In the Garden
Get down and dirty in the garden

4 Rare Herbs to Add to Your Garden

Before hospitals, clinics or doctors were available to everyone, herbs were an important part of peoples’ lives. As time progressed, many medicinal herbs were used for their culinary properties to add flavor. Although you can find plenty of herbs, fresh and dried, in most grocery stores, growing your own herbs is much more satisfying, economical and will guarantee their freshness.

herb box
Photo by Suzette via
Flickr.

Herbs are easy-to-grow and can be thrive in containers if you have limited space. When selecting which herbs to plant in your garden, always consider your needs and what your family will use the most. If you already know your most-used herbs, try incorporating some of these harder-to-find, rare herbs into your garden design to add beauty and more variety.

lemongrass
Photo courtesy
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citrates)

Native to India and Sri Lanka, lemongrass grows in dense clumps that can be up to 6 feet tall. Often used in Asian cuisine, this herb can also be used to reduce fevers, relieve cold symptoms and soothe upset stomachs. This nutrient-laden herb’s main compound, lemonal/citral, is a powerful anti-fungal and antimicrobial agent.

common rue
Photo courtesy
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Rue (Ruta graveolens)

Primarily grown as an ornamental addition to the garden due to possible internal toxicity and contact dermatitis, rue has a long history of culinary and medicinal use. Today, it can still be found as an ingredient in a variety of processed foods.

lovage plant
Photo courtesy
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Lovage (Levisticum officinale)

Lovage is a hardy perennial in the parsley family that’s easy to grow with little attention – perfect for those who aren’t fond of needy plants. The roots, leaves and seeds can be used medicinally as a diuretic to treat stomach disorders, such as bloating, gas or expelling waste.

Szechuan buttons
Photo courtesy
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Toothache Plant (Spilanthes acmella)

Toothache plant, also known as Szechuan buttons, is a low-growing plant that blooms through summer and fall. Native to Brazil, it can also be found in South America, Africa and Asia as a flavoring agent and to relieve oral pain.

What are your favorite not-so-common herbs to grow? Let us know in the comments below!

Cultivating Compost

Countertop Compost Crock

1. Colorful Crockery

Compost in style with an earthenware countertop crock. Charcoal filters eliminate odors, and compostable liner bags mean you can drop contents straight into your outdoor pile

To Buy:  $40 (crock only), plowhearth.com

Compost Chimney

2. Direct Service

Provide nutrition to your whole garden with ease with the Compost Chimney. Partially bury it in the ground, then simply add food scraps — no turning required.

To Buy:  $45, etsy.com/shop/farmerjaysshop

Indoor Bokashi Composter

3. Quick & Dirty

This indoor composter uses Bokashi, a natural compost starter, to speed the breakdown process. A strainer and spigot separate waste from liquid, creating compost and liquid fertilizer.

To Buy:  $55, uncommongoods.com 

Compost Seive

4. Sort It Out

Get fine, lump-free compost with this steel-mesh sieve, which can also help shake out plant bulbs for storage or remove rocks from potting soil.

To Buy:  $20, gardenersedge.com (select “garden tools,” then “harvesting tools”)

Worm Farm

5. Workin’ Worms

Let your whole family explore the science of vermiculture with this sleek and practical worm farm composter. Add up to a half-pound of scraps a day, and let the worms do the rest.

To Buy:  $139, gardeners.com

Successfully Starting Seeds Indoors


Photo by Fotolia

Gardening from seed has several benefits. When you garden from seed, you have more varieties available to you, you know what’s going into your food because you are growing it, and you’ll save money by purchasing seeds rather than plants.

Why start seeds indoors?

Some varieties are best started indoors because you have more control over the growing conditions. Starting seeds indoors extends your gardening season, allowing you to grow varieties that require longer growing times than your area’s natural growing season allows. In the case of perennial flowers, an early start can reap first year blooms.

When is the correct time to start my seeds indoors?

Botanical Interests uses the average last frost date—identified as the first day in spring when there is less than a 50 percent chance a frost will occur—as a guideline for when to sow seed. It’s also helpful to know your average first frost date in the fall so you can determine the number of days in your growing season, as well as plan your summer and fall sowings.

