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Monday, February 27, 2017

Tea Garden...It's What the Doctor Ordered

Themed herb gardens can be a lot of fun and many of these plants are not only suitable for a tea garden, but are also right at home in a kitchen theme, cosmetic theme or medicinal theme.

Most of us have only ever had tea from dried plants. Think how good it could be if picked fresh from your own backyard! Below are some ideal plants to get to know as they grow and it'll soon become apparent why people develop such a connection with their gardens. There is a certain pride in the nurturing, harvesting, storing and utilizing your own food, and knowing the conditions and quality of the plants makes it all the more satisfying.

For many, the introduction into the world of herbs all started with the famous children's book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. Most mother's can relate with how to handle mischievous children who don't listen and then come whimpering to Mom when hurting or upset. Mama rabbit simply put her little bunny to bed with a cup of chamomile tea and let him reflect on his lesson learned after such an adventurous day.

Be it frazzled nerves or an upset tummy, chamomile tea was the best remedy to calm both conditions at the same time. Better yet, chamomile tea lulled little Peter Rabbit into the la la land of sleep.
Much of chamomile's medicinal effects are targeted toward the digestive tract and the nervous system.

Chamomile tea can be a godsend for parents pacing the floor with a colicky baby. The build-up of intestinal gas is very painful. Just a teaspoon of cooled chamomile tea given every ten minutes can relieve a baby's misery amazingly fast. Catnip and lemon balm are two other wonderful herbs safe for babies.

Combine a hot water bottle placed over the lower abdomen and sipping chamomile tea every 15 minutes for a sure relief from those dreaded PMS menstrual cramps. 

Be it a child or an adult, everyone has occasional trouble falling asleep. A cup of chamomile tea with a spoonful of honey can become a nightly ritual to look forward to in readiness for bed. The nerve relaxing properties of this herb are wonderful for settling down overtired children and the cluttered minds of over stressed adults.

Growing your own chamomile is fairly easy. Chamomile is an annual which once it is planted and gets established, it will pop up on its own every year. The flowers are the parts collected and if you harvest on a regular basis during the growing season the flowers will continue before finally going to seed.

Apple or Woolly Mint
Spearmint and Peppermint

Peppermint and Spearmint are just two of many types of mint in the Lamiacae (Labiatae) family.
Known as the herb of hospitality, mint has long been used everywhere from the kitchen to the sickroom. Peppermint and spearmint are the most common types of mint, but there are several varieties that can be found at your local nursery in the herb section. You can find apple mint, chocolate mint, mimosa mint, mountain mint, pennyroyal, orange mint, catnip, etc A good way to identify whether a plant is in the mint family is to feel the stem. If it is squared rather than round it is in the mint family. Mints are low to no maintenance perennial plants. They are so hardy, they'll be happy to take over your entire garden. The roots spread by way of runners, so if you don't want it to continue to creep along, it is best to plant it in buried containers. These plants like the sun but do tolerate some shade. Another perk with mints is that the bees adore the flowering tops.

Peppermint in particular has a powerful, menthol aroma that refreshes, energizes and improves mental clarity just by inhaling the steam from a cup of hot tea. So many ailments can be eased with this one type of plant. Nausea can be relieved, cramping belly aches can be settles, pounding headaches can fade away, congestion can open up, aching feet can perk up, heat flashes can be cooled, and sore muscles can relax.

Lemon Balm is wonderful for relaxing children or anyone under stress. Called the "happy tea", lemon balm is invaluable for not only snapping a child out of a cranky mood, but can help anyone feeling down in the dumps. With it's hint of lemon, add some honey and you have a delicious tea most people really enjoy. With anti-viral properties, lemon balm is great for colds and fever blisters (cold sores). Also called Sweet Melissa, if you let it flower as in the photo below, you'll be making a lot of bees very happy. This type of mint spreads as any other mint but it is easier to control since it grows in clumps. One thing with lemon balm is that if you do dry it, don't crumble the leaves until ready to use or you'll lose a lot of the lemony scent.

