Thursday

The 10 Best Herbs for Your Spring Garden

If you cook, craft or like the idea of whipping up a few homemade remedies for your family, herbs are for you.  The wonderful world of these useful and often small plants can seem confusing at first, though. What follows is my list of essential herb plants for a new (or renewed) herb or vegetable patch.  They cover the bases by being useful, flavorful and pretty fun, too.

Chives
Chives in bloom

If you want to feel powerful in the kitchen, grow chives.  Being able to walk into your garden and snip a few chives to sprinkle on a baked potato, into a salad or over a casserole is what "kitchen" gardening is all about. You'll love sending the kids out to cut some chives for dinner, and won't that be a neat lesson about how practical (and tasty) plants can be.

Parsley

Flat leaf parsley
Although there are quite a few cultivars these days, there are only two basic types of parsley, flat (usually considered best for cooking), and curly (pretty as a garnish but also edible).  Parsley can be a confusing plant because it's biennial.  That means it usually has a two-year life cycle and then dies.  The first year it produces lots of leaves, and the second year, during spring, it sets seeds, falters and dies.

Once you understand how the process works, it's pretty easy to cultivate a constant patch of parsley in the garden spring and fall; just plan annual plantings and remember to harvest seeds from last year's plants.  Oh, and soak your seeds in very hot water for a day or two before planting them.  You'll get more sprouts that way.  

Lavender

 If you spend any time on my blog, you know I love lavender.  Besides being lovely in the garden,

Lavender
lavender is also handy.  You can use it in cooking, decorating and crafts.  It has medicinal uses, too.  Lavender 's scent is almost immediately recognizable, and it appeals to men and women equally.  Want a restful evening, put lavender buds or essential oil in your bath water or place a lavender sachet under your pillow.  You can't go wrong with lovely, wonderful herb.

You'll find recipes and instructions on this blog for lavender sugar, lavender salt, lavender wands, lavender oil and lavender sachet -- among other projects.    Understanding Different Types of Lavender - a Basic Primer 

Aloe vera

I've kept aloe vera for years and years. It never disappoints.  It's my go to remedy for stings and
Aloe vera
burns, even over OTC preparations.  It's also easy to grow if you remember to keep it in a sunny location, and protect it from frost. I put my plants outdoors in May and bring them back indoors in October before the first frost of the season.  Over the winter months I only water them a few times, and then just a little. When aloe vera is dormant, it needs little or no care beyond protection from the cold.  When it's outdoors in spring and summer, it can usually fend for itself.

 Mint

Mint was the first herb I thought was really neat. And why not?  I was a small child and it smelled

Spearmint
like Christmas candy on a stem!  Mint is tasty on lamb, makes a great garnish, can be used as a refreshing tea and can be helpful in the treatment of stomach upsets. It's also a unique and charming addition to a mixed fruit salad. If you're into canning, making your own mint jelly is a hoot and is a great gift for a favorite cook.

 Thyme 

Thyme is one of those herbs that's easy to maintain and useful in the kitchen.  It can bring added flavor to stews, soups and sauces and will also work well in a wine or citrus marinade.  If you dry

Thyme
herbs or make potpourri, thyme dries into an attractive little bundle.  I like to use it in wreaths.  There are also specialty thyme varieties with interesting aromas like caraway, lemon and lime. Typically small, thyme will often nestle into a corner of a flowerbed and thrive there for years. There are also creeping varieties that can be planted between pavers for a charming, rustic look.

 Rosemary


Rosemary
A premier cooking herb, rosemary is much easier to grow in cold climates than it used to be.  You can maintain some of the newer cultivars in zone 5, and if your area is colder than that, you can always make it a commuter herb -- outdoors in summer and indoors in winter.  If you grill, love lamb (or pork) or take herbs to enhance memory, a patch of rosemary will work wonders in your garden.

Tarragon/Cilantro/Dill

These three herbs are popular in cooking and all have strong flavors that some people adore and
Tarragon
others abhor.  They're easy to grow and add something unique to food.  I happen to like them all. Their individual flavors defy description, beyond tarragon, which tastes mildly of licorice -- to me anyway.

Cilantro and dill are annuals that tend to bolt in mid-summer, while tarragon is a perennial. If you're cooking seems bland sometimes, perking it up with these herbs will offer new and fun ways to make mealtime special.    



As you're planning your vegetable garden this year, don't forget to throw in some herbs. They're useful in so many ways. Some varieties will even repel destructive garden insects.  To us, they smell wonderful, to garden marauders, they smell and taste vile. When you think of all the plants in your landscape that just take up space looking conventional, couldn't you use some perky plants that actually make life easier?


  Companion Planting Herbs



Dill in bloom

Sunday

Coriander and Cilantro

Coriander/Cilantro Blossoms
If you're looking for a twofer herb, few candidates rival coriander.  This versatile herb is widely known as coriander in its seed form, but its tender leaves go by the name cilantro.   Coriander/cilantro is a fast growing herb that matures in about 40 days.  Whether you're interested in its leaves for salsa, or its seeds for curry or your favorite pickling blend, this little herb offers good value. It's a fast growing, reliable plant in the garden, with delicate leaves and a bright green color.

