Thanksgiving Holiday Odds and Ends

With the holiday coming up, it's easy to start feeling overwhelmed. I usually begin the month of November with lots of plans to overhaul the kitchen and spend the week before Thanksgiving experimenting with fabulous new recipes. By the time I've reached the "one week to turkey day" mark, I'm so exhausted the idea of actually roasting the bird has me feeling pretty unenthusiastic. (Realizing that I've brought all the stress -- and aching muscles -- on myself doesn't help much.) I'm an old hand at this cycle of holiday madness because I repeat it every year to one degree or another.

One sure cure, for me anyway, is to grab a cup of hot tea and a well-earned break. If you're stopping to regain your sunny disposition between bouts of holiday frenzy, these odds and ends will provide some diversion:

Common things you didn't know - but probably should have realized. This first comes courtesy of Gabby Noone at BuzzFeed. It's a very enlightening list of: 18 Everyday Products You’ve Been Using Wrong. I admit some of these items took me by surprise, like the little aluminum foil tab thingies. If you haven't seen this list yet, it's a quick, often surprising read. Enjoy.

Have a Pet Safe Holiday - I'm a dedicated pet lover and always make a special effort to include my cats and dogs in the festivities. There are dangers though; from a guest accidentally letting an indoor cat outside, to canine stomach upsets from too many surreptitious treats slipped under the table. Make arrangements to keep your pets secure and healthy this holiday season. I really enjoyed this timely article (recommended by my husband) about foods not safe for dogs. Thanksgiving Day Foods That Can Kill Your Dog. Please note that sage and nutmeg are on the list, as well as a couple of other entries that might make you glad you invested in the click.

Thanksgiving Recipes - If the prospect of serving the same old dishes makes you feel like yawning, try something new -- or attempt an old standby in a new way. This New York Times Primer about Thanksgiving cooking should get you started: Essential Thanksgiving.

Turkey Cooking Times - Your mom's holiday bird may have been dry year after year, but it wasn't her fault. The old U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cooking guidelines for turkey recommended an internal temperature of 175 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, (or thereabouts). That has changed. The new safety guidelines drop the temperature to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (YES you read that right), which makes it a lot easier to prepare a flavorful bird with fully cooked dark meat and (still) moist breast meat. This change may require a welcome adjustment to your older recipes. If you want to learn more, please visit the USDA Turkey Basics: Safe Cooking page for details.

Here are some other things to remember:

  • Double check your recipe ingredients now. It's easier to dash to the store on Tuesday to pick up something you've forgotten than to wait until Thursday (Thanksgiving) morning.
  • Clear your kitchen countertops the day before Thanksgiving to give yourself plenty of room.
  • Don't forget to take the innards out of the bird -- front and back. Yes, this is a newbie mistake, but it's also one of the most common gotchas of turkey day.
  • Take any butter you need to soften out of the fridge sooner rather than later. Trying to soften butter in the microwave may seem like an enlightened idea, but it can go horribly wrong.
  • If there's no carving guru in your family, consider cutting the bird in the kitchen and serving it sliced and jointed on a platter. It's easier. An electric knife is great for this, too.
  • After serving, return dishes to the fridge within two hours to avoid problems with spoilage.
  • If this is your first Thanksgiving wearing the hostess apron, take a look at my TLC article: 10 Tips for Thanksgiving Newbies for more suggestions and a laugh or two.
Here's hoping your dressing is moist, your pie crust is flaky and your fowl is succulent and browned to perfection.


Using Herbs for Holiday Cooking

Although it's probably true that much of what we call herb wisdom in cooking is the result of trial and error -- at least, it's been that way for me -- I do have some tips that will help make your spice cabinet a holiday friend instead of a beguiling frienemy.

Fresh to dried - There's a big difference between dried and fresh herbs.  You'll read proponents of both, citing specific herbs that will respond better to one type of handling or another.  You can count on the fact -- proportions DO vary. Dried herbs contain concentrated, flavor enhanced oils. A good rule of thumb is that you will need one third the volume of dry herbs as you as you will fresh herbs.

Example: A recipe that calls for one teaspoon of dried parsley will require a tablespoon (3 teaspoons) of fresh parsley. There are some possible exceptions, though.  If an herb has a pungent aroma, like sage or thyme, you can typically double instead of triple the conversion rate from dried to fresh (or vice versa), and then season to taste after that.

Old herbs and spices - Conventional wisdom was that dried herbs would only retain their flavor for six months or so.  This turned out to be a big boon for seasoning manufacturers, but not such good news for cooks forced to buy large jars of herbs and then end up pitching half or more of their contents.  The thinking has changed somewhat in recent years:  Most food professionals now believe many dried herbs and spices will last at least a year, and sometimes two or three years.  Your best bet is to date the herbs you buy, and use the sniff test once they're a year old or more.  Pinch older stored herbs to see if they have the aroma you associate with them. If they're losing their "punch," replace them -- or in an emergency, use somewhat more in your recipes, say a quarter to a third more or so.

Preparation - There is a difference between buying ground spices and grinding them yourself.  The classic example is nutmeg, which smells amazing when it's fresh-ground but loses aroma quickly. This rule applies to quality cinnamon and other spices as well. If you have a hectic lifestyle and want to produce a great meal, you probably have more to worry about than prepping your own spices, though. Using pre-ground spices and herbs will likely provide enough zest, especially if you're using them in concert with other aromatic ingredients. Grind your own if you can; if not, don't sweat the small stuff.

Cooking times - Lots of old-timey recipes are favorites around the holidays.  They may be a family tradition, or just have charming or enticing elements that make them seem perfect for a Norman Rockwell style feast.  Don't be fooled. Even though some older recipes call for adding herbs at the beginning, most herbs are best added within the last half-hour of cooking or so. Exceptions are some individual herbs (bay leaf) and herb bags or tied herbs that can be removed later.  Very long cooking times typically turn herbs bitter, dark and unappealing.


Dried Herbs - If you're buying dried herbs and spices to use this holiday season, store them in a dark, dry location.  Spices sold in cellophane packets (scandalous!) should be transferred to jars with tight fitting lids for long term storage. (Tinted jars are best.) I save my spice jars and refill them as needed.

Fresh Herbs - When you purchase fresh cut herbs from the produce department of your local market, remove a half-inch from the stem end and stand them in a glass of water in your refrigerator. This should net you another few days of useful life.  If the volume is more than you need, dry the remainder in a warm (not hot) oven on a cookie sheet (turning often). Another option is to chop them up in water and freeze them into herby ice cubes.

When you harvest fresh herbs, avoid using the stems. Not only are they typically tough, they have concentrated oils that tend to make them bitter.  Here's how to harvest leaves from stems: Cut and wash the stems. Pinch the tip end of each stem and run your fingers down to the base using some pressure. This will release individual leaves into the sink or a small bowl. Discard the stems. (One exception is rosemary stems, which make inspired kabob skewers.)

Another option is to purchase live plants. Harvest up to a third of the foliage, and place the plants in a sunny windowsill until spring -- pampering them with water and TLC, of course.

Using herbs and spices can be loads of fun, especially around the holidays when any culinary effort seems to carry with it a backstory and memory making potential. Standing in a warm kitchen filled with the aroma of blended herbs is a treat in itself. The rest, as they say, is gravy.  Here's hoping your recipes are delicious and all your little helpers offer to clean the kitchen.


Rum Toddy Redux

If the idea of another season of long, frosty evenings leaves you feeling hungry for spring, I'd like to share a good reason to love the cold weather.  Around the holidays, I always make a big batch of rum toddy mix.  This stuff is more than simply delicious; it's a memory in the making.

The batter is a do ahead task and can easily sit in the fridge from Thanksgiving to Christmas without a problem.  The ingredients include plenty of aromatic and delicious spices like ginger, cinnamon and cloves.  It has a butter base and is rich in brown sugar and honey, too.

Here's how it works: After mixing up a batch of batter, you spoon it into boiling water, add rum (or another libation) and finish it off with a little whipped cream and fresh ground nutmeg (if you like).  Nothing -- I mean noting -- not a hot bath, not a back rub and not an unexpectedly clean kitchen, has more appeal than 15 quiet, indulgent minutes with this delicious drink. 

Hey, I'm not even much of an alcohol drinker, and I look forward to making this mix -- and the resulting steaming cups of rum toddy -- every, single year. Do yourself a favor and give it a try. 

