Posts Tagged ‘Herbs’

Culinary Herbs in Our Garden

Icon Written by Geoff on July 1, 2007 – 6:53 pm

We have been growing herbs for over 20 years here in Michigan. Actually our son Geoff got us started when we lived in Omaha, Nebraska. He was in grade school at the time and was looking for something relatively easy to grow yet still rewarding. One thing lead to another and he soon had a 200 square foot herb garden. He grew most of the culinary herbs, such as, Sweet Basil, Greek Oregano, Sage, Thyme, Sweet Marjoram, Fennel, Chives, and Rosemary. 

When selecting a site you must consider drainage. Most herbs will not grow in wet soils. We built raised beds and installed underground drainage tiles in Omaha. Herbs, also, need a sunny location as the flavor oils are produced best when plants receive six to eight hours of full sunlight. 

Herbs will grow in any good neutral garden soil with average organic matter. In fact, most herbs do not do well in highly fertile soils as they tend to produce excessive foliage with poor flavor. When Geoff prepared the bed, he added 10-12 bushels of peat moss per 100 square feet, although compost would work just as well. Peat improves the soil condition and helps it retain moisture. 

Once established, herbs require minimal care. Quite frankly, we never had to water them, even during the driest times. Just an occasional application of compost at the beginning of the growing season kept them going. Pest were never a problem and weeding was seldom required. 

When we moved from Nebraska to Michigan we dug up most the herbs and brought them along. With the exception of Sweet Basil, the following original herbs still grow today in our garden. 

Fennel, a hardy, perennial, will grow in most any soil. Seeds should be sown directly in the garden in the late Spring. Be warned, the plant will self-sow generously. Use the leaves with pork, veal and fish. 

Sweet Marjoram, may be grown from seed or started from Summer cuttings. Use fresh or dried leaves in salads, dressings, meat, sausage, lamb dishes, beans and soups. To keep the plants neat, cut out all dead wood and remove dead flowers and stalks. 

Sweet Basil, is an annual herb used in tomato sauce, pesto and salads. Basil grows best in full sun and rich, moist soil. Sow seeds indoors in spring and transplant them after all danger of frost is past, or sow outdoors when temperatures are reliably warm. 

Rosemary is an attractive evergreen shrub with pine needle-like leaves. Propagate from cuttings of the non-flowering branches in early summer. Rosemary can also be grown from seed. Choose a sheltered position and well-drained soil and lots of sun. It is used on meats, stews, sauces, and soups. 

Greek Oregano, is a perennial widely used in Italian dishes, tomato sauce, pizza, fish and salad dressing It is easy to grow, we recommend propagating by cuttings in the Summer. 

Common Thyme’s leaves are used to season meats, poultry, stews, sauces, soups and dressings. It should be planted in full sun for best flavor. 

Common Sage, a familiar plant in the home garden, is used in sausages, poultry, meat, bread, dressings, vegetables, omelettes and stuffing. You can never have enough Sage. 

There is nothing like the taste imparted by fresh herbs, although if done correctly, dry herbs are very good. We would not know what to do without our herb garden.

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Herbs in the Garden

Icon Written by Geoff on June 1, 2001 – 5:15 pm

This month we are looking at herbs in the kitchen garden. Although herbs have always had a place in the garden, it is only in the last decade that interest in growing and using herbs has really bloomed. Freshly harvested herbs have pungent and aromatic qualities that far exceed those bought at the local market. Even after the outdoor growing season is over, you can still enjoy dried herbs in fragrant potpourris and sachets. Herbs can also be grown indoors in pots. Herbs are easy to grow and use. They require little care, have very few insects or disease problems, and generally require little fertilizer. 

The first thing we need to consider is site selection. Drainage is probably the most important single factor in successful herb growing although, most herbs like a lot of sunlight too. Very few of the herbs will grow in wet soils. If the area is poorly drained, modify the soil by removing the soil to a depth of 15 to 18 inches and placing a 5-6 inch layer of crushed stone or sand on the bottom. Before returning the soil to the bed area, mix some compost in to lighten the texture. Adding 4-6 cubic feet of peat or compost per 100 square feet of garden area will help improve soil condition and retain needed moisture. The soil at the site does not have to be especially fertile, so little fertilizer should be used. A kitchen garden can be an area 20 by 4 feet, preferably raised. 

Historically, nearly all herbs were grown from seed. A light, well-drained soil is best for starting the seedlings indoors. Be careful not to cover the seeds too deeply with soil. Generally, the finer the seed, the shallower it should be sown. Sow anise, coriander, dill, and fennel directly in the garden since they do not transplant well. Most biennials should be sown in late spring directly into the ground. Work the soil surface to a fine texture and wet. Fine seeds, such as marjoram, savory, or thyme, will spread more evenly if you mix them with sand. Sow the seeds in very shallow rows and firm the soil over them. Starting herbs from seeds takes longer than most other seed except basil, which germinates quickly. A few herbs, such as mints, need to be contained or they will take over. 

