“Hazards” of the Job: Dealing with Plant Defenses in the National Herb Garden

By Chrissy Moore

Hot shot firefightersI’ve never been much of a daredevil. Overactive amygdala, perhaps, or maybe I’m just a ninny. (Usually, the latter.) And yet, I’ve always admired those individuals who brave dangerous situations for the good of others: firefighters running toward the flames; avalanche search and rescue teams; Alaska’s Coast Guard members that jump into frigid waters during gale force winds…you get the idea.

Today, I had an epiphany while watering our myriad plants in the greenhouses. Most people think that herb gardening is a quaint, bucolic endeavor, which, admittedly, has a ring of truth to it. But, those people have never worked in the National Herb Garden (NHG), where we, too, face dangerous situations on a regular basis, just of the botanical sort.

Staff handling heavy containersFor example, every year, twice a year, the NHG staff and coworkers haul many large containerized plants into and out of the greenhouses, where they spend the winter months. Many of these plants are loathsome creatures, not just because of their size (try hauling and lifting hundreds of pounds of “dead weight” for hours at a time…hope you didn’t water them the day before!), but because of the physical hazards they present. It is not unusual for plants to employ natural defenses to protect themselves from malevolent insects or browsing animals, etc. That’s understandable. Yet, when we—the benevolent humans assigned to be their nurturing handlers—are subjected to that very same botanical weaponry, it seems just a wee bit like unnecessary punishment. But, no one ever said life was fair.

Flowers and fruit of CalamondinLet’s look at our beloved Citrus plants. These shrubs have beautiful flowers with a glorious scent and delectable fruit. What’s not to love? Most people only get the occasional painful squirt of acidic juice in their eye when peeling the fruit.Thorns on Citrus plant Yeah, not us. We are repeatedly stabbed by the plants’ two- to three-inch long thorns all over our bodies and, heaven forbid, in or around our eyes. To paint the picture for you better, our method for moving all of the plants in and out of the greenhouses is by a hand truck. So, the whole upper half of our bodies is engulfed by the plant’s canopy. For the Citrus, one puncture wound is bad enough; multiple punctures is just plain mean.

A few years ago, I was visiting friends in Málaga, Spain. It was interesting to see large, in-ground specimens of plants that we can only grow in containers in the NHG. One of them, Phoenix dactylifera (date palm), is one of our more hated plants to move in the garden. (If only we could grow ours in the ground!) Like many palms, the fronds have sharp points at the end of every leaflet.

And like the Citrus plants, our date palm gets hauled around on the hand truck, with all the fronds right at face level. Death by a thousand stabs. To get the plants into their final positions, we need to navigate the narrow greenhouse walkways, which takes a lot of coordinated effort between the one hauling the plant and the person doing the guiding; more often than not, the person doing the hauling can’t see past the plant and must navigate by auditory cues rather than visual ones. As you might imagine, this only adds to the danger!

Staff with Phoenix dactylifera leaves in their face

Moving the date palm

My personal “favorites” each have minor variations on the armament theme just to keep you from getting complacent: pineapple (Ananas sp.) has upward-facing prickles along its leaves; Agave sp. has outward-facing prickles; and cascalote (Tara cacalaco) has downward-facing prickles. These are what I consider the plant versions of the Chinese finger torture: the more you dive in or pull back, the more caught you become. And, by default, the more stabbing you experience. Agave plants, in particular, are awkward to maneuver on a good day, but ours range in size from three to four feet across and two to three feet tall. Given their sprawling nature, there’s not even the remote chance of using a hand truck to move them.

You must fully embrace the pain by lifting them from the ground just under their “waists,” like a child that’s really just too big to be picked up anymore. “Bend with your knees!” has little bearing on this activity. If we’re being honest, we’re just trying to fling that thing to its final resting place as fast as we can and from whatever “reasonable” posture we can attain, wrecked clothing and hairdo be damned. How do those folks at the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona do this day in and day out? No thanks…trying to quit. My assistant, Erin, is the smart one; before handling an agave, she nips the spines off with her pruners. Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?

