Easy Chive Butter Recipe - A Two Ingredient Wonder

Chive butter is one of the most versatile savory butters you can make at home. It has a mild oniony, garlicky flavor that's somewhat sweet and never bitter. It improves the taste of most vegetables, and is the default flavored butter topper for a baked potato. For a rich finish, add a pat to your grilled or broiled steaks, too. That little dab of garden kissed dairy makes all the difference.

Chive butter is another two ingredient butter, like honey butter, that's be easy to prepare. You can even complete a batch during a commercial break in your favorite holiday movie -- I speak from experience.

You can source fresh chives in the produce department of most major grocery store chains if it isn't a resident in your garden. (And if not, why not? Chives are reliably frost tolerant, and I've even braved the herb patch after a significant snow to harvest some when my windowsill plant starts to look a little short and stumpy.)

Chive Butter Recipe

2 sticks (one cup) salted butter, softened
1/4 cup fresh chives

Rinse chives and pat them dry with a paper towel. Let them sit on your countertop for a half hour or so to get rid of any residual moisture. Dryer is better.

Chop chives as fine as you can, and set them aside.

Add softened butter to a mixing bowl and cream using a whisk or fork.

Add the chives a little at a time until fully incorporated.

Spoon mixture onto waxed paper, and form it into a log about one and a half inches in diameter.  You can also place the mixture in a tub or ramekin, or add it to a decorative mold.

Refrigerate until firm.

The recipe can be halved or doubled.  To eyeball a quick prep session, use about two tablespoons of chives for each half cup (stick) of butter.  The mixture will last about a week in your refrigerator. It can also be made ahead and frozen.

Photo courtesy of Flicker user: Edsel Little


Honey Butter Recipe

Herb and other flavored butters are popular around holidays like Christmas and Easter. They're delicious, and show a little extra attention to detail that doesn't take a culinary or decorating degree. They come together quickly, hold in the refrigerator for days, and can be molded or not, depending on how much time you have or want to spare. (They're tasty served in a simple tub or shape like an angel or holly wreath.)

I'm particularly fond of savory butters like chive, sage and rosemary, but my honey flavored butter is a big hit, too -- sweet, rich and wholesome. It's tasty on dinner rolls with baked ham, and is always welcome with breakfast biscuits or scones. You can make it days ahead, which is nice when crunch time approaches. With just two ingredients, it's ridiculously easy to prepare.

If you have honey lovers in the family and don't enjoy mopping up the sticky drips, this butter delivers the sweet, natural flavor of honey but leaves the mess behind.

Honey Flavored Butter Recipe


2 sticks salted butter (1 cup)
1/4 cup honey


Soften butter on your countertop or in the microwave to make it easier to work with.

Combine butter and honey in a small mixing bowl and beat with a whisk for three to five minutes. You can also use food processor or hand mixer.

*Spoon mixture onto wax paper, and roll into a log about 1-1/2 inches in diameter.  Refrigerate until set. If using with sweet rather than savory dishes, you can sprinkle cinnamon on the chilled log for a little extra color.

Refrigerate until serving time.

Slice into generous 1/4 inch rounds, and serve in an iced dish.

This recipe can be halved or doubled easily.

*Other options include spooning the prepared mixture into a tub or adding it to large or individual decorative molds.

Special Note: If you've prepared my lavender flavored honey recipe, now's the time to use it! You can find it here: How to Make Lavender Honey    (It makes a very nice holiday hostess gift.)

Photo courtesy of Flickr user: thebristolkid


Easy Rosemary Body Scrub Recipe - for Dry Skin

My skin tends to dry out over the winter, especially my feet and knees. To help combat the flakes, I make a rosemary body scrub that uses a mild sugar abrasive and light oil moisturizer. This is pretty easy since rosemary is one of my go to herbs for cosmetic and medicinal applications. I maintain a couple of shrubs indoors over the winter, one of which started life as a tabletop Christmas tree. The aroma is fresh and reminiscent of the outdoors -- woodsy with a hint of camphor -- the big brother of mild mint.

This scrub is effective and easy to make, and includes the added benefit of moisturizing as it exfoliates. As I do here, I like to use avocado oil as a base ingredient in most of my homemade skincare preparations because it contains skin loving monounsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E. Both help reduce the skin damage caused by free radicals.  It's also a natural sunscreen. Using avocado oil will make your skin feel velvety smooth -- and you can't ask much more than that. You've probably noticed many high end cosmetics use it in small amounts. Lose the big names and marketing costs, and you can make your own preparations for a fraction of the price and still use wonderful ingredients.

In a pinch, you can substitute olive oil as a convenient and less expensive option, though. Actually, my grandmother kept a small bottle of olive oil next to the kitchen sink. She'd put a drop inside her rubber gloves, giving herself a moisturizing treatment every time she hand washed pots and pesky dishes. Her hands always looked beautiful. Give it a try with either olive oil or avocado oil.

I use a rounded teaspoonful of the mixture at a time, and apply it in a circular motion for about 30 seconds per problem area (like my heels).  I usually perform this little chore after a shower while sitting on the side of the tub. I always rinse and wipe the tub afterward to remove any lingering sugar crystals or oily residue.

Rosemary Body Scrub Recipe

  • 1 cup of white, granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup avocado or olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. lemon juice
  • *1/3 cup fresh, finely chopped rosemary needles You can substitute 1/4 cup dry needles or 12 drops rosemary essential oil. 
  • 1 tbsp. baking soda

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Apply as needed to warm skin. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry. Refrigerate the mixture between applications.

*Rosemary oil will provide better aroma, but using fresh or dried needles will increase the abrasive effectiveness of the mixture and impart a little more of the herb's natural freight of anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and antiseptic properties. Your choice.

Avoid using rosemary body scrub on broken skin because the lemon juice in the mixture will sting.

Photo courtesy of  Flickr user: Steffany


Keeping a Rosemary Christmas Tree Alive Till Spring

If you've purchased an adorable rosemary Christmas tree and are now experiencing some problems, you're in good company. Fragrant and aggressively trimmed tabletop rosemary trees can be pesky to maintain. In fact, requests for help with rosemary trees appear in my in box almost daily during the holidays. How do you keep these little jewels alive till spring? Here are some tips that may help:

Check the tree carefully before you buy. If it has water in the bottom of the container, pass. Overwatering is one of the fastest ways to kill this plant.  It hales from the Mediterranean where conditions are typically dry rather than wet. Once rosemary starts to decline (read drop all its needles), it's difficult to rescue. The needles on a healthy plant should feel springy and look bright green and plump.

Water sparingly. Wait for the soil in the pot to feel dry to the touch before you water. Sprits occasionally, though. The heat coming from your HVAC system wrings moisture out of the air. If you don't have a humidifier, your indoor air is probably too dry for your houseplants -- including your rosemary bush -- to feel comfortable.  Although it doesn't like wet roots, rosemary prefers some comfortable humidity in the air. Buy an inexpensive pump sprayer, and use it to keep the environment around your plant less dry. It also helps to keep rosemary with other houseplants. This creates a more favorable microclimate for all.

Keep it away from artificial heat sources. Artificial heat steals the moisture from the plant and pot as well as from the air. (Actually, it can even suck the moisture out of your wooden furniture and cabinetry.) Place your plant away from heat vents and other heat sources. Also, avoid placing it on warm surfaces like old style television sets. Keep it off the top of your refrigerator, too.

