Start Your Seeds Between the Sheets

Start Seeds Between Sheets of Paper Towels
If you save your garden seeds from year to year and wait expectantly to see if they'll germinate in their peat pots, there's a way to make the process easier, faster, and less expensive.

Start Seeds Between Sheets of Paper Towels

For the last few years, I've started my questionable (older) seeds between sheets of paper toweling, and then transferred them to starter pots once I was sure they were viable. This has helped me save on labor and make the most efficient use of my store of plant starter materials. Give it a try. The seedlings can easily be picked up with tweezers and transferred to potting soil.

Make sure to keep the paper towels wet at all times. For this I use a spray bottle. In order to avoid evaporation, place a sheet of plastic wrap loosely over the topmost layer of paper, removing it a couple of hours a day to circulate the air. I pack the seeds in pretty tight, as the picture above will show you. As a base, I use a plastic serving tray, like the kind you see at fast food restaurants. You could also probably use a makeshift tray made out of aluminum foil.

Good luck and great seeding!


Herbal Astringent Skin Treatment With Sage

SageSage is a natural antibacterial and makes a good oily skin astringent that helps deep clean and tone.

Sage Astringent

1 Heaping tablespoon fresh sage chopped fine
¼ Cup white vinegar
¼ Cup boiling water

Steep fresh sage in boiling water until the liquid cools to room temperature. Strain carefully and add vinegar.

Apply to clean skin with a cotton ball twice a day. Pay particular attention to the T-zone around the nose and forehead. Apply moisturizer if skin feels dry after treatment.

This homemade astringent can be decanted into a small bottle and kept at room temperature. If you want to make a double batch, keep half in the refrigerator until needed.


May Wine, May Punch

Photo Sweet Woodruff In order to make traditional May wine, you need to infuse dry white wine, often Rhine wine, with dried woodruff.

Recipe for May Wine with Woodruff

Add a half cup of dried woodruff to a bottle of dry white wine, seal, and store in a dark place (like a cupboard), shaking occasionally, for two weeks to a month.

A few hours before serving, strain, add six tablespoons of sugar, shake, and chill.

When ready to serve, add one bottle of sparkling wine or Champagne to the mixture.

This drink is often served with fruit and topped with strawberries.

Special Note: Woodruff takes on a stronger flavor and fragrance when dried, so for this drink it's best not to use woodruff fresh from the garden.

Growing Sweet Woodruff

For more information on growing and using sweet woodruff, please take a look at my article: Growing Sweet Woodruff


Thoughts on Lemon Balm (Melissa)

Flowering lemon balm

Lemon balm is one of my favorite herbs. It has a light, sweet, lemony fragrance that can be used in many ways in your cooking and crafts. It is also easy to grow.

Lemon Balm Potpourri

One of its traditional uses is in potpourri, where it works well with lavender, rosemary, and rose petals. Be sure to use a fixative to prevent the fragrance from dissipating to quickly. Orris root can be used for this at a concentration of one teaspoon for each 1-½ cups of potpourri. When drying lemon balm, using a dehydrator will help retain leaf coloration.

For a complete Lemon Balm Profile, visit my post: How to Grow Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis)  where you'll learn about its history and discover how to use it lemon balm in cooking, herbal remedies and crafts.


Photo - LemonBalm2.jpg  By Kenraiz - Krzysztof Ziarnek (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Sage Tips and Facts

Photo Common SageSage is a very handy herb. When used as a seasoning for game, it evens out the strong 'wild' flavors. It adds depth to sausage and other fatty meats, and minced fresh, enhances the flavor of creamy cheeses. Sage will usually compliment most foods that contain onion as a major ingredient, and Sage is a good companion for ginger, both in the garden and in cooking.

In the medicine cabinet, sage tea is a natural remedy for headache. Sage mixed with vinegar and water makes a great astringent, and sage hair rinse helps bring out the highlights in dark hair and reduces the appearance of gray.

