Saturday

Earth Day Activities

If you love to garden, you probably have a greater appreciation for and sense of responsibility to the Earth we all share.  Earth Day falls on April 22nd this year and every year, so after you finish your taxes (ugh), take some time to perform one Earth friendly task in honor of the big blue marble.

These days kids are pretty ecologically aware, but you can still bring home some important lessons on Earth Day that will help instill in them some planet friendly habits that will last a lifetime. I just completed a couple of environment focused articles for HowStuffWorks.com, a Discovery Channel owned site.  They have helpful tips for Earth Day activities and a few suggestions on how to help your kids grow their environmental muscles.

One of my favorite quotes from physician and philosopher and Albert Schweitzer goes like this:

"By having a reverence for life, we enter into a spiritual relation with the world. By practicing reverence for life we become good, deep, and alive."

Have a wonderful Earth Day, and make this one count by showing your kids that having a reverence for life and the world around them is important -- and fun.


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Photo: By Andrew Z. Colvin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday

Cooking with Herbs

Lots of people love to cook with herbs -- in theory -- but approach them with caution in practice. Here's why: Herbs do impart flavor and aroma to food. In some cases they can add texture, too. A little thyme in an omelette can make those mild, fluffy eggs taste earthy and richer (more robust) somehow. Add too much, though, and you end up with a pile of yellow curds that smell and taste moldy and pretty darned unappetizing. If you've work with herbs for any length of time, you probably have a horror story or two to tell. Mine is from over a decade back when I had some lovely fresh sage I wanted to use in homemade Thanksgiving stuffing.

My Kitchen Herb Horror Story

I was raring to go. I made my own croutons out of stale French bread baguettes. Heck, I even made the bread myself. This stuffing was going to be my crowning Thanksgiving achievement. I was in a new house, had a brand new garden and was ready to shine. I went out to my herb patch and piled plenty of sage into a basket. This was one of those charming wicker baskets (I wanted the fairytale). Once indoors, I removed the stems from the sage, washed the leaves, minced them and added them to the croutons I'd drizzled with butter and olive oil. Then I dried the whole shebang slightly in the oven.

By this time, the kitchen smelled delicious. My husband was duly impressed and looking forward to sausage and giblet stuffing the way grandma used to make it down on the farm. The only problem was that I overestimated the amount of sage it would take to give the stuffing that homemade goodness -- by about five times. My stuffing that year turned out smelling like a musty basement. If possible, it tasted worse than it smelled -- more like medicine than anything you'd ever eat voluntarily.

Tips for Using the Right Herb Quantities in Cooking

This turned out to be a good lesson because I never made the same mistake again (I have made many others, though). When it comes to herbs you haven't used in cooking before, or used fresh before, less is always more. In most cases, you can add more of a particular herb later in the preparation process if you need to. Thyme, sage, rosemary, cilantro, dill and cumin are all potential recipe assassins if you use them too generously. Here's my tip for using herbs with which you are unfamiliar:

Do research - Check a number of recipes similar to the one you plan on preparing. The goal here is to become familiar with the seasoning options experienced cooks have used before.

Fresh or dry makes a difference - Pay particular attention to whether an herb is used fresh or dried in the recipe you have in mind. The classic ratio is three to one: If the recipe calls for a dried herb, you'll typically need three times that amount if you're using the herb fresh.

Balance the ratio - If you decide to add additional herbs to a basic recipe, cut down on the amount of the other herbs involved. If that marinara sauce recipe calls for a teaspoon of oregano and you want to add some marjoram or thyme, cut back on the amount of oregano by a like amount until you have a chance to perform a taste test. Don't make a judgment call right away, either. Wait fifteen minutes or so to give the herbs a chance to release their oils and flavor into the mixture. If you want to add more after that, fine.

