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Homegrown herbs offer easy way to spice up your cooking
Along with the growth in our culinary diversity, there’s been quite a resurgence in the demand for fresh herbs to add new flavours and zest. They not only have delightful and useful foliage, but their fragrance and flowers can also be a welcome addition to any garden or patio. One of the key things to understand about herbs is the difference between perennial varieties that come back year after year and annual herbs that are more tender and should only be planted out in mid to late May. Perennial herbs can be harvested all year round while most annual herbs will finish in late September or early October.
In the new reality of small space and balcony gardens, herbs adapt easily to both situations. They are among the easiest of plants to grow and are incredibly tolerant of neglect. Even so, they will perform and look far more beautiful with a little care and attention.
I’m a big fan of growing herbs in containers and I love to combine them with annuals or perennials. One of the first considerations, however, is the style of the container. Size does matter, and the larger the better. Good sized containers hold more soil and more moisture and require less watering which is a bonus during the hot, dry months of summer. If you intend to grow the hardier herbs year round, make sure you purchase a frost proof container or at least ask for ‘well fired’ pots that will withstand modest to heavy frost. Move containers under eaves to minimize excessive moisture in the soil from winter rains and to prevent your pots from cracking.
There is a huge trend toward growing organically, and it’s much easier today with a greater selection of organic products that are more reasonably priced and very effective. The soil you select for your containers should be both well draining and moisture retaining. I always look for professional blends rather than shopping price, and I add 20 percent organic matter, like composted manures. Many totally organic soils are now readily available, but make sure they will drain well.
Two important considerations are nutrients and pest control. Weekly applications of an organic fertilizer will do the trick, but in hot summer weather an application at each watering will make a huge difference. Fortunately, most herbs are not troubled with many insect problems, except for aphids that can be easily washed off with a gentle spray of water or by a few applications of Safer’s Soap products. Powdery mildew is always a challenging disease for herbs, especially in wet weather. I’ve found good old fashioned garden sulphur is a great control. Keeping your plants a little drier, rather than too wet and watering in the morning so the foliage is dry at night is the best way to prevent diseases and keep your herbs clean and fresh.
When choosing herbs, select the varieties you know and use most frequently. Parsley, both the ‘Double Moss Curled’ and the single leafed ‘Italian’, is delightful in a range of dishes from soups and stews to lightly braised vegetables and egg dishes. It also makes a great garnish and breath freshener.
Chives are some of the hardiest and most ancient of all herbs. I love garlic chives added to cheese dishes, salads, herb butters and sour cream dips. In spring the pink puffy flowers of chives are edible and nice to sprinkle on salads.
Mint can be invasive but is better behaved in containers. Today we have varieties of mints ranging from apple and chocolate to orange and spearmint, and they are very popular as garnishes and in drinks and teas. They will also spice up salads, soups and meats.
Oregano and marjoram are plant cousins and very similar in flavour. Both are used in Mediterranean and Middle East cuisines. Oregano is often used in potpourris.
Thyme always has a unique perfume, but lemon thyme is becoming very popular because of its wonderful flavouring in soups and sauces, especially in Italian dishes. Thyme will also enhance the flavour of fish, poultry and pork.
Basil is the most sought after annual herb because of its great relationship with the tomato and all its sauces. Basil should never be planted out before mid-June as it needs to have hot, dry weather to minimize damping off.
Rosemary is one of the most beautiful of all herbs with its many trailing and upright forms and captivating perfume. In warmer areas, zone 6 and higher, it can stay out all winter with a little protection. A few sprigs of rosemary will lift meats, like lamb and pork, stews and stuffing to a new level. Rosemary ‘Arp’ is one of the hardiest varieties; R. ‘Roman Beauty’ is the most delicately shaped; and R. ‘Irene Renzels’ has the most delightful trailing form for hanging baskets.
Cilantro (it is really coriander) has been cherished for thousands of years. For a continuous crop, you can collect its seeds as it bolts, and it reseeds easily in containers. For a fresh supply, you need to keep planting every few weeks all summer long.
As the arrival of winter puts an end to tender herbs, many folks put small pots of their favourites on a windowsill. The secret to growing them indoors is to keep them cool, on the dry side and give them lots of light.
These are, by far, the most popular and delightful of all herbs, and it’s hard to imagine a small balcony or garden without them.