The GardenZeus Quick and Easy Guide to Thyme Species Used for Cooking

Thyme is a small group of perennials with tiny leaves and masses of small flowers. The majority of thyme species used for cooking are small, fairly upright plants. Thyme species popular for use as ground covers typically grow in a flat, spreading form. Species that are used as ground covers often have less desirable flavors for cooking. Thyme species used for cooking are generally make excellent container plants.

The most common species of thyme, Thymus vulgaris, or Common Thyme, generally has small grey-green leaves, with white, pink, or lilac flowers that blossom in late spring. GardenZeus highly recommends  the variety French Thyme for cooking: it has attractive grey-green leaves with a subtle flavor. The varieties Summer Thyme and English Thyme are also used for cooking.

Common Thyme

Common Thyme

 

Hi Ho Silver (Thymus argentus)is attractive thyme with silver leaves, strong white variegation and pink blooms.

Lemon Thyme (Thymus citriodorus) pairs particularly well with chicken or fish and has an upright growth pattern.  Lemon Thyme makes an excellent addition to vegetable, herb and edible gardens when used with plants with similar cultural requirements. Variegata is a variegated Citrus Thyme. Aureus is a Citrus Thyme splashed with gold.

Lemon Thyme

Lemon Thyme

 

Variegata

Variegata

 

Several species of low-growing thyme are used for landscaping but not recommended for cooking: Silver Needle Thyme (Thymus cherierioides); Creeping Thyme (Thymus polytrichus britannicus and Thymus praecox arcticus); and Wooly Thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus).

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The GardenZeus Quick and Easy Guide to Mint Species

Numerous species of the genus Mentha are  appropriate for use as a culinary herb, with an array of fruity, spicy, or subtly floral flavors.  Some varieties have unusually colored leaves, including light yellow or variegated. When choosing mint, select a species that suits your culinary needs as well as your visual preference. Many varieties are hybrids. Beware: all these recommended species can easily spread themselves around your garden by way of underground stems.

GardenZeus recommends Spearmint (Mentha spicata), one of the most common species of mint, as the “go-to” mint, ideal for almost all culinary uses, such as in fresh salads, meat dishes and cocktails. Spearmint has light green, serrated leaves. Absent any other information or instruction, when a recipe calls for “fresh mint leaves,” use spearmint.

Spearmint

Spearmint

 

Alternatively, Peppermint (Mentha piperata) has the most pronounced flavor. GardenZeus recommends Peppermint  to flavor candies, desserts, and toiletries. Sub-varieties of Peppermint  include Orange Mint and Chocolate Mint. Orange Mint has a slightly citrus flavor. Chocolate Mint is reminiscent of chocolate mint ice cream and known to be more tolerant of dry soils and hot weather than other mints. It has a slightly bluer leaf. GardenZeus recommends using these sub-varieties sparingly and substituting them in recipes with extreme caution. The unique flavors of these sub-varieties may be intriguing in isolation, but may not blend well into existing recipes.

Peppermint

Peppermint

 

Chocolate Mint

Chocolate Mint

 

Apple Mint (Mentha suaveolens) is growing in popularity, and produces rounder, fruity scented, smaller leaves that are slightly hairy. One notable sub-variety is pineapple mint, Variegata’ a beautiful yellow and green variegated plant with a slight pineapple scent. Golden Apple Mint (Mentha gracilis) has dark green leaves with yellow variegation and spicy fragrance. Also known as ginger mint. Again, GardenZeus recommends using  these mints sparingly and substitute with caution.

Apple Mint

Apple Mint

 

For extremely wet, poorly draining areas, consider Mentha aquatica, a type of mint that thrives when grown in standing water. In its native habitat, it grows in shallow areas of streams or marshlands across Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Both Jewel Mint of Corsica (Mentha requienii) and Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) are used in landscaping but not for culinary use.

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Sage in the Mediterranean Garden

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GardenZeus Quick Tips: Problems and Non-Problems with Chard

Chard is a relatively easy vegetable that offers abundant yields, and is one of the most consistently productive greens during warm weather. A potentially long-lived biennial, especially in seasonally mild areas of California, some varieties of chard can be harvested continually for 1 to 2 years after reaching maturity and before bolting. Chard is grown as an annual in cold-winter and extremely-hot-summer California areas.

