- Author: Jan Rhoades
Well, it is that time again. The holidays are over so I can spend dreamy nights curled up on the couch with the seed catalogues and sunny winter days digging in the garden beds. Ah, a gardener's heart filled with hope and joy for the coming season!
Thinking back on my veggie gardens, I have always planted borage. Somewhere along the way, someone made sure I knew how important it is as a garden addition. It attracts pollinators, is a beneficial companion plant, has nutritious edible leaves and flowers, is virtually pest free, and, as a bonus, it is a prolific self-seeder.
A historic medicinal herb, Borage (Borago officinalis), is a Mediterranean annual also known as starflower, bee bush, bee bread, and bugloss. It's not only a favorite plant of honey bees, but also attracts bumble bees and small, native bees. It has served many purposes from the time of ancient Rome to the present. Pliny the Elder believed it to be an anti-depressant, and that it gave courage and comfort to the heart. Francis Bacon thought that borage had "an excellent spirit to repress the fuliginous vapour of dusky melancholie.” One old wives' tale states that if a woman slipped a bit of borage into a promising man's drink, it would give him the courage to propose.
John Gerard's Herball (Published in 1597) mentions an old verse concerning the plant: "Ego Borago, Gaudia semper ago (I, Borage, bring always joys)". He states that "Those of our time do use the flowers in salads to exhilerate and make the mind glad. There be also many things made of these used everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for the driving away of sorrow and increasing the joy of the mind. The leaves and flowers of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadness, dullness and melancholy, as Syrup made of the flowers of Borage comfort the heart, purge melancholy and quiet the frantic and lunatic person. The leaves eaten raw engender good blood, especially in those that have been lately sick.”
At one time borage was grown by beekeepers to boost honey production. It can be grown as an ornamental plant, but is also edible. You could say that borage is a sort of super plant.
In the garden, the claimed uses of borage include repelling pests such as hornworms, attracting pollinators, and aiding any plants it is interplanted with by increasing resistance to pests and disease. It is also helpful to, and compatible with, most plants — notably tomatoes, strawberries, legumes, spinach, brassicas, and squash. Some strawberry farmers set a few plants in their beds to enhance flavor and yield. Tomatoes planted near borage seem to improve in growth and disease resistance. Borage adds trace minerals to the soil it is planted in, and is good for composting and mulching.
It is an annual, but readily self-seeds and thrives in full sun. It is so proficient in self-seeding, in fact, that once a borage plant has established itself in your garden, you will likely never have to reseed again! The bloom period is different for various climates and growing zones. In my garden, borage will bloom from mid-spring to early fall. Borage will bloom for many weeks if the older flowers are trimmed off, and you can often push tattered plants to make a comeback by pruning them back halfway in midsummer. Healthy borage plants shed numerous black seeds, so expect to see volunteers for two years after growing borage. Self-sown borage seedlings are easy to dig and move, or you can pull and compost the ones you don't want.
Now, you may be thinking, “This is amazing! How in the world do I grow this miracle plant for myself?” It's quite simple actually. Seeds germinate easily and are best sown in full or partial sun under ½ inch (1 cm) of soil. Borage is not fussy and grows happily in poor soil. It's easy to sprinkle a patch with seeds and then cover it with a few handfuls of soil or compost. The plants can easily grow to be 3 feet (91 cm) tall and 2 feet (61 cm) wide, so give them room to grow, and let them shade your partial sun plants. Water well until the seeds germinate and the plants are established, then water only when dry. Feed monthly with a balanced organic fertilizer at half the recommended rate. Treat this easy-to-keep herb well and it will reward you with scores of beautiful flowers, lush foliage, and fertile soils.
If the Borage begins to take over your garden just thin out by hand pulling the plants out. The shallow roots will dislodge easily. Remember that the stalks are prickly, so you may need to wear garden gloves.
- Author: Harold McDonald
One of the first gardening books I ever purchased was Sunset magazine's book How to Grow Herbs, published in the early 1970's. Though it had great information on cultivation and harvesting, what really drew me in was the use of herbs in landscaping. In particular I remember one black and white photo (no color back then!) of so-called wall germander. Now I lived in rainy Santa Cruz at the time, and I doubt that I had ever seen germander, but there was something about that photo that always stayed with me. From the book I learned that Teucrium chamaedrys was a major component of “knot gardens”—those very formal geometric gardens that became popular during the Elizabethan Age in England—along with thyme, marjoram, rosemary, Santolina and other herbs of Mediterranean origin.
