Monday

Seeds and Plants - Which Should You Buy

One classic gardening dilemma involves the amount of time work and money involved in getting plant stock. I don't know about you, but I always want everything. If the big thing this year is fingerling eggplant, I'm there. If a chubby and adorable round zucchini is the cover model for a seed catalog, I'm checking my planting budget to work it in. If the local nursery has a big, healthy catnip specimen on sale, I'll try to find a spot for it even if I have eight other plants situated around the garden. I say this with a little trepidation because space, time and money are always at a premium, and I'm lousy at managing all three.

I have come up with a few guidelines over the years to help me decide how to get the best from my herbs without breaking the bank -- or missing out on choice candidates for adoption. These days many of my herbs come back year after year, and I also have a nice seed stash I keep stocked. With a nod to newbies who want to know how to get the most from their herbs, here are my hints for making decisions about when to buy seeds over plants or the other way around.

The Age Old Dilemma, Seeds or Plants

Annuals - I usually plant annuals from seed. Annuals go through their lifecycle in a single season and die when temperatures drop in late fall or early winter. This is a rule of thumb for me, and I grow a number of basil, marigold, cilantro and dill varieties from seed every year, harvesting seed crops to keep each variety going from season to season. Once you establish a gardening routine, this is an easy and inexpensive way to go. One nice thing about most annuals is that they grow quickly.

Labor intensive plants - If an herb is persnickety, I'll often opt for plants instead of seeds. Parsley is an example. It's a biennial: that means it creates lush growth the first year and comes back at the beginning of the following season to set seed. It's a bit of a pain because the second year you won't get much from that plant harvest besides seed, so you have to keep seed as well as leaf (first year harvest) plants in the garden to have a seed as well as a leaf crop in the same year.

Parsley also has tiny, hard seeds that can be tricky to germinate. Catnip is another challenge for me because the plants grow slowly and my cats are always trying to assassinate them before they're large enough to hold their own in the garden. These are just two examples of plants that work better for me when I let someone else bring them into the world.

Exotics - I usually buy exotic herb plants instead of trying to start them from seed -- the first time around, anyway. If I'm not sure I'll like an herb, like caraway thyme, for instance, I'll buy a single plant and see how it goes. If everything works out, I'll harvest the seeds and try to grow that variety from seed the next year. If the herb doesn't like it in my garden, or I don't like the look (or taste) of it, then we part ways after that single season together. I have revisited plants after rejecting them years earlier, but this is usually the way I try new things. The one exception is if it's hard for me to find a particular plant variety and seeds are all that happens to be available at the time.

Free -
I embrace free wherever I can find it, regardless. I've swapped seeds from friendly gardeners, tested seeds for growers and even snitched one or two stems on occasion. This is all in the spirit of research and good fellowship, mind you.

Heirlooms - I'm an advocate of heirloom seeds and plants, and am always wary of GMO (genetically modified) offerings (when I can identify them). I haven't discussed this before because it's a complicated topic and one I'm still trying to understand. I do like heirloom plants (or seeds) on principle because I think they're naturally hardy. I also think it's important to preserve these plant strains. (Not to say I'm doing this singlehandedly -- just that I'm putting my money where my mouth is.) If it's an heirloom variety, seed or plant, it gets a thumbs-up from me and maybe a little real estate on my lot.

Large and small - I'm susceptible to any herb that calls itself a miniature or mammoth variety of something I'm already familiar with. I'll get the plant if I can find one, seeds otherwise.

That's all for now. Have a great Monday.

Friday

Growing Herbs from Seed



I'm planting seeds this weekend -- corralling them from the garage, office drawers and the freezer. I'm watching the mail for a few new additions, too. It's sooo exciting!

If you're starting seeds this year, give them plenty of room to sprout. This is one of my many failings. I want lots of plants and always crowd my seeds, making it harder to transplant seedlings later. Don't make the same mistake. Start your seeds right, and give them a good beginning in life.

Oh, if you haven't started a garden from seed, it's one of the most satisfying and fun ways to put an individual stamp on your landscape. Yes, those flats full of marigolds and impatiens from the nursery are very appealing -- but plant motherhood is awesome.

I can't wait.

How to Start an Herb Garden - More Tips


If this is your first season growing herbs, learning how to start an herb garden is simple. You really just need three things: good light, soil that drains well and a reliable watering schedule.

If your yard or garden is a mess, or almost nonexistent, there are also some handy cheats.

Tips for Starting an Herb Garden

You can plant a raised bed to circumvent tough soil preparation work. Another nice benefit is that raised beds will attract worms (good, useful worms) that will work the under-layers of packed, nasty soil for future seasons.

Use containers. Pots, window boxes, bags, straw bales, old tires and just about any other container will make a comfortable home for an herb if it has a drainage hole. If you do go this route, water becomes more important, so have a plan to keep plants uniformly moist (but not soggy) throughout the summer months.

If you live in an area with harsh winters, one drawback to this method is that your potted herbs probably won't survive the winter unless you give the pots additional insulation (like burying them in the garden). You can often bring delicate herbs indoors until spring rolls around, though (something I've done for years).

Use hydroponics. Hydroponic gardens like the AeroGarden sold through Amazon and others are very effective at growing herbs indoors. Herbs usually have a relatively short, compact habit, and one hydroponic garden setup can yield a number of healthy culinary herb varieties. You'll also eliminate most potential problems with bugs, disease, back-breaking labor and sunburn. As enticing as that sounds, I don't recommend it. There's something very nice about gardening in the open air that no one should miss -- that doesn't mean you can't do both, though. Indoor hydroponic herb setups can run anywhere from $70 - $350.

