I’m taking a little comfort in the realization that my fellow Boothers are having the same problems with their gardens this year that I am. Not because I wish ill on anyone, but because I’ve been feeling kind of like a loser watching my spindly little tomatoes and harvesting my six snap peas and everything…
But what has been going well, or at least better, have been my perennial herbs. I have them dotted around my landscape, not in a particular “herb garden” or anything, but spread around in different places. And these, I use. They either come back year after year or re-seed themselves on their own, and I’m able to do a lot with them.
What I didn’t realize when I started growing all these herbs is how pretty they are. Most produce these beautiful flowers, with varied sizes and colors, and give off wafts of fragrance whenever you brush by them. They are becoming my landscape, and I just want to grow more and more.
Basil: Sort of a no-brainer, really. And it’s not a perennial, of course. But every year I either buy a few plants or, if I remember early enough, grow it from seed. The trick is to cut it back every time it’s about to flower, so it puts it energy into making more leaves rather than flowers. If I don’t have time to make it into pesto, I’ll chop it to a paste with a little olive oil in a food processor and freeze it in small cubes to use all winter.
Dill: The best partner for an exploding cucumber patch. If my cucumber patch were exploding, which it isn’t. But the nice thing about dill is that it freezes well, and if you leave enough on the plant to form flowers and seeds, it happily reseeds itself and grows more plants the next year.
Sage: A great and un-killable perennial herb. Sage gives me fits, because the time I’m most likely to use it is Thanksgiving, when it’s pretty much dead. But it freezes like dill, so I usually try to go out there in September and cut some sprigs. I honestly don’t cook with sage much, but the flowers are gorgeous in the spring…anyone have any great recipes you use sage in?
Thyme: This is another great perennial herb to cut and save for cold and flu season; it is one of the best anti-viral and anti-bacterial herbs around. (You know that icky smell that traditional Listerine has? It’s thymol, a constituent of thyme.) Some people make tea with it, which I personally find Really Gross, but you can as easily cook a very thyme-y pasta sauce or soup, where it fits better. Thyme also freezes well—and after its frozen, it’s much easier to get off the stems than it is when fresh. I love growing it—there are so many varieties, including some that act like ground covers.
Oregano: Everything I said about thyme? Repeat for oregano. Anti-bacterial and anti-viral, great for cooking, great for freezing, icky tea.
Tarragon: Tarragon makes a great herb vinegar (steep a few sprigs in wine or cider vinegar for a week or two), and is delicious on salads or in a vinaigrette. It’s also really good either dried or fresh in cooking, especially with chicken or mushrooms. The cool thing with tarragon is that it is like two totally different herbs when it is fresh vs. when it is dried. Fresh it has a light citrusy anise-type flavor; dried it’s a little earthier, and the licorice essence is gone. Unlike most herbs, it can’t be grown from seed, only propagated from other plants. Fortunately, it’s also a pretty hardy perennial.
Lemon Balm: a mint relative, this one will take over your garden and never ever die. It makes a delicious iced tea, especially mixed with mint, and is said to have calming sedative effects. I make a tincture of it too, where I soak a jar-full of lemon balm leaves in 100-proof alcohol for 6 weeks and then drain it; this, combined with some lavender tincture, is my anti-insomnia potion.
Mint: Did you know you can make peppermint extract by soaking a jar-full of chopped mint leaves in vodka for a few weeks? Lovely…it’s also a wonderful tea, or addition to Mediterranean cooking. And when my kids have a fever, we put some muddled mint leaves into the bathtub when they take a bath; it’s said to have cooling properties. (I’ll sometimes do the same for myself when I have a headache.) Growing it is the easiest thing under the sun, except that it will take over everywhere. It spreads by underground runners, so it’s likely to appear 10 feet from where the original patch is and establish a new one. You have to really stay on top of it…
Anise Hyssop: This is a new one for me. It makes pretty purple flowers, has a delicate licorice-like scent, and is just…nice. It hasn’t really established itself yet, but it’s working on it. I haven’t harvested any, but I’m told it makes really good tea and is nice with fruits and in cookies and stuff. Mostly it’s just…nice! It’s pretty and fragrant and just lovely.
Lavender: This is my best friend in the herb garden. Sweet-smelling, delicate, silvery-foliaged…I probably have a dozen plants now. I have some tincture brewing on the counter, and nothing is lovely before bedtime than a cup of warm milk with a couple sprigs of lavender flowers and a little honey. In baking, in oils, in baths, pretty much anywhere, this is my favorite herb of all.
Comfrey: Comfrey has undergone some bad press in recent years, as one of its constituents, given in ridiculously high quantities, can cause liver damage. However, it’s been used medicinally in teas and poultices for thousands of years, and it’s said to be a wonderful healing herb. The reason I grow it in my garden, though? It’s like fertilizer in leaf form. It has a deep taproot that pulls the nutrients out of the deep ground and moves them into the leaves; you can harvest your comfrey, chop the leaves, and scatter them into your compost, mulch, or whatever you want to feed the rest of your plants. (Caution, though: make sure you have one of the cultivars that does not spread by leaves but only by roots; otherwise it can take over the whole garden. Except maybe for the mint. Nothing takes over mint.)
Chamomile: There are two different kinds of chamomile, English and Roman. Both have thin feathery leaves and tiny daisy-like flowers. English is an annual, Roman is perennial. English is usually what you make the tea out of, and it re-seeds itself beautifully and comes back year after year as long as you don’t care that it stay where it was, and brews into a very fragrant tea. Roman chamomile has a slightly bitter taste when brewed, but its flowers are still beautifully fragrant. I grow both.
So…that’s a tour of my herb garden. What do you guys grow? Any favorites I’ve missed here?
--Jenn the Greenmom