Category Archives: herbs

Camp Joy, Boulder Creek

Camp_Joy_sign2If you've ever eaten a Camp Joy cherry tomato you'll know why I was excited to be given a tour of the new seedlings in the greenhouse by Jim Nelson, the creator of this beautiful, organic family farm. Since 1971 this non-profit farm has been providing educational, creative programs for kids and adults. It is an example of and encourages others who wish to begin their own sustainable farm.

It was a warm, spring day when I visited and Jim was gently watering the herb, vegetable and flower seedlings by hand using water from a large can that had warmed to room temperature and given off any chlorine that was present. Camp Joy has a spring plant sale coming up April 27th and 28th and another on Mother's Day weekend and Jim was pleased with the progress of the seedlings. They grow proven varieties that do well in our area. Group paintings done by charter school children decorated the wall of the greenhouse.

Outside we were accompanied by Jim's two dogs, Ruby and Rownya, as we admired the garlic crop that will rotated90.kids_painting_in_greenhousebe braided after harvest and offered for sale in the fall along with dried flower wreaths and onion braids.

The farm offers a Camp Joy Cooperative weekly for 3-5 yr olds encouraging them to explore their surroundings through all their senses. Garden tours for school age children or a group of any age are also offered. Everyone at the farm is happy to share what they've learned about growing and preparing food, saving seed, bees and other insects, goats and garden crafts. And there is always something to be picked, harvested, weeded or just enjoyed while having lunch in the gazebo.

Walking along a path bordered by phlox, aster, oregano, iris and nigella we admired a blooming Buff Beauty rose covering an arbor. Jim planted this as well as his favorite Madame Alfred Carrier 42 years ago when he first came to the property. His friend at UCSC, Alan Chadwick introduced him to it. The soft fragrance blended with the blooming lilacs and wisteria.

To maintain fertile soil, a cover crop of fava beans was just starting to bloom in a several areas. Ladybugs were plentiful on the flowers. The beans will be cut down, Jim explained, in about a month. Members of the farm will eat some of the beans while young and sweet and let some mature so they can save the seed. The goats also enjoy fava beans at the flowering stage. There is a fund-raising art program, called Kids for Kids, offered in May, the proceeds going to help improve the goat barn and yard.

lilac_wisteria-arborNext we visited the Kid's Garden. Art, cooking and gardening projects are ongoing in this area. Wholesome, healthy food and beautiful flowers are all part of the farm. The plot of godetia was setting bud and will be offered as cut flowers during the upcoming sales.

Everything is grown with care at Camp Joy. Jim explained that compost is regularly added back to the soil and used to start seedlings in a special blend of "real soil" allowing them to transplant and continue to do well in the garden. He sometimes used kelp and fish emulsion as fertilizer but mostly it's the compost that makes the seedlings so strong.

Camp Joy offers lots of classes for kids and adults alike. Family members and interns are passionate about the farm and enjoy sharing. On this beautiful day, we were greeted with a smile by the person spreading compost.  It was clear that there is a respect for the cycles of the earth and the changing seasons at the farm.

Take advantage of the Spring Plant Sale at Camp Joy. Bring the family and walk through the garden. Visit their website for more information about their events and classes. 



rosemary_prostratus 2Last year I became a gourmet chef. That may be a slight exaggeration but growing herbs near my kitchen door raised the bar in my cooking skills. No more having to traipse halfway around the house for a snip of Italian parsley for the lemon butter to drizzle on rosemary chicken. And you should taste my stuffed baked onions with oregano and basil not to mention the poached salmon with mushrooms, marjoram, lemon thyme and a touch of mint. Yes, growing my own herbs has made cooking more fun, more flavorful and more nutritious.

Throughout history
herbs have been important to us. Ancient Greeks used sweet marjoram as a tonic and parsley as a cure for stomach ailments. Their athletes made a lotion of bruised mint leaves for use after a bath. Rosemary was eaten in the Middle Ages as a tranquilizer and headache cure. Mint was used at that time to purify drinking water that had turned stale on long ocean voyages.

Parsley, anise, pennyroyal, sorrel, watercress, wild leeks and lavender are just some herbs that wereOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA found to be growing in America by the early settlers. They also brought many herbs with them for flavoring food, storing with linens, strewing on floors, dying fabrics or burning just for the pleasant fragrance. Chives were planted in meadows by early Dutch settlers so cows would give chive flavored milk.  Herb gardens were an essential feature of pioneer homes and slips, seeds and plants were exchanged as we do now.

Some herbs, like oregano, contain chemical compounds that are known to have antioxidants, disease preventing and health promoting properties. Thymol, an essential oil found in oregano and thyme is strongly antiseptic and has been found to be anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. Thymol has been used to control varroa mites and the growth of mold in bee colonies  although some studies indicate it also increases the permeability of other pesticides through the bee cuticle.

Herbs are super easy to grow. I started with the basic four – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, adding basil, oregano, chives, marjoram and mint soon after. This year I'm going to start some summer savory, tarragon, coriander and a Grecian laurel plant for bay leaves.

Most herbs are perennials. They overwinter and come back each year. Parsley lives for 2 years then flowers, goes to seed and needs to be replanted. The flowers attract beneficial insects to your garden so leave them to do their work. The herbs that are annuals and need to be planted from starts or seed every year include basil, coriander, dill, and summer savory.

You can grow herbs in the ground, in containers outside or in pots inside the house if you have a sunny window. Herbs need good drainage. None will grow in wet soils. If your garden soil is poorly drained you will have to amend it with compost for any chance of success. The soil does not have to be especially fertile, though. Herbs need little fertilizer as highly fertile soil tends to produce excessive amounts of foliage with poor flavor.

I grow all my herbs in pots outside. That way I can use a good quality potting soil and make sure they get watered when the soil is dry an inch or two down. Mints like spearmint, peppermint, pineapple mint, chocolate mint, Cuban or mojito mint and orange bergomot need to be contained anyway as they spread. Some mints are grown as a groundcover and encouraged to spread like Corsican mint, pennyroyal and the California native yerba buena (satureja douglasii).

Nearly all herbs can be grown from seed. Anise, coriander (also known as cilantro), dill and fennel should be sown directly in the garden as they do not transplant well. You can start basil now inside from seed but our nights are still too cold to plant basil starts outside.

Although rust infects mints, very few diseases or insects attack herbs. Occasionally, spider mites may be found on low growing herb plants in hot, dry weather. Aphids may attack anise, caraway, dill and fennel. Washing off the foliage early in the day helps in controlling mites and aphids.

How do you harvest herbs? Fresh leaves may be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. To ensure good oil content, pick leaves after dew has disappeared but before the sun gets too hot. Most herbs are at their peak flavor just before flowering. To store, wash herbs with the leaves on the stems lightly in cold running water to remove soil, dust or bugs, Drain on absorbent towels or hang plants upside down in the sun until the water evaporates. Then hang to dry thoroughly in small bunches in a dark, warm, well ventilated room before stripping leaves off stalks. Herbs with a high moisture content, such as mint and basil, need rapid drying or they will mold. To retain some green leaf coloring, dry in the dark or by hanging plants upside down in bunches in paper bags.

Fresh herbs are the most flavorful. The stuff in spice jars that you get in the store is often tasteless when compared to the real thing. Herb plants make beautiful ornamental additions to perennial beds and borders, too. This year make your garden come alive with herbs.


Tips for Vegetables, Pests and Plants with Bad Behaviors

Summer is officially almost here although we all know it actually starts on Memorial Day weekend. What fun stuff should we be doing in the garden? What problems should I be on the lookout for? What troublemakers should I avoid planting?

June is a busy time for plants. Some are just finishing up early spring flowering like rhododendrons, azaleas. camellias, lilac and wisteria. Prune off spent flowers and shape plants if needed. Other plants are just beginning to flower and would like a dose of organic fertilizer to really perform well.

Plant corn, lettuce and basil continuously to keep a steady supply. Speaking of basil, if yours died recently showing brown spots or streaks up the stem,  fusarium wilt, caused by a fungus, is the culprit. Carried by either the soil that affected basil plants have been grown in or by seed from an infected basil plant it's a common problem. There is no remedy for fusarium wilt. Destroy infected plants and do not plant basil or other mint plants in that area for 2-3 years.

Night time temperatures should be consistently above 50 degrees for basil. As long as you provide it with a hot, sunny location and plenty of water, it's among the easiest of herbs to grow in the garden or in a container. Steady, slow growth is the key to good taste, so amend the soil with compost and forgo the fertilizer. Basil contains the most oils when harvested before the flowers occur. The best way to delay flowering, as well as to encourage branching and new growth, is to harvest regularly by snipping of the end of the branches.

The best time to harvest is midmorning, right after the dew has dried, but before the afternoon sun bakes out the oils. At some point later in the summer, flowering will begin in earnest. Then it's time to harvest the entire crop, as flavor will go downhill soon afterward.

Insects are having a field day at this time of year, too. Put out wet rolled newspaper at night to collect earwigs in the morning. If you see notches on your rose leaves, it's the work of leaf cutter bees. These guys are beneficial and will go away shortly.

If your rose leaves look like lace then you have the dreaded rose slug. I have a friend who's rose shrubs were really hit by these. It's discouraging when you had visions of huge fragrant bouquets on every table. What to do?

The rose slug is actually the larvae of a wasp called a sawfly. Because they may have 6 generations per year they can do a lot of damage to your roses. Early detection is key. Start scouting for sawfly larvae in early May when they can be hand picked or washed from the leaves with a strong spray. If needed, spray the leaves with neem oil while the larvae are still small. Conventional insecticides are toxic to bees and kill the good bugs too.

During the winter they pupate in the soil and removing a couple of inches will help with controlling their numbers. Even cultivating the soil at any time will break up the cocoons.

Finally, think twice before planting rampant growers that are hard to control unless you use a deep edging that will keep them confined where you want. There's nothing wrong with a plant that spreads out in the right places, but let it overgrow that area and it quickly wears out its welcome.

Plants like chameleon plant ( Houttunyia cordata) , lamium, it's close relative lamiastrum and hypericum are  great plants in areas that are not close to your other planting beds. The deceptively delicate looking and impossible to ever get rid of Japanese anemone falls into this category also. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Plan ahead.

Get out and enjoy your garden. The best way to nip problems in the bud is to walk around your garden with a beverage of some kind and just look.


Herbs – Harvesting & Saving

I’ve been reading a book called "Green Thoughts" by the late Eleanor Perenyi. She lived until the age of 91 passing away in 2009. Her 72 essays on gardening will live forever. She’s a hoot and her writing is delightful. I’m currently enjoying the essay about herbs. Her insights couldn’t come at a better time. My small herb collection is growing like crazy and I need ideas about how to use more of them and preserve the extras.

It’s easy to find space to grow your herbs.You don’t have to have a traditional knot garden for them. Make the most of a small sunny garden by tucking them between established plants in a border or perennial bed. One of my favorite color combinations is purple and gold so Tricolor or Purple sage mixed with Golden oregano is right up my alley. Variegated lemon thyme is another colorful herb that would also fit right in.

When shopping for herbs it’s a good idea to snip a leaf and crush it between your fingers. . You’d be amazed how different herbs can smell and taste depending on the source of the plant.

Thyme can smell like caraway, pine, camphor, lavender or turpentine and "these assuredly would be fatal to a bouquet garni" , according to Eleanor Perenyi. Rosemary plants can vary widely in taste, too. There are so many kinds available now, both upright and creeping, all originating from different stock. You don’t want to ruin chicken dinner by using the crushed leaves of one that tastes of pine or turpentine.

Trim your herbs often to keep them bushy and productive. Fresh herbs are at their finest in summer when they peak in flavor and essential oils. Most herb stems can be cut and kept in a jar of water, out of direct sunlight, for a few days of use. I’ve even had basil send out roots in the water.

Gather herbs in summer and preserve them for the rest of the year so you’ll always have some for flavoring.
Most herbs should be harvested before the plants are about to bloom. That’s when the leaves are at their peak flavor and oils are strongest. Harvest on a sunny morning after the morning dew has evaporated. To fully harvest annual herbs such as basil cut all stems back to just above the bottom two sets of leaves. Perennial herbs like sage should be cut back to about a third of their height also just above a set of leaves. As you collect your harvest, keep them out of the sun or they will quickly wilt.

Some herbs with a high water content like tarragon, basil, chives, lemon balm, mint and dill freeze well. Frozen herbs will keep their flavor for several months. Unlike dried herbs whose flavor is more concentrated when dried, frozen herbs can be used in the same proportion as fresh.

Dry other herbs by hanging in bundles or laying on a shallow basket or screen. if drying on a screen or basket remove large-leaved herbs from the stems before spreading them out. Smaller leaved herbs like thyme, savory or rosemary can be left on the stem to dry.

Herbs are dry when they crackle and crumble when rubbed between your fingers. Strip them from the stem and pack in labeled jars as they tend to look alike when dried. Crushing the leaves releases their essential oils, so don’t do that until you use them.

The five herbs I consider essential in the kitchen garden are basil, cilantro, oregano, rosemary and thyme. I also grow lemon verbena for tea, potpourri or in sachets for my closet and drawers, I grow lemon grass which has citronella oil to help ward off mosquitos.

You may choose herbs for salsa or tea or Italian dishes. Herbs can by used in cosmetics, natural dyes, crafts, potpourri or medicinally. Herb flavored vinegars, tea, honey, butter, cheese, salt or sugar are great ways to use your herbs. I like them all.


Drying Herbs

Many people are growing their own vegetables these days and probably have some favorite herbs growing in the garden, too.  There’s nothing like fresh herbs to bring flavor to a favorite recipe.  Out in the garden, few things beat the wonderful aroma of basil, rosemary or thyme as it infuses the air as you gently rub the leaves between your fingertips.  When your herb plants grow faster than you can use them, it’s time to harvest some for drying. Regular pruning encourages new growth.

Most herbs should be harvested before the plants are about to bloom. That’s when the leaves are at their peak flavor. Pick a sunny day and harvest in the morning when the oils are strongest and morning dew has evaporated.

is easy- either hang them in bunches or lay in a shallow basket or on a screen in a well-ventilated place out of the sun.  If you’re drying on screens or in baskets, remove large-leaved herbs from their stems and spread them out.  Smaller leaved herbs like thyme, savory or rosemary can be left on their stems to dry. Depending on the weather, it may take a few days to a few weeks for your herbs to dry fully.

A dried herb should crackle and crumble when rubbed between your fingers. Once the herbs are dry, gently strip the leaves and pack them into clean, dry jars with tight fitting lids. Pack the leaves whole to retain the best flavor. Crushing the leaves releases their essential oils, so don’t do that until you use them. Store away from light and heat. They are best if used within a year.