It’s a beautiful day, in the middle of March. The sky is clear and blue with puffy, white clouds, but rain is predicted later in the afternoon so I took my walk along Route 28 while the sun was still shining, to look for signs of spring. The bird feeder seems to have attracted a swarm of yellow jackets that are hovering around and inside the feeder and there isn’t a bird nearby. Do yellow jackets attack birds? Are the birds afraid of them as I am? My backyard is too muddy to walk around or to do any spring cleanup or any of the projects that otherwise could have been done on this warm, sunny day before the rain. The forsythia is beginning to bud and by the time you are reading this, it will be in flower. That’s the time to begin planting the seeds of the cool weather crops, like salad greens, spinach, and kale and to put in transplants with a protective cage of clear plastic over a wire frame that will act as a miniature greenhouse to give you an extra two to four weeks advantage. By the time the plants outgrow their nursery, the cover can be removed and the weather will be warm enough. The cages can be used again late in the season to protect plants from early night frosts, chilling rains and early snowfalls, to give you a second crop of those cool season greens. Some, like kale, might even grow through the winter with this added protection. The cages will also be a support for other plants or flowers growing next to them shielding them from wind and strong rains.
Fine window screening placed over a wire cage and secured with clothespins will also admit light but keep out harmful insects, birds and rabbits. It will keep flies and cabbage moths from laying eggs on the plants or in the soil. A sun shield laid over the wire cages will keep the soil and air temperature low enough so that cool weather plants won’t bolt.
The test to determine proper soil moisture for planting: A ball of soil squeezed in your hand should break up when poked with your finger. If your finger makes a hole or impression in the ball, the soil is still too wet to work. If the ball won’t even form, then the soil is too dry. This and other useful information comes from, Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew. This book can be found in the Andes Library.
Herbs grown in containers have the advantage of being placed in convenient spots where there’s plenty of sun, access to water and proximity to the kitchen. A good trick is to sink pots with herbs into the container and cover the pot rim with peat moss or pea gravel over the surface of the larger container. If you don’t like the way the planting looks, it’s easy to move the small pots or replace them and the gravel or peat can be smoothed over. At the end of the season, the pots can be lifted out of the container and brought indoors. The disadvantage of container growing is that they need constant attention, especially watering and fertilizing since the nutrients in the soil need to be replenished constantly as they drain away. Many herbs can be found growing wild in the garden and come back year after year. Some become quite invasive, like mint, lemon balm, comfrey, and of course dandelion. I’m sure if you look, you’ll find many more.
There is nothing more satisfying than stepping into the garden or out on the deck to pick some fresh herbs as you’re cooking. Chives come back year after year and are wonderful snipped right into the salad bowl or mixed with butter and lemon juice to serve with grilled chops or steak or mixed in the processor with cream cheese to spread on a bagel. M-m-m! Mint or lemon balm are so good in iced drinks or also mixed in a salad. A sprig of rosemary slipped under the skin of chicken before roasting or broiling will be delicious. Bay makes a beautiful bush, or even a small tree, and a leaf cooked with soups or stews certainly improves the flavor. Garlic and onions are easy to grow and everyone knows how they would be missed if we didn’t use them.
An herb garden, whether you use them in cooking or just for the beauty of the plants themselves is fun and beautiful to design and grow. There are many books to help you or if you get to the city, visit The New York Botanical Garden’s Shakespeare Garden located in the Bronx (2009 Southern Boulevard) and be inspired! ~