Herbs are flavour-packed and nutrition-packed ingredients. They are mostly easy to grow, many are perennial plants in our climate and the variety is much greater than you may be aware.
Herbs not only add spice, flavour and freshness to meals, but can also protect you against diseases, clear toxins from your body and provide you with vitamins and minerals. They’re great for the health of your garden too, as blooming herb plants attract beneficial insects and pollinators like butterflies and honeybees. Herb plants are seldom bothered by disease or pests and yield abundant harvests all season, if you tend to their basic need for good fertile soil and adequate moisture. They are also easy to grow in containers, which allows you sunny location options and easy access to your kitchen. The closer to your food prep the more you will enjoy the luxury of picking freshness at your whim.
There is nothing like having an abundance of herbs to allow more creativity in your cooking. There is almost no dish that would not benefit from a dash of herbs. From eggs at breakfast to sandwiches and salads at lunch, to dinner at night, fresh herbs can enhance the flavours and health-giving properties of most foods. Cooking with herbs is also a good way to cut down on fats and salt, without sacrificing taste.
Classic favourites are parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. But consider other varieties that are available. Some herbs that we have grown and enjoyed are basil, chives, cilantro, dill, oregano, perilla aka shiso, sorrel and bronze fennel.
Our experience with oregano has been very rewarding. Put in as a temporary measure at first, in a very poor soil, the plant has now filled in beautifully and provides a healthy, low-growing, edible ground cover. When the flowers appear in late summer they offer a soft purple hue en masse, and the bees love them. As with most herbs, oregano leaves taste best when picked before the plant flowers. Harvest for your needs, and then enjoy the lovely spray of late season flowers.
One of the first perennial herbs to come up in the spring is sorrel. It is a gourmet ingredient offering a tangy citrus flavour. The leafy greens are delicious in soups and stews, in salad, as a braising green, and are a great addition to smoothies for a tart lemony taste. This is a cold-hardy herb that permits an early planting. You will have baby leaves in only 45 days. The following year it will be the first thing popping up long before you can plant any tender herbs outside.
A really pleasant surprise last year was growing shiso (perilla). The flavour profile was unlike anything we’d ever experienced. With soft floral notes, a few leaves torn into a salad or blended into a dressing lifted the other flavours beautifully. The plant is very attractive, covered with luscious curly leaves with serrated edges. It is similar to a coleus in its character and size. If left to flower it will self-seed and provide you with free plants in the future.
Drying Herbs for Year-round Use:
Enjoy your home-grown herbs year-round, fresh in season and dried in winter. Drying herbs is easy to do and an enjoyable process — visually and aromatically. Loosely tie small bunches of herbs and hang upside down in a warm, dark location for approximately 10 days. Before the leaves are crisp(!) remove from the stems and store in glass or plastic to preserve freshness and colour. Store away from light. Tender culinary herbs also freeze well.
Growing your own herbs offers the option to grow organically and economically. Whether you start herbs from seed or buy a few started plants, there really is no better way to add flavour and freshness to your culinary creations.
Rick Weingarden and Allan Watts own Anything Grows SEED Co. (www.anythinggrows.com). They can be found at the Western Fair Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market on Saturdays, and at various gardening events around the region.