Thursday

Produce Department Herb Plants

The next time you head off to your local produce department, take another look at the fresh herb plants. Usually tucked in an out of the way corner, often by the sacks of peanuts and dried fruits, the culinary herb plants will usually be sitting in black moulded plastic trays. They're green and hardy, or at least they start out that way.

They make me a little sad every time I walk by, and I can't tell you how many times I've bought a straggling plant out of sympathy. I have a big golden sage plant by my roses that found its way into my local grocery and languished because it was probably considered diseased by shoppers looking for something greener. When I finally broke down and bought it, there were two or three stems left and they looked pretty pitiful. The clerk at the checkout couldn't believe I was spending good money for it - and neither could I.

The story has a happy ending. I put the plant in the ground and all was well.

If you buy herbs in pots for their freshness, use part of the plant, and try giving the rest a little sun and water and see what happens. They don't have to be disposable. Many are perennials and can be planted in your garden or potted indoors for years of use and enjoyment.

Just a thought.

Tuesday

Plant Tea This Spring

There are many herbal teas that are made from ingredients that you can grow in your garden easily: sage, ginger, apple mint, saffron, chamomile flowers, peppermint, dandelion, lemon balm, fennel, and lemon thyme among others, all make good teas that can be blended for their unique flavor and restorative properties. When planning your herb garden this year, don't forget to make a spot for tea ingredients.

Luckily, many of these plants are hardy perennials, coming back year after year without much effort from you. Watch for future blogs that will give you some great tips for planting a tea garden, as well as recipes that will make good use of your crops. In the meantime, order your free herb catalogs so you can get an early start on spring planting. Visit my free herb catalog list to put in your order. Free Herb Catalogs

Happy shopping.

Sunday

Dried Herb Ideas – Useful Decoration

Dried Pepper WreathWhen I bring in my chili pepper crop, I always dry a batch on the dehydrator (after blanching them in boiling water for about five seconds), and string them on heavy twine with an upholstery needle. This long garland of bright red peppers decorates my kitchen, and pinch-hits as a last minute source of chili peppers for homemade burritos and chimichangas. I will usually take the season end peppers that haven't turned red and make a green garland too.

This isn't the only useful herb decoration that I use. I make yearly herb wreaths and swags. I also make lavender pillows, candles, bath salts and sugars. I knot long strands of chives, which I dry and hang by a hook near the stove. The dried chives lose their flavor pretty rapidly, but I keep indoor plants, too.

I mention this because I get comments from time to time from people who what to keep herbs but are afraid that they won't know what to do with them. Over the years, I've found so many uses for my herbs, that the problem now if finding the time to get everything done in a single season.

Growing Herbs - A Natural Way to Go Green

Going green is the latest trend, and thank heavens, but herb gardeners have been doing it for ages. What better way to stay healthy, season your food, decorate your home, deal with pests, and treat your minor ailments than with home grown herbs.

Growing Herbs is a Natural way to Begin a Greener Lifestyle

Growing herbs is a great start on becoming a gardener and an environmentalist. Herbs generally prefer poor soil, are natural pest repellents, require little special handling, and give you fragrance, flavor, and often other benefits in return for your trouble.

Going green isn't just a movement or a marketing slogan; it's an attitude about nature and your place in it. Gardeners know what I mean. Once you've started a garden, you begin to respect nature in new ways. Going green is the next logical step in getting reacquainted with the earth and becoming an earth advocate.

If you really want to go green, start by planting a spring garden. You can easily grow organic vegetables for your table and herbs to use as seasonings. Many of the herbs you plant will also help to keep pests away from other plants in your garden, like rue and garlic to keep Japanese beetles away from your roses. This will cut back or eliminate your need for pesticides.

The produce and herbs you grow will be natural, and your efforts will have borne a harvest for your table that didn’t rely on fossil fuels to transport or plastics to package for market.

Get Your Children Involved in Nature

Give your children a reason to love playing in the dirt. At the end of the season, they can gather seeds for next year's crop, label, and set them aside in a cool, dark place. The simple act of tending the garden and gathering seeds will teach them more about environmentalism than a binder full of pamphlets.

As you enjoy your successes, the idea of composting and other recycling measures will become more inviting, and before you know it, you will be looking for the recycling symbol on your purchases and following the latest legislation with new interest.