Cooking time matters - Here's another tip: Some herbs can hold up to a long cooking time while others can't. With the exception of sturdy herbs like, say, rosemary and bay leaf, adding an herb to a dish too soon can turn it bitter. Recipes are pretty good about explaining when herbs should be added, but barring guidance from a recipe you trust, prefer adding herbs no earlier than a half hour before the dish is supposed to be ready to serve. In the case of herbs destined for soups and stews, it's a good idea to get in the habit of adding them in a tied bundle (or a length of cheesecloth) and removing them once the long-cooking stock is ready. You'll avoid a bitter bite as well as an unsightly flotilla of spent herbs suspended in your recipe.

Flavors fade - There are just a couple of last minute considerations and we're done.  Dried herbs in your cupboard lose flavor as they age.  The herb police have adjusted the old rule that herbs are only viable for six months -- extending that timeline to a year if the herbs have been stored well (in a dark, dry place).  That doesn't mean that all herbs will retain their flavor that long.  For the best results, taste test your recipes every time.  It's the only way to be sure that the herbs you're using are giving you the flavor punch your recipes deserve.

Some herbs don't dry well - Some herbs lose almost all their flavor when dried. This doesn't keep enterprising companies from selling them, though.  The problem with using them, and dried ginger is an excellent example, is that they have very little flavor, and what flavor they do have seems to fade quickly.  I wrote a post about this last year, and I'll link to it here so I don't have to repeat myself.  It's a list of herbs that really aren't worth buying dried. Most can be cultivated in your garden or on a windowsill pretty easily.  Others, like ginger, that are more difficult to maintain, can be purchased fresh, or in the case of basil, frozen. I even have a nice tip on preserving fresh ginger root so you don't waste any.  

Have a great day.


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Photo 1 - FreshIngredientsMF.jpg courtesy of morguefile: http://morguefile.com/archive/display/106260

Photo 2 - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_seven_herbs.jpg by Blue Lotus at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bluelotus/83354711/. It was reviewed on 5 January 2007 by the FlickreviewR robot and confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

Photo2 -  By BrokenSphere (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/Proven%C3%A7al_herbs%2C_Saint-Paul_de_Vence.JPG

Wednesday

Herbs in the Garden

Herb lovers enjoy establishing special spots for their favorite plants. They may be modified flowerbeds, borders or rows along a vegetable patch. They may be decorative wagon wheels accessible via crushed stone walkways or dozens of pots assembled cheek by jowl against the worn wooden side of a shed or garage. There are lots of ways to dedicate a spot for herbs, but most people starting out with their first few herb plants take a more democratic approach. They intersperse their herbs with their other garden flowers like petunias, roses and snapdragons.

Herbs as Pest Control

This is actually a very nice idea. Herbs have more going for them than fragrance and flavor. Because they typically have strong aromas, they're often good at repelling insect pests. Here's an example: I keep catnip in the garden for my two cats, of course. I also plant it next to my squash, cucumbers and okra to repel bugs. As the catnip plants get leggy, I cut the longer stems, crush the leaves to release the scent, and place the stems around other veggies like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, too. I also like to place catnip close to the house. Catnip oil is used to repel termites (it's even being tested as an ingredient in outdoor paint products), and I figure a snoot full of catnip near my home's foundation couldn't hurt.

Other herbs can be useful this way, too. I've talked about planting hyssop and garlic together near rose bushes to repel the many insects that love to chow down on roses. Garlic also works as an all-purpose repellent. The same goes for French marigold and others. You can find out more about companion planting in my blog: Companion Planting Herbs

Herbs in the Garden with Big Appeal

That's not the only reason to plant herbs in your standard flowerbeds. A lavender bush by your garden gate is a fragrant welcome to guests as well as a sturdy plant that can take thoughtless foot traffic. It produces attractive spikes of light purple, pink, white or even yellow blooms, and if you stick to the fragrant and culinary varieties, you can use them in dried arrangements, aromatherapy, in your potpourri and in your recipes. You can even grow successive lavender plants into an effective hedge. That's a lot of service for your plant buying dollar.

