Patio Herbs, Spices, Peppers, and Tomatoes – Part 2, by MonkeyMan

(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the article.)

Thyme – unknown plants

About three years ago, while my son was in college for forestry he would bring me leftover plants from the horticulture department. The horticulture departments from the local schools around you are an untapped goldmine of inexpensive, quality grown plants of all types. I encourage you to explore the markets these departments put on each year. I have two different types of thyme. I do not know the history of the plants. They each have a different look and taste. The seeds from these plants are so small I just let them fall back into the pot. They are nice size small bushes and produce good quantities of dried thyme. I mix the two together; I have not yet explored having different types and quantities of each herb. I am more interested in replacing the herbs and spices we purchase from the store. I have yet to see any new volunteers from these plants; the bushes just keep growing after each yearly trim. No pests that I have noticed. Both plants were unprotected during the freeze and both plants made it through fine.

Oregano – purchased plants

The oregano plant is in a large pot north side of the house. It is in full shade, but does just fine. Every spring it puts out long shoots of leaves that I cut off and place in The Dryer. This is another plant that takes a long time to dry. Each fall it goes to seed and I loop the seed shoots to remain in the pot. As far as I can tell, this is the same plant I purchased and there have been no volunteers spring up. It dies off a little each year, but comes back strong. No pests that I have noticed. Unprotected during the freeze and died off, but came back stronger than ever. It will be a good year for oregano.

Tarragon – purchased plant

This plant, so far, acts the exact same way as the oregano plant. It is on the north side, it puts out long shoots of leaves that go into The Dryer. This plant makes very nice yellow flowers each fall which I direct back into the pot. There have been no volunteers, yet. This plant will die all the way back each winter, but new shoots come out of the root ball each spring. It is six years old. No pests that I have noticed. It was unprotected during the freeze and it completely died.

Sweet Marjoram – unknown and purchased plants

I do not know why they call it “sweet” as it is a very pungent herb. I have pots on the patio and on the north side of the house. I have purchased some plants and have some that were gifts from my son. I get plenty of dried produce from the plants. These work the same as the Thyme and Oregano. The seeds are very small and I attempt to get volunteers from them by directing the seed stalks to stay over/in the pot. I have not had any volunteers from these plants, so I suspect they are not heirloom. On occasion, a whole plant will just die. When a plant dies, I re-work the soil in the pot and take one of the other plants and split it into two plants and replant it. This way I keep the Marjoram supply ongoing. All marjoram was unprotected and all of it died.

Italian Seasoning

Why do I grow all these different herbs? The bureaucratic mandated labeling on store-bought items is loaded with unique definitions of words, workarounds, and elaborate methods for following the letter of the law, but not the spirit. The labels are “true” and “correct”, but they are not listing exactly everything that is in the jar. Knowing exactly how my family’s herbs are grown and what is on them other than what is mixed in with the rain gives me some peace about what I am eating. Apologies, I digress, the only REAL reason to grow all this is Italian Seasoning. We use this seasoning a lot, in many different recipes. Use equal measurements (weight or volume) of Marjoram, Basil, Oregano, Thyme, Rosemary, Sage, Cilantro, and a little (10%-25%) of the finer green onion crumbles. I mix it all up in a large bowl and put it in a large jar that I use to keep the small jar in the kitchen full. It is a constant refilling activity.

Parsley – purchased plant

I have one parsley plant about five years old. It has created a carrot-looking white root that sticks up above the dirt and just keeps producing parsley leaves. One year it was attacked by caterpillars. I was curious so I let them eat the whole plant and I mean they ate the whole plant. There were tens of them. It turned out they matured to black swallowtail butterflies. The parsley plant lived and continued to grow after the butterflies left. I cut the leaves off in the summer months and dry some and I freeze some, but most is used freshly cut for pesto, salads, and soups. It was unprotected during the freeze and completely died.

Dill – heirloom plants

When planting basil, I will get tens of plants in a single pot and they all grow strong and large. When planting dill, doing it the same way as I do basil, many plants will sprout, but I only end up with one to three plants in each pot. I think they don’t like each other. However, that one plant will grow into a nice-sized dill plant. I will chop off fresh leaves for pickles and other canning recipes. Fresh dill is strong and it only takes a little to “make” dill pickles. I have “over-dilled” my pickles. It takes me a while to eat all the “over-dilled” pickles. No one else will eat them. Old Man Wisdom; do not over dill your pickles or you will have dill “puckles”. Dill also goes into The Dryer. Dried dill is very fine and I have to be careful to gently get the dried dill into the strainer for processing into the jar. One pot of dill was moved into the main house and did fine, the other was unprotected and died, but volunteer plants sprouted in that pot in the spring.

