Friday

The Magnificent Mint Mojito

Mojito and fresh mint photoI'm waxing a bit poetic, but if you like mint, rum and lime, this Cuban cocktail was made for you. It's refreshing on a hot day with just the hint of a citrus bite to keep it interesting. On Kentucky Derby day, this wonderful little drink makes a nice change from the traditional mint julep, especially if you aren't into bourbon.

A classic recipe follows. Mint and limes are essential for a good mojito, but the variety of mint makes a difference: My favorites are peppermint and chocolate mint as opposed to plain spearmint or the politically correct Cuban mint Mentha x villosa. I also like to add a sprig of lime balm (or lemon balm if that's all I have access to). This drink is a natural for anyone who grows herbs. You'll be popular around Kentucky Derby time, and probably all summer long.

A Classic Mojito with Mint and Lime Recipe

2 tsp. powdered sugar
2 tablespoons, lime juice (use fresh lime, please)
6 Mint leaves
2 oz. White rum
2 oz. Club soda
Crushed ice
Decorative sprig of ice or lime balm

Mojito Directions

Add the first three ingredients to a Collins glass (tall and narrow) and blend. Make sure to crush the leaves thoroughly. I use a wooden spoon, but most traditional recipes call for a muddle and suggest muddling the leaves in the bottom of the glass. (Muddling is "smashing together" to release the juices.)

Fill the glass with crushed ice, and then add rum and club soda.

Decorate with a slice of lime and a sprig of mint.

Mojito Tips and Substitutions

Some variations can enhance the overall effect of your mojitos. Add equal parts lime balm and mint, or even lemon time and mint. You can substitute granulated sugar for powdered sugar too. I've also used stevia syrup (1 tsp. at our house, but experiment with what works for you), which makes the drink a pretty green and lower in calories.

On a hot, humid day, a mojito can clear your palate or just give you an excuse to sit down and enjoy all that hard work you've been putting into the garden. Give one a try.

If you'd like to stick with a classic mint julep, this recipe's a sure bet: How to Make a Mint Julep

Tuesday

Garden Tips and News From Around the Web

Spider's WebIt's time for a little more link love and I have some goodies for you.

  • Here's a great garden seed planting chart (mostly for veggies) that will help you know how much space you'll need for the yields you have in mind: Seed Planting Chart
  • If you garden, and you probably do if you've stumbled onto this page, you've no doubt been concerned about changes in agriculture and agri-business over the last couple of decades. If you worry about heirloom seeds and old-growth trees, this heartening piece about orchard preservation on Great Britain will be worth a couple of minutes of your time: Ancient Orchards Restored to Save Fruit and Wildlife
  • If you wonder a little about the seeds you plant every spring and worry about what all the cloning, treating and heirloom stuff means. This video will explain a lot, heighten your awareness and make you think. It's long but worth a coffee break: The Future of Food and Seed
  • HowStuffWorks.com is a Discovery Communications website. They're the folks that own the cable channels: Discovery, TLC and others. They have a great article on different types of soil and how soil content impacts plants. It's worth a read if, like me, you're always worried about giving plants the soil conditions they need: 10 Types of Soil and When to Use Each
  • This is an important time for gardeners, herb enthusiasts and people who love the outdoors. While you're conducting your outdoor activities this season, don't forget to wear sunscreen. Skin cancer (melanoma) is the most prevalent cancer in the U.S., so take precautions by wearing sunscreen of at least an SPF15 that screens out UVA and UVB rays. The CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has a skin cancer fact sheet you can take a look at here: Basic Information About Skin Cancer. It's important.

Stay safe.

Sara

Monday

5 More Herb Recommendations for Your Garden This Year

Stevia PlantI have a few more suggestions for your herb patch this season. Some of them are a little unexpected, but they're part of what makes herb gardening such a special gardening pursuit. Most of these offerings are pretty easy to grow once you get them started, but the first three: stevia, ginger and tea camellia aren't frost tolerant. You can over-winter them indoors, or in the case of stevia, over winter new cuttings from the mother plant.

