Still, dark and raining hard
on a cold May morning
and yet the early bird
is out there chirping,
chirping out its sweet-sour
pleased, it would seem,
to be given work,
hauling the heavy
bucket of dawn
up from the darkness,
note after note
and letting us drink.
Yep, the mornings are brighter, the birds are noticeably louder and the weeds seem to be everywhere.
May! The month of green and plenty - you are forgiven if you are feeling overwhelmed. There is everything to do, and everything to enjoy, but it is impossible to Get It Done, so permission given to let some things go, or to get to them later. You are not too late. The lovely thing about gardening is that it is not instant, and is continuously evolving, so do what you can, and rest assured there will always be more tasks.
With that in mind, this newsletter will do a little compartmentalizing and scaling back, too, and focus on just A, B, and C: arugula, basil, and cilantro.
Why pick these three? Because in May we start anywhere we can, and these popular herbs are a fine beginning.
Arugula (Eruca sativa) is an edible annual, frequently sold as an herb, but which really behaves more like a lettuce. It has a peppery flavor and the younger shoots are milder and softer. Arugula is very high in vitamins A, C and K, and provides fiber, protein and sulfur-containing compounds that are believed to decrease cancer risk.
Growing arugula is different than growing many potted herbs. It prefers cooler conditions, and can become sharp and intense when the weather heats up. Like lettuces, it tends to "bolt", or quickly go to flower and seed, in hot weather. For this reason, it is challenging to have one arugula plant in a pot for the summer, like you might have one rosemary plant. Many gardeners plant an arugula plant, then plant seed every three weeks in succession so that a continuous crop of younger shoots can be enjoyed through the summer. The flowers of the arugula that has bolted can be left for pollinators in a garden bed, or if you have a large container, you can simply cut it way back or gently remove it while the new seedlings grow in.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is hands down the most popular herb we sell, and Sweet basil, or Genovese style, is the most popular type. There are other delightful basils to try: Thai and Persian have a licorice flavor and add a singular flavor to stir fries, Lemon and Lime basil have a fresh, slightly tart flavor, and Purpurea purple leaf adds dramatic beauty to an herb garden.
There have also been some improvements to the Sweet basil scene, such as Dolly and Envigor, which are bred for resistance to some of the more common basil pathogens. British basil performs better in cold, wet weather.
And on that note, the thing people really, really don't seem to like to hear is that basil does not benefit from being planted too early. Some of you probably lost basil in our recent May cold snap. Temperatures cooler that 50 degrees can spell the end for basil, and if planted in soil that is too cold and wet, it can be stunted for the entire season. In our climate, basil is best planted when temperatures are between 65 (night) and 85 (day), typically early June. Yes, you read that right - June. Getting a jump on the season just doesn't happen with basil. You end up with poor performing plants that are easy targets for pests. So, save it for later, and get rewarded for putting it off.
Once the heat starts kicking up, you'll need to water regularly, and pinch off all flowers. Pruning stalks taller than 6 inches down to their second set of leaves will make the plant grow bushier and you'll get more of the good stuff. At the end of the season, harvest before nights start dipping below 50 consistently. Freezing it is the best way to keep the flavor intact if you wish to store basil.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is an aromatic, leafy herb that grows well in cooler temperatures. Like arugula, if it is kept cut before it flowers, the flavor stays clean and robust. When it gets warm enough in the summer, though, cilantro will quickly produce flowers that will go to seed. That seed is the herb coriander, which can be collected, making cilantro a dual purpose plant. To keep cilantro on hand for longer than springtime, seed or replant every few weeks. Eventually, it will be hard to keep ahead of the flowering, but cilantro will grow beautifully again in the fall when temps drop. If you have cilantro in a container, keep it trimmed and replant during the season.
Some quick store news as we sign off:
We have herbs and annuals all summer. All summer.
YES we still have tomatoes, peppers, cukes, squash, melons and other veggies.
We are nearing the end of the cabbages, greens, onions, potatoes and other cool season vegetables.
Mushroom spawn should be arriving in June.
MIlkweed available at both stores, native plants and perennials available all summer through fall.