Growing Herbs for the Beauty of It

Culinary tri-color sage grows alongside perennial Geranium and fennel.

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I grow herbs mostly for their beauty.  That, and their toughness as season-long dependable plants in our pots, beds and baskets.

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Rose scented Pelargonium grows near emerging Colocasia.

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I haven’t built them their own little parterre, and I don’t grow them in cute little matching terra cotta pots, either.  I treat them like any other plant and let them earn their spot in my heart and in our garden.

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A newly planted Spanish lavender will soon fill this pot.  It is surrounded with wild violets and wild strawberries.

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Herbs may be some of the oldest plants cultivated and passed on generation to generation and from one culture to the next.  They are celebrated in story and song.  They can heal us, feed us, soothe us and delight us.  Herbs are intensely fragrant; a living, growing perfume.

But I would grow them even without their rich mythological and pharmacological mystique.  Why?  Because I can depend on them.

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The first fennel flowers of the season opend this week.

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The strong fragrance and coarse texture of many herbs makes them distasteful to the deer I want to foil.  I learned in the early years of this garden that I could plant herbs in the spring, and expect them to still be merrily growing in our garden, sans critter damage, the following October.  I like to believe that planting lots of fragrant herbs can also protect more desirable plants growing nearby.

They are a good investment.  They bring me peace of mind.

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Basil

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But the more I tried different cultivars of favorite herbs, the more I delighted in them for their own sake.  They are entertaining plants to grow.  Let me explain.

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Chocolate mint

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Most herbs draw in pollinators.  That means that on a sunny day, I’ll find bees, wasps, butterflies, and all sorts of bright little insects that I can’t name without a field guide hovering around them and blissing out on their sweet nectar.

As I observe and photograph the visitors, I can crush and sniff their wonderfully fragrant leaves.

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Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

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Many herbs, like the mints and scented geraniums, produce compounds in their leaves that repel biting insects.

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Mountain mint, Pycnanthemum muticum, is a versatile herb with strongly fragrant leaves.  The Garden Club of America  has named it their 2018 native plant of the year.

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If a buzzy or bitey is getting too up close and personal with me, I can pinch a stem and rub the fragrant leaves on whatever skin might be exposed.

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Pineapple mint with lavender

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Mountain mint, though not so beautiful, is an especially effective insect repellent with no toxicity to harm my family or me.

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Rose scented ‘Skeleton Rose’ Pelargonium repels insects with its fragrance. Growing here in a basket with Lantana, this basket makes a tough combination for full sun.

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That same fragrance makes herbs appealing as cut flowers, too.  Stems worked in with other flowers make interesting, long lasting arrangements.

My favorite herbs for the vase are Basil, Pelargoniums, Artemesia, and Salvias. The interesting colors, shapes and textures of herbal foliage pumps up any vase.  Oftentimes, a stem will root in the vase and can be planted out to grow on when the arrangement is disassembled.

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Basil with pineapple mint, Lime Queen Zinnia and roses.

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Just as herbs create interesting contrasts with flowers in a vase, so they also pump up pots, baskets and perennial beds.

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White Monarda came to our garden as a gift from a gardening friend.  It is edible, can be used for tea, and looks lovely in a vase.  Also known as bee balm or Oswego tea, this plant is a useful North American native herb.

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Although herbs bloom, most have relatively small and insignificant flowers.  With a few exceptions, like some basils, dill, borage and fennel; herbs are grown more for their leaves than for their flowers.

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Now rosemary is a delight all unto itself.  Sometimes evergreen if the winter is mild, usually perennial, it delights us with its blue, winter flowers.

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Rosemary in bloom

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Rosemary often comes into bloom in late autumn, and many years I can include blooming sprigs of rosemary in our holiday wreathes in December.

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A newly planted rosemary ‘Tuscan Blue’ will triple in size by fall. Sedum ‘Angelina’ shares the pot.

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The pungent fragrance of rosemary exudes from a lovely little shrubby plant.  With rosemary, as with other Mediterranean herbs, the hotter the better in summer.  Growing to 4′ tall or more, a rosemary hedge by a fence or wall is possible in Zones 7b or 8 and warmer.

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An upright shrubby rosemary grows here with prostrate, creeping  rosemary.  Most of our rosemary plants died in our cold winter, and so I’ve had to replace them with new this spring.

