Maryland Grows

Tulsi Basil and Anise Hyssop: Easy, Useful, and Adaptable

My brother mailed me some anise hyssop seeds 20+ years ago and a UM student gave me two tulsi basil plants several years ago at “Maryland Day” on the College Park campus. I am deeply indebted to them both for introducing me to these mint family members that quickly became mainstays in my garden. I love both plants for being easy to grow, healthful, and attractive to many species of beneficial insects. They grow abundantly in my yard with little human assistance. They seem pretty dependable under the extreme weather conditions of climate change, although varieties within each species will certainly differ. They tolerate hot, dry weather, as well as periods of high rainfall, as long as soils don’t stay wet. Big bonus: deer don’t seem very interested in these plants!

Every part of anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) smells and tastes of anise. It is native to the U.S. upper Midwest and Great Plains and is also commonly known as blue giant hyssop and lavender giant hyssop. It grows well across Maryland as an annual or tender perennial (overwinters most years at my Howard Co. home). Although it self-sows readily it has not been terribly aggressive; I haven’t seen it spread beyond its main planting sites.

Robust anise hyssop plants in mid-summer holding their own in a weedy bed. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Robust anise hyssop plants in mid-summer holding their own in a weedy bed. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Bumble bee on anise hyssop flower. Spikes produce many flowers that are frequently visited by insects. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Bumble bee on anise hyssop flower. Spikes produce many flowers that are frequently visited by insects. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Tulsi basil (Ocimum sanctum or Ocimum tenuiflorum) is also known as holy basil. It is revered in India as a sacred, medicinal plant. Tulsi grows rapidly and blooms continually from June through first frost. Individual plants can easily cover 10 sq. ft. but can be pruned to fit smaller spaces. It’s one of the very few types of basil not infected by basil downy mildew, the scourge of basil lovers. It is not a culinary substitute for Italian basil but is widely used in South Asian cuisines.

Tulsi basil leaves can be harvested, used fresh and dried, through the entire growing season. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Tulsi basil leaves can be harvested, used fresh and dried, through the entire growing season. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

With both plants, I have mainly made herbal tea with dried leaves but need to branch out to cocktails, cut flowers, etc. It’s easy to save seeds of anise hyssop and tulsi basil by cutting mature seed heads in early fall. I allow them to dry further in large paper bags. Seeds for both can be started indoors 5-8 weeks before the last frost in spring or sown directly in garden beds or containers. Both plants produce small dark seeds that can be difficult to separate from dry seed heads. So it’s ok to plant the small plant fragments, dust, and hard seeds pinched from the bottom of the bag.

Attractive foliage and flowers of tulsi basil. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Attractive foliage and flowers of tulsi basil. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

If you are growing these plants, what’s been your experience? Any tips on using them in the kitchen? Are they becoming overly aggressive or invasive in your landscape?

Further reading:

Anise hyssop article from University of Wisconsin

Tulsi basil and research on health benefits

Sequencing the tulsi basil genome

By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist

Deer: Stay Out of My Garden!

white tailed deer

White-tailed deer. Photo: Pixabay

Q: I had great plans for my vegetable garden last year, but it was overrun with deer. They nibbled my seedlings down to the ground and ate my tomatoes. What can I plant this year that these varmints won’t eat?

A: Unfortunately, the answer to your question is “nothing.” Although there are ways to make your garden less attractive, none are truly foolproof. Here are a few ways to deter deer looking for a free lunch.

Deer-resistant plants. There are many lists of plants less appetizing to deer. Remember, though, that a plant’s lack of appeal is a function of weather, availability of preferred foods, and the need to compete with other foraging deer. A deer eats seven to 12 pounds of food per day; competition with many other hungry deer leads them to consume even the least palatable plants available.

Garden location and maintenance. Locate gardens away from woodlands and known deer trails to reduce deer snacking. Keep your vegetable garden, brambles, and fruit trees tidy. Uncollected fruit or vegetables on the ground will attract hungry animals.

