All About Herbs

I’m helping my friend Colly, the food columnist for the Press Banner, with her cooking class at the new Boys & Girls Club in Scotts Valley. Colly has planned a summer program filled with delicious recipes and I’m looking forward to learning along with the kids in the class. The first week was all about eggs. I’m sure we’ll be using herbs in a future recipe so I’m getting my own herb garden ready. Whether you grow herbs in pots or in the ground here are some tips.

Herbs growing in pots- parsley, oregano, basil and thyme.

Growing herbs near my kitchen door has raised the bar in my cooking skills. No more having to traipse halfway around the house for a snippet of Italian parsley for the lemon butter to drizzle on rosemary chicken. The oregano and basil are nearby for stuffed baked potatoes. This summer I plan to poach salmon with mushrooms, marjoram, lemon thyme and a touch of mint.

When shopping for herbs it’s a good idea to snip a leaf and crush it between your fingers. Smell the essential oil. You’d be amazed how different herbs can smell and taste depending on the source of the plant.

Thyme can smell like caraway, pine, camphor, lavender or turpentine. Rosemary plants can vary widely in taste depending on the source of the stock. You don’t want to ruin chicken dinner by using the crushed leaves of one that tastes of pine or turpentine.

Trim your herbs often to keep them bushy and productive. Fresh herbs are at their finest in summer as they peak in flavor and essential oils. Most herb stems can be cut and kept in a jar of water, out of direct sunlight, for a few days of use. I’ve even had basil send out roots in water.

The herbs I consider essential in the kitchen garden are basil, cilantro, oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley and sage. I also grow lemon verbena for tea, potpourri or sachets for my closet and drawers and hope to add summer savory, tarragon and Grecian laurel for bay leaves.

Nearly all herbs are perennial and 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. Parsley lives for 2 years then flowers and goes to seed. The flowers attract beneficial insects to your garden so leave them to do their work and start new plants to eats. The herbs that are annuals and need to be planted from starts or seed every year include basil, coriander, dill and summer savory.

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.

Here are some growing tips:
Most herbs like 6-8 hours of full sun. Well drained soil is essential. If drainage is poor, work in plenty of organic matter or grow in raised beds or containers. Water regularly until the plants are growing steadily. Then most will need only occasional watering. Exceptions are basil, chives, mint and parsley which prefer evenly moist soil. Many herbs attract beneficial insects if they are allowed to flower.

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. Next week I’ll talk about how to harvest, dry and preserve herbs.