Stevia - Plant some stevia; you'll be happily surprised at how sweet and useful it is. It's actually pretty amazing. Just place your plant order early. Stevia is notoriously difficult to start from seed (of 20 seeds I planted only two sprouted, and I've been doing this for a while).

Ginger - Start a big pot of ginger if you do any oriental cooking. It's very convenient and you can bring it indoors from a shady garden spot when the weather gets chilly in autumn. This is one houseplant cum patio plant that pays for itself. There's also something satisfying about harvesting a little bit of the chubby outer tuberous rhizome (root) for your evening stir fry.

Tea Camellia - If you don't have to worry about autumn frost or have a big, sunny window available, try your hand at growing tea plant. Making your own teas is all kinds of fun, and having a plant of your own will encourage you to learn more about this old and often complex beverage.

Saffron - Plant out some saffron crocus of your very own. (Yes, saffron spice free or about as close as you'll ever get!). This is a summer planting project. I'll post more about this great little bulb as planting time approaches. If you're not a saffron enthusiast, you soon will be.

Specialty Mints - Install mint in a wet corner of your property. This one made my spring list, but why not consider buying some unique varieties this year. I like peppermint, but apple mint and chocolate mint are running a close second. Mint is refreshing in salads and amazing in beverages like mojitos and mint juleps. It's also wonderful on lamb. It makes a soothing tea if you have an upset stomach, and it's a pretty bouquet herb (peppermint especially). Hint: Keep it corralled in the flowerbed. If it likes the accommodations it'll take over.

Note: The stevia plant in the photo will grow to about three feet. It's a nice little addition that makes an easy, very sweet and calorie free syrup.

Sunday

Herbs Can Save You Money in the Kitchen

Stir FryHerbs can save you money in the kitchen. They'll help you eat healthier too. A few simple tricks can make keeping an herb garden a boon for your family and your pocketbook. An average American family spends about 10% of its annual income on food. Saving even a little of those thousands of dollars can pay for your garden and then some.

There's one thing to keep in mind before you begin. Working with herbs is a labor of love, but it is still labor. When you invest that time in the kitchen, you'll be making more things from scratch, and that's very good news. It takes more time, but it's time well spent.

Prepared meals from the store or drive-through are more expensive and packed with additives and preservatives you don't need to be adding to your diet. Making things from scratch is cheaper and better for you. When you're using your own home grown herbs to do it, the task becomes more of a hobby and less of a chore. If you like the idea of keeping herbs, want to take more control of your diet, learn a few nifty cooking methods and save money in the process, you're on the right track:

Don't throw out that stale bread; make herbed croutons or herbed bread crumbs with it. If you make your own croutons you'll also be avoiding some of those nasty preservatives in the prepared stuff. This recipe will get you started. To make breadcrumbs, grind up seasoned croutons. I make batches of both at once and keep them in the fridge.

Substitute fresh herbs for seasoning packets. You don't need to pay a bundle to make flavorful meatloaf. Use fresh herbs and add some cottage cheese to keep things moist and make the meat go farther. (No one will know.) A little tofu works for this too. Other good herb-packet substitution candidates: sloppy Joes, meat balls, pot roast and any of a number of salad dressing mixes or specialty herb blends.

Make your own simple antibacterial cleanser with white vinegar, lemon balm and lavender. It's a great natural cleaning solution around kid's play areas, pet feeding areas, countertops, doorknobs and anywhere you want to watch out for chemical residue.

Substitute spices for part of the salt requirement in food. Too much salt increases your blood pressure, makes you retain water and does a host of other nasty things. Help your family cut back on salt intake by adding a few more spices and herbs to your food. Paprika, chives, parsley, pepper and oregano are flavorful seasonings that will make it easier to handle less salt on your potato or in your eggs.

Use less meat in your dishes. A big plate of greens may not seem too appealing, but cutting back to four meatballs instead of six might not be too much of a sacrifice, especially if the beans, spinach and cauliflower have been seasoned to perfection. Cutting back on meat makes good sense from a health perspective too. Instead, go for vegetables and legumes that have those all-important amino acids and spice them up with oregano, basil, dill, marjoram, cilantro, cumin, rosemary, sage, thyme, parsley or curry plant.

