Monday

New Year's in the Garden - and Out


I've been thinking about the New Year. It's an interesting time. Embarking on new goals in the middle of winter can be daunting, though. Here's an example: I'm gridding out open areas in the garden for spring planting. There's a notebook and pencil on my lap to catch any inspiration that manages to breach my post breakfast inertia.Every few minutes I look out the window at that selfsame garden, which is currently buried under a crusted, dimpled coating of snow. It's not a pristine smooth blanket today. It never stays that way for long. It's a churned up and chunky carpet made worse by my husband's footprints (from walking out to get the newspaper), and from our dog's antics while performing his morning ablutions.

That is to say, it isn't a picture postcard landscape by any means. But it is my garden, and its white patches and graying, muddy perimeter remind me of the coming New Year -- a little. It's waiting for a benediction in the form of the sun transiting a bit higher in the sky, resulting in longer, warmer days. But even that isn't enough for this little garden. It relies on me, this New Year and every year -- to pull weeds and plant seeds and stand armed and vigilant against pests.

New Year's resolutions are like garden duty. They're about hoping for the best from the cosmos (and oneself) and being willing to do some of the hard work. Call it an act of faith. In the garden, pesky chores are the product of a stalwart conviction that spring will come, maybe a little late this year, but it will come just the same. And it will be glorious, with temperate weather and tender showers and light breezes, with a ripe summer and a bounteous fall to follow.  I have that picture in mind as I run my pencil lines and make notations in the margins of my college ruled pad. I plan my gardening budget and hope my often aching back will hold up to the challenge.

If you've been unsuccessful with past New Year's resolutions, I'd like to share one of my favorite quotes with you. I try to remember it when my will power stutters. I don't know who said it first, but whoever it was is probably in great shape today and has an impressive credit score. Here's the quote in all its graceful simplicity:  "Discipline is remembering what you want."

I like that.  It puts power squarely in my hands -- for a great garden -- and anything else I want badly enough. So, dear reader, here is an end to my holiday reflections with a simple wish: I hope you remember what you want in the New Year -- whether it's a great garden, an enviable backhand or a perfect posterior.

Oh, and one more thing:  A favorite article of mine really hits home this time of year; please take a moment to read it.  I think you'll be pleased you did:  10 Kid Habits to Hold on To 

Have as safe and happy New Year's Celebration.

Merry Chirstmas

Today you may be ankle deep in double-sided sticky tape or battling pesky pie crust, but wherever you're spending Christmas Eve day, I wish you:

A few extra minutes to get things done
A friendly finger to hold the ribbon in place while you tie it
A handy potholder when the timer goes off
Directions you can actually read when assembling that (insert your project here)
Someone to rub your neck when you (finally) get a chance to take a load off your feet

. . . and a Christmas filled with family, friends and good times.

Merry Christmas from Sara

The Herb Gardener

Saturday

How to Make Portuguese Sweet Bread

Around the holidays, I always reminisce about the Portuguese delicacies my grandmother served when I was little. It was common for us to have linguica with breakfast on Sundays. We also had big toasted slices of Portuguese sweet bread. Although it's rich and sweet, Portuguese sweet bread dough isn't tough. Actually it's very light and airy.

Sweet bread makes a very nice weekend treat.  If you've ever wanted to bake bread, this is a good beginner project.  It pays dividends because it's always a big hit.

About Portuguese Sweet Bread


The secret ingredient in Portuguese baked goods is egg -- lots of it egg -- and especially egg yolk, which adds richness.

Here's the old story of Portuguese breads and desserts:

Historically, Portuguese sweets and breads were produced in abundance by the nuns of local community churches. It was a way for them to make extra money. Since nunneries often used egg whites to make starch (to keep their habits looking neat), they typically had plenty of egg yolks on hand for baking. They used the yolks in their recipes, which then became famous for their richness and golden color. Those recipes were copied, improved and then handed down from one generation to the next throughout Portugal.