Because it's popular in Latin, Indian and Asian cooking, coriander/cilantro never disappoints.  Try it in your culinary herb or vegetable patch.  If you think parsley will do just as well in regional recipes, you'll be surprised at how much a little cilantro brings to the table when used in salsa, gremolata, avocado cream and dozens of other mouthwatering specialty dishes.

Using Substitutions for Cilantro and Coriander


There's a big difference between the flavor of cilantro (leaves) and coriander (seeds).  Substituting one for the other in a recipe is not a good option. Some recipes recommend substituting parsley for cilantro if you don't like the flavor of cilantro, or adding cumin, caraway, fennel or a combination of the three if you don't have coriander on hand.  As with most herbs, the specific flavors they impart are hard to duplicate with substitutes. 

For authentic flavor, stick with the real thing.  Using a substitute is almost always disappointing. When making regional recipes, part of the allure is in creating distinctive dishes.  When you start leaving out or substituting ingredients, it's easy to destroy what makes a dish special. Often recipes rely on a complex blend of ingredients designed to work in harmony. No one flavor takes precedence, but they all have an important role to play.

Cilantro Leaves

Cilantro Leaves

If you're primarily interested in the leaves:
  • Install plants in early spring and keep them pinched back to encourage leaf growth and delay bolting as the temps increase.
  • Once plants reach 6 to 8 inches in height, harvest up to a third of the plant at a time, allowing regrowth between partial harvests.
  • The leaves can be used fresh, dried or frozen for later use. (See note below)
  • Cilantro is also easy to grow in containers or indoors.

For my cilantro plant profiles with detailed growing instructions, see:

How to Grow Cilantro
Growing Cilantro in Containers

Coriander Seeds

Immature Coriander Seeds

If you wish to harvest coriander seeds, don't pinch back plants:

  1. After flowering, the immature seeds will look small, round and green. Wait for the entire seed head (flowering top) to turn brown.
  2. Harvest the entire plant by cutting it at soil level and upending it (top down) into a paper bag.  
  3. Place the bag in a warm location for a week or even longer to allow the seeds to dry. 
  4. Shake the bag vigorously to release the seeds.
  5. Place seeds in an air tight container and use or discard any dry leaves.
  6. Store seeds for up to a year in a dry location out of direct sunlight.


Notes:


Pinching back - After flower production begins, most herbs focus on reproduction rather than leaf development. Pinching back is the process of removing flowering buds from plants as soon as they appear. By pinching (snipping or clipping) undeveloped flowers, it's possible to keep leaf development high for an additional period -- maybe a couple of weeks if the temperatures aren't brutal.

Harvesting recommendations - Dried cilantro leaves lose their flavor after a few short weeks, so prefer freezing for long term storage. You can easily place chopped, fresh cilantro in water and freeze it into ice cubes, or freeze washed leaves and stems in plastic storage bags. Either method makes it relatively easy to use frozen cilantro in cooking.  Another option is to start more new plants early in fall and bring them indoors during the winter months.

Bolting - If you've had trouble with your plants bolting early in summer, there are a few tricks to getting more leaf growth from each plant.  You can find additional information in my post: How to Keep Herbs from Bolting 

Growing tip - If you want to get both leaf growth and seeds from your coriander plants, you certainly can.  Pinch back flowers sparingly, though. Instead, use multiple plants over the season and stagger planting times (always a good idea for fast growing plants like dill, cilantro and lettuce). 



Reference

Photo 1 By Yoko Nekonomania (Flower, Coriander) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1c/Flower%2C_Coriander_-_Flickr_-_nekonomania.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFlower%2C_Coriander_-_Flickr_-_nekonomania.jpg

Photo 2 By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/Coriandrum_sativum_002.JPG http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACoriandrum_sativum_002.JPG



Photo3 Forest & Kim Starr [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AStarr_070906-8875_Coriandrum_sativum.jpg http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f6/Starr_070906-8875_Coriandrum_sativum.jpg




Thursday

Thursday Odds and Ends


The sun was shining on the ice covered branches of my walnut tree, and even though I hated the idea of walking out to get the newspaper, it wasn't the brutal exercise I expected.  I took a deep breath and felt -- spring!  Seriously, one breath and something in the frigid air stirred my senses and made me think of green sprouts and budding branches.  Even when confronted with snow and ice, it can feel like spring is just around the corner.  While we're all waiting for that happy event, here are some Thursday odds and ends:

I see you - There's a good chance your spring garden will see at least a little predation by pesky insects.  Although it can be frustrating, it's a part of gardening.  When you've seen a culprit snacking on your asparagus but don't know how to identify the little X&%@, a quick visit to the National Gardening Association's Pest Identification Library will help.  With the site's handy photos and suggestions for controlling common pests, you'll be better prepared for the inevitable showdown -- and better equipped to come away from the battle victorious.    This information is free.

Uses for honey - Bees have had a rough time over the last few years, and that struggle is reflected in the cost of honey. Honey deserves a spot in your kitchen anyway, though, if only as an herbal remedy.  Beyond providing an energy boost, it's an effective antibacterial agent.  If you can't come up with at least 10 reasons to invest in a little honey, this article is sweet inspiration:  13 Surprising Uses for Honey

Food fraud at the market - You may already know there's a problem with misidentified fish in many markets across the country.  You can be deceived by more than just Tilapia in a red snapper suit, though.  Food fraud is apparently rampant.  From iffy honey from China to turmeric cut with rice flour, it's "buyer beware" at the grocery store.  It pays to know your suppliers, remain vigilant, and in the case of many herbs and some spices, grow your own: Food Frauds Lurking in Your Supermarket 

Meat marinades reduce cancer risk - Grilling has become one of the most popular ways to prepare meat, with grilling hobbyists braving ice and snow to bring some char to the table four seasons a year. A dedication to fire kissed food may put you at greater risk for some types of cancer, though.  Many experts recommend marinating fattier cuts of meat in order to keep flare-ups -- the biggest risk factor for added carcinogens on grilled foods -- to a minimum.

Marinating has been around for centuries, and for good reason.  The process adds plenty of flavor as it tenderizes meats. Marinating typically uses a mild acidic ingredient like wine, soy sauce, vinegar or fruit juice in combination with spices and herbs. Together they get deep into meat, tenderizing tough fibers and depositing flavor in places a surface rub just can't go.

Herbs are popular marinade ingredients, and many are easy to grow.  Here are a few favorites: garlic, ginger, mustard seed, coriander, cilantro, hot chilies, mint, marjoram and rosemary. If you grill, saving a little garden space for an herb patch is an example of culinary landscaping at its most delicious.

Frosty the sprout killer - Knowing the likely frost free date for your area can mean the difference between planting a flourishing early garden and watching your efforts wilt and perish overnight. Whether you're new to an area or an old hand at reading seasonal indicators, it never hurts to consult the experts.  The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), maintains a 50 state educational network to help folks like us better understand the natural environment we live in.  These facilities are referred to as Cooperative Extension offices. They provide free information on everything from native plants to seasonal bird migrations.

Whether you want to learn about your soil or the best type of deciduous tree for your backyard, the Cooperative Extension office for your area can help. The following link has a drill-down map where you can find the phone number for the office near you: Cooperative Extension Offices   There is a quick link to this map on every blog post I publish. You'll find it at the bottom of the page with other useful reference links.

Monday

The Many Uses for Lemon Balm

If you've ever had an herb garden, you know how useful fresh herbs can be.  Cut a little aloe vera for a burn or sting, make some mint tea for a family member with indigestion or sprinkle some rosemary on roasted potatoes for amazing flavor with very little effort. There are thousands of herbs, and many of them have multiple applications, all of which can be pretty darned handy.

Here's an example:  I've received lots of questions asking how to use lemon balm.  This sprightly, bright green herb is a member of the mint family but doesn't taste or smell minty.  Instead, it has a light lemony aroma that's flowery without being cloying.  Once planted, it often grows in profusion, taking up all the available space and generally making a riotous nuisance of itself until it dies back in the fall.

Uses for Lemon Balm


Lemon balm may seem like a pesky lightweight when it comes to herbal effectiveness, but that isn't the case.

As a sedative and sleep aid - In fresh or dried tea form, it is considered an effective sleep aid that also helps calm frazzled nerves. In fact, lemon balm and valerian are both referred to as herbal valium for their calming and sleep inducing qualities.

As a salad ingredient and garnish - I think lemon balm makes a much more attractive garnish than parsley. It also tastes better than parsley when added to vegetable salad.  Lemon balm is also a nice addition to fruit or pasta salad.

With fresh flowers - It contributes scent, color and volume to fresh flower arrangements where it's a vibrant green that's relatively long lasting.

(Please check the herb profile link for contraindications to using lemon balm.)

Lemon Balm Jelly

Last October I made lemon balm jelly.  I used a basic, small recipe that netted me four precious eight ounce jars. The end result tasted distinctively lemon balmy, with a sweet aftertaste like honey, although there is no honey in the recipe.  I slather it on muffins and added it to my evening tea (any variety) instead of sugar.  It is sooo tasty, sweet and light.


I have included some photos of my canning effort. The project was fun and surprisingly easy.

This unique jelly is such a hit that I plan on making it a regular project.

Please try lemon balm in your garden this year. If you already have a patch thriving on your property, consider using this versatile herb in more of your culinary, crafting and other projects. If I could only choose five herbs to grow in my garden, lemon balm would definitely be one of them.

(Oh, and if you're wondering if lemon balm really does help with sleep related problems, I've found that it does make it easier for me to relax and drift off after a hard day. For heavy duty sleep help, I use lemon balm with valerian. Works every time.)

Below are links to my herb profile for lemon balm, other fun uses for this herb and a link to the canning recipe I used:

How to Grow Lemon Balm
Lemon Balm - The Scent that Refreshes Your Hair
How to Make Lemon Balm Liqueur
Lemon Balm Jelly Recipe