Catnip in bloom. One of the best things about this plant family is that bees seem to love them ALL.

This is a continuation in the series on garden plant families. The first installment, on the Brassicas – aka mustards – aka crucifers, can be found here.

Today we’re here to talk about the mints (Lamiaceae – which includes MANY of our herbs). Reminder: as a companion to this series, I highly recommend the brilliant book Botany in a Day. The Patterns Method of Plant Identification by Thomas J. Elpel.

The mints are especially on my mind of late as we’re harvesting herbs for many of my herb/spice mixes, pesto and simple syrups. SO many of our herbs are in this often aromatic family, including rosemary, marjoram, oregano, the many culinary mints, thyme, culinary sage (salvia – not sagebrush), savory (winter and summer), pineapple sage and the many basils.

Many of our more medicinal and ornamental herbs are also in this family, including lavender, lemon balm, horehound, holy basil (aka tulsi), coleus, hyssop, pennyroyal, bee balm, clary sage, catnip, salvia, lambs ears and purple dead nettle (the Latin Lamium actually means dead nettle).

Purple Dead Nettle, a common spring “weed” locally. It’s edible.

The mint family is characterized by opposite leaves (leaves are found directly across from each other on the stem) and a distinctive square stem (its sometimes easier to feel this distinct four-sided stem than it is to see it, depending on how small the stem is.) Flowers are often but not always two united petal lobes up, three down and the blossoms are often small and bunched together. The alternative name for this plant family is Labiatae, which means “lipped”. The lower “lip” of the flower often sticks out beyond the upper on the flower, something you get an eye for after a while.

Culinary sage in bloom (with bee butt). Note the grouped flowers, and the lower “lip” sticking out.

Somewhat similar plant families include loosestrife, verbena and stinging nettle. There has been some genetic work on the verbena family where some plants originally classified as mints are now considered verbenas and vice versa.

Another characteristic many in this plant family share is their ability to spread, either through above ground or below ground “runners” or by seed. My yard is a botanical wonderland of the mint family gone wild, including oregano (reseed), lemon balm (reseed), catnip (reseed), lambs ears (reseed – but politely) and dead nettle that shows itself every spring and then politely disappears as the heat comes on. Anyone who has ever mistakenly planted mint in the corner of an herb garden, only to have it take over, knows to keep culinary mint in a pot or banish it to a far corner where it can do its thing without competing with other things you might like to grow. I have spearmint planted near a slightly leaky hose bib, and we just mow it when it spreads too far.

A note on spearmint (Mentha spicata) vs peppermint (Mentha piperita). Generally, peppermint is a darker green, sometimes with an almost purple stem, and a much sharper more menthol flavor. Culinary mints (genus Mentha) will readily hybridize naturally, and so when you find a “wild” mint along a stream bank, it very well may be a naturalized hybrid that originated in someone’s yard. Even taxonomists throw up their hands for this genus, which is said to number from 18 to 24 species, and includes many many hybrids.

I personally like peppermint for tea (including the chocolate mint and the orange mint – which to me just taste like…peppermint), and spearmint for most anything else. I once substituted spearmint for peppermint essential oil in a soap recipe, and was astounded at how much the change affected the overall scent blend. I had assumed they were fairly similar. So as a comparison, I looked up all of the major chemical constituents of both. Turns out they share very little in common.

PeppermintSpearmint
MentholCarvone
MenthoneLimonene
Menthyl Acetate(Z)-Dihydrocarvone
Neomenthol3-Octanol
1,8-CineoleMenthone
Menthofuran1,8-Cineole
Bold = makes up the majority of the oil

Some plants in the mint family are perennial, and given the right conditions, may still be thriving long after you’re gone. Some are short lived perennials (anise hyssop is a favorite) that don’t live long, but are easy to start from seed. And some are tender perennials or annuals that only thrive during hot weather. Plants like basil and marjoram, which will be killed instantly as soon as we get down into the low 30’s, even if it doesn’t freeze.

Sweet basil, which seems to go to flower in a nanosecond. If you don’t use it all, the bees will thank you.

Interestingly, I’ve found basil to be a plant that once it germinates, is almost bomb proof to being transplanted. I’ve literally pulled it out of soft soil so that all the roots were exposed, stuffed it into a new pot in a not so gentle way, and found it to seemingly have grown overnight after transplanting, suffering no ill effects. This property has always endeared basil to me, even though its not in my personal top 5 for “must have” herbs in my own cooking. Tulsi, or holy basil is the same way. VERY easy to grow from seed.

Butters loves his catnip. Turns out its relaxing for humans as well as cats, and is in my Chillax tea blend.

So as we hit August, and we begin to harvest ALL THE THINGS, we’ll keep harvesting mint family herbs for use and sale all year long.

© 2020 Miles Away Farm, where we’re super excited to now be offering fresh pesto and basil simple syrup to get you through your 2020 pandemic summer!

Broccoli, gone to seed and slowly being buried in aphids, a frequent pest.