Repellents and deterrents. Horticultural history includes a wide range of tactics to discourage deer. Dogs, ultrasound, sudden noise, sprinklers, and scarecrows have all been tried and found wanting for different reasons.

Repellents with a foul taste or smell, while not perfect, may deter deer and are most effective in areas with low to moderate deer populations. Be sure to check labels of repellents that you’re thinking of using with plants for human consumption.

Fencing. Deer can jump over even a 10-foot fence, but they like to see where they will land. They are less likely to jump over a fence into a garden that has raised beds or those that have row covers or support structures such as tomato cages.

Some homeowners have found that a fence composed of metal stakes with deer netting or other plastic or wire mesh strung securely along the garden perimeter is a workable and inexpensive solution. Other gardeners have found that they need a more substantial and higher fence. You’ll need to experiment with what works for you (and not for your deer).

constructing a deer fence

The deer will have no luck getting over the fence at the Derwood Demo Garden. Montgomery County Master Gardeners L to R: Ken Hoyle, George Burt, Tom Maxwell, John Reilly. Photo: Robin Ritterhoff

Groundhogs, rabbits, and chipmunks can burrow under fencing flush with the ground, so plan to bury your fence six to 12 inches below ground.

Although there is no perfect solution to deterring deer, a combination of these options will reduce the damage in your garden.

For more information, see the University of Maryland Extension Bulletin, Managing Deer Damage in Maryland.

By Mollie Moran, University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener. This article was published originally in the Montgomery County MG newsletter, The Seed, February 2019.

Q&A: What kind of soil should I use in raised beds?

raised bed garden

Raised bed garden. Photo: Pixabay

Q: I plan to build four raised beds for vegetable gardens in the spring. I need to purchase garden soil to fill these beds. What kind of soil should I use in raised beds? What do I look for when shopping for garden soil?

A: Try to locate a landscaping business or garden nursery that sells a compost-topsoil mixture. If you purchase topsoil with no added compost, plan on working in at least two inches of compost.

Maryland does not have regulations that set standards for topsoil sales. Go to a reputable nursery or topsoil dealer. Ask questions about where the soil comes from, what kind of soiling testing is performed, what the pH is, and whether anything has been added to it. Examine the soil before purchasing it.

Topsoil should be dark and crumbly with an earthy smell. Do not purchase soil that is foul smelling, mottled gray, or chalky in texture. Examine the soil again before it is unloaded at your home.

Learn more about soils and compost on the Home and Garden Information Center website.

By Ellen Nibali, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center. Ellen writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun.

Monthly Tips for February


  • Cover cropsTest your soil. Be prepared to raise soil pH with lime or lower soil pH with iron sulfate and elemental sulfur this spring according to the written recommendations you receive.  For more information on soil testing see: Soil Testing
  • Bare soil is prone to erosion and should be covered with mulch, cover cropsgroundcovers, or turf.
  • Poor, compacted soils can be improved through the generous addition of organic matter. This spring, spade or till in a 6-8 inch layer of compost for new flower and vegetable garden beds.


  • BirdfeederContinue to feed wild birds through the remaining winter weeks. Black oil sunflower seeds and suet cakes are a good choice for a wide variety of birds. Keep bird feeders clean and provide your wild birds with fresh water.
  • Squirrels will come to eat the bird food you put out even when your bird feeders are advertised as “squirrel-proof.” Squirrels quickly become tolerant to the hot pepper repellent added to some bird feeds. Place squirrel baffles around feeders to keep them out, learn to live with squirrels, or offer them alternate food like ears of feed corn. Consult the staff at your local wild bird store for more detailed feeding suggestions.
  • This is the mating season for foxes. Late at night, they make a loud noise that sounds like a person screaming. (Listen)





