Tuesday

How to Make an Herb Wreath - Putting it All Together

Okay, let's make an herb wreath.  I've included instructions here.  There is also a helpful (I hope)  slide show at the bottom of this post. If you missed part one (prep) you can visit it at: How to Make an Herb Wreath - Part 1

We're going to take a traditional approach and assume you want to make a dried herb wreath from which you will harvest herbs later. Your best bet is to use a strong base on which you can wire bunches of herbs in place. Although you can use floral tape, it's not a good idea to contaminate  your herbs with the tape adhesive, so that leaves metal pins, wire or picks (small sticks with wires attached to the end).

For our example, we're using wire cut to length. I like wire because you can buy rolls in a variety of colors and finishes, cut the wire long enough to secure the ends of your herbs, and then use the additional length of wire to attach herb bunches to the form or backing. Here's how:

Making an Herb Wreath

We'll be using a six inch grapevine wreath form and 24 gauge wire. To make the job easier, we'll be working on a large trash bag outdoors and have garden shears, wire cutters and scissors standing by.

A Simple Herb Wreath Assembly Method

One of the most efficient ways to assemble an herb wreath is to make separate bunches of herbs and then add them to the backing (form) one at a time. As each subsequent bunch is added, it covers the wired end of the bunch before it. When you get to the last section (opening) in the circle, prepare a bunch of herbs that has stems facing in both directions. Tie it in the middle instead of at the end, and work to conceal the wire with greenery. When you put the final bunch in place, you won't know where the wreath starts or ends.

Choosing Herbs for a Wreath

The overall appearance of your wreath will depend on the types of herbs you have to work with. Where herbs are concerned, more is usually better. Variety adds interest to your wreath, but you want the whole thing to look integrated too. An easy way to achieve this is to make all the smaller bunches look similar by layering herbs in the same manner. That's the way we'll do it today. (Some folks like making bunches using one herb variety per bunch in bands around the wreath. If you prefer to do it that way, the assembly instructions here will work as well. Just use one type of herb per bunch.)

For mixed herb bunches, start with a base layer made up of an herb you have in abundance. Something full with thick stems and leaves is a good choice. My favorite is rosemary because it looks like an evergreen bough, dries well and has a nice aroma. If you live in a temperate climate, you can grow rosemary year round outdoors. If not, you can plant newer winter hardy cultivars that can tolerate a freeze. Some are hardy to zone 5.

If you don't like rosemary, or don't have enough of it, the following herbs make good bases too. Remember, you want something that fills in well and isn't too lacy in appearance:
  • Lavender branches
  • Sage
  • Bay Leaf
  • Yarrow
Once you have selected an herb for the bottom layer of a bunch, add another layer, and then another. You can create bunches with each new layer slightly offset (with shorter stems) than the layer before it, or with one herb slightly to the left or right. I like to mix it up but always try to keep the base layer herb slightly longer and fuller than the rest. Bunches should look the same size and shape in this type of layout, with the possible exception of one or two herb additions that may add a nice accent or focal point.

For our example wreath I used rosemary as a base with layers of:


  • Lavender stems (and buds)
  • Common sage (smaller leaves)
  • Oregano
  • Pineapple sage
  • Lime scented geranium
  • Thyme

In each bunch I also added an accent herb tucked in here and there:

  • Hyssop
  • Marjoram
  • Lemon balm
  • Peppermint
  • Catnip

Use what you have, but make sure to use more of your woody stemmed sturdy herbs. They'll support soft stemmed herbs like the mints (catnip, peppermint and lemon balm) better. If you do have to rely on lots of soft stemmed herbs, keep the stems relatively short. For interest, try to incorporate flowering herbs too, like lavender, calendula and rosebuds. They add color and contribute appealing textures to the wreath.

Assemble the  Herb Wreath

1. Get your gear together, and work in the shade if you can.

2. Pick herbs in the morning after the dew has evaporated but before the sun gets too hot.

3. Remove yellow or damaged leaves from herb stems.

4. Assemble herb bunches by using the layering method above. Try for bunches that are around four to six inches long. Let the curve of the herb base be your guide -- shorter for tiny wreaths, longer for large wreaths.

5. Strip some of the foliage from the last half inch of the bunch. This will help keep the base manageable and limit shrinkage that will loosen bunches as they dry.

6. Cut a 9 to 12 inch length of wire and wrap stems four or five times. Make them snug. Trim the stem ends to keep them relatively even.

7. Assemble as many bunches as you think you'll need to go around the wreath. Remember, each subsequent bunch will cover the stem end of the one before it. I used seven bunches for this six inch sample grapevine wreath.

8. Prepare the wreath form by adding a hanging loop or hook to the back.

9. Start adding bunches to the wreath using the extra length of wire attached in each bunch. If the tops of the stems stick out at unattractive angles, bind them to the curve of the form by threading a loop of wire directly to that stem. It will be concealed in the other greenery. Leave any extra wire loose for now. You can trim and tuck it in later.

