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Reaping what you sow

A beginner's guide to herb gardening

A beginner's guide to herb gardening

April 23, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

The freshest ingredients could be within arm's reach outside your kitchen door or, better still, on the window sill - if you plant them there.

Herbs are cinch to grow, even for beginners.

Put them in good light and in well-drained soil and they'll be ready for cooking in a month.

Not only does growing your own save money, but backyard herbs taste better than anything you'd find at the grocer, according to Annette Ipsan, horticulture extension educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension's Washington County office.

"You know exactly what's been applied to the plant, plus you can't beat the freshness," she said.

A seed packet of basil, with 50 to 100 seeds, costs less than a bunch of store-bought basil. "And you get 50 to 100 plants," Ipsan said.

How to grow the basic five

Ipsan suggested a few user-friendly herbs for beginners: basil, sage, rosemary, dill and thyme, of which basil is the easiest to grow.

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"I'm up to the point where I have a basil hedge," Ipsan said. "I like to make pesto."

Most herbs like sunny plots, but well-drained soil can be hard to find in Washington County, "since we are blessed with clay and rocks," Ipsan said. Get around this by planting the herbs in containers, or, if planting in the garden, by using compost to aerate the soil.

When planting outdoors, sow seeds after Saturday, May 3, to avoid the risk of frost, Ipsan said. Some herbs, such as mint, spread vigorously, so grow them in containers, Ipsan said.

When harvest time comes, Ipsan recommends plucking the herbs just after the morning dew dries. She said this is when they have the greatest concentration of oil, a source of flavor.

Preserve herbs by tying them into a bunch and hanging them upside down in a warm and ventilated room. Let them dry for one to two weeks, Ipsan said.

Dried herbs can last for about a year, Ipsan said.

Former Herald-Mail herb columnist Dorry Norris said that once the herb garden is established, don't be afraid to cut things back.

"When I first started, I was afraid to cut things back, then I'd have nine million plants," said Norris, who gardens at her home in Hagerstown.

Cooking with homegrown herbs

What we process as flavor has a lot to do with smells.

"Herbs only enhance your food if you can smell them," Norris said.

Sometimes, the drying process can render parsley and basil bland, Norris said. She said it's better to use parsley fresh, not dried. Basil can be puréed in a blender, then frozen in ice trays. Take out just the amount needed and plop it into a dish.

Norris said to avoid drying anything over the stove because the moist environment can lead to moldy herb bunches.

Once you're used to growing the basics, Norris recommends experimenting with growing different herbs. "Add a new herb a year," Norris said.

Another popular herb is coriander, which supplies two kitchen ingredients: powdered coriander seed and dried leaves, called cilantro.

Lovage is another herb worthy of trying. Norris said it tastes like celery, though it should be used in small quantities, because it is strong.

Norris also recommends incorporating certain flowers with food. If you don't use pesticides, pansies and rose petals can be used for cooking, Norris said.

Blossoms from basil and sage also work well in cooking. Dried chive blossoms taste great on salads, Norris said.

Ode to lavender

Lavender is a woody perennial known for smelling good, the reason it is a common ingredient in sachets, perfumes and aromatherapy products.

But lavender also has a place in the kitchen.

The folks at Willow Pond Farm, host of the yearly Pennsylvania Lavender Festival, make everything from lavender cookies to a lavender pork rub. Lavender also is a one of the ingredients in herbes de Provence, a traditional herb blend.

Willow Pond Farm offers 120 varieties of lavender, grown on roughly three acres of the four to five acres dedicated to herb growing, said Tom Wajda, who owns the farm in Fairfield, Pa., with his wife Madeline.

As for planting, lavender likes what most herbs like - lots of sun and good drainage. But lavender also needs soil with a high pH, which means you may need to add lime to your soil, Wajda said.

There are more than three dozen species of lavender, with 500 varieties among the three, Wajda said.

The hidcote variety is hardy, good for both aroma and cooking. Intermedia, also known as lavandin, is another popular variety, but Wajda said it has strong hints of camphor. Intermedia also tends to retain water, making it more susceptible to mold and mildew.

Each year thousands of lavender lovers flock to the farm for the yearly Pennsylvania Lavender Festival, where vendors, lectures, authors and plenty of lavender will be on hand.

This year's lavender fest is set for June 13 to 15. Wajda expects to match last year's attendance of 3,500. He's not sure any other herb would draw such a crowd.

"How many people do you think I could attract with a thyme festival?" Wajda joked during a phone interview from his farm.

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