Common Problems:

Bolting: Bolting is most common in chard after frosts, hot weather, or periods of soil dryness. Try cutting off flower stalks to extend harvest of leaves by 10 days to several weeks.

Chard is also frequently prone to chlorosis, nitrogen deficiency, and shallow rooting. See The GardenZeus Guide to What Commonly Goes Wrong with Vegetable Plants in California Gardens for information about these and other common issues that may affect your chard.

Not Necessarily a Problem:

Garden pests: Chard is a favorite of many garden pests, especially when leaves are young and tender. You may find that chard leaves tend to be mildly-to-severely bug-eaten by the time you’re ready to harvest, especially during warm-to-hot weather. For GardenZeus expert Darren Butler’s meditation about eating leaves that are preapproved by gastropods and the insect kingdom see How Squeamish Are You About Bugbitten Greens?

Don’t know your GardenZeus zone? Click here.

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Advanced Tips for Growing Chard Over Winter With Minimal Effort

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GardenZeus Quick Tips: Growing Winter Zucchini in Mild California Areas

Zucchini is an annual, warm-season vegetable in the Cucurbitaceae family grown in most areas from spring through summer. Advanced gardeners who have had consistent success growing zucchini over summer can consider growing zucchini from late summer through to spring in warm winter areas without frost, such as along the Southern California coast. Zucchini but may grow during this period, but may yield slowly when temperatures are below 60°F, and may be susceptible to pests and diseases during cold, wet weather.

For growing from late summer through spring, be sure to plant in an area that receives full sun throughout the winter. The other critical element in growing zucchini over winter is choosing an appropriate variety. Try Sure Thing, a parthenocarpic hybrid that produces fruit reliably during cool weather and without pollination. Other cold-tolerant hybrid varieties include Zucchini Elite and Paycheck.

To view customized information for growing zucchini in your area, go to GardenZeus and enter your zip code, then go to zucchini.

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Growing Summer Squash (Including Zucchini) in the California Home Garden

 

GardenZeus Recommendations for Edible Sage

The discerning gardener can choose from a variety of sage plants based on appearance, suitability for a given microclimate, and flavor.

Salvia officinalis, or common sage, is a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae and the genus, salvia. Many think all salvias are drought tolerant, but the salvia genus includes many perennials that require significant water.  As a Mediterranean native perennial, common sage is a drought tolerant, low maintenance plant frequently used in landscapes for its attractive appearance and culinary value.

Common sage plants typically grow from 1 to 3 feet in height and almost as wide, sport silvery grey- green oblong leaves and exude  light pine scent. Older plants often become leggy.

GardenZeus recommends the following additional varieties of common sage with grey, purple, yellow or variegated leaves, including:

Berggarten. With it strong, bold flavor, Berggarten is the variety of choice for chefs. It performs well in alkaline soils common to many parts of California.  It has round, dense grey leaves, is longer-lived and is less sensitive to cold temperatures compared to other varieties. To 16 inches high.

 

Common grey-green sage

Common grey-green sage

Other varieties of Salvia officinalis tend to be less hardy and more sensitive to poorly draining soils. Leaves develop the strongest color in bright, direct sun. Golden types have very mild flavor. Grow these varieties for their appearance in the garden or on a serving platter, but not for optimal flavor in cooking:

Aurea is a variegated sage with light green leaves with gold edges.

Icterina has grey-green leaves and a yellow border.

A variety of yellow sage

A variety of yellow sage

Purpurascens is a beautiful purple sage with purple to violet leaves that mature to grey-green.

Purple sage

 

Tricolor sage has grey green leaves with an irregular cream border; new growth is light purple.

Tricolor sage

Tricolor sage

 

Though somewhat similar in appearance to the grey common sage plants, Salvia aplana, California White Sage, is a large California native plant and herb that has been used by Native Americans used for incense, but not eating.

Don’t know your GardenZeus zone? Click here.

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Sage in the Mediterranean Garden

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GardenZeus Quick Tips: Pollination Issues with Zucchini and other Summer Squash

Summer squash, including zucchini, are monoecious, meaning that a single plant produces both male and female flowers. Pollination is critical for squash plants to produce fruit.

It is normal for the first few blooms to fall off a squash plant. Early squash flowers are usually all male; no fruits will form from these flowers. If flowers continue falling off without forming fruit, or established plants drop female flowers and fail to form fruit, lack of pollination is usually the cause.