Sage is a good herb for providing texture in your herb patch, where many herbs can look a little like weeds to the uninitiated. Sage varieties like pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) can be very showy, with its crimson flowers. Others like common sage (Salvia officinalis) have a distinctive gray-green coloration with pebbly leaves. For the color lover, try, purple sage, tri-colored sage, and golden sage. All can be used in crafts and cooking, and make an attractive statement in your landscape.

It's easy to grow sage in your garden as well as indoors. It likes well-drained soil, full sun, and benefits from the addition of bone meal. Take a look at my sage article: Understanding Sage, for planting instructions.


Growing Rosemary

Growing rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) can be a breeze in warm climates. Since it does well as a houseplant, it can also be grown easily in colder climates if brought indoors in winter. There are now also frost tolerant rosemary varieties that are hardy to Zone 5. For some modern, cold hardy cultivars, take a look at my post: Growing Rosemary in Cold Climates.

Special Notes: Rosemary benefits from the addition of lime. A natural solution is to add crushed eggshells to the soil around the plant. I've read that it should be composted first, but I've been adding fresh, pulverized egg shells to my lime loving plants for years with no problems.

It can be tricky keeping rosemary indoors if you don't maintain high humidity in the area around the plant. Try spritzing regularly, and keep a tray of pebbles filled with water under the plant or nearby. Mulching the soil around the top of the plant is a good idea too. Don't assume that higher humidity also means keeping the plant well-watered in winter. A little judicious neglect (watering wise) is better for your rosemary and will keep it in good shape until spring rolls around again. Last winter I watered my rosemary plants four times in three months.  That's it.  I kept them humid though, and spritzed the mulch every once in a while.

 Using Rosemary in Cooking

Rosemary can be difficult to use if you don't know the tricks. The dried leaves are tough and can be prickly in delicate dishes like soups unless it has been minced fine to distribute the flavor and soften the skin. When used fresh, it's always best to retain the whole sprig, removing it before serving your prepared dish. As a marinade ingredient, the leaves can be brushed from the meat before cooking.

I enjoy ground rosemary on roasted potatoes, whole sprigs as a seasoning for minestrone and beef stew, and in a marinade for leg of lamb. It also makes a great garnish, an attractive base for an herb wreath, and an impressive and aromatic houseplant.

Rosemary Tea

Rosemary tea is really good for headaches. Try steeping a sprig of fresh or a tablespoon of dry rosemary in a cup of boiling water for fifteen minutes. Strain and drink. I always sweeten the tea with honey.

Below I've provided my favorite rosemary marinade. Let me know what you think.

Rosemary Marinade for Lamb

I use this marinade for leg of lamb, preparing and applying it the night before. I turn the lamb four or five times over the course of 24 hours and then cook it on a rotisserie.

I have also had it butterflied by the butcher (bone removed), marinated it, and then grilled it. If the leg is small enough, it can be marinated in a plastic bag, otherwise I use a large plastic bin. If I have trouble getting the marinade to make good contact with the lamb, I use a turkey baster each time I turn it.

½ Cup of Lemon Juice
½ Cup of Olive Oil
3 Tablespoons of Red Wine
1 Large Sprig of Fresh Rosemary (about 2 Tablespoons)
5 Cloves of Garlic, Minced Fine
2 Tablespoons of Fresh Mint, Minced Fine
1 Teaspoon of Fresh Thyme
1 Tablespoon Cracked Black Pepper
2 Teaspoons Paprika Powder (sweet)

I baste with the marinade as the lamb cooks. I will typically under cook the lamb, preferring to serve it when it is still pink. This will be several degrees below the recommended internal temperature in most cookbooks. The FDA safety guidelines are clear on the potential hazards of undercooked meat, so use your own best judgment. I'm just telling you what I prefer.

For more thoughts about rosemary, visit my post: Rosemary for Remembrance


Laying out Your Herb Garden

Formal Herb Garden PhotoPreparing the soil and selecting the plants or seeds is only part of the adventure, now comes the layout. Let's recap for a moment.

You have prepared your soil by amending it and working it to a depth of at least six inches. The site you have selected has at least six hours of sunlight each day, and does not sit in a boggy area or in a spot that's riddled with tree roots. Great start!

