About Susan

Female, married, attend Quaker Meeting. Princeton University '84. Live on a farm near Easton, Maryland, USA.

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Right now I am working on a different project about a way different location, so Glory Garden is on hold. I will continue when logical to do so. Various folks in Russia, etc., whose interest in this website is based on a hope that they can sell me life enhancing drugs, have clogged up the subscriber list. I have deleted the entire list, since to pick through literally 14 thousand subscribers to find the folks who are really interested in how to skin a deer or make sourdough seems daunting, especially since I am presently writing another blog. So go ahead and resubscribe if you want to. BTW the new blog is very new, pretty rough draft, but if you want to see it, it is at my name dot com: first initial plus last name dot com. I’m just being coy so the webspiders don’t pick it up. Cheers dears.

A Decent Herb Garden

Someone recently asked me for  basic pointers on an herb garden that includes medicinal herbs. The thing is that many herbs are of course both culinary and medicinal. “Let thy food be thy medicine,”as Hippocrates said.So I will just mentally wander around my garden and try to organize the ones I see. But before I do that, I would just emphasize that most culinary herbs prefer well-drained soil and sun, with some sand and maybe some wood ashes added. Don’t add much nitrogen; it will make herbs grow lush and leafy but not as strong flavored.


yes, that’s Thai basil on the right

Basil– Well, there are so many cool basils, for medicinal use as well- they call them Tulsi in India, and there are a lot of African ones as well. My favorite is Besobila, the pretty Ethiopian Holy Basil. I saved some seed out of some besobila I got for Ethiopian cooking- they use the dried seedheads. Smells a bit like pineapple and has a great compact growth habit. Wonderful for headaches, colds, vitality, and spiritual funks. But of course you have to have Genovese basil for pesto, and Purple for salads. Pinch the flowering spikes off and it will grow back double, like the Hydra in the legend of Hercules.

Rosemary is a must have, and very efficient, since they grow into monster fragrant bushes, feed bees, counteract the carcinogens in roasted meat, perfume the house while cooking, and counteract depression, especially in Mediterranean types. I hear they make a rosemary hair rinse for dark hair as well. Who knew?

Tarragon is hard to grow for me- the French kind, so I don’t know much about it, but a bit in a jar of vinegar infuses wonderfully and it is so good in pickles.  It needs protection from gross physical violence and my cats are always digging it up. When we lived in France we had a giant bush. I guess it likes a cooler damper, more catless environment. The Russian kind is less delicious.

Catnip, speaking of cats, is tough as a boot, spreads readily, feeds the bees, amuses the felines, and makes a nice tea for whiny babies of all ages. It is very perennial. My husband hit it with the tiller and it made babies everywhere, like a starfish.

Parsley (Italian is tastier) has more vitamins than oranges, and should be used as a vegetable- giant handfuls chopped fresh into everything. You can’t beat it in Tabouleh. Also freshens the breath, says Nicolas Culpeper. It is biennial, so save seeds every other year and be sure to work some into the soil early, as it is not happy sprouting when it gets too hot and dry.

Sage is also great for tea, I think for the same reasons, and is of course good with meat. It is available in many different leaf colors and can grow to be quite a bush. My friend has a purple one that is three feet by five. It is definitely relaxing, good for digestion, and helps with unwanted sweating.

Thyme is sensitive about drainage, and is very pretty and delicious with lentils, chicken, salad, everything. There are a zillion kinds with different variations and flavors. Wonderful in tea if you are catching a chesty cold. It is quite antimicrobial. Plant in the front- it is short, some kinds even to the point of crawling between flagstones, and it won’t tolerate competition from other plants. English Thyme is softer and broader leafed, and Mediterranean types are more woody and resinous.

mentha nigra piperata

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

Mint is a water lover and quite invasive, so plant in a sunken pot where there is a leaky faucet or something. Frankly, I ripped mine out and stomped it into a ditch, where it flourishes and smells great when mowed. Great with meats, tabouleh, juleps, easy to tincture and make home made creme de menthe. Alcohol and oil infusions are great externally as liniment for injuries. I have spearmint; very sweet and a calming tea and face lotion, and  mentha nigra, which is industrial strength. There are many types, from huge hairy Apple Mint to delicate creeping Pennyroyal, which is not for eating, especially if you could be pregnant.

Lemon Balm, also called Melissa,  is a lemon scented mint looking perennial, very vigorous and spreading. The tea of the dried or fresh plant is delicate and lemony, and works very well for headaches. The crushed or chewed leaves are apparently a great remedy for cold sores and herpes lesions, perhaps antiviral. I have been given a facial with the tea, mixed with Rose Geranium.

Rose geranium is a tender perennial but you can overwinter it as a houseplant as it grows well in pots and roots easily from cuttings.  It has small pink flowers and fuzzy hand shaped leaves that are redolent of roses. A Victorian favorite, it is a strong astringent and makes a nice face wash as well as lovely potpourri. I have heard of people laying a leaf flat in a cakepan before pouring on the dough.

Bergamot, or Monarda, is a spectacular plant, also mint family, prettiest I think in the scarlet variety. It has a feathery crown of flowers bursting out of a pincushion of bracts. It is the flavoring for Earl Grey tea. It is a good 3-4 feet tall, and perennial, but does clump neatly. The tea is calming on many levels, and probably antimicrobial, since there is something of oregano and marjoram in the fragrance.

I have regular Oregano and Greek Oregano. The regular has pinker flowers and very delicate stems, while the Greek has a more resinous flavor and thicker stems. It is of course great in Mediterranean food, but I also love it in tea. I find that it always makes my stomach better; probably the fragrant bitterness stimulates my liver.Oregano is about a foot tall so it can go in front of taller plants.

Fennel liqueur is similar to anisette

Fennel liqueur is similar to anisette

Fennel is very useful; Bronze is pretty and very tough in zone 7, but does not bulb up for finocchio the way white fennel does. They are perennial, although the most symmetrical bulbs come from the first season. We use fronds for garnish, bulbs braised and in salads, and we tincture seeds for liqueur. Also use seeds in baking and some Italian dishes. They are great for stomach ailments and as a digestive- are used as such in many countries. The pollen is the latest expensive spice I hear.

Coriander/cilantro is a threefer annual; the fresh leaves are delicious, especially in Asian and Latino food, and chelate heavy metals very well. The flowers are pretty, although the flavor becomes sweeter as soon as it bolts. The seeds are used in Indian cooking, like my yummy spicy Indian style venison curry and are great for digestion. It is very prone to bolt and then you are pretty much done with the fresh use stage, so we plant it in the fall for early spring use, outdoors and in the cold greenhouse. Keep it watered and plant it in the damper part of the garden, and not too sunny. Grow it from seed, although it takes a good 10 days to sprout.