How do I start my seeds indoors?

Containers and trays: Almost any container can be used to start seeds including milk or egg cartons, yogurt cups, or plastic trays. When reusing any container, it should be clean and sanitized, and have holes in the bottom that allow excess water to drain. For easy transplanting, try sowing seed in a biodegradable paperboard, paper or pulp pot that can be planted directly into the garden.

Labeling: Don’t forget to label as you sow. Garden stakes, craft sticks or writing directly on pots using paint marker all work well.

Media: A high-quality seed-starting mix (media) is loose and lightweight, holds moisture, and is free from sticks and bark. Avoid potting soil mixes, which can be too heavy for tiny seeds, or soil from your garden, which may introduce insects, weeds or diseases. Thoroughly moisten media before filling your container.

Moisture: Covering your containers with a clear lid or clear plastic wrap helps retain moisture and increase humidity during germination. After seedlings emerge, remove the cover. Misting using a spray bottle or bottom watering (adding water to the drainage tray) are great ways to keep growing media moist without disturbing seeds and young seedlings. Check moisture regularly to prevent seeds and seedlings from drying out or from sitting in standing water.

Temperature: Optimal media temperatures for seeds to germinate will vary for each variety. Once the seeds germinate, room temperatures of 70 to 75 degrees will help most seedlings grow best. Warm season plants such as tomatoes, eggplants and peppers appreciate warmer soil conditions and may benefit from the use of a seedling heat mat when sown indoors.

Light: For best growth, seedlings need at least 14 hours of light per day. Even your sunniest window likely will not supply enough light to grow strong plants. For an efficient and inexpensive option that provides adequate light, we recommend using a shop light with cool or a mix of cool and warm fluorescent bulbs placed 1 to 2 inches above seedlings. To make it easier, plug your lights into a timer set to turn on and off automatically.

Circulation: Air circulation around seedlings can help prevent disease problems while strengthening seedlings. A fan on low setting will create adequate airflow. Avoid aiming the fan directly at the soil as it can cause rapid drying.

Fertilizer: If your seed starting mix does not contain nutrients, add a diluted amount of slow-release, organic, balanced fertilizer to the media or use a liquid formula once seedlings have true leaves. “Balanced” fertilizers have equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, represented on packaging respectively as numbers with dashes between (e.g. 20-20-20). Check the label for instructions on diluting the fertilizer, and the recommended frequency and rate to mix for seedlings and transplants.

Hardening off: “Hardening off” is the 7- to 10-day process of acclimating indoor seedlings to outdoor conditions. The hardening-off process reduces transplant stress and the chance of sunburn, which both negatively impact overall performance and yield. Start by placing plants in a protected, shady area, progressing to more sun  each day (for sun-loving varieties) over the 7 to 10 days. Be sure to bring plants in at night if temperatures drop below 45 degrees. After 7 to 10 days, plants will be ready for transplanting. Before transplanting, consider fertilizing with seaweed or kelp to further reduce transplant stress. Transplant on a calm, cloudy day, in the evening, or use row covers to buffer wind, sun and temperature swings. Most warm season plants perform best when transplanted in soils over 45 degrees.

Gardening from seed is very rewarding. On the inside of every Botanical Interests seed packet you will find the best growing conditions for the variety. They provide information about special care, organic gardening methods, and tips to improve your garden throughout the seasons. Use Botanical Interests' garden journal templates and lists to help you keep track of which seeds you started and when. By following these guidelines and keeping a journal, all that’s left to do is watch your seeds grow into productive and healthy plants!

Grow and Dry Your Own Herbes de Provence Blend


Photo by Fotolia

In the South of France, where the sun and warm sand has created a cuisine marked by colorful vegetables, rich olive oil and aromatic herbs, every home cook understands the wonders of Herbes de Provence. This fragrant blend of local spices and herbs is so iconic in the famous region that commercial versions of the blend are now available in almost every major grocery store across the world.

But there’s no need to use dried, store-bought herbs to bring the flavors of the South of France to your cooking. It’s easy to make your own fragrant Herbes de Provence at home, and once you do you’ll wonder why you‘ve waited so long.

To make the blend, combine the following:

• 2 Tbsp. Basil
• 2 Tbsp. Thyme
• 2 Tbsp. Savory
• 2 Tbsp. Oregano
• 2 Tbsp. Marjoram
• 2 Tbsp. Rosemary
• 2 Tbsp. Fennel seeds (optional)
• 1 Tbsp. Dried lavender (optional)

Of course, in order to have the herbs to combine, you’ll have to know how to grow them. Each delicate herb requires slightly different care. Take these tips in consideration when planning your garden design.

For basil, use well-drained soil and water the plant when the soil is dry to the touch. Basil loves sun, so keep your basil pot in a warm environment near a window that receives around six hours of sun each day.

 

In order to obtain the best and most potent flavor, harvest your basil just before the plant flowers.

For thyme, which is a drought-resistant plant, use well-drained soil and give a thorough watering when the soil is completely dry. For thyme, the hotter the environment, the better; so if you’re growing indoors, find a window in full sun and keep your pot there.

Just like basil, it’s best to harvest your thyme just before the plant flowers for optimum flavor.

 

Summer savory prefers a rich, well-drained organic soil; while winter savory prefers a well-drained, sandy soil. Once savory is deep-rooted, it enjoys a dryer soil.

Plant savory in full sun and harvest fresh as needed, both leaves and stems. For dried leaves, cut 6- to 8-inch stems just before flowering.

 

Oregano should be planted in light, well-drained soil. Oregano actually grows better in moderately fertile soil, so no fertilization or addition of compost is necessary. Don't overwater oregano. Water thoroughly, only when the soil is dry to the touch.

In climates where winter sun can be hard to come by, oregano can be grown indoors if it has enough light and warmth. When planning your garden think about planting oregano for the summer months but moving it inside in the cloudy and cool winter.

 

Marjoram needs well-drained soil. It can be grown in containers indoors like drought-tolerant houseplants, but it needs a lot of light.

Keep marjoram in full sun and during mild weather, take your indoor marjoram plants outside and place them in a sunny area. For landscape design in places like Brooklyn, this can mean placing portable potters in a full sun area and moving them as the sun moves.

 

Rosemary loves well-drained, loamy soil. Let the soil dry out between waterings; rosemary does best when the soil is not overly moist. Rosemary plants need lots of sun (6-8 hours each day), so you might need to supplement with artificial light.

 

Once you’ve grown your herbs, it’s time to dry them. Harvest the herbs by cutting full stems in order to create a relatively full bouquet. Put all the leaves and stems in a clean sink and let them soak for a few minutes. Select for burnt or eaten leaves.

Now take your good herbs and arrange them into bunches, placing the cut part of the stems at the top of the bunch. This is where you tie the string - knot string securely at the end of your bunched-up herb bouquet, and don’t be afraid to make your knots good and tight.

Next, find a dry spot out of sun to hang your bunches for drying. A high spot in the kitchen works well. And be patient — the herbs will need a good four weeks before they will be properly dried.

After the herbs are completely dried, it’s time to at last make your fragrant blend! Separate the leaves from their stems and blend the leaves, using equal parts of each herb. You can grind them to a fine powder or leave them as they are for a more rustic finish. It’s up to you and your aesthetic.

If you crave a richer flavor, you can also add dried lavender and/or fennel seeds.

Voilà! Your Herbes de Provence blend is ready to be used.


Fresh Herbs to Grow in Your Kitchen


Photo by Fotolia

One of the best things about growing herbs is their luxurious fragrance. Basil, mint, and sage are just a few aromatic herbs that are strongly scented. They perfume the air around them with the slightest brush or jostle, delighting the senses and cleaning the air. You may get some of this wonderful benefit with packaged grocery-store herb leaves, but nowhere near the experience that fresh, growing plants provide. If you want that sensory experience at your convenience any day of the year, plus the health benefits of eating fresh herbs regularly, you need a kitchen herb garden.

Why Grow Fresh Herbs in Your Kitchen?

Herbs have been used for hundreds of years for medicine and food. They have essential vitamins, strong, distinct flavors, and protective polyphenols or plant compounds that provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits for common and chronic ailments.

Beneficial properties of herbs provide natural health benefits that are gentler on the body than synthetic medicine preparations and at a much lower cost. See what just three of the most common herbs can do:

Studies show that rosemary’s active ingredient, rosmarinic acid, suppresses nasal congestion and allergic responses. 
Sage has been shown to produce significantly improved brain function because it inhibits the breakdown of acetylcholine, important in treating Alzheimer’s disease which is accompanied by lower levels of acetylcholine, a chemical messenger in the brain affecting memory.
• Holy basil (not regular or Thai basil) is an immunity booster and infection fighter. Studies show that it inhibits growth of bacteria, molds, and yeasts, and increases immune cells in the blood. Additionally, holy basil reduces blood sugar levels and reduces anxiety and depression.

Why wouldn’t you want those kinds of health benefits on hand as close as your kitchen?

Setup an Easy Kitchen Grow Unit

It’s not difficult to have access to fresh herbs all year long, and the delicious scents that come with them. If you have a spacious home and large windows for year-long light, a living wall unit would be ideal. But without those resources, a handy grow unit includes three or four shelves, plant lights, a surge protector and a timer, and grow trays to contain water, pots, and dirt. If you have room in your kitchen, set up the shelving unit there, otherwise, locate it as near the kitchen as possible for easy maintenance and access.

According to The National Gardening Association, herbs need 12 to 16 hours of supplemental indoor light daily, with leaves no more than 8 inches from standard fluorescent lights. Bigger, stronger lights such as high-density discharge lights let you position plants farther from them, at three feet, but are more expensive and require more space.


Photo by Fotolia

Tips for Growing Herbs in Your Kitchen Garden

Use Grow Trays - Grow trays let you keep water and soil from pots and seed starter packs neat and easy to maintain so you can water without worry of drips or overflows.
Provide Good Drainage - Use vermiculite in the soil and make sure pots have drainage holes in the bottom to prevent water logging plants.
Don’t Over-water or Over-fertilize - Keep a log book to record when you water and fertilize.
• <>Harvest the Right Way - Before cutting any plants, wait until they mature, and don’t cut more than a third of the plant.  Let the plant grow back before harvesting again. Snip any flower buds to prevent flowering unless you want seeds.

Easy Herbs for a Kitchen Garden

You may already have your favorite herbs in mind, but in case you need some ideas, here are a few easy herbs to grow in your kitchen herb garden:

Rosemary: A Mediterranean plant, rosemary likes to dry out between watering, so if it’s in a tray with other herbs, put a handful of gravel under the pot to elevate it slightly and avoid “wet feet”.
Sage:This herb can get big and woody at maturity, so cut it back regularly to keep it under control.
Thyme:Thyme is a low-growing plant that comes in many different varieties, including lemon thyme, and tastes wonderful in soups and meat dishes.
Lemon Balm:Lemon balm is very easy to grow and its delightful sweet lemon scent adds a delicious light flavor to teas and salads.
Parsley:Parsley is another herb that’s very easy to grow. Its high vitamin C content makes it an ideal addition to your daily menu, especially in the winter.
Mint:Mint is an ideal herb to grow in containers rather than freely in the garden or landscape where it is an aggressive spreading plant.
Cilantro:Cilantro is an herb you might want to plant every couple of weeks as it is a fast grower and easily goes to seed.
Basil: This herb is so fragrant, it will scent the whole room at the slightest touch. It’s worth growing for that reason only, even without all the culinary uses for it.

Set up a kitchen herb garden today to have the freshest, healthiest herbs on hand every day. You’ll be happy you did.


Heidi CardenasHeidi Cardenas is a freelance writer and a gardener with an interest in herbs and natural living. Although she has a background in human resources and business administration, she has studied horticulture, and enjoys writing about gardening, natural living, and herbal and home remedies. Her favorite herbs are cilantro, lemon balm, and rue and her favorite places to be are libraries and greenhouses.

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Mulch FAQ

Mulch
Photo by iStock

Mulching is a simple way to benefit garden plants and reduce weeding and watering, but you want to choose the right mulch and apply it at the right time. Before applying mulch to a garden bed, ask yourself the following questions:

What do I hope to achieve by mulching? 

