Why not plant some Calendula?

Calendula glows like the sun.

Mrs. Homegrown here, leaving the composting controversy behind…

One of my favorite plants in the garden is Calendula officinalis, aka pot marigold. It should not be mistaken for common marigold, or Mexican marigold, both of which are in the genus Tagetes. Tagetes marigolds are popularly used in companion planting (to ward off bugs in the garden), and for combating nemadtodes in the soil. Calendula is for helping people.

I grow Calendula in order to make lotions, balms and salves. I’m a firm believer in its healing power, my belief based on the happy response by family and friends who use my salves. Calendula is anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. It soothes, heals and helps regenerate skin. You’ll find Calendula extract as an ingredient in expensive beauty products, but you can make your own Calendula salve for pennies. I’m going to come back to how to do that in a later post, but first, I want to talk about planting Calendula so you can get some going in your own yard (or on your balcony) this spring.


Planting Calendula:

Calendula is beautiful and easy to grow, even for beginners. It’s not at all picky and will adapt to various soils and light conditions like a trooper, though–like most things–it does best if planted in rich, loose soil and given full sun. Even if you’ve had bad luck with flowers in the past, try Calendula. I’d be surprised if it let you down.

It’s technically a short lived perennial, so in very mild climates it might be a permanent garden flower, However, it doesn’t live through freezes or extreme heat. Here is southern California it’s a self-seeding annual. It seeds like crazy, so if you don’t want volunteers all over your yard, trim off the spent blooms–”deadhead” them–before they go to seed. (Calendula seed is trippy: big, gnarly crescent shaped pods, each one a little different–very unlike most seed, which is quite conformist.)

It does very well when grown from seed planted directly in the ground. In years past I’ve let Calendula range all over the yard as casual volunteers, all descended from some long forgotten planting, so obviously it’s not particular about planting conditions.

However, when it came time Phan of Pharmacy ™,  I wanted to start fresh, so I bought seeds. And I wanted to start the seeds while I was preparing the ground, so I started the seeds in flats and transplanted the seedlings when they were about three or four inches high. This worked very well. Calendula isn’t particularly pest-prone, but some things will munch on it, particularly when it’s small. Transplanting the seedlings when they were larger may have given them the oomph to withstand attacks. They also didn’t mind the shock of transplanting–I had no losses.

The Rundown on Calendula:

  • When to plant: Almost any time after frost: early spring into early summer. It doesn’t do well in scorching heat, so the earlier the better.
  • Where to plant: As above, it’s not too picky about soil. You want part to full sun. 
  • How deep to plant: About a 1/4″.
  • How far apart:  If planting in flats, seeds can be close, maybe 3 or 4 inches. If you’re planting straight into the ground you need to consider the final size of the plant, and how close you want them together. I like mine close, so in the Phan they are about 8″ apart. I think 8″ to 1 foot is a good range.
  • How big is it? Depends. A foot or so high, maybe more if it’s older or very happy, and probably about a foot across. 
  • Water: Calendula needs regular water. The one thing you have to do is remember to water it.
  • Fertilizer: You don’t really need it, but if you’ve got some nice compost you can spread some around the plants. 
  • Harvest: To save flowers for medicine, pick them when they’re open and at their peak. Don’t worry about picking too much. Picking just forces them to send out more flowers. Not picking is what leads to plants going to seed and closing up shop. Take the heads inside and dry them face down out of direct light. When dry enough to be crunchy, strip the petals and transfer to jar.
  • Pots: Calendula takes well to containerized life. Try it in pots or window boxes. It would do well in self-irrigating container, too.
  • Seeds: Look around for interesting flowers. As long as the seed pack reads “Calendula officinalis” you’ve got the right stuff. This year I planted the “Pacific Beauty Blend” from Botanical Interests and like them quite a lot. They have a wide range of colors, from almost cream to bright yellow to this cool peach color to the classic vibrant orange. Some of them are beautifully double flowered, others have more of the traditional daisy thing going on.
The seeds and some heads brought in from the garden for drying.

One last note: Calendula is edible. It’s not flavorful, but it’s fun to add the petals to salads. Dried calendula leaves look a little like saffron and can also be used in cooking for color. Calendula also can be brought indoors as a cut flower.

What’s eating my cilantro?

Mrs. Homegrown here:

While we’re inviting questions, we’ve also got a question for you guys. What sort of critter likes to eat cilantro? I think it’s a critter, not a bug. There’s no sign of leaf damage, just nibbling the stems down. There’s no digging or other disturbance.

