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Tag: Herbs

Salsa Gardening – Grow your own Fresh Ingredients

In part one of Salsa Gardening – Before the thaw, we talked about getting your tomatoes and peppers planted.

So what other plant “ingredients” can you add to your salsa garden?  I should also mention that all of the “salsa plants” need sun so be sure to choose an open area.

Onions – You can start seed along with your tomatoes but I recommend starting with sets. Plant them in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Kids love planting these “big seeds”.  Or you can use “Winter Onions”.  Here is some more information on winter or “walking” onions.  My very favorite onions are Cipollini onions.  These flat heirloom onions are so sweet and delicious when caramelized.  Here are a few more onion growing tips:

  • You can plant them kind of close but only if you intend to thin them to use for green onions. They need room once the bulb starts to swell.Cipollini onions
  • Onions are heavy feeders so add plenty of compost.
  • Make sure the soil is loose. The bulbs can’t fill out in a heavy or compacted soil.
  • Keep the area weeded. This is even more important than the rest of your garden.  The onions won’t fill out with competition from weeds.

Garlic music, shatili, bogaryrGarlic – you may have to add this one next year because its best if planted in the fall. You can plant it in spring in areas with a longer growing season. Order some or get them from the garden center. Avoid grocery store garlic as it’s been treated so it won’t sprout.  There are lots of varieties of heirloom garlic for you to try. Here are three of my favorites; Music, Shatili and Bogatyr.  Try some white German porcelain (hard neck) varieties which store really well and some red Rocambole types which are great for roasting and are easy to peel. My favorite is Spanish Roja. Garlic is in the allium family so all of the tips for onions apply for garlic too. Here are a few more growing tips.

  • Separate the bulbs and plant the cloves individually. Keep the husks on. You will get the larger bulbs from the bigger cloves.
  • I have seen different recommendations for how deep and how far apart. I like to do them about 4 inches apart and 6 inches deep. Some recommendations are as little as 2 inches deep. I think deeper is better in the north.
  • Keep them watered during development but not overly wet. Let them dry out before harvest.
  • Garlic scapes, flowers and bulbils are all edible (more on that later) but remove them so the energy goes into producing larger bulbs.
  • Harvest when about half of the leaves have dried out.
  • Hang your garlic and let it dry and cure in a warm area and then store it in a cool, dry place but not in a sealed container.


Tomatillos – these are optional, for Salsa Verde. They are grown just like tomatoes except for a few major differences.

  • You will need at least two plants. One plant will not pollinate itself and you will not get much fruit.
  • The plants will get large and sprawl just like tomatoes, but I don’t usually prune them like tomatoes. Just cage them up.
  • The fruits have a papery outer cover that will need to be removed before using. They are ready when they fill out the shell. Leave this on for storage.


CorianderHerbs – Many people have a separate herb garden. You can still have that too, but put some herbs with your vegetables too. They attract pollinators and can help repel insect pests. They are also pretty and having them together makes harvest easier.

  • Oregano – make sure you get the Greek oregano which has white flowers. It tastes much better than Oregano Vulgare which has pink flowers and can be invasive. Having your herbs near the peppers and tomatoes will help with pollination because they draw bees.
  • Marjoram is similar to oregano but it is an annual. Pinch back often. You can read “Oregano can be confusing” for more on Oregano and Marjoram.
  • cilantroCilantro and Coriander are the leaves and the seeds of the same plant It will have to be planted more than once as it is a “quick plant”. I keep cilantro seeds in a waterproof container in the garden so I can replant whenever I harvest. Or, let the plant go to seed; it will self sow. The leaves can be used in fresh salsa, but they lose their flavor when used in salsa that is cooked down for a long time. For this type of salsa use ground coriander instead.
  • Cumin – This herb is grown for the seed which is ground to make the spice. You can grow it if you like but if you do start seeds indoors along with the basil because it takes a very long season to mature. It is difficult in northern areas so it is okay to buy this one. It does make a great addition for the way it attracts beneficial insects, even if it never ripens.
  • Basil is not usually used in salsa, but you can make some Bruschetta, too! Basil is an excellent companion plant for tomatoes. I think it actually helps them taste better…and it repels bad bugs like white flies and aphids. Plus, it draws bees to help with pollination.
  • Borage; although I have not used it in my salsa, it will help repel the tomato horn worm.
  • Thyme, Parsley, Dill, Garlic Chives and Chives could also be added to your salsa garden.