Cascalote, while sporting dainty, pinnately compound leaves, is actually a botanical death trap. Like the agave, pineapple, and Citrus combined, its prickles are not only curved for maximum entrapment, but they also cover the entirety of the plant, nearly from head to toe. The only thing in its favor (at least for our specimen) is that it has a generally upright growth habit rather than being wild and ungainly like the pineapple and agave. Thank goodness for small blessings, short-lived though they may be. Getting caught in the cascalote is like getting sucked into quicksand—the more you move, the worse your situation becomes. I did say Chinese finger torture, didn’t I? (Side note from Erin on moving our cascalote: “Man, after moving that Tara this go around, I got home that night and had a thorn still stuck in my leg. It had worked its way through jeans and a thermal layer to hitchhike and irritate me all day. I still have a little scar!” See! We’re really telling the truth.)

The last, but certainly not least, plant on my list is sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum)—and, frankly, most species in the grass family (Poaceae). If you’ve never worked with a grass of sugarcane’s magnitude, then you haven’t met the devil incarnate…yet. It hides its weaponry really well, so you’re more likely to forget rather than be vigilant. Sugarcane is replete, not only with irritating hairs Trichomes (hairs) on Saccharum (sugarcane) leaves(called trichomes) at the joints along the stem that wiggle under your clothing and irritate your skin to no end, but the leaves themselves sport razor sharp edges in a pattern similar to a sawmill blade. The leaf edges slice human skin with the accuracy of a piece of notebook paper. Yep, paper cuts are my fa-a-a-vorite! “What? You don’t enjoy paper cuts? Hmmh, go figure!” Handling sugarcane takes a bit of forethought and a deft hand. The trick is to pick up the plant so that the leaves are directed away from your own body and hopefully not toward your coworkers who are naïvely standing nearby. Invariably, though, someone will get a little too spirited in their moving, and suddenly, we’re all running for cover like kids at a piñata party.

Scanning electron micrograph of a sugarcane leaf edgeWhile not all of our plants create perilous situations (parsley and oregano are pretty benign…or are they?), we certainly hear a lot of grousing and grumbling from our coworkers and volunteers when moving day arrives…sometimes under muffled breath and sometimes hollering from the top of their lungs. That’s when you shrug your shoulders and say, “Just another day in the life of the National Herb Garden! Someone get the First Aid Kit.”

Author’s Note: I regret to inform our readers that the Phoenix dactylifera has moved on to greener pastures (pun intended). We finally decided that it was getting too big for safe handling and preferred to start anew with a smaller specimen. Our bodies are grateful for that decision.


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

Thoughts About Wood

By Susan Belsinger

Trees covered in snowI love trees. They are a life-long study for me. When I was a child growing up in red-brick rowhouses in Baltimore, ours was the only postage-stamp backyard on the block with a tree. It was a maple, and the samaras fascinated me. We called them whirligigs or helicopters and threw them up in the air and watched them spiral downwards. Many a kid climbed that tree and somehow, I managed to drag the lid of an old wooden toy box up there and nail it down so I had a tree fort—only two small children were able to sit upon it. 

The property that I have lived on for the past 40 years or so has lots of trees, and I walk in the woods nearly every day, communing with nature and for exercise—it is my daily solace. I tend to walk in the late afternoon, often just before dusk—my favorite time of day. This way, I get to hear the honking of the Canada geese long before I see them and stop to watch them fly over—something I will never tire of. 

Autumn leaves on treesOur woods are mostly Northeastern deciduous trees that slope down to the Cattail River. Down along the river’s edge there are a lot of shaggy-barked river birch, also some really big sycamores. There are quite a few types of large old oaks, as well as hickory and maple trees, with locust and cherry amongst them and sassafras and Osage orange along the wood’s edge. The understory consists of a healthy population of spicebush, with wild rose, honeysuckle, brambles, occasional viburnum, dogwood, and holly. 

I mostly walk the deer trails, and I sometimes take my pruners with me to whack back woody growth and brambles that encroach the path. The adjoining neighbor’s farm has many horse trails, so there are different options for my daily woods walk. Heading back uphill from any direction, I pass through or by the garden where there is a large stand of bamboo, where our songbirds spend the night. As the sun sets, they flit about and flock to this multi-complex to roost, and I take great delight in the cacophony of evensong.

Wood stove with logsAlthough I grew up as a city kid, I’ve been a country gal for a long while. In order to build this house, the woods needed to be cleared to make a place for it. It is a passive solar house, however the woodstove is the main source of heat. In the winter, it is a 24/7 job; it seems that wood chores are never-ending.