Hydroponics is a method of gardening that uses water as the primary medium for providing nutrients to plants. Using straw or hay bales is a type of outdoor hydroponic gardening because the straw (or other grass) anchors the plant roots, but the gardener adds the nutrients when watering (they're not absorbed from the surrounding soil). The nutrient rich water is trapped in the straw long enough to feed the plants. As gardening methods go, it's pretty convenient. The bales are elevated, which is nice if you have mobility issues or a back that likes to complain if you do too much bending and stooping.

You don't even need access to dirt. You can place a straw bale on concrete, stone, brick or any other surface that will allow water to drain off safely. Straw bale gardening is becoming more popular, so don't be surprised if you see bales for sale at your local nursery this year.

Get free help locally. If you're a gardening newbie, call your local Cooperative Extension Office. These regional resources are tasked with providing area specific information to gardeners, outdoor enthusiasts, homeowners, schools and local businesses. The service is free. If you need to know what type of potatoes to plant, when the last frost is likely in your area or whether your soil is inclined to be acidic or alkaline, your local Cooperative Extension Office will probably know. You can find their site here: Cooperative Extension System Offices. Just click on your state and follow the prompts.

Get the weather facts. Another useful site is the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, which will give you important weather information about your location. If you're in zone 5a, say, the minimum temperatures (winter lows) will be between -10 to -5 F. That will have a big impact on the types plants you'll be able to overwinter in your garden. When you start researching herbs from online retailers, many will have a zone range, or a listing of the regional zone where a plant is most likely to do well. Typically, a plant will survive in a higher zone than the one listed for it, but not in a lower zone -- in an area that experiences a warmer, not a colder winter. You'll find the page here: USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

For more useful information about how to start an herb garden, check these previous posts:

Starting an Herb Garden

Your First Herb Garden


Reference: 

HerbPatch_PublicDomain.JPG Public Domain

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Domestic_herbal_patch_rectangularpattern.JPG
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/Domestic_herbal_patch_rectangularpattern.JPG
By KVDP (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday

Starting an Herb Garden

My last post was getting long so this is a two parter. If you missed the previous information on starting an herb garden, you can find it here: Your First Herb Garden

When you install an herb garden in your landscape, these things are important:

If you're buying plants as opposed to seeds, larger is usually better. The one exception is if the roots of a potential plant candidate are so crowded that they're dangling out of the bottom of the pot -- in that case, pass.

If you're growing herbs from seed, pay attention to germination rates and whether or not an herb can be started in the garden or needs to be potted indoors first. Give yourself six to eight weeks prep before the latest frost date in your area if you're growing herbs (or vegetables) from seed. As with other plants, reading the label instructions on herbs is important. Seed depth, soil requirements and seed spacing are usually included in the informational material. If you're like me and hate disposing of extra seedlings in the compost pile, use restraint with your seed starts. You can also germinate seeds between sheets of paper toweling. This is one way to insure that what actually makes it into a pot is viable. It'll save you space and resources: Start Your Herbs Between the Sheets

Parsley (a common garden-herb favorite) is notoriously hard to germinate. You should let the seeds soak in very hot water (not boiling) before planting. I typically dump parsley seeds in hot water, let the water cool down naturally and leave the seeds in there for 48 hours before sticking them in soil. It always works for me. This is just one of a number of planting tips you can find in the herbs summaries on this blog and on other useful gardening sites.

Come up with a good labeling method. This sounds easier than it is. The Herb Gardening group over at Yahoo Groups recommends using a permanent marker on a disposable plastic knife (which you then stick in the soil). This looks great but can look a little peculiar.

Be patient - or cunning. Seeds typically like warm overnight temperatures. This means things will have to warm up a little before they really take off. You can beat the calendar by a week or more if you employ a soil heating system to get your seeds started. If you've been starting seeds for a few years without this aid, it will make things easier and more fun. Plant heaters are pricey, but you can use them from season to season, and they'll really let you get a jump on things. Tomatoes adore them.

Prep your outdoor location. You know to prepare your garden beds by adding soil amendments and mulch, but you might want to treat for pests before the plants ever make it outdoors. It'll save you heartbreak later. A little judicious early season pesticide application can eliminate or curtail later infestations. I know "pesticide" is a dirty word, but in some spots in the garden, like around roses, it's almost a must. You can companion plant later, but when your seedlings are at their most vulnerable, consider bringing in the big guns. If this is not an option for you, employing natural methods like adding beneficial nematodes to your garden soil can help, too.

Other Considerations

These things are neat but not so important:

Harvest herbs in something nice, like a wicker basket. It has an old world charm you'll like. Even if you don't opt for a colorful harvesting method, don't use a plastic bag. You'll risk wilting -- if not actually steaming -- your herbs.

If you can't tell one herb variety from another, put up signs. You'll need them. Even if you don't need them for yourself, your significant other or kids may -- and asking them to go out and harvest some fresh herbs for dinner is part of the fun. If you don't like the idea of labeling plastic steak knives with permanent marker, use labeled wooden popsicle sticks instead. You can usually find packets of sticks (50, I think) at the dollar store for -- a dollar. If you're looking for something more picturesque and less utilitarian, there are dozens of specialty garden sites that sell prepared herb signs as well as DIY kits. They're adorable and expensive, but your garden is worth it, right?

