September 23, 2009
Autumn is probably my favorite time of year to really enjoy ornamental grasses. And, by grasses I don’t mean lawn. I do mean ornamental grasses and grass-like plants such as sedges and rushes. Plants like blood grass are brilliant red and showy at this time. Seed heads on Miscanthus are shining and flowing in the breeze (and frost). Little tufts on bunny grasses hop along at the edges of borders. And, hairy carex shimmers, promising interest into the winter ahead.
Well, it promises interest if cared for properly. Too often, all ornamental grasses are treated the same by unknowning humans with scissoring tools in hand. This can cause permanent damage. So to help you wade your way through your grasses, here are some general guidelines. Of course, in each genus there may be exceptions to the rule, but these tips should help you avoid the big mistakes.
- True Grasses:
True grasses have “elbows” or “joints” where the leaves run down the stems to the ground. They may be clumpers or spreaders, and they do well when cut down at the end of the season. What you define as “the end of the season” is your call. If you enjoy looking at seed heads swaying in the autumn sunlight, then you might wait until after a frost or until mid-winter to cut the plants down. If you are concerned about the plants spreading in the garden after forming and spreading their seed all winter, then you might cut them down earlier. Grasses like blood grass are easy to snip at individually to remove. Clumps of bunny grass are tight and with a sheet underneath are easy to shear and then pluck out brown old growth. Tall grasses like Miscanthus are best bundled tightly with string and then cut a few inches above the ground but below the tie. This way the bundle comes away in one bunch. Take care, these plants may have sharp edges.
- Sedges: Sedges have edges and no elbows. They are often mop-like and spreading. Generally, their seed heads aren’t showy.
They do not take kindly to being cut hard. Some will die back for winter. Most ornamental Carex, however, is an evergreen plant that should be combed and very lightly trimmed once or twice a year. I tend to comb mine out in mid-summer and again in fall or winter. After I comb out all the dead and stringy growth and remove any dead clumps, I then bundle the plant in my hands and trim off the dead ends, which should be around 2″ or so of the very tips. Its like giving the plant a little bob haircut. If the plant has been neglected for a long time, the center may be dieing out. In these cases, I dig out the plant to divide it and reinvigorate growth.
- Rushes: Honestly, I don’t do much with rushes. If they have dead growth, I remove those shoots to the ground. That’s about it.
This is basic primer barely skims the surface of ornamental grass care. There are many, many more grasses to choose from and care for. Some are weedier than others. Some are sharper and harder to care for than others. And, many are just plain wonderful and not to be missed for their fantastic, unique forms, textures and colors they add to to the garden. If you aren’t sure which kind of grass plant you have or if you have one that isn’t specifically mentioned here, get in touch for a coaching session for hands on plant care training and identification sessions. Or consider picking up a copy of one of my favorite grass books such as Grasses:Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design or The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses.
(This topic was originally published in October 2008 and updated in September 2009.)
- True Grasses:
December 19, 2008
Earlier this year, Bill Moyers interviewed Michael Pollan on the subject of Food, Health and Agri-business. In this compelling, two part interview Pollan discusses industrialized food, climate change, health care, petroleum costs and more as it relates to plain old food. A few highlight comments:
- Vote with your fork!
- The generation being born today is the first in history to have an shorter life expectancy than their parents.
- Be prepared to cook & declare your independence from processed foods
- Make yourself a producer, put in a garden
- Pollan’s 10′ x 20′ veggie garden produces so much food he has difficulty giving away the extras
- Cheap energy has allowed us to outsource so much of our lives & the time of cheap energy may be coming to an end
- Gardening teaches us we can use our bodies to support our bodies.
- Gardening teaches us we can feed ourselves — if we need to (someday).
- It is empowering to know you are not at the mercy of the supermarket.
Please take some time to watch this segment and learn more about where your food really comes from and how building your own garden will empower your mind, body, and community.
If you’re interested in reading more of Pollan’s writings on food, please visit the Garden Help Garden Store where you will find all of his books — on food and otherwise in the novels, memoirs and more book section. And, if you’re interested in learning how you can put in your own edible garden, please get in touch to schedule a garden coaching session. You’re never too young or too old to start feeding yourself. And, really, it isn’t as difficult or as time consuming as you might think. Once you get started self-sourcing your life, you’ll be hooked for life!
October 25, 2008
One of my favorite blogs to read is Garden Rant. A few weeks ago a few of us got into a discussion about how to keep the winter blues away. I mentioned that preserving lemon verbena and enjoying its sunny, sunshine taste through winter was a way that helps me. Adding a splash of vodka to it to make a cocktail also helps brighten the mood. So, if you’re looking at your garden and wondering what to do with the last of the lemon verbena before your plant goes dormant, I suggest gathering up as many leaves as you can to save them for the dark months ahead.
But what if you don’t have a lemon verbena plant to work with or what if you’re reading this next spring to learn about lemon verbena? Well, here’s a tip. Buy a plant and put it in a sunny spot in the garden. This woody perennial may or may not survive winters in western washington, but I promise it is worth buying year-after-year for an unsurpassed lemondrop lemoniness fragrance and flavor. Starts are readily available in nurseries and farmer’s markets beginning in early spring. Even a 2″ start will become a good sized shrub in the garden once the heat kicks in for summer. If your plants take hold and become a returning shrub, give them room to become a good 5′ tall and wide.
So, how to harvest your lemon verbena… I try to tip mine back regularly to encourage branching and more leaves during the summer. Pinch to a node and you should be good to go. Just don’t take out more than 1/4 of the plant at any one cutting, and don’t pinch below a point you pinched earlier in the season (unless you take out the entire branch). Leaves freeze well, make a great herbal sugar paste and a wonderful simple syrup. Some will say that the taste doesn’t preserve well in a simple syrup. I think its pretty great. However, I will admit that the herbal sugar paste is a must have in any good kitchen.
Lemon Verbena Simple Syrup
- 1 big fist full of lemon verbena leaves, stems reserved
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
Heat water and dissolve sugar in it. Add leaves and stir to cover. Remove from heat and let steep about 20 minutes. Strain leaves from syrup.
To store: Pour into airtight container & put in fridge for up to about 3 weeks or so. Or pour into ice cube trays and let set over night. I suggest using the smallest cube size you can find in a tray. The cubes will not get icy-rock solid because of the high sugar content in the syrup. It will be more like a slightly mushy frozen fruit pop. Using small cube trays means it will freeze up faster and better. And, your portion sizes will be appropriate for recipes. This stuff is potent!
Reserved branches are great tossed on a grill to add fragrance. Or add to a potpourri mixture. Or just crack one apart now and again to take a big whiff of lemon sunshine fragrance.
Lemon Verbena sugar paste: Well folks. I have to say you’re going to have to figure this one out for yourselves or buy The Herbfarm Cookbook. Jerry Traunfeld taught me to make this paste in his book, and I’m not going to steal it here. Really, you want the book…and not just for this recipe! He offers growing tips and many other ways to use this and other great herbs.
Lemon Verbena Drop: I will give another shout out to Jerry Traunfeld for the Lemon Drop he offers in The Herbal Kitchen, but this is one I “McGyver’d”, if you will, on my own. This recipe makes one large cocktail. Reduce or omit orange liquer to reduce sweetness. Or add more lemon juice to make more tart.
- 2 Shots Vodka
- 1 t. orange liquer (Grand Marnier or Triple Sec)
- 1 lemon
- 1 lime
- 1/2 shot lemon verbena simple syrup or 1 tiny cube frozen lemon verbena syrup
- 1 T. Lemon Verbena sugar paste
Spread Lemon verbena sugar paste on a plate. Slice lemon in half and cut off one lemon slice to reserve. Cut one wedge off remaining lemon. Run lemon wedge around rim of martini glass. Dip glass rim into sugar paste to create sugar rim on glass. Set glass aside so sugar rim will harden.
Squeeze all of the lemon juice and lime juice, less the reserved slice, into a martini shaker (Should equate about 1 shot of fresh lemon-lime). Pour in vodka and orange liquer. Add simple syrup (if using syrup and not frozen cube). Add pinch of remaining sugar paste to shaker. Fill shaker with ice. Shake hard. Strain into martini glass.
Float lemon slice on top. Drop in lemon verbena frozen cube on top of lemon slice (if using).
And, if you’re a t-totaller (or just love sweet tea), check out this great iced tea recipe from Willi at Digginfood. It’s another great way to enjoy your Lemon Verbena. And, I bet you could adjust her recipe to use your reserved simple syrup. Just remember, a little lemon verbena simple syrup goes a long way!
Enjoy the taste of summer all year long!
September 15, 2008
September is the season of harvest. Today is the date of our harvest moon. It’s hard to believe summer is nearly gone, but so it is. A week from today is the autumnal equinox! During the harvest season I find myself sharing my garden coaching skills with neighbors. In return, I have the pleasure of sharing in their harvest!
Over the weekend, I celebrated harvest with many of my neighbors. I’m very inclined to work on building relationships within my community, so I don’t hesitate to introduce myself to neighbors I don’t know. And, really, it has paid off. My best friends live next door. We are as close as family (but perhaps we get along better than some families). We share meals together, which means this time of year we put together many fresh harvest potlucks.
On Friday we got together to share a meal and visit together around the the firepit after dark. Bob and I offered to bring fresh, sweet corn from our abundant crops. Just before heading over to dinner, I went into the garden and harvested one ear per person. So, by the time we sat down to eat, our corn had only been off the stalk for about an hour!
When I walked to our neighbor’s for dinner that night, I noticed that their blueberries were laden with ripe fruit. My friends are always generous with their fruit, so I didn’t hesitate to ask if I could pick some. The next day, I hit the bushes with a large bowl in hand and cleaned the bushes. Of course, I took half of the harvest to my friends before heading home to gorge myself on fresh, sweet fruit!
Later that day, while walking the dog, we stopped in on a neighborhood garage sale. One of our alley neighbors saw me and asked if I wanted some apples from her overflowing tree. Each year for the last 3 or 4 she has generously shared her fruit. The next morning, I grabbed the garden cart, a bucket and a ladder to harvest from her tree. First I cleaned up the windfallen fruit from the ground and then I worked on the fruit highest in the tree to save her the effort.
While I was picking, she came out teasing, “Thief! Thief!” We laughed, and she told me the tree had been planted in (probably) the 1930s. When she moved into the house about 20 years ago, she found just a stump that sent up a single shoot. Fortunately for her, the resulting sprout has turned out to be a tree that produces wonderful fruit. She keeps it organically, so there are worms in some, but the fruit is sweet-tart, making for great eating, baking and drying apples!
Later, I paid a visit to another neighbor who lives in a landscape containing almost all edible plants. I knew they had no idea that the strange black berries on their evergreen hedge were actually native huckleberries**. When I asked if they’d mind sharing, they were happy to learn about the bushes and to share the fruit. I spent at least an hour painstakingly removing the tiny, ripe berries from the shrubs. They’re a bit seedy and the skins aren’t as soft as their cultivated blueberry cousins, but the fruit is fantastic!
Over the weekend, I continued to pull tomatoes out of the garden, pick corn for pasta salads and pinch back basil to use fresh and to freeze. The harvest is abundant this time of year. I know that soon my fresh options will be much less interesting. Chard, lettuce, kale, evergreen herbs, cabbage, and peas are starting to kick in for the cool weather, so fresh foods will still be available. I’ve started germinating some fava beans to plant in a couple of beds that need their soil rejuvenated…more on that later…But, the big harvest season is on the wane. I intend to enjoy it for all it’s worth!
In addition to drying about 2 dozen apples yesterday, I also made a bisquit-style apple cobbler. I’ve decided that it makes a better breakfast than a dessert…maybe that’s because I was more hungry this morning when I ate it than I was last night. Decide for yourself. Here’s the recipe (adapted from Fanny Farmer Cookbook):
- 12 T. Butter, melted
- 3 cups peeled and sliced fresh apples
- 1 T. chopped, crystalized ginger
- dash cinnamon
- dash salt
- 2/3 cup raw sugar (I use raw because I like the crunchy texture it imparts)
- 1/2 cup 1/2 and 1/2 (or milk)
- 1 egg
- 1 1/2 cup flour
- 2 t. baking powder
Preheat oven to 350F. Pour 4 T butter into deep pie plate and spread to grease the pan. Toss apples and ginger together. Arrange sliced apple/ginger combination in pan. Sprinkle dash of salt, cinnamon and 1/4 cup of sugar over apples.
Pour remaining butter into mixing bowl. Beat in half and half and egg. Combine remaining dry ingredients in small bowl then beat into wet mixture. Drop in clumps over apples to completely cover.
Bake at 350F for about 40 minutes until toothpick comes out clean. (Check to be sure top doesn’t burn; cover with foil if it gets too brown).
(**Just a quick note: If you don’t know what a plant is, don’t assume you can eat the fruit. There are many evergreen shrubs out there with little black berries this time of year. If you aren’t 100% sure that something is what you think it is, don’t take the risk of poisoning yourself by eating it.)
August 22, 2008
Today’s headlines were pretty depressing…local trees have been poisoned with herbicide, mostly likely by a human who thinks s/he deserves to see some water in a lake more than the trees deserve to have life. Then I read that the FDA has okayed irradiating spinach and lettuce to reduce bacterial outbreaks.
I’ve got to wonder if the bacterial outbreaks really couldn’t be controlled through better growing practices rather than adding another step to processing the food. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan illustrated that irradiating beef could be avoided by just feeding the cattle their natural diet briefly before slaughtering them. So, maybe by growing crops in a more natural environment they’d be stronger and able to withstand these infections? I’m not sure, and I do know that even home gardeners can cook up some nasty bugs…bacteria…fungi…etc…on their crops, but really people have been growing their own for as long as people have been cultivating food, and we’ve made it this long. Do we really need something applied at the end of the growing process to extend the shelf-life of our greens and make them look prettier? I have to wonder if the erradiation isn’t really just an easy-out to avoid changing what may be chemical-dependent growing practices.
I’m curious about the entire process and freely admit I don’t have all the answers…maybe that’s what scares me most. Each time humans start using another man-made/controlled process to control nature — whether to kill a tree in the name of a view or to mass produce the perfect-looking lettuce head — it seems we take one step further down the road in damaging our planet and ourselves.
As for me, this latest news is one more reason to get my little lettuce starts into the garden right away and my greenhouse (without erradiation equipment) cleaned up and ready to feed me this winter. And, it makes me just a little happier that I picked out a pair of tree-hugger winter boots yesterday. Oboz is committed to planting a tree for each pair purchased. Perhaps my new shoes will help re-tree to mitigate others de-treeing.