I found this guerilla patch of green shiso growing in the alley behind a high rise apartment building in my neighborhood. I took this picture last summer but first discovered the garden when we were shooting bike riding scenes for Recreating Eden. I’ve been back a few times since but have not managed to run into the gardener. Eventually…
This is what happens to a basil plant when it is allowed to continue on with life well past one year. I wish I had a context shot to really show just how big and woody this plant had become. The bush came up past my hips and was so huge I didn’t even recognize it as a basil plant. I passed by it several times, and on a couple of separate occasions without giving it a second glance.
I don’t know which variety this is. The look and size of the leaves remind me of a variety called ‘Lesbos’, but the plants I have grown have never developed a purplish hue like this one. ‘Lesbos’ has a strong smell, but the leaves of this particular plant were very strong with an even deeper, spicier scent. When I asked, my host said it was medicinal and not used in cooking.
Over the years I’ve made an experiment of trying out new plants to overwinter on my windowsills. These experiments keep me amused over the winter months and provide the first-hand experience with specific varieties required to make solid suggestions. I generally experiment with herbs since they’re the plants we all want on hand most during the winter to take a clipping from now and again. They’re also the plants that most gardening literature tends to lump together. I mean, how many kits have you seen promoting a windowsill herb garden with herbs that have no hope in hell of surviving the best conditions and most diligent gardeners? There are times when I see someone pick up that kind of impossible gardening kit in a store and it takes all my willpower not to run over like a crazy person and stage an intervention. Those kinds of disappointments have a way of turning would-be gardeners off forever. No, it’s not you. It’s the stupid kit.
My windowsills have got to be the best examples of where not to grow going. My feeling is that if I can make a reasonable go of it with a specific plant than just about anyone can. On the one hand they are south-facing so they have light in their favor; however, it’s often either too cold and draughty or extremely dry and hot from the electric baseboard heaters that sit directly below. My poor overwintered plants are forced to contend with a constant shift in extremes. When it’s chilly the soil takes a while to dry out. When the heat is pumping they can get dry and dessicated overnight.
Naturally, only the most forgiving plants and varieties come away unscathed. Any plant that looks half-alive in time to transition outdoors for the summer is a winner.
One of my current experiments is with a thyme variety called ‘Oregano’. Confusing, I know. Is it a thyme? Yes? Is it oregano? No, but it does have a hint of oregano smell and flavor.
In general I find that thyme, oregano, and marjoram are very forgiving windowsill herbs — possibly the easiest of the popular culinary herbs. Thyme tends to do the best. Some new growth can get a little leggy if there are too many dark days in a row, but it’s as simple as snipping those bits back slightly. Thyme is a tough and hardy plant that doesn’t mind a chill now-and-again. It overwinters well in my climate (zone 5b-6b? I never know. It only gets more confusing depending on where you are in the city.) and I’ve even had success growing it in large bins left outside through months of deep freezing and fluke thaws. The low creepers tend to do better than the taller plants but I am often surprised by just how many manage to survive, period. Thyme also doesn’t mind periods of dry heat, which is why it is one of my go-to herbs on my extremely hot and sunny rooftop.
‘Oregano’ thyme is a low creeper, which is why I think it is doing exceptionally well this winter. We went away for a week recently and while some of the leaves dried out in my absence it really doesn’t look like it suffered much at all.
My French lavender topiary on the other hand… I am only just beginning to accept that the thing is dead and gone. I’m permanently stuck in the denial stage of grief. Perhaps saying it out loud is the first step.
I have already stated that I don’t care for the Holidays, and yet there are a few staples that I do enjoy: cooking and eating good food, making bath products for friends, super tacky over-the-top decoration, and sewing little herbal squares. I’m not sure what it is about the last one. I suppose it started out as a small gift for friends just like the bath products, but now-a-days I get a hankering to make them almost as soon as December rolls in, even if I don’t give them away.
The basic idea is simple: sew a square and fill it with herbs. The applications, depending on the size and what you put inside, are nearly endless. I grow a lot of herbs and inevitably there are a few that I always have in droves. Making an assortment of herb pillows for different applications is a good way to be sure the extra doesn’t go to waste. I figure, I go to the trouble to grow it and dry it, the least I can do is use it up.
Here are just a few ideas that can be applied based on the same basic principal:
- Herbal Bath Tea – Mixed herbs inside a large muslin square with a little added oatmeal makes a healing and relaxing bath.
- Brain Pillow – A large 6 X6″ cotton square filled with lavender or dried rosemary and some rice or flax seed can be used as a headache pillow, the weight of which feels nice on tired eyes.
- Sleep Pillow – A bag made of scrap cotton, terry cloth, or silk fabrics and filled with lavender or dried hops makes a good relaxation pillow. Stick it underneath your own pillow to help you fall asleep at night. I collected a load of hops this year to test its’ ability to ease the insomniac into sleep, however I seem to be allergic to the stuff and get sneezy whenever I am near it. I finally get why I’ve never taken well to beer. Maybe it will work for you.
- Dryer Bag – A small 5 X 5″ square filled with lavender can be put in the dryer to give freshly washed clothes a light, fresh scent without the chemicals.
- Closet or Drawer Sachet – Fill up a small square with bug repellent herbs such as catnip, wormwood, lavender, rosemary, peppermint, juniper, fir, or cedar. Great for friends who have moth problems in their home.
