Carolee's Herb Farm

Carolee's Herb Farm

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December E-Newsletter Print E-mail

December E-Newsletter

It’s the holiday season!  I hope you are enjoying the fragrance and flavors from your herb garden this time of year.  Many of the plants of Christmas were integral parts of celebrations in many pre-Christian traditions.  In decorations, foods, drinks, candles, potpourri and sweet bags herbs have always been an important part of the holidays.  Holly, ivy, mistletoe, evergreens, rosemary, lavender, thyme and mints are just a few of the traditional herbs used to celebrate this special time. 
     Don’t forget to pause a moment on Dec. 21st to celebrate the Winter Solstice.  I’m always amazed that early mankind noticed that on this day, the days begin to lengthen again.  How did they know, without clocks or scientific measurements?   After weeks of fearing the sun was disappearing, they rejoiced that the sun was returning.  Many of their ways of celebrating this important event were later incorporated into the Christmas season.
     As you can tell from the photo above, we have not been in Indiana much this month.  The cathedral spires of Saguaro cactus, majestic mountains, and scrub-brush flatlands are nothing like the bountiful fields here at home.  You’ll find highlights of our trip below.

Mark your calendar now for the full day of programming beginning at 8 a.m., sponsored by the University of Illinois and held in Champaign, IL.  This is one of my favorite days of the year, filled with great speakers, a bountiful herbal buffet, lots of vendors, and an opportunity to spend a winter day talking about herbs!  Featured speakers are Jason Powell, whose presentation I've already seen on "Tough Old Garden Roses" will make you want to start digging; Linda Franzo's cooking demo "Under the Tuscan Sun" will make listeners salivate, and my good friend and sometimes roommate, Texan Ann McCormick's talk "Seasoning the Melting Pot" will give folks a new understanding of herbs.  The fourth presentation is a surprise, but knowing Prof. Chuck, it will be a goodie! I always come home revitalized and filled with new ideas.  We’ll have a booth filled with herbal items and gardening treasures.  Registration is open until Jan 13, or until all 270 seats are filled, which often happens early!  Cost for this fun-filled, informative day is $60, which includes a huge lunch, handouts, and raffle tickets for the many door prizes that are given.  Note this year:  credit card orders are not accepted.  Call 217-244-1693 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it to reserve a seat and get an order form mailed to you.  Or, simply mail a check payable to Univ. of Illinois to Linda Harvey, 1005 Plant Sciences Lab, 1201 S. Dorner Dr., Urbana, IL 61801.  

      The 2012 Hort Congress will be held Jan 17-19 at the Wyndham West Hotel in Indianapolis.  This is a good show to attend for those who want to “do” farmers’ markets or direct marketing of fruits, vegetables, flowers or herbs.  There’s also lots of information on commercial organic growing and agritourism.   Meetings of special interest hort groups, like the wine-growers, the nut growers, etc. also occur.  For more information see

Our Trip to the Grand Canyon
     We’re working on our “Bucket List” so this month we flew to Phoenix, AZ, rented a car and drove north to Flagstaff.  Having always thought of Arizona as desert-like, I was surprised to find snow and tall, tall Ponderosa pine trees in this energetic college town. 


Our first morning there, it was minus 1 degree when we climbed into the car to drive to nearby Williams, where we boarded the Grand Canyon Railway for a leisurely two-hour ride through a scenic landscape that changed in elevation and vegetation.  We were entertained by a singing cowboy, a knowledgeable conductor who explained the history and geology of the area, and even a group of train robbers!  The train dropped us off right at the rim of the Grand Canyon, where we had three hours to explore the unbelievable scenery.  If you haven’t seen this magnificent sight in person, you are missing something special.  A camera just doesn’t do it justice.  There are free shuttles that take visitors from one viewing area to another, memorable little shops and studios, restaurants with ambiance, and lots of wildlife and sights to make the day memorable.
     On our return, I spent some time (and cash!) at the railway’s depot gift shop, which was delightful.  If you are a train buff, there are trees filled with train ornaments, clothing, Lionel trains, books galore, and much, much more.  I bought train ornaments, cookie cutters, playing cards, and prickly pear tea, but if I had had more luggage space it wouldn’t have been hard to find lots more. 


One of the items that I passed, but may order on-line was this beautiful cactus kit.  This particular kit is from a Tucson grower, Bach’s Cacti Nursery, but unfortunately they don’t ship.  Maybe next year, I’ll visit them and purchase kits, ship them home myself and offer them in the shop.     


By the time the shopping was finished, the entire area was glowing with Christmas lights.  Crowds were lined up for the magical “Polar Express” train trip to Santa’s Village, which has become a major attraction in the area.  I was tempted to get on that train, but it was sold out.