While there are hundreds of species of germander, it's not a plant that seems to get much attention or respect. The Wikipedia entry for Teucrium isn't much more than a list of some of the species, and while Teucrium chamaedrys shows up in many nurseries, I doubt if one nursery in fifty has any other representatives from the genus. That's a shame, because these workhorses can fill a number of roles in the garden and are especially well-suited for tough growing environments like we have in the Eastern Sierra.
So it's not surprising that it was more than thirty years later, when I moved to the wilds of West Chalfant, that I grew my first germander, a prostrate form of Teucrium chamaedrys that—unlike just about anything else—seemed to thrive in this strange new land! Its evergreen character and attractive pink flowers in early summer were a bonus—a real bee magnet! The downside is that creeping germander can do just that if it gets sufficient water, so accept that aspect and plant it where it will have room to fill in. It is a groundcover, after all!
A few years later I found upright Teucrium chamaedrys, the wall germander (see photo above) I had seen in photos so long ago, and planted a few of those. Again, these are not show stoppers, but they are attractive year-round, grow to a foot or so in height, and do not spread. I have come to consider wall germander one of my go-to plants. Santolina and 'Powis Castle' Artemisia are two other sub-shrubs I count on for their pleasing shape and foliage—plants that make the colors in front of them really pop. But unlike those plants, germander never gets leggy or unkempt looking, remaining neat and green throughout the year. The only upkeep required is to cut back the spent blooms in midsummer (and hope for another show in the fall). I would characterize wall germander as one of my garden's best supporting actors!
Teucrium fruticans (shrubby germander or tree germander grows 4-6 feet high and wide) is another member of the genus I tried in my yard, but it was, for me, a real heartbreaker! In my research for drought-tolerant shrubs before moving to Chalfant, this is one that really caught my eye with its fuzzy gray foliage and transcendent blue flowers. I found a beautiful specimen at a nursery somewhere on the west side of the mountains, but it died pretty quickly. Undeterred, I had a friend buy me another one when she was in Berkeley, but it met the same fate. Though I've seen it rated as hardy to 0-10 degrees, most sources list it as zone 8 (10-20 degrees). For me, that's worth a try—Salvia greggii is listed as zone 8, for example, and it is a staple in Eastern Sierra gardens. Of course, the flip side is that plenty of zone 8 plants die! Anyway, if you've got a protected area and are willing to risk the money, you might give this one a try, because it really is a beautiful shrub.
Similar in character is Teucrium aroanium, gray creeping germander. If you have a tough, dry area you want to dress up with a unique, beautiful groundcover, you should really give these two a try. Mountain Valley Growers and High Country Gardens are good online sources for germander. If you're in Southern California, look for a bricks and mortar garden store that carries plants from Native Son wholesale nursery (who kindly allowed me to use their photos).
Living where I do, I am always searching for plants like germander: hard-to-kill, drought-tolerant, low-maintenance plants that look good year-round. Who isn't? I read somewhere that there are 260 species of Teucrium, and I know I'll be on the lookout for any I can find!
- Author: Erich Warkentine
An overflow crowd of master gardeners and interested members of the community gathered at the Community Garden on Sunday, March 24, 2019, to hear Alison Collin speak about herbs. Alison covered a wide range of topics, including growing needs of culinary herbs and aromatic varieties. The high points of her talk are summarized below.
Technically, an herb is a plant that doesn't produce a permanent woody stem; however, in common use, an herb is a plant that has culinary, aromatic or medicinal properties. Herbs can be annual (one season of growth), biennial (two seasons of growth with flowers in the second year), or perennial (ongoing growth, some lasting many years).
Herbs can be used in many different ways. Not only are they great for cooking and providing welcome fragrances, but many have been used in medicine. In every case, however, Alison cautioned the audience to know their herbs before use since many traditionally used herbs are now known to have detrimental side effects such as liver damage, increased bleeding times or alterations in blood pressure.
It is also important to time the harvest of your herbs carefully. Pick herbs for leaf harvest before flower stems are developed since this is when the leaves contain the highest concentration of oils. For example, she related the story of harvesting mint which was passed its first bloom and had lost all of its fragrance. Similarly, she cautioned about the need to pinch off flowers from basil, to keep the basil producing new edible shoots for as long as possible before it dies.
One of her helpful tips was that mint grows so vigorously that it can take over the garden; therefore, she suggested that those who wish to grow mint do so in a container.
For more information about growing and using fresh herbs, see:
- For more information about drying your own fresh herbs, see:http://sonomamg.ucanr.edu/Food_Gardening/Additional_KG_Articles/Drying_Herbs/