A: Herbs are gaining popularity in the home garden and while they do provide
some aesthetic interest, flavour and fragrance is their true claim to fame.
Herbs can be grown in a flower garden, in a formal herb garden, in
containers on a small balcony, or even on a windowsill. Some herbs can be
grown from seed and others purchased as transplants.
Some herbs are annuals, while others are perennials. Annual herbs include arugula, basil, borage, caraway, chervil, cilantro/coriander, dill, parsley, rosemary, summer savory, and sweet marjoram. Perennials include chives, lavender, lemon balm, mint, oregano, sage, tarragon, and thyme. Herbs require the same general growing conditions as most plants in the garden but there are special instructions for harvesting and preserving. Essential oils contained in the various plant parts (primarily the leaves) are extremely volatile when exposed to heat, causing delicate flavours to be lost. For best effect, add herbs near the end of cooking.
Herbs From Seed
Many herbs are easily grown from seed, including basil, chives, parsley,
and dill. Sow the seed in a single container, water thoroughly with warm
water, cover with clear plastic, and keep the container in a warm location.
It is important to use a good quality potting soil to prevent disease, allow
good drainage, and provide the proper nutrients for plant growth. As soon as
the seedlings emerge, remove the plastic cover and place the plants in the
natural light of a south-facing window at a temperature slightly below room
temperature. When the seedlings are big enough to handle, transplant them
into separate containers or cell-pack trays with individual cells for each
plant. Herbs can be planted in the garden after the danger of frost.
It is important to know the growing conditions of each herb. Is it annual or
perennial? Does it grow in a cool climate or does it require a warm, sunny
location? Most herbs perform best in full sun; a few tolerate part shade
(e.g. lemon balm, mint, parsley, tarragon). Herbs generally require
well-drained soil and an application of 20-20-20 or 20-8-20 fertilizer every
two weeks throughout the growing season. Pinch back new growth to create
bushier, more productive plants.
Growing herbs in containers can be very convenient, especially if they are
located close to the kitchen. Tender herbs grown in containers can easily be
taken inside for the winter and some herbs, such as basil, simply perform
better in containers. It is always important to select pots with good
drainage and removable saucers.
Most herbs can be harvested throughout the growing season, as long as enough
of the plant remains intact to sustain good growth. For best effect, harvest
herbs at the first sign of blossom development, the stage when the oil
content in the leaves is the greatest and the flavour is most intense;
harvesting when the flowers are in full bloom results in bitter flavour. The
best time to harvest foliage is early in the morning after the dew has
evaporated but before the temperature rises.
Edible flowers, often a milder version of the leaves, are typically used as
garnish. The most popular edible flowers include calendulas, nasturtiums,
violas, chives, and borage. Harvest flowers immediately before use. Early
morning and late afternoon yield the best flavour.
Edible seedheads can be harvested when they have changed colour and dried.
Storing and Preserving
To dry herbs, place them in a location that is warm, dark and dry. Tie them in bunches and hang to dry. Drying may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks,
depending on temperature and humidity. When the herbs feel crisp, rub the
leaves from the stalks and store them in a moisture proof, airtight
container. Dried herbs begin to lose flavour after a year or so. Some herbs
(basil, for example) lose their flavour when dried and are best when chopped
and frozen in water.
Freezing is an excellent technique for preserving colour and flavour. To
freeze herbs whole, rinse them in cold water, shake off the excess water, and
dip them olive oil. Place the herbs loosely into plastic bags or store them
in rigid containers to prevent the leaves from getting crushed. Another
freezing technique is to place chopped herbs in ice cube trays and fill with
water. Once frozen, remove the herb cubes and store them in freezer bags.
Thaw as necessary for soups, stews and other recipes.