Give the plant plenty of light. Rosemary requires at least six hours of bright light a day. It may be dormant till spring, but it still needs life giving illumination. Place it in your brightest window, but keep it from touching the glass. That cold glass may damage the needles. If this spoils your decorating plans, move the plant into a sunny spot regularly, or buy a grow light for it. Use the grow light when you aren’t in host or hostess mode.  In a pinch, you can add a grow light bulb to a regular light fixture. It's a good, cost effective compromise. You can find grow light bulbs at most variety and home improvement stores.

Remove all the fussy stuff. Those baubles on the plant and the decorative wrapper around the pot have to go. The ornaments damage the stems and needles, and the wrapper can cause moisture to pool and kill the roots.

Put the plant outside once in a while. If you live in an area that gets above freezing for a few days periodically throughout the winter months, put the plant outside when weather permits. Think of this as a spa day. In fact, if the plant is looking poorly now, check the Weather Channel and put it outdoors the first chance you get. Be careful, though. Rosemary can't stand freezing conditions. Bring it in again before the temperature drops much below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. You may get a little more outdoor time by keeping the plant in the sunshine but close to a protected area like a wall. The temperature in a protected spot can be a few degrees higher that the published temperature. Invest in an inexpensive thermometer, and check for likely outdoor locations.  I have a large commuter rosemary bush that spends summer outdoors and winter inside. I roll it onto my deck five or six times over the winter to get some fresh air and sunshine. It stays near a light colored wall where reflected light and heat keep it happy. This trick really works, so try it.

Repotting isn't a quick fix. If anything, rosemary likes tight quarters -- rootwise. Any problems you're having are more likely water and light related than due to cramped conditions or feeding (fertilizer) shortfalls. Keep the plant in the original pot till spring or even fall of next year. During that time, it will likely require feeding once, probably in late spring.

Good luck.

Photo Rosemary courtesy of Flicker user: Elvert Barnes


Easy Eggnog Fudge Recipe

I have to admit I'm an eggnog-aholic. I watch the grocery shelves every year, waiting for the newest batch of eggnog to arrive. I've tried making my own, but somehow it isn't nearly as satisfying as scoring that first quart from the market. I hoard my often renewed stash, and savor every drop till after New Year's.

It's actually the nutmeg that makes eggnog taste so special. Lots of holiday recipes use nutmeg as one of many flavoring ingredients, but its mild flavor is often overwhelmed by more aggressive players like clove and allspice. In a glass of wonderful eggnog, nutmeg is the star. With the support of creamy dairy and egg (they make a nice trinity in all kinds of sweet and savory dishes), it's a match made in holiday heaven.

I say this because it takes a lot of goodness to get me to relinquish any of my precious eggnog to us as a mere ingredient in a recipe. Believe me when I say the eggnog fudge recipe below is that good. Think of capturing the fine flavor of eggnog and savoring it in something other than a drink (however tasty) that spends a brief moment on the tongue. Wrap your taste buds around a bite of perfect eggnog infused candy that's as creamy as custard and as sweet as Christmas morning. *Thank the nutmeg gods for whoever invented this one.

Easy Eggnog Fudge Recipe


1-1/2 cups white, granulated sugar
3/4 cup creamery eggnog (regular, not lite)
1/2 cup salted butter
12 oz. package white chocolate baking chips
7 ounce jar prepared marshmallow creme
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg (Freshly grated is best because it imparts the most flavor.)
1 teaspoon rum extract (You can substitute 3 tbsp. light rum.)
3/4 cup chopped pecans (optional)


Butter a square, 9-inch pan and set aside.

  1. Bring the sugar, eggnog and butter to a boil using a double boiler or heavy saucepan.
  2. Continue boiling until the mixture reaches 234°F on a candy thermometer,** stirring constantly. This should take about 8 minutes. 
  3. Remove from the heat and add white chocolate chips and nutmeg, stirring until the chips melt.
  4. Add marshmallow creme, rum extract (or rum) and pecans 
  5. Beat until incorporated.
  6. Pour mixture into the prepared pan.
  7. Cool.
  8. Cut into small squares.
  9. Store in your refrigerator, or freeze for up to a month.

Makes approx. 2 lbs.

*I came across this recipe years ago online and don't remember quite where. I've probably made a few changes, though. I always do. If you know the talented candy maker originally responsible for this recipe, please let me know and I'll credit the source.

**Scorching can be a problem if you aren't using a double boiler, so take the "stirring constantly" direction to heart.

Eggnog photo courtesy of Flickr user: Isaac Wedin

Fudge photo courtesy of Flickr user:  Sarah R


Slow Cooker Spicy Apple Cider Recipe

The aroma of cinnamon, nutmeg and other exotic spices are always an important part of fall and winter for me. If I'm not feeling the holiday spirit yet, a batch of spicy hot apple cider is a sure fire way for me to start seeing visions of sugarplums, or more likely, cookie fixings and wrapping paper. Apparently the sense of smell is almost as evocative as the sense of hearing, which bodes well if you plan on spending a few hours this weekend baking and listening to Christmas carols. You may come away from this prep marathon tired, but probably revisit a few cherished memories of Christmases past while creaming butter and calculating your cache of chocolate chips.

When I make spiced cider, the house smells like Mrs. Santa's kitchen (or what I imagine inhalations of her baking and brews smell like), and tastes like a little slice of childhood in a ceramic mug. Check out my recipe and instructions below. You'll like the mellow flavor and nice balance of spices. The addition of a few peppercorns gives it a bit of a bite to cut the sweetness, too.

This recipe uses a slow cooker (crockpot) to heat and infuse the mixture, but you can do the same thing either on your stovetop, or in the oven (at around 250 degrees Fahrenheit uncovered to start, and then down to 200 or on the warm setting to hold).

Slow Cooker Spicy Apple Cider Recipe


2 quarts sweet apple cider (not hard cider)
2 tbsp. packed light brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick (3 to 4 inches long)
1/2 tsp. whole cloves
1/2 tsp. whole allspice berries
1/2 tsp. whole peppercorns
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg (fresh ground is best)
2 cardamom pods, crushed (optional)
1/4 tsp. fine sea salt
1 whole orange, quartered (You'll be using the peel, so organic or unwaxed oranges are a good choice. *If you use a waxed orange, see the note below for instructions on how to remove its waxy coating.)


Place apple cider in a slow cooker, uncovered and on high for an hour. This evaporates some of the water and concentrates the apple flavor.

While the cider is reducing, measure out all the spices but the nutmeg and salt, and place them in a double length of cheesecloth. If you don't have cheesecloth, you can use a coffee filter. Close and secure the open end of either option with a length of twine.

Add the spice bag, quartered orange, nutmeg and salt to the mixture, and continue cooking for another 20 to 30 minutes.

Test the cider to see if it's spicy enough. If the taste isn't up to your standard, continue cooking and checking it every 15 minutes or so. When you're satisfied, remove the orange sections and spice bag, switch to a low setting on your slow cooker and cover. Note: don't leave the spice bag in place. It will eventually overwhelm the apple flavor and start to taste bitter.

Use the mixture as desired.

You can refrigerate any remainder for up to 48 hours. Oh, and you can add rum to taste of you want a beverage that's a little -- more.