Walk on the wild side, and give a few uncommon (for you)  herbs a try. If you like the idea of growing a parsley plant but wouldn't know what to do with a patch of marjoram (a mild form of oregano - kinda) if your life depended on it, branch out. One nice thing about herbs is that they can transform your ho-hum -- eating at home -- menu into something worthy of an honest to goodness compliment. You probably know about adding a little fresh garlic, oregano or basil to your pasta sauce, but you can include some fennel leaves in your carrot dishes or throw some lemon balm into a nice fruit salad too. Once you have a little experience, you'll be creating designer dishes that'll make food prep (and mealtime) more satisfying for everyone. It isn't hard, and it is loads of fun.

I talk about fun a lot because herb gardening is one of the most fun niche gardens you can plant.

There's a lot more, but I'm out of time for now. Stay tuned.

Wednesday

Planning Your First Herb Garden


I planted my first herb garden (with mom's help) when the wooden rake handle was still taller than I was. As I remember, my foray into herb gardening consisted of:
  • Lemon thyme
  • Chives
  • Sage (yellow and tri-color because I liked visual drama)
  • Peppermint
  • Parsley
I passed on the rosemary because I thought it smelled nasty. I kept all of the plants alive, and the peppermint thrived for years under the shade of a cherry tree.

If you're planting your first herb garden, or helping a child get started, these tips will help:


General Herb Garden Tips

I always think of herbs as garden plants that offer the biggest payoff for the work. They smell wonderful, can help repel bugs when used as companion plants (think catnip, garlic, lavender, basil and marigold) and you can cook with them. Most are also naturally hardy. It doesn't get much better than that.

Prepare the plot well. Herbs aren't very fussy about fertilizer, but they need a plot that drains well. If you have clay soil, either lighten it to a depth of at least eight inches or install raised beds. Check out your nearest garden center. Raised bed supports or whole raised mini-gardens, like the popular square foot gardens, are big these days. Patio and deck pots work well too. You can keep five culinary herbs in one large pot and get enough of a harvest to keep you in herbs over much of the winter. I've done it. Try: thyme, chives, oregano, dill and sage.

Read the directions on the plant or seed packet carefully. Most herbs come with lots of valuable information about how to grow them successfully. Where you plant can be important. If an herb needs full sun, that's not negotiable. Full sun means six hours or more of bright light a day. Less, and the plant will never reach its full potential.

A plant in the wrong spot will also be stressed -- or more vulnerable to disease and insect attack. If the directions call for keeping a plant in partial shade, that doesn't mean full sun with a plant in front of the shade plant. Dappled light is good, but you need to make sure that a shade loving herb plant is protected from bright light during the hottest part of the day. Reading and following the directions will give you the best opportunity to keep all your herbs alive and healthy.

A Child's First Herb Garden

If you're trying to get children interested in gardening, give them their own child-sized gardening tools. Tiny gardening tools are becoming more available these days and keep the frustration level down. Small hands need small implements.

Children love mint varieties like peppermint and spearmint, as well as other plants in the mint family like lemon balm and catnip (for the family cat, of course). Other favorites are apple mint, chocolate mint and orange mint. Mints are very hardy, so they can take quite a bit of abuse, too.

Fast growing herbs like cilantro are great starter herbs as well. They offer an instant payoff and can be used in a kid-designed summer recipe like tacos pretty easily.

Tips and Tricks for Your First Herb Garden

If you live in an area that gets very hot during the summer months, cover herbs with a layer of mulch to keep them from drying out. If you're maintaining them in pots on your deck, opt for containers with their own water reservoirs (or use potting soil that contains water-retaining polymers).

Check the height details for your herbs and plant accordingly with taller herbs behind shorter ones. Pay attention to the growth habit of your herbs too. Creeping thyme will grow very differently from standard growth habit thyme, and that will have an impact on how it will act, and react, in the garden.

Your local nursery will stock cultivars that work well in your area. They may not have all the herbs varieties you'll find through mail order or online suppliers, but chances are what you buy will work in your backyard.

Many herbs have standard, miniature, variegated and creeping varieties. Some will also have cultivars that are more or less vulnerable to frost, heat and specific pests and diseases. Knowing the planting zone you live in, as well as the spot you have in mind for your herb garden, will help you pick the best rosemary, lavender or sage for your needs if you do decide to buy from a national source.

This sounds complicated, but it's not. If you don't know your zone, there's a link at the bottom of this page that will take you to a handy map. There are also lots of comprehensive herb sites on the web that sell seeds and plants. Many of these sites also provide detailed information about which varieties are best for specific regions of the country.

Herb Varieties

Herbs like cilantro and dill grow quickly. Start them early and keep pinching them back when you see flower buds. Most herbs will stop putting the bulk of their energy into creating new leaves once they flower. Leaves are typically what you want to cultivate, so delaying flowering is the goal here. The fast growth spurt some herbs put on when the temps get hotter in summer is called bolting. Plants shoot up quickly, start to flower, and begin to look scraggly. Removing the buds and harvesting around a third of the plant will keep herbs viable longer.

These are some great herbs for beginners:

Dill
Cilantro
Basil
Thyme
Lavender
Sage
Chives
Tarragon
Rosemary
Parsley
Oregano

With this selection, you'll be able to cook and decorate with your herbs. This fall you'll also be able to add a few to a wreath or potpourri.

Harvesting

It's a good rule to wait until a plant is at least a few inches tall (this will vary from plant to plant) and a bit bushy before you start harvesting leaves. Never take more than a quarter or a third of the plant at one time, and wait for at least that much to regrow before taking more.