10. Add the next bunch. Make sure the top of the new bunch completely conceals the base of the previous bunch.

11. Keep going around the wreath base adding bunches until you get to the last opening. At this point you can do a couple of things. If the bunches are pretty dense, you may be able to just add a final bunch for a nice filled-in look. You can also reserve that last space for an attractive bow. I like to make the last bunch by placing stem ends on both sides of a bunch and wiring it in the middle, being careful to add a few bushy herbs that will conceal the wire. Geraniums are great for this. You can put the last bunch in place pretty effortlessly regardless of how much space you have available.

12. Once the wreath is complete, check for exposed wire and tuck in additional stems to conceal the wire and any gaps. Trim remaining wires and bury the ends into the base.

13. Stand back and review your handiwork. If some leaves look too floppy or don't fit the curve of the wreath, trim them. You may also be able to finesse them behind adjacent bits of greenery.

14. Dry your wreath in a warm, dark spot for at least 72 hours. If there are any insects present, they will evacuate as the herbs dry, so try finding a spot in a garage or attic. You can also do this outside in good (but not very hot or humid) weather. Just tuck the wreath into a fully opened brown paper bag set on its side, cut open the bottom (now the back) and make sure no sunlight is hitting the wreath directly through the open sections. Check every few hours to make sure the herbs are drying and not cooking. There should be adequate air flow to allow moisture to exit the bag.

15. As your herb wreath starts to dry, you'll notice that your beautiful design will shift a little, exposing the wires and altering the nice round (or heart shaped, oval or square) outline. Tuck fresh cut stems into bald spots to conceal wired sections. You can also hold wayward stems in place with a couple of wooden clothespins until they dry completely. Once dry, most herbs will hold their shape.

One dried herb wreath can last an entire season if you keep it out of the sun and away from moisture (like steam from your kitchen sink). Herb wreaths make wonderful gifts and attractive wall art.

Special Notes on Making Herb Wreaths

If you want an herb wreath for decorative purposes only, you have much more latitude. You can tack stems in place with hot glue instead of pins or wire, and you can use decorative mosses to make the base look more natural.

If you love the idea of making a dried herb wreath but don't have lots of herbs to use as raw material, there are some other options. Instead of completely covering the base with herb bunches, just place herbs on part of the wreath and add a bow. You'll have aromatic and attractive dried herbs, effective wall art, and it won't take a garden full of greenery. Just construct a double stemmed bunch as described above and add one or two additional bunches on either side.

Making an herb wreath is wonderfully entertaining, but it can take time, so give yourself a couple of hours for the job. Make a nice cup of tea or cocoa for yourself, while you're at it. When it comes to herb harvesting and crafting, this is about as good as it gets, so enjoy it. It only happens once or twice a year.

Sunday

Chive and Cheddar Cheese Soup

When there's a chill in the air, nothing beats an old fashioned cream soup. The herbed chive and cheddar cheese soup recipe below has the rich goodness of potatoes and cheese without all the fat. Give it a try.

Chive and Cheddar Cheese Soup Recipe

8 cups vegetable stock (you can substitute chicken stock)
1 pound red potatoes, peeled and cubed
3/4 pound broccoli, florets
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
6 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup chives, minced
1/4 cup parsley, minced
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, minced
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, fresh ground
salt and white pepper to taste

Saute the onion in butter. Set aside. Combine vegetable stock and potatoes in a heavy soup pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add broccoli and continue simmering for seven minutes more or until tender. Add onion and butter mixture, parsley and tarragon. Remove from heat and blend ingredients with an immersion blender until smooth. Reheat on low (don't boil). Add cheese, chives, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir until cheese melts. Serves six.

The potatoes add thickness without resorting to using dairy cream or half-and-half. This makes Chive and Cheddar Soup a filling meal that's low in calories. Because there's a good, flavorful blend of herbs, the broccoli isn't overpowering, either, so it's a good way to incorporate this healthy veggie into your diet. For a dynamite garnish, put a dollop of sour cream on top of each serving with a sprinkling of fresh chopped chives. If you want to be truly devilish, add some bacon bits too.

Approx Nutritional Values
Per Serving - Calories: 254, Protein:  10 g, Fat: 14 g, Sodium: 320 mg, Fiber: 4 g, Carbs: 21 g

Saturday

How to Make an Herb Wreath - Part 1

Learning how to make an herb wreath is one fall weekend activity you're sure to remember fondly.  I grow lots of herbs, and over the years I've tried many herb wreath making methods. Most of them work, but like driving to Chicago, you can reach your destination via a number of different routes.

In the next few blogs, we'll be making herb wreaths with our fall herb harvest. This intro describes what you should be thinking about before you begin.

