What am I supposed to do with all these herbs? – Let’s start with Mint

When we moved into our house, the first thing we did was remove the massive ugly shrubs that I’m guessing were planted when the house was built in the 60s.  That may also be the last time they were tended to, because they were crazy wild and far beyond the point where I would have considered rehab.  Removing them was no easy task and The Hubs actually had to drag one out using the hitch on the back of his SUV.  The Hubs was one step shy of dynamite to get those shrubs out.  It wasn’t an easy job, but after a lot of hard work and sore muscles they were gone, chopped up and hauled away by the township’s yard waste removal program.  The first thing I planted was herbs (they’re usually the cheapest plants at the garden centers).  I like to try new herbs, but I’m less interested in paying for them so I pay for seed packets and try them out in the garden.  If they work, then great, if they don’t then oh well.  But thanks to trying out some of the oddities that are available as seeds, I’ve grown Cutting Celery (tastes like celery, but easier to grow), Mitsuba or Japanese Parsley (which doesn’ t look anything like Italian Parsley) and Salad Burnet (which is a leaf plant that somehow tastes like cucumbers).

If you put an herb somewhere that it likes, it will grow like crazy for you.  So, if you have a friend who grows herbs and has an established set, chances are they will be willing to give you some of what they have.  Depending on how established they are it may be easier to give you cuttings instead of actual plants, but friends and family are a good source to save some money.  Over the years, I’ve planted many types of herbs and some of them did too well (yes there is such a thing) and this year I’ve offered them to just about everyone I know.  I’ve given away tons so far and the growing season hasn’t even gotten going yet.  I think my friends have stopped looking me in the eye when I mention the herbs for fear that I’m going to try and offer them more.  Thankfully, there’s a program by Philabundance called Share the Harvest that allows you to give away your produce/herbs that your friends are tired of you offering so it goes to feed people who need it.  So, my friends should be able to relax for a while.

One of my favorite no-fuss herbs is mint.  As I’ve learned over there years, there’s no such thing as “just mint.”  There are so many kinds of mint that sometimes it seems like there must be some crossover somewhere.  I can’t leave a garden center without a mint plant if I see one I haven’t grown.  Over the years I’ve grown spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, orange mint, apple mint, mojito mint, salad mint… you get the idea.  Honestly, not all of the mints taste strongly of whatever flavor the namers claim is there, but many of them are pretty and worth the effort to grow.  I HIGHLY recommend that if you decide to grow mint that you do each one in their own separate pot.  Mint is one of the wild child plants of the garden.  Once it’s in the ground it can spread like crazy, take over the growing space of other plants and be nearly impossible to remove.  It constantly straddles the fence of pain in the butt weed and beloved herb.

Since mint grows like crazy you have to figure out something to do with it.  I dried it to make mint tea.  Then I started making syrups.  Whenever I make iced tea for a party, I put out flavored syrup instead of sugar.  I just don’t like using sugar since it never melts and you just end up with half an inch of sugar bunched up in the bottom of the glass and hardly any sweetness in the tea.  Everyone likes different levels of sweetness so syrup is the easy solution for me.  I use cane sugar so my syrup has a browner tint than using regular granulated sugar, but whatever sugar you like should work.

Syrup

Mint Syrup

1 cup mint
2 cups sugar
2 cups water, room temperature

Add mint to medium size sauce pan.  Add sugar and smash it up with a wooden spoon (like you would if you were making a mojito).  Pour room temperature water over the sugar and let it sit for a few minutes as it starts to dissolve.  Heat up the sugar-water mixture over medium heat.  Don’t mix it.  Don’t touch it.  Just watch it.  Watch the mixture until it boils and it looks like all the sugar has melted and it’s clear.  (You don’t want caramel so don’t leave it unattended.) Put the cover on the pan and take it off the heat.  I usually leave it to steep for about an hour so it gets pretty strong.  When it’s done (you can start tasting it at half an hour if you don’t want it that strong), pour the syrup through a strainer into the container of your choice and refrigerate (or use for iced tea).

 

Compost Awareness Week (Really?!)

I swear there is an awareness week for everything, but hey, I love compost so I’ll go along with this one.  I’ve now taken my composting game to another level.  I got a worm composting bin!!!! (So excited!!)  The thing about compost is, once you see how easy it is to make and how little you get in the end, you start putting more and more stuff in to get more and more compost in the end.  I have three 4-foot (cubed) compost bins in the back.  Every year, I put in all the kitchen scraps and all the leaves and all the weeds and plant clippings and when the hubs spreads it out, it hardly covers any space at all!  So every year, I end up finding more and more and more things  to put in to get more out.  I’m telling you.  It gets kind of crazy.

