Anyone who’s spent time in the kitchen knows that that the fresher the ingredients, the better the taste. While most of us don’t have the time or resources for growing most of our own food, this doesn’t have to be true for herbs. Planting an herb garden, even if it’s just a few plants, can add a burst of color and taste to your food (not to mention a little more money in your wallet!) Caring for herbs doesn’t have to be tedious or overly complicated, though. A few carefully selected plants and some basic care will provide you with herbs to season your dishes throughout the growing season and, if you choose to preserve them, long into the winter months.
Choosing Your Plants
Considering there are hundreds of varieties to choose from, some gardeners just starting out may have trouble deciding which herbs to grow. Italian dishes use a variety of herbs, but there are five or six key spices that are used often. A good starting place may be the “Five Tenors” of Italian herbs: rosemary, oregano, basil, fennel, and parsley. Thyme and sage are also easy to grow and useful in many recipes, depending on your taste.
Growing Herbs Outdoors
Whether you choose to grow indoors or outdoors, herbs requires the same basic care: lots of sunlight, well-drained soil, and watering. Most herbs thrive in sunny, warm climates, but consider your individual climate, the type of soil in your area, and the distance you want between your kitchen and your herbs.
If you choose to grow your herbs outside, you can make them a part of your vegetable garden, but many gardeners prefer to grow them in a separate area. Next, determine the size of your outdoor herb garden; a kitchen garden is often approximately 20’ x 4’ with 12” x 18” plots for each kind of herb. Always keep annual and perennial herbs separate from each other. It may be a good idea to diagram your garden plot and label the plants, especially if you’re a beginning gardener or you’re planting many different kinds of herbs. It may also be helpful to grow some of the more frequently used herbs, such as parsley, as border plants.
The sowing process begins by planting seeds in shallow boxes in late winter. Start the seeds in light, well-drained soil, but do not cover them too deeply. The finer the seed, the shallower you should sow it in the soil. Rosemary, oregano, fennel, and basil can be placed directly into the soil, but parsley should be soaked two days in cold water and then planted (this will cut down on germination time). Seedlings can then be transplanted outside in the spring to be cultivated during the summer.
Keep in mind that soil drainage is another important factor in growing herbs outside successfully. Herbs do not grow well in wet soil, and never overwater them. The soil does not need to be fertilized because highly fertile soil will produce excessive amounts of foliage with little flavor.
Some herbs, however, do require moderate amounts of fertilizer, so read up on the individual needs of your plants and grow plants with special soil needs away from the others, perhaps in a planter. Just remember that herbs grown outdoors in containers such as window boxes or hanging baskets will require more care, particularly watering.
Growing Herbs and Plants Indoors
Planting in the house is often a more convenient way to get herbs from the plant to your plate. The benefits of keeping herb plants inside are nearly endless: they often require much less weeding and pesticides than outdoor gardens, they can be moved easily if conditions are not ideal, they do not need to be transplanted when the seasons change, and they will make your kitchen smell wonderful.
Again, choosing a location in your house is very important. Terra cotta pots or window boxes will fit on a fire escape or in a window, but it’s crucial that herbs get at least a few hours of direct sunlight every day. Pots should ideally have a diameter of 12 to 18 inches so the herbs have enough space. Be sure to keep them in a well-drained soil that is not too wet or fertilized, but remember that any plant in a clay pot will require more water than if it’s planted in the ground.
To maintain an indoor herb garden year-round, be sure that your herbs get enough light, repot them yearly and renew annuals, and remember to prune and water your plants as needed.
Harvesting Your Herbs
Fresh leaves can be harvested from herb plants as soon as the plant has enough foliage to keep growing. Generally, herbs contain the highest amount of flavor just before they bloom, so try to harvest during this time. Again, take the time to learn about each kind of herb you’re planting, because different herbs signal their ripeness differently. Oregano and rosemary will flower. Basil flowers too, but the flowers should be pruned because they will cause the plant to lose flavor. Parsley is generally ready 70 days after planting, and fennel is ready approximately 2 weeks after the bulb is the size of an egg.
For herbs growing outdoors, do your best to pick leaves and seeds after the dew has disappeared in the morning but before the sun gets too hot—this will ensure your herbs have good oil content
TO BE CONTINUED.. next recipes for those herbs
Or get recipes in The Basic Art of Italian Cooking: DaVinci Style
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