The Base

Almost all herb wreaths are constructed using a base. You can make the base yourself out of plywood, woven branches or wire. The easiest way, though, is to buy a readymade base. Wreath making is fraught with decisions and the choice of the best base is the first of many.

If you want part of the base to show in your decoration, choose a straw or a grapevine wreath. They are available through your local craft outlets in lots of different sizes. From a four inch ring that makes a nice candle base to a 16-inch behemoth that will grace your front entry, the purpose you plan for your wreath and the amount of material you have to work with will play a big role in the type of base you choose. If you plan on completely covering the base, you can use Styrofoam or wire instead of a material with an attractive, natural appearance.

I should note here that you can also use artificial pine boughs -- Christmas wreaths -- but I've never done it myself. If you do decide on this method, make sure you have good air flow because the resulting wreath will be pretty dense, and you want all the herbs to dry quickly and completely.

Hooks, Wire or Tape

To make a wreath, herbs are typically arranged in small bunches and then affixed to the base. The herbs are FRESH PICKED when they're arranged and then dry in place. Dried herbs are so fragile that they'll shatter if you try arranging them into any complex design, so using fresh herbs is important. If you've already harvested and dried your herbs this year, you can make decorative brooms or display them in an attractive basket instead -- leave the wreath for next time.

The fresh bunches of herbs (more on herb selection later) will be affixed to the base using hooks, wire or a type of floral sticky tape. The base you choose can have an impact on the method you use to affix your herbs. Although straw and Styrofoam wreath bases can use any of a number of "installation" methods, you'll have less flexibility with wire or grapevine bases. You want an anchoring method that's sturdy but easy to work with. If you plan on cooking with your dried herbs, you'll also need a food grade material -- not a wire that may rust.

A Hanger

If you plan on hanging your wreath on the wall, you'll need a hanger for the back. Again, the base will have a lot to do with the type of hanger you use, but it's always best to put one on the base before you start work. Your wreath will be less forgiving of being moved around and worked on after the herbs are in place.

Tools and Supplies

It'll be much easier to have a few tools and a work area ready before you begin. I recommend these basic items:

Newspaper - The process of making an herb wreath is the culmination of a season in your herb garden. It's really, really (really) fun, but it can get messy. Have newspaper or a tarp you can place on a flat, stable surface. Actually, you may want to do this outdoors on your deck or patio.

Wreath bases and anchors - Whatever setup you decide on, have your materials ready to go.  Floral pins work well with Styrofoam and straw bases while wire and tape are effective on grapevine and wire wreath bases.

Chop sticks - These sticks can be very useful for getting errant herb stems into the configuration you want. They're also free when you order Chinese.


Scissors, clippers and wire cutters - You'll need to cut stems and may need to cut or bend wire. Review your bases and anchors to see what types of implements might be useful, and get them together before you start your project. I speak from experience. It's never fun having to go on a tool hunt in the middle of a project.

Rubber bands - As the herb bunches dry, the stems will shrink, becoming looser whatever anchor you choose. To help combat this, especially with herbs that have soft, moist stems, you can assemble bunches using rubber bands first. As the stems shrink, the bands will tighten up, requiring a little less post-completion fussing. This isn't strictly necessary, but it can be a helpful step. For the best results, use green colored rubber bands.

Ribbon and decorative elements - If you plan on making an herb wreath part of your home d├ęcor, you may want to apply a few finishing touches to it. Raffia ribbon or something more formal is always a nice touch. You can even add decorative picks in the form of birds, bees or butterflies.

If the wreath is planned for the kitchen and will be used throughout the winter (my favorite), consider affixing a small pair of decorative scissors to your wreath with an attractive ribbon. It's a dainty touch that's helpful when you want to snip some thyme in a hurry.

Check out the available options and have the geegaws ready.

I usually make about five wreaths at a time and like four to six inchers. I like straw and grapevine base materials too. Once the herbs are in place, the wreath will usually increase in diameter by three to six inches depending on how densely you pack the herbs. If you plan a wreath for a particular spot, keep this in mind.

I outline how to assemble an herb wreath in my post: How to Make an Herb Wreath - Putting it All Together

Sunday

How to Dry Roses

The nice pink rose in the picture is one of my favorite wreath roses. I've tucked a bud or two into raffia, cloth and fabric wreath bows for years because these pinks aren't fussy and I can wait to cut them back in fall until the first part of November -- usually, which makes them perfect for wreath making.

Drying Roses in a Dehydrator

You'll read a lot about hanging roses upside down in an attic or covering them with silica gel (or another desiccant) to promote fast trying, but I usually rely on a dehydrator. I have a couple that I keep for fall harvesting -- one for food items and the other for craft plants and flowers. They work very well for me, and I recommend them wholeheartedly. You can spend hundreds of dollars for a dehydrator with shelves, a fan and a thermostat, but I usually use a basic setup (purchased years ago for around $30) with dishwasher safe nesting racks and a simple heating element.

