On this morning of daylight savings I walk through our woods alive with the brilliance of sound. A downy woodpecker carves a tree amongst the beech, maple, oak and birch. Nearby the early birds of spring triumphantly proclaim that they have returned through manic flight and song as they dash to and fro amongst the skeletons of berry bramble.
My young beagle and old terrier, on the leash, parade with tails in the air and their nose to the ground as the frozen forest path serenades them with a banquet of tantalizing smells and sounds. In this moment they are both pups again, alive with possibility of the new season.
Snowdrops begin to stretch their tiny green limbs while yawning from beneath the leftover winter snow. I, like them, turn my face toward the warm sun searching for spring. There is no breeze as I stand among the slowly waking forest, a frame of Mother Nature’s grand picture.
Today, along with my children, I will explore the thawing mud of the garden while plotting the summer bed of each delicate seed. Eventually I will climb our apple tree limb by limb with cold red hands and prune the branches in hopes of bounty. Spring the purveyor of dreams is here!
Mint is a tenacious plant that once established will quickly spread its roots the length of your garden and beyond. For this simple reason it tends to get a bad name and people shy away from it but mint actually has numerous health benefits as well.
Fresh mint is high in vitamin A, B12 and C. It also contains copper, iron and zinc to name just a few essential minerals found in this aromatic plant. This rich herb is known to help calm irritable bowels and heartburn. It also helps with bad breath, which is probably obvious, and is known for its ability to combat the growth of fungus.
Mint comes in a number of flavors. The borders of our vegetable and herb gardens are surrounded by chocolate mint but you can also purchase plants that range from pineapple to peppermint. As mentioned earlier mint is extremely aggressive and thus very easy to grow. Whether full sun or a forgotten crack in a walk-way mint will take advantage of the opportunity and thrive. It is a really great plant to grow if you have children. Since it does take off so rapidly kids feel an immediate sense of accomplishment and my kids love to graze on the flavorful leaves from early spring to late fall. Later in the year when it flowers the bees will show their gratitude as well.
Fresh from the garden it can be used in tea or even main dishes such as rice or lamb. It dries easily and stores rather well even if that means simply tying a few sprigs together and hanging them from the herb rack.
Another benefit of mint is that fleas supposedly can not stand the stuff. We began growing it around our dogs kennel after finding this out a year or two ago and it seems to have cut down on the problem.
Oregano is listed as a perennial in warm climates and an annual in areas that experience heavy winters. Our gardens are located in southern New York State and it is a perennial in our plot, so it is safe to say it is reasonably hardy.
Oregano , or wild marjoram as it is sometimes called, is an extremely healthy addition to your cuisine. Believe it or not one fresh gram of this herb has four times the antioxidant activity of blueberries, twelve times that of oranges and an astounding forty-two times the antioxidant activity of apples. It has a very high level of vitamin K and is also an above average source of iron, fiber and calcium.
One of the advantages of growing your kitchen garden close to your back door is that it makes it easy to gather fresh herbs and veggies for your meals. Oregano can be served and stored a number of ways but it goes without saying that fresh from the garden is the recommended method. You can also dry it or freeze as well. Both preservation methods allow one to use this medicinal herb deep into the winter months.
Chives have been used by man for at least 5,000 years. When researched a bit it is no wonder they have been such an established crop generation after generation when measured by their hardiness, their flavor and their health properties.
Chives are the smallest member of the onion family. They do well in sun or shade and propagate rather easily. Their purple flower heads scatter seed that quickly takes root. Once established it is a good idea to divide the plant every 3 or 4 years. Of course you can give some to family or friends but division also aids the garden in terms of pest control. Chives help keep certain pest such as the pesky Japanese beetle at bay. So consider digging up a small portion of the bulk herb and placing it in key locations in your garden. Of course the opposite holds true as well in that it attracts beneficial such as bees to your garden by way of their large flowers. Another interesting note in regards to its beneficial properties is its ability to protect your apple trees from apple scab disease simply by growing around the trees trunk.
Chives also happen to be similar to garlic in its health benefits, just not as potent. Chives are high in vitamin A & C and also contain calcium and iron. Iron is something a lot of folks lack in their diet.
You can eat chives fresh from the garden, dry them or freeze them, though drying tends to retain the least amount of flavor. They go well with soups and stews, potatoes and even salads. I recently had a great aunt mention that she prefers them to onions because they are gentler on her stomach, certainly something to keep in mind.
Chamomile has been used for centuries by man to cure ailments. Basically there are two main types, german and roman chamomile. German chamomile tends to find its way into our american gardens. This relative of the daisy helps with nausea, loss of appetite and vomiting. This vigorous plant is generally recognized as a carminative, tonic and a sedative.
Chamomile tea is the prefered method of use. Personally I like a bit of local honey with mine to sweeten the drink a bit.
Most literature I have read on this tiny flower suggest sandy soil in well lit locations. In our neck of the woods which is southern New York State our soil is much more compact. This has never really posed a problem. I have also grown it in full sun as well as shady areas and once again neither has really presented itself to be much of an obstacle. The first year that we grew this herbal we placed seed directly in the dirt. We have not had to plant seed since. In our garden chamomile aggressively has taken root makes an appearance every year.
Once chamomile blooms in early summer you will be able to harvest the flowers until fall if you keep removing the yellow and white heads. It is easy to dry and store. Simply place the heads on a plate so that they are not touching one another and occasionally roll them over to make sure they are drying rather than rotting. Store in a baggy with your herbal teas and enjoy throughout the winter.
Arugula, or rocket as it is occasionally called in the states, is new to our garden this year. Anyone who has grown lettuce knows that after a few hundred salads it becomes important to get creative and add interesting flavors to your greens in order to keep interest in the pursuit of health. That is exactly the reason that we decided to grow arugula this year and it has turned into an interesting treat not only in taste but in the historical sense as well.
Garden rocket is native to the Mediterranean. The Romans grew this relative of the radish and watercress for both its leaf and seeds. The seed was used as a flavoring oil. According to the Cambridge World History of Food there are records of it being used in aphrodisiacs all the way back to the 1st century AD, is there a better reason to eat your vegetables?
Over the years one point of interest I have written about is how a gardener of humble means can eat gourmet simply by growing their own food. Arugula is a good example of this. A cornerstone of Italian cuisine as well as the American gourmet market one can grow rocket quite easily in their own backyard. This year I grew a number of greens and hands down the arugula had the best germination rate of the group.
Before trying it for the first time I read descriptions of taste that ranged from peppery,similar to a nasturtium flower, all the way to nutty on the palate. I would have to say that I found the loose oak shaped leaf to have a hint of nut that was not overpowering but really added a nice flavor to a potentially bland salad. I have also read that you can coat it with a little olive oil and steam it for a delicious side dish.
Arugula is also very healthy for you as one may imagine. It is very high in vitamin A and C. It contains beneficial amounts of calcium and magnesium. It is also extremely low in calories.
If you happen to find yourself looking for something new in your garden or salad mix this year I would highly recommend trying some garden rocket. Whether your plot provides full sun or a shady corner it takes root quite well.
Our first harvest of the year is the French Breakfast Radish. As the name implies this particular radish is of French origin. It is first listed as appearing in the states in about 1875 in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Our seed stock was purchased through the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa a few years ago and our current harvest is from our own personal seed stock.
The radish is a surprisingly healthy vegetable. It actually has numerous benefits attributed to it. It is credited with detoxifying the kidneys and liver. The radish also is believed to help combat certain types of cancer. Specifically colon, oral and stomach cancers. It is extremely high in vitamin C, an antioxidant. The leaves of the radish actually contain six times the amount of the vitamin C found in the root. This cruciferous vegetable also contains vitamin K and B. The radish happens to be a good source of calcium, potassium and iron as well.
As far as planting radish seed is concerned a little trick that we use in our gardens is to plant them with our carrot seed. Obviously the carrots need to be thinned over the course of a year in order to produce a nice crop. By planting an early crop such as the radish with the carrot it naturally thins the carrots to an extent. Later in the season when you harvest the carrots you can plant another rotation of the radish seed for a fall harvest thus doubling your yield.
If you happen to grow heirloom varieties like we do you can save your own seed. This is rather easy with the radish. Simply allow a few of the plants to sit in the garden the entire growing season. They will eventually bolt and the flowers will produce green pods that hold seed. Allow the pods to dry on the plant and remove the seed from the dry pod by breaking them open with your fingers. Discard any moldy or weak seed. You can store your seed in your fridge and use it the following season.