Califonia Bountiful

Gardening: A garden of herbs

Mar./Apr. 2008 California Country magazine

Add flavor and aroma to food with these easy-to-grow herbs.

Without them, there would be only family to draw us together at dinnertime. Chicken would be just another bird and “That's Italian” would have nothing to do with food. Herbs literally bring so much to the table! In addition to the flavor herbs add to foods, their aromas go far beyond the kitchen or dining room to call out “Dinner!” to those eagerly anticipating mealtime.

Culinary herbs are herbaceous plants whose leaves, seeds or stems we use to flavor foods. They're generally very easy to grow in your own garden and, because so many do well in containers, space is not a limiting factor.

Whether grown in the ground or in containers, most herbs love sun. Choose a location where your plants will get at least three to four hours of direct sun.

Also, good drainage is critical. Without it, your plants are likely to rot and die. If your soil doesn't drain well, consider planting them in raised beds. Also, plant herbs in an area where it won't matter that you are constantly chopping them up to cook with. A location near the kitchen is always a plus.

Terra cotta pots, which breathe and absorb excess water, are perfect for growing herbs and they look authentic as well, especially with your Mediterranean herbs. Also, planting in containers will allow you to bring your cold-sensitive herbs indoors during frosty nights.

One of my favorite, easy-to-grow herbs is thyme. This low-growing herb can be grown almost anywhere and makes a great ground cover. It prefers full sun, well-drained soil and not-too-frequent waterings. Its foliage is very aromatic, it grows fast and is ready to be harvested almost immediately after planting. There is a silver variegated variety and a yellow variety, too, making it very attractive as well as useful in the kitchen.

Rosemary is another heat-tolerant, drought-tolerant, sun-loving perennial herb that can be grown almost anywhere temperatures stay above 15 degrees. It is exceptionally drought-tolerant, needing only occasional watering in the hottest climates. There are varieties that grow low and make great ground covers, as well as upright varieties that make nice 4- to 6-foot columns.

Sage is another upright growing herb that prefers the same growing conditions as rosemary. Oregano does as well, but is low growing. Mint is an herb that is more shade tolerant, but is a vigorous spreader and care should be taken to prevent it from overtaking nearby plants.

Consider planting mints in their own containers. Dill, basil and cilantro are all annual herbs that are easy to grow in small containers. Parsley, both Italian and curled, are easy to grow as well.

When harvesting herbs for drying, cut early in the day before it gets too hot but after moisture from sprinklers or dew has dried. Hang them in a dark room with good air circulation.

When cooking with fresh herbs, remember you will need to use about three times more than what the recipe asks for in dry herbs. Experiment and have some fun. For example, add a fresh kick to any Mexican dish with a handful of chopped cilantro. Make a big batch of pesto with your basil crop, then freeze the leftovers in small portions. Sprinkle chopped dill onto your cooked salmon. Did you know you can strip the leaves off a rosemary stem and use it as a skewer for your grilled chicken? And don't forget two of my favorites: thyme and oregano stirred into pasta sauce. Now that's definitely Italian!

Gardening to-do list for March/April

Fertilize warm season grasses such as Bermuda and St. Augustine now to help awaken them from their long winter's nap.

Hose off new foliage weekly to deter aphids. If they persist, try insecticidal soap.

Plant cold-sensitive plants as soon as the chance of frost has passed. The longer they are in the ground prior to next winter's cold, the more resilient they will be.

Give everything in the garden a good feeding. Look for fertilizers that help your soil, such as GroPower or Dr. Earth Organic. They feed your soil as well, helping your plants do better.

No more bare-root roses. Establish any late arrivals in containers in partial sun to allow them to develop a complete root system prior to transplanting them into full sun.

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