“Miraculous powers and marvelous activitiesdrawing water and hewing wood

—P’ang Yun, Buddhist monk, 9th century

Fortunately, we have quite a bit of woods and often use downed trees that are easy to get to. Sometimes we cut down old or dead wood or trees that just need removing. Though they are necessary tools, I personally don’t use a chainsaw—I wait until that part of hewing wood is complete, and then I’m in for the long haul. There is the picking up of the cut logs and loading them into the wheelbarrow and wheeling them to the woodpile, if they need to age, or to the back porch, if they are dry enough to burn. There are many locations where it is not possible to use the wheelbarrow, and each log has to be carried out to a clearing. There is time during all of this back-and-forthing to enjoy the woods; resting and reflecting between trips, I find it can be meditative. 

Large pile of split woodSince the ancient tractor is not running, we’ve got an old beat-up jeep that has become the farm wagon. With the seats folded down, it can hold a surprising amount of wood. Three rows from floor to ceiling is over half a cord of wood. That’s how we measure wood here, in Maryland, and states north of here. Down South, they deal with firewood in ricks. 

Apparently, a rick of firewood is not a consistent measurement, and it varies from place to place—so one does not know exactly how much firewood they are actually getting, according to the website Firewood-For-Life (https://www.firewood-for-life.com/rick-of-firewood.html). They state: “The length of the logs dictates how much wood you get. Generally speaking, if the logs are cut 16 inches long and are stacked 4 feet high by 8 feet long, a rick will be 1/3 of a cord. If these same logs were cut 24 inches long, the rick would equal 1/2 cord.”

Wheelbarrow full of split woodRegardless of measurement, once the logs are cut into stove-size lengths and then split, they have to be picked up and put in the jeep, tractor wagon, wheelbarrow, whatever, to transport them to where they will be stacked. I can no longer push a full wheelbarrow—I can only fill it about halfway. (It is good to know one’s limitations, and I have become thoughtful about this. I like it when the strong, young adults are available to help with this task.)

Recently, I tried to move an overfull wheelbarrow, which was on an incline—I knew it was going to topple over—and so I let go just as it happened; however, I was still moving with the momentum, and so down I went. Coincidentally, just the night before, I was reading a section in Twyla Tharp’s book, Keep it Moving, and she was discussing the best way to fall: don’t fight it—don’t try to stop it by putting out your hand—just go with it. And that is exactly what I did. Fortunately, I had on many layers of clothing, so when I landed on the leaf-covered forest floor, I wasn’t hurt at all. The hardest part was getting up: think turtle on their back + bundled up like the Pillsbury doughboy = LOL. 

What I have learned in my “cronedom” is to be more thoughtful…of my body and my surroundings. When working in the woods, there are all sorts of vines and stumps to trip over (especially when my arms are full) and branches and twigs to poke me, not to mention brambles that grab my clothes, hair, and more than once, have taken off my hat! Being mindful of how to bend—taking the weight in the knees rather than straining the back—gotta’ look out for these poor old aching knees.

Each log has to be handled again to unload them and stack them in the yard or on the porch. The back porch can hold a cord of wood, though it is five steps up and down with each armload of wood. You’d think I’d have abs of steel with all of this bending and lifting…not….I’ve still got a soft Botticelli belly, most likely due to age, gravity, my penchant for cooking good food, and enjoyment of a cold beer or libation after a hard day of wood-working. 

IMG_9296There is an art to stacking wood. In a freestanding pile, the ends have to be built up in order to hold the wood. They have to be sturdy and not wobbly, and the wood has to be stacked neatly, so the whole pile won’t fall over with a 30-mile an hour wind gust (yes, it has happened). The back porch stacks are ones that can be burned right away, and generally, there is a box or bucket of kindling nearby. All stacks are covered along the top with tarps to keep the rain and snow from soaking them.

Every day, the wood box inside next to the stove needs to be filled—it is big enough to hold enough wood for about a 24-hour period. While most house members use a big canvas log-carrier bag, I tend to carry three or four logs in at a time in my arms. It takes me about ten trips to fill the wood box, whereas it takes the others only three or four trips with a full bag. Slow and steady does the trick. And then there is the stoking of the stove, which is a science in itself. First off, all types of wood burn differently: some are dense, some burn very hot, and some shoot sparks. The dryness or wetness of the wood is another factor. IMG_9446Oftentimes, if I am busy cooking or writing, I don’t think of loading the stove, and it comes close to going out. Then, I have to use smaller pieces of wood to get it going again. So, having an assortment of sizes matters. 

