Advances in Gardening Series: We’re maturing

November–seedlings new planted

January–all the foliage is in
End of February–the flowers really start to pop

Stuff grows. You just gotta remember to plant it!

A quick photo update on progress for the Phan of Pharmacy and the Hippie Heart, mostly for our own record keeping. Maybe it will inspire those of you surrounded by rain or snow with dreams of your own spring planting.

Back in November, I cleared ground and planted the Phan/Fan with medicinal seedlings. See some of that history here. Now we’re at the end of February, and the Calendula and chamomile plants are mature. The Calendula (the yellow flowers in the pic) is giving off lots of blossoms, the chamomile–not so much. That’s garlic growing on the far right. It’s beginning to brown at the tips, but I don’t think it’s going to be ready until May. The poppies, hidden in the back, are slow, and not near blossoming yet. Note the rogue borage in the foreground.

Meanwhile, the Hippie Heart, planted with flax in the center and lentils around the edges is coming along very well. It waves hi to the police helicopters overhead. The point of the Heart was to have a place where I could experiment with planting seeds, beans and spices right out of the pantry. Soon I’ll need to decide if I’m going to let the flax and lentils go to seed, and collect that seed for fun, or if I’ll pull it out early in favor of more experimentation with new pantry crops over the summer.

January 22nd

February 25th: I can hardly wait ’til it blooms.

Borage: It’s what’s for dinner

image courtesy of wikimedia commons

Our friend Milli (Master Gardener of the Milagro Allegro community garden) stopped by today to pick up some sourdough starter. On seeing our back yard swamped abundant with borage (Borago officinalis), she mentioned that she’s been really digging borage tacos lately. This was very exciting news to us, because we’d never eaten our borage leaves–only the flowers.

So tonight I went out and cut a whole mess of stiff, prickly borage leaves. The prickles vanish on cooking. Some sources say only to use small leaves for cooking but I say fie to that. I used leaves of all sizes and after cooking there was no difference between them. Borage is actually rather delicate under all its spikes and cooks down considerably in to a very tender, spinach-like consistency.

Instead of making little tacos with it, we folded it into tortillas with a bit of goat’s milk gouda to make yummy green quesadillas–a quick, light and satisfying meal at the end of a busy day.

How did we cook it? –>


We cooked the borage as we cook all of our greens, no matter what kind. It seems we can’t be bothered to develop any variations on this theme. First we saute chopped garlic in lots of olive oil along with chile pepper flakes, then add piles of chopped wet greens–any greens– to the pan. These get tossed until they wilt to the point where we want them, which varies. If any green seems particularly tough, we put a lid over the skillet for a moment to steam them. Salt and pepper and maybe a squeeze of lemon finishes them off.

I used this technique on the borage and it came out very nice. Tender, as I said, with pleasing bit of cucumber flavor. There is also the faintest hint of a mucilaginous texture, but nothing off-putting. Borage is a cooling herb, like mallow (Malva sylvestris)–which we like to eat as a green as well. Because of this cooling quality, both are refreshing to eat, especially on a hot day. I’m writing this a few minutes after dinner and this coolness lingers in my throat. It’s also supposed to be a soothing, grounding herb and now I’m wondering if I don’t feel a bit more grounded, too, post-quesadilla.

Borage is also a medicinal plant–as a compress, tea, tincture or oil extract it has different uses and effects, which will have to be covered in another post.

More people are familiar with borage’s star-like edible flowers, which can be preserved in sugar for cakes, or tossed into salads. I’ve heard of freezing them in ice cubes for fancy drinks, which is a lovely idea.

Obligatory health warning:  I’m going to quote this directly from the very useful Plants for a Future database, from their entry on borage:

The plant, but not the oil obtained from the seeds, contains small amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can cause liver damage and liver cancer[238]. These alkaloids are present in too small a quantity to be harmful unless you make borage a major part of your diet, though people with liver problems would be wise to avoid using the leaves or flowers of this plant.

Also, I’ve seen warnings regarding pregnant and nursing women eating borage here and there, too, although I don’t know the exact reasons for the warning. As per usual, check with your doctor if you have concerns.

We figure as long as we’re only eating borage a few times a week, and only for a limited period–“borage season,” as it were–these pyrrolizidine alkaloids are not going to get us down.

Strange brew: herbal steam for a chest cold and sinus pain

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I’ve had a bad cold for almost a week now. It’s gone through all the classic steps: the sore throat, then the snot factory, then the ghastly “productive cough” that keeps you awake at night, and on top of it all, the lost voice. Oh, the fun! I thought I was almost out of the woods, but then I seem to have hit a cul-de-sac involving the sinuses. Sinus trouble is a new malady for me–I’m just not prone to it–so it’s been a learning experience. My new best friend in this experience is my steaming pot-o-herbs.

Most folks know that you can inhale steam to ease congestion, whether that be in a hot shower, a steam room or by tenting a towel over a bowl of boiling water. What I’m going to talk about here is the bowl technique, tricked up by spiking the water with powerful healing herbs.


My inspiration came from the book by well-known herb expert, Stephen Harrod Buhner called Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria. It’s a slender, informative book profiling the actions of a short list of top antibacterial botanicals, some of which, like ginger and garlic, are quite commonplace. Highly recommended reading.

This is Buehner’s steam for upper-respiratory infections:

Get yourself a big cook pot–stainless, glass or enamel are recommended for working with herbs.

Fill it with a gallon of water

Into the cold water put:

2 oz. dried eucalyptus leaf
1 oz. dried sage
1 oz. dried juniper or crushed juniper berry

Bring to a rolling boil, then take off heat (I kept the pot covered to keep the good stuff in).

No need to transfer the liquid out of the pot into a bowl. Just put a trivet or folded towel on the table and put the pot on it. Lean over the steam with a towel over your head. Breath deep until the steam dies, or you can’t stand it any longer.

Don’t throw out the pot contents. Just put the lid back on when you’re done and heat it up when you need it again. If it seems to be losing potency, throw in another handful of herbs.

I used my pot for a night and a day before it began to look a little tired. It was also completely full of solid matter! At that point I dumped it out in the yard and started a fresh pot.

Alternative herbs:

You may not have all these ingredients, and that’s okay. You could get by with just one–e,g. only juniper. If you have access to fresh material instead of dried, that’s good, if not better. Don’t worry too much about quantity, just toss handfuls in the pot.

You can also use essential oils of the same herbs in the water if you have those on hand. Buhner says 30 drops of each–I think that’s overkill. I’d start with 2 drops of each and see how that works for you.

My first steam contained dried sage and juniper, and a few juniper berries. I had no dried eucalyptus. Eucalyptus has that nice, lung-opening menthol action which is hard to replace. Fortunately, I had some eucalyptus essential oil and would add one drop of it to the water each time I went into the tent. From now on I’m going to be sure to have eucalyptus essential oil on hand at all times.

On steam round two, I wanted to freshen the mix and had no more dried sage or juniper, so I added a big spray of fresh pine (baby cone and all) from the neighbor’s yard. Pine is considered a good substitute for juniper, followed by fir, cedar and spruce–in that order. You might not have a well stocked herb cupboard, but most neighborhoods and parks have evergreen trees. Just make sure you don’t pick the branches of the yew tree (the conifer with thimble-like red berries), because yews are toxic to consume. I don’t know if the steam would harm you, but I wouldn’t fool with it. I don’t know of any other toxic evergreen.

Remember, these particular herbs were chosen because of their strong antibacterial properties. You can also take steams with other healing herbs that may not have quite the power of these, but which have their own benefits. I’d recommend trying lavender, rosemary and mint as more gentle, but pleasing alternatives.

And failing all that, a plain water steam is better than nothing.

The results:

The idea here is that aromatics opened up my poor nose, sinuses and bronchial passages, loosening all that gunk so my body could  send it on its way. Beyond that, I believe the antibacterial steam killed, or at least inhibited, the nasty bacteria it found on the way. I steamed intensively for 24 hours (every 2 to 4 hours, I think–whenever my head hurt I went back to the tent). Today I feel a lot better, so only did a steam in the morning.

When my sinus pain was at its worst, I’d take a washcloth in the tent with me, wet it in the herb water and use it as a compress over my sore face while I was breathing the steam.

The foremost effect of steaming for me was keeping sinus pain at bay–which it did very well. Ibuprofen did nothing. (And I don’t like OTC decongestants, in case you’re wondering) Steam took care of it just fine. The secondary effect is that my nose and chest have cleared up. The third effect is that my facial pores are now remarkably refined. 😉

Tonight I am pain free, snot free, feeling chipper and happily noshing on a cupcake Erik baked I post this.

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.

I like my chamomile stressed

This poor, abused little seedling is flowering like crazy.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I made a mistake–I predicted a while ago that this would happen, and here it is. When we remodeled the yard and I set aside space for The Phan of Pharmacy ™ my goal was to maximize the production of herbs and flowers.  I prepped the ground in the fan like a fine flower or veg bed: double dug and richly amended. It was only after I planted my chamomile starts in it that I realized the soil was way too rich for chamomile. Not that it wouldn’t grow, but it wouldn’t grow the way I wanted it to grow.

See, chamomile is a tough, scrappy plant. In our dry climate, it pops up with the winter rains, and lives a fast, hard life, like a beautiful young self-destructive celebrity. It shoots up overnight and throws off blossoms like crazy, its one goal being to spread seed before it dies.

In the past, I’ve harvested chamomile from volunteer plants in my yard. I never planted or tended them, but one or two would get about knee high, and from those one or two plants I’d gather all the flowers I needed by remembering to pick a handful every time I went in the back yard. The thing about chamomile is the more you pick, the more it produces.

But I was greedy–and somewhat lazy, as usual. I thought, why be out there every day milking some scrappy chamomile plant, when you could plant a chamomile crop and harvest a ton of flowers in just a couple of days? So I planted I don’t know how many plants–20, maybe? More? The chamomile thrived in the rich, fertile soil, putting all it’s energy into making lots of feathery green foliage–not flowers. My entire chamomile crop is presently netting me less flowers than one or two abused volunteers would. That sad little plant in the top picture may have to become my harvest plant.

Uh, very pretty. But where are the flowers?

The lesson here is to know your plant, and to pay attention when you’re prepping your garden. I amended that soil on auto-pilot, when I could have left one fan wedge un-turned and un-amended and the chamomile would have flowered all the better for it. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily the case for other herbs and flowers. The calendula I planted in the fan is doing very well, producing huge, hearty blooms. All I’m saying is that you can’t generalize.

My next step is to withhold water from the chamomile and try to stress it into flower production. Of course, we’re heading into another rainy period, so it will be a while before that chamomile is feeling any stress at all.

Our ladies are also well practiced in stressing chamomile