The recipe can be halved or doubled. When cutting it in half, use a pinch of nutmeg rather than trying to measure out a 1/16th of a teaspoon's worth.

*Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and limes are often waxed to improve their appearance and help them retain moisture. Although wax isn't harmful per se, it isn't intended for consumption. If you're using a recipe that includes citrus peel, you can remove the wax by rinsing the whole fruit in hot water for 30 seconds or so. For multiples, fill a pot with hot (not boiling) water and immerse the fruits for 30 seconds. Then rinse each one in hot water briefly. You can also use this method to remove wax from vegetables.

Photo supplied by Flickr user: Alexis Lamster


The Spicy Hot Buttered Rum Recipe You've Been Looking For

When I crunch my way through frozen grass to the mailbox, I know it's time to stock up on hot toddy mix (also known as spicy hot buttered rum). If you think a hot beverage on a fall or winter evening is one of those comfort indulgences you can't live without, this mix belongs in your life. It's alcoholic or not, depending on your personal preference, and holds up in the fridge from around Halloween to New Year's Day. It's also chock full of those aromatic, warming spices you associate with evenings spent in front of the fire or watching Christmas classics on television.

Cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg are all in there, giving flavor to the brown sugar and butter base. The butter makes this beverage go down smooth and feel fulsome but not heavy, and the addition of a little cardamom pulls it all together.  The recipe calls for rum, but it's delicious without the alcoholic libation.

This one is special whether you're indulging alone or serving it to guests with a cinnamon swizzle stick and a full head of whipped cream dotted with ground nutmeg.  Consider it my gift to house bound gardeners everywhere.

If you only add one new recipe element to your holiday this year, make it this luscious little beverage.  It's a sip of goodness for sure.

Hot Rum Toddy Recipe


1 stick salted butter
1/2 lb. light brown sugar
2 tbsp. honey
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom (Don't skip this)
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
Pinch allspice
Rum (Dark)

Combine all ingredients but the rum into a batter. You can do this by hand or using a food processor.  Cover and refrigerate.

To Serve:

Place two tablespoons of batter into a mug.

Add 6 ounces of boiling water.

Add 1 1/2 to 2/12 jiggers of rum (This can be optional, and the quantity depends on your taste for alcohol.)

Stir thoroughly.

For a festive touch, add a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkle a little ground nutmeg on top.

This recipe will make about 8 servings, and can be doubled or tripled.

Photo courtesy of Flickr User Jill Robidoux -


Japanese Beetles - Know the Enemy

Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) don't get the publicity they deserve. They're a success story. They can spell Armageddon for some of the most popular plant varieties maintained in backyard gardens, and once entrenched in a neighborhood, are almost impossible to eradicate completely. That doesn't mean you should give up trying, though. Japanese beetles are formidable foes, but they do have their kryptonite. The problem is there are lots of them, and most successful methods for eliminating them take planning. Think of it as warfare. The best campaigns use well-planned strategies that take time and consistent effort to pull off. Once you accept that one bucket of soapy water or a single spray session with a bottle of insecticide isn't going to do it, regardless of your level of gardening skill, it's easier to sign on for the long term fight. Is it painful? Sure. There will be losses. The good news is diligent effort pays off.

They Come from New Jersey?

Don't think you're being targeted by an unfair universe intent on turning your rose bushes into lace doilies. In the U.S. Japanese beetles are so pesky because they have fewer natural predator controls than indigenous species. These pests are Japanese imports (in case you thought the name meant something else), stowaways that made landfall in New Jersey around 1916. In their native land, they aren't nearly the problem they are here. They've been migrating west, gobbling up a smorgasbord of domestic and exotic plant species. Today they're active in 30 states, so at least you're not alone in your frustration and grief over plant losses. JB's are known to feed on at least 275 different plant species, and the annual cost to the turf industry alone is over $460 million. Many of their favorite meals are also popular garden plants.

Japanese Beetles - Know the Enemy

They like it wet

It isn't all bad news. Weather can have an impact on how active Japanese beetles will be in a given year. They are less abundant during hot, dry summers, and reproduce in fewer numbers, so there's some residual bounty in drought years. The flip side is they love warm, wet weather. If you've had a soggy summer, expect problems again next year if you don't do something to control their numbers.

They live underground most of the time
Japanese beetle eggs

By summer's end, it may seem as though you've been battling Japanese beetles forever, but they're actually only active for six to eight weeks. After that, the adults will have laid their eggs and died. Those eggs in your lawn and flowerbeds turn into grubs that will feed on grass and other plant roots over the autumn and winter, and emerge next spring. How much time do they spend in the soil? That would be around 10 months a year.

Mark your calendar

Depending on where you're located, Japanese beetles will surface sometime between Mid-May and mid-July. A good rule of thumb is the farther south you are, the sooner you're landscape is likely to warm up and trigger their appearance. They're pretty predictable, emerging around the same time in an area year after year. If you started seeing them the second week in June, you can plan for next year's assault around the second week in June.

Japanese Beetle Deterrents You Should Know About

There are some natural deterrents to Japanese beetles, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is even taking steps to help:

Milky Spore and Japanese Beetles
Milky disease, or milky spore, is a bacteria (Paenibacillus popilliae aka Bacillus popilliae) that lives near the surface of the soil where plant roots are abundant. This is also the zone inhabited by freshly hatched or young JB grubs (larvae). If present, grubs will ingest milky spore as they feed on grass and other roots. Within one to three weeks, the bacteria will kill the grubs, multiplying and releasing new generations of beneficial bacteria into the soil. Milky spore is safe around humans and pets, and benign to earthworms, bees and other common beneficial insects. Even though it is often criticized as only working on JB grubs (which seems like enough if your garden is infested), current research suggests milky spore can be effective against other types of white grubs as well.

Although you may have a little milky spore in your soil already, especially if you live in some East Coast regions, you can introduce more, but timing is important. Grubs hatch around August in most locations, and will feed in the "spore" zone until temperatures cool down, after which they will burrow deeper and feed little if at all. Apply milky spore then or before, when the soil temperature is at or above 65 degrees F and likely to remain that way for a while. One big advantage to a successful application is that it will remain viable in the soil for a long time. There is a difference of opinion on this, but some research suggests one application can provide additional JB defense for a decade or more.

Nematodes and Japanese Beetles
Nematodes are another biological defense against Japanese beetles. There are lots of different types of nematodes, a kind of microscopic roundworm.  Some are beneficial because they attack and kill destructive insects, and others are themselves nasty customers and best avoided. Beneficial nematodes are available as a packaged natural defense against Japanese beetles and other soil dwelling pests. Some wood boring pests may also qualify for eradication this way. Beneficial nematodes are known as natural grub killers, and different varieties can have an impressive list of victims. Many products include a blend of different worm types like:

  • Steinernema carpocapsae
  • Steinernema feltiae
  • Steinernema glaseri
  • Heterorhabditis bacteriophora

Working together, they will destroy the bugs you love to hate, like: Japanese beetles (of course), vine borers, bagworms, cucumber beetles, flea beetles, outdoor fleas and weevils. Most beneficial insects like bees, earthworms and ladybugs are unaffected.