I am the last to go to bed, and so I stoke the stove full and then turn the vents down to just the right place so that the stove will burn all night. I know the place where the vents catch just a bit and know to back off just a half turn—I know it by feel and by the sound—it is finding the sweet spot so that the stove will have hot coals for the first one up in the morning to tend. And then the vents are opened up; the coals are stirred and brought forward; smaller pieces of wood are added and then larger ones; and the house gets toasty. A kettle of water atop the stove gets filled every time the stove gets filled to keep some moisture in the air, since wood stoves are so drying. The bowl of bread dough covered with a damp towel is set to rise on a stool alongside the stove; soup pots are reheated on the stove; and dinner Soaking in a hot tubplates or bowls are placed on top to warm. Guests tend to gravitate toward the stove and stand nearby to soak in the warmth, turning from front to back to warm both sides. Cats and dogs lay so close sometimes, you’d think it would boil their brains! There is nothing like the warmth or smell of a wood stove. 

I am thankful for the trees, that I am able to be outside and hew wood, and keep the home fires burning. And, I am especially grateful at the end of the day to draw a hot bath, adding Epsom salts and fragrant and therapeutic essential oils, to soak my body in after a day of wood work.

Photo Credits: 1) Snow-covered trees (C. Moore); 2) Tree canopy in fall (C. Moore); 3) Wood stove (Angela Magnan); 4) Pile of chopped wood (Susan Belsinger); 5) Wheelbarrow full of chopped wood destined for wood stove (Susan Belsinger); 6) Stacked wood on author’s porch (Susan Belsinger); 7) Author carrying load of wood (Susan Belsinger); 8) Bath tub scene (Creative Commons, swister_p).


thumbnail_IMG_7611Susan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing, or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist,” Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste, and sight.

Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of The Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 – 2020). Her latest publication, Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press), co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker, is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com

Ring Ye Solstice Bells: Reflections on the Longest Night of the Year

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring

A1576943-59AB-44B3-9200-12D5BB70C619I was sitting here at my desk trying to think of what I could say about the Winter Solstice that I have never said before. Then I started to think about the last two years. As the COVID virus forces us, once again, to reconsider the way that we celebrate with each other, I am reminded that taking the time needed to reflect with joy and gratitude that I am still alive, as are my loved ones, is what must take center stage.

As I look back, though, the overwhelming feeling that I have is gratitude. Gratitude that I’m alive. Grateful to have those I love around my table or at least still with us. Grateful to be able to still live our lives, love and laugh together. Living alongside this joy is the stark reality of the last year, and walking hand in hand with me is the grief that so many I love are living with empty chairs and tears this December.  

Untitled (Facebook Post)I always laugh and say when I am asked, that celebrating the Winter Solstice has always been how two Jewish women who absolutely love Christmas find their own place within those traditions. Normally, my sister and I have a huge party on Solstice eve in her beautiful log cabin that was once a maple sugar house. We decorate like mad, fill up the house with herb wreaths, holly boughs, evergreens, and beautifully scented Christmas potpourri—a special gift from my dear friend, Kathleen. 

We take turns blessing the remnants of the previous year’s Yule log, making our wishes for the coming months before we use it to light the new fire. We have all of our friends over for a beautiful feast, the table laden with bayberry candles, wonderful holiday foods, and a groaning board of homemade desserts.

There’s always a copper kettle filled with steaming mulled wine redolent with roasted warming spices or cocoa, and a pot full of “Lamb’s Wool,” my favorite of the ancient punches (see recipe below). This is always rounded off by a huge punch bowl of eggnog and another of icy bourbon milk punch. Eighty-plus people usually join us, and it gets loud and lively. For close to 20 years, this party has always been the high point of my holiday season, but for obvious reasons, it just cannot take place this year.

I have found myself wondering for weeks now how to keep this tradition that I love so much, and then a little voice in my head whispered simply, “You have to be willing to let go of the old to make room for the beautiful and new….Why don’t you just begin at the beginning?”

Suddenly, I realized what had been in front of me all along, what I couldn’t see because I was longing for what had been. I needed to acknowledge where the past year has brought me, and so I began to ponder the traditional origins of the Winter Solstice celebration.