Peppers in General

Every pepper plant we owned froze to death during last year’s big freeze. As an adaptation to this, we put all the new pepper plants into 5 gallon buckets. We get the buckets from all over: Big box stores, restaurants, garage sales. We drilled holes in the bottom, filled them with dirt, and planted the peppers. We keep them in various locations around the patio. I have read that pepper plants do not like to get their leaves wet. We strategically place them in full sun but under the patio. They seem to like it. Every time there is a threat of freeze I trim the plants back and move the buckets into the house. We now have very robust pepper plants that, hopefully, shall live for many, many years.

Cayenne Pepper – purchased plants

This plant lives through anything but a very hard freeze. I lose it to the freeze about every three or four years. (It is now in a 5 gallon bucket) It is also susceptible to white bugs under the leaves. In addition to the upside-down hose spraying, I have started using a spray made from three drops each of peppermint and rosemary essential oils mixed with two drops liquid soap in a tall shot glass of 70% isopropyl alcohol poured into a medium spray bottle with filled with water. In the meantime, it produces uncountable quantities of bright red cayenne peppers. I harvest four or five times each season, filling a whole rack each time in The Dryer. I cut the tops off each pepper and place them in The Dryer.

[Sarcasm On.] While cutting up the peppers get the juice from the pepper all over your fingers and make sure you put your fingers in your mouth, ears, eyes, and nose. Not in that particular order, though. Your sinuses will explode and you will be clear and clean for days. [Sarcasm Off.] Actually, please, Please, PLEASE be careful when handling hot peppers. Cayenne isn’t so bad, but some of the others listed below are, in my opinion, dangerously hot. I treat all peppers with a great amount of respect. They take a very, very long time to dry. When they are dry, they are still bright red. I grind them up in a dedicated electric coffee grinder, seeds and all. Wait a good amount of time before you take the top off the grinder or you will “pepper spray” yourself with powdered pepper dust and everything I talked about above will come true instantaneously with the addition of throat pain if you accidently take a deep breath at the same time as removing the grinder cover. This hurts really badly. I know, I have done it more than once I am ashamed to confess; More Old Man Wisdom. The resulting powdered Red Pepper goes into the jar for use in the kitchen. Every now and then I have to get a knife and stir it up a little, because it cakes and settles a little, but it frees up nicely and turns back into a nice consistency.

Jalapeno Pepper – purchased and heirloom plants

I maintain a love-hate relationship with jalapenos. I love the flavor and it is the right amount of heat. I tend to grow too many pots of jalapenos. One year, in December, right before a freeze, I harvested every jalapeno on the patio. I had so many I began to pickle them and can them in 32oz mason jars using my cucumber pickle recipe. I ended up with over 30 jars of pickled jalapenos. They were delicious and my brothers and I ate them for years. Chopping, cooking, and canning that many jalapenos prevented anyone from going in to kitchen for two days. It was rough, I had fans blowing, it was cold because of the freeze, the doors and windows were open and still it was sinus awakening and tear-jerking. Since then, I keep one or two plants and just go and get one when I need it. I also chop them up finely and give them the green onion treatment. Just break off a little frozen section in the bag and dump it on your food.

Bell and Banana Peppers – purchased and heirloom plants

My experience with these peppers is random and chaotic at best. Sometimes they do great and we end up with many peppers. Other times the peppers are black and have a “cooked like” section on one side and unripe on the other or they do not produce at all, just a big pepper plant with no peppers, argh. The sweet or hot banana peppers that I do manage to get are so good I just cut them up and eat them on my food or with hummus. The bell peppers I have chopped up and frozen for cooking and eating straight off the plant. Recently, I was successful in drying bell peppers. These peppers are so juicy they do not dry well using my method. I attempted to make paprika out of the dried bell peppers, but it did not taste the same as paprika. Does anyone have a recipe with the exact types of peppers to dry to create paprika? I thought it was dried, ground bell peppers, but apparently it is not. The 5 gallon bucket method, location of the plants, and saving them from the freeze so they can get old have dramatically increased my Bell Pepper production.

