Monday, July 27, 2009

Stevia, An Herb That is Good for Your "Sweet Tooth"

When I think of summer I can’t help but think of warm evenings on the porch swing sipping an ice-cold glass of tea. Most of us make our tea nice and sweet by adding sugar or artificial sweetener to the tea brew. Yes, we even admit that sugar or that other stuff probably isn’t that good for us but sweet tea is a tradition and we can’t imagine not having it at lunch or at the next church picnic.

What if I told you there was an alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners? An herb actually that you can grow yourself called Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana). This herb is native to Paraguay with leaves that are 30 times sweeter than sugar with no calories or adverse side effects. If it sounds too good to be true, just wait...stevia also has medicinal properties that are reported to be effective in the treatment of diabetes, skin diseases, hypertension, weight loss and infections!

Plant stevia in the herb garden or in a pot in the spring after the last frost, give it plenty of sunshine and water (no need to fertilize). Plan to buy a new plant each spring or bring it in during the winter months as stevia is a tender perennial that cannot withstand our Tennessee winters. I grow stevia in a pot for the summer then drag it into the garage after I have cut it back to about 3" tall. In the Spring I bring it back out and place it in a sunny spot outside the kitchen door where it is handy to use.
Start using fresh leaves during the growing season by adding a couple of leaves (adjust to your own taste) to any pot of tea (herbal or other) and steep as usual.

In the fall, cut the plant back and hang small bouquets upside down in a well ventilated area out of direct sun or place leaves in a dehydrator. When the leaves are dry and crumble easily store them in a tightly covered jar. You may want to grow several plants if you want enough to use all winter.
To use as a sweetener add part of or a whole leaf directly into hot tea or coffee where it can steep the sweetness into the hot liquid or grind leaves in a coffee grinder to use as a powdered sweetener in place of sugar. This takes some experimenting to get the right amount of sweet since stevia is much sweeter than sugar.

Stevia can take the place in any recipe calling for sugar or artificial sweetener. For more information on this incredible herb and recipes check out

Beat the heat this summer while staying thin and healthy using your own home grown stevia to sweeten your ice cold tea...enjoy!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Never Enough Thyme

How many times have you heard that play on words? Sorry, just seemed appropriate this morning. I have been enjoying my thyme this year in the gardens. As I took a brief inventory I realized I have lots of the stuff and many varieties.

I wish I would have made more permanent markers (if there really is such a thing) when I planted all the different varieties. I don’t mean to be a collector of thymes but I never miss an opportunity to purchase or grow from seed in the greenhouse a variety I don’t have.

Thyme is a wonderful Mediterranean plant that loves sunshine and good drainage. There are hundreds of varieties with different growing habits, fragrances and flavors. Thymes have a range of bloom times and colors, ranging from white to pink to reddish and purple.

Thyme plants are broken down into two main groups - upright clumpers or ground hugging creepers.

Usually the more upright varieties are used for cooking and medicinal applications. French, English, Lemon, Mother-of-thyme are just a smattering of upright varieties. Just for fun search out some of the more unusual like Orange, Lavender, Oregano or Pink chintz.

Creeping thymes are lovely between pavers, along sidewalks or on rooftops. In England I have seen ground hugging thymes used in lawns as a substitute for grass and on stone benches in the garden. These plants are pretty tough and are fun to use where they get stepped on occasionally to release the scent into the air and make any visit to the garden a sensory pleasure. Wooly, Alba, and Red creeping thymes are some varieties to try.

Thyme is a good companion in the kitchen garden to cucumbers, cabbage and tomatoes. The strong scent helps to discourage would-be pests while calling in honey bees to help pollinate crops. It appears to inhibit powdery mildew as well. I like to use different varieties throughout my landscape to provide a long window of blooms for the bees. Thyme does well in pots, I add it to my kitchen pot gardens.