Lavender can be used in cooking. I have had delicious lavender cookies and ice cream. I have used lavender infused almond oil to rub my feet- it was so relaxing I felt as if I’d had a nap. Just strip the flowers into the oil and let it sit on the back shelf of your car for a week during sunny weather, then pour it through a thin cloth and squeeze it out well. If there is any water on the bottom pour the oil off of it or it will spoil. Lavender is the ultimate aromatherapy for calming down when you are stressed out. It really does work. Important to grow it in sandy, well-drained soil and a sunny spot, or it will languish and die. You can grow it from seed although starts are not expensive. I have a friend who grows it all around a small stuccoed chapel they have built near their house. It is the loveliest thing.

Dill is another annual that bolts quickly. There are a few varieties that promise to bolt slowly, and a bronze kind that is beautiful. I use a lot of dill in my cucumber pickles, which are good for the intestinal flora, and the dill promotes digestion, so I make an effort to grow it, but it hates our hot summers. For me it does best in shade.

Baltimore Fish Pepper

Baltimore Fish Pepper, a historical variegated pepper!

Chilies– You might not think of hot peppers as an herb, but they are pretty, edible, used for flavor and medicine- of course they belong in an herb garden. Chilies are tender perennials, -if you just have a few you can save time keeping them in pots. I am a chili freak and have a few that require a very long season, but your basic cayenne grows well as an annual. Warms the body and thins secretions, kills germs. Some are very tall and can need support. The ornamental ones are just as hot, and I have had a lot of fun with Baltimore variegated Fish Pepper, a deep purple Peruvian chili I call Purple Bullet which is nearly black, and tiny chiltepins.

Garlic is a great thing to grow- plant in September, harvest in June/July. I have a whole big blog post on that one. We have braids all over the house, although they are withering now. It also thins and heats the blood, and kills germs. People used to tape it to the bottom of feet for the flu. When you taste it in your mouth you are good. Some French friends used to grow it in the back of the herb border. They are stately until they turn yellowish when it is time to harvest.  However I grow it in the regular garden.

Valerian is a pretty flower; tall and lacy. The root, which I gather in late winter when I am separating the clumps and preparing the beds, is great for sleep issues. We had a buddy who was sort of becoming a nuisance because he didn’t sleep, wandered around all hours, and was grumpy to people. I gave him a couple droppersfull of Valerian root tincture and he slept 16 hours. Everyone was delighted. Its sedative properties are good for the heart.

 Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, (perennial) is good for the heart and relaxation, like a nice comforting hug from your mother. I planted in a shady acid patch of ground because I dug it up on a mountain in WV. It seems to like it. The lion-paw shaped leaves make a row with little pink flowers, which are followed by spiky seed heads. It’s about two feet tall but tends to sprawl. It is a valuable medicine plant so I don’t mind that it reseeds, but yes, it does.

 Honestly, though, there are so many fun herbs to try, and so many medicinal herbs to grow. These are just a few of my favorites that are easy to grow. A wonderful resource for herb information and seeds is Richo Cech’s Horizon Farm. His website, his catalog, and his books are really easy to read and full of good information.

Ivory Grapes

Why white tomatoes? Aren’t they supposed to be red?  My grandmother saved the seeds of white lunaria, and fostered her white crepe myrtle. Vita Sackville-West had a white garden. Of course, white flowers which are white by default tend to be fragrant and night-blooming, in order to attract night pollinators. But white tomatoes, really? Fragrant and mysterious, looming in the gloaming?

Well, they are really sweet. Something they lack makes them subacid- a tomato term for less tart. If you have a delicate stomach, you will tolerate orange, yellow, and white tomatoes better. I have been growing Amana Orange for my mother for years; a soft orange beefsteak that is luscious, but the white beefsteak, White Beauty, eludes me. It is so sweet and tender that bugs destroy it before it ripens. One has to pick them early and let them ripen in the safety of a paper bag.  I saw a spaghetti sauce made of white tomatoes on spinach fettuccini- hideous, actually. Looked like vomit. I expect it would have been tasty though.

This year one of my son’s friends, a dear young man who visited me this spring with his beautiful young family, brought me Ivory Grape, a small pear shaped tomato (Baker Creek shows it as Ivory Pear- I’ll check my seed packets when I get around to it) which grows in clusters and looks a bit like a light bulb. It is amazingly sweet and despite being juicy, dries well and is tasty. I will probably grow it again as I have saved seed.

Drying Chilies

My husband and I like to travel a lot, and wherever we go, we find new varieties of peppers. In India alone we found Lal Mirc, Bili Mirc, Ganesh, a little fiery short pepper from Assam, and a long fruity red pepper with less heat. In Roswell, New Mexico, while my husband was checking out the UFOs, I was headfirst in the hardware store buying every chile seed they had. So what do we do with all that? Well, we chop them over eggs, we pickle them, we make lots and lots of fiery colorful hot sauce, we roast them, sweat them, peel and seed them and eat that, we stuff them with potatoes and cheese, we massage sore muscles with the infused oil of them, and we dry them.

String ‘Em Up

Stringing peppers to dry

Lal mirc

This is really easy. Choose thin-skinned chilies like cayenne for room-temperature drying. Pick only ripe, colorful ones. Get some thread- button thread is nice- and a big needle. Make a sloppy knot at the bottom. Run the needle through the hardest part of the green calyx at the top of the chile- not the stem as it will split, and not into the pepper. At the bottom of the stem where it is thick and the needle has a harder time getting through is where you want to be. For the first chile, go back around and run your needle through the knot at the bottom of the thread, where I told you to make it sloppy. That way the thread runs around the stem and it won’t pull through. Now just keep threading the chilies on, making sure the thread doesn’t tangle around the stems. Make it as short as you like but not more than 2 feet- that gets cumbersome. Hang it up in a decorative place where it won’t get knocked down.

Thicker Chilies

Stringing peppers to dry

Stringing peppers to dry

I noticed that some of my dried chilies tended to have mold inside them when I opened them.  I remembered that I had dried them in the greenhouse, which becomes an oven in summer, but gets cool and damp at night in the fall. Also, notice that chipotles, which are made from a ripened  jalapeno-like pepper, are smoke-dried. I got some amazing ones in Roswell- fantastic mole/fire-butter recipe to come eventually. Aha! So thicker peppers must be dehydrated in a really hot place, like my attic, or a smoker. The attic works perfectly as long as the weather is warm, but the improvised smoker -it remains to be seen. I smoked them with sassafrass leaves in my closed grill with a low heat, then slit them and put them in the dehydrator. We shall see. I did not string them because the last time I tried that the string burnt and the peppers fell in the fire….