Monument Valley
     Our next adventure was to the area made famous by numerous John Wayne movies, the red rock region known as Monument Valley.  The drive from Flagstaff was an easy one, lined with scenic views that caused many stops for photography.  Our destination was Goulding’s Trading Post, a historic building from 1924 that houses a small museum dedicated to John Wayne and the 80 plus movies filmed in that area.  It is filled with antiques, information, photographs of movie stars on location there, autographed movie scripts, and a Navajo Code-Talkers display.  Outside, you can visit Nathan Briddle’s cabin featured in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”  There is also a large lodge for overnight visits, a gift shop, and restaurant, but views of the intriguing red stone monuments are worth the trip alone.


Sedona and More!
     The drive from Flagstaff to Sedona has to be one of the most glorious in the country!  Oak Canyon Road is known nationwide, and it deserves its reputation.  Once again, a camera just can’t capture the majesty of this area.
     This small town of 12,000 people overflows with quaint shops, galleries and restaurants.  During a four-month season, over 5 million tourists flood the area.  It is a quirky place, known for its vortexes, or high-energy areas that have attracted the New Age populace for decades.  The vortexes are said to promote creativity, energy, and a sense of balance and well-being.  Many shops offer maps to the best vortex sights.   


A stroll along the busy streets is a feast for the eyes, not only for the delightful window displays and gorgeous scenery that surrounds one, but also for the wonderful bronze statues that dot the sidewalks and plazas.  My favorites were the two friends (horse and pig) and the dancing cowboy and his lady, who actually twirl around as the wind blows. 


I actually spent more time outdoors viewing the statues and the fragrant herb plantings than I spent in shops.  No surprise there!  Herbs play an important part in this dry, ever sunny landscape.  Clipped germanders, thymes, rosemarys, Spanish lavenders and Clevelandii sages filled beds and combined with succulents in containers. 
It was wonderful!

Of course, I had to find a garden center for a “plant fix” and Biddle’s Outdoor Center filled the bill.  There benches were filled with cool-weather pansies, snapdragons and foliage plants.  Inside an eclectic mix of antiques, collectibles, native art, and houseplants crowded the shelves.


We left Sedona and sped through the flatlands to Phoenix.  Surprisingly, this field of salad greens grows right along the interstate in the middle of town!  It was the only cultivated food crops we saw during our entire trip, although we did see several cotton fields, with the huge white bales stacked at the ends of barren brown rows waiting to be loaded and taken to the mills.    


Once in Tucson, our destination for a visit with family, I hurried to Mesquite Valley Growers, one of my favorite garden centers in the entire country.  They never disappoint me with their innovative plant material, gorgeous displays, and unique garden-lovers gift items.  This year, their display of giant pink flamingoes wearing red Santa hats made me smile.  Their pottery selection makes me wish I’d driven rather than flown.  I was delighted to find that they had expanded the number of benches devoted to herbs and had more varieties than ever before, including lovely two-gallon pots of lavenders.  No room in the suitcases really, but I did manage to squeeze in three cute succulents that I didn’t already own and unique Christmas ornaments made by local artists. 
     The temperature was a balmy 72 degrees as I sat in the sunshine on the deck of our resort hotel, writing Christmas cards or walked around the manicured landscape photographing various cacti and succulents.  A few more days with my grandson would have been nice, but eventually I began to miss all those things that speak “home” to my heart.  I’ll never forget the majesty of Red Rock country, but the soft snowflakes drifting over my deck garden and frosting the black limbs of my trees today are just as beautiful.

The Difficulty of Growing Plants in Flagstaff
     A lovely visit with a dear high school friend introduced me to the problems of a gardener in the Flagstaff, AZ area.  I’d mentioned that all the ornamental plants around the Grand Canyon had metal cages around them, and I assumed it was to protect them from the deer (we saw many mule deer in the area.)  Karen added elk and jackrabbits to the list, and continued to say that gophers were also a hazard to garden plants.  Her soil is basically volcanic ash, although she does reinforce it with manure from her horses.  When she moved from the verdant fields of Indiana to Arizona, she assumed that with enough soil-building efforts, she could successfully grow the herbs and vegetables she loved.  However, in addition to the wildlife, the heat, and lack of rain (normally they get 12-20” per year, but lately it’s been closer to 2”!), she discovered that the high winds, commonly 60mph, pick up the tiny particles from the area and absolutely shred the leaves on all but the toughest plant material.  She plants in the shelter of her house, saves her grey water, and has incorporated other strategies, but still the only way to grow such plants as basil, parsley, and real flowers is to grow them indoors.  I love the mountains and scenery in Arizona, but I love my gardens more, so there’s no chance I’ll be moving west!