Although treatment recommendations will vary by manufacturer, most involve mixing nematodes with water and spraying them on your soil and lawn. You can apply a nematode mixture with a hose or pump sprayer. Because they are alive -- and small, check Amazon or another supplier for satisfaction ratings on any product you're interested in. Common customer complaints include receiving suspected dead batches. This can be hard to determine. A high satisfaction rating is a hedge against receiving dead or dying nematodes.  It's also important to note that different nematode blends affect different pest species, so be sure you choose a product that will kill the range of pests you prefer. Japanese beetles are a favorite for nematode products, so they're included in most blends.

The application window for nematodes is similar to that of milky spore, with the exception of a spring application option that will kill grubs before they emerge, but after they've done plenty of root damage, so not ideal as a single application strategy. Some products recommend twice yearly applications, but once communities of nematodes are in your soil, they'll keep you protected indefinitely unless you kill them with pesticides.

Products are rated for the size of the area to be covered. You can buy nematode products at many local garden centers and online. Be aware this is a seasonal, time sensitive product with a limited shelf life. There are living critters in the bottle or box, so don't make the mistake of leaving them in your roasting hot car or on your porch during an early freeze. It's also a good idea to review the application directions carefully. Some products can be applied multiple times (usually dried varieties), while others are a one shot proposition.

Pesticides and DIY
Japanese beetle grub (larva)
Nematode and milky spore will help reduce JB populations living and thriving on your property, but won't do much to stop visitors that fly in from your neighbor's yard looking for a snack. For that you can use *pesticide (the USDA recommends Malathion, chlorpyrifos, diazinon and trichlorfon), or employ a guerilla warfare tactic by just knocking any beetles you see into a bucket of soapy water and letting their reeking corpses discourage latecomers.

I've discussed these choices in other posts, and they do work. The numbers can be against you, though. Some neighborhoods are so infested that targeted responses like these are overwhelmed. You can kill hundreds of beetles in a day, and tomorrow there'll be plenty more to take their place. Many pesticides require direct contact with the pest, and that requires very regular respraying, which can get expensive and be devastating for beneficial insects like bees (who have a tough enough time of it already).

Staying with a pesticide or soapy bucket program will reduce the impact of an infestation over time and discourage beetles from laying eggs on your property, which is good news for next year.

With regard to the bucket idea, if you start early enough, like in the first few days after JBs emerge, you may be able to keep damage to a minimum. The theory here is that early risers lay down scent markers for others to follow. If your property isn't marked extensively, later swarms may bypass you for more enticing locations.

Grubs make great snacks for chickens. Yum (Cluck)
Japanese Beetle Predators
Beyond adding milky spore and beneficial nematodes, insects have been pressed into service to combat the Japanese beetle problem in the U.S. Two types of wasps, (spring and fall tiphia) have been imported from Korea and Japan respectively by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and released in area specific campaigns to control crop losses. These little wasps are among the Japanese beetle's natural predators. Unlike the ladybug and praying mantis, you can't purchase and release your own wasps to patrol the garden, but their introduction to the U.S. may have an impact on JB populations going forward.

You can also look to the skies for relief. Some birds love to chow down on JBs. So, if you're willing to offer up some seed to attract them, and share a few of your garden's earthworms, a little hired help never hurts. Expect mayhem, and hang around for the show. Here are some likely feathered candidates:

  • Blue Jays
  • Bobwhites
  • Catbirds
  • Chickens
  • Crows
  • English Sparrows
  • European Starlings
  • Grackles
  • Killdeers
  • Kingbirds
  • Orioles
  • Purple Martins
  • Robins
  • Seagulls
  • Sparrows
  • Swallows
  • Woodpeckers 

The idea of using pheromones to attract Japanese beetles to a location where they can be trapped and killed sounds great. You don't even have to get dirty in the process. When the USDA and others tested this method of JB control, it didn't do too well, though. Although traps do a good job of attracting beetles, they only secure about 75 percent, leaving 25 percent to roam around your yard. In some cases, you could get stuck with more bugs than you had yesterday, even after the trap kill-off. One clever reader suggested giving traps to your neighbors as gifts, which could have the effect of luring JBs out of your yard and into theirs. If you try it, don't expect a fruit basket at for Christmas (Hanukah, Kwanzaa).

They Want to Live in Your New Landscape

Japanese beetles are more abundant in newer neighborhoods. Yes, it's true. The experts believe this is probably because there's plenty of virgin lawn and tender, immature shrubbery in new residential construction, along with fewer natural enemies around to spoil the fun.

Working with a new landscape creates a good opportunity to choose your plants wisely and prefer options JBs don't like, but even an established garden can benefit from some strategic reorganization.  Some gardeners are surprised when their landscapes suddenly and (almost) inexplicably become JB targets. This can usually be traced to adding attractant plants like roses or blueberries. This list of Japanese beetle preferred plants should help in your planning:

Trees and Plants Japanese Beetle Like:

  • Apple 
  • Apricot
  • Asparagus
  • Beech (common)
  • Blueberry 
  • Birch 
  • Black walnut 
  • Cherry
  • Clematis
  • Climbing hydrangeas
  • Common mallow
  • Coneflower
  • Corn (sweet)
  • Crab apple 
  • Crape myrtle
  • Dahlia
  • Daylily
  • Evening primrose
  • Gladiolus
  • Grape 
  • Hawthorn 
  • Hibiscus
  • Hollyhock
  • Horse chestnut 
  • Japanese maple
  • Larch 
  • Linden 
  • Lombardy poplar
  • Morning glory
  • Mountain ash
  • Norway maple
  • Peach 
  • Peony
  • Plum
  • Raspberry
  • Rhubarb
  • Rose
  • Sassafras 
  • Shasta daisy
  • Soybean
  • Sunflower
  • Sweet corn 
  • Sycamore
  • Viburnums
  • Virginia creeper
  • Willow
  • Zinnia

**I've used common names on purpose. I wouldn't want you to think all other cultivars were safe because I listed a single variety mentioned in the literature. Actually, the research isn't exhaustive. If you have a plant, shrub or tree that fits the general description above, or are planning to purchase one, it's worth doing some research to determine if JBs are drawn to it. After that, you can decide how important the specimen is in your landscape. Be aware that its attraction can vary over the course of a season. A plant that is not impacted much in, say, June, could become attractive after more desirable options have been defoliated by the middle of July.

The attraction of a specific plant may also be affected by the plants around it. Placing a JB target plant, like a rose bush, next to less attractive options could either conceal it somewhat, or make it less of a target if there are tastier offerings elsewhere. It's a bit like serving ice cream with Brussels sprouts or liver. Japanese beetles do have some discretion in choosing where to feed, and if you make your plants less attractive, at least when the pests first emerge, they may bother your landscape less. Japanese Beetles can actually fly long distances for good meal or a mate. They've been tracked five miles, but probably don’t wander that far very often.

Trees and Plants Japanese Beetles Don’t Like Much

  • Ageratum
  • Arborvitae
  • Artemisia
  • Begonia
  • Boxwood
  • Burning-bush
  • Catnip
  • Chives
  • Chrysanthemum 
  • Citronella
  • Columbine 
  • Coral-bells
  • Coreopsis
  • Dogwood
  • Dusty-miller
  • Forget-me-not
  • Forsythia
  • Foxglove
  • French marigold
  • Geranium
  • Hemlock
  • Hickory
  • Holly
  • Hostas
  • Impatiens
  • Juniper
  • Lantana
  • Larkspur
  • Leek
  • Lilac
  • Lily-of-the-valley
  • Magnolia
  • Mint
  • Moss-rose
  • Nasturtium
  • Northern red oak
  • Onion
  • Pachysandra
  • Pansy
  • Pine
  • Poppy
  • Red maple
  • Rue
  • Showy sedum
  • Spruce
  • Sweetgum
  • Tansy
  • Tulip poplar
  • Violet
  • Yew

Some gardeners have taken the plant repellent idea a step further and made topical sprays out herbs or other smelly plants JBs don't like. Some examples are rue, tansy, catnip and mint.