Some other fruits and vegetables that will add a delicious twist to your fresh salsas include:  watermelon, pineapple, strawberries, blueberries, cherries, pomegranate, mango, peach, apples, cranberries, black beans, corn, jicama, cucumber, pumpkin and avocado.

There are also some common salsa ingredients that will probably not be grown in your garden. Of course no two salsas are alike so these are just suggested additives…You don’t have to use them all.

  • Salt and Pepper
  • Chili Powder – You could make your own if you want. There are many types to experiment with including cayenne, chipotle and paprika.
  • Hot Sauce – Here’s another project you could try.
  • Cinnamon – Just a little
  • Sugar – just a little; or consider trying a “better” sweetener like honey, maple syrup, agave or stevia.
  • Lime or Lemon Juice
  • Citric acid powder
  • Vinegars like apple cider, red or white wine or balsamic
  • Oil of various types
  • Various nuts or pepitas
Big Zac

Big Zac

The miracle of planting a seed and watching it sprout is sure to give a kid “ownership” of his or her Salsa garden.

“Getting it in the Garden” will be featured in next blog. Happy growing!

Oregano Can Be Confusing

Greek OreganoEveryone loves Italian food, and of course, the most common spice in it, we all know, is OREGANO.

But what does that mean?

The botanical name for oregano, Origanum, comes from the Greek words “oros” for mountain and “ganos” for joy; a reference to its plentiful growth along the mountainous regions of the Mediterranean.

Oregano HeracleoticumThe oregano that we all know and love from our pizzas and spaghetti is Greek Oregano (Origanum heracleoticum). To add to the confusion some sources have renamed it Originum vulgare hirtum.  It has white flowers. This is the easiest way to tell, when at the nurseries, if you are getting the best culinary oregano.  This one is only hardy to zone 5 so it sometimes lives in our gardens, but often not. If you want to try and grow it make sure that your site has excellent drainage. Avoid cutting it down until spring and provide winter cover if there is no snow.

Oregano-vulgare-300x225 (2)The oregano that is most often sold in nurseries is Origanum vulgare. Just to confuse you they often call this Italian oregano, but there is a different type of oregano frequently called Italian oregano that is a cross between Origanum vulgare and Marjoram. This one has pink flowers and although it is pretty and attracts bees, it has little culinary value and if it likes where it is place it can become a garden thug.  Origanum vulgare is fully hardy, however. I should probably put the fact that it is invasive in bold print. If you want to grow it you may want to contain it like mint.

Sweet Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is also in the oregano family. It is only hardy to zone 8 so must be grown as an annual here. To confuse you even more it can have either white or pink flowers. Marjoram as cooks know is also great in Italian food.

Oreganum tyttanthumThere are 44 other plants that go by the name oregano.  An interesting one that is very high in the flavor compound carvacrol is Russian Oregano (Origanum tyttanthum). This one is not very common, but I’m going to give it a try if I can find it.  Much shiner leaves. Not hardy…of course.

Carvacrol, a creosote-scented phenol, is the signature chemical responsible for the sharp, pungent flavor of the culinary oreganos, and can be found in plants from other genera. That is why many plants from south of the border also have the common name Oregano.