Weed control, moisture retention, temperature moderation, soil improvement or beautification? For weed control and moisture retention, wait until the soil is at least 60 degrees in spring and plants are starting to sprout. Then apply a thick layer of organic mulch such as partially decomposed leaves, grass clippings or finished compost. 

How large is the area to be mulched and how much mulch will I need to cover the area? 

Mulch is measured in cubic feet. For example, if you have an area that is 10-by-10-feet and you wish to apply three inches of mulch, you would need 25 cubic feet of mulch.

Which mulch material should I use? 

Lawn clippings work well in vegetable gardens. Layered newspaper works well to control weeds. Compost improves soil structure and provides an excellent source of plant nutrients. Bark chips and composted bark mulch, available at garden centers, makes an attractive finish to garden beds and will eventually improve the condition of the soil. Pine needles increase the acidity of soil, so they work best around acid-loving plants such as rhododendrons and blueberries.

Growing Dwarf Orange Trees


Photo by Fotolia

A Dwarf Orange Tree is one of the few plants that I haven’t managed to kill. I love gardening and am working to enhance my green thumb, but it’s been a brutal summer and plants hate the red, clay “soil” that resides in my desert of a backyard. Even potted plants didn’t escape the scorching temperatures or hungry bugs this year. But my beautiful orange trees from Nature Hills Nursery are thriving, bearing plenty of fruit.

The beautiful thing about these potted “mini-me” trees is that they can be brought in for the winter, potentially bringing fruit to your table throughout the frigid months, if cared for attentively. They need lots of sun. As you get ready for snowfall and hot chocolate - I’ll admit, I’m getting a little ahead of myself - consider the advantage of having a few of these adorable trees sitting in your windows.

Natural Heavenly Scents

Blooms from the trees smell incredible, light and fresh. Being several feet away, I can still vaguely sniff the aroma in the air.  When we start to roll into fall and winter, you may want a warmer scent to fill the house. Toss leftover orange peels into a simmering pot of water, and then add cinnamon, cloves and other spices. Like my mom would say, “It smells like Christmas!” Candles can put off toxic fumes, so this is a great swap.

Improved Air Quality

It can get a little stuffy if you hibernate to stay out of the cold. Unfortunately, the air of most homes is typically filled with particles and toxins such as formaldehyde, which is in most bedding, furniture, clothing, you name it.  If we aren’t getting out as often for fresh air, those toxins can take a toll. “Common indoor plants may provide a valuable weapon in the fight against rising levels of indoor air pollution. NASA scientists are finding them to be surprisingly useful in absorbing potentially harmful gases and cleaning the air inside homes, indoor public spaces and office buildings,” says Eartheasy. Most plants oxygenate our air through oxygenic photosynthesis while also acting as a humidifier, perfect for the dry months.


Karyn Wofford

Fight the Winter Blues

According to Psychology Today, having houseplants can reduce anxiety, stress and improve wellbeing. Counteractively, blood pressure can be lowered, too. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or winter depression, is a real problem for roughly 15% of the population, so any little thing helps.

Save the Sick Days for a Vacation

When it’s time to harvest your bounty, you are in for antioxidant overload. Oranges are filled with these cancer fighting guys that destroy damaging free radicals. Free radicals also cause cholesterol to oxidize, meaning it enables it to stick to our arteries. Oranges can prevent that from happening. All of that vitamin C also fuels the immune system, warding off cough, colds and the flu.

Delicious Recipes

Winter is the season for orange everything…and peppermint, gingerbread, and eggnog! Orange candy, breads, cookies and my favorite healthy recipe, Ambrosia, to name a few. Orange zest dresses anything up, like fish and drinks, with amazing citrus flavors. A few slices tossed in the punch is always super festive!

If my trees continue to thrive like they are now, I’ll be enjoying a list of incredible benefits this coming winter. Fingers crossed!

Karyn WoffordKaryn Wofford is a type 1 diabetic, EMT and Certified Wellness Specialist. For years she has educated herself on wellness and natural, wholesome living. Karyn’s goal is to help people be the healthiest they can be while living fun, happy lives.