Some herbs like chives, parsley and tarragon, taste much better fresh. For these herbs, drying isn't the best choice. When you're ready to harvest the bulk of the plant in fall, check the best harvesting method (I have lots of specific info here), and freeze plants that don't dry well. You can wash and freeze herbs in freezer bags, or chop them into a bowl of water, stir and freeze them into ice cubes. The cubes can then be placed in freezer bags for single serving portions you can add to soups or stews over the winter months.

Other herbs can come indoors to spend the winter on a sunny windowsill, overwinter in the garden, or produce seeds for next year's crop and die off naturally (annuals).

There's no point in growing an herb you don't like using, but herbs are good for more than just cooking. Lavender is a natural antibacterial, and it's a muscle relaxer too. Flower buds added to your bath can be more relaxing than soft music and candlelight. Mint is great with lamb, but a soothing mint tea will also settle an upset stomach. Learn a little about each herb you have in mind before you make your final choices. That way you won't miss out on a good candidate and have to wait until next year.

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Photo courtesy of:  Kate Jewell [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Link: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Herb_garden_at_Hardwick_Hall_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1444243.jpg

Thursday

Don't Just Plant a Garden -- Make a Memory

clover
Your kids are watching where you spend your time, whether it looks that way or not. Between play dates and after school activities, teach them about working with their hands in the open air by showing them how to garden. Show them that food doesn't just magically appear in the grocery store.

In twenty years, what are they more likely to remember, an afternoon in front of a video screen -- or a day in the garden with you, complete with some sun tea and an overflowing basket of herbs and vegetables ready for Sunday dinner?

Start them in the garden young (kind of like seedlings), and show them that seeds are manufacturing plants so futuristically small and perfect in their design, that nothing made by the hand of man comes close to matching them. The world is spinning really fast, so while your kids are small and you still have the time, show them that life is good, even if you don't own the latest and greatest. As long as you have a plot of land and a few seeds, you can feed yourself, amuse yourself, exercise your body and engage your mind.

Food costs are soaring, and planting an herb and vegetable garden this spring can save you money. Potatoes, tomatoes, squash, peppers, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, strawberries, corn, basil, sage, dill, cilantro and thyme will transform a sunny spot in your landscape into a victory garden worthy of the name.

It will do something else, too. Gardening is therapeutic. While you're doing the heavy work, like preparing your soil for the first time, it may not seem worth the extra effort, but after a couple of weekends of labor, you'll be ready for the fun stuff -- planting your garden and watching it grow. Life looks different from the garden, and after you've seen the view, you'll want to hang on to that perspective. Every day changes the world a little. The garden is a spectacular place to add luster to your kids' lives by introducing them to the notion that the changing seasons are about more than a change of wardrobe:
  • Gardening will lower your blood pressure.
  • It will reduce your heart rate (after you finish moving those bags of top soil).
  • It will give you a chance to show your children that dirt is a lot cleaner than they think and that bugs can be friendly laborers.
  • Gardening will give you a new interest in and appreciation for the weather.
  • Planting an herb, vegetable or flower garden will teach you about horticulture -- and color, and texture, and proportion -- and the value of regular, consistent effort.
  • Gardening, even on a small scale with some bean seeds and peat pots, will show you how exciting it can be to see living things sprout out of the ground.
  • Gardening will give you a tan -- and this is some color you'll earn.
  • Gardening will strengthen your back and knees.
  • It will burn calories.
Gardening will surprise you. You may think you’re an urbanite, secure in the knowledge that getting your fingernails dirty is just not on your bucket list. Try it for one season. Plant a grape tomato (the sweetest), or some round summer squash (that you won't find in the grocery store) or some small leaf basil for fresh pesto (it's nothing like the processed stuff). You'll become a believer. I did.

Wednesday

Home Remedies for Bed Bugs



Bed bugs are nasty, and they seem to be everywhere. I've published some herbal spray solution recipes that will help discourage bedbugs from biting. There are also some maintenance solutions that will help control light infestations.

 Bed Bugs Natural Remedies

A heavy infestation of bed bugs will almost always require chemical treatment, either with an over-the-counter pesticide spray or with the help of a pest control professional. If you think you have bed bugs:


Make sure - Red welts on your arms and legs could be from fleas or mosquitos, too. Bedbugs are round, about a quarter of an inch wide and reddish brown. They hide in cracks, like the space between the cording and the seam of your mattress. They molt and shed exoskeletons that look like tiny desiccated bugs. You'll see these shed skins around your bed, or on the underside or behind your bedside furniture. Their droppings are about the size of a period - . - and you may detect them on your sheets, blankets or mattress. They sometime hide under the furniture near where you sleep. Check the back of your headboard, under the bedside table and along the bed frame.

If you do see bedbugs, remove and wash your bedding in the hottest water possible. Bed bugs and their eggs die at a temperature of 113 Degrees F maintained for an hour. Higher temperatures will kill them faster. It's also a good idea to wash nearby area rugs and draperies. Bedbugs congregate within a few feet of a good meal -- you. That will be ground zero for an infestation. The good news is that you can easily clean your bedding. The bad news is that bed bugs can hide behind wallpaper and inside your electrical outlets. They can fit into a space as thin as a credit card. That's one of the reasons it's sooo hard to get rid of them.

Clean your mattress by vacuuming it thoroughly and steam cleaning it with a handheld steamer.

