Herb Gardening

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Herb gardening can be a great companion activity to growing a vegetable garden. Using fresh herbs in cooking can add flavor and depth to any meal. Once established, most herbs are low maintenance and hardy. All they ask is decent soil, a little water on occasion, and a good layer of mulch to keep weeds under control.

Herb gardening is not only a pleasure to the nose and palate, but surprisingly pleasing to the eye as well. Herbs have so many unusual shapes, sizes, textures and appearances, it's nearly impossible to not enjoy growing them. Most herbs do very well as container plants too. There are two broad categories of herbs, perennial and annual. I'll review some of the most common and useful varieties of both here.

Perennial Herb Gardening

In my opinion, the place to start with herb gardening is with a base of perennials. Perennials are the herbs that come back year after year from the same root stock. Most perennial herbs are very easy to grow. They are hardy, drought tolerant and long lived. Here are a few of my personal favorites.

Chives blooming in the late spring

Chives are a member of the onion family. They grow in small clumps of grassy foliage 12 to 18 inches tall. If allowed to go to seed, they can become invasive. They do best in well drained soil and full sun, but aren't all that particular. A row of chives planted 8"- 10" apart along the edge of an herb garden make a eye catching display when they bloom in the late spring. Bloom heads are purplish pink and about an inch across on stalks that grow above the foliage. The leaves of chives can be used fresh or dried. Use them in soups, salads, potato dishes, and as garnishes to add a mild oniony flavor.

Greek Oregano

Oregano is a low growing spreading member of the mint family with small (1/4"-1/2") oval shaped leaves. Sends up small white blossoming heads in late summer. Oregano like well drained soil and full sun, but can tolerate poor soil. Oregano will grow in an orderly little clump up to about 18 inches across, but is not invasive.

The aroma of oregano leaves when crushed or bruised is that of Italian cooking. The best variety that I have found for cooking is Greek Oregano.

Leaves can be used fresh or dried in pasta sauces, as well as most meat and cheese based dishes.

Thyme is another member of the mint family. It normally grows low to the ground in small matted clumps 10 to 12 inches across, and has very small leaves (1/8"-1/4"). They have much the same requirements as Oregano, but tend to be a bit less drought tolerant due to their smaller size.

There are many different named varieties of thyme, each with a different appearance or fragrance. You could easily devote an entire herb garden to the various varieties of thyme. The best for culinary uses are Mother of thyme (t. pulegioides) or common thyme (t.vulgaris). Leaves of thyme can be used fresh or dry in sauces, salad dressings, as well as in fish, cheese and egg dishes. Fresh thyme on scrambled eggs is mighty tasty.

Mints are a huge family of plants, and come in sizes ranging from 1"-2" high minuscule Corsican Mint to Catnip which can grow to 5 or 6 feet tall.

Members of the Mentha genus are known to be very invasive. They spread by both underground and surface runners, and if left unchecked, can grow into enormous patches. Spreading is best controlled by growing in a container.

Mint plants grow well in a wide range of soil, and are very tough. They also hybridize easily so there are literally hundreds of named cultivars. Each one has a different flavor, aroma, size, and appearance. Peppermint and spearmint are the most common varieties of mint. Mints are used mainly in teas and desserts. The exception being lamb, which is traditionally served with mint. Teas made from mint are relaxing, and help reduce the effects of heartburn and indigestion.

Garden or Culinary Sage

Sage plants come in many sizes and shapes. Sages like well drained soils and full sun, but can tolerate a wide range of soil. For cooking purposes, Garden Sage is best (s. officinalis), but even within that species there are several different types with varying color patterns on the leaves. You can easily find, green, green and yellow blotched, green, yellow and white blotched, entirely purple, and entirely yellow varieties, any of which are acceptable for seasoning.
Sage is used in sausages, stuffings, pork, poultry and egg dishes. It's also an interesting addition to pasta sauces.

Rosemary is a tender perennial that is winter hardy only to UDSA planting zone 8 or higher. Further north, rosemary should either be treated as an annual, or grown in pots and brought inside for the winter.

Rosemary is an attractive woody shrub that has a pleasant scent when brushed against. It grows best in well drained soil, and thrives in pots. It is also very drought tolerant once it's established.

Fresh and dried leaves of rosemary is most commonly used in Italian and Greek dishes. It is a great addition to soups and pasta sauces (or anything else that has tomatoes in it). It is often rubbed on the surface of roast poultry, beef and game before cooking.

Annual Herb Gardening

Once you have a base of perennials established in your herb garden, you're ready for annuals. Annual herbs are those that complete their life cycle in one year, or those that aren't winter hardy in the location you live.

