The Fourth of July is a big day for grilling in the US–although just about any summertime evening when it isn’t storming makes a pretty compelling candidate. I love grilling foods, from meats, fish, and shellfish to vegetables and fruits. More than that, I like to create my own marinades and sauces with the herbs I grow. If you’re looking for something fresh, summery, and different that’s also extremely easy to make, give my lemon balm pesto a try.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is an herb in the mint family. Its small white flowers attract bees and other pollinators, but you’ll be drawn by the lemony scent of the foliage as you brush it with your fingers. It is reputed to be effective as a mosquito repellant when the leaves are rubbed on the skin. But more than all of that, you’ll like the bright lemon flavoring the leaves lend to salads, drinks, and marinades. It has endless uses in the kitchen.
Lemon balm grows easily to 3 feet tall in sun or shade. It spreads like its mint relatives, so grow it in a container of well-draining potting soil mixed with compost. It does not require fertilizing, and is quite stoic in drought but delights in regular rain. One plant should be plenty for you, unless you run a busy restaurant or keep bees. In those cases, two plants should suffice.
MissingHenryMitchell’s Lemon Balm Pesto
- 3 cups lemon balm leaves, washed
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts
- Coarse salt and pepper to taste
- Olive oil
- Lemon juice or lemon zest
Put the first three ingredients and a pinch of salt and pepper into the bowl of a food processor or blender. Start the blender, and drizzle olive oil into the mix until the mixture is the texture you like. If you want your pesto extra-lemony, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or lemon zest. Add more salt and pepper to taste.
Spread on chicken, fish, or shrimp before putting the food on the grill, or allow foods to marinate in the pesto in the refrigerator overnight. For overnight marinating or for brushing on food on the grill, a thinner mixture works well. I like a thicker paste as a garnish on finished dishes. It also tastes great as a salad dressing when tossed with greens, olives, peppers, and a bit of goat cheese, or as a spread on crusty bread.
The pesto may be kept in the refrigerator for a week, or may be frozen for later use. The pesto may slightly discolor as it freezes, but it will taste just fine.
Hope you enjoy your holiday grilling!
Waiting for the school bus a couple of weeks ago, my neighbor’s son wandered over to a patch of weeds and plucked up a handful.
“What are you doing?” my daughter asked. “Are you eating weeds?!”
“It’s wood sorrel,” said the boy. “It’s good. It tastes sour, kind of lemony.”
Wood sorrel is a member of the genus Oxalis. It is edible, if you go for that sort of thing. The leaves, seed pods, and flowers are all safe to eat raw or cooked. My neighbor’s son likes the seed pods especially: “We call them sour bananas.”
The plant is high in vitamin C. It also has diuretic properties and is high in potassium oxalate and oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is a compound also found in grapefruit, parsley, broccoli, spinach, and many other vegetables. While it’s unlikely that anyone would consume enough wood sorrel to suffer any toxic effects from the oxalic acid, people with kidney disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout should avoid consuming oxalis until they consult with a medical professional.
Have I stumbled upon a new means of organic weed management? I envision herds of grazing children, replacing their favorite Sour Patch Kids with this weed that proliferates in my garden. More likely, I’ve found a new phenological cue: “When you see the children grazing, the sorrel is setting seed.” This reminds me that I had clearly better get to the weeding, unless I hope to find even more of the stuff in my garden beds next year.
By the way, my daughter knows not to eat anything in the garden without first checking with me. Encourage your kids to check with you before eating wild plants–even if their friends do it.
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Grass is an expensive groundcover. Many homeowners love the calming look of a broad green carpet welcoming them home from work, but to keep their lawns looking their best, they turn to cartloads of chemical fertilizers, herbicides to control weeds, and pesticides to control the grubs and insects that try to coexist in the landscape.
This level of consumption comes with serious costs, both financial and environmental. Turf lawns individually consume 10,000 gallons of water each year, on average, on top of the rainfall they receive. Unprecedented droughts and the water restrictions that often accompany them make maintaining a large turf lawn impractical and irresponsible. Expensive chemical herbicides and pesticides, whether applied by the homeowner or by a contracted landscape service, are thought to contribute to honeybee colony collapse disorder, which will have huge impacts on food availability and food prices if it isn’t curbed.
Why not try a more sustainable and innovative approach to landscaping this summer? Replace a portion of your lawn with attractive edible groundcovers and shrubs. You’ll have less mowing, more leisure time, and home-grown herbs and berries to enjoy.
Blueberries can be grown throughout much of the United States. In the South or on the west coast, try rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei) like ‘Climax’ or ‘Premier’ or Southern highbush varieties like ‘Blue Ridge’ and ‘Legacy.’ In the northeast, lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) perform best, and in the Midwest and Pacific northwest, northern highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum; try ‘Bluegold,’ ‘Duke,’ and ‘Elizabeth’) can provide attractive groundcover and fresh fruit for summertime desserts. Blueberries need acidic soil (contact your county extension service to test your soil’s pH and get advice on correct soil amendments), regular water, and sun to produce the best fruit, although they will produce fruit in partial shade. The leaves turn beautiful shades of scarlet and crimson in the fall.
What will grow in the acid soil beneath blueberries? Lingonberries. Hardy in Zones 2-8, lingonberries are a low-growing evergreen shrub related to blueberries and cranberries. They require the same acidic soil as their blueberry brethren, and lingonberries benefit from some shade in hot weather. Plant these low-growing shrubs at the same time as your blueberries, taking care to be gentle with both plants’ brittle roots. Depending on the variety, lingonberries may provide one or two crops per year, typically once in late summer and again in winter. They’re delicious in pancakes, or made into jam or sauces.
If your climate tends more to the hot, dry, sunny side, replace part of your lawn with low-growing thyme (Thymus sp.). This Mediterranean herb likes full sun, excellent drainage, and low water. Bees and other pollinators love the nectar from thyme flowers, and thymol, a natural compound extracted from thyme, has antimicrobial properties and helps control parasitic mites that stress honeybee populations. Thymus serphyllum, creeping thyme, grows 6 to 12 inches tall and will spread to 1 to 3 feet wide (depending on the cultivar), providing a tough, low-maintenance groundcover. Thymus serphyllum ‘Annie Hall’ is covered by tiny pinkish-lavender flowers. ‘Pink Ripple’ also has pale pink flowers and a lemon scent to the foliage. Culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris), has a more upright habit, but you can keep it compact by shearing off handfuls to use in soups, sauces, salads, marinades, and to flavor meats and seafood on the grill. Variety ‘Silver Queen’ has attractive white edges to the petals. Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus) is also edible, and has (not surprisingly) a bright lemony taste.
Slightly larger than thyme, but similar in appearance, winter savory (Satureja montana) is another herb that provides great groundcover and requires little input from the gardener. It grows 15 inches tall and wide, but harvesting the stems and leaves keeps the plant compact and thick. Like thyme, it appreciates full sun and well drained soil. It is hardy to Zone 6.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an underused annual herb that tastes faintly of citrus. Its fleshy leaves are rich in Vitamin C and omega 3 fatty acids. Popular in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, it spreads rapidly by seed, which can be good or bad depending on your landscape goals. You may wish to grow it in a container for a year to see how you like it, before planting it out in the landscape. Be careful not to confuse purslane with spurge (Euphorbia chamaesyce, prostrate spurge, or Euphorbia maculata, syn. Chamaesyce maculata, spotted spurge), which can irritate skin and eyes and can be poisonous. Buy purslane seeds or plants from a reputable nursery and try the fresh new growth in salads–there are lots of recipes online. If you keep backyard chickens, you can share it with them; you’ll have plenty.
Try replacing a portion of your resource-hungry lawn with these easy edible ground covers. Your wallet and your wildlife neighbors (not to mention your dinner plate) will be glad you did.
