Doing Little Bits

VAriegated Lemon Thyme will hold part of the bank with its dense foliage and roots.

Variegated Lemon Thyme will hold part of the bank with its dense foliage and roots.

Today has been another day of weeding, spreading compost, planting, and delighting in bits of perennial poking up through the warming soil.

Each newly emerging Echinacea, Monarda, and Comfrey merits a quiet celebration that winter is behind us now, and spring unfolding.

Comfrey leaves emerge from an herb bed.  Their leaves are medicinal, and their flowers area great favorite with both bees and butterflies.  Several of these will be transplanted soon.  Comfrey spreads with underground stems.

Comfrey leaves emerge from an herb bed. Their leaves are medicinal, and their flowers area great favorite with both bees and butterflies. Several of these will be transplanted soon. Comfrey spreads with underground stems.

Finding a dead looking stick poking out of the Earth, with a small cluster of dark green leaves emerging at its base, brings quiet satisfaction that another hardy plant has survived to grow for another summer.

Once these little bits of green emerge, they grow so very quickly.  The change is apparent from day to day, as they grow, branch, and set buds for another season.

I worked today on some informal herb and perennial beds terraced on the slope behind our butterfly and hummingbird garden.  Several large Lilac shrubs, just opening their flowers, anchor these long narrow beds.

Our Josee lilacs rebloom several times during the summer.  This potted one will move out to the garden after it blooms.  Several others just like it anchor the beds on our hillside.

Our Josee lilacs rebloom several times during the summer.   This potted one will move out to the garden after it blooms. Several others just like it anchor the beds on our hillside.

I’ve been digging them into the hillside bit by bit over the last few years, planting sturdy shrubs, iris, and herbs whose roots will hold this hillside in place and whose blooms will attract every butterfly in the county.

Now I’m hoping to find some milkweed plants to work into this area as hosts for Monarch butterflies.  There is already bronze fennel growing.

Bronze fennel is an important host plant for swallowtail butterflies.  This newly emerged herb will grow to 4' or more tall by lae summer.

Bronze fennel is an important host plant for swallowtail butterflies. This newly emerged herb will grow to 4′ or more tall by late summer.

I’ve planted additional parsley this year, and I broadcast dill seeds last year.  Although many butterflies lay their eggs on hardwood trees, like the Tulip Poplar, parsley, dill,and fennel host the swallowtail butterflies which animate our garden for months each summer.

Parsley for the butterflies.

Parsley for the butterflies.

Host plants are a very important part of any butterfly garden and help insure that our butterfly populations are maintained or increased year to year.

Now, as we are adding plants for the new season, is an important time to consider how our  choice of plants can  contribute to the health of our environment.

This catmint can be divided into several clumps and replanted on the hillside.  A hardy perennial, like any mint, it will spread to cover large areas.  Bees love its blue flowers.

This catmint can be divided into several clumps and replanted on the hillside. A hardy perennial, like any mint, it will spread to cover large areas. Bees love its blue flowers.

My partner and I have been keenly interested in the data on climate change released by the UN over this past weekend.  The amount of carbon dioxide in the air we breathe is higher now than it has ever been in the last 800,000 years.

Carbon in the atmosphere contributes to our planet’s rising surface temperature.  An increase of only two degrees Celsius will re-shape our landmasses as coastal areas flood.

Another culinary sage, or Salvial officinalis.  This purple cultivar is especially hardy and easy to grow.

Another culinary sage, or Salvial officinalis. This purple cultivar is especially hardy and easy to grow.

Although the problem is vast, and will take planet wide cooperation to fully address, each of us can do a little bit to help.  If all of us will do a little bit, then all of us together can make a tremendous positive difference.

All plant life, from algae growing in a pond to the beautiful Cedars of Lebanon, continuously draw carbon out of the air.

I found this patch of Monarda emerging today.  Its flowers will be covered in bees and butterflies for several months this summer.

I found this patch of Monarda emerging today. Its flowers will be covered in bees and butterflies for several months this summer.