Prickly Pear Cactus
     Driving through Arizona, Texas or other states in the southwest one can’t miss the abundance and variety of cacti.  One of the most common is the Prickly Pear, or Opuntia engelmannii.   Archeological excavations have shown this plant was an important source of food and medicine since ancient times.  The actual “leaves” of the plant are the nasty prickly spines that harden and give the plant its name.  These spines were often used as needles.  The evergreen pads that one might think were leaves are actually the broad stems or branches of the plant.  The pads, especially the tender young ones, can be eaten if care is used to remove even the most tiny spines.  Failure to do this can result in an inflamed mouth and throat that can actually cause death.  The pads were also used for containers. What is most often consumed is the dark red fruits, called “tunas” that appear in summer.  The fruits were mashed and the sweet, dark purple-red juice was consumed immediately.  The remaining pulp was often mixed with other foods, or dried for winter nutrition.  Many experts agree that the prickly pear was as important as the buffalo in terms of food supply to the Native Americans of the region.  It was also used as a dye plant.
     Today, experts tell us that the prickly pear is an excellent source of fiber and pectin.  It can lower blood pressure, battle high cholesterol, aid those with type 2 diabetes, fight viral infections, and lessen a hangover.  There is some evidence that it is an anti-oxidant. Like aloe, the plant can be used for burns and skin abrasions.
     The famous plant breeder, Luther Burbank recognized the importance of prickly pear as a food crop and after years of work, successfully bred a spineless variety, Opuntia ficus-indica) that is cultivated and sold in health food stores, ethnic groceries, and farmers’ markets today.  These are the best for cooking today.
     The prickly pear grows rampantly with a little moisture, and can survive long periods without it.  A pad that is broken off can easily root to become a new plant.  A single “tuna” can contain over fifty seeds that can also germinate to produce new plants.  It can be grown as a houseplant where winters are wet and long.  


Most Arizona gift shops that appeal to tourists carry a range of products made from prickly pear, such as teas, candy, jelly, syrup, cookies and more.  An upscale restaurant, the 1899 Grill, served prickly pear butter (the pink one in the center of the photo, and it was yummy) with homemade bread.  (The green butter was cilantro-jalapena!)

Decorative Air Fresheners
I’ve always suspected that commercial air fresheners might contain harmful chemicals that contribute to ill health.  Here’s an easy & inexpensive alternative!  You’ll need to collect small pretty jars with lids and a few items from the grocery, plus a real essential oil.  For the holidays, I like peppermint, pine, clove or sweet orange essential oils.  Other favorites are rose geranium, patchouli, or lavender.  First, place 1 packet unflavored gelatin in ¼ c. boiling water, stirring until it is totally dissolved.  Cool to room temperature.  Add 1 tsp. essential oil of your choice and 1 t. vodka (or other clear grain alcohol.)  Add food coloring, if desired.  Divide mixture into 2 small jars.  Place lids on jars and store in refrigerator….be sure to label “Do Not Eat!”  To use, place the jar in the room to be scented and remove lid.  In a large room, you may need more than one, but this will be a gentle scent, not overwhelming like the plug-ins. 

Some quick tips:
Decorate your favorite rosemary with tiny red bows for a quick centerpiece.
Mix together refried beans, softened cream cheese, and finely chopped jalapenos for a   
     quick dip for chips or veggies.
Simply fill a pretty glass bowl with colorful glass ball ornaments.  Tuck in small sprigs of  
     greenery…for a really big bowl, add a string of battery-operated lights interspersed
     with the balls.
Sprigs of fresh herbs tied with a bow make a pretty, fragrant bow substitute.
Citrus peels contain some of the highest level of chemicals in any food.  If using the zest,
     be sure to buy organic.

     During the hectic holidays, I’m always ready to cook something easy, warming and nutritious.  Here’s my gumbo recipe, which I make this time of year when oysters can be found in most groceries.  The bits of red tomato and green okra and herbs fit the holiday season.  With a salad and bread it’s an entire meal fit for guests!  The aroma as it simmers fills the house and everyone in it with anticipation!  If you’re short on time, use 3 cans chicken meat and 5 c. chicken stock rather than stewing and boning the chicken.
Callie’s Christmas Gumbo
Cook a 4 lb. stewing hen in 6 c. water and 2 tsp. salt until tender.  Cool, remove bones, and cut into bite-sized pieces.
Add: 1 ½ c. chopped onion; 8 oz. tomato sauce; 1/8 tsp. cayenne; dash of Tabasco.  Cover and simmer gently for 1 hour.
Add:  1 c. sliced okra (frozen or fresh); 2 chopped tomatoes; 1 pint oysters with liquid, 2 T. chopped fresh parsley.
Simmer 10 min.  Serve with a garnish of snipped chives.  8 servings.

It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of the holidays.  Be sure, as you work to make everyone else’s holiday special that you take a moment to care for yourself as well.  Steep in an herbal bath of lemon balm, sip some rose geranium tea, mist lavender scent on your sheets.  Take time to actually enjoy the holiday decorations.  All too soon, it will be time to take them down!  We wish you Peace and Blessings this Holiday Season.  May the spirit of Christmas fill you and sustain you until the miracle of another Spring. 

Herbal blessings and holiday hugs,