Herbs are like that. They're multitaskers that work with the mainstays of your garden, like that lilac tree, azalea or holly bush, and contribute other attributes that will enhance your outdoor spaces. Even better, most herbs are pretty maintenance free. A sage plant will fill in a corner of your border nicely and stay chubby and attractive for years. Common sage has pebbly, gray-green leaves that are very touchable. Its monochromatic look will give your eyes a rest among those brightly colored lilies, irises and other spring and summer showstoppers. Once the flowers stop blooming, you can snip some sage for your autumn turkey stuffing and dry a few stems for other winter cooking projects. You're not going to get that kind of flexibility from a begonia or hydrangea.

Other Garden Herb Superstars


Here are some other herbs that work very nicely in your landscape:

  • Chives - Grow them as close to your kitchen door as possible. Snip the tops when you need to add color and a little oniony flavor to potatoes, salads and casseroles. Chives come back year after year once they get established. They have an upright habit and look like grass. Ornamental grasses are popular these days, so nestle a few chive plants in your borders as a linear accent -- and a mealtime flavor enhancer.
  • Oregano - Another hardy perennial, oregano has tiny round leaves and grows into a full, bright green mound about two feet across. It sends up spikes with purple or blue flowers. It's attractive in its own right and adds some nice texture to a bland flowerbed. It's also delicious minced into marinara sauce or homemade meatballs.
  • Pineapple sage - Tall and light green. Pineapple sage isn't winter hardy, but it does have a to-die-for fresh fragrance that really smells like pineapple, as well as lovely bright red flowers that attract hummingbirds.
  • Rosemary - Rosemary has a spiky look with long, narrow leaves that somewhat resemble pine needles. It has a deep green color and a sharp tangy aroma. In California and other warm, temperate climates, it's a common plant for hedges, and although common rosemary is not frost tolerant, newer varieties can be cultivated to U.S. Zone 5.
  • Thyme - With tiny, delicate leaves and small purple, pink or white flowers, thyme is a lovely little plant. It's available as a shrub as well as a creeper. The quintessential thyme application is between loose paving and stepping stones in a cottage garden. Thyme is hardy and won't crowd the plants around it. It's available in varieties that smell like lemon, lime, caraway and other fragrances. There are also gray, yellow and variegated options.
These are just a few samples of the wonderful variety herbs have in a conventional setting. Try one or two. You won't be sorry. If you like these suggestions, you can find plant profiles for the herbs listed in the sidebar at the left of this post.


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Photo 2 - By Pamla J. Eisenberg from USA [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d0/Herb_Garden%2C_Spring_Blooms%2C_Huntington.jpg

Photo 3 - By Richard Croft [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f9/Herb_Garden_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1404860.jpg

Monday

How to Grow Curry Plant

Curry Plant
Curry plant is a curious and interesting little herb that may not be in the top five or ten choices on your herb wish list but definitely deserves your consideration.

Fast Facts About Curry Plant

Helichrysum italicum or curry plant is a tender perennial. Outdoors, it does best in U.S. zones 8 to 11. It can't tolerate a hard frost. It prefers soil that drains well, full sun and warm conditions. It's a perfect choice for intermittent drought prone areas or for a xeriscaped (low water) garden. If you have a spot behind a shed or garage that tends to reject your efforts to plant it out, curry plant may be a good choice there, too. It performs well in poor soil and isn't finicky about niceties like pH (although keeping things on the neutral side wouldn't hurt). Because it's such a good sport about water, it doesn't require mulching. It's also a natural pest repellent. Bugs tend to avoid it, and deer hate it.

Growing to a height of about 30 inches or so, curry plant looks like a cross between lavender and rosemary. It has soft, gray-green foliage and produces small yellow flowers. It may require staking, especially in a windy location or a spot that sees a lot of foot traffic like a tree lawn.

Uses for Curry Plant


Curry plant is often promoted as an aromatic herb. Its common name derives from its scent, which can smell like curry. (As most of you know, curry is actually a blend of a variety of different spices that can vary from country to country and region to region.) When placed along a walkway, the aroma can be unexpected and enticing. To some folks, curry plant doesn't smell as much like curry as something else -- maple syrup. Regardless of how you interpret the aroma, it has a somewhat sweet, spicy and flowery note that seems at home with both sweet and savory fare.

