Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Lemon Balm that Ate my Garden

I come from a non-gardening family: growing up with a backyard full of sandy coastal Carolina soil and weeds, we were lucky to have any grass, a hydrangea bush, and some roses. Mom grew some herbs in pots on the patio, but that was the extent of my exposure to gardening. Mr. Tart, on the other hand, grew up weeding and picking raspberries regularly; however, he never tried growing things on his own as an adult.

Last summer, even before I moved in with him, we decided to devote a portion of his backyard to a vegetable garden, and not just because we wanted fresh produce: we were both interested in learning how to grow some of our own food, but we didn't have any idea of how to go about it. We decided that learning how to do something together, working together and reaping the benefits of this new creation, would be important (and humbling) for us as a couple.

Our 2004 garden produced some gorgeous tomatoes that required very little work from us, plus lots of herbs and some spinach. A few albino carrots appeared, followed months later by correctly orange ones that were just as wide around as they were long (and trust me, they were short and squat for carrots). And one radish.

Part of the problem, we realized, was that the garden lay on a significant slope, which meant that every rainstorm washed the topsoil (and any seeds hiding immediately below the surface) right out of the garden. Plus I think I pulled up a lot of the incipient radishes, thinking they were weeds (while I kept other sprouted green things, hoping optimistically that they would turn into vegetables, but nope, just unruly but pretty weeds).

Having heard that houseplants grow better when spoken to, I decided to apply this principle to our garden, and began chatting with them as I planted and weeded. That drew a few curious stares from the neighbors, but not as many as when I concluded that simple greetings in English weren't sufficient and tried to encourage them to grow in the appropriate foreign languages: French for the thyme, Spanish to the cilantro and peppers, Italian to the parsley, basil, and tomatoes (that was a stretch), and Thai to the Thai basil (okay, I just made up sounds that reminded me of Thai restaurant menus).

This year we made some changes. We terraced the garden to cut down on the washout and added more items that we could actually eat on a regular basis (we tired quickly of trying to find uses for all the basil--but did have pesto all year round out of the freezer): lettuce, green beans, green onions, eggplant. And then we decorated the borders with small sunflowers. Voila:

The tomatoes are pretty miserable this year, but the herbs are in good shape (except the cilantro, which died early last summer too), and we've harvested beans once and tons of lettuce (which is why you don't see much in the picture).

Actually, one of the herbs is in TOO good of a shape: the lemon balm is taking over the entire bottom of the garden. I planted it last year because it's fun to stick sprigs of it in lemonade or iced tea, and because I dry it and mix it with dried mint to make herbal tea. And that's about all lemon balm is good for. So what in the world do I do with all this?

Aiighh! See how it dwarfs the heads of lettuce? I mean, three months ago it was a sweet, docile circle of delicate leaves. Now it's big enough to qualify as a bush, with some leaves as big as my palm--and this picture was taken after several harvests of entire branches! It keeps growing and growing and growing and we're starting to be afraid of it. We're also running out of ways to use it--vasefuls on the dining room table, gallon baggies of dried lemon balm for tea later, invidual leaves frozen into ice cube trays to decorate drinks with, and my personal favorite new brilliant idea, infused into canola oil that I can decant into attractive jars and give away. (I tell people they can use the lightly lemon-scented oil in quick bread batters like zucchini bread and pancakes, in vinaigrettes, and to drizzle over fish.)

Any other suggestions before the lemon balm bush grows massive enough to block the sunlight from the rest of the yard ?


Blogger lis said...

Sarah, your garden is beautiful. I think much more about home ownership in the summers when I find myself wishing for a garden.

I wish I had some suggestions for the lemon balm. All I've made from it is tea.

12:17 PM  
Blogger lis said...

Sarah, your garden is beautiful. I think much more about home ownership in the summers when I find myself wishing for a garden.

I wish I had some suggestions for the lemon balm. All I've made from it is tea.

12:18 PM  
Blogger tara said...

I love the ice-cube idea! Have you ever tried replacing some of the basil in pesto with lemon balm? I'm not sure pesto made entirely with lemon balm would be all that great, but I could see regular basil pesto benefiting from a little citrus flavor. Worth a try.

11:09 AM  

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