Arugula, with its bitter flavor, is considered a gourmet green by many and way too bitter by some (namely, my husband). But the green is one of my favorites, partly for the flavor and partly because it’s so easy to grow in containers or in our high desert garden. It also grows wild around our property!
Maybe arugula grows so well here in New Mexico because the plant is native to the Mediterranean. We don’t water the wild bunches that grow near our house or out in our orchard, and I have no idea how they came to be there. I just know that I kept getting a whiff of arugula when mowing in certain portions of the lawn. This year, conditions were such that I was able to spot the leaves and have a bite. By late summer, the yellow flowers followed and I have asked Tim to join me in not mowing a few bunches. I prefer to grow a milder variety for my salads, but I like having the wild plants around for their scent and appearance. And there are much worse plants spreading in our yard than these tasty greens!
The taste of arugula is strong, but I love to add it to spinach or mesclun mixes, or really any greens. In fact, traditional and tangy mesclun mixes usually include arugula. The green is particularly good with blue cheese dressing and can spice up a chicken or turkey sandwich!
Baby arugula is harvested when the leaves are younger, and offers a milder flavor than mature plants. Like most greens, arugula grows best in your garden in cooler spring or fall weather. You can typically harvest the greens within 4 weeks. And if you let it go to flower, the flavor might become too intense. Most garden varieties of arugula have edible, attractive white flowers with purple veining. The wild variety has yellow flowers.
Arugula also is called rocket or rocket salad. Some people use arugula more as an herb, sprinkling it sparingly on dishes for the peppery flavor. All fresh greens are healthy, but apparently arugula is packed with vitamins and antioxidants. To me, it’s packed with flavor and aroma!
Learn more about growing arugula in your garden in this article from Bonnie Plants, and check out Johnny’s Seeds for several varieties of wild arugula.
Several perennial herbs grow well in waterwise gardens, and are worth their ornamental value alone in xeric landscaping. My favorites are rosemary, thyme, sage and lavender. They’re also useful in the kitchen; I keep several rosemary plants close at hand in containers for fresh use. As long as I move them near the south wall of the house and brush off winter snow, they should make it through the winter in our zone (6B).
I prefer to dry thyme, and this year I’m drying sage for the first time – we have plenty of the plants for their violet flowers and pollinator value. Sage is the perfect companion for chicken, and I’d like to use more in recipes this winter.
Fall came on suddenly this year, and with it plenty of rainy days in a row. But I was able to head out yesterday between rains and take cuttings from our sage, thyme and a groundcover the nursery labeled oregano. I’m not sure yet of its culinary value, but I’m going to give it a try.
Fall actually is late for drying many herbs. The best time to harvest is as flowers bud, but just before they open. I missed that window of opportunity on my sage, but many of the thyme stalks still had not budded. And I’ve been harvesting basil all summer, preventing the plants from flowering.
The first step is to rinse the herbs and shake them loosely to remove excess water. You can dry herbs in a dehydrator, especially if you live in a humid climate or want to dry them quickly. The dehydrator thermostat should preheat to about 115 degrees before placing your herbs on trays in a single layer. For extremely humid climates, you might have to bump up the temperature to 125 degrees. Most herbs dry within 1 to 4 hours, so they should be checked often after an hour on the trays. Dehydration works best for tender-leaved herbs such as basil, oregano and mint.
For herbs such as sage, thyme, parsley, rosemary and summer savory, bunch drying works fine. I bundled each of the herbs with rubber bands, including the oregano, since we don’t have a dehydrator and I’m experimenting. My bundles are probably a little larger than recommended, but drying is typically so much easier in our area, where humidity normally is below 20 percent, or nonexistent.
You can dry herbs outdoors, but the sun can fade some of their color and flavor. They need to hang upside down in a dry spot with plenty of air circulation. Our shed fits the bill. It has a window on one side and slats on the other for a nice cross-breeze, but seldom to never gets wet inside.
Most herb bunches dry in a few days to a week. No matter the method you use, herbs are dry when the leaves crumble upon touching.