“Male
Male zucchini flower
“Female
Female zucchini flower

Male and female squash flowers are easily recognized with close observation. Male flowers tend to be on longer stems, and have only a stem at the base of the flower, while female flowers have a tiny immature fruit, which technically is the ovary, between the base of the flower and a shorter stem. Gardeners often assume the wrong gender for zucchini blooms. As GardenZeus expert Darren Butler has bravely clarified many times over the years, with zucchini blooms, unlike with humans, the flower with the tube is the girl.


Recognizing the gender of squash flowers is important because generally it’s best to harvest the male flowers for cooking and eating, as they will never produce fruits; and also so that you will not become overly concerned if male flowers drop without forming fruits. Male squash flowers are often produced at a rate of 3 to 4 times the number of female flowers. Leave at least one male flower for every 2 to 4 female flowers to allow for pollination, and otherwise harvest and eat many to most of the male flowers.

“Zucchini
Harvested zucchini flowers
“Bee
Bee pollinating zucchini blossom

If female flowers or small fruit drop without maturing, you likely have a pollination problem; this is where the “bees” part of a zucchini birds-and-the-bees lesson comes in. Bees are primary pollinators for squash in home gardens; if you have a low or nonexistent bee population, you may have minimal yield with squash. Encourage bees by planting borage, nasturtium, rosemary, oregano, and other bee-attracting herbs and plants. It has been Darren Butler’s experience that squash blooms alone are not always a strong attraction for bees, but if they’re in the area collecting pollen and nectar from other flowers, bees will gladly pollinate squash.


If you’ve had low yields as a result of poor pollination when growing zucchini, try the zucchini variety Sure Thing, a parthenocarpic hybrid that produces fruit without pollination. For most varieties, if unable to attract bees or other pollinators, you may need to pollinate squash by hand. Use a small paintbrush to transfer pollen, or pick male flowers and rub the stamens onto the pistils of female flowers.

Zucchini will cross readily with most varieties of summer squash (Cucurbita pepo). Long distances between different summer-squash varieties or isolation is required to save seeds that remain true-to-variety across multiple plant generations. In the home garden, this is often accomplished by tying off flowers and hand-pollinating.

Don’t know your GardenZeus climate zone? Click here.

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Growing Summer Squash (Including Zucchini) in the California Home Garden

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GardenZeus Quick Tips: Diagnosing Common Problems with Pole Bean

Blossom drop: Bean plants will drop blossoms due to low humidity, excessive smog or air pollution, dry soil or unevening water, wind, excessive soil nitrogen, daily or consistent high temperatures above 85°F, heat waves above 90°F, and cold and/or wet weather.

Flowering without setting pods: This may be caused by poor pollination/lack of pollinators, zinc deficiency, dry soil, inconsistent watering, excessive soil nitrogen, or high temperatures.

Low yield: Overly wet soil, dry soil, or infertile soil may result in slow-growing or stunted plants and low yields. Bean plants produce fewer or no new pods while maturing existing pods; harvests of snap beans may be greatly reduced if if bean pods are allowed to mature.

Deformed pods: May be the result of lack of moisture, poor soil fertility, or insect damage during blooming.

Tough or fibrous bean pod: This occurs naturally as pods mature and most commonly is the result of pods being left unharvested on the plant for too long. It may also be caused by warm or hot temperatures during pod set.

Don’t know your GardenZeus climate zone? Click here.

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5 Tips for Using and Storing Green Beans

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Sage in the Mediterranean Garden

As a Mediterranean native, sage has similar cultural needs to thyme, rosemary and lavender and makes an excellent addition to a sustainable, drought tolerant or edible garden.  Sage is a perennial grown for both its attractive appearance and its value in cooking, When mature, it is a low maintenance plant that comes in a range of varieties from common sage with broad grey-green leaves and piney scent to purple, yellow and variegated varieties.

A variety of variegated sage

A variety of variegated sage

 

A variety of yellow, variegated sage

A variety of yellow, variegated sage

 

A variety of purple sage

A variety of purple sage

 

Sage prefers full sun in moderate to warm climates, but does not enjoy the extreme heat of particularly hot inland valleys, where it will be happier with some afternoon shade. Beware that when given too much shade, sage becomes leggy and unattractive. Sage tolerates light frost.