- Cat Pillow – Fill up a 6 X 6″ square with dried, homegrown catnip. My cat goes crazy for these little pillows and has been seen cuddling with them on many occasions.
Sachet d’Espice – Just a fancy way of saying a small open-weave muslin or cheesecloth square filled with culinary herbs (aka bouquet garni). Gift your friends with your favourite soup and sauce herbs that can be submerged directly into the pot like a giant tea bag and removed when cooked.
These little squares are so simple to make, all you need are some very basic sewing skills. They’re a great way to use up scrap bits of fabric too small for much else. Keep them as simple and easy-sew as you’d like or get fancier by embroidering or silk screening designs, adding ribbons and strings, or sewing in decorative edging.
Making Herbal Dryer Bags
The following instructions outline how I make the dryer bags, but you can apply these steps to any of the items listed above. Be sure to see the Herbal Bath Tea project for recipes and further instructions. I’ve listed a lot of materials and tools below, but you can easily get away with making these bags utilizing far less. A bit of fabric, a needle and thread, and some lavender flowers are enough to turn out a simple bag.
You Will Need
- Dried lavender flowers (about 1/2 – 1 cup per bag)
- Scraps of cotton fabric (Old shirts, sheets, towels, pillowcases, bits from old projects…)
- Quilting ruler
- Rotary fabric cutter
- Scissors or pinking shears
- Sewing machine (These are simple enough to hand-sew too)
- Point turner (Knitting needle, chop sticks, or pencil will work)
- Piece of scrap paper
- Scotch tape
1. Cut two 5 X 5″ or 6 X 6″ fabric squares. You can do these in two pieces of the same fabric or mix and match with contrasting fabrics. I make quick work of cutting the squares using a quilting ruler and rotary cloth cutter but a pair of scissors will do the job too.
2. Pin the right sides together and sew a 1/2″ seam around the square, leaving a 2″ opening on one side, big enough for filling. Cut off the corners on a diagonal using scissors or pinking shears to help reduce bulk. Cut around the entire square with pinking shears (optional).
3. Turn the square right-side out and iron flat. Use a point turner to push the corners out.
4. Open up the hole and fill the square with about 1/2 – 1 cup of lavender flowers. Getting the flowers into the hole can be a pain but is easily done using a paper cone. Make one by rolling a scrap piece of paper into a funnel shape. Tape it to secure.
5. Pin the hole closed. Using a matching thread, sew a seam very close to the edge of the bag sewing straight across the hole to seal it up.
6. For a more decorative finish, sew a 1/4″ seam around the entire square. Use less flowers if you plan to do this since the extra bulk can make it difficult to sew. Try to keep the flowers away from the seam as you sew each side by pushing the flowers to the opposite side of the square.
Greetings from the hermit’s nest where I am working feverishly, both figuratively and unfortunately quite literally through what I can only describe as a marathon of deadlines. This summer has revolved 100% around gardening and food, a focus that promises to continue through the fall and well into winter. Actually I’ll still be at, although hopefully not quite at this pace, come spring. When I’m not in a garden taking pictures, I am sitting at a computer writing about gardening or I am in the kitchen cooking. When I am not doing any of those things I am thinking about doing those things, or rather, freaking out about NOT doing those things.
The irony of all of this is that it is pushing me further and further away from my own actual gardens. I’m in them more as an observer then as a gardener. I’ve been able to accomplish the bare minimum and have had to let the rest fall to the wayside. Boo.
Anyways, all complaints aside, I have managed to find a minute here and there to get in touch with the happenings that are taking place on the roof and in the community plot. I’m still harvesting some of the straggling late summer crops and if the weather holds I should have another crop of late tomatoes coming through soon. My ‘Green Grape’ plant has been producing non-stop. I fell in love with that variety last year causing a complete turn around on a long-standing distaste for green tomato varieties. I grew it in a larger container this year to see how it would perform and it has been outstanding. I’ve added ‘Green Grape’ to my list of varieties worth growing in a garbage bin.
Seed saving season is in full swing and I’ve been taking some time here and there to collect for next year while also harvesting seeds such as dill and coriander for eating rather than growing.
2008 can best be described as The Year of Dill out on the roof. At least a hundred dill seedlings sprung up in the spring and proceeded to flourish due to a record-breaking wet growing season. I honestly can’t keep up with the amount of dill seed that is maturing right now and have had to find a few stolen moments to process seeds in order to avoid being buried alive underneath the masses of seed heads that are collected nearly ever day. Keeping them under control now also means less seedlings to contend with come spring. We’ve had our fill of dill and I am guessing that it will be years before we can appreciate the flavour of fresh dill with our meals again. Yep. Sure is tough having so much bounty!
Still, the timing for dill seed perfectly coincides with pickle season. 2008 was a terrible year for cucumbers so I’ve decided to focus on making mixed vegetable pickles. They’re turning out great. We consumed a whole jar in only a few days. It didn’t even get a chance to mature into its full flavour. I can’t wait to taste this batch in a month. My favourite new vegetable to pickle is ‘Black Radish.’ ‘Black Radish’ is a large radish that is black on the outside and white on the inside. It reminds me of a cross between a radish and a turnip but without the turnip flavour. They’re quite spicy raw, however the hot water processing cooked the radish slices slightly making them soft and succulent. I plan to grow lots next year now that I know how good they are…. Next year…. what a joke. Gotta make it through this one first!