Whatever this critter is, it has a defined taste for cilantro, because the cilantro is interplanted with parsley and it never so much as touches the parsley, or anything else in the garden, for that matter. It just comes out at night and decimates the poor cilantro.

Advances in Gardening Series: The Fan

Yet another heat wave slowed our backyard redesign project, but the weather is looking more cooperative at last and things are coming along. What we thought we might do over the next few days is share some of the new things we’ve put in, and how/why we built them, just in case any of it might be useful to you.

Everything is pretty rough and ragged right now, but it will be fun to report back in a couple months and do a compare/contrast.

The Concept:

Above you see the bones of my herb fan (and lots of chaos beyond). This space used to be my herb patch, which consisted of a bunch of random plantings, some perennial, some seasonal. It somewhat useful and occasionally attractive, but  didn’t earn its keep. So what I’ve done is split my herb production into two categories: kitchen and medicinal.

The kitchen herbs are going to live in a smaller planter box, all compact and tidy (because really, how much marjoram do you need?). This new bed, The Fan, is for medicinal annuals, because I need more space to produce them in useful quantities. For instance, you need a good number of chamomile plants if you want enough to put away for tea and a little more for salves. With this in mind, I’m going to rotate “large” crops of annuals through this space, one variety per wedge.

This winter’s fan is planted with, from left to right, Calendula, chamomile and bread seed poppies. I started the Calendula and chamomile in flats ahead of time, simply to get a head start, then transplanted them into their wedges this week. Poppies don’t like to be transplanted, so I sowed those seeds today.

The original herb garden was a rough quarter circle. We kept that footprint, but used spare bricks to divide the shape into 3 smaller wedges. The bricks give me a way to walk between the wedges without compacting the soil. 

The Process:

To prepare the ground…

I first forked the original soil, because while it’s not bad soil, it was compacted. Poppies have deep taproots. Like carrots, they need loose soil, so I really worked their wedge deep. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have done the same for all the wedges. Then I spread 1″ of good homemade compost over the whole area and a bit of alfalfa meal and forked that in about 3 inches deep. Then I watered deeply to prepare for planting.

By the way, I made a mistake at this stage. While merrily amending and forking the soil, I forgot that chamomile likes crappy soil.  With chamomile, hard conditions yield many blossoms. So by putting my chamomile in a deluxe bed, I may have guaranteed myself lots of foliage and few flowers. We’ll see. The lesson? Pay attention. Don’t garden on autopilot.

Next I coiled drip tubing in each wedge…

pinning the tubing down with bent wire. Erik did the heavy lifting in setting up the drip system a couple of years ago. Now when we want to irrigate, we just have to move the tubes around or switch them out as necessary. You can see the tubing snaking around in the photo. Soon as the plants get a little bigger it will become invisible. The mainline tubing is visible at the bottom of the photo–this is where all the little tubes plug in. That will also be obscured later.

The final step is to protect newly planted seeds and seedling from marauding critters.

We do this by stretching bird netting over wire hoops. Bird netting, also called aviary netting, is a super light, fine plastic netting that can be bought at most nurseries. You can drape trees or garden beds with it to protect them when in fruit, or when plants are tiny and tempting.

Erik says he’ll do a whole post on the wire hoops one day, but right now can’t remember the name of the wire. But he gets in the chain-link fencing section of the Home Despot. But basically, it’s a sturdy galvanized wire. Because it’s sold in circular bundles, it’s easy to cut off a piece and use it as a hoop. The cut ends get thrust in the ground and the netting is spread over the arch. We weigh the ends down with bricks or boards. You can see the bricks on the far left wedge above–if not the netting itself.  This system isn’t elegant, but it’s temporary, and it works.

Now all I have to do is top water…

until the plants get roots deep enough to take advantage of the drip. It’s nice to have the chamomile and Calendula so far along. These seedlings are too big for bugs to bother, and should do fine. The poppies I planted by simply sowing the seed thick on the surface of the soil, and patting them down a bit.  When they germinate, there will be tons of teeny sprouts, and I’ll have to thin them ruthlessly so that each poppy has lots of breathing room. I’ve made the mistake in the past of planting them too closely. When you do that, they get spindly and sad.

And that’s that. I can hardly wait to see the beds fill in.

