Monday, February 23, 2009

Herbs for the Beginner

Had a great question from a Master Gardener in Shelby County, TN today who wants to grow herbs to use for cooking. This gardener is new to herbs and wants to know what herbs would be best to start with. She also asked if herbs could be grown in pots on her south exposure patio.

It is always exciting when folks decide to delve into growing herbs and I must warn you this is an addictive business! It is so tempting to plant one of every herb you ever meet but it is wise to start small and learn as you go.
Let’s start with some of my favorite culinary herbs.
These herbs for the most part will do fine in pots on the patio or in the ground as long as they get full sun, adequate water and have good drainage. Go easy on the fertilizer, most herbs do well without and too much nitrogen will produce lots of leaves but not much flavor.

Basil - sweet for sure but don't be afraid to try lemon and cinnamon…I usually buy as a plant – look for pots that have several plants – you can gently pull them apart to plant. Cuttings are easy to root in water. Toss in a cherry tomato plant and have the beginnings of a great salad or bruchetta on the patio. Pots of basil also discourage bugs.

Bay - I have my Bay tree in a pot which I drag into the garage each fall under a sunny window until spring then haul it back to the patio. It is a tender perennial but is easy to care for. Dry a few leaves to use for cooking and place a leaf or two in cupboards, flour bins and with dried fruit to keep unwanted insects away.

Chives - onion and garlic - always wonderful to snip a few into just about anything you are cooking - especially pasta salads…Onion chives blades are round and bloom purple in the spring and Garlic chives have flat blades that bloom white in the late summer when many other plants are looking tired. The blooms are edible as well and make a lovely vinegar.

Cilantro/Coriander - plant by seed every couple of weeks starting in early spring, loves the cooler weather(planted in late summer cilantro should grow all winter long without bolting (going to flower)… Hard to transplant so sow seed in a pot or right in the ground. Young foliage is best for salsa and such. Blooms are pretty and edible. Seeds become coriander to use in baking.

Dill - plant this one by seed as well. It likes cool weather as well. It is so wonderful to have some fresh dill weed (ferny foliage) to add to fish, potato salad, breads, etc. It is a handy herb to have in the garden. Munch on fresh weed to stave off hunger. Butterflies love this plant so sow extra seed for them!

Lemon balm – an easy perennial to grow in a pot or in the ground…grab a handful of this herb to rub down the outdoor dining table to deter bugs. Add a couple of leaves to ice water before serving for a zesty lemon flavor. Lemon balm bread is hard to beat served up with some sage tea!
Marjoram - annual that is worth having – great in Italian sauces and dries nicely for use in the winter. Sow seed or just buy a plant each spring.

Oregano - be sure to taste a leaf before you buy to make sure it has a good flavor and scent…hope it is grown organically! I have grown the killer oregano of Franklin – beautiful but tasteless (made pretty wreaths though) Usually I look for Italian or Greek varieties but take a taste.

Parsley - can't do without for cooking - just buy a plant or three each spring - loves cool weather, hard to start by seed. I like flat leaf myself. It is called the balancing herb…probably why folks add a little to just about everything.

Mexican Marigold - if you like French tarragon for cooking - has flavor without the fuss of trying to get French tarragon to live in southern heat and humidity. Winter Tarragon, Mexican mint is other names for this plant. When in doubt, check the Latin name – Tagetes lucida. This herb blooms in the fall which again is a cheery site. It can grow to about three feet tall and has been very winter hardy for me. I just cut it back before a hard freeze and dry some for cooking and use the rest for wreaths.

Mint – always good in a pot, so it doesn’t take over your entire gardening world. Feel free to give this herb hair cuts, it likes a good cutting back. - choose one you really like – chocolate mint, peppermint, Kentucky Colonel (used for mint juleps) at the races. I’m partial to grapefruit mint myself. Place mint leaves in cupboard to deter mice.

Rosemary - will do well in a pot or plant in a protected area away from west and north winter winds - bring in pot just for cold snaps then set it back outside. Arp is a hardy variety – buy the plant, hard to start from seed – easier to do cuttings with soft woody tips. Snip rosemary over potatoes or chicken or pork roast before roasting. Add some to the potato salad before next picnic – it has natural preservative qualities. Makes a nice tea for a tension headache too. We love snipped rosemary in extra virgin olive oil for bread dipping.

Sage – a plant worth growing, besides using for the stuffing at Thanksgiving, this makes a nice tea that has many health benefits (used in moderate amounts). Cream cheese spread on a cracker with a sage leaf (and other herbs) makes a savory snack or appetizer. An easy perennial that works in a pot or is nice as a border in the garden…blooms purple in spring.

Summer savory – This is one of my favorite herbs! It is an annual that is worth planting every year. It is called the bean herb because its peppery flavor is good with any kind of bean but, it is my “secret ingredient” (well not anymore I guess) in chicken soup. I dry this herb to use during the winter months and I run out each year.

Thyme – last but not least, this plant comes in many varieties, but for cooking try French, English or Mother of Thyme (Lemon is nice too for something different). There are many flavors too – so check out the choices at the nursery. This is another herb that can be snipped onto fresh veggies or meat that you are grilling. Make a tea next time you have a cold to help break up congestion in the chest.

Remember to have fun growing and using these herbs (that sounds a little funny, doesn’t it?) But experimentation is a big part of cooking with herbs. My son Trevor use to run out to the herb garden and snip leaves of various herbs to ‘decorate’ (as we use to call it) his dinner…We all learned a lot about what herbs compliment which foods because Trevor wasn’t afraid to experiment – he had no pre-conceived notions about culinary herb combinations.

It doesn’t take much to turn a usual dish into a flavorful adventure. One more tidbit – if you are using fresh herbs, use 3 times the amount of dried herb called for in recipes. Enjoy your new journey growing herbs!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Honeybees love Anise Hyssop

Pictured above: Annise hyssop with lavender spikes growing in perennial bed (Agastache foeniculum 'golden jubilee' - named for it's golden leaves)

Anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum, was planted by beekeepers in the 1870s here in the states to attract honeybees. Anise hyssop grows 3 - 4 feet tall and produces a rich source of nectar that is thought to give honey a bit of a anise-seed flavor.
Anise hyssop may be called lots of names like licorice mint, have different color variations in bloom spikes or leaf which doesn't matter as long as the name starts with Agastache foeniculum...

Although this plant is considered perennial, I've noticed that it does well for a couple of years then is 'iffy' after that. I tend to shake the seeds from the spent blooms in early fall to be sure the plant(s) re-seeds itself. If planting in mass, I would hope they would volunteer (re-seed) naturally to keep crop going but may have to continually add seed each year to insure good coverage.

The pinkish-bluish-purple blossoms (or white if an 'Alba' variety) last for about 6 - 8 weeks and the plant tends to be drought resistant which is always a plus when the rains decide to shut off in August! Give Anise hyssop full sun and good drainage and it will perform well even if the soil is poor. Other than some added compost for organic matter, no fertilizer is necessary.

Hyssop, Hyssop officinalis

Hyssop, hyssop officinalis is a woody perennial that again does well here (Middle TN) for a year or two than wanes. I will layer this plant by bending a branch over and pinning it to the soil with a re-bent paper clip to start new plants so when the mother plant fades a new hyssop is ready to take it's place.

Although Hyssop officinalis does attract bees, the length of bloom is not as long as Anise hyssop. Sometimes this plant will re-bloom if the flower spikes are cut back shortly after they have faded.
I would not recommend Hyssop officinalis for any kind of mass planting. It is harder to seed (really need to start in greenhouse) and needs more water considerations.

Try thyme or lemon balm in place of hyssop officinalis if you want other herbs to attract bees. There are many varieties of thyme. By planting a variety the overall bloom time will be longer which is a good thing if you are trying to attract bees.

Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis is Greek for bee and has long been used by beekeepers to attract bees.