Now you should be thinking about how to organize your plot. Good housekeeping will require you to reach all the way to the back of the plot for weeding and harvesting. If you can't do that from the front, you will have to add stepping-stones every few feet for ingress and egress (in and out). You'll also have to consider the heights of the plants you are planning on using, together with their light requirements, especially if portions of your plot receive partial shade.

Formal Herb Garden Layouts

Popular layouts include wagon wheels, half wagon wheels, and fans. Some of these are traditional and have a long history. The three mentioned above can also incorporate architectural elements into their design, like statuary, sundials, birdbaths, and fountains. Gardens that can be viewed from the upper stories of your home lend themselves well to these kinds of designs. The spokes or fan divisions can be made with bark, hedges, small stones, brick, wooden dividers, or prepared plastic edging material.

The plants that you keep in each division of the fan or wheel should be roughly the same size to help maintain the visual illusion. It is also helpful to group plants with similarly colored blooms. Your creativity will really shine through if you try for one of these effects, but you can still have a wonderful herb garden without as much work. For more ideas and some layouts, has a good spread on formal herb gardens: About Formal Herb Gardens

Simple Herb Garden Layouts

A simple rectangle border can be transformed when it becomes an herb patch. Be careful to place taller plants toward the back. Borders that are bounded on one or two sides by walls or fences are more sheltered from the wind and are a better choice, particularly in harsh climates. Laying out your plot like a checkerboard can be very effective, grouping herbs that grow to similar heights and have complementary foliage and blooms.

For example: fennel, garlic, rosemary, pineapple sage, dill, tansy, and lavender can grow quite tall and should be placed at the back of the plot, while basil, cilantro, and rue grow slightly smaller, and thyme, chives, marjoram, woodruff, and oregano can be placed at the front.

Invasive creepers like peppermint, catnip, spearmint, and lemon balm can be contained in pots and placed partway into the soil as focal points. Partially submerged pots can also hold tender perennials (frost sensitive) that you plan on bringing indoors in the fall (like rosemary, ginger, bay leaf, and French lavender).

Mark Your Plants With Popsicle Sticks

If you are planning on planting culinary, medicinal, and decorative herbs, be careful to label each one. Rue and feverfew can be dangerous if ingested in high concentrations, so don't risk confusing them for salad ingredients. Small markers made from Popsicle sticks (or disposable silverware knives) can make it easy for even your children to help you snip small quantities of herbs like thyme and chives for the table. For this purpose, I've always kept a pair of kid sized (blunt tipped) scissors near the kitchen door, along with a small basket.

Special Notes:

Give Herbs Room to Grow
Be sure to give your herbs enough room to grow. Many herb varieties grow fast, much faster than you would expect, and can crowd neighbors.

Cut Herbs Back When Necessary
Herbs are naturally hardy, so don't be afraid to cut back dill, fennel, and basil when they start to get leggy or too large. This is a great opportunity to harvest them.

Herb Bolting
Many herbs will bolt when the weather gets hot too fast. Bolting is a process in which herbs begin to direct all of their energies toward flowering and setting seed. It's a survival mechanism. To encourage your plants to slow down and apply more attention to leafing, pinch off flower buds as they begin to appear. If you don't take this measure, your plants will grow long and spindly, producing seeds and little else.

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Easter Thoughts

Be Green This EasterWith Easter coming up, I thought I would make some recommendations about how to celebrate this holiday in a way that will help make your family more ecologically aware. Please visit my holiday blog for thoughts on how gardening can educate a new generation about environmental issues: New Ideas for Easter


Soil Considerations for Your Herb Garden

Grow Your Own CatnipAlthough herbs can tolerate poor soil, the addition of organic material and good drainage are important for the growth of healthy plants. Stressed plants are more susceptible to disease and insect attack. The preparation of good soil will go a long way toward guaranteeing a healthy herb patch.

Good garden soil contains at least 25% humus. Humus is organic material that can be compost, manure (use only processed manure), peat, or prepared mixes. The addition of organic matter will help water interact with the soil and help beneficial organisms loosen the soil and distribute nutrients. Most garden soils that haven't been cultivated will need amendments of one type or another.

