December 2014 E-Newsletter Print


 December E-Newsletter 2014
As another year comes to a close, it is time for reflection and resolution.  2014 was a good growing season, and this winter is beginning with much milder temperatures and far less snow than the last one.  The seeding is on schedule and I’ve already begun transplanting in the greenhouse.  A little more sunshine would be appreciated, but with milder days I’ve been able to get some much-needed outdoor time trimming shrubbery.   And, I’ve tackled some of the backlogged jobs at home, like sorting drawers, cleaning the basement, and organizing closets.  Soon, I’ll be heading to Atlanta for the huge gift shows.  Let’s all hope that 2015 is a good year!

Univ. of Illinois Herb Day-Saturday, Jan. 17th
Mark your calendar now for the first event of the 2015 season.  This is always one of my favorite events, and this year’s line-up includes a variety of topics, plus vendors, door prizes, and an herbal buffet luncheon.  Seating is limited, so make your registration now.  Online registration ($60) by credit card or check is available at  Registration is also available by contacting Linda Harvey at 217-244-1693 or by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
     We’ll have a booth, and new inventory has already arrived and been packed up for this first show of the new season. This show always gets the New Year off to a great start.

Indiana Hort Conference
      The 2015 Hort Congress will be held Jan 20-22 at the Wyndham Indianapolis West.  This is a good show to attend for those who want to “do” farmers’ markets or direct marketing of fruits and vegetables, or develop a winery.  There’s also lots of information on commercial organic growing and agri-tourism, plus a trade show for equipment and supplies.  For more information see

Fort Wayne Home & Garden Show:  Feb 26-Mar 3
     This annual show will feature a “Dr. Seuss” theme.  A good chance to walk amid plants during the bleak days of winter.

Philadelphia Flower Show
     This annual, spectacular gardening show is the premier event in American horticulture.  I actually prefer it to the Chelsea Flower show.  This year’s theme is “At the Movies” so I know there will be some fantastic gardens to stroll through and wonderful scenes and plants to savor.  The dates are March 1-8, with Rachel Ray in the Chef’s Theatre and the fabulous Beeker boys will give presentations in the auditorium.  There are always dozens of gardening speakers and floral arranging demonstrations happening all day, and a make it/take it area, too.  Book your flights early!  Lots of info on their website so just google it.


December 16, 1903
     That’s an important date for herb lovers, because it is the birthday of one of our nation’s most influential herb writers, Adelma Grennier Simmons.  The author of dozens of herb gardening and herbal usage books, and owner of Caprilands, the most famous, most visited herb farm in the United States, Adelma championed her beloved “useful plants” for nearly eight decades.  Fortunately, I met her early in my career as an herb grower and we became friends.  My very first three herb plants came from her farm (orange mint, rose scented geranium, and lemon verbena.)  Her advice still whispers in my ear, even though she passed away on December 3, 1997 at the age of 94.  She was still actively speaking and writing, and credited her longevity to herbs, vodka martinis, and her healthy New England heritage. 
     Those who knew her well appreciated not only her wealth of knowledge and willingness to share it, but her wry sense of humor and quirky style.  She designed her own clothes, and led a one-woman crusade to bring edible flowers to the menu at notable restaurants across the country.  Sadly, Caprilands is no longer open for business, but thousands of herb lovers and dozens of herb farms across the nation were inspired by Adelma Simmon’s success.
     However, Adelma lives on through her books which are the treasures of my library.  “Herb Gardens of Delight” was the impetus for my starting to grow herbs.  As soon as I read the chapter on growing herbs for teas, I was hooked. “Herb Gardening in Five Seasons” is the bible for most herb lovers.   If you’ve never read Adelma’s books, look for them.  Most are out of print, but she was so prolific and her work was so widespread that there are generally copies available at used book stores or on-line.  I always celebrate her life on Dec. 16 with a special pot of Caprilands Tea, a delicious combination of orange mint, dried orange peel, whole cloves and black tea.