Photo ofTraditionally, the Solstice has always been one of the quietest nights of the year, and indeed, the longest night of the year. The months and weeks leading up to the Solstice were full of great intention and action for the harvest must be brought in; the onions and garlic braided; fruits, vegetables, and herbs dried; and the animals slaughtered for meat, along with the beef tallow needed for cooking, soapmaking, candles, and salves. The milk from goats, sheep, and cows needed to be turned into cheese that would last through the winter. The honey and beeswax from the hives needed to be harvested and turned into candles. The fields had to be put to bed in preparation for the following spring, and only then could thoughts turn towards celebration. 

Some years, the people weren’t so lucky. There were wars and famines. Hives failed. Animals meant for food starved, and their milk dried up. The abundance of food, warmth, and light that we take for granted just did not exist even 100 years ago, and more often than not, there would be a sense of foreboding, and there would be many challenges, including the challenge of disease without many options to fight it.

So much is so readily available to us that we have mostly forgotten what it means to live within our own world, to live with each other and to be self-reliant. As I thought about this, I realized quite suddenly that we are perhaps closer to understanding how our forebears must have felt than ever before. Having the days grow longer and lighter must have seemed like such a miracle to them. Finding ways to fight the virulence of diseases and the pests that ravaged their farms and families must have filled them with such hope.

Finding ways to make sense of what was happening in the natural world, using traditional skills and new discoveries must have seemed like real magic to them, and the silver lining of the last year is that, in many ways, we are watching the same phenomenon unfolding right now, in real time.

21C369CA-169A-4728-AE00-A7B200EFFAD3Those of us who are herbalists, cooks, and gardeners know very well what I am saying. After all, in 2020 could you find a new Ball jar for canning in any store? I couldn’t! There was no garden soil anywhere, and mulch was sold out. Seeds were sold out by the end of January. Yeast for baking was nowhere to be found. Elderberry, echinacea, and goldenseal products were sold off of shelves as quickly as they appeared, with many stores putting limits on what could be purchased.

Very quickly, I realized that what I’d always taken for granted simply wasn’t there. I have to admit to not feeling frustrated, but instead finding it oddly thrilling.

So many people learning so many new skills. A walk around my neighborhood would make me smile. Vegetable and herb gardens were being put in everywhere, and so were fruit trees.

Suddenly, everyone I knew was talking about survival, honeybees, and sustainability.

I called my Herb Society of America friends, and we shared mason jars and seeds. We shared cuttings and bags of soil. That summer, I began to harvest, forage, and preserve with an energy I’d never had before. I was actually shocked and very proud when my husband announced to me that I’d filled the freezers with soups, stews, and sauces, and that there was no room left for anything else.

IMG_4271-1Coincidentally, with this blossoming awareness, the talks that I gave as Chairman of Education for the Western Reserve Herb Society began to focus on gardening, foraging, harvesting, and preserving, as well as maintaining soil health organically. Suddenly, everyone wanted to ask me about companion planting, foraging for native foods, native plants, and pollinators. My inbox is always filled these days asking me for suggestions for learning about herbs and foods that are believed to help support immunity. I get asked so many questions now about eating seasonally.

What I realized, and am realizing still as I write, is that the last hard years have brought us home, and in so many ways we are perhaps the better for it. This year for the Winter Solstice, Jim and I will have a bonfire outside with a special Yule log, a few of our neighbors, and we’ll drink mulled wine, milk punch, and Lamb’s Wool!

We’ll feast on traditional dishes of dried fruit and melted cheese, roasted pork with sweet potatoes and kale from our garden, really good gingerbread, roasted chestnuts, rosemary and lavender shortbread, honey‐sweetened pears from our own trees, and rum‐soaked fruitcake. Instead of bright lights, I’ll have candles lit all over the porch and fresh greens everywhere. We’ll all share what we are thankful for and we’ll grieve our losses, celebrate the joy and honor the fear that is still present for so many of us. We’ll keep it simple, full of gratitude and the joy of just being together, and maybe we’ll sing some of the old English carols. I’ll wassail my fruit trees with the leftover cider in hopes of a plentiful harvest next year.  We’ll walk in the woods and listen for owls at midnight, the traditional harbingers of luck on Solstice eve, and then we’ll await the sunrise.

