Violets: An Herb To Know

WSY0041315  It may be hard to believe, looking out the window at endless white snow, or long stretches of beige lawn and bare trees, but soon the grass will be green and flowers will begin to bloom.  If you are among the wise and don’t treat your lawn, you may be lucky and violets will be sprinkled throughout the grass in slightly shaded areas.  Violets have been appreciated for their pretty purple flowers and sweet fragrance for centuries.  Pure essential oil of violets is one of the most expensive flower essences.

As a child, I picked little bouquets, and I still pick blossoms to put on canapés or tiny cupcakes for spring tea parties and to dry for potpourris.  I also use the blooms and leaves in salads.  Cooked leaves are often used as a thickening agent in soups and stews.  The flowers can be made into syrups, candies, tea, and jelly.

Violets are easy-to-grow perennials that are happiest in good soil and dappled sunlight.  Early farmers often observed the violets growing in their pastures as an indicator of soil fertility:  the more abundant the flowers, the better the soil.  Few flowers meant the soil needed amendments.  Violets spread by seed.  The most common color is purple, but white or yellow can also be found.   Here, purple violets are abundant in the lawn behind the potager, while the white and yellow ones are abundant in the adjacent woods.  The violet is the state flower of Wisconsin, Illinois, Rhode Island and New Jersey.

Recent research has found that eating violets greatly reduces tumor formation and the recurrence of many cancers, especially breast cancer.  The Romans made garlands of violets to ease headache or prevent a hangover.  The Greeks made poultices of the leaves for inflamed eyes or bedsores.  Greek women applied violets mixed with goat’s milk to have a beautiful complexion. American colonists made a syrup of violet flowers to ease bronchitis and asthma.

Violets are a symbol of faithfulness and modesty.  Most cultures believed the heart-shaped leaves indicated the plant was beneficial to romance.  Combining violets with a single red rose in a small bouquet expresses never-ending love.  Mythology says that Zeus loved the nymph Io, and to protect her from his jealous wife, he turned her into a white heifer.  Io cried when she had to eat rough grass, so Zeus took pity on her and turned her tears into sweet flowers, violets.  The Greek word “Io” means “violet.”  Some versions of the myth say that the jealous wife, Hera, actually turned Io into a cow, and because Zeus could not turn her back into a nymph, he attempted to make her life as pleasant as possible by giving her a diet of violets.

Violets are a wonderful addition to the herb garden, providing color, Vitamin C, fragrance and flavor from some of the sometimes difficult shadier spots in the garden.  They are a benefit to many insects and a host plant for some species of butterflies.  True violets are sometimes hard to find in garden centers, but their cousins the violas and pansies are common cool weather offerings.  If planned to use for culinary or medicinal purposes, be certain they have not been grown with chemicals, which can not only be harmful to you, but to any pollinators that may visit them.

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Sweet Woodruff

sweet woodruff  Famous as a groundcover for shady areas, sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is also a fairy plant, often called “Fairy Parasols.”  All of the members of the Galium family are noted for their pointed leaves that form a “ruff” around the stem, rather like an umbrella.  Sweet woodruff has dainty, star-shaped white blooms in spring.  It is a hardy perennial growing only 5” in height in my experience, although some sources report it reaches 8”.  If happy, it will form a pretty mat.  In Germany, where conditions are often to its liking is it called Waldmeister, or “master of the forest,” because it can carpet large areas in shaded, good soil.

Sweet woodruff is included in potpourris and potpourri gardens, for when dried, the leaves have a sweet scent of newly-morn hay due to the coumarin it contains.  It was often used as a mattress stuffing, or placed in linen closets.  It is valuable, for a bowl of dried sweet woodruff placed in a stuffy, enclosed location, like a neglected camper or cabin can refresh the air.

sweet woodruff tea  I chose to write about it now, because I was sitting here enjoying a cup of sweet woodruff tea, which my daughter in Germany sends me by the case.  It is delicious, slightly sweet naturally and caffeine free.  I generally drink it hot, but it is also delicious iced.   Sadly, I haven’t established a patch of sweet woodruff in the shaded part of the Fairy Garden, and I should have/could have moved plants from the farm before it sold, but it was one of many things that were forgotten in the rush of closing the herb farm.  It’s on the to-do list as soon as I locate some plants.