The basic process of creating food from sunlight requires carbon dioxide and water.  Plants convert these compounds into sugar, storing the sugar in each and every cell.  The  products of this process are pure oxygen and water vapor.

This means that everything we plant, whether a tree  or a marigold flower, will help scrub carbon dioxide out of the air;while producing pure oxygen for us to breathe.  Isn’t this an elegant plan?

Lanbs Ears, another hardy perennial, brightens the garden from late winter through autumn.  When it blooms, its purple flowers will be alive with hungry bees.

Lambs Ears, another hardy perennial, brightens the garden from late winter through autumn.  I love its silvery foliage throughout the season.  When it blooms, its purple flowers will be alive with hungry bees.

We lose so many large trees each year.  Some are lost to logging or to clearing land for new shopping centers, roads, neighborhoods, and agriculture.

A male cardinal surveys his garden.

A male cardinal surveys his garden.

Other trees are lost to storms or disease.  If each of us can counterbalance this by planting even one tree each year, it can make a tremendous difference or our environment.

Not only do trees scrub huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but they offer cool shade.  Their roots hold the soil against erosion.

April 9 2014 buds 015

Those of us fortunate enough to have land where we can plant trees can certainly add a tree to our yards.  Those without space to plant can contribute to organizations dedicated to rebuilding forests around the world.

Every little action from each of us adds up to a mighty effort towards healing our planet. 

The trees have finally begun to open their leaves in our garden.

The trees have finally begun to open their leaves in our garden.

There are many organizations involved in reforestation.  One particularly interesting one is the  Eden Reforestation Projects.

But today, I wasn’t doing anything so grand as planting a tree.  Rather, I was pulling weeds, building the soil with compost, and planting herbs.

Artemesia is another silvery perennial important in the garden.  Another drought tolerant herb, it shines at twilight.

Artemesia is another silvery perennial important in the garden. Another drought tolerant herb, it shines at twilight.

I planted parsley, sage  and thyme today, and some marigolds.  Every little bit we do makes a difference.

The garden is still looking rather unimpressive.

The little lemon thyme now grows at the base of a fig tree, partnered with a culinary sage,  Salvia officinalis"Berggarten."  The sage will grow to

The little lemon thyme now grows at the base of a fig tree, partnered with a culinary sage, Salvia officinalis”Berggarten.” The sage will grow to about 2′ by late summer.

There are still leaves lying about, and the little wild strawberries would gladly re-take our hillside given the chance.  Their dense mats hold the soil.

The little strawberries they produce feed our birds.  And yes, even the little weedy wild strawberries filter carbon out of the air, and do their little bit to make our planet a better place to live.

 

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

This hypertufa stepping stone made its debut in the garden today.

This hypertufa stepping stone made its debut in the garden today.

 

Finding Spring

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English primroses

This morning my friend and I went with my partner to the Homestead Garden Center in search of a breath of spring.  After all, we turned our calendars over today to March.  We wanted to celebrate the day, and the new month, with a visit to our friends, the Pattons, who so lovingly and generously encourage our mutual love of all things green and growing.

Homestead Garden Center this morning, before the plants were brought back out of the greenhouse.

Homestead Garden Center this morning, before the plants were brought back out of the greenhouse.

It had just nudged above the freezing mark when we set out this morning, and the sky was low and grey.  Bundled in our gloves and hats, wrapped in our coats, we pulled in mid-morning to a still and silent shop.

Roxy and Dustin left the warmth of the office to greet us.  Only a few brave Violas and some shrubs filled the racks, normally packed tightly with an ever changing array of beautiful plants.

We had come to see the hellebores, and no hellebores were in sight.  It was so cold last night that nearly everything in bloom had been tucked back into the greenhouse before dusk, and so to the greenhouse we were led.

Hellebores

Hellebores

When Dustin opened the door, and led us inside, we found the spring we had come looking for today. 

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Warm and humid, condensation dripping on us from the roof, we smelled the warmth of potting mix and the aroma of all things green and growing.

Violas

Violas

And the color!  The carts were packed with bright blooming things waiting to go back outside once the sun shone and the air warmed.

