Monday, February 24, 2014

Winter Sowing Herbs

A friend of mine who lives in zone 7 recommended this.  She said instead of sitting back with your seed catalogs and dreaming of that gorgeous garden you are going to grow next summer, take action now and get a head start on spring.  But I kept thinking, I live in zone 5 and trays of seeds will just freeze out there and die.  This winter I decided to give it a shot. (Why this winter I can only guess is because it has been so much winter that I am dying to get into something like gardening.)  This is what I know about it.

Winter sowing refers to planting seeds in flats or trays during the winter months and setting them outside to allow seeds to germinate and seedlings to emerge naturally when the weather warms. Not only does this give flowers and vegetables a head start in the spring it allows you to start seeds in the midst of winter while the landscape is frozen.  Once temperatures rise and the soil thaws, seeds germinate and sprout naturally at the ideal time for growing.

The best source on the internet for winter sowing tips and guidelines is by Trudi Davidoff.  On that site you can identify what can be winter sown or if you should just save the seed and direct sow it in the garden.  Not all flower and vegetable seeds are suitable for winter planting, but many are. Tender annuals or tropical flowers and herbs are not likely to do well if planted in winter as their seeds do not require cold stratification and may not survive the exposure to cold temperature. Look for seeds from plants that self-seed. This includes many wild flowers and native plants. If you have noticed seedlings emerging in early spring near flowers and herbs, they are a good candidate for winter sowing. Most perennials thrive with winter sowing.

The materials you need to winter sow are pretty simple:

Seed starting soil (you can make or buy)
containers with lids
waterproof markers
assorted tools

You can also look in seed catalogs for plants with notations for "fall planting", "early spring planting", "hardy seeds", "self seeds" or "will colonize". Some may note the seed requires cold stratification. These are all perfect to use for winter sowing. I like Park's Seed catalog, it has a great germination table right in the middle of the catalog. They have a numbered guide indicating the best germination requirements for seeds. I took a yellow highlighter and went down that numbered list and highlighted all the numbers that would be appropriate for Winter Sowing, then I carefully went through their list of seeds and highlighted the varieties that corresponded to the correct numbers. This is how I chose which varieties I would Winter Sow. A lot of catalogs, not just Parks, will have a germination table, or some information about germination, look at them, study them, and learn. Additionally you get sowing information on the back of seed packets as well.

Nice to have dirt under the fingernails in February

Milk jugs and soda bottles seem to be the best choice for me in Zone 5 to use for winter sowing.  They create mini greenhouses for seeds. You can also use traditional seed starting trays, but this is not necessary. One person I know lines toilet paper tubes up on a cardboard box, fills them with soil and seed and covers it with a clear plastic bag.  Each tube is a different seed.

Wash and dry the containers with hot soapy water to remove food residue and to prevent the spread of bacteria or disease causing organisms. Poke holes in the bottom of the container. 

Add the moist seed starter to the jugs.  It does not need to be very deep about 1 ½ to 2 inches at most.  You can make your own seed starter by mixing equal parts potting soil, peat moss and vermiculite or perlite. Mix in large bowl or bucket and moisten with tepid water. The starter should be damp, but not soggy.

Plant seeds to the recommended depth and cover with soil. Firm down with your hands to remove air pockets. Since I did not cut these containers I used the handle of a wooden spoon to firm the soil. Replace the plastic cover or cover with plastic. You need to have 2 inches above the soil to allow space for seedlings to grow. 

Label the container. Even though you think you will remember, chances are you will not. A label makes your life easier.

Place trays outside. Many prefer to place trays on a picnic table or an elevated structure where they can be reached easily. Although you want to expose the seeds to elements, placing them in a sheltered location prevents them from being blown over when the winter winds howl. Seeds can be placed on the deck or porch and moved to a sunnier location once snow begins to melt and spring approaches.  I placed mine on the shelter of window boxes.  I tied ribbon on them so they looked like a decoration to those passing by.
Allow trays to freeze and thaw naturally. When spring arrives, the soil will thaw and seeds will germinate at the proper time. Remove the plastic once seedlings emerge and danger of freezing has passed.
As many people know my garden is rented and I live in an apartment, so the place where I am winter sowingis on my apartment patio.  I placed a window box on the ground near the windows so the containers did notssit on the concrete.  I have several hanging window boxes that I decorate with greens for the holiday that 
were frozen to the railing by January, so I tied bows on pop bottles and nestled the bottles down in the old 
soil and started a few there as well.  My patio faces north to northeast so those near the window are rather 
sheltered the ones in the hanging boxes are exposed to more elements.