Eat a few more eggs (which are mild and taste wonderful with herbs). Eggs aren't the evil-doers you've been taught to avoid all these years, and having an inexpensive egg dish with herbs for dinner one night a week will save you money. Eggs are an inexpensive source of protein that's plentiful and easy to prepare. How about a nice frittata or quiche? Herbs can be an inspired addition to an egg dish because eggs are naturally mild in flavor and bring out the essential (and spectacular) favor of fresh herbs.

Branch out. Now that you're growing herbs, new culinary vistas will open up. If you only know of two really good ways to cook a tasty chicken breast, having access to five or ten favorites will encourage you to buy chicken in bulk and cut back on more expensive options or, horrors, eat out three or more times a week. Inexpensive cuts of beef and pork can taste wonderful when you prepare them in a slow cooker to tenderize them and give them some herbal flavor boosters. Give it a try.

Saving money is a hobby for some folks who walk around with piles of coupons. If you'd like to make your hobby pay but aren't into nickel and diming your purchases (hey, don't get angry. I use coupons, too. I just don't enjoy it), try using herbs to make your kitchen chores more entertaining, and explore some flavorful and creative ways to save money in the kitchen.

Saturday

Thoughts on a Sunday Garden

If you garden, or just like garden plants, Sundays have a particular appeal. After the paper, church, the cartoons, or your favorite hangover treatment, the greenery starts to beckon you outdoors. It's a special, dreamy time that's part chores and part fantasy.

Here's stretches your garden, full of seedlings, weeds and encroaching bugs you have to deal with, and in your mind exists your fully grown, luxuriant garden, complete with features you probably won't get around to adding . . .this year anyway. It's a nice time to reflect on your perfect garden while removing stones from the one you have today. In the garden of my imagination, I have a koi pond, but that's a story for another post.

Straw Bale Garden

I'm getting a straw bale garden underway with 50 new bales. I should have lots to report in no time. I have some very sweet marjoram, heirloom tomatoes, mixed sunflowers, short season artichokes, specialty basil and heat tolerant lettuce varieties as well as some new and lively lime balm, mock ginger and lime geranium to experiment with.

I found these articles (and posts) while surfing. If you've lamented the high cost of water or tea, or the limited space in your container garden, they should appeal to you. There's a nifty post from Comfrey Cottages about removing splinters with a salve made from pine sap (with nice photos). I've also included an entry on educating your inner farmer if you live in the city. It's a great intro for newbies.

Enjoy your Sunday (or Saturday afternoon).

Sara

All About Wells

Don't Let Container Gardening Box You In

Pine Salve

If you're a tea drinker, having your own tea plants on hand can be an interesting and convenient way to stay supplied. The traditional tea plant is a variety of camellia. You can find my post on it here: Growing Tea Plant

Wednesday

Save Money in the Laundry with Herbs and Household Solutions

It's time for another herb focused money saving tip.

A few years ago my family started getting soap related rashes, so I began cutting back on the amount of laundry soap I use per load. This turned out to be an economical move that doesn't have a down side. I tried the same strategy across a number of laundry brands and finally settled on a routine in which I use about a third of the recommended quantity of laundry detergent regardless of the manufacturer.

To avoid having to use dryer sheets, I sprinkle about a quarter to a third of a cup of baking soda into the wash before the rinse cycle. I think the soda keeps everything smelling clean and it may have some whitening and brightening potential too. (A 1/2 cup of white vinegar works for this too.)

To make clothes and linens smell even nicer, I add a damp cotton cloth to each dryer load which I've spritzed with lavender essential oil and distilled water (around a five to one ratio of distilled water to essential oil) Essential oils aren't really oil; they're concentrated fragrance that's water soluble. I use distilled water so I can keep a couple of spray bottles on hand to take care of all my washing for a month or more. Distilled water is bacteria and chemical free, so I don't have to worry the mixture degrading.

