Pine Bluffs Post - Serving all of Eastern Laramie County since 1908

Growing Culinary herbs

 

November 14, 2019



Last week I started to write about herbs, thinking I was writing about culinary herbs. Especially those that can be grown in the house and used fresh. Somehow the story took a turn and ended up on medicinal herbs. This week I’m going to try to rectify that and stay on topic.

Herbs have been used throughout history to flavor foods as well as for medicinal purposes. In fact, the earliest recorded references to herbs date back to between 13,000 to 25,000 BC as shown in cave paintings in France. The Egyptians were writing about herbs as early as the 28th century BC. The Sumerians described herbs in 2,500 BC and the Greeks were recording herbal transactions in 700 BC. Just thinking about it, the use of herbs, especially in cooking just makes sense. For example, as much as I like beef, I like to have it spiced up a bit. When we simply rub pepper on meat, we are using an herb. All of our marinades use herbs. And not only for meats, but plants too. I can’t say just vegetables because even fruits are often treated with herbs and/or spices.

In fact, if you eat anything, chances are that herbs were used. They’ve been used for thousands of years to alter the flavor of plants and meats when cooking to make them tastier and, sometimes, more palatable. They can make our foods taste differently even though the main ingredient stays the same. Some herbs can make a dish taste salty, some sweet. Some will give a bit of a “tang” and some will give a mellow flavor that simply makes a dish taste better. Some just make it hot.

Some of the more common herbs that can be grown at home and used fresh are: parsley, basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, dill, cilantro, garlic, marjoram, mint, lemon balm, chives, and many more that I won’t have time to list or write about. The great thing about these is that they can all be grown in containers in the house and most can be used fresh, as needed. Some, like garlic, rosemary and chives, require a larger pot but they will all grow well. For the most part, I would recommend no less than an eight inch pot for any of these herbs. If you want to keep them for long periods, an even larger pot may be necessary. As you harvest the leaves, the plant will grow more and will keep growing. My basil is on its third harvest and is still growing.

Rosemary is a good example. A large tree pot would work best here because rosemary can easily reach four feet in height and two feet in diameter. If you grow rosemary, you’re probably best putting it on a dolly so you can move the pot around easier. This is one of the herbs that also has some medicinal properties. It is believed that rosemary helps with memory. Most often, though, these properties are delivered through the use of the essential oil. Rosemary is a Mediterranean plant so it can’t survive our winters. It’ll have to be inside during cold weather. Last year I tried to grow it in the greenhouse without additional heating and it did survive until about March, Then the cold hit hard and it was done. It has a strong pine-lemon flavor so use it sparingly. It goes well with pasta dishes, lamb, pork, garlic and olive oil.

Mint is another plant that grows well indoors. The leaves can be used whole or chopped to flavor drinks, in vegetables, or infused to add a light minty flavoring to desserts. Mint is a plant that will grow back from the roots. In fact, outside it will survive our winters but can also become a weed since it tends to take over wherever it’s planted.

Basil is considered to be one of the more important culinary herbs. If you research it you’ll find that it has a light licorice flavor. But that isn’t necessarily the case. There are several varieties of basil now with just as many flavors. I grew a sweet basil this year that was just sweet without the licorice taste and another that had a lemon flavor. There’s even one that tastes like chocolate. Basil is one of the main herbs in Italian dishes and is dynamite in tomato soup. It is often teamed with oregano for Italian dishes even though oregano is more closely linked to Greece than Italy. Oregano is used often on pizzas (often prolifically) in Italy and Greeks like to use it in salads. It actually is one of the ways to tell a true Greek salad versus an American “Greek” salad. Lots of oregano and DRY feta cheese are in the true Greek salad. Oregano looks a lot like marjoram and the two are easily confused. Oregano has a more potent taste and aroma while marjoram is more delicate and softer. They can be used with the same dishes to give an Italian leaning.

Staying in the international theme, who would even think of salsa, a Mexican dish, without cilantro? Cilantro is a strong, pungent herb that gives a definite “pick-me-up” flavor to whatever dish it’s used for stews, salsa, meats, fish, or salads. Although, cilantro is considered a Mexican herb, it’s actually native to southern Europe and the Middle East.

What would any discussion of herbs be without chives and dill. They are so versatile that they have to be included. We all know dill because it is one of the primary flavorings in dill pickles. Best when used fresh but can also be used dried and chopped. But did you realize that dill is also use in many dips and in flavoring cheese? In this area, a number of people use it to flavor goat cheese. Chives can be used the same way, but has a different flavor. It has a flavor like a mild onion and can be used anywhere an onion would be used, but a more subtle flavor is preferred.

To grow herbs, I recommend starting with the right size pot so you won’t subject the plant to the trauma of up potting later. If you are starting your herbs from seed, understand that some herb seed can take up to three months to germinate. So have patience. Another consideration is that the seeds have a lower germination rate than most other seeds, some as low as 10 percent. So rather than plant only one seed in a pot I’ll plant several. If I need to I can always thin them out later. Keep them warm, preferably about 75-80 degrees until they have at least the second set of true leaves. Keep the soil moist, but not wet. I should back up a bit here and talk about the soil. The potting soil that you buy at the store isn’t the best to use right out of the bag. Mix it with about 30 percent vermiculite or perlite. That will loosen the soil and make it easier for the roots to grow. Once your seedlings have at least two sets of true leaves you’ll have to start fertilizing. Keep it light. Use a fertilizer that will dissolve with water and only use it at about 25 percent strength until the seedlings look strong and vigorous. Then you can slowly increase the strength and fertilize about every two weeks. Water is important throughout the plant’s life. Herbs prefer a pH of 5.5 - 6.1 to thrive. They will grow with our water (pH normally about 7.4) but won’t be at their best. You can lower the pH of your water by adding vinegar. Regular white vinegar is fine. Use pH test strips to determine the pH. You’ll have to play around with the mix to get it right, but if you keep track of how much vinegar you’re putting into a known amount of water pretty soon you’ll know your mix and will only have to check yourself periodically. Our water does change so check your pH mix once in a while. My water has gone from 7.1 last year to 7.4 this summer.

As you need herbs for cooking, now you can just snip off what you need and have fresh herbs for a much better tasting dish. The fresher the plant, the higher the nutritional value, too. If you have any questions, ask a Master gardener. It’s what we do. And by the way, there will be a lot of herbs already started at the Master Gardeners Pre-Mother’s Day Plant Sale in May. Happy winter gardening!

 

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