Sweet bread is a big favorite in many parts of the U.S. and elsewhere, too.   In some locations, it's also referred to as Hawaiian sweet bread. Both breads are very similar.

What to Look For

A good Portuguese sweet bread recipe will contain lots of eggs. The addition of a little mashed potato (or potato flakes) helps make the bread tender and moist, too. Potato was frequently used as filler during times when flour was scarce or expensive. The only disadvantage to using potato in baked goods is that it produces a somewhat wet dough that isn't as shelf stable as standard flour dough. That shouldn't be a problem here, though. This sweet bread is so tasty it'll disappear in no time.

The following recipe was adapted from mother's version, which she adapted from my grandmother's version -- and so on.

Portuguese Sweet Bread Recipe


Ingredients:

1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (about 105 degrees F)
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup mashed potato (You can reconstitute dried potato flakes for this recipe, too)
Pinch powdered ginger
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoons salt
4 eggs (use 5 if they're small)
1 cups sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
4 to 5 cups bread flour

Directions:

Step 1
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water.
Add 1-1/2 tablespoons sugar, mashed potato and ginger.
Cover with a damp cloth and set aside to rise until the mixture has doubled. You want a robust yeast colony. (This should take about an hour).

Step 2
In a separate pan, heat milk to just below boiling, add salt and stir. Cool to just warm.

Step 3
In small bowl, beat eggs and 1 cup of sugar.
Gradually pour the egg mixture into the yeast mixture, stirring constantly.
Add butter and stir to incorporate.
Add half the flour and stir.
Add the milk and continue stirring.
Add the remaining flour, less 1/2 cup, and stir for three to four minutes.
Note: If the dough is too moist to handle, add some or all of the remaining flour.

Step 4
Place the dough on a floured board and knead for 7 to 10 minutes. This is the hardest part of the recipe, so keep at it. The dough should be elastic and look smooth and glistening.

Step 5
Place the dough ball in a large bowl coated with butter or olive oil.
Brush a little oil on the top of the ball, too.
Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and place it in a slightly warm location for an hour or so. (The ball should double in size.)

Step 6
Grease two large (9" x 5" x 3") loaf pans.
Divide the dough into two balls and shape each into a loaf.
Place the loaves into the pans, cover with a towel and set aside to rise for another hour, or until they've doubled in size.

Bake both loaves in the center rack of a preheated 325 degrees F oven for 45 minutes.

Note: You can also form the dough into round (traditionally Portuguese) loaves, braided shapes (nice for holidays) or individual rolls, too.

Friday

Merry Christmas at the Last Minute

At the old homestead, I'm wrapping presents, making jerky and looking forward to a hot toddy this evening.  It's cold and windy here, with a combination of slush and snow that's hardly picture postcard material.  We're in the spirit anyway, though.  While scurrying around, all kinds of last minute ideas have been popping into my head.  Here are a few I'd like to share:

Save wood ash from your fireplace. If you'll be burning real wood in your fireplace this holiday, remember to shovel the ashes into a bag and save them to sprinkle on your garden this spring. They'll help provide your plants with lots of minerals like: phosphorous, potassium, boron and calcium. And wood ash doesn't need to be composted.

Go really green with your green onions. If you're like me, around this time in the holiday countdown you're buying plenty of scallions.  Look for bunches with quite a bit of root end attached, and you can keep any you don't use alive for months.

Place scallions in a glass half-filled with water, and then put the glass in a sunny window (no direct light). Change the water every third day. You can harvest a third (to about a half) of an onion's length and it will still grow back -- developing a healthy root system along the way. Continue harvesting a bit here and there until spring, and then plant the onion starts outside.  Now that's a green option.