 Winter sowing is relatively maintenance free and produces young seedlings just in time for spring planting. There is no need for constant monitoring of the seeds as you allow nature to take its course to produce vigorous young seedlings that do not require hardening off and don't take up precious space in your home. So, get out those seeds and satisfy that gardening bug by starting your seeds now with winter planting.
We will see what happens and follow up with you about it as winter progresses.

Herb seeds I recommend for winter sowing:


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Weekend Recipe - Italian Herb Bread

Beer Bread with Italian Herbs & Cheese

I have always had trouble baking bread using yeast.  I buy too much and it gets stale and then my bread never rises like it should.  I found this recipe for an herb bread that eliminates the need for dry yeast by using beer instead.  And the flavor makes it a great bread to eat with tomatoes dishes, and winter bean soups.

Normally I do not post recipes that only use my seasonings, but I have made this bread and BYP Italian Seasoning makes it the best.  If you comment and want a substitute I will reply with one.

3 cups self-rising flour*
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon of Backyard Patch Italian Seasoning
1 (12-ounce) can of beer

Combine all ingredients in bowl, mix well.  Add beer and again, mix well.  Preheat oven to 375°F.  Lightly grease or spray a 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray.  Pour into prepared loaf pan and bake for 1 hour.   Makes 1 loaf.

*If you don’t have self rising flour just use this mixture. 3 cups all purpose flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Weekend Recipe - Chicken Pot Roast in the Crock Pot

Chicken Pot Roast in a Crock Pot
Serves 4

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (or bone in if you want more flavor)
Salt and pepper to taste
4 to 6 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
2 cups lima beans, fresh or frozen (not dried)
1 onion quartered
1 cup water
Herb seasoning blend:  1 tsp. each – tarragon, sage, thyme, savory and chives

Season chicken breasts with salt (or garlic salt) and pepper. Place chicken in slow cooker. Place sliced carrots on top of chicken. Add lima beans on top. Pour water over all. Cover and cook on high l hour and then on low l to 2 hours or until chicken and vegetables are tender but not dry or mushy.  Just before serving mix in the herb blend.  Serve over cooked rice.

NOTE: You can add Backyard Patch Poultry Seasoning or our Soup and Salad Seasoning to this recipe in place of creating your own blend.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Cocktail Container Garden - Designing Gardens #3

Want some summer backyard fun? Create a cocktail garden around your patio to spread some cheer for a gathering of friends or for just relaxing after a hard day's work. This is a garden to get creative with-grow your favorite herbal garnishes, mixes, ingredients for alcoholic beverages and even a liver-booster to help out if you overdo the festivities. This inviting little garden will also be a cocktail party conversation-starter, no question.

Throw in some silliness if you’d like. Whisky barrels and half barrels are irresistibly appropriate containers for some of the tender plants in our cocktail collection. Use wine corks for mulch if you have a ready supply. Do you collect beautiful bottles? I've been known to sometimes choose a wine simply for the shape or color of the bottle to add to my collection. Display them here, where they can line a pathway or sit prettily among the plants to twinkle in the sunlight. String some lights or hang some lanterns to create a party atmosphere for the cocktail hour. Or like this become the edging.

Herbs for Cocktails

There are quite a few herbs that play starring roles in mixed drinks. Probably the most familiar are the mints that are mulled for a mint julep and the popular mojito; that strong minty flavor is an essential ingredient to the character of these festive drinks. Are you interested in brewing your own beer?

Whether you are or not, you can plant some fast-growing hops along a fence line. Lemon balm is an easy garnish for a summer wine cooler (or tea for the teetotalers). For the legion of fans of Bloody Marys, the perfect morning-after pick-me-up and headliner of the Sunday brunch, grow some tomatoes for juicing and some lovage, since its hollow stems and celery taste make it part garnish, part straw. Add a slice of lime from your patio lime tree, and how perfect is that?

