Thursday, April 15, 2010

Five Cheap and Easy Plants Worth the Time and Effort

Five plants worth buying, even if you don’t have a “real” garden:

1. Basil (you can also easily start this from seed) – summer recipes always call for fresh basil and it’s silly to buy it when you can have some growing in your flower garden (they have pretty white flowers) or in a pot growing on your porch or in a sunny window. A packet of seeds (will last for years) or one small plant will cost you less than one bundle of fresh basil in the grocery store. Basil is an annual, so unless you cultivate it indoors, you’ll have to start over each year. But basil is so easy to grow it’s no trouble. You can freeze basil (pureed with a little water and frozen in ice cube trays works great, then you can just drop an ice cube in sauces or soups) or dry it to use throughout the year. There are lots of different varieties of basil out there – I really like Thai basil for the little kick, but cinnamon basil and lemon basil are also fun. And here’s the added bonus – Basil repels insects! I like to put some in my flower pots on the porch to keep the bugs away. (most strongly scented herbs repel bugs – thyme and lavender also work well, and of course, citronella). Harvest basil as soon as the leaves are large enough and it will keep producing all summer.

2. Silver Dollar Eucalyptus. Bet you didn’t know you can grow eucalyptus! It grows as annual in my time zone, but it does that beautifully. One small plant (I bought mine in the herb section of the nursery today for 1.99) will turn in to a huge bush that produces lots of fragrant stems. I grow it and cut some all summer to scent the house. When cold weather threatens, I cut the whole thing down and dry it in the basement before refilling several stashes I have around the house to keep it smelling nice. Note: in warmer climates Eucalyptus can be come invasive and harm nearby plants, also its bark is very flammable, so it’s not a good choice for fire prone areas.

3. Dusty Miller – if you want a cheap splash of bright white that lasts all spring, summer, and fall, choose dusty miller. It’s really just white leaves that give the color, but it can be counted on through heat, drought, and even the first few frosts. Last year mine was still blooming when the snow hit. It looks gorgeous as a border or add individual plants to your baskets and pots to add variety and dress up herbs.

4. Zinnias – the happy, bright flowers bloom summer in to fall and right up to the first frost. You can cut them to create beautiful bouquets and they come right back with even more blooms. One packet of seeds will create an entire garden of pretty blooms. They like sun and are forgiving when you forget to water them. I like the Cut and Come Again variety, but they come in all shades and sizes. Great flower to get kids started. It’s also incredibly easy to save their seeds for the next year. Wait for the flower to truly die (turn brown) and then cut them off and put them in paper bags to dry. When they are dry, just shake out the seeds. One packet of good heirloom seeds could last you a lifetime!

5. Zucchini – you really only need one seed to grow enough zucchini for the neighborhood, so one packet will last you for years. These squash grow practically overnight. They create a nice-looking “bush” of giant leaves and yellow flowers, followed by more zucchini than any family can ever eat. Zucchini is a great vegetable to hide in your kids’ food. It sweetens when it cooks and is pretty much undetectable in pancakes, brownies, chocolate cake, spaghetti sauce, and salsa. I puree it so no one finds the telltale green skin or heaven forbid – a lump! A zucchini among your foundation garden will look exotic. This is a great one for kids to grow.

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