can enjoy this herb all season long and then use it as a living weather station that will let you know when the first frost comes to your location.

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Agastache – A Plant I Really Want to Like!

A few years ago I added a plant of hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) to the herb garden. While I didn’t use it as an herb, I loved the blue flowers and the number of bees that it attracted.

When I was looking through the Territorial Seeds catalog, I saw that they sold seeds of an herb called anise hyssop. I had no idea what it was but if it attracted as many bees as the standard hyssop, I thought it would be worth adding to the garden.

Agastache - Anise Hyssop Blue

Agastache – Anise Hyssop Blue

The plant that I grew from seed isn’t a hyssop at all though it is related; anise hyssop is agastache, specifically Agastache foeniculum. This plant is a member of the mint family, a fact that’s evident because of agastache’s square stems. The common name of this plant is anise hyssop because the leaves have a licorice/anise scent.

Agastache is a plant native to the northern part of the US. Native Americans used this plant for medicinal purposes, particularly cough, fevers, wounds and diarrhea. The leaves can be used for making tea and this plant is said to be a good pollen/nectar source for honey producers.

Like most plants in the mint family, anise hyssop is easy to grow. It needs full sun and prefers fertile ground, though it will grow in less than optimal soil. Once it’s established, it’s drought resistant. Agastache is usually ignored by deer and rabbits and it isn’t troubled by insect pests. The variety of agastache that I’m growing – anise hyssop blue – grows about 4′ tall.

Agastache - Anise Hyssop Blue

Agastache – Anise Hyssop Blue

I have to admit that anise hyssop blue is a plant I want to like but I just can’t. It’s tall, gangly and to me, the inflorescences are ugly! They’re cylindrical in shape and made up of many small flowers that are arranged in a whirl. Since I wasn’t impressed with this plant’s beauty, I almost dug it out of the ground. But what convinced me to keep it was the fact that it literally swarms with bees and small butterflies.

Looking online, I saw that there are a number of varieties and species of agastache that have different heights and different kinds of inflorescences. It makes me think that I should try some of these other kinds. The fact that rabbits don’t eat it and bees/butterflies love it makes this a plant that I really want to like. Maybe my seed-grown variety isn’t the best for the flower garden.

A trip to the garden center might be in order to see what varieties they might have. They’d be in bloom now, they’d be discounted and I could see if there’s an agastache that’s not only functional in attracting bees and butterflies but also pretty!

Cilantro – Skip the Plants and Buy the Seeds!

When you look around garden centers, there are lots of herbs for sale. I think people have started to understand the difference that fresh herbs can make in your cooking.

When I look at the herbs available as plants, most of them make sense to me. Perennial herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano and tarragon grow slowly from small seeds so garden size plants make growing these a lot easier.

I also understand parsley plants. This biennial can be a little tricky to germinate and you have to start the plants very early to have garden-sized plants in the spring. I’m not quite as convinced about basil plants because this annual herb is so easy to grow from seed. But if you’re not looking to load your freezer with pesto and only want one or two plants, I can understand buying them.

But there’s one herb in pots at every garden center that makes me shake my head when I see it – cilantro. If you buy a cilantro plant, I can guarantee that it’ll be dead within a few months. It inevitable demise has nothing to do with the quality of the plant or your gardening skills. Cilantro dies because cilantro is a short-lived annual herb.

Young Cilantro Plant

Young Cilantro Plant

A cilantro plant looks a lot like parsley. Both of these herbs grow in a rosette and have a single growing point of undifferentiated tissue (meristem) right around ground level. Before they go into reproductive mode, the meristem of these two plant keeps producing more and more leaves.

A parsley plant keeps producing new leaves all season long. Parsley does this because it’s a biennial – this means that the plant’s first year of life is vegetative and it won’t start to reproduce until the second year. Since almost all gardeners pull up their parsley after one year, they never see the transition from leaves to flowers and seeds.

But they see it when they grow cilantro! While the growth habit of  these two herbs is similar, there’s on big difference – cilantro is a cool season annual. An annual is a plant that completes its life cycle within one growing season. In the case of cilantro, it completes that cycle in a few months.

The cilantro plant that you buy is in vegetative mode and it will produce leaves for a while. But once the weather warms and the days get longer, the chemistry of the plant changes and that single growing point of meristematic tissue that’s been producing leaves changes and begins to grow a flower stalk instead of leaves. This change from vegetative to reproductive growth is called “bolting.”

Once cilantro has decided that it’s time to flower, you can’t stop it. The single growing point of the plant has changed and it won’t produce any more leaves. You can cut it back, you can fertilize it, you can do anything you want to renew the plant and it won’t help. Once cilantro bolts, there are two things you can do: throw it out or let the seeds develop and harvest your own coriander!

While cilantro is a short-lived herb, the good news is that it’s really easy to grow from seed. If you sprinkle a few seeds in a pot or in the garden, they’ll germinate easily. The best times to grow cilantro is in the spring and fall because it prefers cool temperatures. If you must have cilantro all season long, you could try growing it inside during the heat of summer on a sunny windowsill or under lights. Or you could freeze some cilantro pesto to add to salsa when it’s too hot to grow fresh cilantro.

There are so many herbs from which to choose. While most are perennial, biennial or long-lived annuals, cilantro is the only one I can think of that’s a short-lived, cool season annual. So if that cilantro plant the you bought dies in a month or two, remember, it’s not you, it’s the plant! And next year, skip the expense of a plant that’ll be long gone before July is over. Instead, buy a packet of seeds and grow your own cilantro in the spring and fall.

