Sunday, July 19, 2015


Gardening is not for the faint of heart.  There are always conditions, sometimes extreme, that you must deal with.  My sister recently told me, when they returned home from a trip, much of their vegetable garden was shredded from a hailstorm.  Although most things will recover, it's a pitiful sight to see.  We've been busy here--we've gotten plenty of rain but no damaging winds with all the storms rolling through.  High winds can snap or even flatten plants quickly.  And of course the extremes of rainfall.  Too little and you spend so much time watering.  Yet the plants never seem to respond as they do to a good, soaking rain.  Too much rain, all at once, can doom newly set in plants.  New plants, without a fully developed root system, simply cannot absorb a large quantity of water in a short time. Our main "extreme" concern this season seems to be a bumper crop of rabbits.  It's been several years since I remember seeing this many baby bunnies.  We have so much clover in our yard that generally, it seems to satisfy them.  I would expect to see feeding on parsley, but so far, not much.  We did stop planting parsley in the outer gardens, because it always did get munched off.  But two plants they must love are pincushion flower and Jupiter's beard.  Pincushion flower has very dark, almost black flowers, sprinkled with white dots, so it really does resemble a pincushion.  Jupiter's beard has rosy-pink flowers and is a reliably reblooming perennial.  Both have been chomped off multiple times!  At least they saved me the effort of cutting back the Jupiter's beard after its first bloom.
So gardening teaches us flexibility--to roll with the punches and adapt to changing conditions. And it also teaches us patience.  I've talked to many customers over the years who complain their annual vines "aren't doing anything." Moonflower, fragrant, white, night-blooming morning glory, mina or firecracker vine, with sprays of red, orange and yellow tubular flowers, and hyacinth bean with purple pea-like flowers and showy, shiny purple pods are all annual vines.  Having only one season to complete their life cycle, you'd think they'd get off to a quick start.  But they don't.  They are very slow growing in the beginning and they want lots of water.  It's almost impossible to give them too much water early on, until they really get established.  At some point, the tide turns.  Then, you can see each day how much they've grown from the previous day.
One flower I've been harvesting and drying lately is one of our new selections this year--orlaya.  It's an annual, with lacy, white flowers similar to queen anne's lace, but without the weediness of that plant.  It's a bright, clear white and is a  great filler for cut flowers.  I think the dried ones will work well in the same capacity for wreaths and arrangements. Like many other annuals, the more you cut and deadhead, the more it blooms.  Same for gomphrena or globe amaranth, with papery clover-like flowers.  I'm harvesting the red 'Strawberry Fields' variety now.  I particularly like it for decorating at the holidays as the red color holds well.  The mixed purple, pink and white gomphrena come a bit later.
Our hydrangea recovered and are blooming profusely in various shades of blue.  If I would cut the blooms now, they would just shrivel up--I think due to the high moisture content.  So I wait until late August or September, and when the flowers begin to feel papery on the stalk, cut them and dry them standing in a vase.  Then they hold their shape and dry thoroughly.
A small selection of annuals and a pretty good selection of perennials remains during our plant sale.  And prices are great!