  • In February, we will have passed through the darkest part of winter –  the days are longer and the sun is brighter. This is very good for houseplants. If you notice leaf yellowing and leaf drop on some of your houseplants it is usually a result of the low light conditions combined with over-watering. Most houseplants should be watered only when the top of the growing medium begins to dry out. It is always safer to slightly under-water than to over water houseplants. (PDF) HG 60 IPM Series: Houseplants
  • Mealybugs, appear as white fluffy masses on infested plants. (See photo above.) They can be controlled by swabbing them with rubbing alcohol or taking plants outside and spraying with a labeled houseplant insecticide. Don’t do this on a very cold day, or your plants will be damaged. Mealybugs and scales often become an overwhelming problem and it is best to discard extremely infested plants before the pests spread to your other plants.

More tips from the Home & Garden Information Center

The Home & Garden Information Center’s horticulturists are available year-round to answer your plant and pest questions. In addition to gardening questions, we cover houseplants, indoor pests, and more. Send your questions and photos to Ask an Expert!

Papalo: the “summer cilantro”

Have you ever been tempted by an article or blog post, or maybe a seed collection, suggesting that you grow a salsa garden? Tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and cilantro are the usual recommendations for growing and making your own salsa. But the timing for this type of garden can be tricky. Tomatoes and peppers mature in the summertime. Onions planted in the early spring are ready about the same time, or can be stored for use. Garlic should have been planted the previous fall, but if you got that done you’re all set. But cilantro—that’s where salsa gardeners get frustrated.

Cilantro is a cool-weather herb; in summer’s heat, it bolts and goes to flower, and then produces seeds (which we call coriander). By the time your tomatoes are ripe, cilantro planted in spring is done. You can get around this to some extent by choosing a slow-bolting variety of cilantro and planting it every few weeks, but those summer-planted succession crops have spotty germination and bolt really fast.

Or you could try another herb with a similar flavor that likes growing in heat. I suggest papalo.

papalo bunch flickr.jpg

Papalo bunch, photo by mcotner, Flickr/Creative Commons

Read More

Winter Sowing: How I Get a Jump Start on My Summer Flower Garden


These June-blooming flowers were started by winter sowing. Photo: C. Carignan

Winter sowing is a technique gardeners can use to start growing seeds outdoors during the winter months. If you have limited space for starting seeds indoors, winter sowing might be an option for you, depending on what you want to grow.

I first tried winter sowing last year with several types of flower seeds. Winter sowing works best for plants that are cold tolerant or even require a period of cold in order to germinate. When you are looking at seed descriptions, look for words like “cold tolerant,” “cool season”, “hardy annual,” “perennial”, “sow in autumn”, “sow in early spring”, or “self-sows”. These words indicate the best candidates for winter sowing.

This is not a good method to use now with heat-loving crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, and basil. Wait until spring for those.

I started seeds in January and February last year with this method and successfully grew several types of cool-season flowers: delphiniums, poppies, snapdragons, bachelor buttons, and Canterbury bells.


Snapdragons are cool-season flowers that can be started by winter sowing. Photo: C. Carignan

Here are the basic steps to winter sowing:

  1. Reclaim from your recycling bin clear or transparent plastic containers such as 1-gallon milk jugs and 2-liter soda bottles.
  2. Cut jugs and bottles three-quarters of the way around to create a hinged opening.
  3. Puncture holes in the bottom of the container to allow for good drainage.
  4. Fill the bottom of the container with a sterile seed starting medium. (Avoid using home compost or garden soil; it might contain weed seeds.) Water thoroughly and let the water drain through.

