Mother Africa Comes to Call

The Sahara occupies most of North Africa

A huge plume of dust rose up out of the Sahara Desert last week and traveled 5000 miles, across the Atlantic, up through parts of Mexico and the American South. The dust hit the Texas Gulf Coast and spread throughout the State. The red African dust has been hanging over my little farm this past week. While the current dusty red atmosphere is new to me, violent wind storms in the Sahara are common. Every year 182 million tons of dust are blown into the upper atmosphere and driven by the trade winds to the Americas. 182 million tons.

The dust, called mineral dust, is loaded with nutrients: primarily iron and phosphorus. When this airborne fertilizer falls into the ocean, it creates a problem endemic to all fertilizers: rampant growth of the wrong thing. A “red tide” of algae growth poisons huge numbers of fish and other marine life. Scientists also believe the microbes in the dust may be poisoning coral contributing to death of coral reefs.

Naturally humans worry about the presence of foreign red dust. It may bring fungus, bacteria and harmful chemical residues. It certainly causes sinus and respiratory issues. And red dust, well, it makes things a dirty, dusty red. Because of the iron.

But it turns out that all these complaints about the red mineral dust do not weigh very heavily since, on the other side of the scale, is its contribution to the generation of oxygen.

Every breath we take is a gift from plants. Rain forests are well known to be the ‘lungs’ of the Earth, burning carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. The African mineral dust often settles on the Amazon rain forest that gratefully soaks up the iron, phosphorus and other nutrients provided by Mother Africa. The Saharan dust is largely responsible for the fertility of the rain forests.

This mineral dust also feeds the world’s oceans. Tiny ocean plants called Phytoplankton use photosynthesis  to live, a process that uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen. The little plants, most of which are invisible to the naked eye, create about half of the oxygen we breathe. Nutrients like the iron and phosphorus in the African mineral dust are in short supply in marine ecosystems. Without the fertilizer from the Sahara, the health of phytoplankton and the oceans would decline significantly. link

I was struggling with my own iron issues when the story of the red mineral dust cloud appeared in the news. I have a persimmon tree that cannot seem to absorb iron so its leaves are a creepy pale green color. I’m treating the problem with a special easy- to- absorb iron called chelated. I hope it works since, if the tree cannot get iron it will die. The iron allows access to crucial enzymes and pigments and is necessary for the tree’s energy production. Which translates into no persimmon sherbet for me. I like the idea that my tree shares a need with the microscopic phytoplankton plants in the ocean.

Of course the necessity of phosphorus, delivered by the Saharan dust, is well known. It is in every bag of fertilizer we buy. It drives the conversion of key biochemical reactions in plants and is a vital part of DNA, our memory unit and the memory unit of plants as well. Phosphorus is a big player in the capture and conversion of the sun’s energy: our old friend, photosynthesis.

So here we have a potential villain. It sweeps across the world killing fish and coral. It makes us sick and dirties our air. But it does the work of a hero by feeding the phytoplankton and the rain forest so we have plenty of oxygen. The red African dust is quite the character. Not one on a human scale as seen on the the stage or a movie screen, but one that comes out of a desert that covers about three and a half million square miles, that measures in tons and travels thousands of miles. It engages with the most crucial building blocks of nature. The red dust exists on a truly grand scale, the scale of a planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pigweed v. Humans

Humans dream up ways to kill unwanted plants. Plants, who are great chemists, dream up ways to resist the onslaught. For example the herbicide, glyphosate (Round-up), kills by targeting a key protein in plants. Most plants have two copies of the gene that makes this protein. Glyphosate is no longer effective against pigweed because the plant has evolved five to 160 copies of this key protein. It fights back with its own genetic modifications.

Carelessweed is another name for pigweed and is the name my grandmother used. I like the old fashioned name a lot since the arrogant weed could care less what humans want. A dozen pigweeds surrounded each of my six tomato plants while I was away on vacation. I just keep pulling pigweed up and it always, always reappears. It is my enemy.