In addition to a delicious tea, sweet woodruff is an essential ingredient to add to flavor May Wine.  Either the fresh or dried leaves and flowers can be steeped in a white Rhine wine for at least a week, two is better.  Strain and serve chilled with Alpine strawberries (or sliced regular strawberries) and float edible flowers (pansies, violas, violets) in the punch bowl.

Note:  At one time there was concern that the coumarin contained in some plants, like the galiums, was a carcinogenic.  However, further studies do not seem to concur.  In his excellent book, The Big Herb Book, Dr. Art Tucker recommends using not more than 4 oz. woodruff to a gallon of white wine, for the best flavor and just to be on the cautious side.  The Germans, who are far ahead of us in terms of herbal research, don’t seem concerned at all, so I feel safe in consuming sweet woodruff tea in moderation.


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Seventh Seeding

snow After a much-too brief flirtation with the idea of spring, winter is back.  It’s snowing big flakes and has added another half an inch just since my return to the house.  We won’t be seeing any green outdoors for St. Patrick’s Day this year!

Crocus snow  It is doubtful that the crocus I was so happy to see earlier this week are happy to be here.  I could be dismayed, but in entering this photo in the file, I see that there is already a photo labeled “Crocus in snow, April 17, 2018” so I won’t worry about snow in March.  That’s pretty normal for Indiana.  The positive outcome is that those recently planted shallots are getting a good cold spell, so maybe they will divide properly this year.  Regardless of the weather, it’s time to do the 7th seeding.  Gardeners are optimistic; confident that spring will come eventually and best to be prepared, so the seeding continues as scheduled.

Today’s seeding batch was trimmed a bit, but includes most of the main crop tomatoes, eggplant, lemon basil, and tithonia.  Thunbergia is delayed because apparently no seed was purchased!  Pumpkin-on-a-stick will wait because I didn’t want to start a new seedling flat for one item.  “Red Ace” beets were sown in 4-packs, and I’ve postponed the main crop broccoli because the early ones are just now germinating and I don’t want them all ready at the same time.  The new variety total is now 86, compared to 69 last year.  Doubtless some of you grow 86 kinds of tomatoes, or 69 kinds of peppers as I once did, but I’m satisfied with a less complicated growing scheme in my retirement years.

Hope your season is progressing well, and that wherever you are, there is a bit of green to lift your spirits!

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Why I seed in flats….

Recently someone asked why I seed in flats when I could seed directly into peat pots or some other individual container, thus saving hours of transplanting.  That’s a great question that deserves a thoughtful answer.  The easiest answer is “That’s the way my mentor did it!”  I learned greenhouse growing from a dear lady, Helen McFadden, who with her husband operated McFadden’s Greenhouses in Martinsville, IN.  Up until then I’d just been growing things in styrofoam cups gleaned from all the area churches after their meetings, weddings, etc.  But styrofoam cups (or any round pot for that matter) are not the most space-efficient way of growing…squares are.  And generally, whether you grow as a hobby or as a business, space is the limiting factor, and getting the most return for that space is the goal.