To Trim or Not to Trim

At the top you may decide to tie some cornshucks for decoration. Get clean ones from the inside of the husk, tie the string around them, and shred, trim and fluff them so they make a nice top. I have sort of stopped bothering with that. I just hang them all over the house. They are pretty, and you can add them to food any time you want.

Make Your Own Chile Powder

toasting dried peppers

toasting dried peppers

Eventually I  take them down, dust them off, break them to release the seeds, toast them lightly by stirring in a dry cast iron pot, and throw them in the blender to create my own chile powder. I never have to buy it. The challenge is actually to grow chiles that are mild enough to get plenty of flavor before the heat becomes too much.

Nightshades: What To Do With Too Many Tomatoes

Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes

tying up tomatoes

In winter, I dream of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. I go through my seed file, smiling fondly as I pull out last year’s successes and failures, new seeds from places we have visited, trades and gifts, deciding what to grow in the rising year. The fact is that I eventually can’t choose and I grow them all, and then I can’t bear to compost the hundreds of extra plants, so I take them to the farmer’s market, and then I still have bazillions, so I end up growing about half a football field of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. It is kind of a nightshade nightmare. I must be crazy. Anyway. These are solanums; what people call nightshades, because they, -and potatoes, granadillas, groundcherries, henbane, etc., are in the same family as the mildly poisonous hedge growing plant nightshade. Some people think with a name like that they must be bad for your health. Well, imagine life without pizza, mashed potatoes, gazpacho, chili, eggplant parmigiana. Seriously. So now, if you are like me, you are drowning in tomatoes and something must be done, or you will be up to your eyeballs in rotten vegetables and your good work will be wasted.

Yes, We Can!

Canned tomatoes

Canned tomatoes

Seriously, canning is very easy. Today’s instructions make it sound very complex and dangerous. They just don’t want to be sued. Look at the older copies of Rodale’s Stocking Up. The newer versions are much more cautious. Just don’t eat anything out of a jar with a bad seal. Freezing is nice if you have the freezer space and you don’t mind risking a power outage. Dehydrating is fun, especially if you have a solar dehydrator, but I haven’t really been successful in producing really nice reconstituted vegetables. Dried tomatoes are like candy, but it’s really a sideline for me. Canning puts produce in glass jars which will be stable at a wide temperature range on your shelves for years, which makes them a favorite for preppers.


Glass jars about the size of mayonnaise jars: Mason, Kerr, or Ball jars mainly- but you can reuse any clean glass jar, any size, that the disposable lids and rings fit. I recycle just about every glass jar that has a lid I can trust for one thing or another, and I have always scavenged spaghetti sauce jars and mayonnaise jars for tomatoes. You can buy new canning jars at the dollar store, but people are always throwing them out. Let your friends and family know to save them for you.

A really big pot for submerging Mason jars in boiling water. (If you want to go whole hog and get a pressure canner, you can still use it to do the easy open water bath canning for things like tomatoes and applesauce.)

Canning lids and rings The button in the middle of the lid is how you check if your seal is good. The rubber gasket, usually red, built into the lid, should be smooth and soft.

Funnels, especially a wide mouthed canning funnel.

Jar grabber/lifter– Like a big set of bottle grabbing tongs-totally essential for lifting hot jars out of boiling water.Trust me.

Tongs and a magnetic lid lifter are nice too. You can get all this stuff cheaply in five and dime or hardware stores, online, etc.

Glass jars are reusable and non-reactive. I have some Mason jars that are older than me, so I just run my finger around the edge to make sure there are no chips, and reuse them. (The blue ones are collector’s items, but I think they make the tomatoes look sickly.)The metal sealing rings are reusable but rust easily, and lids are risky to reuse, because although the rubber seal might reseal, the plastic film on the inside of the lid is easily damaged and then the underlying metal will corrode into your food.  I have heard of reuseable lids, and then there are glass jars with wire bails, glass lids and reusable rubber gaskets. They are expensive so I just try to find them in thrift stores. The gaskets last years.


I put my jars in the dishwasher, but I also check very carefully that each jar is clean and has no chips or cracks. Set up enough lids and rings in a separate pot of water to boil and sterilize for 15 minutes when you are getting ready to fill jars.  Put the wide mouth funnel in the mouth of the jar you are filling – it will be an exact fit so the mouth of the jar stays clean. Fill the jar until you have a half inch of space left- this is for the air that will exhaust and create your vaccuum seal. Remove the funnel, dip a clean cloth or paper towel in the water of the lids and make sure the rim of the jar is food-free, as little microorganism threads will climb up on food and break the seal, like weeds in a sidewalk, if you don’t. Using your jar lifter or tongs, put a lid on the jar, add the ring, and finger tighten, repeat.

boiling lids for canning

boiling lids-this was from a jam jar but it was late and I had no pictures….

When you have about seven jars filled, if you have the canning pot I think you do, put them in the pot, fill to cover with at least a half an inch of water over the top of the jars, and allow to boil until bubbles have been exhausting from the jars for 25 minutes. Many canning books quibble about the time, but my garden mentor, Steve Moaney, told me to just submerge the jars in water  and count 25 minutes from when it boils.Then use the jar lifter/grabber to carefully place the jars on a mat to cool. Make sure you have a secure grip before lifting clear of the water. You could make a serious mess and get badly scalded if you hurry.

As they cool, you will hear the lids suck down with a clicking sound. Check the “button” in the center of the lid and make sure it is down. If it didn’t go down or pops up, throw the contents out, unless you just canned it and it hasn’t had time to spoil. In that case you can eat or refrigerate it.

When the jars are cool, remove the rings, wipe, label, and store someplace they won’t freeze. Dry the rings so they don’t rust and put them away for reuse.The lids will stay on from the vaccuum seal until you pry them off with the side of a butter knife this winter. Some people like to cap the lids with a square or pinking shears circle of cloth- old clothes are fine- and tie a string around the top to hold the cloth cap in place. This is cute and keeps dust off the lid, plus if your seal is bad and the contents spoil the cloth will stain and show it. Not necessary and a time consumer, but it looks nice at the county fair. You can get cute labels and alll that. I know what tomatoes look like and only label my jams, jellies, and pepper sauces using plain white adhesive labels.

Labor Saving

sphaghetti sauce from summer tomatoesI used to skin and seed my tomatoes, pile them neatly into sterilized jars, and cover them with strained tomato juice. Later I would open the jar, chop the tomatoes, and add them to fried onions, peppers, eggplants, etc.  Lots of work. Why not make my own convenience foods? Tomatoes are acid, like applesauce, another easy canner. So what if I just made huge pots of the mixture I would usually make? I start with fried onions, add herbs, garlic, salt, peppers, eggplants- what ever I have- even okra or zucchini, and then pile in chunks of tomatoes. Each tomato that ripens gets quickly cored, bad parts cut out, and tossed into the big iron pot. It sears and melts into red deliciousness. Eventually it gets too watery, so I ladle off juice into a seive over a funnel over a mason jar or a sealable bottle. That way, when I open the jars, if I decide to make lasagna or spaghetti, it is thick enough. The tomato juice can be drunk, thrown into rice, or used as a soup base. I don’t peel anything but the onions and garlic, and I only slice the zucchini, if I have it. I get through my work a lot faster, and we eat our own tomatoes all year.

