Last year I became a gourmet chef. That may be a slight exaggeration but growing herbs near my kitchen door raised the bar in my cooking skills. No more having to traipse halfway around the house for a snip of Italian parsley for the lemon butter to drizzle on rosemary chicken. And you should taste my stuffed baked onions with oregano and basil not to mention the poached salmon with mushrooms, marjoram, lemon thyme and a touch of mint. Yes, growing my own herbs has made cooking more fun, more flavorful and more nutritious.
Throughout history herbs have been important to us. Ancient Greeks used sweet marjoram as a tonic and parsley as a cure for stomach ailments. Their athletes made a lotion of bruised mint leaves for use after a bath. Rosemary was eaten in the Middle Ages as a tranquilizer and headache cure. Mint was used at that time to purify drinking water that had turned stale on long ocean voyages.
Parsley, anise, pennyroyal, sorrel, watercress, wild leeks and lavender are just some herbs that were found to be growing in America by the early settlers. They also brought many herbs with them for flavoring food, storing with linens, strewing on floors, dying fabrics or burning just for the pleasant fragrance. Chives were planted in meadows by early Dutch settlers so cows would give chive flavored milk. Herb gardens were an essential feature of pioneer homes and slips, seeds and plants were exchanged as we do now.
Some herbs, like oregano, contain chemical compounds that are known to have antioxidants, disease preventing and health promoting properties. Thymol, an essential oil found in oregano and thyme is strongly antiseptic and has been found to be anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. Thymol has been used to control varroa mites and the growth of mold in bee colonies although some studies indicate it also increases the permeability of other pesticides through the bee cuticle.
Herbs are super easy to grow. I started with the basic four – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, adding basil, oregano, chives, marjoram and mint soon after. This year I'm going to start some summer savory, tarragon, coriander and a Grecian laurel plant for bay leaves.
Most herbs are perennials. They overwinter and come back each year. Parsley lives for 2 years then flowers, goes to seed and needs to be replanted. The flowers attract beneficial insects to your garden so leave them to do their work. The herbs that are annuals and need to be planted from starts or seed every year include basil, coriander, dill, and summer savory.
You can grow herbs in the ground, in containers outside or in pots inside the house if you have a sunny window. Herbs need good drainage. None will grow in wet soils. If your garden soil is poorly drained you will have to amend it with compost for any chance of success. The soil does not have to be especially fertile, though. Herbs need little fertilizer as highly fertile soil tends to produce excessive amounts of foliage with poor flavor.
I grow all my herbs in pots outside. That way I can use a good quality potting soil and make sure they get watered when the soil is dry an inch or two down. Mints like spearmint, peppermint, pineapple mint, chocolate mint, Cuban or mojito mint and orange bergomot need to be contained anyway as they spread. Some mints are grown as a groundcover and encouraged to spread like Corsican mint, pennyroyal and the California native yerba buena (satureja douglasii).
Nearly all herbs can be grown from seed. Anise, coriander (also known as cilantro), dill and fennel should be sown directly in the garden as they do not transplant well. You can start basil now inside from seed but our nights are still too cold to plant basil starts outside.
Although rust infects mints, very few diseases or insects attack herbs. Occasionally, spider mites may be found on low growing herb plants in hot, dry weather. Aphids may attack anise, caraway, dill and fennel. Washing off the foliage early in the day helps in controlling mites and aphids.
How do you harvest herbs? Fresh leaves may be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. To ensure good oil content, pick leaves after dew has disappeared but before the sun gets too hot. Most herbs are at their peak flavor just before flowering. To store, wash herbs with the leaves on the stems lightly in cold running water to remove soil, dust or bugs, Drain on absorbent towels or hang plants upside down in the sun until the water evaporates. Then hang to dry thoroughly in small bunches in a dark, warm, well ventilated room before stripping leaves off stalks. Herbs with a high moisture content, such as mint and basil, need rapid drying or they will mold. To retain some green leaf coloring, dry in the dark or by hanging plants upside down in bunches in paper bags.
Fresh herbs are the most flavorful. The stuff in spice jars that you get in the store is often tasteless when compared to the real thing. Herb plants make beautiful ornamental additions to perennial beds and borders, too. This year make your garden come alive with herbs.