Your herb garden will need attention throughout the growing season. Weed control and provision for adequate moisture are two important cultural necessities. The use of a mulch is an effective means of controlling weeds, maintaining constant soil moisture, and temperature for the root systems (see February 2001 Yard Talk). To be effective, the mulch should be applied at least 3 – 4 inches deep. 

Many herbs can be grown successfully in containers on the patio. Some reasons for growing herbs in containers rather than in the garden are: 

  1. Many of them are small and get lost in a landscape.
  2. Growing herbs in containers brings them closer to the viewer.
  3. Container growing is recommended for herbs that need a lot of drainage.
  4. For tender herbs that need to be over-wintered indoors.

Any container is suitable for growing herbs as long as it has a drainage hole. Clay pots are often preferred because they are porous. Other containers that work well include window boxes, strawberry jars, and hanging baskets. Watering is the most difficult part of container gardening. Plants growing in containers dry out faster than in the ground. On a hot, sunny day, a container may require water once or twice daily. When the top of the soil feels dry, apply enough water to allow a small amount to come out the drainage holes in the bottom of the container. 

While most herbs prefer a hot sunny location, there are a few that will tolerate shade such as: 

  1. Sweet Cicely
  2. Chervil
  3. Sweet Woodruff
  4. Wintergreen
  5. Pennyroyal
  6. Coriander
  7. Fennel
  8. Dill
  9. Rosemary

Fresh leaves may be picked when the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. To ensure good oil content, pick leaves or seeds after dew has disappeared but, before the sun becomes too hot. For dry, winter use, harvest leaves before the flower buds open. Pick the seed heads as the color changes from green to brown or gray. 

Dried herbs can be just as tasty as those bought at the store. Most herbs are at their peak flavor just before flowering, so this is a good time to collect them for drying and storage. However, proper handling is important to the success of your herb harvest. 

  1. Cut off the herbs early in the morning just after the dew has dried. Cut annuals off at ground level, and perennials about one-third down the main stem, including the side branches.
  2. Wash herbs, with the leaves on the stems, lightly in cold running water to remove any soil, dust, bugs, or other foreign material.
  3. Drain thoroughly on absorbent towels or hang upside down in the sun until the water evaporates.
  4. Strip leaves off the stalks once plants have drained and dried, leaving only the top 6 inches. Remove all blossoms.
  5. To retain some green leaf coloring, dry in the dark by hanging plant upside down in bunches in paper bags.
  6. Tie whole stems very tightly in small bunches. Individual stems will shrink and fall. Hang in a dark, warm well-ventilated, dust-free area.
  7. Leaves are ready when they feel dry and crumbly in about 1 to 2 weeks.

For quick oven drying, take care to prevent loss of flavor, oils, and color. Place leaves or seeds on a cookie sheet or shallow pan not more than 1 inch deep in an open oven for about 2 to 4 hours. Microwave ovens can be used to dry leaves quickly. Place the clean leaves on a paper plate or paper towel. Place the herbs in the oven for 1 to 3 minutes, mixing every 30 seconds. 

When completely dry, the leaves may be screened to a powder or stored whole in airtight containers, such as canning jars with tightly sealed lids. Seeds should be stored whole and ground as needed. Leaves retain their oil and flavor if stored whole and crushed just before use. Once you are sure the herbs are completely dry, place them in the airtight containers, and store them in a cool, dry place away from light. Never use paper or cardboard containers for storage as they will absorb the herbs’ aromatic oils. 

Herbs also can be frozen. Harvest herbs according to recommendations. Wash them thoroughly and blanch them in boiling, water. Cool them quickly in ice water and then package and freeze them. 

Most perennial herbs are hardy plants that can survive winter. Here are some suggestions to help with plant survival. Pruning should be done during spring and summer; avoid excessively cutting the plants back in the fall. The growth serves to catch leaves that help insulate the plants. An additional mulch can be placed around the plants. Avoid a mulch that packs down and stays too wet during the winter, which would cause the plants to rot. Plants that are marginally hardy (such as rosemary and Greek oregano) should be dug up, potted, and over-wintered indoors. They can be moved back to the garden the following spring. 

