Tag Archive: Herb Gardening

  1. The Prettiest Garden Lavenders

    Sweeps of hedge lavender add color and fragrance to a patio garden.

    Wands of fragrant purple blooms dance in the wind, feeding bees, and shining cheerfully on even the hottest summer days. These are the flowers of lavender, a plant beloved for its aroma and ability to grow well in tough Mediterranean climates. This aromatic evergreen perennial has been used in perfumes, poultices and potpourris for centuries, giving it high value in the herb garden. And, many diverse varieties exist, so there’s lavender to satisfy almost every gardener.

    There are nearly 50 lavender species, all with lovely flowers that attract bees and butterflies. One of the dividing factors when choosing lavender for your garden is hardiness. Only a few species are truly hardy, and most fare poorly in areas with dense soils and cold, wet winters. This guide will help you choose the best lavender for your needs and plant it correctly to ensure it will survive and thrive.

    Hardy Lavenders

    The pretty English lavender ‘Munstead’ is compact and blooms heavily in summer. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, 2-4’) is excellent for containers or sunny, raised beds where fragrance and summer color are needed. It is one of the hardiest lavenders surviving in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8. The shrubby evergreen perennial has a bushy habit and fragrant, linear gray-green leaves that turn fully gray in winter. From early to midsummer, it bears slender stems topped with wands of lavender-blue flowers that are very fragrant.

    White-flowered English lavender is fragrant, and unique. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    The white-flowered variety ‘Alba’ offers a more neutral color option. The compact ‘Munstead’ is also a favorite heavily flowered variety that only reaches 2 to 1.5 feet. And, for seed growers, the 1994 AAS Flower Winner ‘Lady’ is compact English lavender that will bloom first year from seed.

    This lavender is native to Western Europe, so it is more tolerant of moist growing conditions, which is why it is grown in England, but it also thrives in Mediterranean climates. Some stem die back might occur in winter. If this happens, simply prune off the old, haggard stems in spring to keep plants looking nice.

    Hedge lavender is very fragrant, vigorous, and hardy.

    Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia, 2-3’), also called hedge lavender, is a tough plant favored for dry growing areas. It’s very vigorous and will survive in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 8, if provided excellent drainage. This popular lavender is a hybrid between hybrid between English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and Portuguese spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia). It is slightly less hardy than English lavender but will withstand a little more heat and drought.

    The foliage and habit is much like that of English lavender, and its summer flowers are very dense and richly aromatic. The wealth of slender stems hold dense clusters of lavender-blue flowers, which are sterile, so their seed cannot be collected. After the first flush of flowers, cut them back to encourage further bloom. The exceptional new cultivar ‘Phenomenal’, bred by Peace Tree Farm, is a little hardier, surviving up to zone 5, and produces loads of lavender blue stems and has little winter die back. ‘Grosso’ is another favorite variety prized for its extra-large, extra-fragrant purple blooms.

    Tender Lavenders

    Fringed lavender has upright flower clusters with small plumes of colorful bracts on top.

    Fringed lavender has unique scalloped leaves.

    Fringed lavender (Lavandula dentata, 1.5-2’) is a sea and hillside perennial Mediterranean native that will survive in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 to 9. It is exceptionally heat and drought tolerant and suited to southerly arid or coastal region. It has delicate green to gray-green leaves with scalloped edges. Unlike the other lavenders mentioned, it has a more mounding, spreading habit and moderately fragrant spikes of fuzzy lavender flowers topped by showy lavender-blue bracts that appear in summer.

    This lavender is perfect for border edges or containers, and will form a spreading mound over time. It also looks great in large containers.

    French lace has long stems for an airy look. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    The everblooming nature of this lavender makes it especially appealing. Airy, fast-growing and aromatic, French lace (Lavandula multifida, 1-2’) is native to the northwestern Mediterranean region where conditions are arid. The open, shrubby perennial is hardy to USDA Hardiness Zones 8 to 9 and becomes woody as it matures. Its fragrant, evergreen leaves are gray-green and ferny and long-stemmed flowers are violet-blue and held high above the leaves.