Sage prefers well-draining soil neutral to slightly alkaline soil, but otherwise tolerates a wide range of soils types. Sage does not require particularly fertile soil and typically does not require additional fertility once planted.. Particularly fertile soil may promote lush growth at the expense of flavor.

Sage can be planted in difficult garden areas where other plants may struggle, such as near rocks or garden edges.

Young sage plants need regular water, once or twice per week for the first 2-3 weeks after planting. As sage plants mature, water progressively deeper and less frequently to encourage root development.  Water established sage plants during prolonged periods without rain. As with many drought tolerant plants, sage is best watered in the morning with drip irrigation: this ensures deep and infrequent watering and prevents sage plants from sitting in cool, wet soil overnight. Do not water sage plants during periods of rain. Do not place sage in garden locations where water is likely to collect or soil is likely to remain waterlogged. Overwatering may result in root rot.

Mature sage develops the strongest flavor for cooking when given minimal water and no fertilizer.

Refrain from mulching sage with any type of most mulch or compost: the additional moisture may encourage rot.

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GardenZeus Quick Tips: Rosemary in the Sustainable Garden

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GardenZeus Quick Tips: Rosemary in the Sustainable Garden

As a Mediterranean native, rosemary is an ideal choice for a sustainable garden in much of California. Rosemary can thrive in harsh microclimates in a given garden that are too infertile or dry for other plants. When given full sun and just enough water, rosemary graces the garden as attractive plant with its silver leaves and characteristic aroma.

Rosemary requires well-draining soil. It grows best in neutral to alkaline soil with average fertility. Once established, it requires no additional fertility.

Nature designed rosemary as an extremely drought tolerant plant.  Its thick needle-like leaves retain water and transpire at lower rates than other succulent herbs. The silver underside of its leaves reflect light and work to keep the plants cool.  Once established, water rosemary deeply but infrequently, once or twice a week.  Allow the soil to dry between waterings. Excessive watering can result in weak or woody growth.  Do not overwater or allow the soil to remain waterlogged.

Try planting rosemary in difficult locations within your garden, such as in marginal areas or along the edges of your space where other plants may not thrive.

Use low-growing or creeping varieties of rosemary to shade and protect your soil and to prevent wind and water erosion. Use upright varieties of rosemary to prune into edible hedges. The more creatively inclined can prune upright varieties into edible topiaries.

Once you have removed the fragrant rosemary leaves from their stems for use in cooking, try saving the stripped rosemary branches: they make sustainable skewers for grilling meat, fish or vegetables and add their flavor to your dish.

Don’t know your GardenZeus climate zone? Click here.

Thyme as an Element in a Sustainable Garden

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November Gardening Tasks for Southern California’s Coastal Areas

November is an ideal month for starting most cool season vegetable and herb plants. Here is our list of tasks:

  • Start most cool-season annual vegetable-and-herb seeds for fall-and-winter harvest indoors or directly outdoors, and transplant starts outdoors; experienced gardeners growing appropriate varieties may succeed with a variety of cool-season crops and warm-season crops year-round in your zone including chard, tomatoes, and zucchini.
  • Irrigate new garden beds, wait 10 to 21 days prior to planting to flush weed seeds, and remove or till in weed seedlings.
  • In new beds or compacted soils, double-dig or loosen soil with a spading fork and remove stones and obstructions shortly before seeding new crops.
  • Amend soils prior to planting by surface dressing and/or gently working in compost, organic matter, manures, and other amendments.
  • Monitor new starts and seedlings daily to minimize plant losses during establishment.
  • Seed or transplant crops successively for successive harvest, especially of crops that you eat regularly or in large quantities.
  • Spot-plant in bare garden areas.
  • Add organic amendments and 1 to 1 1/2 inches of fine mulch after vegetable and herb starts are 3 to 6 inches tall.
  • Consider growing cover crops in dormant garden beds.
  • Plan winter-and-spring vegetable-and-herb plantings in well-drained, reasonably fertile, uncompacted soil with southern and western exposures unshaded in winter to maximize sun during short winter days.

For complete, customized instructions for growing cool season vegetables and herbs in your area, go to GardenZeus and enter your zip code; then go to Plants and make your selection. After selecting a plant, see Recommended Varieties/Cultivars in the Getting Started section for each vegetable or herb and purchase seeds for fall-through-winter crops.

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Remove Chlorine When Watering Organic Gardens

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