Some of the most popular herbs are:

  1. Tarragon – Tarragon leaves have a distinctive anise flavor and are used in salads, marinades, and sauces. Tarragon grows best in full sun but seems to do better in semi-shade. It can be propagated from root cuttings or by division. It has multi-branched growth with narrow, somewhat twisted, green leaves and grows to about 2 feet.
  2. Woodruff – Sweet woodruff is most often used in flavoring wine and in other drinks. Sweet woodruff can be grown as a perennial. It is a low, spreading, perennial plant that forms clumps about 8 inches in height. Harvest and dry plants in the spring when fragrance is the strongest.
  3. Winter Savory – Winter savory is a condiment often used as a flavoring in liqueurs. Winter savory does best in a light, sandy soil. Keep dead wood trimmed out. Propagate by cuttings or raise from seed. Winter savory has dark green, shiny, pointed leaves, It grows about 2 feet tall. Pick young shoots and leaves any time.
  4. Thyme – Thyme is widely used as a seasoning. It goes well in soups, poultry stuffing, and slow-cooking beef dishes. This plant grows best in light, well-drained soil. Thyme is a low-growing, wiry-stemmed perennial that reaches about 6 to 10 inches in height. The stems are stiff and woody and leaves are small, oval, and gray-green in color. Propagate with cuttings or divisions. To harvest, cut leafy tops and flower clusters when first blossoms open and dry.
  5. Sage – This bitter herb is used in stuffing for poultry, rabbit, pork, and baked fish. It also can be used in sausage or meat loaves. Plant sage where it will receive full sun. Space plants 2 to 3 feet apart. Sage is a woody, hardy perennial plant with oblong, woolly, gray-green leaves that grows 2 to 3 feet. Start from seed or cuttings. Harvest by picking leaves before or at blooming.
  6. Rosemary – Rosemary is a popular flavoring for meats and dressings or as a garnish on pot roasts. Rosemary grows best in well-drained, sunny locations in lime-rich soil. Rosemary is a hardy evergreen shrub. It can be propagated by cuttings or grown from seed. Leaves may be harvested anytime.
  7. Oregano – Sprinkle leaves over lamb or steak rubbed with lemon juice, or add to other Italian-type sauces. Oregano grows well in poor soil and with lots of sun. It is propagated by seed or division. Use fresh leaves as needed.
  8. Sweet Marjoram – Sweet marjoram leaves, fresh or dried, can be used as a flavoring in cooking. Sweet marjoram, usually grown as an annual, it is very fragrant. This plant can be easily grown from seed or cuttings. Its growth habit is low and spreading, and it reaches a height of about 8 to 12 inches. It has small, oval, gray-green leaves that are velvety to the touch. Sweet marjoram leaves can be used anytime.
  9. Florence Fennel – Fennel leaves have an anise-like flavor and the stems can be eaten like celery. Fennel is a perennial that grows to about 3 to 4 feet tall. Fennel grows easily from seed planted in the garden in spring. Pick seeds when ripe. The best stems for eating are the tender flower stalks just before they blossom.
  10. Hyssop – Hyssop’s pungent leaves are used as a condiment. Hyssop will grow in poor soil. When it is established, it is a quite hardy plant. It is propagated from seed. Harvest leaves and stems as needed.
  11. Dill – Both the leaves and seeds of dill are used for flavoring pickles and sauerkraut. Dill is easily grown from seed sown in the garden in spring after all danger of frost has passed. Pick leaves just as flowers open and seeds when they are flat and brown.
  12. Coriander – Coriander seeds are used as a condiment in confections. This plant does well in any good garden soil. Coriander is easily grown from seed. Gather seeds as they ripen in midsummer.
  13. Peppermint – The leaves are used in tea and for other flavoring. The plant will grow in sun or shade. Peppermint is a perennial plant with spreading roots and many upright stems 2 feet in height. Propagate by division or cuttings. Use leaves any time.
  14. Parsley – Parsley is used for both garnishing and flavoring. Plant in full sun in average soil. Parsley is a hardy annual. Leaves can be used fresh or dried. Can be harvested as needed.
  15. Chives – Chives are used to give an onion-like flavor to foods. Chives demand little care other than dividing occasionally. They are easily propagated by division. Cut fresh leaves for use as they are needed.
  16. Sweet Basil – Basil is used for tomato dishes in either fresh or dried form. Basil is an attractive annual, about 18 inches tall. Basil grows easily from seed planted after all danger of frost has passed. Green leaves can be picked anytime but it is best to cut leaves for drying just before flowers open.
  17. Chervil – Chervil leaves are used in soups, salads, sauces, and egg dishes. Chervil is an annual plant that grows up to 2 feet tall. Chervil can be raised from seed sown in the garden. Pick leaves just before the buds break.
  18. Borage – Borage flowers and leaves are used to give a cool, cucumber-like flavor to summer drinks and with tomato dishes. Borage is easily grown from seed. This plant does best in dry, sunny places. Pick blossoms as they open and use leaves fresh anytime although they are seldom dried.

Herbs are fun and easy to grow, most fit in well in a sunny border with your other perennials. We like to use herbs along walks where their fragrance can be released as you walk by. Most add charm to cut flower arrangements and are a natural when dried for wreathes and baskets. Not everything can be enjoyed in so many ways like herbs.

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