Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Herb Week Day 2: Dill (Anethum Graveolens)

I'm so thankful for the mild winter we had. While my four-year-old was upset that, "We only got to go sledding ONCE, Mom!", I was thrilled to see some plants in my garden growing where I'd never planted them! I've got lots of dill (Anethum graveolens) this year, I assume because the seeds were in my compost and were not killed off by the cold. When I noticed them growing in the bed I'd planned for peppers, I quickly dug them up and gave them a proper spot in the herb garden.

Fresh dill just screams summertime to me. It's used in lots of light summer dishes and gives each one that extra taste complexity. What would a summer potato salad be without dill? Nothing, I tell you!

Dill is one of the easiest herb to grow from seed sprinkled on top of the soil in spring. It likes full sun and mostly dry conditions. I grow it in the potager, in a raised bed with quick drainage.

Fresh dill should be harvested before the plant goes to flower. Once it flowers, foliage production is diminished as the plant puts it's energy toward seed production, and the flavor is not as strong. If your's have gone to flower, though, it's not too late. You can still use the dill seed in dishes that call for dill. After flowering, collect the seed heads, tie the cut ends of the stem together, and hang them upside down in a paper bag. The ripened seeds will dry and fall into the bag. They can then be stored for later use. Fresh dill can also be dried using a dehydrator, or frozen.

Not only is dill a great herb, it also provides enjoyment in the garden by way of attracting butterflies. Many of them use dill as a host plant for caterpillars. We've had some swallowtails lay eggs there early in the spring, and have had to be careful to wash off those eggs before using the dill in recipes!

Dill looks great in the flower garden, as it has striking yellow/chartreuse flowers that add lots of summer interest.
Medicinally, dill is said to help with digestive problems, menstrual cramps, bad breath, and altitude sickness.

I have two favorite ways to use dill. One way is for my famous deviled egg recipe - just regular deviled eggs topped with a sprig of dill and smoked salmon. The other way is in cucumber salad, just thinly sliced cucumbers mixed with a dollop of sour cream and some dill sprinkled on. Dill is wonderful on salmon and other fish, and is a nice addition to homemade dips and salad dressings.

Try some new dill recipes to enjoy this summer favorite!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Herb Week Day 1: Lemon Verbena (Aloysia triphylla)

Lemon verbenaIn my garden, the herbs are going nuts. I think it's the combination of the intense heat and sunshine of late in the Chicago area that has my herb garden happier than ever. So this week, as I'm harvesting so many different herbs, I thought I'd share a few of my favorites and how I'm growing, harvesting, and enjoying them. Visit daily for more tips, pics, and recipes!

Lemon Verbena (Aloysia triphylla) is a new one for me. I drink a lot of herbal tea in the cooler months, so I planned early on to add a wider variety of tea herbs so that I can make my own tea, organically. The lemon scent is so vibrant and refreshing, it's pretty incredible to this newbie verbena grower.

I grow lemon verbena in an old shipping crate (read: excellent drainage) near my kitchen door. It gets morning shade and afternoon sun, and about an inch of water a week during this drought. It loves these conditions and is growing vigorously. Since lemon verbena grows year-round only in zones 9-10, it is an annual plant in our area.

Lemon verbena can get quite out of shape, so I harvest it when it starts looking out of bounds, cutting off about six to ten inches of each stem.

This plant is so versitile, there are many ways to enjoy it. It's refreshing lemony scent will freshen the air, so it is a great plant to bring indoors and use in cut flower arrangements. Recently, I removed a bunch of leaves, stuffed them in a mason jar, and set it outside in the sun for a few hours. I then strained the water into a fresh glass and added ice. It was a very refreshing drink on a scorcher of a day. For hot tea, simply steep a half cup of fresh leaves in one cup of water.

You can create lemony flavored baked goods by bruising (squishing up) some verbena leaves and mixing them with sugar and letting that sit overnight. The leaves should be removed before using the lemon-flavored sugar for baking.

