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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Make It From Scratch: Herb Garden Book Reviews

Hi guys, part of our planning for growing amazing gardens this year was to check out a ton of gardening books from the library. We've been gardening since we were kids, but there is always more to learn from experts! Even casual gardeners can offer tons of shortcuts, tips and tricks. We need to do our research on the plants that we are growing for the first time. We also just love reading, and some of these books are filled with beautiful photography that makes us even more excited about our gardens! Today we'd like to tell you a bit about four of our favorite books about herb gardening.

1. The Herb Society of America's Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs, edited by Katherine K. Schlosser.

This book does not have step-by-step growing instructions, but it gives general guidance on how to grow herbs. Many herbs are listed individually, with brief descriptions of the plants, their growing habits and requirements, plus historical use and recommendations for using them today. This book is mostly text, with line drawings of each plant (but no recipe photos). 

The second half of the book contains over 100 recipes, organized by Appetizers, Beverages, Breads, Soups and Sandwiches, Salads and Salad Dressings, Main Dishes, Vegetables and Side Dishes, Desserts, and Simple Ideas: Sauces, Blends, and Extras. There is a convenient recipe index so you can search for the herb you want to use. 

I'm excited to try the Fresh Herb Cheesecake on p. 116 and the Lavender Ice Cream on p. 217, among many other delicious-sounding recipes.

2. Homegrown Herbs: A Complete Guide to Growing, Using, and Enjoying More than 100 Herbs by Tammi Hartung.

Tammi Hartung starts at the beginning, going step-by-step through planning and designing and herb garden. Then she teaches how to prepare the soil, propagate herbs, and plant them in the garden. Next she covers caring for the herb plants and dealing with insects and disease. There is a great harvesting chart, and then some fun chapters: Making Herbal Preparations for Medicine and Personal Care, Cooking with Herbs, and Herb Personalities. This last chapter lists a lot of information about each plant and how to grow and harvest it, with color photos, suggestions of what to plant next to it, how to cook with it, and home pharmacy uses. 

This would be a great book to buy, as it has such a wide breadth of information, plus lots of lovely photography. I think I would refer back to it a lot. 

I definitely want to try the herbal foot soaks on p. 146 and herbal vinegar from p. 154.

3. Herb Gardening from the Ground Up by Sal Gilbertie and Larry Sheehan. 

I really enjoyed the conversational writing style in this book. Gilbertie shares a bit about his family history with gardening and his own journey into herb gardening. 

He then advises how to start an herb garden from scratch: planning, amending the soil, and choosing herbs. He recommends buying small plants to start with, but if you want to grow them from seeds, like we are doing, he gives great instructions on starting the 15 most desirable herbs for kitchen use. He gives brief instructions for caring for your garden and harvesting herbs.

There is a large section on different themed herb gardens. Gilbertie tells which herbs to choose for each type of garden, and illustrations of where to plant each one. He shares plans for 43 types of herb gardens! A few interesting ones are the Tea Garden (which includes calendula, chamomile, and four kinds of mints, among others), a Bread Garden (which includes poppy, rosemary, and thyme), a Cake and Cookie Garden (including apple and nutmeg scented geraniums), a Home Bar Garden (including anise, lemon balm, and tansy), the Dyer's Garden (including madder, dyer's broom, bedstraw, and woad), and several color-themed gardens (the Silver Garden includes curry, lamb's ears, lavender, and licorice). 

The last section is the Herb Culture Guide, which briefly lists the most important information about each herb: annual or perennial, height, how to propogate, and Latin name. Then there are instructions on harvesting and storing the 15 basic herbs, and finally a very helpful schedule for planting, transplanting, and harvesting herbs.

4. The New American Herbal by Stephen Orr. 

This one is gorgeous. It has tons of beautiful color photographs. Every herb and each recipe has at least one photo. There is quite a bit of information about each herb, including its current and past uses in cooking, medicine, science, and magic. I could flip through this one for hours, reading whatever page catches my attention.