F0EAF7D3-AB1A-4B9F-B2C7-3EF94E51D015Suddenly, people like us (and if you’re reading this, that’s you!) are madly in style. Many of us have a special calling in this new world to teach all that we know about the herbs and plants we love. We have a unique opportunity to build a bigger table, to share our knowledge generously in these challenging circumstances. Our horticultural skills can help feed the hungry, support the healing we all need and crave, and simply make this world a lovelier, greener place.

During this season of light, on this wintry Solstice night, please remember to be generous with yourselves.

 

“May you find your peace in the promise of the long Solstice night….”

Lamb’s Wool Recipe for Solstice

Lamb’s Wool is a truly wonderful ancient drink made from a delicious blend of baked apples, mulling spices, cider, and dark ale slowly simmered until the apples are “woolly!”

  • The first thing that you’ll need to do is bake a plate of apples! Simply core four or five small apples and fill the insides with raisins, slivered almonds, brown sugar, pumpkin pie spices, amaretto, and butter. If the ingredients spill all over the apples, even better. Bake them until soft and caramelized.  In a pinch you can use cinnamon applesauce, and it will taste very good, but I like the baked and buttered apples better! 
  • Next, pour a gallon of good cider into a pot, and add 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar, several cracked cinnamon sticks, 1/2 teaspoon of whole cloves, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and a teaspoon each of ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, and add the apples and all of their juices. Let them simmer for a bit or until the apples explode and get all “woolly.” Trust me, you’ll know what I mean by that!
  • Then bring down the heat a bit, and add one bottle of very good dark ale and half of a bottle of red wine (something you like the taste of and not too cheap). Simmer for another minute, and then add one stick of organic salted butter. When the butter has melted, give the whole thing a good stir, and then taste. Adjust the seasonings and the sugar, and then add a couple of cups of rum. You’ll have to taste as you go, but that’s the only way to get it the way you want it! I love to use Myers Dark Rum because it is so rich, dark and as sweet as the molasses it’s made from.  

Photo Credits: 1) Fireplace and solstice fire at author’s sister’s house; 2) Barn in the snow (Canva print); 3) Author’s friend, Kathleen’s, homemade dried herb Christmas potpourri and bunch of holly on author’s porch; 4) Author’s homemade eggnog; 5) View of author’s raised bed garden from porch; 6) Author’s yard, kept as a pollinator mead; 7) Chestnuts that author roasted with rosemary and butter over a fire. (All photos courtesy of the author except #2.)

 


Beth Schreibman-Gehring is the Chairman of Education for the Western Reserve Herb Society, a unit of The Herb Society of America. She is also a member of Les Dames de Escoffier International (Cleveland), The Herb Society of the United Kingdom, The International Herb Association, The Herb Society of America, and Herbalists without Borders. Her book, Stirring the Senses! Creating Magical Environments & Feasts for All Seasons, can be found on Amazon.

Garage Herbs

By Scott Aker

Herbs in containersThroughout much of the country, now is the time to face the coming cold. Any plants you want to keep must be moved to warmer quarters. For many gardeners, that might be a sunny windowsill indoors. But is this the best place to overwinter your herbs?

Unless you have a room that you can keep below 60°F in your home, they may suffer. Many herbs hail from Mediterranean and subtropical climates and are programmed to thrive with distinct seasons of heat and chill. Bring them indoors, and they experience temperatures much higher than they ever would in winter in their native lands. The result is stress and conditions that favor pests, such as mites, powdery mildew, and scale insects, that can quickly overwhelm your plants.

I live in USDA Hardiness Zone 7B, and winters generally have long periods of mild weather with temperatures hovering around freezing punctuated with short periods of cold that may reach the single digits. I grow all my herbs in pots on the deck, because they are just steps away from the kitchen. Some stay there through the winter. Marjoram, parsley, oregano, chives, and mint have no issue with the cold, even in pots. Bay, sage, gardenia, and citrus go in the garage for winter. My garage is not heated, but it seldom freezes since the walls and door shared with the house are not terribly well insulated. Night temperatures dip into just above freezing and may rise to about 55°F during the day, on average.

containers on deck

Herbs growing in containers on the author’s deck. The sage, bay, and gardenia are overwintered in the garage.

While herbs would like more light than can be supplied even by a sunny windowsill indoors, they don’t really need light when held at temperatures in the 40°F to 50°F range. At these low temperatures, they are nearly dormant. They do need to be watered from time to time, but at low temperatures, they don’t need or appreciate frequent watering.

