Growing Herbs

 

Herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow. They thrive in just about any type of soil, many are cold hardy and have lovely flowers. They like at least six hours sun, although some thrive in less.  Most need moderate water, although some are very drought resistant. One thing which is vital to all is that you must insure they have very good drainage.  These are Mediterranean plants and although they prefer the heat, they do not like their feet wet. 

While walking in the herb garden, a brush with the herbs gives off a delightful fragrance. Sage, lemon balm, thyme, oregano, tarragon, lemon grass, and garlic chives all smell divine and are indispensable in cooking! Herbs not only make a lovely aromatic culinary garden, but are useful as healing plants.  

There are many wonderful web sites on the subject of Herbs, their history, the specific uses for each, how to grow them, and store them. I will provide some of these links at the bottom of this page. This site will merely illustrate my personal experience growing herbs, my successes and failures in a zone 7 garden. I have also added how I like to use the herbs I have grown.   To harvest most herbs, simply cut or pinch what you need. This encourages new growth resulting in more fullness in the plants. Other herbs should be cut as far as two or three inches above ground level, to give us a grand harvest.   Some herbs will grow again to give us a second harvest in the fall.  The leaves can be air dried or microwave to dry.  Store in airtight containers.  They can also be frozen, suspended in water, for later use, or stored in olive oil or in vinegar for an aromatic infusion.

 

On to the herb garden!

Garlic

Garlic is a magic cure plant.  It is antibacterial, antiviral, lowers high blood pressure, lowers cholesterol and fat in the bloodstream.   It is used as a preventive measure for colds, flu and other infectious diseases.   This plant takes a full nine months from planting to harvest.  It needs good drainage and friable soil.  Garlic grown in home gardens is amazingly pleasing and mild tasting.  Hung to air dry, and then braided, garlic will keep for many months.   Fragrant in cooking, its power is released in prolonged use, and is    beneficial.  It can be used roasted whole, sliced and sautéed, pureed and spread, powdered, and immersed in olive oil.  Garlic is mighty among the herbs.  

 

Thyme

This herb is almost indestructible. Small leafed, with pretty pink or white flowers which attracts butterflies and bees, thyme can be harvested at any time of the year. It is evergreen in our zone, and grows fairly rapidly at a low height. I grow the lemon thyme, variegated thyme, common thyme, and creeping thyme which I only use as a trailing plant. The others can be used as seasonings for flavoring oils, in cooking or in potpourris. It almost takes care of itself. Easy to propagate by division, cuttings or by seed, this herb is very delightful and steadfast. The creeping thyme prefers afternoon shade. If you had to choose but one herb, plant thyme.  It is the mainstay of the herb garden.  In Mediterranean orchards, thyme is planted as a ground cover as it attracts bees in great numbers to pollinate the fruit trees.  There is thyme honey that can be purchased which has a hint of the wonderful thyme.  A popular herbal remedy is to take one ounce of the dried thyme to one pint of boiling water.  Allow the infusion to cool to room temperature, then strain it and add a cup of pure honey.  Stir until well mixed and refrigerate.  Taken in tablespoonful doses several times a day, it is good for sore throats, coughing spells and colds.  We are most familiar with it as a seasoning herb.  It is good with all meats, including fish.  Harvest thyme just before the flowers open to preserve the oils.  This can be air dried, or microwave dried, or you can use a dehydrator.

 

Oregano

This perennial herb is very easy to grow, and is hardy.   Aromatic, with small white flowers in the spring, it is valued for its use in Italian cooking, and seasoning in Spanish dishes. I harvest the herb before it flowers. Cut into bunches, and dry using your preferred method; once the herb is dry, crumble it well, discarding the stems and store the herb in airtight bottles. Grow this herb in full sun or dappled shade. It self-sows rapidly and makes a good aromatic groundcover if kept clipped. I grow it where nothing else will grow because of the hard soil.  Its flowers can be white, pink or purple depending on the type.  It matures into a very full plant with a spread of about three feet and three feet or more in height.  This is in only one growing season!  Oregano is most famous for its use on pizza or in Italian dishes.  As soon as the white flowers appear, it is ready to harvest.  Because oregano is 'hot' by nature, it can be dried outside without losing much flavor.  Rub it through a screen for fine, ground oregano which you can then store under your label! 

Lemon Grass

Lemon grass is used in Asian cooking and as a tea. I purchased some lemon grass once in the grocery store, and as I could not use it very quickly, decided to stick one in a glass of water, hoping to keep it fresh. Surprisingly, it developed roots! So then I put it into the ground in the spring. That one stalk of lemon grass supplied us with new shoots all summer.  This is a most delightful herb to grow and use. Tall, green shoots and bulbous bottoms are very savory with their lemon zest. The shoots, when cut up and dried, are tasty used in dishes like pasta, fish, or flash wok cooking. They must be chopped very finely as the resulting pieces are not soft.  The stalks may also be made into tea, or one stalk may be presented as a stirrer for a glass of ice tea, imparting a fresh, lemony flavor.  This one turns to mush in the cold weather, so I consider it an annual and just replace it in the spring after a visit to the grocery store. In warmer climates, it grows year round.  Cut into very thin rounds, I dry this, crumble it and use in a fresh pasta dish, sautéed in butter with fresh garlic and onions, and sautéed fresh vegetables, or sprinkled on meats with chopped garlic, and also tossed into fresh green beans, and the whole thing sautéed in a little olive oil.   There are countless other uses for this great herb.