Make yourself an apple chip snack. If you love the smell of Christmas cooking, you don't have to give it up after the 25th.  Try making apple chips with that fresh fruit display no one ever seems to eat.  Dried apples taste good, smell divine and a relatively low-cal  treat.  Here's a link to a great tutorial and recipe from Fifteen Spatulas: Cinnamon Sugar Baked Apple Chips 

Try fabric wrap. It isn't too late to take a quick trip to the fabric store for holiday fabric wrapping paper.  This is a favorite at our house.  I cut squares of fabric with pinking shears and use them to wrap stocking stuffers.  Here's how it works: Just crease the folds with your nail and wrap presents as you would with paper.  Affix the ends with double-sided sticky tape.

Using fabric for wrap has become almost as nostalgically memorable as putting up the tree ornaments because I reuse many fabric pieces year after year.  Give it a try.

Extend the life of your store purchased herbs.  If you have bunches of sage, mint, tarragon, thyme, rosemary or parsley from the produce aisle of your market, snip the cut ends and place the herbs in a tall glass filled with water. Keep the glass in your fridge -- changing the water every couple of days.  The herbs will last longer and taste better that way. If you end up with leftovers, freeze them in plastic bags -- there's always another herb worthy occasion right around the corner.

Happy ho-ho-ho!

Tuesday

Brightening up Dark Days and Nights

If your children (or you) are having nightmares following the tragic events at Newtown, then we have something in common.  After a restless night, this morning I woke up thinking about dreamcatchers. You know, those netted hoops decorated with feathers that some Native American tribes used (and perhaps still use) as sacred objects. I remember making a dreamcatcher with my niece years ago. After a loss, she was also having trouble sleeping, and the idea of making something that could keep bad dreams away was pretty tantalizing.

The project required a little more dexterity than she could muster at the time, but I was there with a steady hand (and a couple of cookies for afterward). It was a nice interlude.  We spent quality time together huddled around the table playing with string.  She kept the dreamcatcher (which turned out pretty nicely) over her bed for years.  I still look back on that time fondly.

I was thinking that making a dreamcatcher as crafty therapy for sadness -- and to ward off bad dreams (even in a symbolic way) -- isn't such a bad idea if you have kids around.  You'll find all the supplies you'll need at your local craft store.  They consist of: a ring, ribbon (or leather strips), string (or sinew), beads and feathers. I have a couple of links to helpful YouTube tutorials below. Dreamcatchers are easier to make than they look -- getting started is really the hardest part.


Also, I was rummaging around my bookshelves for a copy of Virginia O'Hanlon's 1897 letter to the New York newspaper The Sun that inspired the famous editorial "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Clause."  I finally found it in an anthology I bought back when I was in college.  It's a wonderful short piece.  If you'd like to reread it -- or read it for the first time, here's a quick online link:  Yes, Virginia . . . by Francis Pharcellus Church

Here's to better tidings (hopefully of comfort and joy) in the days and months to come.



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Photo: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a9/Atrapasuenos-background-free.jpgBy Jorge Barrios [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday

Recipe for a Hot Toddy - The Best

When life gives you a Christmas that's hectic and demanding, it's hard to resist the urge to grump your way through the tree trimming (and Christmas light untangling), present wrapping, ribbon making, house cleaning, cookie prep and stocking stuffing. If you're beginning sound a little like the Grinch this year, there's relief in sight in the form of a heavenly and refreshing hot toddy.

This is the best stuff I've ever found for the holiday blues (or incipient exhaustion), including hard cider and Baileys. These fun beverages are probably only incidentally alcoholic -- ahem -- and if you're looking for a non-alcoholic toddy, with mine you add the alcohol last -- and to taste. If you want to forego the rum (or brandy) completely, then please do.

Here's the link to my favorite holiday beverage recipe. It's included in a previous post. You'll love it. The Best Hot Toddy Recipe Ever!

Oh, and don't make the mistake of leaving out the cardamom. It makes the drink.

This recipe makes eight servings, but that probably won't be enough, especially if you're serving it to family and friends. I usually make at least a double batch. The recipe base (without the hot water and alcohol) will be just fine nestled in your fridge for months.

