herbs


There are many historic garden sites in Connecticut which can be seen on the annual Connecticut Historic Gardens Day on Sunday, June 23rd, 2019 from 12:00 noon to 4:00 p.m. From the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme to the Roseland Cottage in Woodstock there is one near you. Of the several that are located in Hartford County, one of particular note is the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center historic garden, home to the late author in the last 23 years of her life, located at Nook Farm on Forest Street in Hartford.

Harriet Beecher was born in 1811 in Litchfield, CT, the daughter of a prominent Congregational minister, the Reverend Lyman Beecher. Harriet married Calvin Ellis Stowe, an ardent anti-slavery proponent, in 1836 in Cincinnati, Ohio. While in Ohio, Harriet and her husband supported the Underground Railroad, actually housing several fugitive slaves temporarily in their home. Cincinnati is located on the northern side of the Ohio River, just opposite the then-slave state of Kentucky, making it a popular stop on the Underground Railroad. These circumstances led to Harriet writing the novel for which she is the most remembered, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, although she wrote more than 10 other novels, a book of poetry, and many works of non-fiction.

Frontispiece engraving of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (Boston John P. Jewett, 1853).Frontispiece engraving of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston John P. Jewett, 1853).

Do you remember that Uncle Tom was a man who kept a good garden with fruits, vegetables, begonias, roses, marigolds, petunias, and four-o’clocks? Here is an excerpt from the book: In front it had a neat garden-patch, where, every summer, strawberries, raspberries, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, flourished under careful tending. The whole front of it was covered by a large scarlet bignonia and a native multiflora rose, which, entwisting and interlacing, left scarce a vestige of the rough logs to be seen. Here, also, in summer, various brilliant annuals, such as marigolds, petunias, four-o’clocks, found an indulgent corner in which to unfold their splendors, and were the delight and pride of Aunt Chloe’s heart.

cabin Image by Charles Howland Hammatt Billings (1818-1874) for the expanded 1853 edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In 1873, Harriet and her husband Calvin purchased and moved into a 5000 square foot painted brick Victorian Gothic ‘cottage’ at Nook Farm. Her fellow author, Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, moved in next door a year later. Harriet would spend the last 23 years of her life at Nook Farm. Also part of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center is the home owned by Harriet’s great-niece, Katharine Seymour Day.

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Harriet was an enthusiastic flower gardener and her passion was shared by her great-niece. The gardens around the homes reflect their fondness for and knowledge of the plantings of the Victorian era. Nook Farm contains eight distinct gardens including the woodland garden, the blue cottage garden, the wildflower meadow, a high Victorian texture garden, antique rose garden with award winning roses, formal color-coordinated or monochromatic gardens, and more.

The site includes Connecticut’s largest Merrill magnolia tree, a specimen that towers over and dominates the landscape. It blooms in early spring and had unfortunately gone by when we were there in early June so that we missed its large, fragrant, white blooms. However, the Collections Manager at the Center was kind enough to send this great image of the tree in full bloom as well as one of the Stowe dogwood which had also already bloomed.

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Merrill Magnolia image courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT

The 100-year or older Harriet Beecher Stowe Dogwood™, Cornus Florida rubra, is believed to be from Stowe’s time, and saplings grown from cuttings are planted from Canada to Japan and even at Harriet’s home in Cincinnati.

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The Harriet Beecher Stowe Dogwood image courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT

In the Victorian era the dogwood symbolized endurance and sprigs were presented to unmarried women by male suitors to show interest. Should the woman return it to the suitor it meant that she was indifferent to him, if she kept it was a sign of mutual interest, the 19th century equivalent of “swiping right”.

It is fitting that these saplings are finding homes outside of Connecticut as Harriet was a proponent of trading plants with family and friends, bringing cuttings and seeds with her when she moved to a new home, and pressing blossoms into sketchbooks, a common practice during the Victoria era.

Pansies

Harriet’s gardens gave her ample opportunity to paint out of doors, a practice known as en plein air, with other local artists. Thematic and single-color gardens provided inspiration to artists then and they still do. Shade areas are filled in with hosta, Solomon’s seal, and meadow anemone, all in cool greens and whites.

Just a bit further down the walk are white-themed peonies, iris, rose, and bridal-wreath spirea.

Two plants are listed in the self-guided tour but were not in evidence as we strolled the grounds: the Elephant ears and the castor bean plants. Elephant ears have dramatic foliage that can measure up to 2 feet across can grow in sun if they get some afternoon cover or shade.

The castor bean, Ricinus communis, is a highly toxic annual herb and as such, may seem like an odd choice for a garden that receives so many visitors. Reaching a height of 8 feet, it can tower over every other annual in the garden with its reddish-purple stems, large, palmate, lobed leaves, and red, prickly fruit capsules. It is within these unusual fruits that the toxic part of the castor bean lies. The seeds contain ricin, a phytotoxalbumin which can cause a fatal reaction. In fact, the broken seeds can cause a severe allergic reaction just by coming into contact with the skin. After all of that you wouldn’t think that anyone would want a castor bean plant around but it is called an ornamental annual. And yet, once it has been heated during extraction, the toxicity is deactivated and the castor oil is used in a variety of coatings, lubricants, and medicines. The image below is by Dawn Pettinelli but is not from the Harriet Beecher Stowe gardens.Castor Bean SB07

Roses are in evidence throughout but it is the lined drive with its hedges of lovely fragrant roses that is just stunning.

Here is a video tour of the rose hedges:

The side garden of the Katharine Seymour Day house has a romantic Victorian garden that boasts peonies, roses, and moth mullein with its vintage dusty peach shades.

Behind the Day house are massive examples of mountain laurel, rhododendrons and a pawpaw tree. A National Champion tree, the common pawpaw, Asimina triloba, is a native deciduous tree that produces an edible fruit with a banana-like taste leading to it also being known as the West Virginia banana or the Custard apple.

As we walked around we could also see the home of Mark Twain and I couldn’t resist a peak at the conservatory, my favorite room there.

Should you choose to visit any of the gardens on the historic tour please visit their website: Connecticut Historic Gardens.

Susan Pelton. UConn Home & Garden Education Center

 

‘Plant a little mint, Madame, then step out of the way so you don’t get hurt!’

anonymous British gardener

Spring is the time when we look forward to putting aside our heavy winter clothing for spring jackets and hearty soups and stews for lighter fare. The first foods that are produced in our gardens in the spring are usually greens such as lettuces and spinach, asparagus, green onions, and peas. And there is no better complement to peas and green onions than mint.

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Mint (Mentha) is a fast-growing, aromatic, perennial herb with opposite, toothed leaves, and stems that are square in cross-section. Most varieties reach 1-3’ in height. It prefers a moist but well-drained soil in a neutral pH. Mint can be started indoors from seed or sown outdoors once the ground has warmed and like all seeds, they must be kept moist until they germinate. Choosing to buy seedlings or larger plants will bring a quicker harvest, and I find that I like being able to break off and crush a leaf to see what the mint variety will smell and taste like.

Mint can run rampant over your garden, spreading through underground runners called stolons, and should be either placed where this habit will not be a problem or contained by annual division in the spring.  When I was a novice gardener (and a very green one at that) some 35 years ago, I made the mistake of planting mint in our garden. It took several years to eradicate the mint that threatened to overtake the bed. If you do want to plant mint in the ground, one option is to plant it in a bottomless five-gallon bucket sunk into the ground with only the top couple of inches peeking out.

Growing mint in containers or hanging baskets solves the problem of mint taking over. Container herbs will require more moisture than garden-grown herbs and may benefit from late afternoon shade. And containers can be brought in for the winter. I have had mine in a sunny window since last October and it is still doing well. Below is an image of mint planted amid eggplant in a container.

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Chocolate mint in flowerFresh leaves should be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. Only remove about one-third of the foliage at each harvest. Early morning is best to ensure that the oils are not dried out from the sun. To dry herbs for winter use, the leaves should be harvested prior to flower buds opening. Pinching off leaves will help the plants to fill out. Any mint that is allowed to go to flower will attract a wide variety of pollinators with its white, pale pink, or pale purple blossoms. The image on the right is chocolate mint in flower (image from the NCCD Plant Sale site)

 

True mint varieties are known to cross pollinate with other types of mint when planted within close proximity. This can result in characteristics from different mint types to appear in one plant, leading to unfavorable scents or flavors. There are between 20-25 species of mint in the Mentha genus depending on the source: the following are some of my personal favorites.

Chocolate mint

 

Chocolate mint, Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate’, is my top choice, with its brownish-red stems and brown tinged serrated leaves. It is a cultivar of peppermint (which itself is a hybrid of watermint and spearmint) and prefers full sun. I’ve heard the smell and taste compared to an Andes Chocolate Mint, an apt description.

 

 

 

Mint' Spearmint' 2

 

Spearmint, Mentha spicata, also known as common or garden mint, prefers partial shade and a neutral pH. Like all commercial mints, it is sterile and can only be propagated through cuttings.

 

 

 

Mint 'Peppermint'

 

 

Peppermint, Mentha piperita, does not tolerate dry conditions as it is native to stream beds. Black peppermint has deep purple-green leaves and stems and a higher oil content while the white is actually light green and has a milder flavor. It is often used as a digestion aid.

 

 

 

Pineapple mintPineapple mint, Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’, has a lovely, light pineapple scent. As its Latin name suggests the pineapple mint has white-margined, bumpy, hairy, variegated leaves making it a visually interesting addition to any container. It is the variegated cultivar of apple mint, Mentha suaveolens. Sprigs of the unvariegated apple mint may occasionally appear among pineapple mint and should be pinched out. This is called reversion and happens when the less vigorous variegated specimens return to the original sturdier form, due to less chlorophyll being produced by the light sections of their leaves. Grow in full sun for upright plants or partial shade for a sprawling cover. Image by the U of Florida.

 

mint 'Apple'

 

Apple mint, Mentha suaveolens, has woolly, square stems and leaves that are a bit hairy on top and woolly below. It has a very faint, apple-like taste if the leaves are crushed so it is a subtle addition to fruit salads or in drinks.

 

 

 

 

Mint 'Orange' 2

 

 

Orange mint, Mentha x piperita citrata, can reach up to 2 feet in height. It will bloom in the late-spring into summer with lovely small violet flowers.

 

 

 

Some other varieties of mint that I saw recently included a strawberry mint (below, left) that has a fresh strawberry flavor and mint ‘Mojito’ (below, right), with a touch of citrus.

Mint leaves make a delicious addition to beverages such as lemonade, seltzer, or even iced water. Mint ‘tea’ is not a true tea, which must be made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis, but in fact a tisane, an infusion made by steeping leaves in hot water. Whether the leaves are fresh or dried, a mint tisane makes a refreshing hot or iced beverage.

When used in culinary dishes, mint can liven up any recipe. As it is native to the Mediterranean it is a common ingredient in many cultures. Greek cuisine uses mint in many dishes. Tzatziki is a sauce made from Greek yogurt, cucumber, garlic, lemon juice, chopped mint and salt.

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Its Indian cousin, raita, uses the same ingredients except for the garlic to create a cool sauce to offset the heat of Indian curries. Another Greek dish, tabbouleh, is a great summertime favorite with our family. Usually made with bulgur wheat, I use quinoa as the base grain, and then toss this cold salad with chopped plum tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, and fresh mint. Olive oil, lemon juice, and salt finish off this refreshing cold salad.

 

peas_4_3021757467I have also used fresh mint leaves in homemade strawberry jam, adding the clean, chopped leaves just before ladling the mixture into sterilized jars and putting them into a hot water bath for 10 minutes. A very British spring dish is fresh peas with mint where a sliced scallion is sautéed in butter, then fresh, shelled peas are added along with a pinch of salt, and just enough water to barely cover them. After 2 minutes on a high heat add a small handful of torn mint leaves and cook until the peas are tender. Fresh sugar snap peas can be used in place of the shelled peas.

Some benefits to growing mint are that deer rarely eat it and as an essential oil it can be used to control mites and mosquito larvae or as a repellent to rabbits, dogs, and cats. Even more beneficial is how well it pairs with chocolate! Its no surprise that mint is a symbol of warm feelings, virtue, and eternal refreshment.

Susan Pelton

All images by S. Pelton unless otherwise noted.