Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.
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An Herb Gardener's Diary - Part Six
by Sandra Bowens
Here's one that's full of our favorite recipes because we wrote the book! It is also full of information, helpful hints and ideas for using herbs and spices in your kitchen.
This diary entry is a compromise. If I can't play outside then I will write about playing outside. That is how I feel about doing the garden chores--it's serious fun.
It has been raining for a week. I can't complain really since it has been a rather dry spring. All this rain is good for the grass and the plants and the frogs.
I am still dabbling at seed starting with mixed results. Each time I'm unsuccessful I say I'm not going to bother anymore but then cannot resist later. I do think the best time to plant seeds is when the potted plant is not available.
It is embarrassing to admit but I have learned one lesson the hard way. Be sure to label the pot with what seeds you have planted. I have a thriving pot of what I recall to be cilantro but with the pointed purple leaves, I'm pretty sure that I am wrong. I considered tasting it but decided against that since I am not even sure it is edible. Further complicating matters is that two other plants that I recognize from last year, flowers both, have popped up in the same pot.
Also embarrassing is my sad little spearmint plant. I had always heard, and even written about, how easy it is to grow mint but mine is pitiful. I try feeding it, pinching it back, leaving it alone, nothing seems to help. Enough leaves grow on the spindly little stems to give me a steady supply so I will just be grateful for that.
Ask the experts
Have you ever noticed that the plants you buy from a greenhouse or nursery never look the same after a couple of weeks at home? At least, this is the case in my garden. I asked the woman who sells herbs at the farmer's market about this.
"You have to fertilize them," she said. "Do it every time you water, that's what I do. We have a system that mixes the food right in with the water. And you have to pinch them back, a lot." She laughed, "I hate doing that, that's why I sell as many three inch plants as I can."
Well gee, I don't have one of those fancy set-ups for mixing my fertilizer. Probably not many hobby gardeners do. One thing I will do is change the feeding schedule. Usually I use a seaweed-based fertilizer every two weeks so I am going to start applying it once a week.
As for the pinching back, I am usually pretty good about that because I like to cook with my herbs. It is the pinching just for the sake of pinching that I'm not particularly dedicated to. I always resolve to do better. I was just looking at my leggy savory plant and decided maybe to wait and pinch it back later when I had a use for the trimmings. I just hate to waste them!
I am weak about thinning seedlings too. I planted six borage seeds in an eight-inch pot. They all came up and grew vigorously; I let them go. Have you ever seen a borage plant up close? I hadn't either until I visited the herb society's garden. When I realized what a giant plant it turns out to be, I knew I had to be brutal. So I took out half of them. One has emerged as the leader and the other two are languishing in his shadow.
Seek out the unusual
Many of the herbs I have tended since coming to this tropical climate of Southern Louisiana a couple of years ago are well established. They are the perennials like thyme, oregano, rosemary, chives and bay. Each year I get new annuals, dill and basil. Now is the time to branch out. I want to grow herbs that are unfamiliar to me so that I can learn about them, taste them and write about them.
The borage is one of my experiments this season. The young leaves tasted like cucumber but now they have grown into the plant's nickname, cat's tongue. They are rough and prickly. It has not flowered yet but is showing buds.
Lovage is another unusual herb that I hoped to try. Twice I planted seeds, twice they didn't come up. I'll try again another time.
My new scented geraniums are exciting. I ordered them from the Papa Geno's Internet site. These are plants that are known not for their flowers but for the aroma of the leaves and are often used in baking. They come in a multitude of scents. I am growing coconut, rose and one called Mrs. Tinsley, which is said to have the most pleasant fragrance of them all.
Yet another great plant is the pineapple sage. Again, I was unfamiliar with it until I looked it up in my Bountiful Container book for a friend. The description was so intriguing I knew I had to have this delightful plant. The foliage is attractive and delicate bright red flowers have just begun to put on a show.
The "other" gardens
It is a rare gardener who focuses all his attention on a single plant group. A natural extension from herb gardening is other edibles. After all, basil and tomatoes are a classic combination. Dill and cucumbers are often planted together so they will both be ready for pickle making.
This season, inspired by a beautiful pot that I found on sale, I decided to plant a pepper garden. Two jalapeno plants and two Anaheim chile peppers surrounding a bell pepper plant make delicious companions. Past experience tells me that bell peppers grown in pots will not get as large as those in a traditional garden but they still taste just as good.
I always like to have a pot of cherry tomatoes growing among the herbs too. They are nearly as easy to grow as herbs if you keep an eye out for the dreaded caterpillars. The same is true for leaf lettuces and spinach both of which are easy to grow from seed.
An especially tantalizing addition to my garden right now is fava beans. I planted them in a flowerbed and they are doing quite well. I had never even seen a fava bean growing before. The sturdy stalks are studded with black dots and the flower is a striking black and white. That is as far as they have come right now so I will have to report on how tasty they are in the next entry.
Yet another crop I find irresistible are flowers. Any kind, I love them all. I have been trying to concentrate on edible flowers lately to keep with the herbal theme. This led to a plethora of pansies over the winter and has me tending a wild rose bush for the hips now.
As always, I encourage you to plant something for yourself. Gardening, be it on a small or large scale, is a relaxing way to get outdoors and enjoy an environment that you have taken part in creating.
1) Use fresh seeds and mark the pot so that you will be sure of what you planted.
2) Try to buy your plants from the people who grow them. Ask questions to learn how to care for them.
3) Remember not to eat any flowers unless you are absolutely certain they are edible and grown without chemicals.
4) Sign up for the monthly newsletter if you would like to keep up with my experiments between diary entries.
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