If this was a bad summer for Japanese beetles in your area, you can make next year better. You may never have a completely Japanese beetle free garden, but your plants don't have to look perforated.  You can see it takes some planning and effort, and approaching the problem on multiple fronts is a good idea. Adding nematodes or milky spore to your garden in late summer can help control localized populations, and losing some JB plant draws can reduce problems even further, as can the addition of repellent plants like catnip. Try to place repellents in areas with good air flow. That way their scent will catch JBs in flight, encouraging them to turn around before ever landing on your property.

* Note: Pesticide applied to grass in August should kill many underground grubs still feeding before the arrival of colder weather. This won't be nearly as useful later in the year, and should not be combined with either milky spore or nematode treatment.

** For more information about specific plant varieties that either attract or repel Japanese beetles, please refer to the USDA's "Japanese Beetle Handbook.


U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Controlling Japanese Beetles." National Agriculture Library. 1982.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Managing the Japanese Beetle: A Homeowner's Handbook." Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Revised 2015.

Ingham, Elaine R. "THE LIVING SOIL: NEMATODES" United States Department of Agriculture. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

McGrath, Mike.  "Milky Spore Disease" Gardens Alive(Q&A). 2006.

Potter, M.F., D.A. Potter, and L.H. Townsend. "Japanese Beetles in the Urban Landscape" University of Kentucky. 2006.

Photo Credits:

Japanese Beetle Blue Flower -  Flickr. Courtesy of User: Espie

Nematode - Flickr. Courtesy of User: Christophe Quintin

Japanese Beetle Treats - Flickr. Courtesy of User: Vanessa Hernandez

Japanese Beetle Grub - Flickr. Courtesy of User: Travis

Japanese Beetle Eggs - Public domain photo. Source: USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, 'Managing the Japanese Beetle: A Homeowner's Handbook"

10 Italian Herbs To Grow in Your Garden

Fresh young basil
Italian food is one of the top three regional cuisines Americans enjoy most. It can also be one of the easiest to prepare. The secret to creating any authentic dish, whether it's an Italian red sauce or a Pakistani pulao, is in using the distinctive spices, often in combination, that give that dish its unique flavor.

The flavors of a region are a mélange, an assortment of different elements that come together the way a song comes together. Lose one and the whole suffers. When done right, regional cuisine keeps you coming back because it somehow transcends the promise of its individual ingredients.  Whether you're using a spork or dining under a crystal chandelier, herbs and spices give Italian and other regional dishes the tastes that satisfy and delight -- again and again.

Most Italian herbs and spices are easy to grow and dry, and once preserved, many will last a long time (often up to two years) without loss of flavor.  A few, like basil, are best fresh, but the effort of growing them will make it possible to create amazing meals.  With some sunshine and a little puttering in the soil, you can make Italian night at your house something special -- and that's a great reward for a gardener.

Let's look at 10 herbs that will help you create a happy Italian kitchen, a cucina felice.

10 Italian Herbs To Grow in Your Garden

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) - The main ingredient in pesto, basil is also part of the traditional flavor trinity that makes up caprese salad: mozzarella, tomatoes and fresh, young basil leaves. These three ingredients aren't just for salad, though. They're currently part of a caprese renaissance used in everything from sandwiches to appetizers.

Basil is a delicate annual that's a good producer of leaves and seeds. The seeds are also large, stay viable for years, and sprout without much of a fuss. Basil has a faintly licorice flavor that manages to be cool and refreshing. It's a nice accompaniment to salads, soups and pasta dishes that feature tomato based sauces, creamy cheeses or simple baptisms of extra virgin olive oil.  Give basil plenty of sun and water it regularly. For a little extra TLC, add a layer of mulch.

Growing Basil
Basic Basil Pesto

Tip:  Basil is at its most delicate when young. Use leaves before the plant flowers, and pinch off buds to encourage leaf development later in the season. Although the texture of basil changes when it's frozen, you can preserve prepared pesto with delicious results.  Make two batches and freeze one to enjoy later.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare) - It may not smell or taste like it, but oregano is a member of the mint family, and a cousin to another plant on this list, marjoram.  Native to the Mediterranean, this perennial herb can have a bitter taste that compliments bright tomato based sauces and strongly flavored or fatty meats. It's a staple of Italian cooking, and often pairs with pork and seafood. Italian oregano cultivars are widely considered more mellow for culinary use than their Greek counterparts.  Like bay leaf, oregano is at its most aromatic when dried, and its dried leaves can retain their flavor for two years or more.  To avoid a bitter aftertaste, plan on adding oregano during the last half hour of cooking for most recipes.

Oregano likes good light, moderate heat and well-drained, rich soil. Although cultivars vary in hardiness, some can tolerate a light freeze. I've maintained a number outdoors in hardiness Zone 6 without problems. Avoid windy spots, and mulch plants in the fall.  Specimens can grow 2 feet high and as far across, so give them plenty of room to spread out.  Alice May Brock of Alice's Restaurant fame is widely quoted as having said: "Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian."  Oregano can be overwintered indoors, but does require at least six hours of good light, preferably from a south facing window.
Saffron Crocus Flower

Growing Oregano

Saffron (Crocus sativus) - The undisputed king of herbs, saffron is not a kitchen staple. It's one of the most expensive spices sold today, so it isn't used as extensively as it deserves. Although purchasing its distinctive red threads can put a dent in your food budget, saffron is surprisingly easy to grow if you can keep it warm but reasonably dry.  Its stratospheric retail price is the result of the labor involved in manually harvesting thousands and thousands of tiny threads from newly opened saffron flowers. If you're growing a few dozen plants for your own use, the labor is negligible, and the results can be pretty spectacular when saffron is used in rice dishes like risotto.

Saffron is a variety of crocus, like the early flowering spring bulb you love to see poking his head out of the snow, but this variety flowers in the fall.  For more information on cultivating saffron, please visit my post:

Let's Grow Saffron
Saffron Risotto

Marjoram (Origanum majorana) - A half-hardy perennial, marjoram is a subtle Italian herb related to but distinct from oregano. Where oregano can be acerbic, marjoram is delicate and refined. It's often described as having oregano's flavor without the bite. I think this nice little herb has a flavor all its own. It adds depth to dishes without becoming a standout. If you want to start experimenting with new herbs, marjoram is a good first choice for your collection. It will enhance Italian fare, but tastes just a appealing in a chicken casserole, an omelet or as a flavoring for delicate meats like veal.

Grow marjoram as you would oregano, but be aware it won't withstand frosty conditions. Marjoram manages well in a pot and can be grown or overwintered indoors.

