Archive | June, 2012

Magical Lavender Wands

24 Jun

One of my favorite plants is  lavender, Lavandula sp.  I love the way the foliage is a shade of grey-green, the purple flower spikes, but most of all, its delightful fragrance.  It’s easy to understand why it has been such a popular herb for cleaning as well as perfumes since medieval times.  In recent years, chefs have been using lavender flowers to add a bit of its floral notes to culinary delights such as lemonade, cookies, as well as more savory dishes.

I live in zone 5, which is good for growing both English lavender varieties, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’.  I have My Urban Farmscape bordered with Munstead.  It’s nice to smell it as I brush up against it while weeding.  I can harvest and dry the flowers to use for cooking or crafts.  I sometimes put the dried flowers in fabric bags and place them in my drawers.

English Lavender at My Urban Farmscape

One thing that I like to do is to make lavender wands.  These date back prior to the Victorian era.  It is a simple way of preserving the flowers and stems and can be as decorative as I like.  When they dry, the flowers are tucked inside the satin ribbon-stem weave, and with a quick roll between my hands, the most wonderful fragrance is released.  The best variety for making lavender wands is Lavandula x intermedia ‘Provence’ because it has such long stems and the oil content is so high.  It grows well in zone 6 and up.  So I wondered, what if I planted Provence in a garden tucked away in a little warmer microclimate, maybe I could grow this. I tried and have had been growing Provence for two years. Maybe luck. 

Top = Provence Bottom = Munstead

To make lavender wands, regardless of the variety you have, just follow these simple steps:

Harvest the lavender flowers at their peak, just as the lower petals start to open.  Do this in the early afternoon on a sunny day which will allow the flowers to be dry from any overnight dew or moisture from earlier rains.

Cut the stems as long as you can, and count out an odd number.  I used 21 for this lavender wand.  For Hidcote or Munstead, I would use a smaller number of stems or you will end up with a really fat wand, like a lollipop.

Line up the flowers so that the bottoms of the flower stalk line up.  Wrap the stems just below the flowers with a satin type craft ribbon that is ¼” wide.  You can use any color.  I like to be traditional and use purple.  Tie the ribbon in a knot tightly.  Leave a tail about 6” long, and don’t cut the rest of the ribbon from the spool just yet.  This is the part you will weave in and out of the stems.

Flip upside down and while holding the bunched flowers, start to fold the stems down over the flowers until they are all folded over them.  Keep the ribbon tail inside with the flowers.

Taking your ribbon still connected to the spool, start to weave over and under each stem, creating a basket weave.  Once you get to the third row it will get easier.

Once you have woven the ribbon to the end of the flowers, and the stems meet each other, tie the piece that was left as the tail and the piece that is still connected to the spool and tie into a knot then into a bow.  Cut the ribbon from the spool and even up the ends of both pieces.

Now you can do with them what you please.  Tuck them away to add a pleasant smell in your drawers, give them as gifts, or wave them in the air to cast friendly magical spells over your garden.  I just like to leave them out decoratively around my house  and as I pass them by, I give them a roll between my hands and am quickly transported to that summer day when I sat on the porch while making them.

Strawberries, Shortcake, and some Jam

17 Jun

As long as I remember, it has been a tradition in my family to have strawberry shortcake on Father’s Day.  Not that it was the favorite dessert, but mostly because strawberries were in season.  We would pick somewhere between 30-50 quarts, go home, wash, cut, bag and freeze them.  Sure, Michigan strawberries may not be big like some other states, but they are the sweetest and most flavorful berries on this earth.  So of course dad loved them, they were “sweet like him” he would say.  Especially when they were freshly sliced, allowing their sugary juices to escape as they were poured over top of a freshly baked biscuit stuffed with vanilla ice-cream.  Final touches of a little whipped cream and then strawberry shortcake dad’s way was ready for him to enjoy.  I preferred fresh strawberries over ice-cream, sometimes a shake, or just a bowl of plain fresh strawberries.  Still to this day, at least weekly, I will have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  You guessed it, with homemade strawberry jam.  Now that I think about it, I eat strawberries and yogurt a lot, and indulge in an occasional strawberry daiquiri made from the frozen strawberries, rum, and some fresh squeezed lime. 

Strawberries are so easy to grow.  You can grow them in the ground, or even hydroponically.  There are June-bearing strawberries, which are strawberries that bear fruit in June or Ever-bearing strawberries, A.K.A. Alpine strawberries, which bear fruit continuously.  These are a little smaller in size, but have more flavor.  At My Urban Farmscape, I have planted some June bearing strawberries around my blueberries.  They will tolerate the lower pH that blueberries need to grow, and it will provide a nice groundcover underneath them.  I have both of my favorite fruits growing in raised beds.  I am growing Alpine strawberries from seeds, so I won’t have any fruit this year.  These do well in containers, especially hanging baskets, which makes a perfect choice for smaller gardens.  I have to be quick to harvest, or protect the bed with a fence to prevent squirrels or some other animals from eating them before I get them.

Almost ready for picking!

Since I love to make strawberry jam, I needed more strawberries than I could grow, so lucky for me that my favorite organic farmer is growing strawberries.  I only paid fifty cents more a quart for certified organic.  Not bad.  I use the recipe that is included with pectin of choice, Sure-Jell or Pamona’s Pectin.    Pamona’s can be found at most health food stores or online.  I like using this when I want to make a no or low sugar fruit spread, or use honey or maple syrup instead of sugar.  If you have never made jam before, I would recommend starting with strawberry.  It is so easy!

