It has been a  rewarding summer in the garden this year.  When starting from scratch it tends to feel like a lush garden is so far away.  The first couple summers here I would be in agony every time I pulled my car into the driveway.  There were no butterflies welcoming me home or new flowers to discover distracting me from bringing in the groceries.  I wanted an “instant” garden, but there were so many steps to take first if I wanted to get it right.  The back yard was not much to look at either in the beginning.  I would let Coach out to do his business and just go right back inside after he finished.

Now there is plenty to see growing in the garden!  The front cottage garden has tall  Coneflowers, bright Coreopsis, buzzing Hyssop, and many other blooming beauties.  Each morning I go to the window, open the curtain, and hope to see the female hummingbird that has been a frequent visitor feeding on the purple Porterweed.  Today I think I surprised her because she was not far from the window.  She hovered there watching me then perched herself on the nearby crape myrtle.  Any bird person knows to stay perfectly still to catch these rare moments.  She looked around a bit, ruffled her feathers, and then zoomed away.

When Coach has to go outside I linger long to see what has changed since the two hours I took him outside last.  Nearly every morning I eat breakfast in the sunroom.  I struggle to find an ending point, so that I can start my day.  I am pulled by the enormous coral Porterweed in the flower bed right off the sunroom and the Blue Daze spilling out of the rusted iron planters on the fence.  It’s also been nice having the afternoon showers saving me from waking extremely early to water the garden before the heat arrives.

While many of the plants/flower beds are still relatively new, there is a group of plants I made sure to have shortly after we moved in…my herbs.  My last post talked about how I am not much of a veggie gardener, but herbs are a staple in my garden.  After learning what to do (plenty of sun!)and what not to do (grow inside on kitchen window; fails every time) with them, they have been no fuss and very generous to me over the years.    They include Italian Parsley (I always have two plants just in case Black Swallowtail caterpillars make an appearance), garlic/onion chives (great on potatoes!), Spearmint (for my iced tea), oregano (I dry the un-open buds – this herb taste better dried), Rosemary (I have an ever-growing hedge along the driveway) and the most important African Blue Basil.  This is another plant I make sure to have at least two plants of since I use it so much.  You may wonder why I don’t have the traditional Genovese Basil?  I like the taste and all, but it’s just too needy for me.  It tends to never have enough water because the leaves are so tender causing it to lose moisture quickly.

I learned about African Blue Basil when I worked at UF.  We used to grow it every year.  Instead of the white flowers, this plant has purple.  The undersides of the leaves are purple as well.  Its leaf has very small hairs on it, what we call in horticulture pubescent.  Due to these hairs, it has a better ability to hold moisture longer and survive the winter.  I have had an occasion where it did in fact come back.  Many think they can’t eat it, that it’s strictly ornamental.  I use it in pesto that I serve over linguine.  Its flavor is unforgettable as so many dinner guests have told me.  I also like to use the pesto in a Potato, Pasta, Pesto soup, which is my favorite soup.  Definitely an herb to try.

I also have a few other herbs I don’t necessarily eat.  Every butterfly garden must have a Bronze Fennel for the Black Swallowtails.  Pretty yellow flower in the late summer too.  This year I added two Fern Leaf Lavenders to bring color to my intensely heated hodge podge flower bed.  Until recently I believed it only performed well in the cooler months, but a friend bought one for a garden I helped with in front of a yoga studio I attend, and it never stopped blooming!  The area we chose was a real hot spot and it seemed to make it flourish.

An herb I’ve had for 3 years and never used for anything until last week is Lemon Verbena.  This plant can be temperamental for us on the Gulf Coast.  It needs to drain well and must be brought into the greenhouse during the winter freezes.  This is the first year it has really done well.  It’s one of those plants that I didn’t pay much attention to by not remembering to water it or waiting until near death from root strangulation to place in a larger pot.

I had no idea what I would use this plant for when I bought it.  At the time this plant was rarely seen in our area, so when I found this one lonesome plant at a nursery I was then working for, I bought it immediately.  Its purpose for me was a romantic one.  My favorite movie is Gone with the Wind.  I read the book and loved it too.  Ellen O’Hara was Scarlett’s mother.  In her eyes, her mother was a saint and she wished to be more like her.  She was described as an elegant lady who had patience and compassion.  I think I looked up to her also.  Ellen wore a  Lemon Verbena sachet and even after her mother’s death the smell made her think of her.  Therefore, when I saw it sitting there, I couldn’t refuse having the smell of Ellen O’Hara in my garden.

Since my purchase I have never used it for anything.  Up until recently there wasn’t much plant to use!  However, this summer I was more on my gardening game and actually took better care of it and now it’s a fuller plant.  I decided I would make something with it.  I know you can use it in fish, but I’m not much of a seafood person and I don’t like lemon in my tea.  I looked through my herb cookbook, “The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs” and found two recipes: Lemon Verbena Dip and Lemon Verbena Muffins.

I read the Verbena Muffin recipe and felt it was easy enough.  I had almost all the ingredients already.  I just needed eggs, but I wanted to wait until I could good fresh ones from the Palafox Market.  Baking is something that intimidates me.  I have had more than one mishap and due to my perfectionism it results in a total meltdown in the kitchen.  Although, this time I was extra careful, determined to get it right.  I had to mince the verbena to a fine texture because if not chopped enough can be hard on the tummy.  As I chopped away I felt that satisfaction I always get when cooking with my herbs.  My favorite dish to make is pesto because I enjoy pulling leaves off the stems of my basil so much.

After mixing all the ingredients together, placing not too much batter in each muffin space (have had “overflowing” muffins before), sticking in the oven for 23 minutes (and watching the through the oven window for the last 10 to make sure they didn’t burn)…I had Lemon Verbena Muffins!  We had them for Sunday Breakfast with peaches and canary melon.  I gave one for my brother to try yesterday and he said, “Can’t you ever make anything normal?  I’ve never even heard of Lemon Verbena!”  I replied, “What’s the fun in that?”