Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Mostly Herbs And Yarbs

We've had several rainy days in a row, lately.  Not usually much in accumulation.  One day, the bullet tank beside the garage overflowed, which usually means an inch or more (rough estimate).  We are grateful for every bit of rain we get, although it does open the door for fungus and rot, some of which is a good thing, some ....not so much.

I don't know much about wild mushrooms and I probably wouldn't be brave enough to eat them even if I did.  But it's a shame all mushrooms are not edible.

Last year, we got so much rain right after the grape vines set fruit, that they all got black spot.  I sure hope that doesn't happen again.

But the lettuces, peas, kales, chard, and spinaches are loving the cool wet weather.  With the rat population cut back some, and the spaces between the yard gates closed up to keep the rabbits out, I have finally been able to have my first meal of homegrown spinach.  There is still a rabbit in the yard sometimes when I go out.  I walk around after it, it runs a little ahead of me, then stops and waits for me to catch up, and then runs again.  That works out ok because with my bad knee, I'm not able to run.  Sometimes it shows me where it got in, and I show it to Hubs.  He fastens a piece of chicken wire over it.  Oh, this old chain link material is in such bad shape.  Still, a poor fence is better than no fence.  Other times the rabbit will walk me around the fence enough that I give up, at which time I will just open a gate and follow it around till it goes out the gate.   Sheesh.

Total rats destroyed since March 24 stands now at 86.  For a couple of days we didn't catch anything and I had hopes we were on top of it.  Then Hubs saw one around the woodpile, we set the trap and caught 2 that day.  Then one, the next day.  I startled something between the garage and the cellar Saturday morning, didn't see what it was but I didn't think it was very big.  Sunday afternoon Hubs spotted a medium-sized rat lying dead in the front flower bed.  Spike and DDIL were here and he didn't say anything because he didn't want to spook DDIL.  She freaks out at spiders. and she won't cook a whole turkey on Thanksgiving because she refuses to stick her hand into the cavity to take the neck out.  We hate to think what she'd do if she saw a dead rat. 

I am reading "The Holistic Orchard" by Michael Phillips.  I'm not very far into it but I am glad to know that I've got a good start on it, what with clearing out grass under the fruit trees, spreading wood-chip mulch, and planting companion plants under the tree where the grass was.  I have been trying to encourage Comfrey under the trees for a couple of years now, and two of the plants have taken hold and really "gone to town" under their trees. 
This one will be blooming soon, and so I will cut it back and prepare the leaves for drying.  I've never known if I have Russian Comfrey or the common variety, because I got it from a local woman and she didn't know.  But it never seems to make any seeds, not in the 3 or 4 years I've been growing it, so I'm thinking it's not the common variety.  Each has it's purpose, I think the Russian is better medicinally and the common is a better compost and animal-feed plant, but for the most part, they can both be used for either and both are good in orchards.   These haven't spread as fast as I would like and it would be nice be able to propagate by digging up little seedlings rather than having to dig up some of the root of an existing plant.  A couple of others didn't do as well but at least lived through the seasons.  Many of them didn't make it.  I always dry some of the leaves and store them in a gallon jar for use as needed during the winter.  

There are some big clumps of perennial clover coming up in the garden from which I've been trying to establish growth under the fruit trees.  It's big, rounded flowers are more purple than red, so I don't know exactly what variety it is.  All I know is that it stays alive all winter long.  It is discernible from most other clovers because it grows in thick clumps about 12" tall and the large leaves have chevron-looking markings on them.   If it is what is called "Red Clover" ( Trifolium pratense), then the young leaves and flowers can be used in salads, or fresh or dried, for tea.
Crimson Clover is also tall, but it's a biennial, and if you want it to come back the following year, you must let it go to seed or cast new seed in the fall.  Both are kind of a nuisance, because when Crimson Clover goes to seed it is pretty ugly.  If I buy seed, I have to go to Collinsville to get it, because elsewhere it's kind of expensive.  While in full flower, it IS probably the most beautiful clover I've ever seen, and the bees will come to it from miles around.

Since I know that it fixes nitrogen in the soil, I think a perennial clover is a good candidate for under the fruit  trees.  It can certainly hold it's own against Bermuda grass.  Both Clover and Comfrey need a place where they can get their roots down deep, and since we went to the trouble to dig all those rocks out of the ground for the trees, it's a bonus to get double-duty for the rock-free area.  Comfrey nourishes the tree.  Carole and I were just discussing how good Comfrey tea is for darn near everything in the garden and sure enough, Michael Phillips hinted at a tea recipe he's going to offer in a later chapter than where I'm reading now, that is used as a foliar spray instead of chemicals, which includes Comfrey tea and pure Neem oil. 

