Herbs for food and pleasure
From the Davis Enterprise, May 24, 2007
Herbs are easy to grow!
It is possible to grow herbs indoors, so long as you provide sufficient light intensity. But outdoor growing conditions lead to healthier plants and better flavor. Kitchen herbs can be grown out in the sunny part of your garden, mixed in among flowering perennials and annuals, or at the edge of the vegetable garden. Or they can be crowded together in pots of nearly any size. The smaller the pot, the more often you'll have to water it. But a full kitchen herb garden can be grown in a half-barrel. Or several small herbs can be crowded into a strawberry pot. Just water often, and replant as needed.
Most herbs grow best in full sun: that produces the greatest quantity of the volatile oils and resins that we use them for (which is why they have less flavor when grown indoors). But partial shade will give adequate results, and fresh-picked herbs have better flavor than the dried stuff in bottles that you buy at the store. So don't be discouraged if you don't have perfect growing conditions.
The key to selecting them for long-term success is knowing what the growth habit of the plant is. Shrubby forms such as rosemary and sage are permanent, tough, attractive landscape plants. Basil and dill are annuals and must be replanted seasonally. Many are soft (herbaceous) perennials, meaning they provide foliage year after year but die down to the ground (or mostly so) in the winter.
Some are particularly tolerant of shade: lemon balm, mint, oregano and marjoram, sorrel, sweet woodruff, and even French tarragon can tolerate shade. A bay tree can grow in full shade - or full sun!
Here are some of the kitchen favorites.
Grow for one season. Includes tender perennials which grow until frost.
Basil is by far the most popular kitchen herb! There are lots of different types, including some which smell and taste like lemon, lime, clove, or cinnamon.
These are some of the types we cook with:
The basic Italian pesto basil, with spicy flavor and fragrance.
* Italian Large Leaf
Very sweet basil for pesto, with extra large leaves.
Musky (skunky) scent, aromatic.
* Spicy Bush
Hot, spicy basil on a compact plant. Great for pots!
* African Blue
This interesting basil is a cross between two species. It has large leaves, tinged purple, and has strong flavor. Sterile (no seeds), but can overwinter with protection.
Strong, spicy flavor and scent resemble anise, cloves.
Other annuals herbs:
A green leafy herb, used similar to dill (fish, sauces).
Aka Chinese Parsley. Basic to Mexican and Oriental cooking for those who like it (not me!). Cool weather plant; goes to flower instantly in summer here. Just buy it in the store.
Goes to flower and seed very quickly in hot weather. Good food plant for butterflies and beneficial insects.
Used in Mexican and Caribbean cooking, said to reduce flatulence. Weedy: grows fast, reseeds, killed by frost.
Peppery, distinctive flavor, good for bean dishes (said to reduce flatulence). Fast growing.
This interesting plant has leaves which are said to be 100 times sweeter than sugar - but with no calories!
Grow one season, then flower and seed the second season.
Pretty feathery purple leaves, smell and taste like anise.
Parsley, Curly (Triple-curled)
Curly leaves on a very attractive, compact plant. The 'garnish' parsley.
Parsley, Italian Flatleaf
Flat, glossy, dark green leaves have strong parsley flavor. Big! To 2' or more. The cooking parsley.
Grow year after year. Some die back to the ground in winter, others have leaves year-around.
Burnet, Salad Burnet
Pretty plant resembles parsley. Easy to grow, reseeds happily around your yard. Taste like cucumber. Leaves are added to salad, vinegar.
Easy to grow onion relative. Pretty pink spring flowers are edible.
Slender stems of green leaves, distinctive fragrance like anise. Plant never flowers, ispropagated only by division, so availability is limited. Good drainage important in winter.
Broad flat leaves, strongly flavored of garlic. White summer flowers are edible. Self sows freely.
Very attractive plant with bright green leaves. Lemon scent and flavor. Used for a calming tea. Happy in sun or shade.
Big clump of grass with lemon scented leaves. The leaf stem is used in Asian cooking. Tender, but usually recovers from winter damage.
Looks and tastes like a giant celery. Give it room! Good in salad, soup, stew.
Soft green leaves, tolerant of sun or shade.Italian/Sicilian marjoram has more pungent leaves.
The tea mint.Fast growing, spreads freely by runners which root. Nice ground cover for sun or shade if you have the space. Otherwise, plant in pots.
The mint for cooking and drinks. As vigorous as peppermint, and taller. Plant with caution. There are many variants of spearmint, with different scents, variegated leaves, etc. All are rampant.
Italian oregano has soft green leaves and pretty flowers on a plant which spreads steadily but not rampantly. Greek oregano has stronger flavor.
Used in Mexico as a substitute for Oregano, with much stronger flavor.
Easy to grow plant makes a spreading clump. Cut off flowers, or it will reseed! Unusual lemony flavor used in soup. Pick the tender new leaves.
Shrubs and trees
Woody evergreen plants. Most are excellent landscape plants.
One of our best landscape shrubs! Pretty blue flowers in winter. Lots of named varieties, all with usable leaves for cooking but with varying intensity. Trailing forms are great in containers, upright varieties make shrubs to 4' or more ('Tuscan Blue' is one of the best). Tolerate heat, drought, poor soil.
Another great garden or landscape plant, with the added bonus of usable leaves for cooking. Makes a tough shrub to 3' or more. Flowers attract butterflies. Tolerant of heat, drought. There are forms with golden and purple leaves, one with green, white, and pink foliage. Another has extra-large leaves.
Shiny thick leaves with peppery flavor, used as a substitute for the more delicate Summer savory (which is annual). White flowers in summer.
Tarragon, Mexican; Sweet Mace
(not the spice mace, which is part of the nutmeg plant)
This is a giant marigold shrub! Pretty yellow flowers in winter and strong licorice-scented leaves. Sometimes used as a substitute for French tarragon, which is dormant in the winter, but much less delicate in flavor. A nice easy-to-grow garden shrub.
The basic cooking one is English thyme, a small shrublet with delicate flavor. Plant 2 - 3, as it is a slow grower, Silver thyme is more vigorous, has attractive variegated leaves, and more pungent flavor. The creeping thymes have some scent, but are not used for cooking.
Bay Laurel, Bay tree
The true bay leaf of cooking, not our native bay tree. Evergreen large shrub or tree (I know of a 40 ft. specimen on Plum Lane here in Davis!). Can be pruned to keep at any size.
An unusual shrub we get asked about:
Sprawling shrub with pretty, fragrant flowers. The flower buds are the source of true capers. Hard to propagate, so it is very rare in the trade.
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© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca95616
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