Our travels continue:  Italy
     Our daughter and son-in-law moved to Bari, Italy over a year ago and we had yet to visit them.  So, since we were already across the pond, it was an easy non-stop flight from Dusseldorf to the eastern coast of Italy.  Bari is in Puglia, my favorite region of Italy.  It is in the “heel of the boot” if you look at a map and is famous for its ancient olive trees, beautiful coastline, trullis, and wonderful food, especially seafood and vegetables.  And, because it is not as large a tourist draw as Tuscany or Venice, etc. the cost of a visit there is not as high.  I don’t know why it is not more popular, because the architecture in some of the towns is fabulous, the coastline is gorgeous, and the history just as ancient. 


We left the airport and immediately drove to the quaint town of Conversano, which was hosting its annual new wine festival.  The booths were located around the ancient castle, and it was a perfect star-lit night for the outdoor concert and strolling around the town.  Once we had purchased our wine glasses and tickets, we began our search for the best wines.  There were dozens of local wineries, so it wasn’t hard to find a variety we wanted to sample.  Mark has become quite a connoisseur, having owned a wine bar and restaurant in Clearwater, Florida for several years.  However, I generally choose by the prettiness of the label and have a “win some, lose some” attitude.  Glasses in hand, or in the cute little pouch that comes with the glass so ones hands can be free to eat, we began our quest for food.  I have to say the “fair food” in Italy beats most of what we find in the States. 


There were booths serving up fresh pasta of various kinds, and I especially liked the one that featured the local cardoncelli mushrooms that bring people from all over the region every November.   In fact, we could have gone to cardoncelli festivals, similar to the truffle festivals held in other regions, because they are so famous.  The roast pork sandwiches rival anything you can find elsewhere, not so much because of the pork, although it is moist, succulent, and redolent with herbs, but because of the bread.  Europeans just know how to do great bread.  I did not miss elephant ears at all, choosing instead a luscious lemon custard-filled Lecce pie.  Some of you may have sampled the ones I made on our “Italian Day,” but I have to admit I haven’t got the recipe perfected yet.  Maybe it’s the wonderful Italian lemons that make the difference, or the difference in the variety of wheat they use for flour, but theirs are better.  There were other booths selling cheeses, roasted chestnuts, mementoes, and other local crafts.  We sampled this cheese shaped like a gourd, and it was fabulous, so we bought a slab and a bag of crackers to have later in our room.
     Our hotel room was enchanting, and just a very short walk from the festival.  I love the stone walls and the old, old furniture.  We had a lovely bedroom, living area, and a tiny kitchen inside a cupboard so I could make tea.  In the morning, we climbed stairs to the breakfast buffet, with a view of the surrounding countryside.  I was sad to leave, because I would have liked to explore the town a bit more, but there were places to go, and things to see.


We drove through beautiful countryside filled with small fields containing strips of colorful lettuces, radicchio, arugula, and kale.  Olive trees were everywhere as we wove our way through small villages of the adorable circular trulli houses.  Centuries ago, as soon as word that the tax man was coming, people quickly removed all the stones from their roof, gathered any valuables and headed for the hills or into another building.  No tax could be levied on a building without a roof.  As soon as the assessor moved on, the people returned and replaced the stones.  Trulli were also built in faraway fields, so shepherds and farmers had a place to stay during planting, harvest, or lambing seasons.


At one point later on, I spotted greenhouses and was delighted to find a gorgeous garden center, Euroverde vivai.  The potted olive trees (1300 euros!) were impressive. 


The array of herb varieties for so late in the season was also impressive.  I was able to purchase some summer savory seeds for my Herb of the Year display next season, and wished I could have found room in my luggage for some of the pottery.  I absolutely coveted these brilliant true-red succulents that were part of a Christmas display. 
     We drove to Martina Franca and walked around the old town area until time for our lunch reservation.  Lunch is the main meal of the day in Italy, usually eaten at one o’clock.  As usual, it began with multiple appetizers:  fava bean with chicory, grilled zucchini and eggplant, tomato bruchetta, roasted eggplant with a local cheese, and a wheat-tomato-stratzarella salad.  I had the dark pasta (sometimes called “burnt wheat” pasta) with the delicious mushrooms we’d had at the festival and it was amazing.


