Friday

How to Make Spicy Tomato Jam

It's the time of year when cooling temps make me think of turning my energies indoors. Canning is one activity I look forward to every year. I don't expect everyone to share my enthusiasm, though. For some folks, canning seems pretty intimidating. For others, it promises a lot of product with too few opportunities to us it. After all, it can be hard to come up with enough ways to use or share 20 jars of apple butter.


Why on Earth Would You Want to Can Your Own Food?


I actually came to canning pretty honestly. I wanted to explore long term storage solutions for garden herbs, vegetables, fruits and my growing store of spices. I discovered something interesting: Canning isn't anywhere near as scary as it appears. If you observe a few important rules, you can make hundreds of different recipes, give them away as gifts, and turn to them to make winter food prep more entertaining and delicious.

Once you start to explore the options, the offerings at the market will begin to seem paltry, too. After you taste the homemade stuff, mass market jams, pickles and chutneys will taste bland. Home canning is addictive. Don't forget homemade canned recipes can also be a healthy alternative. They typically contain wholesome ingredients and few if any of those pesky multisyllabic additives and preservatives. If stored properly, most home canned goods will remain shelf stable for 12 months or so.

Don't these canning projects sound amazing:
Five Pounds of Fresh, Ripe Tomatoes

  • Dandelion jelly
  • Peach and lavender jam
  • Lemon balm jelly
  • Lime marmalade
  • Strawberry kiwi jam

 

Spicy Tomato Jam


Tomato jam is an excellent example of an appealing canning recipe. It has the distinct taste of tomato, but with sweet, hot notes that makes it a wonderful base for a marinade, a barbecue sauce or  substitute for ketchup. It's a nice relish all by itself. Tomato jam is also delicious mixed into a block of cream cheese (my  favorite). In fact, Harry and David (a mail order outlet) offers a line of products along this vein that sell for a pretty penny. Tomato jam is a specialty food you may or may not find in the gourmet section of your local market, so it has an extra bit of cachet that makes it an appealing gift basket item for the foodie in your life -- or a guilty pleasure of your very own.

Simmered to perfection
This recipe calls for lots of tomatoes that cook down to a thick, dark, sweet, rich goo. If you've ever been baffled by what to do with a late season tomato harvest, this is one way to use up those less that lovely end-of-season ruby globes. My latest version of choice includes plenty of lime juice and spices like cinnamon, cloves and ginger.

Preparing it yesterday was a treat: Leaving it to simmering on the back burner all afternoon infused the house with fall aromas -- and the welcome ghost of holidays yet to come. I have included photos of this year's tomato jam extravaganza throughout the post. Two batches (10 lbs., or about 28 tomatoes worth), yielded 9 half pint (8 oz.) jars.

You can find the recipe at the very informative Food in Jars website. It contains all the information you'll need to prepare and can tomato jam and many other recipes. This particular jam contains: ripe tomatoes (I used primarily slicing tomatoes because that's what I had left this late in the season), lime juice, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, salt, and red chili flakes. The directions call for leaving the tomato skins and seeds in as they lend the final jam some needed texture. I was doubtful, but that's exactly what happened. The seeds soften up, and the skins becomes tender.

I really like the Food in Jars recipe, but it took me a lot longer to reduce the mixture using slicing tomatoes, about five hours in a heavy duty, enamel Dutch oven on low (a light simmer) -- just an FYI. I like it thick, though.
Prepared, canned, processed and sampled -- delicious!


In canning, you can easily cut a recipe in half (doubling is a no-no unless you do it in batches). I was thinking: Half the published recipe would make enough to try as a refrigerator jam, saving the whole canning thing for another time. If you're too busy or not yet a convert, it might be worth considering.

Also, I used 8 ounce jars for this project, but 4 ounce jars are another option, especially for gift giving. That's enough for a pot of tasty red relish or more than a generous, spicy dollop with cream cheese.


Mixed with Cream Cheese on a Cracker

After this project, I'm left with a smattering of green tomatoes in the garden and plan on making a pickled green tomato relish with mustard seed next. See how a little canning prowess can make herb and vegetable gardening more productive?

Thursday

How to Dry Tomatoes with Herbs

The tomato is my favorite vegetable -- uh, fruit. This usually translates to a garden full of tomato goodness -- usually in September -- that far exceeds my ability to eat, can, freeze, dry or otherwise preserve the bounty.  This doesn't make me sad, though.  The challenge is in finding lots of delicious and entertaining ways to put my tomato crop to good use.  Whatever is left over, I give away or donate.

I can tomato jam and tomato salsa, make batches of green tomato relish and dry tomatoes to eat as snacks or use in cooking.  Dried tomatoes are actually pretty handy. With a little minced rosemary, they can be delicious in rustic homemade bread. Dried tomatoes also make a satisfying snack.  This last is my recommendation for the day.

How to Dry Tomato Snacks


I have some end-of-season grape tomatoes that aren't nearly as sweet as they would have been had they ripened a month ago.  Rather than let them rot on the vine, I like to slice them (or small cherry tomatoes) in half lengthwise and dry them using a dehydrator.  This takes 24 hours or so, and the equipment does most of the work.  The result is tart, savory and salty. There is even a little more sweetness in evidence than in the ripe, fresh fruit. These small dried tomatoes can be noshed right out of a baggie, minced into sauce or ground up and added to soup (see photo). To make them tastier, I usually add an herb or two.  The sample in the picture above is topped with chives, salt and pepper.  I use basil, parsley or rosemary on occasion as well. It just depends on what's at hand.

I've also performed this process with standard sized, never-to-be ripe slicing tomatoes, the kind that tend to stay orange forever:  Just slice them thin (a 1/4 inch thick should do it) and dry them widely

spaced on trays.

The dehydrator in the photo is the smallest I own. This style has no fan and is one of the most economical on the market.  It works well if you remember to give the trays a quarter turn every few hours and rotate them bottom to top a couple of times a day.

I don't have a recipe for dried tomatoes because the procedure is so darned simple.  Add what you like, or leave the tomatoes plain.  For variety, I've dipped them in soy sauce, added a little brown sugar and sprinkled them with sweetened rice vinegar (or lime juice). Just watch for scorching and flip the tomatoes once through the process to help keep sticking to a minimum. (The herbs stay on top pretty well, fastening to the tomato meat as it dries.) Once dried, tomatoes will feel firm and have a somewhat leathery texture when flexed. 


Dried and powdered tomatoes
Store dried tomatoes in a plastic bag out of direct light. If you live in a humid environment, add a handful of dried rice to the bag to reduce the risk of mold growth over time.

Special note:  If tomatoes appear dry on the surface but still look plump from moisture inside, prick them with the tip of a knife and place them cut side down on the lowest rack of the dehydrator for a few hours. That'll do the trick.

Sunday

How to Repot an Aloe Vera Plant



Healthy Aloe Vera Transplants
It's easy to repot an aloe vera plant. If I could only make one herb related recommendation to a gardening newbie, it would be to keep an aloe vera or two around -- and give this useful herb away to share the wealth after a repotting session.  The aloes are easy to care for, nearly indestructible, and surprisingly effective at treating the discomfort of minor burns and bug bites. In many cases, a little dab of gel cools a burn better than an over the counter preparation.

