Saturday

How to Make Vanilla Facial Scrub

After you make a batch of vanilla sugar from my previous post for cooking and sweet indulgences like tea and coffee, whip up a batch of vanilla facial scrub. It's a mild, sweet smelling scrub that has real benefits. It's all natural, easy to make and effective.

Here's the recipe:

Vanilla and Honey Facial Scrub

1 Cup packed brown sugar
Seeds from half a vanilla bean (or 1 teaspoon of real vanilla extract)
Vitamin E from two capsules (400 I.U. ea.)
1/4 cup of honey
1/4 cup almond, olive or avocado oil

Combine ingredients and seal in an airtight container. Refrigerate the batch and remove a small portion (a tablespoon or two) to bring to room temperature before using.

Why it Works

This vanilla and brown sugar scrub is mild but powerful: the honey is a humectant (it pulls moisture into your skin) and the oil is a natural emollient that holds moisturizer behind a barrier until you skin can take advantage of it. The vitamin E helps repair damaged skin cells that get the brunt of wind and sun exposure (and works as a preservative). The honey also has antibacterial properties.

Although this is a pretty benign recipe, test for sensitivity on a small portion of your skin before using it.

How to Make Vanilla Sugar

Vanilla Sugar

Vanilla sugar is a neat twist on plain old granulated sugar. It'll boost your morale every time you lift the lid on the pot or dish. It's very simple, too. Another wonderful benefit is that it makes a very nice gift for a favorite cook -- or even just someone who likes trying out new foods.

It's wonderful in coffee or tea, makes a nice sprinkle on cookies or homemade donuts (or cereal), and it'll keep almost forever.

Basic Vanilla Sugar Recipe

2 vanilla beans
2 cups of sugar
    Instructions

    Split the vanilla beans and add them to the sugar mixture in a glass or plastic container. Shake. Seal the container and let sit in a warm (not hot), dark spot for three to five days (although the taste will improve if you leave it two to three weeks), shaking a couple of times a day.

    After using fresh vanilla beans to make sugar, you can reuse them in recipes. For stronger flavor (and if you don't mind the seeds -- which I don’t btw) scrape seeds into the sugar before shaking. This will use up the bean, so you won't be able use it again except for sugar. Some people also grind the bean and sugar in a coffee grinder. It creates a rich flavor that intensifies over time but can look a little muddy.

    You can make vanilla granulated sugar, vanilla brown sugar and vanilla raw sugar, although for the last two, remove the bean after curing because the increased moisture can lead to mold growth -- and keep the sugar mixture in the refrigerator after you've cured it.

    Vanilla beans are pricey, but you can use them up to three times in a sugar mix if you're careful to reserve some of the seeds each time.

    How to Store Vanilla Beans

    Seal beans in plastic wrap and place them in a plastic bag or jar until ready to use.

    Don't leave them in the sugar indefinitely unless you don't plan on using them again. They'll dry out eventually.

    Don't store beans in the fridge, although I'll admit that sounds counter intuitive. The damp, cool environment in the refrigerator encourages mold growth.

    If you plan on storing beans for a while, air them out occasionally by unwrapping them and placing them on your countertop for a few minutes every couple of weeks or so.

    Stored beans may produce crystals. That's not a bad thing. They're edible, and you can still use the bean, but it's best to do so soon after detecting crystal formations on the surface.

    If vanilla beans do dry out, you can sometimes rehydrate them by soaking them in water for a few hours. If they get moldy, pitch them (sorry).

    Tuesday

    The Best Herbs for Eggs


    Herbs That are Good with Eggs
    Eggs are an almost perfect food. They’re inexpensive, low in calories (under 80 and around 17 in an egg white) high in protein (more than six grams), easy to prepare and have a mild flavor that lends itself to lots of dishes.

    With the right handling, they can be decadently creamy, and with a little boiling water (and a few minutes), they become the perfect take along food for lunch or a picnic. Whether you have leftover Easter eggs or are trying to live leaner by expanding your repertoire of simple, inexpensive recipes, eggs fit the bill. Here are some easy but delicious options:

    • Bread pudding
    • Asparagus frittata
    • Egg-drop soup
    • Quiche Lorraine
    • Huevos rancheros
    • Eggs Benedict
    • Egg foo yung
    • Rarebit omelette
    • Deviled eggs
    • Egg curry
    • Tuna and egg salad sandwiches
    • Egg and olive sandwiches

    The list goes on and on, and all you need to explore the delicious world of regional egg dishes is a moderate understanding of how to cook and season these beauties.