Ready for eating…

If you’re not growing strawberries in your Urban Farmscape you should start next spring.  For now, visit your local farmers market for fresh Michigan strawberries,  buy extra for jam, or maybe take dad to pick some at the local u-pick strawberry farm.  Then when you get home, bake some fresh biscuits, slice some strawberries and allow them to become juicy.  Allow the biscuits to cool slightly, but still a little warm so the ice-cream melts just a little.  Pour over a generous amount of juicy strawberries, and top with some whipped cream.  YUM!  Can’t be with dad today?  Send him a jar of homemade strawberry jam.  One of the sweetest of all Michigan treats.

Strawberry Jam

Sweet Basil

10 Jun

 Sweet Basil, Ocimum basilcum, is an easy to grow tender annual herb used primarily to flavor tomato dishes, sauces, pastas, meat, fish, or to make pesto.  It is found growing wild in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world such as India, Africa and Asia.  It has medicinal uses primarily for the stomach and associated organs.  As for fragrance, basil is one of the most fragrant of the herbs.  Used in your landscape to border a walkway will delight your senses as you pass along.   Grow basil near your windows or patio as it will fill warm summer nights with its strong, robust aroma.  This is one of my favorite summer scents. In the meaning of plants and flowers, basil symbolizes friendship and would make a wonderful gift, especially for the host or hostess of a BBQ.  There are many types of basil, so make sure you grow the one you want.  Here are a few that I like.

Genovese   Classic Pesto Basil 14″-20″
Boxwood   Small leaves. Good in container 12″-16″
Lemon   Intensely fragrant, salad, dressing 10″-16″
Thai   Intensely sweet 16″-20″
Cinnamon   Finest tea basil 12″-24″
Spicy Globe   Small bush basil 12”

Left: Spicy Globe Right: Boxwood

How to Grow

Basil loves full sun and the heat, and will not tolerate cold at all.  Basil should be grown in temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  Sow seeds directly in the garden once required temperatures are met, or start indoors about 4 weeks before transplanting outside around June 1.  Space 12”-18” apart, depending on the variety.  Smaller varieties can be planted closer together.   When you transplant, remove from container and loosen the root ball, then plant at the same depth that it was growing in the container.  If it was grown in a peat pot, make sure you remove the bottom of the pot and tear some of the pot. 

Basil loves to grow next to tomatoes and also grows well in containers, but doesn’t like to grow under dry conditions which most herbs tolerate.  These basil plants are being planted with an OMRI approved Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil by Black Gold into a self watering container.  This should be a great combination for this busy Urban Farmscaper allowing the need for weekly watering and minimal care.  The container fits well on the small porch of her apartment too.  This is Genovese Basil, and are planted closer that the recommended spacing.  Notice how they are staggarded.  Hopefully this will allow enough space and enough basil for a future pesto party!

Loosening roots from container prior to planting

 Harvesting

You can harvest the leaves by pinching or cutting the main branch prior to any flowers developing, leaving the new shoots that are at the side of the main stem.  These will grow and you will be able to harvest them in about 3 weeks.  Best to harvest early in the day, prior to flower development.  Continue harvesting throughout the summer, with the final harvest being of the whole plant about our first fall frost date of September 30.  You could possibly transplant to a pot and bring indoors, but basil seeds are so easy to start, you may want to start indoors with a fresh plant. 

PInch back or cut the main stem just above a set of leaves. Use the harvested part and then two more stems will soon develop where the lower leaves and the stem meet. You can see new ones waiting to grow in this picture. Soon you will be doubling the amount of basil you are growing.

 Storage and Preservation

Gently wash the leaves and place what you don’t use in a glass of water and leave on your counter.  Don’t refridgerate, remember, basil doesn’t like to be cold.  Best used fresh, but if that’s not possible, I have found drying to be the easiest method.  Basil will bruise and turn black, so be careful with the leaves when washing them.  To dry them, hang them upside down in small bunches (6-8 stems) out of direct sunlight, where there is good air circulation.  If there is nowhere to hang them, remove individual leaves and place in a small brown lunch sack.  Gently shake each day.  Once thoroughly dry, you can place in a jar.  Much of the flavor is lost to drying, so I LOVE to make pesto and freeze it. It keeps it beautiful green color because it is preserved in olive oil.  There is nothing like opening a container of pesto in the winter and making some bruchetta.   I will share my pesto recipe later this summer during my Pesto Party post.  In the mean time, enjoy it while it’s fresh!

For more information about Black Gold and their OMRI approved soil mixes, visit their website at http://www.blackgold.bz/  I have had really good results.

Today at My Urban Farmscape

3 Jun

This has been a very busy week at My Urban Farmscape.  We passed our frost-free date here in Mid-Michigan so I have been busy planting, then we had a frost-freeze warning three days after I finished putting in my last tomato plant.  Figures.  I was like the town crier running while yelling down the streets, “it’s safe to plant your garden!”, then overnight, I turned  into Frankenstein and had the whole town hunting for me while carrying their burning stakes because they lost their unprotected plants in the frosty night.  Well maybe it wasn’t as bad as that.  There’s always a risk during planting time, and this year the risk has been higher than others with the early spring and warmer weather.

Today I will share a few things that are growing at My Urban Farmscape.  It’s so hard to choose specific plants writing only weekly.  There are so many to choose from.  I will try to write more often, maybe I will tweet from the garden.  For now, here is a little picture slide show.

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