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Esterina yellow cherry tomato

Well, tomato season is FINALLY here (we’re late this year due to our cool spring), so I thought the next in the series on garden plant families should be Solanaceae – better known as the Nightshade family.

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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.

Menthyl Acetate(Z)-Dihydrocarvone
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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Onion harvest from way back in 2011.

Every year, I do my best to grow enough onions for our own use that I don’t have to buy onions at the store. This is kind of a silly point of pride, as store bought onions are inexpensive and even when conventionally grown have a low residual pesticide residue. But there’s just something about having a storage pantry full of onions I grew myself that makes me feel rich in a way that buying from the store can’t provide. So I try to store 100 storage onions in the fall. (Figuring a rough average of two a week for 52 weeks, when in reality some weeks are higher and some lower depending on what else is in season and whether or not its stew season).

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I grew out a few new varieties of tomatoes this year. Four new cherries, a black, a white (really a pale yellow), esterina (yellow) and skakura (red). All were an attempt to find cherry tomatoes that didn’t split on the vine, after picking, and in the display box at market (looking at you Sungold – love you, but dang…). I also ended up with an accidental cherry when growing out some saved seed from a German Pink. I always put my German Pink’s near my cherry tomatoes, and it was clearly a cross with sungold. Kind of a fun slightly larger very round bright orange cherry. And I threw in a Brad’s Atomic Grape Tomato from a plant sale, because I was swayed by its amazing looks. Turns out its not much on flavor in our growing environment. Tough skin, not terribly sweet, and the plant struggled to keep up all season while EVERY other tomato plant I had did just fine. So definitely a dud for me.

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A while back, I joined a “Market Gardening Success Group” on Facebook. I’ve been listening to a lot of farming podcasts of late (Bootstrap Farmer Radio, No-Till Farmer Podcast, Farmer to Farmer, Thriving Farmer Podcast, The No-Till Market Garden Podcast), and thought it would be nice to have a place to discuss the business of farming and ask questions. And occasionally, a real gem DOES come through that is well worth knowing (like this hidden publication from the USDA. The Commercial Storage of Fruits, Vegetables, and Florist and Nursery Stock).

But for better or worse, this group takes all comers, and while, yes, everyone has to start somewhere, the hubris of people starting a business of selling vegetables when they can’t tell you what growing zone they are living in, or name a warm season vs a cool season vegetable, or anything about the type of soil they are growing in caught me a little off guard. SO many fundamentally beginning gardening questions. Not beginning MARKET gardening questions, but truly questions from people who are growing a tomato for the first time in their lives ever. And then wanting to sell it. Sigh. Read the rest of this entry »

Bullnose bell peppersSome time ago, on some Facebook group somewhere, the subject of organic certification of food came up. And someone chimed in with something along the lines of, “Organic certification is all big corporate BS anyway, and is meaningless. Don’t even bother.” Sigh. Got to love the negative Nellies who wait with self righteous anticipation for our impending doom. I did my best to educate the naysayer from a farmers perspective, but I’ve have been meaning to write a post about what organic certification really means ever since. My apologies up front. This post is LONG. Read the rest of this entry »


18 lambs and counting…we have one ewe who hasn’t given birth

We try hard to not have our lambs until the weather warms up a bit here in Walla Walla. We don’t really have an enclosed barn for our ewes, just a few open ended horse stalls. And the ewes don’t want to be in a horse stall anyway. They want to be out in the far end of the field when they give birth. And catching ONE ewe right before she gives birth is nigh impossible on our farm. We want them to have as natural an experience as possible, keeping ourselves out of the picture and letting nature lead the way. But that means NOT having babies in January, when there is snow on the ground. Read the rest of this entry »

Jennifer Kleffner

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