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Highly aromatic, lemongrass grows in thick, cascading clumps that make an attractive indoor or outdoor plant. This plant isn’t just a beauty; it also has medicinal properties and can be made into a delicate tea. In addition to being healthy, this herb will also impart a citrus flavor into any cuisine. If you’ve been interested in experimenting with it, growing lemongrass couldn’t be easier.

Getting Started

Purchase lemongrass stalks that are fresh and still green; avoid stalks that are turning brown and drying out. The ones I purchased were beginning to yellow, but still rooted. Each stalk will multiply to create several new stalks by the end of the season. Fresh lemongrass may be difficult to find in some regions, so I suggest looking in specialty shops—I found mine in an international food market.

Watching Grass Take Root

I prefer to make a fresh slice on the end of the lemongrass to help it take in water until the new roots form. Now simply plop them into a jar of water, making sure the bottom bulb section is covered. After 2-4 weeks, roots and new growth should begin to appear.

Watching Grass Grow

Once 1-2” of roots develop, the lemongrass may be planted into soil. If unable to plant right away, don’t worry–lemongrass is patient. It was still chilly outside when the roots developed on mine, so I left mine in water until the roots were approximately 5-6” in length and the weather had warmed.

Choose a well-draining container to plant the stalks in. When planting, ensure that soil covers the root base. To prevent a risk of rot, do not bury into the soil any deeper than where the highest root nodule is. Water thoroughly. The stalks may feel loose at first, but will soon grow new roots to anchor them securely into the soil.

Lemongrass is not frost-hardy and must be brought inside if temperatures dip below 45°F/7°C.

Health benefits

According to The Herb Bible: A Complete Guide to Growing and Using Herbs (Harding, 2006), lemongrass has many medicinal benefits such as:

  • Lower fever, especially malarial
  • Treating stress-related symptoms
  • Aromatherapy
  • Aids digestion
  • Essential oil relieves muscle aches and pains, injuries, and poor circulation
  • Insect repellent

Making tea

Lemongrass tea is a delicate, citrus flavored tea. It can be made by either steeping the top leaves or the stalk of the plant. The top leaves make for a lighter citrus flavored tea. Simply cut up the leaves and steep as normal—approximately 5 minutes.

When using the stalk, peel off the outer leaves—these are bitter. It is necessary to bruise the stalk by either bending it several times or crushing it under the blade of a chef’s knife. Cut the stalk into pieces. Add to boiling water and steep until preferred strength is reached—approximately 5-10 minutes.

Cookery

Lemongrass is one of those mystery herbs you typically see sold as dried, brown stalks in a little glass bottle at the grocery store. Well-known in Thai cuisine and common in Southeast Asian dishes, lemongrass can be added to soups and curries or made into a tea. It pairs well with coconut milk and will provide a delicate and acidic lemon flavor to balance and compliment a dish.

Lime and Lemongrass Cooler

Servings: 4

  • 2 limes, peeled and each cut into 8 pieces
  • 1 small lemongrass stem, coarsely chopped
  • 3 Tbps. Sweetened condensed milk
  • 4 crushed ice cubes
  • ½ cup water
  • 4 slices of lime
  • Soda water, to top off

Place lime pieces, lemongrass, and crushed ice cubes in a food processor.

Add the water and sweetened condensed milk, process for a few seconds, but not until completely smooth. Strain the mixture into glasses. Add a slice of lime to each glass and top off to taste with soda water. Serve at once.

Enjoy!

After removing, the outer leaves of lemongrass make great cat toys!

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With record temperatures and much of the United States in drought, garden care can become a little more complicated. Soil dries out faster and sensitive plants may wilt in the heat of the afternoon. Enduring an abnormally hot summer can put a lot of stress on plants as well as the unprepared gardener. There are some simple precautions that can be taken to ensure any garden withstands the heat.

Keeping Cool

The heat will quickly rid pots of precious moisture. I recommend checking plants twice daily and watering as needed. Plants that are root bound will need to be watered more often, up to twice a day. Be careful not to overwater; soil should dry 2” down between watering to prevent root rot. Protect plants from direct sunlight damage by watering in the early morning or evening. Be cautious when watering in the evening, some plants are prone to fungal diseases if they stay wet.

Avoid evening watering:

  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Orchids
  • Beebalm
  • Cucurbitacae: cucumbers, squash, zucchini, melons
  • Solanaceae: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers

Dryer than a Desert

Soil that is too dry will be reluctant to retain moisture. The best way to combat this is to water the plant and then let the pot sit in a tray of water until it has soaked up the moisture. If the soil dries out completely, the plant will need to soak in a tray of water until it will retain moisture again.

A Solid Watering Idea: Ice cubes!