Some other suggestions that may help in the laundry room:
  • Wash heirloom textiles or other delicates with a soapwort solution.
  • Use lemon juice as a mild bleach, and increase its bleaching action by placing treated clothes in the sun for a half hour or more (check them periodically).
  • If lavender essential oil doesn't smell nice to you, substitute a solution of lemon balm or rose geranium fragrance instead.
  • If you like the fragrance you add to clothes in the drying cycle but it begins to fade too quickly, renew it by using a diluted fragrance solution in your iron and steamer too, and add dried herb pillows to your linen and lingerie drawers.
  • If you're switching to a lower soap laundry regimen, try cleaning your washing machine by running a hot water cycle with the addition of two cups of white vinegar. It'll remove the soapy residue and give your washer a new lease on life.
You don't need harsh chemicals to get your clothes clean. Some laundry gurus claim that the agitation in modern washing machines is all you really need to remove light soil. In theory, a little baking soda to soften clothes and extract odors should do the job. If you're saving pennies, that and some fragrance will protect your clothing, make it smell nice and give you home some inexpensive and natural air freshening too.

Tuesday

Herb Potting Tips

Before you get your herbs up and going this spring, you may want to do some pot maintenance and get your supplies together. I like keeping herbs in pots as well as in their own dedicated patch (and almost anywhere else I can find). One advantage of pots is that I can bring them back indoors in fall. This works great for the aloe vera, ginger plant, rosemary, lemon eucalyptus, scented geraniums . . .well, I'm forgetting a few, but I'm sure you get the idea.

Some outdoor sun gives plants a vigorous start on the season and a few mild summer days can take care of pollination too. Just introduce them to the outdoors gradually and keep the light dappled at first. Gentle morning light works too.

Prepare your pots like you mean it, with good potting mix and excellent drainage. If all goes well, your plant buddies will be calling the new accommodations home for a good long while. To keep sand and pebbles from falling out of your drainage hole, cover it with a clean kitchen sponge.  The sponge will hold soil in and help store valuable moisture. (You can pick up a package of sponges cheap at your local dollar store.)

When you're getting your pots together, remember to use varieties with a drainage hole. Soak terra cotta pots so they don't steal moisture from your delicate seedlings, and sterilize your pots if you used them last year for another project. This season try encouraging moss to grow on your pots. It'll lend them some charm and conceal any nicks or cracks they may have received in the line of duty. My motto is: Never throw a pot out if it's bacteria free and structurally sound.

These older posts will help. If you want some tips on a non-chemical way to sterilize problem soil, I'm including that too. A little judicious pot maintenance may give you some extra containers so you won't have to be so ruthless with your spring culling. Having to remove stragglers makes me sad.

Grow Moss on Garden Pots

Unusual Garden Pots

Sterilize and Remove Mineral Deposits from Garden Pots

The Green Way to Sterilize Garden Soil

Sunday

Herb Fun From Around the Web

I occasionally find some amazing recipes, herb lore and fun stuff in my travels. I'd like to share some link love with you. It may help get you through a tough week or give you some added enthusiasm for working in the garden this weekend:

Dandelion Cookies This recipe looks very intriguing. Just make sure to use dandelions that haven’t been treated with pesticides.

If you hate cilantro and don't quite understand how anyone can tolerate the nasty smell, including the millions of folks in Latin and Asian countries who rely on it as a seasoning for meats and vegetables, take a look at this New York Times entry on the nature of cilantro aversion: Cilantro Haters It's Not Your Fault

If you'd like to spare a moment to ponder the delights of summer picnics, stop my article about summer foods. It's located on the TLC food site, a nice destination for recipes and food information you may not have visited before: Top 10 Picnic Foods

I love city gardens and get a kick out of the idea of vertical landscape gardening softening the angular lines of skyscrapers. The San Francisco Chronicle has a piece on these wonderful green mansions you might like: No Space? Go With a Vertical Garden Tapestry

Oh, if you're planning on celebrating the Kentucky Derby this year, why not go all out and try making a mint julep. They're tasty - if strong, and they'll give you a whole new appreciation (and enthusiasm) for your mint patch. (Face it, mint can get out of control sometimes and make you wonder what you where thinking when you planted it in the first place.) Visit my recipe post at: Make a Mint Julep

Have a great week, and don't forget to water.

Saturday

Growing Corsican Mint

Mints are easy to grow, fragrant and useful in the kitchen. They're also pretty to look at if you're into lush greenery with "benefits".