Herbs in Clay Soil

Clay soil, which is very common, is dense, drains slowly, and contains little organic matter. In order to make it viable for herbs (or vegetables), it needs to be amended with sand and organic matter.

Herbs in Sandy Soil

Sandy soil drains too well, putting plants at risk of dying out. Sandy soil is also usually low in nutrients. As a result, it needs to be seasoned with organic matter. Water runoff has also probably leeched lime and other minerals from sandy soil. These minerals will have to be replaced.

Herbs in Raised Beds

Another option altogether is to turn your herb patch into a raised bed that is entirely composed of prepared soil. This will have a higher initial cost, but will result in a worry free garden for years to come. If a raised bed sounds like a good solution for you, remember to make it deep enough to accommodate the deepest rooted plants you are planning on keeping.

Herbs in Straw Bales

A mix between a raised bed approach and a hydroponic garden, straw bale gardens are perched on top of straw, hay or mixed grass bales. The bales act like a neutral medium that holds moisture and anchors plant roots. They're great for raising most veggies and herbs, and after a few seasons straw bales decompose and become part of the garden. One nifty side effect is that while your cultivating the top of the bale, worms are working under it to help improve your soil for next season. You can learn more about it in my post: Straw Bale Gardening With Herbs

If you are having a hard time understanding what type of soil you have and how you should handle your gardening projects, check with your local nursery or Cooperative Extension Office. Local wisdom about the nature of the soil in your area will be invaluable in helping you understand how to best treat your herb patch. It will probably turn out that your soil needs a little work, hopefully something that can be done in a weekend.

Herbs in Pots

If you discover that your herb project needs more work than your schedule or wallet can support, don't lose heart. You can also keep herbs in pots indoors or outdoors. For people on the go, apartment dwellers or renters, or people with back problems, this is a great way to garden. This article will get you started: Growing Herbs Indoors

For information on layout, take a look at my blog: Laying Out Your Herb Garden

Herb Locations

Flat Leaf ParsleyLike real estate, important considerations for plants are: location, location, location. Areas that are exposed to high winds, brutal heat, constant heavy shade, abundant shallow tree roots, and standing water are not good choices for most plants, and certainly not for herbs. If you have problem spots that need planting solutions, there are specialty selections that will help you deal with these problems.

Pick a Sheltered Herb Location with Good Sun

For your herb garden, give your plants the best start you can by providing a sheltered location that receives six to eight hours of sunlight each day. Improve heavy soil with lighteners and organic material. You don't need to be as generous with organic material as you would be with vegetables, but some addition of peat moss, steer manure, or pre-mixed blends will help your plants get off to a good start.

Although some plants, like rosemary, benefit from the addition of special elements, you can add them around each individual plant, if necessary. For the most part, you want to work your herb plot to a depth of eight inches and select an area front to back that you can reach easily for weeding. If necessary, include stepping stones for easier access.

Early Planning Pays Off

In the early planning stages, it's important to be as thorough as you can. The work you do now will pay dividends later. The process of keeping a garden from year to year becomes much less work if you've taken the time to prepare well. It's tempting to just dig a hole and throw the plant into it with a little potting mix. This is usually a disaster for both you and the plant. Take a little more time and effort. You will be glad you did.

Pay Attention to Each Herb's Location Recommendations

I always recommend keeping your herbs together in one spot. This makes it easier to harvest them, and the idea of a self-contained herb patch is very appealing. If you plan on placing herbs around your property, be careful to give them plenty of room, and pay attention to their area requirements. Some herbs, like peppermint, have a very invasive habit, and will crowd out more delicate plants if not contained.


Plant Terms Defined

Mixed Herbs Before we start discussing plans for an herb garden, let's define some terms. Herbs and vegetables fall into three broad growing categories that will help you understand what type of future you can expect from them.

Annual Herbs Defined
Plants that complete their life cycle in a single season are said to be annual. That season often starts in the spring and ends with the first frost, but with a very few fall blooming plants, the late start may mean that they will set seed and die the following spring. Basil, dill, and cilantro are examples of annual herbs that are spring blooming and NOT frost hardy.

