Tuesday

Harvesting Basil Seeds

A kind reader pointed out that I glossed over the seed part of basil harvesting, so I thought I'd give you an easy visual. The first photo is a basil spike after the flowers have dried up and the spike itself has turned brown. This will typically occur in the early fall in most plant hardiness zones in the U.S. If you need to check the zone for your area, there's a handy link at the bottom of this blog.

The second photo is the result of rubbing a dried basil spike between my palms to pulverize the pods and release the seeds. They're black (I think that's true for most basil varieties, anyway) and look seed-like. This is a bonus because some plant seeds look like fluff, dust and even dried flower petals.

All you need to do is separate the seeds. You'll see a pile of them at the left of the second photo. Let them dry a little more in a warm spot, like near your water heater or on top of your stove. After a day or two, container them in a small envelope labeled with the date and variety.

Ahhh - time for a refreshing beverage break because your basil seed harvest is safe and in the bag -- or the envelope -- until next spring.

Congratulations.

Before you dismantle your basil plants for fall, try transforming some fresh leaves into pesto. If you like the aroma and flavor of basil, think of pesto as basil-ness on steroids. It's a rich treat everyone who grows basil should try at least once. Homemade pesto is primo - oh, for heaven's sake, too much alliteration, but you get my point.

Monday

Harvesting Parsley

Choosing a method for harvesting parsley is always a judgment call. Parsley is the little black dress of the herb patch. It can work with lots and lots of dishes, is a very green, bushy little plant that looks good in the garden and is relatively easy going, as in not fussy. It's also available for snipping all summer long.

It is so ubiquitous, in fact, that around the holidays some grocery stores offer a free bunch of parsley with every Christmas or Thanksgiving turkey. That is the power of parsley in our hearts and minds -- a garnish, a seasoning, a bunch of green goodness that brings a feeling of hearth and home to the table.

Harvesting Parsley Can Be Tricky


Parsley is one herb that's ridiculously easy to find at the market, which is a good thing because growing it in the garden has some disadvantages when harvest time rolls around. Dried parsley lacks flavor. I'm sure you've noticed. It dries a bright green that isn't very attractive in wreaths or swags, which makes it less desirable as a decorative, dried herb too.

It is also a biennial, which means it won't set seed the first year you plant it. Instead, it stores energy to overwinter in the garden and sets seed the following spring or early summer. That second season you won't get much leaf development because most of the plant's energy will be used up making flowers and seeds. The seeds themselves will be quite small and can be a challenge to grow -- more on that in a minute.

On Bringing Parsley Indoors

Parsley has a taproot too, which can be tough to translate to a pot if you plan on bringing your plant indoors for casual harvesting during the winter. Think very deep pot and keep your fingers crossed.

Okay, now for the good news. Even in cold climates you can overwinter parsley in the garden at the end of its first season. Just cut it back and give it a good mulching.

As a recipe ingredient, your extra parsley is also a great candidate for freezing. Just clean it, chop it, place it in clean or distilled water and freeze it into ice cubes. Once the cubes have set, transfer them to a big freezer bag and you'll have minced parsley for soups, stews and all your other parsley rich dishes. Just be sure to harvest the leaves late in the season so there'll still be enough oomph in the root to survive the winter. In most locations, mid-September before the first frost is a good time.

Handling Parsley Seeds

Next season, you'll want to harvest your parsley seeds. This is pretty straightforward, but getting them to germinate later calls for some special attention. The seed casings are TOUGH, so soak them in hot (but not boiling) water, and let the water come to room temperature. Leave the seeds in water overnight and plant them out the next day or the day after.

If you do decide to dry parsley, watch the temperature because it scorches easily and dries in a very few hours in either a warm oven or in a dehydrator. Try using the dried leaves within a month, after that they're colorful but pretty tasteless.

Special tip for harvesting parsley: If you're making flavored vinegars, try setting some fresh parsley aside as a garnish. It makes an attractive addition to a decorative bottle.

Sunday

Harvesting Basil

Harvesting basil for winter access is fragrant fun.  Your patch of fresh basil, catnip, parsley, oregano and rosemary can be bountiful contributors to your winter herb stash if you have a few hours to spare.

Over the next few weeks, we'll cover some gardening ground as it relates to fall and winter herb harvesting projects, culminating in a step-by-step tutorial for making herb wreaths. September is always a busy month, and I'll write as fast as I can.