    If plants become too woody, prune them back in spring to encourage new, denser growth, and a tidier habit.

    Fernleaf lavender has ferny silver leaves and long-stemmed flowers with multiple flower clusters at the top.

    Fragrant ferny leaves of silver-green are one of fernleaf lavender’s (Lavandula pinnata, 2-3’) greatest appeals.  This native of the Canary Islands and Madeira requires arid growing conditions and survives to USDA Hardiness Zones 9 to 11, making it the tenderest of the lavenders mentioned.  It is bushy and becomes woody over time. Like French lace, its small, angular spikes of lavender-blue flowers are long-stemmed and everblooming. Keep spent flowers cut back to encourage keep plants looking tidy.

    French lavender is especially fragrant and showy.

    The highly fragrant French lavender (Lavandula stoechas, 1-3’) has some of the showiest flowers of all the lavenders. The Mediterranean native was grown by the Romans for its exceptional scent, and its ability to thrive in hot and dry conditions. It is a bit hardier, surviving to USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10.

    ‘Anouk’ is a showy French lavender exceptional vigor. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    The shrubby perennial spreads as it ages, forming a considerable mound that should be pruned back in spring to keep it looking its best. It has fine, silvery foliage and bears many thin, upright stems holding oval clusters of very dark purple flowers topped with big plumes of bright purple bracts. There are many varieties that may be pale lavender, pink or white. The compact lavender-pink-flowered ‘Madrid Pink’ is one of the better forms, as is ‘Anouk’, which is vigorous, early blooming, and very showy. New flowers will keep appearing, if you remove the old blooms. French lavender also comes in pinkish shades.

    Growing Lavender

    Lavender looks great in any sunny garden situation where drainage is good.

    Full sun and sharply drained soil are essential for success. Moist winter weather can quickly cause stem and root rot, if soil is not perfectly drained. Lavenders generally grow best in more alkaline soils that are raised and gravelly with added organic matter, such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. Newly planted lavenders should be watered regularly for a few weeks, until they become established. Once established they generally can take care of themselves, especially those most adapted to arid climates. They tend to grow well in nutrient-poor soils, but the addition of a slow-release fertilize will support good growth and flowering and encourage fuller growth and flowering.

    Container-grown specimens are best planted in large pots filled with fast-draining soil like Fafard® Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix. In areas with cold or wet winters, you can move the pots to a cool, protected porch to keep them away from excess snow and cold. Just don’t let the pots become completely dry.

    Lavenders are semi-woody, and can look ill-kept over time. In spring, once new foliage has begun to emerge, prune old or dead stems back to encourage new, fresh looking foliage.

    If you want to harvest lavender flowers for dried flower arrangements, sachets, or potpourri, cut stems when flowers are still fresh and hang them upside down in a cool, dry place. Once dry, you can display the stems or pull off the aromatic dried buds for use.

    Plant lavender in areas where their wonderful fragrance can best be enjoyed. They make wonderful patio or walkway edgings and give garden spaces a Mediterranean flair.

    Bees and butterflies are especially attracted to lavender.

     

  2. Growing Scented Geraniums

    Citronella-scented geranium deters mosquitoes.

    In the centuries before sewers and daily bathing were common, rank odors were everywhere.  That is probably why Europeans were so excited when scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) first arrived from their native South Africa in the early 17th century. With aromatic leaves exuding the fragrance of roses, citrus, or spice, the plants were immediately pressed into service as weapons in the ongoing battle against undesirable smells.

