It’s hard for a single photograph to do justice to the pollinator population in my marjoram. This one reveals two revelers: a honeybee and a fritillary butterfly—probably a Meadow Fritillary, but what I know about fritillaries I learned in the last five minutes using Google and The Butterfly Site.
Two years ago, marjoram got its own place in my garden and last year it found a place in my heart. I wrote about it here. The stalks flowered for about two months and attracted pollinators more than any other plant. It’s back!
My marjoram busted out blossoms last week while I was out of town. Today, after morning rain, sun illuminated the herb garden. Pollinating insects flitted about the entire planting bed, but the biggest concentration was on the marjoram flowers.
Nearby, oregano, lavender, and mint plants all sported blossoms and each drew its own complement of insects. In fact, the peppermint forest’s visitors may have rivaled those of the marjoram, but most of them were flies… probably beneficial, but far too reminiscent of house flies.
Marjoram is naturally unruly; the stems grow tall and slender and the weight of the blossoms bend them toward the ground. Rooted in a three-foot circle, the plants can drape themselves over a 10 foot diameter circle of real estate. If that bothers you, you can use hoop trellises to hold them upright.
Whether you let the stems sprawl, or you force them vertical, you should grow marjoram. The leaves and blossoms are excellent seasoning for many foods, and the blossoms may very well become the center of activity for thousands of pollinators in your garden.
A butterfly—probably a meadow fritillary—spreads its wings in my marjoram patch. The marjoram is by far the liveliest place in my yard while herbs are abloom.
In early spring, I had purchased two mint plants from the produce department of a grocery store—those plants sold as fresh herbs you’re supposed to throw out once you’ve removed the leaves to season your dinner. I left them on my screened porch, watered them as-needed, potted them up once, and eventually transplanted them into my herb garden. Cooped up in their tiny nursery pots, both plants had produced rhizomes with new plants emerging every half inch or so. I told some of the story here.
Mint is dangerous. Yes, I’ve said it before. I’ve said it so many times I’m sure I’ve given the impression I despise mint, but that impression is wrong. I love mint. My favorite ice cream flavors are Peppermint Stick and Mint Chocolate Chip (particularly Turkey Hill All Natural Mint Chocolate Chip). I’m also partial to mint in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking.
I like mint so much that I bought a chocolate mint plant a few days ago to add to my herb garden; eventually I may have half a dozen varieties. Despite the mint love, I charge mint as among the most dangerous plants to have in or near your kitchen garden.
After a single growing season, two mint plants jammed a root-retaining ring with rhizomes—at least three rhizomes lie on the surface, hugging the inside wall and traveling once around or more. The root barrier ring is 24 inches across meaning each rhizome is a bit longer than six feet. I’m confident that the longest make two trips around the ring; I’ve seen mint rhizomes that have grown 16 feet in a single season.
I wrote about this garden terror first in an article titled Protect your Small Kitchen Garden from Mint and more recently in the article, More Mint Madness. The recent article included photos of a mint plant moments after I removed it from its nursery pot—I’ve included one of those photos at the beginning of this post.
My Mint Today
After one growing season, and a severe winter, I inspected the mint installation in my herb garden. I had planted mint within a thick plastic root barrier that reaches about 12 inches into the soil. The barrier is a circle about 30 inches across and by the end of the growing season, mint filled it and spilled over onto surrounding soil. (I peeled back the escaping stems and stuffed them inside the root barrier circle.)
Six days after I captured the preceding photo, baby mint plants emerged from the rhizomes in the retaining ring. Keep in mind this started as two small plants in nursery pots last spring… if I don’t hack out some rhizomes and roots this season, the stupid mint plant(s) will choke themselves to death. No they won’t. I’m convinced they’ll figure out how to eat plastic if they think they need to to survive. I’m keeping my eyes on the mint; no way am I letting it escape the root barrier. By the way, if you ever trim your mint plants to keep them under control, compost them only if you have a self-contained system such as a compost tumbler. Once a rhizome reaches a passive compost heap, you’ll have mint babies poking up wherever you apply compost.
When snow finally melted off my garden, the mint leaves were gone. Mint stems were everywhere inside the root barrier. Without the barrier, it’s clear there would be mint rhizomes extending at least 9 feet into my herb garden and under my lawn. In fact, by now there would be dozens of mint plants pushing up in a nine foot circle around the original mint plant.
Photos emphasize my point: Mint is aggressive and prolific. It WILL take over once you get it started… so don’t. Don’t start it in the soil in your garden. If you’re going to grow mint, contain it—either absolutely in a container that gives the plant no opportunity to touch soil in your yard, or within an inviolable barrier that stops the roots and lets you keep the stems off your garden soil.