I maintain a number of commuter aloe vera plants that spend winters indoors and summers outside. The only established aloe vera plant I ever lost was one I accidentally left out during the first hard frost of the season.  Even with that specimen, I believe the protected, central offshoots were salvageable.

I've kept these plants for nearly two decades in one form or another, and every year in spring and fall, I repot at least one, producing six, ten, twenty or more smaller plants in the process. Thank heavens for neighbors and friends, or I'd be overrun with spiny succulents.  Although the requirements below produce optimum repotting results, aloe vera is very forgiving. Repotting this wonderful herb isn't the chore it appears to be.  You'll see. Grab a trowel and follow me to the next section.

Rootbound aloe vera

How to Repot an Aloe Vera Herb Plant


What you'll need:

  • Garden gloves
  • Hand trowel
  • Knife
  • Small and medium sized pots
    Mature "pup"
  • Potting soil
  • Garden sand or perlite


Directions

Remove the plant from the pot and inspect its root system. Don't panic. You'll probably be able to see where smaller plants are attached to the mother plant through a matted network of fleshy roots.  The idea here is to cut the roots to separate individual plants for repotting while leaving a portion of the root attached to each transplant. Losing some root is unavoidable, but most plants should survive just fine.

Shake off as much dirt as possible, and start excavating plants from the central mass.  If an established plant is very root bound, don't be afraid to tackle it with a sharp knife and extreme prejudice.  I wedge and wiggle a hand trowel into the spot where I want to begin separating offshoots.  Once I've created an opening, I pull the two sides apart to increase the gap and start cutting.  The process isn't pretty and can look alarming, but it all works out in the end.


Mass of tangled aloe vera roots
Some transplants will be tiny (pups), while others will be larger. Once freed, remove any dead foliage from around healthy stems. This may release some liquid (gel), but that's okay.

Eventually, you'll be left with the central "mother" plant, which can also be replanted or replaced in the same pot. This will likely be the largest transplant specimen.

Place the mother plant as well as liberated smaller transplants on their sides in a warm, shaded location overnight.  There may be quite a few, but smaller plants can be placed together in four inch and larger pots, if necessary. Keep these in-process plants away from water and curious critters, including the family cats and dogs.

The next day (this task can actually wait up to a week), start filling pots with a combination of potting soil and sand or perlite.  I like to use equal parts soil to sand. This provides enough nutrition for a season as well as good drainage. Fill the pots two thirds full at first.

Add plants to the prepared pots, centering or spacing them evenly. Add and firm soil up to the crown using your hand or the back of a hand trowel to remove air pockets.
Separated offshoots


Once planted, place pots in bright to dappled light either indoors or out. Don't water plants for the first 72 hours or so, and then water sparingly.

I admit I haven't always been diligent in my aloe vera repotting strategies.  I've repotted pups (baby plants) into unadorned garden earth and soil with pool filter sand mixed in (a no-no) as well as into soil with all the fixings.  My plants have done well regardless. Actually, great soil with lots of compost and moisture retentive additives tends to be too rich and wet for aloe vera anyway, so less is usually more.

Potting Aloe Vera Leaves


Aloe leaves are unyielding, and a repotting session usually results in some casualties. These broken leaves can be replanted, too. Here's how: Create a small trench in a pot of prepared soil and place the broken leaf inside. Although you can bury the leaf completely, you'll have better success if you leave it partially exposed. Water the leaf lightly after 24 hours and place it in a bright but not hot location. It should start showing new growth in two to three weeks. (Note: Use a 50/50 soil mixture as you would for a pup transplant.)

Special Notes on Repotting and Maintaining Aloe Vera


Replanted "Mother"
  • It's a very good idea to wear garden gloves when repotting aloe vera. The spines on these plants aren't just decorative.
  • Any gel released through a wound can mix with dirt and create a gooey mess, so this is a task best performed outdoors.
  • Some aloe starts may be tall but shallow rooted. In this case, a wooden support may be necessary for the first couple of months. I often use crossed chop sticks from local restaurants to support medium sized offshoots.
  • For very large plants, I've been known to place stones in the bottom of the pot for better weight distribution.
  • With aloe vera, water sparingly. 
  • Any broken leaves or dislodged pups should be hardened off for at least 24 hours before replanting.
  • Although aloe can be maintained in the same pot for years, it's a good idea to repot annually or semi-annually.


References

Display Photo - By Bhaskaranaidu (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAlovira_plant.JPG http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/28/Alovira_plant.JPG

Repotting photos  - S.A.Elliott

Saturday

Companion Planting and Other Tactics - Playing It Smart in the Garden

Tomato hornworm
The way you layout your garden is important for lots of reasons. Some areas of your landscape are more accessible than others, offer better sun exposure or provide greater protection from the wind and weather. Before you start planning your herb and vegetable garden next year, consider more than topography when evaluating where to put your plants, though.

There are plenty of articles about companion planting and other ways you can make pest and plant behavior work for you instead of against you. Here are some tactics I've used to make growing season more rewarding while keeping my blood pressure -- and my garden center bills -- down.


Good Bugs vs. Bad Bugs - The Epic Battle of Good vs. Evil


Some plants attract beneficial insects, while others discourage destructive insects. With a little forethought, you can make these behaviors work for you by being smart about your garden design. This is one of the basic ideas behind companion planting. These days, CP is often considered an organic gardening solution, but even if you use pesticides occasionally, the neighborly approach (as in good neighbors make a great first line defense against pests) can still help you grow healthier, happier plants.

Hey, think of it as a free layer of protection. All you have to do is change the seating chart a little. For example: I like planting rue near my rose bushes because it attracts lady bugs, which in turn devour encroaching aphids. I also try to plant sage near broccoli and kale because it repels white cabbage moths. Gardeners have come up with lots of CP matchups that work for different applications. More on this in a minute.

Sneaky but Legal


There are also other ways to beat the bugs at their own game:

Lures - If you love squash but hate squash bugs, plant bright yellow flowers away from your vegetable patch. Squash bugs are attracted to yellow (because squash flowers are typically yellow) and will be lured away from your planted squash. You can then use insecticide on the non-edible flowers to keep squash bugs under better control. (Another option is to use yellow fabric or even Mylar ribbon attached to a nearby fence or tree as a lure.)

You can also use commercially available traps that rely on natural pheromones to lure a variety of bugs into small containers from which they are unable to escape. (Although this seems like an organized and efficient solution, remember, any overflow pests that don't make it into the trap will be free to roam around your garden.)

Parasites - Microscopic worms collectively called "beneficial nematodes" are available that will kill the early developmental stages of bugs like flea beetles, squash bugs, bagworms, Japanese beetles and others. You spray a water mixture containing the worms on your lawn and soil once or twice a year to keep pest populations down. The spray is colorless, odorless and won't hurt honey bees or most other beneficial insects.

Protective Reinforcements - Another option is to purchase a live community of beneficial bugs like praying mantis or lady bugs to protect your property. Think of them as insect mercenaries guarding your borders. Yes, some do fly away, but others take up residence and do their duty just fine.

Repellents - If you have Japanese beetle problems, say, you can always kill a few beetles, make a "tea" of bug bits and water and leave it in a bucket. The smell will discourage new beetles from staking a claim to your rose bushes. This olfactory tactic can work for other types of bugs, too.