Consider this my holiday gift to you, loyal reader. Put your feet up and enjoy.


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Photo1: By Frettie (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ab/Cup_of_Sahlep_in_tearoom_in_T%C5%99eb%

Saturday

Jerky for the Stocking -- Oh, Yeah!

If you're still stumped about what to get the man in your life for Christmas, there's always -- meat. Yes, most men (and many women) like a little jerky under the tree or in their stocking. Really. You may not like the price of the packaged stuff, but if you have a dehydrator, making an easy,  portable meat treat for the man in your life is pretty easy. The price of beef is high, but maybe no higher than spending the money on another man wallet or reversible belt. A roast destined for jerky goes a long way, too.


Homemade Beef Jerky Stocking Stuffer


The basic ingredients for jerky are:

Thin sliced meat (cut with the grain)
Soy sauce
Sugar
Spices

The salt in the soy acts as a preservative (and draws out the water from the meat fibers), and the sugar and spices add flavor.

You can easily make jerky from lean rump roast, sirloin tip roast, round steak or flat steak. You can also make it from turkey (breast). The trick is to slice the meat thin. Partially freezing it helps (less wiggle). It should be about as thin as a slice of bacon.

You can also ask your butcher to slice a roast for you. Just explain what you plan on doing with it and he (or she) will understand. If not, a cut that's about an eighth-inch (1/8") thick should do it. Tip: I try to head out to the market early so I can catch the butcher before he gets too busy.

Most jerky will dry in less than 24 hours -- after a brief stint in a soy marinade, which means you can make a big batch in a little over a day. The dehydrator does all the hard work.

I've made lots of holiday treats over the years, but jerky is probably the one that friends and family have asked for the most often. It doesn't look like much, but don't knock the homey fun of gnawing on a strip of jerky while watching a classic movie on the old flat screen. It's as good as flavored popcorn and a lot more filling.

I've resurrected a jerky recipe from an old post. Give it a try this year: Beef Jerky Is Easier to Make than You Think

It's a sure bet that this is a homemade present he won't be expecting in his stocking.  Ho ho ho.

Thursday

Gifts for the Herb Lover -- You

Apparently I'm not alone in giving myself gifts every Christmas. A few recent marketing studies suggest that well over half of spouses treat themselves to personal presents over the holidays -- and who better to give you what you really want than . . . you.

Not to be ungrateful, but opening a new handheld vacuum or can opener on Christmas morning probably isn't the big thrill my husband envisions for me. Heck, he's all smiles and patting himself on the back if he manages to wrap presents and not just dump them in a big brown paper sack. You've gotta love the efficiency, but subtle and romantically thoughtful it's not.

I might be exaggerating a little. He asks me for a list every year and is dutiful about rounding up most of the items I have in mind. The real trouble is that some items are between me and my creative self. I don't want to have to explain how having an instant-on glue gun is my big dream this year when he knows I have three or four standard glue guns in the garage already, or that ocean glass rock polishing is going to be my new hobby for 2013, and I need all the equipment pronto to make a set of mosaic stepping stones before Easter.

To fulfill my secret wish list, I sometimes have to employ subtlety and maybe even a little stealth (the trunk of my car and the guest room closet are my go-to stash locations). I'd feel a little guilty about this indulgence if I wasn't absolutely certain my sweetie has a similar method -- his stash is behind the reach-in fridge in the garage. (I stumbled on it cleaning one day.)

If the idea of personal gift giving interests you, here's my list of general suggestions for herb related holiday purchases. We'll be working on projects in 2013 that will put them to good use -- I promise.

Getting Seeds Started


  • Seed starter kits
  • All-purpose potting soil
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Vegetable and herb seeds - Order your free catalogs from my recent list of 2013 Seed Catalogs
  • A spiral bound notebook
  • A heat mat - Investing in a seedling heat mat will give your seeds a head start on the season. It's like preschool for plants.

