Editor’s Note: The following are bonus photos from a profile of Jim and Kathy Mikuska’s garden featured in the July/August 2021 issue of Michigan Gardener. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Michigan Gardener in stores or see it in our Digital Edition, which you can read for free at MichiganGardener.com.
Harvesting herbs seems to be something of a mystery to many gardeners. We have become so accustomed to buying them in the grocery store, either fresh or dried, that we are at a loss as to how to pick them out of our own garden to use in the kitchen.
There are a few basic rules to follow. To use them fresh, pick as needed. To dry them for winter use, the plants are large enough in summer for cutting and ready at varying times. The earlier in the summer that you can gather them, the sweeter the flavor. Plus, fewer bugs will have had a chance to dine on them. Cut only one half of the plant at a time, so it will have enough strength to continue growing. Cut only on warm, dry days in the afternoon when the dew is gone and the plants are very dry. Use a rubber band to secure small bunches of the herb and hang in a dark, dry place until crispy dry.
We cannot stress this next step too much: label the bunches. When thoroughly dry, package the whole leaves in jars and store in a dark cupboard away from heat. The flavor will stay wonderful for about one year—just in time for a new harvest next summer.
Kitchen herbal swag
There are decorative ways to dry and hang the bunches in your kitchen. Our favorite method is to make a vertical swag by tying the bunches on a raffia braid that will hang in the kitchen to dry, where they will be convenient for use in the winter.
We start with the braid and begin by tying the first fresh bunches of herbs at the bottom with a single, thick piece of raffia. The bottom bunch is usually a coarse-leafed variety like lovage. We add one bunch at a time, alternating foliage types and even adding some herbal flowers to add visual appeal. Make sure that the bunches are not too large; otherwise the leaves will get moldy before they dry, and ruin the whole thing. The bunches should contain 8 to 12 stems of herbs and be about 6 to 8 inches long. Add a bow of ribbon or raffia at the top. You can tuck garlic bulbs or hot peppers into the bow if you want to. Label the bunches as you go so you won’t forget which one is which after the leaves dry.
Many of the herbs in our gardens lend themselves to a kitchen herbal swag. We have already mentioned lovage, a large plant with leaves that look and taste like celery. It dries well and holds its flavor. The young stalks are round and hollow; when picked fresh from the garden, they can be used as straws in tomato-flavored drinks. Yum! The plant reaches a height of five feet, so there is always plenty to pick throughout the summer.
French tarragon is another herb that dries and holds its flavor well for the winter. Nice in the swag, it is good in salad dressing or poultry. Sage, with its lovely silvery leaves, looks good in the swag, and the flavor holds all winter for use in poultry stuffing and herb mixtures.
Mints are valuable with their sharper flavors and fragrances, and their flowers are frequently pretty too. The leaves become crispy and break easily after drying, but they are still good to use. Basil is similar to mint, and basil flowers look attractive when they dry. The dark opal basil is especially pretty in the swag, and is tasty on salads all year.
Chives do not dry well, becoming tough and stringy, but the flowers dry and hold their lovely mauve, adding a touch of color. They are edible and can be used in salads or as a garnish on soup. If you want to preserve the chive leaves for winter use, freeze them in a foil wrap. Oregano flowers dry well too, and are pretty in the swag. The leaves and flowers can be used in spaghetti or lasagna dishes. Thyme has tiny leaves and is usually the last or top bunch that is added to the swag. Lemon thyme invites you to use it on seafood, where it is especially appealing. Bay leaves and rosemary are flavorful additions too and have wonderful leaf textures.
Fragrant herbal swag
Another type of swag that you can make for the bedroom, bathroom, or a room that needs freshening is one made of fragrant herbs. It is made the same way as the kitchen swag, substituting herbs that are aromatic. Instead of using a raffia braid as a backing, you could use a bunch of long artemisia—the silver varieties would be especially appropriate. Or, try a braid of sweet grass with its vanilla fragrance.
Bee balm (Monarda), with its soft and soothing mint fragrance and pretty flower heads, would be a good addition for both color and fragrance. Of course, lavender flower stalks offer a great fragrance that both calms the nerves and repels bugs at the same time. Hyssop, with both pink and purple flower spikes and rarely even white, has a musk smell that many people find enjoyable.
The scented-leaf geraniums have leaves that come in a dizzying array of fragrances. Some are rose scented, some smell of citrus or other fruit, some mimic mints, and some remind us of almonds or walnuts. All of the leaves dry and retain their fragrance and are welcome additions to the swag.