Lemon Balm

Catnip is great for colicky babies, upset tummies, jangled nerves and to bring down a fever. And of course you can grow it as a great treat and source of greens for your cat. Catnip spreads on its own but like lemon balm, it grows in clumps so is easier to control than some mints that creep over the ground. Without cutting back, catnip actually becomes almost shrub-like with woody stems.

Bee Balm or Monarda is often grown in butterfly, bee and hummingbird gardens. It's red or pink tubular flower petals are beautiful when in bloom. Monarda gets taller than the usual 2 ft. mints. This plant reaches 3 - 4 ft. so makes a great backdrop plant. Also known as Oswego, this plant was used extensively by Native Americans as a medicinal tea. During the American Revolution, Bee Balm was the replacement for black tea after the Boston Tea Party. And you can guess why the word "bee" is in the name. Great beneficial plant.

Anise Hyssop
The last mint we'll mention is Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) which smells and tastes like anise. Although it is called a hyssop, it isn't the same plant as the Hyssopus officinalis, which is in the mint family, but of European descent. Anise hyssop is a must for anyone who wants a scent garden. Even if you don't like it as a tea, to resist the urge to take a moment to pick a leaf for a sniff is nearly impossible. 

Pineapple Sage
Any of the sages can be used as a tea but Pineapple Sage tastes much better than regular garden sage. This tea is a good remedy for indigestion and heartburn. Sage makes a good gargle for a sore throat, especially if first infused in vinegar. Garden Sage is a perennial but Pineapple Sage is a tender perennial which in colder areas is grown as an annual. This plant grows much larger than garden sage. It actually becomes like a shrub and by September it flowers beautiful red tubular flowers adored by the hummingbirds, a great late season food source.

Stinging Nettles

Nettles, (Uritica dioica), are invaluable if you want one of the most nourishing plants around for your health. A word of caution though with stinging nettles, they sting due to the formic acid they contain. Nettles need to be grown somewhere where no one will be wandering around touching all the plants. It is a spreading perennial that will take over if allowed. But having access to the health benefits of nettle plants is wonderful for anyone needing a boost of energy or help with blah skin, hair or nails. Nettles make a great cooked green like spinach but best in the spring when the plants are young and tender. Be sure to wear long sleeves, long pants and gloves when in your nettle patch. Nettles are important as a food source for the larvae stages of many butterfly types, namely the peacocks, red admiral, commas, painted lady and tortoiseshell butterflies.


Harvest late morning after they've dried off but before the heat of the day.

Most fresh herbs are highest in potency right before they bloom. But using the flowering tops is fine as well.

To dry, you can bundle small bunches by the stems and hang to dry in an airy, cool area out of direct sunlight. When dry, strip off the leaves and store in paper bags.
Don't crumble the leaves until you are ready to use them or you'll lose much of the essential oils.

Or you can spread your herbs out on the trays of a kitchen dehydrator for much quicker drying.

Before the arrival of frost, harvest all the herbs you desire and dry for storage. Herbs like basil are best if the leaves are frozen in ice cubes. Basil doesn't dry well without losing potency.

When ready to use the usual rule is 1 teaspoon dry herb to 1 cup of hot water.
If using fresh, use 3 teaspoons herb to 1 cup hot water.

You don't want to boil tender teas. You pour the hot water over them and let simmer. On average, teas only need about 3 - 5 minutes to simmer. then sweeten with honey and add a wedge of lemon if desired.

A very simple, yet delicious way to enjoy mint is to simply add a few fresh stems to a pitcher of water. The water will have a subtle, refreshing minty taste. Start with fresh plant material with each refill of the pitcher. If the water hasn't been drunk within about 3 days, toss and start again because it'll start to taste funky.