Just the Recipe

2 onions chopped

6 cloves garlic

1 tsp sea salt

2 tbsp olive oil

2 green peppers

4 Asian eggplants (long skinny, don’t have to be peeled or drained)

2 medium zucchini

8 large tomatoes

small bunch basil

1/2 tsp italian herbs

Slice and brown onions until nicely caramelized, add salt, garlic, chopped, Italian herbs ( just something dried and aromatic- I have oregano) add chopped peppers, chunked Asian eggplants, cook until softened, add zukes, sliced, and tomatoes, chunked. Cook until liquefied, add chopped basil. This is a way oversimplified recipe. I just put things in in a logical order, and use up what I have, in a basic tomato sauce so it is acid enough to can. Add whatever, mushrooms, okra, etc., except meat. Meat has to be pressure canned, and that is a whole ‘nother deal. Make sure it is still mostly tomatoes, especially if you are using low-acid tomatoes, because the acidity, as in vinegar pickles, is what makes the open bath bath canning technique safe.

In winter, when you look at your rows of gleaming tomato sauces, you will be pleased. They are like a meal in a jar. You can throw them on pizza, spaghetti, rice, or make soup, and the blissful taste of the summer garden is still there.


Jams and Jellies

How to make jam/jelly:

Plum pulp ready to make jam with no added pectin
Plum pulp ready to make jam with no added pectin

Jelly is just jam without pulp. It is easier to have jam come out right because the fruit can cover for you if it didn’t jell properly, but it’s really pretty easy. You make the juice by straining the cooked fruit through muslin- or an old t-shirt stretched over an upside down chair. Put a chair upside down on the table, stretch thin, clean white fabric over it- we used to have all these old fashioned diapers- I swear they were clean- and attach the corners firmly to the legs with strip of rag, rubber bands, what have you. Make sure it is very firmly tied or you will have boiling hot fruit splashed everywhere. Set a large bowl under the cloth on the bottom of the chair seat. Cook the fruit with water just peeking through the layer below the top layer When it is properly soft dump it carefully into your cloth strainer and let it drip overnight. Don’t squeeze the bag unless you aren’t worried about the clarity of the jelly.


Making plum jam

Making plum jam

Some fruit has pectin; some does not. Pectin is what makes jams and jellies become firm. There is a lot of pectin in apples, the greener the better. It is possible to make your own liquid pectin from green apples, especially what we call the drops- the smaller apples that fall early and don’t really ripen. However I find I am not good at producing a consistent product so I don’t always do it. Yes, it is the right thing to do- we should not be dependent on a bought product if we can make it ourselves. But if my jelly turns out really tough or really runny, it is sort of a waste of my fruit and labor. I need to improve, but in the meantime, if you don’t mix apple juice with a non-pectin fruit like elderberry or suncherries or even hot peppers, there is Surejel and Ball Pectin, Dutch Jel (sold in bulk at Amish type bulk food stores), or many other brands. Follow the recipe, although I often try to reduce the sugar just a little and generally it is fine. If not, either use the runny jam on pancakes or follow the instructions on the pectin instructions for “if your jelly fails…..”

So, procedure wise:cukes and razz jam 004

Have your jars all ready: wash them with very hot water, set them to dry on a clean folder dish towel or thick cloth. Boil the lids for 15 minutes. There are magnetic lid lifters to get them out of the boiling water, or you can use tongs. Have more ready than you think you will need.

Measure your fruit or juice into a very large pot. It has to boil up a lot and you don’t want to boil over. Have your sugar measured out and ready. Bring your fruit or juice to a boil, with or without the pectin, boil for a minute, then add the sugar and bring to a boil. My female ancestors always skimmed the “scum” off, which was delicious foam to little me, but I don’t see why. Some people put a teaspoon of butter in to stop it scumming. I don’t think it matters to the end result. Maybe if you are making a very clear, pretty jelly you need to worry about skimming scum. The important part is to watch for sheeting. If you boil it too long first it will cool tough and stringy, with less fruity taste, and then it will be tough and brown, and pull like candy. Still yummy, but we’re making something to spread on bread here. Get a large wooden spoon. Spoon up a little of the liquid after it has boiled hard 1 minute. Let it cool about 10 seconds, then, turn the spoon over so that the jelly runs off the edge of the spoon. I prefer to let it roll over the back of the spoon. It seems to show the sheeting better. Watch the drips. What you see before it sheets is two  drips running off the spoon separately.  Stir and try again. Now the drips might start to run into each other but still become one normal shaped drip. Try again. Don’t leave it. Finally the two drips will run together but stay wide, like a flat blob, and fall off in a sheet. This is the perfect time to jar. If it never happens, perhaps your fruit was too ripe, you changed the recipe too much, or you went to the bathroom and it overboiled. In this case you can either reprocess your jam according to the “if your jam fails” directions on the package insert, you can just let it be runny and label it pancake syrup, and actually, some pectin added jellies will firm up over time. But it’s not that hard. Usually it is fine. Check out the raspberry jam recipe. That one needs only sugar.

raspberry jam

raspberry jam

I haven’t really experimented with methoxy and other low sugar options. I don’t use that much sugar normally and I am an old stick in the mud about new ideas that involve long words. It took me a long time to give in to pectin. My maiden name is Dabney; an old Virginia name. Did you ever hear this one? How many Virginians does it take to change a lightbulb? Oh, I’d say four or five. One to change it; the others to sit around and talk about how much better the old one was.

When you pour your boiling hot jam or jelly into the clean jars, having them on an old towel prevents damage to the tabletop.  Use a funnel to prevent drips. Make sure your funnel is clean by upending it in the boiling water you have the lids in. Check the edges of the jars for drips as that can prevent a good seal.

Two ways to seal:

Put the lids on finger tight. I invert the jars for 7 seconds and then set them up right-ways again. You will hear a soft hiss as air superheated by the hot jam exhausts  out of the jar. Then tighten it a bit more- as it is hotter you can do that. If I do this I find I don’t usually have to process in a hot water bath and I don’t get mold.

Or you can put on the lids finger tight and submerge them in a pot of hot water, boil for 15 minutes, then pull out and allow to cool. You can get jar lifters cheaply in the dollar store or many hardware stores. This will allow you to safely remove the jar to a clean towel where it can cool. It will be nice and clean to label and put in the pantry.

no knead bread
This is the “no knead” bread made famous by Mark Bittman.