    Herbs for Eggs

    Because eggs have a mild flavor, they take on the unique qualities of the herbs used with them. If you want to showcase your garden herbs, how about sprinkling chopped nasturtium petals over scrambled eggs, or sprinkling fresh dill on a Munster and mushroom omelette?

    Paprika is another underutilized herb for egg dishes. Imported sweet and hot varieties have great flavor, especially in hot (temperature) foods. Put some fresh ground nutmeg in your bread pudding, or try some tarragon in your next veggie quiche or frittata. You can mix and match herbs, too: Try parsley and chives in your next ham and cheese omelette. If that's too tame, go with eggs scrambled with cumin, chili powder, cheddar cheese and cilantro, and serve it all up in a folded flour tortilla.

    These herbs and spices work well in egg dishes, so grow or keep them on hand:
    • Basil
    • Chervil
    • Chili powder
    • Chives
    • Cilantro
    • Cumin
    • Curry (and curry plant)
    • Dill
    • Fennel
    • Marjoram
    • Nasturtium petals
    • Nutmeg
    • Paprika
    • Parsley
    • Red pepper flakes
    • Savory
    • Tarragon
    • Thyme

    Hints for Cooking Eggs

    Overcooking - One of the biggest mistakes cooks make when preparing eggs is providing too much of a good thing -- heat. Eggs cook pretty quickly, and they continue cooking after you remove them from the heat. Remove egg dishes like fritattas, quiche and scrambled eggs from the oven or stovetop a few minutes before they're done. They'll finish off on their own.

    Old eggs - Eggs may last a long time in your fridge, but never think an old egg will react like a new egg. If you want your deviled eggs to be centered and golden, opt for fresh eggs every time.

    Scrambled eggs - You can make perfect (not rubbery) scrambled eggs if you cook over low heat. As the egg layer at the bottom of the skillet solidifies, coax it off the bottom and sides of the pan into the still liquid egg mixture. Your scrambled eggs will cook more evenly that way and stay moist, too.

    The perfect omelette - If you're making an omelette, change your strategy by cooking the egg fast and hot. Use two eggs per single serving omelette, add a tablespoon of water to the mixture and whisk it thoroughly. Heat oil in a skillet (hot). Add the eggs and start stirring. The bubbling action you'll see is the steam from the water boiling off. As it moves through the egg mixture, it steams it, so you're omelette will be moist (not tough) and evenly cooked throughout. As it firms up, stop stirring and let it create an unbroken layer. Remove the omelette from the heat while it's still slightly wet. Top it off with cheese or a combo filling and slide it onto a plate, folding it over the filling as you go.

    The perfect hard-boiled egg - Make perfect hard boiled eggs every time: Start with raw eggs in a generous pot of water. Bring the eggs to a boil and then turn off the heat. Leave the eggs in the hot water for 15 minutes, and then transfer them to cold water for another 15 minutes. If you have lots of eggs in a large container, use ice water to stop the cooking process fast.

    Halving - To halve a hard-boiled egg without tearing it, wet the knife blade.

    Poaching - If your poached eggs fall apart in water, always use cold eggs from the fridge, and add a teaspoon of vinegar to the pot. Stir the boiling water in swift circles, and then pour the eggs into the relatively stable center of the whirlpool you've created -- then let them cook undisturbed. It's the triple threat of poached egg prep.

    Separating - When separating yolks from whites, nothing works better than your splayed fingers.

    Volume - For fluffy beaten eggs, let them come up to room temperature in the shell.

    Try a few herbs for egg dishes the next time you're planning a quick breakfast scramble or think poached eggs on toast is just the thing for a Saturday morning meal on the deck. The right herbs make everything taste better.

    Omelette Photo:    By Vegan Feast Catering (Brussel Sprout Veggie Feta Tofu Ohmlette) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

    Thursday

    Happy Easter From the Herb Gardener

    I'm working on Easter baskets and menu items, but I wanted to take the time to wish everyone a good holiday -- whatever you're celebrating -- or just a wonderful spring weekend. I have another mud dauber infestation this spring, but am so happy to be outdoors they don't bother me.

    The potatoes, onions, lemon balm, peppermint, lavender, catnip, hyssop, tarragon, asparagus, chives (I also encourage wild onion) and dozens of other plants in my garden are up. Hundreds of indoor seedlings are looking perky and ready to try a mild overnight camping trip in the garden.

    The peonies and roses are leafing out, and all the shallow weeds I've been neglecting are calling my name. It's a great time to be out in the garden, even if you're pursuing "gardening lite" by just putting out a pot or two. Enjoy the time. For many of us, these mild days of chicks, spring lambs, bunnies and sweet strawberries give way to hotter, stormier weekends ahead. I hear The Home Depot is offering a veggie plant deal: buy two get one free through the 23rd. They have a limited variety, but their plants are usually in pretty good shape (my personal experience).