 Afterwards, we waddled to our car and continued a short distance to a white city on a hill, Locorotondo, for their new wine festival.  Our room for the night was even better than the previous night, with murals in the living room and above the bed.  The kitchen was stocked with pretty dishes and we had lots of windows that opened onto balconies.  Everyone else took a nap, but I found a quiet sunny spot and read.
     This town’s festival was much, much smaller.  Instead of being in a piazza around a castle, it was held in the winding, narrow streets.  The wines weren’t quite as good, and there was only one food vendor (it was included with our entry fee so we felt obliged to stand in line for our plates.)  It featured a handmade, deep-fat fried panzerotta (bread dough stuffed with cheese and a drizzle of pizza sauce in a triangle shape), three balls of deep-fat fried bread dough, and three roasted chestnuts.  Not exactly gourmet by our standards, but the locals seemed to enjoy it.  Since I normally don’t ingest deep-fat-fried anything, I tried to decline the bread balls.  The serving lady was perplexed that I didn’t want them, and insisted I take three more chestnuts in exchange.  She didn’t want me to be short-changed.  There was no concert stage, but a roving street band was quite entertaining and had fun choreography.


 After another breakfast buffet, we drove through a hilly area filled with more trulli and olive trees.  Mark has a passion for really ancient olive trees.  Those over 1,000 years old have small metal tags that designate them as national treasures, and they are tracked with satellite imaging.  Our destination was a family-operated agri-tourism farm-to-table meal.  We arrived a bit before 1, so we could enjoy the views, the horses and exotic birds.  At 1:30, we sat at red-checked cloth-covered tables with over forty other patrons, beneath a ceiling with exposed beams and walls hung with old tools and photographs.  Nearly everything we ate was grown on the farm, and prepared by the family.  Our waiter was the grandfather, who proudly brought us bottles of their own new wine, and count them…16 appetizers!  I won’t list them all, but they included 3 cheeses, delicious bread with homemade olive oil dip, a variety of bruschetta featuring their own tomatoes or walnuts, olives, fresh vegetable tray, fried artichokes, platters with a variety of cured meats, and more.  The grandfather assured us they had baked the bread and made the fresh ricotta very early that morn, and brought more wine.  


That was followed by the prima course, a varietal bean soup with a spicy red pepper oil to drizzle over the top, and a pasta with mushrooms and sausage.  Then the son brought in a whole roasted suckling pig, and we all applauded.  It was served with roasted vegetables and more homemade bread to soak up the juices, and more wine.  There was a little break while the tables were cleared by daughters and granddaughters, and some people strolled outdoors.  Soon, big bowls of fresh pears, apples, and grapes arrived, all picked from their orchard.  The pears were the best I’ve ever had.  I thought fresh fruit was the perfect dessert, but grandfather grinned and advised us to save some room.  We all doubted there was a speck of space left, but when he appeared with plates of homemade cannoli filled with a luscious crème, we found room.  The last treat was three bottles of the family’s own liqueurs:  limoncello, hazelnut, and crema, which were passed from table to table.  I had to try all three!  We finally left the table at 4:45.  The price was an incredible 28 euros per person! 


  It was already dark when we departed, returning to Bari for a quick rest before we walked five minutes to the beautiful Theatre Petrazelli for a piano concert by Kevin Orr.  It was a lovely event, in a gorgeous venue, and afterwards we strolled through the old city to the best gelato shop.  The old town was bustling with people out to enjoy the mild weather.  After a cup of lemon verbena tea (courtesy of our hotel) we had a good night’s sleep.


