A Visit to the Devonian Gardens: July 28, 2010

The Devonian Gardens, part of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Studies at the University of Alberta, has 190 acres of property devoted to preservation, research and good old-fashioned enjoyment of everything botanical. Cousin Rob and I visited yesterday to peruse the collections of lilies, roses, herbs and native plants that grow along the meandering pathways.

We visited the majestic Kurimoto Japanese Garden, enjoying the quiet solitude that comes with having arrived early in the day before the crowds.

The butterfly house provided ample opportunities for photography, but the captured species were not to be outdone by their cousins in the wild who were equally cooperative.

For more information about the Devonian Gardens visit: http://www.ales.ualberta.ca/devonian

Here’s some video from the butterfly house:

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Drying Herbs: Saving Thyme in a Bottle

Picking Oregano Leaves

The best time to begin picking your herbs for drying is long before they flower. I always seem to miss that date when they are hearty enough to have a good supply of leaves, but not so hearty that they’ve begun to set flowers and seed. This year I was a little late, especially with my thyme which was blooming profusely when I finally got around to harvest.

For best flavour I pick my leaves early in the day before they get too warm. I put out a stool, sit down with my basket and scissors and start clipping away. Depending on the herb, my technique varies.

For oregano, I grasp the stalk low and pull up slowly to tear off the leaves, leaving a bare stalk behind. Usually the stalk breaks near the tender top, and I pick those leaves off by hand, avoiding any of the blossoms. I wash them in a salad spinner and place them in an even layer in my dehydrator.

I dry them at somewhere between 105C and 115C for as long as they take to become crumbly. Depending on the moisture content and relative humidity, that can be anywhere from a few hours to a few days. If the leaves are overlapping here and there, it’s good to move them around every once in a while to get more even air distribution.

The slower you dry the herbs, the more flavour they retain, so some patient people dry their herbs at room temperature. This may be impossible in humid parts of the country where mould would take advantage of yummy herbs sitting out on a counter or hanging in a dark corner.

To pick individual leaves off of thyme would be unbearably tedious so I cut the stalks whole, trim off the flowers and bring in the entire bunch to wash. Once they’ve been dried in the dehydrator the leaves are easy to separate from the stalks.

It takes a lot of thyme (and patience) to collect a small amount of the herb

Basil, parsley and sage are simple to harvest if I just patiently sit and pluck off the foliage, trying not to take too much of the stem along with the leaf. If I save any chives at all for drying (and I sometimes don’t bother), I’m careful only to take the freshest youngest leaves.

I love coriander seed, although they aren’t ready to harvest just yet. When the time comes I simply pull the ripe seeds off in my hand and leave them to dry for a few days on the kitchen counter in a wooden bowl. The leaves (cilantro) don’t keep very well, but I put a few in the freezer for soups and winter casseroles.

Rosemary I primarily use as a fresh herb, but whatever is left at the end of the season will be harvested similarly to thyme, stalk and all, then separated after drying.

For those without a dehydrator (heck, mine’s borrowed from my sister-in-law), herbs can be dried in the microwave. Use two layers of microwave-safe paper towel under the herbs and two more on top. Dry for thirty seconds at a time, and most will be done in under two minutes. It’s easy to over-process herbs this way, so be careful.

I find that some years my oregano produces ample leaves, while my sister-in-law might be drowning in basil and a neighbour may have more rosemary than he knows what to do with. Exchanging and bartering herbs is a custom that goes back centuries, and who am I to argue with tradition?

Sage

Thyme

Oregano

 

Even More Pretty Things: July 19 – 22, 2010

My lilies begin to blossom in droves while the sweet peas slowly appear, one at a time.

Eating Fresh: A Raw Deal

 

Tumbler Tomatoes

My favourite time of the growing season is when I start to eat the fresh produce that’s I’ve affectionately tended since spring. Although I’ve already been into my herb garden for over a month and eating lettuce for several weeks, this was the first week I was able to enjoy some of the slower to develop vegetables.

My Tumbler tomatoes, both in the upside down planters and my regular tomato box, have been producing a few ripe red fruit each day. Sliced on a hummus and vegetable tortilla, the tomatoes are like a ray of sunshine caught in a tender juicy package.

My Mr. Big pods are long, plump, and full of sweet green peas. Any pods lower than a foot off the ground have been meticulously plucked by my dog and gleefully consumed while I’m not watching. It’s the price I pay for having taught her where they come from.

I pulled and peeled the first of sixty garlic bulbs which are now two seasons old. I’ve decided that garlic cloves pulled fresh from the garden and added to a salad are one of the finest things in life.

The second finest is vine-ripened peppers, and I can start picking my Banana peppers any time now. The more I pick, the more the plant will produce.

My bok choy and spinach have been struggling, primarily because of the feisty nature of local sparrows that appear to have an insatiable hunger for leafy dark greens. Those plants that I covered with wire mesh are toiling away and should be ready in coming weeks.

There’s a certain melencholy that comes with the beginning of the harvest season. Days are getting shorter, the sun’s a bit lower on the horizon, and it won’t be long before the peas are done, the lettuce bolts and the herbs lose their best flavor. I have to remind myself that there are still beans to come (another puppy favorite), potatoes to harvest and my personal favorite: juicy carrots to eat fresh and raw from the soil.

More Pretty Things in My Garden: July 5 – 9, 2010

July brings an abundance of beautiful flowers to my garden, and the best is yet to come!

Update: The Herb Spiral

Herb Spiral: July, 2010

It’s been two months since I transferred over my hardy herbs and seeded the annuals in my new herb spiral.

See May 2010 The Herb Spiral

Visually, the spiral does not disappoint. I love the way it’s slowly filling out, with cilantro growing tall on the north-east corner and oregano getting bushy on the south. Basil and sage enjoy the afternoon and evening sun from their vantage point on the west. Rosemary sits cheerfully atop the spiral where conditions are driest and most intimidating. Alternating  jalapeno and habernero pepper plants wind their way slowly from the bottom of the spiral upwards. Parsley thrives in the relative shade of the cilantro, while thyme enjoys its own space in the full sun. Garlic plants fill out the remainder of the  north-east side of the herb spiral, towering over a struggling lemon basil plant that a friend donated to my culinary garden.

Chives and spearmint have been banished to pots on the side (spearmint invades aggressively if left to it’s own). Ok, if you look closely you’ll see that I have chives in the spiral as well, but I swear that if they produce so much as one offspring, I’ll banish them entirely. Chives left to blossom and go to seed can produce dozens of little plants that pop up yards away from their mama plant. Much as I love chives, I don’t love them that much. (I harvest the chive blossoms for Chive Blossom Vinegar – see June 2010 – and that generally prevents those pesky progeny).

I’ve been eating oregano, sage and thyme for two months now, cilantro leaves for at least six weeks, and bits of rosemary in recent days. My favorite is the fussy sweet basil that began slowly this spring but is now gaining ground. I’m hesitant to strip my two plants of too many leaves before I’m certain they are strong enough to endure the annoying fluctuations in weather that have plagued us this summer.

Herbs are an essential part of my kitchen, and having the herb spiral a few feet out the back door has proven to be a spectacular addition to my culinary creativity. It looks and smells fantastic as well, and isn’t that the goal of any zone 3 gardener?

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The Herb Spiral sits just outside my back door:

Sifting Your Compost

No matter how hard you try, you’ll never find that everything in your composter is ready to use at the same time.

When my composter is ready to be unloaded, I place it all in a rubbermaid container and let it dry for several days. I then sift it to make a nice consistent compost that is ready to go on the garden.

Sifting is important to get out the big chunks of material that have perhaps not fully composted yet. Putting non-composted material on your garden is not wise, as it will continue to break down in your beds and may create excess nitrogen. In addition, you don’t want to attract insects and other critters directly to your garden – or in my case my dog. I’ve actually seen her pick out bits of rotten banana peel as if they are a delightful treat I put in the compost especially for her.

I use a combination of a cardboard box (the one you get from the garden centre when you buy bedding plants) and a plastic bedding plant tray with 3/8 inch holes. They fit together perfectly and by shaking the combination I get just the right size material in the bottom cardboard tray. The remaining material goes in the composter for more work.

The result is a nice fine compost that is ready to be used and full of nutrition.

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