Herbs could be called the plants for everyone. They can be grown in a pot on the patio as well as out in the garden. They can be used as an extra flavor in your dinner, as an ornamental, or for their scent. There are many culinary uses of fresh or dried herbs and growing your own saves money, in addition to unmatched fresh flavor. Herbs sold in the produce section of the market are pricey and not at their best from traveling and storage. Fresh herbs can make a simple dish look and taste like you have some serious chef skills. Most cultures use fresh herbs in their delicious home cooked meals.
Herbs can be an annual—completing their lifecycle in one season; perennial—continue growing for more than two years; or biennial—take two years to mature and set seed. Culinary herbs are edible aromatic herbaceous plants used for flavoring and color. They can reduce the addition of extra salt, sugar and fats in cooking. Leafy herbs are best cut finely to release the most flavor and added at the end of cooking the dish. More woody herbs such as rosemary or bay are added as the dish is prepared to flavor the meat or sauce. Fresh herbs have the advantage of adding flavor to a dish without the possible bitterness or unpredictable taste of purchased dried herbs.
Herbs like our Mediterranean climate. Rosemary has more tender new growth in spring/summer, but can be harvested for cooking all year. It also becomes a medium to large shrub in the garden, with blue flowers in early spring. Oregano and sage have usable leaves all year, but are more vigorous from early spring until frost. Thyme makes a great ground cover and is ready for use all year. Bay shrubs can become a moderate size ornamental in addition to providing bay leaves for many tasty dishes. Chives in a pot on the porch will be ready any time to garnish your baked potato.
There is some seasonality in growing herbs in the Central Valley. Cilantro, dill and parsley do better in cooler months, while basil and mint prefer the warmer days. Mint and parsley do require moist, well draining, loose soil, but their needs can easily be accommodated in a pot or planter. In the hottest parts of summer, some shade is appreciated by mint, chives, and parsley. Too much shade can lead to thin plants, which are more prone to diseases and pests.
Herbs are generally less prone to pest damage. Many herbs are fairly strong in scent and flavor, such as rosemary, which is only prone to spittlebugs, a nuisance which can be hosed off. Thyme, sage and oregano also have rare pest issues. Leafy herbs such as parsley and basil do require surveillance for earwigs and snails. Last year I had little caterpillars attacking the basil, but they were easily hand-picked off.
Woody herbs in the garden are low water users. Rosemary, thyme, bay and lavender require good drainage and need to be in an area with similar drought tolerant plants. While they can be grown in pots, close monitoring of the soil moisture is necessary to prevent water logged roots. Woody herbs tolerate alkaline, poor soils, and once established can be watered using a soaker hose at 2-3 week intervals depending on the air temperature.
Herbs have many uses. Lavender can grow into a medium to large shrub with purple to lavender flowers from early spring through late summer and it attracts bees. The strongly scented flowers can be used in potpourri and the scent is soothing. Rosemary sprigs in a cone shaped base makes a scented little green “tree” for a holiday decoration. With a bit of care, some herbs can be overwintered as a houseplant and provide fresh leaves in the winter.
On the Master Gardener website, choose local gardening information, then vegetables, herbs and gourds, then herbs. This will bring up Basic Herbs for a Kitchen Garden. The chart lists the herb, botanical name, plant size, when to plant, if a seed or seedling is best, the harvest time, sun requirements, minimum soil depth, potential pests and uses of the herb. It also includes tips for drying herbs and preparation for storage of herbs to be used as seeds. The chart is a class in culinary herbs.
The choice between starting with a seed or a seedling often depends on the amount of time you have to garden. Seeds are usually less expensive, but some require more care to produce a usable plant. Advantages to starting an edible plant from seed include having the exact variety of herb you wish and knowing it was raised organically. Young seedlings are often small, which can be easily squashed by little fingers. I have found snails making off with pieces of parsley. Parsley will sprout faster if the seeds are soaked overnight in warm water, then planted in a pot and kept indoors for a couple of weeks.
Mint and rosemary can be grown from stem cuttings. Mint has the well-earned reputation of spreading in the garden. It is often planted in a pot or separate space to avoid overrunning other plants. Yerba buena in Spanish refers to a number of aromatic plants in the mint family and is a plant with many uses.
If you purchase an herb plant, choose the healthiest specimen with lush growth, and a smaller size is not a bad choice. Often the small healthy plant will grow faster than a larger specimen. Keeping the new purchase separate from your other plants for a few days to monitor for pests and diseases is always a good idea.
Growing herbs in the garden has many benefits and it’s not difficult to be successful. The aromatic leaves also create a pleasant garden walk as a stress reliever.
This column is not a news article but the advice of the writer and does not reflect the views of Mid Valley Times newspaper.