I mention this because curry plant is sometimes maligned as pretty useless in the kitchen because it has a mild flavor. Much of its aroma is lost in cooking. As with pineapple sage, I think people expect curry plant to have more culinary power because it smells so nice. Even though curry plant isn't the flavor powerhouse promised by its complex and very compelling scent, it is still useful in the kitchen. Actually, there are a lot of uses for curry plant: Chopped fine it compliments mild dishes and ingredients like eggs, yogurt, mild cheeses and even fish. It enhances vinegar blends and makes a nice garnish, too. If you think you might like to try making an herb wreath, swag or even potpourri, curry plant will look and smell nice there as well.

Propagating Curry Plant

This useful little herb can be propagated from seed or cuttings, and the plant itself will survive for years in your landscape. It tends to get rangy and untidy after a while, though, and will become less productive after about the third or fourth year.

Uses for Curry PlantImmature plants make unique gifts. Many gardeners are unfamiliar with curry plant and are immediately drawn to its aroma and soft, elongated, gray leaves. It's adorable and unusual.

Growing Curry Plant Indoors

Curry plant makes a very nice houseplant provided you can give it plenty of sun. This plant will need supplemental light if you can't give it six to eight hours of powerful light a day. A southern exposure close to the window is ideal. I've kept a curry plant indoors for a couple of years now, putting it outside in spring and summer. As one of my commuter plants, it's refreshingly undemanding. When it spends time in my kitchen, its spicy aroma is very noticeable and nice. Even when I'm not cooking, it smells like I have something delicious going on. If you do place curry plant in a pot, make sure to add some sand to the soil for good drainage, and water it sparingly.

If you'd like to expand your herb collection this year, I recommend curry plant. It's a curiosity, but a fun and useful one.




Photo Credits:

Photo 1 - CurryPlant_Wiki.jpg By Kareha (a photograph taken by myself (Kareha)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACurry_plants.jpg

Photo 2 - CurryPlantBlossom_Wiki.jpg By 6th Happiness (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/ http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACurry-plant-blooming.JPG


Sunday

Happy Easter from the Herb Gardener

I wanted to pop in and offer my best wishes for the day.  Even if you don't celebrate Easter, for many it's the real rather than the official start of spring.

In a surprising number of U.S. locales, the weather seems too good to be true this spring.  We are a few weeks away from the frost free date in my part of the Midwest, so I've held back from a big push in the garden.  I've been limited to starting seeds indoors, doing some preliminary cleanup in the yard and, of course, watching the weather reports (and the skies).  I am relentlessly drawn to the garden centers around town, though -- and those new plants at the nursery, but it's still too soon.  I've even treated the wooden handles on my trowels and other garden tools with baby oil -- you've gotta know that's pretty desperate to get the season started.

I remain skeptical of all those flats of annuals and veggie seedlings beckoning me to get my hands dirty earlier than is strictly prudent (which would be the first weekend in May for my area).  I've seen the damage a late frost can do. So, I plan on waiting, darn it.  It's a daily struggle, though.

I'm looking at the margins of my garden through a back window as I write.  Everything looks so green and lush. My family is a bit past the stage where hiding Easter eggs is a fun activity.  I miss it, though.  If you're coloring eggs -- and hiding them -- take photos for later.  You'll appreciate the reminders.

Truth be told, I'm actually waiting to catch a glimpse of the wild bunny who has taken to stopping by of a morning to brunch on the returning or newly sprouted plants in my veggie patch.  He clearly appreciates the best, and observing a chubby young bunny on Easter morning seems like a perfect pastime. I'll think of him as a pesky marauder later in the season, but today he's late, and I'm a bit worried.

Whether you're baking up cinnamon rolls for a sweet Sunday treat, hiding Easter baskets behind the couch (You can only do that once. Kids catch on quick.), steaming young asparagus spears, chopping parsley, or just putting the finishing touches on your baked ham, I wish you a delicious, sunny and memorable day!

Saturday

Easter Herb and Vegetable Tips

If you're preparing Easter dinner this year, here are some tips that will make the most of your ingredients and maybe give your menu a little added zip:

Herb conversion - If you're cooking with herbs and have some fresh varieties around, the conversion from fresh to dry is three to one. That means for every tablespoon of fresh herbs in a recipe, use 1 teaspoon of dry herbs. The flip side of that is for every teaspoon of dry herbs in a recipe, use one tablespoon of fresh herbs.

Herb prep - For the best results, mince fresh herbs fine and grind dried herbs small. Herbs can be chewy, fibrous or bitter if you get a big bite, so make sure you prep them well. I use a coffee grinder for most of my dry herb chopping chores and a mini-chopper for fresh herbs (or a sharp knife). I also like using a mortar and pestle.

Herbs to buy fresh - If you'd like to try one of the fresh herb varieties from the produce department of your market (until your garden crop is ready), try chives, cilantro, dill and basil. They all taste much more flavorful fresh than dry.

Customize your mayo - For holidays, I like to make flavored mayonnaise. It's very tasty and creamier than commercially available mayo. It's surprisingly easy to make, too. Just take your time with the blending. If you try this one addition to your dinner, or after holiday sandwiches, you won't be sorry. You can find a basic recipe with herb variations in my post: Herb Mayonnaise Recipes

If you know you'll have at least one guest who is a stickler for eating low fat treats (the killjoy), make an herbed cheesy dip using yogurt and spices. It's easy to make, refreshing and tastes good with crackers, chips or fresh veggies: Homemade Herbed Cheese

After you buy all that fresh produce for the holiday, keep the leftover stuff out of the garbage with these tips: 
  • Save your leftover green onions for the garden, too. If you know you won't be using the whole bunch from the market, save those with the longest root tips and plant them in a three or four inch pot. Transplant them to the garden with your other seedlings once they show a little growth (two weeks or so). 
  • Cut off the heel off your whole celery bulb and plant it in a 6-inch pot to a depth of two inches using potting mix (with the side you cut facing up). Put the pot in a sunny window and keep it watered. In ten days or so you'll see it sprout. Transplant it to your garden after the last frost of the season. It'll give you celery goodness all summer. (Oh, and try placing any leftover celery ribs in a glass of water in your fridge. They'll last longer that way.) 
  • Peel any extra ginger you have from your ham glaze recipe and slice it thin. Place it in a jar and cover the slices with Sherry. They'll last indefinitely that way in your refrigerator and you can use them for your teriyaki marinade. If you purchased organically grown ginger from a specialty market, you may even get it to sprout. Ginger is wonderful in a warm weather garden and makes a very nice houseplant.
  • Plant leftover potatoes (red, russet or sweet) in your garden using a large trash bag you've perforated with a three-hole punch. You can do this on a deck or patio pretty easily. If potatoes start to sprout roots in your cupboard, there's a good chance they sprout in your garden as well.
  • If you buy garlic by the bulb, you know that the center cloves are long and kid of puny. You can place them in water in a sunny window and start a whole new plant from them for your garden. Sure, it takes a couple of years for garlic to mature, but free starts make it worthwhile.
  • That big bunch of parsley is either too much to use in your recipes or you employ it as a garnish that's later discarded. This year, remove the stem ends from leftover parsley and dry the leaves on a cookie sheet using your oven's "warm" setting. Just crack the over door a bit and dehydrate the parsley until it is crackling dry (about five hours). Seal the dried leaves in zip-lock bag or air tight jar and place the container in a dark cabinet. It should last sixty days or more. Crumble the leaves as you use them.

Have a wonderful holiday.

Wednesday

Lavender Pepper Recipe

Dried Lavender Blossoms
Lavender pepper is one of those designer spice blend that's gained prominence in the last couple of years. It actually makes a very nice seasoning for beef, chicken and especially seafood. I particularly like it on shrimp. Lavender actually works surprisingly well with pepper. It offers a flowery note that stands up to the peppery bite without tasting bitter.

You should really give this one a try. It's a keeper.

Lavender Pepper Recipe 

Ingredients

  • 2 teaspoons black peppercorns 
  • 1 teaspoon white peppercorns 
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt (the minerals in the salt do add flavor) 
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried, culinary grade lavender flowers (or use1 teaspoon fresh lavender flowers) 
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seed 
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves (1-1/2 teaspoons fresh) 

Black and White Peppercorns
Directions

Whip up small batches using a coffee grinder (or spice grinder) and store them in an air tight container. Just be sure to use culinary grade lavender flowers -- or flowers from your garden that are pesticide free.

Special note: Although some lavender pepper recipes include pink peppercorns (about a tablespoon), the only thing they seem to add is color. I do like to include a small allspice berry, though. Consider mixing up the basic recipe, trying it, and then throwing an allspice berry to see how you like it. Oh, and let me know what you think. The allspice is particularly nice with beef.



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Photo Dried_PeppercornsWikiCommons.jpg: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADried_Peppercorns.jpg By en:User:Bunchofgrapes (en:Image:Dried Peppercorns.jpg) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons 

Photo Lavender Blossoms: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALavander.jpg By Jebulon (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Photo Sea Salt: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFleur_de_sel1.jpg By Christian Mertes (Mudd1 12:26, 18 April 2007 (UTC)) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gn

Tuesday

Why Herbs are Cool Again



I ran into an old work friend at my local garden center yesterday. She was interested in planting a few herbs in her garden this season. She isn't a great herb enthusiast or a lover of the cozy cottage garden look in outdoor landscaping. She isn't a dedicated cook, either.

She shared some interesting information about herself I didn't know before: She cooks almost exclusively on weekends and considers it a chore. She does love her kids to distraction, though, and thinks that using fresh herbs will make her traditional dishes a little more appealing to their modern sensibilities.

 Her kids are teenagers or older, and part of their upbringing included years of channel surfing the cooking shows on the way to more interesting programming. You know -- those shows that make cooking look so organic and easy the average nine year old could become a cordon bleu chef during summer vacation.

These days, her kids tend to frown on meatloaf but think mini-meatballs made with lamb, seasoned with rosemary and served on a bed of kale are pretty cool. They think pork chops the way grandma used to fry them up in a cast iron skillet are passée, but can really get into 50 garlic clove chicken deglazed with Marsala wine.

It's a new world in the kitchen as well as out, and my friend wants to update her recipes a bit without having to spend exorbitant prices for fresh herbs from the produce department of her local market. (And aren't they hideously expensive!) I started thinking about herbs as innovative and trendy rather than the basic culinary flavor building blocks they actually are. A rosemary shrub might be pretty and refreshingly maintenance free by your backdoor, but it could also be a subtle symbol that you've earned your stripes in the kitchen. Forget the fact that rosemary landscaping groundcover is the plant du jour at your nearest mini-mall or business park and see it as the poodle skirt (or fondue pot) of the modern age -- an accessory that identifies you as one of the cool kids -- or cool grownups.

Here's the kicker that I really thought you'd appreciate: Grandma -- or her mom -- probably grew rosemary, (and oregano and sage and garlic and thyme) in her garden. She grew and harvested those herbs just the way she harvested water in a rain barrel and dug up potatoes (and picked apples) for the root cellar every fall. Everything old is new again -- in the most amazing ways.

 So, start an herb garden this year. You can use herbs to beautify your landscape, enhance your culinary prowess (and save money doing it), dabble in homemade remedies for minor ailments, provide raw materials for your crafting projects -- and prove to your kids (or neighbors, or co-workers or in-laws) that you are pretty cool after all.

If you're just getting your feet wet (or your hands dirty) with herbs, these posts will get you started: