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Episode 39 – Favorite herbs, the secret to cilantro, and a new, non-toxic way to manage slugs

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

Got “thyme” on your hands? Grow some herbs, it’s easy – all you need is sunshine and some containers. It’s easy, ornamental, healthy, and flavorful. Convenient for cooking. Plus, herbs tend to be pest-free! 

Lemongrass, Cymbopogon citratus: Great botanical name and smells and tastes like Froot Loops! Though it is a tropical plant and only hardy to USDA zone 10, it can be grown as a seasonal container plant, harvested at the end of the season and frozen for future use in Southeast Asian cooking. Beware when you harvest, though – the leaves are like razor blades.

Basil, Oscimum basilicum: Growing this popular herb is incredibly easy – in fact, the hardest part is choosing which of the dozens of varieties you’ll add to your garden! Two recent Proven Winners introductions, Pesto Besto and Amazel Basil Italian sweet basil, are both resistant to downy mildew, a disease that often plagues basil in warm, humid climates. Both are sterile and non-flowering, so they produce a higher yield of usable, deliciously aromatic leaves. For best flavor and leaf production, harvest and or pinch regularly to promote fresh tender growth. And of course, provide plenty of sun and keep from any chill – the basil season ends once nights start dipping into the 40s. Another fun option to look for: ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ basil, a variegated variety that is also sterile. It’s so pretty, you might just use it as a filler in your flower containers! Bonus: both it and the Proven Winners varieties seem to be less susceptible to Asiatic garden beetles, one of the few insect pests that preys on herbs, particularly members of the mint family. 

Thyme, Thymus sp.: Unlike the previous two, thyme is a woody perennial herb that if planted in the right conditions, will provide fresh leaves for you for years to come. For culinary purposes, French and English thyme are best, but don’t neglect wooly thyme, Thymus pseudolanuginosus. Woolly thyme is a perennial herb, with medicinal and culinary uses in addition to ornamental use. Try growing woolly thyme in the cracks between paving stones, along a gravel path, or as part of a xeriscape or drought-tolerant garden. The herb doesn’t mind a bit of rough handling and can be trod upon with no ill effects. In fact, when stepped on, woolly thyme ground cover emits a pleasant fragrance.

Dill, Anethum graveolens: A summer classic for pickles and dilly beans, dill is a wonderful herb for adding a fresh, seasonal taste to nearly anything. I used to grow and pick this on the farm when a kid. Like its relatives fennel and chervil, it attracts lots of bees! Sometimes dill is known as the “meeting house herb,” as it was chewed by Early American children to lull them through long sermons. My parents used peppermint candies during eternal sermons about eternity. Who else remembers being handed a white or pink peppermint at the start of a sermon as a kid? I remember these absorbent discs tasting like cologne if out of my Dad’s pocket or perfume if out of my Mom’s purse. Many people call them “church mints.” We love our herbs and mint is an important plant in our herb collections. But exactly what was in those peppermints we would be passed to get us through those eternal church services as a kid? I remember a guy who sneezed and the mint shot out into the ladies bouffant hairstyle stiffened by Aqua Net. The mint stayed there the whole service. Dill is a short-lived annual, so to keep a supply of lush foliage, you must keep sowing seed through the season. Let some of it flower and go to seed, and soon you’ll find the dill manages that task for you, popping up here and there as conditions allow. Dill really is best started from seed directly in your garden, rather than as a transplant. Sow the seeds in a location that receives at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily. Choose a spot protected from high winds because the tall, hollow stalks can easily blow over if you do not stake them. This same growing advice goes for growing fennel (not the bulb type), chervil, and parsley.

Cilantro, Coriandrum sativum: Now here’s one very divisive herb. People either love it or can’t stand the taste. Julia Child famously validated a hatred for cilantro in a 2002 interview with Larry King when she admitted she detested cilantro, saying it has a “dead taste” to her. Others say it leaves a soap-like aftertaste in their mouths, and some have even likened the taste to crushed bugs. But there’s more to a repulsion of cilantro than picky taste buds: it’s biological. According to a genetic survey by researchers at Cornell University, there’s a very specific gene that makes some people strongly dislike the taste of cilantro. After surveying nearly 30,000 people, the scientists singled it down to the OR6A2 gene. It’s why anecdotally people say cilantro tastes like soap. But aside from the taste, success with cilantro in the garden seems to elude many. That’s because the grocery store has given us unrealistic ideas of how cilantro grows. When you buy a bunch at the grocery store, you’re purchasing probably 8-12 plants’-worth. Like dill, cilantro has to be sown continually to maintain a supply of it. If you’re a big cilantro eater, every two weeks or so should suffice – but be aware that the warmer the weather, the faster cilantro will bolt, or go to seed. Once it does, even the biggest cilantro fan would be hard-pressed to enjoy it. However, it can be allowed to go to seed and will self-sow in some areas; the seeds can also be allowed to mature and used as the spice coriander. 

Lavender, Lavandula sp.: Gardeners around the world have been growing lavender for centuries for its intensely fragrant flowers, beautiful appearance, and ease of culture. Along comes SWEET ROMANCE™ lavender, destined to become a favorite because of its ability to bloom the first year.  Additionally, it begins to flower a bit earlier in the season, typically in early summer and lasting into early fall. Many people think lavender is difficult to grow, but there are two easy solutions: choose a variety that’s hardy in your area, and plant in full sun and very well-drained soil – especially important during winter. The hardiest lavenders include English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, and lavandin, L. x intermedia. The most fragrant lavenders are French (L. dentata) and Spanish (L. stoechas), but these are considerably less cold tolerant and are unlikely to thrive in USDA zone 6 or colder, even if growing conditions are ideal.  Lavender pruning seems confuses people, but it’s best treated just like buddleia: take a little off the top in spring but don’t cut back hard into the woody stems. 

Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis: This fragrant evergreen herb is native to the Mediterranean and loves hot, sunny, dry spots. It’s generally considered hardy to USDA zone 7 so cold climate gardeners often treat it like an annual. However, out here in the super sandy soils of the Lakeshore, Stacey has had it overwinter for over three years, thanks to the excellent drainage and reliable snow cover. To some (including Rick!), rosemary tastes like pine needles, or as he says, “reminds me of pine sol…better off with thyme or sage.” It can be difficult to grow successfully indoors, but if you want to try it, give it as much light as possible, avoid wet soil and watch out for powdery mildew.

Chives, Allium schoenoprasum: Another easy-to-grow perennial herb is chives, an onion-family plant that sends up slender 16- to 18-inch-tall tubular stalks that produce walnut-sized purplish-pink flowers in spring. They’re attractive enough to go in a perennial garden, where you can snip the onion-flavored stalks as you need them to season potatoes. Once chives flower in early summer, their leaf production kind of peters out. To keep your chive plant productive, cut the whole thing back to stubs after it finishes flowering, keep it well-watered, and it will grow a fresh crop of lush leaves for you to enjoy.

Why: Today’s show is herb-themed, and we don’t have anything in the line of Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs that I would consider to be a traditional herb. The closest we can come is elderberry, and it’s safe to say that we’ve kind of revolutionized the market on elderberry with our introduction of Black Lace elderberry. Elderberry – Sambucus canadensis – is a ubiquitous native shrub for most of us in North America. While its foamy white flowers are definitely showy, it wouldn’t normally be a plant that people would choose as an ornamental for a garden or landscape. Though it belong to the species of its closely-related European cousin, Sambucus nigra, Black Lace elderberry completely changes all that with near-black foliage that has a delicate, lacy appearance. It’s one of those plants that you see in a garden center and go, I have to have that! There’s really very few other plants like it. When it blooms, it has pink flower clusters that bring beautiful contrast.

So what makes elderberry an herb of sorts? It has been used in food and medicine for centuries. Though they aren’t very well-known here, elder flowers are used to make a kind of naturally fermented light champagne, they are placed in ice water and other drinks to infuse a light, sweet, anise flavor, and in Scandinavia, the flowers are plucked, battered, and fried to make a fritter. The berries are used extensively too, for eating fresh (only when completely ripe), juicing, and drying. And many people know elderberry as a reliable herbal remedy for cold and flu symptoms, particularly a cough. While we’re definitely not suggesting you eat any part of a Black Lace elderberry – and the foliage and wood are both toxic – it does boast those traditional uses along with its modern day garden appeal.

Who: Not surprisingly, Black Lace elderberry came to us from the UK, where it was rejected from a breeding program for edible elderberries as being too ornamental. Which makes it perfect for Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs! We introduced it several years ago and it has continued to be one of our best-sellers. We often recommend it as a Japanese maple substitute for people in climates too cold to grow them. It doesn’t get the same fabulous fall color, but it does offer a similar texture and look.

How to grow: Elderberry in general is a very durable, easy to grow flowering shrub. It’s not finicky about soil, able to tolerate both wetness and drought, especially once it is established. Full sun will allow the best color and most flowers to develop, but it can take part shade and will in fact benefit from it in USDA zone 7 (the warmest area it will grow well in). If in too much shade, the color will be a muddy greenish-purple – this can also happen in hot climates. Bloom time is early summer, and if you want fruit to develop, you will need a compatible pollinator – that could be Laced Up elderberry or a local population of our native Sambucus canadensis, which usually has the same bloom time. We sell this as an ornamental plant so do not recommend eating the fruit, but if you do, it should be fully ripe before harvesting, even if for drying. 

Elderberries bloom on old wood, so if you want to prune them, immediately after they flower is the best time. They can be pruned in early spring as well, just be aware that will remove some, if not all, flowers, depending on how you prune. If left alone, Black Lace will take on a rounded, hulking appearance, which is beautiful, but many people like to do some artful pruning that helps to highlight the structure this plant can develop. Also, by selectively pruning some branches out and bringing some space into the habit, the lacy effect of the foliage is heightened. Overall, Black Lace elderberry is an exceptionally versatile, exceptionally beautiful flowering shrub that rewards those who couldn’t resist its charms back at the garden center for decades to come.

If you’d like to add Black Lace elderberry – or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

This has all the hallmarks of slugs, which you don’t normally see as an issue on sedum. This is because sedum likes to grow in sunny and dry conditions, and slugs need shaded, damp conditions. However, the irregular holes on the edges of the leaves are very characteristic of what slugs do. That’s stressing the plant, and the fact that it’s not in the ideal conditions, are combining to make it weak. I’m not 100% sure what the red stuff is, but it appears to be mold (also consistent with overly wet, shady conditions), or callous tissue from the damage caused by the slugs.

A very unhealthy sedum plant, sprawling on the ground. A slug eaten sedum stem.

Clematis are slightly toxic to dogs, known to cause stomach upset. And that is why this is such a difficult and complex question to answer: how toxic is toxic? Is it if it will kill a human or pet, or even if they have a stomach ache? What parts of the plant are toxic? How much of the plant would something need to eat to have an effect? With all these variables at play, it’s easy to see why this is not a yes or no question. My recommendation is that everyone do their own due diligence when it comes to plant toxicity, same as you would do when researching if it will grow in your climate, soil, and light conditions. Here’s what I recommend for research: using the search engine of your choice, type in a search for the plant’s scientific name followed by the command site:.edu. This limits your result to just university websites, where the information is coming from veterinary and medical research programs so is accurate and can be trusted. By using the scientific name, you ensure there’s no confusion with another plant that may or may not be toxic but goes by the same common name. Then you have the information you need to decide if you will add it to your yard or not. One last note: even if something is not known to be toxic, that doesn’t mean pets should eat it. 

No, the issue is not that they have different pH requirements. In fact, their cultural needs are the same. What has changed with these newer varieties is that the breeders are attempting to remedy some of the liabilities of the older varieties – in the case of these two species, that is splaying. Splaying describes when a plant’s stems get long and heavy and the whole plant kind of splits open, leaving a hole in the center. The breeders have created these two varieties you referenced to not flop or splay, and they do that by selecting for shorter internodes (the space between leaves), or a slower growth rate. Both of these lead to a denser, shorter, more compact plant, which might be slower-growing than the conventional varieties. 

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above.

