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I got to be The Answer Lady when a friend drafted me to man the question booth at an Herbal Fair. His comment was "Kathryn has wasted more time on herbs than anyone--maybe she'll do it." And I did, for several years. In so doing, I discovered that most herb lovers needed help with the same questions. My first book, Herbs Southern Style, was written to address this need. Many speeches, seminars and gardenclub talks later, I realized that much more detail was needed than I had provided. HERBS: The Answer Lady Tells All was the result.
The front and back covers show me at my real Answer Booth. Between the covers are the answers to all the questions you may have had about herbs from seed to soup. The first half of the book gives the fundamentals of sound herb growing practices. How do you build appropriate soil? What is enough drainage and how do you arrange it? How should seeds be handled? How much sun is full sun? All of this and more is laid out in clear terms. The second part of the book is divided into chapters by herbs. Specifics of growing each are included along with some history. Recipes for cooking and safe traditional remedies are featured along with ways to use the herb for fragrance, crafts or decoration. All herb lovers will enjoy this book but those who garden in hot climates will be especially grateful for the notes directed at their specific challenges.
If you'd like to have the book sent as a gift, wrapping and a gift tag will be included free of charge. Just e-mail the specifics of your request.
THE ANSWER LADY'S 2010 GARDEN NOTES
visit often and work along with me for the most successful, most flavorful gardens ever in 2010. E-mail questions or thoughts to kathryn at theanswerlady dot com
|JULY 12--Cucuzzi for dinner-an easy recipe We ate our first Cucuzzi of the season last night. This is an edible gourd with many aliases: Zuchetta Rampicante, Serpent of Sicily, Italian Edible Gourd, Tasmanian Bean and quite a few others. It makes baseball bat sized gourds if left to mature. Apparently the large fruits are useful in the other ways gourds are used but at 12" long they are delicious squash-like vegetables. I sliced this one thinly, sauteed in olive oil, and sprinkled it with salt, pepper and garlic. YUM! Actually, we used "No-salt" salt substitute which is potassium rather than sodium based and it worked out just fine. Although very similar to summer squash in flavor and texture, I find this a little bit less watery and a little bit more tasty. The vines are magnificently energetic and heat tolerant. Like other members of its family, Cucuzzi is easily killed by squash vine borers but so far, we are OK this year. click here for a news photo of a man holding a mature Cucuzzi|
|JULY 7--heat helps With another heat wave headed our way, it seems a good time to review the best techniques to protect the garden from damage. Remember to water early and late. During the heat of the day, many plants cannot actually take up water from their roots so watering is wasted. It can even cause some problems. Mulch is our best ally. Besides conserving water, it keeps the soil and the root zone cooler. More is better. By this time, the plants are quite large so 2-4" is desirable. Some gardeners even use 6" with good results. We cleaned the chips out of our wood shed and had plenty so this year I am one of the thick mulch crowd. So far it is showing positive results. The ideal mulch is wood chips, bark or pine straw. If you don't have enough, newspaper spread beneath a thin layer of any of these is a big help. Potted specimens survive much better if placed in a shallow dish of water and allowed to draw it up as needed. Wading pools are going on sale and can be a big help with this. To keep the roots of potted plants cooler, place the pot within a larger pot and fill the outer one with soil, too. The roots will not have access to it of course. Instead, the large pot serves as a layer of insulation, keeping the roots from cooking.|
|JULY 1--lemon grass laugh Lemon grass has numerous uses: flavoring for Thai food, cooling tea, and a mild treatment for colds and flu in traditional medicine. I like it for all these things which is why I decided to try some from seed this year. Here's a surprise, though: one of my cats just loves it. He is perfectly healthy so I don't think he's medicating himself but I have caught him on several occasions munching magnificently on my seed-grown clump. I started to yell but then changed my mind and decided to share. I instructed him to CHEW only, not to PULL and so far he has. It's a very funny sight to see.|
|JUNE 30--another garden use for soda bottles If you will be busy or traveling during the coming holiday weekend you may be worried about your garden plants getting enough water in your absence. Soda bottles to the rescue again. Drill a small hole in each bottle cap. Fill each bottle with water. Insert each bottle cap down a few inches into the soil next to a plant that needs to be watered. The water will seep out very slowly at the root zone. This really works well!|
|June 26--a free fly [and other bug] trap Suddenly, our back door was over-run by flies. yuck. Naturally, they came in the back door every time we went out so then we had flies in the house. Here is what worked: cut a 2 liter soda bottle in half, just as shown below for the self-watering planter posted on March 26 below, except make the cut higher. The goal is to end up with a funnel [originally the top part of the bottle] that will fit upside down into the base with 1.5" between the original bottle opening and the floor of the whole contraption. Put 1" of water in the base, add a squirt of dish washing detergent and a spoonful of canned cat or dog food or meat scraps. The goal is rotting flesh smell. I know it's gross but that's what attracts flies. Remove the bottle cap. Place the funnel upside down into the base and press it down firmly. Set the whole icky thing where the flies are hanging out. They'll go in to search out what they consider to be the yummy smell and cannot find their way out. Incredibly effective at reducing the fly surplus! I think this trap with a lure targeted at the tastes of the insect you are trying to entice would probably work for other insects. Japanese beetles would probably visit to seek out a floral scent. As a gardener, I do not approve of trapping bees and wasps as they are pollinators and I think we can learn to get along with them. However, if you MUST do so, this style of trap is less offensive to the rest of the garden and its inhabitants than sprays.|
June 25--more about making gingerale from water kefir grains
Here's a little more info that new gingerale chefs may find useful. The ebay id of the person I bought my grains from is sneakerboxx. I was happy with the service and the product. I'm sure there are other good sources out there but this was quick and easy. My start cost me $6 including postage and at first, made a quart at a time. They have grown and will now make a gallon! [sluuuurp!] There is a very supportive yahoo group on the subject called kefir_making which discusses both water and milk kefir varieties. They are similar but distinct products. There is a fantastically informative website on the subject of kefir kept up by an Australian man named Dom who I'm pretty sure is the world's most experienced kefir maker. From the basic site, there are zillions of links and additional sites, many also Dom's. This site will tell you more than you EVER need to know to make successful gingerale but you may find it interesting.
JUNE 24--home grown gingerale The recent heat wave has us consuming oceans of liquids. Here's a way to make gingerale that is very low in sugar. It is also a probiotic drink with many health benefits. PLUS it is absolutely delicious. The process depends on "kefir grains" otherwise known as Tibicos. There is a good information page on these in Wikipedia at this link. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tibicos These little grains are actually living organisms that are similar to those that create yogurt from milk. I purchased mine in dried condition on ebay, reconstituted them and they got right to work. All sorts of flavors are possible using this culture but here is the recipe for the gingerale we have been enjoying:
1 oz. fresh ginger sliced
1 whole lemon washed and cut in half
1 cup turbinado sugar [Kroger carries this right next to the regular sugar]
1 gallon of filtered water [must not contain chlorine]
at least 1/2 cup water kefir grains
bring 1 pint of the water to a boil with the lemon and ginger in it. Allow it to cool. Pour everything into a gallon jar. Give it a good stir. Cover with a cloth held down by a rubber band. Place it away from direct sunlight but at room temperature. In 24 hours, the grains will have caused fermentation. The solution will be greatly reduced in sweetness and you'll see bubbles in it. If this has not happened yet, give it a few more hours but in my house, 24 hours is ample. Strain the liquid and put it in jars with the lids tightly screwed on. Repeat the recipe with the same kefir grains over and over and over. The strained and bottled liquid will continue to ferment for some time getting less sweet and more fizzy. It is drinkable at any time from the first straining. It does contain a very small amount of alcohol [about 1%]. Once you have succeeded with several batches, feel free to try different flavors from the garden. Adding mint is an obvious choice. I know that some are reluctant to use sugar. I am myself. But in this case it is essential. The kefir grains absolutely require it to thrive and artificial sweeteners will not provide what they need to survive. Research has shown that at least 80% of the sugar is consumed in the fermentation process so we are ingesting very little of it.
JUNE GARDEN NOTES: June 22 variety report
Well, it's June and it's HOT--about 2 weeks in a row with days over 90 degrees. I am very glad that I chose Sunmaster Tomatoes as they produce nicely even in this heat. We have been eating our first ripe tomatoes this week. The peppers are also thriving but nowhere near ready to harvest yet. I am extremely pleased with the Pistou basil so far. It has a lovely shape and aroma and have given no trouble whatsoever. The other herbs are also thriving. Something keeps eating the toothache plant but, since it is not greatly harmed, I am taking a wait and see attitude. The Knockout Rose at the far right in the photo is doing its usual wonderful thing. As of the photo it was resting a bit. Since then, another major wave of blossoms has emerged. This keeps up from spring through fall. If you can invest in one rose, make it Knockout!
You can read more about these varietal choices below in the January posts where I discussed selecting them. The new raised bed finally did get built and stocked with some lovely topsoil from Southern States. It is positioned in such a way as to catch the run-off from our roof so as to maximize the harvest of rain water. This year, water has not been an issue yet but we all know that it could become one at any time. The photo at right really does not do the garden justice but it will give you an idea at least of what is going on.
|Drainage and flood control May 4 The recent rains have us running outdoors to check on our plants. In my area, the rain was hard enough to bend plants down but not to break them and they are recovering. This is a good time to make the rounds of the potted specimens in your yard. Normally, we worry about keeping pots well enough hydrated, but after a hard rain, the opposite can be a problem. Sometimes the drainage holes become blocked causing plant roots to drown. Check your pots for standing water. If you find any, jiggle the pot until it begins to drain. If necessary, insert something in the drainage hole from below and move it around a bit. I have a couple of planters from Mexico that are very thick un-glazed terra-cotta with no drainage holes at all. These are wonderful for dry climates. They are designed to absorb and release water to the plant roots. But they certainly cannot absorb the amount of moisture we experienced yesterday. Tip such pots gently, holding the root crown in with one hand while the other controls the pot while the excess water escapes. Because we do get extreme rain sometimes, it's best to place moisture loving plants in such containers. At present, my no-drainage planters are holding Texas Tarragon [actually a marigold relative] which can enjoy quite a bit of water. A plant such as lavender that requires superior drainage would be in distress before we could get outside to rescue it.|
Click here to get to the Burpee website to buy a row cover like this
APRIL 12--TRANSPLANTING TO THE GARDEN
Tender garden plants such as tomatoes, peppers and basil must not be set out until we have seen the last of the freezing weather. Generally, the "last frost date" in the Athens area is considered to be April 15-20. What this means is that beyond this time, frost is very unlikely. Therefore, most gardeners set out their tender plants during the last half of April.
The obvious approach is to dig a hole & plop the plant in it. This method has some drawbacks. The plants are making a huge transition from the relative protection of the greenhouse to the outdoors. Suddenly, they'll be exposed to UV radiation, wind and bugs in much greater extremes than previously. A little help with the adjustment can make the difference between plants that thrive and plants that fail.
Plant cells, like human skin cells, adjust to conditions. After a few days of exposure, the stems will become sturdier and the leaves more adept at handling the sunlight. For the first week or so, it is a good idea to place a bit of a windbreak around the new plants. Nothing fancy is required: a bucket or a bail of pine straw positioned on the windward side can greatly moderate the amount of wind that hits the new residents in your garden. If a bit of shade can be supplied for part of the day, that can help, too. Another approach is to use a floating row cover like the one shown at left. These are very light non-woven material that let sunlight in but filter it and moderate wind and temperature simultaneously.
In case of an unexpectedly cold night, high wind or hail, turn a large pot or bucket upside down over each plant. You'll be rewarded for your trouble with healthier plants and earlier tomatoes!
MARCH 26--nifty, free self-watering pots
I did not invent this idea but I am a big fan of it. In most cases, this is a big enough pot to grow the seedlings on until they are ready for the garden. See the photos at right to make your own. If you used the planting blocks shown below, transplanting is a snap. Simply put some soil in the bottom, then the block of soil medium with the plant roots and fill in gently around it with soaking wet potting soil.