Even with all this composting, I’m nowhere near where I need to be for the yard, but as it turns out, the township puts out free compost from the leaves they collect at the end of the fall season.  Thankfully, this should be enough to fill up the rest of the space that the compost we make doesn’t.  And I can say that it really makes a huge difference.  I tested it on my herb bed and garlic beds.  Last season I created a new bed down the driveway with strawberries and garlic and I added peas and lettuce for early season harvesting.  The herbs did well last year when I used regular dirt and fertilizer, but since I added about 2-3 inches of compost on the entire bed this year, the herbs are already going crazy.  I’ve already cut back the tarragon (which struggled last year)  three times and every time I cut it, it nearly jumps for joy with the way it bounces back.  I have a garden bed that I call “The Hubs’ Bed” because he did most of the work to convert it from the mess it was when we moved in.  It used to have a huge conifer that we had removed and then he pulled out the stump with his SUV.  And so he gets first dibs on whatever goes there.  Last year, it did “alright”, but this year, I’m really hopeful for a great harvest since he has already requested Cantaloupes.

Last year, we hit the tipping point with the composting.  I had too much to compost. The bins were so full that I had to get holding bins to store the compost that didn’t fit into the compost bins yet.  And thanks to the almost weekly snow storms this past winter, the hubs had to trek through the knee high snow to dump the kitchen scraps into the bin and I said, “Forget it, I’m getting a worm bin!”  I put three pounds of red wiggler worms in the bin and since they eat about half their body weight in food scraps in a week, they seemed like a reasonable amount for the household between the hubs, the kid and me.  I stuck it  a hidden corner in the basement and it’s been going for a few weeks now.  Pretty soon I’ll have a good amount of compost so I can feed the indoor plants with it.  And I’ve been feeding some of the outdoor plants with the liquid that collects at the bottom already.

Now The Hubs finds all this worm composting amusing, because I am not at all squeamish when it comes to worms.  And that’s about the extent of my non-squeamishness.  I am the serious eeking, screaming, on top of a chair girl if you even hint that there may be a mouse in the vicinity.  I was superbly grateful to get through college with a Biology degree without ever having to handle mice (I was fine with the frogs).  There is a plant called mouse tails that I can’t even LOOK at in a plant catalog ‘cos it freaks me out that much.  My mother on the other hand has a worm bin and refuses to touch it.  I have to harvest the compost for her so she doesn’t actually have to handle any worms by accident.   So I guess you could say I have two worm bins.

 

 

The Secret of a Green Thumb…

I’ve been growing plants for a long time thanks to my mom’s influence.  When I was little, she told me, “We’re Jamaican. We grow things.”  I had a strawberry patch (which was eaten by squirrels, to my infuriation) when I was little and I’ve grown something almost every year since then.  My list of plantings includes so many things on the continuum of everyday vegetables to exotic flowers in my mom’s and then my garden.  The total plants over my lifetime could probably fill a huge farm.  So, believe me when I say that there really is no such thing as a “green thumb.”  While I’ve had decades of experience with growing, I’ve also killed more things that could fill a farm.  My list of failures far exceeds my list of successes.  The difference with people who think they have a “black thumb” is they don’t hide their mistakes.  The secret of a “green thumb” gardener is a compost heap filled with things that didn’t go right the first or first few hundred times.  They use their old mistakes (buried in the compost heap) to feed their future successes (which is all you see).

So, here’s the thing… I’m a huge fan of compost for several reasons.  One is, that it takes all the stuff you have and want to get rid of and gives you free fertilizer that works a lot better than the chemical crap.  (Oh and less on the garbage bill) Early warning… I stick to all organic plant food and fertilizer in my garden.  I have a serious issue with chemical herbicides and fertilizers since there are so many easier, cheaper, and healthier ways to do the same thing with organic treatments and garden gadgets.  There are tons of studies out that show that chemical herbicides act as endocrine disruptors and can affect human and animal fertility.  To be fair, there are studies that dispute this… but why chance it if you can just use something natural (and did I mention compost is free)?  As my mom says, “Why bother growing your own food if you’re just going to use the same chemicals as the ones you’re buying in the store?  Your home produce should be special.”

There are tons of ways to make compost and most of them involve things you’re paying someone else to haul away.  There are compost purists who closely regulate what goes into the pile.  Our bins are more of a little bit of this, little bit of that balancing act.  I toss in just about everything in the yard and most things from the kitchen.  I added some composting redworms to my piles when I started them and they’re in charge of eating most of the kitchen scraps.  If you’re squeamish about worms.  I can tell you that I never see them.  There have been a few times over the years when I had to ask the hubs if I needed to buy some more to put in there because I didn’t see any.  They hate light so unless you’re really digging around, they’ll hide from you, but they can eat their weight in food scraps and weeds so I think they’re a good addition to the pile.   Pretty much anything in the kitchen that isn’t fat/animal can go in (well, it can go in, but the smell will likely attract scavenging animals which is why I avoid it).  Here are some of the kitchen things that go into mine:

  • veggie scraps (carrot shavings, cucumber skins, the hard end of the celery, onion skins, garlic skins, etc.)
  • dead veggies (the mixed salad greens that never seem to last more than 2 days in the fridge, the cucumber you forgot you bought, etc.)
  • tea bags
  • coffee grounds and the filter (coffee grounds from Starbucks are a good way to get extra [they’re more than happy to give it to you so they don’t have to pay the garbage company to take it away])
  • leftover coffee without any cream in it (sugar is fine)
  • egg shells (rinse them in really hot water before you put them in)
  • vegetarian meals that have no cheese

There are some things that I put in that some compost purists do not agree with (clearly… I don’t care).  My pile… my rules:

  • shredded paper/newspaper (if junk mail has my name/info on it, I drop it in the “secure disposal” pile [I figure if someone wants to dig through rotten veggies and worms and then piece the cross cut shreds together, they probably earned the information])
  • little pieces of cardboard
  • old bread (anything with yeast in it isn’t technically supposed to go in…)

You can also throw just about anything from the garden in there:

  • Shredded leaves (and I’ve been known to take the shredded leaves my neighbors put out on the street for the township to pick up)
  • Cuttings and trimmings from plants throughout the season
  • End of season plants without disease
  • Weeds without flowers/seeds showing

About the weeds: I weed selectively.  I either do it in separate rounds or use separate containers for the weeds that have seeds or flowers showing vs. the ones that don’t.   It’s possible for seeds to hibernate in a compost pile so I apply some unkind treatment to the ones with seeds and seal them in a 5 gallon bucket with some comfrey and a little water and stick it where it can heat up in the sun.  The purpose is to get these seeds to either cook and die or germinate in a closed environment and then kill the resulting plants with extreme heat before I add them to hibernate in my compost pile.  It may be possible for this method to kill the disease in some plants, but I wouldn’t risk it so I throw those in the garbage.

The thing most people ask about compost is… Does it smell?  If it smells, then something is wrong, but it’s easily fixed.  The balance of compost is brown material and green material.  Brown material is dry.  Green material is wet.  If it smells, it’s probably too wet, add some dried leaves or shredded newspaper or pieces of cardboard (Brown material).  If it looks kind of dry, more food or fresh weeds or clippings from plants go in (Green material).  If it doesn’t look like it’s breaking down, add some grass clippings or comfrey to heat it up.

You can also get a compost thermometer and check the heat of the pile.  I haven’t gone there yet.  The pile is best between 135 and 160 degrees and so I figure that if there’s steam coming off of it, then it’s hot enough.  If it’s not moving quickly enough, I add a layer of freshly cut grass or comfrey (more about comfrey in another post) or compost accelerator to heat it up.  There is a garden gadget out there for every task you can think of.  I love gadgets and when I’ve bought all the rest of them, I will probably end up with a compost thermometer.

Now, before I go any further (and I warn you this will not be my last post on compost [lol]), I should let you know that there seems to be a strange phenomenon when it comes to compost.  While I was the one who went out to the store and bought the three massive compost bins on a Sunday morning so long ago, it is now my husband who has claimed the compost as his.  I started it because when we moved in, the previous owners were “kind enough” to leave us all the unraked leaves and weeds from several seasons.  I will never forget one day when we were out getting the outrageous cleanup job started, one of the neighbors came out to give us some background about the previous owners… “He never was one for the yard…  He’d come out at the beginning of the season and pick up a stick or two, but that’s about it.”  And from the state of the yard, I believe it.  But my husband is now the one who turns the pile and adds all the different ingredients.  It seems that the idea of crap turning into garden gold was what did it for him.  I’ve also heard from other gardening wives that this is not uncommon.  Something about making dirt brings out the kid in husbands and one day you hear, “Are you sure that should go in my compost?”