Butterflies in the Garden
Our open house for readers of this column last week was a huge success. I was pleasantly surprised to have visitors come, just to visit my garden and talk plants from as far away as Wichita, Kansas, Oklahoma, Joplin and St. Louis. Thank you, it was a pleasure to meet and visit with so many of you who read my columns, blog and books.
Butterfly season is upon is. The monarchs returned weeks ago, about the time the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) started flowering. Tourists were out with their pocket knives and trowels along the roadsides, trying to dig up a piece of the brilliant orange-flowered plants. (Plants don’t transplant well when in bloom and besides, the root of butterfly weeds go down sixteen to eighteen inches between the rocks).
I hosted a group of visitors in my garden last summer and as I toured them through the herbs, I stopped beside a big clump of fennel to point out a caterpillar. Just as I pointed, a woman spoke up and said, “Oh I hate those nasty things. I keep a can of kerosene in the garden and a pair of gloves beside it. Every time I see one of those black, green and yellow stripped devils, I put on my gloves and toss them into the kerosene and watch them die.”
I noticed the gaping, open mouths of others in the group but before I could respond to the lady, she pointed in the air and said, as if on cue, “Ohhh, look at the butterfly. I just love butterflies, I wish I had them in my garden.”
When she finally quit chattering, I again pointed at the stripped caterpillar on the fennel. “Ma'am,” I said, “see the butterfly? See the caterpillar? They are one and the same thing.”
She gasped, and literally went pale. She had never made the connection between the stripped caterpillar and the black swallowtail butterfly, and promised she would never hunt them down and douse them with kerosene again.
The black swallowtail butterfly is one of the larger and more beautiful of our summer butterflies. Granted, the caterpillar will eat a leaf of fennel, or of dill, or even a leaf or two of parsley. But they never eat an entire plant, nor do they even harm the plant as far as I can tell. And the benefit you get from having another pollinator in the garden is worth a leaf or two. You’ll find swallowtails on many flowers, including zinnias, sweet peas, daisies and more. When they visit those flowers, they are sipping the nectar and in turn, pollinating the flowers. Butterflies are a benefit as well as one of the most decorative things you can have in the garden. Let them be, don’t spray to get rid of the caterpillars, they truly do no harm. And the beauty they add to a summer morning is a bonus.
America’s Most Popular Herb
Twice in the past dozen years I’ve conducted a nationwide survey of retail nurseries and wholesale plant and seed companies, asking what the ten most popular herbs were, by sales. Twelve years ago, in writing the herb chapter for the Ball Red Book, basil was at the top of the list of most popular, and best selling herbs. The second survey, two years ago, revealed the number one herb was still basil. Those surveys resulted in my little book, Growing and Using the Ten Most Popular Herbs (available on my website: www.LongCreekHerbs.com). Some of the other herbs had changed places in the ratings, but basil, year in and year out, remains the most popular herb in the United States.
I’ve been harvesting basil nearly every day for meals for several weeks. The basils I’m growing this year are: Genovese, sweet, Thai, lemon, lime, boxwood, spicy globe, clove (also known as Indian sacred), green pepper, Greek columnar, and a couple more I can’t remember. Whether you’re growing one or one hundred basils, it’s important to start clipping them back now.
If you don’t keep basil harvested the leaf flavor changes from sweetly basil, to somewhat bitter. The goal of most basils, from the time you plant them until frost kills them to the ground, is to bloom. Some kinds bloom in late summer, but most begin “thinking” about blooming about now. Their strength starts going into producing large leaves that can support flowering and ultimately, seed production. To prevent that, and get the most use and best flavor from your basil plants, it is important to keep the plant clipped. Think of it as a hedge. If you are just picking a leaf now and then, afraid you will hurt the plant, change your thinking. The more you harvest basil, the faster it puts out new leaves with the best flavor. Don’t be afraid to harvest sprigs, even limbs, it’s not hurting the plant. But if you let the basil just grow and grow, you are probably going to be dissatisfied with the flavor of the leaves. (This is true of most herbs, the best flavors are in the new leaf growth and the more the plant is clipped and harvested, the better the flavor).
My lettuce quit producing about ten days ago and bolted (gone to seed). I pulled all but the red varieties, which can take more hot weather, and put the rest in the compost. Instead of lettuce on my daily sandwiches I pick several basil leaves. I like to make basil salad, which consists of a bowl full of mixed basil leaf varieties, a handful of halved cherry tomatoes, and a couple of teaspoons of balsamic vinegar, all tossed together.
The Springfield Herb Club came yesterday for what has become their annual visit to the garden and one of the appetizers I served was stuffed cherry tomatoes. These are easy to make and just about everyone likes them and asks for more. Use either large cherry or small Roma tomatoes, halved, seeds removed and dried inside with a paper towel. Set aside and mix the following: 8 oz. softened cream cheese, 2 French marigold blossoms, chopped (petals only, no green parts) and a tablespoon of chopped, fresh basil leaves. Add 1 tablespoon chopped pecans and mix together. Stuff the tomato halves with the cream cheese mixture and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.
Our open house to visit the garden is Saturday, June 26. Call 417-779-5450 if you plan to come; you’ll need directions and we’d like to know in advance how many to expect. See what’s happening in the garden this week at jimlongsgarden.blogspot.com. Questions or comments always welcome at Longcreekherbs@yahoo.com. Happy gardening!