Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Clash of the Seasons

It's still the clash of two seasons here at the herb farm.  All the baby seedlings in the basement tell me spring is coming, but winter is still firmly entrenched outside.  Of course, when you're growing plants, you're always working ahead--from several weeks to a couple months.  But it does make for some incongruous situations.  I said as much to John one day.  We were trudging through the snow, carrying pots and flats from the shed to the greenhouse.  Sometimes, I think I'd go crazy during the winter if I didn't have spring prep work to do.  I can always go downstairs, check on the growth of the seedlings, admire the mini-versions of their grown-up selves and sniff some lavender, thyme or oregano.  It amazes me that small herb seedlings have the full-fledged fragrance of a mature plant.  It's a delightful hint of things to come.

Of course, the flats of seedlings are labelled with variety names, but sometimes I like to quiz myself to see if I can identify the different species when they're so small.  Nearly all plants look alike when the first set of leaves emerge, but they soon begin to develop their individual characteristics.  So it's easy to compare the fine-textured, blue-green foliage of blue flax to the broad leaves of echinacea.  Or to contrast the foliage of snapdragons--green leaves on the light pink variety vs. green-tinged with red on the dark, velvety 'Black Prince'.  One day, I was stumped looking at a flat.  Then I realized it was a new plant for us--an agastache--and I didn't recognize it because I hadn't grown it before.

We were pretty busy in the shop in February--even with the inclement weather.  A number of customers purchased essential oils, containers, base oils and other supplies.  So it was project time.  When you're stuck inside, or just don't care to go out, it's a great time to experiment or try a project that interests you.  It's nice to have a pleasant activity, particularly if you wind up with a useful product, to keep you busy until the weather breaks and outside work can begin.

Speaking of not wanting to go out, Lucy's been funny this winter.  Some mornings, she's anxious to get out and we take our regular lap around the entire yard.  Other times, she won't budge--lies curled up on the sofa, sound asleep.  Luckily, a couple of times were on those brutally cold mornings.  She doesn't mind walking on the snow when there's a crust--she's light enough that she won't break through.  Of course, I'm trudging along and she gets way ahead of me.  She doesn't like as it warms up, the snow begins to melt and she breaks through with every step.  It's a workout trudging through the snow--John's talked about getting snowshoes.

The herb shop is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. through March.  Keep an eye out for the spring newsletter--will be out in the next couple weeks.





Saturday, January 24, 2015

GETTING A JUMP ON SPRING

One of the interesting things about my job is the overlap of seasons that it involves.  So while we're deep into winter, with cold, snow and ice, spring has sprung here at the farm.  The first batch of seedlings--still very small--are thriving under lights in the basement.  The first batch is small--pansies, 2 varieties of lavender I grow from seed, and some of the early perennials.  It's a great mood-booster to go downstairs and see green, growing plants in the middle of winter.  Good for the outlook and my sanity when winter drags on.  The winter snowstorms have been relatively small so far.  But everyone I talk to is longing for spring.  Maybe it's a holdover from last year--such a harsh winter and a cool, wet start to spring.  Everyone seems anxious to escape from winter without the brutal hit of last year.

I do try to admire the nice things about each season.  Snow, if you don't have to shovel or drive in it, is lovely and it certainly covers up any blemishes in the landscape.  We have a beautifully shaped spruce tree in the yard and it was so picturesque after the last snowfall.  If a male cardinal had landed on it, it would have been a perfect Christmas card.  In our side border, we have a red-twig dogwood.  The bare red stems present a beautiful contrast against the white snow.  Recently, I passed a yard with a very attractive winter scene--a pyracantha bush loaded with bright orange berries between two clumps of dried ornamental grass with the seedheads uncut.  And I continue to admire our own and other examples of paperbark birch, with its attractive exfoliating or peeling bark that's especially showy after its leaves fall.  Every season displays something attractive in the landscape.

Although I like the head start on spring, I also like the gradual transition between seasons.  I start with end of the year office work and gradually move on to spring work--plant lists, newsletters, etc.  Same in the shop--put away holiday items and gradually restock with spring decor and selections.  And most notably, with plants.  First, the earliest seeding with pansies and perennials.  Soon, I'll be seeding each week and the numbers will increase.  Then, hard goods arrive and I get the greenhouse set up for spring.  Soon, starter plants begin to arrive and then boom--I'm deep into spring, although it will be 4-6 weeks before the official start.  There's always a day when things get really busy and I know spring is here.