Aphids

The Example of the Three Sisters


Companion planting also works in ways unrelated to pest control. It can use a plant's native habit, color or chemical makeup to produce "cooperative" success in the garden. For example, planting a climber like beans near a tall, stable plant like corn produces a support structure for the bean without your having to put down a pole or add a trellis. This is one of the benefits of the "three sisters" approach to farming, a classic Native American example of the dynamic power of companion planting.


You've probably heard it referred to before: The three sisters are three plants that help one another through the growing season: corn, climbing beans and squash. The corn provides the "pole" for the beans; the beans add nitrogen to the soil to help sustain the corn and squash; and the squash offers natural mulch and protection from moisture loss through evaporation, all while keeping weeds to a minimum by blanketing the soil with a dense, shady canopy of large leaves. Elegant. Simple. Effective.

You can find examples of three sisters gardens here: Three Sisters

As promised above, here are some popular examples of plants (often herbs with vegetables) that grow well together:

  • Asparagus with parsley or dill
  • Beans with beets, lovage, corn, rosemary, larkspur or radishes
  • Beets with garlic
  • Cabbage with thyme, dill, chamomile, onion or mint
  • Carrots with peas, radishes or tomatoes
  • Celery with chives or rosemary
  • Corn with beans, squash, potatoes or cucumbers
  • Eggplant with thyme, mint, catnip or garlic
  • Grapes with hyssop
  • Leeks with carrots
  • Lettuce with cucumbers or strawberries
  • Melon with pigweed or summer savory
  • Okra with chervil
  • Peas with garlic or mint
  • Peppers with carrots or bee balm
  • Potatoes with cilantro
  • Pumpkins with oregano
  • Raspberries with garlic
  • Squash with tansy
  • Strawberries with sage, thyme and borage
  • Tomatoes with basil or bee balm
  • Turnips with peppermint or sage
  • Watermelon with nasturtium (Works with other melons, too.)

Okay, a list of good plant pairings is helpful, but it doesn't give you much wiggle room. Many of these pairings use one plant's pest repellent ability to protect the other plant from insects that would otherwise consider it a banquet.

 If some plants naturally repel certain insects, then placing those plants where you have, or figure you might have, a specific insect problem should help keep pest populations down, whether they're next to historically compatible companions or not.

If you've struggled with whitefly in the past, knowing a variety of plants whitefly avoids will help you choose a winner -- but with a little more flexibility. In this case, nasturtium, French marigold and basil do a good job of repelling whitefly, so if you want a flowering plant, choose French marigold or nasturtium. If you want an edible plant, then basil is your best bet.

Squash bug


What follows is a list of insects - and one pesky mammal - together with the plants they really don't like being around. These pairings probably won't do the same bug prevention job as a strong pesticide, though. If they could, pesticides would be obsolete. They will help  control pest populations somewhat successfully without a lot of chemicals.

You can also grow these plants in bulk and use them to prepare homemade bug sprays (or noxious smoothies). Homemade sprays can be quite effective, but they need to be reapplied often.

Oh, and don't expect one puny specimen to hold back the horde. You don't need a one to one ratio necessarily, but make sure your pest control plants have strong representation in the garden. It's also a good idea to place them next to vulnerable plants as well as around the perimeter of the garden and in locations where there's good air flow (so their fragrances will travel a respectable distance).

Pests and the Plants they Love to Hate


For the most part, I haven't included the scientific names for the plants or insects, but absent any notation, you can assume I'm referring to the most common variety your likely to find in your garden or at your local nursery. Related plant cultivars may work as deterrents, but keep in mind it's a trial and error proposition.

  • Ants - catnip, peppermint, tansy
  • Aphids - chives, rue, pyrethum, mustard, dill, mint, nasturtium, coriander (cilantro), garlic
  • Asparagus beetles - calendula (pot marigold), basil, tomato plant, petunia, parsley
  • Bean beetles - santolina (a particularly effective artemisia), nasturtium, summer savory, rosemary, marigold
  • Black flies - garlic
  • Borers - garlic, onion
  • Cabbage looper - artemisias, eucalyptus, dill, hyssop, garlic
  • Cabbage moths - mint, celery, nasturtium, chamomile, sage, hyssop, artemisias (like wormwood), thyme, oregano
  • Cabbage worms - thyme
  • Carrot fly - sage, rosemary, onion, leek
  • Caterpillars (various) - garlic, bay laurel
  • Cockroaches - feverfew, tansy
  • Codling moths - artemisias
  • Corn earworms - thyme, geranium, cosmos
  • Cucumber beetles - marigold, oregano, rue radish
  • Cutworms - onion
  • Earwigs - wormwood
  • Flea beetles - catnip, catmint (different but related to catnip), mint, rue, artemisias, sage
  • Fleas - pennyroyal, yarrow, rue, lavender, sage
  • Flies - basil, pennyroyal, mint, tansy, rue, wormwood, lavender
  • Gnats - pennyroyal, lemon balm
  • Hornworms (Tomato hornworms) - basil, petunia, marigold, dill, borage
  • Japanese beetles - rue, garlic, geranium
  • Leaf hoppers - pyrethum (chrysanthemum cinerariifolium)
  • Mice - mint, wormwood, tansy
  • Mites - dill, chives, pyrethum, onion
  • Mosquitoes (or their larvae) - basil, pennyroyal, yarrow, lemongrass, geranium, tansy, lavender, lemon balm, rosemary
  • Moths (various) - lavender, mugwort, rosemary, santolina, coriander (cilantro), wormwood, sweet woodruff, tansy, rosemary
  • Nematodes - chives, dahlias, French marigold (There are destructive nematodes around and chives repels the good with the bad.)
  • Potato beetles (Leptinotarsa decemlineata) - nasturtiums, coriander (cilantro)
  • Potato bugs (Stenopelmatus spp.) - horseradish
  • Pumpkin beetles (various) - nasturtiums
  • Slugs - sage, onions, fennel, rosemary, wormwood
  • Snails - sage, onions, fennel, wormwood, rosemary
  • Spider mites - coriander (cilantro), garlic, dill
  • Squash beetles - nasturtium, catnip,
  • Squash bugs - peppermint, dill, tansy, nasturtium
  • Sticks (Phasmatodea) - sage
  • Termites - catnip
  • Whitefly - nasturtiums, French marigold, basil

Not all plant pairings are copacetic. Next time we'll discuss "lousy neighbors." You know, those folks that just never seem to get along. I wouldn't want you to accidentally create a plant feud.

Have a great weekend.


