Planning your garden

At this time of the winter season, the hours of sunlight are lengthening, and the heat of the sun strengthening. For those who hate winter, February is the month of hope: the promise of spring is in the air.

Which brings us to seed catalogues.

Talk about a breath of fresh air! Curling up with a cup of tisane (herbal tea) and a seed catalogue becomes a splendid pastime. If anything, you will find yourself ordering far more packets than you actually have room for.

But catalogues provide much more than simply a selection of carrots, peas and beans. Most give a great deal of insight not only into growing conditions, but also into the medicinal or other qualities or alternative uses of plants. And many of these plants are indigenous wild species.

Richters is my all-time favourite catalogue and it provides interesting nuggets of information about such species native to the Pontiac as Boneset.

This tall (30-150 cm/1-5 ft) plant is reported to be an “excellent remedy for colds and intermittent fever, especially for flu. Medical evidence suggests that it enhances the immune system. Caution: contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids; not recommended for long term use.”

Not only does Richters inform us that the plant possesses medicinal properties, the catalogue gives a warning.

And this is key. Yes, plants are alternative sources of drugs. But don’t mistakenly think that because they are “natural” that they are safer or necessarily “better” than pharmaceuticals that your doctor or pharmacist might prescribe or recommend.

Drugs are drugs and whether in plant, pill or potion form they must be respected for their properties.

Enough said. Now that that timely reminder has been written, let’s delve into the catalogues a bit more.

Back to Richters.

Not only can some wild or domestic plants provide medicinal qualities, others, such as perennial or annual flowers, are surprising in other ways.

Take edible flowers for instance. Why not experiment, this year, and order flowers that you can pop into your salads or stuff with nuts, cheese and rice so as to make beautiful additions to your summer lunch and dinner plates?

Edible flowers add colour, taste and fragrance to a dish.

But which are edible?

Once again, Richters assists us. Take the Calendula or pot marigold. Its bright orange flower is a cheerful addition to any flower bed, but did you know that because of its colour it is often used as a substitute to the very expensive saffron spice that is prevalent in Indian and other Asian-inspired recipes?

Here’s what Richters tells us. “Flower petals give delicate flavour and strong colour to salads, omelettes and cheese, and is used as a saffron substitute. Invaluable in first-aid skin lotions and ointments.”

Another favourite flower that is a perennial, unlike the annual calendula, is bergamot. Otherwise known as bee-balm, this hardy plant does well here in the Pontiac. Available in scarlet, pink and purple, it’s popular with bees and hummingbirds… but not only are its young leaves delicious in salads, the young leaves in particular make a world-renowned tisane. Indeed, their fragrant properties are well-known as an ingredient in Earl Grey tea.

And what’s that cheerful-looking wayside plant that resembles a tiny daisy? It is chamomile - and it grows wild here.

Long-known for its relaxing properties as a clear, yellow tea that’s particularly soothing before bedtime, this little plant will take over your garden if you’re not careful. Richter’s tells us that the tea, “made from the flowers, is very popular in Europe as an aid to digestion, especially after heavy meals. Its soothing and cleansing effect also makes the tea a beneficial skin wash.”

Another idea to consider while browsing catalogues is to select seeds of plants that are particularly hardy.

This year, I picked kale that was buried under a snowbank in my vegetable garden… for Christmas dinner. It was a novelty at the table, made all the more delectable precisely because I had been able to harvest it about an hour prior to presenting it.

Kale is a member of the brassica (cabbage) family and has been a staple food for people throughout the ages. In Wales and England last November, we saw acres upon acres of it in fields where sheep were grazing.

It is popular precisely because it is hardy, nutritious and, when prepared carefully, is tasty, too. If you decide to try it, read the instructions on the packet well. One aspect to kale is its size: large “plume-shaped” stalks take up a lot of room in the vegetable bed.

You won’t find kale in the Richters catalogue, so you’ll want to order it from your favourite vegetable seed source.

Stokes is a good catalogue that many of you use, and here’s where you’ll find kale.

There’s another aspect to all of this, however, and that is cost. So, while we’re thinking of this, have you ever seen the Lindenberg Seeds catalogue?

This is a humble-looking seed source which is printed on newsprint. No flashy colour pictures here. But talk about price: I bet you’ll save quite a bit if you order through Lindenberg, where you’ll find plants like kale, along with all your other favourites.

Now that many of us are on the Internet, it’s even easier to order and browse seed catalogues online. Be careful of the American ones: although catalogues such as Thompson & Morgan present an appealing array of specialty seeds including organic supplies, they are American and thus more pricey.

Procuring catalogues:

Lindenberg Seeds: 803 Princess Ave., Brandon, MB R7A 0P5; Tel: 204-727-0575; Fax: 204-727-2832; e-mail:

Richters Herbs: 357 Hwy 47, Goodwood, ON L0C 1A0; Tel toll-free: 1-800-668-HERBS; Fax: 905-640-6641; Internet:; e-mail: or