When you are herb gardening, use annual herbs to fill in the empty spaces between your perennial herbs. These plant usually require a bit more care than established perennials, and tend to be a bit more particular about soil conditions and watering. They can benefit from regular application of a water soluble fertilizer like Miracle Gro.

The extra effort is well worth it though, when you can begin to use cuttings for your own recipes. Here are a few of my favorites.

Basil is one of the best known annual herbs. There are many varieties and each one imparts its own scent and flavor to your cooking ranging from anise to cinnamon and licorice to lemon. Basil plants grow into a bush 2-4 feet high.

My favorites are plain old Sweet Basil, and Lettuce Leaf Basil. To me if you are going to cook with basil, your dish should have the flavor of basil, but to each their own...

Basil does best when planted in full sun, and gets regular water. Soil should be well drained. fresh basil leaves are used in tomato dishes, pasta sauces, and dishes that are based on eggs.

Basil leaves can be dried, but their aroma and flavor fade quicker than most other herbs. Herb gardening without planting 3 or 4 different varieties of basil every year just doesn't seem right.

Dill is a member of the carrot family and has a similar appearance and growth pattern. Dill does best planted in the early spring since it is neither heat or drought tolerant. It likes well drained soil in full sun, and grows very quickly up to 5 feet high. If allowed to go to seed, dill will often grow from seedlings the next year. Use dill leaves (fresh or dried) and seeds in salads, pickles, casseroles, salad dressings and dips. Dill leaves are commonly used on baked fish.

Parsley and Cilantro Parsley is one of the most widely used and best known culinary herb the world over. Parsley comes in two forms, curled leaf, which is used mainly for garnishes, and flat leaf, which is more often used for actual cooking, due to it's stronger flavor.

Parsley leaves are used fresh or dried and is used in soups, salads, casseroles, and many other savory dishes. It's an all purpose herb. Once you grow your own parsley, you will not want to go back to the dried flakes you get at the store.

Cilantro is a close relative to parsley and has the same growing requirements. Cilantro is used commonly in Hispanic cooking and is best known by most used in Salsa.

Parsley and Cilantro are more accurately biennials, and normally don't bloom or make seeds until their second year. As a culinary herb they are considered annuals, because the foliage is harvested in it's first year. They grow best in part or full sun, needs good moist soil and grow 2 - 3 feet tall.

Garlic is a member of the onion family, and is grown in a similar manner. Garlic bulbs are divided into individual cloves and planted in garden rows in the fall to be harvested the following summer. Tops grow 18"-24" tall. When ready to harvest, the tops turn yellow and fall over. the bulbs can then be pulled up and hung in a cool dark dry place to dry out for long term storage. Traditionally the tops are braided together to make a garlic "garland" and hung in the kitchen for decoration (and warding off vampires!). Garlic is used in so many dishes that I won't even try to mention any here.

Preserving Herbs for Year 'Round Use

With just a bit of care, herb gardening will produce much more herbs than you can use fresh. fortunately, most herbs can be cut and easily preserved for year 'round use.

The most common technique is drying. Some herbs do not keep well when dried, most notably Basil. Over time all dried herbs will loose their potency, and flavors will begin to fade. Herbs can be dried by hanging in a cool dry place, or in an oven on lowest setting. A food dehydrator is another common method of drying herbs. Any heat applied to herbs while drying will drive off some of the volatile oils that carry the flavor and aroma, so use caution. Air drying is the least destructive method.

Herbs can also be frozen to better preserve their flavors. I have frozen basil by cutting it up and mixed it with enough water to make it pourable, then pouring it into ice cube trays and freezing. The "basil cubes" can be removed from the trays when frozen and stored in freezer bags. This is very convenient, because you can just throw a cube or two into whatever you are cooking, and as the ice melts, you get fresh basil flavor and aroma.

Herbs can also be preserved by placing fresh cut leaves in high quality apple cider vinegar or extra virgin olive oil and sealing it in a glass jar. The flavors of the herbs get infused into the liqid and can be used in salads, and for cooking. Herbs preserved this way have a very long shelf life, and can be used for years. Some herbs preserved in vinegar tend to loose their color after a time, but the flavor stays strong.

Herb Gardening is an excellent companion to a vegetable garden. It can expand your cooking capabilities, and make food more interesting. Herbs are hardy, easy to grow, and come in so many different textures, sizes, shapes and smells that growing an herb garden just for the sake of enjoying the plants is a common practice. If you keep a small herb garden yourself, it's one more small way that you can increase your level of self sufficiency, and one less thing that you have to buy at the grocery store.

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