Ghost, Mad Hatter Pepper – unknown plants

I like some heat in my peppers and on my food when I chose. A friend bequeathed me his collection of Ghost peppers and Mad Hatter peppers. These peppers are so hot, to me, that I struggle to taste the actual flavor. I add one or two dried peppers to my dried Red Cayenne Pepper mix. I create vinegar or olive oil concoctions with garlic, spices, and a few of the peppers for a garnishment or a sauce. Most just end up in the garden to attempt ward off the dogs and animals. They are just too hot for me.

Tabasco Peppers

I have begun to experiment with this pepper to replace the sauce in the small jar you get at restaurants and grocery stores. I pick them, cut off the top and put the whole pepper in the blender with vinegar. Then I strain the juice into the jar. It is close but not exactly there yet. Maybe I am missing the special un-named chemicals added to the commercial product. The strainings are dried and added to a Tabasco flavored version of the Red Cayenne Pepper.

Mints – purchased and heirloom plants

Spearmint, peppermint, regular mint (we call it “mint mint”), orange peppermint, apple spearmint, pineapple mint, chocolate peppermint, what fun! We keep finding new and wonderful varieties of mint. While we do grab some and just eat it as we go along, most is dried, crumbled and used for a nice cup of tea at the end of the day. The mint production has overwhelmed The Dryer to the point that I just cut and wash and place the mint on towels around the house until it has reduced in size to be able to fit in The Dryer to finish. The freeze randomly affected the mint plants, with some coming back and some having to be replaced. Not sure why, or if some came back from seeds that fell during the season.

Tomatoes – purchased and heirloom plants

We have too many varieties to go into each one. However, we have learned lessons about tomatoes in general which might be helpful to pass along. Our tomatoes are both in the ground and in 5 gallon buckets. The bucket tomatoes are cut back and are bought inside before each freeze while the in-ground are cut back and covered. The in-ground tomatoes freeze randomly, some do, and some don’t. Those giant green caterpillars are the worst pest on this plant. We look for signs and just pick them off one at a time. Nothing else seems to work. We feed them to our chickens (not so bad) or just squish them. (The grossest bug ever) The other pest that has just recently arrived on our tomatoes is Stink Bugs. These are devastating to the actual tomato as opposed to eating the plant itself, like the caterpillars. We are still trying to figure these bugs out. Hose them off, Neem Oil, Thieves Spray – not actually working. We have also removed debris from around the area in case it was a habitat for them. Waxing eloquent on the flavor of homegrown tomatoes versus store-bought tomatoes on this community is wasted words. However, The Admiral’s tomato gravy recipe handed down generations is beyond words.

Carrots – heirloom plants

I place a few carrots seeds in each large pot with a pepper plant or a tomato plant. It is fun to watch your grandchildren pull a big ole orange carrot out of a pot of dirt. Just keep an eye on the kids or they will pull all the carrots out in one day looking for the “Big ole Carrot”.

Green Beans – heirloom plants

This is another plant I sneak into various pots and planters around the patio. I use both bush and pole-type varieties. The grandkids have caught on to the Gramps hidden green bean agenda and seek them out to eat all of them off the plant. Like a game, the sly look you get when they find one covered in green beans and slowly reach their hand out, questioning if it is ok, to eat them. These are magical, rare, priceless moments.

In the future and in Conclusion

I plan to experiment with other spices and herbs we use regularly. For example: Medium-sized pots on large-ish wheels that can be easily moved into and out of the house depending on the weather. Can I grow a Bay Leaf tree?, a nutmeg tree?, a small cinnamon tree?, a peppercorn tree? Is there a salt tree, a salt bush, a salt shrub, a salt herb, a salt root, a salt anything!? These ideas quickly come to mind along with so many others. I also want to explore growing the larger root-type plants, especially horseradish and ginger.

Plants are location-specific creations. Various location-specific topics, if any, in this article will apply differently to each reader. We have created the space to be easy to tend. We usually putter around the patio while visiting in the evening or while dinner is cooking on the grill. The underlying thought that propelled me to write this up is that there are many different ways to increase the enjoyment of your particular spaces while providing some of the items you use every single day. Each space and location is unique, but all share the ability to be used to provide while being enjoyed.

Editor’s Closing Note: We will also be posting this author’s Dirty Rice recipe, next Monday.