    I'll have more plant summaries coming up and plan to share some fun herb projects and recipe with photos in the weeks ahead. I'll probably also share my thoughts on growing inverted tomatoes and potatoes in a bag. My straw bale garden is in its second season, so it should be fun to see how well the bales protect and nurture my seasonal herb and vegetable selections.

    Thank you for being a regular visitor to my herb blog. Having visitors makes writing so much more satisfying and worthwhile.

    Sara

    Saturday

    Planting Herb Seedling - Tips and Tricks

    If you've planted herb seeds this year congratulations. It's a great way to garden. If you haven't but have kids, you should consider doing it one year whether you're into gardening or not -- it might even make you a convert.

    Before you grab the scissors and start snipping herbs for tonight's Hamburger Helper, pay attention to these important tips.

    Protect Your Tender Herb Seedlings
    • Seed starts need to be introduced to the outdoors gradually. Start them outside in their starter pots on a sunny morning for a couple of hours. Repeat the process every day, lengthening the time outdoors over the course of a week to ten days.
    • Never plant your new herbs in the garden until after the threat of frost for your area has passed for the season. If you're not sure when that will be, call your local Cooperative Extension Office for free advice and guidance. There's a link on the left pane of this blog. It's down a ways, so keep scrolling.
    • Use a good identification method for labeling your seedlings. This sounds really simple, but it's not. Paper labels get wet and the ink runs, leaving you wondering which plant is parsley (that needs a deep hole) and which one is tarragon. Writing the herb ID on a disposable knife, in permanent ink, works well. It's my first year doing it, and I'm impressed. I always have knives left over from those plastic picnic silverware combo packs anyway.
    • Don't cover seedlings with a protective plastic lid if you're going to put them out in the sun. If it starts to warm up, you'll cook them -- trust me. Take off any protective cover, and keep an eye on your tender plants for signs of drooping and stress. If they look droopy, take them indoors or put them in the shade.
    • Keep starts uniformly moist, but don't water them from the top if you're putting them outside. Sunlight can burn the leaves, and you could be inviting mildew.
    • When you install plants in the garden, be aware of their potential size and height. Give them plenty of room and try planting taller plants behind shorter ones. Light requirements are important, so peruse the garden ahead of time to find the spots that get the best light -- and use those for the appropriate herbs.
    • If you live in an area that gets pretty hot, consider mulching your herbs to help the soil retain moisture. The same goes for potted herbs on your patio or deck.
    • Dig a big enough hole for your herbs to allow the roots to spread out. If your soil is poor (you know who you are), a bigger hole will also allow for better drainage or water retention via amendments, whatever your garden extreme happens to need.
    • When you set your plants in place, tamp the earth around the roots well. Roots exposed to pockets of air in the soil will die. A few good pats with your palm should do it.
    There's more, but I'll continue my suggestions on another post. It's about to rain, and there are some garden chores I need to take care of. Have a great day.

    Get Over Your Tax Troubles and Plant Some Herbs

    Are you still hung up with your taxes? The due date is April 18th this year. When you finally sign on the dotted line, or press enter, head outside for some fresh air -- you'll probably need it. While you're breathing deep and lamenting the current condition of your savings account, take a look around. Isn't life nicer when there's something green to look at? Human beings are conditioned to expect and appreciate nature. If your home or landscape is barren of natural elements -- but enviably practical -- exchange some concrete or hardpan for an herb or two.

    Some Simple Herb Suggestions for Tax Day

    A pot or plot of greens will bring spring and summer to life for you -- really. Try a parsley plant. Who couldn't use some parsley? At the very least, it's nature's breath freshener.

    For color, add lavender. It's a natural moth repellent that'll make your closets and drawers smell wonderful.

    Or choose a moth repellent you can eat and make into a Christmas wreath this fall -- rosemary (just start with a large plant if you want a bountiful harvest for crafts).

    If you're into big weekend breakfasts, a little batch of chives makes a nice, mild oniony garnish -- and you know fresh chives are just the right touch on a baked potato.

    Herbs are useful, fun and frequently edible. Make your garden work for you by adding herbs to your landscaping repertoire. Did we say they can save you money on expensive packaged herbs? These days, every penny counts.

    Oh, and if you're suffering sticker shock in your grocery store's produce department, try growing a few veggies this year too. Take a look at the new grow bags that will allow you to grow tomatoes, squash and even potatoes on almost any surface. You can also cultivate veggies and herbs in raised garden beds using prefab kits (so easy) and even bales of straw. Get gardening -- and think of your landscape as an edible wonderland -- plant for harvest. It's a green thing to do.