When identifying plants, people tend to know the names of the individual species. This is echinacea. This is lemon balm. This is a tomato. We rarely step back and ask, what do certain plants all have in common? But this information can be SUPER useful, both in areas such as plant identification, and for things like crop rotation from year to year. So, at long last (I’ve had this idea for years) I’m writing a series on culinary plant FAMILIES.

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With the changing landscape that is Covid-19, a LOT of people have returned to gardening, or put in a new garden for the first time this spring. Stories of empty seed racks and searches for local compost abound. Because feeding yourself is powerful in these uncertain times.

Because I’m part of several Facebook groups for local farmers and gardeners, I’m seeing a lot of newbie questions and common mistakes. So I put together a list of my top 10 things I wish beginning gardeners knew, in no particular order. This isn’t a definitive list. But it is a place to start if you’ve never grown a plant that you’ve then eaten in your life!

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Sprouted onions from the latest cull, on May 21st. While these can still be used, I find the flavor changes significantly once they have sprouted, so they normally are enjoyed by the sheep instead.

Back in late October 2019, I reported on the grow out of 7 different onions; 6 yellow storage onions (5 open pollinated and one hybrid as a control) and one red storage onion, in this post.

I kept the 10 largest onions from each variety (except the red), and put them into storage in my garage pantry, where the temperature never gets down to freezing, but is otherwise unregulated. In short, typical of most home storage. The room tends to be 10-20 degrees warmer than the outside temp in the winter, and cooler than outside but warmer than the house in the summer.

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I don’t remember when I first started eating spanakopita, a Greek “spinach pie” traditionally made in individual phyllo wrapped triangles. It took me years to learn to really enjoy eating greens, so I would have avoided it in my twenties, but I’m sure I had it in a Greek restaurant at some point and thought, this is actually pretty tasty.

But all of that pastry brushing of butter onto phyllo dough, the amount of butter involved, and individually wrapping each “pie” kept me from making them at home for a very long time. And then I found this recipe in Eating Well magazine (December 2008). They had an option for making one large tart rather than individual tartlets, and I thought, that’s probably worth a try.

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Rhubarb is an interesting plant. A perennial in the family Polygonaceae (buckwheat family) that dies back to the ground in winter, it can often be found growing on old homestead sites, when the homestead itself is long gone. Grown for its tart stems, which can vary from all green to a deep red, its large leaves contain high amounts of oxalic acid (also found in much lower quantities in spinach) and anthrone glycosides, which can be toxic. Though you’d have to eat many pounds of the leaves in one sitting to actually poison yourself. My sheep love the leaves and have done damage to more than one fence to reach my plants.

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Sourdough crackers, salami from our trip to Seattle in early march, a bit of leftover quince jam from last fall, and homemade farmer cheese.

I’ve written several blog posts (here and here) about my adventures in sourdough. But then, as I’ve aged, I’ve found that I have a lot less aches and pains when I don’t eat gluten. So I’ve become one of THOSE people, who mostly doesn’t eat wheat. And because of that, I’ve mostly stopped baking (though I do really like this paleo pizza crust and I occasionally make this gluten free bread).

And then coronavirus hit. And in a nostalgic mix of “baking = comfort” and “OMG stores are sold out of flour and yeast” panic, I bought a 50 lb bag of Smalls Family Farm unbleached all purpose flour from Andy’s. I figured I could always bake for the neighbors. This also necessitated me scrubbing out and bleaching several 6 gallon plastic buckets that originally contained coconut oil for soapmaking, but had been repurposed to hold grain for sheep or other random farm uses.

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I’ve been a subscriber to the Nutrition Action Healthletter for years and years. This recipe originally appeared there, as a quick healthy easy weeknight dinner. They called it “Chicken and White Bean Cassoulet”, but since the bulk of the recipe is cabbage, not an ingredient one would find in any traditional French Cassoulet, I renamed it.

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It’s funny. On some level, I’ve been preparing for this current situation for more than 20 years. And I’m finding that, not surprisingly, its one thing to be intellectually prepared for people hoarding toilet paper. It’s another to weather the emotional fall out when people around you are frightened and you can’t even give them a hug.

Other than the persistent feeling of angst, watching small businesses (many of which are also friends) suffer, a fear of running out of chocolate, and the hypochondria of “is that a tickle in my throat” (news flash, so far its not), we’re fine. Heck, there’s still hot and cold running water and electricity to surf the internet. We’re MORE than fine. And we’re doing our best to facilitate old fashioned neighbor to neighbor communication and assistance. Reaching out to those near us. Working with a local church and sign maker to put up a bulletin board for actual physical notes from neighbors in need.

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When I was making breakfast this morning, I got onto my blog to look up this recipe, and realized it wasn’t there. I can’t believe I’ve never posted this! It’s easy, filling, healthy, inexpensive, and utilizes pantry staples. PLUS it can be eaten for dinner OR breakfast. What’s not to love? This recipe is adapted from the original in Eating Well Magazine, March 1998.

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Jennifer Kleffner

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