I'm excited to make flavored oils on p. 33 (to go with the flavored vinegar I learned to make in Homegrown Herbs), an herb topiary from p. 32, and herb soda on p. 34. 

Do you have any favorite books about herb gardening? We'd love to know.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Make It From Scratch: Planting Seeds Indoors

 Hi everybody, it's time to start planting our Herb Garden and Dye Garden seeds! If you're just joining us, check out these posts to choose your seeds and gather what you need to start them inside.

Here in Zone 5, it's time to start the seeds that need 10-12 weeks of protected growth. In about three months, it will be time to move them outside to the garden. I started with indigo and madder for the Dye Garden, and basil, rosemary, cat grass, and catnip for the Herb Garden. I also started some vegetables, unrelated to our project gardens: celery, lettuce, artichokes, spinach, and leeks, plus little viola flowers.

The indigo and madder seeds both need to be soaked for 24 hours before planting, so I put them in cups of water the day before I wanted to plant. These seeds also need to be planted in wet soil, so I again pre-watered the pots I planned to use. 

You should pre-water all your soil-filled pots, and especially the seed-starting pellets, so the seeds can start absorbing water as soon as they're planted. If the soil is dry, it can hold on to the first water you give it instead of letting the seeds take it. 

The rest of the seeds can be planted without pre-soaking. Place one or two seeds in each starter pot, cover it with a little more soil (read the seed packet to see how deeply to plant each type of seed), and press down gently. 

Then gently water them with a watering can or use a spray bottle to mist the top of the soil. I've been misting mine, so that I don't disturb the seeds. I mist quite a bit to make sure the seeds are wet enough. They need to stay moist, so don't be stingy with water. But don't flood them, either. They shouldn't be sitting in a puddle of water. 

Next put on the clear plastic cover, which creates a greenhouse effect, trapping the moisture and heat inside to help the seeds germinate. If you don't have a cover, you can use a cute cloche, any clear glass dish or bowl, or even plastic wrap to cover the pots.


Add a plant marker, so you'll know which plants are which.

You can write the plant names on popsicle sticks, make cute homemade markers, or use store-bought plant markers. Or make a diagram of the planting tray on a piece of paper and jot down which type of seeds are in each row. Anything that helps you keep track of what's what will be fine.

You should check on your seeds each day, misting or watering them when the soil looks dry. The seed packets will say how many days it will take until the seeds germinate, so you'll know how long you have to wait until you see little sprouts. In the meantime, keep the soil damp but not soaking wet. Keep the temperature as stable as you can by reducing drafts and using a clear cover to help keep the seeds warm.

Planting in Large Pots

I also planted a few things that I'll grow in larger pots, rather than transplanting them into the garden. I can move the pots outside for the spring and summer and let the plants grow on my porch. In the fall, I'll bring them back inside where they can keep growing through the winter. 

I love having fresh herbs year-round, and they can be so expensive to buy in the winter. It will be great to have basil all the time! I'm also growing some spinach and lettuce in pots, which taste so much better when they're fresh. And I planted catnip and cat grass for our pet to nibble on. 

To start seeds in these larger pots, I filled them most of the way with regular potting soil. Then I put a layer of seed starting soil on top. That way the seeds have the best medium to get started, and the plants have the best medium to grow in once their roots go deeper. 

We'd love to hear what you're growing, and we'd be happy to answer any questions you have!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Make It From Scratch: Preparing to Start Seeds Indoors

Hi guys! It's the dead of winter, but we're here to talk about our gardens. It may seem like there's nothing to do now, but that's not true! First, look through your seed catalogs and daydream about your perfect garden. I usually fold down the corners of about half the pages, choosing enough seeds for a small farm.

Then make a shorter, realistic list and order your seeds. My favorite online sellers can be found here

If you have cold winters, I don't recommend trying to do outdoor work now. The ground might be frozen (it is at my house - under several inches of snow). Even if the ground is soft, it's probably pretty cold, which is no fun for your hands. Also, rest periods are part of the cycle of plantlife and soil. So let the garden rest for now. There will be plenty of time for digging in the spring. 

We can do several things inside to prepare for our gardens. First, find your sunniest window, a place where you can set up some seed trays to grow. I know the best seed-growing place in my house is the big window in my loft. Actually, the windows in my living room would also be great for growing seeds, but I'd have to move the couch to the middle of the room and I don't think my husband would enjoy that arrangement. So I'm setting up my loft for seed sprouting. I brought up a big plastic table and put it right in front of the window. I also gathered up all my trays from last year, small pots, seed starting soil, plant food, a watering can, a spray bottle, and all my seeds. See what you've already got to work with and then you can decide what to make or buy.

The supplies that we need are:

Seed starting trays. These often have little compartments so lots of plants can grow in one tray without their roots getting tangled together. 

I like the ones that have three parts: a solid tray on the bottom to catch the water, the compartmentalized tray for the soil and seeds, and a clear lid that keeps moisture and warmth inside to encourage germination.

Seed starting pellets. These little discs can be placed in each compartment. When you add water, they expand into a planting medium for starting seeds. 


Seed starting soil. I like to get this type of soil because it's made up of small bits that work best for growing seedlings. When tiny seeds make their first roots, they need to touch the soil so they can get moisture and nutrients from it. Regular potting soil sometimes has pieces too large to be a great growing medium for tiny seeds and their little roots. The littlest plants can get lost in bigger potting mix and dry out. You can make your own by combining compost, perlite, and vermiculite. Just make sure it's fairly fine.

Fertilizer. We'll be using these plants for food, drinks, and skincare, so use a fertilizer that you're comfortable with and feel is safe. 

Watering can and spray bottle. We'll need to keep the seeds moist to get them to germinate and grow. But when watering small seeds, they can easily be washed away if you use too much water at one time. For the tiniest seeds, you may want to mist them with a spray bottle until the plants have roots to hold them in place. Misting is a great assignment for kids, if they want to help you with your garden!

If you have trays that you've used in the past, now's the time to clean them. You can use water mixed with a little bleach or vinegar to disinfect them. We want to kill any mold or plant diseases that might have grown there last year. Once they're dry, they'll be ready to be used again.

Now you can figure out when to start everything inside. Figure out your gardening zone and look up your last frost date. You may find a few different answers, but you just need a general idea. We can refine our exact planting dates in the spring, when we see what the weather and temperature are like.

Each seed packet will say how early to start the seeds indoors. They might say something like "plant indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost date." I'm in Zone 5, so here it predicts that our last frost date will be April 30th.  I will count backwards from that date to find out when to start my seeds indoors. 

I've sorted my seeds like this:
*The ones I'll plant directly in the garden. Some plants do not like to be transplanted. Peas, pumpkins, radishes, corn, sunflowers, and others should be planted directly in the garden. Each seed packet will tell you if this is the case. I set these aside for now.

*The ones that should be started indoors, sorted by the length of indoor growing time recommended. Some of mine need as little as 4 weeks inside, while others need 12 weeks. I wrote the number of weeks on the front of each seed packet, so I don't have to keep reading the small print on the backs of them. You could write the date to plant indoors instead - whatever seems easier to you. 

*The ones that I want to grow indoors in pots. I'd like to have basil year-round, so I plan to start some in a medium-sized pot to keep inside. I also want to plant some kale inside; the aphids always attack it in my garden. And it would be nice to have super-fresh spinach this winter, too. I already have a mint plant growing inside and it's so nice to have fresh mint all year long (it's fantastic in smoothies), without paying the high prices at the grocery store.

I'm also going to grow catnip and catmint inside, for this guy, who doesn't like to be left out of anything! He is already sleeping on top of my seed trays and trying to steal seed packets to bat around. 

Next time we'll be doing some actual planting. See you then!