Growing Herbs to EatIf you've seen the price for fresh cut herbs at the market, you probably think dried herbs -- on sale -- are just fine, thanks. Growing your own can be inexpensive and rewarding, though. What you trim back over the summer you can freeze or dry for use during the winter. All in all, even if you don't have a back door in your kitchen with a nice plot of land just outside, carving out some space for a culinary garden is a good idea.
This doesn't have to take all your time, either. Herbs are forgiving plants. Many of them, like fennel, are considered weeds in their native climbs. You can't kill them, even when you're trying. At harvest time, you can dry oregano, thyme, rosemary and others either outdoors in a bag, hanging upside down in your attic, in your microwave (sometimes), in your oven (on low, low, low) or in a dedicated dehydrator you can purchase for the cost of two lunches at a mid-range, chain restaurant. You can also freeze herbs like basil that don't dry well.
The labor you invest the first year pays dividends, too. Once you've invited herbs into your garden, they come back year after year. Sure, some, like mint or comfrey, can be invasive, but others, like chives, lemon balm, marjoram and thyme are useful little plants that ask little from the gardener.
Let's take a look at five kitchen herbs that deserve a spot in your garden, your fridge and your spice cabinet. They help make home cooking something to look forward to.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)This onion relative has a mild oniony flavor. You probably already know it's a great garnish on a stuffed baked potato, but chives can also make an omelette or casserole look dressed and ready for company. A good rule of thumb is that it'll pair well with any savory dish that includes sour cream, heavy cream or strong cheese. I often use chives instead of parsley as a topper. Chives are also a good stand in for recipes that call for scallions, especially when you want the onion to take a back seat to other ingredients, like in a pico de gallo (fresh salsa).
This littlest onion variety is easy to grow, and humans have been cultivating it for 5,000 years, or so the food historians believe. It's a perennial that self-seeds abundantly, and it's hardy from Zones 3 through 10. Just give this perky herb partial shade if you experience scorching summer heat, and mulch it before temps soar in summer and again in fall. Plant chives in well-draining soil and fertilize plants once, early in the season. If you experience drought conditions, water chives occasionally in dry weather. Chives grow to about 10 inches in height (25.4 cm) and tend to flop a bit as they mature. A patch of chives can look like an unruly head of hair. When harvesting, only remove a third of the plant at a time and wait for regrowth before harvesting again.
Lavender hued chive flowers are the main ingredient in a popular flavored vinegar you'll enjoy trying with your first or second crop. See instructions below.
Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum)
Besides common chives, there is also a more garlicky chive variety you might want to experiment with. Garlic or Chinese chives are used extensively in Asian cooking. This chive species is also a perennial. Its leaves are flattish rather than tubular, and it produces white flowers. It has become naturalized in many parts of the world and is sometimes considered an invasive weed.
Chives at Your Fingertips
How to Make Chive Vinegar
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)Rosemary roasted potatoes are one simple dish that makes for a delicious side. If you're getting tired of choosing between fries and baked potatoes, give it a try. Rosemary is also delicious with lamb and pork. I strip the leaves from plant stems in fall, dry the leaves and use the stems as kabob skewers with lamb, squash and cherry tomatoes. So good. If we're smoking sausage, I add some rosemary to the wood for extra smoky goodness. All this is easy to do if you have a little rosemary growing in your backyard.
Rosemary looks like an evergreen shrub, but it's actually a woody, perennial herb. If you live in a temperate climate where you don't have to worry about frost and snow, you've probably seen it growing as a decorative hedge or as a low maintenance groundcover. Growing it in a four season location is a little more challenging, though. Newer cultivars like Madalene Hill and Arp are frost hardy, sometimes to Zone 5. There may even be hardier varieties.
If you want to grow standard rosemary but worry about winter temperatures, consider bringing plants indoors in fall. I call these commuter plants. Although you may have had problems growing ornamental rosemary Christmas trees indoors in the past, maintaining a more mature plant from your garden over the winter is somewhat easier. If you have a sunny window away from drafts, it's pretty straightforward. For more information, visit:
Rosemary Tree Maintenance
Growing Rosemary in a Cold Climate
Marjoram (Origanum majorana)This tender perennial in the same family of plants as oregano but doesn't really get the respect it deserves. It's a useful herb for casseroles, stews and soups that contain pork, lamb or chicken. It works particularly well with tomato dishes and other hot dishes that feature: eggs, strong cheeses, eggplant, beans, barley, lentils or squash. Marjoram gives foods a more complex flavor without adding the strong, distinctively pungent taste associated with oregano. It plays well with other herbs and spices, too. You'll find it in a number of classic herb blends.
Marjoram is as easy to grow as oregano, with the same bushy habit. It isn't winter hardy (grow it outdoors in Zones 8 - 11 only), but it makes a good commuter plant. A tender perennial, marjoram grows to a height of about 30 inches (76cm) and can produce a mound 20 inches (51cm) across. It creates a nice cascade when added to a hanging basket, and it's a good addition to a planter featuring herbs like basil, parsley and chives.
Marjoram likes good light (dappled afternoon light is a wise choice in very hot locations). Provide it with occasional deep watering during drought conditions. This plant can go for a while without water, but deep watering will encourage its roots to travel deeper into the soil where they'll have better protection and increased access to moisture.
Make Your Own Herbs de Provence
Make Your Own Bouquet Garni
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)If you like teriyaki, stir fry or sushi, you probably appreciate the heat and sweet ginger can give a recipe. One of my favorite ways to use ginger is to crystalize it with sugar. It makes an effective digestive aid that will help settle an upset stomach the gentle way. (Crystalized ginger and mint tea are my two favorites for this.) Kids love it, too.
If you get air sick, take a little crystalized ginger on your next plane trip. If you're a fan of ocean cruises, you're probably already familiar with the stomach settling properties of crystalized ginger as it's a staple at most shipboard meals.
This tuberous rhizome isn't difficult to grow. It likes shade, heat and moisture. The second year growing a new plant, you can harvest your fill of chubby ginger roots and still have enough left for future seasons. Ginger isn't winter hardy, but it can be cultivated as a commuter plant or even as a houseplant.
For large yields, place clean ginger root into Sherry filled jars. Ginger will keep in the fridge this way indefinitely. Slice what you need for a recipe, and place the rest back in the jar. It's convenient and less wasteful that buying ginger at the market only to have most of it shrivel up inside the dank confines of your veggie drawer.
In fact, you can grow grocery store ginger root into a garden plant or houseplant. Follow the link for instructions. (Special note: Check with your doctor before using ginger medicinally in large quantities.)
Growing and Harvesting Ginger
Ginger Shampoo Recipe
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
If you're a pesto lover, basil is the herb for you. Young, tender basil leaves, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and pine nuts (or walnuts) make an elegant blended sauce over your favorite pasta, meat or steamed vegetable. Even better, the best pesto comes from home grown basil. This Mediterranean herb has a slight licorice aroma (and flavor), bright green coloration and large, ovulate leaves.
Basil is an annual that likes plenty of light, moisture and rich, well-drained soil. This popular herb will *bolt if not watched carefully. Snip buds before they flower to maximize leaf production (which is what you want for perfect pesto). In late summer, allow buds to flower and harvest the seed for next year. Basil is easy to grow in a pot, so it's a good patio or deck plant, too. It's also easy to start from seed or reproduce from stem cuttings. The seeds are large and store well over multiple seasons.
What else can you do with basil? It's one of the **three main ingredients in classic a Caprese salad -- and all the other dishes based on Caprese salad. It's also a nice addition to most tomato based sauces, stews and soups, including favorites like spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce and minestrone. Just add a couple of teaspoons of minced basil during the last five minutes of cooking time.
Tips for Harvesting Basil
Basic Basil Pesto
Stay tuned. There are five more herbs I feel deserve inclusion as culinary powerhouses, but this post is getting long. I'll address the next five -- next time. Have a great weekend.
*Flower and set seed quickly in late spring or summer.
**The three ingredients are: tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil.
Intro Photo - Herbs By tannaz from los angeles (herbs for sabzi polo) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/34/Herbs_for_sabzi_polo.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHerbs_for_sabzi_polo.jpg
Photo1 Chives - By Captain-tucker (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/29/Allium_schoenoprasum_in_NH_01.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAllium_schoenoprasum_in_NH_01.jpg
Photo 2 Rosemary - By THOR (Flowering Rosemary) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5f/Rosmarinus_officinalis133095382.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARosmarinus_officinalis133095382.jpg
Photo 3 Marjoram By Dobromila (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ce/Majeranek2.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMajeranek2.jpg
Photo 4 Ginger By Venkatx5 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c1/Ginger_Plant_vs.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGinger_Plant_vs.jpg
Photo 5 Basil By Castielli (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/90/Basil-Basilico-Ocimum_basilicum-albahaca.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABasil-Basilico-Ocimum_basilicum-albahaca.jpg