Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
People have always depended on herbs, although today we may take for granted all the ways they enhance our lives. We may no longer rely on them for disinfectants or food-preservation, but they still serve as seasoning, landscape, fragrances and medicine. They are inexpensive to grow and give us beauty, lovely aromas and wonderful tastes. Perhaps it’s time for you to find some room for growing herbs in your life.
Herbs come in so many sizes and uses, that everyone can treat themselves to one herb or another. No outside space to grow plants? If you have a window that has direct sunlight five to six hours of the day, your herbs will thrive. Choose low-growing plants (so they don’t take over your home!) that you can use in cooking. Possibilities include thyme, marjoram, savory, parsley, sage, basil or chives. You can grow them from seed in small, well-drained pots and nurture them with water, dilute seaweed emulsion and sunshine. Pinching off the ends of branches will help your plants stay bushy and provide you with fresh herbs for cooking.
If you have some outside space, many herbs grow well in containers. The closer the herbs are to your kitchen, the more likely you are to use them; Keep that in mind when looking for a sunny place to grow herbs. Herbs benefit from having crowded roots thinned out, so if you know a neighbor with herbs, you might ask for some root divisions. Herbs that can be shared by division include chives, mints, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon and thyme.
It’s fun to see photos of formal herb gardens, but even when done less formally, herbs make excellent landscape plants. Imagine your walkway lined with rosemary whose scent you can enjoy as you take a walk! Sage, thyme and chives also make good borders while rosemary or lavender can stand taller by the fence or wide walkway.
I enjoy planting annual herbs in the vegetable garden and always allow plenty of room for basil. I plant it close to the tomato plants to keep predator insects away, and use it extensively in the kitchen for Italian tomato sauces and even pesto. Another reason I enjoy basil is because its flowers attract honey bees and I enjoy doing garden work with happy bees humming around me. Parsley is another herb I plant annually that adds both flavor and nutrition to our meals.
Dill becomes a perennial because it is a self-seeder. This means it plants itself and will come up in the same place the following year. Fennel is a biennial, though in warmer climates it also comes up each year. It’s best to distance dill from fennel however because the two are so closely related that it’s easy for them to blend their flavors. That might result in your home-canned dill pickles having a licorice flavor!
Another self-seeding annual is chamomile. I enjoy its bountiful flowers and use them to make a soothing tea. Nasturtiums are other edible flowers that are also considered herbs. I enjoy the bright colors of their flowers, the bees use their pollen, and the spicy flowers can be used to decorate and flavor salads and cold soups.
Although I never thought of garlic as an herb, it ranks very high at my house on our list of cuisine necessities. We rotate the planting of garlic each summer when we plant it for the following year’s harvest.
Perennial herbs are gradually finding a place in my garden. Although we rotate the vegetables each year, Echinacea, or cone flower, is gradually bordering the main garden path. As it needs thinning, I plant more divisions to add flowers for the bees and bouquets. This herb can also be used as a medicinal herb. I find that the more beautiful the garden is, the more I want to spend time in it--which, of course, helps it to stay weed-free and beautiful. That makes it easy to justify having the garden path lined with cone flowers!
Once you are growing herbs, the next step is to learn how to use them in the kitchen. You might want to begin by trying new recipes that include some herbs you’re growing. You can also put some of your favorite herbs in bland foods like eggs, butter or cottage cheese. Fresh herbs aren’t as concentrated as dried herbs, and so you can use two to three-times the amount when they come right from your plants.
I like flavoring vinegar with herbs like dill and garlic. After about three months of aging, you can enjoy the herb-flavored vinegar in a simple oil and vinegar salad dressing. When placed in pretty glass bottles, they are attractive on the kitchen shelf or as gifts. How nice to have something “fancy” that you grew and created yourself!
Dried herbs are usually what you buy in the store as “spices.” Now you can have dried herbs of your own for winter use that you know are grown without chemicals and in good soil. When your plants are mature enough to survive trimming, cut branches and dry them in a dark, dry and well-ventilated area. Short stalks and leaves can be dried on screens, but long-stem herbs like lavender or mint can be tied in small bundles and hung up-side-down. Attics or barns often work well for drying. If the drying area is dusty, you can put them in well-ventilated paper bags to dry. Herbs cannot tolerate high heats without losing essential oils, so if you use the oven, don’t let it be warmer than 100 degrees F. When they are completely dry, save the leaves or flowers you want to use for cooking in a dry, air-tight container away from bright lights. I keep basil, oregano and sage handy for winter cooking in tight containers in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator where I can access them easily.
After you begin working with herbs, you may find yourself interested in using them for teas, medicinal purposes, soaps, candle-making, dried arrangements, dyes and even “nosegays.” Herbs are a wonderful example of how gardening can make our lives richer and more enjoyable.
Photo by Mary Lou Shaw