Yum. Now, you need to make some proper bread to put that on, seriously. Remember I told you

You Don’t Have to Wait for Basil Anymore

What if you could have a bowl of steaming fresh pasta with freshly made pesto right now? In winter freshly made pesto is a summer dream. I love pesto. I consider it vitamin P. I grow a forest of Genovese basil every year and make pesto with Parmesan cheese, home grown garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and pine nuts, walnuts or pumpkin seeds. Serve it on homemade spelt pasta, Yum.


yes, that’s Thai basil on the right

This is a pleasure which begins in late May when the basil plants are big enough to pluck leaves, and ends in November when the frost hits, only to be prolonged by endless pots of frozen pesto, which just isn’t the same.

Now. A few weeks ago I was invited to dinner by my cousin’s Neapolitan wife. (From Naples, not chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. Just kidding.) Chiara had actually found this recipe in Yoga Journal, but the meal was absolutely Italian. Fresh bread, red wine, a salad, and pasta……………with Kale pesto! Yes.

Bright green, creamy, smooth and parmesany, it’s a little more like a vegetable sauce than a condiment. You can load it on; it’s lighter than regular pesto, and it doesn’t turn black. And what is pesto, after all? Actually, it’s a raw chopped sauce, usually oily and garlicky, applied to a hot food. Pistou is like that as well. The kale pesto is different from basil pesto in that the kale is quickly blanched. If you don’t want to destroy enzymes maybe just wilt it with steam before plunging it in cold water. I demanded the recipe, but to be honest I just did it by feel and taste. Blanched kale (I used 3 kinds), Parmesan, walnuts, garlic, and olive oil whizzed in a food processor, tossed with hot pasta. I also threw in a small bunch of arugula tops which had bolted. We eat them blanched as well. It was great! Here is the recipe and the Yoga Journal link.

Kale Pesto

4 cups stemmed, chopped black kale (about 1 bunch), blanched and plunged into ice water.
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound fettuccine

Kale is still in season- our greenhouse is full of it, and some are bolting, but in gardens where it didn’t freeze it’s still growing. By the time harlequin beetles are wrecking mine the basil will be up and running. Hey, maybe we should try chard!

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

Twofer:Edible Landscaping

red cabbage

amazing color and symmetry of a red cabbage

I got a call the other day from a writer who wanted to know about local experiences with edible landscaping. It was a really fun conversation which got my brain up and running, so this post grew out of our interview for a “Green Shore” article that will appear in the April issue of Attraction Magazine.

Of course, all plants are beautiful- a red cabbage like a blue rose, frilly safety green frisee endives, tiny jewel-like currant tomatoes,delicate pink new potatoes, fat purple-smoked lavender eggplants. Praise the Creator! One can very easily make the transition from pretty veggies to an edible landscape.

Space and Proximity

Why an edible landscape? It’s a natural- why grow the few plants that don’t feed or heal you? Also, if space is an issue, you can skip the  plants which merely supply beauty, and go for the twofer.

Another clever thing is that deer are less likely to munch in your garden if you are raising food right by the house. Our dog generally keeps deer away, but I just wish those deer would try it. I have a crossbow right by the window….

Look at the intersection between the plants we grow for food and medicine and the plants we grow for ornament. OK, trees, foundation plants, perennial specimens, annual accents, groundcover, climbers, perennials, container plants. The lightbulb goes on!


methley plums

Methley plums

I have apples, plums, cherries, figs, and pomegranates. The pomegranate has gaudy orange flowers that look like a giant crepe myrtle coming out of a latex 4 pointed star. Next to it the Black Mission fig, under it the Broadleaf thyme as a groundcover, on the wall behind it a grape vine. Whoever thought of a flowering cherry?  Scrooge? And my plums and apples are work, but they feed me delights all through the winter, and the bees agree with us about the flowers.

Foundation Plants

Instead of azaleas, how about blueberries? Same conditions, yummy fruit, easy care. Blueberries are elegant bushes, with great fruit, interesting gray bark, nice red foliage in fall, and they are a manageable size. Shadberry is nativeto our area, and I have seen them 7-9′ tall, graceful, with berries like elongated red blueberries. I like the flavor but it isn’t as lively as blueberry. North of here, red currants, the most jewel-like fruits, on a bush that sits in a partially corner and doesn’t ramble like raspberries and blackberries. I have some, but they are marginal in zone 7. I don’t have any experience with cranberries or lingonberries, but they are short.


Here I am talking about perennial climbers. Kiwis are vigrous climbers, which require one male for every 3-4 females. They are attractive and rambunctious, and the artic kind has variegated leaves, but only in the male, I understand. I don’t have that kind, and mine have yet to produce- I discovered my male had died, however, so we will see. The leaves are large, heart shaped, and leathery. Of course, everybody’s favorite climber is the grape. I begged my husband to let me plant grapes instead of Wisteria. Oh, no, everybody said, there will be bees. Can you imagine my reaction? What I am looking for is a golden muscat grape from Italy, but I have never found it. It produces a giant cluster of greenish amber grapes which have a seductive honey fragrance. Each grape is contemplated and savored. So I have muscadine grapes, good for juice, but very tough.

Annual climbers are delightful- Scarlet Runner, which doesn’t do well for me in zone 7, does great in zone 6. Imagine a lima bean with pink and black seeds and bright red flowers. There are a lot of wonderful old fashioned climber beans I have used to make tents using bamboo tripods. Fun for kids, and a great place to hide onion bags full of human hair to scare off deer. Hyacinth Beans are lovely- wild purple flowers and metallic purple pods, which you can eat if you pick them small. They grow 5-6 feet tall. I have seen them on mailboxes a lot. Speaking of beans, last year I grew bi-color snow peas which got 4-5 feet tall. They were again from Baker Creek, Carouby de Mausanne. Delicious, not the most productive or tender- they are an ancient variety- but wonderful flavor. I would grow them instead of the poisonous Sweet Pea!


This is where I have a lot of information for you. Let’s start with herbs. Bronze fennel- tall, smoky plumes about 4-5′, delicious. I use the abundant seeds to flavor breads and make liqueurs. All fennels are pretty. Fennel pollen- delicately perfumed yellow powder that falls from the umbels before the seeds swell- is a foodie spice. Monarch caterpillars love them. All the apiaceae are statuesque- John Navios’ Purple Dragon carrots in bloom are prettier than any Queen Anne’s Lace (it’s all daucus carota anyway) or Achillea. Lovage, a savory celery-like plant that transforms New England Clam Chowder into ambrosia, is 8 feet tall when it flowers with a giant green umbel, sort of like dill on drugs.

