International Herb Association Conference

I was not especially excited about traveling to Huntsville, Alabama. It's been almost 30 years since my last visit and my memories were of a dusty, backward town with a lot of red clay where soil should have been. What I did not expect was a very multicultural, cosmopolitan city with miles of space-related industrial complexes, a shopping center that has gondoliers and looks very Venice-like. And I did not expect to find a Waffle House with an official greeter.

I hear the comment from women friends fairly often, "Jim, I'm always a little intimidated to cook for you since you write cookbooks and cook with style." So for all of you who've told me that in the past few years, here's where I eat when I travel. Waffle House. Yes, really. I like Waffle House because it's fast, friendly (they always greet every customer who comes through the door) and I like their omelettes. Eating cheap for several meals means I can go somewhere nice during my trip.

Imagine my surprise to find a real first class greeter, Ms. Suzie. She greeted every customer that came through the door and was constantly chatting with, and hugging, the regulars. I looked around and the clientele was made up of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and "generic whites," including myself. I inquired about Ms. Suzie and was told she's been at Waffle House for 17 years as a waitress. After retiring, her husband had a heart attack and the manager thought Ms. Suzie needed something to keep her busy and active and offered her a job as greeter. She drives 2 hours each way every day she works and I very much enjoyed meeting her.

The reason for this trip was to attend the International Herb Association's annual conference. It's a small group, one I used to serve on the Board of Directors for back when it had several hundred members. It's evolved over time, gotten much smaller, but is still a nice group. It is meant to support small herb businesses. The conference included an interesting mix of programs and demonstrations.
My sciatica had a flare up on the last day of the conference, the one in which we were to take a half day tour of the basil research project, led by Dr. S. Rao Mentreddy, at Alabama A & M University. Dr. Mentreddy is performing a wide range of testing on 87 varieties of basil, including examining which varieties hold the best potential for treating diabetes and the potential for preventing colon cancer. One of the high ranking (in quality of essential oils and potential usefulness for medicinal uses) is Indian Holy basil (Ocimum tenuifolorum syn. sanctum). In the 87 basils he's looking at included the one I was given by Madalene Hill, the green pepper basil (Ocimum selloi) I've written about here before. Mine came from Oxaca, Mexico while the specimum Dr. Mentreddy is using came from Paraguay. The Journal of Ethnopharmacology sites research on selloi oil as being used as mosquito repellents, as well. I was especially disappointed to have to miss the tour of his facility, but if you can't walk, you can't walk. (Another round of Prednisone and Tylenol got me home).

Dr. Art Tucker, Research Professor and Co-Director of the Claude E. Phillips Herbarium at Delaware State University and author, Susan Belsinger presented a fine program kicking off the next herb of the year, Dill, for 2010. Donna Frawley gave a bountiful cooking demonstration with Susan Belsinger on a variety of dill recipes in preparation for next year's Herb of the Year publication (check my Herb of the Year blog for links to all of the information on the "official" herbs of the year). Charles Voigt, Principal Research Specialist in Agriculture at the University of Illinois, gave a fascinating program on the plant trials he conducts in Illinois, Steven Lee gave a cooking and blending demonstration, Tina Wilcox from the Ozark Folk Center presented, "How to Raise a Kitchen Garden from Scratch, Terry Hollembaek gave, "Natural Farming, Where it Came from and Where it's Going." And Phyllis D. Light, presented "Appalachian Folk Medicine" which changed a lot of people's minds about when, and who populated the South. (A hint is, the Spanish, French and Irish were there nearly 100 years with established towns, before Jamestown Colony was founded by the British). She explained how those cultures influenced folk medicine, with considerable contributions from Native Americans and Africans.

The real big surprise of the weekend for me was the world class Huntsville Botanic Garden. It's the kind of botanic garden most cities dream of having some day. Extensive, labeled, well funded, spectacular plant collections and beautifully landscaped. On the lawn I found a series of giant ants and upon closer examination, discovered they were made of bent willow! You know how attached I am to bent wood, having written 3 books on making bentwood trellises, fences, gates and arbors. But I never imagined giant ants!

The Herb Garden, which is managed and tended by the Herb Society of Huntsville was exceptionally well done, well labeled and I spent a good deal of time there photographing plants. There was an exceptional collection of Native American plants, with labeling to explain the medicinal uses and which tribes used which plant.