First up is basil. This little herb is great on hot summer nights with garden tomatoes and some fresh mozzarella cheese. When there's a frost on the way though, you'll have to harvest next year's seeds and put aside enough leaves for your winter cooking needs. Basil can be challenging because it doesn't dry very well. That distinctive, earthy licorice/peppery flavor fades to nothing within a month once the leaves have been dried, so let's explore other options.

Basil leaves will be sweetest and most fragrant before the plant flowers, but even after basil sends up flowering stalks, leaves are still suitable for harvesting, drying and freezing. For pesto dishes (fresh basil intensive), prefer young leaves picked before flowers appear on the plant.

Freezing Basil - Option 1


Freeze all those luscious, full basil leaves in ice cube trays. Start by harvesting the leaves and washing them well.  Leave them in cold water for an hour or more to remove dirt and encourage insect freeloaders to move on. Replace the water at least twice. I use my kitchen sink, but a colander inside a big bowl is an efficient method for small batches.

Once the leaves are clean, drain them and chop them.

Place the chopped mixture in enough *distilled water to cover completely and pour into ice cube trays.

Once frozen, remove the basil cubes (don't you love the sound of that) and put them in a freezer bag so you can use individual cubes as needed.

Drop cubes directly into hot sauces or stews, or let them thaw in a dish and drain off the excess water.  This method works great for pizza sauce, marinara, soups, cocktail sauce, stews and salsas.

Growing Basil Indoors - Option 2

Basil is an annual, but you can start a new plant in water pretty easily. Just harvest healthy stems, strip off all but the top few leaves and place the stems in water to which you've added a little liquid fertilizer. Make sure that there are no leaves below the water line.

If you have some sunny window real estate for your vase or jug, you can keep these plant starts  throughout the winter and harvest leaves sparingly from time to time. Plant the new basil plants next spring. I tried this last year with surprising success, and so can you.

Hints and tricks: It's best to do this as soon as possible once the Summer temps start to dip a little, and always before the first frost.

Cut stem ends on a 45 degree angle to encourage water uptake.

Keep the stems in water while you cut them (if possible), and use the sharpest knife you have.

Never use scissors. They'll smash the stems.

 Other Basil Preservation Methods

There are a number of other ways to preserve basil, like making pesto and freezing the finished recipe, layering basil leaves in oil and freezing the mixture, or packing the leaves in salt.  All will work, but I've found that keeping a plant indoors during the winter months and freezing some of the summer crop is the best approach for me.  One caution if you use the oil route: fresh herb oils, like garlic and basil oil, are susceptible to botulism contamination, so keep any mixture you make frozen, or discard it after a week.


Harvesting Basil Seeds

Basil seeds are really easy to harvest. They're large and occur on the flowering spikes. You'll know they're ready to remove when the spikes start to turn brown and the seed coverings look papery and dry. All you have to do is remove the stalks and rub them between your palms into a brown paper bag. The seeds are dark - you can't miss them.

Separate the seeds and store them in a dark, dry place until spring. I use small, dated and labeled envelopes and put the seeds in a special "seed" drawer in my desk.

That's it. In any given season, I do all three and hope for the best.

I don't usually include basil in my dried herb blends, wreaths, swags or any other dry arrangements. Last year I did give away lots of rooted stems, though.


Basil and Grow Lights

Basil likes light, and you'll discover that almost any herb you bring indoors to overwinter, like pineapple sage, ginger, rosemary or marjoram, will need LOTS of light. If your herbs fail to make the transition, lack of adequate light is the likely culprit.

One way to hedge your bets if you don't have a huge window with a southern exposure is to invest in grow lights. They're less expensive than they used to be, and you don't even need the entire light fixture setup. You can buy the bulb in some cases and place it in a lamp you already have or can buy on sale. That and an inexpensive timer attached to the plug will give you a timed light source that will get your herbs through the winter just fine.

Depending on your arrangement and the number of herbs you have, you can probably find the raw materials for light enhancement for under $30 -- and the setup can look attractive too and definitely not like your son's latest science experiment. Just remember to read the bulb instruction label for distance recommendations, and be sure to give your indoor herbs at least six hours of bright light a day.

*You can use regular tap water, but distilled water is pure, without antibacterial agents or potentially harmful microbes to cause problems. You can usually buy a gallon for a couple of dollars and use it as a starter for lots of different herbs and houseplants.