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Many people grow herbs primarily for use in the kitchen.  And most, but not all, are edible.  Herbs generally respond well to the continual pruning that frequent use entails.

There are whole encyclopedias of information on using herbs for cooking, crafts, healing and housewifery.  I’ll leave you to read them if you want to learn more.

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Creeping Rosemary makes a good groundcover, or a good ‘spiller’ in a pot in full sun.

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I get busy and forget to cut and use them, I’ll admit to you.  My plants might be bushier if I used them more.

But I love watching my Pelargoniums grow huge and fill the gigantic pots I grow them in.  I love watching butterfly larvae growing plump as they harvest my parsley and fennel for me.  And yes, quite often the plants regenerate themselves within a few weeks once the larvae crawl off for their transformative naps.

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And so it is that I end up growing herbs much like any other garden plant; no special fuss required.

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Comphrey with Artemesia

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That said, keep in mind that herbs such as lavenders, culinary sages, thymes, rosemaries, oregano, germanders, Artemesias, Santolinas, and a few others originated in hot, mountainous areas where the soil may be a bit rocky and the rain scarce.  They aren’t used to coddling, and they don’t much appreciate our muggy damp summers in Virginia.

Our soil may be a bit too acidic and heavy with clay.  Our nights too damp and warm, our rain too intense.  There may be some rot or mildew.  Their roots may not thrive.

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There are a few simple things to do to make these Mediterranean herbs a bit more comfortable.  I tend to grow many of them in pots more successfully than in our heavy clay soil.

But culture in the soil is possible.  I like to dig some dolomitic lime and a little pea gravel into the planting hole before I plant a new transplant.  I set the crown a little high, mounding up the back-fill around the top-most roots, but not up the stem.  Then, I mulch with gravel out a few inches around the plant.  I’m told that chicken grit or broken up oyster shells work well for mulching herbs, too.

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Roots of these Mediterranean herbs want good drainage.  They can rot easily if left sitting in wet soil for very long.  That is why it is smart to amend the soil and plant them high.  If your soil is too heavy with clay, also dig in some compost before you plant, to loosen and improve it a bit.

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If planting in a pot, I mix some lime into the top few inches of the potting soil, set the plants a little high, and mulch the pot with pea gravel.

The gravel reflects sun and heat up into the plant on fine days, holds a little extra moisture during drought, and prevents soil from splashing up onto the lower leaves when it rains.  The gravel mulch helps protect those lower leaves from any disease harbored in the wet soil.

When growing an herb plant with woody stems or grey to blue leaves, take these precautions if your soil and weather is like ours.

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Artemesia with lavender and Iris

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Basil, dill and cilantro are annuals.  Parsley a biennial.  Chives and other Alliums are perennials, even when they are harvested annually for their bulbs.   All are soft stemmed and want a bit gentler treatment.  They appreciate more water and richer soil… but not too rich.  Herbs grown without much fertilizer have better flavor and aroma and grow more compactly.

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The Alliums are just beginning to bloom.

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Grow all of these in full sun, or the most sun you can manage.  The more sun, the more growth in most cases.

Also, give them space to grow.  Your little transplant fresh from its 4″ pot may look a bit small, and your new planting a bit sparse at first.  But please remember that most herbs grow quickly.  Mind the mature height and spread and allow space for your herbs to grow into their potential.

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Pineapple sage in its fall glory, still sending out new buds in late September 2017.

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Crowding, in our weather, makes it more likely for mold or rot to get a start where the branches stay too wet, and where air can’t easily circulate around their leaves.

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Thyme needs a good trim now and again. The stems get too long, with new growth only towards the tips.

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I wait each spring to see which of our perennial herbs made it through the winter, and which were finished off by the cold and damp soil.  Ironically, most will make it through until early spring.  It is those last few weeks and those last few frosts that may prove too much.

That is why I wait until I see new growth sprouting from their branches, before I cut them back.  Once they are growing and the weather is milder, I can cut with confidence.  Cut too soon, and a late freeze may be too much of a shock.  I killed a beautiful Agastache this spring by pruning it too early.

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Breakfast at the Agastache… summer 2017.

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Cut back any obviously dead wood, and trim most of the branches by at least a third to stimulate new, healthy growth.  But don’t throw all of those trimming away!  Many herbs, like Artemesia will root from these stem cuttings taken in late winter or early spring.  What will you lose by trying? 

And there is nothing complicated in my technique.  I open up a hole in the earth with my blade, insert a stem a few inches deep, and close the hole.  It roots and begins growing within a few weeks.  That is how I’ve spread Artemesia all around my garden over the years.

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Pineapple sage has beautiful leaves, but won’t bloom until late September.  It is hardy in our garden.

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Most herbs will root from stem cuttings.  You might cut several stems of basil, use most of the leaves, and root the stems in a glass of water to generate new plants over the summer.  Herbs like thyme are easy to divide.  Just take a stem on the outside of the plant, with some roots already growing, cut it off and plant it where its needed.  Do this with most Salvias, too.

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Apple mint roots easily in water. But easier still, pull a stem with some roots attached and planted it up elsewhere.

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If you’ve shied away from planting herbs in the past, I hope you’ll try a few this year.  You don’t need to be an expert gardener to succeed.  Most are very easy, and forgiving.

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An heirloom Pelargonium that I managed to root from a gifted stem cutting is now out in a basket for the summer.  This cultivar was brought to Williamsburg by the early colonists and grown here in the Colonial era.

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And this is the perfect time to begin, now that we are into the second week of June.  Garden centers in our area have just begun to mark down their herbs by 20-30%.  There are great bargains available this month as plant shops clear out their stock.

Unlike more tender plants, herbs will establish just fine in summer’s heat, so long as you don’t let them completely dry out as they grow new roots into the surrounding soil.

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Deadhead lavender, and other herbs, to keep the flowers coming all season. This is Spanish lavender, with its ‘rabbit ears’ atop the flower.

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There is always more to learn, there is always more to try, and there are always more beautiful and interesting plants to introduce in our gardens.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Sunday Dinner: Provision

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“The single greatest lesson the garden teaches

is that our relationship to the planet

need not be zero-sum,

and that as long as the sun still shines

and people still can plan and plant,

think and do, we can, if we bother to try,

find ways to provide for ourselves

without diminishing the world. ”

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Michael Pollan

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2016

Herbs in a Vase

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By early August our herbs have established, enjoyed the heat of July, and taken off with energetic growth.  Many are blooming.  Their leaves are large, soft and velvety.   Basil perfumes the garden and entices me to cut large handfuls to make fresh pesto.

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We invited friends for dinner on Friday, and much of our Basil went into the pizzas.  I made pesto and added a large dollop to the crust as I was mixing it.  More pesto took the place of tomato sauce on a pizza made with artichoke hearts, black olives, sweet red peppers and thick slices of mozzarella cheese.

The rich spicy smell of Basil always transports me to summer.

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The flowers for the dinner table were of course the Basil’s flowers, mixed with a few of the early Black Eyed Susans.  They have held up remarkably well over the weekend.

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And that inspired me to make today’s vase entirely of edible herbs.  There is more Basil of course; but also blooming Pineapple Mint, Purple Sage, the golden flowers of Fennel, and the huge, soft leaves of a mint scented Geranium.

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Can you imagine how my kitchen smells after constructing this arrangement, snipping here and crushing a leaf there?

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Joining Cathy in her “In A Vase on Monday” meme has our home filling with vases at the moment.  The Hydrangeas dried in place, and now sit off to the side.  I will save these flower heads for holiday decorations.  The Coleus from several weeks ago waits on the sideboard for me to plant it out in pots .

And now there are these three more vases of Basil.    Is it possible to have too many beautiful flowers?

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I love how long these vases last.  Foliage often stays crisp and happy days longer than flowers will.  There is very little dropped over the life of the arrangement.  And there is always the option of cooking with these herbs, allowing them to root, or setting them aside to dry.

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I am coming to understand Cathy’s simple lesson about cutting flowers from the garden, and bringing them indoors to enjoy at close range.  I am often reluctant to cut beautiful flowers from the garden, believing they will last longer and bring more pleasure on the living plant.

But outside even the most elegant flower can get lost in the larger landscape.  Or perhaps those plants around it are no longer in their prime and detract from the beauty of the flower.  Cut, arranged, staged and curated that same flower takes on an added panache.

Combined with other carefully chosen flowers and leaves, suddenly the composition is far greater than the sum of its parts.

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Have you cut flowers or foliage from your garden lately?  It can be as simple as plunking a single stem in a pretty vase and setting it where you can enjoy it.  There are no rules here, and you may do it to please yourself.