But it was the Children's Garden that impressed me the most. There's an ongoing debate about children's gardens, not whether to have them, but what they should contain. Many botanic gardens put in a children's garden as a way of attracting families, and revenue, and they make it essentially a kids theme park. The opposing view is that a kid's garden should be a teaching garden with lots of displays of earthworms and how roots grow and activities to explain the garden to kids.

Huntsville Botanic's kid's garden attempts to do both. There are plant displays of unusual and interesting plants (I found my favorite bean, the Chinese red noodle long bean on a trellis). Raised beds with sides that let down so kids can look through glass and see how earthworms and roots exist in the soil, along with a fascinating "Rainbow Garden" which had water mists and several prims at kid-level to look through to see the rainbows. It included kaleidoscopes and a rainbow of flowers and pathways.

The most popular part of the kids' garden was the "Dinosaur" garden, which included a big sand pile where kids could dig for dinosaur footprints and fake bone parts. Within that area, amidst a big planting of Equisetum hyemale (which you may know as scouring rush) were intermittent mist machines. Boys and girls were carrying gravel and piling it, playing in the sand and having a great time in the mist and water. The great thing is the garden is virtually kid-proof so parents can bring a book and read and let the kids play as long as they like. And it seems to attract kids to the idea of gardens and plants and educates them while keeping them entertained.

Scouring rush is appropriate plant for a dinosaur garden simply because it is a plant that has remain unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. It is widespread around the world, contains silica and was once used medicinally. And it's not easily damaged by kids.

More stories from the gardens I visited in the next entry. For now, stay cool and happy gardening!


Linnaeus Garden, Tulsa

Summertime, the time for ripe tomatoes, starry nights, good sleeping and being with people you enjoy. Oklahoma, in places around Tulsa, however, got upwards of 110 degrees, so life switches to shady places and moving slower when it's that hot.
It was a wonderful time to be in Tulsa, in spite of the heat. I was there for a program on Monday night for the Tulsa Herb Society, an energetic and well organized group that I have spoken for in years past. They are always great hosts and for this program, and my cooking demonstration the following day, they went pulled out all the stops in their decorating.

The location was the Tulsa Garden Center, which is a turn of the century former private mansion where many of the garden and herb clubs of Tulsa meet. These great ladies combed the city for flowers and herbs and spent 2 days decorating with flowers, antiques, tables, chairs, gloves, pots, herbs and more. It looked like a wedding was planned from all of the candles and flower arrangements and I was honored they had gone to such efforts to make my programs festive.

The crackers and stuffed tomatoes (which you saw on the previous post, and for which the recipe was posted, too) were very well received on Tuesday at the cooking demonstrations. I made Banana Salsa and Green Grape with Mint Salsa (from my Salsa book). Next on the menu was Green Pea & Avocado Dip, Stuffed Tomatoes, Habanero-Cheddar Crackers, Middle Eastern Seed Crackers and a couple of salad dressings (also from my books).

My Monday night program was, "Cutting Edge Plants" and I talked about how changing ethnic food trends change the kinds of plants we buy and grow. The food we find in restaurants and see in the media, influences not only nurseries but our own backyard gardens. I focused on several plants from India, China, Thailand, Papua, New Guinea and Mexico and illustrated how those are just coming into the marketplace.

Our great hosts were long time friends, Tom & Sue Stees and it's always a delight to get to visit with them. They both cooked and hosted and wined and dined us and just generally made life wonderful for us all. Tom, who's on the Board of Directors for the Linnaeus Teaching Garden (which is behind the Tulsa Garden Center), provided me a wonderful tour of the new facility. He introduced me to the Director of Horticulture, Barry Fugatt who is largely responsible for this remarkable garden, and one of the staff, Allison Warning, who explained the history of the garden and the mansion grounds. Much of the hardscape materials were donated by area businesses, thanks to the efforts of the Board, and the concept and design came from Barry. There are many remarkable facets to this garden and it would take several visits to see it all. It includes vegetables, ornamentals, a water garden, cottage garden, herb garden, espaliered fruit trees, along with arbors, and the garden showcases some of the newest plant introductions from Ball Seed, to be introduced to the gardening public next year, such as a new lime and pink petunia.

Who was Linnaeus? Carl Linnaeus is considered the Father of Taxonomy. His system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms is still in wide use today, continuing to evolve with changes. But it was his system, begun in the 1700s for classifying all plants, that is the basis of the plant identification and classification system still in use today.

One plant that caught my attention was a stunning new crape myrtle called, 'Dynamite' and it lived up to its name. It's one of a line of new exciting new colors of crape myrtles from Tree Land Nurseries.