Remember to keep fertilizing. If your potting soil has fertilizer built in, great. If not, continue to add dilute liquid to the water.
At first, the water in the reservoir will last several days. As the plants grow, it will get used up more quickly so do keep a close eye on things. But these pots save a LOT of work for you and stress on the plants.
March 17--Transplanting time
The seedlings are outgrowing their blocks and the day for transplanting to larger pots has arrived. This required a trip to Walmart for potting soil. Naturally, I had to look at the plants for sale while I was there.
I do this every year and every year I gnash my teeth in annoyance. In the middle of March, the shelves of the outdoor garden center are fully stocked with plants. These include lettuce, cabbage and collards which is great. If set out now, they will likely thrive. But there, in the chilly wind are also nice tomato, pepper and basil plants. What idiocy! Every year thousands of these plants die because March is just not their time.
If you can't resist, look for some that are healthy,sturdy and green without signs of frostbite [drooping, brown spots]. Take them home and nurture them in a warm sunny window until April 15-20. Then harden them off and then set them out. That is the last expected frost date in the Athens, GA area. Tomatoes cannot survive frost. Even if protected well enough so that they do survive, they will not thrive as they are HOT weather plants.
The moral of today's story is: do not trust the garden centers! Inform yourself of the right planting times.
Visit later this week to see some nifty self-watering pots that you can make for free.
FEBRUARY 20: HEALTHY ROOTS
The photo is of baby basil plants, just barely putting out true leaves. The soil block has been cut from the mat sown in January[below] and turned on its side to display the root activity which is marked by the red arrow. It's amazing to realize what is going on under the ground when the plants are still infants! A good seed starting method will produce this sort of vigorous root activity. Knowing that these roots are already down there and working makes the importance of a well chosen feeding schedule obvious.
For another little while, these plants will do well in their mat of neighboring blocks. As the roots grow, they'll get close to one another. The plants must be transplanted to separate pots before the roots intertwine. If we miss the window of opportunity, we can still transplant but will have to cut roots to do so, an event that would set back developement. So it's a good idea to keep a close eye on what is going on below ground, too.
FEBRUARY 20: Bug Off
I am not one of those gardeners who believes that the only good bug is a dead bug. My approach has generally been to encourage sturdy plants, intersperse many varieties, and to encourage beneficial insects and micro-organisms. Often, this approach enables the plants to fight their own battles. Big invasions of damaging insects are uncommon when everything remains in balance.
Unfortunately, the gardener controls only the microcosm of his own garden. The macrocosm sometimes falls apart around us, producing unpleasant effects. A recent example is Argentine ants. Individually, they are no big deal as they are tiny, don't bite and don't carry disease. But times a zillion, they are a problem. They were farming luxuriant plantations of aphids and scale on my sunroom lime tree and foraying into the kitchen. When I saw them scoping out the tomato seedlings, I had to get down to business.
Many hours of research later, I decided to try a new-ish product called Orange Guard which depends for its effectiveness on d-limonene extracted from orange peels. I was impressed by its safety record. The company website clearly posts safety data and effective usage for various purposes. My order arrived and I sprayed the lime tree trunk and all visible ant trails with full strength Orange Guard. I diluted it and sprayed the tree's foliage. I wiped down every surface that seemed a popular ant hang out. And it is working! A week into the experiment the results are impressive. And the orangy-smelling spray is pleasant and safe to handle.
From what I have read, my approach is not likely to kill the entire colony. That is OK with me. The ants may have a useful nitch, they just can't have my whole house and garden. I'm keeping an open mind. I may have to adjust my control measures to include bates that will more aggressively attack the whole colony. But I am pleased so far and also looking forward to trying Orange Guard on other insect emergencies should they arise.
FEB 2. Work began on the new garden spot yesterday. I figured that cold and damp was good digging weather. Soon I was hot and damp. However progress was better than I'd hoped. I have to dig up a lot of stone paving plus vinca and some other plants that have overgrown the area. At this point, I can see that success is possible so I feel pleased and virtuous. The new area is to be bounded by stone and made into a raised bed with the addition of a lot of compost--more compost than I have. I'm having some trouble locating a source. Stable cleanings are no longer ideal because so many fields are treated with Graze-on. This is a selective weed killer. It's safe for the animals but enough of it passes through them to be hard on some garden plants that share genetic characteristics with the targeted weeds. Anybody know where to buy good compost in bulk?
FEB 5 Seedlings and Light
The majority of my seeds have sprouted in spite of the intermittently gloomy weather. They are in an enormous south facing window in the warm kitchen. This is just about an ideal place to start seeds. Even so, they lean towards the light and must be turned every day or two to remain sturdy and healthy. Seedlings require tremendous amounts of light to truly thrive. Weakness, spindliness, leaning, pale green are all symptoms of insufficient light. Plants weakened in this way are highly succeptible to other troubles.
If you don't have an ideal window, artificial light can help. However, the lighting that allows you to see is nowhere close to enough to keep the seedlings strong. Reading the label on Gro-lights can be a real education. Check out the number of lumens and the amount of time they are supposed to be on. In the absence of fancy equipment, simple things can help a lot. Here's one inexpensive trick: cover a tri-fold poster display board with aluminum foil. Place it on the room side of the plants so that the light from your window is reflecting back on the plants. Because the board has 3 faces, the light will refract more than once. You'll be amazed at the difference this simple step can make in the vigor of your seedlings.
FEBRUARY 10--time to fertilize
Newly sprouted seeds don't require fertilizer. The seed contains enough to support the young plants at first and the use of fertilizer at this stage can "burn" the them, meaning chemically damage the sensitive young tissues. More is not better and over-fertilizing may result in the demise of your precious seedlings. The first leaves that show are not true leaves, though they are an excellent sign. You'll notice that the next set are the leaves that show the characteristics associated with the specific plant. These are the first "true" leaves. When they appear, it's about time to start fertilizing. Most seed starting medium is light on nutrients so everything must be provided by the gardener. Actually, that's good because it gives us control over what the seedlings do and do not get exposed to. I like to use liquid fertilizer and select one that containes micronutrients along with the big 3. The liquid disperses more evenly in water to make sure that all the babies get some help and nobody gets an adult dose. Speaking of which, it is recommended to dilute the fertilizer more for seedlings than for adult plants. The micronutrients are very useful in promoting root developement and increasing overall vigor. Their presence can make a big difference in the survival rate at transplanting time. My favorite fertilizers are the ones that are quite dilute and are to be used at every watering. This gives us maximum control and time to react if the seedlings show any signs of stress.
Last year's garden left something to be desired. But a new year and a fresh start engender new hope. Assessing the short comings of my last garden, I have identified 2 failings: 1)cheap, poorly chosen seeds and 2) insufficient sun because my trees have grown since I chose the garden spot. Number 2 will be addressed by moving the sun lovers to a new position.
This year I have selected seeds for flavor and fun with an eye on heat and disease tolerance as well. Here are the selections sewn indoors the week of January 17, 2010. They are sown in a high dome proagator with vents using pre-formed peat blocks. This is my all time most successful seed starting method.
SUNMASTER TOMATOES produce fruit even when temperatures exceed 90% as they often do here. They are very disease resistant, tasty and have done well for me in the past.
TOMATILLOS are an heirloom plant that require similar conditions to tomatoes. They make that fantastic green salsa sometimes served in Mexican restaurants
MARCONI RED AND ACONCAGUA peppers are experimental this year. Marconi is Italian, Aconcagua is Argentinian. Both are native to climates a little less hot than here so I'll have to watch over them but both are purported to be so sweet and delicious that I could not resist trying. Also, both are heirloom varieties that will permit me to save my own seeds if they succeed.
PISTOU BASIL is an improved Minette variety. Minettes have performed very well in my garden in the past. They are flavorful, productive and tiny so they make good edging. Pistou is supposed to excel in all these departments. Can't wait.