Kitchen and Cosmetic Herb Project Supplies


  • Mortar and pestle - For grinding dried herbs. I like bamboo or wood, but they're also available in ceramic, metal and stone.
  • An assortment of glass bottles with tight fitting lids (prefer plastic, rubber or cork) - for homemade vinegars, liquors, oils and beverages
  • A set of smaller bottles - for ointments, perfumes and cosmetic preparations
  • Cheesecloth
  • A double boiler (This one should be reserved for your craft projects only.)

Basic Herb Craft Supplies


  • A glue gun
  • A dehydrator - They're almost all good and range from $20 to around $200.
  • A handheld staple gun with an assortment of staples
  • A craft drill
  • Rolls of ribbon in colors that match your home decor (or seasonal projects you want to make). Raffia ribbon is a good idea too.
  • Small muslin bags
  • 24 gauge wire in assorted colors (I like green and brown.) It's handy for lots of things, including wreath and swag making.
  • Wire cutters (You can find small ones at your local craft store for a couple of dollars)

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but if you have some of the basics on hand, there are lots of projects you can tackle without ever leaving the house for extra supplies. When inspiration strikes -- you're prepared -- or almost prepared.

Wednesday

How to Make Simmering Holiday Potpourri

Even if you aren't planning to bake (or even cook) much this holiday season, your home can still smell pretty great. All you need is a pot, some water and a few aromatics. Aromatic ingredients added to simmering water will release their fragrances (or aromas if you prefer), with the steam. You can keep the pot at a low simmer, replacing the water every half hour or so, all day. That means a home that smells like sugar cookies or cinnamon buns or spice cake -- while you're curled up with a book.

Beyond making your home smell great, a simmering potpourri pot will add welcome humidity to your home if you've been relying on your furnace during cold weather. Improving the ambient humidity in your house will help keep your houseplants happy, keep your skin moist (including the skin on your hands and feet), and even help protect your wood cabinets, flooring and furniture.

Ingredients for Simmering Pot Potpourri


The really nice thing here is that you can create a "perfume pot" -- that's what I call it -- with lots of different ingredients used alone or in combination. Choose what you like, or use what you have on hand. Recipes are strictly optional. Here are some popular ingredients:

  • A teaspoon of vanilla extract or a portion of vanilla bean
  • Apples - or just the discarded peels
  • Sliced citrus (or just the peel) - Think oranges, lemons or limes
  • Cinnamon sticks (In a pinch, I just use ground cinnamon from the jar.)
  • Star anise
  • Cardamom pods
  • Pear peels
  • Whole cloves
  • Allspice berries
  • Chinese five spice powder
  • Rosemary
  • Ginger
  • Juniper berries
  • Nutmeg
  • Pine stems (small)
  • Sage
  • Peppermint
  • Bay leaf
  • Lavender stems or blossoms (fresh or dried)
  • Rose petals
  • Pickling spice
  • Thyme
  • Cocoa powder
  • Chai tea (as a base)
  • Flavored extracts or essential oils (used sparingly)

You can see there's a lot of potential.

Basic Simmering Potpourri Recipe


If this idea interests you, start with a basic ingredient, like, say, a sliced orange, and build from there. Here's an example:

  1. Add one sliced orange to 2 cups of water in a heavy pot.
  2. Toss in 15 whole cloves, two cinnamon sticks and a couple of bay leaves. You could also add rose petals or some ginger.
  3. Bring the pot to a quick boil, and then reduce the heat to a delicate simmer.
  4. Set your stove timer for half an hour.
  5. The aroma will be evident as soon as the pot starts to produce steam. When the timer goes off, replace the water lost to evaporation and adjust the ingredients if you find the fragrance too weak or too strong. You may want to add a few allspice berries, more cinnamon -- who knows. Experimenting is half the fun.
  6. This is also the time to adjust the timer.  If there was a lot of water left in the pot, you may be able to reset it for 45 minutes; if there was just a little left, reset it for 20 minutes or so -- or add a bit more water this time. Remember, you're after a very light simmer.

