Artistry of Herbs

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So much of our garden was slack and wilting yesterday evening, before the rain began.  The ground has grown drier each day, available moisture retreating deeper, away from the multitude of thirsty roots.  This time of year devolves into a contest of will between me with my trusty garden hoses, and July’s relentless heat and extended dry spells.

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Bronze fennel glows in the late afternoon paired Verbena bonareinsis and Joe Pye weed.

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Plants react differently to the many challenges that befall them in the course of the year.  Watching how plants respond to stress can guide us in the choices we make in planting.

No one enjoys a garden filled with drooping, brown tipped leaves.  And most of us don’t have the unlimited time or resources to water enough to compensate when the weather turns hot and dry for days or weeks at a time.  That is why it is smart to plant a good percentage of deep rooted, sturdy, drought tolerant plants to stand tall through July and August.

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Loose foliage of Siberian Iris and Crinum lily function like ornamental grasses through summer, setting off other flowering plants nearby.

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Herbs top my list of sturdy, dependable choices for summer structure.  Fennel, lavender, Salvias, dill, thyme, Santolina, rosemary, Germander, Artemesia, and Pelargoniums stand up and look smart with a minimum of supplemental water.  Iris, considered an herb by many, are a part of this dependably sturdy cohort.

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Rose scented Pelargonium

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And, these plants are all beautiful.  Many are fragrant, and some bloom for weeks right through the summer. Their leaves are fleshy and thick, some waxy and prepared to stand up to the relentless Mediterranean sun.  Their subtle colors and designs fascinating.

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Spanish Lavender

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As an added bonus, most can be found for a very small investment each spring.  Many herbs are offered at local big box stores and grocery stores from March through June or early July for just a few dollars a pot.

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Newly planted Rosemary ‘Tuscan Blue’ grows with tough Sedum ‘Angelina.’  This Rosemary can eventually grow into a good sized shrub.

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Perennials generally survive challenging weather better than annuals, anyway, because they have grown deeper, larger roots. Perennial herbs prove some of the most dependable.

They may need more coddling through their first few months, but once established they will hang on until conditions improve.  Like trees and shrubs, their roots can seek out moisture out of reach of many other plants.

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Keep newly planted perennials well watered while their roots grow out into the surrounding soil. Once new growth begins, you know the plants are settling in. The Monarda and Verbena hastata were planted in mid-July, a terrible time for planting!  The Pineapple sage (top right) is now well established and can handle summer weather.

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We are all discovering ways to adapt to the challenges our changing weather patterns bring.  We see all sorts of records broken month after month, and know that more change is likely ahead.

Our gardens can adapt, beautifully, and with tremendous artistry.  We just need to keep an open mind as we plant.  A willingness to experiment with new plants, ones we may not have previously considered for the perennial garden, and different ways of cultivating it opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“In a world of change,

the learners shall inherit the earth,

while the learned shall find themselves

perfectly suited

for a world that no longer exists.”
.

Eric Hoffer

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Making an Evergreen Wreath

November 30 Parkway 005

We are decorating our community center for the holiday season this weekend.  We are making the wreathes ourselves this year with greenery cut from our own gardens.  I volunteered to make one of the three wreathes, and other neighbors will hang the other two tomorrow afternoon.

Magnolia branches, from my friends garden, soaking in a bucket of warm water and floral preservative to condition them before we decorate our community center for the holidays.

Magnolia branches, from my friends garden, soaking in a bucket of warm water and floral preservative to condition them before we decorate our community center for the holidays.

My friend cut  Magnolia from her garden yesterday for our efforts.  Some of the Magnolia became the base for this wreath, and more will be used tomorrow as we decorate the windowsills inside.

Making an evergreen wreath is not only easy, but it allows you to use exactly the greens you want.  Your mailbox is probably as full as mine of catalogs offering wreathes, swags, and centerpieces handcrafted from box, cedar, holly, juniper, and yew.  These beautiful pieces are so expensive.

Fresh cut cedar and Rosemary soak in this job of warm water and floral preservative so they are conditioned for the wreath.

Fresh cut cedar and Rosemary soak in this jug of warm water and floral preservative so they are conditioned for the wreath.

They are lovely gifts for loved ones out of town and for those who have no way to cut or purchase greenery locally.   But for those of us blessed to have gardens full of evergreen shrubs, it is easy to make our own seasonal decorations.

Cut the greens a day ahead of when you plan to make the wreath so they can condition overnight.  Fill your container half full with warm water and any of the many floral preservative products according to the mixing instructions on the package.  Warm water is absorbed more quickly into the cold branches, and helps hydrate the leaves and branches before you use them in your arrangement.

Cut what you have readily available.

This straw wreath form forms the base for the wreath.

This straw wreath form forms the base for the wreath.

Box, yew, cedar, and juniper are good dense, bushy materials to cover the wreath.  Rosemary holds up well as it dries and smells wonderful mixed in with the other greens.  Sage, lavender, and thyme also work well in wreathes, but dry out more quickly than Rosemary.  Sage will visibly wilt, while lavender and thyme will dry in place without wilting.

These floral staples secure everything to the wreath.  Simply push each into the straw from with your thumb.

These floral staples secure everything to the wreath. Simply push each into the straw form with your thumb.

Anything with berries looks lovely mixed in for accent.  Cedar often has powdery blue berries. Holly and Nandina have red berries, and Pyracantha has orange or yellow berries.  Good holly is beautiful made into wreathes when you have it.  Yellowish or bluish evergreen foliage also looks beautiful worked into a wreath.