Branching News - Rick

  • Recent research from Oregon State University – where they definitely know a thing or two about slugs – reveals bread dough to be the best attractant for trapping slugs. If you are looking for a pesticide-free, non-toxic method for slug control, it turns out that bread dough is even better than the tried-and–true beer. Given its simplicity, low cost, and the ready availability of its ingredients, bread dough has potential not only for crop protection in the United States but also for developing countries where access to pesticides is limited by cost. A dry formulation would likely have an indefinite shelf life and be easy to ship. The researches haven’t yet determined why this simple mixture of flour, water and yeast attracts slugs and snails, but they theorize that it is the fermentation process that draws them over the ingredients themselves. “We gave them a choice of food and they consistently went for the bread dough,” researcher Rory McDonnell said. “They really, really like it. They went bonkers for it. Bread dough outperformed everything.” In one instance, over 18,000 snails were trapped in 48 hours, according to McDonnell. The research revealed the bread dough can be effective in the field in Oregon for at least eight days. Here’s their recipe, if you’d like to try it yourself:
    1 cup flour
    2 cups water, plus more as needed
    1 packet yeast (approx. 2 tsp)
    A small container, like a yogurt or cottage cheese container
    In the container, mix the ingredients together to make a slurry. Exact amount of water will vary depending on your flour and the humidity, but it should be quite liquid, so add water as necessary. Bury the container in your garden with its rim even with the soil surface. Each morning, check the trap and remove any slugs and snails. Stir, add water if necessary, and repeat.
  • Everyone, it seems, is talking about “vibes” these days – but what do they really mean? This recent survey shows that essentials for good “vibes” in your space include:
    Cleanliness – (53%)
    Windows – (32%)
    Good smells – (31%)
    Quiet atmosphere – (25%)
    Music playing – (24%)
    Trendy design – (19%)
    High ceilings – (18%)
    Plants or green space – (16%)
    Comfortable temperature – (16%)
    Abundant seating – (16%)

Indicators of bad vibes include:
Unpleasant smells – (53%)
Dirty environment – (41%)
Too cold or too hot – (37%)
No windows – (33%)
Dead or unkempt plants and greenery – (32%)

  • Word of the day: Flavedo, which refers to the colorful portion of a citrus rind.
  • According to WTAJ, Joshua Jenkins, 42, of Altoona Pennsylvania was arrested Thursday night after he called 911 for a house fire that he reportedly started while “trying to burn spiders.” WTAJ said that police said that Jenkins was “combative when first responders arrived and gave them difficulty trying to locate” the fire. He reportedly told them he was using a butane torch — which WTAJ said actually turned out to be a propane torch — to burn the spiders and their nests from the outside of his home. Use the shoe or relocate method.
  • A Dutch startup company is now selling coffins that biodegrade within 45 days of burial. The company, Loop Biotech, started in 2020 and makes both coffins and an urn model, shipping to Europe and the United States. The company also has investors in both the United States and the Netherlands, including Nature’s Pride founder Shawn Harris. Founders Lonneke Westhoff and Bob Hendrikx said on their website that they wanted to do something to “give humanity a positive footprint.” The pair said they were in awe of the mushroom and how it is able to take dead, fallen trees and turn them into new life. The company takes upcycled hemp and combines it with mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. Together, the mycelium and hemp fibers grow inside a mold. It’s all done in seven days and the coffins biodegrade in 45 days, Hendrikx said. The company’s products can be used in traditional burial, cremations and natural burials, Hendrikx added. In some places, trees can be planted on top of human remains. Once that happens, the human remains become a new food source for the tree, he said.
  • CHARLOTTE, NC — The Charlotte Department of Transportation asked the public to submit ideas for what to call the machine. The public weighed in on what to call it and Sweepy McSweepface got the most votes. The other two names on the final ballot were Clearopathra and Sweep Caroline.
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Pink rose of Sharon flowers bloom on a plant with variegated foliage.

Episode 92 – Weeding by Example

Ah, weeds – maybe the #1 thing that discourages people from gardening. But weeds are interesting and become a lot easier to manage when you apply some basic IPM principles. Featured shrub: Sugar Tip rose of Sharon.

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