Fruit-scented sages like pineapple or honeydew are pleasant. Santolina flowers look like golden buttons and are sometimes used in moth-repelling mixes; they would add a rich color to the swag. Lemon verbena would be a delightful aroma to add as well.
After finishing your herbal swag, hang it immediately on your wall out of direct sunlight and enjoy the wonderful aroma as it dries naturally. If you have labeled your bunches, you will be picking off the swag during the winter and enjoying a great recipe with herbs.
Jean and Roxanne Riggs operated Sunshine Farm and Garden in Oakland County, MI.
by George Papadelis
Gazania are a multi-purpose plant with high-performance dose of both attractive flowers and showy foliage. They are one of the most durable annuals available for full sun, lots of heat, and minimal water. Gardeners in New Mexico and Arizona have made this one of their most popular bedding plants along with other heat tolerant annuals like vinca, verbena, and zinnias. Gazanias have brilliant 3- to 4-inch daisy-like flowers in shades of yellow, orange, brown, pink, red, and ruby. The individual petals are pointed, sometimes curled, and may be more than one color. The base of each petal may be uniquely marked by a completely different color such as olive, brown or black. Others, like the variety ‘Daybreak Red Stripe,’ have bright yellow flowers with a red stripe the full length of each petal. The flower centers of most gazanias are shades of gold. These bright color combinations and a history of low maintenance have made this African native popular.
The foliage of gazanias is also very attractive. The long, thick leaves of most varieties are blue-green on top and silver on the bottom. This silver sheen makes gazanias extra attractive even when they are not in flower. One variety called ‘Talent’ has flowers that are multi-colored and leaves that are very silvery on the top and bottom. In fact, they are so silver that plants that are not in flower are often mistaken for the completely silver annual called dusty miller. I love using this 10-inch tall variety as a silver ribbon to plant in front of blue annuals such as heliotrope or mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea). The gazania foliage and flower combo makes it perfect for containers when planted all by itself or with a cascading blue partner such as fan flower (Scaevola) or miniature trailing morning glory (Convolvulus sabatius).
Those of you searching for interesting annuals to help add color to perennial plantings may want to consider gazanias. The silver foliage of plants like gazanias can be used to combine and soften other colors in your perennial beds. Some varieties can be found with flowers of separate colors. The Daybreak series, for example, has flowers available in yellow, orange, pink, white, bronze, as well as the red-striped variety. The Chansonette series is available in six colors as well. These work well in both perennial plantings and annual combinations. Try a yellow variety with red salvia or an orange variety with purple petunias.
Gazanias have an interesting trait that should be considered before planting. If you would like to enjoy your gazania flowers in the evening, you may need to resort to a photograph. Gazania flowers close when the sun sets and reopen each morning. They also stay closed when it becomes cloudy and when it gets too cold. Therefore, if you need flowers 24 hours a day, gazanias may not be for you. On the positive side, gazanias are both frost and freeze tolerant. They can be planted in mid-April when few other annuals will survive. In fact, some parts of the country call this plant a perennial (it is hardy to zone 8).
Gazanias are extremely low maintenance. Once established, watering will rarely be necessary. Individual flowers last for several weeks so spent blooms will seldom need removal. Take advantage of this plant’s durability, versatility, and ease of care. Try it in your perennial beds, annual plantings, or containers. Even in your sunniest, hottest, driest area, its flowers and foliage promise to provide an interesting and showy display long into the fall.
Common name: Gazania
Plant type: Annual (a tender perennial)
Plant size: Height: 8-10 inches, Width: 10 inches
Habit: Low-growing, with basal leaves and long-stalked flowers
Flower colors: Yellow, orange, red, pink, white, bronze; flower centers can be gold, olive or brown
Flower size: 3-4 inches across
Bloom period: Early summer to frost
Leaf color: Blue-green on top, silver on bottom; ‘Talent’ series is all silver
Leaf size: Length: 4-5 inches, Width: 1/2 inch
Light: Full sun
Soil: Well-drained, light, sandy; tolerates dry, hot soil
Uses: Annual beds, containers, perennial borders
Companion plants: Salvias, petunias; other drought-tolerant plants (verbena, vinca, zinnia)
Remarks: Needs minimal water; flowers close in the evening; attractive foliage
George Papadelis is the owner of Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy and Shelby Township, MI.
Related: Gazania at Missouri Botanical Garden