Posts Tagged chives

Fast forwarding into Spring

Red Maple flowers brighten the canopy.

Red Maple flowers brighten the canopy.

OK, there’s still a pile of snow in my back yard. Really. It was a huge pile from cleaning our back deck, and it’s still not quite gone. But don’t tell that to the Spring Peepers or the Red-shouldered Hawks nesting on the floodplain, or the Red Maples throughout my yard. They all seem to be persuaded that Spring has arrived. It hasn’t, of course — not quite yet. But it seems as if the plants and animals in my yard have been biding their time, waiting for the frigid air to exit so they could explode into Spring Mode.

Most of the early-flowering plants had impressed me with their patience, not showing a hint of bud break as the arctic air ruled my region. The flowering apricots were hit pretty hard, of course. Many just-opening buds were browned by freezing temperatures. But the unopened ones still tightly shut have now opened with enthusiasm. The air around my front yard is fragrant with their perfume. I am delighted, and so are the honeybees finally making their appearance during recent warm afternoons.

The Cornus mas trees burst into spectacular bloom, yellow spotlights in a mostly brown landscape.


Cornus mas 'Spring Glow'

Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’

The Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ had been exhibiting unprecedented patience with the weather, but recent 70-degree days have caused its flowers to begin opening.

Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star'

Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’

The snow drops survived being buried by six inches of snow and ice and are in full bloom.

Resilient Snow Drops

Resilient Snow Drops

And the Witch Hazel ‘Amethyst’ is scenting the breezes with the fragrance of gorgeous purple flowers.

Amethyst lives up to its name.

Amethyst lives up to its name.

The warmer temperatures have all the early-nesting birds displaying territorial behavior as they pair off and claim nesting sites. Woodpecker drumming punctuates the air from dawn to dusk.

A Downy Woodpecker male refuels between bouts of territorial drumming.

A Downy Woodpecker male refuels between bouts of territorial drumming.

And the salamanders somehow managed to complete their late winter mating activities despite the cold and ice, as evidenced by this glob of eggs in our tiny pond.

Those black dots are developing embryonic salamanders.

Those black dots are developing embryonic salamanders.

Of course, my gardening fingers got itchy the minute the weather warmed and the frogs began chorusing 24/7. I got out the seeds that I’d ordered and contemplated my strategy.

Decisions, decisions...

Decisions, decisions…

Because I can’t expect the spring-like temperatures to last just yet (They’re on their way out as I type this), I can only start as many containers as will fit at one time in the germination chamber in my greenhouse. I settled on starting a few of all of the greens I’m trying this year (4 lettuces, 2 spinaches, and an arugula) plus the four flower varieties that require the greatest amount of time to reach blooming size. I sowed the seeds last Thursday, and here’s what they looked like this morning:

Seedlings in the germination chamber

Seedlings in the germination chamber

The nonpelleted lettuce seeds are well up. The coated lettuce seeds are still meditating on the merits of germination. One Tyee spinach has emerged; spinach is always slower than lettuce. All the arugulas are up and growing. And the dahlia seeds I sowed have begun to emerge — the first of the flowers, and a bit of an early surprise.

Now that I’ve got seeds going, it was time during our first warm weekend in forever to return to the vegetable garden and begin to prepare the early spring garden beds. I’ve got one weeded and ready to go for the greens. I’ll do more as weather and my aging joints permit.

Greeting me with enthusiasm were the chives I grew from seed two years ago. I was a bit worried that our prolonged freezing winter temperatures might have killed them. I worried for naught. These beautiful, delicious herbs are well on their way to growing tall enough to once again season salads, eggs, and whatever else can use a light taste of oniony goodness.

Chives showing they can handle Winter's worst.

Chives showing they can handle Winter’s worst.

This week’s return to winter temperatures will be harder on me than the plants and animals, I imagine. It felt so wonderful to be back in the dirt, pulling weeds, cleaning up old flower stalks, discovering sudden flowers tucked into various parts of the yard.

On the other hand, my creaky joints could use a day or two — OK, maybe three or four — to recover from my pent-up gardening enthusiasm.  Perhaps I’ll even feel a bit nostalgic toward this latest round of wintry temperatures. Because now I’m sure — Spring really is almost here!



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Growing Culinary Herbs in the Piedmont

My chive bed this past April.

If you like to cook, you really need to grow your own culinary herbs. Even the stuff you buy “fresh” at grocery stores is a sad imitation of the real thing picked from your garden minutes before it adds zest to your latest dish. We are lucky in the southeastern Piedmont region of the US, because most of our winters are mild enough to prevent root kill to traditional perennial culinary herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme, and sage. However, you need to remember a few key points to keep these herbs growing happily from year to year.

Growing herbs outdoors

Purple basil in bloom.

As with flowers, some herbs are annuals and some are perennials. Annuals die at the end of the growing season when the first freeze kills them. Common culinary herbs in this category include basil and dill. Most of the oft-used culinary herbs are perennials, which means the plants survive and expand from year to year. Herbs in this category include rosemaries, sages, thymes, and oreganos. True culinary tarragon is categorized as a tender perennial, meaning it is much more likely to die during a cold spell than a sage or a rosemary.

Even within the perennial herb group, some varieties are more tender than others. You didn’t think there is only one kind of sage or rosemary or oregano, did you? Rosemary cultivars alone number probably in the thirties or forties. Thymes come in a stunning array of growth forms and flavors, and even the sages and oreganos offer several distinct varieties.

Culinary sage in bloom this past spring.

Culinary sage today.

Regular culinary sage is indestructible in my garden. However, tricolor sage — a gorgeous plant with leaves sporting cream, pink, and purple leaves — never seems to handle our winter wet spells, no matter what I try. Purple sage has lovely lavender leaves with a milder taste than traditional green culinary sage. Some winters it survives for me; other years I lose it.

Greek oregano today. Note the late-blooming flowers to the left. Flower stalks are tall in spring, and draw every pollinator in the county.

Traditional culinary oregano is downright subtle compared to the in-your-face aroma and zing of Greek oregano. I recommend growing both. Greek oregano rocks home-made pizza. Both varieties survive winters well for me.

Rosemary ‘Salem’ in my front garden.

Happy rosemary plants grow into large sprawling shrubs in the Piedmont. This one in my front garden is about ten years old, and I hack it back regularly to keep it from overwhelming its neighbors. Some rosemary forms and varieties are much hardier than others in our climate. Prostrate rosemaries look fabulous draping over rock walls, but wet spells in winter always seem to kill mine when I try them. Some rosemaries have blue flowers, some pink, and some white. The leaves of some varieties smell like turpentine to my nose, but many are wonderfully sweet and resinous. The two varieties that survive best for me are Salem and Tuscan Blue.

An October rosemary flower.

My rosemary plants bloom at least a bit almost every month of the year, including mild spells in January. Pollinators adore the flowers, as they do the flowers of all culinary herbs.

You really need to see many of the rosemary cultivars growing together to appreciate their diversity. If you are near Chapel Hill, NC, visit the Mercer Reeves Hubbard Herb Garden at the North Carolina Botanical Garden.  They are the keepers of one of the Herb Society of America’s National Rosemary Collections, which means they — along with botanical gardens in other parts of the US — grow every distinct variety of rosemary known and keep records of bloom time, growth rates, etc. In late spring when all the rosemaries are in bloom, you can really appreciate their diversity.

Lemon thyme in bloom this past spring.

Like the rosemaries, thymes come in zillions of forms and flavors — everything from nutmeg thyme to orange thyme to traditional culinary thyme — and many others! Some are much easier to keep alive in the Piedmont than others. Of those varieties I’ve tried, lemon thyme and traditional English culinary thyme are the two that survive well with no help from me. I love them both.

This post is growing lengthy, so I’ll close with a few tips on growing these culinary necessities.

  • The herbs I’ve described today all originated in the Mediterranean region of the world. To keep them happy here, give them full sun and excellent drainage.
  • Never pamper these herbs. Fertilizer and extra water make them grow fast and leggy, and the essential oils that provide their flavor are diluted. A zingy herb plant in the Piedmont grows in hot, dry, unfertilized soil.
  • Don’t try to grow culinary herbs in unamended clay soil. Mediterranean soils are sandy/gravelly. Think rock garden. If your soil is red clay, build a raised bed and amend the clay with sand and a bit of compost to create a fluffy, fast-draining bed.
  • Mediterranean herbs hate our humid summers. Lower branches that touch the ground often develop fungal problems that sometimes kill the plants. My successful strategy to combat this is mulching with white pea gravel beneath the plants. The white gravel prevents branches from touching soggy ground, and the rocks reflect sunlight back up from the ground deep into the middle of plants, keeping them hot and happy.
  • Besides the white gravel, prune up branches near the ground, especially if they start looking sickly. This is especially important with rosemary plants. Don’t be afraid to prune herb plants. They just branch out and grow more.

Growing herbs indoors

Briefly, the secret here is to stop overwatering them. Really, everyone I talk to at the help desk at the NC Botanical Garden and anywhere else always seems to be doing this to their indoor herbs. Let them dry out completely between waterings, and keep them in your sunniest window away from drafts from doors or heating/AC vents. In other words, approximate Mediterranean growing conditions as closely as you can.

This goes for growing them in pots on decks and patios too. Don’t let them sit in large pots full of wet soil. They will not last long that way. Whenever possible, grow them in the ground, preferably near your house, so that you’ll remember to run out and pick fresh cuttings when you’re cooking dinner.

I’ll write more about growing herbs soon. I still need to cover the myriad basils and dills, not to mention parsley, bronze fennel, savories, garlic chives — and the list goes on and on.

Fresh pasta sauce with rosemary, basil, and oregano from the garden anyone?

Lemon basil blooming in the October vegetable garden.

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