Lemon verbena will retain it's scent for years when dried, and dries quickly using a dehydrator or laid out on a baking sheet and placed in a 200 degree oven for 2-3 hours. I plan to dry lots for this long Chicago winter/tea season. Because it retains it's scent so well, it is a great herb for potpourri or in drawer fresheners. Additional uses of lemon verbena include insect repellant, aromatherapy (throw a handful into your next hot bath), and as a welcome addition to salads, seafood dishes, and fruity drinks. Medicinally, it is said to help with fighting colds, depression, digestion, insomnia, and stress.

Lemon verbena recipes: Over 100 recipes for lemon verbena from bakery items to cocktails to ice cream, to salads. I can't wait to try some of these!

So, if you've never grown this herb, I encourage you to plant it next season!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Prime Time at Churchill Park, Glen Ellyn

If you have not been out to visit the natural areas at Churchill Park (271 St. Charles Road, Glen Ellyn) yet, now is a perfect time to go. So many different plants are in bloom; it's really a spectacular sight. Gold finches were everywhere, joining the butterflies and dragonflies and making the prairie come alive.

"This is really prime time for the park," said Renae Frigo, naturalist for the Glen Ellyn Park District.

It's the perfect place to drop by for a 10 minute walk around the boardwalk, enough time to recharge your brain and take in the sunshine. Or spend a few hours exploring the prairie, ponds, and forest trails. Either way, just get there!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Can Gardens Ever Be "Low-Maintenance"?

Recently, I read "Why I Don't Believe in Low Maintenance Landscapes" by well-known landscape architect and blogger Thomas Rainer. He argues that every landscape needs weeding, watering, and general, well, maintenance. That in search of a low-maintenance landscape, homeowners choose a boring triad of lawn, groundcovers, and foundation plantings which over time still need lots of maintenance including mowing, edging, trimming, and pruning.

So, is there such a thing as a low-maintenance landscape? It's one of the first features that clients ask for. Let's face it - we're a busy society, and many people don't want to spend time working in their gardens. I get that, but I have to agree with Rainer, who says that "Low maintenance is permission to disengage, pull away, and let go. When we do that, our landscapes suffer."

Reduce Lawn
I do, however, think that we can make choices in our landscapes that allow us to spend less time maintaining them. First, we can reduce or eliminate our lawns. Think about how much time is spent seeding, mowing, edging, fertilizing, watering, aerating, and dethatching lawns. Not to mention how much money is spent, and environmental damage is done, by all of the above. There are lower maintenance options to traditional bluegrass lawns.

Birds love the berries of Myrica pensylvanica
Smaller Shrubs
We can also select smaller varieties of shrubs that won't require pruning to stay in bounds. Myrica pensylvanica (Northern Bayberry), one of my favorite shrubs for wildlife, grows to a height of 12 feet and a spread of 10 feet. Not a shrub for most front yard landscapes. But Myrica pensylvanica 'Morton' (Silver Sprite Bayberry) still has all the beauty and wildlife goodness as the straight species, but only reaches 5 feet tall and 7 feet wide. Sited correctly, it would only need very minimal pruning every four years or so to take out damaged or crossed branches.

The Right Plant in the Right Place
I can't tell you how many times I see trees planted too close to the house, requiring annual pruning. Not good for the health of the tree, or your busy schedule! Be sure to check the mature size of trees you are considering for your landscape and plant accordingly.

Choose Natives
Native plants generally require less water once established, don't need fertilizing, help stormwater filter into the ground to recharge aquifers, and provide an important food source for wildlife. Native plants also bring in those beneficial insects that will help take care of the bad ones, reducing or eliminating the need to spend time and money spraying pesticides.

There is no such thing as a NO maintenance landscape, but I do believe we can make choices that commit us to less work in the yard. Rainer goes on to say, "Instead of low maintenance landscapes, we need high investment landscapes. High investment landscapes have engaged owners who make smart decisions about the kinds of treatments that will last over time. High investment landscapes focus not just on time and money, but the compounding rewards of lots of small acts of love and care in the garden." And isn't that what gardening is all about?

Tina Koral is a self-described "plant geek" and owner of Tina Koral Gardens, a landscape design studio in Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hosta "Empress Wu"

I think I first learned about Hosta 'Empress Wu" on Pinterest.

That's one big hosta! Photo credit

Empress Wu is named after the only female Emperor of China, and might be the biggest hosta in the world. It grows to 4 feet tall and 5-6 feet wide. The dark green leaves can reach 18 inches long and set off the lavendar flowers.

At first, I couldn't figure out if a hosta that big was really neat, or just obnoxious. Once I found out my local supplier had them, I just had to try a couple out. I'm going to plant them on either side of the kids' playhouse, giving it a fun, Alice in Wonderland type feel.

And if the kids go missing in the backyard, I'll know where to look.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Birdscaping My Garden - Before and After

Back in March I told you about a new garden bed I was designing at my home. I had to tear out a bed that was located next to my deck to accomodate for some construction that we had done over the winter. I wanted to create a garden that would be friendly to birds, bees, and butterflies so that we could watch the activity from the house and deck. Here is the before shot:

And here is how it looks today:

The birds love this garden. They are constantly at the bird bath and hopping about through the plants. I've got tons of bumblebees and butterflies are just starting to show up more often. These are the plants I chose:
  • Cornus florida 'Cherokee Brave' (Flowering Dogwood) 
  • Aronia melanocarpa 'Morton' (Black Chokeberry)
  • Caryopteris incana 'Jason' (Sunshine Blue Mist Shrub)
  • Ceanothus americanus (New Jersey Tea)
  • Hypericum kalmianum (Shrubby St. John's Wort)
  • Echinacea 'Alba' (White Coneflower)
  • Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepeta (Calamint)
  • Liatris spicata 'Kobold' (Blazingstar)
  • Sesleria autumnalis (Autumn Moor Grass)
  • Allium cernuum (Nodding Wild Onion)
As you can see, I did not go completely native, however, the plants that I chose that are not native (Calamintha nepeta, Caryopteris, and Sesleria) were selected because they still attract pollinators and/or provide a neat, clean look, and they are just some of my favorite plants!

This garden is adjacent to a shade garden with Amelanchier grandiflora (Serviceberry), which is a great plant for attracting birds, who love the berries in summer.
This picture doesn't do the plants justice, but I love
the combination of Echinacea 'Alba', Liatris spicata 'Kobold',
Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepeta, and Seslaria autumnalis.

Echinacea 'Alba'

Ceanothus americanus

Liatris spicata 'Kobold'. This took the place of Dalea purpurea,
which was quickly eaten by baby bunnies in the spring.
The bird bath has been a valuable water source for my wildlife visitors,
especially in the oppresive heat and dryness of this season.
How my Cornus florida 'Cherokee Brave' should look in the spring. I can't wait!
photo credit

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Be a Mom CEO. Just do it!

That's me in the small photo!

Check out the July issue of Chicago Parent magazine for a great article by Kiran Ansari titled "Mom CEO." It has some great inspiration for mom's thinking about taking the plunge into starting your own business from home.

This is the third season of my landscape design business, and I absolutely love what I do. Being able to stay home with my little ones is very important to me, but so is having a career. Owning my business gives me the best of both worlds - lots of time to be with the kids, and challenging, creative work where I meet lots of great people to balance it out. For me, this often means working lots of late nights, but the work is fun, the amount of work I take on is mine to control, and the commute to my home office couldn't be better.

If you're a stay at home mom and have an idea for a business, I say "Just do it." Start with something that you can do in your spare time (what's that?) and for a low initial investment. I did return to school for a horticulture degree at my local community college, and between tuition, books, and a nanny, it was a big investment. But starting the business itself has been relatively inexpensive.

Also, consider a partner. Do you have a friend that you think you'd work well with? That could help take the pressure off getting all aspects of the business up and running yourself. I like this advice, which was given in the Chicago Parent article, "If you choose to work with a partner, try to find someone that complements what you do. It is easier to divide and conquer than to argue over every issue because you're good at the same thing." Within the next few years, I'd love to expand my business with a partner who is a plant geek like me, but would oversee small scale landscape installations and help with marketing. We'd both have two different areas of the business to run, but would be working toward the same goals. I've just got to find that right person.

So, take the plunge! Don't wait until all the conditions are right (ie., when the kids are in school all day). Work the business into your life on a small scale, and plan to grow from there. Good luck!

Pick up your issue of Chicago Parent magazine - it's free and available at most train stations, libraries, and places families hang out. Or you can read the article online here.