I have Dutch White clover in places in the yard and I really wouldn't mind having clover instead of grass.  Joe tells me the deer love it but hey, they're over here anyway eating leaves off my trees in the unfenced areas of the property, and nipping off the tops of my little sapling trees.  If clover'll fill 'em up, Rock On.  By the way, the pecan saplings are recovering, Hubs and I are trying to get them better protected.

This is now Monday and I've been out in the garden.  I decided to make this "Herb Gathering Day", so the first thing I harvested was a whole bunch of baby dill plants growing thickly in the bed where I have planted beets.  I didn't think the beets were coming up, but yes, they are, right in amongst all that baby dill, and they probably appreciate the extra bit of growing room that they have since I harvested a lot of the dil.  I haven't planted it for a couple of years now.  It self-sows.  I like to have some plants that grow umbels because they draw beneficial insects, but I think I've had enough of dill and would like to do fennel instead.  I don't tend to use a lot of dill now that I don't make dill pickles, but I cleaned and brought in enough of these little plants to dry.

I watched an interview on Growing A Greener World last Saturday and the woman being interviewed talked about so many things that I already do that I told Hubs, "Man, she sounds like she's been reading my blog!"  Until she said if you have an attic and live in warmer parts of the country, you can dry herbs in your attic.  Excuse me, no, you cannot.  There are lots of things you CAN dry in your attic, and I have done that every summer since we've been here where there is a nice walk-in attic.  Apples.  Peppers.  Tomatoes.  But that kind of heat bakes out the delicate flavor and color of herbs.  Herbs dry just fine in just a few days on newspaper someplace away from the sun and temperature extremes.  Toss them a bit with your hands every time you pass through the room where they are. This same person also mentioned that you can tie your herbs in a bundle and dry them upside down inside a paper bag.  Well, herbs have been dried upside down for centuries but one of the rules you must observe is that the leaves need to be totally stripped from the part of the stems that are bunched together, and you should keep your bunches small, or mold will grow.  I wouldn't put them in a paper bag unless I was wanting to collect the seed that fell out, as in poppies, but in that case I'd rather dry them standing upright, anyway.  I've had things mold before when they didn't get enough air circulation.  My thinking is, I'm going to have to strip the leaves off the stems at some point, anyway.  Might as well do it up front.

The Lemon Balm is pretty thick now.  I have it growing under the grape arbor and I think that is going to be the perfect place for it. 
It is practically indestructible, it makes a rough mat of roots in a kind of a "crust" on top of the soil and will hold it's own against the Bindweed and Bermuda grass.  It will also keep the mold spores down while it's rainy and help hold the moisture in the soil when the season is hot and dry.  That mound of green about low center in the picture above is it.  There was another mound in the space to the right but I had already harvested from it when I took this picture.  Trimming encourages growth and it needs to be tough.  As you can see, there is ample Bindweed already growing there.  Bindweed is all over the place.  Even if, by some miracle, I was able to totally eradicate it from my land, it's on the land of all my neighbors, too.  That little picket fence is there because under the grape arbor seems to be a favorite pooping place of one of my neighbors' dogs.
I've tried growing other plants, including onions, mustard and Heal All (Prunella vulgaris) under the grape arbor, and nothing has done very well there until this, though I did have a little trouble getting it started.

This is the first year I've had enough to harvest since we've moved here.  I've missed having my home-grown Lemon Balm Tea during the winter.  If you do a search on herbal uses of lemon balm, you will get lots of hits, HERE is just one of them.  On the Common Sense Homesteading (link on my sidebar) there is a search box where you can search the blog for recipes containing Lemon Balm and there are a lot of them.  Also Lemon Verbena Lady has posts about it.  A link to her blog is also on the sidebar. 

Another thing to harvest now is Horehound. 
It grows best under adverse conditions and so it thrives on the south side of my house where the soil is poor and often too hot and dry.  It is already starting to make the little "knots" along the top ends of each stem, which will become flowers.  The flavor is best before they start to make flowers.  This is the best stuff for a sore throat I know of, but even when harvested at a good time, it tastes awful, and is usually blended with other, better-tasting things.  Once you've tasted Horehound, you will recognize its predominant taste, after menthol, in Ricola cough drops.  When my kids were little I grew Horehound and made cough drops with an infusion because I had a sugar-holic little girl that would say she had a sore throat just to get a cough drop.  She adapted well to the flavor of horehound but if she could've had the choice she would've chosen black cherry.  If I'd made honey-lemon she would've had one in her mouth all the time.  Kids.  Gotta love 'em. 

So now my dining room table is covered in herbs.  There's a ceiling fan right above the table, and I keep that going, day and night, until things are dry and ready to vacuum-seal in jars, using my trusty FoodSaver.  Lots of little jars are better than one big one, because you are more likely to use the whole jar when you make something herbal.  This keeps you from having to reseal a jar.  Also, my quart jars are in big demand for canning, and I never seem to have quite enough.  I barely use my pint and half-pint jars, except for jam.  I store my herbs in the pantry, where it is dark and cool most of the time.  When I have a new supply to go on the shelves, I dump the contents of jars packed the previous year, if there are any.  Mostly onto the compost.