Harvesting Basil Notes: Not everyone goes organic, so if you've been spraying your herbs, observe the label instructions on how long you need to wait to harvest after a treatment.

You might also want to take a look at:  Harvesting Basil Seed and Grow Basil


Photo - By Cliff Hutson (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday

Beating Bedbugs Naturally

The admonition ". . .and don’t let the bed bugs bite." was never truer than it is today when super pesticide resistant bedbugs are taking a bite out of a record number of unprotected sleepers. Barring a few super noxious and possibly illegal chemical treatments, bed bugs can be a challenge to get rid of. I wrote a blog about it a while back that you should review if you're having problems.

Don't feel bad if you're getting a nocturnal visit from these thirsty vampires. They've infested a number of major cities and can hang out in some of the best hotels. You're also at risk if you buy clothes or furniture used, or have a child in college who visits home occasionally.

This article should get your in protection mode: 4 Places Bedbugs Hide and How to Avoid Them.

After you've finished it, take a look at my blog post: Natural Bedbug Control 

With diligence and a few old-time and herbal treatments, bed bugs can be banished, but only if you work fast to keep them from getting settled into your walls and carpeting.

Good luck, and if you stumble on a treatment or idea that really works, please come back and share.

Monday

And Thanks for Your Support!

Over the weekend, I posted about the looming fall gardening season and my personal herb gardening journey. To be honest, every time I write something personal -- as in not dealing exclusively with how to grow and use herbs, I feel a little guilty. In some ways, it seems self-indulgent, although I try to write these pieces as well as I can.

That's why it always amazes me that they're the most well received posts I write. The others: how-tos, plant profiles and recipes, get plenty of coverage and usually score high on Google hits for popular search terms, but it's the personal reflections that have people emailing me or commenting.

I'd like to thank everyone who comes to hear what I have to say. I'm really gratified. When I first started this blog, I was overjoyed to get 20 hits a day. I felt validated and welcome in cyberspace -- don't laugh. Since The Wall Street Journal mention a couple of years ago, I've had a consistent and loyal following, and I think my readers are the absolute best folks around. So thanks again.

. . . and happy harvesting.

Sara

Saturday

My Herb Walkabout (Journey)

Another summer will be winding down soon. A few mornings this week I could even smell fall in the air. Although every season has its rewards, I can't help but stop and think about time passing as I start rummaging around for envelopes to store seeds in.

I've been growing herbs for decades. It's funny, because in some ways they've become so familiar that I take them for granted - the chives on our baked potatoes, the flat leaf parsley on our bean casserole, the jar of dried catnip for our feline friends, the lavender flowers for sachets, the lemon balm for tea, the fresh chopped oregano for pizza . . . the list goes on and on. It's taken a while to ramp up to a life filled with herbs, though.

When I started out, I wasn't very crafty. I worked long hours and probably considered simple country crafts and certainly gardening as something I'd never have the time or energy to do with any regularity or dedication. I never really liked getting dirty, either - well, shame on me, huh.

If someone had explained to me that one day there'd be a list of dozens (if not hundreds) of projects I'd completed successfully, I might have even been slightly horrified. There's a big difference between buying a jar of an enticing herb blend and growing, drying and bottling it yourself. For the first, you need the discretionary income, desire and a little time to shop. (But there's a thrill involved in even this limited emotional investment -- don't get me wrong. It's a small introduction to the secret and mysterious world of brews, arcane recipes and power - womanly power.)

For the second, the actual cultivating part, you need to understand how plants grow and what wizardry they can (and can't) perform for you. You also need to be willing to get dirty, do battle with bugs over your small plot (or pot), and watch the skies for weather warnings. You need to know where the seeds are and how get at them. You invariably get elbow deep in soil, compost, mulch, leaves and grass, whether you want to or not. You also get inundated with the exotic aromas of luscious, green growing things. I brush my lavender bushes all the time in my travels around our landscape, and the spearmint trails out into the driveway every summer where I encounter it as I head off to get the mail.

In the years I've kept herbs, I've learned my lessons one at a time, through successes and a whole lot of failures. Someone -- I can't remember who -- said you can't really know a plant unless you've killed it at least three times. I've met that challenge and surpassed it.

I'm a living example of how little herbs can teach big lessons. From a casual shopper dabbling in herb lore and crafts, I've become a decent gardener and cook. I'm more connected to the soil and more available to ideas about food and planet friendly practices than I would have been otherwise, I think, which is one of the reasons my story is important.