Vacuum - After you've cleaned and debugged your textiles and mattress, tackle the carpet. Vacuum thoroughly. This means moving the furniture around to get behind and under things. After you vacuum, dispose of the vacuum cleaner bag -- outdoors. You don't want to infect another area of your home. You can apply an insecticide to your carpeting, spray an herbal preparation, use steam (some steam cleaners are too hot for synthetic carpet), or try an irritant, like diatomaceous earth, also known as Silicon dioxide. This powder is naturally occurring and bed bugs hate it. (You'll need to wear a respirator when you use diatomaceous earth.)

Expel and Repel - While you're dealing with the problem, using herbal sprays, like essential oil of lavender and essential oil of rosemary, will help repel bed bugs. Add 20 drops of lavender essential oil to the final rinse when you wash your sheets, blankets and nightwear. This will help keep bed bugs from biting until you eradicate them. Placing lavender flower buds in a sachet bag under your mattress and pillow will help too.

You can also add lavender flower bud sachets to your luggage to discourage bed bugs when you travel.

Clean your car -While you're treating the problem indoors, don't forget your car. Vacuum your car thoroughly and treat it with an herbal preparation or insecticide. You should treat your handbag and coats with an herbal spray to make them less attractive to bed bug freeloaders when you're out in public. Bed bugs aren't just hanging out in hotels. They're in restaurants, department store dressing rooms, movie theaters, busses and anywhere else people spend time. The more you can do to make yourself unattractive to them, the less likely it is that you'll inadvertently bring a few of these insect invaders home.

Don't wait - If you already have a problem with bed bugs, deal with it today. The longer you wait, the worse it will get, and the problem won't go away by itself. Bed bugs can live up to a year without feeding. You can't starve them out, and once they're entrenched in your rooms, they'll become a problem that even the pros may have trouble dealing with.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published a list of over 300 products that are effective in treating bed bugs. They also have some easy guidelines you might want to review: EPAs Bed Bug Page

Repel them with dryer sheets - This one is definitely a home remedy, but there are folks who swear by it.  Apparently bedbugs dislike the smell of fresh dryer sheets.  Use them liberally when drying your bedding, and consider tying them on the legs of your bed's frame to keeping them from accessing your bed that way.


Other blog posts and articles about bed bugs you might like:









Sunday

Stopping by a Stone Angel

Gardening Quotes
Submitted on a lazy Sunday afternoon, a few of my favorite gardening quotes. If you adjusted your clocks forward last night, enjoy the extra hours of sunshine. I know I will:

"Rosemary only grows where the mistress is master." -Anonymous

"Gardening adds years to your life and life to your years." - Anonymous

"Gardening requires lots of water - most of it in the form of perspiration." - Lou Erickson

"You can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt." -Anonymous

"Gardens... should be like lovely, well-shaped girls: all curves, secret corners, unexpected deviations, seductive surprises and then still more curves." - H.E. Bates

"Though an old man, I am but a young gardener." - Thomas Jefferson

Saturday

Tarragon Mustard Recipe

Tarragon Mustard
This simple tarragon mustard makes a tasty dipping sauce for shrimp or fresh vegetables. It also tastes good in chicken salad and potato salad. It's a delicious accompaniment to broiled, fatty fish like salmon too.

Tarragon Mustard Recipe

3 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 Tsp. Red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. Finely chopped, fresh tarragon
3/4 C. Mayonnaise (low fat okay)
1/4 C Sour cream (fat free okay)
1/2 Tsp. Lemon juice
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. paprika (sweet paprika is best)
1//4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper

Combine all ingredients and stir to incorporate. Refrigerate for six hours or overnight before using. Tarragon mustard will stay fresh up to five days in the refrigerator (in a tightly sealed container).

For more information about tarragon, please visit my blogs:

Medicinal Uses for Tarragon
How to Grow Tarragon
Mustard Chicken Tarragon
Tarragon Substitute
How to Make Tarragon Tea

How to Make Tarragon Tea

Tarragon Tea
Tarragon tea (French tarragon) is mild and can be relaxing and de-stressing after a difficult day. It can help you sleep. It can also relieve gas, indigestion and may help cure hiccups. It's easy to make, and if you keep a tarragon plant or two on your deck, in your garden or even indoors on a sunny windowsill, you'll have a regular supply of fresh leaves. Be sure to use tarragon fresh, once dried it loses many of its medicinal and flavorful qualities.


Easy Tarragon Tea Recipe

1 tbsp. Fresh tarragon
Boiling water

Bring 8 to 10 oz. of water to a rolling boil and pour over fresh leaves. Let steep five minutes.

Variations:

For indigestion, add a little grated ginger or a few mint leaves to the tea. It's a double whammy that'll settle your tummy in no time.

Sweeten tarragon with fresh stevia leaves or honey. They're both delicious.

Caution: If you're pregnant, avoid medicinal and aromatherapy tarragon for the duration of your pregnancy.


For more information about tarragon, please visit my blogs:

Medicinal Uses for Tarragon
How to Grow Tarragon
Mustard Chicken Tarragon
Tarragon Substitute
Tarragon Mustard Recipe

Reference:

Photo Courtesy of John Joshua Rosario at Flickr.

Thursday

Mustard Chicken Tarragon Recipe

The mustard and hint of sugar in this dish makes a tangy sauce that's a perfect foil for chicken breasts. This recipe is baked, so it's naturally low in calories too.

Mustard Chicken Tarragon Recipe

If you're tired of the same old chicken helper or shake and bake for dinner, this recipe will wake up your taste buds.