    Scented Geranium History

    Some of the earliest scented geranium specimens were shipped to Holland by the Dutch East India Company and found their way into the hands of Dutch plant breeders, who propagated and cross bred them.  Rose-scented types, especially the intensely fragrant Pelargonium graveolens ‘Attar of Roses’, were eventually produced in mass quantities for the perfume industry.  By the Victorian era, the number of varieties had exploded, and the fragrant plants had become garden and conservatory staples.  After a dip in popularity in the 20th century, the attractive and intoxicating plants are enjoying a renaissance, with 80 or more varieties available from specialty nurseries, like Mountain Valley Growers.

    Scented Geranium Types

    Apple scented geranium has a delightful scent good for potpourri.

    Scented geraniums are members of the Pelargonium genus, just like the common backyard and window box flowers that gardeners have loved for generations.  In the case of fragrant types, tiny hairs on leaves and stems produce the various characteristic scents.

    The plants are loosely grouped into five fragrance categories, including: rose, citrus, mint, spice and “pungent” (with overtones of camphor, eucalyptus, or other strong, woodsy or medicinal aromas).  The rose, citrus, and mint fragrances seem to be the strongest, with others like apricot and chocolate, registering more subtly.  A fifth category, oak-leaf, comprises varieties bred from the Pelargonium quercifolium species, featuring oak-like leaves that bear distinctive, sometimes citrusy, or pungent scents.  In all cases, the scents are most noticeable when you rub leaves between your fingers, or brush by the plants on a sunny day.

    While common geraniums are grown for their big, showy flowerheads, scented types feature smaller blooms and rely largely on the allure of sweet-smelling leaves.  Those leaves vary from small and deeply dissected, like those of the classic lemon-scented P. crispum , to the scalloped and almost tomato-like foliage of the heavenly-smelling P. graveolens ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’.  Plants can be relatively slender and erect, or short and squat, and some varieties may sport variegated leaves.  A few, like P. x fragrans ‘Logeei’, feature a cascading habit that works well in hanging baskets.  The unscented flowers bloom in shades of cream, pink, red and purple, with bi-colored varieties marked with contrasting blotches.

    Some of the most popular scented varieties include: Pelargonium graveolens ‘Lady Plymouth’, with large, cream-edged leaves and a rose fragrance; P. ‘Citronella’, with a lemon scent that is reputed to repel mosquitoes; P. graveolens ‘Old Fashioned Rose’, with purple flowers and an intense rose fragrance; P. fragrans ‘Old Spice’, reminiscent of the famous men’s cologne, and ‘Apple’, with a distinctive fruity aroma.

    Growing Scented Geraniums

    Pelargonium graveolens comes in rose-scented varieties.

    Scented geraniums are easy to grow and can get along well in a sunny window in cold winter climates.  Most appreciate a summer vacation outdoors—either in containers or garden beds– beginning when night temperatures rise above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

    To grow these fragrant plants, start with a good potting mix, like Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed, lightened with an equal amount of Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.  Unglazed clay pots work better than plastic ones, allowing the soil to dry out more quickly.  Water only when the top of the soil feels dry.  Fertilize bi-weekly with 1/2 teaspoon of water soluble fertilizer per gallon of water.  In winter, when plant growth slows, discontinue fertilizing.  Prune plants periodically to maintain fuller growth.

    The Victorians found that fresh rose or lemon geranium leaves added distinction to foods.  The flavors are not overwhelming, but lend delicate notes to cakes, custards and other baked goods.  Bury leaves in a closed sugar container for a few days and then use the flavored sugar to enhance the taste of teas or cold beverages.  Elsewhere in the household, dry the leaves until crumbly to hold their scents in sachets and potpourris.

    As landscape plants, scented geraniums work especially well in herb gardens, containers, and raised beds.  For maximum enjoyment, position them close to paths or entry areas, where visitors can brush the leaves and liberate their unique fragrances.

    It is thought that geraniums’ scented leaves evolved as a defense against plant predators.  Many centuries later, they attract plant lovers.