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We were met with Ranunculus, just opening their first buds in screaming shade of scarlet, gold, and pink.

Ranunculus

Ranunculus

Pots of vivid English primroses, and planters packed with bright Violas waited to be wheeled back outside to greet whatever hardy customers turned up today.

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Row after row of Hyacinths, Muscari, parsley, Verbena, Heuchera, and dozens of other tiny plants waited their turn to grow large enough to leave the greenhouse for the world beyond.

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The sheer joy of it.  Dustin gave us our pick of the everything large enough to leave.

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A rare treat, as the greenhouse is rarely opened to shoppers. 

My friend gathered her Hyacinths for the celebration of Noruz, coming on the 21st; and we both selected parsley and hellebores.  I gathered more Violas.

Flats of parsley ready to pot up for spring sale.

Flats of parsley ready to pot up for spring sale.

We filled the back of our car with flowers and parsley. 

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We are also keen to try the mushroom compost, a new product at Homestead this season.  We’ll dig it in to our pots as we plant our starts, and use it as a topdressing on some of our beds.

The rich, composted manure used to grow mushrooms will  improve water retention in the soil, and will perk everything up for maximum spring growth.  Because some brands of mushroom compost have higher levels of salt than other soil amendments, it isn’t  recommended for starting seeds.  This organic product is wonderful on established plants, however.

The mushroom compost we purchased is the stack on the far right.  The Pattons sell only organic soil amendments, fertilizers, and growing aids.

The mushroom compost we purchased is the stack on the far right. The Pattons sell only organic soil amendments, fertilizers, and growing aids.

After a visit with Roxy in the shop, selecting seeds, looking at new pots, and stocking up on fertilizers; we finished visiting and pulled away.

The sun had broken through the low clouds a time or two while we shopped, and we could feel the morning warming- if only a little bit.  But we had a car load of spring time.  The aromas of the greenhouse still  filled the the air as we drove home.

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Brunnera, “Jack Frost”

With yet another winter storm barreling across the country, poised to hit us tomorrow night, our pots and flats fresh from the greenhouse were carefully tucked into sheltered spots once home.  But we have them.  They are ready to go out into the garden on the next thaw.

We found spring today in the Patton’s greenhouse, and we brought a bit home with us.  Happy March!

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Photos taken at the Ulster American Homestead Garden Center

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Soil with a lot of manure in it produces abundant crops;

water that is too clear has no fish.

Therefore, enlightened people should maintain the capacity to accept impurities

and should not be solitary perfectionists.

Huanchu Daoren

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme….

Culinary Sage

Culinary  Purple Sage, Salvia officinalis purpurascens

A familiar refrain all of us knew, back in the day, when we sang folk songs together and strummed our guitars.  I’m not sure any of us quite got what the song was about, beyond love found, love lost, and love fondly remembered.  It was so pretty to play and sing, especially when friends sang in harmony and remembered most of the words.

Tri-color Sage

Tri-color Sage

A traditional folk song from the north of England and Scotland, most of us learned Scarborough Fair from Simon and Garfunkle’s album in the mid-60s.  It is one of those songs which plays as background music in the psyche, never quite fading away; its longing and simple beauty a reminder of what stays the same generation to generation, century to century.

Pineapple Sage, an herbaceous perennial, dies back to the ground each winter.  Its sweet leaves taste like pineapple and can be used for cooking.  It blooms in late summer and is much loved by hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

Pineapple Sage, an herbaceous perennial, dies back to the ground each winter. Its sweet leaves taste like pineapple and can be used for cooking. It blooms in late summer and is much loved by hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

And so it is as fresh today as it was back when. Its lyrics offer a bit of insight into how much we continue to rely on the companionship of our simple herbs, even through the changes and frustrations of our life circumstance and relationships.

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme:  our companions as we tend our gardens and as we cook our meals.  They are beautiful, promote good health, and are hardy and easy to grow.  These are the herbs you can still snip outside on a wintery day and bring in for the soup pot, whether you are making soup for your love, your extended family, or just for yourself.