Growing Marjoram

Parsley - Parsley is the black pepper of green herbs. It's pervasive in recipes, but doesn't get much respect. Consigned to the garnish side of the platter most of the time, its bright green color adds appeal soups, stews and casseroles. It helps cut the greasy texture of fatty roasts, and contains a surprising number of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals -- luteolin, vitamins A, C and K, and a freight of minerals like copper, potassium, magnesium, calcium, manganese and iron. Parsley falls into two broad categories: cooking parsley (Italian parsley also known as flat leaf), and ruffled or curly parsley typically used as a garnish.

This popular herb can cause confusion in the garden because it sprouts and produces abundant leaves the first year, goes to sleep in winter and wakes up the following spring to flower, set seed and die back early.  This two season growth habit makes it a biennial. It's easy to accommodate parsley plants in the garden. Plant seedlings annually while leaving the old plants in place long enough to harvest seed.

Hint: If you've had problems sprouting parsley seeds in the past, there's a trick to it. The seeds are hard and need an overnight soaking to soften them up. Start with hot (not boiling) water.

Growing Parsley

Bay leaf (Laurus nobilis) - Like oregano, bay leaf (also called sweet bay) is at its best once dried.  It is the product of a tree that can grow to 40 feet or more under the right conditions, so growing this herb takes commitment unless you confine it to a pot. It's a slow grower that prefers rich, well-drained soil and bright light. Often described as having a taste that combines the flavors of thyme and oregano, bay is a common ingredient used to add complexity and aroma to long cooking stocks, sauces and stews. It is included at the beginning instead of the end of most recipes, so it has adequate dwell time to work its magic.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) - Rosemary is one of the most distinctive herbs used in cooking. It's long, narrow needles foreshadow its piney aroma and an astringent flavor that works wonderfully well with roasted potatoes, lamb or pork. Rosemary is also at home in poultry, bean and fish dishes.  Like bay, it's usually added at the start of the cooking process. It is also a common ingredient in grilled recipes, where its stems are sometimes used as kabob skewers or soaked and added to the coals to produce an aromatic smoke. (Both these techniques are easy to employ if you have a stock of rosemary growing in your backyard.)

Give rosemary a sunny location and soil that drains well. It will usually benefit from the addition of lime to the soil, too. You can give your plant a lime boost by adding in dried, crushed eggshells. Although rosemary is not typically frost tolerant, some of the newer cultivars are cold hardy to Zone 6 or so.  (Start your search with the Arp cultivar.) A slow starter, rosemary can be trained into an attractive hedge, but it will take a number of years for plants to fill in well. In cold climates, potted rosemary plants can be overwintered indoors.

Tip: The next time you have a headache, try making rosemary tea. Pour 8 ounces of boiling water over four sprigs of fresh rosemary and let the decoction steep for 5 minutes before drinking.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) - Thyme enhances tomato based sauces, which makes it a natural for southern Italian cuisine. It is often served in dishes that feature peppers, beans, eggplant or shellfish.

Although there are many types of thyme, thymus vulgaris, or common thyme, is the most popular culinary variety. It's a perennial herb that has a reputation for determination. It will grow in barren, sunny areas where other plants fail, and look pretty good doing it. For optimum growing conditions, give thyme a sunny location with soil that drains well. Thyme is drought tolerant.

Thyme for the Garden

Garlic (Allium sativum) - It isn't Italian food without the addition of at least a little garlic. This strongly flavored herb is a member of the onion family. Like many root crops, garlic is frost hardy and prefers rich, loamy soil. It also likes a sunny location away from wind.  You can buy a garlic bulb at the market and start it in your garden in either spring or fall by planting the individual cloves two inches deep and four inches apart (pointy end up). Market garlic will likely grow fine, but may be a slow starter depending on how it was originally treated for sale. You can also purchase garden prepped garlic starts online or from your local nursery. To preserve fresh garlic for cooking, peel cloves and place them in white vinegar in your refrigerator. You can also store whole or chopped cloves in olive oil (always in the fridge). The flavored oil can later be used in cooking.

Peppers - Numerous regional cuisines make use of hot peppers to add a spicy surprise to recipes. The nature of those peppers is ever changing, though. From Scotch bonnets to ghost peppers, every year sees the addition of a new, Scoville scale busting pepper making the rounds. If you're cooking Italian, there's merit in sticking with the classic peppers used by generations of Italian cooks. They include: pimento, cayenne, wax pepper, friggitelli (sweet chili pepper), paprika, pepperoncini (hot Italian chili peppers), and peperoni (bell pepper).  Most can be cultivated as you'd grow a common bell pepper.

Photo Credits

Basil - Flickr photo - Courtesy of user: Tony Austin  

Pesto - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Katrin Gilger

Oregano - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Amy G

Saffron - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Nick Perla

Saffron Risotto -  Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: ulterior epicure

Marjoram - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Larry Hoffman

Rosemary - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Hidetsugu Tonomura

Thyme - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Erutuon

Garlic- Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Mat_the_W

Pepperoncini - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Justin Dolske

Spring Gardening Tips -- Herbs, Vegetables and Flowers

When you garden, there are so many ways to get it right, and even more ways to get it so wrong. Here are a few tips that will help you get more out of your garden this season -- just in time for spring planting:

Water with ice cubes - If your patio plants never last long once the heat hits in earnest, there's probably a good reason.   If you miss a few important watering sessions, your plants may survive, but the soil around their roots tends to become porous. That's bad news the next time you water, and the time after that, because porous soil doesn't hold water very well, exacerbating the whole watering situation.  What you want is moderately loose soil that leaves room for roots to wander, but still holds water long enough for those roots to take a fortifying drink.

It sounds complicated, but there's an easy cheat that will help. In the morning before you go to work, add a handful of ice cubes to each of your deck plants and houseplants. They act like a time release delivery system for water. A number of them clumped together will retard melting until your plants have had a chance to get a good drink and a nourishing meal.  It works great, but keep the ice cubes from touching the stems or leaves of your plants to avoid burns.  Try it for a couple of weeks. You'll notice the difference. (If you believe your soil is very porous from patchy watering, give your plants a good drink in the sink. This will de-stress them and help recondition the soil.)

Adopt a commuter mentality - A great location for a plant in spring may be too hot and bright in high summer. If you've had problems roasting your darlings on hot days, when the temps soar, move them to a shadier spot. That way you can enjoy a pot of mint by your lounge chair in May and then relocate it to your shady entry in July. By September, you can put it back on the patio until it's time to overwinter it in the soil or indoors come October. Don't adopt a set-it-and-forget it attitude about plant placement because you're used to thinking of plant positioning as permanent. With the newer lightweight but attractive pots, it's easier than ever to swap plants around as needed without visiting a chiropractor afterward.

Encourage rooting - When you plant tomato seedlings, remove the bottom two or four leaves and plant that portion of stem in the soil.  The node that produced those first few leaves will begin producing roots instead, enhancing the plant's feeding system.

Hedge your bets when direct seeding - If you plan to direct seed sunflowers, basil, squash plants or other herb, flower or vegetable varieties, consider starting them briefly indoors between two damp sheets of paper toweling covered with a loose sheet of cellophane wrap. Seeds should sprout in a few days and be ready to transplant without the aid of soil, peat pots or other paraphernalia. That way you'll know the seeds are viable. If you harvest and save seed from year to year, or over multiple years, this can be an important consideration. You'll spend less time worrying about the neighborhood birds, too. After transplanting, cover each sprout with an upended Styrofoam cup or other disposable media for a day or two for added protection, or cover it with a light layer of mulch.