I included the actual recipe in a previous post.  You can find it here.

The Best Rum Toddy Recipe Ever  

While you're at it, here are a couple of other posts that may interest you until next time:

Pumpkin Pie Spice Recipe 
Thanksgiving at the Last Minute - Tips and Tricks
Sage is Good for More than Stuffing


Harvesting Plant Seeds

Calendula seed
It's fall in the garden and time to harvest plant seeds. For many of us, this is the absolute nicest time of year. Ripe pumpkins are peeking out of pampered patches, and the air feels lighter as afternoon temperatures go from molten to refreshingly mild. The period from late summer to the first hard frost is a perfect time to harvest many plant seeds varieties. Harvesting seeds can be pesky and frustrating sometimes, though. Here are some of the problems you may encounter:

There may be no seeds to harvest.
You have to let plants mature and set seed before you can harvest seeds in the fall.

  • If you've been pinching back blooms for leaf production in herbs and some vegetables, you may have inadvertently foiled your propagation efforts.
  • If you're a dedicated pruner, you may have trimmed away seed heads thinking they were somewhat unsightly. 
  • You may have consumed precious seeds with those delicious veggies or berries you've been growing and eating all season.

You can't harvest seeds that aren't there. A good rule of thumb is to leave at least some of your plant specimens alone from mid-summer onward with the idea that they will provide seed stock only.

Another consideration is that some hybrids either will not set seed at all, or their seeds won't be viable. There's not much you can do about that but purchase new seed year after year or use other propagation methods where applicable. Most sources will specify exactly what you're getting when buying a new plant or seed variety so you can make an informed decision.

Seeds can look very un-seed like. If you think most seeds look like the sesame seeds on your burger bun of choice, guess again. Seeds can look like flower petals, like bitty curled up bugs and like chaff, dander and other unlikely things. Sure, many seeds look like what they are, but it pays to double check before make an assumption. Seeds can employ clever camouflage techniques to hide their bounty from hungry birds and other critters. Don't be fooled.

There are a couple of reliable sources you can use to find pictures of specific plant seeds, but no source I've found is exhaustive. First, I like to perform a Google search on the plant's common name plus the term "seed picture." Here's an example: Passionflower Seed Search

Herb and vegetable seeds
If that doesn't work, try the process again using the plant's scientific name. If there are a number of popular plants with the same common name, go with the scientific plant name search first.

You can also take a look at the plant profile here on my blog or perform an advanced search for sites with the extension .edu (education). This will generally produce a list of university articles about the plant you're looking for, often with life cycle photos.

Seeds may need pre-processing. Plant seeds are products of their respective environments and may need a little extra handling. Tomato seeds, for instance, typically need to "ferment" in their natural juices for a few days before drying. Without this treatment, germination rates plummet. Cold climate seeds may need freezing conditions as part of their life cycle, too. (Exposing seeds to the cold is sometimes referred to as stratifying or pre-chilling.) Seed catalogs and seed packets may include instructions regarding special handling measures. Take the time to check.

Some seeds don't last long. Where some seeds will stay viable for years, others will only last a few months and are best replanted in the garden right away. Explore the options on a case by case basis. I put together a longevity list for common herbs a while back. You'll find it here: Herb Seed Longevity List. There are probably similar lists online for vegetable and flower seeds. Before you invest a lot of time, recognize which seeds are worth the effort.

In my next post, we'll talk about some practical ways to gather, sort and store herb seeds.  Have a great weekend.


HerbandVegSeed_Wiki.jpg  By Rickproser (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

CalendulaSeed_Wiki.jpg By Amada44 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Battling Earwigs in the Garden

The first time I saw earwigs in the garden, I couldn't believe anything so small could look so mean and nasty. I was about seven at the time. It probably didn't help that my older brother, on seeing my horror, quickly confided that earwigs were famous for burrowing into people's ears and eating their brains from the inside out. Where I grew up in Northern California, earwigs were everywhere, which resulted in my deciding to wear ear plugs made of cotton balls, well, most of the time. This went on until my mother intervened.

Earwigs prefer moist, dark places like under a protective layer of mulch -- which they enjoy eating. Think of it as the insect equivalent of suburban room service. They're also omnivorous, eating plants and dead insects with equal gusto. If it's in the vicinity and doesn't wiggle too much in protest, an earwig will try to make a meal of it. The news isn't all bad, though. Earwigs do plenty of damage in the garden, but they also chow down on destructive pests like spider mites and aphids. For insects, they're tenderhearted, too, taking care of their eggs and young (nymphs) until they can fend for themselves.

If you have an earwig problem, you'll likely find these pests every time you turn over a rock or disturb a layer of fallen leaves. They may also hang out inside leaf clusters or flowers (as in the photo above). They're most active at night, so if you're seeing plant damage that looks like the work of snails and slugs, an earwig infestation may be partly responsible.

What are Earwigs?

Growing to a length of about an inch, earwigs are brown and black in color and have two curved, tong like appendages where a stinger might be on another variety of insect. Technically, they're at the base of the earwig's abdomen. From a non-technical perspective, they have antlike heads and lethal looking pincers bringing up the rear. Even though the pincers (or pinchers) look lethal, they aren't typically used to attack unwary gardeners or their apprehensive children. They're defensive weapons used against other insects. They also perform certain functions during mating -- that I don't care to contemplate.

Two types of earwigs are commonly found in the U.S., the European earwig (Forficula auricularia), which is by far the most abundant, and a ring legged variety found primarily in the Southern states (Euborellia annulipes).

Do Earwigs Bite?

The old story that earwigs like to crawl into the ears of unwary sleepers is just a gruesome not-so-urban myth. It's true they can pinch humans, but they seldom do. The pinch itself is described as more shocking than painful. I maintained an earwig challenged (for the most part) garden for over a decade and was never pinched.

Earwigs are a minor nuisance in small numbers, where they prefer a diet of decaying plant matter and dead bugs. When their numbers get out of hand, though, their nibbling will become more destructive. They will readily consume flower petals, buds, plant leaves, seedlings, fruits and vegetables when dead and decaying matter isn't abundant. They will also expand their territory indoors as their numbers grow, inhabiting basements, sheds, garages and other areas that tend to be dark and somewhat moist.

How to Control Earwigs in the Garden
Earwig eggs and young

Because earwigs prefer moist, dark environments, a good first step in controlling them is to eliminate outdoor locations that attract them in the first place. This is particularly true in early winter and again in spring.

Earwigs reproduce in winter, laying eggs in the soil that will hatch a hungry new generation in springtime. In early spring, new earwigs emerge from the soil looking for shelter and a meal. Here are some steps you can take to control their numbers, especially during these two crucial times of the year:

  • Remove mulch from flowerbeds. (This can be a difficult judgment call, especially if you're trying to retain moisture for your plants during hot summer conditions.)
  • Remove fallen branches from trees and shrubs. (This will also discourage termites.)
  • Rake leaves and dispose of them promptly.
  • Monitor compost piles for earwig activity.
  • Pay attention to anything placed in the garden (especially in early spring) that will create a moist environment at soil level. This includes lawn furniture and other temporary fixtures like plant pots and decorations.
  • Prefer watering in the morning rather than in the evening. Earwigs like it moist, so reducing the moisture in your garden during the time they're most active (at night) is a good thing.
  • Eliminate standing water around your home. This can be water inside an old tire, a kiddy pool and even ponding water from a downspout (a bad thing all around). Eliminating standing water will help control mosquito populations, too.
  • Turn off exterior lights. Earwigs like the shadows, but they are attracted to light sources at night.
  • Install yellow outdoor lights. Most insects dislike yellow light. If you insist on outdoor illumination in the evening, install yellow bulbs to discourage earwig activity. Yellow light will also help control night fliers like moths.

Set Out Earwig Traps

Setting out earwig traps may help control small infestations. Installing traps will give you an idea of how extensive a problem you have, too. A few trapped earwigs may be nothing to worry about. More and you might want to try a chemical option to eradicate them. Read on.

One DIY solution is to fill a small cardboard box (like a Hamburger Helper or even a Jello box) with damp newspaper and a little oatmeal as bait. Punch holes around the outside of the box and install it flush with the soil in your flowerbed. After a day or two, remove the box and dump it in a bucket of water to kill the earwigs inside. Repeat. Roughing up a couple of plants around the trap is a good idea, too. Earwigs are attracted to damaged and decaying vegetation.

