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. Continue reading “The Prettiest Garden Lavenders”
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 crossbred 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
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 Pelargoniumquercifolium 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
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.
Garden herbs 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
Basil is best frozen for winter use. (photo by Jessie Keith)
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.
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
Lavender flowers are best dried by hanging in a cool, dry place.
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.
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.
Dill weed can be dried for winter and the seed collected and used as a spice. (photo by Jessie Keith)
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 the right time.
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
Mints retain their flavor beautifully when correctly dried. (Image by Jessie Keith)
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.
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.