Biennial Herbs Defined
Biennial plants have a two-year life cycle, germinating in spring, going mostly dormant in winter, and coming into bloom the following spring. After blooming and setting seed, they quickly die. These plants are in the minority, and all that I know of are frost hardy. Of the herbs, the most popular biennial that comes to mind is parsley.

Perennial Herbs Defined
Perennial plants survive from season to season. They are self-renewing and can be friends in the garden for many years if well cared for.

Hardy Perennials
Hardy perennials can be mulched in the fall and survive harsh winters under a warm blanked of shredded leaves or bark. Oregano, winter savory, mint, sage, and thyme are all examples of hardy perennials.

Tender Perennials
Many tender perennial herbs that cannot survive a harsh winter set seed each year and can be treated like annuals in cold climates where they are unsuited to a harsh winter.

You can bring many tender perennials indoors to overwinter. French lavender does well as a potted indoor plant, as do rosemary and aloe vera. They can be moved indoors before the first hard frost in the fall and returned to the garden in spring. This is a good arrangement for herbs that are unsuited to overwinter in your climate, but grow too slowly to be treated as an annual.

Special Note: My tender perennials are kept in pots year round. I place the pots on my deck or in my flowerbeds in spring, and then treat them for pests and bring them indoors in the fall. This arrangement has worked well for my lavender, aloe vera, and rosemary for years.


What's the Difference Between an Herb and a Vegetable?

Herbs differ from vegetables in that they are primarily used as an accompaniment and not served alone. Vegetables can be eaten alone, cooked or raw. Many herbs can be raised with vegetables, and they can make good pairings to promote a pest free growing environment. Herbs are commonly resistant to pests because they have strong flavors and aromas that many pests avoid.

Because they are hardy and often native to poor soils, herbs are easier to grow than many vegetables. Be careful when combining them to make sure that they don't grow so successfully that they crowd everything else out. Keep them cut back for the best results.

As you can harvest herbs as soon as they mature, and then regularly throughout the remainder of the season, pruning is a good reason to get in the garden and snip a weekly supply of basil for pesto, cilantro for tacos, oregano for pizza, or dill for salmon.

What's the Difference Between Herbs and Spices?

There is some overlap, but the basic difference between an herb and a spice is that spices are considered tropical or semi-tropical in origin. They can be composed of leaves, bark, roots, dried fruits, seeds, or nuts. Almost all spices are imported, and can come from vines, shrubs, or trees.


Growing and Harvesting Ginger

How to Grow Ginger Plant
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) grows from a spreading, tuberous rhizome. It does well in moist fertile soil in warm winter areas. If you've seen ginger in the grocery store, the root looks like a flattened, beige, segmented bulb. The foliage is tall and dark green in color, springing from upright, rigid stems. Even in areas that experience a hard frost, ginger can be grown in large pots and over-wintered indoors.

Sprout Ginger from Root Stock

There are many varieties of ginger, but for a good introduction to keeping this useful herb, select your stock from the local grocery store (really!). The resulting plants should be hardy and attractive, probably producing small, yellow (or maybe red) flowers. Look for large root pieces that are shiny and chubby and have little nubs or horns on them. These are the sections that will sprout.  To wash off any growth retardant the wholesaler may have added to the roots, soak ginger in tepid water for a few hours and rinse before planting.

Start ginger in a large shallow pot that contains one-part sand to one-part potting soil. I generally use a 14" pot filled three quarters full with soil. Lay rooting pieces horizontally, placing them two or three inches apart around the center of the pot. Cover with about three inches of soil. Ginger likes to grow in morning light and dappled afternoon light. While sprouting, make sure to keep the roots uniformly moist.

Botanical Print Ginger PlantWhen sprouts appear (this will take a few weeks) you will see white-green shoots that grow rapidly. Avoid harvesting ginger for an entire season. This allows the plants to get a good start in life. Ginger doesn't really take off until it begins to get crowded in the pot, so expect modest growth at first.