After a trial run, you'll come up with all sorts of recipe ideas of your own.

This is an inexpensive and entertaining way to create a homey environment during a winter weekend. I tend to keep my home on the cool side, and the extra fragrance makes things cozier -- I even feel warmer. It may be an illusion, but if it works, I'm in.

It's a kinda green choice, too. I'm making a room freshener with natural ingredients, and in the case of citrus, pear or apple peel, I'm using ingredients I'd otherwise discard -- or throw  on the compost pile.

I usually think of putting together a perfume pot when I know I'll have aromatics (peels or vanilla) leftover from other projects. I often work with spices during the holidays, so pulling out a little more for the pot is not a big deal.

Reusing Simmering Potpourri


Although the spices are pretty depleted at the end of a day simmering, I have refrigerated perfume pot ingredients and started them up again the next morning. That works, but the pot will need some revitalizing with added spices.

Thanks to a suggestion from a reader, this year I've started using my small slow cooker for perfume pot duty. This is an inspired idea, but I still like to bring the initial ingredients to a boil on the stove first and then pour them into the slow cooker. I get quicker results that way.

Give simmering pot potpourri a try this holiday.

Monday

When You Think You May Hate Christmas . . .

On this blog I write about happy, fun stuff that usually involves herbs in one way or another. Around the holidays, searches explode here at The Herb Gardener from people looking for fun, fast projects to give away as gifts. I imagine thousands of you out there, up at midnight before the holiday, glue gun (or spatula) in hand, trying to put together something personal and charming that's also easy, within budget and likely to cure (dry out or otherwise be ready) before morning.

Actually, I've been there myself many times. One year my husband and I baked 120 dozen cookies, decorated them and shipped them off to relatives and friends. The project took six days. When hatching the plan that previous September, the idea seemed so Christmassy and charming. As the UPS truck lumbered up the street after collecting the boxed cookies, though, I felt exhausted, depressed and a little resentful. Instead of anticipating all those delightful packages being opened on Christmas morning, I was lamenting my use of chocolate morsels instead of a higher quality chocolate product (and other small choices that yielded less than stellar results). I was also resentful of the mess I still had to clean up -- everywhere.


The Rule of Thirds


It's easy to expect a lot from our Christmas efforts and end up disappointed. The cookie project was successful: all the cookies tasted good, looked good and arrived before the holiday. It wasn't successful in that it didn't (and probably couldn't) match my expectations. I'm sure you get the moral of the story.

These days, I embrace the rule of thirds. I develop Christmas plans in advance and then scratch a third of them off my list. That includes menu options and presents as well as Christmas activities. This sounds easy, but it's not. When it comes to making a choice between participating in a cookie swap or a Christmas caroling trip around the neighborhood, it can be a tough call. The same goes for limiting Christmas dinner options. Every year it's classics versus new recipes. (The classics usually win.)

When Christmas Cheer Is Thin on the Ground


This whole Christmas cheer business can be difficult in a lot of ways. Christmas becomes more bittersweet the older I get. In the years I lost loved ones or experienced other losses, the Christmas season was downright brutal. Sadness is a part of the season people don't generally discuss, but it's the ghost of Christmas past in a very real way. I'm not alone in feeling blue sometimes while I'm hanging ornaments or filling stockings. I still love Christmas, but it has more than its share of poignant and emotional and even upsetting moments.

I'm going to get serious here for a second, so click away if you're not in the mood.