Although old favorites like spearmint, peppermint and chocolate mint get everyone excited, especially around mojito time or during Kentucky Derby season, this little mint with a creme de menthe aroma and delicate appearance should be part of your collection, too.

Corsican mint (Mentha requienii) is a dynamic ground cover and ornamental mint if you can give it lots of moisture. It takes some abuse from being trod on and comes back just fine. If you have a low spot in the garden with a few neglected looking pavers surrounded by bare dirt, Corsican mint may be the solution to your problem.

What You'll Need to Grow Corsican Mint


Give this happy little mint sandy soil and dappled light. It should never be allowed to dry out. If you're keeping it in a conservatory (which works great by the way), make sure that it has good air flow from a little fan (I use hat fans). Corsican mint is a great creeper that fills in well once it finds a spot it likes. I've kept it successfully under downspouts and around faucets. It's also a nice pot companion to other herbs.

If you love mint, Corsican mint's tiny, delicate leaves, light minty aroma and bright green color will charm you. It's also a natural for your rock or oriental garden. The leaves in the photo are between an eighth and a quarter of an inch across. Did I mention it's tiny?  If you like petite plants -- maybe to display with miniatures -- try Corsican mint.

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Photo - By David Eickhoff from Pearl City, Hawaii, USA (Mentha requienii  Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMentha_requienii_(5596580103).jpg

Sunday

Inexpensive Gardening Strategies

When you love to garden it's easy to get carried away with the latest gadget, lust after those adorable prefab greenhouses or just want a set of shiny new tools every year. Although new toys are fun, gardening can be less expensive than you think. These tips will help you grow some green the cash friendly way. You may need a couple of seasons to get a few of them to work for you, but they're worth the extra effort and gentle on the environment too:

Start your herbs and vegetables from seed and harvest seeds every season. This is one of the joys of gardening once you get the hang of it; schedule your starts early and find your plant propagating mojo.

Consider repurposing a leisure pursuit. This is a polite way to encourage you to become a scavenger. No one is advocating dumpster diving here . . . well, not aggressively anyway, but keeping your eye out for makeshift pots, crafting your own pavers out of broken pottery and giving a cracked pot a new lease on life with some super glue and a moss patina is a fun and useful way to expand your gardening skill set and make your dollar go a little further. You'll never look at a garage sale the same way again.

Start composting. Yes getting started can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. If you aren't into building your own lattice or rotating bin, try worm composting. It's fun. You can do it indoors if you have to, and you won't find better compost anywhere. If you have young children around, it's a great way to show them that bugs can be your buddies.

Mulch your dead leaves in the fall. Instead of bagging and disposing of autumn leaves, spread them on your flowerbeds instead. They'll give your garden a cozy winter blanket to keep it warm for the cost of a quick trip through your mower blades.

Mulch with newspaper in spring. If you want to give those tomato seedlings something to grow about, mulch them with a layer of shredded newsprint. It'll warm up their soil and keep that vital surface moisture from evaporating. Just put down a layer of shredded newspaper and cover with it with a thin layer of your regular mulch product for a pampered looking landscape. You can use half the mulch you'd normally buy. You can also make nifty seedling pots out of newspaper, but you probably already know that.

Add a rain barrel to your landscape. Rain barrels can accumulate lots of roof runoff from even a light rain. With water prices soaring, this found water may not be a good choice for your edible garden, but it's a great solution for your flowerbeds and lawn. You can make a rain barrel yourself cheap and become a water hoarding environmental superstar. Even if you save your pennies and buy a rain barrel setup, you may be able to get a credit from your local utility company to help defray the costs.

Share the bounty. Become a creative gardener by finding ways to swap, sell or share your plants or harvests. From exchanging seedlings with friends to selling some of your more exotic herbs at your local farmers market, gardening is a pastime that naturally generates its own bounty by means of propagation and the fruits (and veggies) of your labor. If you think about it a bit, you may be able to get that bounty to work for you in new and lucrative ways.

Think out of the pot or planter. If you're on a budget but have a couple of herbs or veggies that you really want to try, no one ever said that you have to start a new flowerbed to do them up proud. Find a spot for your plants of choice in an existing bed or start them in whatever container you can find that has good drainage. If you don't have a garden, ask a neighbor if you can use a corner of theirs.