You can also leave a little oil or juice in the bottom of a tuna fish can and partially bury the can in the garden. The earwigs climb in and drown. Another take on this technique is to place a half-inch of oil in the bottom of a cat food or other shallow can. All will work for small infestations where you can eradicate earwigs in modest batches. I have also read that beer and soy sauce are attractants that can be used in traps.

There are commercial earwig traps on the market, too. Some work on multiple insect varieties, so read the labels to determine the best product for your needs.The nice thing about an outdoor trap, as opposed to a broadcast insecticide, is that beneficial insects won't be affected, or at least won't be decimated in large numbers.

For indoor problems, anything that will kill cockroaches will kill earwigs indoors.

Insecticides that Kill Earwigs

A mild insecticidal soap can be effective against earwigs, but may not be adequate to control large populations. Reapplication throughout the season will be necessary, too.

If you decide to use a stronger insecticide, products containing spinosad or carbaryl are considered the most effective. Make sure the delivery method includes heavy saturation of the soil, where earwigs spend most of their time when they're not actively eating garden plants. To protect beneficial insects like bees as much as possible, prefer spraying at night when other insects are less active.

Utilize Natural Predators

If you like the organic approach, earwigs have natural predators in the environment. Encouraging their presence can help keep earwigs under better control. The tradeoff here is that inviting earwig predators into your garden means having to tolerate them. If you don't mind a little wildlife, though, it's an elegant option. Here are some critters who think earwigs are a delicacy:

Two fly varieties attack earwigs. They are the Bigonicheta Spinipennisand the Digonichaeta Setipennis. Both are attracted to certain plants and especially herbs, like:
  • Anise (Pimpinella anisum)
  • Dill (Anethum graveolens)
  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
  • Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare).

Plant these herbs, and the flies will follow in manageable numbers (*in many areas of the country). Caution: Fly populations may increase where these plants are plentiful.

A number of frog and lizard species also eat earwigs. Attracting them may be challenging, but if you're game, some additional research may reveal ways you can attract indigenous frog and lizard species to your garden.

Numerous wild bird species like to eat earwigs, too. Adding bird feeders could net you some interesting bird antics and reduce the earwig populations on your property. Here are some birds that may be tempted to partake of a bug or 10 once they decide they like the menu at your house:

  • Robins
  • Crows
  • Blackbirds
  • Chickadees
  • Nuthatches

There are probably many more, too.

Install a chicken coop. The chicken is one domesticated bird that enjoys an occasional earwig appetizer. If you've ever wanted homegrown eggs, now is the time to add a free range hen or two to your property (provided city ordinances allow it). I've heard that ducks also enjoy eating earwigs, but couldn't corroborate that. If you have more information, please let me know.

Use Other Controls

Apply diatomaceous earth to areas where you know earwigs are active. Diatoms are the fossilized remains of ancient sea creatures. In the garden, they act as mini-razor blades that discourage insects like earwigs, slugs, snails, millipedes and ants. Wear a respirator during application. Using diatoms can be a natural and pretty effective measure against a variety of pests. It's relatively safe, too. The bad news is you'll have to repeat the application process periodically, like after a heavy rain.

Boric acid is another option. It's a naturally occurring substance poisonous to many insects like earwigs and ants.

*Check with your local Cooperative Extension Office for information about the fly species, birds, frogs and lizards in your area. There's a reference link in the sidebar below.


LaLiberte. Kathy. "How to Attract Bug-Eating Birds." Gardener's Supply Company.,default,pg.html

Orkin Pest Control. "Earwigs."

Sedbrook, Judy. "Earwigs." Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver County

U.C. Davis. "Earwigs."

University of Florida. "European Earwig."

University of Maine Extension. "Fact Sheet - Earwigs."
Photo1 - Earwig1.jpg James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster [CC-BY-SA-2.5 ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons 
 Photo 2 - Earwig2.jpg By Pudding4brains (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 3 - Earwig3.jpg By Menchi at en.wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons


July in the Garden

It's high summer in the garden, and enough time has passed since spring planting for things to go really right -- or really wrong. If your okra is tender and your pickling cucumbers are perfectly petite, congratulations. For some of you, gardening probably hasn't been that rewarding, though. The catnip wilted, the dill bolted and that vision you had of a charming landscape buckled under the unrelenting heat. It's enough to make you want to cry into your sun tea.

I'm here to tell you that hardly anyone has complete success in the garden. Well, there may have been a little old lady somewhere in Tuscany once, or maybe it was Sacramento . . . .

One year its lousy weather; the next it's near annihilation by the invasive pest du jour. It's always something. You lose the lettuce to an early heat wave, but the watermelon does just fine. Success in gardening is about taking your triumphs where you can and coming up with revised strategies for next time. Maybe you plant the zucchini as far away from those yellow daylilies as you can get (to discourage squash beetles), or you might decide squash isn't worth the hassle and plant kale instead.

The good news is that it's up to you. The grand experiment of gardening -- and it is an experiment, even if you've been doing it for 30 years or more -- always yields interesting lessons you'd be hard pressed to experience any other way. It's also good exercise, fun -- and sometimes you do get tomatoes -- and herbs, potatoes, eggplant, onions, melons and a basket of berries for your trouble.

If you've lost your will to run out and weed those flowerbeds because of some premature losses, I'm here to share with you what Peace Corp English teachers used to say back in the 1970s: "The first year, you teach English. The second year, you teach remedial English." Things rarely go as smoothly as planned in English lessons or in gardening, but you learn as you go.

Here are some of my personal recommendations:

Make yourself some useful notes. You might think you'll remember that those pesky Japanese Beetles started showing up the second week in June, but chances are you'll forget. You'll appreciate having a journal after a few years, too. It will be your scrapbook of gardening long after your aching back and knees have made crouching among the seedlings less appealing.

Keep watering. Sometimes plants recover when you think they've given up. Have faith and hold the good thought. Nature can surprise you sometimes -- for the better.

Pinch back blossoms on herbs if you're after good leaf growth for harvesting. You'll have bigger leaves from, say, basil, and more of them. It's the easiest way to forestall bolting in summer weather for dill and cilantro as well.

Harvest your seeds. Seeds are amazing. If the plant varieties you cultivated this year flourished and set seed, they're good candidates for next year, too. The bonus is that each successive generation of seed will be uniquely selected to survive in the microclimate you're providing season to season. It's natural selection working for you instead of against you. It's kinda like buying custom kitchen cabinets, but without the high price tag. You get exactly what you need. Seeds are like cash, too. Save them up. You won't be sorry.


Japanese Beetle Control (or Controlling June Beetles)

Japanese beatle

I hate Japanese beetles (popillia japonica Newman) sometimes spelled Japanese beatles -- if they're musical, I guess -- or referred to as June beetles.

When you're battling these relentless garden pests, you probably despise them, too. I've seen a horde of Japanese beetles completely deconstruct a rosebud in well under a day. I wish I could offer more late term advice and comfort. When it comes to Japanese beetles, though, getting at them early and taking the time in fall to lay the groundwork for next year seems to work the best. On hearing this, I've been told by grumpy readers determined to find a quick solution that I'm no help at all (cue the sound of a door slamming).

When and How Did Japanese Beetles Get Here?

One big problem is that Japanese Beetles aren't native to the U.S. and have few natural predators here. Even worse, they love the weather and can find plenty to eat. They've been around since 1916 after arriving from Japan in a shipment of goods bound for a nursery in southern New Jersey. (It's pretty amazing the experts can actually pinpoint this.) Today, they're very active in 25 U.S. states, most of them east of the Mississippi.

You may think the infestation decimating your blueberry bushes is bad, but the fact is Japanese beetles are also a threat to commercial growers and have an impact on the prices we pay at the market as well as the types and quantities of pesticides on some crops.

Before I moved to the Midwest from the West Coast, I'd never seen a Japanese beetle before, although I'd warred with snails, slugs, aphids, tomato hornworms, sowbugs, centipedes and earwigs -- ugly, nasty bugs all. The first beetle I saw looked like something from the inside of Aladdin's cave. I thought it was beautiful -- an iridescent green and bronze that looked lovely in the heart of a pink rose. Within 48 hours, my pink rose bushes were in shreds, and every morning after that saw more beetles winging their way into my yard. These pests emerge from the ground about the same time every year (for your area), typically during June, which means there isn't a sign of them one day and they're everywhere the next.