One potted herb can start you on a most amazing journey if you let it; I know. Herbs really are magical. If you've come to my blog for information about growing, cooking, crafting or healing with herbs, I hope you find some useful and entertaining information here. I've certainly been entertained and enriched by my curious investigations into the workings of these amazing little plants.

How to Dry Citrus Peel

I particularly like the idea of drying citrus peel for use in recipes and in potpourri. I think of it as an eco-friendly way to make use of everything and that can be a uniquely satisfying approach to herbal gardening, cooking and crafting.

This is really simple. Just trim the pith (the creamy part) off the skin of any citrus you have. Orange, lemon, tangerine and grapefruit will work. You can do this with a sharp paring knife and sometimes even with a quality (sharp) potato peeler.

Once you have some nice long strips, set them in a warm dark place for a couple of days to dry. They'll darken and become quite stiff. Sometimes placing them in the oven or in a dehydrator can scorch them, so I prefer placing strips of peel on top of the stove for the warm, dry air when I'm baking -- or as a fall-back plan, I've also placed trays arranged with strips of peel on the dryer and even on top of the water heater.

Once dried, you can seal them in plastic bags for later use in potpourri or ground up as a flavoring in sauces and baked goods. If you're planning on using dried citrus peel in cooking, opt for organic fruits to avoid pesticide contamination.

This is a fun fall activity, and it's always entertaining to include the kids if you can find a safe peeler that will work for them. Turning trash into aromatic treasures is a bit of wizardry that can change a child's perspective about the garden and growing things.

Using dried citrus in potpourri is one of my favorite craft "tricks". It's an inexpensive, natural and easy way to create volume and color in a homemade bowl of potpourri. Add some whole star anise, some cinnamon sticks, a couple of whole nutmegs and some cardamom seed and you have the makings of a holiday fragrance that will make your home smell cozy and inviting - without artificial additives, preservatives or -- ugh, wood shavings.

Tuesday

Lemon Eucalyptus Herb Profile


Lemon eucalyptus (Eucalyptus citriodora) has a scent similar to that of lemon verbena, lemon balm and even lemon thyme, but the fragrance is stronger and more pungent. It isn't a typical herb, though. It's actually a tree in the eucalyptus family that can grow large - very large (60 feet and sometimes taller). It's only hardy outdoors year round in zones 9 and higher.

Because it can grow big, to keep it under control many savvy herb gardeners maintain it in a pot, especially  in cooler regions. That way it can be a commuter - outside in summer, and insider in winter. Prefer a quality potting soil that drains well.

Potted Lemon Eucalyptus

There are benefits and a few drawbacks to this method of keeping lemon eucalyptus. A potted specimen that's been pruned regularly can be attractive and fragrant on a deck, patio, or even in a lanai, but it needs lots of light, so make room for it in a southern facing window and give it a grow light if you see it getting leggy. Even with the best care, though, it will only reach a practical height of seven or eight feet.

Another potential problem is that lemon eucalyptus will eventually need to have a root pruning. This is commonly known as bonsai pruning. It's a way of making the plant's system adaptable to the limited space. Top pruning alone won't work forever - but it may get you through a few seasons, though. Learning a little about bonsai trees can be fun and rewarding. I wrote an article about it a while back. You can visit it at: How Bonsai Works.

Learning bonsai techniques with a fragrant and interesting herb (tree) like lemon eucalyptus will expand your gardening horizons in a good way. Give the idea some thought.

Lemon eucalyptus grows readily from seed and shoots up fast in spring if you keep it in a sunny spot.  I have a nice seven foot specimen that hangs out in my dining room over the holidays. With proper care, a lemon eucalyptus can remain in a pot -- well, for decades.

It's used commercially in bug sprays and aromatics to fight chest congestion; it also makes a very nice ingredient in potpourri. Together with dried orange peel and cardamom seed, it's an olfactory feast you can easily make yourself.

As a specimen plant, lemon eucalyptus is a nice addition to an herb collection, too. It's an Aussie import with personality. If you give it some special care and attention, it will reward you with years of very fragrant service in bowls of potpourri and lots of gardening conversations about the dramatic properties of unique herbs.

Special Notes Caution --  Lemon eucalyptus shouldn't be ingested unless under the guidance of a medical practitioner.

The small plant in the photo was grown from seed in a single season - started in March.  By the middle of June it was four feet tall and the largest leaves were three inches long.