Rosemary can grow into a nice sized evergreen shrub over several years.

Rosemary can grow into a nice sized evergreen shrub over several years.

All they really need to be happy is Earth for their roots, full sun for their leaves, and a bit of water to keep them going.  They grow deep roots to sustain themselves and demand little from the gardener.

Parsley is the only biennial in the group; growing this year, blooming next, setting seed, and then dying back.  It must be renewed with fresh plants each year, but will sow its own seeds far and wide to produce them.

Sage is perennial in my garden.  Some forms are herbaceous perennials; others make small, woody shrubs.  When planted in a spot it likes, it spreads and thrives.  If it’s not happy, it fails to thrive and dies out after a season or two.  It doesn’t like too much water or dampness, and loves the sun.

Rosemary growing with an ornamental sage.

Rosemary growing with an ornamental sage.

Sage has been used by our indigenous people for centuries as a “smudge”.  It is dried in bundles, kindled, and its smoke used to clear, clean, and heal.  It also makes a lovely tea and helps sore throats, especially with honey dissolved in the tea.  Its leaves are delicious fried in a little butter or olive oil as used as a garnish.

Rosemary forms a beautiful shrub, blooming in winter with clear blue flowers.  It is evergreen and grows more lush each year.  It responds well to trimming back, has many medicinal uses, and has strong anti-bacterial properties.  It is the herb of remembrance, and so is a good plant to grow near the main path of our comings and goings from our home.  It is delicious baked into bread; or with potatoes, carrots, and onions.  It can be used as a skewer on the grill and to flavor a marinade.

A Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly rests on a parsley plant already grazed by caterpillars.

A Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly rests on a parsley plant already grazed by caterpillars.

Thyme is the smallest, lowest growing of these herbs.  It makes a wonderful ground cover, and can be grown on the edges of paths, in rock gardens, pots, and as edging for garden beds.  It comes in many different colors and fragrances, and blooms beautifully in early summer.  I like Lemon Thyme the best.  Thyme is drought tolerant, and can tolerate partial shade better than other herbs.  It responds well to cutting back, and needs to be cut back at least once a year to keep it growing fresh leaves.

Rosemary blooms with tiny blooms much loved by bees.

Rosemary blooms with tiny blooms much loved by bees.

Thyme can be enjoyed raw minced into green salads or vinaigrette salad dressings.  It is also good mixed into cream cheese and/or goat cheese, with some garlic, chives, freshly ground pepper and a little sea salt for a savory cheese spread on toast or crackers.  Thyme is a delicious addition to marinades.  Mix into lemon juice and olive oil with garlic, freshly ground pepper, sea salt, and a little Rosemary.  Toss with hunks of potato, carrot, onion, and mushrooms before roasting the vegetables.  This marinade can be used similarly for vegetable kabobs and grilled chicken.

If you have never grown herbs, these are the four with which to begin.  They grow happily in a pot beside your door, as long as that pot sits in the sun and gets water.  When you have a bit of sunny land, plant these reliable friends and clip them often for your cooking.

Parsley growing with Violas.

Parsley growing with Violas.

Sage and Rosemary help to deter deer, and so make good companions for plants which need protection.  Parsley is a wonderful host plant for butterflies, so plant enough to freely share.  It looks beautiful planted among Violas and will stay green all winter in Zone 7B and warmer.

Golden Sage in April growing with violas.

Golden Sage in April growing with violas.

Bees love to visit all of these herbs for nectar.  They can all be dried and kept in jars, if you must.  They can be infused into olive oil or wine vinegar for cooking and salads.  Add Sage and Rosemary to your Christmas wreath or swag, plant thyme in pots over your spring bulbs.  The possibilities go on and on.

Growing herbs links us to a very long tradition of gardeners.  These plants have changed little, if at all, from the herbs our distant ancestors grew.  We join a timeless community of gardeners and cooks when we make them a part of our everyday lives.

Thyme plants form a shaggy border for this bed.

Thyme plants form a shaggy border for this bed.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

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