4 boneless chicken breasts (half breasts about 6 ounces each)
3 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1 Tbs. soy sauce
1 Tbs. water
1 Tbs. Olive oil
2 Tsp. chopped fresh tarragon
1/2 Tsp. onion powder
1/2 Tsp. garlic powder
1Tsp. granulated sugar

Salt and pepper to taste
Cooking spray
Aluminum foil

Preparation

Combine all food ingredients except chicken and cooking spray. Whisk until smooth.

Pat chicken breasts dry and sprinkle with a light dusting of salt.

Coat a baking pan with cooking spray.

Brush mustard mixture on both sides of each breast. You can also marinate uncooked breasts in the mixture for up to six hours for a stronger flavor.

Bake chicken in an aluminum foil covered dish at 350 Degrees F for 30 minutes. Remove foil, turn breasts and baste with sauce. Cook for an additional 15 minutes uncovered.

Test the meat for doneness. The thickest part of the breast should register 165 degrees F (or 74 degrees C).

Note: This also works well with skinless breasts and with chicken thighs and drumsticks


Approx. 200 Calories Per Serving (less than 8 grams of fat)
Serves 4

Wednesday

What's a Good Tarragon Substitute?

Tarragon Substitute
Dried tarragon doesn't have the flavor or medicinal punch of fresh, so it's always best to freeze fresh leaves at the end of summer. If you've run out of your hoarded stock of fresh frozen tarragon long about February, what should you do? If a favorite chicken or egg recipe calls for tarragon, there is a cheat that can get you through till your plants start sprouting in July.

No, don't try dried tarragon, it tastes like lawn clippings. I hesitate mentioning it, but in a pinch you can substitute fennel seed or anise seed for tarragon. Try a pinch of crushed fennel seed as a substitute for a teaspoon of dried tarragon (or a tablespoon of fresh). Start with less if you have your doubts. You can always add more later if you need too. This is definitely a less-is-more proposition, so take it easy. Licorice flavor can be strong, especially in mild egg, chicken, turkey, salmon and cheese dishes.

Photo courtesy of Jasmine & Roses at Flickr

Medicinal Uses for Tarragon

Tarragon is easy to grow in the garden and has a number of medical uses. The methyl chavicol (estragole) in tarragon doesn't agree with everyone, though, and you shouldn't use tarragon oil or tarragon aromatherapy if you're pregnant. Tarragon used in cooking or in a relaxing tea can promote a sense of wellbeing and help treat:
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Hiccups
  • Gas
  • Shock
  • Indigestion
  • Loss of appetite
Tarragon is a good source of:

     Calcium
     Iron
     Manganese

It also contains Vitamins A and C, potassium and magnesium.


Cautions and Details

All the results aren't in, but tarragon may have carcinogenic properties and could be mildly toxic when used in large quantities. If chewed or ingested as a tea, it can also numb the tongue and mouth.

Tarragon is a natural diuretic, laxative and antispasmodic.

For more information about growing tarragon, please visit my blog post: How to Grow Tarragon


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Reference:

Time-Life Books. "The Drug & Natural Medicine Advisor. Time-Life Custom Publishing. 2004

Murray, Michael and Joseph Pizzorno. "Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine - Revised 2nd Edition." Three Rivers Press

Tarragon photo courtesy of: Amanda Wray at Flickr

Tuesday

How to Grow Tarragon

Tarragon
Tarragon is one of a core group of go-to herbs that never lets me down. It has a unique flavor that's subtle but distinctive. With a faint hint of licorice -- less than fennel but more than basil -- it's refreshing without being overpowering. It keeps the same old fish, chicken and egg dishes from becoming too repetitive. It adds flavor notes to mustard, buttermilk, mayo and vinegar, so it can transform a sauce, condiment, dressing or dip, making it an easy herb to use in recipes and store in the fridge. Most dishes made with tarragon taste as good cold as they do hot, too.

If you're trying to cajole your family into eating more lean meat, using tarragon is one way to provide variety without having to invest much more time in the kitchen. I use it a lot during the holidays when I have leftovers I want to revamp with new flavors. Leftover turkey, roast chicken, shrimp, salmon and even vegetable dishes can gain a new lease on life with the judicious addition of tarragon.

How to Grow Tarragon

There are two basic tarragon varieties: French (Artemisia dracunculus sativa) and Russian (Artemisia dracunculus L.). It's the French tarragon you want for cooking. Russian tarragon has a much milder flavor and a distinctive bitter aftertaste. Be careful when you shop. Russian tarragon is hardier than the French variety and it's sometimes sold simply as "Tarragon" (no distinction) in large nursery outlets during the spring months. Look for French tarragon specifically.

French tarragon is winter hardy (Zones 4 through 9), and makes a nice addition to an herb patch. It has long, narrow, dark green leaves that look delicate and unique, if not spectacular. The plant is easy to care for, too. Some herb enthusiasts think it looks like a weed, but that's a little unfair. The leaves have an attractive spear-like appearance, and the plant is a beautiful, deep green.

Here's what you need to know to grow French tarragon:

French tarragon grows to a height of between two and four feet. It likes well drained soil but isn't fussy about soil amendments -- save the expensive soil additives for your vegetable patch.

Keep tarragon in a spot that enjoys full sun in the morning with dappled light in the afternoon. It can tolerate full afternoon sun in locations that don't get too hot. If summer is sweltering where you live, provide tarragon some shade during the hottest part of the day, and keep it well watered.

