Mother Earth Living Blogs >

In the Garden
Get down and dirty in the garden

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.

Save

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.

Rethinking Weeds in the Garden and on the Farm


Photo by Fotolia

Last year was our first season farming in the black dirt of Orange County, NY. We had heard that you can grow great vegetables in this unique soil that has over 40% organic matter. Tales have been told that this land was once a huge glacier, with fossilized bones of mastodons recently discovered in this region. As you dig into the soil with your hands or a spade, you can see, smell and feel its richness. The closest comparison might be fresh compost, which we call black gold. It is truly black dirt, getting into our clothes, hair, fingernails and skin.

As we began our first year of planting vegetables, herbs and flowers, to our delight the fertile black dirt helped us grow plants that were huge, massive and glorious… and so were the weeds. Average weeds that normally grow in the back yard, or cracks of a sidewalk, suddenly grew into Christmas trees. We were frustrated, to say the least, as we saw our crops being overtaken. So going into our second year, we decided to take a different approach to assessing weeds.

Weeds - are they friend or foe? Well that depends. Some weeds are edible. In fact most of our restaurant clients love our weeds. Who knew that all this time, we have been throwing away money! But seriously, I have started to look at weeds with a little more compassion. Besides being able to grow like monsters in the black dirt, there has to be a reason why they are there.


Photo by Fotolia

So, I started to dig in. The earth does not like to be barren. Bare soil is like a person who has lost their hair wishing that they had some protection against the blazing hot sun, strong winds, or deluge of rain. Weeds are nature’s way of protecting the land from soil erosion, dryness and sunburn.

Weeds can also tell us something about the condition of the soil. For example, purslane (Portulace oleracea) can be a sign that the soil is high in phosphorous. It germinates in high temperatures, which is why we see so much of it in June and July. Some purslane seeds have been known to stay viable for more than 40 years. So do I say cha-ching or cursed?!

Let’s move on to the next edible weed - dandelions. I can recall as a child blowing the heads of dandelions, making a wish for more play and less school, blissfully unaware that I was spreading dandelion seeds that would come back to haunt me as an adult. But dandelion is full of vitamin A, B, C, and D, and its roots have been used to treat liver, kidney and skin problems. The leaves are edible and commonly used in salads, and this year at the farm we’re using the flowers to make our first batch of dandelion wine!


Photo by Fotolia

Next up are lamb’s quarters, also known as pigweed, goosefoot and even poor man’s spinach. I ate some for the first time last year and was astounded by its flavor, similar to buttery spinach. Despite the taste, it quickly became my archenemy as it grew from those delectable little leaves to humongous 4-foot trees with roots that needed two people to pull out. Lamb’s quarters are still commonly used as food in other parts of the world, and they were once a green vegetable of choice in the U.S., packing a wallop of vitamins and minerals. A note of caution about lamb’s quarters - it does contain oxalic acid, which can interfere with the body’s absorption of iron and calcium. So eat up and be healthy; just don’t splurge.

As we continue to grow our produce and flowers, I will get better acquainted with our other arch rivals such as crabgrass, bindweed, morning glory and chicory.

In conclusion, as they say, “if you can’t beat em, eat em”.  I think on our farm we would need the whole town of Chester to do that.  However, at Rise & Root Farm we have come up with our own solution. Once a month we encourage volunteers to take part in what we call “weed aerobics”. If you can’t “beat ‘em”or “eat ‘em” at least you can get in shape “pulling ‘em”.

So the next time you see a weed, think twice about whether to consider it a friend, foe, or part of your next fitness craze.

Happy grazing,

Karen Washington and Rise & Root Farm

For more on the health benefits and culinary uses of edible weeds, check out:

Eat Your Weeds! The Best Edible Weeds

Edible Weeds 101: The Health Benefits of Purslane

Spring Foraging: 5 Weeds You Should Eat!


Karen Washington, Lorrie Clevenger, Michaela Hayes and Jane Hodge run Rise & Root Farm, a 3-acre organic farm in Orange County, New York. Read more about Rise & Root in this article from our September/October 2016 issue: Growing Community at a Social Justice Farm in New York.

How to Grow Greens: 3 Steps

planting seeds
 

1. Select the varieties you want to grow in every season and buy organic seeds.

2. Prepare garden area by tilling or breaking up soil, and spreading and mixing in 1 or 2 inches of compost (use organic compost made from food trimmings, chopped leaves, grass clippings, etc.). In the week before you plan to plant, go over your garden soil with a rake or trowel to break up any remaining soil clumps and eliminate weed seedlings. Do this twice in the days leading up to planting and immediately before planting seeds.

3. Direct-seed greens into prepared garden soil. Many growers like to plant two sections or rows about every two weeks throughout the growing season to get a staggered and continuous harvest.

Our 5 Favorite Garlic Varieties to Grow

Growing garlic is one of life’s easy pleasures. The hundreds of varieties fall into two main categories: hardnecks, with long, woody midstems; and softnecks, with soft, braidable necks. Award-winning garden writer Barbara Pleasant (buy her ebook Growing, Harvesting and Curing Your Homegrown Garlic for $5 on our website) shares her favorite varieties to grow.

Music 

1. ‘Music’ is fun to grow because everything about it is big—the leaves, the curled scapes, and the cloves and bulbs. The stately plants are easy to grow, the plump cloves are easy to peel, and perfect bulbs will keep through winter. A whole ‘Music’ bulb slowly roasted with olive oil and salt is a culinary marvel.

German Red 

2. ‘German Red’ is a robust hardneck with red-blushed cloves that grows well in a wide range of climates and soils. The symmetrical bulbs are composed of uniform cloves that practically jump out of their jackets when lightly smashed with the side of a knife.

Chinese pink 

3. ‘Chinese Pink’ or any variety described as an Asiatic or turban type will mature more than a month ahead of other garlic varieties, which makes them invaluable for early summer pickling projects. The small bulbs cure quickly and store beautifully for up to a year.

Inchelium Red 

4. ‘Inchelium Red’ is a vigorous softneck that’s easy to braid, and its mild-flavored, medium-size cloves are versatile in the kitchen. 

Nootka Rose 

5. ‘Nootka Rose’ may be late and lumpy, but this softneck is a favorite variety in the kitchen. The juicy outer cloves encircle layers of elegantly long inner ones, with sharp flavors that become sweet and mellow when cooked.