I've Never Had Problems with Japanese Beetles Before.  Why Now?

If you've been spared problems with Japanese beetles on you property in the past, it can be hard understand what's happening when they come calling. Often the trigger is the addition to your landscape of a plant on their culinary wish list. Japanese beetles are opportunistic feeders, but they give preference to locations containing their favorite foods. The good news is you can reduce your risk of problems by avoiding these plants. The bad news is that many of their favorites are landscaping and garden favorites, too. You can visit my post: What You Need to Know about Getting Rid of Japanese Beetles  for a list of plants they prefer. It's enlightening (scroll down to the second half of the post to access the list).

Why Is My Garden Being Targeted by Japanese Beetles?

Your property may also be getting the overflow from a neighbor's plants, or even beetles being lured into nearby gardens by beetle traps. According to information released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), commercial traps fail to catch around 25 percent of beetles attracted to them. That means those surviving bugs are going to find food nearby if they can. If you haven't been affected before, this can be a big, unhappy surprise. Japanese beetles are voracious, relentless and can do a lot of damage in a short period of time.

Once beetles are active on your property, it's a good bet their grubs will take up residence to overwinter underground in your lawn and flowerbeds in fall, making it much more likely you'll be targeted again next spring. They like to wake up next to a reliable food source.

There are measures you can take now and before winter to protect yourself.  The post referenced above explains them in detail and also recommends a few popular pesticides that can help, so I won't repeat the information here.

Help! What Can I Do Today to Combat Japanese Beetles?

In the meantime, you can still keep their numbers down by using pesticide or by far my favorite method, shaking, knocking or throwing the bugs into daily buckets of soapy water.  They don't bite, and after the first few, the ick factor all but disappears.  I wear lightweight garden gloves and have a pretty good success rate.  It's easy to develop an effective technique quickly.  All it takes is a bucket, soap, water and the will to win. Consider it an organic approach -- and a good stress reducer.

You'll also find that Japanese beetles tend to become active at about the same time every morning (mine start in at about 9:00 a.m.). If you're at home, you can get a jump on the day by eliminating as many as possible early.  I've found this can sometimes keep their numbers down and help avert a feeding frenzy.


USDA Managing Japanese Beetle: A Homeowner's Handbook

Photo 1 - By Vmenkov (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons


Control Japanese Beetles Naturally

You don't necessarily need to stock up on traps and pesticides to control Japanese beetles, but you do have to have good timing and a plan. To beat these bugs, you need to be as cagey and as persistent as they are.  There's a natural approach, but it isn't magic.  It takes catching them early and using their scent as a deterrent. The good news is that this approach is relatively easy and inexpensive.

Natural Japanese Beetle Control

The first step is to take some precautions: Japanese beetles are attracted to diseased plants and trees. The cleaner you keep your garden, the better. This is particularly true when Japanese beetles first become active in your area.  Their emergence is predictable in the neighborhoods they inhabit, occurring during the same couple of weeks every year. If you've had an ongoing struggle with Japanese beetles, you probably know their schedule by heart.  If not, contact your local Cooperative Extension Office or ask at your local nursery. 

Before they emerge is the time for general yard cleanup. Get rid of any rotting wood lying around your property, dispose of dead plants and shrubs and bag dead leaves and general debris like dry grass. They also like windfall fruit from peaches and other early summer fruiting trees.

Deal With the Problem Early in the Season

Japanese beetles send out scouts to investigate the best feeding grounds. They scent mark locations that look promising, and other beetles move in soon after. What looks promising to a Japanese beetle is the presence of plants it enjoys eating.  Eliminate those plants and you're less likely to have a problem. 

The bad news is that these bugs aren't very discriminating. They like lots of different plants, shrubs and trees.  For a good list of their favorites, visit my post: What You Need to Know about Getting Rid of Japanese Beetles.  If you're designing or redesigning your landscape, maintaining fewer of these species in Japanese beetle infested areas will save you time and effort.

Beating Japanese Beetles at Their Own Game

Japanese Beetles' rely heavy on scent, and you can use that as a weapon against them. Here's how:

Kill the first Japanese beetles you see in your garden. It's important that you catch them early, so keep a close watch. They regularly appear during the second week of June in my area. You may be a few weeks ahead or behind that schedule.  When you see a few beetles, get to work:

  1. Fill a bucket about half full of water.
  2. Add a quarter of a cup of dish soap. (The amount of soap isn't that critical as long as it's present.)
  3. Snag beetles with you gloved hands and place them in the bucket.  If touching them doesn't appeal to you, you can knock them into the bucket by giving the branch they're on a quick shake. This could take some practice.
  4. Leave the beetles in the bucket. They'll die and begin decomposing.  The smell will deter other beetles, and the presence of soap will discourage or kill mosquitoes. (The bucket will only smell nasty to beetles.)
  5. Set the bucket in an area where you've had bad infestations before, or select a spot that gets good airflow.

In doing this, you're letting new beetles know that the area is off limits. Think of it as the beetle equivalent of razor wire.  Leave the bucket in place for at least a two to three weeks, adding to it every couple of days. You'll see beetle activity slowly diminish over that time.  If you start this procedure too late in spring, it won't work nearly as well -- if at all. 

Japanese Beetle Traps May Not Be a Useful Option

You hear a lot about traps and natural predators as options for controlling Japanese beetles, but the best method is to avoid making your property attractive to them. If you discourage them early enough in the year, Japanese beetles will bypass your garden in favor of more appealing real estate. Once entrenched, they are less likely to come back to your garden in destructive numbers. If you start seeing an increase in activity, kill more beetles and place them in another prepared bucket.

If you wait too long, beetles will settle in, breeding on your property and making more problems you'll have to deal with next year. If this happens, there are other methods you can use to eradicate these pests, especially if you have a large or long standing problem with them in your landscape.  Here are some options:

  • Put down milky spore.
  • Use nematodes.
  • Try insecticidal soaps.
  • Resort to using insecticides.

You can read more about these options in the post I referenced above: What You Need to Know About Getting Rid of Japanese Beetles


Photo1 - JapaneseBeetles1Wiki.jpg By User:SB_Johnny (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo2 - JapaneseBeetles2Wiki.jpg Lamba at the Italian language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons


5 Reasons You Should Grow Your Own Herbs (really)

Flowering Chives (Aren't they pretty?)
Every year I take a pilgrimage to the herb aisle of my local produce market -- usually in late spring -- to see what fresh cut herbs are selling for. It's an eye opener and an excellent first reason you should grow your own:

Fresh Herbs from the Store are Expensive

In produce parlance, herbs are a value added commodity. They're cut and sometimes prewashed, a service that apparently justifies ratcheting up the price for them -- sometimes into the stratosphere. If you've ever grown basil, dill, sage or oregano, you know they can be big leaf producers, more than earning the space needed to grow them. It's likely that an herb marketer would explain that the high price is justified because herbs aren't staples, and as "specialty" crops, are grown in smaller batches so the "economies of scale" aren't there to lower the price.

One easy way to save money -- and send retailers a message -- is to grow these herbs yourself. If you've ever spent a sawbuck on a couple of fresh herb bundles, you'll be happy to hear that many herbs like basil, chives, dill and cilantro self-seed in the garden. This means once they're planted, they keep coming back year after year. Think of it as a twofer -- or a ten-fer. You pay once but reap the rewards indefinitely. I have a patch of chives that's been growing, seeding and persisting beautifully near our clunky old air conditioner for over a decade -- with very little help from me. I water in July and August and fertilize once a year, if that. That's it. Think of it this way: Lots of herbs are weeds with benefits. No work, but they're actually good for something.

Herbs are Natural Pest Control


Herbs have strong scents and flavors. That's why we like to use them in cooking, aromatherapy and crafts. Those characteristics also make many herbs unappealing to insects, vermin and even larger mammals like deer. If you grow roses or vegetables, planting herbs near your other plants can protect delicate specimens from predation. Here's an example I've used before: Rue and garlic planted near roses are effective at keeping bugs away without relying in toxic pesticides.

