A Garden of Herbs

by Harold Schrock | Mar 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Herbs in pots
Photo © Shaiith/Dreamstime.com.

Herbs are a category of plants grown mostly for flavor or medicinal value. They are often not on the shortlist for a beginning gardener, for various reasons. Spices are easily purchased at the grocery store in ready-to-use form and are usually not considered big budget items that cause us to think about alternatives. When looking at medicinal herbs, there is a bewildering array of options, and this is rightly considered a specialist field.

However, the difference between fresh herbs and those dried and packaged in a container from a grocery store’s spice rack can be quite substantial. All healthy food plants can have medicinal value. Adding a greater variety increases the probability of covering all our nutritional needs.

Let’s look at some easy-to-grow, easy-to-use herbs.

Mint is the first herb I gathered as a child. It grew wild along the low banks of the creek where I used to play. This wild mint was turned into a delicious tea, sweetened and chilled for hot summer days. We also preserved quantities of the leaves for wintertime use as hot tea, either by drying the leaves on racks of wire screen or by cooking it into a concentrate and storing in the freezer. While not every locale in the country has copious amounts of wild mint growing along stream banks, mint is a hardy perennial that will grow just about anywhere there is sufficient moisture.

Mint prefers cooler conditions and will not grow rapidly in the heat of the summer, but the plants will survive, provided they are not allowed to completely dry out.

Mint does well in partial shade and, especially in southern regions, is a good choice for the north side of a building. Mint is a voracious spreader, and care should be taken to contain it. It’s not a good choice for a mixed bed of perennials, as few other plants will compete with it.

While mint in general has a readily recognizable flavor, there are many different varieties and subtle differences in taste. One of my favorites is a variety called chocolate mint that does have a bit of a chocolate taste. In order to get a particular variety, you will need to purchase plants or get a start from a friend. You can grow mint from seed, but there will be no guarantee on what you get, as it often does not grow true to type.

Basil is a common, easy-to-grow annual herb. It has different culinary uses, but primarily is used for a sauce called pesto. If you’re a fan of pesto, you may wish to treat basil more as a vegetable than an herb. While generally easy to grow, basil has one known weakness; it’s very susceptible to downy mildew. Plants growing in healthier soil do have more resistance, but it pays to keep a close eye on the basil crop. If you see discolored leaves with telltale fungal spores on the bottom, harvest the entire crop and process into sauce or dehydrate for other uses. Once downy mildew starts, it can spread rapidly even through relatively healthy plants.

I am a big fan of cilantro and use it freely in numerous dishes. However, not everyone shares my taste. Cilantro’s green leaves are typically used in salads and as an addition to rice. It is strongly associated with Hispanic food. Allow cilantro to go to seed, and you can harvest it as coriander. The seeds can be crushed in various foods or added to soup for the distinctive flavor. Cilantro is easy to grow but can bolt rapidly. If you want a continuous supply of green leaves, multiple plantings are necessary.

A supply of dill is a necessity for dill-pickled cucumbers. You certainly could get your dill seeds at a grocery store, but why not grow it next to the cucumbers? It might take a little trial and error to get your timing right so that you have dill seed available when the cucumbers are coming on strong. You can always save dill seed from the prior year for canning use, but the best results seem to come from not-quite-fully-mature fronds of dill. Juvenile dill leaves can also be an interesting addition to a salad.

Speaking of salad, I hope you’re willing to branch out beyond lettuce and/or spinach. These common vegetables are great bases for salads, but there’s so much more to try.

Arugula really puts some punch into a salad. Adjust the amount to your comfort level. More mature arugula leaves become very strong-flavored. It’s a crop that benefits from frequent harvest and may require several plantings to have nice baby leaves through a long season. It is very hardy and does best in early spring or through fall.

Arugula’s one big weakness is flea beetles. Flea beetles love arugula. Covering a planting with row cover and tightly sealing the edges is one of the best ways to prevent these little black jumpers from harvesting more than their share.

Along with arugula, try some mizuna, tatsoi, and kale to add to your lettuce salad. Kale is best known to many people as a green garnish around dishes in restaurant buffets. Harvested as a baby green, it is a delicious salad addition. The key to culinary success with all these less common salad ingredients is to harvest young plants and plant multiple times if you want to stretch out the season. None of them will do well in hot weather.

Young beet leaves are another interesting salad ingredient and tolerate heat more than many other greens. Also don’t forget to include young dandelion greens in the early spring. The season on these is rather short, as they rapidly turn bitter as the plant goes to head. Young chicory also makes a great salad ingredient. These leaves also rapidly turn bitter as they mature. When wild harvesting, it’s important to be able to identify the plant at the baby leaf stage. It is possible to purchase chicory seed to grow for salad green harvest.

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