Tag Archives: herbs

summer at last

Summer finally arrived last week. A humid mass of high pressure from Mexico hopped the border fence and gave us some hot days and tropical-looking morning clouds that lit up brilliantly as the sun rose.

After almost four months with a total natural rainfall of .05 inches much of the garden has been heading into its defensive dormancy. But a few plants seem to be reveling in the arrival of some real summer heat. Top of the list is this California fuchsia, the ‘Route 66’ cultivar, which opened its flowers to coincide with the hot weather. Some Epilobium species and clones have fairly small, gray-colored leaves, but this is one of those where the leaves a smidge larger and greener, a bright contrast to the screaming orange flowers.

Desert marigold, Baileya multiradiata, has been blooming away with the help of a little additional water, but not much.

In the bed that gets some irrigation the gingers are the current stars of the show. Coinciding with the California fuchsia was this kahili ginger, Hedychium gardnerianum, a plant that I’ve been growing since my early teens, a hand-me-down plant from one of my mother’s gardening friends. Sitting in the back yard after sunset is a treat with this insanely fragrant ginger nearby.

Of course summer isn’t all about the flowers. The fig tree is hitting its peak fruit production this week. It’s the variety ‘Brown Turkey,’ which is supposed to do well with less heat than what most other varieties require. This has been one its best years ever for me. I’m trying to figure out what went right this year, and I’m thinking the success has something to do with water. This past winter and spring actually delivered a slightly-over normal rainfall that was spaced evenly throughout several months. Also, last year I applied some water-conserving woodchip mulch over the bed that contains the fig. And John’ has made a point of watering the zone around the fig every other week or so. I hope to be able to repeat the success next year, which according to the prognosticators could be a drier than average La NiƱa year.

The garden herbs are doing well. A sixpack of parsley several months back is turning out to be way more than two people who use parsley once or twice a week. At least it’s a pleasantly textured plant for the front of a border.

A sixpack of basil, however, hasn’t seemed to produce nearly enough. Maybe the basil will pick up with the warmer weather.

Surprisingly the tropical lemongrass plants (both the East- and West-Indian versions) haven’t been sulking and are overproducing just like the parsley.

Adding to the pile of edibles, our neighbor Olinda stopped by with her grandson. It was all she could do to carry this giant watermelon. John was impressed with its size and suggested I weigh it: 30.8 pounds.

It’s one of the with-seed varieties that stores these days don’t seem to stock much anymore. Stunning rind, don’t you think? One of the many things we’re losing in part because of big agra.

I was hoping to save the watermelon for a day or two, until we had room in the fridge, but I was a little clumsy photographing its cool rind in detail. Now I know what a melon dropped 3 feet off a table onto a brick patio does. It stays in one piece, but you have to deal with it right away.

High summer also means the best cantaloupes of the season. This is Scooter helping us out by finishing a couple of half-melons we had for breakfast. The melon came from the local hybrid grocery-farmer’s market.

And so our summer begins: a little too much melon and a garden peaking with fruit and herbs. Life is good.

basil season

I love my drought-tolerant herbs, but I couldn’t imagine summer without one that likes a little more water to do well: basil.


Last year, I shared that when I buy a bunch at the grocery I usually cut off the ends of the stems and place them in some water on the counter. Basil hates being refrigerated, and this often keeps the bunch fresh for as long as you remember to refresh the water.


It’s a nice countertop bouquet. But often the stems will begin to root in the water. After a couple weeks or so, once the stems are approaching an inch long, you can transplant the little plants into the garden.

Give them a little shade the first few days to ease the transition out into the real world. If the cuttings are transplanted when the nights are 55 to 60 degrees or warmer, they’ll take off and give you enough basil so you won’t have to buy any more basil for the rest of the season.

You probably won’t know the exact variety of your basil, and you won’t have access to all the varieties you might find in an herb specialist’s catalog. (The Thyme Garden, for instance, lists 29 different basils.) But for all-around tomato-friendly summer cooking, the basil you’ll find in the stores works great.

Last night we had dinner at a local Vietnamese restaurant that served us an interesting kind of mint as part of the meal. We didn’t eat all of it and I pocketed what was left, thinking that what works for basil is sure to work for mint. Since mint has such an ability to take over your garden and your life, however, the new plants will have to adjust to life in pots.

herbs for a dry garden


Is there anything better than fresh herbs from the garden?

For years I had herbs in my fairly dry veggie garden. Some of the herbs herbs thrived. Others sulked. Some died.

Fortunately, if you’re trying to cut down on watering, you still have a huge number of herbs to choose from. For instance, many of the plants that you think of immediately when you hear the word “herb” originate in the Mediterranean, and many of them prefer less moisture than other garden plants.