A mint plant I bought at a grocery store to flavor a Turkish meal became pot bound in the nearly two months before I was ready to work in my garden. The thick white band running around the root ball is a rhizome that would be happy growing through a planting bed or lawn – perhaps seven feet or farther in a single season!
Seems I abuse mint in print quite a bit. My last blog post—Community Garden Ithaca—included complaints about people planting mint in the soil of community gardens. That post linked to an earlier one warning kitchen gardeners to protect their plots against mint. I just had an experience that seriously illuminates the mint menace.
In the past two months I cooked two Turkish recipes that called for mint. Holding no illusions that dried mint would taste authentic, I splurged and bought live mint at the grocery store. For each meal I bought a well-leafed plant in a 2-inch pot.
After cutting about half the foliage from a pot, I set the plant among my gardening stuff on the porch figuring to set it in my garden some time this spring. Even without added nutrition—I haven’t given them plant food—the plants have continued to put out new growth. Unfortunately, the pots dry out quickly.
As I packed up for yet another trip to Ithaca, I decided not to burden my wife with mint-watering duties. So, I potted up each plant into its own milk jug planter which I figure will hold moisture for four or five days. What I found behind the walls of the 2-inch pots should put a chill in every kitchen gardener. The photos tell the story.
You can clearly see four baby mint plants emerging from the rhizome and if you squint you might spot two others. As a mint rhizome extends through your planting beds and your lawn beneath the soil, it produces a new plant every inch or so. With no effort on your part, you can have an enormous mint patch in just one or two seasons. It is folly to plant mint in the ground on your property unless all you want to grow is mint. My grocery store plants will eventually end up in circular containment rings with deep root barriers—the same setup I’ve used for oregano, marjoram, and sunchokes. By the way: Don’t let mint plants hang over the sides of containers so their stems touch soil. Mint stems happily produce new roots when you give them a chance.
When the bloom is on the sage in my small kitchen garden, there are usually butterflies and bees on the blooms. I’d rather see the cabbage butterfly here than on my broccoli plants!
The bloom is on the sage in my small kitchen garden! The plants are prolific, and the flowers last for several weeks, attracting all kinds of butterflies and bees. Once your sage plants blossom, their flavor changes and it never goes back. My plants are old and woody, and they are by far the largest clump of foliage in my herb garden.
I use sage especially to flavor poultry and pork. But I also use it to make smoke when I smoke or grill meats. When my sage plants were in their fourth or fifth years, I noticed a lot of dead wood on the plants as they emerged from dormancy in the spring. I harvested the dead wood and used it in my smoker. I can’t say it imparts a noticeably sagey smoke flavor, but whatever comes out of the smoker is tasty.
Give it a try! If you add hardwood to generate smoke on your grill, or if you run a dedicated smoker, replace the hardwood with sagebrush and decide for yourself if you like the results. If you try this, please visit again and leave a comment sharing whether your liked the flavor of your sage-wood-grilled-or-smoked food.
Four chickens fresh out of the smoker. It takes about 8 pounds of charcoal to run my smoker—whether I smoke a brisket or four chickens, three racks of ribs, and 3 pounds of sausage. So, whenever I run the smoker, I fill it to capacity. We ate two of these chickens in a few days, and two others went directly into the freezer.
I made a short video to show off my sage plants just before they blossomed. It shows where I find deadwood at the beginning of each growing season.
In 2011, I planted three 6-inch flower pots with two colors of basil. These remained on my deck rail for the season, providing flavoring for the too-few tomato salads I prepared until blight wiped out my tomato patch.
Basil is an essential herb in my small kitchen garden. Historically, I’ve started basil seeds when I set tomato seedlings in my planting bed. My motivation: the basil plants mature at just the right speed to be ready when the first tomatoes ripen.
If you followed Your Small Kitchen Garden blog in 2011, you might recall that in nearly every post I whined about water. The rain last year was devastating, and even until mid winter local basements were flooding because the water table had not receded. Despite my whining, the season had some high points one of which was my experience with basil in flower pots.
Decorative Basil on the Deck
Basil sprouts are among the most attractive sprouts in my small kitchen garden each year. I especially loved watching the purple basil get started.
I made the mistake last year of not buying basil seeds until I was planting tomatoes. By then, I couldn’t find Genovese or its ilk in local stores. I did find lemon basil seeds as well as a variety of purple basil.
With all the rain, I figured to control moisture most effectively by planting in flower pots. Then, inspired by ornamental plantings of my friends, I decided to mix the lemon basil and purple basil seeds and create planters that would be decorative as well as productive.
Lessons Learned from Decorative Basil Pots
I placed each seed in the pots deliberately to create patterns. In one pot, I laid a circle of purple around a green center. In two others, it was a green circle around a purple center (there were frustratingly few purple basil seeds).
By far my favorite arrangement was the green center with a purple border, but I have reservations:
Lemon basil is a very tall plant. Well-nourished, it can grow to about 36 inches. The purple basil plants were modest growers. A tall one might have reached 12 to 18 inches. The colors looked great together, but the lemon basil plants overwhelmed the flower pots and cutting them back severely only resulted in further aggressive growth.
I’ll be shopping for basil seeds soon for 2012, and I’ll look for purple and green varieties whose growth habits are very similar to each other. I’ll probably plant a few more pots than I did last year; they look terrific on the deck, and it’s nearly impossible to grow too much basil.
The purple border around a green center is a striking display in many ornamental beds. It also looks great with edibles. I’ll give a little more thought in coming years to the colors and textures of my food plants when I plan what’s going to grow on my deck.
When your broccoli seedlings remain in their very limited planter about a month too long, they might produce disappointing florets. This tablespoon-sized floret represents what each of my plants produced about three weeks after I finally set them in the garden. It didn’t help that I set the seedlings in soil that was nearly mud… or that several days of subsequent rain kept the roots far too wet. Perhaps as things dry out the plants will send up enough side shoots to make a decent meal.
Since planting season started some three months ago, I’ve reported again and again that there is no soil in my small kitchen garden. That’s right: where, every growing season for the past sixteen years there has been soil, this growing season nature replaced my soil with mud.
My Earliest Starts
I managed to plant cauliflower and broccoli three weeks ago while the mud was a bit dry (as mud goes). Sadly, the plants had been pot bound long enough that they were flimsy… and further rains stressed the plants once they were in the ground.
For the first time ever, I saw a rabbit chewing on one of my vegetable plants. In 17 years of kitchen gardening in Lewisburg, I’ve had rabbits nest in my garden and I’ve watched many of them feed on my weeds. This year the rabbits decided that broccoli and cauliflower taste good. I’ve since mended my garden fence.
Within ten days of getting their roots in the ground, my broccoli plants sent up center stalks bursting with florets… tiny florets any one of which would make a single forkful on a dinner plate. Had I harvested from ten plants, I’d have gotten a single serving of broccoli.
Then a rabbit decided that brassicas taste better than native plants and had a few meals in the mud.
My Small Kitchen Garden is Coming On!
There have been a few positives about this growing season:
- I planted all the lettuce seedlings in planters on my deck and, though the lettuce is a tad bitter because of early heat, we’re eating fresh salads pretty reliably.
- I started artichokes indoors. When I planted the brassicas, I also set five artichoke seedlings in the garden. Actually, I set three in a new bed near my rhubarb, one in the back of the new herb bed, and two in a two-gallon planter on the deck. One of the plants has already put out a choke.
- Cilantro I seeded in part of the new herb bed is coming on strong. I’ll do a second planting in a week or so.
- The volunteer dill seedlings I moved from my main planting bed into the herb garden are filling out nicely.
- Thyme and tarragon I started from seed last year and set in the herb garden in the fall are growing strong. I may want to add more thyme plants this season.
- The sage bushes I moved from an old half-barrel planter into the new herb bed in the fall have filled out and may soon need some serious pruning.
- The mud is gone, replaced by soil. I’ve planted 55 tomato seedlings in the main planting bed and more than 24 chili pepper seedlings of four varieties.
It’s two months later than in past years, but my small kitchen garden is finally on its way!
I’d never grown lettuce in containers, but when my raised planting bed remained mud for the first two months of the growing season, I realized I’d have no homegrown lettuce if I didn’t try something new. We’ve had several garden salads but it has been very hot. Chances are the lettuce will bolt soon; I’ll probably plant again in August and hope to have plenty of fresh salads well into November.
Not my best photographic work, but clearly a choke has formed in my small kitchen garden. I love photos I’ve seen of artichoke plants, so I decided to grow some this year. I hope I see more food on them, but I’ll be happy if the plants mature and look at least vaguely like the ones I’ve seen on other blogs.
Yes, the soil is dry and weeds abound, but the dill seedlings I rescued from my main planting bed are thriving in my new herb bed. Cilantro I direct-seeded grows at the left front of the photo, and sage grows at the rear of the photo. Out of sight at the far end of the bed, thyme and tarragon plants are growing very nicely.