seed flat 2  I seed most things in rows in seeding flats (a standard 10″ x 20″ undivided flat) because it saves space.  Part of a recently seeded (March 6th) flat is shown.  As you can see, not all varieties germinate at the same rate, but that’s fine.  I can seed 150-200 onions in a 1″ x 10″ space, or the 200 marigolds shown at the right end of the flat in a 3″ x 10″ space.  Plants can grow happily there until I can transplant them in individual pots or 4-packs.   If something doesn’t germinate, or germinates poorly, it’s taking up very little space.  It’s quicker to water a flat of seedlings than hundreds of pots.  I do group them by who likes light, and who likes darkness, who needs warmth to germinate, etc.  It’s easy to cover a seedling flat with a dome.  If some varieties germinate quicker than others and the dome needs to come off, then I can cover the non-germinated rows with a bit of plastic wrap until they do.  Plus I truly think they like growing close together in the beginning, rubbing shoulders with their neighbors, comforting one another.  Call me crazy, I don’t care.  I have happy plants.

I HATE those little peat pots that begin as discs.  Tried them a few times and NEVER did plants do as well as those done “my way.”  It’s hard to keep them evenly moist so that seeds don’t dry out or get waterlogged.  It’s hard to get the seed planted at the proper depth.  It’s hard to add soil if for some reason a seedling does stretch.  All that space taken with peat pots is space taken, and if something doesn’t germinate then what?  Do you re-use that “contaminated” peat pot or just put it into compost?  And in the meantime, all that space under lights or on a heating mat is being used inefficiently.  In my experience seedlings don’t germinate as quickly in them.  Never use them, never will.

Once a variety is ready to transplant, it’s easy to dislodge the larger, stronger seedlings and move them into individual pots.  I use a pencil or a chopstick, stick it in at the side of a row all the way to the bottom of the flat and gently pry upward.  If you are using a good potting soil or seed starting mix, they should come up easily.  If it’s a cheap mix with lots of bark that the roots wrap around, then roots will be broken and plants will suffer a set-back.  I only pry up an inch or two of the row at a time, and gently pull out the biggest, best seedlings. Snap seedling row  As an example, the row shown of “Liberty Bronze” snapdragons has already had 160 of the biggest, best seedlings gently removed and transplanted into fours.  According to my records, last year I planted 156 of this variety into the gardens but noted that it was “not quite enough, do 1 more flat in 2019.”  Considering that last year, many snapdragons returned and that this year it appears very few if any will survive the winter, I may eventually do an extra flat or two.  If I don’t need them all, I can let the rest wait and grow some more, taking very little space during that time, and requiring very little care or area under lights.  Sometimes if disaster strikes (a flat gets dropped, laid on by cat, or whatever) it’s nice to have those extra plants as back-up.  And sometimes, especially with vegetable seedlings, I don’t need all of them ready at once but would rather transplant them in groups as space becomes available or when they are needed for succession plantings.

Hollyhock transplants Generally seedlings go into 4-packs as shown, although some things may go into 3″ pots if they are fast growers, like dahlias.   Things that dislike being transplanted, like parsley go into those deeper, larger pots, too.  Depends on how much space I have (never enough!!!) seed flat  When all of a variety is transplanted, I can refill that space in the seeding flat with fresh potting soil and seed something new there, as long as I’m careful to match the seeds’ needs to the existing flat members.  In the photo above, all of the violas that were first seeded in the same flat with the “Liberty Bronze” snaps (barely visible on the left) have been transplanted into 4’s, grown on a bit till the weather settled and are now in the greenhouse.  That empty space in the flat was refilled with fresh potting soil and is now seeded with rows of leeks, calendula, and marigolds.

Actually, the main reason is that I love to transplant.  It’s one of my favorite tasks, handling those little babies and tucking them into their new home.  It gives me the opportunity to check their root systems, tuck them in a bit deeper than they were growing in the seeding flat and give them a word or two of encouragement.  Every pot is a strong, healthy plant that I’ll need for the garden.  No space is taken by a weak plant or “un-germinated” pot.   I keep records, and when the number needed is reached, I stop transplanting that variety, at least for now, while space is at a premium.  Later on, when the weather is settled and things can sit around idle outside, I may pot up some more, or set them directly into the gardens or containers or window boxes, or give them away.