Just a reminder.  Although the greenhouse doesn't reopen until April, the herb shop is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. during January, February and March (weather permitting).  A customer called recently and was surprised to hear we had part-time winter hours.  The shop has all kinds of things that are useful during the winter--supplies and containers for DIY projects, books and the Essential Herbal magazine for a leisurely read, herbal teas for a nice, warm cuppa and bulk herbs and spices for hearty recipes and homemade baking. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

HAPPY HERBAL HOLIDAYS

We want to thank everyone who visited during our recent holiday open house.  The weather was certainly not the best, but we had a nice turnout.  It was a nice combination of returning customers and some new faces.  It's always good to catch up with our 'regulars', especially if we haven't seen them since the spring.  It meant a lot that several people mentioned coming to our open house is part of their holiday tradition.  And we're happy that, after 17 years, new customers are still discovering Cloverleaf Herb Farm.  The greenhouse and herb shop are open Tuesday - Saturday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. through December 23, so there's still plenty of time to pick up any last-minute gifts, supplies, dried herbs and spices or potted plants.  Congratulations to Londa and Dee, winners of our open house prize drawing.

It's time for my annual plea on behalf of homeless animals.  If you're considering adding a pet during the holidays, please, please think about a shelter or rescue pet.  There are so many wonderful dogs and cats looking for good homes.  Our own Lucy came from the Humane League.  She's a sweet dog and a wonderful friend.  I swear on some level she understands she was in a bad spot and we came and rescued her.  She certainly wants to please and she enjoys being a farm dog.  Poeple spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on purebred dogs.  The pedigree is pretty meaningless unless you're breeding or showing the dog.  You can get a mixed breed with the characteristics you're looking for.  Lucy is mixed, but with the appearance, friendliness and obedience of a Lab.  Mixed breeds make wonderful pets!

As many of you know, I'm a nut for fragrances (one reason I love herbs and old-fashioned, fragrant ornamental plants.)  I was thinking again about fragrances as I prepared for open house and made the mulled cider we always serve.  The fruit and spice combination made the whole house smell yummy - very homey and holiday-ish.  On a cold, raw day, a hot drink warms you from the inside out - you get to appreciate not just the taste, but the aroma and the warming quality.  This recipe makes it particularly good.  It adds not just flavor, but more body to the cider.  Try it during the cold months and see if you don't agree.

Happy Herbal Holidays to all !!

          HOT MULLED CIDER

          1 gallon cider                                                               
          1/2 cup brown sugar                                                    
          1 lemon and 1 orange, washed & sliced                        
          2 sticks cinnamon
          1 Tbsp. whole cloves         
          1/2 Tbsp. whole allspice

Combine cider, sugar and fruit in large pan.  Tie spices in cheesecloth and add to cider.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes.



Monday, December 1, 2014

OPEN HOUSE THIS WEEKEND

December has arrived!!  This weekend, December 5 & 6 is our annual Open House at the herb farm.  We have stocked the herb shop with all kinds of gift ideas, do-it-yourself supplies for homemade herbal gifts, as well as calendars, books, lotions and soaps, and a variety of other items for the season.  Don't forget the door prizes and herbal treats, too.  Happy Herbal Holidays start this weekend at Cloverleaf Herb Farm.  Hope to see you then!!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

FROSTY NOVEMBER

This growing season is coming to a close.  We finally had frost--although during the first week of November marks it as a late frost.  However, at this point we haven't had a hard freeze.  So although we're working on cleaning up the gardens, I look around and there's still a lot to admire.  The garden clean-up got me thinking about horticultural terms.  Like any other subject, gardening has its own terminology.  Some of it is pretty basic and clear, some is not.

Annuals are plants that grow, flower and produce fruit or seed in one season and die off at frost.  Basil, being extremely cold-sensitive is always the first thing to go.  Other warm weather lovers, like zinnias, mexican sunflower and brazilian buttonflower (with big, fuzzy purple flowers) got zapped.  Some annuals did not - which leads us to half-hardy annuals.  These are annual plants which will tolerate some frost, but are not truly winter hardy like perennials.  The nice thing is that they are hardy enough to extend the garden season, perhaps by several weeks, depending on the weather.

So, still blooming are pincushion flower  with dark purple blooms studded with white dots (resembling pins), cheerful yellow and orange calendula and snapdragons.  One day, when it warmed up, I saw a couple bees happily roaming over the calendula flowers.  Calendula and particularly  snaps, will tolerate quite a bit of cold.  Sometimes they look frozen, but the sun comes out and they pop right back.  I love snaps for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that they survive so long.  In mild years, I've had snaps blooming at Thanksgiving.

Our greenhouse toad is back and settling in for his long winter nap.  He's not hibernating yet.  He's buried in the dark in the back corner of the greenhouse, but his head is still sticking out.  On sunny days, it still gets quite warm in the greenhouse, so he can emerge when he gets warm and crawl back in at night.  Soon, he'll bury himself completely and I usually don't see him until we turn the heat back on.  Compared to even a protected spot outside, I guess the greenhouse is like a luxury toad hotel.  Although I refer to it as he, I have no idea if the toad is male or female.

I've been working hard in the shop and I'm now beginning to stock it with holiday items.  Generally, I think the retail Christmas push starts much too early - before Halloween in some places!  I like to enjoy fall first and then bring out the holiday items.  For DIY'ers, it is a good time to stock up on supplies and containers.  That way, you'll have everything you need once you're ready to create your herbal gifts.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

RENEWED TRENDS

It's been interesting to note several trends that have developed over the time since we opened the farm.  The first, which I noticed a couple years after we opened the shop, was a renewed interest in herbs for medicinal use.  It makes sense for several reasons.  For thousands of years before the development of pharmaceuticals, people used what they had to treat diseases and injuries - namely plants.  Prior to WWII, plant based medicines were the norm.  The trend never disappeared in Europe.  They continued using plant based medicinals and researched their effectiveness.  The knowledge filtered back to the U.S. and was part of a consumer-led resurgence of interest in medicinal herbs.  When you read about all the side effects of some prescription medicines, who wouldn't prefer to start with a more natural, less aggressive approach.

After the recent recession, I talked to so many people who said, "I've never had a garden before - but now I'm going to start."  This was in addition to the many people who had always grown fresh herbs and vegetables for their families.  Our vegetable sales really increased during this period.  I don't know if everyone stuck with it when the economy improved, but it certainly is satisfying to produce your own food, not to mention the cost savings and improved flavor and quality.

The latest trend is an extension of the local food movement.  It seems that people have gone beyond just growing their own food to producing their own soaps and body care products.  We have seen increased sales in supplies, containers and essential oils in the last year or two.  More people seem to be concerned not only with what they put in their bodies, but also what they apply to them.  Customers who are purchasing supplies almost unanimously talk about the chemical ingredients with multisyllabic names in commercially produced soaps, lotions, shampoos, deodorants, etc.  Producing your own gives you control over the process and ingredients used, resulting in high quality items.

The common thread running through these trends seems to be a strongly renewed interest in the use of natural, organic products in our lives.  The trend seems to be back to the basics - and that everything old is new again.

Our newsletter will be coming out during the first half of November.  Be on the lookout!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

THOUGHTS OF FALL

On the pleasant, warm, sunny days, I can fool myself into thinking that summer's not over yet.  I know the calendar says October, but many of the leaves have not changed color yet, and as of this posting, we haven't had our first frost.  When I look around the gardens, it still looks like summer.  Loads of flowers are still in bloom - bright nasturtiums, yellow & orange calendula, deep purple pincushion flowers, true  blue plumbago and hummingbird sage, fragrant at night nicotiana, perennial hyssop, salvia and catmint on its second bloom, a few late roses, upright verbena which is still attracting the last of the butterflies and profusion zinnias which have bloomed non-stop for three months.  A pretty good display for October.

And of course, there are the plants that are at their peak at the end of the season.  Although my pineapple sage did not get as tall as it sometimes does, it is loaded with bright red tubular flowers.  Another one blooming up a storm is mina or firecracker vine.  We grow it on an obelisk in the garden at our entrance.  It's covered in sprays of yellow, orange & red tubular flowers.  Both of these plants are hummingbird favorites.  We don't get a lot of hummingbirds here, but I didn't see any this year.  Hope they're not going the way of the butterflies.  One of the best end of season plants is Mexican bush sage.  Tall and full, it's now covered with fuzzy, purple flowers.  Excellent color and texture in the garden - it always attracts a lot of attention from visitors.

Right next to Mexican bush sage in the greenhouse bed is russian sage, with its small purple flowers.  On a sunny day, I saw bees still working energetically at the russian sage and nearby on some thyme that was still blooming.  I did see more bees this year than I have recently.

The hard pruning I did on some lavenders that suffered badly from last winter's extreme weather really paid off.  They filled in well, which I expected, but their second bloom was spectacular.  Several of them bloomed as profusely as they usually do in the spring.  Hope this winter is easier on them.

Every year, (if I'm paying attention) I cut a big bunch of greek columnar basil before frost to bring inside.  It has long stems, with plenty of flavorful leaves and kept in water on the kitchen counter, provides fresh basil well into the winter.  I cut it last week, when they called for possible frost, but all the basil survived.  Basil roots easily in water, so I can always put up a couple stems after it roots to keep the crop going.