Other drying methods
Hang a bag loosely around or under tender herbs such as parsley to catch leaves as they dry, especially if using a garage or shed. Just be sure to keep it loose or cut plenty of holes in the side. The herbs won’t dry and can easily get moldy if you don’t let air circulate around them.
You can also dry tender herbs in the microwave because their moisture content is so low. It works well if you only want to put aside a small quantity. Rinse the stems, pat them dry, and pull off individual leaves. Air dry the leaves on paper towels, then lay them in a single layer on a paper towel that is placed on a microwave-safe plate or paper plate. Lay another paper towel on top. The amount of time required depends on your microwave, but should be no more than few minutes. I would recommend microwaving the first batch for about 40 seconds, then in 20 to 30 second increments so that you don’t overdo it.
Use the single-layer method for conventional oven drying by placing rinsed and dry leaves on a shallow cookie sheet and leaving them on low heat (about 180 degrees) in the oven for 2 to 4 hours. Just recognize that this method cooks out some of the flavor.
I’ve already made and frozen lots of pesto, so I decided to preserve the rest of my basil short term by placing the rinsed, clipped stems in a jar of cool water on a sunny windowsill. The basil will last at least as long as the remaining tomatoes from our garden. It’s amazing how fresh the leaves stay using this method!
Storing and using dried herbs
The best way to store dried herbs is in labeled, plastic containers. You can crumble the leaves before storing so they’re a better size for cooking. Remember that drying concentrates the herbs’ flavor and requires less quantity in recipes that call for fresh herbs.
It’s officially October and a blazing 92 degrees just after noon here. We’re setting record highs in New Mexico for heat and have gone weeks without measurable rain in my area while a hurricane threatens additional flooding on the East coast. So I thought I would take a few minutes to review the many uses of fabrics to control heat and retain water in the garden for those of us in drought conditions.
Landscape fabrics, also called geotextiles, typically come in rolls and are available online or in home and garden centers. Nonwoven fabrics are made primarily for weed control. Like plastics, they are the least permeable of fabrics, and should offer better weed control. To me, nothing offers complete weed control. And because they let in little to no sun or water, I would avoid using nonwoven fabrics in beds, at least permanent ones, because they prevent water and oxygen from penetrating. I’d reserve them for walkways only.
Woven fabrics, typically now made of polypropylene, are breathable, which means that water, oxygen and some of the sun’s rays can penetrate. That also means weeds can work their way through, especially since polypropylene tends to eventually break down from ultraviolet rays. Placing organic mulches on top of the permeable fabric introduces more chance for weeds. Still, if you’re adding mulch or gravel above the fabric, it offers an additional layer of protection against weeds. I would selectively lay down woven fabrics for areas of a bed between plants (leaving a large hole cut in the fabric around any plants in the bed) or for temporary uses. Landscape fabrics also can help control erosion on banks, preventing the washing away of top soil. On the other hand, the fabrics never are permanent and if you have a big garden bed, you’re better off investing in extra layers of mulch, which works just as well for weed control if you go three to four inches deep. Just be sure to choose the right mulch for your plant or you cause water and plant health problems.
Row cover is my favorite landscape fabric. Also made of polypropylene, the white fabric comes in varying thicknesses and typically is used to cover and protect plants from frost, such as for mini hoop houses. The fabric lets in up to 70 percent of the sun’s UV rays and some moisture, but doesn’t absorb water. Using row covers can also protect plants from heat by shading roots and blocking wind and insects to some extent. Shading roots and foliage obviously saves water by slowing evaporation. It also keeps the plant healthier, as does controlling insect access. I have begun to use row covers more often this year and have just ordered a roll of the fabric to boost my use more next year, helping to protect young seedlings from insects and to keep the ground warm and moist as they get started.
Here are a few uses for landscape fabrics other than laying them on the ground under mulch:
Although plastic probably works best, lay nonwoven landscape fabric down in the fall after cleaning up your vegetable garden to keep weeds from taking over. You might not choke out every weed, but you can cut down substantially on seeds that blow in and on the sun and rain that help germinate weeds already present. You’ll want to lift the fabric and enrich the soil with organic matter, however, a few months before planting.