Don't forget the milk thistle, whose seeds yield the best liver boost in the natural world. It has been used for thousands of years for its protective, cleansing effects; you can make a simple decoction from the seeds.

Care and Containers

This little garden, placed on or surrounding a patio, will be so close by that you won't forget to water and feed the plants, especially if it becomes a place you hang out in at the end of the day. Get to know your plants and their needs, including water requirements, fertilizer needs, cold hardiness and light requirements. Some of these suggested plants need overwintering indoors, so be sure that you know the average first and last freeze dates in your area; if you don't, a quick online search or phone call to the county extension office will give you that information.

Row cover, an inexpensive lightweight fabric that lets in sunlight and moisture but gives some cold protection, is helpful to have on hand for sudden cold snaps. A good garden center can turn up some useful plant trays with wheels on them, to make transporting a large pot easier. Garden centers also have other helpful pot-lifting aids.

My example is to place all the herb plants and tomatoes in a single container or raised bed that is approximately 12 feet in diameter.  If it is done in two containers use one tall plant Milk Thistle or Lovage in the center and alternate between mints and tomatoes around the edge.  All these plants have a wide spread under ideal conditions so extra space between plants is always a great idea.

These plants are a great start for your very own cocktail garden. And all will help create a fabulous patio haven.

Tomato (T) (Solanum lycopersicum). Plant in a sunny spot, stake or cage it, and give it plenty of water and regular feeding. Any flavorful tomato produces a good tomato juice; some favorites for juicing include 'Porter', 'Rutgers', 'Ponderosa Pink', 'Better Boy' and many beefsteak varieties.

Milk thistle (MT) (Silybum marianum). With glossy, marbled leaves, this plant can reach 5 feet or so in bloom, with a purple thistle flower head. It can be annual or biennial, and is hardy to Zone 7.

Lovage(L) (Levisticum officinale ). This rock-hardy perennial, with its celery taste, can reach 5 feet by midsummer in sun or part shade. Propagate from seed or division.

Lemon balm (LB) (Melissa officinalis). A mint relative with a lemony fragrance, this hardy perennial is best grown in a pot; it can be aggressive in the garden. Easy to grow from seed, cutting or division.

Spearmint (SM) (Mentha spicata). This common garden mint, including such varieties as 'Kentucky Colonel', is easy to grow but a bit rambunctious, so it is best grown in a container. Start it from a cutting, a division from a friend, or a transplant from a garden center, as it does not set viable seed; adaptable, can grow in sun or part shade.

Mojito mint (MM) (Mentha xvilfosa), also called Cuban mint or yerba buena, is propagated by cutting or division. Keep your mints in separate containers, and harvest or prune regularly to continually force out new green growth and prevent flowering.
Mojito mint in the lemon verbena

For those with more space or living farther south than Zone 5, you may want to think about including these plants in your cocktail garden as well:

Blue agave (Agave tequilana). At 6 feet or taller, this large succulent, native to Mexico, can make a handsome smaller specimen plant in a container. It's drought-tolerant and it needs a sandy or gritty, fast-draining potting medium, a sunny location and winter protection. This is the plant they make tequila from, but growing it does not mean you can actually make the drink, as it is sort of complicated.

Lime and lemon trees (Citrus hybrids and varieties). These small trees thrive in warm landscapes
(Zones 8 and higher), although they are grown in other climates in pots on the patio and brought indoors for the winter, as most won't tolerate a freeze. Needs a sunny location. Dwarf citrus varieties are available, including a dwarf Meyer lemon; try Makrut lime (C. xhystrix) leaves, which are often used in Thai cuisine.

Depending on your climate and your willingness to overwinter pots indoors, citrus trees can fit in perfectly here. Many cocktails and highballs demand a wedge of lime or a sliver of lemon peel. Over the years, citrus plants, including dwarf varieties that lend themselves to pots, have become popular and are often available in garden centers. While they take some nurturing because of their tender nature, they can become pets and even give back fruit in agreeable conditions.

Hops (Humulus lupulus). A fast-growing, twining vine for a fence line, this is a perennial hardy to Zone 3. It needs a full-sun location and a deep, rich soil; start it from cuttings, suckers or purchased plants.  It grows very fast and needs space to grow on a fence or trellis.

I love growing this.  As a backdrop you can train it on a fence, it can cover a trellis in one season, and it had a very pretty look.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

White Artemisias - Herb of the Week

Herb of the Week Artemisia – White Artemisias

This week I decided to focus on two more artemisia varieties that are mostly white.  They are perfect in a moon garden or as an accent plant in a flower garden.  The first is Artemisia ludoviciana this is a tall kinda leggy and wild looking plant, but it makes great wreaths and decorations because it dries so attractively.  The second is a more rounded less wild shape called Artemisia schmiditiana. Artemisia schmiditiana is especially attractive as a background behind bight colored flowers like calendula or marigolds or alongside purple flowers.

Artemisia ludoviciana

Artemisia ludoviciana 'Silver King' is native to the western United States although I grew it quite well beginning with my first herb garden here in Illinois. It is commonly called white sage because of the appearance of its foliage: lance-shaped leaves (to 4” long) are silver-white, and somewhat sage-like in appearance. 'Silver King' is a compact cultivar that features leaves and stems that are somewhat more slender than the species. It is a generally upright perennial that is grown for its attractive foliage that adds texture and contrast to gardens.  Not only is it nice in the garden, but I used it dried to create wreath bases and to make tree shaped table decorations that I covered with holiday ornaments at Christmas time.  Another popular cultivar is ‘Silver Queen.’

Generally referred to as white or gray sagebrush, this is native to the United States and Canada and is listed as a weed in the United States, but then most herbs are!  This plant can be weedy or invasive and is  known by one or more common names in different places. Most include sage or sagebush or sage wort.

Many subspecies are found only in the western United States. This is a rhizomatous perennial plant growing to heights between 1 to 3 feet in height. The stems bear linear leaves up to 4 inches long, but I must admit mine were long, but never that long, closer to 2 inches was most common.  The stems and foliage are covered in woolly gray or white hairs. The reason I grew this plant was that it was often used by different Native American groups for a variety of medicinal, veterinary, and ceremonial purposes.

Artemisia ludoviciana has become a popular garden plant, although it has a tendency to be aggressive in some gardens. The most commonly grown forms are the selections A. ludoviciana 'Valerie Finnis' and 'Silver Queen', which are both hardy to USDA zone 4. Spreading by rhizomes, Prairie Sage can form dense colonies that give a distinctive silver-green accent to large plantings on sunny sites with mostly dry soil. Its stems and foliage are covered with woolly gray or white hairs and topped by nodding clusters of yellowish disk flowers that bloom through summer.

To Grow

The plants reach heights of 3’ and are easily propagated by rhizome cuttings in spring, tip cuttings in early summer or by division of mature plants. Prairie Sage, also called White Sagebrush, is aggressive and rhizomatous and therefore may not be suitable for small landscape plantings.

This subspecies seems very drought tolerant, and grows in dry, light soils. A very wide-ranging species adapted to many temperature ranges and rainfall patterns. Artemisia ludoviciana tolerates alkaline soil, sand, clay, seasonal flooding, high traffic(people walking on it) and deer. I placed it by the garage door, in the nasty patch of soil between the paved drive and the garage and harvested it almost down to the ground each fall.

Artemisia schmiditiana

Artemisia schmiditiana is the most common found in herb gardens in Illinois.  This is the species known most commonly as Silver Mound, Mugwort, or Wormwood. This cultivar is best known for its bug repelling qualities.   Once can take the dried leaves and wrap them inside a coffee filter to form a sort of "pod" and place them under furniture cushions as a natural way of repelling fleas from their home.

For a distinctive accent in borders or an unusual ground cover, we recommend this slinky silver foliage. 'Silver Mound' takes drought and cold, and aromatic oils make the leaves deer resistant. It also makes a fine addition to fresh or dried bouquets. A good companion for Mediterranean plants like Lavenders, Rosemary and Species Tulips. Plants form tidy clumps in average soil that is well-drained.