 

Lemon Verbena

This plant has the most intense fresh lemon scent, stronger than lemon balm, or lemon grass. It is a fresh, clean aroma that is delightful. You will wonder why you never had it in your garden before! The plant has long, skinny dark green leaves which are lovely in iced teas and drinks. You can use it dried in potpourris, and in cooking. It likes full sun and grows quickly to about two feet. It is not cold hardy, so must be brought in before the first frost. Keep it watered regularly.  It will mature in one season once in the garden.  Very nice, it scents the air all around it. A few sprigs in ice tea or Mint Juleps is spectacular. It has also been used to aid in stomach ailments.

 

Sage

This popular herb grows without any care; I grow the purple leafed varieties, variegated and the common sage with big, soft leaves.  There are at least more than a dozen varieties.  It flowers profusely in summer, tall, dusky, purple flowers which are just lovely in arrangements. Its aromatic leaves are wonderful dried for use in soups, dressings, or with chicken or beef. It is said that sage is good for the head, and brain, quickens the senses and memory, and strengthens the body.  Sage is a hardy perennial, and will become woody in time.  Trim away the older stems each spring.  When harvesting, take only the top parts of the plant.  Dry the leaves until crisp, then break them up by hand.  For seasoning purposes, rub them through a fine screen. An old-fashioned recipe for sage is this: half an ounce of leaves, one ounce of sugar, juice of one lemon.  All are infused in a quart of boiling water and strained off after half an hour.  Sage is used to flavor cheeses, chicken, pork and in dressings.   Sage keeps its flavor very well.  Sage has also been used to purify dwellings.   The sage is lit and the resulting smoke fanned over doorways and dwelling places, purifying the dwelling.   Planting sage near rosemary invigorates both plants.  The scent of the sage is strong, so use it sparingly. When toasted lightly in a pan, the scent always takes away my headache. Give this herb full sun, moderate water and clip it to keep it trim.

 

 Rosemary

 This herb has been established as not only an herb, but a great landscape plant.  There are a prostate plant, and a trailing type of plant which really looks great falling out of tubs or over the tops of brick and stone walls.   I have two that are tumbling out of barrels and they look splendid.  Covered with small bluish flowers in the spring and fall, they are slow growers which develop woody stems that sometimes twist and curl.  This is a great look and even if you don't use the herbs for cooking, it is worth having one.  Of course, you will miss the wonderful taste of rosemary in the kitchen if you don't use this as a cooking herb.   It is classic, the rosemary taste, and many people even make little brushes of the twigs to baste their meats while barbecuing.  This herb can be very strong.   When selecting a plant to purchase, be sure to break the needles and sniff.   One of them is too medicinal in smell, and I don't like it.  This herb can be dried too which I prefer, as freezing usually results in mush.  To draw impurities from your skin, add a handful of rosemary to a pot of boiling water, then hold your face near (not directly, it will burn!) the steam.  This is wonderful.  Reputed to improve short memory loss, some people use rosemary steeped in hot water for use as a hair rinse.   Folklore tells of students wearing a sprig of rosemary to help improve memory.   Rosemary tea take a bit to get used to as it seems strong to me.  A hot bath with rosemary added to the water will refresh and comfort your aches.  And of course, a spring of rosemary steeped in white vinegar makes a great salad toss!

 

Garlic Chives

 There are two types of chives I am familiar with.  This first one, common Chives, has rounded, hollow stems which often grace baked potatoes, chopped up with sour cream.  The garlic chives plant has flatter stems but is still savory in taste and pungent with garlic scent.  This plant is easy to grow and delightful to harvest, as the tall, pom pom type white flower heads can also be used in salads, as they are edible.  The flower stalks grow to a height of about two feet and are also wonderful in flower arrangements.   Garlic chives can be easily divided to make more plants and they also self-sow with vigor.  It will grow just about anywhere, although they prefer full sun.  I like to microwave this for about three or four minutes until you can smell its aroma, then air dry until cool to the touch.  Crumble and combine this with other herbs in a shaker bottle for a unique taste experience. The microwaved garlic chives attain a smoky type flavor which is wonderful.  I keep this herb in my flower barrel outside my door to snip the chives for cooking.  Garlic chives will die down to the ground in winter, but is back up every year, the white starry flowers swaying in the breeze. 

 

Chamomile

 

Some of the banes of civilization are noise, traffic, and stress.  Often this will result in a headache, one that won't go away.   Although just driving up to the mountains usually dispels any headache I started out with, sometimes I will have one for awhile.  Making chamomile tea with the flowers of this plant relaxes me, causing the constricted veins that carry blood to relax, reducing my headache.  It is a light tea with a pleasant aroma.  You can even add mint or feverfew blossoms to it.  Also known to aid digestion, especially after a heavy meal.   Some people use the tea to sponge on their skin and let dry to ward off mosquitoes.   A stronger tea can be brewed and allowed to steep for a day and then used to spray new seedlings which will prevent damping off.  Chamomile dies back in winter, but spring finds the new fern like leaves coming up.  Growing low and spreading, this plant with its little button white flowers dry easily for use in teas.  As you clip the flowers, the deadheading will promote new flowers throughout the season.

 

Feverfew 

Similar in appearance to chamomile, feverfew grows taller, with little, white ,daisy type flowers that have a flat button face.  It is actually a member of the daisy family.  In June, the flowers completely cover the plant.   Growing quickly, this herb may become invasive, so I put it in a place that I would love to have covered.  It is reported to reduce or eliminate fever, hence the name.   It has pain relieving properties and known to reduce migraine headaches.  This one is fun to make into teas also, drying the blossoms and putting them in airtight baggies for future use.   Mixing them with chamomile, rosemary, and mint make a nice relaxing drink.  Adding dried, crushed mullein leaves results in a powerhouse tea for flu's and colds. 

 

Lemon Balm

 This plant will soon become a favorite.  Lighter in scent than lemon verbena, it grows into a bushy plant about three to four feet high.  Its fresh yellowish-green leaves are soft to the touch and its crushed leaves smell like lemon.  It is grown as a medicinal herb and as part of a longevity drink.  Pour two cups of boiling water over one ounce of the herb.   Infuse for five to fifteen minutes, cool, strain, and drink.  This may also be used as a hot drink.  Adding honey to this tea is what was reported as the longevity tea.  Leaves tossed in salads or chopped fruit is delightful. A few leaves put into hot tea is just wonderful.  Lemon balm is very prolific.  This spreads everywhere which I find a delight!  I just pot up the extras and plant them wherever I need a good groundcover.  It can be cut back and kept low, with only a couple plants allowed to become bushes.  This too dies back in the winter, only to resurface in the spring.   

 

Mullein

 Mullein was originally brought to the states as a garden plant, but quickly escaped and spread across the nation.  Here, in the foothills, it is a native plant, usually considered a weed, growing by the highways.  It is a very handsome plant, tall, with a flower-studded spike rising from a thick bunch of gray leaves, large and soft to the touch.  The woolly leaves develop the first year and the flower stalk appears the second.  It grows from four to eight feet in the second year.  Dried, the leaves have been smoked to ease throat congestion.  Infusing the dried leaves produces a dark tea, which, when mixed with honey makes an excellent remedy for coughs, congestion and associated aches.    This is our 'magic tea' which I share with friends as it really works.  The yellow flowers can be steeped in olive oil for several weeks and the ointment then used on bruises, frostbite, and hemorrhoids.  It grows easily and self-sows freely, producing numerous offspring if you let it.  I tend to pull out the ones I don't want and keep only a few.  It is a very striking plant mixed with pinks and whites in the garden. The big, soft leaves are air dried until crisp, then crumbled and kept in an airtight storage bag. 

 

Cilantro

The scent of this herb is so fresh and lemony, there is no mistaking it.  Commonly used in salsas and Mexican cooking, it is also refreshing as a pesto in lieu of basil.  It resembles parsley, but not as curly.  It is a bit difficult to grow in our garden, I am not sure if it was the potency of the seed, or the heat of the summer.  This plant likes a bit of shade in the afternoon.  The first year the plant will be small, although it will set seed.  You can collect this seed which is coriander or let it self-sow.  It may be used whole, or ground for cooking.  I chop fresh cilantro over hot, cooked pasta with butter, garlic and fresh, chopped tomatoes.  I also use it with egg and cheese dishes, or sprinkled over roasted potatoes. A bit chopped into salads gives it a zing.  Cilantro is also good for the digestion.

 

Herbal Baths

 As you head home after an especially long day, a hot tub of restful water seems like just the ticket.  The heat and moisture slowly open the pores and float out the tensions of the day, relaxing the muscles and the mind.  What a pleasant experience.  Added to the water, certain herbs can assist in cleaning and the fragrance will assist the psyche.  This herbal bath is the tonic you need.   You can either make an infusion of the herb, or tie the herbs at the spout so the water washes over them into your tub.  Lavender is used to scent the water, and comfrey was said to help regenerate aging skin with prolonged use.  Mix equal parts of comfrey ( a gorgeous, large leaved plant with beautiful purple flowers), parsley, alfalfa, and orange peel for a rejuvenating bath.  Combine 3/4 cup jasmine and 1/4 cup orange blossoms for a smell good, youthful skin soaking.  And of course, there are the rose petals, orange blossoms, and lavender for fragrance.  Stiff muscles can be helped with a combination of sage leaves and strawberry leaves.  You can mix and match any herbs until you find one especially pleasing to you.

 

The Herb Links

Janet's Herb Page

Starwest Herbs

HerbNET

Health World Online

Alternative Nature Herbal Links

 

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