Mar 17, 2011

Growing Your Own Kitchen Herbs

Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow. This, combined with the fact that they are truly useful and that growing them is a good way to pinch pennies, makes them an excellent addition to the city, suburban, or country garden. Here's how to get started.

Which Herbs to Grow?
Recently, I was fortunate enough to find a quaint little book from 1949 called Cooking with an Accent: The Herb Grower's Cookbook by Isabella Gaylord. In it, the author says there are 9 essential herbs in the kitchen, all of which are easy to grow: Sage, thyme, tarragon, basil, marjoram, savory, mint, parsley, and chives. There is good sense in this recommendation, as long as the gardener-cook is willing to learn to use any of those 9 she doesn't usually cook with.

However, perhaps the simplest way to determine which herbs you should grow is to take inventory of which fresh or dried herbs you frequently cook with. Almost all can be grown in the United States.

Seeds or Plants?
Most herbs are easy to start from seeds. Some may be winter sown, and most can be started indoors in the spring or planted directly in the garden once the soil is workable and the last threat of frost has passed. However, small herb plants are not expensive to buy, so if you're intimidated by seeds, there's no reason not to purchase plants. Too, as a general rule, woody perennials (those that live year after year and have thick, bush-like stems) don't start well from seed.

How to Plant
Many herbs spread like wildfire and become weeds if planted directly in the soil. Therefore, it's wise to plant them in pots. However, don't buy so-called "herb pots" - those oh-so-cute, but very small pots of only a few inches across. I recommend a pot no smaller than 8 inches across the top; I use pots 20 to 25 inches across the top.

Of course, you don't have to use store bought pots. Containers such as buckets, plastic storage containers, large cans, or plastic trugs work, too. Just make sure that whatever container you use has plenty of drainage holes. (You can add more with an electric drill.)

You can plant more than one herb per container, if you like. The results are often pretty, although you may eventually find one herb chokes out another. I don't recommend using strawberry pots for herb growing (or for growing anything, really). They don't provide enough room for for most plants.

It doesn't hurt to sprinkle an inch of gravel on the bottom of the pot, for better drainage, or place the shards of a broken terra cotta pot over the drainage holes so the soil in the pot doesn't clog them. Then pour good quality potting soil in each pot. This might be the most costly part of your herb garden, but don't be tempted to cut back costs by using common dirt or cheap potting soil. Good soil is essential to a good garden.

If you're starting seeds directly in the pot, the soil level should be within an 2 inches or so of the top of the pot. Otherwise, add only some soil to the pot, situate the plant in the soil, and backfill, making sure the place where the stem comes up from the soil is no more than 2 to 1 1/2 inches from the top of the pot.

When planting seedlings or mature plants, loosen the soil around the roots a little; this makes it easier for the roots to spread.
Then water the herb until water comes out of the drainage holes.

Herb Care
Most herbs want full sun (at least 6 hours of direct sun each day). Some herbs tolerate a bit less sun, including lemon balm, wild ginger, sweet woodruff, parsley, chives, mint, thyme, anise hyssop, and angelica. I personally don't recommend growing herbs indoors if you want to cook with them regularly - but then, I don't have much luck with houseplants. If you have a very sunny window, it might be worth a try.

Assuming you don't live in an arid location, many herbs won't need watering except from nature. However, if you can stick your finger a few inches down into the pot and the soil feels dry, then it's a good idea to water the plant. In addition, herbs don't need or want much fertilizer. If the herbs are grown in containers, fertilizing them once a year should be sufficient.

Don't be afraid to use herbs once they have several leaves or branches. Herbs actually like being plucked - it makes them grow more vigorously. Use them fresh all spring and summer, then freeze or dry them before they die or fade back in the fall.

To freeze herbs, chop or mince them as you prefer. Then either put them in serving-size amounts in freezer bags or place serving-size amounts inside the cubes of an ice-cube tray, adding just a little water; let the cubes freeze, then pop them all in a freezer proof container. Many herbs also dry well. A good food dehydrator does the job very nicely, or you can try drying them in the warming drawer of your oven, or you can nuke them for one minute, then for several seconds at a time until they are dry. If you don't mind having herbs hanging around the house, you can dry them the old fashioned way: Tie a small clump together with some twine, near the bottom of their stems. Then hang them upside down in a cool, dark location. Once they are fully dry, you may transfer them to air tight containers for storage.

Cooking with Your Herbs
Use home grown herbs just like you would store bought. If you freeze herbs, there's no need to thaw them before use.

However, if you're accustomed to using dried herbs, but you want to use your herbs fresh, you'll need more herb. (Dry herbs are more potent than fresh herbs.) Generally speaking, it will take three times the amount of fresh herbs to equal the taste of dried herbs.

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