Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Summer Herb Garden

If you use herbs when you cook, you can quickly go broke trying to buy them. In the produce section, stores carry tiny wilted packets of “fresh” basil, oregano, parsley, and other herbs for about $2. If you are lucky, you will find some truly fresh herbs at the farmers market for a reasonable price. Many of the dried herbs, I noticed, are products of China. No matter how small your garden, it is easiest to grow your own for fresh consumption and to dry some for use the rest of the year.


If you have a sunny spot big enough for a pot, grow some herbs, even if you don’t have room for anything else. I used to have an herb garden, but now I mix the perennial herbs in with my flowers and shrubs and I plant the annual herbs in rows in the vegetable garden. They are easy to grow, and with the exception of mint, behave themselves.

Rosemary is somewhat tricky to establish in the garden but once it’s happy you will not have to worry about it. The upright type seems to be easier to grow than the prostrate, or creeping, type, and it forms a nice evergreen shrub. Rosemary likes hot dry sites; my mother has tried for years to find some shrub that will grow across the front of her brick home that the afternoon sun bakes all day, and rosemary thrives where many other shrubs died.

I water rosemary often until it is established. I make sure the soil dries some between waterings, but I don’t let it dry out so much that it begins to wilt. Many plants tolerate this treatment, but rosemary does not. Rosemary will also die in soggy soil. I have killed many more rosemary plants than have lived in my yard, but because I persevered, I have several healthy, trouble-free plants. If you kill rosemary in one place, move it somewhere else until you find a good spot. They like sandy soil.

Sage, in my experience, is also difficult to establish and likes conditions similar to rosemary’s preferences. My mother has a patch of sage growing in the same baking sun the rosemary likes that is older than I am, but she gave me several starts of her sage before I got one to grow in my garden. Using my own sage in recipes instead of that jarred “rubbed sage” is worth the trouble. Thyme and oregano like more consistently moist, but not soggy, sites.

Basil is very easy to grow as a crop among your other vegetables. Sow the seed directly in the ground and cover it, and you will have a crop in about 2 months. Six plants or so should give you plenty to eat fresh, to dry, and to make pesto; freeze the pesto and you’ll have a supply all winter without having to pay the exorbitant prices for pesto in the grocery store.

Unfortunately for us, cilantro, a crucial seasoning in fresh salsa, tends to bolt to seed in our heat before any tomatoes are ripe. I managed to nurse ours along this year by planting a bolt-resistant variety and cutting off the flower stalks as they appear so I had some around to put with the tomatoes to make salsa.

It’s best to dry herbs when they are actively growing. Pick them on a dry morning, and shake off any bugs. I do not use any pesticides on mine, and I do not wash them; I suppose that if you wanted to wash them, you could, and then spin them dry in a salad spinner. I spread them on a wire rack or on paper towels on a cookie sheet, and I make sure there is ample room among the leaves for air circulation. When the leaves are crunchy, I store them in zip-top plastic bags in the cabinet.

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