June Is Bustin’ Out All Over!

The song from Carousel says that June is bustin’ out all over – these are just a few pictures to affirm how true this is!

Marigold

Bumble Bee and Bee Balm (Monarda)

Basil

Tomato

Honey Bee and Sage

Daylily

Streptocarpus saxorum

Streptocarpus hybrid

Weed Du Jour – Any Plant In The Wrong Place!

Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines a weed as “a plant that is not valued where it is growing…” While weeds are often plants that no one is trying to grow, sometimes a weed can simply be an otherwise desirable plant that’s growing in the wrong place.

Certain plants can easily become weeds. You initially plant them for their flowers or fruit but the next year you find them growing everywhere. What’s happened is that during that first year they did what all plants are programmed to do: they reproduced by setting seed. The seeds fell to the ground and the next year they started to grow and become weeds.

In the vegetable garden I’ve had three plants turn into weeds – cilantro, tomatoes and cucumbers. Cilantro sets seed quickly and if you don’t remove the seeds, it can quickly become a weed. Tomatoes and cucumbers have become weeds for me because I’ve let damaged tomatoes and yellow cucumbers rot on the ground. Both of these fruits are full of seeds and now, because I didn’t clean up those fruits, I’m finding tomato and cucumber seedlings throughout the vegetable garden.

Portulaca Seedling Growing in a Walkway

Portulaca and bells of Ireland could be defined as weeds in my garden. I will admit that I do like the fact that they keep coming back. I keep a few of the plants that sprout up spontaneously and I move them to a place in the garden where I want them to grow. But apart from the few plants that I save, the rest are just weeds. The portulaca especially like to sprout up in the spaces between the walkway pavers, just like an other weed!

Bells of Ireland Seedling in the Flower Bed

But these flowers can’t compete with what I consider the worst offender when it comes to a flower becoming a weed. That distinction belongs to the morning glory. I made the huge mistake of planting morning glories on the edge of the vegetable garden about 7 year ago. The vines looked nice and flowered like crazy that year. But little did I know that those vines would become the newest weed in the vegetable garden. Every year morning glories sprout in the garden. The first few years were terrible – the morning glories seedings were everywhere. I kept pulling them up but even now, 7 years later, I continue to find a few morning glories growing between the lettuce and beans. I still like morning glories but now I’m careful where I plant them so that they don’t turn into a weed problem.

Some would say that this self-sowing is a good thing – you get free plants. I understand this sentiment and I love the fact that I planted portulaca and bells of Ireland once and now, years later, I still have them blooming every summer. But when plants self-sow and you don’t need or want the plants or they’re growing where you don’t want them to grow, then, by definition, they’ve turned into weeds!

Basil Sunburn

There’s an important step between growing a seeding in the house and moving it to the garden. Before planting seedlings outside, they need to be hardened off.

Hardening off is the process of acclimatizing a plant to a new growing condition. When you start plants inside and grow them in either a sunny window or under lights, the plant is growing under very stable and controlled conditions. The light isn’t as strong as the sun; the water is constant; there is little or no physical movement of the plant like that caused by the wind. When you add all of these factors together, you end up with a plant that isn’t tough enough to face life outside of the house – they’re literally “hothouse flowers,” weak and easily damaged. The tissues of the plant are soft and the protective layer of waxy cuticle on the leaves is very thin.

In order to make the transition from inside to outside, the plants needs some time to adjust or “harden off.” This is done by slowly introducing the plant to the conditions it’ll face in the garden. It’s often suggested that you place the plant in the morning sun for one hour on day one, then two hours the next day, etc. While this process makes sense, it’s far too structured for my taste. Instead, I put my tray of plants on an open porch where they only get a few hours of morning sun. Here they’re exposed to sunlight and have some physical movement caused by the wind. After about a week the plants are more sturdy and I feel safe to plant them in the garden.

Basil with Sunburn

As I was checking a pot of herbs, I realized the my basil plants weren’t full hardened off before I planting them. While the plants are growing fine, there are some leaves that are chlorotic (yellow) with a little bit of burning. What happened is that the intensity of the sun has scorched the leaves. It’s often called sunburn but it’s a very different process from the sunburn that we might get on a sunny day.

For a plant, sunburn occurs when there’s too much sun and too little water. The basil plants in my herb pot hadn’t had enough time to develop a full protective cuticle layer so too much of the sun’s energy was getting into the tissue of the leaf. As newly transplanted seedlings, the roots of the plants weren’t very developed so the absorption of water was a little slower than it would be in an established plant. The result of too much sun and too little water is that the leaf tissue dried out and died.

In this case it’s hardly a problem – the only damage was a few burnt leaves. But I’ve had plants die from not being hardened off properly. It’s tempting to want to take a plant that’s been growing inside and put it directly into the garden, but the results can be disastrous! In the case of seedlings grown in the house, a little bit of time spent hardening off a plant is worth the effort.

Photos from the Garden

Here are some pictures of the garden and some of the plants and flowers that are growing.  If you double-click the pictures or right-click and open in a new tab you can see them full-sized.

 

Chive Blossom – look closely and you can see the abdomen of a fly that working to pollinate the flower!

Bearded German Iris

Bearded German Iris Bud

Ajuga

Romaine Lettuce

Asparagus with an Attached Aphid!

Endive or Frisee

Sempervivum

Hibiscus

Rhododendron

Asian Pear