 A memory I have as a child is being sent down to the water's edge of a pond to collect enough fresh mint to fill a large soup pot. If you do collect plants outside of your own yard, be sure the plants you are cutting were not sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Mint shouldn't need either one but just know for sure before using the plants. Rinse off the stems of any dirt, cut to fit in the pot (stems, leaves and any flowering tops), add enough water to cover the plants, cover the pot and gently bring to the boiling point but don't boil, Cock the lid so it doesn't overflow and let the tea simmer about 5 to 10 minutes, depending how strong you like your tea. You don't want to simmer it too long or you'll lose the important essential oils in the steam. Strain out the plant material and add sugar to taste. For sweet tea, 1 cup sugar to a gallon of tea is tasty. Enjoy a cup of hot tea right away and let the rest cool and store in the refrigerator for ice tea. This is wonderfully refreshing on a hot day.

Find a spot to set up a little table and chairs and enjoy your serenity time with a cup of tea. You'll soon discover that once your tea garden is established it returns every spring with little effort on your part. Annuals such as chamomile, fennel and dill reseed themselves and perennials such as the mints, lavender, sage, nettles and thyme return from the established root ball. If you had rosemary overwintering in the house, it can be brought back outside in the spring.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Bugs and Butterflies...Where Do They Go For The Winter

There is a cute saying we quote to children, "snug as a bug in a rug". That is very true when it comes to the survival of our backyard bugs and butterflies during the harsh, cold winter months.
Most of us are aware of the long migration south of the Monarch butterlies, but butterflies and other insects do not migrate. They cleverly hidden in the landscape.

Butterflies and other insects slow down their metabolisms in a process called diapause. They rid most of the water from their bodies to avoid freezing and there are certain chemicals in their bodies that act as antifreeze.

Different types of butterflies are in various stages of their life cycles during the winter months. Some will overwinter as an egg or ovum, some as a larva or caterpillar, some as a pupa or chrysalis and some as adults.

In order to accomplish any of this, butterflies need the proper conditions. There is a reason nature seems to be so untidy by late autumn when everything dies back for the winter. Without places of shelter in leaf litter, tree bark, plant stalks, seed heads and brush piles, these insects wouldn't survive.
This is why it is so important to hold off on your garden clean up until spring. Raking, bagging and disposing of all those fall leaves is actually destroying countless insects. If you want your yard and garden to come alive again in the spring, you simply cannot interfere with too much cleaning up and cutting back.

Below are a few examples of where our flying flower beauties go for the winter:

The Viceroys, who look so much like the Monarchs,are in the caterpillar stage. The chew a leaf into a certain shape, roll up inside it to form a tent form and then fasten to a plant stalk.

The Swallowtails are at their chrysalis stage 
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Black-tail Swallowtail

Hairstreaks overwinter as eggs
Coral Hairstreak
Fritillaries, Crescents and Skippers hatch from their eggs in the fall and sleep through the winter as caterpillars.

Cloaks, Question Marks and Commas tuck themselves away as adults in fallen leaves or behind loose bark.

Mourning Cloak
Question Mark

Here is a more complete list

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) - Chrysalis
Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus) - Chrysalis
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) - Chrysalis
Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) - Chrysalis
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) - Chrysalis
Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) - Chrysalis
Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) - Chrysalis

Mustard White (Pieris napi) - Chrysalis
Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) - Chrysalis
Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) - Chrysalis

Coral Hairstreak (Satyrium titus) - Egg
Edwards’ Hairstreak (Satyrium edwardsii) - Egg
Eastern Tailed-Blue (Everes comyntas) - Caterpillar
Karner Blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) (rare, endangered) - Egg
Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) - Chrysalis

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) - Migrant

Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) - Migrant
Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) - Caterpillar
Aphrodite Fritillary (Speyeria aphrodite) - Caterpillar
Atlantis Fritillary (Speyeria atlantis) - Caterpillar
Silver-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene) - Caterpillar
Meadow Fritillary (Boloria bellona) - Caterpillar

Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis) - Caterpillar
Harris' Checkerspot (Chlosyne harrisii) - Caterpillar
Northern Crescent (Phyciodes cocyta) - Caterpillar
Baltimore (Euphydryas phaeton) - Caterpillar
Gray Comma (Polygonia progne) - Adult Hibernation
Compton Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis vaualbum) - Adult Hibernation
Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) - Adult Hibernation
Milbert's Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis milberti) - Adult Hibernation
American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) - Migrant
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) - Migrant

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) - Migrant
Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) - Migrant
Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) - Caterpillar
White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis arthemis) - Caterpillar
Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) - Caterpillar

Northern Pearly Eye (Enodia anthedon) - Caterpillar
Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) - Caterpillar
Common Wood-Nymph (Cercyonis pegala) - Caterpillar

Tawny-edged Skipper (Polites themistocles) - Chrysalis
Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius) - Caterpillar

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Salve Garden...Some Wild, Some Weeds, All Welcome

The middle of winter is a time we really miss our time in the garden. Herbs satisfy all our senses at once as we touch, smell, nibble, watch and if we listen hard enough maybe even hear what they have to say. It's all about attitude and how healthy it is to return to that connection with our natural world.

That urge to get back outside as soon as the sun shines warm again is so very good for both our physical and emotional wellness. It's no secret that to get some fresh air on a daily basis can do wonders as both a mental and physical energy boost. Getting your hands back into the dirt and smelling that distinct scent of turned up soil is enough to get most gardeners excited about what they plan to do come spring.

You'll soon find that once you get an herb garden established, there isn't a whole lot of expense every year. The perennials return on their own and the annuals that dropped seed will be found here and there and anywhere they can thrive. The trick is in knowing where these plants like to call their home. You'll soon learn you can't force a plant to do well in a certain spot just because it is where you'd like it to be, such as in an orderly fashion in your garden. Which is why so many of our beloved herbs are also called weeds. They grow where they please because they know a lot better than we do what conditions they need to survive, and that may not be in the confines of our nice, manicured, rich garden soil.

Most herbs don't like to be coddled. They are usually naturally resilient, drought tolerant and very good at adapting to their environment. Most herbs like full sun but will still grow in partial shade. Good drainage is a requirement with most plants.

There are many, many plants that can be used as part of your medicinal garden but here we have really good ones for the making of salves. The flowers and/or leafy parts are picked and infused in carrier oils such as olive, almond, grapeseed or coconut for about six weeks. The plant material is then strained off and the herbal oils are thickened up with beeswax to create a variety of very healing, effective home remedies.

Encouraging these plants in your landscape is not just beneficial for our sake. They provide survival for our pollinators, an issue we hear so much about with the detrimental effects of habitat loss. Don't be scared off by the chorus of their buzz. The bees and other insects are just doing their thing. You'll be amazed how you really can work side by side without incident.

Anise Hyssop
(Agastache foeniculum)
A member of the mint family, hyssop has the typical square stem and the dense whirl of purple flowers along a spike. A bee magnet for sure. Anise hyssop has a wonderful licorice smell and flavor and while it does make a nice salve with its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, it is often used in teas and confections.

(Calendula officinalis)
Cheery Calendula is a must have, not only because it is so useful, but because it is so easy to grow and reseeds itself. It is also a valuable companion plant for the vegetable garden. Plant this annual near beans and lettuce. Keep the flowers picked and it'll be happy to produce more and delay going to seed. Medicinally, Calendula is very well known for it's anti-inflammatory and healing properties, good for eczema, rashes, radiation redness, cuts and scrapes. Makes a good wound wash. Safe for babies, this salve makes a nice sore nipple balm during those months of breastfeeding.

(Symphytum officinale)
Comfrey is such a good healer for wound care that you have to watch you don't use it too soon. Puncture wounds cannot close up too quickly, as they heal from the inside out. It's name actually means "make grow together". Very useful for bone fractures. This perennial can spread out so give it room. The bees love the little purple tubular flowers and the fuzzy, rough leaves make an excellent compost tea for your gardening needs. Those large leaves are often used as a poultice for covering larger wounds.

