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Monday, March 11, 2013

Shady Garden Herb - Spicebush

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Spicebush is one of the earliest herb bushes to flower in the spring. Some years it's blooming in late February and ours was just beginning. But this week it's in full form. The flowers are tiny - although in my photo above the look deceptively larger. The fragrance is sweet but faint, the kind of smell you notice while walking in the woods but can't quite detect where it's coming from. This is a plant I came to love, thanks to my late friend, Billy Joe Tatum (who I've written about many times here, before).

Spicebush berries in the fall, also good for seasoning.

Spicebush is one the few shade-loving herbs. It will grow in dense shade or part sun, even finding its way into open meadows. The plant is native from Ohio down into Eastern Texas and as far north as Central Missouri. It can grow out of its native region and likes moderate to moist soil conditions. It grows to the size of a lilac bush and spreads very slowly by root division.

Spicebush swallowtail butterfly on spicebush leaves.

Why is this such a good herb to grow? The leaves, twigs and red berries are all excellent for cooking. It's especially good for wild game, venison, stews and the like. My friend Billy Joe, used to cook venison using a combination of spice bush leaves/twigs or berries, along with red wine, soy sauce and garlic, making a marinade for the venison. After 12 hours marinating, the venison was cooked slowly until tender.

The leaves, twigs and berries are also used to make a winter tea when you have a sore throat or fever and is an old-time folk remedy. This is a good plant to grow if you want an unusual but native plant for your shade garden. There's also the bonus of bright yellow leaves in the fall!

If you do a Google search for spicebush plants, you'll find several nurseries that sell them. Happy almost spring!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Buy Spring Bulbs While They're Fresh

Garden centers, nurseries and big box stores have been receiving shipments of new things for the garden. Many, like Lowes, Home Depot and Wal-Mart, have already put their bulbs and packaged bare root plants on display.

I have a bad habit of not looking at their offerings until late in the season when prices are marked down. By then, the packaged bare root plants are either growing out of the packages, or dead. Bulbs have turned into little, round mummies with no sign of life. Even at half-price, those are no bargain if they don’t grow.

This week I found 2 clematis I didn’t have in my garden, at one of the box stores. Clematis have notoriously tender stems and it’s easy to break them off from the roots. By the time a few hundred shoppers have dug through the display, lots of the plants will be damaged. But this week they were in pristine condition, and at a good price, so I bought them. Because they were bare root, in a bag with peat moss, I opened the bag and potted the plants. I’m keeping them in an unheated room to slow down their growing until time to plan them in the garden.

Bulbs such as gladiolas, callas and other summer bulbs, don’t do well when exposed to the dry, 78 degree air inside stores. Bulbs do best when stored around 40 degrees until planting time, so what happens in the store displays is that either the bulbs start sprouting, trying to grow, or they die. So if you wait until the close-out half-price sale, you can expect disappointment. It’s better to buy what you want now, while the plants and bulbs are fresh and undamaged.

When buying bare root plants, such as bundled strawberry, onion or leek plants, it’s a good idea to soak the bundle in water for half an hour before you plant them. The bundled plants are dormant and by soaking them briefly, they begin to wake up, breaking dormancy and will perk up faster once you plant them. The same holds true for bare root asparagus, berry plants or grapes. Keep those in a cool place with some damp newspaper or sawdust around the roots until ready to plant, then soak them in a bucket of water for half an hour.

If you are tempted by the inexpensive rose bushes sold in a bundle of sawdust, keep in mind you don’t want them breaking dormancy this early. While the tops have been dipped in wax to somewhat keep them dormant, should you bring them indoors where it’s warmer, they will start growing. It would be better to keep the bushes outdoors in a protected area to keep them from trying to grow too early. Otherwise the new growth will get damaged by freezes and frosts yet to come and that can sometimes kill back a new plant like bundled rose bushes.

Happy gardening!