I've harvested some dandelion -- some roots, leaves, and flowers.  I didn't get started soon enough for the roots and leaves, but I did get some dried to try.  I understand they are more bitter if harvested after the plants have started to make flower buds.  The flowers can, however, be collected for dandelion tea and I have done some of that.  But all that bending over to gather them is kind of hard on my back and bad knee.  They don't freeze very well and when you try to dry them they just turn into fluff.  About the only way I know to store dandelion flowers is to infuse just the yellow parts in almost-boiling water to cover and then freeze the cooled and strained infusion in ice-cube trays. 
This is an infusion of dandelion flowers with honey and lemon.

I have also dried the leaves of Walker's Low Catmint, a start of which was given to me by a dear and loyal friend.  (You know who you are.)
It makes a more flowery version of catnip tea.  I don't particularly like the taste of "real" catnip.

I do dry basil, even though everywhere you turn, people will tell you they don't keep their flavor when dried.  Well, yes they do.  (There's some drying on the table in the picture, the ones on the placemats.  Also some Peppermint.)  I have also made pesto and frozen the pesto in ice-cube trays.  (I use English walnuts instead of pine nuts because pine nuts are pretty expensive.)  Someone posted on their blog that to successfully freeze basil leaves, you have to dunk them in boiling water first.  I think before I would do that, I would try making a strong basil infusion in boiling water, and freeze that in ice cube trays after cooling and straining. 

Last year I grew a Mexican Tarragon plant I'd bought at Lowe's.  I'd tried to germinate seeds and just hadn't had any luck.  It didn't make any seeds, so I had to buy more, but it did make enough leaves for me to harvest, and I made Tarragon Vinegar.  (Heat cider vinegar to almost boiling, pour over the fresh leaves, to cover, then let steep for about 6 weeks.  Then strain.)  Mmmmmm.  It is soooo good on fish, or in bean dishes. 
This year, I scattered several of the seeds in a small flowerpot and covered it with a small plastic bag, and they germinated well.  Quite a few tolerated the transplant to it's own cup, and then later, the transplant into its permanent spot for the summer (they're annuals in my zone 6A).   It's said to tolerate hot and dry very well.  So far it's doing a good job of tolerating cool and wet.

It's tedious to harvest and prepare herbs and tea ingredients for storage, but you'll be so glad to have them during those long winter months ahead.  Just make sure they are perfectly dry (the leaves will crumble between your fingers) before you seal them to avoid the formation of mold inside the jar.  Leave the leaves intact whenever possible.  You will use them whole for teas and other infusions, and crumble them as you use them for cooking.  Powdered herb leaves don't tend to keep very well in storage.

Well, that's about it for this time, there are still more things around here that need to be gathered and dried and I will try to do that as much as I am able -- raspberry leaf, culinary sage, mints, and I might even try gathering some of the new leaves off the sassafras tree this year.  Each day, I try to get something set out into the garden.  All plants are outside now, waiting their turn.  So much to do, so little time (in between rest periods).

Till next time, Rock On...  Hugs xoxoxo


  1. What an interesting herbal post! You are one busy lady.

    What a difference in your gardens compared to winter's brown. Everything is looking good.

    Happy Gardening ~ FlowerLady

  2. The green looks good! Glad to hear you are getting some rain at last.

    I am not into the herbs as much as you are. I do want to get sage again. Bronze fennel self-seeds like crazy here. I do save seeds for Italian dishes and made some sausage using it that was very good.

    I like the idea of having clovers in the orchard. We could quit mowing if we could get a good stand going. It would also draw pollinators for the trees.

    This was a very interesting post. You gave me some good ideas. I didn't know you could use Walker's Low as a herb! I need to think outside the box now and then.

  3. Glenda and Lorraine: This is why they started calling the part of Oklahoma that I live in, "Green Country". In a "normal" spring, it does get very lush and green. By July / August, everything's all brown again. *Sigh*. We are actually located in the part of Oklahoma that is considered part of "The Ozarks".

    That's actually my goal with Clover and Comfrey around the fruit trees: no mowing and very little weeding. Don't know if I'll ever get there though. Clover can tolerate some walking around on it, Comfrey is a little harder to walk on but comes back pretty well if it gets trampled. It's probably best to have it closer to the trunk where there will be less foot traffic.

  4. Whew! You're such a busy lady! We're in the foothills of the Ozarks, red clay soils, lots of rain about the time we need to be planting, then dry spells when things come up. Ain't life grand!

  5. You're singin' my song, Charlotte! Gotta go further south for red clay, though. Ours is black gumbo.


I appreciate your comments! Comment Moderation is back on. Spam comments, and those containing links to advertising will be deleted.