Once you have a thriving set of shoots and leaves, place the plants in a shady spot out of doors for a few hours a day after the overnight temperature rises above 55 to 60 degrees F. Leaf color may pale somewhat for a few weeks during the transition period. Increase the time outside over five days or so, and then place the pot in a shady permanent location. The three big things about ginger to remember are:

  • Ginger needs gentle sun to light shade.
  • It requires regular watering to supplement rainfall.
  • Ginger won't tolerate freezing temperatures.

To keep plants fed, apply an all-purpose fertilizer twice during the growing season only.

Overwintering Ginger in Cold Climates

In the fall, bring the pot indoors where the temperature stays above freezing. Allow the foliage to yellow and fade; then trim it off. Moisten the soil once a month to keep the roots viable. In the spring, after all threat of frost has passed, place the pot in a warm shady spot and watch for a new set of shoots. Repot plants in spring every couple of years.

Harvesting Ginger

As the root is near the surface, you will often see small nobs at the soil line of your plant(s) that can be selectively cut for culinary use. Start harvesting about four months into the season and choose roots around the outer edge of the pot. At the end of the growing season when the leaves start to fade, uproot the plant and take a larger harvest if you need to.

Special Note:

If growing ginger directly in the soil, be sure to keep the plant moist. I've had success placing it near a downspout where it will be sure to get good water runoff, particularly in the heat of summer. Mulching is a good idea, too.

To make your fresh ginger last in the fridge, see my post:  Preserving Ginger.
How to Grow Ginger Root
Cut ginger root

Photo 1 - Ginger1_Wiki.jpg By Venkatx5 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 2 - Public Domain Botanical Print

Photo 3 - Ginger3_Wiki.jpg By Mgmoscatello (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Starting Garlic From Cloves

Garlic BulbYou can start garlic from the bulbs you buy at your local grocery store. This is true of regular and elephant garlic. Here's how.

Starting Garlic from Cloves

Separate the cloves and let them dry on your counter for a few days, but don't peel the paper off. Prepare potting soil to which you have added sand or another loosening agent. If you are planting garlic directly into the garden and have heavy clay, liberally amend your soil to loosen it. The best time to plant is mid-spring, but in more temperate climates (no heavy freezes), you can start garlic in spring or fall.

Plant cloves, pointed side up, in loose soil about three inches deep and three inched apart. Pick a sunny spot with good drainage.

The good news is that your garlic doesn't require any special handling. The bad news is that the bulbs won't be ready to harvest until the end of NEXT summer. You'll know because the foliage will turn yellow and start to droop. When the tops have turned brown (you can help them along by breaking the stems once they've started to turn yellow, just be sure to leave them attached to the plant), remove the bulbs from the soil and allow them dry for a week. Braid the tops into a chain and store your garlic chain in a dark place. Be sure to keep enough stock to plant out next spring.

Special Notes on Growing Garlic

The young tops of garlic are edible, but test them first because they can be bitter. Grow garlic with rue to keep away Japanese beetles. The three things you need for a healthy garlic crop are a good sunny location, loose soil, and good drainage. In cool, damp climates garlic can contract fungus often referred to as white or pink rot. If your crop is affected, try planting in another location next year. Rot spores can live in the soil for years. Need to use that spot again next season? Check out this cheap and effective way to sterilize garden soil: The Green Way to Sterilize Garden Soil.

You can also grow garlic from seed, leafless flower stalks called scapes and  the round or uneven shaped bulbils growing from the plant's leaf axils.  It's all good, but takes about two years to reach juicy, chubby maturity.

Grocery Store Herbs and Vegetables Can be Grown in Your Garden

It's amazing how useful your grocery store can be as a source of herbs and vegetables for the garden. The seeds from many of your vegetables like tomatoes, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, and bell peppers can be dried and planted out in spring.

Roots like ginger can be planted directly into the soil (if they haven't been treated to retard sprouting). Fruits like cantaloupe often have viable seeds, as do other melons. Even scallions can be planted out if they have enough undamaged root left at the tip.