Pigweed swamping soybeans

One pigweed plant can produce half a million seeds, according to a June 2018 article in Scientific American. Each seed is loaded with modern “genetic machinery” to wage and win its war with humans. Some large scale farms have been forced to hire laborers to handpick or blowtorch the weeds. link

Other experts have found that, in good growing conditions a pigweed plant can produce not just half a million seeds, but  1.5 million seeds. And pigweed needs only about two weeks to produce all this seed after flowering. link

Pigweed is not alone in its resistance to chemicals. Other weeds have joined the game. For example, horseweed, common ragweed, giant ragweed, annual ryegrass and johnsongrass are all resistant to glyphosate. Barnyardgrass is resistant to the herbicides propanil, quinclorac and clomazone. Cocklebur and pigweed are resistant to the herbicides Scepter and Classic. Ryegrass is resistant to Hoelon and Osprey. Johnsongrass is resistant to Select and Fusilade. link

I included the names of the herbicides above since you might want to check the labels on product you use to kill weeds in your lawn or garden. They may not work anymore. Of course, the big problem is with big farms–massive fields of soybeans and corn. Agribusiness genetically modifies corn and soybeans so that they are not killed by herbicides. The plan was for the herbicides to kill all plants in a field other than the genetically modified corn or soybeans. It is entertaining to me that weedy plants are developing their own genetic modifications to resist the poisons. Poor Big Ag farmers, they have to keep using more and more of old herbicides and are always on the lookout for “new” and usually more toxic herbicides so they can stay ahead of the plants.

The costs are high– the money expended, the health of the soil, the health of the farmers spraying the chemicals, the health of consumers. We pay the costs yet we may not win the war. There is a “considerable chance,” according Science magazine that “the evolution of pest resistance will outpace human innovation.” Weeding the old-fashioned ways may be the solution in the end.

Amazingly, the leaves, stems and seeds of pigweed are edible and highly nutritious! The leaves can be cooked like spinach or other greens. link I am not enthusiastic about eating it. Just as i am not inclined, unless very hungry indeed, to eat snakes or bugs. Even if they are wildly nutritious. I just don’t like the idea of eating my enemies.

Front Porch Gardening (republished from 6/7/17)

Ruth Stout

To have a garden that is less work. Great idea. The most famous ‘no work’ gardener, and a controversial one, is Ruth Stout. cite  Another garden writer, Steve Solomon offers his own controversial advice–often in opposition to the venerable Ms. Stout. cite

Gardening is always controversial, it’s the natural state of it. Gardeners are imagined by non-gardeners to be serene, benevolent souls; in fact, the desperate fight with insects, the vagaries of maintaining good soil, the ever-losing battle with the weather create a productive but opinionated person.

Ask 10 gardeners a question: get 15 answers. So all beloved garden writers are surrounded by disagreement, and I think they love it. Ruth Stout, born in 1884 is said to have been a women’s rights activist and smashed saloons with Carry Nation in Prohibition-era Kansas.  She was an advocate of working au natural  in her Connecticut garden that produced prodigiously. She was active in her garden until her death at age 96.

Stout in her garden (with clothes on)

Stout is most famous for what she called ‘her method’ of gardening–basically laying down 8 inches of hay throughout the garden. Her ploughman failed to show up one year and she began a process of no-till planting with the hay application and describes her success eloquently, if somewhat stridently, in her books. Her books are fun; for example How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back. In a magazine interview she said she did not “plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. I use just one fertilizer (cottonseed or soybean meal), and I don’t go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile.” Fun, right? link

Solomon in his garden

Many gardeners find the heavy mulch attracts slugs and other insects along with mice. Steve Soloman agrees. He gardened in the Pacific Northwest and was a fan of mulching with a layer of very fine soil. I wrote about Chinese gardeners using this technique earlier this year. link My soil is far too heavy to create the powdery texture that succeeds as a mulch. Gardeners in the South complain that this kind of mulch does not stand up to 100 degree days.

Solomon’s bare soil was hoed constantly and very lightly tilled. His garden produced very large quantities of food for his family. Part of the reason for his success was that he used only the highest quality seed. Solomon, who founded the Territorial Seed Company, set the standard for quality seeds in this country. In his books, he is adamant that manure, mulching and composting are not enough to create a garden with food that contains good nutrition at harvest. He writes that poor soil, stripped in his climate of nutrients by heavy rains, creates poor food for animals, the manure and compost are then poor and the food produced poor in nutrients. To avoid this outcome he liberally used a good organic fertilizer, lime, cottonseed meal, kelp, and rock phosphate or bone meal.