It typically takes a day or less at between 105 and 115 degrees F (a common temperature range for dehydrators) to dry rose buds, and even less time to dry rose petals. I just make sure to turn the individual blooms a couple of times (and rotate the racks a quarter turn) to keep the petals from drying with the crosshatch imprint of the racks on them.

Tips for Rose Potpourri

From pink roses that turn mauve, to sweetheart red roses that turn almost black, what you see isn't always what you get in the world of herb drying in general and rose drying in particular.

                                          
The photo at the left shows the rose above after a few hours drying time. You'll see that it has darkened quite a bit -- yes, it is the same bud. Darkening is typical.

Once a rose dries, it can be sturdier and more resilient than you might expect too. The dried rose at the bottom of this blog is three years old and comes from the same bush as the pink example rose. Dried roses become brittle, but with regular dusting (I blow them clean with a hair dryer) you can use them for more than one season.

My secret to refreshing potpourri is to change out most of the other loose materials but keep the rose buds, wood flowers, pine cones and acorns. I add a couple of drops of rose essential oil (or another essential oil blend) and use them all over again. I think of it as a nice way to preserve the beauty of a season -- or two -- or three.

Air Drying Roses


If you do decide to dry roses the old fashioned way -- upside down in a dark, warm, dry location, remember to use a rubber band instead of twine to bind bunches of blooms. As the stems dry out and lose volume the band will cinch up, keeping them from falling out of the bundle and shattering on the floor. These tips will help too:

Choose buds that are just opening. They'll have the most natural look once dried and stay together better.

Strip the leaves from the stems before you dry roses. Moisture in tightly packed leaves can lead to mold growth.

Keep bunches small to enhance air circulation.

Hang blossoms and leave them alone for ten days to two weeks. When they're brittle to the touch, they're done.

Saturday

Making Orange Potpourri

Drying orange peel is a great way to make the most of your citrus, and with the prices we're all paying for a bag of oranges, it pays to get the most we can for the money we're spending.

I've always liked orange peel. I've candied it and just tossed a peel in the wastepaper as I passed to keep it sweet smelling. A few years ago I decided to take a more active role in saving peels, so from stuffing whole chickens with them (for the aromatics) to using them in potpourri, orange peels rule at my house.

They can actually look quite nice in potpourri, either homemade or store bought. You don't even have to work too hard to prep them. Just cut peels into thin strips, give them a bath in a little red food coloring to tint the pith (the light colored back) and dry the strips.

After they're dry, add a few drops of sweet orange oil (essential oil of orange) and place them where you need them. You can also use any other essential oil aroma that strikes your fancy. I've used clove, cinnamon and even vanilla, depending on the other ingredients in the potpourri.

They're natural odor eaters, and sweet orange oil is a mood enhancer too. You can make your home smell fresher, look nicer and make yourself happy doing it. What could be better? The photos below will show you my process. This one is quick and easy:

Instructions for Drying Decorative Orange Peel

Slice orange peels.

Soak them in a half cup of water to which you've added eight to twelve drops of red food coloring (depending on the brand). Leave for five minutes.

Place strips on a dehydrator for three to five hours. You can also just dry the peels in a warm dark place or on a cookie sheet in a warm oven.

If you want decorative strips, wrap them into curls while they're wet and they'll dry that way. For long strips, you can make corkscrews. Keep them in place with a paperclip until they dry completely.

Add two or three drops of essential oil per peel.


Over the winter, we eat a lot of oranges, so I always have baggies of prepped peel strips to work with. It's a fun easy project, and you can make an impromptu potpourri with cinnamon sticks, star anise, orange peel (of course), whole nuts, like almonds and walnuts, and lavender flowers or rose petals.

Thursday

How to Combat Bedbugs

Well, if you don't know about the bedbug explosion - uh, the explosion of bed bugs, you've probably been unconscious for the last year. These small, biting bugs are voracious, very hard to kill and, if you listen to the news reports, almost everywhere. This would include hotels, movie theaters, retail dressing rooms, offices, dorm rooms, airports - you name it.

Eradicated for the most part by the widespread use of DDT, they're making a big 21st century comeback and may hitch a ride to your house if you're not careful.

How to Fight Bedbugs

Here are some helpful suggestions for avoiding an infestation:

When you travel, check your hotel mattress for signs of bugs. You may see specks along the seams of mattresses or even the bugs themselves on the backs of headboards or along bed frames. Ask for a room change if you see anything suspicious, or better yet, change hotels.

If you wake up with an itchy bite, make sure to take precautions when you get home. Keep your luggage in the garage until you've had a chance to inspect and vacuum it thoroughly and wash all of your travel clothing in very hot water.

Your exposure isn't limited to places where you may sleep over. Anywhere people gather could be a potential infestation site if there are areas where hitchhiking bedbugs can hide and feed. This includes upholstered furniture, carpeting and clothing. Make it a habit to shake out your coat before you enter your home, and place your dirty clothing away from your sleeping area and in a segregated spot that isn't carpeted, like a laundry room. Wash your street clothes as soon after wearing them as possible.

If you do inadvertently bring bedbugs home, act fast. Bedbugs dislike strongly smelling herbs and heat. Wash bedding, vacuum everything thoroughly, steam clean your mattress, wash your drapes and put down any of a number of pesticide sprays or powders that deter bedbugs specifically. There are links below to a couple of good homemade herbal preparations, but there are also lots of products on the market. There is no silver bullet, so diligence is your best ally.


You should also keep some kind of protection in your luggage when you travel. A lavender scented sachet will be unappealing to your average bedbug, which may then shun your belongings in favor of something less fragrant. Keeping a sachet in your bedding, like between the sheets and under the pillow, can deter them if you think you may have nocturnal visitors but aren't quite sure, or are in the midst of a cleanup campaign. Washing your bedding with lavender essential oil will help too.

Once you have an infestation in your home, it can be notoriously hard to get rid of. The bugs like staying within a few feet of their feeding area - your bed, but when they hide, they can choose the open space behind electrical outlets, under wallpaper and behind baseboards. You can't starve them out, either. Bedbugs can go without eating for months and months, so just closing the door on an infestation won't work.

As soon as you recognize that you have a problem, start work and think CLEAN. Wash all of your textiles regularly in hot water, and use steam to clean everything else you can. A handheld steamer works great and will help you tackle your mattress and access other hard to reach spots on upholstered furniture. Stay with a treatment regimen through to the end. For more info, background and some treatment options, the links below will help:

They Crawl, They Bite, They Baffle Scientists (The New York Times)
The Bedbug Blues

Natural Bedbug Control (My blog post with homemade bedbug repellent recipes.)
4 Places Bedbugs Hide and How to Avoid Them

Wednesday

Basic Basil Pesto Recipe

I've encouraged you to try a flavorful and wonderfully aromatic pesto, so here is my recipe entry. It's basic but delicious. You can find all the ingredients at your local market with the possible exception of the pine nuts. They're more popular than they used to be, so try the gourmet section or the baking aisle where they keep the other nuts.

Pesto is best fresh, but you can freeze it in a pinch. As an alternative to marinara sauce, it's beyond indulgent and at it's very best when the basil leaves are fresh from your very own garden.

You can whip up a batch in ten minutes or less with your handy dandy food processor.

Basil Pesto Recipe

Ingredients

2 cups fresh, tightly packed basil leaves
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese (High quality - not the shaker stuff)
1/2 cup olive oil
3 tablespoon pine nuts (You can also use walnuts)
2 to 4 garlic cloves, finely minced (to taste)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Basic Pesto Instructions

The goal is to combine all of the ingredients into a fine paste. To do this without clumps and unprocessed bits, it's best to break the work into batches. Try separating all the ingredients into thirds or quarters. Add a third of the basil leaves, cheese, nuts, garlic, spices and oil and then pulse and blend. Once that's pretty well incorporated, add the second batch and repeat. Add the third batch. You can use a blender or food processor, whatever works for you. Just keep stirring down the sides to get everything well blended. The oil is viscous and will help incorporate everything.

Special notes: For pesto, it's nice to use a quality olive oil that has a distinctive olive flavor. If you use a non-olive flavored olive-oil for general cooking purposes, now's the time to splurge on the good stuff. Look for oil that’s tinged green and has a strong olivey aroma.

This is a slight cheat, but I will sometimes add a tablespoon or two of avocado oil as part of the olive oil requirement. The result seems richer and creamier to me -- just a suggestion. I also like to add a scraping of nutmeg.

Another useful cheat is to add a couple of tablespoons of mashed potato.  It'll make a creamy sauce that will stay green and luscious longer.

Yes, there is a lot of oil, but it's good-for-you oil. If you want to try a classic regional dish that will make the most of your months slaving in the herb patch, this one is it.

Use pesto on pasta or as a spread on crusty bread.

Tuesday

Harvesting Basil Seeds

A kind reader pointed out that I glossed over the seed part of basil harvesting, so I thought I'd give you an easy visual. The first photo is a basil spike after the flowers have dried up and the spike itself has turned brown. This will typically occur in the early fall in most plant hardiness zones in the U.S. If you need to check the zone for your area, there's a handy link at the bottom of this blog.

The second photo is the result of rubbing a dried basil spike between my palms to pulverize the pods and release the seeds. They're black (I think that's true for most basil varieties, anyway) and look seed-like. This is a bonus because some plant seeds look like fluff, dust and even dried flower petals.