As with any woody herb, the upright varieties like to be trimmed after it blooms. Thyme often browns out in the center after it is a year or three old. Sprinkle some potting soil in the center and watch it start to leaf out again.

Thymol, which comes from thyme’s essential oil, is a strong antiseptic that is used in mouthwashes and toothpastes. Thyme tea is a wonderful expectorant when you have a cold to help loosen the chest. It has also been used for intestinal worms, urinary tract infections and to disinfect wounds.

Thyme is also a good cleanser for oil skin. It can be used in hair rinses and in the bath with oats to soften skin.

It is easy to preserve thyme for later use by cutting small bouquets just as they start to come into bloom. Hang these little bunches upside down in a well ventilated area out of direct sunlight. When dry run the stems between your fingers and thumb to strip the tiny leaves onto a paper plate. This makes it easy to pour into a jar for storage. Label and place in the cupboard for best flavor retention.

Use excess thyme in wreaths, sleep pillows, potpourri. Cut fresh for small flower arrangements or tussie mussies.

In the kitchen snip fresh thyme into salads, dressings, dips, marinades, soups, steamed vegetables (I especially love it on summer squash). It is tasty on beef and snipped fresh on chicken while grilling.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Whys of Gardening - Banana Trees

Banana Trees June of 2009 - Below, Banana Trees in June of 2008

I was sitting in my living roof cabana, this morning having a cup and jo and praising the Lord for an incredible cool, sunny, low humidity morning. As my toes nestled into the carpet of thyme beneath my feet, the scent wafted up and I got to philosophying (don’t worry I made that up) and wondering about phenomenas in the garden.

The sun was coming up in the east like it is suppose to but I naturally put my hand up to shield my eyes because I hadn’t thought to bring my sunglasses.
That got me thinking, hey wait a minute, last year on the 2nd day of June I didn’t have this problem.

I planted two hardy banana trees, Musu basjoo last April (I can remember the exact date because my daughter called as I was digging the holes to tell me her water just broke and I might want to speed it up if I was going to make it in time for the arrival of my grand daughter) on either side of the cabana to block the morning and afternoon sun.

They (banana trees) were beautiful and worked perfectly plus they added something I hadn’t counted on, sound. The incredible large leaves make a lot of noise as the summer breezes knock them about. Not annoying white noise like air conditioners but a soothing rhythmic tune that one would expect to hear on a tropical island.

Sitting in the Adirondack chairs under the cool space of the living roof gazing a the movement and reflections in the water of the pool, listening to the beat of the banana tree leaves is not the best place for a gardener to sit for very long. If you are not careful you can catch a laid-back island attitude where all you want to do is nap, snack, read and drink fruity drinks with the cute little umbrellas.

This year my hardy banana trees are a bit too short to catch the wind currents and look more like a shrub. So, why is it those same banana trees are only half the height of last year? I followed manufacturer’s instructions and cut them back to about 6” after the first hard, killing frost and tucked them in for a long winters nap with a thick cover of soil conditioner.

I was thrilled when they sprouted up in the spring like they are suppose to. (They really are hardy) They grew quickly to about 3 feet or so and quit. I put a pile of compost around them for fertilizer this spring so the spring rains could wash it down to the roots. I keep them watered when it doesn’t rain, so why aren’t they doing their job and providing shade from the east and especially west sun?

And, I was driving in a nearby neighborhood this past spring and noticed that some folks had planted banana trees at the end of their drive and it looked to me like they had either never cut them back or they cut them at the point where the leaves formed. Well, they apparently don’t know anything about banana tree maintenance I thought.

Okay, so maybe I’m not as smart as I thought (I hate that) because while I thought I was doing everything correctly my trees are puny while their trees are tall and lush (yes, I drove back by recently to check it out). I think I’m going to hit them hard with Monty’s Joy Juice and see if they will shoot up before the dog days of summer set in…and you can bet I’m not cutting them to the ground this fall, I’ll take my chances and see if that will work better for next year. Feel free to lend advice.