The Linnaeus Garden would be remarkable in any location, but is especially fitting in Tulsa, which has a very active gardening culture. The Rose Gardens are just steps away but it is the Linnaeus Garden that is stealing the spotlight currently. They host a variety of groups for programs, keep about 200 volunteers busy (and I believe Allison Warning is coordinator of those). The plant collections are impressive and it is a perfect place for workshops, teaching children and adults.

Tom & Sue's garden is perfectly groomed and beautiful with a variety of flowers, herbs and perennials. Being there and enjoying their delightful garden, then touring the Linnaeus Garden, and being hosted by the Tulsa Herb Society, made for a perfect visit to Tulsa. It reminded me of that song (click the link to hear) from the 60s by the Lovin. Spoonful, "Summer in the City."
It was just about a perfect visit to gardens and seeing friends and eating good food and enjoying more gardens. Now, I need to stay home and weed my own. Garden volunteers anyone?


Turtle Disaster Avoided!

After posting the story of Bessie the returning turtle last week, and all of your nice comments (thank you!) we almost lost Bessie. After a week of anti-inflammatories - me, not Bessie - some pain pills, lots of garlic (also anti-inflammatory), crutches and bed rest for my hip/knee/ankle, I was feeling considerably better on Thursday night. Because of the weeks of sciatica and the related issues, I have badly neglected the garden weeding. Awhile before dark on Thursday, which is my Linkfavorite time of the day in the garden, I was watering plants and weeding as I went. I had just dropped the garden hose into a tiny pool in the medicinals bed to give the goldfish some cool, fresh water. (Don't you think goldfish get thirsty in hot weather, too?)
That little pool, which is the inside of an old RC Cola ice cooler (that means non-electric pop storage) cooler from the 1950s when my parents had a grocery store, and which I have carted around with me over the years, is currently covered with duckweed. If you don't know duckweed, it's a tiny green plant, about 1/8 inch across with 2 leaves and covers the surface of water in colonies of green. No, it's not slimy, it's an amazing, very basic and creative little plant, called duckweed because it hitches rides in the feathers of ducks. Even though I remove it often, it quickly grows back. Covering the little pool, the water often looks like a very short cut lawn of bright green.

Evidently that's what Bessie the turtle thought, too. When I took the garden hose out of the pool, I noticed movement. Not fish, but a struggling terrapin. She was in the pool and couldn't get her feet up and over the flat rocks around the pool. I recognized her immediately and lifted her out, only to find she had gotten her leg tangled in some string. The string, which turned out to be a piece of monofilament line connecting an "anchor" to the little floating frog-in-an-inner tube, had her all caught up and unable to get herself out of the predicament she was in. Had I come along the next day, or not weeded Thursday night, Bessie would have eventually tired of swimming and drowned and that would have been the last we would ever see of Bessie. Fortunately, for us, and for Bessie, I was at the place at the right time and cut the line off her leg. She went scurrying on her way without even a glance over her shoulder. See you next year, Bessie!

Josh and his mother, Barbara, play bridge once a week and this past week it was their turn to take, "snacks." (Evidently, from what I've learned second hand, if you take snacks for 40+ people, you don't have to pay the $5 pay-t0-play fee). Josh decided to make items from my recipes in a couple of my books. He made 3 kinds of salsa out of my Sensational Salsas Using Herbs. He chose Canteloupe for one, Banana Salsa and a third I forget. He made some crackers, too, and also one of my favorites, Stuffed Tomatoes. Here's the recipe:

Stuffed Tomatoes

8-10 Roma tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise, insides removed.
1 1/2 boxes (8 oz. size) cream cheese, room temperature
2 sprigs fresh basil (about 1 heaping tablespoon chopped)
3 French marigold blossoms, petals only, green part removed, chopped or snipped fine
2 tablespoons toasted, chopped pecans

Mix the cream cheese, chopped basil & marigold petals and the chopped pecans. Dry the insides of the Romas. Using a knife or spatula, fill each Roma tomato half, using up all the filling. Refrigerate until 10 minutes before serving. Make plenty, people really enjoy this combination.

The Cheddar Crackers shown below are some I made today for the Tulsa Herb Society program I'm giving. I also made some Seed Crackers, also from my Homemade Crackers book. The Seed Crackers are made in small, plate-sized crackers that are then broken apart after baking. These are rolled in seed and herbs instead of flour (rosemary & thyme leaves, white and black sesame seed, poppyseed, lambsquarters seed (yes, they are a great vegetable!), and amaranth seed, as well).