This is the 'Nana' variety
A native to Japan this has been naturalized in the United States and is hardy to Zone 4. A large genus of plants, most of which are grown for their silver foliage and durable dispositions. They are invaluable for their ability to set off both foliage and flowers of a wide range of hues and are, or should be, a staple of borders where the dry heat they crave is common. In the South, where heat is combined with humidity, most Artemisias will rot away or die out, except 'Powis Castle'.

Striking and distinctive with finely cut silver leaves that form a dense mound of foliage. Very showy against green foliage of other garden plants.  There is a popular variety called 'Nana' that grows just 3 inches tall forming a 1-foot-wide mound of fine silver leaves.  This makes a great border plant.

All versions of this artemesia are great at repelling insects.  I use it in my insect repellent formulas and the earthy scent is much less harsh on the nose if you mix in a bit of lavender.

To Grow

Just like its counter part above, this plant is drought tolerant and prefers a sandy well drained soil.  It has a 1 to 1 ½ foot height and about the same for spread.  If you harvest it regularly you can keep it in a nice mounded shape as it is not as hast of as furious a grower as Sagebrush.

Propagate by cuttings, division or separation. Divide in spring or fall. Make cuttings in summer.

Avoid watering as moist soil and high humidity cause rot. Give the plants space for good air circulation. Remove blooms  which are rather insignificant to prevent foliage from deteriorating and losing its unique scent.  When plants open up in summer, cut back to new growth. This can be done gradually if drastic cutting detracts from garden aesthetics.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Planting a Spa Garden - Designing Theme Gardens #2

January gave me great weather for herb garden designing.  It has been too cold or snowy to do anything else.  I have been repeatedly trapped in my apartment with nowhere to go and a book shelf full of books on landscaping, flowers and herbs.

Since this year we plan to get back into a house and I can actually have a pretty garden in addition to my production garden, I am pondering, scheming and planning.  I thought I would share some of the garden ideas I have pulled together.

Today I have for you a garden filled with herbs that can be used to craft personal Spa items. What could be better than a garden planned around plants that can be used to make luxurious, pampering potions for the bath and body? So many herbs make wonderful contributions to health and beauty, why not put them all in one place for easy access? Here are a few of my favorites that not only look great in the garden but will provide you with pure and effective spa treatments.

My first choice is calendula, Calendula officinalis. This sunny, easy to grow annual, also called pot marigold, can be used in lotions, balms, ointments, bath teas and facial steams. It prefers full sun, well drained soil and moderate watering. Calendula blooms all summer into fall and gives you lots of volunteer seedlings the next year. Harvest the yellow and orange blooms for a bevy of skin soothing treatments.

Comfrey, Symphytum officinale, is a must for the spa garden. Rich with allantom, a chemical that promotes cell regeneration, the whole plant is used in soaps, lotions, creams and salves. Very soothing to dry, irritated skin. Give it partial shade and a little extra water and it will return yearly.

Chickweed, Stellaria media, is another of my favorite plants. Considered a weed, it is a pretty little groundcover plant covered with white flowers. It is full of vitamins and minerals and is a tasty replacement for spinach in the kitchen. I harvest it throughout the winter where it hides under the snow. It likes to grow where it is cool, shady and wet. Very soothing for dry, irritated skin, I use it in salves, lotions, poultices and bath teas.
Nettles, Urtica dioica, is a bristly plant full of trace minerals used for its anti-inflammatory effects on allergies, but it has been used for years as a hair tonic. A strong tea of the dried leaves used as a hair rinse will leave your hair soft and glossy. The seeds made into oil and rubbed into the scalp are reputed to prevent baldness. Nettles like to grow on the shady side with extra water. They can spread quickly if you provide the ideal conditions, so keep an eye on them and harvest with gloves.

Other herb rinses for hair health include rosemary (Rosmaria officinalis) for removing traces of accumulated hair products, sage (Salvia officinalis) to help darken and condition grey hair, and chamomile (Matricaria recutita) for blond highlights. Grow all three of these herbs in full sun, rosemary and sage like it on the dry side.