Some of Solomon’s most difficult advice to gardeners is that some ground in the garden should be fallow once every three years. One year of planting, the next year in cover crops and the third year entirely at rest. I thought this would be hard, but have found it easy to just avoid planting certain areas every year or so. I lay down a really thick layer of hay on my fallow ground, since my prairie grasses are very enthusiastic and their roots go down 10 feet or so. There is no way I could just till them up–and I don’t till anyway. In this rainy year the grasses stay ahead of me on the fallow ground and the non-fallow ground. It seems I am laying down more hay every time I go out. I follow Stout’s mulching method for most of the year. It doesn’t create any additional insect problems for me and keeps the ground cool through the summer. Mulching with hay is not no work for me; but it works well for my plants. In the spring, I leave the soil bare for a while to let the sun warm it. I don’t really mind hoeing during that time.

If you are going to garden well, you need about 15 minutes every single day. Then you can sip a cool drink and ‘front porch garden’ the rest of the day. Some years, it is easier to go out daily. If those 15 minutes stack up then, it’s ‘work’. No way around it.

 

 

 

Lungs of the Earth (republished from 5/31/17)

Plantswoman is enjoying some summer traveling and will return with new post on June 27th.

Pollen, the sticky stuff of life for flowers, grasses, bees and butterflies offers us a window into the past of the Sahara Desert. Scientists have discovered pollen that is thousands of years old. It reveals that the Sahara was once a paradise full of trees. Why this land of tropical trees, lush vegetation and many, many lakes turned to desert is being studied. link Disagreement rages. For example, Gavin Schmidt of NASA believes that 8000 years ago the tilt of the Earth changed from 24.1 degrees to 23.5 degrees. Dr. David Wright believes humans were a factor and that grazing and agriculture destroyed the lush green world and led to desertification. link

Deserts are beautiful, they just don’t help us breathe. Trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. And they do more than just provide the oxygen. Like any good set of lungs, trees filter pollutants and clean the air for us. A new study estimates that the Earth has three trillion trees. These trees are represented in the graphic to the left in the dark green bands. Another study estimates that 400 billion mature leafy trees exist and these big trees produce enough clean oxygen “… for the lifetime of ten people each season! There are 400 billion trees, 6.7 billion people on Earth — every person has 60 trees.” link

I am pretty happy having 60 trees making oxygen for me. I don’t think this is a question of a crisis so much as an issue of caretaking. I thought I had lost a chicken but she appeared several days ago with baby chicks. This is a creature not generally admired for intellect, but she understands caretaking. There are 5 or more hawks circling during each day; she keeps her babies near the crawlspace of the porch or near a deep opening beneath a rose bush. She covers them with her wings when the dogs or other chickens threaten. I have no idea where she takes them at night. It poured rain two nights ago, the sky was alight for hours with lightening with attendant thunder. The chicken was out the next morning taking care of her dry, healthy babies scratching for bugs.

How do we take care of our trees and forests? I have planted at least dozen trees and take great care of the 40 or so mature trees on my property. I never buy anything made with exotic wood; I have given up live Christmas trees.  I gripe here often about clear cutting forests. Will this save my 60 trees? Will that preserve my share of clean oxygen? I have no idea.

WIRED magazine recently ran an article entitled “All the Trees Will Die, and Then So Will You” that described, among other things, the terrible insect and disease damage presently ravaging trees. link We will soon be seeing the summer wildfires raging across thousands of acres of forests.

Caretaking of forests has separated successful countries from the unsuccessful. link Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed  describes the Japanese campaign to preserve their forests initiated 300 years ago. Most of this small island full of people remains forested. Diamond contrasts the success of Japan with Haiti and North Korea where deforestation has led to land erosion, poverty and famine. He also relates the well-worn tale of Easter Island, where the inhabitants lived prosperous lives; so prosperous that they were able to carve statues 13 feet high weighing 14 tons. They cut every tree. The deforestation of the island led to decline, led to a few suvivors living a feral existence in caves eating rats and mice and possibly engaging in cannibalism.

In the end maybe we should wonder who is taking care of who. I believe trees are sentient being and perhaps from their point of view we are their lungs and not the other way around. We are certainly providing carbon dioxide in record levels with our bodies, our cars, our industry. I like to imagine trees taking care of themselves. I imagine they will survive the recent human and insect plagues. They have been on Earth for 370 million years and have probably survived worse.

 

Trying to Like My Snake

When I hear the word snake my brain translates it into an approximation of the creature in the picture above. Is this wrong? My higher brain cells realize the world is full of beneficial, and perhaps, beautiful snakes so I am trying to overcome my prejudice. My rat snake arrived weeks ago. The chickens aren’t afraid of the snake but when he began showing up in the nesting boxes in the barn, most of them began laying elsewhere. I walked into the barn a couple of days ago to find the snake in the nesting box about to eat an egg. I had the weedeater in my hand and, faced with the noisy little machine, he quickly left the building.

In past years, every snake that has been found in the barn has been killed. I am going to try to live with this one for two reasons. First, non-venomous snakes are considered by most experts to be “beneficials.” Killing all snakes is considered ill-informed; imagining all snakes to be evil is, I am told, plain silly. Some non-venomous snakes kill venomous snakes. You can watch a dozen u-tube videos of these kills; for example, you can see beneficial King Snakes killing and eating Rattlesnakes. Beneficial snakes, like my rat snake also “save us” from being overrun by varmints such as mice, rats, and gophers. link I had so many mice and/or rats last winter that I was forced to buy and use poison, peppermint spray and a little sonar device plugged into the wall — all of which were helpful but did not solve the problem. The rat snake has solved the problem; I have seen no mice or rats for weeks.

Second, the antipathy toward non-venomous snakes does not seem to be shared. My son spotted a cache of chicken eggs under the rose bush and shouted for me when he saw the snake dining there. I ran for the heavy shovel and my daughter-in-law ran for the house. Amidst this excitement, the snake headed across the pasture. As he passed the chickens, they spotted the movement, walked over, gave him a glance and returned to their search for bugs. The snake went right past the bull and the cow, who looked up and returned to grazing. The dogs lifted their heads and returned their afternoon naps. It occurred to me that the human view might be a mistake.

Might. My brother is adamant that I should kill the snake. He predicts, among other things, that the snake will reproduce and that I’ll soon have ten snakes. Are one’s prejudices right or wrong?

In Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, the protagonist’s father nailed a crude, hand-painted sign over his small son’s bed that read: “NEVER GIVE AN INCH.” I am thinking of getting an old board and painting it with the words: NON-VENOMOUS SNAKES ARE BENEFICIALS and nailing it up in the barn. Of course, refusing any compromise is stupid. And maybe getting the creepy, crawlies in the presence of a snake is stupid.

I have strung barbed wire on the floor around the nesting area and along the edges of a little storage room where the snake hides. I may buy a battery-powered device that creates vibration in the ground around the barn and I am considering buying some stuff called Snake Away. I will now store the weedeater in the barn as a helpful weapon training aide. I may also nail up a tiny sign at floor level that says NEVER EAT AN EGG.

 

Nature: “You’ve Got to Eat.”

No matter how far we live from the wild, we have to eat. Nature’s gift of food has always bound us to her. Our long-time respect for food is revealed entertainingly in old recipes. Humans have apparently always loved recipes, the majority of which have probably been obscured by time–made inaccessible by our inability to read, for example, old cave scratchings. Perhaps our current TV cooking shows will be unearthed by some future beings who will, I imagine, try to figure out what in the world was being cooked and why.

Fresco of bread sale in Pompeii

Some of the oldest known recipes are written on the clay tablet pictured above. The tablet is one of three that record about 25 dishes enjoyed in Babylon around 1700 BC. link Herb-laden meat stews made with stag, gazelle, kid, lamb and a variety of birds are featured. The recipes describe use of garlic, onions, mustard, coriander, cumin and a sprinkling of bread crumbs on top. link Mesopotamia was a world of ‘foodies’ with perhaps 18 kinds of cheese and 300 types of bread made with different kinds of flour.

Our ancient relatives did not neglect alcoholic drinks. Bronze vessels have been found in Turkey from a funeral 2700 years ago containing a drink that mixed grape wine, barley beer and honey. Strange. But our ancestors did love beer; and writing down how to make beer was not neglected. The oldest list of ingredients was discovered in a beer-making facility in ancient China: millet, barley, Chinese pearl barley and tubers.

This brings to mind current avant garde trends in food and drink: boutique breweries, restaurants that use old strains of wheat for bread, different kinds of potatoes, lettuces and herbs now offered at the grocery store. Broadening what we eat and drink is fun; especially if it helps us connect our lives to our long-dead ancestors.