Discourage mildew - As your tomatoes grow, remove the branches and leaves and on the bottom quarter or so of the plant.  If a couple of big rainstorms increase the risk of a mildew infestation, any potential problems will have a harder time getting a foothold if splash-zone foliage has been removed. This can work with other mildew prone plants, too.

Mulch around your flowers, vegetables and herbs, especially if you live in an area where pests like slugs and pincher bugs aren't a problem. Mulch will help create a mold barrier, retain water and keep plants cooler during the hottest part of the day. You don't need expensive mulch, either. Shredded paper and cardboard are among the best mulches around. If wind is a problem, hold paper mulch in place with a little earth, sand or small stones.
Diatomaceous earth

Make diatoms your secret weapon - If you're having bug problems, consider dusting with diatoms. Diatomaceous earth is made up of the ancient, single-celled sea creatures.  It looks like white powder, but to a slug or squash bug it's like a brick wall with broken glass on top. Because there may be some risk for lung damage when breathing it in, use a disposable mask when applying diatoms to your plants and the earth around them. Just shake it on plants or as a barrier around them.You'll need to reapply diatomaceous earth after a heavy rain, but as a relatively benign pest deterrent, it's fast, easy and effective at discouraging soft bodied pests and some flying varieties as well. In fact, it's often used as a DIY option for treating bedbug infestations -- and you know how pesky bedbugs can be.

Consider companion planting - If you haven't planted your seedlings yet, consider buying some companion plants that will discourage pests. I like to place catnip at both ends of my garden, add it to my flowerbeds and vegetable patch, too. To me it has a faint aroma of, well, skunk, that makes bugs like aphids and squash beetles think twice about settling in for a meal.  Other good candidates are lavender, garlic and French marigold.

There are also companion plants that believe in the buddy system. Take leeks and carrots. Apart they may do well, but together they do better.  There are lots of plant combinations that work, but the principles behind the pairings may vary. One plant may repel bugs that are attracted to the second plant, providing a type of chemical cover. Companion plants may require different soil elements, so they aren't competing as aggressively for nutrients. One plant may also offer shade while the other provides structural support. I prepared a list of companion planting strategies last spring you may want to review. You can find it here: Companion Planting and Other Tactics

Pick your poison (as well as when to use it) - You may start the season determined to keep your garden pesticide free, only to discover you've just provided the neighborhood wildlife with a free (for them) salad bar. If watching Japanese beetles devour your blueberry bushes becomes intolerable, be kind in your use of pesticides. Poison kills good bugs as well as bad ones. To spare as many foraging bees as possible, spray insecticide in the evening. Bees start heading back to the hive in the afternoon, so an evening spraying is less likely to take a heavy toll on industrious bumbles. You can also start planning your war strategy for next year by exploring less aggressive but still effective options like introducing nematodes to your soil, small worms that will kill lots of pests (squash beetles, flea beetles, Japanese beetles) during the grub stage before they mature and become a problem.

More tops later. Have a great weekend.

Product Link: Diatomaceous Earth Food Grade 10 Lb

Photo Credits

Bee - From Flicker - Courtesy of User: Tanja Rott

Little Metal Bike - From Flickr - Courtesy of User: Liz

Diatomaceous Earth - From Flickr - courtesy of User: This Year's Love


Let's Grow Saffron

You already know saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world. It's used in cooking -- although when shelling out that kind of money for a seasoning agent, we should probably call it something other than "cooking," like gastronomic fabrication or something else appropriately impressive.  This little plant was once a popular fabric dye, and it also has medicinal value. Because it's so costly, many gardeners believe it's difficult to grow. Not true. Saffron is actually pretty easy to grow under the right conditions, which can be approximated (using useful cheats) a number of ways.

Saffron bulbs (actually corms)
Saffron is expensive because harvesting it in volume is a labor intensive, painstaking process. This isn't a big deal for the casual gardener interested in growing a few dozen specimens, though. Follow me on an exploration of the undisputed queen of spices. As it's an autumn blooming plant, you still have time to source stock and start your own saffron production project. If you've ever balked at spending a small fortune for cardamom pods, vanilla beans or that good cinnamon, you'll love being able to grow saffron. The flavor is exceptional, and a pile of threads makes a nice gift for the cooks (sorry, chefs) in your extended family.

How to Grow Saffron Successfully 

Saffron (Crocus sativus) can be cultivated outdoors in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6 through 9. It will tolerate snow and cold temperatures to around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. During summer and early autumn, it requires heat and bright sunlight as well as rich soil that drains exceptionally well.

Saffron going dormant
Plants go dormant from about mid-April to August, give or take, and during that time should remain relatively dry (more on this in a minute).  The bulbs become active again in late August to September, and flower in October through November. Plants have narrow, grass-like leaves with a slim, white stripe at the center of each. After the leaves develop, a small lavender flower appears, sporting three bright red stigmas. These are the useful part of the plant.

In late August, plant new bulbs 4 inches apart to a depth of 4 to 6 inches Water sparingly until leaves emerge, which can take up to 4 weeks.

Harvest stigmas from new flowers, and retain plants in place until all leaves decline and turn tan in March to April.  Trim leaves away, and say goodnight to plants until August.

Tips and Workarounds 

When growing saffron, there are some gotchas you should know about:

First saffron bloom of the season
1: Let bulbs sleep warm and dry. When saffron bulbs are dormant from April to August, they don't like to get too wet. If you live where summer downpours are common, placing saffron directly in the soil can be risky. Instead, place the bulbs in a pot or other container, and cover it with a tarp during prolonged wet weather. A few showers are okay. If you keep an umbrella in your car all summer "just in case," you may have cause to worry and should take the container approach.

2. Keep critters away. Saffron is a delicacy for garden critters, too.  If you have problems keeping furry marauders away from your tulips, your saffron will be at risk unless you're willing to place bulbs in a cage or other protective contraption -- or keep them in a pot.

3. Avoid standing water. Saffron bulbs rot quickly in standing water. If you have heavy clay soil, it will require loosening with sand, and choose the highest sunny ground on your property.

4. Harvest like a pro. Saffron flowers appear quickly, and the stigmas are at their most flavorful within the first day or so of blooming. That means checking every morning and harvesting as needed throughout the season. Allow stigmas to dry for a week in a warm, dark place with good ventilation and no wind.  (They're light and blow away in even a faint breeze. You don't want to be chasing them across the floor -- believe me.)

5. Harvests can be small. It takes the stigmas from about 10 flowers (30 or so stigmas) for most recipes. You can do the math to determine your needs.

My Saffron Growing System
Harvested Stigmas - Fresh (lower left) Dried (upper right)

For my own setup, I've planted saffron in tubs with lids that I can stack. I hate to admit it, but these are plastic kitty litter tubs. When plants go dormant in April, I let the soil dry out, cover the tubs (each has a series of side holes drilled for ventilation) and put them under my deck. I water them once a month, or so.  In August, I drag them out, take the covers off and water them every couple of days unless a kindly shower does the honors for me.  This has worked since my outdoor specimens succumbed to a very wet spring and summer a couple of years ago. I've also considered just stacking the tubs in the garage during the dormant stage.