Herbs near the kitchen door is a no brainer. Rosemary usually perennial in Maryland, although I think this winter may have done for mine, and aromatic Meditterranean herbs like thyme and lavender need a raised sandy bed in our climate, but it’s worth the trouble.
I have an English broadleaf thyme which stays flat to the ground and is more damp tolerant than common thyme. I have that under an elegant little Black Mission fig.

There are all kinds of pretty sages- the regular farinaceous sage comes in green, purple, and variegated. It grows into a specimen  in zone 7. Pineapple sage is a whole diffferent deal- it’s tall and has red flowers. I have not used it in the kitchen.

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

The mint family is huge. Peppermint, spearmint, and lemon balm are lovely and can be invasive, but the tea, the delicate blossoms, the sturdy, pretty foliage, and the fragrance make them tempting additions. I am constantly ripping out black peppermint, the source, I am told, of industrial peppermint oil. I stomped it into a ditch and now whenever we mow the edges of the ditch it smells great. Monarda, or Bergamot, or Bee Balm, is very showy, with a pineapple-like shaped flower. I love the scarlet version. This is the source of Earl Grey Tea’s distinctive flavor. It is calming to the stomach, as are all mints- both warming and cooling. Lemon Balm makes wonderful headache tea, and the crushed leaves are an excellent cold sore or fever blister remedy.

There are many pretty basils- solid purple leaved as well, but the new one I saw this year has lovely purple blossoms. My buddy says she is rooting some for me. I saw some in a catalog but did not note the name. It did not seem to have good pesto flavor- more perfumey.
The Indian basils are called Tulsis, and make wonderful tea for headaches, colds, and low energy, and the ethiopian besobila (holy basil) has a pretty low braching habit (12 “), reseeds modestly, has pretty lavender flowers, and a complex, fruity fragrance like a combination of pineapple and oregano, maybe?


How about strawberries as a groundcover? I have them in my rose garden- the knockouts are very fungus resistant but I have not noticed any fungus from damp feet. I use everbearers, which don’t bear too heavily, but keep a trickle of berries going all through the growing season. Panda, which I haven’t tried, has pink flowers. I gather a bowl of strawberries while weeding. My Junebearers are in a flower bed which is not as near the house, but it is convenient to the patio. Yum….

Miners Lettuce is a visually intersting early spring sallad green.

Miners Lettuce is a visually intersting early spring sallad green.

Salad greens make lovely groundcover. Bulls Blood Beets have shiny deep burgundy leaves, are pretty compact, have smaller bubs so it’s mainly for the foliage, and they are tasty and gorgeous in salads. You have to snip them as they pull up easily. Violets are not just an invasive weed- you can eat them. My absolute favorite salad seed mix is Baker Creek’s Rocky Top Mix-

Rocky Top seed mix from baker's creek

Nice heirloom mix from Baker Creek

there are just so many different lettuces in there, from Merveille des Quartre Saison, a big ruffled bronzed butterhead, to Amish Deer Toungue, a smooth, thick bright green pointed leaf, to Baseball, a Boston lettuce the size of a baseball, and a bit tighter. There is such eye-catching variety in texture and color. I sow them in fall for maximum bounce in the spring.

A green that is wonderful for cooking and salad, and which is very easy to grow in our area, is Swiss Chard. The plain green ones are handsome enough, but the Bright Lights or Fivecolor Silverbeet is eye-popping. The large, rhubarb like leaves have fleshy stems and midribs, which idiots discard- my aunt put them in egg and cheese casseroles, with a sprinkle of mace. These midribs come in green, white, yellow, pink, orange and red. My favorite is Flamingo- a bright green smooth leaf and fluorescent pink stem. They usually grow as biennials; the first year they have a rosette of leaves, and the second year they put up a flowering stem, however before it bolts the leaves attain a phenomenal size. They overwinter well in Maryland, but I grow them in the greenhouse and we live on them.

One more groudcover is also nice for containers- sweet potatoes!!! The ornamental yams you see in containers in front of businesses? A guy who services those told me that at the end of the season he tips them out and finds tubers! For real! I usually prefer to grow Beauregard, which has a slightly glossy heart shaped leaf, but Porto Rico has a fancier shaped leaf, sort of 5 fingered. I was also told that in Africa yam leaves and stems are chopped up as a green.

Edible Flowers

Edible flowers give you great color and fragrance as well as nutrition- violets, for example- the leaves are very high in Vitamin C and they are a pretty heart shape. I pick a few bright green young leaves on my way to pick other salad greens. Violet flowers are sweet to taste and look lovely sprinkled on a salad. So do wild black locust blossoms, pea flowers, rose petals, pansies, violas, and nasturtiums. Pansies and violas are very cold tolerant so I usually have a few in the winter greenhouse, which I remember garnishing a salad with for Christmas dinner.

Pretty Vegetables

artichoke plant

artichoke plant

OK, my favorite in the world is artichokes. They create a giant architectural speciman which can last five years,  and will never fail to catch the eye of visitors. They can grow to 8 feet, and have dramatic silver foliage. Some varieties have purple buds. I have grown Green Globe (5-6 buds) and something which may have been Imperial Star (lost count at 40). In our climate overwintering is doable but tricky. Imperial Star can produce artichokes as an annual, but the second year is so fabulous. If you let them bloom they are bright purple giant thistles. Those become very large dried thistles. I think the chokes look like husky fur.

Dry artichoke head

Dry artichoke head

Then they escape and float away like dandelion fluff on steroids. And I haven’t even mentioned eating them yet. This year I am trying emerald, an annual type, and violetta, an Italian purple. They are sprouting in the guest room as we speak.

Okra is like a pretty annual shrub. Itis in the mallow family, like hibiscus, rose of sharon, hollyhocks (Hollyhock flower tea is tangy and pretty) so the gorgeous cream yellow blooms with deep burgundy hearts are no surprise. There are several red okras.The regular burgundy okra you see in catalogs is about 3 feet tall, stocky and bushy, with fat burgundy pods that cook up green. They have a nice growth habit and pretty burgundy leaves, but for me the yield was not as good as the regular Clemson Spineless or Louisiana Green Velvet. I tried Jing from Baker Creek last year, and it has a nice yield, and has Chinese red stems and pods with green leaves that have red stems. The pods are slim and sort of laquered looking, and cook up more khaki colored than Clemson, but when you pickle them, they turn the pickling brine pink, which is very pretty in the jar. They are not as short and stocky as Burgundy.

red okra pickles

red okra pickles






Jerusalem Artichoke (not an artichoke but a tuberous sunflower with an artichoke flavor) is a good one for the back of the garden- it provides a steady supply of tasty tubers- hard to eradicate actually, which are rich in sugar regulating inulin, a delicious boiled like potatoes or sliced into flavored vinegar raw. Very crunchy and tasty but boy do they give me gas! The stalks get 10-12 feet tall, make sunflowers4 inches across, and must have good support or they will fall over in an untidy heap.