Approximately 80% of the 4-packs go directly into the garden after hardening off.  The other 20% get moved up into 3″ pots for growing on.  These are generally things that take longer to grow and can’t go into the garden until the soil is really warm:  tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, etc.

Large seeds that grow really quick (pumpkins, squashes, cucumbers, sunflowers, etc.) are seeded directly into 3″ pots at the start.  They really don’t work well in the seeding flat system.

allyssum seedlings  Some things are intentionally seeded thickly directly onto 4-packs, like sweet alyssum.   Can you see the hint of pale green emerging?  There are probably 50 seeds per little square.  (I buy the end of season packs at 10 cents each, so I can seed generously.)  They need light to germinate so the seeds are sprinkled thickly on top and given a pat to settle them into the moist soil surface, covered with a dome and set in a brightly lit spot.  Once they germinate and are growing well, I can divide them into halves or quarters, depending upon how thickly they germinate, and plant those directly into the potager path edges, or tuck them into containers on the deck, or into the strawberry beds between blooming plants to attract pollinators.  The original 32 cubes that only took up 10″ x 20″ of space becomes 128 “plugs” of almost instant fragrance and tiny blossoms.  The fairies love it, and so do I!  I often do lettuces and spinach the same way.  Old seeds of questionable vigor are often treated this way as well, or those “mixed” wildflower or pollinator packages with seeds of various sizes and needs.  Personally, I never purchase those, but if I get them free I won’t waste them and I’ve found that this method works quite well. (And in case you number people are wondering, “No,” I don’t bother to count all those sweet alyssum plants.  Only the 32 original cubes are counted for the record totals.)

Dill, poppies, arugula, summer savory, cilantro seeds are sprinkled directly into 3″ pots because they need space for deep roots immediately and hate being transplanted.  Once they are well grown, they can go into the ground as one mass, or divided into halves if all the seeds came up.  (Here again, only the number of pots are counted, not the individual plants.)

So, that’s why I seed the way I do, and why I choose to transplant.  It’s how I can grow the large number of plants (generally 4-5,000) I do in the small space I have now, but it is the method I used to grow for profit commercially for over forty years.  It’s how I can afford to grow the variety of plants I crave for beauty and need to feed my family without spending a fortune on space, lights, heat and potting soil.   Around here, a 32 flat of annuals sells for approximately $15, if you can even find them.  Pretending that all my plants are “standard annuals” (which they are not) the cost would be $4743.75  plus tax!  I don’t count my labor because it is my love, and I don’t know how much the 8 lights and one heating mat add to our winter electric bill, but seeds and potting soil generally hover around $4-500….cheaper than a gym membership or psychoanalysis!  Hope this answers the question, but if not, please feel free to comment.


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Crocus 1st in 2019  The long-awaited first crocus “Cream Beauty” has finally opened!  There is cause for celebration in the land!  It was formally greeted and welcomed, intently inspected, and the rejoicing began!  And THEN THE PLANTING commenced!!!

Let’s just pause here for a moment to sing praises for raised beds.  If not for their ability to drain more quickly, no planting could have taken place.  I waded through mud and puddles to even get to the potager (making the need for new boots higher on the priority list as my socks and feet were soaked!)  Raised beds made this happy day possible!  Even if you are a determined in-ground gardener, consider constructing one or two raised beds just to enable an early start.  Sermon over, but let’s hear an “Amen!”