    Friday

    5 Must Have Herbs You Might Forget

    Sweet Woodruff
    Before you use up all your prime garden spots, consider growing these herbs too. They're useful and easy to keep. If you want a versatile herb garden with some surprises, these plants are for you:

    Saffron Crocus - Add this one in late summer. Yes, this is the Saffron you pay a fortune for at the store. Start with around 10 bulbs. In three years, you'll have enough for yourself and a little stash to give away.

    Soapwort - Your delicate washables don't need chemicals, they need some TLC from the granddaddy of gentle, natural (lathering) cleansers.

    Stevia - If you use Truvia, this is the plant all the (not so artificial) sweetness comes from. If you grow Stevia in your garden, you can avoid the chemical processing and go natural.

    Lemon Balm - For indigestion, relaxation and divine fragrance, nothing beats lemon balm. You can make it into a tea, use it in salads and baking, or keep it by your back door for a blast of wonderful aroma every time you brush past. Lemon balm, a member of the mint family, is a fast grower that's easy to keep and propagate.

    Sweet Woodruff - Now used primarily as a groundcover, sweet woodruff grows in perky whorls that smell like a cross between cinnamon and fresh mown hay. It'll grow in shady, barren spots. It's also a key ingredient in May wine.

    Make your herb garden uniquely functional by including a few new varieties every year.

    Wednesday

    Five Herb Growing Quick Tips

    If you're eyeing those adorable, tiny herb starts at the garden center (in their beguiling little pots), you don't necessarily have to do a research marathon in order to get them installed successfully in your landscape. Although there are some exceptions, herbs aren't persnickety, and they're pretty grateful for anything you can give them. Those picturesque photos of herbs spilling out of old tires, discarded leather shoes and abandoned pottery shards aren't far wrong. Herbs can grow in spots where many other plants would take a look around, swoon and perish.

    Five Helpful Tips for Growing Herbs in Your Backyard

    These five tips will help you grow most of the common herb varieties you're likely to fall in love with. They're basic but practical guidelines to get your herbs through the season without mishap.

    Sun is important - Many herbs and a majority of garden plants need a reliable source of light for at least six hours a day. Usually that means direct outdoor sunlight, but if you want to grow herbs indoors, a windowsill herb garden is imminently doable if you can offer adequate window light or supplement with grow lights if you need to.

    Perform this little test, either indoors or out: Wait till the sun is shining in the spot you have in mind, and then extend your arm. If you can't clearly see your well defined shadow (and all your fingers), the spot is probably too shady.

    Give 'em good drainage - Plants need a healthy root system to survive. Kill the roots, and you kill the plant. One of the easiest ways to sabotage your growing efforts is to create a situation where water dwells around a plant's roots long enough to destroy them. When that happens, the plant has no way to absorb minerals and moisture and starves to death.

    Take a look at your soil to see if it's the right consistency to absorb moisture and then release it to the water table in short order. If you can't get a trowel into your soil or it's so porous it feels mealy, add a quality top soil (or outdoor potting soil) and soil amendments. If you can't afford to rework a whole flowerbed to make it drain better, just dig a large hole (around three or four times larger than the plant's pot), and amend that smaller area. It's a cheat, but we all know this isn't a perfect world. To learn more about your soil, visit:  How to Test Your Soil - a  Primer

    Give them enough water - Herbs are sturdy little fighters that often come from environs where resources are thin on the ground, literally. One thing they do need consistently, though, is water. This can be a challenge, but if you plant herbs in a spot you view (or walk by) often, you're more likely to remember they're there and give them a revitalizing drink on a regular basis. Plants don't eat dirt to get nutrients. They rely on water to dissolve the minerals they need and then extract the minerals from the moisture around their roots.

    The irony here is that too much moisture kills the roots of many plants while too little makes it impossible for them to access nourishment. Plants will often warn you when they aren’t getting enough water. They'll droop, turn yellow or develop brown leaf margins. Watch for clues and you won't go wrong. You can also employ a cheat, like planting water hungry herbs near downspouts where they're more likely to get water when they need it -- whether you're being a good host or not.

    Watch the heat - In some areas of the country, the heat can be brutal during high summer, and keeping herbs in very hot, arid conditions is challenging. If a plant's instructions suggest full sun but you know that you could cook an egg on your patio during hot summer afternoons, choose a spot that gets dappled light -- or some welcome afternoon shade. Growing herbs is horticulture in action, but it's also about common sense.