Begin With a Simple Herb and Vegetable Garden

Start with what they used to call a 'kitchen garden', a garden of plants for your own culinary and medicinal use. Try planting dill to season your fish, basil and oregano to spice up your prepared pasta and pizza sauces, hot peppers for your tacos and burritos, and plum tomatoes for your own pico de gayo (fresh salsa). For stomach upsets, plant a little peppermint and ginger for tea.

Pay particular attention to the instructions on the plants or seed packets you buy. Although herbs are pretty forgiving of poor soil, they do need good drainage. If you know that your soil is heavy clay, add sand and organic material to loosen it up. You can even use coffee grounds and crushed egg shells to help prepare your soil.

While you are reading the labels on your plants or seeds, make a note of how high the plants will grow, how far apart to plant them, and how much sun they will need. Watch the spot in your garden where you are planning your herb patch, and make a drawing on a scratch pad of where the sunniest and shadiest spots are located. Sketch out your plant arrangement, placing the sun loving plants in the sunniest spots in your herb patch, taller plants toward the back. Give them plenty of room to spread out.

A little forethought and an afternoon's work will give you a great start on your own kitchen garden, and that's a very green thing to do.

Wednesday

Headache Remedy - Accupressure, Aromatherapy, and a Foot Bath

If you suffer from headaches and are reluctant to take conventional painkillers, there's a fast and easy way to get relief. Take a footbath.

Soaking your feet and applying gentle acupressure to the base of your toes while you're doing it will be as effective a many other methods, maybe more so. Include the relaxing benefits of aromatherapy by adding some lavender to the water. If you've made a batch of lavender bath salts, that would be perfect. Check for my recipe here: Make Lavender Bath Salts

At the first signs of a headache, start your footbath. Make the water hot, as warm as you can stand, and massage each foot for at least five minutes. If you've used lavender, take deep breaths of the steam as you make firm circular motions with your thumbs across the base of all of your toes.

To finish off, massage the bottoms of your feet, too.

Making Lavender Scented Candles

Candle making is inexpensive, and once you've done it a few times, it's easy too. Whether you are going in for the more expensive beeswax candles, are opting for parafin, or are thinking about recycling old candles that are lying around the house, combining candle making and aromatherapy can be a great way to enhance your environment, your mood, and your sense of accomplishment.

Herb Scented Candles - Lavender

Lavender is a safe and reliable aromatherapy scent. Working on your central nervous system, lavender relaxes you and increases your sense of well-being. It also helps you get to sleep. When you combine the relaxing qualities of candlelight and lavender aromatherapy, you have a sure winner. I've written a how-to for candlemaking here: Easy Lavender Scented Candles

When you've had a chance to relax with your lavender candle, come back and tell me about it.

Oh, I'll be on holiday until the 20th, so enjoy your candle making while I'm gone.

Planting Spring Seeds Indoors

I wrote an article a few days ago and have posted a link to it at the bottom of this page. It will give you some good tips and tricks for starting seeds indoors in February or March. I have thought of an additional tip that can be fun.

I've started seeds between sheets of paper towels. Check it out: Starting Seeds Between the Sheets

Small peat coins can be a useful starting medium for seeds, but I like using potting soil with egg shells too. I think of it as being environmentally responsible. I save egg shells and cardboard egg cartons, wash and dry the shells, poke a hole in the bottom, fill them with potting soil and place them in the egg cartons. Once I add the seeds, I water them carefully and moisten the top of the soil twice daily with a mister bottle. When it's time to plant the seedlings outdoors, I cut away some of the shell with a pair of shears.

Vegetables often grow larger, faster and are better suited for peat pots that can be placed right into the ground.

Using eggshells is a little more work, but I find it satisfying. Maybe you will too. It's also a neat solution for providing extra nutrients to acid loving seedlings.

Every year I look around the house to find more ways to use the things I would otherwise discard. I also try to find more natural alternatives to the products I use. In cleaning, for example, I make up batches of four thieves vinegar. I also use undiluted vinegar as a disinfectant and antibacterial around the kitchen and potting area.

