By guest blogger
Nothing makes a homemade meal more rich and appetizing than incorporating fresh ingredients, especially when using fresh culinary herbs.
When a recipe calls for fresh herbs, you may find yourself omitting it from your shopping list. Fresh herbs are expensive in stores, and a lot of what you buy will go to waste if you only need a small amount. It’s tempting to skip the fresh herbs and choose dried or powdered varieties instead. However, your taste buds really miss out on the savory, wholesome and intense flavors when you substitute dried herbs for fresh.
Do you feel destined to always create so-so meals? If so, you can add a special kick to any recipe without spending an arm and a leg to buy the herbs, without wasting leftovers and without having to worry about running out. I’m talking, of course, about growing your own culinary herbs. It’s easy to do. You can even grow them in an apartment if you don’t have space outside. Make a kitchen herb garden your seasonal project, and soon you’ll wonder how you ever managed to make anything edible without it.
Choosing the Best Outdoor Planting Space
The ideal place for a culinary herb garden is as close to your kitchen as possible. You’ll want to make it easy to pick herbs when you need them; trekking out to a far-off garden in the rain, scorching heat or in the midst of mosquito season is simply not fun or practical. Don’t give yourself excuses not to incorporate your herbs. It will also be easier for you to water, weed and otherwise tend to the herbs if they are near at hand.
Look for an area that gets a decent amount of sunlight each day; eight hours is ideal. If you have a suitable patch of earth, make sure it is not in a low-lying area. If water collects in an area every time it rains, look for a place with better drainage.
Next, you’ll need to decide how big your herb garden will be. It’s great if you can start out small and expand as you get an idea of how many herbs you’ll need. Starting out too large can be overwhelming.
Finally, till up the dirt and mix in well-aged compost or worm castings. The darker the soil, the more nutrient-dense it is and the better your herbs will grow. Plant seeds or transplants according to the package instructions and water thoroughly. You can add mulch right away to transplants, but it’s wise to wait until the seeds sprout before adding mulch; otherwise they may not receive enough sunlight for germination.
Choosing the Best Indoor Planting Space
Herbs are typically compact plants that grow very well in containers. If you have a bright, sunny kitchen, you could grow herbs in small pots on the counter or in front of a window. South-facing windows are best since they receive the most sunlight throughout the day. If you’re really cramped for space but want to grow a lot of herbs, there are many clever vertical gardening ideas that will help you maximize space.
You can grow herbs year-round indoors, which is one of the wonderful benefits of container gardening. However, in the spring, summer and fall, the plants will thrive by being outside in the sun. Placing the containers on a balcony, deck or patio during this time is all you need to do.
However, it’s important to help your plants transition from the relatively low light levels of your home to the more intense, bright light of the outdoors by placing them outside in the shade at first, and only for a few hours a day. Gradually increase the time you leave them out and the amount of sun exposure they receive until you can leave them out all day.
Growing herbs in pots requires the use of potting soil, not compost or soil from your yard. Potting soil (sometimes called a soilless mixture) has better drainage than plain dirt, so the plant’s roots won’t get waterlogged or starved of oxygen. Potting soil is also sterile, so you won’t need to worry about any diseases, weeds or pests affecting your herbs. You can plant the herbs as seeds or transplants; both work fine.
Deciding Which Culinary Herbs to Grow
Which culinary herbs you choose to grow will depend a lot on your favorite meals, but here are some of the most common. You can purchase and plant your own premium quality herb seeds:
- Basil is a staple in many Italian dishes. Basil-infused tomato sauces are delicious over pasta or on pizzas, and you can make the most flavorful basil pesto if you use fresh leaves.
- Chives provide a warm but subtle spice to meals and they make a great substitute for green onions. Often used as a garnish, a sprinkle of chives goes a long way in terms of flavor. Chives pair well with ginger, and the flowers are also edible. Once you establish this herb in your garden, it will come up year after year.
- Cilantro is a spice that some people like and others loath. If you happen to like it, it makes a great garnish on salads, pastas, potatoes and soups. The seeds are known as coriander and can be harvested and ground as needed in a pepper grinder. The roots form the basis of Asian curry pastes.
- Dill is an herb that is essential to have on hand for making potato salads or using as a garnish on shrimp and other seafood. It has a slight tang, which makes it interesting to experiment with in various dishes.
- Ginger root provides powerful flavor whenever it is used fresh. Ground ginger is simply a pale imitation of the fresh, hot taste of ginger root. Bring your Asian-inspired dishes to life and save money at the same time by growing your own ginger root. As a bonus, fresh ginger is praised for its medicinal properties.
- Mint picked fresh from the garden and steeped in boiling water makes an excellent, luxurious tea. You can also use mint as a garnish in summer salads, or use a sprig to bring a unique flavor to cocktails or other drinks. Note that mint has a habit of spreading very quickly, so it’s a good idea to plant it in a container.
- Oregano is another herb associated with Italian cuisine, and is perfect for adding to tomato sauces, soups and gravies. Oregano can also be used in place of marjoram, and it dries well for long-term storage.
- Rosemary is an herb associated with meat marinades and hearty soups. It has a strong, earthy flavor, and a little goes a long way. Rosemary also pairs well with oregano, sage and thyme, and it dries well for later use.
- Sage is the herb that gives a classic Thanksgiving stuffing its delectable flavor. Sage is also used to add flavor to chicken and pork, and it goes well with potatoes and gravy as well. Its warm, hearty flavor is perfect for fall cooking.
- Thyme is another herb that pairs well with oregano and is often used in tomato-based sauces to add a richness of flavor. It works well with just about any dish, from a creamy pasta casserole to bean chili.
Harvesting and Using Your Herbs
Harvesting and using culinary herbs couldn’t be easier. Simply pinch or cut off the amount you need, and the plant will continue to grow. If you grow your herbs in containers and bring them inside for the winter, the plants can often survive for more than one year. Others, like basil, may go to seed after one season. However, it’s easy to collect the seeds and to save them for next year. Sometimes the seeds spread themselves, and you’ll have new herbs popping up in the garden without having to lift a finger.
The beauty of growing your own culinary herbs is in the constant supply of fresh, flavorful herbs. When you want to use fresh herbs in a recipe that calls for dried herbs, you may need to double the amount of fresh herbs in order to achieve the same level of potent flavor provided by a small amount of the dried herb.
You can dry your herbs for later use by cutting the stems, collecting them into a bouquet and hanging it to dry. You can then go a step further and grind the dried herbs into a powder and store it in an air-tight jar. Each herb may require a little extra care when stored long-term, so it’s a good idea to research the best methods before you begin.
Culinary herb gardens offer a lot of joy, and not just in the delightful flavors and aromas emanating from the garden. Planting and tending to the herbs is satisfying in its own way and will make you feel connected to the traditional life of your ancestors.
Go ahead and start with just one type of herb and see how easy it is to have your own fresh ingredients just an arm’s length away. Before you know it, you’ll surely have many other varieties at hand.
Guest blogger, Cathy Habas, is a freelance writer based in Louisville, KY. She is a content developer for Dirtwirx.com, writing pieces of interest for both construction crews and homeowners alike.