All About Herbs

By, Rod Michael

The new growing and grilling season is upon us.  Nothing is more fun and easy to grow and incorporate into a sumptuous meal than an Herb.

The best part about growing herbs is that you don’t have to use environmentally disruptive chemicals to protect them and they can be grown in a myriad of locations.

Herbs predate written history.  The use of herbs was less for cooking and more so, as a response to the harmful potential of food-borne pathogens.  As a result, the tropical environments where pathogens are more prevalent, have been a source of the world’s spiciest foods.

Clay tablets that have been discovered dating back over 5000 years list hundreds of medicinal plants and many are the herbs we know today.  Herbs can be ingested whole to treat injuries and illnesses.  They can be applied topically as a skin treatment with essential oil extracts to create creams, lotions, balms, salves, soaps and oils.  Herbs can be used in aromatherapy to combat pain and anxiety while reducing stress and promoting relaxation through the olfactory senses.

So, let’s get back to growing, harvesting and cooking with herbs.  Many herbs can be grown all year round and will save you from buying expensive supermarket produce.  When creating your herb garden you must decide what herbs you are going to grow and which herbs are annual, biennial or perennial.

Ideally herbs should be grown in a sunny, sheltered location with well-drained soil.  If you have heavy clay soil, then you’ll have to incorporate some grit, organic matter, rotted manure or some compost. You may elect to grow some herbs in a raised bed to ensure good drainage, but they can be grown in containers if space is a consideration. Your containers can be used inside or out.  If you have the space I would highly recommend a dedicated herb garden.  If you do not have the space you can elect to grow them amongst your flowers, being that they come in an array of different foliage and flower colors and they can be both decorative and for culinary purposes. Don’t forget that the best soil pH for growing herbs is neutral to alkaline although most herbs will tolerate a slightly acidic soil.

Annual and biennial herbs:

Basil, Cilantro(Coriander), parsley, dill, chervil, chamomile, summer savory, marjoram(sweet), purslane, borage, lemongrass, Mexican marigold, and rocket.

Perennial herbs:

Oregano, mint, thyme, sage, rosemary, chives, comfrey, sorrel, fennel, Russian tarragon, hyssop, lemon balm, meadowsweet, horseradish, and lovage.

Growing herbs in pots and containers as I said, is a great way to grow fresh produce, if space is limited.  Place them outside your back door for easy harvesting when cooking.  I have a mixed herb container right near my grill.  Choose relatively deep pots especially for large shrubby herbs such as rosemary or sage.  The best compost to grow herbs in is loam-based.  Feed regularly with a balanced fertilizer and don’t over-feed.  Make sure you have drainage holes to prevent water logging.  In the wintertime, be sure to put them away if possible and if not, protect them against icy weather. After a few years of container growing, be sure to re-pot. If you can’t re-pot simply replace the top inch of soil with fresh compost and a slow-release fertilizer.

Seeds of perennial herbs such as sage, rosemary, chives and fennel should be sown in spring under the cover of warmth and then potted when large enough to handle.  Harden off your plants in a cold frame prior to planting outside.

Growing herbs outdoors in a dedicated herb garden makes harvesting easier and will create a rich scent on a hot sunny day. Some of your herbs will be invasive, so watch out for mint, oregano, chives, hyssop and thyme in the right growing zone.  During a growing season in my dedicated herb areas I’m always digging up these invasive plants and gifting to a friend or for re-plant in a new area.

Your herb garden can be quite ornamental if you like, by combining the silver-gray foliage of lavender and sage with the blue flowers of borage and the orange flowers of Pot marigold, both flowers of which are edible.  Don’t be afraid to throw in some thyme and basil for the colors when they flower.  If you don’t have enough room, they make a great addition to flower beds and borders.  If you’re not enamored with them this year, switch them around for a different look next.

Growing herbs in the vegetable garden is the best way to obtain large quantities of your favorite herbs and to allow for successional sowing of fast-growing types.  Parsley, coriander, dill and chervil can be sown directly as well as borage, sorrel, summer savory and basil, don’t be afraid to use row covers to gain an extended growing season.

So, if you don’t have room outdoors for a garden or enough room for a container area, even an Urban dweller can grow herbs indoors. Suitable herbs to grow indoors on the windowsill includes chives, parsley, basil, cilantro(coriander) marjoram, dill and mint.   Treat your window sill herbs as cut-and-come-again crops.  Harvest regularly to encourage new growth.

Harvesting your herbs:

Up to this point you’ve been watering, feeding, weeding and now its time for your rewards.  When harvesting herbs, remove foliage from the outside of the plant, be sure to make a clean cut. As a rule, don’t pick more than a third of the plants’ foliage at one time.  Herbs are excellent for freezing and of course drying.  If you’re going to freeze, freeze whole sprigs in a freezer bag or freeze chopped herbs with water in ice cube trays. Herbs are best harvested in the morning before any essential oils evaporate.  Please remember that if you harvest rosemary, sage or thyme no new growth will occur till the next spring.

Storing your herbs:

Before you store them in the fridge, wrap them in a slightly damp paper towel and put them in a zip lock bag.  Make sure the bag has little air inside and place it in the warmest part of your fridge.  When you are ready to use, cut away any wilted or discolored leaves.  Fresh herbs don’t have a long shelf life so be sure to use them as soon as possible. Not having to wash your herbs is a benefit of growing your own.  Water will hasten their demise, so if you can, skip this step.  Only wash your herbs if you’re going to use them immediately, otherwise store unwashed in the fridge. Now don’t forget some of these herbs will go well in a cocktail so be sure to add them!

Cooking with herbs:

Cooking with fresh herbs and spices has so many benefits other than enhancing the flavor of the food.  They’re great to use when trying to amp the flavor of protein and starches without adding more fat, sodium and calories.  Plus, many of these, such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, garlic, ginger, cayenne to name a few, assists in cardiovascular health and disease prevention.  Oregano has one of the highest counts of antioxidants of most fresh herbs.  When you’re trying to add them to your dishes, consider what you’re cooking and the flavor profile you want to achieve. Remember that there is power in numbers, so don’t be afraid to put a palette of mixed herbs together.

The possibilities afforded by growing herbs is limited only by your imagination.  If you’ve always desired to grow your own but never had the confidence to do so, there has never been a better time to get started.  Support groups abound, and social media has helped people from all walks of life to succeed at this extremely easy, satisfying and rewarding hobby.