Tag Archive: Herbs

  1. Evergreen Herbs: Lavender, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

     

    Rosemarinus officinalis forefront garden jakMPM 1051

    A fall herb garden containing rosemary and lavender (foreground).

    Some herbs don’t disappear when winter comes. A suite of favorites from the Mediterranean stay green, keeping our gardens looking pretty and our food tasting good. Designing and cooking with them is easy, but keeping them happy during the winter months requires an understanding of what they need to grow well.

    Rather than being herbaceous perennials, meaning they die to the ground in winter and stem from the earth in spring, these herbs are actually shrubs and subshrubs. This means they have woody growth. They require pruning to maintain their good looks and vigorous growth, and if the cold and winter sun become too harsh and they are not protected, their stems will die.

    Lavender

    Lavandula JaKMPM

    Lavandula angustifolia is highly attractive to bees.

    Valued as a garden and landscape beauty, as well as an aromatic and culinary herb, lavender has both lovely foliage and pretty summer flowers. There are several species that are commonly grown. The most cultivated forms are English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, 2-3 feet) and French lavender (Lavandula stoechas, 1-3 feet), which are both shrubby perennials with pretty flowers that are highly attractive to bees. The leaves are commonly used are a component of Herbs de Provence, a popular French herb mix used to flavor meats, sauces, and stews.

    The common name “English lavender” is actually a misnomer. This evergreen plant originates from the mountain ranges of Spain, France, and Italy where it exists in open, rocky, alkaline soils. When grown in the garden, plants need sharply drained soils and full sun. The whole plant is fragrant. Its summer flowers, may be lavender blue, purple or white, exist in elongated clusters atop long, thin stems. Small, linear, silver-gray leaves densely line the stems. This lavender can survive in zones 5-8, but in the colder end of its hardiness, the stems often experience winter desiccation and damage. Old or unsightly stems should be pruned off in spring after temperatures have begun to warm and new growth appears.

    Lavandula stoechas 'Anouk' PP16685 JaKMPM

    Lavandula stoechas is tender but offers very pretty plumed flower spikes.

    French lavender is a bit more tender than English. It survives in USDA hardiness zones 8-9. It naturally exists on the Mediterranean coasts where conditions are hot and dry. The mounded evergreen subshrub can become quite large with age. It is fully evergreen with fine, toothed leaves of silvery gray-green. In drier weather the leaves become more linear and silvery. Its slender stems are topped with oval spikes of densely clustered dark purple flowers topped with showy plumes of brighter purple bracts. These appear from late spring through summer.

    Sage

    Salvia officinalis 'Berrgarden' JaKMPM

    Salvia officinalis ‘Berrgarten’ has broad, silvery leaves that always look pretty.

    Prized for flavoring Thanksgiving stuffing, sausages, and winter pasta dishes, sage (Salvia officinalis, 2-2.5 feet) is also an attractive, evergreen landscape plant that continues to look nice through winter. It’s broad, dusty gray leaves smell pungent when crushed, and in early summer, stems of pretty violet-blue flowers appear.

    Also from the Mediterranean, this sun-loving subshrub also requires well-drained soils. It is quite hardy, surviving in USDA hardiness zones 4-8. In colder zones, stems and leaves have a tendency to die back, so spring removal of dead or damaged stems is a must. There are many beautiful cultivars including the broad-leaved ‘Berggarten’ sage and ‘Tricolor’ sage with its purple, cream, and gray-green leaves. All sages have a place both in herb and perennial borders.

    Rosemary

    Rosemarinus officinalis flower jakMPM 071

    Rosmarinus officinalis flowers are pale lavender blue and much loved by bees.

    The piney smell of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, 2-6 feet) permeates this sprawling evergreen shrub. Native to the Mediterranean and Caucasus, it grows in rocky sandy soils and can withstand the salt spray of the seashore. It will grow in USDA hardiness zones 7-10, but in colder zones winter stem dieback is common. Some cultivated varieties are hardier than others with the upright cultivar ‘Arp’ surviving to zone 6. Well-drained soils and sites protected from harsh winter weather will help plants make survive the cold. They can also be protected with a winter cover of straw.

    Rosemary shrubs can become quite wide and bushy, though low-growing, creeping cultivars also exist. The mat-forming ‘Prostratus’, which sprawls to several feet but only reaches 6-12 inches, is one of these. Pale violet-blue flowers appear along the stems in spring and early summer. Plant rosemary in sharply drained soil and full sun where it will have plenty of room to grow. Where winters are mild, these shrubs can be sheared as topiaries to create an architectural, fragrant border. Harvest leaves and stems to season meats, sauces, and roasted vegetables.

    Thyme

    Thymus

    Thymus pseudolanuginosus is wooly and very low growing.

    Creating low mats of minute evergreen foliage, thyme is a garden favorite for herb and rock gardens. It also looks great planted among stepping stones or as a ground cover for sun. Many species are cultivated and all are culinary, though some taste better than others. French thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is the culinary favorite, with lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) following in flavor. The highly prostrate, fuzzy-leaved wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) is very pretty planted along a stone walkway or along a rock wall. The low-growing pink-flowered creeping time is also extra pretty producing masses of pink flowers in spring. Mother-of-thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is a northern European species that also produces masses of pink flowers in spring and makes groundcover. Planting them among sunny, protective rock walls and beds will help protect them through winter and ensure they will continue to look nice.

    All of these herbs are mints producing pretty, fragrant flowers that are highly attractive to bees. Their planting needs are similar. All require well-drained soils, and though they can withstand poorer quality soils, they will thrive if their soils are amended with Black Gold® Garden Compost Blend. Plant them in spring, so they will have plenty of time to become established for the cold winter months.

    Leaves can be harvested any time of year, which is why sage, rosemary, and thyme are used to flavor winter dishes. Their aromatic flavors offer year-round pleasure and the plants themselves full-season garden interest.

  2. Harvesting and Storing Herbs

    Rosemarinus officinalis forefront garden jakMPM 1051

    A fall herb garden ready for harvest. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    In early fall, fresh herbs are among the abundance of riches available every day in the garden. Snipping savory leaves as needed throughout the summer and early fall is the best way to enjoy them, but with the end of the growing season approaching, the supply of available herbs may well outstrip the immediate demand. Fortunately, there are lots of easy ways to save some of that herbal bounty to brighten up your cooking and home during the cold weather months.

    Bringing in the Harvest: How and when you harvest herbs depends on the herb variety and the plant parts you want to preserve. Leafy types, like basil, thyme, oregano or parsley, should be harvested just before the plants flower. Snip off one third to one half the length of each stem to keep plants productive until frost and ensure that you have a good supply of leaves to preserve. If you are harvesting edible flowers, like late-blooming lavender or calendula, clip blooms just after they open. To gather seeds, including dill or coriander, wait until after the green stage, as seedheads begin to dry. Placing bags over the seedheads ensures that nothing will be lost and the bags can hold the seeds while they dry. Roots, such as echinacea and horseradish, should be dug and harvested late, after one or two frosts.

    Lavender Drying

    Lavender flowers are best dried by hanging in a cool, dry place.

    The best time for harvesting leaves and flowers is in the morning, before the full heat of the day has set in, but after the morning dew has dried. Hosing off the plants the night before guarantees clean leaves, stems and flowers.

    Up in the Air: Air drying is an easy, time-honored and effective way to preserve many herbs and flowers. Tie up small bunches of stems and leaves and hang them upside down in a cool, airy space. Garages, attic rafters, drying racks or screened porches are good for this purpose. The herbs are dry when the leaves crumble easily. Separate dried leaves from stems of large-leafed varieties, like catnip or lemon balm, and discard stems. To use dried thyme and other small-leafed varieties, simply crumble leaves and stems together.

    Ocimum basilicum 'Franchi Italiano Classico' JaKMPM

    Basil is best frozen for winter use. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Leaves can also be placed on towel-lined trays or in wicker baskets and left in cool, well-ventilated places to dry. If dust accumulation is a worry, place the stems and leaves in paper bags with small ventilation holes and set aside.

    Drying Equipment: Herbs, including parsley can also be dried very quickly in a microwave oven. Drying times depend on the plant variety and the power of the microwave, but Stephen Orr, author of The New American Herbal, suggests testing your oven by starting with a single sprig of a particular herb and microwaving on “high” for 10 seconds. Experiment and adjust timing as you go along. Large quantities of herbs or roots can also be dried in mechanical dehydrators used according to manufacturers’ directions. Generally, roots should be cleaned and cut into small pieces before drying. Electric ovens will also dry herbs, if the ovens can be set low enough—80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, experimentation is the key to determining timing.

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    Dill weed can be dried for winter and the seed collected and used as a spice. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Salt of the Earth: Less in fashion than it once was, salting is also a good preservation method for fleshy herbs like basil that sometimes respond poorly to drying. Choose a glass jar and alternate layers of clean, dry leaves with coarse salt, making sure that you top the jar with a salt layer and a tight-fitting lid. The leaves will stay fresh for a minimum of several months.

    The Big Chill: Herbs destined for use in fall and winter stews and soups can also be frozen in small bunches. Place these in plastic freezer bags or other containers. Use directly from the freezer. Alternately, freeze herbs like rosemary, basil, and oregano in olive oil or water. The easiest way to do this is to use an ice cube tray, placing small amounts of the herb in each cube space. Top up the spaces with olive oil or water and freeze. These cubes can also go directly from freezer to stockpot or sauté pan.

    Mentha spicata JaKMPM

    Mint is great for drying for cold-season tea.

    Storage: While frozen herbs will happily spend the winter waiting in the freezer, dried herbs are a different story. No matter which drying method you choose, store the herbs in glass containers, preferably dark-colored, with tightly fitting lids. Keep them out of direct sunlight. Most important of all—use them. Any dried herbs left over by the time the growing season rolls around again, should be discarded.

  3. Spring Herbs

    A fresh pot of spring parsley ready for the picking.

    A fresh pot of spring flatleaf parsley ready for the picking. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Spring is full of small revelations: the smell of thawing earth, the sight of early crocuses and the taste of the season’s first herbs. Some of those herbs are old standbys like chives, parsley, dill and cilantro. Others, including lovage, chervil and sorrel, have an equally long history, but are less well known today.

    Now, as last frost dates gradually pass and gardens begin their annual emergence, it is time to start annual herbs indoors and watch as outdoor perennials and self-sown annuals begin sprouting in beds and borders. If you are new to herb growing, take the plunge and grow a few varieties from seed. The sooner you start, the sooner you will reap spring’s first and tastiest harvest.

    After cilantro blooms in spring, it sets coriander seed. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Spring Herbs in the Parsley Family
    Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is the best known member of Apiaceae, or the Parsley Family. It is biennial and available in curly and flat-leafed varieties. The green sprigs are such ubiquitous garnishes that it is easy to forget the distinct “green’ taste note that they add to all kinds of dishes. In classic French cookery, parsley stars in the traditional aromatic herb mixture known as fines herbes. It also makes a great breath freshener.

    Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) or sweet cicily is another fines herbes component that also enlivens the luxurious flavor of Béarnaise sauce. Less celebrated than its relative, parsley, chervil’s delicate flavor combines parsley, citrus and licorice notes. The annual plant’s deeply dissected leaves have a similar lacy appearance.

    Unlike many low-growing herbs, perennial lovage (Levisticum officinale) stands tall in the garden, often growing to six feet or more. It emerges in spring, bearing leaves with a celery-like flavor that intensifies through the growing season. The leaves are best eaten fresh, but the seeds can be ground to flavor winter dishes.

    Fragrant annual dill (Anethum graveolens) is nearly as tall as lovage, sprouting up to five feet in spring. Best used fresh, the feathery dill leaves enhance spring foods, from fish to eggs. In the garden, those same leaves feed swallowtail butterfly larvae. Start sowing dill outside just before the last frost date and continue planting once a week until the last week of spring.  This should provide enough dill for both humans and butterflies.

    Cilantro (Coriander sativum) is another lacy-leafed parsley relation, often used in Latin or Asian dishes. Some people seem hard-wired to hate it, while others relish the taste. The leaves of the annual plant are best used fresh and the aroma and flavor combine green notes with a discernable soapy undertone. Cilantro seeds are known as coriander, though in Europe and elsewhere, the leaves also go by that name.

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    Chives offer a mild, sweet onion flavor that adds freshness to dishes. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Multi-Talented Chives
    Perennial chives (Allium schoenoprasum) belong to the same strong-flavored tribe as onions and scallions, but the taste of the grass-like leaves and bulbs is more subtle. All parts of the plants are edible and the purple-pink flowers make a colorful addition to salads. A happy stand of chives quickly outgrows its boundaries, so be prepared to divide regularly.

    Spring Sorrel
    Sorrel (Rumex scutatus) is a perennial leafy green with a lemony flavor. Its spade-shaped leaves are mild tasting early in spring and more assertive later on. Used for both medicinal and culinary purposes since ancient times, sorrel is a traditional ingredient of European spring soups. It is hard to find, even in farmers’ markets, but easy to grow.

    To get a jump on spring, start herbs indoors at least a few weeks before the last spring frost date. Use small containers filled with quality seed-starting mixtures, like Fafard Organic Seed Starter. Distribute seeds evenly over moistened potting mix and cover with a thin layer of additional mix. Place pots in roomy plastic bags, seal and provide bright indirect light. When seedlings appear, remove the bags and check daily to make sure the soil remains moist. Thin seedlings, if necessary. Before transplanting to outdoor containers or garden beds, move the young plants to a porch or other shady, protected location, to allow them time to acclimate to outdoor conditions. Then choose a porous potting mix, such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix, or amend beds with a rich soil additive such as Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix. Good care will ensure an early and bountiful harvest.

    herb boxes

    These box planters are great for spring herb growers. (image care of Maureen Gilmer)

  4. DIY Herbal Remedies for Colds

    IMG_9986It’s that time of the season! No, I don’t mean the holiday season; I mean the season for colds, flu and other bugs that bring us down in winter. Despite flu shots, good care, vitamins and other attempts to ward them off, these bugs always arrive, unwelcome and uninvited. So, how do you treat them other than using standard medications? Herbs and natural remedies, of course!

    There’s nothing like garlic from the garden for herbal cold infusions.

    During the summer months, I grow plenty of herbs for teas, salves, soaps and tinctures that I use in the winter months. Some years I also grow medicinal herbs indoors on my sunny kitchen windowsill. They are cheap and effective, while also smelling pleasant and tasting good. Even nicer, some of the best grow like weeds, to include peppermint, chamomile, garlic, cayenne pepper, lavender and elderberry. Others, like ginger, are tender plants that can be grown indoors in winter or outdoors in summer.

    Anyone who has grown the classic herbs peppermint and chamomile know that they’re wild and must be kept in bounds. Nonetheless, their usefulness far outweighs their weediness.

    German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is a sun-loving herb that generally germinates in spring and summer, remains a low-growing foliage rosette through winter, and blooms in spring, producing a cloud of little white daisies. These choice flowers should be harvested at their prime and quickly dried to make herbal tea or inhalations. (Be cautious about letting them set seed; they become weedy!) A combination of dried orange peel and dried chamomile flowers makes a lovely tea and inhalant that will ease the stomach and gently clear the sinuses. Just add one teaspoon of dried orange peel and three tablespoons of dried chamomile flowers to two cups of boiling boiled water. Steep it for a few minutes, for tea, or breathe it in.

    Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) has rhizomatous roots that spread like wildfire, so I grow mine in large pots in sunny spots. The summer foliage and flowers are easily harvested and dried for year-round use. Peppermint can be used to make inhalations and compresses as well as head-clearing tea. A good, simple mint tea recipe for colds contains two teaspoons dried elderberries, two tablespoons dried peppermint leaves and a few peppercorns to fire up the spice. Add this mix to three cups of boiling water, steep for a few minutes and serve with honey.

    Flowering German chamomile plants encircle a garden space.

    Garlic has proven cold-fighting benefits and is truly a plant-and-leave-it crop requiring next to no care; just plant it in rich, well-drained soil in fall, and let it grow and bulb up in spring and summer. As any garlic grower can tell you, garden-fresh garlic is worlds better than the store stuff. Still, grocery garlic works just as well as a cold fighter.

    Fresh lemon garlic tea is a standby infusion for cold sufferers. Simply add three large (or four small) sliced garlic cloves and the zest and juice of two lemons to three cups of boiling water in a saucepan. Allow the mix to boil for 5 minutes before removing from the heat and straining. Add a teaspoon of honey to each cup, and you have a truly useful cold treatment.

    Nothing clears the head and chest like something spicy. That’s why cayenne (Capsicum annuum) is sought after as an herbal remedy for cold sufferers. The sun- and heat-loving veggies are easy as pie to grow during the summer months and are easily dried when red and ripe. Crushed cayenne can be added to any simple herbal tea as a stimulant to get the blood flowing. It is believed to help with headache pain and clear stuffy heads.

    Peppermint flowers and leaves can be used to make tea.

    Lavender (Lavandula spp.) is one of the most beautiful, sun-loving plants, and its dried fragrant flowers are a versatile herbal. Not only can they be added to soaps and creams, but they make a wonderful cold inhalant when infused with one tablespoon eucalyptus leaves and two tablespoons of lavender flowers. The two fragrant botanicals are harmonious partners. In fact, their oils may help to relieve depression, inflammation and congestion, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

    Gardeners with a good bit of space can and should grow elderberries (Sambucus spp.). Not only do they make delicious jam, juice and wine, they are also healthful and medicinal. The shrubs can grow in full sun or partial shade, though plants grown in higher light yield more fruits. Umbels of edible yellowish spring flowers give way to edible black berries in late summer.  Both the flowers and berries can be dried to make teas. The berries also make delicious syrup that can be used to sweeten and flavor any herbal tea. All are believed to alleviate cough and allergy symptoms.

    Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis 'Nova' JaKMPM

    Elderberries can be dried and added to various herbal tea remedies.

    Ginger root (Zingiber officinal) is delicious and desirable in more ways than one. Like cayenne, it’s spicy, so it acts as a stimulant that gets the blood flowing and clears the head and sinuses when added to tea or an infusion. It also helps sooth stomach when added to tea. Ginger is most easily grown in a pot outdoors in summer or in a sunny window or sun room in winter. It’s plump, spicy roots can be harvested as needed.  For delicious fresh ginger tea, boil five large slices of ginger root in three cups of water with a cinnamon stick for a few minutes, strain and serve with honey.

    All of the plants mentioned grow best in soils with average to good fertility and porous drainage. Before planting them in spring, amendment with Fafard Premium Topsoil will ensure good growth for the growing months. Likewise, ginger plants grown indoors thrive when planted in Fafard Organic Potting Mix.

    Two great reference books for medicinal herbal plants are the recent book Grow It Heal It by Christopher Hobbs and Leslie Gardener (Rodale Books, 2013) and the classic Complete Medical Herbal by Penelope Ody (DK, 1993).

    Though all of these herbal remedies are deemed safe by health experts, it’s always smart to talk to your doctor before partaking in any garden herbs. Also, be sure you have no allergies to these plants before using them. Some planning ahead is required if you want to grow your own herbal remedies, but when the winter sniffles arrive, you will be glad you broke ground and took the time.