I learned a lesson from a good friend years ago. With few exceptions, she refused to buy "fresh" herbs at the grocery store. If she needed something that was not in her garden, she bought the plant whenever possible. I laughed about it the first time she told me, but it didn't take me long to follow suit.
My fall plantings have been meager this year. There are a lot of empty spaces in the garden and freshly raked soil waiting to be sown. But I was away for much of October, catching up in early November, and it's pretty much been raining for two weeks. Still, the garden has my back! I have just the right herbs for our Thanksgiving feast.
I love rosemary and have it in a few places out there. Our sweet bay tree reaches for the sky. It is so easy to grow in our subtropical climate. Parsley flourishes. And while the sage and thyme aren't looking too good, I also have those in a few places, enough for turkey and stuffing. Or do you call it dressing? Anyway, I have the herbs!
I'm not sure what other herbs I might incorporate into our meal, but I am happy that, as usual, the garden is providing. It would provide even more if I would just give it a little more time. I look forward to doing so. Seed packets are ready and waiting. But it will have to be after Thanksgiving. :)
Wishing you a wonderful feast day and joy always, friends. Happy Thanksgiving!
The Hedge: Red Shrimp Plant
Justicia brandegeeana, also known as Red Shrimp Plant and Mexican Shrimp Plant, is a member of the Acanthaceae family. Native to Mexico and Central America, it has made itself at home along the Gulf Coast. It's a sprawling, tropical plant that dies to the ground in cold winters, but dependably pops back up in the spring. With the right conditions, it can be a bit aggressive. It grows large and suckers, but I know from experience that it can be effectively pulled or dug up.
It usually starts blooming by midsummer, but this year, in our garden, it didn't really get going until October. I can't say that I mind. Better late than never! The flowers are cute and often very much resemble shrimp, hence the common name. It comes in other colors, a popular and common option being yellow. There's a fairly new cultivar from Florida that I'd like to get my hands on. It's called Shrimp Fruit Cocktail and is sort of yellow-green (chartreuse) and pink. But I digress... In short, I like all the varieties, but the red looks really nice this time of year.
If you have hot summers, mild winters, and enough water for your garden, I recommend planting Shrimp Plant where it has room to spread out. Hummingbirds love it, and it draws butterflies and bees as well.
It will do you proud.
Meet Salvia leucantha, garden superstar, also known as Velvet Sage and Mexican Bush Sage. Drought-tolerant and pest-free, it’s been named a Texas Superstar by Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension, who put the plants through the ringer before recommending them as such. Trust me, if a plant makes it to Texas Superstar status, it can grow almost anywhere for at least a few months.
In our area…I daresay in most areas of Texas, Salvia leucantha grows very well indeed. For my own purposes, I have created a category of plants that I have a complicated relationship with – “giant plants”. It’s in that category and one of the plants I was hesitant to plant in our small garden when we first moved to this property. But I can’t help but love this giant. It can be a little obnoxious at times, but it’s never failed me. It blooms spectacularly every September, continuing until the first hard freeze. It did so even after the deep freeze that killed so many plants a couple of years ago.
Why do I love it? Aside from it being gorgeous, you mean? It draws pollinators by the score. Bees and hummingbirds can’t get enough of it. And it smells so good! It doesn’t have a distinct fragrance like pineapple or culinary sage, but rather holds the deep, fresh, green scent of the salvia genus in general. I love the scent; it’s one of my favorites in the garden.
It may or may not die to the ground in winter (depending on your weather and area), but it comes back in spring.
So, that’s the glory. The pain? It’s size and robustness can be a challenge. Sometimes, it seems to have doubled overnight, crowding the plant(s) next to it. I’d like to say that that’s an exaggeration. I’m not really sure it is, though. 😉 Along our hedge, it’s planted next to a tough, antique rose. Marie Van Houtte is not usually a small shrub, and I admit that I've seen larger specimans. But it looks positively puny next to this sage. Throughout the blooming season, I have to regularly cut back the salvia's growth.
To be clear, Mexican Bush Sage isn’t an aggressive plant. It wouldn’t be a Superstar if it was. It’s just big and happy. Even though it’s drought tolerant, in our garden it gets watered with the rest of the plants. That’s not overly much, but it doesn’t need a lot of encouragement to grow rampantly. Eventually, it has to be divided which, given its size and root ball, isn’t the easiest garden chore. On the upside, the divisions transplant well, settling easily into new spots around the garden, and are easy to share.
There’s some old garden wisdom about being cautious when it comes to free plants, that they might overtake your garden. Salvia leucantha isn’t one of those. If someone offers it to you from their garden, accept it without reservation. You’ll be glad that you did.
Herbal Notes: Lemon Balm
Doesn't this look fresh? Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, is an important plant in our herb garden. A gentle press to the leaves releases a fragrance that's green, citrusy, and deep. I love it, especially in tea (hot and cold). It's good for you, too, with a wide range of benefits.
The genus name surprised me. Melissa? Why? When I looked it up, I learned that the name comes from the classical Greek word melissa, which means "bee" and meli, which means "honey". Moreover, the Melissae were nymphs in Greek mythology as well as oracles. They were said to be able to take the form of bees.
Lemon balm does attract bees and has been used by beekeepers for centuries. In ancient times, it was presumed that its power to attract also affected humans. It was believed to improve beauty, sexuality, and fertility.
These benefits haven't been proven in modern medicine to any great extant. What has been found is that lemon balm is good for digestion and has a certain, lightly sedative effect. For centuries, lemon balm tea has been recommended to reduce headaches and help with menstrual cramps.
The medieval physician Paracelsus called it "the elixir of life".
The good news is that this herb, a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, is very easy to grow. It's boisterous but not invasive and can be pulled up easily. It can be used in beverages and baking and of course in aromatherapy.
Centuries ago, the nuns of the Abbey of St. Just in Paris created "Eau de Mélisse", otherwise known as Carmelite water. It was known for its fragrance as well as medicinal qualities. I was astounded to learn that the formula was purchased by the Boyer family in the 1800s and is still sold in French pharmacies today. In addition to lemon balm, it has lots of other natural ingredients such as chamomile, cinnamon, and rosemary, to name just a few.
You can find the very interesting history of the tonic at the Boyer website.
The Hedge: Clean-up!
I began this past weekend Friday, changing my plans in order to stay home and work in the garden. The hedge was getting out of hand.
It all started with one of our shared fence boundaries. In your opinion, whose responsibility is it if grass is growing through a wrought iron fence? The neighbor who the grass belongs to or the neighbor whose bed is being overrun? Well, once it's in my beds, I count it my concern. But if I don't see it -- and I don't because I have a row of flowering plants fronting our hedge -- then it doesn't concern me overmuch. But it doesn't look so good from the other side of the fence.
So, well, their grass, our hedge. But despite the normal, little aggravations of suburban life, we do have excellent neighbors, and the weather was good. Did I need more encouragement to play outdoors? Nope, not a bit!
I worked in the garden most of Friday, and Joseph and I spent several hours more out there Saturday. It was great! Bees and butterflies abounded, squirrels were making the oddest sounds, and the hummers have returned!
Pretty soon, it will be time to add some fall color out there. I can hardly wait!
The Hedge: Hamelia patens
Hamelia patens, commonly known as Firebush, Texas Firebush, and Hummingbird bush, is a wonderful addition to the garden. In our area, it usually dies to the ground at the first or second hard freeze and is one of the first to pop back up in spring. However, after the historic deep freeze of 2021, it did not return that year, nor did it show up this past spring, 2022. There wasn't a single shoot that we could see. But I didn't replace it. I just couldn't accept that it had succumbed. You can imagine how glad I was when, late this past June, I saw signs of life. Yes! It needed some time, but it's every bit as tough as I've always believed it to be.
We've grown them for years. In our last garden -- the big one -- we had a few of them. It was one of the "giant plants" that I decided I just didn't have room for in our new, small garden. But I missed it and felt as though I was cheating the hummingbirds. Of course, I ended up planting one.
Hummers absolutely love it. Bees and butterflies like it, too.
This is a heat-loving plant and drought-tolerant. But with regular watering and in our heat, Firebush easily grows as tall as me (5'2"), sometimes even taller. This one hasn't grown to its original proportions yet, but there's still time. It will probably bloom at least until Christmas.
When it beds down for its fairly short winter nap, I may or may not front its spot with pretty little annuals. And I will hope that it returns stronger than ever come spring. :)
Herbal Notes: Chives
Chives! Gotta love 'em. Pictured above are garlic chives, allium tuberosum. The Latin name for onion chives is allium schoenoprasum. Both have medicinal and culinary qualities and are great in the garden.
Members of the allium family, which includes onions, leeks, and scallions, chives add a more delicate garlic or onion flavor to foods. They are good raw or cooked. We add ours to salads, soups, and omelettes as a matter of course.