- Harvard School of Public Health: Study strengthens link between neonicotinoids and collapse of honey bee colonies
My garlic is growing.
The garlic cloves I planted just before an icy rainstorm some weeks ago have emerged in their containers. Besides the shy fellow holding up the wall, three other tips may be seen just peeking through the mulch cover on the left-hand side of the container, looking like pale, almost white arrows.
Even after 20 years of gardening, I still get a thrill from seeing plants do what they are supposed to do. And in damp, dreary December, it’s especially heartening.
In my household, we eat a lot of garlic.
Garlic is great for your health. It contains cancer-fighting chemicals, relaxes blood vessels, and increases blood flow. But an increasing amount of garlic in supermarkets comes from China, which produces 75% of the world’s supply of the pungent herb. Concern about levels and types of pesticides and soil contaminants found on food imports, both fresh and processed, is causing many people, including me, to look for safe and reliable sources of food. So I am starting to grow my own.
I was late in placing my order this year so I didn’t get the specific variety I wanted, but I think the organic ‘Red Toch’ softneck garlic I got from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, VA will be more than satisfactory.
I was really pleased with the bulbs when they arrived: They were heavy and solid, with no mushy or moldy cloves. I’ll be ordering from them again.
I’m mixing up my vegetable and herb plantings this year, starting some in containers and mixing some in with ornamentals in established beds. In fact, I got a few of these cloves into the new rose bed last week, just before the temperature plunged.
To that, I mixed in a tiny bit of lime per the planting instructions, as well as a quart of worm castings and some additional homemade compost.
I planted the individual cloves about six inches apart, with skins attached. The skins help protect the cloves from rotting in the ground. Some of these cloves are planted a bit too close to the side of the pot; if I can get out to the shed and find more containers of a suitable size, I’ll transplant a few of these before they put on much growth. Finally, I topped off the container with an inch and a half of the compost and castings mix.
Keeping the garlic watered is essential during the growth period. It’s been dry lately, so I’m hand-watering the containers and topping them off with a mulch of shredded leaves and bark to the rim of the container, to conserve the moisture we do get.
And now I wait. Between now and spring, I’ll be reading up on harvesting and curing. This sowing won’t be anywhere near enough to get us through the year, but I’ve got to start somewhere. Even after 20 years of gardening, I’m still finding that patience is a difficult concept for me to learn.
We at the MHM household run through tons of garlic. Between heavy habits of Italian, Mexican, and Asian foods, and our semi-regular practice of roasting a whole chicken stuffed with lemon and garlic, I could probably grow an acre of it and still wish I had a bit more. But we must start somewhere.
‘Somewhere’ means half a pound, two weeks late. I meant to order my garlic several weeks ago, when I spent a rainy day picking out attractive starter packs from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalogue. I forgot that I was not the only one interested in starting some garlic. When I placed my order first thing this morning, I had to settle for my fourth choice, as my top three had sold out.
Garlic planting season begins October 15 for me, and runs through the first of December. Garlic likes fertile, well drained soil rich in organic matter (who doesn’t?). Individual cloves planted two inches deep in the fall develop substantial root systems before winter–all three weeks of it–sets in. Increasing warmth and light in the spring cue the plants to fatten their bulbs. At this time the gardener should ensure a steady supply of moisture, or suffer puny bulbs come harvest time. I promise that it is worth the trouble of watering regularly. Little is more disappointing than to seize a handful of garlic greens, intent upon unearthing one’s own weight in pungent, papery glory, and come up with little more than what was planted six months prior.
I ordered a half pound of Red Toch softneck garlic, an heirloom variety originating from the Republic of Georgia that performs well in the Southeast. The catalogue promises “spicy fragrance and consummate flavor.” I am considering interplanting some of it in my perennial beds, partly because I don’t have adequate space to dedicate to vegetables, and partly because I am intrigued by the lore of companion planting and want to discover if any benefits can be observed. We shall find out next spring.