My garage herbs fall into two tiers. The hardy ones, such as the bay, gardenia, and sage go outside on the front steps whenever temperatures are forecast to remain above 25°F for a week or more. The citrus stay in the garage unless weather is above 30°F. Since watering is a chore that I dislike, I tend to move the plants outdoors anytime precipitation is forecast. My bay and gardenia have taken a heavy snow load with no damage, and they do appreciate sunny warm winter days.

If you are going to use your garage to overwinter herbs, pay close attention to weight. I grow all my large garage herbs in large plastic pots to keep the weight to a minimum and make them easier to move the short distance to the front steps. Terracotta and ceramic pots are more attractive, but I suggest using them in smaller sizes for smaller plants. Some pruning to keep things in bounds is helpful, too, since winter wind can easily topple top heavy plants.

Mandarin orange container in garage

Mandarin orange, Citrus reticulata, in its winter quarters in the author’s garage.

On pleasant winter days, the sight of my mandarin orange, with its full complement of ripening fruit, is a cheerful one, and one that has attracted much attention from passersby. When cooking, it is only slightly less convenient to step in the garage to get what I need. When spring arrives, I find that the plants grow more vigorously because of the chill winter they experienced, and mites and other pests have been unable to prosper on my plants. Give some thought to your garage when it’s time to bring your herbs in for the winter.

Photo credits: 1) Herbs in containers (Creative Commons, freeformkatia); 2) Herb containers on deck (S. Aker); 3) Mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata) in garage (S. Aker).

 


Scott Aker is Head of Horticulture and Education at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. He authored Digging In in The Washington Post and Garden Solutions in The American Gardener.

Frost Flowers

By Katherine Schlosser

There is something peaceful about a frosty pre-dawn morning. On the morning that I wrote this, I waited at the front door for our latest grand-dog to arrive. We keep him during the day while our daughter and son-in-law work, he providing as much company for us as we do for him. The sky was just turning a rosy pink near the horizon, but overall it was cold and cloudy.

Verbesina alternifolia Wingstem Strawberry Rd by Kathy SchlosserShivering as I stood looking out the door, a glimpse of white caught my eye.  My first thought was squirrels had again torn open the chairs on the deck, ripping out stuffing to line their nests. Walking down the steps to retrieve the wisps of cotton, I realized these are FROST FLOWERS!!

These fleeting beauties look as though they are made of cotton candy and are not flowers at all. They are found on those days when the ground is still warm and the air suddenly drops below freezing. This morning it was 30°F, humidity 66%, dew point 18°F, and the wind was still. You also need a few plants that, though they may have died above ground, still have roots that are sending water up the stems through capillary action.  When these conditions exist, and you search diligently before the sun rises, you might find a frost flower.

The frost flower is formed as sap is pumped up the stem of the plant. As the sap reaches a break in the old stem, or ruptures the dried stem, it seeps out and freezes as it hits the cold air. As more sap moves up, the ice is extruded, often forming odd ribbon-like shapes, sometimes curling around and forming what can even look like petals. These little icy confections are incredibly fragile, some very thin and melting at the slightest touch or at the first hint of sunlight.

Cunila origanoides1 by Kathy SchlosserAmong our native plants that can form frost flowers are white crownbeard (Verbesina virginica), yellow ironweed (Verbesina alternifolia), and frostweed (Helianthemum canadense). Mine, as pictured, is growing from common dittany (Cunila origanoides).

You have to be up early to find them and lucky to boot. It is possible that other species can “grow” frost flowers when the conditions are right. The challenge is to get out and find them, which means walking through the garden or woods before the sun rises and while it is cold, watching diligently for the fantasy flowers that look like spun glass. They are magical, and while not rare, neither are they common.  

I have grown Cunila for five years and this is the first time I’ve seen frost flowers. Conditions have to be perfect…and it was worth the wait.

Photo Credits: 1) Frost flower on white crownbeard (Verbesina virginica) (Tanya Zastrow) 2) Yellow ironweed (Verbesina alternifolia) (Katherine Schlosser) 3) Common dittany (Cunila origanoides) (Kathy Schlosser) 4) Frost flower on Cunila origanoides (Kathy Schlosser)


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the NC Unit of The Herb Society since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level.  She was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature and the Helen deConway Little Medal of Honor.  She is an author, lecturer, and native herb conservation enthusiast eager to engage others in the study and protection of our native herbs.