References

Cornell University Cooperative Extension. "Companion Planting." 1999
http://cceniagaracounty.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/companion-planting-info.pdf

Painter, Tammie. "Plants that Repel Insects." Mother Earth Living. 2010 http://www.motherearthliving.com/gardening/fresh-clips-herbs-to-repel-insects.aspx#axzz2WsGdw7rr>

Home Grown Texas. "Herbs That Repel Bugs." 2003. http://www.homegrowntexas.com/issues/NovDec03/

Alabama Cooperative Extension. "Companion Plants." Undated. http://www.aces.edu/counties/Limestone/MastGard/companions.htm

Photos

Photo 1 - Tomato Hornworm By George Bredehoft (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/54/Tomato_Hornworm_in_hand.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATomato_Hornworm_in_hand.jpg



Photo 2 - Aphids By Alvesgaspar (Own work (own photo)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/51/Aphids_September_2008-1.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAphids_September_2008-1.jpg

Photo 3 - Squash Bug By Noel Feans [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/40/Coreus_marginatus_-_Squash_Bug.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACoreus_marginatus_-_Squash_Bug.jpg



5 More Culinary Herbs You Should Grow at Home

After last week's post about culinary herbs, I was bombarded with suggestions for the next five on my list of "cooking helper" favorites. It's pretty surprising how many plants, trees, shrubs and vines have parts and pieces that make foods taste better. Choosing the best is impossible, but there are some popular choices that add variety to recipes and tend to be stress free plants in the garden. They are also reliable performers.

For me, "reliable" means I can predict how they'll behave in a new recipe pretty accurately. This can be an important factor when dealing with any seasoning. If you don't know how it will behave, it'll likely just sit in its pretty jar until you decide -- a few years down the line -- to throw it away.

Before I get to the list, I wanted to review a few general guidelines for using herbs and spices in the kitchen:

Dried Tarragon


Timing - When you add a specific herb or spice to a recipe can be important. Most spices lose their flavor and become bitter over a long cooking time, so it's usually better to add them late in the process. Some exceptions are bay leaf, sage, rosemary and garlic. Good candidates for late (within the last half hour) addition include thyme, oregano and marjoram.

Candidates for very late handling (within the last five minutes of cooking) include dill, tarragon, cilantro and chives. When in doubt, follow the instructions on the recipe. If you're experimenting and have to guess, later is better than sooner.

Fresh for dried herbs and vice versa - In many recipes, using fresh or dried herbs is spelled out for you. Simple recipes showcasing convenience often use dried herbs over fresh. You can usually switch from on to the other, though, with a few caveats and adjustments. The typical conversion is three to one. A recipe that calls for one teaspoon of a dried herb will require three teaspoons (or one tablespoon) of that same herb used fresh. There are some exceptions. With strongly flavored herbs like garlic, rosemary and cilantro, for instance, it's a good idea to start with a two to one ratio and perform taste tests from there until you're satisfied.

Using old herbs - Herbs lose flavor during long term storage. The experts used to recommend pitching herbs and spices after six months to a year, but nowadays, that's changed. Freshness for most herbs has been extended from one to two years or so -- about double the old recommendation. That's certainly a money saving proposition, but an herb that was packaged a month ago will still have more oomph than one that's been sitting around for 18 months. The solution is to use a little more of an older herb to achieve the same flavor power. Twenty five percent more is probably a good compromise, but here again nothing beats taste testing for the best results.

If you're buying an herb or spice at the market and know the quantity on offer will last you a long, long while, prefer whole pods, seeds or sticks (if applicable) to pre-ground alternatives. Ground nutmeg will taste like sawdust after six months, but the whole, shelled nutmeg seed will stay fragrant and flavorful a couple of years or longer. Just use a grater to shave off what you need.

Dried herbs that don't bring the flavor - Some herbs don't have much flavor once they're dried -- period. They likely contain delicate flavor compounds that don't survive the drying process very well. It's best to use these herbs in a form other than dried whenever possible. This can include fresh purchased herbs from the market, herbs overwintered indoors, frozen herbs harvested from the garden or fresh garden herbs. Here are some delicate candidates for the "do not buy dry" list: ginger, tarragon, chives, cilantro and basil.

I do use questionable, dried herbs on occasion (yeah, I admit it) but only if there's no other option. It's always a good idea to use the best ingredients you can find, though. This is particularly true with herbs because they have a huge impact on the final flavor profile of a dish -- and often you won't realize you've blown it until serving time. Curses!

Okay, with that behind us, here's my list of five more herbs that belong on your table -- at least occasionally:

Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa) 

Tarragon is the little herb that proves cousins can have less in common than you might think. There are two popular types of tarragon, French (Artemisia dracunculus), which is fragrant and tasty, and Russian (Artemisia dracunculoides pursch), which is kinda bland. Beware of sellers who advertise "Tarragon" without specifying what they're really offering. It might well be the Russian variety because Russian tarragon is somewhat more robust and easier to cultivate. Refer to the Latin names whenever possible. This is a good habit to get into whatever the plants you're interested in.

Tarragon has a flavor somewhat reminiscent of licorice but in a different way from both bail and fennel. It is quite mild, and for want of a better word -- smooth. It tastes particularly effective with fowl and is quite refreshing in cold dishes like chicken and pasta salad. I've said before that if you're not using tarragon now, it can revitalize your recipes, giving them a more grown up, subtle flavor. That's pretty good value from an herb that's easy to grow.

Although it's somewhat less well known, there's also a Mexican tarragon variety that has the characteristic anise flavor associated with tarragon, but shares more with Russian tarragon than the true and tasty French friend we've come to know and love.

The word "tarragon" actually comes from the French, meaning "small dragon." Beyond that, the origins of the name are unclear, but some herb historians believe it relates to the fact that tarragon was once used to treat snakebite.

Artemisia dracunculus sativa (French tarragon) is a perennial that likes rich, well-drained soil and good sun. Hardy from Zones 4 through 9, it grows to about 28 inches in height. Special note: If you experience hot summers, choose a spot for tarragon that gets some dappled light or afternoon shade.

How to Grow Tarragon
Tarragon Mustard Recipe
What's a Good Tarragon Substitute

Dill Seed

Dill (Anethum graveolens)

Dill was once considered an aphrodisiac, but that was long before people realized how wonderful this herb can taste in pickle making! Dill is actually pretty versatile. You've probably added it to salmon and other fish, but it's also delicious baked into herbed rolls or breads, added to hummus or as a garnish on fried or grilled liver. (Really -- it's tasty with chicken or beef liver.) This annual self-seeds like crazy and tends to bolt when temps rise in late spring and early summer. Unlike some herbs on this list, dill holds its flavor when dried, so it's a great harvesting herb throughout the season.

Dill, like tarragon, likes rich soil, a well-drained location and dappled light on very hot summer days. Standard varieties can grow to five feet and get floppy, so keep dill staked or away from the windward side of your garden.

How to Grow Dill 
How to Keep Plants from Bolting
Fresh Lemon and Dill Spice Blend for Fish

Garlic (Allium sativum)

What can we say about garlic? It has been rhapsodized by great gourmands and adopted as the patron herb of entire cultures. Its small, whitish bulbs are fragrant, flavorful and easy to use in cooking either fresh, pickled, in oil, powdered or added to salt mixtures. Of course, we like our garlic fresh. Cloves pulled right from the bulb have a distinctly sweet flavor that reveals itself spectacularly when used with mild ingredients like potatoes.

Garlic can be a big boon in the garden, too. It repels all manner of pests and doesn't ask much by way of compensation. It has a long growing cycle, though. The garlic cloves you plant this season won't be ready to harvest until next year. Once you get a rotation going, though, you'll have a regular supply of garlic for as long as you have a garden. You can use grocery store garlic as starter stock in the garden, too, so planting this herb doesn't necessarily require a trip to the nursery.

