The joy of herbs

By Tom Seymour | Sep 14, 2018
Photo by: Tom Seymour Oregano grows wild around Tom's garden.

Culinary herbs rank among the easiest plants to grow. Good drainage and sufficient water stand as the two most important requirements for herb culture. And better yet, culinary herbs don’t need the richest soil, but rather, tend to become more flavorful and powerful when grown in plain garden soil, no fertilizer needed.

So why do so many people rely on commercially produced herbs, rather than growing their own? Perhaps it’s because they have never tried fresh-picked herbs and compared them to the store-bought variety. And of course, herbs picked from a kitchen garden or even a windowsill garden or container, always have far more flavor than the commercially available product.

Herbs gone wild

As an example of herbs going wild, two Italian-type herbs, oregano and thyme, long ago escaped from my garden and took off on their own. Both are perennial and remain available as long as snow stays off the ground.

I no longer plant oregano or thyme because the escapees grow so vigorously on their own. In fact, they grow like, well, weeds. But that’s not surprising, because the herbs we so enjoy today were once wild plants in their original, native environment.

Another of my favorite herbs, winter savory, is perennial, and while I now grow it in containers, my plan is to transplant it this fall in my perennial flower bed as a low-growing border plant. I’m a cottage gardener at heart and see no reason not to mix ornamental plants with edible ones. A related herb, summer savory, is an annual with slightly stronger flavor than the perennial type.

In Europe, many of our favorite herbs still grow wild around sites of old monasteries. There, the monks tended herb gardens and today local people harvest the descendents of those same plants.

Growing methods

In-ground gardens as well as raised beds make suitable sites for growing kitchen herbs. And though rich soil produces larger, fuller plants, that same plant will contain more essential oil, the stuff that gives culinary herbs their punch, if grown in plain soil without fertilizer.

But not everyone has the luxury of a large garden. Fortunately, for herbs, that doesn’t present a problem, since herbs are easily grown in containers.

As covered in a past column about container gardening, almost anything that will hold soil can serve as a planter for herbs. The only necessary ingredients, besides the herbs themselves, are sunlight, soil and water.

In years past I used a plastic fish tote (a large, rectangular box used by commercial fishermen to hold their catch) for my herbs. But any way you cut it, fish totes are pretty homely. So this year I bought two very attractive clay planters. These are round, tapered so that the top is wider than the bottom. And after filling with years-old compost, I added winter savory, a purple variety of sage and Italian basil.

Tending these planters meant watering daily, an easy enough task. From then on, I would pick my herbs as needed, usually in the early morning when the essential oil is up in the foliage. Also note that these three herbs freely regenerate after picking, so we can truly look upon our harvest as nothing more than pruning.

It would be possible, come fall and the inevitable frost, to take these planters inside and continue growing them. But the annual herb, basil, would eventually play out, so for this and other annuals, it may be better to replant in a windowsill-type container for growing on through winter and into spring.

Also note that supermarkets often offer potted herb plants that are ready to be placed in a saucer (to hold water runoff) on the windowsill. One particularly fragrant and very useful plant, bush basil, did remarkably well for me and I would buy another potted plant as soon as the stores began offering them for sale.

Useful dill

Dill, another annual herb, gives us a lot for just a little effort. While short, compact varieties are available, I grew the old-fashioned, 3-foot dill this summer. And after it began growing in earnest, it gave me all the dill weed I wanted throughout the season.

Most people grow dill for the fragrant seedheads. These are used in making pickles, but since I no longer make pickles, I’ll pick the seedheads before they form seeds and use them as seasoning, the same as dill foliage, or dill “weed.”

Dill weed excels when chopped and sprinkled on salmon fillets prior to broiling. I also sprinkle it inside the body cavities of large trout, prior to placing it in the oven. But these are not the only uses for dill weed. This herb also pairs well with new potatoes, adding a distinct, but not overpowering, taste highlight.

Also, a bit of dill weed sprinkled on green beans or wax beans just prior to serving enlivens an already tasty dish. It’s hard to think of an instance where a bit of dill weed would not make a useful addition.

Dill lends itself to drying and it’s easy to dry dill. I pull the whole plant just before it sets seeds, and suspend it on old, blacksmith-made nails on a beam in my kitchen. In less than a week, barring a stretch of high humidity, my dill has completely dried and then all that needs doing is to strip the feathery foliage and place it in a container for winter storage. The unripe seedheads, too, get dried and go into long-term storage along with the foliage.

Other uses

Many culinary herbs also have medicinal uses. Dill, for instance, is considered a stomachic, or something to soothe an upset stomach. I find that dill does help this condition and while herbalists recommend taking dill in a tea, the easiest way for me is just to chew on the fresh foliage.

The list of reputed medical uses for dill, as with so many other herbs, is long.

In addition to drying dill foliage, another simple way to preserve it for future use is to freeze fresh-picked, dry (washing will ruin it) dill weed. Just drop in a freezer bag and place in the freezer. It will be like fresh when needed as an ingredient in recipes.

Dill even figures into flower arrangements. The dried seedheads add form to dried-flower bouquets.

Basil

I grow two types of basil, the old standard, Italian basil and Thai basil. Thai basil offers a slight licorice flavor and does wonders for pepping up a stir-fry.

For everyday use, Italian basil reigns supreme and it goes well with everything from omelets to soups, salads to sauces. It is a must for pasta sauces.

Sometimes it’s just nice to pick a basil leaf and sniff it. The aroma of fresh-cut basil has a soothing effect, and if that were all it offered, it would be enough.

As with dill, it’s difficult to find something that basil can’t complement. I consider it a universal, catchall herb.

Basil, like most other herbs, can be dried for future use. But some years ago I stumbled upon another preservation method, one that completely traps all the delicious basil flavor. This method calls for layering basil and sliced garlic cloves in a glass container and then covering each layer with olive oil. When left in a cool, dark place for a few weeks, the oil will have captured the basil/garlic essence, making it a quick and easy way to impart exciting flavors to any dish.

It’s okay to leave the jar in a cupboard for two or three weeks, but longer than that invites mold. So after a few weeks, I prefer to store my basil/garlic oil in the refrigerator, where it can last for months.

Sage

Sage, the universal poultry seasoning, is easy to grow, and being perennial, comes back each year. Sage’s flavor is so intense that even dried leaves left unpicked retain their aroma throughout the winter.

Sage also figures prominently in sausage-making. Whereas few people make their own casing-style sausage, everyone can avail themselves of sausage patties using ground pork. Just chop sage finely and mix it in with the pork. Sage, along with black pepper, makes for tasty homemade sausage.

Most of our favorite herbs are easily grown and easily stored. I’m convinced that homegrown herbs have a finer flavor than the store-bought variety. Try growing your own and see if I’m not right.

Tom’s tips

Here’s a universal rule of thumb for using herbs, either for food or medicine. When using dried herbs, use half as much as fresh, since drying increases potency. So if a recipe calls for one teaspoon of dried herbs and you are using fresh herbs, use two teaspoons.

Sage is an easy-to-grow herb. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
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