Shallot planting  With rain in the forecast a mad rush was made to get the shallots in the ground.  You may recall that last year was not a good year for any of the alliums, at least in this potager.  Most of the shallots never divided and after harvest, many chose to rot.   The usual reason shallots do not divide is the lack of enough cold temps early on, so they need to get planted early.  Last year they didn’t go into the ground until April 8th so I was determined to get them planted NOW and hope that it doesn’t jump right into summer again.  Some gardeners can plant shallots in autumn, but I’ve tried it here and only get about 60% survival in a mild winter.  This “past” winter (Let’s hope it’s over!) certainly was far from mild.  So, the few remaining shallot braids were pulled from the allium rack, inspections were made and there were enough firm shallots to plant 9 rows (6′ in length, triple rows in the center of 3 different beds.)  This is a far cry from the norm, but it will have to do.  The few shallots remaining after planting are big, doubles, triples or even larger that experience tells me will rot rather than grow.  I prefer to plant singles if possible, but in order to finish the last row, a few of the smaller doubles were planted and a few were actually split apart to make singles.  Here, we eat the big shallots and plant the small ones for greater success, the opposite of garlic!

Pea planting 1  The first planting of peas was also made, “Green Arrow” which has become my favorite variety even though they require a fence.  Remember to plant peas generously, so they will be generous in return.  Unfortunately, the seeds were already covered before I thought to take a photo, but you can use the “search” box above on this website for other pea planting posts.  And, it was AFTER my excitement in planting the first peas that I actually consulted my carefully planned “pea succession” list to see that the “Strike” peas were actually supposed to be sown first in another location entirely.  Oh, drats, but easily remedied with 3 more rows of “Strike” planted according to plan.  Snow peas and snap peas could have gone in earlier, but it has just been too frozen or too wet, and I’m not really convinced that getting them in earlier results in an earlier crop, since my records show that harvest generally comes at the same time whether planted very early or with the first crocus like shelling peas.  The snow peas are “Oregon Sugar II” and my first trial of “Sweet Magnolia,” the purple podded snap pea.  Did you notice that in the Burpee catalog they show a lush photo of the purple pods opened and filled with big peas?  Then, in the fine print description it says “best before pods are filled out.”  I didn’t pre-soak them since they went into the interior border, along the north fence.  The interior border is not really raised so it was wetter, and there is more rain on the way

“China King” Chinese cabbage, bok choys “Bo Pak” and “Violetta,” one seed package of “Robin Hood” fava beans (there are more planted in pots in the basement for comparison…I’m still struggling to get it right with favas!) and spinach were also planted.  The spinach in the polytunnel is still looking good (and tasting even better, while I was there I harvested a bowl to add to lo mein for dinner!) and the spinach left totally in the open and uncovered the entire winter is looking better despite having its edges burnt by freeze  (isn’t “freezer burn” an oxymoron?) so planting even more might be overkill (Wait!  Can one be killed over again?) but I have friends that will appreciate fresh spinach if we have too much.  Short 2′ rows of “Tuscan Baby” kale, “Mache,” and arugula “Runway” were planted where tomatoes will eventually go, providing a good harvest until that space is needed.

Such a productive day!  This is not the earliest that planting has begun in the potager, but it’s definitely an improvement over last year.   Now we wait to see what Mother Nature has planned for our early season, but things will work out regardless.  Words cannot express how thrilled I am to REALLY have the potager’s season underway!  I hope your season is progressing as well.  May this be a bountiful year!


Posted in Planting Time, raised beds, shallots, snow peas, Uncategorized, vegetable gardening | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Moving Day!

Two days of sunshine in a row and a forecast that is somewhat reasonable!  How long have we been waiting for that?  Yes, there are wind advisories, rain and thunderstorms coming again, but night time temperatures will only go down to the mid-20’s for the next 10 days.  My little greenhouse can handle that, so while it is calm the plants that are ready are going from basement to greenhouse.  Hurrah!  At last!

Taking advantage of Monday’s sunshine, the greenhouse was cleaned and tidied, the new heater moved in, and the digital thermometer that records the high and low temps inside and outside was returned.  We’d had the heater and thermometer in the garage during that really frigid period when I worried all my canning would freeze.  I can’t tell you how lovely it was to work in short sleeves in the sun-filled greenhouse.  One day of real sunshine just revved my engine!

There were a couple of empty metal planters just begging for duty, so I seeded some lettuce and arugula just for fun, and a smaller one of nasturtiums.  They can go outdoors to “decorate” the front of the Lady Cottage eventually.  My old muscles are weak from a winter sitting indoors, and pulling carts of plants up the slope, through the rain-soaked sod was demanding, so a break in the Cottage rocking chair with a cup of tea was welcome mid-afternoon.  I really should put a heater in the Cottage and spend some time there in winter, maybe even set up my easel there.  It is such a pleasant place, and filled with things I love.  But I digress…..

Flats to gh  The lucky participants on moving day were violas, snapdragons, gaillardia, rudbeckia, and hollyhocks…480 plants.  One can barely see the green in the photo, but trust me, they have big root systems and with a couple of days of real sunshine they will explode with growth.  These plants can tolerate low temperatures, having spent their infancy in the cool basement and if even colder weather comes after this 10 day spell, they will be grow accustomed to it and be fine.  Soon the onions, feverfew and scallions will join them.  The brassicas that were seeded in 4-packs on the 10th will go to the greenhouse as soon as they germinate.

Now there’s room in the basement for 15 new flats of transplants.  That’s good because all of the peppers, Genovese basil, Patterson onions and golden feverfew are desperate for potting, and there are still more snapdragons, feverfew and blue salvia to pot.  There needs to be room for additional seeding flats because it’s nearly time to do all the tomatoes, zinnias and OH! So much more!  Can you see that I’m grinning ear to ear?!?!  Everything, including me, is really on the MOVE!

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Thunderstorms & the 6th Seeding

The surprising addition of thunderstorms Sunday evening and throughout much of the night postponed any outdoor work yet again.  After that, strong, strong winds have rattled the windows and set the tree branches to clicking together like a beginning drum class, off rhythm and excessively loud.  The snow has washed away and now it is easy to see the deep ruts that the deluge cut through the lawn in places.  The landscape is never-ending beige and brown, with an aluminum-colored sky overhead.  However, despite the bleakness outdoors, the forecast is for temperatures in the 40’sF for the next ten days, and decent night-time numbers as well.  I’m thinking/hoping/praying that the soil will dry enough that I can get some outdoor seeding done this week, and also move baby plants to the greenhouse.  Actually, I’m definitely counting on getting that first round of plants moved and the next batches transplanted and refilling the basement space whether the weather cooperates or not, but not on a windyday as the flats would blow right off my wagon!  Regardless,  it was time to do the March 10th seeding (which as you recall is now a melding of 5th into 6th.)  Weird that there is more green in my basement than outdoors!

This round now contains the dwarf marigolds for the potager’s path edgings, lots of cabbage varieties (although smaller amounts of each since we tend to eat more lettuce and spinach and other greens in spring than cabbage), aspa-broc, more onions and cippolini, lettuces in 4-packs, sweet alyssum in 4-packs to be tucked into the strawberry beds to improve pollination, the cold-tolerant (Polbig & Defiant), cherry, and grape tomatoes, the red cherry sweet peppers, a few of each type of broccoli and cauliflower.  If you’d like to know the variety names, you can click on the 2019 seed list page above.

The transplanting is on hold due to lack of space, so there’s hundreds of babies needing their own pots which must be done this week.  The 4th seeding has had some good, some less than stellar germination which may turn out to be a blessing.  Of course, most of that was the Plant World Seed order of mostly perennials that are much slower to germinate than broccoli or lettuces, etc.  One batch of onions has had terrible germination, but it was 2 yr. old seed so it was iffy at best.  There’s still plenty of time to seed more, especially those designated for storage.

One particularly ugly day, I went after seed potatoes to lift my spirits, only to discover they didn’t have them in yet, so I was forced to drown my sorrows in pie.  And, we’re still waiting on that first crocus to set things in motion….frantic motion it will be.  There’s lots of catching-up ahead!

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