Another totally wacko accent plant which needs support is Amaranth. If you know celosia, imagine that 8 feet tall. That on a breezy day is hard to beat, but you do need to stake them as at least in our soil they go over. My favorites are Golden Giant and Chinese Red, which I got from Horizon Herbs.  You can dry and beat the heads to get about a pound of seed from each head of Golden Giant but it is a bit difficult to do on a large scale. I beat them on a sheet and tried sifting them through an old rusty screen. Yep. Rust particles. Live and learn. The flavor of this very mineral rich gluten free grain is similar to fresh corn. It is possible for the grain to pass undigested through the gut because it is so small that it doesn’t get chewed, so I ended up grinding it and adding it to bread. Birds are also wild about it, so it can be free bird food. The extravagant red plumes of Chinese red have a sort of chenille mosaic of different reds and the odd blue. Fantastic. If that is more than you want to deal with, Hopi Red is really pretty and about 4-5 feet tall. It is a dye plant and a bit less over the top.

Prickly Pear cactus

Prickly Pear cactus

Another questionable beauty is prickly pear cactus, a sculptural and dangerous thing to have on a garden path….but my friend from Guatemala prunes them when the paddles are small and tender to make nopalitos in eggs and nopalito salad. The fruit makes a wonderful purple-fuschia drink which has health properties for diabetes- I have a whole book on the benefits of eating prickly pear cactus. They are totally winter hardy here and have huge yellow flowers in late spring.

A few amusing nightshades

Purple peruvian potatoes have purple flowers.  I have grown variegated tomatoes, available from Tomato Growers Supply- the foliage is really green and white, on a compact tomato plant with somewhat ho hum squarish 1 1/2″ red tomatoes. Pretty productive. Wild Currant is a tiny feral tomato that coveres itself with strings of delicate 1/4 inch orangey red tomatolettes. It volunteers in my gravel and I have used it in hanging baskets. You can eat them but it’s a lot of work. They are just so cute!

Purple peruvian is one gorgeous nearly black pepper plant. The plant gets 3-4 feet with extra water, but usually stays around 2 feet. The marble like fruit is produced in clusters surrounded by a rosette of dark leaves, and ripens from crispy light green to purple to bright red. It is pretty hot but oddly refreshing. They are among the last to go in fall.

Here’s the capper. Baltimore Fish Peppers are a 2 -3 foot tall hot pepper with variegated leaves. The peppers start out green and white striped, go to orange and red, and finally lipstick red. They are Maryland history- used to flavor sauce for fish. All I could find was a sort of grand hotel recipe for a cream sauce warmed and pinkened by the powdered pepper. I keep wanting to send seeds to the White House. Also from Tomato Growers Supply.

Baltimore Fish Pepper

Baltimore Fish Pepper, a historical variegated pepper!



Love in a Cold Climate

sprouting tomato seeds

sprouting tomato seeds

Shivering Seeds

Recently a fellow gardener mentioned to me the trials of sprouting seeds in a house where temperatures dip into the 50’s. Dip? Ha! In our house, we heat with wood, and the stove is at one end of the house, where the chimney was built. My fingers are barely able to feel the keyboard as I write. Modern houses tend to be built with the assumption that you can warm yourself by turning up the thermostat. I could, but I refuse, both out of parsimony and stubbornness.  If I had the house to build over, and I had a say, I would build a big old European style tiled wood stove, with an oven. Anyway, we are blessed to have the wood stove we have, and deadwood on the farm, and chainsaws, and fuel to run them, and arms to split wood.

Insulated Micro-Environments

My favorite insulated micro-environment is our bed. Not practical for the seeds. So. Where, in a cold and/or energy efficient house do you find a place which will give your seeds any kind of bottom heat that is consistent? Pepper seeds like it 80-90 Fahrenheit, tomatoes and eggplants slightly less. I used to set mine on top of the water heater, but since we turned it down and insulated it, that’s a no go. Setting it near the wood stove is dangerous- the pots have been known to pucker with the heat. My latest insulated micro-environment is an old yoghurt maker. It is one of those long ones with holes for the glass cups and a top. If mine were the proper heat, putting seed pots in the holes would be too hot. As it is very old and debilitated, the heat is very gentle and it would be fine if I had my seeds in old yoghurt containers. I think it is about 85, which is especially fine for peppers. Since my seeds are in bigger square pots that don’t fit in there, I fit 4 of them in a plastic salad container (people save them for me), wrap it in an inside out (cleaner) used plastic grocery bag, and balance it on top of the yoghurt maker. I can fit two boxes on it, on a shelf where nobody bothers it, wedged between pipes, because it would be a disaster for them to tumble off, and then cover that with towels to keep in the heat. This way I can give good heat to 8 varieties at a time. This might be fine for some, but I grow a freakishly large number of varieties.

Rot and Death

For the rest of my pots, it has been touch and go. I would hastily move them to the dryer, which gets warm on top, when weather was too nasty to use the clothesline or I was drying black clothes. I would put them in a black plastic bag in a sunny window. I would stack shelves all around the yoghurt maker in hopes of gleaning some heat. What happens to me is of course that I get mold, slow germination, and with older seeds, rot and death! I have a few tricks that help. I sprinkle cinnamon on any white fuzz that comes up- it is a fungicide, I open up any that seem soggy to let them dry out a tiny bit, I check overdue seeds  by squishing one between my fingers- then at least if it’s rotten I know to reseed, and I rotate boxes of sprouting seeds between the warmest spots. Once they have sprouted at all, I put them in a window so they can get the chlorophyll working. They need about 10 degrees bottom heat warmer for sprouting than they need to grow, and a 10-20 F temperature drop at night is fine. (By the way, all these hyperlinks are to other articles I have written on the highlighted subjects.)

Thank God for Goodwill

The absolute best germination mat I ever used was the kind of heating mat taxi drivers use to sit on. I had it on the lowest setting and it worked like a charm, except that it used to give me a shock now and then. My husband found it in the Goodwill for ten bucks. It died after a bit and we haven’t found another one.

So, why don’t we spring for one of those nifty new germination mats they sell in fancy gardening catalogs? They cost seventy bucks, which would not kill us, but I think it is something about the naffyness of them. It’s sort of like the reason I gather my own basket weaving supplies instead of buying them at a craft shop. People didn’t use to have them. People used to grow out their tobacco seedlings in flats hundreds of years ago. How did they do it? I think we need to invent something better and tidier than what I do, but I haven’t figured out what yet.