I recycle bottles to use as gifts. I fill them with homemade bath salts, herb blends, herb sugars, scented water, dried herbs, and as containers for homemade aromatherapy candles. These activities give an individual stamp to my gifts, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I use what I grow. This blog offers instructions and recipes for doing all of these activities.

This spring, give herbs a try. They give so much back for the effort you expend.

Starting Seeds in Spring

Monday

Herb Gardening in the Desert

Keeping Herbs In A Desert EnvironmentKeeping herbs in the desert can be challenging, but they provide so much value to your home and garden that they are worth some extra effort.

Herbs and Desert Soil

Herbs are often native to poor soils, but desert dirt has special problems when it comes to sustaining plants. The presence of salts and acidic minerals makes gardening herbs and other temperate plants more difficult. Raised beds that have been amended with sand for drainage and organic material for nutrients will give the desert herb gardener the best spot for a cottage herb garden. Some words of caution: Make sure that your raised bed is narrow enough front to back to reach all of your plants, and make your beds deep enough to accommodate the root system of your deepest rooting herbs.

If you are trying to create a garden from native soil, leaching may be necessary to remove unwanted minerals. This process requires repeated applications of water, and may have disappointing results if caliche, or other geographical features that inhibit water drainage are present.

Desert Herbs Have Special Water Needs

Water in the desert comes dear, so use it wisely by installing a drip irrigation system. Drip irrigation puts the water where it will do the most good, and limits water loss as a result of evaporation. When setting up your system, make sure that each of the herbs you plant has enough water for its root ball. During the hottest part of the summer, your herbs will be stressed anyway. Don't risk losing them by irregular watering.

Another way to help keep water available to your herbs is by including water beads with your soil amendments. Providing beads that absorb many times their weight in water is like including a mini reservoir next to your plant's root system.

Mulch Your Desert Herbs

Herbs in the desert need stable temperatures. Providing a thick layer of straw or bark will give your herbs a lower and more stable temperature, as well as help to absorb and retain moisture. After the first application of mulch, water your bed thoroughly and test for water absorption. To keep your plants healthy, the water has to penetrate the mulch and saturate the underlying soil. Once you know how much water will do the trick, you'll be able to begin an effective watering program.

Desert Winds and Your Herbs

In many areas, desert winds can exceed 70 MPH. In order to keep your herbs safe and in the ground, be sure to give them the shelter of a wall or fence. Northern facing walls can also give your herbs some welcome shade.

Using large stones, statuary, and low decorative fencing can also create mini windbreaks that will protect individual plants, particularly shallow rooted varieties like mints, and annuals with tall habits that are relatively shallow rooted for their height, like dill.

If you deal successfully with the three areas that present the most problems for the desert gardener, soil, water, and wind, you will be on your way to keeping a thriving cottage herb garden.

If you want more tips on gardening in a desert environment, check my gardening blog entry:

Bringing Your Desert Soil to Life

Friday

Make Lavender Water

Ironing Water Scented with Lavender Lavender water is a good way to add the fragrance of lavender to your linens, general cleaning, and crafts.

Lavender Water Recipe

4 Cups Distilled Water
5 Tablespoons of Vodka (Cheap Vodka is okay)
30 Drops of Essential Oil of Lavender

Mix thoroughly and decant into decorative bottles, atomizers, or all-purpose spritzer bottles.

You can also use it in spritzer bottle when ironing clothes, or pour it directly into your iron. If you use vinegar as a disinfectant, you can mix lavender water with your vinegar to give it a sweeter fragrance.

Uses for Lavender Water

Vinegar is a scent that isn't overtly flowery, so it's a favorite with men and women. It has a complex chemical composition, but it doesn't compete with the other fragrances in your home. A little lavender in the rinse cycle when washing your sheets, or sprayed on your pillowcase a few hours before bedtime can help relax you to sleep.

It also works well in your kitchen. If you want to mask kitchen odors, wipe your countertops, appliances, and kitchen trash container with lavender water. Unlike cleansers or air fresheners, it doesn't have a heavy masking quality, but does a good job of reducing the pungency of undesirable odors like garlic, onions, and burnt food.