Secure the first Magnolia leaf with a floral staple.

Secure the first Magnolia leaf with a floral staple.

Your centerpiece will probably be made in a container you can refill as the greens drink.  A wreath or swag made with freshly cut greens must last the season without additional water, so it is important to condition the greens before making the wreath.

This wreath begins with a straw wreath form from the craft store.

Each new leaf hides the previous staple.  The final leaf is secured under the tip of the first leaf so all staples are hidden.

Each new leaf hides the previous staple. The final leaf is secured under the tip of the first leaf so all staples are hidden.

They generally cost between $2 and $3, often cheaper on sale.  The greens are stuck onto the wreath with metal staples, available at craft stores and floral suppliers.  Other materials you might want are wire and floral picks to attach decorations to the wreath.

I like to begin by covering the straw form with Magnolia leaves.  This gives a nice living, green base underneath the other greenery you choose to use.

Now that the form is covered in Magnolia, we can build onto this base.

Now that the form is covered in Magnolia, we can build onto this base.

I cover the inside, outside, and front of the wreath with overlapping leaves.  The staples are hidden by the leaves layered on top.

Decide early on where the “top” of the wreath will be.  Attach a loop of wire for hanging to the wreath form with a floral staple.  Make sure this is secure enough to hold the weight of your finished wreath.

Make bundles of evergreen branches and secure each bundle to the base with a floral staple.

Make bundles of evergreen branches and secure each bundle to the base with a floral staple.

After covering the entire form with Magnolia leaves,  make up a bunch of mixed greens 6″-12″ long and about 5″-7″ wide.  Layer the largest material on the bottom, and shorter accent material on top of the bunch.  Secure the bunch to the form with a floral staple, making sure to catch all of the stems under the staple.

Make  additional bunches, and secure each to the form so that the top of each bunch covers the staple securing the previous bunch.   Make sure the last bunch of greens is secured to the wreath under the tops of the first bunch so its staple is also hidden.

Secure additional bundles so each previous staple is hidden.

Secure additional bundles so each previous staple is hidden.

This forms the main body of the wreath, and can stand alone with no additional decoration, or with a simple ribbon if you wish.

Once the entire wreath is covered, add any decorations.  You can wire on fruit, Christmas ornaments, pine cones, seed pods, ribbons, leaves, flowers, or most anything else with floral wire, floral picks, or floral staples.  Light items can be hot glued onto the greenery.

After securing floral wire to the back of the wreath, begin stringing fruit for the garland.

After securing floral wire to the back of the wreath, begin stringing fruit for the garland.

I chose to make a garland of cranberries, kumquats, and hot chili peppers for this wreath.  To get this effect, secure one end of a piece of floral wire to the back of the wreath with a floral staple.  Not knowing how long a piece of wire I would need to do the entire wreath, I began with a piece about 4′ long, securing it to the same staple that already holds the loop for hanging.

Cranberries, Kumquats, and dried chillies strung on floral wire garland this wreath.

Cranberries, Kumquats, and dried chilies strung on floral wire garland this wreath.

I put a second staple over the wire where I wanted my first cranberry to lay.  (There is no need to have fruit on the back of the wreath which could get crushed against the door.)

Straighten the wire as much as you can, especially at the very end, and then firmly push the end of the wire through the cranberry from end to end, with the wire exiting where the stem attached.  Push this first cranberry, gently, the length of the wire to rest against the staple.

Secure the wire to the back of the wreath at either end of the strung fruit.

Secure the wire to the back of the wreath at either end of the strung fruit.

String five or six more cranberries to cover the wire as it comes across the top of the wreath.  Use only very firm cranberries, discarding any already soft.  Where your garland comes across the face of the wreath string a Kumquat, followed by chilies, and then resume with the cranberries.  I strung more cranberries until the point where the wire passes to the back of the wreath, and secured the wire with a floral staple just behind the last berry.

Repeat this process, securing the wire at the top of the wreath before the first berry and at the inside bottom just after the last berry as you loop the garland around the wreath.  If you begin to run out of wire, tie the wire off to a staple on the back, and begin a new piece wrapped onto the same staple.  Finally, tie off the end of the final wrap of wire to a floral staple and secure it out of site inside the wreath.

The finished wreath is ready to hang.

The finished wreath is ready to hang.

This wreath will hang outside through the New Year.  I hope the fruit will stand up to such a long display.  It is important to use fresh, firm, fruit to get the longest life from the arrangement you can.

Wreathes are symbols of eternal life, abundance, and the turning year.  They are well loved in our holiday decorations, and so simple to make and personalize for ourselves.

A wreath from our own hand and our own garden reflects our own tastes and interests.  And, this wreath smells wonderful.  The deep spicy aromas of cedar and rosemary  blend beautifully with the citrus kumquats.

What a wonderful gift to make for your own family, or for a special loved one this holiday season.

Nature has many scenes to exhibit, and constantly draws a curtain over this part or that.

She is constantly repainting the landscape and all surfaces, dressing up some scene for our entertainment.

Lately we had a leafy wilderness; now bare twigs begin to prevail, and soon she will surprise us with a mantle of snow.

Some green she thinks so good for our eyes that, like blue, she never banishes it entirely from our eyes, but has created evergreens. 

Henry David Thoreau, Nov. 8, 1858

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

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

Late Summer Purple Haze

We’re a week into September, and finished with the holidays of summer.   Everyone is back in school, from the kids at the College to the home schoolers. You can almost here the hum of brain activity between the diesel rumblings of the school busses each morning and afternoon. Our  mornings are cool and brisk, with … Continue reading

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