Catnip, garlic, chives, marigold, lavender, rue, feverfew, tansy, cilantro, mint and rosemary all help control different types of pests. If you have problems with mosquitoes, fleas, flies, ants -- to name just a few -- consider adopting some herbs to help keep marauders out of your garden. Once established, many herbs can hold their own with little help. Even better, reducing your use of pesticides protects the environment and beneficial insects like honey bees, lady bugs and praying mantis. These last two control destructive pests, so keeping their populations high is in your best interest.

Herbs Need Your Help

If you've been checking the seed catalogs lately, you've probably noticed the prevalence of designer plants bred for hardiness, taste or appearance. Many of these cultivars are proprietary products. They're either illegal to reproduce or their seeds (if there are any) aren't viable. I won't recap the new wave of worry over "big brother" agribusiness, but I will say that growing heirloom herbs is one way to protect plant varieties we may be seeing less of in the future. If this sounds alarmist, it isn't.  Hundreds of vegetable varieties available a century ago have virtually disappeared through the widespread selection of marketable alternatives. Marketable doesn't necessarily mean more flavorful or healthier, either.  It means more profitable for the growers. If you want to promote flavorful herbs and wonderful vegetables, grow your own and make a large percentage heirloom varieties.

Fresh Homegrown Herbs Just Taste Better

If you've ever grown sweet corn, you know that fresh picked ears taste better than anything you'll find at the store. Herbs can be like that, too. If you want to try making your own pesto, turkey stuffing or marinara sauce this season, grow the basil, oregano, sage, marjoram, garlic, fennel or other herbs yourself. It will make a difference in the final product. Instead of searching for the perfect recipe, focus on growing the best ingredients.

Herbs are Just Plain Fun


There's a certain mystique to growing herbs. It usually brings to mind the vision of a free spirited young woman in a broom skirt gathering bouquets of herbs at dawn -- barefooted. Sometimes that woman is older, wearing a hat and gathering an herb harvest in a wicker basket -- with her shoes on. In truth, the herb hobby is more than the sum of its parts because herbs resonate with many of us in ways that are hard to quantify.

When you grow herbs, you become part of a long tradition that's romantic, mystical and a little whimsical, too -- even if your wardrobe tends toward mommy jeans and bargain tees. Although I'd like you all to set aside a dedicated herb patch tomorrow and begin making your own aromatic sachets, candles and seasoned vinegars, adding just one catnip plant to supply your favorite feline with some unexpected amusement is a good place to start, and an interesting lesson, too.

Here's why: Although *catnip is probably best known as a cat intoxicant, that's not all it can do. It:

  • Is a natural sedative when taken as a tea
  • Can help treat stomach cramps, arthritis discomfort, headache and hives
  • Is a natural ant, termite, cockroach, mosquito, squash bug, squash vine borer, flea beetle and cucumber beetle repellent.
  • It's also a lush green plant in the garden that self-seeds readily.
Catnip is one one example of an herb with many potential uses. Most herbs are as richly useful (or even more so) and fun to experiment with, too.

*Catnip should not be used by children or pregnant women. For additional information, please ask your physician and review online educational materials at MedLine Plus (a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), The National Institutes of Health and WebMd.


Photo 1 - FloweringChivesMF.jpg

Photo 2 TansyMF.jpg

Photo 3 - CatnipMF.jpg


How to Grow Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)

Growing Cilantro
If you buy herbs at the market, chances are you've purchased cilantro at one time or another.  It rivals parsley for shelf space in the produce department, and for good reason. Cilantro (Coriandrun sativum) is a main ingredient in lots of Tex-Mex, Mexican, Spanish, Indian and Asian dishes. With cilantro, you actually get two herbs in one. The leaves are commonly known as cilantro, while the seeds are often referred to as coriander. 

For all its good press, cilantro can be tricky to use.  A little enhances the flavors of other foods like peppers, yogurt, onions and tomatoes.  Too much and all you can taste is cilantro -- which can ruin a dish fast. Another potential problem is that according to published reports by Charles J. Wysocki, a biologist and psychologist with the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, some folks are genetically predisposed to dislike this little herb.  That makes it a love it or hate it proposition for many.

The solution may be to use a little as a seasoning and offer more on the side as a garnish for cilantro lovers.  I'm getting ahead of myself, though.  First, let's take a look at cilantro in the garden.

Growing Cilantro

Thought to be native to Italy, cilantro is an annual that matures rapidly (about 45 days to seed production). Sow seeds directly in the garden about 15 inches apart after the last threat of frost has passed for your area. Unlike some herbs, cilantro enjoys rich soil that's predominantly moist and drains well. Give it a deep hole, about 14 inches, because it has a long taproot. Provide neutral soil and a couple of scoops of sand, too.  For added protection, include a layer of mulch. 

Although cilantro likes good light, provide afternoon shade in areas where summer heat is a problem. One option is to locate it under larger plants that can provide some dappled light. Cilantro grows to a height of around 30 inches, with a span of 8 to 10 inches. It tends to be unruly -- which is the opposite of manicured.  It is a lush green with attractive notched leaves, though.  

Harvesting CilantroThe problem with cilantro isn't about getting it started in the garden.  It's about keeping it viable.  Here's how it works:  Cilantro is a "fast Eddie" kind of plant.  Seeds germinate in 7 to 10 days, and after that it puts on growth quickly, leafing out well and without much added fuss besides regular watering. 

Problems start when the days get longer, brighter and warmer, though.  This is cilantro's cue to stop leafing and start blooming. That's a bad thing if you're interested in harvesting leaves.  Blooming triggers the plant to devote almost all of its energy to developing flowers and seeds for the next generation.

This is called "bolting," and it's the most frustrating thing about growing some herbs.  The two biggest "bolters" are cilantro and dill.  There are some measures you can take to prolong a plant's leaf growing phase.  I talk about them in my post: How to Keep Herbs from Bolting.   It's a quick read and has some trick you may not have tried.

Cilantro and Bolting

Aggressive harvesting helps delay bolting in cilantro.  It effectively turns the clock back, telling the plant it hasn't produced enough leaves yet. Start harvesting when the plant reaches six inches or so, and keep harvesting regularly.  Don't just chop off the tops, though.  Instead, thin the plant all along the stem.  This will help increase air flow and reduce problems later. These measures only delay the inevitable by a couple of weeks, though.  A more long range option involves successive plantings.  Stagger seed starts every couple of weeks, and you'll have a series of young plants in leaf production mode throughout the summer.  Using this method, it's a good idea to start subsequent generations indoors and move them outside in stages as they mature.

You might also want to try one of the newer cilantro cultivars reputed to be somewhat less inclined to bolting.  One popular option is "Jantar."  In tests reported by the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), Jantar extended the useful life of commercially grown cilantro by about 10 days.

Harvesting Cilantro

Unlike some herbs, cilantro loses much of its flavor soon after drying. There are some ways around this:  Instead of drying your harvest, freeze it instead. You can also use fresh cilantro to make flavored oil or vinegar for use during the fall and winter months. A third option is to grow cilantro indoors during the off-season.  I have more information about growing cilantro in a pot here: Growing Cilantro in Containers

Cilantro Pest and Disease Problems

Growing CorianderYou've tasted and taken a whiff of cilantro I'm sure, so you know it has a strong flavor and aroma.  Bugs don't care for it much. They tend to give it a wide berth.  This makes cilantro a good choice for companion planting because it extends its aromatic protection to other inhabitants in your herb or vegetable patch. You may experience problems with aphids or possibly whitefly, but in the years I grown cilantro, I can only remember one occasion where pests were a big problem and that was during an extremely wet season. Powdery mildew can attack cilantro, so prefer watering your herb garden in the morning rather than in the evening -- and space (and prune) plants so they have good airflow.

Medicinal Coriander (cilantro seed)

Even though coriander is a popular culinary herb, it does have medicinal applications.  In some areas of the world, it's common to use coriander as a treatment for indigestion.  It's also sometimes used for the following conditions, although there is no solid research in place as of this writing to substantiate or refute claims that's it's an effective treatment:

  • Bacterial infection
  • Diarrhea
  • Flatulence
  • Fungal infection
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Hernia pain
  • Joint pain
  • Measles
  • Nausea
  • Stomach upset
  • Toothache

Generally considered safe, coriander use may still be contraindicated in medicinal concentrations in some circumstances. When applied topically, it can cause skin reactions (irritation, inflammation). When ingested, it may cause increased sensitivity to sunlight and allergic reactions as well.

Cultivated Cilantro Seed
Coriander (cilantro seed)
It has also been associated with stomach cramps, depression, diarrhea, dehydration and lapse of menstruation in a few instances.  For the latest medical information about this or any other herb, visit MedLine Plus (a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), The National Institutes of Health and WebMd. Discuss any medical conditions or symptoms you have with a medical professional before adopting or changing your current course of treatment.

Fun Facts About Cilantro

  • Butterflies love cilantro.
  • The compound dodecenal found in cilantro is very effective at killing salmonella and other types of foodborne bacteria.
  • Cilantro is also known by the name Chinese parsley.
  • Food historians have found evidence of cilantro cultivation as far back as 950 B.C.
  • Coriander is used in the perfumery industry -- usually blended with dozens of other scents.
  • One of the keys to authentic tasting regional cuisine is using the right herbs.  Although many recipes suggest parsley as an alternative to cilantro, there's no comparison. Use the real deal if you can. (Just my two cents worth.)


Mcgee, Harold. "Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault ." The New York Times. 8/2010.

University of Massachusetts - Amherst. "Cilantro."

Utah State University. "Cilantro."$ense_2011-11pr.pdf

WebMd. "Coriander."

Photo 1 - Cilantro2_PublicDomain.jpg By Tomwsulcer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 2 - Cilantro1_PublicDomain.jpg By ZooFari (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 3 - Cilantro3_Wiki.jpg By Mrmariokartguy (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, GFDL ( or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons


How to Grow Angelica (Angelica archangelica)

Angelica Herb

Numerous historical texts going back to the 15th century sing Angelica's praises as a wonder herb, mostly because it was believed (erroneously) to cure bubonic plague. From that happy association, it developed a reputation as the go-to herb for whatever health problems were pesky at any particular  time -- a kind of cure-all panacea. Just give 'em some angelica tonic and send them on their way.  This went on for a century or more.

Lucky for us, angelica is as useful in the kitchen and in the garden as it was thought to be in the sickroom -- or almost. It has a lush and tropical appearance that makes a nice backdrop for less showy plants and herbs.  It also grows to a nice height, over five feet, and fills in nicely. For such a large herb, it manages to appear lacy and somewhat delicate, thanks to its flowers, which grow impressively large umbels.

How to Grow Angelica (hardiness zone range of 4 - 9)

A native to northern Europe, angelica loves rich humus and a nice, large planting hole. It also appreciates light shade in warm weather regions.  Provide regular watering and good drainage, and give plants room to spread out, about three feet.  Although it isn't fussy if the above requirements are met, angelica is happiest when planted in slightly acidic soil.

A native to leafy dells near running water, think of this herb as a woodland transplant and provide it with a moist spot away from wind and punishing heat. A nice protective layer of mulch twice a year is also a good idea. If you're looking for a great companion for angelica, choose sweet woodruff.  Woodruff loves the same conditions and is a nice groundcover.

Although it does tend to be pretty hardy, angelica can attract pests, including aphids, red spider mites and leaf miners.  Plants may also be somewhat susceptible to leaf spot.

Propagating Angelica

Angelica Herb
For the best results, start plants from fresh seed.  Because angelica seeds tend to stay viable only a short time, it's a good idea to plant them out directly in the garden as soon as they're mature -- usually at the end of August, or thereabouts. They need a good frost to quicken.  I have tried overwintering seeds and only succeeded once when I kept them in an airtight container in the refrigerator over the winter months.  Even at that, only about 20 percent of them germinated the following March.

Culinary Uses for Angelica

Angelica has an interesting flavor that's hard to describe.  It's a licorice aroma and taste, but there's something else in there too, like celery maybe.  Somewhat like basil and fennel, it has a complex flavor that works well with a surprising number of ingredients.  These are some culinary uses you might consider:
  • Chop young shoots into spring salads (both sweet and savory).
  • Steam and serve shoots as you would asparagus.
  • Sautee angelica shoots in stir fry.
  • Make candy with its ribbed, hollow stems. It's somewhat similar to the way you would candy ginger, and like candied ginger, candied angelica can be used to treat stomach upsets and motion sickness.
  • Use it as an ingredient in pie filling much as you would rhubarb.  In fact, it is sometimes served with rhubarb.
  • Use Angelica seeds to flavor jams, preserves, chutneys, bitters, liqueurs and gin.  If you do any canning or pickling, it's fun to experiment with it.

Angelica as an Herbal Remedy

Angelica is a natural antibacterial agent, so it does have beneficial properties when used as a remedy, but its reputation has taken a few hits over the last 400 years or so. You probably won't find it on a list of top 10 (or even top 20) herbs with health benefits. Given the hype, it was bound to have some image problems eventually. After all, at one time it was purported to cure just about everything but a rainy day.

It's probably best known today as an herbal treatment for dyspepsia (upset stomach), and may have benefits in treating nerve pain. It has been associated with the following conditions, but there isn't enough information available yet for there to be a strong consensus about its effectiveness:

    Angelica Herb
  • Arthritis pain
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Motion sickness
  • Nerve pain
  • Premature ejaculation
  • Respiratory problems
  • Sore throat (gargle)
  • Stomach ache

Angelica has also been used as a diuretic and was employed in the past to induce uterine contractions.

Herbs used for medicinal purposes are often more concentrated than those used in cooking.  Angelica leaves, stems and seeds are generally considered safe culinary ingredients, and angelica root is typically considered safe when applied in external salve form for pain treatment.

It is contraindicated as an herbal remedy for pregnant or nursing women.  In large doses, it also increases sunlight sensitivity. 

For the latest medical information about this or any other herb, visit MedLine Plus (a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), The National Institutes of Health and WebMd. Discuss any medical conditions or symptoms you have with a medical professional before adopting or changing your current course of treatment.

Angelica is known by these other names:

  • Wild parsnip
  • Holy Ghost
  • Garden angelica
  • European angelica
  • Herbe aux Anges

Angelica in Folklore

This is the famous legend associated with angelica's angelic reputation and name: In a prophetic dream, a monk was told -- possibly by the Archangel Michael -- that angelica could cure those afflicted with the bubonic (black) plague, so the monk spread the word far and wide.  The rest, as they say, is history -- and maybe an excess of faith and no small amount of desperation.

Angelica usually blooms in May.  Its association with the Archangel Michael may have persisted because it blooms early in the month, around the 8th in parts of Europe, which also happens to coincide with the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel celebrated in the Catholic faith.

The dried leaves of angelica were used in exorcism rites, too, and the plant was (and perhaps still is) considered an herb of protection that can repel evil spells and spirits.

Special notes: 

*A biennial plant is one that has a two year life cycle.  It becomes established, goes dormant in winter (usually) and revives the following spring to set seed and die. Typically, leaf growth the second year is spotty, so it's a good idea to stagger plantings of biennial herbs so there are always first and second season specimens in the garden. Although angelica is widely considered a biennial plant, it can be notional sometimes and hang around longer, setting seed the third season instead of the second.  This has only happened to me once, though. Parsley is another popular biennial you may have in your garden.

Avoid growing angelica with dill because it can cross pollinate and result in a less than tasty plant. It will also cross with fennel (I believe), but the results are more favorable.

There are actually a number of different angelica varieties, well over sixty.  Most do NOT have herbal benefits.

Oh, and don't confuse Angelica archangelica with Angelica Sinensis, another herb with medicinal properties that is popular in Chinese medicine. We'll discuss that angelica another day.


Clevely, Andi and Katherine Richmond. "Cooking with Herbs and Spices." Anness Publishing. 2003

Cornell University. "Angelica."

"Taylor's Guide to Vegetables and Herbs."  Houghton Mifflin Company. 2004

WebMd. "Angelica.>

Photo 1 - Angelica1_Wiki.jpg By Doronenko 11:13, 9 April 2007 (UTC) (Own work) [CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 2 - Angelica2_Wiki.jpg By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 3 - Angelica3_Wiki.jpg By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

How to Grow Lambs Ears (Stachys byzantina)

The woolly leaves of lambs ears
The leaves and stems of lamb's ears (or lambs ears) are soft and "woolly." They're covered in a downy layer of fine white hairs that give the plant a light greenish gray color (seafoam green, I think) and make it feel oh, sooo soft and cuddly. The leaves are a tactile delight. That and their shape are the reason this plant has such a unique and memorable name. I have to admit that I keep Lamb's ears year after year, even though other herbs are more useful.

Uses for Lamb's Ears

One upon a time, it had medicinal applications. In the literature, there is some mention of its use as a treatment for bee sting, but herbs like aloe vera are more effective for that type of first aid these days. It has antiseptic properties, too, and was used as a field dressing and a poultice during the 19th century. It made an effective bandage when clean fabric was unavailable. Today, a quick trip to the medicine cabinet will yield a wealth of Band-Aids and gauze (on a roll) for most of us, which leaves poor little lamb's ears out in the cold -- or does it?

A distant relative of the popular herb betony, lamb's ears can be effective in the landscape as a ground cover. Standard lamb's ears grows from 18 inches to 28 inches high, but cultivars like Silver Carpet are short creepers well suited to tree lawns and other areas that receive light foot traffic. This plant looks delicate, but it can take some punishment.
An established stand of blooming lamb's ears

The photos here don't really give you a good idea of how charming this little plant can be. It's a lighter green than sage and looks almost white at twilight or when the shadows are lengthening across a bed of lamb's ears in the late afternoon. If you opt for a stand of common lamb's ears, happy plants will send up fuzzy, soft spikes decorated with delicate pinkish/purple flowers that look like gems nestled in a lavish layer of fluffy leaf buds. The leaves and spikes make a nice presentation when included in a vase of fresh cut flowers, too, and can be a pretty accompaniment to a bouquet of rosebuds or a generous bunch of lavender.

I've used lamb's ears to make wreaths in the past, too. When we first moved to the Midwest, we lived in a rental house with stingy, narrow flowerbeds overrun with lamb's ears. There wasn't a marigold, begonia, petunia or rose bush in sight, but lamb's ears were everywhere. It was an embarrassment of riches -- of a sort, anyway. Over the holidays, I prepared and dried wreaths made from them to give away as gifts. The wreaths turn out very full and nice, but weren't as well received as wreaths made with culinary herbs (what relatives and friends were accustomed to). I have though since that a very large wreath of lamb's ears for an entry or front door would look quite lovely.

Lamb's ears is also edible. Some intrepid souls eat it steamed, or use the young, fresh leaves in salads. I've never developed the habit, and the woolly leaves just don't seem to say, "I'm delicious. Grab a fork." I could be wrong, so if you have a great recipe using lamb's ears, please share.

If I've convinced you that lamb's ears deserves a spot in your garden this year, here's what you need to know to make it feel at home:

Growing Conditions for Lamb's Ears

A native to the Middle East, it's hardy in zones 4 through 8 and prefers dappled light in the afternoon in hot climates and medium-rich soil that drains well. Plant seedlings about 15 inches apart in spring and they'll be blooming by mid to late June.

The flowering spike of woolly Lambs Ears
Somewhat drought tolerant, it's probably better to water lamb's ears too little than too much. Do let it dry out between waterings if possible. (It is somewhat sensitive to high humidity but will survive intermittent humid days.) Prefer watering plants in the morning to reduce problems with powdery mildew.

This little plant spreads quickly and fills in well. If you have a half-shady spot you don't want to fuss with -- say over by the shed or driveway -- lamb's ears will create visual appeal without requiring much effort on your part. The good news is that it isn't a high maintenance plant but looks like one. Once established, it is relatively self-sustaining . For the nicest looking bed or border, deadhead blooms to keep plants bushy and lush. Caution: Because it roots easily, it's a good idea to watch lamb's ears over the summer season. It isn't as invasive as mint, but will crowd out other, less robust plants if given the chance.

Propagate lamb's ears by seed or root division in spring. It self-seeds readily.

Growing Lambs Ears Indoors or on a Patio

Because of its unusual texture and color, lamb's ears makes a nice specimen plant on a deck or patio. Just make sure to provide it with a pot that drains well and give it partial shade on hot summer afternoons. It's also a good idea to deadhead flowers to keep plants from getting straggly.

You can maintain lamb's ears as a houseplant, but it will require quite a bit of light when kept indoors, so place it in southern facing window or supplement with grow lights. Eight hours of light a day should be enough. Avoid overwatering at all costs as root rot can be a problem. Let plants dry out between waterings.

Lamb's ears is also widely known as woolly betony.


Discover Life. " Stachys byzantina." Additional Photos

NC State University. "Ground Covers: Stachys byzantina."

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. "Lamb's ear, woolly hedgenettle."

Photo1 - LambsEars1_Wiki.jpg By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo2 - LambsEars2_PublicDomain.jpg By Karelj (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo3 - LambsEars3_Wiki.jpg By Stan Shebs GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2


The Mighty Victory Garden

Archived Victory Garden Poster - Get in the spirit!
During the Second World War, folks were encouraged to grow their own produce in what were dubbed Victory Gardens -- working gardens that insured there would be food on U.S. tables in uncertain times. We can learn quite a bit from those simple plots of land scratched out of vacant lots or sometimes tucked into tree lawns or front yards.

Many of them were small, but they were mighty -- and there were lots of them.  Although the numbers are approximate, by 1943 there were about 20 million victory gardens across the U.S. producing eight million tons of food, or 40 percent of the produce consumed that year.

If you've ever doubted how empowering a seed, dirt and water can be, take the time to learn more about how backyard (roadside and vacant lot) gardens fed a nation at war. It's a great story, and one that shows how growing your own food is more than just a way to save a few dollars.  It's a way to show your loved ones that self-sufficiency is important. It's planet friendly and family friendly, too.

V is for Victory -- in the Garden

Whether in wartime or peace time, starting a vegetable (fruit and herb) garden makes sense.  It can be a reliable source of flavorful as well as nutritious and pesticide free ingredients. It can also be a great way to introduce your children to the changing seasons and the rewards of physical labor. We live in an age when some urban youngsters can't identify a photo of a chicken and believe potatoes grow in long, narrow strips. Where the shovel meets the dirt, dynamic things can happen. Start a garden when your kids are young and they'll learn valuable life lessons the organic way -- by touching and tasting -- and by doing instead of watching.

Grow a Garden and Save

Historic Victory Garden Poster - Oh, no!  Is that DDT?

The results of a 2009 study conducted by the Burpee Seed Company suggest that growing your own produce can net you a 1 to 25 cost savings over buying the same items at your local market. Remember, when you buy mass-produced herbs, fruits and vegetables, three major considerations in their cultivation are attractiveness, long shelf life and transportability. Flavor and nutrition are not at the top of the list -- and, frankly, may not even make it to the middle of the list.That means you often spend more and get less than your want or expect.

Buying organic produce is definitely an option, but it's an expensive one.  Why?  Pesticides keep produce losses down, and growing crops in bulk saves money.  Organic farmers are shortchanged on both counts. They don't use chemical pesticides, and the area reserved for organic farming is puny compared to conventional agribusiness.  Leaching  pesticides from soil in order to convert to organic status takes time.  *In most circumstances, to qualify as a "certified organic" producer, a farm must be pesticide free for five years and obtain official USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) organic status. That green and white seal carries weight, but in some cases, it doubles the price of product.

The Best Herbs and Produce are 'Grow Your Own'

Some of the best produce choices are a do-it-yourself proposition, anyway. Keep this in mind when considering seed and seedling purchases this season. Heirloom (old style) vegetables are big these days, and if you think tomatoes don't taste as good as they used to, growing a few heirlooms may just prove you right.

Then there's the "fresh picked" component.  If you've ever steamed your own garden asparagus, roasted fresh picked corn, prepared garden fresh pesto or made a BLT out of this morning's tomato harvest, you know there's no contest between fresh grown and market produce.

Many of those expensive market salad greens are inexpensive to grow, too, and growing them yourself could net you a couple of crops over a season (spring and fall). Love the idea of eating spinach and the new darling of nutritional veggies, kale?  You can grow both for pennies -- and it's easy to do.

There are lots of new and interesting cultivars available every year, too. Frost tolerant cultivars of traditional warm weather plants like rosemary may do just fine in your garden, but you won't know until you start looking at what's available.

Gardening Green

Start a compost bin in a corner of your garden this year.  It's easier than you think.  Composting cuts down on local landfills, and along with vegetable gardening, teaches your family the nuts and bolts of the green movement in a practical, real world way. Let's face it, your kids probably know more about environmental theory than you do. Show them you care about planet friendly issues and are willing to do more than rinse and stack the recyclables once a week.  After you create a little "black gold," chemical fertilizer will start to look a lot less appealing as a source of nutrients for the food you eat -- and that's a good thing.

Check out Some Free Vegetable Seed Catalogs

If you haven’t grown herbs or vegetables before, this can be your year to learn. All you need to get started is a little space, pocket change and a couple of weekend afternoons. In return, you'll net yourself healthy produce and better muscle tone. You can grow vegetables, fruits and herbs in some unexpected places, including:  in bales of straw, deck pots, vertical gardens -- and tree lawns.  That means your apartment patio and that patch of dirt next to your downspout are fair game -- the victory garden way.  Plant a meal and discover what all the fuss is about.

Check out my list of free seed catalogs for the 2014 growing season to get an idea about what's out there to know and grow.

Here's wishing you a bountiful harvest.

*Although I haven't listed them here, there are many other rules and restrictions for certified organic farmers. To learn more about them, visit: National Organic Program  


Future Farmers. "Victory Gardens 2007."

Kivirist, Lisa.  "Victory Gardens: A Salute to Self-sufficiency."

Pollan, Michael. "Farmer in Chief." The New York Times.

Photo1 Victory Garden - Public Domain Photo

Photo3  Victory Garden - Public Domain Photo

Photo3  Victory Garden - Public Domain Photo


How to Grow Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis)

How to Grow Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is one of those plants that make herb keeping worthwhile. If you've ever entertained the notion of a cottage garden complete with cabbage roses, hollyhocks and even a sedate stand of English ivy, there's no doubt lemon balm would have a place somewhere in that idyllic landscape.

How to Grow Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is a member of the mint family, and like all the mints, it tends to ramble. It produces long stems that start out tidy but eventually begin to lean every which way like a head of unruly hair. Wandering by a patch in spring you'll see light green, toothed leaves in a dome shaped mound. The plant can grow to almost five feet in some cases, but tends to be somewhat smaller -- and certainly looks best if cut back regularly to maintain a cohesive shape.

Originally a native of southern Europe, lemon balm now grows wild in many parts of the world, including areas of the U.S. It's a perennial in hardiness zones 5 through 9. It's also a bee magnet. The "melissa" in its scientific name is Greek for honeybee. You've probably heard that honey bees have been having a tough time with parasitic wasps and pesticides in recent years. Show your bee love by filling a corner of your garden with lemon balm. Imagine the honey that pairing would produce.  Oh, and if you've had trouble pollinating your squash blossoms (or anything else), plant a little lemon balm nearby for added insurance.

This versatile herb is easy to grow. For everything you get into the bargain, you'd expect lemon balm to be persnickety about soil pH or susceptible to wilt or vulnerable to the predations of common insects. It turn out that everything about this little plant is good news, though.

The literature typically suggests planting it in soil with a neutral pH (7) and warns of potential problems with mildew.  I've found lemon balm is adaptable and more rugged than most writers give it credit for. Just give it decent soil and protect it from punishing heat with a layer of mulch and a regular watering schedule -- or at least place it in a location that receives afternoon shade. It will tolerate somewhat boggy soil, too.
Growing Lemon Balm
Flowering Lemon Balm

Where many mints tend to take over a garden plot, lemon balm is less aggressive about usurping real estate. I've had a few plants in an eastern facing shady spot for the last decade. I prune them to near ground level in fall, and they regrow every spring, much like peppermint and other common mints. They overwinter under inches of compacted snow, and all they ask for is a little fertilizer and some drought protection in spring and summer.

This useful plant also tends to be naturally pest and disease resistant. Many strongly scented herbs are. Rub fresh lemon balm leaves on your skin when you're doing yard chores. It'll act as a homemade mosquito repellent.

If you plan to harvest lemon balm on a regular schedule, it's a good idea to fertilize plants every couple of months for the best results. Here's a good rule of thumb: the more you harvest, the more you should nourish.

Uses for Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is a culinary, cosmetic, medicinal and aromatic herb -- a true herbal bonanza. It has some impressive and handy uses: It's considered one of the top five medicinal herbs for sleep problems, and has been used as a sedative and antianxiety herb for centuries. Along with valerian, it's often referred to as "herbal valium." Where valerian smells like sweaty feet when used in, say, a calming tea, lemon balm smells like lemon blossoms in a cup. It really does have a heavenly aroma.

I've mentioned before that it smells like lemon furniture polish, but the fragrance is more delicate and sweeter than that. Although it's a plant in the mint family, it doesn't smell the least bit minty. If you keep it near a walk or garden gate, it will release fragrance when visitors brush past it. Here's a tip: Try keeping lemon balm with lavender by your entry or porch. It's a nice way to welcome guests and one they'll remember.

Fresh lemon balm leaves are also a nice addition to fruit salad, tossed green salad or fresh salsa. Sprigs make a great garnish that's a nice change from plain old parsley (or dill or cilantro). Chopped or dried leaves also make a mild lemony seasoning for fish, shellfish or fowl. I've even added chopped leaves to cupcake recipes.

Lemon balm is often used fresh or dried as a relaxing tea, and you can add it to homemade potpourri for a clean, light scent that compliments most citrus based blends.

Lemon Balm Photo
Lemon Balm in Spring


Medicinal Lemon Balm

There's a lot literature available explaining the potential medicinal uses for this herb.  Although its sedative properties are well documented, research into the advisability of using it for more serious disorders is ongoing, though.  It contains over 100 chemical compounds, many of which need additional formal research.

Melissa Officinalis may or may not be effective in treating the following conditions with which it's been associated.  The jury is still out and may be out for some time to come. Your best recourse is to track study results and other news on your areas of interest and discuss those findings with your doctor or herbalist.

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Herpes
    Lemon Balm Profile
  • Migraines
  • Colic
  • Flatulence
  • Stomachache
  • Toothache
  • Graves' disease
  • Cramps (female discomfort)
  • ADHD (Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder)
  • Loss of appetite

Lemon balm is an antiviral, an astringent and an antispasmodic.  It is also high in antioxidants (flavonoids).

If you like the idea of taking lemon balm as a calming or sleep inducing herbal remedy but don't like tea, the fresh leaves can be added to bath water for a homemade aromatherapy session. Oral supplements, scented candles and essential oils are available, too. (Inhaling the fragrance can carry many of the same benefits as drinking the tea or taking a lemon balm supplement.)

There are potential side effects when using lemon balm regularly or in large doses.  It may increase the effects of prescription sedative medications. It may make it more difficult for the body to absorb some types of thyroid medications, too.  Lemon balm should be avoided by pregnant or nursing women as its effects on young children and the unborn aren't fully understood.  Consult your doctor or herbalist before taking lemon balm or any other medicinal herb or herbal blend.

Although the use of the common name "lemon balm" is pretty widespread throughout the U.S., you'll also find Melissa Officinalis sold or referred to by other names, like:

  • Bee balm
  • Melissa
  • Sweet Mary
  • Balm
  • English balm
  • Garden balm
  • Honey plant
  • Dropsy plant
  • Heart's delight (Don't you love that?)
  • Cure-all

Growing Lemon Balm Indoors

Lemon balm can thrive indoors as a houseplant, but it needs at least six hours of good light a day.  Here's a quick light test:

On a sunny day, place a sheet of white paper in front of the window where you plan on keeping the pot.  When the sun's shining, position your hand between the window and the paper at about the elevation at which the actual plant will be located.  Your hand should produce a well delineated shadow from which you can see the clear outline of all your fingers.  That's the level of light the plant will need for about six hours a day.  Less light will require the addition of a grow light or the plant will likely have problems.

Offer lemon balm good potting soil and a layer of mulch. Avoid letting the soil dry out completely.

Lemon balm also makes a good commuter plant: a potted patio or deck plant that overwinters indoors.

Special Notes: I've never had powdery mildew problems with lemon balm, but on general principal I do prefer watering all my plants in the morning rather than in the evening.

You can find my simple but effective recipe for lemon balm tea here:  Tea Cozy - Lemon Balm Tea Recipe


Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. " Melissa officinalis L."

USDA. " Melissa officinalis L." "Lemon Balm."

Photo1 - LemonBalm1.jpg Forest & Kim Starr [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo2 - LemonBalm2.jpg  By Kenraiz - Krzysztof Ziarnek (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo3 - LemonBalm3.jpg  Forest & Kim Starr [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons