Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Shriveled Sage, Crispy Rosemary and Black Basil

The garden is the poor man's apothecary.
~German Proverb

Does your herb garden produce more fresh savories than you can possibly use in summer? Then drying and storing the leaves is the way to go so you can add their pungent essences to your culinary masterpieces all year long!

My three favorite herbs to grow and cook with are Basil, Rosemary and Sage. Basil thrives in hot conditions though is shallow rooted so doesn’t like the soil to dry out. One source speculates that Basil may have originated in India, but is better known in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine (Herbs and Spices by Mary Trewby). Basil leaves taste best fresh but another source suggests when preserving, put the leaves into a jar, sprinkle a little salt between layers, and fill the jar with olive oil (Herbs by Susan Fleming). The leaves will blacken but they and the oil will flavor your dishes nicely.

I’ve tried growing the big ‘lettuce leaf’ Basil (Ocimum basicicum), unsuccessfully. Perhaps my garden just doesn’t get hot enough for it to thrive, so I buy fresh organic whole Basil leaves on stems from the grocery store. But they last only a few days on the kitchen counter (refrigeration turns the leaves black) so I have to have several recipes in mind ready to use it every day. If I keep it too long, it wilts and turns brown. I thought I’d get smart and try to keep it longer. I cut about a ¼ inch (0.5 cm) off the base of the stems and put them in a glass of water, like flowers in a vase, and ya know…it worked. The leaves perked up and lasted about a week and a half so I didn’t feel like I had to use some every night for dinner.

When I lifted the last few stems I noticed they’d begun to root out! Well, being the thrifty gardener that I am I potted them up and I think they are growing. Ok, with the cold, wet spring we are having here they are not really GROWING, more like sulking. But potentially when summer gets here I could get 4 basil plants out of this! We’ll see. If you want to see true Basil growing success, check out Shari’s Bully Basil!  Shari’s experience prompted me to try again but with a different variety this time. So this year I bought some Greek Basil seed (Ocimum Balilicum minimum), a small leaf variety, growing to about 12 inches (25 cm). The seed germinated just fine and I have 6 seedlings, now with just a bit of continual summer heat they’ll be on their way. Still waiting for the heat.

I have better success growing sage and rosemary, which are perennials here. Both like the hot, dry Mediterranean sun with soils that drain well and are used extensively in that region’s cooking. Each spring when I prune my rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Hill Hardy’) I bring leafy stems in to dry for later use. In April I pruned back my sage (Salvia officinalis) and brought in the stems with leaves attached to dry as well. I gave up hanging stems upside down…I don’t have the space for that, so I dry my herbs in the refrigerator.

With today’s refrigerators, long gone are the days we need to defrost our freezers. Refrigerators are now designed to do that automatically, and because of this they will dry out foods left uncovered on the refrigerator shelving. After rinsing and spin drying the stems with leaves, I lay them out on a flat tray and put them at the back of the fridge shelf till they are crispy dry. It could take several weeks this way. For faster results you could pull all the leaves off the stems, but that’s more work. It’s much easier to remove the crispy leaves after they’ve dried. Keep it to a single layer for faster drying. Turning them daily helps too, but I usually forget this step and they dry anyway. Then I crumble the leaves from the stems (discarding stems) and put them in glass jars in my spice cupboard. Since I don’t like the feel of whole spiky rosemary leaves in my mouth, I crush them a little and keep them in a spice grinder, grinding fresh the leaves for each use.

Honey bees like herbal nectars and studies have shown the compounds they contain may be beneficial in strengthening their immunity, so I’m increasing the variety of herbs I grow. Last year I planted 2 dwarf oregano (origanum vulgare compactum ‘humile’) plants. I have several creeping thymes among my paths but added 2 taller varieties this year, Lemon-Gold Variegated Thyme (Thymus citriodorus ‘Aurens’) who’s lemony scent should smell amazing on the grill this summer, and Thyme ‘Foxley’ (Thymus pulegioides ‘Foxley’) a gorgeous large leafed, variegated thyme. Also, I’ve added 2 upright Sicilian Oregano (Origanum sp.). Herb harvesting for culinary purposes is usually done just before flowering for best flavor. As you harvest stems and plant tips you will be delaying flowering. Keep in mind the bees get the nectar from the flowers, so if you want to serve the bees you may be harvesting less. Perhaps buy double the herb plants, leaving the flowers for the bees on some and harvesting the leaves for you from others.

I’ve found a wonderful Scarborough Fair Bread recipe linked here from Taste For Life magazine. If you were around in the 60’s you may remember the song, it includes “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme”. I like the finished loaf but found it a bit weak on herbs. Being a recipe tweaker I substitute ¼ of the all purpose flour with whole wheat flour and I more than double the dried herbs. Not being a fan of parsley, I leave it out completely. The herby-yeasty aroma of this bread during the rising and baking is outstanding!

Now if I could only get that song out of my head!

In Bloom In My Garden Today: Bletilla (hardy orchid), Thalictrum rochebrunianum (Meadow Rue), Lavender ‘Hidcote’, Digitalis, Begonia ‘Bonfire’, Penstemon schmidel ‘Red Riding Hood’, Salvia officinalis (culinary sage), Salvia nemorosa ‘Viola Klose’, Astilbe ‘Bridal Veil’, Baptisia, Tomato ‘Stupice’, Dianthus (Pinks), Hardy Geranium, Peas, Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’, Armeria latifolia ‘Joystick’, Dianthus, Day Lily, Rose, Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’, Saxifrage, old fashioned Coral Bells (Heuchera), Alpine strawberry, Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’

Author’s photos

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Talkin' Trash

“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure”
Author unknown

My dad is my beekeeping partner and between our apiaries we have 5 hives.

So he leaves a message on my answering machine yesterday evening…”Hey I got a swarm call, give me a call back when you get home. I’ll tell you about it, and we’ll go get it tomorrow.” I got home late that evening and when I called him back he said the bees were on the 10th hole at the Northshore Golf Course, clustered on a branch lying on the ground. Lying on the ground…easy as pie as far as swam calls go, and he’d already taking a box out there, shaken most of the bees in, and left it there overnight for any remaining bees to go in on their own. By early morning, before they start flying, it should be as simple as screening off the entrance and loading it into the pickup. “Wanna go, I’ll pick you up at 8am?” Sweet! No ladders, no precarious situation, no muss, no fuss! I even debated the need to bring my veil but, as I say, always be prepared, so I did.

So we get there, and he drives over to the 10th hole and points to some trees, “It’s right over there.” Well I’m not seeing it, no box, no bees flying, just golfers and a whole lotta grass. Then he realizes it’s not there. I get out and start looking around, wondering if someone moved it, maybe stole it? Hive theft is not unheard of. He calls his contact, the head of grounds maintenance, who doesn’t know where it went. We flag a ‘marshall in a red shirt’…no, he didn’t see it. ‘Marshall’ then flags a couple of groundskeepers…”Oh, sure, it was HUGE!” as he indicates the size of a football. “We threw it in the dumpster.”

“You WHAT??” I was incredulous that anyone would pick up an obvious piece of equipment, that obviously belonged to someone, that had been located strategically, now containing the bees that had once been a HUGE mass laying on the grass, and without asking enough questions, proceed to throw it into a dumpster. But then that’s just me. I had visions of busted up parts and pieces with a whole lotta angry bees flying around. Good thing I brought my veil.

So we drive over to the dumpster, ‘over there, the green one’ and look down in. Sigh…yep there’s dad’s equipment and the bees. The lids flew off, the frames all dumped out, the box on it's side (nothing broken, thankfully) and most of the bees huddled on a couple of frames. Well I guess to a non bee person that little group of bees would look HUGE. So down I go, thinking I now need a bumper sticker that reads “will dumpster dive for bees”. Thankfully it is the dumpster the grounds keepers use so it just had a lot of plant debris, turf and branches and a pile of gravel which made it easy for me to climb down into it. I’d not have been a happy beekeeper if it was kitchen waste.

Poor bees. I carefully righted the box, replaced most of the empty frames, then began to slowly lift the frames containing the bee clusters, as I looked for the queen. I found her, put that frame in the box, then the rest, and put on the lid. Soon the box began to hum as the bees inside calmed, warmed and signaled to the others still outside, “come this way, here’s home”. Several were still flying and crawling around the debris so we waited and in a little while many more went in. Herding bees is a little like herding cats, so in a situation like that there is no way to get them all. Time to screen it and lift it out. I console myself that maybe those left will go back to the colony they swarmed from.

It’s in my yard now and we fed it syrup. It’s a small swarm, no doubt an ‘after swarm’. Swarming is the bee colony’s natural way to divide when they get crowded. This time of year, the colony it came from has probably already swarmed earlier but still needed more room. So a new queen was made and off they go. She’s small too, so she’s probably not mated yet. Many beekeepers wouldn’t bother with such a swarm, it’s too small to build up enough to survive a winter here. But dad and I go for them all, big or small if we can reach them. And this one came to us just when we needed a queen. My queen died last week. We need to check to see if she laid new eggs before she died, so the colony could make a new one, but the cold rainy weather has postponed an inspection. If there is no queen in the making, we’ll join this small swarm to my hive and all should be well again…providing my hive accepts the new queen and she mates successfully.

