The DTE Notebook for the Urban Organic Vegetable, Herb and Flower Gardener.
Culinary Herbs for Food Preparation.
Article and photos by Rob Danforth
(Photo: Assorted high density Herbs in a single pot for outside nearby, or a kitchen window)
Herbs are easy to grow and have a lot of uses in a garden. They provide food flavour (e.g. thyme in your scrambled eggs; rosemary or mint on your roast lamb), offer great fragrances alone or in a potpourri (e.g. lavender, Thai basil), some will hide the fragrance of plants you wish to protect from marauding insects (e.g. lemon balm, mint ), some will repel certain insects (e.g. chives, garlic chives), some, when flowering, will attract helpful insects (e.g. borage, dill); some encourage the growth of certain plants (e.g. brassicas + sage; tomato + Genovese basil), and a great many offer health benefits. This article will focus on culinary herbs for the kitchen.
Even if you have very limited space (e.g. a balcony rail or a few small containers) you might consider planting some of your favourite herbs – you can even grow them indoors in a sunny window or under grow lights, however, herbs that have been basking in the sun always taste better. Naturally we like herbs first for their taste as they are great flavour enhancers; their other uses are a bonus.
If you can keep them close to your kitchen, it will be easy to nip out and snip a bit to add to food preparation. The plant will continue growing on and you do not have the hassle of herbs dying in the fridge before you can use them. Remember that bunch of cilantro or mint you could not finish in time? … green-black, slimy, and a smell to kick your head back? Growing your own lets you take only what you need when you need it. We keep two, 24 inch window boxes in cradles a few short steps from the kitchen: sage, rosemary, thyme, chives, cilantro, and an entirely separate pot for mint. Parsley in a box bed or large pot can supply your needs all summer – add to green leaf salads or make a tabouli salad (with parsley, mint, tomatoes, onion, salt, pepper, olive oil, and lemon juice – plus bulgur wheat, that we always substitute with couscous which we have on hand for other needs).
At the end of the season you have a few choices to keep your herbs: put whole sprigs in a plastic bag and freeze them until needed (taking out only what is needed at the time); make butter logs with added herbs and freeze them (chipping off a measured amount when needed); place herbs in water or olive oil in ice cube trays and freeze them [add some cubes to soups or sauces); or dry herbs either in a warm oven (150’F) or hanging the herb bundles to dry in a warm area away from moisture. We have done all of these and the most convenient is to freeze the sprigs in plastic bags.
Some people like to flavour oil or vinegar with herbs. It is a little more complicated and there is a best before date for the finished product. We have looked into this and have decided not to do it; however, if you look online or visit the library or a bookstore, you can find a number of recipes and tips. Do be sure to remove all the plant material and strain the liquid after the specified brewing time. The flavour is in the oils the plants produce – decay is in the plant material!
Growing tips: herbs have different water and fertiliser needs. Mediterranean herbs (e.g. sage, rosemary, thyme) need well drained containers and cycles of wet and dry to intensify the oils and thus the flavours. Other herbs need a constantly moist soil (e.g. basil; cilantro) and they must not dry out. In addition, basil prefers warm temperatures and a moderate sun while cilantro prefers cool temperatures and a mild or indirect sun. Cilantro will bolt in the hot sun and the flavour will become bitter. We hide it behind other plants like parsley. Tip: when the cilantro leaf looks like the palm of your hand with fingers together, the taste is good; when the leaf looks fern-like (e.g. your palm with fingers spread apart), the plant is bolting and the leaves will be bitter or at least very strong and unpleasant tasting for many.
Selecting herbs to grow from nursery stock: lightly rub the leaves & select the plant(s) with strongest scent – not all the plants on offer are of the same quality; if possible, select hardy varieties for our 5a zone (e.g. arugula, oregano, sage, thyme).
Annuals [replace these plants each year]: e.g. Basil, Borage, Chervil, Cilantro/Coriander, Dill, Marjoram, and Summer savory. Tip: Basil is very delicate and is the first plant to die if the weather turns cold.
Biennials [replace plants at the end of the 2nd year, but overlap with new plants in the second season or your supply will be short lived]: e.g. parsley will bolt to produce seed early in the 2nd year. Note: in general, flavour and texture changes in bolting plants and most often becomes bitter like the milky fluid in tall lettuce plants about to flower.
Perennials [plants come back year after year unless the winter is too harsh]: Chives, Garlic chives, Fennel, Lavender (x), Mint, Oregano, Rosemary (x), Sage, Tarragon (x), Thyme, Winter savory (x) [x = ours do not survive Ottawa winters but some will survive in microclimates near fences, walls, or buildings]. Most herbs in containers must be treated as annuals and replaced every year as containers are often one zone colder (e.g. 4b instead of 5a) and conditions are more harsh as in colder and dryer. Of course you can always bring them indoors for the winter if you have the space and the right growing conditions. On the other hand, you might experiment with transferring herbs to a 2 layer poly tunnel (polytunnel in a polytunnel – see online growingagreenerworld) or an insulated cold frame so you can retrieve and relocate them in the spring. We have used the cold frame successfully but, unfortunately, there are no guarantees.
Potting your herbs
- Self-watering pots are a good choice for herbs needing well drained but constantly moist soil.
- Large pots reduce labour & offer more root room for high density planting: plant 2, 3, or 4 herbs together.
- Small pots are great for single plants; however, the smaller the pot, the greater the labour in watering, fertilising, and aerating. Also the size of the pot may limit the growth of the plant which may or may not be desirable depending on what you wish to accomplish. Succession planting (seed new pots every 2 weeks) could be a solution if small pots are necessary. We have done this successfully.
(Photo: 6 small fence pots for single herbs)
- Protect pots from drying and damaging winds, sunscreen pots if the sun is too intense, and shelter pots from excessive rainfall which will wash away the water soluble plant food in the potting mix.
- Caution: some perennial herbs are invasive and need to be strictly controlled (e.g. oregano, all mints) so portable containers are best to isolate and confine them rather than allowing them to have their way and run wild in plots, raised beds, cold frames, box beds, or elevated beds. They will take over a bed!
Culinary Herbs! Great option for gardening in small spaces: window ledges, balcony rails, sides or tops of fences … or even a cluster of herbs all in one pot.
(Photo: 24 Inch Herb Window Box in a Pot Cradle)
Happy Herb Gardening!