Starting Garlic from Cloves
Herbal Mosquito Repellent Recipe

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Thyme is the herb that can. It has been use for centuries as an ingredient in stews, soups and sauces, helping to bring out the native flavors of meats and aromatic vegetables like onions, carrots, celery and turnips. It's also a key ingredient in some popular spice blends you may recognize like: Jamaican jerk, Cajun rub, Bouquet Garni and Herbs De Provence.

There are a number of thyme varieties, including groundcovers (creepers), silver cultivars and thymes with special fragrances like lemon, lime or caraway. It's a good idea to stick with classic thyme for kitchen duty, though.

This little perennial likes good sun and rich but somewhat alkaline soil. A determined survivor, thyme can thrive under somewhat adverse conditions. It will do well in a windy spot or one that receives occasional foot traffic or tends to get hose burn from the garden hose. Thyme does require soil the drains well, though.

Thyme for the Garden

Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

Oregano is a popular herb in both Italian and Greek cooking. It has a strong flavor that's an excellent counterpoint to the bright, acidic bite of tomatoes. It adds zip to sauces and works well with meats like lamb and pork.

A perennial, oregano is hardy from Zones 5 to 12, and it's another candidate for rich but slightly alkaline soil. Although it likes bright light, heat can sometimes be a problem. In warm climate locations, offer oregano a little afternoon shade if possible. There are a number of oregano varieties, but Origanum vulgare hirtum, is widely considered the most flavorful for culinary applications.

I like to add oregano to prepared fare, like jarred spaghetti sauce, stewed tomatoes and pizza sauce. It's a good flavoring agent for vegetable dishes that include squash, eggplant, bell pepper or green beans, and it's an essential herb for tasty minestrone. I simply strip young leaves from their stems, mince them and add them during the last half-hour of simmering time. Unlike some herbs, oregano tends to have a more resinous and intense flavor when fresh, so it's one candidate for a "less is more" approach when switching from dried to fresh in recipes. A two-to-one ratio is a good start until you know how this herb will behave for you.

Growing Oregano

For a recap of the first five kitchen worthy herbs, please visit: 5 Easy Culinary Herbs You Should Be Growing In Your Garden


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Photos


Photo1 - Dried Tarragon By KVDP at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c1/Dried_Taragon.JPG
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADried_Taragon.JPG

Photo 1A - Tarragon Plant By Roger Bamkin (Wikipedia Takes Coventry participant) (Uploaded from Wikipedia Takes Coventry) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/WTC_Victuallers_Allesley_Wiki_takes_Coventry_351676542.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWTC_Victuallers_Allesley_Wiki_takes_Coventry_351676542.jpg

Photo 2 - Dill By Audrey from Central Pennsylvania, USA (Dill Drops Uploaded by Fæ) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/14/Dill_Drops_%283749120575%29.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADill_Drops_(3749120575).jpg

Photo 3 - Garlic By Zack Dowell (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c3/Garlic_Scape.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGarlic_Scape.jpg

Photo 4 - Thyme By Ghislain118 http://www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/86/Thymus_vulgaris_4_%28Espagne%29.JPG http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThymus_vulgaris_4_(Espagne).JPG

Photo 5 - Oregano By Roula30 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0b/%CE%A1%CE%AF%CE%B3%CE%B1%CE%BD%CE%B7_%28Greek_Oregano%29.JPG http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A%CE%A1%CE%AF%CE%B3%CE%B1%CE%BD%CE%B7_(Greek_Oregano).JPG

Friday

Happy Independence Day

I've been maintaining this blog since the end of 2007, and in that time have produced quite a bit of content -- going on 500 posts or so.  Sometimes good tips, tricks and plant profiles get lost in the stacks (or the electronic equivalent), so I wanted to take the time to review a few personal favorites. You may be celebrating the holiday with a backyard get together or a trip to a local park to watch fireworks, but if you have some time today or over the weekend, take a few minutes to review these older posts. They're great with a morning cup of coffee -- in the garden, of course.

Have a wonderful 4th of July celebration!

July in the Garden
Beating the Heat in the Garden
Watering Herbs in Pots
Zucchini Problems - Beating the Bugs
The Best Drought Tolerant Herbs
Herbs that Grow in Shade

Saturday

5 Easy Culinary Herbs You Should Be Growing In Your Garden

Have you ever admired folks with kitchen gardens full of culinary herbs like thyme, parsley and sage? Many of the tastiest herbs around are also pretty easy to cultivate, propagate, prepare and use, so setting up a kitchen garden isn't as difficult as it looks. Common culinary herbs also provide some nice variety in terms of size and leaf shape, so they're attractive, too, especially if you're into the subtlety of shading and texture. The annuals typically self-seed readily, and the perennials are robust and downright feisty. Many of the perennials are winter hardy, and those that aren't, like rosemary, may boast some newer cultivars that have better frost tolerance.

Growing Herbs to Eat

If you've seen the price for fresh cut herbs at the market, you probably think dried herbs -- on sale -- are just fine, thanks. Growing your own can be inexpensive and rewarding, though. What you trim back over the summer you can freeze or dry for use during the winter. All in all, even if you don't have a back door in your kitchen with a nice plot of land just outside, carving out some space for a culinary garden is a good idea.

This doesn't have to take all your time, either. Herbs are forgiving plants. Many of them, like fennel, are considered weeds in their native climbs. You can't kill them, even when you're trying. At harvest time, you can dry oregano, thyme, rosemary and others either outdoors in a bag, hanging upside down in your attic, in your microwave (sometimes), in your oven (on low, low, low) or in a dedicated dehydrator you can purchase for the cost of two lunches at a mid-range, chain restaurant. You can also freeze herbs like basil that don't dry well.

The labor you invest the first year pays dividends, too. Once you've invited herbs into your garden, they come back year after year. Sure, some, like mint or comfrey, can be invasive, but others, like chives, lemon balm, marjoram and thyme are useful little plants that ask little from the gardener.

Let's take a look at five kitchen herbs that deserve a spot in your garden, your fridge and your spice cabinet. They help make home cooking something to look forward to.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum

This onion relative has a mild oniony flavor. You probably already know it's a great garnish on a stuffed baked potato, but chives can also make an omelette or casserole look dressed and ready for company. A good rule of thumb is that it'll pair well with any savory dish that includes sour cream, heavy cream or strong cheese. I often use chives instead of parsley as a topper. Chives are also a good stand in for recipes that call for scallions, especially when you want the onion to take a back seat to other ingredients, like in a pico de gallo (fresh salsa).

This littlest onion variety is easy to grow, and humans have been cultivating it for 5,000 years, or so the food historians believe. It's a perennial that self-seeds abundantly, and it's hardy from Zones 3 through 10. Just give this perky herb partial shade if you experience scorching summer heat, and mulch it before temps soar in summer and again in fall. Plant chives in well-draining soil and fertilize plants once, early in the season. If you experience drought conditions, water chives occasionally in dry weather. Chives grow to about 10 inches in height (25.4 cm) and tend to flop a bit as they mature. A patch of chives can look like an unruly head of hair. When harvesting, only remove a third of the plant at a time and wait for regrowth before harvesting again.

Lavender hued chive flowers are the main ingredient in a popular flavored vinegar you'll enjoy trying with your first or second crop. See instructions below.

Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum)
Besides common chives, there is also a more garlicky chive variety you might want to experiment with. Garlic or Chinese chives are used extensively in Asian cooking. This chive species is also a perennial. Its leaves are flattish rather than tubular, and it produces white flowers. It has become naturalized in many parts of the world and is sometimes considered an invasive weed.

Chives at Your Fingertips
How to Make Chive Vinegar

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary roasted potatoes are one simple dish that makes for a delicious side. If you're getting tired of choosing between fries and baked potatoes, give it a try. Rosemary is also delicious with lamb and pork. I strip the leaves from plant stems in fall, dry the leaves and use the stems as kabob skewers with lamb, squash and cherry tomatoes. So good. If we're smoking sausage, I add some rosemary to the wood for extra smoky goodness. All this is easy to do if you have a little rosemary growing in your backyard.

Rosemary looks like an evergreen shrub, but it's actually a woody, perennial herb. If you live in a temperate climate where you don't have to worry about frost and snow, you've probably seen it growing as a decorative hedge or as a low maintenance groundcover. Growing it in a four season location is a little more challenging, though. Newer cultivars like Madalene Hill and Arp are frost hardy, sometimes to Zone 5. There may even be hardier varieties.

If you want to grow standard rosemary but worry about winter temperatures, consider bringing plants indoors in fall. I call these commuter plants. Although you may have had problems growing ornamental rosemary Christmas trees indoors in the past, maintaining a more mature plant from your garden over the winter is somewhat easier. If you have a sunny window away from drafts, it's pretty straightforward. For more information, visit:

Growing Rosemary
Rosemary Tree Maintenance
Growing Rosemary in a Cold Climate

Marjoram (Origanum majorana

This tender perennial in the same family of plants as oregano but doesn't really get the respect it deserves. It's a useful herb for casseroles, stews and soups that contain pork, lamb or chicken. It works particularly well with tomato dishes and other hot dishes that feature: eggs, strong cheeses, eggplant, beans, barley, lentils or squash. Marjoram gives foods a more complex flavor without adding the strong, distinctively pungent taste associated with oregano. It plays well with other herbs and spices, too. You'll find it in a number of classic herb blends.

Marjoram is as easy to grow as oregano, with the same bushy habit. It isn't winter hardy (grow it outdoors in Zones 8 - 11 only), but it makes a good commuter plant. A tender perennial, marjoram grows to a height of about 30 inches (76cm) and can produce a mound 20 inches (51cm) across. It creates a nice cascade when added to a hanging basket, and it's a good addition to a planter featuring herbs like basil, parsley and chives.

Marjoram likes good light (dappled afternoon light is a wise choice in very hot locations). Provide it with occasional deep watering during drought conditions. This plant can go for a while without water, but deep watering will encourage its roots to travel deeper into the soil where they'll have better protection and increased access to moisture.

Growing Marjoram
Make Your Own Herbs de Provence
Make Your Own Bouquet Garni

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

If you like teriyaki, stir fry or sushi, you probably appreciate the heat and sweet ginger can give a recipe. One of my favorite ways to use ginger is to crystalize it with sugar. It makes an effective digestive aid that will help settle an upset stomach the gentle way. (Crystalized ginger and mint tea are my two favorites for this.) Kids love it, too.

If you get air sick, take a little crystalized ginger on your next plane trip. If you're a fan of ocean cruises, you're probably already familiar with the stomach settling properties of crystalized ginger as it's a staple at most shipboard meals.

This tuberous rhizome isn't difficult to grow. It likes shade, heat and moisture. The second year growing a new plant, you can harvest your fill of chubby ginger roots and still have enough left for future seasons. Ginger isn't winter hardy, but it can be cultivated as a commuter plant or even as a houseplant.

For large yields, place clean ginger root into Sherry filled jars. Ginger will keep in the fridge this way indefinitely. Slice what you need for a recipe, and place the rest back in the jar. It's convenient and less wasteful that buying ginger at the market only to have most of it shrivel up inside the dank confines of your veggie drawer.

In fact, you can grow grocery store ginger root into a garden plant or houseplant. Follow the link for instructions. (Special note: Check with your doctor before using ginger medicinally in large quantities.)

Growing and Harvesting Ginger
Preserving Ginger
Ginger Shampoo Recipe

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)


If you're a pesto lover, basil is the herb for you. Young, tender basil leaves, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and pine nuts (or walnuts) make an elegant blended sauce over your favorite pasta, meat or steamed vegetable. Even better, the best pesto comes from home grown basil. This Mediterranean herb has a slight licorice aroma (and flavor), bright green coloration and large, ovulate leaves.

Basil is an annual that likes plenty of light, moisture and rich, well-drained soil. This popular herb will *bolt if not watched carefully. Snip buds before they flower to maximize leaf production (which is what you want for perfect pesto). In late summer, allow buds to flower and harvest the seed for next year. Basil is easy to grow in a pot, so it's a good patio or deck plant, too. It's also easy to start from seed or reproduce from stem cuttings. The seeds are large and store well over multiple seasons.

What else can you do with basil? It's one of the **three main ingredients in classic a Caprese salad -- and all the other dishes based on Caprese salad. It's also a nice addition to most tomato based sauces, stews and soups, including favorites like spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce and minestrone. Just add a couple of teaspoons of minced basil during the last five minutes of cooking time.

Growing Basil
Tips for Harvesting Basil 
 Basil Seed   
Basic Basil Pesto

Stay tuned. There are five more herbs I feel deserve inclusion as culinary powerhouses, but this post is getting long. I'll address the next five -- next time. Have a great weekend.


*Flower and set seed quickly in late spring or summer.
**The three ingredients are: tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil.
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 Photo Credits

Intro Photo - Herbs By tannaz from los angeles (herbs for sabzi polo) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/34/Herbs_for_sabzi_polo.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHerbs_for_sabzi_polo.jpg

Photo1 Chives - By Captain-tucker (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/29/Allium_schoenoprasum_in_NH_01.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAllium_schoenoprasum_in_NH_01.jpg

Photo 2 Rosemary - By THOR (Flowering Rosemary) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5f/Rosmarinus_officinalis133095382.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARosmarinus_officinalis133095382.jpg

Photo 3 Marjoram By Dobromila (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ce/Majeranek2.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMajeranek2.jpg

Photo 4 Ginger By Venkatx5 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c1/Ginger_Plant_vs.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGinger_Plant_vs.jpg

Photo 5 Basil By Castielli (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/90/Basil-Basilico-Ocimum_basilicum-albahaca.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABasil-Basilico-Ocimum_basilicum-albahaca.jpg

How to Identify and Use Purslane

A chubby stand of purslane
Maintaining a collection of herbs can be a chore sometimes -- and an adventure, too. Many herbal practitioners forage for the supplies they need, heading out to find thistle, water plants and other elusive fen and dell specimens to replenish their stocks. The bole of a tree may shelter an amazing, green growing bonanza if you know what to look for. Even a suburban lawn can harbor treasures like alpine strawberry, dandelion (a boon in moderation), wild onion and purslane.