Let us celebrate summer while we can and savor each sweet and beautiful bit of it. 

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Woodland Gnome 2015

Sunday Brunch, Or, One Thousand Shades of Green

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I took Sunday brunch in the garden today, feasting on the sounds, smells, and beautiful sights the garden offers on this mid-summer’s Sunday.

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It is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  In Williamsburg, our sun rose today at 5:47 AM and will set at 8:30 PM for an astronomical day length of 14 hours and 44 minutes.

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Interestingly, our period of the summer solstice began on June 17 this year when the sun rose at 5:46 AM and set at 8:30 PM.  Our days will remain this exact length until June 24.  The sun will rise a single minute later on June 25, at 5:48 AM.  The sun will continue to set at 8:31 until July 6, when it will finally set a single minute earlier at 8:30 PM.   By then, the sun won’t rise above the horizon until 5:53 AM, a full six minutes later than today.

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The sun is felt, even after it has dipped below the horizon.  It stays light now for more than an hour past the moment of ‘sun-set,’ and it stays hot from dusk to dawn.

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We had violent thunderstorms move through Virginia again last night, feeding off the muggy heat which envelops us.  We were among the fortunate who kept our power and our trees as the storm passed.

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And this morning dawned rain soaked, hot and bright.  Opening the slider to the deck, I inhaled the greenness in the morning air.

Our cat slipped past my ankles to drink the fresh rain water collected in his dish overnight.  He lingered a little while to listen to the birds chattering from their hiding places in the overhanging trees.

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But he lingered only a little while.  He was ready to slip back inside to the shade and cool of our house when my partner appeared at the door.  Wise old cat, he knows this heat can be deadly.

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He was asleep behind a chair when I suited up and headed out to the garden an hour later.  Camera in hand, I went only to appreciate and record the morning’s beauty.

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But you know the truth of good intentions.  Before long I was deadheading something here, pulling a weed there, and finally succumbed to the lure of the herbs we picked up on Friday morning still waiting in their tiny nursery pots.

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I was in the lowest, sunniest part of the garden planting a Basil when my partner’s voice reached me.  He was back out on the deck, searching for a glimpse of me in the green forest below.

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His voice broke the spell the garden had woven around me. 

He reminded me of the heat, and called me back inside.  It was only then that it registered that my clothes were soaked with perspiration and I was exposed to the fullness of the still rising sun.

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We lost a friend this past week.  We lost one of the kindest, gentlest, most loving people in our circle of friends.

Long retired, he was a tireless volunteer in our community; a gardener, caretaker for stray cats; devoted husband, father, and grandfather.  Our friend was out walking in this relentless heat mid-week, and collapsed.

He was doing what he loved, out of doors, and left us all peacefully and swiftly.

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The news reached us yesterday morning.  As much as we will miss him, we are so grateful that he left us all on his own terms, and was active until then end.  May it be so for each of us.

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And yet his passing in this way is a stark reminder to all of us. 

We must respect this extreme weather, and remain cautious in the face of the heat and sun.  Our children, our pets, our elderly and even ourselves need a little extra consideration during this hottest part of the year, in the northern hemisphere.

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The sun burns, and burns quickly.  The heat overpowers our body’s cooling systems.  The heavy, humid air makes it that much harder to breathe.

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I will not pretend to understand climate change; but I can see the signs that our climate is changing, rapidly.  And so we must change and adapt.  We must shift our behaviors to survive.

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Our friend’s passing was only the latest in a string of untimely loss this week.  I won’t rehearse the litany of loss; I trust you’ve been watching the news, too.

But the common denominator in all of these heart wrenching stories boils down to this:  People going about their business, doing what they have always done, were caught in extraordinary circumstances.

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There is a a message here for each of us.  Perhaps it is no longer, “Business as usual.”   Perhaps we all need to be more mindful of our changing environment and plan for the unexpected to touch our lives.

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It is summer in Virginia.  Our theme parks and beaches are full of tourists.  There are festivals every weekend, and holiday traffic fills our roads.

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And our garden is full of fragrance, color and sound.  Something new blooms each day.  Blackberries ripen, bees buzz from flower to flower and the herbs release their perfume to the caress of the sun.

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Everything is growing so fast.  A thousand shades of green filled our garden this morning. 

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Most people, when asked, will tell you how much they love the summer; and will give you a long list of things they love to do in these few sweet weeks from June through August.

May this summer be filled with joy for you and yours. 

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And please, remain mindful of a few simple things you can do to keep yourself and loved ones safe and healthy during this special season:

1.  Stay hydrated, and always carry water with you for everyone in your party when traveling.

2.  Keep your head and skin covered when outside.

3.  Wear sunscreen, routinely, to protect yourself even further from the sun’s rays.

4.  Stay out of the sun during the hottest hours of the day.  Seek the refuge of shade.

5.  Pace yourself.  Don’t overexert when it is hot and muggy.

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6.  Watch the weather forecast, several times a day, and plan accordingly.  Stay off the roads when heavy rains and are expected.

7.  Keep pets indoors when it is hot, and keep fresh water available.

8.  Never leave a child, a pet, or a companion waiting outside in a car during the heat of the day.

9.  Remember that our environment is rapidly changing. Expect the unexpected.  Remain alert to these changing conditions, and prepare in advance to survive potential hazards and extreme weather events.

10.  Balance pleasure with vigilance.  Enjoy the fruits of summer and all of the special experiences it brings.  But do so smartly and cautiously, so all survive to enjoy many more summers to come.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

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With fond remembrance of our treasured friend,

Lt. Col. Alden George Hannum.

May his memory always bring  joy to those who loved him.

“Indian Summer”

African Blue Basil and Comfrey still attract bumblebees in late September.

African Blue Basil and Comfrey still attract bumblebees in late September.

September is nearly gone.  We will greet October in only three more days.

Yet summer lingers in our garden.

Shorter days and cooler nights have brought color to our Dogwood trees.

Our Caladiums have passed their prime.  Cool nights send them into dormancy.

Our Caladiums have passed their prime. Cool nights send them into dormancy.

 

The Caladiums began to crumple and lose leaves three weeks ago.    But we forgive them.  They are tropicals, after all; and they hate temperatures below 50 F.

We know the cool nights, sometimes dipping into the 50’s lately, have sent a strong signal that it is time for a rest.

It is nearly time to dig them and bring them in for winter.

 

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But most of our herbs and flowers looks as lovely as they did in May, June, and July.

Here, near the coast, we have something like a  “second spring” in September and October.  And I grew up calling it, “Indian Summer.”

Although nights may be cool, we still enjoy sunny days of 70 and 80 degrees.  Last week’s rain signaled an opportunity for new growth through most of the garden.

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The color palette may have shifted towards richer, deeper tones  now that the Black Eyed Susans have opened.

And our Pineapple Sage opened its first scarlet flowers this week.  Perhaps I’ll remember to take some photos of them tomorrow.

I gathered figs today, and pears.  There is pear butter cooking in the crock-pot this evening, filling the house with the rich aroma of cinnamon and cloves, brown sugar and stewing fruit.

 

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But the Basil still blooms, perfuming the garden with its spicy sweetness.

Some of our Lantana now bloom over my head,and I’m rather tall for a Woodland Gnome.

"Miss Huff" Lantana, now in its third summer, blooms at "head height" now.  It will continue to bloom until a hard freeze kills the leaves.

“Miss Huff” Lantana,  in its third summer, blooms at “head height” now. It will continue to bloom until a hard freeze kills the leaves.

The Cannas still open their crimson flowers  each day, and the Elephant Ears grow larger than toilet seats.

That may not be an elegant way to describe them, but I bet you know exactly how large they’ve grown!

Colocasia, "Blue Hawaii" is supposed to be hardy here in Zone 7b.  I'mn debating whether to pot up a division to keep inside as insurance...

Colocasia, “Blue Hawaii” is supposed to be hardy here in Zone 7b. I’m debating whether to pot up a division to keep inside as insurance…  This one spent the winter in the garage.

Geraniums still offer up  fresh fuchsia, cream  and pink blossoms in their pots.  They love these cooler days and nights.  Almost embarrassingly bright now, they soldier on as though summer will last forever.

Those who spent winter in our garage are most determined to keep the blooms coming, savoring each new day out of doors.

A particularly nice cultivar of ornamental sage, this has bloomed in the garden since I planted it from a 6 pack in April.

A particularly nice cultivar of ornamental sage, this has bloomed in the garden since I planted it from a six pack in April.

 

And of course, our Begonias have covered themselves in tiny pink blossoms; hundreds of them on every stem.

Their new foliage has grown in, replacing the pale winter leaves with which they greeted May.  I”m a little sad now, realizing they have grow so much there isn’t room for them all to come in next month.

All of those little cuttings I stuck into pots with such optimism are now full fledged plants.

These blooming adults need new homes of their own if they are to survive.  I am hoping to find some willing adoptive parents among my gardening friends.

Although this photo was taken a month ago, Begonia "Flamingo" remains covered in flowers.

Although this photo was taken a month ago, Begonia “Flamingo” remains covered in flowers.

I sent home a little division of a favorite Begonia, tucked into a clam shell as there was not pot at hand, yesterday evening with a beloved friend.  We are sisters at heart, although she grew up half a world away, speaking different languages and eating different foods.  Somehow our paths brought both of us to this community at about the same time.  And now she fosters Begonias for me over the winter in her bright, sunny home.

Colocasia, "Black Magic"

Colocasia, “Black Magic” is supposed to be hardy here, and should survive winter with a little mulch over its crown.

 

And yes, it is time to begin the move back indoors for those tender plants who won’t make it through the  first hard freeze.  Another friend and I were chatting today, as I visited her garden for the first time.

We agree the coming winter will be as cold and harsh as winter 2013.   She is waiting to buy perennials for her newly made border, knowing in her bones they don’t have time to establish before the weather shifts.

Flowers have grown into seeds on this butterfly tree.

Flowers have grown into seeds on this butterfly tree.

 

This “Indian Summer” may be tantalizingly sweet, but it will be brief.  Gardening friends to the north already feel the change that is coming.

And so I’ll begin to close the garden down next week.  I’ve already been walking around and making plans; assessing what will be hardy and what is not.  My windowsills are full of cuttings.   I’m gathering seeds; pulling up spent annuals.

 

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But it’s not quite time to bring all the pots back inside, yet.  It is still September, and the sun shines bright and golden on the garden this weekend.

Bearded Iris have come back into bloom and there are new buds on the roses.  Bumble bees still hum around the herbs.

 

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New leaves are opening on the figs, and early mornings feel like spring.

I hope summer still lingers in your garden.   

I hope a few vegetables are still ripening on your vines, and flowers are still blooming in your beds.

 

Pyracantha berries have begun to ripen.

Pyracantha berries have begun to ripen near the street.

 

As the trees turn up the volume of color a little more each day, there is no mistaking the crisp scent of change  in the air.

But let summer linger just a little longer, before it fades back into memory.

 

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Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Garden Snippings

After a thunderstorm and heavy rain last night, I went looking early this morning for blossoms to snip for an arrangement for a friend. This small arrangement is made from three different varieties of Basil, Pineapple Mint, Lime Queen Zinnias, and a few rose blossoms the deer overlooked in their latest munching.  Since Basil is … Continue reading

Bountiful Basil

African Blue basil

African Blue Basil

Basil, an annual herb, is beautiful, delicious, and very easy to grow.  It grows very quickly and can give a huge harvest of leaves over the season.  It is a favorite herb for all nectar loving insects, and goldfinches love its seeds.  Deer and rabbits avoid it because of its strong scent and flavor.

Basil growing beside a tomato plant.

Basil growing beside a tomato plant.

A sport of

A sport of Dark Opal Basil, mostly green with highlights of purple.

Basil, like tomatoes, enjoys warmth and sunshine.  It grows extremely well in Zone 7b once the weather has settled in spring and the nights stay above about 50F.  Like tomatoes, it is often offered in big box garden centers weeks before it can successfully grow outside.  It is better to be patient and plant tomatoes, Basil, peppers, squash, and other warmth loving annuals after spring has given way to summer.

A banded Tussock moth caterpillar is exploring the basil.  He prefers the leaves of trees, and will leave the basil intact.

A banded Tussock moth caterpillar is exploring the basil. He prefers the leaves of trees, and will leave the basil intact.

This year I started my seeds in early April, as usual, and was disappointed to watch the seedlings languishing week after week while waiting for the weather to warm.  They just refused to grow until the nights stayed warm, and our long cold spring set them back.  Eventually I gave in and bought beautifully grown basil plants at the garden center, but they also just sat and sulked until the weather was consistently warm.  Most years I find volunteer basil plants from seeds dropped during the previous summer, but not this year.

Because the seeds are so small, several seedlings generally grow in the same pot.  It is a good idea to gently pull them apart and space them out when transplanting, because each seedling has the potential to grow quite large and develop a big root system over the summer.  If left crowded together, none of the plants will fully develop.

Sweet Basil is commonly found in garden centers.  With a medium size leaf, it is a good to harvest for cooking.

Sweet Basil is commonly found in garden centers. With a medium size leaf, it is a good to harvest for cooking.

Basil is a fast grower. It should be planted in rich soil and then kept evenly moist.  Prepare the soil with a good dose of Espoma Tomato Tone whether growing in a pot or out in the garden.  Topdress Basil with a layer of finished compost, or even with coffee grounds, which are rich in nitrogen.  Tomatoes and basil both appreciate a handful of Epson salts (magnesium sulfide) sprinkled around their drip line when planted, and again every 6 weeks or so through the season.

African Blue basil is planted in a mixed bed of herbs and vegetables.

African Blue Basil is planted in a mixed bed of herbs and vegetables.

Basil roots easily along its stems, but should be planted at the same level, or only slightly deeper than it was growing in its nursery pot.  Seedlings can be planted a little deeper at transplant to develop a stronger root system.   Plants of most varieties should be at least 6 inches apart.  A single plant can easily fill out a 10” pot, and will appreciate the space.

Basil needs at least 6-8 hours of direct sun each day to grow well.  If the soil dries out too much, the Basil will begin to droop.  When this happens, water well.  The plant will generally recover.  It is smart to grow basil in a large enough pot that it will survive a day in the hot summer sun without needing an afternoon watering.

Basil can be grown alone, as a companion to tomatoes and other vegetables, or as a companion to flowers.  It has a beneficial relationship with tomatoes and peppers.  If allowed to flower, the tiny flowers draw a variety of carnivorous insects, including tiny wasps which will eat insects feeding on other vegetable plants.  The insects visiting the basil will also stop over to help pollinate the tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplants, and other vegetable plants nearby.  Basil will grow well planted around the stem of a tomato plant, and will cover its “bare legs” to make the pot or bed more attractive.

Basil with heliotrope

Basil with heliotrope

Most people grow basil for its leaves, although the flowers are beautiful.  All parts of the plant are edible and fragrant.  Basil flowers are pretty enough to use as cut flowers in little arrangements with roses, Cosmos, Zinnias, and other summer flowers.  Many varieties of basil have gorgeous leaves which make great filler foliage in flower arrangements.  A gift of such an arrangement is a gift that keeps on giving.  Remind the recipient to keep the water fresh long enough for the basil to root, cut off the flowers once they fade, and then plant the stem.

Basil is a good filler in flower arrangements.  Its interesting flowers and foliage work well with other garden flowers.

Basil is a good filler in flower arrangements. Its interesting flowers and foliage work well with other garden flowers.

A Basil plant will of course channel most of its energy into the flowers, and then into seed production.   It is wise to remove the flower stalks frequently to keep the plant producing leaves.

A newly planted Purple Ruffles Basil grows beside a rose and white sage.  Basil grows well beside roses.

A newly planted Purple Ruffles Basil grows beside a rose and white sage. Basil grows well beside roses.

When harvesting basil, cut of an entire stem back to just above a leaf node.  New stems and leaves will grow from the main stem above that leaf.  If you remove all but the top few leaves from the stem you harvest, you can put it into a jar of water and expect roots to form within a week or so.  This new basil plant is ready to pot up and will mature in just a few weeks.  By harvesting frequently, and cutting to just above a pair of leaves, a plant will stay productive for months.

The flowers have faded and seeds are beginning to form on this Basil.  The goldfinches have already found it and visit to harvest the seeds.

The flowers have faded and seeds are beginning to form on this Basil. The goldfinches have already found it and visit to harvest the seeds.

By the end of summer most basil plants will have grown some flower stalks and set seed.  Goldfinches love basil seeds, and I often see them landing on the flowers stalks and eating the tiny seeds right out of their cases.  Before the birds get all of the seed, make sure to harvest some yourself to start plants next year.  Choose your favorite plants, and watch the flower stalk carefully after the flowers fade.  You’ll see the casings darken when the seeds are ripe.  You can sprinkle these on the ground where you want plants next year, or take the seeds inside and keep them in a labeled envelope in a cool place until next spring.

Basil with Lime Queen Zinnia and roses.

Basil with Lime Queen Zinnia and roses.  More views here.

 

Basil is a culinary herb used most frequently in cooking Italian dishes.  It is delicious fresh, dried or frozen.  Different cultivars have slightly different flavors.  There is Cinnamon Basil, Lemon Basil, Lime Basil, and a whole range of regular Basils from mild to very pungent.

My favorite way to prepare Basil is in pesto.  This requires at least 2 cups of basil leaves.  I tend to grow the large leaved varieties, like Genovese, because it offers enough leaves to make pesto frequently.

This little Genovese basil, started from seed, is finally taking off in early July.  It is planted here with thyme and parsley.

This little Genovese Basil, started from seed, is finally taking off in early July. It is planted here with thyme and parsley.

Pick the leaves off of the cut stems, wash them, pat dry, and pack into the bowl of a food processor along with 1 or more large cloves of garlic, Parmesan or Romano cheese (about ½ c. to 2 c. leaves), 1/4 c. of toasted pine nuts or walnuts, 1 tsp. of salt, and about ½ c. of extra virgin light olive oil.  Puree, streaming in more oil until the pesto reaches the consistency you prefer.  Good additions to this pesto are dried tomatoes, capers, or oil cured olives.  This is a very personal recipe, and the amounts should be adjusted to suit your taste and purpose.

African Blue basil grows into a large shrub which holds its own with Zinnias and Rosemary.

African Blue Basil grows into a large shrub which holds its own with Zinnias and Rosemary.

Pesto is wonderful spread on crostini, mixed with freshly cooked pasta; spread on pizza dough and topped with cheese; used as a dip; or spread on a sandwich. It is especially good spread on the bun of a veggie burger, mixed with a little mayo.  It is also a delicious garnish for soups.  Any extra can be stored in a small jar in the refrigerator topped with ¼ of olive oil to prevent the basil from browning.  It can also be spooned into cupcake papers, frozen, and then the frozen portions moved to a zip top bag for long term freezing.

A cutting garden of Basil thrives on the steps in full sun.

A cutting garden of Basil thrives on the steps in full sun.

A simpler way to freeze Basil is similar.  Prepare the leaves and puree with only salt and olive oil.  Transfer to a gallon size freezer bag, zip the bag nearly shut, and lay the bag flat on a counter.  Gently flatten the pureed Basil into a layer ½ ” thick or less, press the air out of the bag, seal, and freeze lying flat.  When you’re ready to use the basil, open the bag and break off the portion you need for cooking, returning the remainder to the freezer.

Large basil leaves are also excellent on sandwiches.  A good sandwich starts with a sliced baguette  spread with mayonnaise or cream cheese.  Cover one side of the bread with Basil leaves, and the other with slices of fresh mozzarella cheese.  Lay large slices of fresh tomato on the basil leaves, season with salt and pepper, and enjoy.

This basil grew from a seed dropped the summer before.

This Lettuce Leaf Basil grew from a seed dropped the summer before.

Basil leaves can be dried, crumbled, and stored in an air tight container for use all winter.  Leaves can be added to herbal tea mixtures, and you can make Basil vinegar.  There are complex vinegar recipes out there, but I simply buy store brand red wine vinegar (or white wine vinegar) at the grocery store, remove the top, add several branches of Basil, reseal the jar, and allow the basil to steep in the dark pantry for several weeks.  You can remove the Basil and replace with a fresh sprig for gift-giving, or simply remove the herb, label the bottle, and keep it in your pantry for use in salad dressing and cooking.  Basil vinegar makes a wonderful Greek style dressing mixed with olive oil, salt and pepper, and a little sugar.  I often add one or two peeled cloves of garlic to the bottle along with the basil.

There are many more ways to cook with Basil.  Citrus scented basil can be added to lemonade, hot or iced tea, steeped in fruit juice and then frozen into sorbet, or steeped in warm milk to flavor ice cream.  Please share your favorite uses for basil as a comment to this post.

Herbalists will tell you that Basil can be used medicinally to calm the nerves and settle the stomach.  Maybe that is why it is so popular as a culinary herb!  Many of the wisest physicians advise that that good food is the best medicine.  Basil is certainly good food for all of the senses.

Dark opal basil

Dark Opal Basil

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