The beauty of easy, edible homegrown herbs
Healthier, more flavor and the ultimate in ‘buying local’
You’re on the hunt for a fresh herb or two, recipe in hand, and it’s nowhere to be found in your local grocery. Now what? Or you buy a bundle of fresh basil and use just a pinch, but hate to see the rest go to waste. Just a couple of reasons ordinary people—some of whom have never planted a container, let alone an herb garden—try their hand at herbs.
A CASE FOR GROWING YOUR OWN
There’s been a strong movement in the last 5-10 years toward knowing where your food comes from. The best way to do that is to grow it yourself. Just in case you need more convincing:
- Fresh veggies and herbs have more flavor and nutritional value. That’s because the trip from the raised bed, backyard garden or container is much shorter than the trip from the field to your grocery, then home to you. Time impacts taste, freshness and, subsequently, how nutritious your veggies and herbs are.
- A great way to stretch your food budget. One plant, many dishes, garnishes, finishing touches.
- No harmful chemicals. Your food, your way.
- The ultimate in ‘buying local.’ It doesn’t get closer than your own backyard.
- Good exercise and relaxation. Planting, weeding, watering, (admiring) and picking. All time outside in the fresh air, without your phone and maybe with a stretch-and-bend thrown in for good measure.
- Very convenient. We always tell people to start out small when you grow. And what better way than in a container. Plus, having a container of basil or cilantro near where you prep and cook makes incorporating fresh herbs fast and easy.
- The fragrance. It’s no surprise herbs smell amazing. We love to pluck a branch of lavender, rosemary or sage and gently crush in our palms for a delicious fragrance. Drying these aromatic herbs is a great way to preserve their scent for sachets, eye pillows, bath time or any time.
HERB CARE 101
The best time to plant herbs outside is in spring and fall, once the soil is warm. But you can plant in containers and grow indoors any time of the year, including through the winter.
Most herbs prefer full sun (at least 4-6 hours) along with good air circulation. They do best in nutrient-rich soil (i.e. good organic potting soil or organic soil amendment) but need little to no fertilizer to thrive.
Some herbs are considered invasive (e.g. mint or catnip) and will send underground runners to spread throughout your beds. You can still enjoy them while keeping them in check. We recommend planting in a pot or series of pots. Or if you want to plant invasive herbs in your landscape or raised beds, place them in your planting hole in their plastic containers.
Like most plants, herbs prefer a moist soil but don’t do well sitting in water. Most can stand to dry out between watering, but this shouldn’t be your goal. We always recommend a 2-3 inch layer of mulch to seal in moisture and cut down on weeds and watering.
If you’re unsure about watering, feel an inch or two beneath the surface. If you can feel moisture, you can wait another day or two and check again.
You can also check your plant tag for more specific instructions or talk to someone in the garden center.
Herbs do not require high amounts of nitrogen, one of the main components in fertilizer. In fact, too much and your herbs will actually show poor growth, flavor and/or fragrance. We recommend Neptune’s Harvest since it decomposes slowly over time. Follow label directions or someone in the garden center can help.
Pinching & Pruning
Turns out herbs respond well to the flower equivalent of deadheading. This means when you regularly pinch off the top 2-3 inches of the stem tips, you’ll be encouraging your herbs to branch out and stay full and healthy. And the best part? The tender new growth is the most flavorful, so you’re encouraging new growth and enjoying your herbs in the meantime.
If your perennial herbs have become lanky, thick and woody, you can cut them back by a third or approximately 4 inches from the ground before new spring growth begins. This will give you the same results as pinching off tender new growth by encouraging a fuller, more well shaped form.
You’ll also want to give your perennial herbs a little advanced warning winter is coming, so stop pinching or pruning eight weeks or more before the first frost. Or if your herbs are in containers, you can simply bring them indoors.
Harvesting & Preserving
We recommend harvesting your outdoor herbs midmorning when the morning dew has dried but they’re not wilting in the sun. You can harvest throughout the growing season, but generally remove no more than one-third of the stem, except with chives and lavender, where you’ll want to remove the full stem.
Before using your herbs in the kitchen or drying them, give them a quick swish in a sink full of cool—but never hot—water. You don’t want to blanche them of their wonderful flavor.
Allow your herbs to air dry thoroughly on a towel-lined counter. You can snip, chop or cut off a sprig right away or follow directions for drying or preserving.
First, be sure you’ve removed any excess soil or insects that came along for the ride. Then tie several stems of your herb together in a bundle. We find a rubber band works best, but since the herbs will shrink as they dry, be sure to make it tight and check it every so often to adjust if needed.
Place your bundle in a paper bag with a few holes. You want to give them plenty of room and ventilation so they don’t rot or develop mold. Place the herbs in the bag upside down, then gather the opening and tie closed around the stems of you herbs.
We like to hang them from a high shelf in the panty for approximately 10 days to 2 weeks. You’ll know when they’re properly dried when you find a few leaves at the bottom of the bag. In the meantime, your pantry will have a delicious subtle fragrance.
You can freeze chopped, fresh herbs in airtight containers. Package them in small quantities because once they are thawed they must be used immediately (they will become limp as they thaw).
If you are freezing them for use in soups and stews, you can freeze them in ice cube trays with water. Remove the cubes from the trays and freeze in bags, then toss in soups and stews as you need them. Basil, Chives and Dill are good candidates for this freeze-and-use method.
Have questions or want to know more about choosing, growing, caring for and using herbs? Please stop in or give us a call at (603) 472-8880.