Need to keep plants cool and watered throughout the day during the summer? Try placing a layer of ice cubes on top of the soil. As the cubes melt, they will not only provide a steady water source but can also cool the soil down. Any plants that are root bound and dry out quickly during the day will appreciate the steady water source. A steady water source will help prevent having to water multiple times throughout the day.

Take a Second Look: Pot Color

If temperatures are high and plants are in direct sun, avoid using black containers. Black attracts the heat from the sun and can overheat sensitive plants. Notice a plant wilting in the middle of the day despite being well-watered? Try moving it to an area that is shaded from the afternoon sun. Ensuring plants are protected from the heat of the day will give delicate plants a much needed break.

Staying in the Shade

Any plants that are found wilting in the blazing afternoon sun should be relocated to a more protected area. Many of these plants are either not hardened to the direct sunlight or are intolerant of full sunlight and require morning sunlight or shade. Being aware of a plant’s light requirements can help eliminate unnecessary stress that may slow or kill growth.  If the plant simply needs hardening off, place the plant in the direct sunlight and gradually increase the amount of time. For example, start with 15 minute increments and increase the time daily

Being able to help a garden endure these unrelenting, scorching temperatures will ensure it’s survival. The now prepared gardener can beat the heat without breaking a sweat.

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Every gardener or farmer knows that weeds can be a scourge. In large numbers, they can choke out flowers, vegetables, or other crops. Even in smaller numbers, they can grow where they are undesirable or unsightly. Dealing with weeds is often a season-long battle, fought with hands, gloves, hoes, or cultivators. Some even choose to use chemical means to eradicate them, but weeds can become more resistant to even this, not even considering the other issues/concerns this brings with it.

While ripping out offending weeds is totally understandable, and I do it all the time, many people do not know of the value of some of these plants.  While it is true that some weeds are too fiddly to mess with (such as the delicious – but tiny – nuts of Nutsedge), inedibly tough or bitter, or even poisonous (such as the Nightshades), others are edible, even tasty (some have good medicinal value, too, though this is often not for beginners). I have selected and will elaborate on a few of the most common, easily identified ones I find in my plantings.

A very exceptional purslane growing among my onions. Normally they are not this large or thick – I guess it likes its spot!

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

  • – Low growing, creeping-type plant. Thick, smooth, computer-cable like stems, usually with a strong reddish color or tinge. Succulent, thick leaves shaped like little paddles or spatulas. Small yellow flowers give way to tiny green seed pods
  • – Contains more Omega-3 than any other leafy vegetable. Mucilaginous quality lends it well to soups/stews, or very good just as a salad herb or snack. Can have a tangy or salty flavor. Stems are good for pickling
  • – Does not grow tall or very competitive; tolerates poor soil and drought. Good companion plant – crops such as corn will even let their roots ‘follow’ paths broken in the soil by purslane, and its deep roots and ground-covering nature bring up and stabilize moisture that might otherwise be unavailable
  • – Used historically; still widely used in Europe, the middle east, and others

Young lambsquarters – great as a fresh salad at this stage

Lambsquarters/Goosefoot (Chenopodium album)

  • – Cultivated in some countries as a food crop, but usually considered a weed in the US
  • – Tall growing, to several feet or even a few meters high, with stiff stems. Alternate, spade-blade shaped, well toothed leaves; leaves at the top and bottom are more diamond shaped and less toothed. Leaves repel water, and top ones are often mealy, with a white powdery look
  • – Is competitive – can cause crop losses if not pulled out
  • – Edible raw or cooked, but probably best cooked if eaten regularly (it contains some oxalic acid and saponins – probably not enough to do any harm anyway – but these are reduced by cooking). Good spinach substitute, and nutritious. Seeds can also be eaten, or the flowerheads used as a broccoli substitute

Galinsoga with the corn

Galinsoga/Gallant Soldier (Galinsoga ciliata)

  • – Grows to about 2 feet in height
  • – Opposite leaves triangular with rounded back, coarsely toothed along edges, quite hairy on stems and leaves alike. Flowers like a tiny, underdeveloped daisy, with a yellow center surrounded by 5 very small, white, 3-toothed petals
  • – Flowers, leaves, or stems edible raw or cooked, added to soups, or used as a salad
  • – Not as tall and tough as Lambsquarter, but very tenacious – can grow in huge numbers, choking out other plants, and if you break its stems off instead of uprooting it, it will grow two new stems at the place it broke

Yellow wood sorrel

Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta)

  • – Often confused with or called a ‘clover’
  • – Starts out erect, but as it grows it lays down and branches. Leaves with 3 leaflet segments, each shaped like a heart. Small yellow, 5-petaled flowers
  • – All parts are edible, with a very tangy/lemony flavor. Good accent in salads, or can be crushed and made into a lemonade-like drink. The tanginess is from its oxalate content – it is perfectly safe in small quantities, but should not be eaten in huge quantities constantly because this can bind up the body’s calcium