    Recycled containers for seed sowing

    Recycled milk jugs and bottles make good containers for winter sowing. Photo: C. Carignan

  5. Plant your seeds according to the package instructions, one type of seed in each container.
  6. Close up the container securely with strong tape, such as packing tape. Label the container with the name of your seeds and the planting date.
  7. Leave the cap off of the bottles and jugs to allow for air circulation and water entry.
  8. Set your container in a sunny location outside. Then wait!
seeds sprouting

Seeds sprouting using the winter sowing method. Photo: C. Carignan

You’re essentially creating a small cloche that provides a protected environment for the seeds. The natural freezing and thawing process loosens the seed coats to aid in germination. Your seeds will sprout when the temperatures and daylight are ideal for them, and then you can transplant your seedlings into their permanent location in the garden when the soil is workable in early spring. There is no need to harden off the seedlings since they already will be acclimated to the outdoors.

poppy seedlings

Flower seedlings in a soda bottle outdoors, March 3, 2018. Photo: C. Carignan

A note about watering: You will see condensation form on the inside of your containers on sunny days when the temperature is above freezing. This moisture trickles down to keep the soil medium consistently moist. Water (and even snow!) will enter the small opening(s) at the top of your container. If you do not see condensation forming on warm days, open the container and check the soil. You may need to add more water periodically.

If flower growing isn’t your thing, you can try the winter sowing method with cool-season vegetables such as kale, cabbage, Swiss chard, and leeks. But I would encourage you to add a few flowers too, for your pollinators!

Winter sowing is a fun way to experiment and get a jump start on your garden, even when the last frost is still months away.

Additional Resources:

By Christa K. Carignan, Maryland Certified Professional Horticulturist, Coordinator, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center

Light Choices for Starting Plants Indoors

There seem to be new lighting choices for indoor plant growing every year. If you’ve been starting annual flower and vegetable plants indoors you probably learned early on that natural light entering through windows is hardly ever adequate. Some type of supplemental light is essential to produce healthy transplants. But what types of bulbs and fixtures work best? And how much money do I really want to spend on something I’ll use for 8-12 weeks each year?

Fluorescent Lights

Many gardeners use 2 ft. or 4 ft. long fluorescent tubes in a fixture (a.k.a “shop light”). The T number is the tube diameter in 1/8 inch units. The traditional T12 tube (1 ½ in. dia.) has been largely replaced by slimmer T8 (1-inch dia.) and T5 tubes (5/8 inch dia.). All fluorescent tubes give off a small amount of heat– rarely a problem, even when foliage grows into them. Heat from the ballast in the fixture can help hasten germination and plant growth, especially when your set-up is covered with plastic.

PVC light stand

PVC light stand with 4 ft. long T5 fluorescent fixtures. Plants stretch to reach available light.
To produce stocky plants the tubes should be only a few inches from the plant tops.
Photo:  Jon Traunfeld

LED Grow Lights

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) give off very little heat, use less energy than fluorescent tubes, and last about twice as long. They are also mercury-free and made from plastic so won’t shatter like glass. LEDs appear to be the wave of the future for indoor lighting. Horticulturists and lighting engineers are working worldwide to customize wavelength combinations for specific plant production goals in commercial greenhouses and indoor vertical farms.

But very little research data are available to guide gardener decisions. This is further complicated by the many LED grow light fixtures and systems that are available at widely different prices– most without a track record! The good news is that light and fixture prices are coming down and there are a growing number of “out-of-the-box” options available online and in stores.

Linear LED tubes are available that can replace T8 fluorescent tubes and are about 30% more efficient (and last around 50,000 hours). If you decide to replace your fluorescent tubes with LED tubes be aware that there are four different types- some will work easily with your fluorescent fixture and others require modifications to the fixture.


  • For fluorescent fixtures– replace T12 tubes with T8 or T5 tubes (the latter will require a new fixture as well).
  • Gently wipe down any type of light tubes before using them this year to remove dust and grime.
  • LEDs will save you a little on your electric bill but it’s unlikely that the transplants grown will be superior to those grown under fluorescent tubes. So don’t make the switch to LED tubes until your fluorescent tubes are spent.
  • No need to buy special blue or red lights to grow transplants. Whether using fluorescent or LED lighting look for a lumens rating (light intensity) over 3,000 and a color temperature rating (brightness; Kelvin scale) of 5,000 to 6,500 (daylight).
  • Make your own PVC Light Stand
  • More resources for starting seeds indoors

By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist