Turn to gardening for refuge and peace – and good edibles

I am struggling to write this column; it feels like anything I might have to say would be  trivial in light of the anguish felt in our city, community and country following the death of George Floyd. But I am encouraged by words from the President of the University of Minnesota and the State Director of the Master Gardener Program.

The guiding principles of the Master Gardener Volunteer Program connect us to the University of Minnesota, to people, to our communities, and to the earth as we strive to be accessible and welcoming to all. As a part of the University, Master Gardeners have been asked to “commit to kindness, commit to justice and commit to community; and to making the Master Gardener Volunteer Program ever more welcoming and accessible. President Gabel says, “We share our lives with those around us and we are enriched, immeasurably, by the relationships we form, the experiences we have, and the justice we can create.”
  The State Director of the Master Gardener program, Tim Kenny, reminds us that “Throughout history, people turn to gardening and nature for refuge and peace — plants are a part of every culture providing solace and joy in times of grief like the one we are currently experiencing.”  We witness this by the multitude of flowers brought to the memorial sites for George Floyd and other victims of violence. Kenny encourages all of us to share our love of plants with everyone around us; during these times small acts of kindness can help sustain us. So I am offering this column for solace in our time of grief.

  Plants are part of every culture and none more than edible plants. Herbs play an important part in almost every culture’s cuisine, and many cultures use them for medicinal purposes. If you want to grow some edible plants, but lack the space, experience or ambition for a vegetable garden, try your hand at growing herbs. Instead of buying those expensive herbs and seasonings in the store you can grow your own and eat them fresh. You can have an herb garden in a little space outside your kitchen door if there is enough light; if not, most herbs will grow in pots and you can easily grow an entire herb garden in a large container.

  In order to thrive most herb plants need 6-8 hours of sunlight a day unless they are noted to be shade tolerant. Even then they will do best in sunlight. The more intense sun the more essential oils will develop in the stems and leaves producing stronger flavors and fragrances. Herbs like well-drained soil, so if you are growing in a container be sure there are holes in the bottom for water can drain. Water thoroughly once a week to a depth of 7-10 inches.  Keep the soil slightly moist between watering. You may have to water more frequently in containers, as the soil will dry out faster.

  Herbs are not heavy ‘feeders’ so little fertilizer is required. Use a 5-10-5 commercial fertilizer sparingly only once or twice a growing season; 3-4 times a season in containers. Generally herbs suffer no serious pest or disease problems. Growing herbs can be relatively easy so it is a good endeavor for a novice or time crunched gardener. Here are some common herbs you could grow in your Camden garden.

Basil – is a tender annual and one of the most popular and easiest herbs to grow.

  • You can grow it easily by seed sown after all danger of frost has passed but you can also buy and transplant seedlings available from the garden centers of farmer’s markets, which would be your best option at this time of year. Basil loves heat so it will grow slowly in cool weather but will take off once the temperatures rise.
  • Harvest the leaves anytime during the growing season by snipping off the young leaves. Prune throughout the season and do not let the plant flower or it will become woody.
  • Use basil in tomatoes dishes, pesto, soups, sauces and herb butter, and on poultry and fish.

Chives – is a perennial plant and so it is not best grown in a container unless you plan to bring it indoors in the winter. It is the smallest of the onion family.

  • The best way to propagate is to plant rooted cuttings from a friend or neighbor. Chives plants should be divided every 3-4 years anyway. If you have no friends with chives, you can buy a plant at the garden center or farmer’s market.
  • Harvest by cutting leaves leaving 2 inches for regrowth. The bright purple blossoms are tasty too!
  • Use chives when they are fresh cut in salads and sandwiches, soups, as a garnish and on baked potatoes. The flowers add an interesting touch and taste to a salad.

Dill – is a tender annual that is native to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean.

  • Dill plants do not transplant easily so it is best to sow seeds in the spring after all danger of frost has past, but I have had success with plants from a garden center. Plant in a spot that is protected from the wind as the tall, hollow stalks are easily blown over. If planting in a container with other herbs plant dill in the middle.
  • Harvest the feathery leaves anytime but the best flavor is just before the umbrella like flower clusters open. Dill loses it flavor quickly so use it immediately after harvest.
  • Use finely chopped dill leaves in soups, potato or egg salad, egg dishes, in a cream cheese spread, on fish or grilled meats, or with boiled new potatoes.

Parsley – is a biennial in nature, but grown as an annual in Minnesota. It is native to the Mediterranean and there are many varieties including, curly, Italian and Hamburg. It tolerates light shade but will be more flavorful grown in the sun.

  • You can sow seed directly into the ground but it is very slow to germinate. If you are in a hurry buy seedlings and transplant them.
  • Harvest by snipping off stalks at the ground starting with the outside stalks. This will encourage new growth.
  • Parsley is commonly used as a garnish, but is good in salads, sprinkled over egg dishes, in vegetable soups and on fish and boiled potatoes.

Rosemary – is a tender perennial but it is an annual in Minnesota unless you grow it in a pot and bring it indoors to over winter.

  • As with any perennial the seeds are tough to germinate, so your best bet is to buy plants and transplant them.
  • Harvest by picking the leaves all season long. Harvest the main leaves just before the plant flowers
  • Add rosemary leaves sparingly to meat dishes especially lamb and pork or make roasted rosemary potatoes or herb butter for vegetables.

Mint – is not only a perennial it can be downright invasive. It does however tolerate light shade.

  • Plant root cuttings or divisions or purchased plants
  • Harvest the leaves before the plant flowers
  • Mint makes an excellent vinegar, is used in desserts or cooked with fresh peas. Spearmint or peppermint are good in iced tea – and are a necessary ingredient in a Mojito!

So if you don’t have the time, space or ambition to grow your own vegetables, buy them fresh at the farmer’s market and season them with your own homegrown herbs! Enjoy.