Oregano cuban vatigatedThese herbs are not true members of the oregano family but contain the same chemical components that give oregano its distinct taste. One is Cuban Oregano, which is actually a Coleus (Coleus amboinicus). Again, just to confuse you it has another name, Plectranthus amboinicus. The large, fleshy light green or variegated green & white leaves grow on a thick stem and resemble a Jade Plant in its growth habit. This is one of the few herbs that will grow well indoors in a container. It is not cold hardy at all. Pinch out the flower spikes and top set of leaves occasionally to give it a strong, sturdy base to support itself and place in bright, indirect light, away from direct sunlight. You can also break of stems and easily root them to make new plants, just like other plants in the coleus family.

Black Beans with Cuban Oregano

Makes 2-3 servings

1 12 oz. bag black beans
2 cups water plus more as needed
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. Cuban oregano, diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small onion
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped

  1. Add the black beans and water to a medium saucepan, place over medium heat.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat.
  3. Sauté the onion until caramelized.
  4. Add the Cuban oregano and garlic, sauté until garlic is lightly golden.
  5. Add the onion, Cuban oregano and garlic to the black beans.
  6. Add bay leaf, salt and pepper.
  7. Cover beans and simmer for 30 minutes.
  8. Check and stir the beans frequently to see if you need to add more water so that they don’t burn.
  9. Serve black beans, and garnish with cilantro and green onion.

Oregano Mexican 2Two plants share the same name of Mexican Oregano. One is Poliomentha longiflora, a woody shrub, 3-5’ tall, with pretty pink tubular flowers that bloom spring to fall. It is used quite extensively in xeriscaping. The other Mexican Oregano, Lippia Oregano Mexicangraveolens, has small, rough textured foliage, much like a lantana, and small, whitish clusters of blooms. Its leaves are more widely spaced on the stem and it needs regular pruning to give it a nice shape.

Oregano Kent BeautyOregano goldenOregano variegatedThere are also many ornamental varieties of oregano to choose from; like Kent Beauty, golden, variegated, Saso, Hopley’s Purple, and Rosenkuppel just to name a few.

Now that “Oregano” is clear as mud for you I hope you will cook up a nice fresh sauce in the near future. Remember, white flowers, that’s the one you want.

The History of Basil

basil used for embalmingSome ancient cultures considered basil a magnificent, royal or kingly herb.

Some say “Basil” is derived from the Greek word basilikon for “royal.”

As a passport to help the deceased to enter Paradise, basil was used as a botanical in embalming bodies. It was found with the mummies of ancient Egypt. Perhaps because of its embalming usage, basil was also a symbol of mourning.

Basil in Ancient Chinese MedicineMost likely basil is native to India, but there are some indications it may have originated even farther east. Ancient records from 907 A.D. indicate sweet basil in the Hunan region of China where it was used medicinally.

It migrated westward as whole plants, since it could be grown easily indoors away from frost exposure. Basil is also known as St. Joseph’s wort.

Basil is a member of the large mint family. It is known botanically as Ocimum basilicum.


Basil lore and legend

BasiliskOthers say the name Basil was derived from Greek mythology.  It’s named after the terrifying basilisk, a half-lizard, half-dragon creature with a fatal piercing stare. The basil plant was considered to be a magical cure against the look, breath or even the bite of the basilisk.

Possibly because of this association with a mythical “lizard”, basil is considered a medicinal cure for venomous bites. It is not however documented as an actual cure for snake bite.

roman sowing basilIn keeping with its hostile status, later Greeks and Romans believed the most potent basil could only be grown if one sowed the seed while ranting and swearing. This will give you an excuse if you misbehave while planting your herb garden. In French; semer le baslic (sowing basil) means to rant.

In Greece today, basil is used in certain religious rituals as a symbol of fertility.

Basil used to make a scorpionIn medieval times, it was thought that scorpions came from basil. Legend says to acquire a scorpion, one should place a few basil leaves under a flowerpot and after a while, the pot would be lifted to expose a scorpion.

Goddess-TulasiIn India, basil was consecrated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, whose wife Tulasi (also known as Tulsi) was said to have taken the form of basil when she came to earth. Hindus avoid harming basil plants, unless there is a good reason, and even then offer up prayers of forgiveness for touching a part of Tulasi. Interestingly enough, tradition requires the head of a Hindu be bathed in Tulasi water before being buried and a Tulasi leaf is placed on the chest over the heart.

Dragobete-RomaniaTo the ancient Romans, it was a symbol of hatred, yet basil eventually became a token of love in Italy. Young maidens would wear a sprig of basil in their hair to profess their availability. In some regions of Italy, basil is known as “kiss-me-Nicholas.” One can only wonder if the conflicting symbolism of basil in Rome Is the origin of a love-hate relationship.

The royal herb is regarded in a similar manner in Romania, where it is associated with the Dragobete celebration of love and happiness. If a boy accepts a sprig of basil from a girl, it means they are engaged to be married and if a girl places a sprig under her pillow she will dream of her future lover.

Click here to learn more about Basil.

To Grow Great Basil read this.


Jambalaya in the CrockpotMy bad, I should have got this posted a few weeks ago. We made this dish on Fat Tuesday. I have made Jambalaya many times since I first learned how to make it from a little Cajun lady at a “cooking school” in New Orleans. This was really a lot of fun, and now that I feel like I know how I’m going to send the pictures that I took for this piece, and see if I can get my “degree”. I’ll keep you posted on that.

The theory behind Jambalaya is that you are using up your left overs. This is why it frequently, but not always, has more than one meat in it. Isn’t it really like Cajun Casserole? That was always the idea for the casseroles in our family. Use up the meat and veges in the frig, but have them taste different than they did before.

Jambalaya has influences from France, Africa and the Caribbean. The Cajuns were from Brittany and traveled through France, and then on to Nova Scotia, where they were actually the first white settlers; 15 years before the Mayflower. When the protestant Brits moved in, the Catholic Cajun people were forced to move again; this time to southern LA. They were not the only French speaking people in LA, the Creoles also settled there after first living in the Caribbean. Creole food has some similarities, but is distinctly different.

RouxFrom what I can tell (as a non-Cajun) it’s all about the Roux. The herbs are important too, but really, the Roux is what gives it the color. The whole idea of the Roux originated with French cooking, where a much lighter “blond” roux is used. If you keep cooking your Roux you will come to “peanut butter” which is what is desired for Creole dishes. You’re not done yet. Keep cooking until you reach a Cajun Rue which is a deep caramel color. This is what gives jambalaya its beautiful characteristic color; the darkest Roux.

Add the RouxTwo things you should know about Roux. Whatever you do…no matter how good it looks…don’t taste it. If you do it will be a very long time, if ever, before you can taste again. This is essentially hot oil, so be really careful. Next…this stuff needs your undivided attention. You have to stir CONSTANTLY. Don’t answer the phone or try to direct the kids’ activities while making the roux. Sometimes it seems like the color just won’t turn (maybe you don’t have your fire hot enough), but then turn your back and the stuff is a burnt mess. Burnt roux cannot be “fixed”, just start over.

Basically you take a stick of butter and a cup of flower and slowly stir the flower into the melted butter until smooth and darker than peanut butter, kind of the color of caramel. You can adjust the amounts if you like, you can use different fats like bacon grease, lard, olive or other oils, or pan drippings., I have tried most of these and as you would expect, the ones that are worse for you tend to taste better. I try to use half olive oil.

Add Shrimp LastYou’re going to have quite a few pans on the stove, as you want to get different parts of the dish going and then mix them together. If you use shrimp or crayfish you should wait to add that until near the end or it will get overcooked and mushy. If you want to really add to the flavor, you can peel them and then boil the shells and bodies. Strain, to make a nice seafood stock to add to get the rice cooked. I add the bay leaf to the stock and then remove them from the final dish. Some add crushed bay leaf to the spice mix.

Brown your MeatYou will want too brown your meat. I didn’t always do this but now I think it is one of the most important steps. It seals in the juices and keeps it firm so the dish doesn’t turn mushy. Mainly any sausage, pork or chicken that you use should be browned. You can add any drippings that you have to your roux. The traditional sausage to use is Andouille [ah(n) doo’ ee]. Really though; in the spirit of using up the left overs, you can use what you have. We found this time around that it is really good with kielbasa.

The Trinity and the PopeTraditionally onions, celery and peppers are used. This is lovingly referred to as “the trinity” while the primary flavoring ingredient; fresh garlic, is called “the pope”.  These can be cooked together until the onion is translucent before adding to the dish. The Pope should be added near the end of this phase so that it doesn’t burn. You will want to chop them pretty small for this dish. So, how many? It really doesn’t matter, I think more is better, but for a big batch (2 cups of rice) I would use at least 2 onions, 2-3 large peppers, and a package of celery or a The Trinitylittle less. After the veges are softened add your tomatoes. Of course your fresh garden tomatoes will always be best, but you can use canned frozen or if you must sauce or paste. You may want to blend or peal your tomatoes if you are using fresh to avoid the curled up skins.

Now for the Spice; it’s not wrong to use a pre-made Cajun spice. There are lots of great ones out there. My favorites are Joe’s Stuff and Ms. G’s. If you want to make your own, why not just mix up a big batch and use it on lots of different things, rather than just making it for this dish. I can’t give you exact amounts, but Add the Trinityhere are some of the spices that you may want to add:  salt, thyme, basil, oregano, cayenne pepper (how much depends on how hot you like it), ground Ancho pepper, really any pepper flakes (we grow tons of different peppers and all are good), cumin, freshly ground black pepper and or white pepper, paprika, and garlic powder (you can leave this out if you use lots of fresh garlic).

Worcestershire sauce and/or hot sauce are sometimes also added, but I like to just put these on the table and let the eater add them to taste.

Finish in the ovenSlowly add some of your stock to the roux. Once you get it thinned a bit, then add it to the veges and meat, and season with your seasoning to taste. You can always add more after it cooks a bit. Add the uncooked rice and some more of your broth. Most often Jambalaya is cooked in large pots on the stove or even over the fire, but I have also had good luck taking the big Dutch oven and sticking it in the oven. Check and stir from time to time. Add more broth as needed until the rice is just right.

Serve with CornbreadServe with fresh scallions, if you have them…and corn bread; ya, that’s a must but I’ll have to talk about that in another blog.

Au revoir – Goodbye

Bon appetite – Good eating!



Salsa Gardening – Before the Thaw

Child with tomatoGetting the family involved in gardening is a popular quest. The challenge is how to get the kids interested. Have you ever thought about planting a SALSA GARDEN?! Although your children may not love tomatoes and peppers (and onions, garlic and herbs) individually – once they realize when you put them all together it makes salsa – their interest will peak! Growing the ingredients to make this delicious dip will be rewarding whether you have little hands helping or not. Imagine the delight of your friends at a picnic gathering when you tell them your salsa was not only made from scratch, but you even grew the vegetables! How “green” of you!

Seed packets 2This fun project lasts all year, from planting to eating! So let’s get started–in our northern Wisconsin climate, your tomato and pepper seedlings should be planted now, indoors! You could have actually started the peppers a while back because they don’t outgrow their pots as fast as tomatoes.

Let’s talk tomatoes today. The best tomatoes for Salsa are paste types. Everyone is familiar with the old standard–the Roma–but there are dozens of heirloom paste tomatoes available. Great varieties to Tomato (10)1Corno-De-Toro-Pepper-225x300look for are: Amish paste, Opalka, Long Tom, Principal Borghese, San Marzano, Oxheart or Bull’s Heart (a really large paste tomato). Gildo Pietroboni is a little hard to find but this Italian paste is twice as big as a Roma and well worth the search when it comes to flavor. Add some fun to your tomato quest by making your salsa different colors with: orange, yellow or black Oxheart; Black Prince; Yellow, Green or Cream Sausage; Speckled Roman; Orange Banana or White Wonder tomatoes.

Next, the peppers; some great pepper varieties for a milder salsa are any of the Marconi’s, Hungarian Wax peppers, Poblano’s, Bermuda’s, or Ortega’s. You can get the crunch and look of a Jalapeño without the heat if you use Fooled You Jalapeño’s.  If you like it hot(!), consider using Cayenne’s, Tabasco’s, Serrano’s or the hottest…Habanera’s. Many of the ornamental pepper varieties that have variegated leaves like Fish, Trifetti, Masquerade and Black Pearl are also quite hot.

Now, the growing! Growing your seedlings is easy, really! The key is to start with the right ingredients.

  • Clean your potsUse jiffy mix or another super lightweight soil especially designed for seed starting. This will help prevent your seedlings from rotting; otherwise known as “damping off”. You can also use one of the prepackaged seed starting kits.
  • Start small. It’s easy to end up with way too many plants. But if you do, just share the extras with your family, friends or neighbors!
  • Very important. Clean your pots if you are reusing them. Seedlings are very susceptible to damping off, which is a fungal disease that causes them to simply rot and fall over. This is how I do mine, but you can wash them by hand if you wish.
  • Sprout seeds with bottom heatMost important, the seeds; needless to say, I LOVE SEEDS, they have such potential. Don’t you just marvel in how a huge plant can spring from this small piece of life?
  • Use bottom heat to get the seeds to sprout. Any warm place like the top of the refrigerator or an old-fashioned radiator will do. I use the bathroom floor as I have heated tile. My hubby wanted to know why I need the heating cables under the sink.
  • Water from the bottom too. Place water in the bottom tray, not on top of the soil.
  • Spring Seedlings1Move the seedlings to a bright window or under artificial lights as soon as they sprout (shop lights work well but lower the lights so they are just a few inches from the plants).
  • Thin the seedlings so they’re not crowded as they grow and move them to a bigger pot when they start to get big. Be ruthless; I know it’s hard. No one wants to kill their babies. Give some to your friends if you can’t do it.
  • Every time you transplant tomatoes plant them deep so only the top of the plant is sticking out of the soil. They’ll develop roots all along the stem and become strong. 7. Don’t plant your plants outside until it’s good and warm–but gradually set them outside to get them used to the outdoor weather. Bring them in on cold nights. Pepper plants are more susceptible to cold weather.

If you don’t want to take care of seedlings all winter never fear! It’s okay to purchase your seedlings. Be sure to check back and see what other ingredients you will need for your salsa garden!

Grow Great Basil

Basil is easy to grow. If you are growing plants to put outside in the garden, here in Wisconsin you will want to start about now late February or early March). It is one of the first things I start along with parsley, peppers, eggplant and some early flowers like pansies and snaps. Wait a little while for the tomatoes or they will get too big too fast. (This is a gallery. Click one of the pictures to open it and click in the grey area to close)

Some of these pictures came from here.

Most places that sell garden seeds will have some kind of basil. Usually it is “sweet basil” which is just plain old regular green basil. It’s good and is a good fast, grower but there are so many other kinds. We will discuss the different varieties in detail in another blog, but do try lettuce leaf. Its leaves are twice the size of sweet basil. Try one of the many types of Thai basil. The flavor is a little more pronounced and the stems are purple. “Purple you say”; yes, if you like that try one of the varieties with purple leaves. They are very pretty and you won’t notice spotting as much. They make beautiful pink infused vinegar. Other varieties to try include lemon, lime, or one of the miniature types. I recommend a soil less seed starting mix as basil can be susceptible to fungal diseases.

Clean your potsYou have some choices; the little expandable pellets, small pots with the soil less mix or, you can use a larger pot with a nice rich soil on the bottom and then a layer of the soil less mi on top. If you use small pots you will have to transplant them into bigger pots as they grow. Use a clean pot. I wash mine in the dish washer. Fungal diseases can live from year to year on your pots.