  3. Harvesting and Storing Herbs

    Rosemarinus officinalis forefront garden jakMPM 1051

    A fall herb garden ready for harvest. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    In early fall, fresh herbs are among the abundance of riches available every day in the garden. Snipping savory leaves as needed throughout the summer and early fall is the best way to enjoy them, but with the end of the growing season approaching, the supply of available herbs may well outstrip the immediate demand. Fortunately, there are lots of easy ways to save some of that herbal bounty to brighten up your cooking and home during the cold weather months.

    Bringing in the Harvest: How and when you harvest herbs depends on the herb variety and the plant parts you want to preserve. Leafy types, like basil, thyme, oregano or parsley, should be harvested just before the plants flower. Snip off one third to one half the length of each stem to keep plants productive until frost and ensure that you have a good supply of leaves to preserve. If you are harvesting edible flowers, like late-blooming lavender or calendula, clip blooms just after they open. To gather seeds, including dill or coriander, wait until after the green stage, as seedheads begin to dry. Placing bags over the seedheads ensures that nothing will be lost and the bags can hold the seeds while they dry. Roots, such as echinacea and horseradish, should be dug and harvested late, after one or two frosts.

    Lavender Drying

    Lavender flowers are best dried by hanging in a cool, dry place.

    The best time for harvesting leaves and flowers is in the morning, before the full heat of the day has set in, but after the morning dew has dried. Hosing off the plants the night before guarantees clean leaves, stems and flowers.

    Up in the Air: Air drying is an easy, time-honored and effective way to preserve many herbs and flowers. Tie up small bunches of stems and leaves and hang them upside down in a cool, airy space. Garages, attic rafters, drying racks or screened porches are good for this purpose. The herbs are dry when the leaves crumble easily. Separate dried leaves from stems of large-leafed varieties, like catnip or lemon balm, and discard stems. To use dried thyme and other small-leafed varieties, simply crumble leaves and stems together.

    Ocimum basilicum 'Franchi Italiano Classico' JaKMPM

    Basil is best frozen for winter use. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Leaves can also be placed on towel-lined trays or in wicker baskets and left in cool, well-ventilated places to dry. If dust accumulation is a worry, place the stems and leaves in paper bags with small ventilation holes and set aside.

    Drying Equipment: Herbs, including parsley can also be dried very quickly in a microwave oven. Drying times depend on the plant variety and the power of the microwave, but Stephen Orr, author of The New American Herbal, suggests testing your oven by starting with a single sprig of a particular herb and microwaving on “high” for 10 seconds. Experiment and adjust timing as you go along. Large quantities of herbs or roots can also be dried in mechanical dehydrators used according to manufacturers’ directions. Generally, roots should be cleaned and cut into small pieces before drying. Electric ovens will also dry herbs, if the ovens can be set low enough—80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, experimentation is the key to determining timing.

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    Dill weed can be dried for winter and the seed collected and used as a spice. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Salt of the Earth: Less in fashion than it once was, salting is also a good preservation method for fleshy herbs like basil that sometimes respond poorly to drying. Choose a glass jar and alternate layers of clean, dry leaves with coarse salt, making sure that you top the jar with a salt layer and a tight-fitting lid. The leaves will stay fresh for a minimum of several months.

    The Big Chill: Herbs destined for use in fall and winter stews and soups can also be frozen in small bunches. Place these in plastic freezer bags or other containers. Use directly from the freezer. Alternately, freeze herbs like rosemary, basil, and oregano in olive oil or water. The easiest way to do this is to use an ice cube tray, placing small amounts of the herb in each cube space. Top up the spaces with olive oil or water and freeze. These cubes can also go directly from freezer to stockpot or sauté pan.

    Mentha spicata JaKMPM

    Mint is great for drying for cold-season tea.

    Storage: While frozen herbs will happily spend the winter waiting in the freezer, dried herbs are a different story. No matter which drying method you choose, store the herbs in glass containers, preferably dark-colored, with tightly fitting lids. Keep them out of direct sunlight. Most important of all—use them. Any dried herbs left over by the time the growing season rolls around again, should be discarded.