Below, I’ve listed some common herbs that have done well for me dry spots, along with others that I’ve seen doing well in quite dry conditions. There are lots of other selections, but this list can get you going with more than a summer’s worth of recipes.

  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): You can pick from forms that sprawl, form a shrub, or grow straight up in spires.
  • dryland-herbs_purple-sageSage (Salvia officianalis): European Garden sage comes in lots of versions in leaf color (green, golden, tri-color or purple) and flavor (“sage” flavor, pineapple, or grape).
  • Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
  • Marjoram (Origanum majorana)
  • Thyme (Thymus spp.): Some thymes, including many of those sold for ornamental groundcover use (such as T. serpiphyllum) are only slightly scented or not at all. The culinary bush forms generally have more scent and flavor, and they come in a wide range, including lemon and lime. They also tend to be more tolerant of dry conditions.
  • Lavender (Lavandula spp.): There are several lavender species, as well as plenty of hybrids and varieties. All are at least somewhat drought tolerant. Some extremely so.
  • dryland-herbs_rose-geranium Scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.): Take your pick of rose, apple, cinnamon, nutmeg, pineapple, lemon, lime, apricot and others.
  • Wormwood (Artemisia spp.)
  • Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens)
  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): Beautiful and tasty plants, but they’re considered invasive in many locations (including the entire California floristic province). Research before you plant! There’s an attractive bronze version that’s reputed to be less invasive. Still, I wouln’t plant it if regular fennel is a problem in your area.
  • Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus): With edible, peppery leaves and flowers, some people consider this an herb. As with fennel, above, it can be invasive. Don’t plant it if it could escape. (Many of the moister hillsides here in San Diego are covered with the stuff.)
  • Lemon grass, both West-Indian (Cymbopogon citratus) and East-Indian (C. flexuosus): Sources tell you these plants like water, but I’ve found that they don’t mind going dry occasionally, especially if they’re given some shade.


Good eats!

pretty isn't everything

Many years back I planted a rose geranium plant (Pelargonium graveolens) and was close to pulling it out. The leaves had that interesting rosy, grassy rose-geranium scent, true enough, but the plant was sprawling, leggy, and in its underwatered spot looked nice only a couple months a year.

What gave it a reprieve was the recipe in the Chez Panisse Desserts cookbook for rose geranium pound cake, a delicate, subtle cloud of a dessert where even a tiny slice kept you captivated with its hard-to-guess source of flavor. And the little ruffled leaves that you baked into the top of the cake were an awesome decoration.

The kitchen remodel a couple years ago involved a bulldozer in the garden–usually not good news for the plants under its treads. The original rose geranium got squashed and dug up, and its original home is now a slab of concrete in the dining area. (Check out the funny description at Las Pilitas nursery for Penstemon Margarita B.O.P., a really cool plant that suffered a similar fate, though fortunately not until after it had been propagated. I never knew what the “B.O.P.” stood for until I read the note.)

Last weekend I finally bought a replacement. The small plant looked identical to what I’d grown before, but this one had a different species name on the label, G. capitatum ‘Attar of Roses.’ The Dave’s Garden writeup shows bigger, almost ivy-geranium-sized flowers on the plant, and the description puts it at half the size of what I had before. And the scented geranium list at Herbalpedia says there are at least 50 geraniums that have a rose scent.

Based on what I’ve seen from the plant, however, I’m skeptical that my plant is much different from the previous one. I’m not taking chances. It went into the ground where it’ll be screened by a few other herbs.

Here’s the recipe in case you get motivated. Also check out the Herbalpedia list above where you’ll find sixteen other recipes, plus lots more ideas of what to do with scented geraniums.

15-18 small rose geranium leaves
1 1/4 cups unsalted butter, softened
1 1/3 cups sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon rose water
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Cognac
6 eggs
1/8 teaspoon mace
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 2/3 cups unsifted cake flour

Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan or a 10-inch bundt or tube pan. Rinse and dry the rose geranium leaves and arrange a dozen of the in a ring around the bottom fo the pan, undersides up. Arrange the rest in the center.

Cream the butter until very light and fluffy. Beat in the sugar and continue beating until the mixture is fluffy again. Beat in the vanilla, rose water, and Cognac. Add the eggs one by one, beating to incorporate each one thoroughly before adding the next one. Beat until the mixture is smooth. Mix the mace, salt and cream of tartar into the flour and sift the flour over the butter mixture in four portions, beating just until each one is mixed in. Carefully spoon some of the batter into the pan to anchor the leaves in place. Pour the rest of the batter into the pan and smooth it. Tap the pan on the counter to force out any air bubbles.

Bake in the center of a preheated 325 degree oven for about an hour and a quarter, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool. Turn out of the pan and optionally dust lightly with powdered sugar that’s been stored with a vanilla bean. (I like it just fine without this step.)