Planting Herbs: A Feast for the Senses

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If the thought of a garden nursery or farmer’s market makes your pulse quicken, then you’re probably familiar with the intoxicating allure of the herb. Even if I never once used my herbs for cooking, I would still plant them every year, because they are literally a feast for the senses, their heavenly aromas released with a touch, stunning colors and foliage, wonderful variety of textures, and oh, the taste of fresh versus dried herbs! C’est magnifique!

Martha Stewart & the British pronounce them with a Her rather than a Ur, which always makes me laugh because I think of my Great Uncle Herbie and the 70s classic Herbie “The Love Bug”.  But I digress.

Before I plant my window boxes or garden, I plant herb bowls. I can plant them early in the season, and if the temps are going to fall too low, I can easily bring them indoors or cover them to protect against frost damage. Basil is especially susceptible to damage from the cold weather, and should not be planted outdoors until all danger of frost has passed.

Another reason I love herb bowls is because I can get creative with mixing and matching complementary plants for simple aesthetics. My favorite pot would contain a variety of different colors and textures. For instance, thyme is one of my all-time favorite herbs for container gardening, because it comes in so many beautiful varieties. I love the tiny green teardrop leaves on woody stocks. My favorite thyme plants are English Thyme, Woolly Time, a wonderful fuzzy creeper, and Lemon Thyme, with its gorgeous variegated foliage and fresh citrus scent.

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Clockwise: Pesto basil, lemon thyme, english thyme, rosemary and french lavender

A good rule of thumb when planting for aesthetics is to plant one tall plant such as a silvery rosemary or chives, a trailing plant like creeping Rosemary, a small to medium-sized colorful plant, like a purple sage or purple basil, a bright lime green plant thyme, and a specialty variety oregano.

Or, I can plant for a more utilitarian theme, like a bowl containing the most common herbs for cooking (basil, oregano, sage, chives and thyme or rosemary), or, for sweets, teas, soaps and oils (chamomile, lemon verbena, mints and lavender).

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Clockwise: Peppermint, purple basil, woolly thyme, and golden sage

When I say mint, you probably think peppermint. But there is quite a variety of mints to choose from, including pineapple or chocolate. My favorite cheap thrill of summertime is to pluck a fragrant leaf or two of pineapple mint and just inhale the deliciousness.  A word of caution, though: mint is best grown in pots as it is an aggressive grower, and will quickly take over a garden, spreading year after year.

Watering – Unlike house plants, herbs need to be watered frequently. The good news is unless left for several days without water, most herbs will bounce back from wilting once watered. During hot summer days, you may have to water at least once a day. They should never be allowed to dry out, completely.

Clipping & Pruning – Using basil as an example, when clipping, start towards the top. That’s where the tender, young leaves are. The large, older leaves at the bottom of the plant absorb the energy from the sun that helps produce new leaves. With basil, and other herbs, you should never allow them to flower unless you’re growing them for decorative purposes only. All of the plant’s energy goes to the flower instead of producing new leaves. You want your basil growing out, not up.

Storing Fresh Herbs – Most cut fresh herbs will keep for at least a week, wrapped in a damp paper towel and stored in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Cooking  – One tablespoon of chopped fresh herbs will equal approximately one teaspoon of dried herbs. Or you can simply remember you’ll typically need 3 times the amount of fresh herbs as dry.

I have to share two of my favorite ways to use fresh herbs, beyond pizza and bruschetta.

I could eat Italian food, seven days a week, 365 days a year. A hearty red sauce is my favorite. However, every home chef should have at least one classic summertime pesto recipe. Here is one from The Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten. While many know her now from Food Network, I have all of her cookbooks. She is a true icon! http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/pesto-recipe.html

Another summertime staple at my house is Herb Butter, which can be made sweet or savory. You can’t go wrong with a lemon thyme herb butter, which is fabulous on pasta, fish or hot, crusty bread. And, it couldn’t be simpler to make, so you’ll spend less time in the kitchen and more time outdoors.

Lemon Thyme Herb Butter

½ cup softened butter

2 tsp. flat leaf parsley (finely chopped)

½ tsp. lemon thyme (finely chopped)

2 tsp. lemon zest

Roll on wax paper into a tube shape. Refrigerate until hardened.  Slice off a round pat when ready to use. Garnish with a thinly sliced lemon half or a sprig of curly parsley.

However you use them, from salads to steaks, I hope you enjoy a summer full of delicious herbs!

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For a free download of this darling watering can cross-stitch from Country Living visit http://bit.ly/20bD3Hp.

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie B., enjoys fresh herbs for their scent as much as their taste!

All uncredited photos taken by Mary Haehn.

 

 

Enchanting Miniature Gardens

use2Springtime is the season of cute! My mind is full of bright colors and baby animals. I want to smell green grass and fresh dirt. I want sunshine, even on the days when the temperatures are still struggling to hit the mid-50s.

Spring can’t come soon enough for me and I need to do something green and creative. That’s why I love mini gardens so much. Even in the dead of a Minnesota winter, I am lucky enough to  have two amazing garden centers nearby with large greenhouses, featuring elaborate fairy gardens or gnome villages, like the one pictured above in Tonkadale Greenhouse.

Since I can’t start planting my garden until the danger of a hard frost has passed (in mid-May), a good alternative to full-scale immersion in outdoor gardening is to create a potted or miniature garden indoors.

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You don’t have to live in a cold climate to enjoy miniature gardening. Container and terrarium gardening can be done anywhere and is simple enough for anyone. They require very little space. In fact you can create a tiny garden in a mug or teacup.

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Here are some quick tips that I’ve learned after several springtimes making mini gardens.

  1. Pick your container & your plants at the same time. Tiny, small-leafed plants, mosses and succulents are perfect for tiny gardens. I love to use Irish moss for ground cover. Most greenhouses now feature a section devoted to small plants for fairy gardens. These plants won’t get too big and crowd each other out. Check the tags on the plant for size guidelines. Or ask your nursery expert for some good suggestions for companion plants, given the size of your container. I like to mix it up with a couple of different small varieties of moss, ivy and ferns. Or, I’ll do all  succulents. Succulents are among the most forgiving of plants, and if you’re a plant newbie, they are harder to kill (I kid). use 8
  2. Plan for drainage. Remember, plants don’t like wet feet!  If your pot or container (you can use anything from a wood crate with a liner, a big bowl, a tin bucket, an old coffee can; I’ve seen some really cute mini gardens in repurposed containers) does not have a hole in it, providing adequate drainage is crucial. What I like to do, depending on the size of my container, is layer small stones or pebbles at the bottom of my container, with space for water to seep through. A thin layer of activated charcoal wicks moisture and absorbs any stagnant water odor. Dried moss can be used at the pebble layer to absorb excess moisture as well. 945239_657248600967981_589083094_n
  3. Use good soil. Choose a fluffy potting soil that is not too dense or too wet. I typically use Miracle-Gro, but any fluffy potting soil that allows air, moisture and nutrition will do. Depending on the size of my container, I use odd numbers of plants, based on the old decorating rule. For a medium-sized container, I will use three. I space them evenly, giving them room to grow, and tease the roots a little before nestling each little plant into it’s soil. Once the plants are in, I use extra fine sand, finely shredded bark, shells, or decorative moss as ground cover over the soil.
  4. Imagine and play. Then comes the fun part! Play time. I always start with a vision. I have little Zen gardens, cute gnome gardens, animal gardens, spring themed gardens, gnome getaways. Let your personality be your guide. I have a friend who loves the ocean and made a darling container garden using fine white sand, shells, and beach glass. use9
  5. Sunlight and water. Save the tags that come with your plants. Most miniature plants make good partners, requiring the same amount of light and water. I have always enjoyed my mini gardens indoors and then brought them outside, to the deck or patio, once the weather warms up.
  6. Enjoy! Caution: Creating these miniature vignettes with plants, and tiny little things that make you smile, is addictive. You start to see every small object as something that could serve a purpose in your miniature garden, from an acorn to agate or marble.

The miniature garden is the perfect March treat to tide you over until your warm weather plants can go in. But if you simply can’t wait, violas, or johnny-jump-ups, are a good cold-hardy plant that you could probably enjoy outside out today. Happy planting!

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Blogger Melanie B., a Smart Perks employee, is a Zone 4 gardener who believes in fairies and gnomes.