2011-09-01 / News

Herbs of all shapes and sizes

The Island Garden
BY ROGER MARSHALL

I don’t know about you, but after Hurricane Irene came through, most of my tomatoes and beans are in Providence or points north. A few freshly planted trees and shrubs have taken up a new posture – horizontal – and one or two potted plants that were left outside in the lee of a building gave all their leaves to Zephyros, the God of wind.

Other than that, the garden survived reasonably intact. Unfortunately, the newly bare areas have just enough time to grow spinach or lettuce before the first frost, so I guess we will enjoy spinach for a while next month.

The above has absolutely no connection to what I planned to write about this week. Here I thought I’d comment on growing herbs. Many gardeners grow parsley; it is useful in many dishes and is easy to grow. Simply sprinkle a few seeds and wait for it to come up. Many herbs can be grown this way, but it is far more interesting if you look at what herbs you use in the kitchen and grow the ones that you use. You’ll be surprised at the differences between fresh herbs and the dried ones that you find in supermarkets. Basil and oregano, for example, add a whole new dimension to Italian food when they are fresh.

Perennial herbs are herbs that come up every year and give you lots of leaves for little or no work. Sage, rosemary, oregano, chives, mint (grow in a pot, it spreads), chamomile, thyme in all its variations, and lavender are among the herbs that are useful to have in your garden. In fall you can pot them up and bring them indoors for a much longer season. Tarragon is also a perennial herb. French tarragon is the culinary version and can only be bought as a cutting. Russian tarragon is much coarser and is the version in most seed packets.

Annual herbs such as fennel, sesame, coriander, basil, and parsley (although parsley is strictly speaking a biennial herb) are seeded at the beginning of each season. If you start now and plant them in pots you can bring them into the kitchen for an extended season of fresh herbs, although fennel, sesame and coriander will grow about 3 to 4 feet tall.

Basil, lemongrass, and a few other tropical herbs can also be grown in the kitchen, but they do like lots of heat and lots of sun, so you have lost the best part of the season to grow them. However, you can probably still start basil and grow it indoors for use in the fall.

Where do you get these herbs? Secret Garden on Southwest Avenue has a few perennial herb plants left. Buy one, repot it, and bring it indoors for fall and winter growing. Otherwise you’ll have to start your plants from seeds. Seeds can be obtained from any online seed seller although many have sold out at this end of the season, so you may have to plan your herb garden for next year.

If you have herb bushes in your garden, you can also dry them. Pick the leaves early in the day and hang them upside down in your kitchen to dry. This has two benefi ts. It perfumes your kitchen with the smell of fresh herbs and gives you dried herbs for winter. Sage, oregano, dill, and even fennel are easy to dry. Once dried – it takes about 10 days to two weeks to dry them – store your herbs in jars until you are ready to use them.

Parsley, basil, chives, mint and other leafy herbs can also be chopped and frozen. Freeze them in ice cube trays so that when you need to use them you can pull out an herb cube. Beware though, basil tends to turn an unappetizing black in an ice cube tray and is best made into pesto before freezing. I make a lot of pesto for use over pasta, on chicken breasts, and on pizza. You can also make pesto with half parsley and half mint for a different taste.

What do you use herbs for other than cooking? There are so many uses of herbs that an entire book could be (and has been) devoted to their use. Mint, chamomile, yarrow, sage, and even lavender have been used for tea by many. Simply gather a handful of leaves, put them in a pot and pour boiling water over them. Add a teaspoon of honey to mint, yarrow, sage or chamomile tea and drink it. All of these teas are said to calm nerves and make you feel better.

Herbs are versatile, easy to grow and easy to use. Try some today.

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