Tune in next time for… The Germinator!


Chumash Plant Wisdom

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Great news for our readers in Southern California (and parts near)! I’ve just found the holy grail of local plant guides: Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West. It’s co-authored by a Chumash healer, Cecilia Garcia and a USC pharmacology prof., James David Adams, Jr., both of whom write for Wilderness Way magazine. It features full-color pictures of plants familiar to you from hikes in the desert and the chaparral, and discusses the recommended use of the these plants from both the Chumash perspective and the western scientific perspective.

I found this book in the wonderful Green Apple book store while visiting San Francisco. It can be ordered direct from the publishers. The title link will take you to their site. It also is available in our Amazon store.

More Nettle Love: Nettle Infusion


Mrs. Homegrown here:

It’s nettle appreciation week here at Homegrown Evolution. Inspired by Homegrown Neighbor’s post, I thought I’d throw in my own two cents about nettles.

First, it’s one of my favorite plants. Its nutritional profile is outstanding. In fact, it’s one of the most nutritionally dense foods available. It’s a rich source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamins, chlorophyll–the things your body might be lacking after a long winter, or a period stress and poor eating. For this reason it’s long been treasured as a spring tonic.

The most straightforward way to take advantage of these nutritional benefits is to eat nettles as a green, but as our neighbor mentions, they don’t make great eating. They’re not bad, just bland. It’s funny how such a prickly plant is so aggressively mild when all is said and done. That’s part of its charm and mystery. When I harvest it in the wild, usually from tall stands of tough, mean plants, I really feel like I’m hunting or doing combat of some sort. The older nettles get, the more intimidating they become. Though I wear long pants and sleeves and rubber dishwashing gloves when I go into battle, I never escape unscathed. But stings are just part of the process, a price I pay gladly.

I recommend you check out the website of Susun Weed, an herbalist. Reading there, I learned that infusions make more of the plant nutrients available than regular tea, so now we put one ounce of dried nettle (an ounce is quite a lot–a cup if it’s chopped, half a jar or more if the leaves are whole) in a quart jar, fill the jar with boiling water and let it sit 4-8 hours before drinking. The resulting brew is stronger tasting than ordinary nettle tea, but not unpleasant at all. It’s our house energy drink.

Nettle Harvest

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Stinging nettle- Urtica dioica is a both a beloved and hated plant. Yes, it does sting. The stem and leaf edges are covered in stinging hairs. It can be rather painful. But it has been used as a food and medicine plant dating back at least to ancient Rome. Interestingly, if you sting an inflamed or painful area of the body with nettle, it has been shown to decrease the pain.
Mr. Homegrown has also written about nettles on the blog here.
Nettle is considered anti-inflammatory and is a diuretic. It has been used to cleanse and build the blood, treat prostate problems, to promote healthy menstruation, to reduce arthritis pain and even to treat hair loss. I have always taken nettle when I feel a little anemic and weak. It has a mild taste that is easily blended with other herbs for tea. My favorite pick me up is a teaspoon of dried nettle with a teaspoon of jasmine green tea.
Nettle is nutritious, if not delicious. If I were lost in the woods or just trying to find something to eat here on the streets of L.A., I would be happy to find nettles. Luckily, nettle thrives in both locations. It reseeds readily, making it an annoying weed if you don’t know how to make use of it.
I found a weedy nettle patch while hiking one day. I dug up a little bit and put it, roots and all, in my backpack. I transplanted it into my front yard when I got home. The nettle grew and set seed. So now I have a nice big nettle patch in my front yard.
The nettle patch has grown so lushly that it stings me every time I walk to my car. It borders the entire driveway. I’m kind of immune to the little stings at this point. I hardly even notice it. But a friend of mine got stung rather badly the other day as I forgot to warn him about the weeds. So I realized it was time to harvest.
I put on latex gloves, got my kitchen shears and a brown paper bag. I discovered that nettle can sting you right through a latex glove. And my wrists were stung quite severely. But oh well. I was so excited about harvesting I just plunged my arm into the deep green patch and started cutting.
I cut the plants off near ground level and carefully placed them in my paper bag.
Then I closed the paper bag and hung it inside near a sunny window to dry. If you live in a humid climate or need it to dry quickly, I recommend setting your oven at a very low temperature, like 200 degrees and placing the bag in it for half an hour.
It will take about two weeks for your nettles to dry on their own. Check periodically to make sure they are drying properly and not getting moldy. Once they are dry, the sting is gone. You can safely strip the leaves from the stems and store in a jar in your pantry. Make some tea and enjoy. Stinging nettle is a tonic for almost anything that may ail you.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)


Every time we visit the nice folks at Petaluma Urban Homestead they send us home with some strange plant. Thanks to PUH, who are busy actually doing things as opposed to blogging about doing things, we now have a beautiful flowering mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus).