To make sure it overwinters successfully, mulch tarragon before the first hard frost.

How to Propagate French Tarragon

Tarragon is best started from cuttings in either spring or fall. Established plants can become root bound even when buried in the garden, so plan on starting new plants every few years. You can try digging up an established plant and separating it, but this strategy doesn't always work, so be prepared to lose most (if not all) of your transplants.

Harvesting Tarragon


You can start harvesting a few leaves from young tarragon plants when they reach 8-10 inches in height, or from late July for established plants. Tarragon doesn't dry well, so use it fresh in your summer recipes; cut plants back a few inches in fall and freeze your harvest.

Growing Tarragon Indoors

You can grow tarragon in a container indoors if you're lucky enough to have a spot that gets six hours of sunlight or more a day. Make sure to use a deep pot -- 10 to 12 inches is about the minimum you should consider. Tarragon sends out an aggressive root system and needs as much room under as it does above ground. If you have a potted tarragon plant growing or your deck or patio, you can bring it indoors during the winter months if you can provide good light.

Medicinal Uses for Tarragon

There are a number of medicinal uses for tarragon.  For details visit my post: Medicinal Tarragon


 Photo courtesy of Jennifer Brady at Flickr.

Sunday

Poison Control for Dogs in the Garden

Puppy in the Garden
I live in a dog friendly neighborhood. When one of our canine neighbors goes outdoors, I can hear him woofing softly for everyone else to come out and play. Without fail, at least one other mutt will rise to the challenge and con his owner into letting him out where both dogs will commence to barking like crazy. If there are other dogs in their respective yards, it'll become a barkfest of epic proportions. They sound like a marauding pack of feral dogs from one of those post-apocalyptic movies.

It's all in good fun -- I'm pretty sure. In the middle of a lazy weekend afternoon, it's kind of amusing; in the middle of the night, it's a light sleeper's worst nightmare.

Their antics have started me thinking about dogs and garden threats in general. If you own a dog, pass on the cocoa mulch, it can be poisonous to your pooch. Eucalyptus mulch is a good bet, though, because it will help keep fleas under control.

Dog Poisons in the Garden

You should steer clear of herbal shampoo recipes that use pennyroyal. You can find them in some old books and on a few websites because pennyroyal repels fleas too. It's a member of the mint family and seems innocuous enough, but it's a big no-no. Dogs have been known to die from skin exposure and ingesting of pennyroyal.

Another couple of herbs you should watch out for if you have dogs are comfrey and garlic. They can cause liver damage if ingested. There's some confusion about garlic because some experts recommend garlic as an additive to a dog's diet (also a flea deterrent). In small amounts, it's probably pretty safe, but keep the dosage to about 1/8 of a teaspoon of garlic powder a few times a week. If your dog is a digger and the idea of digging and munching on garlic bulbs may appeal to him, keep your garlic patch away from his enclosure. [source: Tilford]

Many garden flowers and landscape plants are dangerous to dogs that love to snack on greenery, so play it safe by checking out the ASPCAs toxic plant list for more information about common plant hazards for both dogs and cats: ASPCA - Poison Plant Page

Keep this number on your refrigerator too: (888) 426-4435. It's the hotline number for the national pet poison control center. There's a $65.00 fee for the call, but if you think your pet's life may be in jeopardy, having the number close by could be a lifesaver.

Reference:

Tilford, Gregory. "All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets." Bow Tie Press. 1999.

Friday

Herbs That Help You Sleep

Watching the clock
Don't underestimate the value of a good night's sleep. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has just released a pretty alarming article that suggests that over a third of adults get less sleep than they should. Lack of sleep makes people . . . well, stupid. It affects cognitive skills and physical response times. If you don't want to go through life groggy, slow witted and stumble-footed, there are some herbs and common foods that can help.

Develop Good Sleep Habits

Before we get into the list of aids that can help you get some shut eye, let's inject some mood music -- well mood silence, actually, into the proceedings. You're more likely to drift off and stay asleep if you cultivate these habits:
  • Quit eating a few hours before bedtime.
  • Exercise a few hours before bedtime.
  • Restrict your caffeine intake to before noon.
  • Prepare for bed with a relaxing ritual. This can be a few minutes of reading or listening to music. You can also take a relaxing bath.
  • Turn off the electronics and sleep in a darkened, quiet room. It may take some getting used to, but the dark and quiet encourages sleep -- really.

Snack on Sleep Inducing Foods

If you've tried the measures above, snack on one of these common foods a few hours before bed:

  • Bananas - They contain magnesium and potassium that will relax your tight muscles.
  • Cherries or cherry juice - A melatonin booster that will help you drift off, cherries are a sweet treat too.
  • Milk or other dairy - The calcium will help you sleep. I always keep a stock of low fat yogurt in the fridge.
  • Almonds - Another source of magnesium and high in protein, almonds will help you sleep and can help reduce your cholesterol level. A small handful should do it.
Rely on Herbs That Help You Sleep

Herbs contain powerful chemical compounds that can work wonders, including helping you to get a good night's sleep. The herbs below can be added to your evening meal, sipped as a tea or sometimes added to a relaxing evening bath. Some sleep inducing herb scents like lavender are available in aromatherapy candles too (or you could always make your own). Aromatherapy isn't just hype. It's an effective way to use an aerosol delivery system to introduce herbal preparations into your body.

These herbs can be used alone or in combination to encourage sleep. Experiment a little. It may make take a few tries to find an herb that tastes good, smells pleasant and has a sedative effect on your system. Everyone is different.