All you need to do is separate the seeds. You'll see a pile of them at the left of the second photo. Let them dry a little more in a warm spot, like near your water heater or on top of your stove. After a day or two, container them in a small envelope labeled with the date and variety.

Ahhh - time for a refreshing beverage break because your basil seed harvest is safe and in the bag -- or the envelope -- until next spring.

Congratulations.

Before you dismantle your basil plants for fall, try transforming some fresh leaves into pesto. If you like the aroma and flavor of basil, think of pesto as basil-ness on steroids. It's a rich treat everyone who grows basil should try at least once. Homemade pesto is primo - oh, for heaven's sake, too much alliteration, but you get my point.

Monday

Harvesting Parsley

Choosing a method for harvesting parsley is always a judgment call. Parsley is the little black dress of the herb patch. It can work with lots and lots of dishes, is a very green, bushy little plant that looks good in the garden and is relatively easy going, as in not fussy. It's also available for snipping all summer long.

It is so ubiquitous, in fact, that around the holidays some grocery stores offer a free bunch of parsley with every Christmas or Thanksgiving turkey. That is the power of parsley in our hearts and minds -- a garnish, a seasoning, a bunch of green goodness that brings a feeling of hearth and home to the table.

Harvesting Parsley Can Be Tricky


Parsley is one herb that's ridiculously easy to find at the market, which is a good thing because growing it in the garden has some disadvantages when harvest time rolls around. Dried parsley lacks flavor. I'm sure you've noticed. It dries a bright green that isn't very attractive in wreaths or swags, which makes it less desirable as a decorative, dried herb too.

It is also a biennial, which means it won't set seed the first year you plant it. Instead, it stores energy to overwinter in the garden and sets seed the following spring or early summer. That second season you won't get much leaf development because most of the plant's energy will be used up making flowers and seeds. The seeds themselves will be quite small and can be a challenge to grow -- more on that in a minute.

On Bringing Parsley Indoors

Parsley has a taproot too, which can be tough to translate to a pot if you plan on bringing your plant indoors for casual harvesting during the winter. Think very deep pot and keep your fingers crossed.

Okay, now for the good news. Even in cold climates you can overwinter parsley in the garden at the end of its first season. Just cut it back and give it a good mulching.

As a recipe ingredient, your extra parsley is also a great candidate for freezing. Just clean it, chop it, place it in clean or distilled water and freeze it into ice cubes. Once the cubes have set, transfer them to a big freezer bag and you'll have minced parsley for soups, stews and all your other parsley rich dishes. Just be sure to harvest the leaves late in the season so there'll still be enough oomph in the root to survive the winter. In most locations, mid-September before the first frost is a good time.

Handling Parsley Seeds

Next season, you'll want to harvest your parsley seeds. This is pretty straightforward, but getting them to germinate later calls for some special attention. The seed casings are TOUGH, so soak them in hot (but not boiling) water, and let the water come to room temperature. Leave the seeds in water overnight and plant them out the next day or the day after.

If you do decide to dry parsley, watch the temperature because it scorches easily and dries in a very few hours in either a warm oven or in a dehydrator. Try using the dried leaves within a month, after that they're colorful but pretty tasteless.

Special tip for harvesting parsley: If you're making flavored vinegars, try setting some fresh parsley aside as a garnish. It makes an attractive addition to a decorative bottle.

Sunday

Harvesting Basil

Harvesting basil for winter access is fragrant fun.  Your patch of fresh basil, catnip, parsley, oregano and rosemary can be bountiful contributors to your winter herb stash if you have a few hours to spare.

Over the next few weeks, we'll cover some gardening ground as it relates to fall and winter herb harvesting projects, culminating in a step-by-step tutorial for making herb wreaths. September is always a busy month, and I'll write as fast as I can.

First up is basil. This little herb is great on hot summer nights with garden tomatoes and some fresh mozzarella cheese. When there's a frost on the way though, you'll have to harvest next year's seeds and put aside enough leaves for your winter cooking needs. Basil can be challenging because it doesn't dry very well. That distinctive, earthy licorice/peppery flavor fades to nothing within a month once the leaves have been dried, so let's explore other options.

Basil leaves will be sweetest and most fragrant before the plant flowers, but even after basil sends up flowering stalks, leaves are still suitable for harvesting, drying and freezing. For pesto dishes (fresh basil intensive), prefer young leaves picked before flowers appear on the plant.

Freezing Basil - Option 1


Freeze all those luscious, full basil leaves in ice cube trays. Start by harvesting the leaves and washing them well.  Leave them in cold water for an hour or more to remove dirt and encourage insect freeloaders to move on. Replace the water at least twice. I use my kitchen sink, but a colander inside a big bowl is an efficient method for small batches.

Once the leaves are clean, drain them and chop them.

Place the chopped mixture in enough *distilled water to cover completely and pour into ice cube trays.

Once frozen, remove the basil cubes (don't you love the sound of that) and put them in a freezer bag so you can use individual cubes as needed.

Drop cubes directly into hot sauces or stews, or let them thaw in a dish and drain off the excess water.  This method works great for pizza sauce, marinara, soups, cocktail sauce, stews and salsas.

Growing Basil Indoors - Option 2

Basil is an annual, but you can start a new plant in water pretty easily. Just harvest healthy stems, strip off all but the top few leaves and place the stems in water to which you've added a little liquid fertilizer. Make sure that there are no leaves below the water line.

If you have some sunny window real estate for your vase or jug, you can keep these plant starts  throughout the winter and harvest leaves sparingly from time to time. Plant the new basil plants next spring. I tried this last year with surprising success, and so can you.

Hints and tricks: It's best to do this as soon as possible once the Summer temps start to dip a little, and always before the first frost.

Cut stem ends on a 45 degree angle to encourage water uptake.

Keep the stems in water while you cut them (if possible), and use the sharpest knife you have.

Never use scissors. They'll smash the stems.

 Other Basil Preservation Methods

There are a number of other ways to preserve basil, like making pesto and freezing the finished recipe, layering basil leaves in oil and freezing the mixture, or packing the leaves in salt.  All will work, but I've found that keeping a plant indoors during the winter months and freezing some of the summer crop is the best approach for me.  One caution if you use the oil route: fresh herb oils, like garlic and basil oil, are susceptible to botulism contamination, so keep any mixture you make frozen, or discard it after a week.


Harvesting Basil Seeds

Basil seeds are really easy to harvest. They're large and occur on the flowering spikes. You'll know they're ready to remove when the spikes start to turn brown and the seed coverings look papery and dry. All you have to do is remove the stalks and rub them between your palms into a brown paper bag. The seeds are dark - you can't miss them.

Separate the seeds and store them in a dark, dry place until spring. I use small, dated and labeled envelopes and put the seeds in a special "seed" drawer in my desk.

That's it. In any given season, I do all three and hope for the best.

I don't usually include basil in my dried herb blends, wreaths, swags or any other dry arrangements. Last year I did give away lots of rooted stems, though.


Basil and Grow Lights

Basil likes light, and you'll discover that almost any herb you bring indoors to overwinter, like pineapple sage, ginger, rosemary or marjoram, will need LOTS of light. If your herbs fail to make the transition, lack of adequate light is the likely culprit.

One way to hedge your bets if you don't have a huge window with a southern exposure is to invest in grow lights. They're less expensive than they used to be, and you don't even need the entire light fixture setup. You can buy the bulb in some cases and place it in a lamp you already have or can buy on sale. That and an inexpensive timer attached to the plug will give you a timed light source that will get your herbs through the winter just fine.

Depending on your arrangement and the number of herbs you have, you can probably find the raw materials for light enhancement for under $30 -- and the setup can look attractive too and definitely not like your son's latest science experiment. Just remember to read the bulb instruction label for distance recommendations, and be sure to give your indoor herbs at least six hours of bright light a day.

*You can use regular tap water, but distilled water is pure, without antibacterial agents or potentially harmful microbes to cause problems. You can usually buy a gallon for a couple of dollars and use it as a starter for lots of different herbs and houseplants.

Harvesting Basil Notes: Not everyone goes organic, so if you've been spraying your herbs, observe the label instructions on how long you need to wait to harvest after a treatment.

You might also want to take a look at:  Harvesting Basil Seed and Grow Basil


Photo - By Cliff Hutson (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday

Beating Bedbugs Naturally

The admonition ". . .and don’t let the bed bugs bite." was never truer than it is today when super pesticide resistant bedbugs are taking a bite out of a record number of unprotected sleepers. Barring a few super noxious and possibly illegal chemical treatments, bed bugs can be a challenge to get rid of. I wrote a blog about it a while back that you should review if you're having problems.

Don't feel bad if you're getting a nocturnal visit from these thirsty vampires. They've infested a number of major cities and can hang out in some of the best hotels. You're also at risk if you buy clothes or furniture used, or have a child in college who visits home occasionally.

This article should get your in protection mode: 4 Places Bedbugs Hide and How to Avoid Them.

After you've finished it, take a look at my blog post: Natural Bedbug Control 

With diligence and a few old-time and herbal treatments, bed bugs can be banished, but only if you work fast to keep them from getting settled into your walls and carpeting.

Good luck, and if you stumble on a treatment or idea that really works, please come back and share.

Monday

And Thanks for Your Support!

Over the weekend, I posted about the looming fall gardening season and my personal herb gardening journey. To be honest, every time I write something personal -- as in not dealing exclusively with how to grow and use herbs, I feel a little guilty. In some ways, it seems self-indulgent, although I try to write these pieces as well as I can.