Not all is easy in the life of bees.

In Bloom In My Garden Today: Bletilla (hardy orchid), Thalictrum rochebrunianum (Meadow Rue), Lavender ‘Hidcote’, Digitalis, Begonia ‘Bonfire’, Penstemon schmidel ‘Red Riding Hood’, Salvia officinalis (culinary sage), Salvia nemorosa ‘Viola Klose’, Astilbe ‘Bridal Veil’, Baptisia, Tomato ‘Stupice’, Dianthus (Pinks), Hardy Geranium, Peas, Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’, Armeria latifolia ‘Joystick’, Dianthus, Day Lily, Rose, Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’, Saxifrage, old fashioned Coral Bells (Heuchera), Alpine strawberry, Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’

Authors photos

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cleaning the Water Butts

God made rainy days so gardeners could get the housework done.
~Author Unknown

Now that the title has got your attention, I have to explain to my American readers that we’re talking about rain barrels here…what did you think?? No surprise to my UK readers. What ever you call it, it’s a great way to collect free, clean water to use in your gardens. And I might add, house plants love it too because it has nothing added to it to ‘purify’ it.

I made all 3 of my 55 gallon rain barrels and a compost bin from former pickle barrels that I got from the Nalley’s Pickle Co before they closed the business in this area. They have a two part cap-and-ring style lid in which I drilled several holes so water from the downspout can drip in. I used nylon window screening just under the lids to screen out debris. They each have an overflow outlet near the top with tubing running down to the garden below so I don’t have to go out there in a downpour to open the spigot when they overflow. Then I drilled holes as low as possible, but high enough so I could reach in to be able to attach the spigots/washers/nuts for the outflow. It would probably be boring to read about all the parts and pieces I used. So I’ll just say I just went to the hardware store with a mental plan of how I wanted to make them and spent more than an hour finding parts that would accomplish it. All the parts I used were found in both the PVC plumbing and garden sprinkler departments. Back and forth I went more than once. Of course you can buy rain barrels already complete, but I’m a do-it-yourselfer, a problem solver and like to build/design things.

Naturally the size of roof you connect it to will determine how quickly it fills up. I have one attached to my house downspout…that one fills up in a day during a heavy rain. I have two attached to the smaller garage roof and they can take more than a week to fill. It would be better to attach two or all three to the house but aesthetics are important to me and garden space wouldn’t allow.

Two of the barrels are in the sun and one in the shade. I think it’s best to keep them in the shade if you can but even that one got ‘fragrant’ if I didn’t use it quickly enough. Each summer when I use up all the stored water, I open them up and give them a good rinse out and brush down (on the inside) with a long handled car wash brush. A quick, easy and not particularly unpleasant job.

Still, all that stagnant water can get foul at times. What to do? As a kid, didn’t I have a fish tank and didn’t the filters always use charcoal to keep the water clear? Why not charcoal for water butts? So I bought a bag of natural BBQ briquettes. Natural, with nothing added, as many manufacturers have added chemicals for better combustion. I put them in a nylon mesh bag (actually made for straining paint found in the paint dept), tied a long string to it and lowered it to the bottom of the barrel. By golly I think it really does help! It does seem to keep the water cleaner longer, at least by the time I use it up now.

So every year at cleaning time I re-supply the briquettes, about 6 or 8 per bag. They do eventually dissolve into a mucky ooze which I just turn out into the garden. Briquettes are wood ash, which is potash, the third nutrient on the NPK fertilizer list. Potassium (potash) is necessary for the development of strong plants able to overcome disease susceptibility and maintaining balanced nitrogen use. Potassium (potash) also alkalinizes soils that are too acidic. Then with clean, scrubbed insides and a fresh bag of briquettes they are ready for our next PNW rainstorm to fill them back up again.

Rain barrels don’t have enough water pressure to run a sprinkler but are great for filling watering cans, topping off water features, bird baths and rinsing off tools and boots. I can hook up a hose to them to run water anywhere the hose can reach, but it’s only gravity fed so the water runs slower. The lower the water level, the slower the water runs. That said, they do have their uses.

Do you have rain barrels? If not, do you plan to install any? If you get a lot of rain like we do here in western Washington they are great, and we can use them most of the spring and early summer months until the rain dries up!

In bloom in my garden today: Hardy Geranium, Peas, Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’, Armeria latifolia ‘Joystick’, Dianthus, Day Lily, Aquilegia (Columbine), Rose, Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’, Iris, Geum ‘Lady Stratheden’, Saxifrage, old fashioned Coral Bells (Heuchera), Alpine strawberry, Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’

Author’s photo