Time, Thyme and more Time

   

As a newcomer to the lower mainland (and new to BC for that matter) I’m a rookie when it comes to growing things in zone 8. I’ve nurtured plants in zone 3 for forty-plus years but I’ve never lived anywhere but the Canadian prairies*.

It’s a whole different ballgame, so to speak. Plants thrive here in the warmth and humidity. They get several more months to grow and produce, whether flowers, seeds, herbs or fruit. 

On the prairies timing is everything; you have to have your seeds in the dirt and under artificial light in March or you won’t have seedlings ready to plant out in May. If you transplant too early you can loose your tomatoes to frost, if you wait too long you may lose them in the fall before they’re at full production. It’s a risky business and every gardener has lost the gamble at one time or another.

Here in White Rock things are more flexible. The season is twice as long and that allows for some leeway in choosing what to plant and when safely expose it to the elements. Instead of choosing only seeds with a short “days to maturity” time, I can choose virtually any seeds. ANY SEEDS. 

It’s no wonder the local farms are already selling freshly harvested carrots, tomatoes and baby potatoes at the market. The variety of local produce already available is staggering: strawberries, raspberries, greens, peppers, garlic, basil to name a few. 

Even my own peppers and tomato plants are flowering on my balcony, something I’d be waiting another month or two to experience back in Edmonton. It’s a whole new adventure, and I think I’m going to be able to adjust just fine. <grin>

  
*Ok, I did live for four years in southwestern Ontario in my early twenties, but I’ve tried to wash those memories from my brain.

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Edmonton Journal’s Homes & Design Magazine

 
Wow! The Summer 2013 issue of Homes and Design features an article called “Backyard Eats are Treats” and it has a series of photos of my awesome herb spiral. This online magazine is pretty swanky and worth a read, but if you want to see my herb spiral you can fast forward to pages 36/37.
Thanks to Claudia Bolli of Wild Green Garden Consulting (interviewed along with Jim Hole) for the opportunity to provide the Edmonton Journal with photos of my garden.
I built my herb spiral in 2010 and I grow oregano, thyme, sage, parsley, rosemary, mint, lavender, Serrano peppers, chives, garlic, cilantro and basil right outside my back door. It’s one of my favorite features in my garden.

Ratatouille

Ratatouille (before the oven)

I love ratatouille – the combination of flavors is amazing. I especially like to introduce it to people whom have never tried it. I found this recipe for Ratatouille’s Ratatouille (from the movie) and I have made it several times. I use my own tomato sauce if I have some on hand – I make it with plenty of garlic, oregano, thyme and basil simmered for several hours to make a nice thick rich sauce. A good quality tomato puree is a fine substitute if you don’t have any homemade tomato sauce.

This year I can proudly say that I grew my own eggplant from seed. I planted Hansel (from T & T Seeds) and although I had great germination, only one of my plants produced flowers – the one against a warm south-facing wall with plenty of heat. It was purely an accident that I planted one there in my flowerbed – I did it because I had one leftover plant and I thought “what the heck”. Now I know that if I want eggplants to flower they need a cart load of heat.

My Eggplant Hansel

Project: Silver Spoon Plant Markers

Basil marker

I saw a similar project online and decided to see if I could duplicate it myself with a few simple tools. I thought these might not only be nice in my herb garden, but would make excellent Christmas gifts.

I started with the purchase of a metal stamp letter/number set at my local Michaels. They are also available at Amazon.com (or .ca) and eBay. I also went to a thrift store and bought a few silver soup spoons – the price will vary with where you find them, but I paid a dollar apiece for these ones.

I pulled out my anvil (actually it’s just a vise with a hard flat surface that I can hammer on) and my hammer and my safety eyewear. Metal on metal hammering is responsible for more eye injuries than anything else, so safety first.

Flattening the spoon was easier than I expected. I began at the deepest part of the bowl, then worked my way outward. The rustic look is what I was going for, so it didn’t have to be perfectly smooth.

I then drew a pencil line across the widest part of the flattened spoon and beginning with the middle letter of the herb (that is, for Thyme I began with the Y) I hammered in the letter with five or six strikes. I then proceeded to move outwards with each new letter, trying to keep a reasonable balance and spacing.

When all of the letters were completed I used a black permanent marker to fill in the recesses and wiped off the excess with a cloth. Voilà – ten minutes each to create these nifty herb markers. Guess what everyone’s going to find under the tree this year?

Oregano marker

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

 

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:

The Herb Spiral

An herb spiral is a raised circular bed designed to provide herbs with a variety of growing conditions. They’ve been around since the middle ages and are once again in vogue among gardeners, especially those who practice permaculture.

Herbs that prefer drier conditions are placed near the top of the spiral and those that prefer more moisture are placed near the bottom. Micro-climates allow for some plants to have access to more heat and others less. Shadier spots near the north side favor herbs that prefer less direct sun.

I began building my own herb spiral last fall. Early this spring I transferred my sage, oregano, thyme and chives from other locations in the yard and planted some garlic. I seeded cilantro and parsley and they are well on their way.

I was given some spearmint but left it in a pot alongside, as it can become very invasive if planted directly in the soil. In the fall I’ll bury the pot to the rim and that should allow the spearmint to over-winter.

I bought basil and  rosemary from the garden centre and planted them this week. I’ll use an empty juice bottle to cover them overnight for the first few weeks until all risk of frost is over. I also added a dozen pepper plants – red hot cherry and jalapeno.

Building the herb spiral:

This was a fun project. I picked a location close to my back door and began by laying out a pattern using a garden hose. I dug up the grass around the herb spiral and saved the sod. On the circular area where I planned to put the spiral, I placed cardboard over the grass to kill it, then placed the clumps of sod upside down on the cardboard to build volume.

I placed landscape fabric over the area surrounding the circle and defined the spiral with pavers and bricks. I filled in the surrounding zone with cedar chips and small flat white stones. I added soil and created a spiral pattern with stones, and left it for the winter.

In the spring I added more soil and raised the spiral an additional foot to create a greater difference in height. I then transferred my plants and seeded some of the others. I bought a few bedding plants to fill out the spiral and in the end I was very happy with the outcome.