Plants need good soil and regular watering, but they're not snobs about the accommodations. They'll like you if you give them a little attention, and they don’t really care about your wardrobe or taste in music. They're very democratic that way. If you have the money to start an indoor hydroponics set up, go for it. If all you can provide is an old colander with a bad case of warp, you won't be the first person to grow a bunch of chives or a lettuce patch in a make-do pot. Oh, if you're quick, you may be able to participate in a community garden by annexing your own plot (called an allotment) at a nominal seasonal fee. It isn't the most convenient solution, but being able to indulge your inner farmer may be worth the added hassle.

If you plant a seed, great things can happen -- so get started.

Tuesday

10 Herbs for Your Spring Garden

Spring Herb Garden
Try these herbs for spring planting. Spring herbs can be some of the most satisfying plants in the garden. They typically germinate quickly or leaf out fast from their winter dormancy. They are also some of the signature flavors of our favorite warm season foods.

If you live where it starts to warm up fast in spring, it pays to get a few of them started indoors and then out into the garden as soon as you're sure frosty conditions are a thing of the past . . . for a few months anyway.

10. Cilantro. This tasty little herb looks delicate growing in the garden and is a signature flavor in many South of the border and Asian dishes. It's very easy to start from seed. If you'd like to try your hand at making salsa, stir-fry vegetables or fish tacos, having some cilantro growing by your back door is a great beginning. Quick to bolt, start this one early and keep pinching back the blooms to increase your harvest of leaves.

9. Chives. One of my personal favorites, chives don't demand much and come back year after year. I'm in Zone 5 right now and don't give them much attention, but the same patch has been supplying me winter and summer for years. Just keep them watered, give them some afternoon shade in super-hot locations and watch them go.

8. Parsley. I like using parsley in cooking. It adds color, some flavor and makes me feel a little virtuous for all the nice nutrients it contributes to prepared dishes. It's also a go-to garnish when you're in a hurry. I grow it from seed, but there's a trick to getting parsley to germinate. Soak seeds in very hot water (not boiling) and let them rest in the water for two or three days before planting. If you can plant four or five parsley seedlings, they'll keep you supplied for the season. Next year your plants will set seed for a whole new generation.

Basil
7. Basil. Up in plenty of time to serve with those homegrown tomatoes you're laboring over in the vegetable patch, basil really delivers fresh flavor and a Mediterranean ambience that's effortless. Whether you're using it in your own fresh pasta sauce, blending it into pesto or serving it on bruschetta, basil is a very nice herb to experiment with when you want to expand your culinary horizons.

6. Thyme. This must have herb is as useful in the garden as it is in your spice rack. It has tiny leaves that are delicious in sauces of all kinds. It's available as a shrubby plant and also as a ground cover. You can find silver, lemon, lime, variegated and other tasty/pretty varieties. Most need similar growing conditions, but keep them separate so they don't cross-pollinate.

5. Marjoram. Oregano's mild cousin, marjoram has a delicate flavor that's made for hot summer evenings. Use it in your chicken dishes, with lamb and as a flavoring for salad dressing. If you'd like to try making your own sausage, marjoram is a perfect herb for that little project too.

4. Mint. What can you say about an herb that rewards you every time you brush past it? It smells wonderful in the garden, makes a nice addition to casual bouquets and is an absolute essential for mojitos and mint juleps. If you love lamb dishes you probably have some mint growing in your yard already.

Oregano
3. Oregano. You can employ oregano in lots of dishes where you use basil. It's also a basic flavoring ingredient in moussaka, an eggplant dish. If you're planning on starting some eggplant over in the veggie patch, add some oregano to your garden for good measure. I love it with clams and as a flavor enhancer for prepared pizza sauce.

2. Lemon balm. Great in fruit dishes and wonderful in hot or cold tea, lemon balm has an amazing aroma that you have to experience for yourself.

1. Dill. If you enjoy fish, do yourself a favor and grow your own fresh dill. It tastes more robust than anything you can get dried, and it's very easy to grow. It bolts quickly in hot weather, though, so consider successive plantings.