St. Johnswort
(Hypericum perforatum)
This perennial is named for the summer solstice as it begins to flower during the month of June. Though labor intensive to pick just the yellow flowers, it's hypericin results in a deep red, crimson oil which is so worth it. Many people associate this plant as a remedy for depression which is true, but as a salve it is invaluable for any injury involving the nerves, as well as a sunburn remedy. Though planted as part of an herb garden, this plant is often seen wild in meadows and along roadsides, so be sure what you're picking has not been sprayed with herbicide.

(Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow is another perennial that can often be found growing wild but it can be added to your herb garden to return year after year and be divided easily to propagate. This plant makes for an awesome bug deterrent.and for healing it is very helpful for skin rashes and itchy spots. Yarrow is what is known as a styptic which means it can stop bleeding. Known as woundwort, yarrow had been indispensable for wounded soldiers on the battlefield. Containing antiseptic and analgesic properties this plant helped avoid infection and lessen pain. As an addition to the garden it's a good choice if you're interested in deer resistant plants.

(Matricaria Recutita) German chamomile
(Chamaemelum nobile) Roman chamomile
Though both types are great for calming anxiety, the German chamomile is better for skin conditions such as eczema and inflamed, irritated skin rashes. German chamomile is an annual that is taller and will pop up here and there, whereas the Roman chamomile is a low growing perennial. Chamomile is wonderful for relieving gas and belly pain, very safe for children. Gather the flowers for the perfect, apple scented cup of tea and go back for more to use for herbal oils. The more you pick the more they'll produce.

(Plantago spp)
Plantain is so often a hated lawn weed because it's a space hog amidst the grass and has those tassels that for sure will escape the lawn mower blades and pop back up again. But when it comes to healing this plant is called the "mother of herbs". The astringent properties make for an excellent poultice to lay on wounds, thorns or bee stings to draw out toxins and neutralize pain. Should you get stung by a bee, quickly pick some plantain leaves, chew them into a mush, apply to the spot, and be amazed how quickly the pain diminishes.

(Stellaria spp)
This is another of those weeds gardeners often detest. An annual, chickweed arrives early in the growing season and can quickly creep over an entire garden. Actually, this plant is a very good springtime foraging food, very healthy and tender if picked before it gets stringy. It's often used to help loose weight. Itchy eyes during allergy season can be relieved by applying a chickweed poultice. As far as being used as a salve, this cooling herb is great for itch, rashes and bug bites.

(Taraxacum officinale)
Though dandelions spread their fluffy seeds every which way the wind blows, this plant is actually a deep rooted perennial. People who pull them aren't getting rid of them at all, since breaking off the root only makes it grow right back. This is a weed to most people which is a shame since dandelions are such a necessary food source for birds in early spring and such a nutritious herbal remedy. For use as a salve dandelions are very soothing for breast massage. It's properties get the body's lymphatic system moving to release fluids and relieve painful breasts during the monthly cycle.

Lemon Balm
(Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm is wonderful for its soothing tea but did you know it's antiviral properties make it perfect for a herpes remedy. Be it from shingles, chicken pox, cold sores or genital herpes, lemon balm can help with those painful blisters during a flair-up. Best if applied at that first tingle.
If you do plant lemon balm, remember it is in the mint family and will spread. Therefore if you want to keep it where you want it, plant it in a big pot(s) and bury the pot if you'd like.

(Viola odorata)
Considered a weed by some, personally I love to see the splash of color violets add to a lawn. Also known as heart's ease, the common violet contains demulcant properties which give it significant amounts of mucilage which is what makes them so good for healing. Cooling to the skin, it reduces inflammation and relieves redness. Finding a good violet patch may prove difficult but this perennial is a treasure once established.

This list could easily become longer as more plants come to mind. But for now, think spring and all you want to do this season!