Getting Ready for Spring

Plum tree in the snow

Plum tree in the snow

As I write it is wet and snowy out, but I can see the swelling of the buds on the plum trees. There is a lot to do, if you want to be ready for the warm weather. I am a little late in writing this for my area, but for those of you north of me, still timely.

Fruit trees

mostly done but I'm not happy about those two crowded branchesNot too late to prune. See my earlier article on that.

Spray dormant oil spray, which will smother emerging insects with a physical barrier rather than a poison. You will need a sprayer, and there are many kinds. If you have just a small garden you can get a small sprayer which holds a gallon or so, but I find a backpack sprayer frees your hands. You can get one for about $40-60, and 4 gallons is about all I can carry anyway. It has a hand pump on the side which you can work away at while scrambling around the trees. (Definitely prune before spraying.) The spray is sold concentrated, so designate a measuring tablespoon and hang it far from the kitchen. When using a sprayer be sure not to get any grass or dirt in it as this clogs the tip and then you have to stop and clear it. I use my sprayer a lot, primarily for applying a kaolin clay emulsion called Surround which I rave about- totally inert- you can eat it- but that can clog the sprayer occasionally.

With the oil spray- at our hardware store they sell Vollk- just mix in the oil, shake it a bit, pump your sprayer up to pressure, and wet each tree all over. If yo get a breeze- but try for a still day-, stand to windward. A fine spray gives better coverage to the smaller twigs. Do it now, as soon as you have pruned, and again after the buds open but before the blooms open. Then it will be time to stop freaking out about fungicides such as sulfur, copper, bacillus subtilis, and neem. In Maryland that is an issue. Here is the last article I wrote about sprays.

Veggiestomato seedlings (2)

Never mind the garden now- if you planted a fall and winter garden that will soon be giving you delicious greens and salads. You won’t be able to do more than scratch the dirt by hand for a while yet, but you can have seedlings ready to go when it warms up. I seeded onions, leeks, tomatoes and peppers indoors- see articles- in late January. February is still fine but we are going to Ecuador and I want them to be potted out and in the greenhouse before we go.

growing greens all winter in an unheated greenhouseSince I have an unheated greenhouse we eat greens all winter, but unless you get your lettuce to the eating stage by October, it will just sit there. However once the days lengthen my Egyptian onions, which are kind of perennial, and my broccoli start to take off, followed by the arugula and Chinese cabbages, which are planning to bolt shortly. Now the little lettuces which sat by all winter looking miserable are starting to grow, and I need to seed more. If I have too many I will tuck into the garden, since I noticed not too much of the lettuce I threw at the garden actually came up last fall. I will also seed some red cabbage

red cabbage

amazing color and symmetry of a red cabbage

since the ones I seeded in the falll are actually heading up in the greenhouse. Brassicas can take a certain amount of frost- it actually sweetens them. Things like that should go in the garden once they are about 6 inches tall and the soil is workable. Here that would normally be late March early April, when it is cool and wet but not bitter, so they actually do some growing and establish their rooots. Be careful seeding too early; in very cool wet weather your seed may rot.

Using mulches to ready the garden for spring planting

A good trellis makes the cucumber vines more productive and keeps your cukes off the ground.

Note carpet mulch

I am gone a lot so I have gotten very inventive at avoiding weeding. I lay strips of old carpet between rows, which kills and composts any plants beneath them. Come spring, I simply pull up the strips and lay them on top of whatever I need killed, using the bare strip beneath to plant in. All winter it has been frost heaving so it has somewhat uncompacted itself after being walked on all summer. Now I take a weeding hoe, (favorite tools article) which is a nice little four pronged cultivating rake, scratch up the soil enough to plant seeds, and I’m done. If you rototill wet soil, it turns it to concrete, crushing all soil structure. Likewise with bone dry soil. Hoeing wet soil is difficult and has a similar effect. My solution works pretty well. The carpet strips I have used seem pretty stable as they have not come apart after eight years. Newspaper decays well, and they do use soy inks nowadays so that isn’t a problem, but you must use 3 layers for it to be effective, and it is time consuming and likes to blow away if not very securely weighted down with dirt or pinned down with landscaping pins, which then are lost all over the garden. I mostly tuck it between tomato and pepper plants, between pieces of carpet. Cardboard takes a long time to decay and may have plastic tape on it, so it isn’t a good solution for this purpose. It is however a great way to smother weeds if you are going to build a raised bed on top of it.


nopales and verbena bonariensis

nopales and verbena bonariensis

Honestly, you really need to seed many wonderful fowers outdoors in the fall or early spring, when seeds would naturally fall. Definitely read the package for each seed you plant.Some actually need to get cold. Many seeds are very tiny and must be pressed into the surface only.  I like to fill those plastic salad boxes with soil, seed them, and put the lid back on, writing date and contents with a permanent marker. Later you can punch holes in the bottom and use the lid as a saucer. Check whether they need light to sprout, and what temperature they like. Tiny plants like impatiens and nicotania need constant moisture to sprout and then misting. Really easy ones are zinnias, morning glories, sunflowers, snapdragons, hollyhocks, nasturtiums, sweet peas- all those great cottage garden flowers. Cardinal vines and moonflower vines are easy but you should give them a little scarification (scratch up the seed coat with an emory board, or rub them on concrete with the flat of your finger) and soak overnight in hot water first. If you get them going 6-8 weeks before they go in the garden, you’ll have flowers sooner.


This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

Many herbs are easiest grown from a rooted cutting, but if you want to start a lot, as in for a big bed of thyme, start you seeds now. I use my salad box flats for thyme, lavender, ashwaghanda, and basil. Thyme and basil don’t mild a chill; in fact basil sprouts better when it isn’t too cold, but lavender is not fond of cold, soggy soil, and ashwaghanda likes heat. I usually start fennel, parsley and dill directly in the garden, since I have it in the greenhouse all winter anyway.

Other stuff

artichoke plant

artichoke plant

I really love artichokes, and with care and good drainage we can grow them in Maryland. Although I have been told that artichoke seed should be put in a bag of potting soil in the fridge for 6 weeks, and they do germinate very well that way, I have also seen them germinate without all that fuss. They have a tap root, so if I could I’d direct seed, but I can’t, because they need a long season. I start them in pots and plant them in my best, sheltered spot with the best drainage and all the honor I can convey. They are gorgeous- architecturally so, like a giant white thistle with brilliant purple chokes, if you let them blossom. One we had up against the house made about 40 buds, which we enjoyed enormously. It came back the next year, but died after that. A lady I know grew one for three years. This year I have one under a peach basket with a carpet over it.  It has been a hard winter so I am holding my breath.

As for all the other warm weather stuff, like cucumbers, melons, okras, etc., wait on that. You are going to get a more natural root structure if you direct seed, so do that if you can.

Flowering quince in the snow

Flowering quince in the snow