Grilling on Fourth of July? Try lemon balm pesto.

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)

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

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!

Edible groundcovers

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

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.

blueberry leaves

Blueberry leaves covered in frost

Lingonberries

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.

Lingonberry 'Koralle'

Lingonberry ‘Koralle’

Thyme

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.

Savory

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

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.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Photo of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) by ZooFari (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ZooFari) via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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.

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Growing garlic

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.My garlic shipment has arrived!

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.

Red Toch softneck organic garlic bulbs and planting instructions

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.

container-readyBut now I’m ready to start my containers. I started with a clean, frost-proof pot, to which I added a mixture of potting compost, perlite, and sand, about three-quarters of the way to the top.

Homemade compost (left) and worm castings (right).

Homemade compost (left) and worm castings (right).

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.

garlic cloves planted in containerI 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.

container-topped-off

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.

Growing garlic at home

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.

Growing winter greens

I took advantage of dreary weather earlier this week and sowed some seed.

seed packets of winter veg

Two varieties of spinach (‘Regiment’ and ‘Noble Giant’), cilantro, mache, and chervil.

It has taken forty years for me to love spinach. Before I learned to eat it, I could appreciate it for its gorgeous, saturated green color. Is anything in nature as satisfying to behold, especially in winter, as that lush, vehement emerald green? And while I love a good spinach salad with pecans, blue cheese, and pears or berries, I am looking forward to trying this baked spinach gratin recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

spinach

Mache (Valerianella locusta) is a newfound favorite. It has a distinctive, nutty flavor that gives depth to winter salads and other dishes. Absurdly easy to grow (it is often found as a field weed in Europe), it is hardy to USDA Zone 5, and has robust levels of vitamins B6, B9, C, and E.

I have never grown chervil before. It is frequently used in French cooking, apparently, and is sometimes described as a sophisticated parsley, to which it is related. I was alarmed to learn it is also related to hemlock, that extremely toxic herb that killed Socrates. Another good reason not to forage (not that this practice, to be honest, has ever appealed to me). I will trust the seed packet and think up some good egg dishes.

chervil

Find chervil recipes at Fine Cooking.com

I am one of those people who believe one can never have too much cilantro (clearly, I don’t share the experience some people have of it tasting like soap). I adore Asian and Mexican food, in which it is commonly used. Cilantro (coriander, in seed form) is an herb that, once sown, one can always have provided the gardener allows one plant to go to seed. I gathered seed from a very healthy organic stand grown in a community garden I manage. I have perhaps a third of a quart jar of seed. Time to make some coriander chicken!

I’m putting a note on my calendar to sow more seed in two weeks’ time. I always forget to repeat-sow, meaning that when the weather gets truly cold I run out of my fresh veg. My goal this winter is to stay on top of the process.

Winter here is usually mild enough that I can grow these resilient plants with only mild protection. I use horticultural fleece when frost is expected, which has the added benefit of keeping any critters away. But until I can dig my fleece out, I am repurposing the kids’ old sandbox cover, made out of fiberglass window screening sewn around two lengths of capped PVC pipe. I can unroll this giant scroll (which did a brilliant job, by the way, of keeping cats and leaves out of the sandbox) over the newly planted greens and just wait for the harvest.

screened greens

Savoring summer

I am completely inexpert at preserving what grows in my garden. But I have resolved to start learning.

I’m starting simply: chives. What could be easier to grow? And what tastes better in the dead of winter than fresh chives snipped into potato and leek soup? Or on scrambled eggs?

chive blossom

I saved a nice-looking jam jar and ran it through the dishwasher. Then I harvested and washed a large pile of chives, and took the scissors to them.

harvested chives

They’re clean and ready for mixing into all kinds of winter dishes. I’ll keep this jar in the freezer and take out bits as I need them.

No special canning knowledge necessary.