I enjoy cooking as much as I do gardening, and as a cook I am always looking for fresh herbs. Have you looked for fresh herbs in the grocery store? I find that with few exceptions the herbs you can by in the grocery store are dried out or wilted. Or I may find fresh parsley or cilantro in bunches, but most of it spoils before I can use it up. Increasingly, my solution to the problem is to grow my own herbs. Growing herbs isn’t hard, and does not take up much space.
The rules for growing herbs are few. Most require full sun and a well drained soil. Most like neutral to slightly acid soil. Most are quite draught tolerant and are not troubled by pests and diseases. Most of our culinary herbs are perennials, a few are biennials, and some are annuals. You can start herbs from seed or buy them as young plants from nurseries and other stores that sell plants.
Herbs should not be fertilized. Fertilizing them produces lush growth of the foliage at the expense of taste. If you are growing herbs for their leaves, you should prevent them from flowering as long as possible by cutting off the flower buds. The taste of the herbs is at its best just before they flower. If you are harvesting herbs for daily use in the summer, just cut what you need. If you are harvesting stems or leaves of herbs, try to harvest them in the morning before the sun becomes strong and draws out the essential oils. Put the herbs in a glass of ice water and refrigerate until you are going to use them. Or you may wrap the stems in a damp paper towel and refrigerate them.
If you are harvesting herb seeds, like dill or coriander, harvest the seeds on a warm day, when they are fully ripe but have not started to fall. Usually the seeds are hard and the pods are paper dry.
Some easy-to-grow herbs are:
» Parsley — A biennial. The plant produces only leaves first year and you may harvest as many as you want. The second year the plant flowers early in the season and then dies. Use leaves only before the plant flowers.
» Thyme — There are many kinds of thyme, ranging from very flavorful to mostly ornamental. Rub your fingers on the leaves and smell them in order to pick an aromatic thyme that you like. Thyme is a perennial. In addition to being a fine culinary herb, it makes a great ground cover.
» Oregano — There are many kinds of oregano. Some more flavorful than others. Some are only about 6 inches tall and others can grow up to 18 inches. The classic culinary oregano is Greek oregano. Some of the taller oreganos, while not as flavorful, make great ornamental plants because of their beautiful flowers. Oregano is a perennial.
» Basil — Basil is an annual. The most common basil is about 18 inches tall with large green leaves. There are also short globe basils, purple basils and a wonderful lemon basil. Make sure you cut your basil back regularly in the summer keep it from flowering. You have not lived until you have eaten fresh home grown tomatoes and basil, with a little pasta or cheese.
» Chives — A perennial. There are onion-flavored and garlic-flavored chives. The leaves and flowers are edible. They are great in scrambled eggs, cheese dips and salads.
» Cilantro or coriander — The leaves are called cilantro and the seeds are called coriander. Don’t ask me why. Cilantro is a very trendy herb right now, used extensively in Mexican and Thai cooking. It is what is called a cool season annual. That means it does great here in the spring and fall, but is hard to keep going in the summer, when it goes to seed very quickly. The trick is to plant a few plants in the spring and let them go to seed in the garden. Then you should have plenty of seedlings coming up all summer and enough cilantro leaves to harvest.
» Dill — Another annual that does best in the spring and fall. There are two kinds. The old fashioned kind of dill grows to about 3 feet and is grown mostly for seeds used in pickling. There is also a short dill that produces more leaves. The leaves are great in salads, cheese spreads, and with fish or chicken.
» Sage — Sage is a perennial that is sometimes hard to keep going. I find I have to plant new sage plants about every three years. If they do survive longer they become woody shrubs. You must keep pruning the shrub in order to get fresh tender growth of edible shoots and leaves. Sages come in a variety of leaf colors, from solid green, variegated white and green, and variegated purple and green. I find the all taste pretty much the same. Of course they are wonderful in bread stuffings and with pork and chicken.
» Tarragon — Tarragon is a perennial and easy to grow. Make sure you buy French tarragon, as that is the only truly aromatic one. Also purchase it as a plant. True French tarragon is propagated only by cuttings; so tarragon seeds will not be the true culinary French tarragon. Tarragon is the herb that gives béarnaise sauce its distinctive flavor. It is also wonderful with fish and chicken, and in potato salad.
This is just the beginning of the world of herbs available to you. Be adventuresome in your selection of herbs to grow and use. Vegetable gardens are very popular this year, even though mother nature has made it extra challenging; try planting a new herb or two in amongst the vegetables or even among your flowers to enhance the beauty and usefulness of your garden.
For additional information or questions about the Master Gardener Program, please contact Nebraska Extension, West Central Research and Extension Center at 308-532-2683.