It feels like it’s a million degrees below zero right now, and the ground is frozen solid. I can’t go play in the dirt, but I can sit by the fire with a hot cup of coffee and plan my kitchen garden for 2018. Today, I’m working on plans for my herb garden. When I was growing for market I specialized in herbs and salad vegetables. I grew your basic herbs like parsley and basil, but also the less common things like hyssop and borage. It was so fun to explore the endless ways to use and enjoy herbs, and to share my passion with my customers.
If you’ve been wanting to go beyond curly parsley and onion chives, I encourage you to sit down with a warm cup of your favorite winter beverage and start planning your 2018 herb garden. Here are 4 tips to get you started:
- Explore: Herbs are great kitchen garden additions. There are so many to choose from, and they are beautiful. They attract pollinators and make great companion plants for vegetables and fruits. Herbs are fairly easy to grow if you have a dry, sunny spot for them. Most love sunshine and can tolerate poor soils. If you’ve not tried growing them, grab a good herb book and explore. A favorite of mine is The Complete Herb Book by Jekka McVicar. It is full of information, great photos and tips. You can also get great information from your seed catalogs. I love flipping through Johnny Seeds, Seed Savers and Richter’s.
- Growing Cilantro: If you have never tried it, it is the fresh, green, leafy herb that is typically found sprinkled on top of Hispanic and Asian foods. Some people say it tastes like soap, but truthfully, I can’t say that I understand that. It is one of my favorites and I try not to eat soap!
Cilantro in the garden has a history of bolting, that is, sudden changes in temperature or moisture makes the plant rush to its seed stage earlier than it naturally would. When it bolts, the energy that was making the plant produce tender green leaves, is now being focused on seed production. This causes leaf production to slow or stop, and the leaves lose their flavor as the plant shoots up flowers stalks that contain little round seed pods, better known as coriander. That’s right folks, they are one in the same, Cilantro is Coriander. Growers choose varieties depending on which stage of herb’s lifecycle they are trying harvest. But if you are growing cilantro, and it bolts, never look a gift horse in the mouth – enjoy the coriander! I plant Cilantro seeds multiple times per season so that when the plants bolt (and they will), I always have a fresh supply of leaves coming up behind them. Then I use the fresh tender seed pods in salads and casseroles. Young green pods are tender and still have an essence of the cilantro flavor. As the pod dries out, it turns brown and its flesh toughens, and it begins to take on the coriander flavor. At this stage you’ll want to grind the herb before using it.
- Tea Time: If you enjoy a hot cup of tea in the winter, why not try growing your own herbal tea ingredients. It’s a fun way to explore different herbs and their flavors, alone and combined with other herbs. One of my favorite combinations for a hot tea is Sage and Bergamot, swirled with a teaspoon of fresh, raw honey. Sage, with its silvery, leather leaves and bergamot (aka Bee Balm) with its vibrant red flowers, are quite lovely when planted together in the garden too. Another combination that makes a refreshing summer tea or infusion is mint, borage and cucumber. Mints grow well in about any environment, almost too well at times. They make great ground covers, attract pollinators and best of all, they taste delicious. There are so many varieties, I encourage you to try them all (if that’s even possible). Borage is a hairy-leaf plant that produces little purple/blue star shaped flowers. The leaves and blossoms taste a bit like cucumber. To make the infusion: First, if you want to get fancy, gently pinch a dozen or so borage flowers from the plant. Fill an ice cube tray ½ way with water, gently drop a flower into each space and gently fill the try and freeze. Next, take a few sprigs of mint and a handful of borage leaves, and bruise them lightly by rolling or muddling the leaves. In a large tea ball or wrapped in cheesecloth, drop the herbs into a pitcher of fresh cold water. Add several thin slices of cucumber and allow to chill for several hours. Remove the herbs and cucumber. Pour the water into tall glass of ice garnish with a borage flower ice cube and fresh slice of cucumber.
- Take a little off the top: Are you frustrated that your Basil and Parsley leaves always seem to stop growing after a couple harvests, but before tomato season has come into full swing? I’ve read and found that with strategic pruning you can keep healthy leaf production longer through the season. For parsley, when you harvest leaves, clip the stems from the outside-in. Plant several plants so that you can harvest from a different plant each time, giving that plant time to regrow leaves before you harvest from it again. Basil is a bit like cilantro. You must keep it from flowering. The flower buds can’t even get started or it will slow the leaves down. I go out every day or two and prune my basil by cutting a stem just above a new set leaflets a few branches below. If I’m not using the basil right away, I create an herb bouquet with it and keep it on the counter. Don’t refrigerate basil. If I won’t use it for a while I pinch off all the leaves and toss them with olive oil and freeze them in baggies until a cold winter night when I’m craving garden-fresh pesto – it’s as close as you can get in January. You can make several plantings of basil throughout the season, but it is slower growing than cilantro, so you need to give each plant time to mature.
- Sage advice: Most recipes that call for sage are Fall and Winter comfort or holiday foods, like stuffing or butternut squash soup. But, the leaves of culinary sage plants are at their aromatic peak in early summer just before the plant flowers. This is the best time to harvest the leaves for drying and storing. To dry sage, I cut stems of leaves and bundle several together loosely and hang the bundles on my drying porch or in a room or closet where they will get airflow without moisture. Once they are fully dry and the leaves crumble easily, I put the whole leaves or crumbled leaves into airtight jars.
- If a recipe calls for ground sage I grind it as needed to preserve the flavor.
Keep warm this winter. Dream of growing your garden in spring, and remember to spice it up this year.