Mallow cheeses

Mallow Cheeses/Dwarf Mallow (Malva neglecta)

  • – Grows from a central point/in a rosette, branching from the base. Prostrate/stems lay along the ground.  Alternate leaves on long stems are circular or kidney-shaped and irregularly shallow-toothed or crinkly-lobed. Short hairs are present on the surfaces. Flowers 5-petaled and usually pink or pinkish-white, with noticeable darker pink or purple stripes upon close inspection
  • – Flowers replaced by disc-shaped seed pods that appear like a button or a cheese wheel in shape – this is where it gets its name. These are very crunchy and  tasty, although small. Leaves and shoots edible raw or cooked as salad or pot greens. They also have mucilaginous properties and are good for thickening soups or stews
  • – Taproot makes it hard to uproot, and it can grow quite large and sprawlingly competitive in the right environment

The domestic carrot’s mommy

Queen Anne’s Lace/Wild Carrot (Daucus carota)

  • – Tall growing, to a meter in height. Large clusters of tiny white flowers on tops of stems, often with a single maroon flower in the center. Foliage is lacy, like the familiar leaves of domestic carrots
  • – Root is edible like a carrot, or flower heads can be fried and eaten. Seeds can be used to flavor soup. The root can also be dried, roasted, and ground into a coffee substitute
  • – To avoid confusion with poison hemlock, look for the strong carrot smell and the very hairy stems – they should also lack purple spots
  • – Some people are photosensitive after handling the foliage, so treat with care if you are uncertain

Very immature Velvet-leaf, this youngster will grow many times this size if I let it

Velvet-leaf (Abutilon theophrasti)

  • – Grows several feet tall on stout, stiff stems, with large, heart-shaped, long-stemmed leaves covered with velvety, fine hairs. These are very soft to the touch. Yellow or orange flowers give way to segmented seedpod clusters with an overall ‘crown-like’ appearance, each segment having a pointed ‘horn’ on top. Entire plant has an odd, distinct odor about it
  • – Extremely competitive, stealing nutrients and water from other crops. A damaging and invasive species
  • – Seeds are edible and tasty (in my opinion). Although a bit small, they are easy to get to, and eating them stops the plant from reseeding. Leaves are reportedly eaten stir-fried or in omelettes in China. The plant also provides strong, jute-like fiber, which is what it was originally grown for.

and last, but never least…

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

  • – The familar dandelion almost everyone knows needs no photo – it grows in rosettes of deeply toothed, dark green leaves, with prominent yellow composite flowers on long, often reddish-tinged stems
  • – Entire plant is edible. Leaves are better when young, and get bitter as they age. Root is edible raw or cooked, or can be dried and roasted as a coffee substitute. Flowers are edible, fried into fritters or plucked of petals and mixed into anything (I like to put them inside a veggie burger of sorts). They can also be used to make wine, or pickled and used like capers. The milky sap is a folk remedy for warts
  • – A number of other medicinal uses as well!

Looking up the wild plants you find around you can be an addictive pursuit. So many of the plants we treat as weeds or ignore actually have beneficial qualities. Whether you decide to eat them or not, maybe this posting will give you a little curiosity about the leafy neighbors of your prized plants. After all, they’re just plants too – they just don’t often benefit from the help of a human hand, so they come up with other strategies to succeed, strategies that can invoke our ire at times.

Happy growing/harvesting season 2012!

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Whether a novice or an experienced gardener with a lot of land, plants such as mint need to be kept in check. That’s why container gardening is great! They are easy to start, maintain and are wonderful for those with little time or space. There is little to no weeding, no tilling, and allows plants that aren’t winter hardy to be grown.

Any container will serve well in a garden, but be mindful of size ratio in comparison to how large the plant will grow. Growth can be stunted or need water more frequently in a container that is too small. Putting a layer of rocks in the bottom also helps to keep the pot upright as the wind may blow over a top heavy plant. Searching for broken plants and pots three stories below may not smiled upon by a neighbor’s dog.

Raised Garden Beds

Raised beds have recently gained a lot of popularity due to a book called All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. In the garden center, I regularly get customers inquiring or raving about this technique. While raised beds are nothing new, they do offer a unique, space-saving garden. To simplify, it involves a raised wooden bed filled with an extraordinarily nutrient rich soil and compost mixture. These beds can be modified and customized to suit the gardener’s needs. They utilize all available space, allowing the gardener to grow a lot in a small area.

Trellised cucumbers

Growing Up

When faced with a small amount of space for a large, trailing plant then the best way to grow is up. While falling into this category, tomatoes are typically grown on a trellis; however there are other plants that also grow well this way. Cucumbers are an excellent choice for this as they readily take to trellising. Peas, squash, beans, and melons can also be effectively trellised. Be aware that any plant with a large fruit will not grow as large due to the extra weight that must be supported. Once big enough, be sure to train any trellised plant to climb onto the trellis.

Layering – The Waterfall Effect

See how stunted the sage is?

Layering can save a great deal of space. Placing tall plants behind short plants is one version of this, but a more effective version is raised containers behind shorter containers. This way plants of the same height can all get the right amount of sun. For example, last year I grew some herbs in a long planter, but the basil quickly grew so tall that the sage’s growth was stunted due to sunlight being blocked out. If these were layered, the sage would have still been able to get enough sun to grow well.

Thrifty Containers

Where to find cheap pots and containers:

  • Garage sales
  • Flea markets
  • Thrift stores
  • End of season clearance
  • Freecycle
  • Craigslist
  • Friends, family, and neighbors

Holes can be drilled in any container to create a successful addition to any garden.

Thrifty Container ideas:

  • 5 gallon food grade buckets are perfect for tomatoes

    Burlap sack for potatoes

  • An old tire
  • Pots
  • Food grade plastic buckets: 5 gallon frosting buckets from a bakery.
  • Raised wooden gardening beds
  • Metal cans
  • Any plastic containers

Some plants that grow exceptionally well in containers:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Many flowers
  • Strawberries
  • Herbs
  • Lettuce

Look for patio versions of plants as these are selected for their exceptional growth in limited space or try a dwarf fruit tree. Get ready to experiment with a variety of containers and plants. Container gardening offers something for every gardener: the decorative, creative, thrifty, or trendy.

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Bees are buzzing, frogs are chirping, and flowers are blooming. Spring is right around the corner and we’re all thinking about starting our gardens. Before buying every packet of seeds and every other sprouting product—stop! There is a lot of planning to lure a garden up out of the ground. I prefer cost-saving measures while making the most of my space.

How to get started

Because I live in an apartment, I am limited in space and have improvised by container gardening. There are many options for container gardening such as raised beds, pots, and any other home-rigged container. Also, soil and seed markers are needed. Working in a garden center, I see various techniques and costs of startup.

Cheaper alternatives

Since my goal is to maximize quantity while minimizing cost, I try to grow from seeds, rooted cuttings, or plant division. There are some plants—such as mint and tarragon—that should only be propagated by cuttings or division since they either do not breed true from seed or are sterile. I don’t find seeds to be particularly picky about what they’re sprouted in, so any well-draining container should work. The easiest way to do this is to use small peat pots, recycled nursery pots, or a seed starting tray; however, there are many other thrifty options ranging from paper or plastic cups, cardboard egg cartons, and opaque milk jugs.

Thrifty and Timely Options

  • Peat pots: relatively inexpensive, absorbs extra water, dries out quicker, fragile
  • Nursery pots: inexpensive or free, holds moisture longer
  • Seed starting tray: saves time as they often come with dirt pellets, usually has a clear plastic cover to create a miniature greenhouse, comes with directions, may be costly

Thriftier Alternatives

  • Paper and plastic cups: time consuming, may hold in moisture
  • Cardboard egg cartons: environmentally friendly, absorbs extra water, lid to keep seeds protected from cool night temperatures, small growing space
  • Milk jugs: time consuming, environmentally friendly, acts as a mock greenhouse, start seeds earlier

Avid gardener Paula Nowak also suggests strawberry containers, clear take out containers, 2 liter bottles, or any other clear container; however, she prefers milk jugs for their reusability and size. Making a milk jug into a miniature greenhouse is simple.

According to Nowak, start by making drainage holes on the bottom—a simple knife will do the job.

On the bottom of each side, she also makes a small slash to aid drainage. She then makes a small, horizontal cut halfway up the side of the jug. Using scissors, she cuts around the entire jug to separate the top from bottom.

Then, she punches a hole in each corner of both pieces.

Water well and let drain before planting seeds. Then Nowak connects the top and bottom pieces together with green floral wire.  Remember to remove the lid from the jug.

Now it’s time to stick the jug outside to be forgotten until spring, or if already spring, check regularly for dry soil or sprouts.

How to Plant Seeds

I find it easiest to lightly fill the container with soil and gently pat it down. This will leave just enough space for your seeds and a blanket of soil to cover them with. Place your seeds on top of the soil and tuck them in under a thin layer of soil. This will work for most seeds; however, there are some seeds—such as hibiscus—that need specific treatment before planted. These preparations can range from soaking in water, chipping a strong husk, or specific temperatures to increase the chance of germination. It is best to double check their needs to ensure seeds sprout.

These thrifty, time saving, and space efficient methods work in every situation whether you container garden or a traditional garden. Now it’s time to tuck in your seeds, kiss them good night, and say “Good Morning!” when they wake up in spring.

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