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April Garden Guide

Grow herbs to enjoy in a cup of tea

TEA GARDEN IS MORE THAN JUST A SUNNY SPOT where friends savor steeped leaves and share secrets. It’s a fragrant cutting garden of herbs that make the refreshing teas known as tisanes.

Brewed for centuries for their bright flavors and assorted health benefits, herbal teas are just a few snips away when lemon verbena, orange mint, chamomile and the like are planted among edibles and perennials or fill a container just outside the kitchen door. (Hint for Mother’s Day: Give your loved one a pretty container of mixed tea-time herbs.)

Here are some classics that thrive in San Diego’s mild climate. Most are attractive, drought tolerant and irresistible to birds and butterflies. Site in full sun and provide good drainage and regular water, remembering that container plantings need more frequent watering than plants in the ground.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): Two-foot-tall plants have ferny foliage and daisy-bright flowers that bloom in summer. Use
the flowers, fresh or dried, for popular chamomile tea.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis): Fresh leaves of this 2- to 3-foot-tall perennial make a citrusy tea subtly fragrant with mint. Dried leaves perfume sachets and potpourris. Plant this self-sower in a container to control spread.

Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora or A. triphylla): This leggy shrub earns a spot back in the border for its slender foliage redolent
of sweet lemon. Grows to 8 feet tall, with small lilac-tinged flowers in summer.

Mints:Confine these fast-spreading Mediterranean natives in containers while enjoying a never-ending supply of scented leaves. Sip flavors ranging from peppermint (Mentha x piperita) to apple mint (M. suaveolens) or pineapple (M.s. ‘Variegata’).

Scented geraniums:Flavors abound in the leaves of these popular, shrubby plants known as pelargoniums. Among the choices are nutmeg, rose, coconut and strawberry. Plants vary in size, and some scents are stronger than others. Many have small white
or reddish flowers.

Lavender:Lovers of this classic fragrance can steep the fresh flowers of Lavandula angustifolia or L x intermedia. (Other species should not be ingested.) Choose dwarf varieties like ‘Hidcote,’ ‘Compacta,’ ‘Thumbelina Leigh’ or ‘Munstead’ for containers.

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana):Brew a sweet tea or sweeten other herbal teas with the leaves of this tender perennial, said
to be many times sweeter than sugar. Grows to 2 feet tall.
Sprays of white flowers appear in summer.

Harvest leaves or flowers early in the morning and rinse, taking care not to bruise them. Place a small amount in a cup or pot, add boiling water and steep for a few minutes. Experiment
to get the flavor desired. Remember that some herbs become bitter or harmful in large quantities.

Strain and serve hot or cold, with a splash of lemon to enhance the taste. Delight guests with the added surprise of herbal ice cubes. Fill a tray halfway and freeze. Top each cube with a scented leaf or flower. Fill tray to the top and freeze until firm.

Edible Flowers

Bring blossoms to the table — not in a vase but on a plate. Here are seed expert Renee Shepherd’s picks of some pretty, easy-to-grow flowers that are good enough to eat. (Only eat flowers positively identified as safe and edible; some are poisonous.
Try edible flowers in small quantities first in case of allergies.)

Squash blossoms: Zucchini or summer squash blossoms are delicious stuffed and fried. Save space by growing one of the new compact squash varieties.

Nasturtiums:Chop and mix the colorful, peppery flowers with salad greens or use them to garnish grilled fish. Wash carefully to dislodge hidden insects.

Rose petals: Garden-party pretty, they dress up dips, fruit salads, cakes and other desserts. In general, a strong scent equals strong flavor. Trim the bitter white tip off petals before using.

Calendula petals:Delicate with peppery cucumber flavors, orange petals brighten egg and cheese dishes and spice up rice dishes and breads. ϖ

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Perhaps it’s because the “cottage” with the wavy, cedar-thatched roof on the cover of our July issue looks like it could be the home of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that I was immediately intrigued by a press release I received this week.

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