If you’re looking for a hardy herb that will produce a harvest all season-long, and can withstand just about anything you can throw at it then look no further than chives. I’ve been growing this wash basin of chives for so many years I can’t for the life of me recall where I got the tub or the plant. All I know is that it is one of the few perennial herbs that I can count on to withstand an inconsistent and sometimes bitter winter in a container and additionally be the first plant up and providing garnishes for early spring soups.
Every spring I try and find a new way to fill in the gaps left by the plants that don’t have the fortitude of chives and give the planter a place of prominence as the first pretty thing to look at out on the rooftop deck. This particular planting received a lot of positive attention this spring so I thought I’d share it with you.
I use just about ever part of the plant. The early buds and fully open chive blossoms taste great in salads or steeped in vinegar to make a salad dressing.
In the spirit of Be Nice to Nettles Week, we tried our hand at a batch of nettle soup using the site recipe as a basis. Let me tell you that a half pound of nettles is a whole lot more than you’d expect. I harvested enough young nettles (stems included) to fill a small plastic bag however once the stems and not so great parts were removed it came out to just slightly over 1/4 pound. Here’s what that looks like:
Just a reminder to protect your hands with gloves at any point in the process that involves touching any part of the fresh nettles including leaves and stems. The plant will lose its sting once cooked, but can get you at anytime when fresh, even when soaking under water.
The recipe seemed a little too bland so I chopped and added half a small onion before adding the nettles. We did not have sour cream or yoghurt on hand so I garnished mine with bits of smoked trout bought at my local farmer’s market. The soup was really good, tasting very much like vichyssoise. In fact I ate the leftovers cold. The geek in me was very satisfied that a portion of this meal was collected/foraged from the out-of-doors. Over the last year I’ve come back full circle to an early interest in wild foods and edible weeds that I haven’t really indulged since I was a teenager foraging for plants with “Edible Weeds of Canada” tucked under my arm.
Next up: Garlic Mustard.
I first discovered stinging nettle one day while book shopping on Harbord Street, a popular used book area of Toronto. One of the stores had a selection of herbs sitting out front. Anyone who knows me knows I am a sucker for herbs and am impulsive about touching them. You should see me at the end of our yearly Herb Fair meet-ups. All of those smells in one place! I am a maniac!
So there I am happily rubbing each plant and lifting my fingers to my face repeatedly soaking in a variety of delicious herbal scents. And then I rub the stinging nettle. Let’s just say the experience has taught me to be patient and observe with my eyes BEFORE making contact with my fingers or god forbid my nose! It has also taught me a new level of respect for plants. That initial shock prompted me to look into this unassuming yet powerful plant, and I have since come to appreciate it as a very valuable and fantastic herb.
May 16-27 is “Be Nice to Nettles Week.” The site has a lot of interesting facts and tid bits from a recipe for nettle soup to information about the wildlife the plant sustains. Learning about stinging nettle might not win you over completely but perhaps warm you up just a little to this painful herb.
You can’t beat an early spring harvest courtesy of cold-hardy perennials. I’ve barely done anything in the garden and I’m already raking in the food stuffs!
Clockwise from top right: Onions, dandelion greens, garlic chives, chives, lemon balm.
These chives have been growing in a large galvanized wash basin on my rooftop deck for several years. They always survive whatever winter throws at them and are the first thing up in the spring. Buds are starting to show which means that chive blossoms aren’t far off.
This is only the beginning of lemon balm (aka lemon bomb!) season at the community garden. The trick of it is to catch it early and harvest the tender leaves before flowers make an appearance.
My French sorrel (another early riser) inexplicably disappeared this year so I walked over to the garden early this evening and popped a new one into the ground.
Loads of gardening articles and books proclaim that it is easy to grow herbs indoors however it is my experience, and I bet it’s yours too, that most herbs are fine during the summer months but many take a real beating towards the last half of winter. The conditions inside a typical apartment or house during the winter months are just not very conducive to picky plants. If you’re like me you’re probably doing most of your indoor gardening around south-facing windows that are cold and drafty above with the occasional blast of mega-hot and dry baseboard heating from below. Trying to keep finicky sweet basils and rosemary alive between these two extremes is too much for my self-esteem and my sanity so I’ve opted to accept that the tricker herbs are out until spring and have spent the last few years seeking out and experimenting with herbs that can hack these bipolar conditions.
I was given a cutting of Broadleaf thyme (Coleus amboinicus) last summer with the promise that it would root easily and grow like crazy. It has delivered and more! Broadleaf thyme is an unbelievably fragrant, low-growing herb with succulent, broad leaves and a soft, velvety texture. It goes under several names (more on that below) including Cuban oregano, Spanish oregano, and Indian borage but is unlike any thyme or oregano plant (or borage for that matter) you have ever seen. The plant is a tropical perennial and will not survive a cold winter outdoors, but taking a cutting or two to grow in a pot is as easy as snipping off a chunk with a pair of scissors and popping it into some water or moist soil. I offered mine nothing but neglect in the beginning, forgetting about it amidst a boatload of other gardening duties and it STILL grew and flourished. This plant is definitely a trooper!
Grow It: I have found that mine seems to do well in the sunniest spot available. The leaves are still a tad too pale which indicates that it can withstand more direct light. I’ve been growing mine in a standard tropical potting soil with a bit of sand thrown in for extra drainage and a touch of vermicompost at potting time for added nutrition. Like most herbs I add water only when the soil is just dry. Reduced winter light might cause the plant to grow leggy (tall and unhealthy) so be sure to pinch back the top set of leaves (you can use your fingers) every once and while to encourage a bushier growth. Unlike many herbs it will not go dormant so you can keep harvesting the leaves all year long.
Using: Broadleaf thyme has an exceptionally pungent flavor and smell. It is most commonly chopped up fresh and added to black beans or served with fish dishes and curries. I have also heard that it is commonly used in Jamaican jerk seasonings and salt cod. It is used to flavor beer and wine in India and some people put its antibacterial and fungicidal actions to work as a medicinal tea. I tried it this way and didn’t mind it although I found the boiling water brought out the stronger thyme flavor and reduced that hard-to-place fragrant smell that is so strong when you rub the leaves.
The Name Game: Here we go for another round of Name That Plant. I always try and check as many references as possible and cross-check for mistakes so I can give you the correct name but this one is going to take additional research. As mentioned above this plant is not short on common names and is regularly listed under two different Latin names, Coleus amboinicus and Plectranthus amboinicus. Some citations suggest that Coleus amboinicus is the old name, with all names, both Latin and common being interchangeable for the same plant. Others state that Coleus amboinicus is the Latin for broadleaf thyme which has larger leaves and that Plectranthus amboinicus is the Latin for Cuban oregano which has smaller leaves. I honestly can’t find any definitive answers and have decided to offer both options here. I personally lean towards the second option.