Being swamped by negative emotion during the holiday season can be devastating. My father committed suicide during the holidays, so I'm sensitive to the destructive potential of feeling too disconnected or depressed this time of year. I wish I could pull the perfect sentiment to share from my bag of tricks, something that would add luster to your happy memories or at least blunt the sad ones. I will offer this short list of suggestions:

It's better to light one candle -- Add small grace notes to your days to make them more satisfying. They're not "raindrops on roses," but scented candles, hot cocoa, cinnamon sticks, a good book, a hot bath, a glass of Merlot and other things can be a bulwark against stress and depression.

Go ahead and be sad -- The only way past sadness is through it. Well-meaning relatives may try to pressure you into the holiday spirit, but if you aren't feeling it -- you aren't. Accept the fact that this isn't going to be a banner year for you and that next year will probably be better.

Get help -- If you're experiencing alarming thoughts and feelings of despair this holiday, talk to someone about it. My favorite quote about suicide it that it is ". . . . a permanent solution to a temporary problem." A number of studies about suicide suggest that an overwhelming majority of suicide survivors are grateful their attempts failed. If you're in crisis and want to talk with someone, start with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The call is free and confidential.

Saturday

Sage Tea for Colds

You know the cold season drill: No matter what you do, someone in the family ends up with the sniffles, a head cold or the flu. Although this can be serious in the very young, immune challenged, elderly or those with other medical conditions, often it's just an uncomfortable nuisance. There's also that nagging worry that a loved one will be sick over the holidays (which is so disappointing), or that a simple cold will turn into something worse, like sinusitis or pneumonia.


Cold Busting Wisdom the Granny Way


If you're struggling with the cough, stuffy nose and the general discomfort of a cold or the flu, a cup of herbal tea will make you feel better -- temporarily at least. Many common herbs (thyme, lavender, rosemary, sage and others)  have antiseptic and antibacterial properties, too, which can help your body fight the good fight to get you back on your feet.

When added to ingredients like honey and lemon, herbs can give an upper respiratory infection a one-two punch that will dial back a sore throat, cough, runny nose and itchy eyes.

The bad news is the viruses just have to run their course. The good news is that the right herbal tea will give you a respite and make you feel pampered -- just like when you were a kid. Here's a simple recipe for a sage based tea that will reduce nasal congestion, fight infection, curb the sniffles and may boost the immune system, too.

Sage Cold and Flu Tea


  • 2 teaspoons dry or rubbed sage (or about 6 fresh sage leaves)
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice (fresh is best)
  • A couple of pinches cayenne pepper (this is optional, but it does help break up congestion)
  • 1 tablespoon honey (or to taste)

Directions for Sage Tea


  1. Add sage to a large mug.
  2. Pour 1 cup boiling water (a rolling boil, please) into the cup and let steep for 10 minutes.
  3. Strain.
  4. Add remaining ingredients and stir.
  5. Reheat. (The tea should be served steaming hot.)

Using Sage in Medicinal Preparations


It's prudent to throw in a disclaimer here since I will probably be posting other tea recipes in the next couple of weeks: Herbs seem pretty harmless. You can grow them in your garden and snip them into recipes without a problem, so how dangerous can they be? Right?

Common herbal remedies do have the potential to cause problems in certain circumstances, though, so it's always a good idea to have a chat with your physician (or healer) before using any herb for medicinal purposes.

This is especially true if you plan to use an herb or spice regularly for an extended period of time, have a preexisting medical condition, are pregnant or nursing, or are currently taking other medications. You should always consult a physician before treating young children with herbal preparations or over-the-counter medications.


In the case of sage: It is contraindicated if you are currently taking diabetes, anticonvulsant or sedative medications. For more specifics about drug interactions involving sage, the WebMD Sage page (yes, there is one) has useful information you'll want to review: Sage Interactions 

Friday

Beware of Bedbugs in Books

If you're a reader, you know the pleasure of curling up in bed with a good book. Bedbugs feel the same way. If you buy used books or belong to a lending library, you're at risk for bedbugs.

Here's how it works: Female bedbugs lay their eggs in secure locations -- like the spines of hardcover books. When the eggs hatch, the baby bugs may linger, or viable eggs may be present long enough for the books to change hands. Introduce an infested book to your bedroom and it becomes ground zero for a bedbug infestation.

Bedbugs can live up to a year without feeding, they're hard to see, and once established, they're devilishly hard to get rid of.

How can you guard against bedbugs introduced through books? Well, you can read ebooks exclusively or opt for new books only. If that sounds too restricting, there are now products on the market that heat treat items like books and clothing, killing the bedbugs inside.

Here are some other suggestions for dealing with hitchhiking bedbugs:
  • Ask your library what precautions it's taking to protect patrons from bedbugs.
  • Keep used books or library books away from where your family sleeps.
  • Heat kills bedbugs, but it has to be 110 degrees F (or higher) for at least three hours. You may be able to do this on a warm day by sealing books in a plastic bag and placing the bag outdoors in the sun.
  • Try placing used books in your (dry) bathtub at night to check for bedbugs. When it's dark, the bugs come out to explore. Turning on the lights in a darkened bathroom to see if anything scurries around the bottom of the tub is one way to detect them. (The slick sides of the tub will keep the bugs from escaping, and you can rinse them down the drain with hot water.)  
  • Treat books with a vapor style pesticide designed to kill bedbugs and their eggs.
Bed Bug Control Products

If you'd like to check out some bedbug busting products you can use to treat books and other belongings, I have a couple of Amazon links below. These use heat and are quite pricy. The good news is that you can use them to treat other belongs, which is convenient if you're afraid of bringing bedbugs home when you travel.

Bedbug Heat Treatment
Portable Bedbug Heat Killing Unit

If you think you may have bedbugs but aren't sure, an early detection system will help identify the problem. There are many on the market. Here's one economical option:

Bedbug Detection System (one-room)

If you discover you do have bedbugs, take a look at some herbal treatments that may help in the early stages of an infestation.  There's also quite a bit of basic information you should know for future refrerence. These are links to past posts:

Home Remedies for Bed Bugs 

Natural Bedbug Control


For more information about the risk of bedbugs in library books, please visit this informative article posted on the AARP blog this month:  Are There Bedbugs in Your Library Books? or check out The New York Times article: The Dark and Itchy Night

Tuesday

List of Free Seed Catalogs for 2013

Take a short break from the holiday madness to put in your order for a few free 2013 seed and plant catalogs. If you order early, you'll have some exciting reading material to peruse while you're sipping eggnog in front of the fire.

This is one present you can give yourself that won't cost a penny -- and isn't that refreshing. Many major seed suppliers have their catalogs printed and ready to go -- all they need is an address.

I ordered mine from the list below, and the whole process only took about 20 minutes. It's a wonder of the modern age that you can make an electronic request for a snail mail catalog you can then enjoy (and mark up) from the privacy of your own low-tech rocking chair.

All of the below links are good, so grab a catalog hot off the presses. Growers have new and interesting plants -- or reliable heirloom favorites -- to tempt and challenge us year after year. The photos in some of these catalogs are spectacular. Many catalogs include informative descriptions and even tips and recipes.

Enjoy the hunt for the perfect herb, veggie and decorative plant seeds.  We can compare notes later.



2013 Free Seed Catalogs (Herbs, Vegetables and Flowers)





Burnt Ridge Nursery & Orchard (2012 Catalog blurb is still up)



Gourmet Seed International  (Download only)


Horizon Herbs (2012 Catalog blurb is still up)

Kitazawa Seed Co. (Asian veggies and herbs)


Kitchen Garden Seeds

Klehm's Song Sparrow (2012 Catalog blurb is still up)

Medicinal Herb Plants (Click the link in the sidebar and request a catalog via email.)

Prairieland Herbs ( PDF only)


Rare Seeds (added to the list 12/17/12) 

Sand Mountain Herbs (Online only)

Sandy Mush Herb Nursery (Download only)


Veseys