ZAATAR MARJORAM is a Middle Eastern variety said to be superlative for cooking and with more flavor complexity than most Marjorams. It is said to be deer resistant. Having dogs, I don't get deer in my garden but many in this area do so Zaatar could be a find.
STEVIA is a naturally sweet herb that I grow most years. It is "unimproved" meaning that the plants vary a great deal as little selective breeding has taken place. So sprouting times vary greatly as does the look and size of the plants. What nevery varies is sweetness and heat tolerance. I use the herb primarily in iced tea but there are many other uses.
TOOTHACHE PLANT is an ornamental and medicinal plant from Brazil. It reportedly has analgesic components in its red and orange flower heads. It is often eaten in salads where people grow it. When I saw it in the catalogue, it looked like too much fun to miss. Each year I try something experimental. This year it's toothache plant.
LEMON GRASS is a real grass used mostly for tea and for Thai cooking. Occasionally it will winter over here in a sheltered area but certainly not this winter. There is no hope of seeing last year's plants next spring so I'm starting fresh ones. It's great for flavor and trouble free in heat and humidity as long as it gets enough water. The Bush Doctor I met in Jamaica recommends it as the first line of defense for colds and flu.
Where did this stuff come from?
Pinetree Garden Seeds
These seed companies have served me reliably for many years. The Sunmaster tomatoes were hard to come by this year but I was determined to find them and finally located some on ebay through a seller with good feedback.
WEEK OF JANUARY 24
The stevia popped up first which is amazing because they sometimes take up to a month. Basil and toothache plant are germinating too.
JANUARY 27--THOUGHTS ON TOMATOES IN POTS:
I have heard from some fellow gardeners who have even fewer sunny spots than I do and need to grow their sun-lovers in odd spots. Tomatoes may be successfully grown in 5 gallon buckets or pots of such a size. One person grows them along the driveway which is his only sunny spot and harvests them every day when he gets home from work. Drill holes for drainage and fill the buckets with premium topsoil. If I were doing it, I'd mix the soil with composted manure. The Sunmaster that I love is not a small plant and needs support but is not the largest I have grown either and it is soooo productive and trouble free that it is the tomato I'd choose even for pots. If you want cherry tomatoes, Sweet Million is a winner--also large but supportable and super tasty and productive. But my neighbor bought Better Boys and tomato cages from Walmart last year and did fine in 5 gallon buckets in his one sunny spot. In fact he gave me tomatoes when my Rutgers were languishing. Pots that large will grow most tomatoes. If you have to be away for more than a few hours, put them in a wading pool partly filled with water so they can bottom water themselves. Not necessary in April or May probably when the plants are still smallish but by mid-summer, they will be filling the pots and very demanding. Wading pools are inelegant but a very cheap water resevoir and they work miracles.
JANUARY 29: What's so great about this seed starting method?
Lot's of things. To start off the list: it's neat, reasonably priced, not too bad to store.
The blocks have some sort of binder in them that is really effective. Unlike some other peat products, they stay intact right through to transplanting time so the plants may be placed in larger pots or in the garden with vitually no shock. Unlike peat pots, they allow much more root penetration and transmit air and water more easily. Roots devlope withgood airation and without restriction. There is a good sized seed depression in the center of each one that really works to accept and protect each seed and makes sowing a piece of cake. They are completely sterile so damping off ceases to be a problem. They hold moisture in just the right amount. Although the fact is not touted, I suspect that the acidity level of the peat has been adjusted because even lime lovers start well in this medium.
The vented dome on the propagator prevents the plants from cooking when the sun streams in the window and I'm not home to tend them. The high dome allows for protection of young plants as they develope. Tomatoes outgrow shorter domes almost immediately. The higher humidity maintained within the dome improves germination time and rate.
Using this combination of products, it is not unusual to get 100% germination and for the speed the be double or more what you may be accustomed to.
I've tried oodles of seed starting methods. From sterilizing garden soil in the oven[what a stench!]to making my own soil blocks. Of course, if you give the seeds light, moisture and clean soil, anything will work. But this method offers superior results with moderate expense and almost no mess.