Monday, July 15, 2024

Master Gardener: Reducing pests, preserving herbs and pine nut syndrome

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Q. How do you keep raccoons out of your yard? They have raided my vegetable garden, grapevines, and fruit trees!

Good luck with that. Raccoons are very smart and, once they’ve figured out how to score an easy meal, are very difficult to deter. We tried growing popcorn a few years ago and the raccoons discovered it. They knocked down every stalk and stripped them clean. What’s especially stupid is that popcorn tastes terrible unless it’s been popped and doused with butter. Go figure.

Depending on your garden’s configuration, an electric fence may work. Motion-activated sprinklers don’t seem to bother them, and any foul-smelling repellents will probably attract more of them. I don’t recommend direct confrontation (the “Hey, you – Get off of my lawn!” approach) since they can be mean and they have very good memories.

Q. How can I preserve fresh herbs? I have a couple of basil plants that are 3 feet tall (including Thai basil). They start to lose their flavor when the weather gets cooler.

Basil is most flavorful before cold weather sets in, so early fall is the best time to harvest it. I recommend clipping it to about a foot tall instead of removing it right away because it may keep producing leaves until the frost comes. These late leaves won’t be as good as the early leaves, but they’ll still be pretty good.

I like to make pesto and freeze it in ice cube trays for use in soups, sauces, and pasta. Once it’s frozen you can pop the cubes into a zip-lock bag (don’t forget to label it!). It can also be used to make flavored vinegars or dried for extended storage. Inspect the leaves carefully after harvest because they may harbor little green caterpillars that are very well-camouflaged. If you miss one, your flavored vinegar may end up looking like tequila with a curled-up worm at the bottom of the bottle. This can be awkward if you’re giving them out as gifts.

Other herbs can be made into pesto as well. Rosemary, thyme, oregano, and other stronger herbs can be used, but I recommend diluting them with fresh parsley (3 or 4 parts parsley to 1 part herb). These herbs can impart a bitter, unpleasant flavor if used in greater quantity, so the parsley will mellow things out.

If your appetite (or freezer space) for pesto is limited, dehydration is always a good option, since drying will reduce the volume of your herbs up to 90%.

Q. I made a dish using pine nuts and after eating it everything tasted weird. Could the pine nuts have caused my tastebuds to malfunction?

Yes. Consuming pine nuts can sometimes cause a bitter, metallic taste that can persist for several weeks. This phenomenon, known as “pine nut syndrome,” has been linked to a species of pine nut grown in China (Pinus armandii). Symptoms appear several days after consuming pine nuts and disappear within a few weeks. There’s no known remedy for it – you have to wait it out. Not everyone is susceptible to it, so scientists suspect genetics may be a factor.

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