However, it impossible to recreate the old dishes, partially because farm to table practices have changed food. For example, eggs have doubled in size and have different moisture content. link  And modern tastes do not extend to nettle soup yet, although the oldest recipe in the UK, dating back 8000 years, uses nettles as the primary ingredient. And I doubt if we will see any TV food shows demonstrating roast dormouse as is depicted with great favor in a large Roman recipe collection called De Re Coquinaria.

Roman mosaic of wild boar and mushrooms

I am unsure whether the differences between ancient and modern eating practices is more interesting or, the similarities. The Roman cookbook also describes the preparation of wild boar: “…it is cleaned; sprinkled with salt and crushed cumin and thus left. The next day it is put into the oven; when done season with crushed pepper. A sauce for boar: honey broth, reduced wine, raisin wine.” Not alien at all.

Clothing, shelter and food are all nature’s gifts for the most part. Even our beloved plastics are derived from oil, and oil was produced when animals and plants died and sank to the bottom of the ancient seas and lagoons over millions of years. It may be just possible to imagine clothing and shelter from non-natural sources. But food will always bind humans to nature’s bounty…..Naturally.

The Gift of Hummingbirds

I have Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in my garden. They fly across the Gulf of Mexico, 500 miles, non-stop each year and spend March to October with me. I think their baby birds learned to fly last week and have joined their mother at the feeder. My sister asked if I had seen their nest; sadly I have never seen a hummingbird nest. This isn’t a big surprise since the nests are only the size of a half dollar. They are built with spider silk and hidden with lichen and moss. The u-tube video below shows a nest, not only found, but photographed day by day so that the progress of the little birds is revealed.

Unlike the troubled Monarch butterfly I wrote about last week; hummingbirds are able to rub along well with humans. They like the colors we like: red, yellow, orange, pink and purple. They love the flowers we love: bee balms, columbines, daylilies, impatiens, and petunias- to name only a few. It is also extremely fortunate that hummingbirds are too teeny to eat; and happily, it is now illegal to kill hummingbirds and use their feathers for hats and clothing. link

Headdress of Montezuma II made with Hummingbird feathers;  in the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico

Hummingbirds have thrived on Earth for a long time; originating in South America 22 million years ago. But in the Miocene, 13 million years ago, the Andes rose up and the little birds scattered across the world. link

And channeling the great mountain range, this little creature can rise into the air–straight up–its iridescent green wings shining and its scarlet throat aglow. There is only one word for Hummingbirds:  divine.

 

 

 

Making Stuff Up, You Can’t Do It.

What if you were asked to create a magical being with amazing powers; one that would be truly unbelievable. You might imagine a creature that was almost weightless, say less than a gram. To breed, this being would fly 2000 miles each fall from the cold north to warmth in the south. Then in the spring this being would fly back north, another 2000 miles, where it would lay its eggs. Who among us would think to make every part of the creature poisonous? And it would eat, oh, one plant; of course a poisonous one. You would also be tasked to make the thing beautiful and full of grace. The human mind is a wonderful thing, but dreaming up a monarch butterfly might be beyond us all.

And the Monarchs are in deep trouble right now.

As of 2018, the monarch population has declined by more than 80 percent in two decades. link Once numbering 10 million strong, the number of western monarchs that fly south to our California coast are down to 300,000 and the extinction of this branch of the family is predicted. link Fortunately, about 99 percent of North American monarchs head to 12 mountaintops in central Mexico each winter. In the mid-90’s there were a billion monarchs there; now a new report shows the monarch population down to approximately 93 million butterflies. A crash is expected in about 20 years at the current rate of decline.

The destruction of this marvelous creature is, well, unbelievable. The Mexican government and many private organizations are working to preserve the mountaintops. The loggers oppose them. A few dedicated advocates worry that monarch adults and their baby caterpillars are dying throughout the U.S. The producers of herbicides and pesticides do not care. Milkweed, the only plant the monarch caterpillar eats, is being wiped out by herbicide spraying–mostly to achieve the mass production of corn and soybeans. The death of the caterpillars is the result of the killing of the milkweed by herbicides and also because of the heavy use of insecticides, toxic to them and to the adult butterflies. Wouldn’t it be great if it were a status symbol to have milkweed all over your lawn? Lawn owners don’t think so.

Worse, if anything could make this worse, is the steady increase in fall temperatures. Last year was the warmest fall in 123 years. In the warm autumn weather, the butterflies delay their trip south and wind up trapped by the cold in New Jersey or Kentucky. They can’t make it home to their mountaintops. They die. link

There is no push to care for the natural world. There is no voice for conservation. We drench our farmland with poison; then we throw away 40% of what we put on the table. link You can’t make this stuff up.

Our Old Friends: the Alliums

Well loved he garleek, oynons, and eek lekes.”

Geoffrey Chaucer – Canterbury Tales

Before agriculture, before writing, humans loved Alliums. Onions, leeks, shallots and garlic were humanity’s companions that grew readily almost everywhere on the planet; any old soil suits them. They thrive in almost any climate. They are easily dried to store away for hard times. They have been packed into “go-bags” for thousands of years. link

Onions

I plant mine on or near George Washington’s birthday. I use the sets available in nurseries and grocery stores. However, they grow easily from seed: in fact, if you want green onions in the garden, you have to plant from seed since the sets are only ‘big’ onions as far as I know. Green onions are the favorite onion in China, where onions have been enthusiastically written about for over 5000 years.

Writing emerged in most early civilizations 5000 years ago and all of them wrote about onions. An old Sumerian text complains that the governor’s onion patch was plowed up.  The oldest Vedic writings from India mention onions and by 700 BC the curative powers of the onion appear in the great medical book, Charaka – Sanhita. The Egyptians believed the onion to symbolize eternity with its circles within circles and buried it with the dead. Greeks ate many pounds of onions and rubbed onions all over their bodies before athletic competitions, including the early Olympics. link Of course Europeans loved onions; the first settlers brought them on the Mayflower. They  found Native Americans entirely familiar with onions, the wild onions that grew all over the North American continent. I don’t mean to belabor all this history, but any advice about cooking with onions or growing them is a waste of space. In the garden, they need some water but no pest control since bugs don’t bother them. Cooking? There must be a million recipes. And cooking without onions? We couldn’t do it.

Leeks

Onions recommended for hot climates do not store as well as onions that grow up North. But leeks can take over in the kitchen when the onions are gone. I was happy to find a bundle of leek sets at the farm supply store this year and put them in. I have grown leeks from seed in past years. They come up in the potting soil like little green hair. In the garden, even when very small, they survive well since pests like bugs and rabbits do not eat them. Leek gardeners advise putting the leeks in a trench and gradually filling it as the leeks grow to produce the long white root. I am too lazy for all that and just plant them. They are lovely in the kitchen, Julia Child is a master of their use, for example her Leek and Potato Soup.

Shallots 

The history of shallots is comparable to that of onions and garlic. Shallots have been beloved by those with fine pallets for centuries. Crusaders are said to have brought the shallot to France where the French turned the cooking of shallots into an art. The Gray Shallot is considered the most flavorful by gastronomes but I have not had it produce well in my garden. It is important to order shallots for planting from a nursery that names the zone where your shallot will be planted. I imagine Gray Shallots do not like my hot weather. Shallots in general like cool soil. They are best planted in the fall after the first frost since exposure to freezing weather improves their flavor and size. If the thermometer drops below 25 degrees a hay or straw mulch will save your plants. Shallots can be round or oblong; they come in many colors as you can see on the right: red, yellow, gray, black and white. They make one think of the French royalty at Versailles.

Garlic

The history of garlic in incomparable. Neolithic humans are said to have cultivated garlic 10,000 or more years ago. In the Stone Age. Later, garlic was used by the Egyptians and the Greeks as a medicine and a body strengthener. The Assyrians used it as an antibiotic. Roman physicians used garlic to clean the blood and thin mucus. The Chinese preserved food with it and also used it to treat depression and plague. In India garlic was use as an aphrodisiac and to heal wounds, worms and heart disease.

It is easy to grow. It is expensive to order from a quality nursery, but then year after year, you can replant from successful bulbs. I have broken up a head of organic garlic from the grocery store and planted the little bulblets. Gardeners complain that it is in the ground for a long time; all winter and much of the spring, but it is so reliable that I do not mind it using up my garden space. A farmer friend told me he plants garlic in the spring and gets little ‘green garlic’ plants to use in the kitchen. And it is in the kitchen where we embrace this plant as a friend, a long-time companion–one truly loved.

Julia Child

Living with Herbs

I enjoyed a happy childhood; my mother was considered a good cook and family meals were a pleasure most of the time–although not without drama on occasion. Herbs were entirely unknown to us. We always had a salad or a vegetable–home grown at times, but we did not eat herbs. No one I knew ate herbs.

It’s not as though humans had not run across herbs yet. In Genesis, we read that every “herb bearing seed” was gifted to humankind. Pliny the Elder praises mint for its marvelous smell and taste. He wrote about the herb 2000 years ago. Hamlet  speaks of fennel and rue and violets. We drank gallons of iced tea without fresh mint to flavor it. Why we didn’t include fennel and violets in our salads I’ll never know.

My favorite garden plants may be my herbs. I decided I had to grow them when I began reading about English cottage gardens, one of which is pictured above. Herbs and flowers and vegetables were just tucked in here and there without a grand plan. Many cottage garden plants self seed and skill is required to let the plants have their way when they pick some corner of the garden.

I am pretty sure basil did not grace my garden last summer because I was too enthusiastic with the hoe. It had popped up all over the garden for years, a tropical plant that loves hot summer days and hates the cold. It is native to Africa and Southeast Asia but is grown and used by cooks all over the world. Of course such a well-traveled plant has many names, basil being derived from Latin meaning kingly plant. It is like a king in the kitchen with it strong taste and scent; my son makes pesto each year, I love it raw or cooked, in salads, on bruschetta, any way at all. And there are dozens of kinds of basil: sweet basil, cinnamon basil, purple basil, anise or Persian basil, all worth growing.

An herb that does not mind the cold is parsley. It is a biennial and flowers every other year, then the seeds scatter across the garden and come up where they please. I had a large plant in the middle of the path last year. This year it is thriving at the feet of a grapevine. When temperatures dropped to 13 degrees in the winter I put a bucket over the plant and it was unharmed. Its leaves are very welcome in the kitchen during the cold weather. Parsley doesn’t mind hot summer weather either. I have found it to be delicious in salsa. The combination of tomatoes, onion, peppers and cilantro is grand; but cilantro likes it cool and is often gone by the time the tomatoes and peppers are ripe.

Cilantro also wanders all over the garden. It was by the holly last year. Cilantro is the Spanish name for the plant, coriander another name, although coriander is normally used for the seeds that form as soon as the weather heats up. The plant is native to Iran, but, like all beloved cooking herbs, it has been spread all over the world. Seed pods of the herb, called mericarps, were found in a Neolithic cave in Israel and over two cups were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

I will have to say that I love my thyme since it stays put. It forms a sort of homely little bush; it loves heat and doesn’t mind the cold. Mine has reliably come back year after year. A friend whose thyme had spread too much brought me a beautiful clump several weeks ago and it is doing well. I would like this plant to cover as much of the garden as it likes, to go out of control. This herb also has a venerable past: it was used for embalming by the Egyptians, as incense by the the Greeks, used to flavor cheese by the Romans and used to cover bad smells by medieval Europeans. It’s loaded with health benefits. Bees love its flowers. Fungus doesn’t like it; bugs don’t bother it. Did I say I love this plant?

A distant relative of thyme and a member of the mint family, oregano, is also a perennial. It grows into a large clump and its flowers are beautiful. High-end chefs use the flowers in their expensive dishes. It is reportedly hard to get an oregano plant that has ‘real’ oregano flavor. I may order Greek oregano and Syrian oregano this year from a reliable herb nursery. I understand that really strong oregano can numb the tongue. And the herb is the only one I know of that is reportedly better when dried. I will hang on to my trusty old oregano that has thrived in my hot, alkaline soil for years, it is beautiful in and out of bloom. I have been too lazy to dry it, but a big handful picked fresh is always welcome in my kitchen.

Mint is often the subject of complaints since it is very enthusiastic. it will cover ground fast and its tight roots will compete successfully with any other plant in its path. But the weedeater keeps mine in bounds and I would never want to face a hot summer without it for my iced tea, lemonade and mint juleps. Or face winter without mint jelly. It is also famous for its health benefits, helping with good digestion, weight loss, relief from nausea, depression, fatigue, headaches, asthma, memory loss, and skin care.

Rosemary has just as impressive a list of health claims; it is said to be good for us: boosting memory, improving our moods, reducing inflammation, relieving pain, protecting our immune systems, preventing premature aging. I grow it because it tastes good, looks good and smells divine. The Egyptians, Romans and Greeks considered the herb to be sacred. And the name? The Virgin Mary is said to have spread her blue cloak over a rosemary bush with white flowers and rested there. The flowers turned the familiar beautiful blue and the herb became known as “Rose of Mary.”

Living without herbs? Unpossible.