It's hot, cool off, but don't do like Bessie the turtle and step off into the duckweed!


Bessie, the Box Turtle Returns

This story begins with our late friend, Donnie Wylie, who arrived at the farm from his home in Memphis 27 years ago. Donnie often came here for inspiration, escape, healing. He had just turned 35 and decided his life was OVER. He hadn't accomplished any of the things he wanted to do in life. He had no significant other, no real job or profession (although he had inherited money so jobs weren't really relevant). Donnie came for a few days and said he needed physical labor and wanted a job assignment in the garden to overcome his depression.

(The photo of Donnie leaning on the fence post is taken from almost the same spot this photo of the blue gazebo was taken; it shows how the garden has changed over time).

Donnie had been reading about the joys and benefits of double-digging garden beds. Having grown up in east Arkansas where the soil is black, rich and deep, he wanted to try the digging method in our garden. Ozarks soil is not east Arkansas soil. We have rocks held together by clay. Dig 2 feet deep, as the garden wonks insist, and you get more clay and bigger rocks. (The method is meant to aerate the soil, bring up nutrients and turn compost back into the newly mixed soil). Double-digging here makes no more sense than emptying the ocean with a toothpick. But Donnie needed a job and that's the one he chose.

Several hours and a lot of sweat later with not a lot of progress, Donnie had turned what had been a garden bed into a trench with clay and rock piled on each side. "I couldn't get down the 24 inches the experts recommend," Donnie said. "I kept hitting rocks the size of volleyballs, so I just dug down about 16 inches." He kept working until he had a spot about 3 ft. across and 6 or 7 feet long. I surrounded the bed with rocks and we dubbed it, "Donnie's Glad Bed" because as he dug, his depression waned and the labor made him glad he didn't have to do that for a living.

In double-digging the bed, Donnie had disturbed a box turtle nest. He laid the eggs aside and before he replaced and mulched the soil, he replanted the eggs under some straw. That year I grew gladiolas in Donnie's Glad Bed.

Box turtles, or terrapins, are a bit like salmon in that they come back to the area where they were born. That same female turtle has been coming back to the garden every year and laying eggs, evidently sensing the spot where she was born.

Over time I've rebuilt the bed and made it higher. With Donnie's double-dug soil not very useful I enlarged the bed and added another 15 inches of soil on top, then built rock walls around it to hold it in place. The stone retaining wall has a wide, flat surface, perfect for sitting and weeding or harvesting. I grow fragrance plants there, several scented geraniums, lemon verbena, hoja, patchouli, green and gray santolina, eucalyptus, lemon and orange thymes.

I noticed a terrapin showing up in the late spring each year. The walls of the bed are half knee-high and I have no idea how the turtle would manage to get up the wall into the bed. It would be like you or me trying to scale a 10 story building without a ladder. But climb it she did and we named her Bessie. Every year she comes and later in the summer we find tiny, quarter-sized baby terrapins, falling over the sides of the bed and onto the gravel pathway below and quickly scurrying away.

I decided to rebuild the bed about 4 years ago, enlarging Donnie's Glad Bed a little bit and putting a small water pool in the middle. Thinking of Bessie, I built steps up one side of the bed (that's the steps and Bessie just at the top). This spring, while speaking to the LaPorte Master Gardeners in Otis, IN, I found an excellent ceramic turtle for the bed. (It's actually a serving dish, the top shell comes off, but it is perfect for this growing bed). It now lives in the bed as a reminder to watch out for turtle eggs when planting or weeding.

A little late this year, Bessie made her appearance again and went right to work, laying eggs. I saw her in 2 different beds and each time she dug in under the mulch and went to work. Terrapins are said to live 60 years or longer and I've not checked to see how old Bessie might be. We have 2 varieties of box turtles in Missouri. (If you click on the photo to see where Bessie is depositing her eggs as she's well under the bed's pine needle mulch. She's that little mound on the left side of the photo near the point of the blue arrow).

I was glad to see Bessie back again. She's been a constant season after season. I imagine her spending her life in the woods, eating bugs and worms, then once a year having the urge to go back to that spot where she was born. Box turtles are protected in every state simply because their habitat continues to diminish. Highway traffic takes a toll, well meaning people pick them up and take them home (they're strongly territorial and don't often adapt well to a new territory; a better option would be simply move them to the other side of the highway and let them go on with their lives). Housing developments, strip malls, dams on rivers, all takes away turtle habitat and they are on the decline nationwide.