Ever wonder what gives Italian food its pizzazz or Mexican food its zing? It’s the spices! Homegrown herbs can be tantalizing for your taste buds as well as your pocket book. In addition to being more flavorful than pre-dried grocery varieties, homegrown herbs are healthier because you control what chemicals your herbs are exposed to. Herbs can be used in a variety of ways and combinations to enrich and broaden the flavor of your foods and growing them may be easier than you think.
First, choose a location. Generally, plants prefer to be planted in the ground where they can spread out. If you have limited space to work with, your herbs will do well planted in pots when provided adequate light, food and water. For starters, try and select a nice sunny spot that gets at least 4 hours of sun a day. Seeds on the other hand need 12 to 16 hours of sunlight daily to germinate. A southwest-facing windowsill offers the most light. A corner with two windows (one facing south and the other west) is ideal. Supplement with HID (high intensity discharge) grow lights if your home doesn’t get enough natural light. Feel free to move your herb pots outdoors where it’s warm and sunny, but be sure and bring them back inside during the cool nights.
Next, decide if you want to use starter plants or seeds. Seeds are less expensive, offer a wider variety of choices, but are riskier and take longer. Starter plants are more expensive and choices may be limited, but the results are more quickly realized. Select a few plants or seed packets from the basic culinary herbs you use most frequently – Basil, Chive, Dill, Oregano, Parsley, Sage, Marjoram, French Tarragon, Cilantro, Rosemary or Thyme. Most herbs are perennial and stay green all winter or go dormant over the winter season and come back again in spring. Perennial herbs include Rosemary, Oregano, Marjoram, Thyme, Sage, Chives, Lavender, Lemon Verbena, Mints, and Tarragon. Annual herbs including basil, cilantro, dill, and arugula live over one season and are expected to live from only 1-4 months before they stop leaf production, make flowers, and go to seed. Parsley is biennial and lives for about 1 year before going to seed.
Seeds do best grown in wide, flat containers that prevent overcrowding and excessive moisture. Plastic pots retain moisture more consistently than clay and are therefore preferred for both seeds and starter plants. Individual containers such as seed trays or peat pots are best when transplanting seedlings to pots as it keeps the roots from being disrupted. Make sure that the pots you use are large enough for the plant to grow for up to 6 months. Pots that are 8″ in diameter are best.
Start with soil that has been amended with organic matter. Do not use garden soil for potted plants as it is too heavy and will not drain properly. Instead use a good quality potting soil or growing medium that is loose and drains well. You can purchase a commercial mix or make your own by using equal parts compost, sterile topsoil and builder’s sand. An all-purpose organic fertilizer can be added to this mix. If you want to go with a soil free mix, combine 4-6 parts peat moss, 1 part perlite and 1 part vermiculite. If adding nutrients, blend 1/2 cup each bone meal, oyster shell lime (raises pH) and cottonseed meal/canola meal per 8 gallons of potting mix.
Fill containers with potting mix, place the seeds on top and cover with a small amount of soil. Very small seeds and those that require light to germinate should be placed directly on the soils surface uncovered. Check your seed packet for specific planting guidelines. Tamp seeds down on the soil so they make contact with the moist surface allowing them to germinate. When using starter plants, prepare your container by filling it with good potting soil and add fertilizer at ½ the dose recommended on the fertilizer package directions. Release starter plants from their starter containers by turning them upside down, tapping the bottom, and gently pulling on the base of the stems until the plant comes out of the container. Dig holes large enough for each plant, plant seedlings at the same depth as the starter container, place the plant in the hole and gently press soil around the edges to fill.
Both container-grown seeds and starter plants need extra nutrients while developing roots and should be fed at planting and then weekly. Use a ½ strength liquid or organic fertilizer after the true leaves emerge from the seeds and for your starter plants. Mix in a slow release organic fertilizer (5-5-5) into the soil before planting. Some good organic choices include cottonseed meal or those made from animal products such as poultry manure or fish emulsion. Chemical fertilizers contain ammonium nitrate, which can cause burning of the leaves and other detrimental effects. Avoid strong spray on fertilizers like miracle grow. Don’t over feed your plants. Too much fertilizer will produce a bigger plant but will dilute the essential oils from the plant that give the herb its flavor.
Water plants or seeds immediately after planting but don’t let the soil get too wet. Seeds are very sensitive to the extremes of over watering and under watering. Over watering can disturb newly germinated seedlings. Water both seeds and starter plants only when the soil gets dry to the touch. If you find that you need to re-hydrate your seed container, place the entire pot in a basin with 2 to 3 inches of warm water and allow the planting medium to wick moisture from the bottom but never let your plants sit in a tray of water for prolong periods as their roots will drown. If just the surface has dried, you can spritz the surface with water from a spray bottle.
Most seeds require temperatures of 65° to 75°F and 12 to 16 hours of sunlight daily while seedlings need at least 4 hours of sunlight daily. Choose a sunny, south-facing window and turn the container a quarter of turn daily. This will prevent your plants from overreaching and developing weak, elongated stems. Gently brush the palm of your hand against the tops of the plants to encourage strong stem growth. Placing seed containers near an existing heater or using a space heater with the proper precautions can raise the ambient temperature as needed. In addition, a heating pad designed for plant use placed directly under the seed containers will warm the planting mix and encourage germination. When using any additional heat source, be sure to check for moisture often, since the seed containers may dry out more quickly. Sage, rosemary and thyme require a well-drained, slightly moist soil, whereas parsley, chervil and mint grow best on soils, which retain moisture. Some herbs can be kept moist such as Basil, mints, cilantro, dill, arugula and chives are better suited to cooler, afternoon shade locations. Other herbs need to have soil dry completely between watering such as Lavender, Rosemary, Oregano, Marjoram, Sages, Lavender, Thyme and Tarragon.
A variety of pests can invade your plants and it is best to address those problems organically when possible. Parsley attracts the parsley worm, slugs and snails love basil and leafy plants, aphids and white flies are attracted to plants under stress. Check your plants regularly for pest and signs of eggs. If you can’t hand pick the pests then try a good organic solution like Bacillus thuringiensis also known as “BT”. If you notice snails try Sluggo. If you notice aphids, first address and correct why the plant is being stressed – root bound, too wet etc. If white flies persist try filling a spray bottle with a soapy mixture of dish soap and water mixture and spray onto directly on to the plant, or try some Neem II organic spray.
After your plants have grown you are ready to harvest. When harvesting leaves (mint, basil etc.) you want to pluck them before the plant flowers. Always cut the tops of the Basil off of the stems about a third of the way down at an intersection of new leaves. This prompts the plant to start growing branches of more leaves. Pulling leaves off the stem without cutting the branch back will stunt its growth, will cause the plant to flower, and no new leaves will grow. Once your plants start flowering, if they are left untrimmed, they will make seeds from the flowers and die soon after. Young and tender leaves have more concentrated oils and are therefore more flavorful. It is best to harvest early in the morning. Avoid washing the leaves as it strips them of the aromatic oils. If you are harvesting herbs that are grown for seeds such as caraway, coriander, fennel, dill they can be harvested when seedpods change color. If you are harvesting the roots (goldenseal or ginseng), dig up the roots at the end of summer or early autumn. Basil, mint, chives, oregano and parsley grow better with consistent pruning and harvesting. Regular trimming keeps the plants from growing grow leggy. Never cut off more than a third of their growth at any one time.
For the best flavor use your herbs when freshly picked. If you need to store herbs before use you can trim the stems of cilantro, parsley, basil and other long stemmed herbs and place them in a glass of water. Other herbs (such as thyme, rosemary and chives) can handle a week or so in the fridge. Using a damp paper towel, wrap the herb loosely and place them in a perforated — or open — plastic bag and place in the vegetable bin.
More long term storage is dependent on the type of plant. Low moisture herbs like thyme, savory, dill, parsley, rosemary and sage can be rinsed with cool water, gathered into bunches, and then hung upside down by their branches and left to dry for 2-3 weeks . Remove the leaves and store them in an air-tight container. Grind or crush the leaves before use.
Tender herbs with large leaves and high moisture content like basil, lemon balm, tarragon, lemon verbena, lovage, mint and bay leaf should have their leaves removed and place in a single layer on a drying rack. This can be a window screen or any frame covered with netting. Place the rack out of the sun in the shade so that air can circulate above and below the screen. Turn the leaves the first few days. In about a week the leaves will be dry and ready to store in an air-tight container.
Some herbs like thyme, chives, tarragon, borage, basil, dill, mint, lemongrass, savory, sage, and oregano freeze well while retaining most of its flavor and color. First rinse the herb with cool water and pat them dry. Spread them on a single cookie sheet and put the freezer. After the leaves have frozen move the herbs into an air-tight container and keep in the freezer until you are ready to use them.
Different herbs have very distinctive flavors, fascinating origins and even health benefits. Let’s look at a few herb examples and their contributions to our healthy lifestyles. Some herbs that we are all familiar with might include Basil, Parsley and Garlic. Basil is low in calories, contains no cholesterol, and has leaves that contain anti-inflammatory & anti-bacterial properties. Parsley is a great source of potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron while Garlic contains minerals that could reduce cholesterol levels and decrease blood vessel stiffness. Visit http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/garlic.html for additional herbs and their nutritional value, health benefits, medicinal & culinary uses, and even selection/storage information.