That's why it always amazes me that they're the most well received posts I write. The others: how-tos, plant profiles and recipes, get plenty of coverage and usually score high on Google hits for popular search terms, but it's the personal reflections that have people emailing me or commenting.

I'd like to thank everyone who comes to hear what I have to say. I'm really gratified. When I first started this blog, I was overjoyed to get 20 hits a day. I felt validated and welcome in cyberspace -- don't laugh. Since The Wall Street Journal mention a couple of years ago, I've had a consistent and loyal following, and I think my readers are the absolute best folks around. So thanks again.

. . . and happy harvesting.

Sara

Saturday

My Herb Walkabout (Journey)

Another summer will be winding down soon. A few mornings this week I could even smell fall in the air. Although every season has its rewards, I can't help but stop and think about time passing as I start rummaging around for envelopes to store seeds in.

I've been growing herbs for decades. It's funny, because in some ways they've become so familiar that I take them for granted - the chives on our baked potatoes, the flat leaf parsley on our bean casserole, the jar of dried catnip for our feline friends, the lavender flowers for sachets, the lemon balm for tea, the fresh chopped oregano for pizza . . . the list goes on and on. It's taken a while to ramp up to a life filled with herbs, though.

When I started out, I wasn't very crafty. I worked long hours and probably considered simple country crafts and certainly gardening as something I'd never have the time or energy to do with any regularity or dedication. I never really liked getting dirty, either - well, shame on me, huh.

If someone had explained to me that one day there'd be a list of dozens (if not hundreds) of projects I'd completed successfully, I might have even been slightly horrified. There's a big difference between buying a jar of an enticing herb blend and growing, drying and bottling it yourself. For the first, you need the discretionary income, desire and a little time to shop. (But there's a thrill involved in even this limited emotional investment -- don't get me wrong. It's a small introduction to the secret and mysterious world of brews, arcane recipes and power - womanly power.)

For the second, the actual cultivating part, you need to understand how plants grow and what wizardry they can (and can't) perform for you. You also need to be willing to get dirty, do battle with bugs over your small plot (or pot), and watch the skies for weather warnings. You need to know where the seeds are and how get at them. You invariably get elbow deep in soil, compost, mulch, leaves and grass, whether you want to or not. You also get inundated with the exotic aromas of luscious, green growing things. I brush my lavender bushes all the time in my travels around our landscape, and the spearmint trails out into the driveway every summer where I encounter it as I head off to get the mail.

In the years I've kept herbs, I've learned my lessons one at a time, through successes and a whole lot of failures. Someone -- I can't remember who -- said you can't really know a plant unless you've killed it at least three times. I've met that challenge and surpassed it.

I'm a living example of how little herbs can teach big lessons. From a casual shopper dabbling in herb lore and crafts, I've become a decent gardener and cook. I'm more connected to the soil and more available to ideas about food and planet friendly practices than I would have been otherwise, I think, which is one of the reasons my story is important.

One potted herb can start you on a most amazing journey if you let it; I know. Herbs really are magical. If you've come to my blog for information about growing, cooking, crafting or healing with herbs, I hope you find some useful and entertaining information here. I've certainly been entertained and enriched by my curious investigations into the workings of these amazing little plants.

How to Dry Citrus Peel

I particularly like the idea of drying citrus peel for use in recipes and in potpourri. I think of it as an eco-friendly way to make use of everything and that can be a uniquely satisfying approach to herbal gardening, cooking and crafting.

This is really simple. Just trim the pith (the creamy part) off the skin of any citrus you have. Orange, lemon, tangerine and grapefruit will work. You can do this with a sharp paring knife and sometimes even with a quality (sharp) potato peeler.

Once you have some nice long strips, set them in a warm dark place for a couple of days to dry. They'll darken and become quite stiff. Sometimes placing them in the oven or in a dehydrator can scorch them, so I prefer placing strips of peel on top of the stove for the warm, dry air when I'm baking -- or as a fall-back plan, I've also placed trays arranged with strips of peel on the dryer and even on top of the water heater.

Once dried, you can seal them in plastic bags for later use in potpourri or ground up as a flavoring in sauces and baked goods. If you're planning on using dried citrus peel in cooking, opt for organic fruits to avoid pesticide contamination.

This is a fun fall activity, and it's always entertaining to include the kids if you can find a safe peeler that will work for them. Turning trash into aromatic treasures is a bit of wizardry that can change a child's perspective about the garden and growing things.

Using dried citrus in potpourri is one of my favorite craft "tricks". It's an inexpensive, natural and easy way to create volume and color in a homemade bowl of potpourri. Add some whole star anise, some cinnamon sticks, a couple of whole nutmegs and some cardamom seed and you have the makings of a holiday fragrance that will make your home smell cozy and inviting - without artificial additives, preservatives or -- ugh, wood shavings.