Lavender - Multiple

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

Chamomile -- German (Matricaria recutita)

Special Note: Sleeplessness can be a symptom of a larger problem, so visit doctor for help if your trouble sleeping persists longer than a few days. Make him aware of any over the counter drugs or herbal preparations you plan to take, or are taking, to treat sleeplessness.

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References:

CBS News. "Sleep Loss Gets Scary in CDC Report." 3/4/11. (3/4/11).
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/03/04/earlyshow/health/main20039275.shtml

CDC. "Sleep and Sleep Disorders." (3/4/11).
http://www.cdc.gov/sleep/

Cooper, Deborah. "Herbs to Help You Get a Good Night’s Sleep." 9/10/2000. (3/4/11)
http://www.prohealth.com/library/showarticle.cfm?libid=7711

Jio, Sarah. "10 Foods That Can Help You Sleep." 12/16/10 (3/4/11)http://www.womansday.com/Articles/Health/10-Foods-That-Can-Help-You-Sleep.html

The information provided here is intended for entertainment purpose only.

Wednesday

Tomato Garden Tips and Tricks - Take it From the Tomato

ripe tomato
A tomato isn't an herb, but I've used more than my fair share of these red juicy globes to flavor and beautify everything from soups to appetizers. If you have an herb garden, chances are that there is going to be a tomato garden on your property this summer too. I won't repeat any basic planting instructions here because you can find them on almost any gardening site. I will offer a few quick tips that will make growing and using tomatoes easier and more successful, though:

Experiment with different tomato varieties. Don't stick with the same old Early Girl, Better Boy and Beefsteak tomato varieties this season. Heirloom tomatoes and new cultivars are making designer and old world tomatoes fun additions to your summer garden. From baby yellow pear tomatoes, which are very sweet by the way, to zebra tomatoes that have a slightly tart but strong tomato flavor, make some new friends. Oh, you can find blush orange tomato cultivars that are low in acid too, so you have no excuse to postpone perfecting that BLT recipe. (We like ours with avocado.) There are many online sources tomato plants and seeds. The key is to start shopping around now.

Wait for warmer weather. Tomato seedlings really begin to take off when overnight temperatures warm up. Keeping seedling flats warm indoors and transplanting them outside when your soil warms up will get you off to a better start in the garden than planting tomatoes outdoors too early. Late frosts can be a problem too.

Plan companion plantings.  To protect tomatoes from pests, plant them alongside catnip and marigolds (most varieties).

Choose complimentary crops. To make sure you're ready for a wonderful summer Caprese salad, don't forget to plant some basil to keep those tomatoes company -- oh, and find a good local source for fresh mozzarella. You'll need it later.


Add banana peel. Including diced banana peel to the hole where you plan on planting your tomato seedlings will add an extra dose of phosphorus and potassium. Cover the banana with a layer of soil before you introduce the plant. Using your food processor to create a banana slurry works well too, and that way you can add the extra to the soil around your landscape plants. Tip: Freeze your banana skins to make a big batch in spring and another one in fall.

Encourage strong roots. To encourage root growth, snip off the first two leaves of each tomato stem before you transplant it into the ground. Bury stems to a point just above the snipped leaves. Your roots will flourish, and so will your plants.

Provide adequate support. Train your tomatoes along a trellis or other support, and tie the branches or vines in place with strips of nylon stocking. The stocking is stretchy enough to protect the delicate stems but strong enough to keep them where you put them. There may also be some support for the notion that the nylon encourages stem growth.

Don't refrigerate fresh tomatoes. They stop growing when they get cold and you'll lose that bright flavor that makes fresh maters so tasty. The only times you should consider refrigerating a fresh tomato is if it has been cut or is almost overripe (refrigerating will stop the ripening process cold).

Go green -- then red. Ripen end of season green tomatoes in a sealed container with an apple or a banana. The fruit releases lots of ethylene gas that will ripen slightly green tomatoes in a hurry. Very green tomatoes may never ripen enough to use in fried green tomatoes, say, but you can chop them into green tomato chow-chow. Yummy.

Spice it up. If you're making your own marinara sauce or even enhancing a store bought brand, add a little cream Sherry to make it sweeter. Start with a couple of teaspoons and work from there. To give your sauce depth, add a little fresh oregano. If the oregano is too strong for your taste, try marjoram instead. The plants are related, and marjoram is a good flavor booster without the slightly bitter aftertaste.

A while back I wrote a few tomato articles for TLC.com (the Discovery cable channel's website). Please pay them a visit before the summer season is over. You'll get some good ideas about storing and preserving your summer tomato bounty.

What Should You Do With Tomatoes From Your Garden

How Do You Thicken Homemade Tomato Sauce

How to Stew Tomatoes

Oh, and if you've ever wondered how to peel a tomato the easy way. This slide show will help: How to Peel a Tomato

Tuesday

Virtual Tour of Jefferson's Monticello

One catalog I forgot to include in my last post is for Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. They sell seeds online and have an interesting site you should take a few minutes to explore: The Jefferson Monticello

I visited Monticello a few years ago. It was overcast and drizzling, but the grounds were still beautiful. The house itself is a must see (especially the conservatory) if you're ever near Charlottesville, Virginia. This will explain more: Visiting Monticello

If you're like me and usually want to spend your spring in the garden instead of visiting gardens, this virtual tour of Jefferson's Monticello is fun and painlessly educational: Exploring Monticello

Photo courtesy of radagast89 At SXC: