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How To Grow The Best Herbs At Home

Lavender. Credit: Terra Brockman

Lavender. Credit: Terra Brockman

Herbs look good, smell good and do you good. They also instantly elevate any meal from quotidian to sensational, transforming the simplest sandwich or salad into a gourmet occasion. Best of all, anyone can grow them. No green thumb or backyard required.

Because most herbs are not far removed from their wild ancestors, they don’t need to be coddled and will do just fine in a pot on a windowsill or porch, as long as you give them a well-drained soil and plenty of sunshine.

Five Easy Tips For Growing Your Own

What herbs should I plant? Choose the ones you like and will indulge in often. Many people go for parsley, basil and thyme, but you may also want oregano for your tomato salads, mint for your mojitos and lemon verbena just to brush your fingers against for a hit of aromatherapy. Whatever you decide to plant, you’ll soon find that your homegrown herbs are better than any store-bought ones because there’s no time for the volatile oils to disappear between the time you pick the herbs and the time you eat them.

Seeds or starts? Seeds are very economical, particularly if you’re going to grow and use a lot of herbs. But seeds can take a couple of weeks just to germinate, so you may have to wait a few months from the time you plant to the time you begin to harvest. If you need only a few herb plants, and want to start enjoying them sooner than later, it’s best to buy starts.

Where should I get my starts? Although home and garden centers often carry herb starts, you generally don’t know much about them, including whether the variety will do well in your area, whether the plants were hardened off or what chemicals may have been used on them.

When you buy your starts from local farmers, you can ask about their practices and about the specific varieties. A local farmer tends to choose varieties that are hardy, tasty and suited to your soils and climate, and can help you choose what you want. Summer or winter savory? Lemon or Thai basil? Chocolate or mojito mint? They also can give you tips about how to plant, nurture and harvest what you buy.

Speaking of harvesting, too many websites tell you to pluck individual leaves of basil or snip chives a few inches above the ground. Any farmer will tell you that if you want fresh basil leaves all summer long, you should cut a whole branch, leaving a few leaves at the base where new branches will come out. Chives should be cut just under the surface of the soil, so that tender new leaves will emerge. When treated right, the more you take from herb plants, the more they give back.

Where should I plant my herbs? Most herbs will do well indoors, but they tend to be more productive when grown outdoors, either in a pot or in the ground. Whether you choose indoors or outdoors, be sure they have lots of sunshine and a well-drained soil, and plant them close to your kitchen so you’ll get into the habit of using them every day.

What if I have more than I can use? Rejoice! Dry any extra and put it in a tight-lidded jar to use all winter long or to give as gifts. Or make a fresh herb bouquet for yourself or your friends and neighbors. Herbs will last longer than flowers, give off wonderful aromas and you can graze the bouquet every time you walk by.

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Britton shiso. Credit: Terra Brockman

An herb a day

Most people naturally think about the kitchen uses for herbs, but long before they were culinary, herbs were medicinal and their healing properties are what people have valued throughout most of human history. Chinese and Ayurvedic herbal medicines had been used and passed down orally for thousands of years before they were finally written down.

In Western cultures, herbal medicine can be traced back to Hippocrates, often called the father of modern medicine, whose gentle treatments were based on the healing power of nature. Famous herbalists who followed Hippocrates’ famous dictum, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food,” include Avicenna from Persia, Galen from Rome, Paracelsus from Germany and Culpepper from England. Most of the first modern pharmaceuticals came from herbs, and even today about a quarter of our drugs have botanical origins.

When you grow your own herbs, you get all the medicinal and culinary properties for mere pennies. So forget the poor substitute of dried basil, forgo the last-minute dash to the supermarket for overpriced basil and reach over to snip a stem from your very own plant. It’ll be good for your body, your budget and your taste buds.

Quick and Easy Herb Vinaigrette

This flexible dressing can be used on a lettuce or spinach salad, potatoes, green beans, pasta or as a dip for bread. Feel free to substitute whatever herbs you have on hand, in any amount you like.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons white wine or sherry vinegar

¼ teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons finely chopped herbs of your choice (favorites include thyme, tarragon, chervil, chives and/or parsley)

Directions

Whisk the vinegar and salt, then slowly whisk in the oil. Stir in the herbs and use immediately.

Main photo: Lavender. Credit: Terra Brockman



Zester Daily contributor Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, "The Seasons on Henry's Farm," now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.

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