    Harvest sparingly - That basil plant may look delicious (especially for pesto), but don't harvest more than a third of the plant at a time (for most herbs), and wait for that much or more to grow back before taking an additional harvest. It's also a good idea to let seedlings grow to eight inches or thereabouts before you begin harvesting your first crop. Plants are processing plants for the leaves, flowers or seeds you want from them, but they're also living things.  When you put their needs first, you insure future bounty.

    More Herb Hints and Suggestions

    A majority of herbs are considered weedy invaders in nature and thrive in barren soils, so the soil your herbs comes with (in) should keep them nourished for a month or more.  After that, one or possibly two applications of an all-purpose fertilizer should be plenty for the season.

    I'm not mentioning pest control here because many herbs are effective at repelling insects without intervention. That may be because they often have distinctive, strong fragrances too bold for your average bug. If you do start seeing signs of insect activity, spray plants with the least aggressive method first, like a garden soap or homemade preparation (you'll find quite a few around this blog).
    Bugs really shouldn't be a problem, though, which is one reason herbs make a great first garden project. It also doesn't hurt that you can eat them, make cunning flower arrangements with them, use them in crafts, give herb projects away as holiday gifts and employ them in many helpful home remedies.

    Head out to the nursery this morning and give an herb a home. It'll pay you back tenfold.

    Tuesday

    How to Grow Lavender and Use it in Cooking and Crafts

    Use Lavender in Crafts

    If you've visited here much, you know I love lavender. Over the years, I've written content about fun things you can do with your lavender harvest (for crafts, cooking and medicinal uses) and also about the literature and interesting history of my purple passion.

    Since the lavender growing recap I posted a few days ago was so well received, I thought some of the following posts would make good lunch reading. Lavender really does deserve a little spot by your garden gate, here's why:

    Lavender Facts of Interest

    Using Lavender in Cooking and Crafts

    Understanding Lavender's 'Lucky" Reputation


    Keeping Lavender Indoors

    Lavender in History 

    The Legend of Four Thieves Vinegar

    Lavender in Literature (Quotes)

    Lavender Recipes

    Herbes de Provence Recipe 

    Make Lavender Sugar

    Make Lavender Sugar Cookies

    Make Lavender Ice Cream 

    Make Lavender Salt

    Make Lavender Apple Cake

    Make Relaxing Lavender Tea

    Lavender Ice Tea 

    Lavender Crafts

    Make Lavender Bath Salts 

    Make Lavender Facial Scrub

    Make Lavender Water

    Make Lavender Oil

    Make an Easy Lavender Candle

    Make Lavender Bubble Bath

    Make Lavender Sunburn Treatment

    Make a Lavender Wand

    Lavender Bedbug Spray


    If you only have a plant or two and need more lavender buds than you're currently harvesting, you can buy food grade lavender online.

    For your first project, try a lavender wand.  Even when the fragrance fades, you can refresh it with a little lavender essential oil. My wands are more streamlined that many you'll see.  They're beautiful to look at will last for years. This lavender wand style makes a wonderful gift and looks adorable in a closet or linen drawer.

    Sunday

    Helpful Garden Reference Sites

    Garden Reference Sites
    If you garden, these spring and early summer weekends are so essential they can almost define the gardening experience. It's a time when you promise yourself you'll wear your gardening gloves -- but don't --warn yourself to bend from the knees -- but forget, vow to put in enough supports and cages to keep everything up off the ground later -- but once you see what a little aluminum cage (post, wire mesh or hoop) costs these days you buy half of what you want (vowing to make your own --as if).

    It's also a time when you start to see your nearest neighbors emerge after a long winter of eating Christmas stocking bounty -- well-fed and in need of a little color. People add adopted pets to their families around this time, so the neighborhood dogs are out eyeing new frenemies. The cats are hanging back in the shadows waiting to see how things go.

    The mornings smell like green things growing, and all of a sudden the birds are back in earnest: decorating your trees like animated ornaments, squabbling in the branches and swaggering around your landscape as if they owned it. While you're rummaging in the cabinets for the sun tea jar, make a note of these four handy reference sites. In the next couple of months, one of them may make your life easier.

    Helpful Gardening Reference Sites

    Fight bugs - The National Gardening Association has been nice enough to compile a photo list of the garden vermin that plague us -- as well as a few insect friends we should cultivate or leave alone. It has pictures of bugs as well as close ups of plants sporting different symptoms of pest predation. If you do suffer an infestation (which, face it, is inevitable) this site will give you some guidance: Pest Identification (Photo) Library


    Put plants out on time - I harvest seeds in the fall every year and sometimes forget how far ahead of the last frost I should get them started and what to do with the seedlings once they're ready to go. This table has been a big help: Seed Planting Chart (Mostly Veggies)


    Get the help you need - These folks have local offices in every state and can offer free help and useful information on everything from choosing the right tree for your landscape to figuring out what type of grub you just dug up. No question is too silly, so if you're confused about your soil, the critter that just ran under your deck or the brown spots on your azaleas, give them a call: USDA Cooperative Extension Locator


    Know your zone - This color coded list of U.S. weather hardiness zones will help you understand those zone references on the plants you buy (or lust after). Once you know your zone, you can stock up on plants with more confidence about whether or not they'll live long and prosper. Yes, some areas have microclimates that fly in the face of zone map recommendations. If you're a seasoned gardener, you can adjust accordingly. If you're a newbie, zones provide a valuable rule of thumb guide: USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

    Have a productive day in the garden, and if you broke a few promises you made to yourself over the winter -- about not buying too much or remembering to switch to colored mulch this year (what's with that stuff, anyway?), cut yourself a little gardener's slack. For the dedicated gardener, this is like Christmas and a birthday all rolled into one -- it's only natural to succumb to the excitement.


    Note: I just added a twitter button to my blog. If you're a fan of twitter, you'll find it in the upper left pane.

    Friday

    How to Grow Lavender

    How to Grow Lavender
    A big favorite at our house, lavender is one herb that does it all:
    • It's a beauty in the garden with gray foliage and flowers that can range from deep purple to white. 
    •  
    • It's aromatic in a way that can smell as wonderful on a young girl as it does on an octogenarian. (Actually, it has a clean fragrance that smells pleasant without being flowery.) 
    •  
    • It's a natural antibacterial and antifungal, which makes it an effective ingredient in cleansers, cosmetics and hair treatments. 
    •  
    • You can also use it in cooking.

    Pretty impressive for a perennial that requires very little care and has a history interesting enough to make it a conversation piece as well as a focal point in your garden.

    Here's a recap of some of the lavender posts I've shared in the past. As you're laying out your spring herb garden, they're worth a second look:

    Growing Lavender

    Propagating Lavender

    Understand Lavender Varieties

    How to Grow Passionflower


    passion flower

    You really have to love any plant that has "passion" and "flower" blended in the same word. This little vine is a powerhouse of good characteristics that makes it worthy of its own little trellis or a spot along your fence -- or around your mailbox post. This American native is the state flower of Tennessee and grows wild there and points south.

    Passionflower is more than a big purple climber, though. It's has medicinal properties worthy of a spot in your landscape. There are a number of passionflower varieties, and we're featuring Passiflora incarnate today.

    If you're having trouble relaxing in the evening or dropping off to sleep after a long, evil day, passionflower may be able to help.

    How to Grow Passionflower (Passiflora incarnate - medicinal passion flower)

    Passionflower isn't fussy. Provide light soil that drains well (pH 6.1 to 7.5.) and keep the plant moist. Passionflower likes sun but will tolerate partial shade. It's accustomed to poor soil, so give it a deep hole filled with sand and other soil lighteners, but don't pamper it too much. Consistent watering is a good idea, but this isn't a persnickety plant. Although there are over 400 varieties of passion flower, many, like Passiflora incarnate, are vines that grow to 30 feet. Passionflower is considered a warm weather Southern belle, but it can take winter temperatures into Zone-5 as long as you give it a protective layer of mulch before you put the lawn furniture in the garage for the season.


    Propagating Passionflower


    Propagating Passionflower from Cuttings
    Propagate passionflower from seed, by layering or from cuttings. I use the cutting method because it's easiest for me. I take six to seven inch cuttings in fall from mature plants and root them in perlite, vermiculite, or sand -- whatever I have on hand. I've used rooting hormone -- and not used rooting hormone. If this is your first time, it's a bit of extra insurance.

    I try to take cuttings in early September, but always before the first frost of the season (if you garden, you know about watching the weather report). I bring seedlings indoors to overwinter and plant them out in the garden the following spring.

    Propagating Passionflower by Layering
    Another option, especially if you don't want to babysit a seedling nursery over the winter months is to cultivate new plants through layering. Just strip leaves from a section of stem and bury the stem under an inch of soil. Keep it in place with a smooth (not too heavy) stone or a garden bobby pin -- those metal loops that keep garden fabric in place. With regular watering, a prepared section of vine should root in a few weeks. After adding a layer of mulch, it should make it through the winter and be ready to transplant in spring.

    Propagating Passionflower from Seed
    If you want to try starting passionflower from seed, harvest the seed pod from a mature plant and remove the seeds from the gelatinous aril (the glop is very tasty, btw). Dry seeds in a warm, dark place and plant them out in sandy soil next spring after giving them a soak in water for a couple of days. Planting passionflower seeds is a little like watching the grass grow, though: seeds can take up to a year to germinate. That isn't a typo. Put seeds in an attractive, shallow pot and hunker down for a long wait. If it seems like a royal pain, just imagine the payoff when those green shoots finally poke their heads out of the ground.
    Growing Passionflower in a Container

    Passionflower takes to a pot well as long as you can keep the accommodations consistently moist.  Some gardeners prefer to pot passionflower and then bury the pot in the garden to keep the plant from growing out of control.  Others living in cold areas prune the vines back and bring plants indoors over the winter months. If you think watering might be a problem, invest in a self-watering pot and make sure to add moisture beads or a layer of mulch to your setup.

    Harvesting Passionflower

    Strip leaves from the plant in fall and dry them in a dehydrator, on a drying screen or outdoors in a paper bag (a single layer of leaves at a time). Place dried leaves in an airtight container and keep in a cool, dark spot.

    Medicinal Uses for Passionflower

    Here we get to the payoff of growing passionflower. It is a restful herb that calms the nerves and will help you sleep. Until the late 1970s, it was a common ingredient in OTC drugs designed to promote sleep, but a lack of adequate research (not the discovery of problems or lack of effectiveness) led to its falling out of favor in the U.S. There seems to be more interest in the pharmacological properties of passionflower in Europe where popular sleep aids are extracted from the plant's leaves. Although it can work alone, you'll get more benefit using passionflower in concert with other sleep inducing herbs like valerian root or lavender -- my favorite.

    According to Consumer Reports Health, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates passionflower as possibly effective for treating anxiety, and there is insufficient research to rate it for treating insomnia and other conditions, like: hemorrhoids, heart problems, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia and seizures.

    It is considered likely safe for use by most people when taken orally in small amounts and is considered possibly safe when used short-term as a medicine. Passionflower contains small concentrations of harmala alkaloids, potentially toxic substances when ingested in large amounts or concentrations. Because there is some potential for abuse, passionflower is considered unsafe to use over a long period of time (defined as a month or more).

    Brewing Passionflower in Tea

    You can make a sedative tea by adding 8-ounces of boiling water to a teaspoon of dried passionflower leaves (place the leaves in a tea ball or muslin bag). Let steep for five minutes. Limit the dosage to one cup about an hour before bedtime.

    Caution: Medicinal passionflower shouldn't be ingested by pregnant women or women who are breastfeeding. Avoid passionflower if you are on anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication. If you are new to passionflower, avoid driving or operating heavy machinery until you know how your body will react to this herb. Some people have reported extreme fatigue, fogginess and an inability to concentrate.

    If you have insomnia, heart palpitations or any other undiagnosed symptoms, seek the assistance of a medical professional.

    On a side note, the large, showy flowers of passionflower make a friendly display on a fence or trellis. Many herb plants have puny and unimpressive flowers, but passionflower really puts on a show. It's worth a spot in your garden for that alone. Keep an eye on it, though. Passionflower can become an invasive pest if left unchecked over a few seasons.

    Alternate names: purple passion flower, apricot vine or maypop

    References:

    Consumer Reports Health. "Passionflower" Undated. (3/15/11).
    http://nmcd.consumerreports.org/nd/Search.aspx?pt=100&id=871&ts=1302182251

    Houdret, Jessica. "Practical Herb Garden." Anness Publishing. 2003

    Lerner, Rosie B. "Propagate Herbs Now For Yearlong Enjoyment." Purdue University Consumer Horticulture.
    http://www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/herbs.html

    Steven Foster Group, Inc. "Passionflower - Passiflora incarnate." Undated. (3/15/11).
    http://www.stevenfoster.com/education/monograph/pflower.html

    United States Department of Agriculture. Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata L.) Undated. (3/15/11).
    http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=PAIN6

    WebMD. "Passionflower Overview Information. 2009. (3/15/11).
    http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-871-PASSIONFLOWER.aspx?activeIngredientId=871&activeIngredientName=PASSIONFLOWER

    photo1 - courtesy of  morguefile.com
    photo2 Courtesy of NDPetitt at morguefile.com
    photo 3 Courtesy of EricPruis at morguefile.com 


    Tuesday

    Become an Herb Adventurer

    I just read a great article over at Eatocracy about becoming a food adventurer. Are you afraid to try new foods? That octopus salad or the strange black strips in hot and sour soup can seem downright ominous to the uninitiated.

    Admit it: the world of gastronomic adventure isn't all fun-flavored Easter jelly beans (or Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, either). Sometimes a mouthful of an unpronounceable exotic delicacy can taste like the stuff you rescue from the back of the fridge -- sniff -- and cram down the garbage disposal (or onto the compost pile).

    Why You Should Become a Food Adventurer

    Food adventures have advantages, though. Take turkey or chicken, for instance. When you prepare fowl, you want a nice moist mouthful. For most of us, though, if that breast bite isn't loaded with fat and sodium, the meat itself tastes pretty bland. Different cultures attack the problem with gusto, adding spices, herbs, vinegars, wines, marinades and sauces to keep that fowl from becoming boring or -- well -- foul.

    Sesame chicken is zesty, and if you grew up with a Southern fried sensibility, it'll be an exotic and interesting addition to your repertoire. The same goes for mustard-tarragon chicken, cashew chicken and coq au vin (chicken cooked in wine). You may think one or two of the options you end up trying are nasty, but there are lots of chicken and turkey variations out there. You're bound to find one worth lusting after.

    How Understanding Herbs Can Add to the Adventure

    Okay, here's where herbs come in: If you understand the flavor and aroma of different herbs and spices, you won't have to guess when you're ordering from a new and mysterious menu. A brief description of the dish should alert you. If you despise fennel, that fennel salad isn't for you. If you think sage smells like mold, pass on the saltimbocca.

    The flip side is that the flavors you do love, like cardamom, basil, cloves, garlic, shallots and sweet paprika will jump out at you from the menu (or recipe) and let you know this one's a keeper.

    Try lots of different herbs, spices and blends to get a handle on what you like and what you don't. There are herb stores around that will let you sample the goods and explore new aromas and tastes free to see if you like them. There are also buffet dining options where you can try out ethnic foods and eat as much or as little of a dish as you like without ruining the meal for yourself -- or wasting the money.

    Grow Your Own Adventure

    Be bold. If you know you like a particular herb or vegetable, try growing it yourself. Delicacies like fried squash blossoms don't hit many restaurant menus and the flowers aren't available in stores, but if you plant a zucchini, they're free for the taking and you can still get an impressive squash harvest.

    Fresh beats dried almost every time too. This is the year to dust off your pedal pushers and get back in the garden. Explore some new menu options and start a love affair with a few new tastes. When you discover herb flavors you like, buy a pot and give some leafy greens a home. It'll be the start of a great relationship -- one filled with adventures -- the kind with happy endings.

    Saturday

    Herb Gardens for Beginners - Here's an Idea

    I'm going to say something controversial here in a minute. I think growing herbs is one of the absolute best beginning gardening projects -- that's not the controversial part. I think it's so compelling, fun and addictive that it'll pull you back to it year after year. If you can't invest the time and money to work your flowerbeds, can't afford to invest in those cunning looking raised bed contraptions and can't buy window boxes or matched pots for your deck -- don't.

    Just Do It -- Plant an Herb

    Dig a little hole in your wretched soil and fill it with potting mix or top-soil mixed with sand. Dig one hole and stick an herb in it that you'd ordinarily buy from the grocery store. It could be dill for your salmon, basil for your pasta sauce, lavender for tea, parsley for garnish or mint for your lamb. The herb doesn't matter, but its usefulness to you does.

    Choose a spot that's sunny and close enough to your garden hose that giving it a drink now and then won't be an imposition. If you don't have a little section of earth at your disposal, plant your herb in a plastic tub or a piece of old crockery (with a drainage hole in the bottom). Just get your first herb going somehow, even if your approach will never make the cover of gardener's weekly.

    This year, your first year, won't be spectacular. You'll start getting the itch, though. That useful herb will shoot out of your makeshift home for it, and pretty soon you'll be looking around for a pair of shears to harvest a few leaves, then more. By fall you'll be thinking about ways to save seed for next year. You may also start thinking about adding a couple of other herbs and maybe a vegetable plant or two to your project -- next year.

    Just Get Started (Today's a good day to get your hands dirty.)

    It's a start -- a great start -- and a path to gardening many of us have taken whether we want to admit it or not. Herb and vegetable gardening is beguiling. There's something enormously powerful about being able to use (as in eat) what you grow. It's so much more powerful than putting a boxwood hedge in your landscape because it'll screen the gas meter from view.

    Gardening for edible and useful plants is almost like finding something you actually want on sale. It's a windfall, serendipity and payback from the cosmos for your farsightedness. You may not believe me, but try it anyway. You'll be so surprised. Come back in the fall and tell me how it went. We'll talk then about planning your "real" herb garden.

    Oh, if you want a more traditional approach to starting your first herb garden, these simple tutorials will help:

    Your First Herb Garden
    Starting an Herb Garden
    How to Start an Herb Garden - More Tips