Our final day in Bari was packed with fun and education.  We had breakfast in our hotel and met our kids out front to go on a bicycle “rickshaw” tour of the old city.  Our guides told us about the old cathedral, the basilica, the city walls and the main piazzas.  Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of the city, and we saw the statue of St. Nicholas that Putin recently gave to the city to cement their friendship.  Italy is dependent on Russia for much of its heating oil and fuel.  We toured narrow, winding streets and stopped to visit one of the traditional “tower” homes.  On sunny days, the women put their freshly made pasta on screens outside their doors to dry in the sunshine.  One grandmother invited us in to watch her roll the pasta on a tiny dowel rod, and insisted I give it a try.  It’s not as easy as it looks.  She said I only needed decades of practice.
     After the tour, we climbed the sixty steps to see our kids’ apartment.  Alicia has done a remarkable job utilizing the space and making it far more elegant than when they arrived.  Their landlord is hoping they will leave all her improvements so he can charge the next renters more.  We had tea and sampled the traditional cookies we’d purchased from another grandmother’s house on our tour.  
     The coastal village of Torre a Mare was our choice for a seafood lunch.  We sat outdoors and enjoyed appetizers of pickled octopus, fresh ricotta, stuffed mussels, a paper-thin sliced swordfish with capers, and fried squid all served with fresh bread and little round onion-flavored crackers.  I chose the mouth-watering creamy shrimp and porcini mushroom risotto as my main course.


  After a short stroll, we returned to Bari to visit Eataly, an enormous warehouse-style grocery/restaurant that is now a 19-store chain across the globe.  We sauntered past the bakery, wine bars, classrooms, seafood department, beer store, and more.  I was delighted to find a nettle risotto mix, a Puglia cookbook I’d admired earlier, and some teas I really have to try.  I’d definitely reached my luggage limit, but I was able to stuff it all in. 
     We definitely should have scheduled more days in Italy, but we had to return to the States for Thanksgiving, and my mother’s surprise 89th birthday party.  We’re hoping we can return soon, because that region of Italy is really enchanting.
Did you know:
*There are some fun games for mobile phones that are related to gardening besides
“Farmville.” You may want to try “Tap Flower” (.99), “Tap Flower Lite” (free), or even
the highly popular “Plants vs. Zombies.”
*”Black” or “Purple” tomatoes generally have higher anti-oxidant, lycopene, and nutritional
content than red, orange, or yellow tomatoes
*America is losing 4 million urban trees per year
*America’s first “Protecting Pollinators” Conference will be held Oct. 13 & 14 in Hendersonville,
N.C.  This is an important topic, and deserves a national conference to bring together
educators, researchers, growers and farmers.

Herb to Know:  Orris Root
     It’s the time of year when I truly enjoy my German “smokers,” those little carved wood folks who blow smoke.  I lite one every evening during the holiday season to enjoy the fragrance of various incense cones that I’ve made throughout the year.  (My recipe for herbal incense is in “Herbal Choices,” the third book of the series.)  One of the crucial ingredients is powdered orris root, because it acts as a fixative to help keep the essential oils from evaporating.  For that reason, it is also essential in potpourris, pomanders, and other fragrance projects.  For incense and pomanders, the powdered root is used, but for potpourri it is better to use finely chopped orris.  Generally, any essential oil used is mixed with the orris, allowed to mellow in an airtight container away from heat or sunlight, and then added to the recipe.
    Orris root is the actual rhizome of Iris Germanica florentina.  This flower is a native of Italy, especially the Tuscan regions where it blooms in spring.  When dried the rhizome has a light vanilla scent.  I’ve grown it since the 70’s, not only for its valuable root, but because the pretty white flower with pale lavender tinges blooms earlier than tall German bearded irises.  It’s a hardy perennial for me, as long as it has decent drainage and good sunlight.  It grows about 12-14” in height, so it’s shorter than most common irises.

New Year’s Day Salsa
     Traditionally, black eye-peas are served on New Year’s Day to bring good luck to the coming year.  This is one of my favorite, and easy good luck charms!
     Drain 1 can black eye-peas. Place in mixing bowl with ½ c. chopped red onion; ½ large green pepper, diced; ¼-1/2 c. finely chopped fresh cilantro; 4 Roma tomatoes, diced; 1
fresh jalapeno pepper, very finely chopped; juice of 1 lime, salt and pepper to taste. Stir and chill or serve immediately.   This will be fairly mild, but additional hot pepper may be added if desired.

That’s it for this month.  I hope you and your family had a blessed Christmas, safe travels, memorable moments filled with love, and the fragrance of the herb garden around you.  We’ll be back with more ideas, recipes and info after the New Year! 

Holiday Hugs, Carolee