Basil seeds1If the seed is fresh I usually put about 3 seeds in each pot. Space them out a little if you can. Put in a few more if they are older. If your soil is dry spray it with a mist bottle before you start. Bottom watering works best for seeds and really young seedlings and pre-misting the soil helps draw the water up better from the bottom. Bottom watering prevents the seed from being washed away and protects fragile young seedlings. Basil seeds do like to be covered a little bit. Either sprinkle them with a little more soil or poke them down with a tooth pick or something.

Be sure to label your seedlings. I like to use pencil. It doesn’t fade as much as markers.

Sprout seeds with bottom heatBasil loves warmth and they don’t need light until they sprout. They do best if you cover them to keep the moisture in and then put them somewhere that they will get bottom heat. The sell matts especially for this but I find that the heated tile floor in the bathroom works great. The top of the frig or the heating coils that are used to melt snow from the roof are some other things that I have heard of.

The next step is important. Check them every day. Water as necessary, by filling the bottom tray. You want them to stay moist but not overly soggy. When you see green it is time to move them into the light.

Spring Seedlings1Then you just let them grow. They need as much light as possible. If they don’t get enough light they will get tall and skinny and will have week stems. Either keep them in the brightest window with direct sunlight or use artificial light. Again, they sell set shelves that are set up especially for growing seedlings. You can however set up a growing station anywhere that you can hang lights. There are special bulbs for growing plants. They do help I think, but I have had good luck with standard shop lights. When using this method the lights should be lowered and raised as the plants grow so that the light is 2 to 6 inches above the plants. Don’t leave the lights on 24/7 though, plants have adapted to that period of darkness called “night” and some even bloom and or develop according to how many hours of light they get. I use a timer that turns the lights on and off at 12 hour intervals.

Some of my seedlings go out into the greenhouse early so that they can start to get used to the temperature fluctuations in preparation for moving outside but not the basil. Keep growing it in a nice warm spot. You will need to harden it off eventually to go outside but don’t even think of putting basil out until it is nice and warm. It’s the last thing we pant outside.

As the seedlings grow use a fan to circulate the air around your plants. This makes them stronger and helps ward of growth of fungus.

One more thing that makes basil different than how I grow most of the rest of my seedlings, don’t thin it. Tomatoes, peppers, Cole seedlings; all of these I would select as they grow, and keep the strongest seedling. Not basil, you can leave a little clump of them.  Not tons of seedlings, but up to 5 in a pot and then later planted into the garden together is fine.  This gives you more stems to harvest from and makes your plant(s) appear lusher. Basil doesn’t have a very dense root system so it doesn’t mind, but do give it some extra compost or other fertilizer when you plant it as it likes a nice rich soil.

Tomatoes and basil1Plant them out when there is absolutely no chance of frost. Water your plants regularly and harvest frequently.  This helps them become bushier. When you harvest take the top few stem segments just above where two leaves are attached. When you do this to new stems will grow out of the leaf junctions. Don’t just pick the leaves.

Now I have to wait until harvest time to write about making pesto.

For some more interesting talk on basil read “All About Basil”.

For the History of Basil click here.

All about Basil

Basil…either you love it or you hate it. Maybe if you hate it it’s because you haven’t really had “good” basil. Dried Herbs old1 Is this what the basil you are used to looks like? There is nothing wrong with dried basil, but if you use it this is what it should look like. Dried Herbs Fresh1Dried herbs don’t have a really long shelf life. Depending on where you store them the will only last about a year. When they have lost their bright green color and no longer have a nice aroma you may as well toss them. Old herbs won’t hurt you but as my dad says “they taste like grass”.


So where should they be stored? Well, dark and cool is best but you really don’t need to keep them in the refrigerator; just not right over the stove. Keep them in a container that is tightly sealed.

Freshly dried herbs are great but if you have never had fresh herbs you are really missing out. Here in Wisconsin, Basil is an annual herb. Basil and other annual herbs should be treated like fresh flowers. Many annual herbs can be stored for a short time in the frig.Fresh Basil1 If you put a piece of paper towel in the bag with them it will absorb moisture and keep them fresh longer. some people keep basil in the frig, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Basil will turn black if it gets too cold or will get dark spots. It’s still okay to eat if it’s not mushy; just not pretty.  Instead harvest it fresh (ideal) for each use or if you purchased it cut then put it in a cup or vase, just like it is a cut flower. It really can be quite beautiful. If you see it all the time, you will be more likely to use it too.

So, you could grow your own; we’ll talk about that next time.  However, you can buy it too. “It’s so expensive” you say. Well, yes, often times in the grocery store it is. Look for it at farmer’s markets and/or your local Asian market. If you find it for a good price get a lot and preserve it.

Thai basil flower1By the way, you can eat the flowers too. Try them, they are good; and also pretty on a salad.

Next click here to learn how to Grow Great Basil.

For the History of Basil click here.


Is it an Herb or a Spice?

My herbs are looking pretty good, even though it is very early in the season. Here on the border of zone 3 and 4, I moved some of them to the in-ground beds of my greenhouse so that I was able to use them all winter. After doing this for a few years, I learned that it is a good idea to dig them up earlier so that they can get a good root system developed before the cold weather sets in. This way they will live through the winter…even Rosemary.  Soon they will be moving back out to the herb garden.

Garlic Chives allium tuberosum

Garlic Chives allium tuberosum

We (meaning most cooks that I know) often use the words herb and spice as though they were the same animal. Herbs and spices both come from plants. Herbs and spices are both used to flavor food and add that all important aroma. Both are best when used fresh, but they can be saved by drying or in some cases freezing. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this will keep them forever.

Powdered Spice (2)

Powdered Spice (2)

So, what’s the difference? Herbs usually, but not always, come from the leaves of herbaceous plants. What’s an herbaceous plant you say? Well, it is a plant that is non woody. This is why I say usually, but now always. I think rosemary and thyme among others can be a bit woody. Herbs usually are used in larger amounts than spices. There are some that say that an “herb” is any “useful” plant. The “use” doesn’t have to be for cooking. It can be used for medicinal purposes, for dying, or in any other useful way. In the middle ages they threw them on the floor to cover the stink in the house. The term “herb” is also used by botanists to mean simply that the plant dies down, and may not even be referring to its use. Most herbs originated from temperate climates like England, Italy, France, and yes; the “new world”. Some examples of herbs include: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (thanks S&G), but also basil (my favorite), oregano, marjoram, chives and mint, to name a few.



Spices on the other hand come from parts of the plant other than its leaves, like the bark, roots, seeds, fruits or flowers. To confuse you a bit, they can come from “herbaceous” or woody plants. The flavor of spices is, as a general rule, a lot stronger, so again, usually but not always, less is used. Most spices come from warm tropical places. Sorry dear, you can’t plant a Catrinas-Herb-Garden-159x300cinnamon tree in your yard here in Wisconsin. There are a few spices that actually help food keep longer as well as adding flavor. I suppose this could be helpful in a warm tropical climate. Examples of spices include: Cinnamon (this is the bark of the cinnamon or should I say Cassia tree-more on this in a future post), nutmeg, cumin, coriander and dill (all from seeds), Vanilla (from the underdeveloped fruit of an orchid), Ginger (a root), and Cloves (from a flower bud).


Some plants are both herbs and spices. The leaves of Coriandrum sativum are the source of cilantro (herb) while coriander (spice) is from the plant’s seeds. Dill is another example. The seeds are a spice while dill weed is an herb derived from the plant’s stems and leaves. In case you were wondering, salt is not an herb or a spice, it is a mineral.

Whole Spice (2)

Whole Spice (2)

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