Make small hoop houses to cover single herbs or crops. Row covers can help extend the season for a plant, and you also can construct a small, temporary cover over a single plant that’s susceptible to bugs or climate conditions. Or just throw the fabric over a plant in the evening for temporary protection if frost is a concern, but days still produce plenty of warmth.
Use permeable fabric to shade a new plant until it’s established. Around here, we often have to construct cages for small trees and other plants to protect them from deer. Tim has added a fabric top to many to keep the direct sun off a young plant or transplant, which also helps slow water loss. He simply uses cable ties to secure the fabric to the metal fencing.
Finally, since Halloween is just around the corner, you can’t go wrong using leftover black landscape fabric to create a last-minute grim reaper costume. Especially if the weeds are really getting you down….
When we purchased more than a dozen lavender plants last spring, we chose one that was touted as a superb culinary lavender (Lavandula angustiolia Buena Vista) and placed it in a container, the way I usually prefer to grow herbs. The stems are not as long, but the buds are supposed to have better flavor. I love having it near the patio table, where it still looks pretty and I can walk by and rub my fingers on the leaves or buds anytime to enjoy the scent.
I’ve seen plenty of recipes for lavender, usually in pastries. The only one I’ve tried so far (and loved!) is a lavender potato salad I’ve adapted from the book “Lavender: How to Grow and Use the Fragrant Herb” (Stackpole Books) by Ellen Spector Platt. By the way, this is our go-to source for growing and harvesting lavender. We combine some of the book’s information with local sources because of our differences in zone and water. Other than that, Ellen knows lavender! And the book has several recipes I plan to try.
To me, lavender is the most versatile of all herbs, right up there with its close relative, rosemary. If you don’t have one of the culinary varieties, it’s a great plant to add to your garden. But I made this recipe several times before we got this plant, and it tasted great! So try it with any lavender.
My basil isn’t perfect; I think I can blame mostly grasshoppers. But with all of the bugs around here and the cloudy, damp weather of late, it’s really a toss-up. I’ll stick with grasshoppers and snails for now, because I dislike them the most. Next year, I will definitely cover the basil plants with white row fabric.
Still, the plants grew, and some of the stalks were about to flower. Time to harvest! A neighbor, who shares a portion of her land to host a wonderful community garden, pointed us to some information on harvesting basil. I realized I have always been too shy about harvesting, taking too few leaves. Instead, it’s best to take the top few sets of leaves, above the second set of leaves from the soil. That assumes, of course, that the plant has at least three to five sets of leaves. If so, the sturdy topping should help the plant generate new growth.
I picked off and rinsed the leaves and dried them in a salad spinner and then on paper towels, choosing not to use some that were really chewed up. Then, I chilled them in the refrigerator until that evening. Even with some bug destruction, I got a good cup of basil leaves from one larger plant and two small ones. Then, I made pesto. And it was really easy. I modified a recipe I found online a few years ago and then used it right away to make dinner.
Take a look at the recipe below, and feel free to print or Pin it. And adjust it as necessary. I didn’t use a lot of garlic, so it’s all a matter of personal taste. After making the pesto, I whipped up a quick dinner of pasta with a chopped chicken breast and our first zucchini of the season, sautéing both in olive oil. I just added about a cup (measured raw) of cooked pasta to the skillet and a heaping tablespoon or so of pesto. The rest of the pesto went in the freezer!
Place washed and dried basil leaves, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor. Pulse ingredients until coarsely chopped. Add a portion of the olive oil, processing the mixture until all ingredients are incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Season as desired with salt and pepper.
If using the pesto immediately, add the remaining oil and pulse until the mixture is smooth. Scrape into a serving bowl and add parmesan cheese.
If freezing, do not add the Parmesan cheese. Place in an airtight container and pour remaining oil over top of pesto. It will freeze for up to three months. Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese after thawing.
Lavender is without a doubt my favorite drought-tolerant plant. Aside from its stunning appearance in the garden, it’s a fragrant herb. We added 15 lavender plants to our garden last year, and some of them failed to make it, mostly because of unseasonably cool and moist spring weather. But most of the survivors are now thriving and we have plans to expand our lavender “operation,” because once you get it started, it’s just so darn easy to grow.
