Do you cook? If you have been cooking for any time at all I think you will have discovered that herbs add a lot to everyday cuisine. If you garden as well as cook, you know that a small herb garden can save you money, look pretty, and brighten up your meals.
I have always loved and grown herbs to use in the kitchen, but I also grow herbs that have had a fascinating history. The space I have devoted to herbs has grown over the years so that I now have an Herb Bed that extends for about 35 feet in front of the old part of our house. It begins with a rose bush and ends with horseradish.
The culinary herbs I grow and use are parsley, cilantro, chervil, chives, basil, sage, thyme, tarragon, summer savory, golden marjoram, oregano and dill. Black stem Ashfield mint and lemon balm also get used in the kitchen, mostly for drinks, but mint is a common ingredient in middle-eastern cuisine.
Growing annual herbs like parsley, basil and cilantro can save you a lot of money. The cost of a single flat of six seedlings, or a pack of seeds, is hardly more than the cost of one supermarket bunch. In the fall I wash, dry, and roll a handful of parsley up in waxed paper, put these rolls in a freezer bag and freeze them for use in the winter. These parsley logs are useful when making winter soups or stews. I just cut off an inch or two of the log, whatever I need, and put the rest back in the freezer. Cilantro is easy to dry.
Nowadays there are so many varieties of basil I can hardly keep up. This year I am growing Thai basil as well as Genovese. Besides using the basil fresh, I harvest some and put it through the food processor with some olive oil and then put spoonfuls in a plastic sandwich bag, and put those in a larger freezer bag that I can freeze and use during the winter.
I also have some horseradish in the Herb Bed. The huge leaves take up a lot of space. Even though I dig horseradish in the fall, I never manage to get the entire root which means I have new young plants the following spring, which can then be dug in the fall, and so the cycle continues.
This spring I added an edging of French shallot starts along most of the bed, as well as in the vegetable garden. Shallots used to be quite exotic, or at least only required for French cooking, but now every other recipe I find seems to call for a shallot or two. Shallots have a milder, sweeter taste than onions, and they are more expensive, but they are very easy to grow, and store well. While I have been known to substitute a small amount of onion for shallots in a recipe, there is a real difference in flavor and texture.
I also have a substantial patch of bee balm, sometimes known as Oswego tea, which is used in many herbal tea mixtures and is considered useful in soothing colds and sore throats. I do not harvest it. We simply enjoy the hummingbirds that visit its red blossoms. Bee balm is a spreader, but I chop off pieces of the matted roots every spring to give away. That keeps the plant controlled.
For its ornamental and historical attributes I grow rue. It is a small shrubby plant with bluish foliage and yellow flowers. It has been grown as a medicinal herb for thousands of years and was thought to be an antidote to many poisons, from deadly mushrooms to wasp venom. Rue was said to give second sight, as well as helping strengthen one’s regular eyesight. Some people still put a few bitter leaves in a salad and others find that brushing against the leaves on a hot summer afternoon can cause a rash. As I say, I consider it decorative.
Next to rue (Ruta graveolens) I planted thalictrum, sometimes called meadow-rue, because I mistakenly thought they were related. I don’t know which of the many thalictrum varieties I have, but it is tall with pretty plumy pink/magenta flowers in the summer.
What all of the plants growing in my Herb Bed have in common is that they are very happy living in soil of average fertility, that drains well, in full sun. They do not grow neatly, the mint runs every which way, and the dill self seeds everywhere, but I am not interested in having a decorative herb garden which takes a lot of work to keep in control. I want the herbs for cooking, or for their romantic, historic associations.
Herbs that I grow outside the herb bed are lovage which looks like a six foot tall celery plant, and whose leaves I can toss into a soup when I don’t have celery on hand.
I grow rosemary in a pot. It is the only herb I regularly grow in a pot, because it is tender, and I bring it in the house for the winter. The prostrate rosemary was bought in error, but it also thrives in a pot – outdoors and in.
What herbs do you grow? Do you grow them in the ground or in pots? Do you preserve them for winter use? What advice do you give? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll share your thoughts in a later column. ###