Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Grow Your Own Herbs - Do's and Don'ts

For as long as I've been cooking for myself (20 plus years) cookbook authors have extolled the virtues of using fresh herbs. And I heartily agree with them. But it wasn't until recently that food writers of all stripes have started urging their audiences to grow their own herbs, which is really the best policy.

Not only is there a pleasure (and self-satisfaction) beyond words in sauntering out to the yard to clip fresh herbs, but their flavor, newly warmed by the sun, is incomparable to any other means of acquiring them (even the farmers' market). On top of that, in these frugal times, buying an herb plant for $1-2 is the best bargain you will find on almost anything. The real trick is ensuring their longevity, which is not difficult since the basic herbs such as Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano and Sage truly grow like weeds. These Mediterranean herbs like hot, dry conditions, and are not fussy about soil.

WARNING: (Heavy Footsteps heard as writer climbs up on her soapbox)

But PLEASE do not be seduced by the cute "herb gardens" that showcase 4-5 herb plants in a little pot. Trying to grow these wildly exuberant plants in such a tiny container is akin to Chinese foot binding, only worse. Your herbs will die in such a confined space. Take the time (and a few extra dollars) to get individual pots for each plant and provide for them properly and they will reward your efforts with abundance for years to come.

- Use equal mix of potting soil and compost for soil
- Place gravel, broken clay pot pieces, or stones in bottom of pot to ensure drainage
- Plant in container that is at least 12 inches wide (all of the plants will take up that space, except the rosemary, which will love the space for its roots)
- Only water every other day in the summer heat, and once a week in the winter when you bring them inside. These herbs (rosemary, oregano and sage especially) do best when dry; it concentrates the flavorful oils in their leaves.

- Plant in smaller pots; the plants will grow exponentially (really, it's true)
- Skimp on soil (without good soil, your plant will stagnate and your efforts are wasted)
- Skip the drainage stones/rocks/gravel. You don't have to buy stones, ask a nursery for broken pots, or visit garage sales for cheap pots and break with a hammer. Drainage is everything for these herbs.

Allow your herbs to get established before you begin harvesting from them; I usually let them double in size or leaves before I begin to pick them. But once they're establish, use them generously; this "pruning" only makes them grow faster!

One other note is that Oregano is the one herb that is best used dried, not fresh. However, growing your own oregano and then drying it (place in a brown bag in a hot room that gets plenty of sunshine) will produce the most flavorful oregano you have ever tasted!

Simple Herb Potato Salad

1/2 lb baby potatoes (your choice, I like reds)
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 teaspoons cider vinegar
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
selection of fresh herbs, chopped (I used rosemary, basil, thyme, parsley, sage and fresh bay)
1 stalk celery, diced
1/4 red onion, diced
black pepper to taste

Bring potatoes to boil and cook until tender. Drain, and cut into bite size pieces as soon as able to handle; toss with vinegar and salt and set aside. Chop fresh herbs, and add with celery and red onion to warm potatoes. Add olive oil and pepper and additional salt as needed. Toss well. Serve immediately or chilled.


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