These plants may look like weeds, but they have benefits to offer. For instance, alpine strawberries might be puny and taste somewhat sour, but they can help whiten teeth. Dandelion may be invasive, but it makes a therapeutic tea, a tasty jelly and a refreshing wine. Even if you don't have a green thumb, your landscape can still supply plenty of useful plants.

Stick with me a minute while I discuss a personal favorite of mine: Purslane isn't a superstar in the garden by any stretch. It's usually considered a weed; it doesn't have beautiful foliage and only produces modest yellow flowers. There is something reassuring about watching for it every spring, though. It's like an old friend who doesn't care if your laundry is still hanging on the line and you're wearing that free but comfortable tee shirt you got the last time you gave blood at the Red Cross Needle-A-Thon.

Every year, purslane pushes up through inhospitable ground and into unwelcoming early spring skies that would make many other herbs give up the fight. Still, it manages to make that piece of hard packed soil its own. I like that. Always have. Even better, purslane is nutritious and kinda tasty.

Common purslane's half-inch yellow flowers

What Is Purslane


Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), a humble creeper with a centralized taproot, is a great example of a no-fuss annual that deserves more respect. You've probably been yanking it out of your lawn or flowerbeds for years without knowing what a treasure it can be in the right hands.

If you keep houseplants, it looks like a poor man's, tiny jade plant with a horizontal habit. Like jade plant, it's a succulent with fleshy, oval leaves. Common purslane also boasts reddish stems that make it easy to identify, even when it's a bitty seedling. If you're watching for it in late winter or early, early spring, it looks perky when everything else in the garden but the crocus plants are still hunkered down and shivering (metaphorically speaking). That little bit of green can be more warming that a mug of hot chocolate on a cold, gloomy day.

Where Does it Come From and How Do You Use It?


Purslane isn't native to the U.S., but it has gone native here. It can grow in almost any soil, and even small, discarded pieces can reroot easily. Purslane sets seed quickly and reproduces very effectively (note the VERY). Along with dandelion, purslane could be the poster child for invasive, peskiness in locations where it isn't assiduously monitored and contained. This ought to put it into perspective: One purslane specimen can produce up to 50,000 seeds.

Botanists can trace the origins of purslane to India -- or possibly Africa. Common purslane is actually a popular vegetable in many parts of the world. It's used in stir fry, salads and can be added to veggie medleys the way you would add leafy greens like spinach. Folks think it tastes a bit like spinach, or at least a cross between spinach and watercress. You can find plenty of recipes that add a handful of purslane to traditional potato salad. It's also a welcome ingredient in Greek salad. It can be served raw, steamed, stir fried or pickled. What parts do people eat? That would usually be the tender leaves and stems.
Purslane seeds


The modest purslane growing in backyard gardens across the U.S. isn't the only representative of the purslane family. There are cultivated culinary varieties that tend to have a more refined flavor (somewhat less sour), and a more upright growth habit. There are also ornamental purslane cultivars that remind me a little of begonias. Nearly 500 varieties of purslane have been identified to date.

Is Purslane Good for You?


*Purslane doesn't have the aesthetic appeal of, say, arugula in a dinner salad, but it does have some pretty impressive things to recommend it just the same:

  • Purslane has one of the highest levels of omega 3 fatty acid (alpha-linolenic acid or ALA) of any plant tested so far.
  • It contains high concentrations of vitamins C and E.
  • It's a good source of potassium and magnesium.
  • It contains high levels of the heart healthy antioxidant beta-carotene.
  • With very a little encouragement, you'll have a ready supply of purslane in the garden most of the year.
Decorative Purslane, Moss Rose (Portulaca grandiflora)

Even though you won't have trouble cultivating it regardless of the condition of your garden, in a perfect world purslane prefers rich soil that drains well. It also likes a sunny exposure and a regular watering schedule. Note: This little plant really begins to take off as the soil temperatures soar in late spring and early summer.

A Weed by Any Other Name Would Be -- In Your Vegetable Drawer


The word purslane (or purslain) comes to us from the Latin, and was mentioned in “Naturalis Historia" (or Natural History) written by the botanist Pliny the Elder in around 79 A.D. I goes by other picturesque names, too, including:

  • Glistritha (from the Greek)
  • Hogweed
  • Little hogweed
  • Moss Rose
  • Pigweed
  • Pursley
  • Verdolaga
Some historical uses for purslane may be the result of wishful thinking, but it has been used in the past to treat:

  • Colds
  • Depression
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Insect bites
  • Low sex drive
  • Urinary tract infection

I like to keep a little stand of purslane in my vegetable patch. If it starts running riot, which it usually does, I don't worry too much. It comes up easily for a tap root plant and doesn't seem to steal much nutrition earmarked for more demanding vegetables and herbs. If it sets loads of seeds, I can deal with it. Better purslane than bindweed or stinging nettle. I believe in counting my blessings.


*Special note: Purslane has an impressive nutritional pedigree, but it also contains high oxalate levels. If you have kidney problems, avoid adding purslane to your diet before discussing your plans with a medical professional. You may also want to check the latest research by visiting MedLine Plus (a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), WebMd or any of a number of other medical reference sites on the internet.

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References

Mason, Sandra. "Purslane - Weed It or Eat It?" University of Illinois Exension. http://web.extension.illinois.edu/cfiv/homeowners/030726.html

Oeydomenge, G. Y. P"Oxalate content of raw and cooked purslane." WFL Publisher Science and Technology. 2006. http://world-food.net/oxalate-content-of-raw-and-cooked-purslane/

Prairieland Supported Community Agriculture. "Produce Recipes: Purslane. http://www.prairielandcsa.org/recipes/purslane.html

Robinson, Frances. "Power-Packed Purslane." Mother Earth News. 2005 http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/power-packed-purslane-zmaz05amzsel.aspx#ixzz33aMl1x88

Simopoulos, A.P., Norman H.A., Gillaspy J.E., Duke J.A. "Common purslane: a source of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants." National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1354675

University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources. "Common Purslane." 2007. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7461.html




Photos

Photo 1 - By John Comeau (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APurslane_closeup.JPG http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Purslane_closeup.JPG (Established plant)

Photo 2 - By Jason Hollinger (Common Purslane Uploaded by Amada44) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACommon_Purslane_(1667066658).jpg http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/aa/Common_Purslane_%281667066658%29.jpg (Flowers)

Photo 3 - By 6th Happiness (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A6H-diGangi-Purslane-Seed-Pods.jpg By 6th Happiness (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons (Seeds)

Photo 4 - "Portulaca in Kadavoor" © 2010 Jeevan Jose, Kerala, India is used here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/Portulaca_in_Kadavoor.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APortulaca_in_Kadavoor.jpg (Decorative moss rose Portulaca grandiflora)

Wednesday

How to Get Rid of Japanese Beetles

Closeup of a Japanese Beetle
It's that time of year again: You know, the time when Japanese beetle grubs make their way out of the soil and begin feasting on your delicate garden plants. Japanese beetles are opportunistic feeders that damage commercial as well as backyard crops and ornamentals. They're very hard to beat, too. We'll get to some methods for dealing with them in a minute, but let's talk about the bug a bit first.