Thursday

Snuggle up With Lavender in Your Bed Pillow

Dried Lavender Flowers Put your dried lavender flowers to good use in helping you get a restful night's sleep. Just tuck a muslin bag filled with a tablespoon or two of dried lavender flowers into your pillow or under your sheets near the top of the mattress. The essential oil in the lavender will help your body relax by helping to slow your central nervous system.
Just try it once and you'll be hooked. If you suffer from insomnia, night sweats, or nightmares, give this natural remedy a try before you resort to something stronger.

Read on: Lavender Bed Pillow

Wednesday

Make Lavender Facial Scrub

Lavender facial scrub uses the antibacterial properties of lavender and the soothing qualities of almonds to exfoliate and rejuvenate your skin. It smells wonderful, and can be a great overall relaxing agent if you apply the scrub while you are still in the bath or shower. Consider it a small aromatherapy benefit to the process.

If you have dry or sensitive skin, the almonds are particularly effective, and the oatmeal will leave your skin feeling smooth and pampered.


Lavender Facial Scrub Recipe


Ingredients
 
1/2 cup of ground lavender flowers
1/2 cup ground unsalted almonds
1 cup ground oatmeal
The mixture should be ground fine and applied to the skin with a little water. To use, take about a tablespoon full and place it in the palm of your hand. Add enough water to create a paste.

Apply the paste to your skin in a circular motion, paying particular attention to your T-zone. (The area around your nose and your forehead.) Use even pressure. Allow the scrub to dry on your skin for five minutes and then rinse. Your skin should appear pink and be noticeably softer to the touch.

Lavender Facial ScrubDead skin cells increase the appearance of fine lines, so exfoliating regularly will help your skin stay healthier and help you look younger.

This scrub is also effective when used to exfoliate and soften the skin on the elbows, knees, and the bottoms of your feet. If you suffer from foot odor problems, the lavender will even help kill foot bacteria. 



For a skin revitalizing scrub, take a look at my recipe: Honey Lavender Facial Scrub. You'll like the way it makes your skin feel.

Tuesday

History of the Wild Mustard Plant and the Conquistadors

The Wild Mustard One of my favorite stories about herbs involves the Conquistadors. The mustard plant was introduced to the Americas by the conquistadors or their attendant Padres (depending on who you're listening to), who planted the fast sprouting seeds to mark their trails. The fast-flowering plants were seeded to show them a golden road back along their route (the yellow brick road?).

An annual, wild mustard is now widespread throughout America, and can be identified by its small, bright, yellow, broad leaved, four-petalled flowers. Mustard grows to a height of one to two feet, and is considered an invasive weed in many areas. Each plant can produce thousands of seeds, so in areas where it encroaches on agricultural crops, it can be a real pest. (It can be a tricky plant to identify because it shares so many characteristics in common with other wild species.)

Monday

Make Pico de Gallo

Pico de Gayo is a refreshing summer salsa made from fresh ingredients. An uncooked chow-chow, pico de gayo is easy to make and is full of vitamins and minerals. Use it as a dip, condiment, or as an ingredient in more complex dishes like chimichangas, omelets, or rice dishes.

What Types of Herbs are in Pico de Gallo

Pico de Gallo uses some herb favorites like cumin, cinnamon, garlic, cilantro, parsley, and pepper. If you are a gardener, it also shows your tomatoes, green peppers, jalapenos, tomatillos, and green onions to advantage.

Just the right addition to a spring celebration or summer feast, pico de gayo is light and refreshing, with just the right amount of heat. Twenty minutes of preparation will make you look like a kitchen wizard with international credentials.

This recipe will get you started. But the list of variations at the bottom of the page should give you some idea of the potential pico de gallo has for customization: My Pico de Gallo Recipe with variations.

Sunday

No Tears Onions

No Tears OnionIf you think that onions are the spice of life, you'll be pleased to learn that scientists in New Zealand have perfected a no tears onion. Using the wonders of biotechnology, they were able to switch off the gene controlling the enzyme that causes us to cry. This discovery could put an end to the days of slicing onions for your French onion soup under water, and other strategies for chopping onions without tears.

Onions and Gene Silencing

The answer to the puzzle of why onions make us cry rested in the conversion of sulfur compounds into tear producing agents. Redirecting these compounds into elements within onions that impart additional flavor might eventually result in a tastier onion. Colin Eady, senior scientist at the New Zealand research institute, said that the onion project began after scientists in Japan located the tear-producing gene in 2002.

