COMPLEAT HOME GARDENER: Time to tuck tender plants in for winter

The fourth week of August is when gardeners must start preparing tender plants for the cold winter months ahead. Stop fertilizing roses and trimming hedges and shrubs because both fertilizing and pruning encourages tender new growth – and cold winter winds are coming.

Keep feeding and watering hanging baskets and any annuals in pots of garden beds. Annuals are plants like geraniums, marigolds and petunias that bloom all summer but then die with the first killing frost. In our climate, summer annuals can hang on and continue to bloom into the month of October if you grow them in a protected location and keep them from drying out in the hot weather. The most important thing you can do to help annuals age gracefully is to pick off their dead and faded blooms. Think of deadheading as a form of Zen relaxation. You get instant visual gratification when you pluck off dead blossoms and it forces you to get up close and personal with flowers.

Working with plants can lower your blood pressure and slow down your heart rate – much like stroking a beloved pet – but neighbors will never complain about the noise from your pet plants. Unfortunately, there have been neighborly complaints (some end up in court) about stray plants, so keep control of what you grow. Invasive bamboo that slips under a fence line, wisteria that hops over to a neighbors’ roof and fast-growing clematis Montana that loves to climb the neighbors’ trees are all examples of plants gone wild. Make sure you have the time to curb the enthusiasm of escape artists before you add them to a small yard.

Herbal renewal

The end of summer is a good time to harvest, preserve and plant more herbs. Fresh herbs are good for your health not only because of the antioxidant properties they contain but also because when you use more herbs in your cooking you’ll need to add less salt for flavor. Many of the traditional Mediterranean herbs do well in our climate. There are several methods for drying lavender, basil, oregano and salvia.

When to harvest

The best time to snip herb plants is around 10 a.m. after the dew has dried from their leaves but before the hot sun absorbs the essential oils. Herbal harvest at mid-morning seems like a good excuse for calling in late to work.

How to store

The most practical way to use the fresh herbs from your garden is to imitate Italian chefs. Keep a vase on your kitchen counter filled with an herbal bouquet of freshly cut mint, basil, oregano and rosemary. When you place your harvest right in front of your nose you’ll be more likely to remember to add a few crushed mint leaves to the lemonade or ice water, sprinkle fresh oregano over a frozen pizza or add basil leaves to a sandwich.

To make your fresh herbs last all winter you’ll have to let them dry. You can hang stems of herbs upside down in a warm, dark location for a few weeks and then crumble the leaves over a piece of paper which you can then fold like a funnel and pour into an airtight jar.

Another method of herb drying is to lay the cut stems on top of a clean window screen that is first removed from the window and placed face down over a few bricks or pots to elevate it off the ground. The idea is to dry the herbs quickly by letting warm air surround them on all sides.

You can also freeze most herbs by harvesting the leaves and wrapping them in foil or placing them in plastic bags. Place the fresh leaves into the freezer stored conveniently in the amounts you would use in a recipe. The leaves of herbs will store better and retain more flavor if you freeze or dry them whole. Wait until just before you use them to chop them up finely or break them into smaller bits.

Herbal Vinegars: Less money, better health

A simple way to infuse white, cider or wine vinegar with flavor is to mix one tablespoon of dried herbs or one-half cup of fresh herb into two cups of vinegar. Then pour this mix into a glass container and let it sit in a dark place for at least a month. You can strain out the herbal bits and label the flavored vinegar or use colorful herbs like chive blossoms and purple basil leaves but let these stay in the vinegar to add color. Use herbal vinegars on fresh salads with olive oil.

Copyright for this column owned by Marianne Binetti.

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