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Summer rolls on--now we're in July.  June just sped by.  Maybe that's because, with all the rain, I spent a good part of the month outside weeding the gardens.  Seems like we'd get everything cleaned up, then we'd get a big rain and instantly, the weeds were back.  We were lucky here, in that we got the rain, but not the high winds.  With all the moisture, the newly planted annuals are well established.  I've pinched back basils a couple times and the plants have branched out well.  Pinching back produces a compact plant with lots of foliage--exactly what you want with basils.
Since everything is growing so well, I've been doing a lot of harvesting.  I'm drying culinary herbs--like oregano, savory, thyme, mints, lemon verbena.  I air dry these in bunches or on my screened racks.  With the humid weather, it's hard to get them completely dry, since they reabsorb moisture from the air.   When they're nearly dry, I finish them off in the dehydrator, so they are completely dry before storing them.  I've harvested a good crop of chamomile flowers.  The dried flowers are a popular item in the shop--makes a great, relaxing bedtime tea.
I've been harvesting flowers for drying, too.  Yellow yarrow is just finishing up.  It dries so easily and the golden color is a wonderful addition to dried wreaths and arrangements.  Also harvested the striped, balloon-like seedpods of nigella or love-in-a-mist.  The blue, white or pink flowers are followed by the seedpods, which contain dozens and dozens of seeds in each pod.  I dry bunches, remove more and leave just a few to reseed.  Otherwise, I'd have a forest of them!
Good news on the honeybee front.  I've been seeing more then one at a time, but nowhere near the numbers I used to see.  Recently, they've been working the annuals blooming in the greenhouse.  And I'm starting to see more butterflies--lots of skippers, some fritillarys, red admirals and a couple commas.  Should have a bumper crop of swallowtail butterflies this year.  Had caterpillars on parsley and dill in several locations in the garden.
Our plant sale is on-going.  We're out of a number of varieties, but still have a good selection of perennials.  There's still plenty of time for planting and for them to establish themselves before the end of the season.  After July 4, perennials will be 33% off.  Plus, you get a free basil plant with your purchase!
Don't forget to cut back blooming perennials when they're done flowering to encourage growth of new, clean foliage. Also, if you want to cut back lavender for better shaping of your plants, this is the time to do it.  Other tasks include saving seed as the seedheads mature and making sure biennials drop seed.  They will produce new foliage this year and allow continuing flowering next season. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


Some people came to the farm one day.  They said they had an herbal business and were interested in seeing what we had to offer.  I explained that we were strictly a retail business and did not do wholesale.  They were completely perplexed and had blank looks on their faces.  I was quite amazed that someone who had a  business did not know the difference between wholesale and retail.  Although they might deal in the same product (like plants) the models for wholesale and retail are quite different. 
Retail suits me just fine.  I grow 99% of the plants I sell.  We sell to the public.  People come to the farm (or our stand at Landis Valley Herb Faire.)  I get to talk to loads of nice, like-minded people about plants.  I make suggestions  based on their needs and sites.  I recommend uses for plants they may be interested in.  I show them a particular plant and how it performs in the garden.  It's a wonderful job and I love it.
I do buy 10-12 flats of plants from an excellent wholesaler in Dillsburg.  They are generally things I need just a small quantity of that I can't grow from seed.  And we buy items wholesale for the shop--soaps, lotions, spritzes, roll-ons, etc. from Tina & Maryanne, aka 'The Twisted Sisters' who do only wholesale business--selling to other businesses rather than the general public.
Back to the visitors.  I asked what their business was.  One said they had taken a course from 'Person X' and they were now an herbalist.  I'm always suspicious of people who call themselves herbalists--because it really is a meaningless term.  There are without a doubt well-known, nationally and internationally recognized authorities in herbs.  They could certainly call themselves herbalists, but it's  probably not fair to them since anyone can take a course and make the same claim.  Again, some very respected people teach excellent courses that would be a great basis for an herbal education.  I did not know, nor had ever heard of, 'Person X' who had taught this visitor.  I asked some people, much more versed in the herbal education field and they had not heard of 'Person X'.  Perhaps they are legit, perhaps not.  Certainly, there are excellent herbal courses available; some no doubt, are scams.  If you are going to take advice from someone on products that you will apply to yourself or ingest, please make certain they are well qualified to offer that advice.  When people ask me if I'm an herbalist, I always reply as the late, great Bertha Reppert (a true herbalist) did--"I am a student of herbs."

Saturday, June 6, 2015


Ah, spring--with the up and down roller coaster ride of uncertain weather.  First, we bake with unseasonably hot and humid weather so early in the season. Then the winds shift, cool air comes off the ocean and we're parked under a system that releases rain at regular intervals over several days.  The thing I find striking is how often during this spring season, that we've had temperature fluctuations of 20-25 degrees on two successive days.  That's a huge change for a 24 hour period.  We were very lucky here in escaping the severe weather--high winds and hail during the recent batch of wet weather.  We got the rain (the upside) without the downside.

After the hot, dry start to the season, things really appreciate the replenishing rain.  I can see that recently planted herbs and flowers have taken hold after the soaking rain.  Established plants burst forth with flowers after sitting unhappily under the hot sun.  There are some real beauties in the garden right now. The several types of roses I grow have all popped out beautiful fragrant flowers. In perfect timing with the roses, part-shade loving lady's mantle has produced its spikes of yellowish-green flowers.  I do dry lady's mantle flowers, but my favorite use is as a very attractive filler for cut flowers--particularly roses.   Two of my best reblooming perennials--catmint and jupiter's beard are in their first bloom.  Catmint edges the bed in front of the greenhouse. With it's vertical, spikey, purple flowers, many people think it's lavender until closer inspection.  Jupiter's beard has a rosy-pink flat headed flower.,  When blooming has finished and the bees are done with it, I'll cut them back hard.  First, new foliage pushes out and later in the season, I'll be rewarded with a second bloom for both.

Tall, pinky-white valerian is in bloom, along with the many colors of sweet william--wine red, salmon, pink, white, bi-color pink and white--interspersed with roses, jupiter's beard and snaps in the victorian garden--what a show!  Sweet williams are biennial dianthus.  Only foliage the first year--no flowers till year 2.  I let flowers die on the stalk and make sure to shake the seed down.  They are very reliable reseeders.  Magenta pink rose campion are just starting to bloom along with the sturdy stalks of clary sage.

Several varieties of thyme are blooming in the gardens and thyme walk.  Usually, they are worked heavily by honeybees.  Unfortunately, I have seen only two honeybees so far this season.  That's pitiful, considering the numbers (dozens and dozens) we used to see.  I was glad to read that the federal government is finally putting resources and manpower into the problem of the rapidly disappearing honeybee population.  Everyone who likes to eat should be concerned about the dwindling numbers of these important pollinators.

Spring rains have brought color and lushness to the gardens.  But they've slowed down gardening tasks.  Weeding will be much easier when the rain stops.  Additional watering is unnecessary.  But I'm anxious to harvest both roses and lavender for drying.  They'll have to dry out thoroughly before the harvest can proceed.  And the culinary herbs I've harvested and have drying on screens can't be finished off and stored until it stops raining and they dry out completely.  Ah, spring!


Sunday, March 22, 2015


It's been a slow transition from winter to spring.   I always feel that way when I have to trudge supplies through the snow, or break off planting to shovel snow.  Very hopeful the shovelling is done until next winter.  All it takes is a few sunny days and the little plants in the greenhouse really perk up, even if the outside temps are chilly.  I check things in the morning and when I come back in the afternoon, I swear some of the plants have grown.  Everything is still small, especially the varieties I grow from seed.  Each year, I have to discourage people from buying tiny, newly transplanted seedlings.  A few weeks in the greenhouse is all they need.  And of course, the greenhouse environment is much more conducive to good growth than a windowsill in the house.  But what a nice quality that people want to take a baby plant and nurture it to maturity.  One time I told customers, "You can't take home a puppy or kitten when it's a week old."  They laughed and came back in a couple weeks when the plant matured.

Once the snow melted, I made a quick survey of the gardens.  Overall, things don't look too bad.  I don't think damage will be as widespread as after the record 2013-14 winter with both cold and heavier snowfall than this winter.  But the extended cold in February has probably damaged some plants and certainly delayed the start of spring for others.  There were pretty, scalloped green leaves on cucumber-flavored salad burnet when the snow melted.  I thought thymes looked surprisingly good after two months of snow cover.  Lavenders are a mixed bag.  Some, even on the prevailing wind side of the yard, actually looked good.  Others look battered down by the snow.  Don't make any decisions on the health (or survival) of plants at this point.  With lavenders, I always wait til new growth start to emerge before I decide on how hard to prune them.  Generally, I remove as little as possible--just dead and damaged parts.  Last year, after the very harsh winter, I wound up cutting back about half my plants very hard--just above new growth at the base of the plant.  Althnough it reduced its first flowering, the plants survived and filled in quite well.

No signs of survival on any of my outside rosemarys.  As I repeated many times last year--rosemary is not designed for sub-zero temperatures--even the hardier varieties.  I think this will be two years in a row that I have to replant outside rosemarys.

Although it's still chilly, on nice days you can begin cleaning up debris, leaves, etc. in your gardens and beds.  Another early spring chore is cutting back butterfly bushes--the ideal time is mid-March until mid-April.  It will be interesting to see how they fared this year.  Last year, we had to cut back to ground level.  Only the roots survived--everything above ground died.  And many people lost the bushes entirely.  Hopefully, it won't be as bad this year.

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


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.