Home Grown Herb Gardening
Growing herbs is an easy – and deliciously edible – way to garden. Sprinkling the fruits (or should I say spices) of your labor on your favorite dish adds not only spectacular fresh flavor, but also satisfaction knowing you grew them yourself. Keep reading to learn how to harvest, dry, and store your homegrown herbs, as well a few common culinary cultivars you may choose to include in your herb garden.
Herbs thrive in sunny, well-drained locations. Composted pine bark can improve soil drainage, as do raised beds, berms, and some containers. While fertilizing will produce attrac-
tive foliage, it can also diminish flavor. Apply compost side-dressing only once or twice per season, or occasional half-strength fertilizer. Plants will be smaller, but flavor will be better. Removing flower buds from leafy herbs will inhibit seed formation, and help direct the plant’s energy to the production of leaves. To save seeds, allow late season flowers to develop.
Herbs harvested for their leaves have the greatest concentration of essential oils just before flower buds open. This is the ideal time to harvest. Herbs grown for flowers should be harvested when in full bloom. Herb seeds should be harvested after the seeds have turned brown. Use sharp scissors or shears to harvest them. If collecting leaves, cut whole stems with leaves on, not single leaves. Harvest in the morning, when the concentration of essential oils is highest.
Drying, Storing, and Prepping
Most herbs dry well in dark, well-ventilated locations like a garage or an attic. Hang bunches on wire, holding shrinking stems with rubber bands. Or, spread herbs on a screen, stirring daily, for 7-10 days. Herbs may also be dried in a gas oven with the pilot light on. Arrange a single layer on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Or, dry at 100 degrees, stirring every half hour. Remove when crispy, but not brown. To dry herb seeds for eating, blanch to remove any unseen pests. Place in a sieve over the sink, and pour boiling water over. Spread on paper or mesh screen, and dry in the sun.
Always store dried herbs in airtight containers. Glass jars with suction lids or rubber seals are ideal. Resealable plastic bags also work well. Some herbs freeze well, such as basil, dill, parsley, oregano, marjoram, mint, thyme, lemongrass, and fennel.
To prep herbs, wash, pat dry, and chop. Lay them flat inside resealable plastic bags, remove air, seal, and freeze. To store herbs for soups or stews, puree in water or oil, then freeze in ice cube trays. Store in resealable bags. Pureed basil mixed with oil stores in the freezer, or in the refrigerator for a shorter time. Top the mixture with oil protected from air. This makes great pesto!
SOME COMMON CULINARY HERBS
– Basil: Thrives in heat sun, and rich, moist soil. Use sweet basil in pesto and Italian cuisine and Thai basil in Thai and Vietnamese dishes. Greek Column basil does not go to seed.
– Chives: Add to butters or sauces, toss in salads, or use as a topping. Flowers can be used as garnish, and in champagne vinegar. Add at the end of recipes, as heat will destroy flavor. Plant in sun in rich, well-drained soil.
– Cilantro/Coriander: Generally, the leaves are “cilantro” and the seeds are “coriander.” Used in Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese cuisines, as well as guacamole and salsa. Plant in sun to part shade in moderately rich, well-drained soil.
– Dill: Use leaves with fish, eggs, seafood, butters, sauces, and dressings. Use flowerheads and small stems in pickling. Dill is a hardy annual best grown in full sun in a rich, well-drained soil. Attracts beneficial insects.
– Fennel: Used in fish dishes and some Italian recipes. The seed (culinary anise) is used in baking. Grown ornamentally for its feathery leaves. Plant in full sun in humus-rich, well-drained soil. Attracts beneficial insects.
– Lemon Balm: Lemon-scented leaves can be used in fruit salads, or dried for tea or sachets. Plant in full sun to part shade in well-drained soil.
– Marjoram: An aromatic herb with a mild oregano taste. Plant in sun in well-drained soil. Dried marjoram retains its flavor well and can be used as a substitute for oregano.
– Mint: Plant in containers to control invasiveness. Many flavors and varieties, used extensively in cooking and beverages. Plant in sun to part shade.
– Oregano: A favorite in the herb garden, and popular for its uses in the kitchen – particularly in Mexican, Greek, and Italian cooking. Plant in well-drained, average garden soil in sun.
– Parsley: Italian flat-leaf parsley has a more pungent flavor than the curly variety. Plant in full sun to part shade. May be planted in pots and brought indoors in winter. It is a biennial, usually grown as an annual. To harvest, start from the outside of the mound and work inward, cutting stems at the base.
– Rosemary: Delicious with meats, potatoes, stews, and breads. Plant in full sun to part shade in a light, well-drained soil. Grows well in containers. Upright forms tend to be more hardy than creeping types. If planting creepers, make sure drainage is good to prevent winter rot.
– Sage: Many varieties are available, from sweet pineapple to delicious common sage. Ornamental sages are beautiful in the garden. ‘Bergarten’ is one of the best culinary sages for Southern gardens, as it resists fungal invasion. Plant in sun to part shade in well-drained soil.
– Tarragon: True tarragon produces sterile seed. Buy transplants for culinary tarragon. Great with fish, chicken, eggs, dressings, sauces, and vinegars. Texas “tarragon” (in the marigold family) offers tarragon flavor, but is more heat tolerant. Plant in full sun to partial shade in well-drained soil.
– Thyme: English thyme is excellent in soups, and with poultry and other meats. Lemon thyme is good with fish and chicken, and is delicious minced and added to the top layer of lemon bars. Plant in full sun and well-drained soil.
Communications director at Homewood Nursery in Raleigh.