If you choose one new herb to grow this season, make it saffron. It's fun and special. It brews into a delicious tea, and you'll be able to make that type of lavish saffron choice if you grow it yourself. Oh, and if you have to start small with 10 or 20 bulbs, don't feel too badly, dried saffron can last up to 5 years, so you can accumulate a stash. Once you try it with rice or fish, though, you'll really want more -- and more.

Product Link: Pre-Order 2016 for 16 Pcs Saffron Bulbs - Get Beautifull Flowers and Your Own Spice (Fresh 2016 Delivey in June direct from our organic garden) Crocus Sativus Corms

 Photo Credits:

Flowering Saffron Crocus - Courtesy of Flickr User Douglas Sprott

Saffron Bulbs -- Courtesy of Flickr User Graibeard

All other photos by the author

Strawflower, the Everlasting Bloom

The first time I saw a strawflower arrangement, I thought the blossoms were some type of ritzy silk flower constructed from bale straw, flax, corn husks or cotton byproducts. When I realized the sprightly blooms and bright colors of this unique plant were garden fresh but months old, well, I was hooked.

I'm not much of a flower lover, so it took years for me to try growing strawflower myself. Usually, I like to harvest and use what I grow, so my attention tends to wander over to the herb and vegetable sections of any seed catalog.

My flower fascinations generally involve edible plants and, usually, petal producers that make a hearty tea or a tested and safe medicinal preparation. Strawflower was late to my garden, but that's my loss.  Even though I'd seen these curious dried flowers in stores, and even purchased arrangements before, I was still surprised at how perfectly they transitioned from fresh-cut garden bounty to preserved plant life. You will be, too. You'll also love their tendency to woo butterflies to your landscape.

Why they call Strawflower "Everlasting"

Strawflower is easy to grow, and even after last year's boggy summer rain-athon, all my specimens came through just fine. At season's end, this plant created the stuff of truly beautiful dried arrangements, good sized, colorful flowers that were easy to work with and remarkably durable. What you see on the stem is basically what you get when the plant dries -- there's hardly any difference in the blossoms, although the leaves shrivel and darken somewhat. If you like crafting fall and holiday gifts from your garden, the money you'll save on decorative geegaws will make this plant a bargain.

How To Grow Strawflower 

Strawflower (Xerochrysum bracteatum also known as Helichrysum bracteatum), is a sun loving, drought tolerant Australian native. It is available in both annual and perennial varieties, and there are lots of cultivars to choose from. Perennials have a plant hardiness zone range of 8 to 11, but the plant is most often grown as an annual. Strawflower belongs to the daisy family, and depending on the variety and prevailing conditions, can grow anywhere from 20 to around 55 inches high. Prefer taller varieties for flower production as they tend to have thicker, longer and more stable stems.

You can direct seed strawflower after the last frost date in your area, or start seedlings indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date. Install young plants 12 to 15 inches apart in slightly acidic soil that drains well.  If you have clay soil, add plenty of lighteners to a deep planting hole. Strawflower likes heat and bright light, so choose the sunniest spot in your garden, too. This one is also well suited for a pot on your deck or patio.

Strawflower in the Garden

Most core gardens have at least a few go-to flowers. I've indulged in begonias and petunias for spring and summer color, and reliable year round inhabitants like roses, azaleas and peonies.  It's easy to incorporate low or bushy flowering plants into a comfy flowerbed, but a little harder to strategize varieties like sunflowers, hollyhocks -- and some of the taller strawflower varieties.  Buffeting by strong winds can topple them, with their abundant leaves clustered around a lanky stalk. I support my plants with spikes, brace a few against the spindles on my deck and outfit the rest with leftover tomato cages. In spring, it looks like a ragtag assemblage of leftovers, but after some leafing out (bless camouflage), those tall plants draw the eye upward and make the garden look more lavish and verdant.

Most strawflower seeds are available as a mixture, with colors from white to russet to butter yellow to blush pink ranging into purple. Check the specs for the plants you have in mind for height and color details. Over the last few years, I've gotten my strawflower seeds from Sample Seed, and these cultivars grow tall, but healthy and strong, too.

You can see from the wreath in the photo, the flowers stay vibrant, and look great with dried herbs like rosemary, lemon balm, mint, sage and thyme. The flowers in question were harvested about four months before the photo was taken. Pretty amazing. If you've tried drying herbs for presentation and they lacked something, add interest with strawflowers. They may be rather expensive at the craft store, but fresh from the garden, they're nature's everlasting bargain blooms.

Strawflowers make a nice green backdrop, and harvesting encourages new flower growth, so start snipping blooms when the lower two rows of bracts (quasi petals) are just beginning to flatten out.  About six to eight plants provide for all my decorating needs. Drying takes about 10 days. Harvest stems in the morning, tie them together loosely and hang them upside down in a dark, warm, dry location for about 10 days. That's all there is to it.

Although you may not find strawflower starts at your local nursery, seeds are easy to come by and are pretty reliable producers, germinating in 5 to 18 days after planting.  You still have time to grab some for spring.

Photo Credits

Herb and Strawflower Wreath - Courtesy of the Author

Strawflower field - flickr User: 305 Seahill

Strawflower Pink - Flickr User: CGWF

Strawflower Yellow - Flickr User: Philip Bouchard


2016 Seed Catalog List (Free and PDF)

It's that time again. There's something pretty satisfying about investing in garden seed. It's like making a deposit on the future. A little strategic planning may be in order, though. 

If you want to grow soapwort, for example, some refrigeration will be necessary to make those seeds sprout. A quick perusal of the latest crop of seed catalogs may also reveal new cultivars that break geographical barriers, making some of your wish list items more frost hardy or drought tolerant, and therefore a better bet for your backyard this year.

There are also more and more sellers offering organic, non GMO, open pollinated and heirloom seeds, as well as regional (Italian, Southwest and short season) specialists, and vendors who concentrate on exotic, wild or hard to find varieties.

This list is broken into two categories, sellers who offer paper catalogs and those who don't. Being the beneficiary of a snail mail catalog is a dwindling delight, so take advantage of it while you can -- and while you have a few extra pennies to spend on seed. In a few years, the beloved, dog eared seed catalog will be a thing of the past.

Happy hunting - and may viable seeds be ever in your garden.

Sellers who mail hard copy catalogs on request:

Burpee Gardening - you probably have this early bird one already
Cook's Garden (Purchased by Burpee)
Horizon Herbs (Strictly Medicinal Seeds)
Online Greenhouse  (Press the button for the free order form.)

Worthy sellers using online catalogs or offering PDF downloads:

American Meadows (Specializing in wildflowers)
Gourmet Seed International   - Excel Spreadsheet
Mountain Valley Growers  - Online plant list with helpful tutorials
Nichols Garden Nursery - I took a quick peek, and they appear to offer good value for saffron bulbs.
Renee's Garden (Online  only) - heirlooms and herbs
Sand Mountain Herbs (Online only)
Seedman Exotic Seeds from Around the World  (Online only) - An interesting site for hard to find seeds)
Select Seeds and Plants (rare, heirloom)
Tasteful Gardener (PDF) - Organic Plants
Terrior Seeds (Some nice herb collections)
The Natural Gardening Company  (Online only) - Marketed as the oldest certified organic nursery in the U.S.
White Harvest Seed (heirloom)

Photo source: Flickr user: Biodiversity Heritage Library