Verbascum thapsus is one of those plants that most people think of as a weed. Native to Europe and Asia, Verbascum thapsus was introduced to North America because of its many medicinal uses, almost too many to list. Most commonly used for respiratory problems, it also makes both green and yellow dyes and doubles as a fish poison! Tradition holds that it also wards off evil spirits,with some sources saying it’s the herb Ulysses took with him to deal with the treacherous sorcerer Circe.

It’s a useful, striking and beautiful plant. It’s also classified as an invasive. The Plant Conservation Alliance (PCA), a consortium of ten federal government agencies and 260 mostly non-profit organizations, has Verbascum thapsus in its cross hairs. How the non-profit “cooperators”, as the PCA terms the many native plant organizations in the PCA consortium, can get behind a program that suggests spraying glyphosate (e.g., Roundup®) and triclopyr (Garlon) in wilderness areas is a great mystery to me. The PCA is also pondering the release of non-native biological controls for mullein such as the mullein moth (Cucullia verbasci). So, it seems, some non-native species are o.k. while others are not? Shouldn’t we be concerned about what else the mullein moth will munch on? Better, I think, to learn to get along. The non-natives are here and we ain’t going to get rid of them. Let’s find their uses rather than spray herbicides. We humans, after all, are notoriously invasive, a moral I’m reminded of as I read the narrative of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca. If Monsanto marketed a Conquistador control I’m sure the Indians would have spayed an ocean of it, but they only would have created pesticide resistant super-Conquistadors.

While I’d hesitate to plant this stuff if I lived on the edge of a wilderness area, I see no problem growing it in the city. A mix of edibles, natives, ornamentals, medicinals and especially some useful “weeds” makes for a more robust garden. So in the interest of getting along:

Read more about the medicinal properties of Verbascum thapsus on Alternative Nature Online Herbal.
More on the magical properties of Verbascum thapsus at alchemy-works.com.

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage, just about to bloom.

Borage is an ugly sounding name for a beautiful and useful plant. The moniker is probably a corruption of the Andalusian Arabic abu buraq or “father of sweat”, a reference to it’s diaphoretic qualities1. Both the leaves and the blue flowers (sometimes white flowers) are edible and have a refreshing cucumber like taste. Borage is an annual herb that we plant in the late fall here in Los Angeles for an early spring bloom, but in most other parts of North America you’ll plant it in the spring after the last frost. Ours survived a winter outbreak of aphids, but is now thriving.

We toss the flowers and leaves into salads as a flavoring. In fact we enjoyed a memorable borage spiked salad on a recent Greyhound bus trip to Las Vegas we took for a book appearance. Thankfully for our fellow passengers, we did not break out into a borage induced sweat.

For more on the medicinal qualities of borage, including “dispelling melancholy” (useful for bus layovers in Barstow, incidentally) see the borage entry in the Plants for a Future database.

Nettle Mania

“out of this nettle, danger, we grasp this flower, safety”
-Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1, Act II Scene 3

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are a common weed with a bad reputation–the plant has tiny spines that inject, as Wikipedia puts it, a “cocktail of poisons.” Miraculously when you boil the plant the spines lose their punch and you’re left with a tasty green consumed plain or incorporated in a number of dishes, from soups to ravioli, to the German cheese pictured above (thanks to Berlin corespondent Steve Rowell for the photo). When dried, the leaves make a damn good tea, with a rich, indescribable flavor. If that ain’t enough, nettles pack a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, and are perhaps the vegetable with the highest protein content (10%).

At the risk of contradicting yesterday’s anti-media screed (After all, Marshall McLuhan once said, “If you don’t like that idea I’ve got others.”), we’ll end with some links to an obscure sub-genre of youtube videos, nettle torture stunts. Mrs. Homegrown could drone on about the psycho-sexual implications of these clips, but that would be fodder for another blog. In the meantime, thanks again to Steve Rowell, here’s some nettling to fill your evening hours: here, here and here (just three of what may be hundreds).

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