If you cut off the first blooms of the season, lavender plants reward you with another late-season show. Yesterday, I decided to harvest some of the flowering buds to dry them for possible potpourris, bundles, and other gifts and to encourage the second wave of blooms. It was great fun!
To experiment with drying stems, buds and leaves, I cut some short stalks from newer plants that were not long enough to dry as bundles. They’ll make great potpourri or sachets, assuming I am smart and industrious enough to figure out how. I included a pretty established white lavender that’s been in the garden for years.
Some of the stems are too short to hang and I don’t want to waste any buds that might fall. I’ve heard of using paper bags, and remembered I could never bring myself to throw out the bags my espresso beans come in. They were the perfect size and already have a sturdy top that’s easy to close and hook onto for hanging. I cut holes in the sides of the bags for ventilation and marked the plant and date on the bag. One concern I have is that the bags still smell (deliciously) like coffee, so I wonder if the lavender inside will blend with that aroma. Worst case? Lavender lattes! Seriously, I might try it.
But I really love the look of dried stem bundles, and six of our one-year-old plants have produced a good crop of long stems. I went ahead and harvested stems from one of them. The trick to gathering long stems is this: You want the length to maximize the look and aroma, so it helps to cut all the way down to the plant’s round shape of existing foliage. But I realized after cutting that I removed many tiny, new flower buds down the stem. That might affect the number of blooms in the second round. We’ll see how the late-summer bloom on this plant compares with the next one I harvest.
Out of one (one-year-old) Royal Velvet English Lavender, I was able to make a respectably sized bundle and a smaller bundle to take to friends I was having a picnic with that later in the day. I also stripped some of the leaves and tiny buds from down the stem and placed them in a coffee bag for even more yield from the plant.
The day before, I had hammered several nails into the beams of our old shed. It’s dry and has good ventilation. It’s not completely dark, which might be the drawback. I used rubber bands to hold the bundle together, and opened up large paper clips to secure the rubber band or the bag tops to the nail. I also slipped a small piece of cut-up old business cards into the bundle’s rubber band with the plant and date and hung it upside down. They should take about a week to dry.
Growing an edible garden makes great sense – you use water to produce food, and it’s food that can’t get any fresher or more local! Growing food in pots and other containers can be even more rewarding, especially for gardeners who have limited space, problems with critters or who want their herbs and vegetables close at hand.
Rosemary, basil, lettuce and cherry or grape tomatoes are my favorite edibles to have right near my kitchen door. But I’ve been known to push the boundaries a little, once growing an okra plant in a small container (admittedly mostly for the flower) and a large pot of carrots last year. We’re upping the ante with an even bigger carrot crop, but more on that in a future post…
Here’s the thing – containers can take a little more water during hot summer months, but you also can confine your crop, so to speak. I believe that container-grown edibles are less susceptible to some bugs and soil-borne problems. And I love that I can move the containers to control sun exposure as the conditions change. Most of all, you just can’t beat the convenience of herbs and vegetables just outside your kitchen door at meal times.
Here are a few tips for making your container edibles fun and productive:
First, it can be tempting to fill your containers with soil from your garden. Resist the temptation and spend the money on some good commercial potting mix. I use organic composts and potting mixes. The reason? Ground soil compacts when confined to a pot. This makes it harder for water to drain and for roots to grow.
Choose your container to fit the plant’s mature size. It might look less attractive at first, but the reward of juicy tomatoes is worth your patience!
If the container is particularly large, you can line the bottom with pebbles or plastic bottles to encourage drainage and use some yard or garden soil for fill. But keep it to a minimum, and make sure the soil that the plant’s roots touch is the best possible mix.
A few herbs are grown better in containers for their own special reasons. I like to have a small basil or rosemary on my patio table throughout the summer for the appearance, scent and convenience. And then there is mint – which should only grow in containers unless you really love it and want to replace everything else in your lawn, your neighbor’s lawn, your town… with mint. And it comes in lemon, orange or chocolate varieties to enjoy on the patio or balcony.
Many container-grown plants require fertilizer because the soil doesn’t have the same natural nutrients as garden soil. But use it judiciously and according to the individual plant. For example, chile peppers typically need no fertilizer. If you start with healthy soil, you need less, and if you use it too often or at the wrong time, you’ll force more growth into the foliage and get a plant that outgrows your container and gets too lanky to support its fruit.
Usually, you have to water container-grown plants more often, but not always. Don’t assume that when a plant wilts, lack of water is the cause. And that’s the beauty of containers – try moving the plant to the shade on hot days, or move all of them there if you have to be away for the weekend. They’ll survive better on your pre-departure watering until you return.
Remember that you can add mulch to containers, just as you do in flower beds. Decorative mulch can offset the look of an edible in a container, such as crushed seashells under chard. Mulch also serves a practical purpose. Those white seashells or pebbles can reflect sun back up to your potted lavender or bark chips can hold moisture in to conserve water and keep plants cool.
And if you love being creative and repurposing, go ahead and push the limits. You might end up with lower productivity from your edible, or need more total containers, but it’s fun to place edibles in a few fun or funky containers. If I want more yield, I duplicate the seeds or transplant in the ground or a larger container. That way, I get the aesthetic pleasure and practical returns.
I love rosemary in a container for several reasons. First, I can keep it in a sunny location all year and leave it relatively close to my kitchen to snip stems for cooking. I don’t have to traipse out to the garden to get to it quickly. By leaving the pot close to a south-facing wall in winter, the plant, which is hardy to zones 6 through 8, receives some extra warmth.
Cutting some rosemary stems for culinary use helps keep the plant compact enough for container living. Otherwise, it might begin to flower and outgrow the pot. When rosemary blooms, it’s an attractive, evergreen Mediterranean plant, and bees love the tiny bluish-lavender flowers. So I usually have at least one rosemary in the landscape, and one or two in containers purely for edible reasons.
Rosemary is best grown from a nursery transplant or cutting, not from seed. When preparing your container, be sure it has a hole for drainage and mix well-draining soil that’s slightly alkaline and not too fertile. You won’t need to fertilize your rosemary, either, but adding an organic fertilizer when transplanting or once a season shouldn’t harm the plant. Just keep it as warm as you can in winter if you live on the cooler side of the zones, and if you bring the container inside, place it in a sunny location.
Rosemary is drought tolerant and one of the few problems you’ll encounter with rosemary is caused by wet roots when temperatures drop. Rosemary thrives in full sun, and in summer, container plants need some supplemental watering every few days in the heat. Transplant the rosemary to a new container when the plant becomes too large.
Benefits of Rosemary
The aromatic and flavorful leaves of rosemary have many uses. I love the scent of rosemary and lavender in those rice-filled neck warmers! The oil from rosemary leaves is said to help with heartburn and other digestive problems. The oil may also help soothe skin irritated by eczema. Of course, it’s widely used in perfumes, sachets and lotions.
Although rosemary smells great in patio containers and in the home, I love it even more with chicken. You can cut entire stems of fresh rosemary and place them inside a baking chicken or use them in kebobs along with chicken or steak. I love fresh or dried rosemary on potatoes, baked with olive oil, minced garlic and sea salt.
It doesn’t take much rosemary to achieve a lot of flavor, and I haven’t met anyone yet who dislikes the scent or taste of the herb. I often have add rosemary to garlic bread. That’s an easy way to get a little of the flavor of focaccia bread without having to bake!
When you head out to your garden on a chilly morning, it takes you some time to acclimate to the weather. After you’ve done some digging or weeding for 15 minutes or so, you might peel off a layer of clothing as your body warms up. The outside temperature probably didn’t change much in 15 minutes, but your body adapted to your surroundings and even toughened up to take them as your blood pumped into muscles and your heart rate rose.
Your tomato and other vegetable and herb seedlings need the same sort of acclimation before you take them from under your grow light, from a greenhouse, or from the comfort of their commercial nursery home. Give them a little bit of time to adapt to their new outside location. It’s called “hardening off,” and here are a few tips:
Take a minimum of a few days when you can, and ideally up to a week, to harden off seedlings. Count backward from your planting date – usually your average last day of frost – and start hardening off seedlings about eight days before that date.
Ease your plants into their new environment. That means it’s not a good idea to take them from a greenhouse from dawn to dusk the first day. Start with a few hours of outdoor time and gradually increase it each day. Cut the time short if the wind really picks up.
Speaking of wind – and sun – keep your plants in a fairly protected location. Start by putting them out mostly shade the first day and moving them every few days to gradually increase their sun exposure. You may need to protect them from critters, too, so consider local bunnies or other munchers if they often visit the area where you set out the seedlings and place them up on a table.
Gradually increase time spent out late in the day as well. Your plants need to learn to spend the night outside, but don’t leave them out the first few nights. And be sure to bring them inside if there is any chance of freeze. On the first night out, try to put them in a well-protected location where they won’t get too much wind and receive a little warmth from your home or a south-facing wall.
Finally, cut back on watering as you begin hardening off the plants. They also need to learn to toughen up before transplanting. Of course, once you plant them, water a little extra until established, then water consistently per the plant’s needs.
It’s a trend that was a long time in coming, but edible landscaping is here to stay, and it can be a great xeric landscaping strategy. More than 80 percent of Americans say they have grown edibles, but nearly one-fourth are concerned about irrigation, so incorporating edibles into the garden landscape just makes sense!
I plan to increase some of the space in our rock garden devoted to edibles this year. We already have some great xeric herbs and I love the blooms of our Western sand cherry, which I hope will bear fruit this year. We also get a few rose hips from our native (Fendler) roses.
Use space and save money
Adding a few edibles means we use some of the space and relatively good soil that’s near our kitchen and outdoor dining spaces for a few more herbs and vegetables. I’ll supplement our fenced vegetable garden and try to select critter-proof plants or hope the area is close enough to our patio to shy them away.
Like me, you might want to grow your own edibles for freshness and cost savings. In particular, herbs are much less expensive when grown from seed or cuttings than when you buy them in a store. I’ve used fresh and dried ones from our rock garden all year long. But so many edible plants also add visual interest. I don’t have to tell you how gorgeous lavender can get. And if not cut, rosemary and sage also produce lavender-colored blooms.
Grow xeric herbs
Then, there is the scent. I can hardly walk by thyme or lavender without rubbing my fingers on the leaves. Here’s a list of low-water herbs to add to your garden landscape:
Sage, thyme, rosemary, and lavender (which can be used to flavor dishes or for many aromatic uses). Basil uses a little more water, but recovers well if neglected, as long as you keep it in well-draining soil. Oregano also needs only occasional watering, and though dill can be particular about soil, it also does well with little water. Read more about low-water herbs in my March post.
Add edible shade trees
If you’re looking for a shade tree, why not plant a fruit or nut tree that is native to your region? Instead of watering for the sake of leaves and summer shade, you can water for some juicy apples or peaches.
We just ordered a few bare-root trees from the Upper Hondo Soil and Water Conservation District. We’ve already planted a pinon tree. Sure, it will be a long time until it rewards us with pine nuts, and we’ll probably always fight the wildlife for them, but it’s a fast-growing native tree in New Mexico and I’m happy to try for a few delicious nuts to add to some basil for pesto! On the way soon are a serviceberry and cherry. The serviceberry is sure to feed the birds, if not us. And our established currant is in full bloom.
Consider interspersing a few edibles into your garden landscape and start small. For example, fill containers with edible flowers. Artichokes add interest to the garden; just be sure to leave those guys plenty of room. If a few of the edibles you choose take a little more water than typical for xeric plants, consider this: Farmers use even more to irrigate their crops and you use no carbon footprint to drive to the store and buy greens when you grow your own in containers or a raised bed in your own garden. Water as much as possible from a rain barrel and feel even better about your edibles!
Also, be sure to consider where you place your edibles. Spinach and lettuce have shallow roots and need cooler, shadier conditions. But avoid adding a crop of edibles under the canopy of a tree, where they’ll compete with the tree’s roots for water. I plan to use an area of our rock garden area to grow more peppers this year, and our southern-facing rock wall serves as a perfect microclimate to add some extra warmth for tomatoes and peppers.