Lowether: Hardy herbs add flavour

While our gardening ancestors strove to remove the bitter from our foods they inadvertently removed nutrients as well.

While our gardening ancestors strove to remove the bitter from our foods they inadvertently removed nutrients as well.

As a testament to our innate need for these nutrients, we have come to liven up our meals with herbs which taste bitter on their own and add a nutritional punch. According to herbalist James Duke, freshly picked herbs provide the most nutrients, but the reason I grow them is for flavour.

Unlike vegetables (with the notable exception of kale), most herbs don’t require pampering. Since they are still semi-wild they will grow almost anywhere, but when grown in good garden soil these plants can take over, so it’s a good idea to put them in their own section and keep them trimmed back. An herb garden located close to the kitchen encourages us to tend them and pick them fresh as needed.

Perennial herbs like rosemary, mint and lavender benefit from being divided and re-planted. Dig up the plant, lay it on its side, take a shovel and cut the plant through the root and stem, dividing it into two or more pieces. Re-plant one piece and plant the others elsewhere or pot them up for gifts. Trim the tops at the same time and remove dead branches.

Collect seed heads from annuals like dill and fennel, dry them for use during the year and store some in labeled containers for growing again. Dig up and compost the rest of the plant, all other annuals as well as spent second-year biennials like parsley. Cover the soil with finished compost and protect the herbs you want to use fresh throughout the winter with a cloche or cloth cover like Remay.

I started my perennials by taking cuttings from established plants and bought seeds for the few I could not find. These seeds I plant the same way as my early spring vegetable seeds, in flats indoors. When I started them outside they were eaten almost before they saw the light of day. I’m not naming any names but whatever consumed them was slimy and has been the subject of previous diatribes.

Once the seedlings are about three inches high I plant them outdoors because by then it’s drier outside and the predatory hordes have been reduced. I treat herbs the same as vegetables, fertilizing and foliar spraying the same amount because I want them to outgrow predation.

I harvest perennials, biennials and basil three times a year, cutting all the branches a few inches above the base, making sure to leave a few leaves so they’ll re-grow. Annuals like dill and fennel only have one harvest, usually in August just in time for the cukes. Herbs I don’t use right away get tied in small bunches and hung upside down in the house to dry, away from heat and sun. Once they’re dry I rub off the leaves and replace the herbs in my arsenal with these fresh ones.

Speaking of basil, the small-leafed ones grow reliably for me but the large-leafed ones are hit-and-miss. Next year I’ll try some oriental basil and see how it compares and since it’s an annual, I’ll see if I can save some seeds.

David insists it would be irresponsible to discuss herbs without mentioning that the conscientious neighbour never, ever allows fennel to go to seed. Once the wind blows it everywhere one can lose all of one’s friends.

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