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Savory Herbs and Unsavory Weather

Except for a few short-lived cold snaps, it has been a pretty mild winter here in North Carolina. From what I’ve been hearing, the same can be said for most of the United States. Of course, those of us who have been around a while know that it doesn’t take much for mild to turn wild when it comes to weather in February. All you need is a quick shift in the jet stream and, suddenly, arctic air is getting friendly with a moisture-packed storm system to send frozen precipitation your way.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that when it comes to the chance of winter weather wrecking your gardening plans, we’re not out of the woods yet.

This past Thursday, a rather famous rodent in Pennsylvania saw his shadow. Some folks believe that this event is a sure sign that we’re doomed to at least six more weeks of winter. Personally, I’ve got my doubts about the forecasting skills of groundhogs. While these pesky critters all seem to agree that a vegetable garden is a tasty buffet grown solely for their pleasure, they never seem to reach a consensus on this whole early spring or not question.

While Punxsutawney Phil was telling the world that winter was going to be longer than we’d like, about two-hundred miles away, in York, PA, one of his groundhog cousins named Poor Richard was predicting an early spring. Another Pennsylvania groundhog, Dover Doug, also thought Phil’s shadow was an optical illusion. Up on Staten Island, Staten Island Chuck was telling New York City Mayor Bloomberg to expect an early spring and, though Chuckles the Groundhog in Manchester, CT agreed with Chuck, Fred la Marmotte in Quebec, Balzac Billy in Alberta, and Sir Walter Wally in Raleigh, NC had more pessimistic forecasts.

I find it kind of amusing that so many towns pamper a groundhog year-round for this one-day celebration but, as long as the furry fellows aren’t chewing on my veggies and herbs, I don’t see any harm in the practice.

Now that I’ve finally got around to mentioning herbs, this might be a good spot to mention that growing herbs is a good way to help protect your body from some of things that might cause you harm. The four herbs I’ve decided to mention today not only bring savory flavors to your table but also pack a lot of nutritional benefits.

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In ancient Greece, Hippocrates used oregano leaves as an antiseptic and also recommended them as a cure for stomach and respiratory ailments. The old boy was certainly on the right track. Among the volatile oils found in oregano leaves are thymol and carvacrol and each have been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria.

As an added bonus, oregano is loaded with several potent anti-oxidants. On a per gram fresh weight basis, oregano leaves have been shown to have 42 times the anti-oxidant activity of apples and 12 times the anti-oxidant activity of oranges. They even beat anti-oxidant potent blueberries by a four to one margin!

If that’s not enough, oregano is an excellent source of vitamin K and rates pretty well on giving you a healthy dose of manganese, iron, and calcium.

Oregano is a good plant to start growing from seed indoors when the threat of winter still lurks in the outside world. When the threat of frost has passed, you’ll want to pick a sunny, well-drained spot and transplant your oregano youngsters about a foot apart. Oregano appreciates regular hoeing and weeding and I usually recommend mulching with hay to keep the plants clean.

Feel free to pluck the leaves for kitchen use after your oregano has settled in for about two weeks. Continuous plucking often prevents flowering. After they’ve been in the ground for about six weeks or so, I usually trim the shoots to within an inch of the center to stimulate bushy growth and insure that I’ll have plenty of oregano available later in the season.

Another savory herb that I enjoy having on hand is basil. Various cookbooks and chefs refer to basil as “the king of herbs.” Part of that has to do with basil’s versatility in so many dishes and part of it comes from the fact that the word “basil” comes from the Greek word “basileus” which means king. In reality, basil is a bit more like a royal family than a single sovereign. There are about 160 or so cultivars of basil available; ranging from the common sweet basils to the more exotic lemon basil, cinnamon basil, camphor basil, African blue basil, purple basil, holy basil, and so on and so forth.

Besides adding a burst of flavor, particularly if added in the final few minutes of cooking, fresh basil is a healthy addition to any diet. Basil contains a powerful anti-inflammatory substance called eugenol. Eugenol provides several important healing benefits including giving some relief to folks suffering from rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel conditions. Basil also packs a decent amount of beta carotene, magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, and vitamin C.

Basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow. It grows best in a sunny spot with well-drained soil. The key thing to remember with basil is that it isn’t really frost friendly. Whether you’re planting directly from seed or starting your basil indoors and transplanting later, you don’t want to get your basil into the ground until you are absolutely sure that you won’t get hit with a blast of freezing air. Water your basil on a regular basis and give it a moderate dose of a naturally balanced fertilizer like Protogrow and you’ll usually have success.

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I tend to pluck back my basil on a regular basis; one, because I like basil and two, to keep it from flowering. Toward the end of the season, let a few of your plants flower and collect the seeds for next year.

Although I usually recommend planting most herbs in the ground, even those you might start early in indoor pots, bay is one of the exceptions. Bay leaves can add a lot of flavor and depth to your cooking but you have to harvest them from a tree. Left to their own devices, bay leaf trees can grow up to forty feet high. Some people like these attractive laurels because, aside from their fragrant leaves, they also grow flowers and berries. If your landscaping plans include adding trees, you could make worse choices than adding a California or Turkish bay leaf tree to the mix.

As for me, I prefer to keep my herbs within handy reach and growing a bay leaf tree in a pot gives me a measure of control on the size.

Growing a bay leaf tree from seed is a long, difficult, and often frustrating process. Even fresh seeds have a low germination rate and since they have a germination period of about 50 days or so, they tend to rot before they actually get around to germinating. If bay leaves are high on your list of desired herbs, I’d suggest getting a cutting from a friend or picking up a tree from a nursery.

Choose a pot that is about a foot in diameter and has proper drainage holes. Add a few stones at the bottom of the pot as an additional drainage aid. Mix your soil with about two cups of diluted Protogrow and press it firmly but gently into the pot. After you’ve added your seedling, tree, or cutting, add some compost on top of the soil and you’re good to go. Water your tree every so often and prune when necessary for best results.

You’ll probably want to bring your potted bay leaf tree inside before cold weather strikes. Put it in a sunny spot and you can savor the flavor of fresh bay leaves all year long. These handy leaves will not only entertain your taste buds but they also contain many volatile active components that are known to have anti-oxidant and antiseptic properties. Bay leaves also aid digestion and some recent studies indicate they may also help prevent certain cancers. Rich in vitamin C, vitamin A, folic acid, and numerous beneficial minerals, the leaves of the bay tree are well worth the effort of hauling the potted tree into the house or shed once a year.

Those of you who read my previous herb column may remember my mentioning that I’d be covering four herbs in this one. On further reflection, I’ve decided to save one of those herbs for our next adventure. To see which herb didn’t make the cut this time around (and why) make sure you drop by again soon. Until then, I wish you pleasant planning and gentle days without any groundhog shadows. Have faith, spring will be here soon and we’ll each be back in our gardens growing the vegetables and foods we love best.

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