Science and Our Food Supply

Switching off the tear producing gene in onions is cutting edge DNA technology that raises questions about how far we want science to go in improving the food we eat. The prospect of a no tears onion is convenient, but can't help but raise questions about what we may be sacrificing for the convenience.

How Long To Market for the No Tears Onion?

Eady speculated that it would be 10 to 15 years before his wonder onion was ready for mass-market production. His hope in altering foods with gene silencing was to develop produce that would result in more reliable crop yields and thus a more robust and efficient food supply.

Saturday

Herb Notes for February

The following are a few thoughts on the herbs I keep around the house.

Peppermint

Grow peppermint in a glass of water. A kitchen window is great for this. It will root readily and be available for garnishes all winter long. Fresh peppermint is a flavorful addition to English Breakfast tea, or hot chocolate.

Chives

Indoor grown chives make a convenient substitution for green onion in omlettes and twice baked potatoes. Keep an inexpensive pair of sissors near the pot and snip them as needed, leaving four or five inches intact.

Lavender

The English lavender plant that I keep in the den doesn't bloom during the winter, but it does give off a strong lavender fragrance. A small spring placed in a pillowcase will give me sweet dreams all week.

Aloe Vera

The large potted aloe vera by the garden door is dormant all winter, and I only water it a few times. It stays uniformly green and attractive, even though it gets less light than I would have thought necessary (three to four hours).

Dill

Dill sprouts for me very easily, and I try to keep a crop growing all year. In the winter, I set seeds indoors in October and again in January. I cut them back before they start getting leggy. They seldom make it until spring, but at least I have fresh dill for salmon.

Herb Wreath

Every year I make a wreath of herbs from the garden. I use rosemary and sage around a grapevine base, and add fresh marjoram, oregano, basil, thyme, lavender, chives, feverfew, peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm, and woodruff in small bunches. Once they've dried in place, I go back and fill in with red peppers that I've dried ahead of time, together with other decorative elements like ribbon, cinnamon sticks, and dried roses.

I snip herbs off the wreath all winter as I need them. Of all the herb gifts that I've given over the years, wreaths are by far the favorite.

Making Peel and Eat Shrimp

Easy Peel and Eat Shrimp If you've eaten peel-and-eat shrimp at the local buffet, you know what tasteless shrimp is like. Not only that, those poor crustaceans also have the consistency of rubber balls. The key to delicious, juicy, tender, homemade, peel-and-eat shrimp is in not overcooking them.

Pick Your Shrimp

You can now find de-veined raw shrimp in your grocery store. This is your best bet for an easy shrimp making experience. Check to make sure that they are loosely frozen to insure that they weren't partially thawed somewhere along the line.

What You Will Need to Prepare Great Peel and Eat Shrimp

Shrimp
Beer (enough to cover the shrimp to a depth of three inches, preferably dark beer)
Whole Peppercorns
Large bowl filled with crushed ice
Spider (or large slotted spoon)

After you've defrosted the shrimp, place the beer in a saucepan with a handful of peppercorns and bring to a boil.

Place the raw shrimp in the rapidly boiling beer, being careful not to crowd them. Turn them carefully, and remove them with the slotted spoon as soon as they turn pink. They cook fast, so be prepared.

Place the cooked shrimp in the bowl of crushed ice and pour enough ice over them to cover completely. Redistribute the shrimp to eliminate hot spots. Set them in the refrigerator to cool.

Special Note: These are the tricks to the shrimp-making process

The beer and peppercorns impart flavor and keep the shrimp moist. Submerging the shrimp in ice as soon as they're cooked stops the cooking process cold (no pun intended). Remember, overcooking is the enemy.

If you are planning on making more than a pound at a time, prepare your shrimp in smaller batches in order to guarantee that you remove them as soon as they're cooked.

Next time we'll talk about making Pico de Gallo.

Another Special Note: How to Peel Shrimp

Make a straight incision from the back of the head (the opposite of the tail if they're headless), down to the tail. Remove the outer shell and the intestine. Pinch off the tail. After a little practice, this goes pretty quickly. If you have lots to clean and peel, wear gloves. The liquid can cause a skin reaction with prolonged exposure.