Chives are high in vitamin K, which is good for the bones. They contain folate and choline, which aid memory and mood. They also have vitamins A and C as well as certain compounds known to help fight cancer.
In other words, in addition to tasting good, they're good for your health.
And I love having them in the garden. I've lined beds with them. Since they grow in clumps, they are good at holding soil together. Moreover, they deter aphids and moles and are deer resistant. They're evergreen and have pretty flowers. What more could you ask of one small plant?
But there is more! They are easy to grow. They prefer sun, but will do just fine in partial shade. While they prefer slightly moist soil, they can withstand a dry spell. And they are economical. I am not what anyone would call thrifty where my garden is concerned -- although I admire the ability to be able to do that. But I've divided chives at bedding plant size -- to plant them in my garden -- with great results. And, of course, since I've grown them for years and years, I've divided large clumps plenty of times.
Oh -- I almost forgot -- the flowers are edible, too!
The Hedge: Made in the Shade
Lately -- during these very hot days -- there's been even more activity than usual in the hedge. I love it! At dusk, it's always full of birds. But it was a nice surprise to see this little sparrow taking a break on the branch of a loquat tree one stifling afternoon. And it made me realize that I need to share more photos of the wild in our little garden. The hedge is very important to the birds.
Hope your week is going well and your garden, thriving. :)
Herbal Notes: Lavender
Lavender -- I love it. Not all lavenders can withstand the humid conditions of southeast Texas, but some varieties will do just fine given the right soil and aeration. Moreover, Texans seem to love the herb and have been tweaking cultivars that do better here.
But the one in the photo above, French Lavender, Lavandula dentata, is a classic. Native to the Mediterranean, it prefers light soil and to dry out a bit between waterings.
Since ancient times, lavender has been considered a medicinal herb. Lavender oil has anti-bacterial properties and has been used to treat acne as well as burns, wounds, and insect bites
In a tea, it can have a mild, sedative effect, aiding sleep, and it also aids digestion. It's a perfect after-dinner or bedtime tea. It can be used in both fresh and dried forms. Fresh mint and lavender flowers are a refreshing combination.
It's used in cooking, too, and is one of the ingredients of Herbes de Provence.
All parts of lavender are ingestible.
And, of course, it's a favorite for potpourri, sachets, and dried arrangements.
Personally, I love it best in the garden. As I've mentioned before, fragrance is very important to me. It's one of my favorite things about herbs.
Asclepias curassavica, Tropical Butterfly Weed -- woe is me. So...when we first left our acreage and moved onto this teeny, tiny lot, I was more than a little disheartened. I couldn't abandon gardening altogether (anymore than I could stop writing), but I didn't try as hard. When I saw this butterfly weed at one of my favorite nurseries, I didn't stop to think, "Native? Non-native?" I assumed that since that particular nursery was selling it and I'd had it in my previous garden (having purchased it from the same nursery), it was native.
I recently learned that it's not! I can't even find a definitive answer to where exactly it originated, so we'll just go with "the tropics".
It's not a complete disaster. I only have it at the very end of our western hedge because it can get weedy and seems to be under control there. It's a host plant for monarch butterflies and is popular with other pollinators. Hummingbirds even seem to like it.
It does well in hot climates. In areas of mild winters, like southeast Texas, it does too well. That's the problem. Its flowers encourage monarchs to remain in the area beyond migration time. They usually won't survive the winter. Furthermore, the plant tends to harbor the parasite Ophryocytis elektroscirrha (OE), whose primary host is the monarch butterfly. When it fails to die back in winter, concentrations of OE increase to dangerous levels for the butterflies.
According to various, trusted sources (that I've been chasing frantically), it's not all bad.
The National Wildlife Federation
It is a host plant for monarchs. It's just not as safe as native milkweeds are. I can either pull it completely or controlling the problem by pruning it down to the ground twice a year. I've been doing that, anyway, because I knew about OE even without realizing or recalling that the plant isn't native. And since native milkweed is hard to find in nurseries, I ordered some seeds today.
I love seeing butterflies in our garden -- the more, the merrier. If the native milkweed takes off, I'll probably pull the rest. Until then, I'll control it.
For years, my husband and I worked at creating a series of gardens on our four-acre lot in a rural, Texas subdivision west of Houston. I have to say, it was a fantastic experience. Now, I have a pocket garden on a golf course.
From me to you with a smile.
You have successfully joined our subscriber list.