Roses (Rosa) are a beautiful addition to your spa garden. The petals can be steeped to make rosewater, and combined with glycerin will provide a simple, effective lotion that will moisturize and tone dry, inflamed skin. Try dipping a washcloth into strained, cold, rose petal tea, wring it out and place over red, irritated eyes to relieve and refresh. Give roses full sun and rich soil to keep them happy.

Aloe is renowned for its healing properties. Squeeze the gel from the leaf onto burns, rashes, and irritated skin to provide immediate relief. Aloe likes full sun, little water and needs to be taken inside once it gets cold. They make great houseplants.

Catnip (Nepata cataria) is often discounted as an herb for people, but it is soothing, calming, a light sedative, purifies the blood, relieves colic, works as a digestive aid, and is mild enough for small children.
Lavender, Lavandula officinalis, is very soothing to skin and easy to grow, give it a hot, semi-dry area. I use the leaves and flowers in everything, from skin spritzers, creams and salves to hair rinses. Medicinally, lavender packs quite a punch.  It has antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-convulsive, anti-depressant properties. Lavender benefits stress, anxiety, exhaustion, irritability, headaches, migraines, insomnia, depression, colds, digestion.
Use an elderberry bush for something tall in back of your garden. It will provide you with fragrant flowers to dry and use to tighten pores and clarify skin. Used in a bath it will soothe and moisturize irritated skin. And take internally to avoid illnesses and boost immunity.  Elderberry will grow in sun or part shade and appreciates regular watering.

Some other plants to include are witch hazel, lady's mantle, raspberry, peppermint and lemon balm.

And to get you thinking how to use these herbs.  Here are a few recipes to get you started:

Rose Water
Cover 2 cups of unsprayed, fresh rose petals with 2 cups of boiling water. Steep until cool or overnight, strain and use. Keep leftovers in refrigerator. To make a stronger brew, after straining the first batch, reheat, but don't boil, and pour the rose water over a fresh batch of petals to steep.

Herbal Hair Rinse
1 tablespoon each of dried nettles, rosemary, lavender, dried rose petals and chamomile. Pour 1 cup boiling water over herbs and steep until cooled. After shampooing and conditioning, pour tea over hair and wring out excess. Dry as usual.

Lavender Catnip Honey for Women
Honey can help shed water weight, clear lymph nodes and balance lymph fluid, dry out sinuses, increase circulation, aid in the healing of ulcers, sooth sore throats and coughs, and help reduce allergies (if using for this purpose, make sure you use local honey.

Combine 1 cup honey with 1 Tbls. fresh or dried catnip and 2 Tbls. fresh or dried lavender flowers.  Warm the honey in the microwave or saucepan and allow to steep for 1 to 2 weeks.  Rewarm and strain out the herbs.  Then use in tea, or as an ingredient in lozenges or take off a spoon for a sore throat. 

Lavender Hand Cream
3 tablespoons grated beeswax
½ cup dark sesame oil
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon honey
2 tablespoons spring water
2 to 3 drops lavender essential oil
1/8 teaspoon baking soda

Combine all ingredients in a heat-resistant container or double boiler.  Gently heat (do not boil) the mixture in a microwave or on the stove top over medium heat, stirring often, until wax and oils melt completely.  Pour the mixture into a container or jar and allow it to cool.  After it has cooled completely, give it a final stir before capping.  To use, massage the cream into clean hands.

Always make this in small batches as it has no preservatives and you do not want it to go bad before you use it.  I think a 6 to 12 month shelf life is about all you can hope for.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Bath Item of the Month - Uplifting Bath Oil

February is the doldrums of winter.  The days are longer, but they are usually still cold and sometimes snowy and cloudy so we start to feel lethargic and depressed.  This no salt essential oil bath blend has two uses.  One the scent is uplifting to help rebuild your spirit during winter doldrums and without salt it will help to avoid additional drying of the skin from heated indoor conditions.

Uplifting Bath Oil
6 drops lemon oil
6 drops geranium oil
3 drops rosemary oil
3 drops peppermint oil
3 drops juniper oil

Use 8 drops into a tub of warm water and swish into the water.  Relax in the water and let your mind drift. Another use is to add the essential oils to a ¼ cup of almond or walnut oil before pouring into bath water. This will give additional protection to dry winter skin.
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