Bug Battles, Why the JB Is Winning


Japanese beetles were first introduced to the U.S. back in in 1916, and they've been trouble ever since. The first beetle immigrants made landfall in Riverton, New Jersey, and have become established in some 30 states -- at last count. Their westward expansion shows no sign of stopping. They have few natural predators here and are voracious, relentless and adaptable. When they find a food source, they can denude blossoms and fruits in hours. Pictures of writhing masses of beetles clustered on plant stems sagging under their weight aren't an exaggeration. The visuals are unsettling, even if you aren't a gardener. If you enjoy maintaining a little patch of green, the reality is heartbreaking.

Frequently Asked Questions and Desperate Comments Addressed


Why do Japanese Beetles arrive at the same time every year? Japanese beetles emerge from the soil in spring or summer on a predictable schedule. For most areas of the U.S., they start causing problems beginning in May or June and continue till fall. Your neighborhood garden center or USDA Cooperative Extension Office (a free service; click to find the location nearest you) can tell you when they're due in your area. The information should be accurate to within a week or so.

I've never had problems with Japanese Beetles before. Although JBs can eat just about anything, they like some plants more than others. This includes berries (grapes, blueberries, raspberries), corn and roses. If you've added new plants to your garden and are having your first JB visitors, chances are you've introduced a plant they find particularly tasty. While they're visiting, they will also explore other vegetation on your property. Getting rid of the plants that attracted the beetles could help reduce their population and give you a break. For a list of plants JBs like a lot, visit: What You Need to Know about Getting Rid of Japanese Beetles 

One day there were just a couple and the next there were hundreds. If you had problems with JBs last year, they probably overwintered in your soil or under your lawn. This means they'll emerge in clusters near your plants, the handiest food source, while supplies of tasty greens and flowers last. If you deal with them this season, you'll likely have fewer problems next year.


Japanese Beetle Pupa
Their numbers are increasing a little every day. After they emerge, JB scouts perform neighborhood recon to find future feeding grounds. Increasing populations over time may mean the word is out about your garden. If you act fact, it might be possible to trick scouts into bypassing your plants by leaving a scent trap. This is done by catching some of the very early beetles (within a week or two of their emerging), killing them in a bucket of soapy water and leaving the water near the most likely target plants, plants they like to eat. The smell of dead beetles will help discourage newcomers. The instinct to feed is strong, though, so this method rarely works late in the season or if the beetles are already entrenched in your garden.

My neighbor (or I) put up Japanese beetle traps, and now there are more beetles than ever before. In theory, JB traps sound like a great idea. Attract the bugs with pheromones, trick them into a sticky box and watch them die, die, die. Tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture weren't that encouraging, though. They found that traps catch three out of every four beetles they attract. The rest are free to explore your garden. If they like what they see, they'll invite their friends.


How do I get rid of them for good? See the suggestions below.

How to Deal With Japanese Beetles


Dealing with Adult Japanese Beetles Today -- If your blueberries or other delicate plants are under attack by JBs today, pesticide may be your best bet in the short term. Malathion is an effective choice for killing adult beetles, but there are others. Ask your nurseryman for suggestions. Be aware, though, that poison isn't selective. It will kill beneficial insects along with the JBs. To protect honey bees, which are having a hard time these days, prefer spraying in the evening after busy bees have returned to the hive.


Pesticides only work for a while. Poison kills Japanese beetles, but to be effective it should be reapplied according to the manufacturer's directions throughout the season.

Organic Solutions for This Season - If you want to go the organic route, put your garden gloves on, catch batches of the adult pests in your angry little fists, and dump them into soapy water. They'll drown -- and that's fewer of them to contend with. You can also knock them into the water bucket -- after you have some experience under your belt. (There's a bit of a technique to it.)

If this seems horrifying, you'll get used to in about 10 minutes or so. The only good Japanese beetle is a dead Japanese beetle.  I've caught and submerged over 60 beetles within a 10 minute period in my day -- and I wasn't even trying that hard.  JBs become active at around 9:00 a.m. in my area. A little investigation will show you the best time to plan an assault of your own.  Thinning the herd works, but it requires an ongoing effort. JBs don't bite, which is the only nice thing I have to say about them.

Companion Planting -- To reduce your exposure, one organic option is to add plenty of plants JBs tend to avoid. What follows is a list of plants that repel Japanese beetles somewhat. Placing them near attractant plants may help balance the scales. Here's how it works: In spring when there are lots of feeding locations to choose from, beetles may avoid your garden -- for the most part -- if you add enough olfactory discouragement in the form of stinky plants (from a beetles perspective). Many of the best varieties are strong smelling herbs. Once JB scouts have written you off, they may never circle back around to you in large numbers. Start with these plants:

Japanese Beetle Larva
  • Artemisia
  • Catnip
  • Chives
  • Chrysanthemum (white)
  • Citronella
  • French marigold (may attract spider mites, though)
  • Geranium, especially scented varieties
  • Larkspur
  • Leek
  • Mint
  • Onion
  • Rue
  • Tansy

Revamp Your Garden With Alternative Plant Varieties -- If you're starting a new garden or revamping an old one, choose plants Japanese beetles usually ignore. This can be tricky, and a little discouraging, since many popular garden plants seem to be JB favorites. Still, there are good options around, including:
  • Begonias
  • Boxwood
  • Caladiums
  • Lilac
  • Dusty miller
  • Euonymus
  • Flowering dogwood
  • Forsythia
  • Holly
  • Hydrangeas
  • Juniper
  • Magnolia

Planning for next year -- If you're under attack this season, you may be doomed to fight the good fight until fall. That doesn't mean next year has to be, "Japanese Beetle Attack! - The Sequel." There are measures you can take to kill grubs in your soil over the winter. That way you'll be starting with a clean slate come spring. There are a number of products that can help with this, including pesticides designed specifically for JB grubs, and more organic options like introducing nematodes to your soil or using milky spore bacteria to kill them. (Nematodes are beneficial, microscopic worms that feed on grubs, killing them as they lay dormant over the winter or before they emerge in spring.)

For more information about what I've discussed above, visit other JB posts:

What You Need to Know about Getting Rid of Japanese Beetles 

Get Rid of Japanese Beetles With a Homemade Repellent

Control Japanese Beetles Naturally

Japanese Beetle Control (or Controlling June Beetles)


There are quite a few ways to approach the problem of JBs in the garden, but none of them are simple or totally effective. Even if you apply pesticide to an existing infestation, change you landscape somewhat to make your property less attractive to them and adopt measures to eradicate grubs, you may still encounter Japanese beetles in the garden in the future. Their populations should be more manageable, though, and the damage they inflict less extensive.




Doesn't it just make you want to cry?


Photo ReferencePhoto 1 - By USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory from Beltsville, USA [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APopillia_japonica%2C_unknown%2C_face_2012-07-24-15.09.14_ZS_PMax_(8430127397).jpg, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Popillia_japonica%2C_unknown%2C_face_2012-07-24-15.09.14_ZS_PMax_%288430127397%29.jpg (close up)
Photo 2 - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jbadult.jpg, Public Domain (adult)
Photo 3 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jbpupa.jpg, Public Domain (pupa)
Photo 4 - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jblarva.jpg, Public Domain (larva)

Photo5 - By Luke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (mating pair) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJapanese_beetles_on_wild_grape_vine.jpg   http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e4/Japanese_beetles_on_wild_grape_vine.jpg