Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Few Good Herbs

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 tries to eat on $6/day.

Growing up, my parents grew their fair share of tomatoes and monster zucchini. And my mother always had a flower garden of some sort. They tried their hand at other things too--things that lived only into the family lore of gardening failures. But I never remember them growing herbs. They must not have been in vogue. Our herbs came to us, as far as I can recall, dried and in containers from the grocery store. To be honest, I didn't know they could come from anywhere else.

And then when Kip and I had been married for a few years and were living in concrete-land in desert California, my mother-in-law gifted me three blue pots (they couldn't come with us when we moved and I still miss them). In one grew several flowering volunteers. And in the other two, I put herbs: rosemary, marjoram, and basil in one; lemon balm and pineapple mint in the last other. I chose these herbs for their beauty and their scent. I'd seen my sister-in-law expertly rub the leaves of the herbs between her fingers and I would do the same. In fact, I used to rub the leaves on my arms, almost as though they were perfume, just so I could enjoy their fragrances while I sat on our porch and watched my kids.

 My sister-in-law worked nearby and often stopped at our house for dinner or to stay the night. One night I was making a pasta sauce and Shelle said, "Why don't we use some of your herbs?" I looked at her and with no irony whatsoever, I said, "You can do that?" Don't ask me what I thought--that they had to be dried to be safe; that they had to come from a store to go into my food? I suppose I just hadn't thought of them at all as something that could be consumed.

That night we chopped up some basil, marjoram, and rosemary. And, oh, that spaghetti sauce tasted so fresh and so good. I walked through a door that night, a door through which I never wish to return. After that I tried growing tomatoes in the tiny plot in front of our condo. I got a few red ones and about 7000 green ones that just wouldn't ripen. And I learned to fry green tomatoes. When we moved to Indiana, we dug out a small garden plot. I bought starts from stores and threw my veggie scraps straight onto the garden floor for compost. And then we moved again to a house with more land. And Kip and I have been digging out gardens ever since. I'm still very very very, and did I mention very, far from being a garden pro, but I've learned a few things along the way. And tonight we're going to go back to those sweet early days with my lovely blue pots, and talk about herbs.

Herbs can be more expensive than other starts. Some produce only for a year, some for two years, and others just keep on giving. Those ones are my favorite, but a lot of the shorter lived varieties are so tasty or can be grown from seed (a few varieties do not do well or produce true from seeds so do a quick google search before seeding), so they're well worth your love as well.

Herbs tend to do well in pots and I've kind of gotten it into my head to make a little window garden of small herb pots when I get a little spare time. But most do well in the garden as well.

Below, you'll find a few of my favorites, as well as the why and how and how much.

1. Golden Oregano

The golden is on the right; the regular oregano is in the back if you're looking to compare color. The golden is lower lying and, ahem, more golden. In fact, at certain times of year it's even more golden than this. It makes an excellent border plant as it spills over rocks and edges just beautifully. It can withstand the shade well also. And it can be used in cooking just as the green varieties of oregano can. It's a very beautiful herb that can be easily divided. I got mine for free from a dear friend who had a large patch, and it wasn't long before I had a large patch as well (so if you're local, I can hook you up with a nice free start). Perennial. Cost: free if it's from a friend.

2. Regular Oregano

There are different varieties. I have two. Do I know what they are? Of course not. This is the type of gardening expertise you can expect from me. I planted them both from seed and they took for-e-ver to come up. In fact, they took so long (especially that one up top) that I presumed them hopelessly dead and begged some golden oregano from my friend. And then the one directly above came up. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the one up top started growing mid-summer. So, yeah, anyway. Both were from very cheap seed packets. Give them time to germinate and be patient. They're excellent fresh or dried. And they're pretty too. Give them a good haircut at the end of the summer and maybe even in the middle of the summer or they--like many herbs--will start getting woody legs. Perennial. Cost: 20 or so cents for cheap-o seed packets.

3. Rosemary

Mine died early spring, and I did buy a small replacement plant, but forgot to take a picture. Rosemary is only semi-hardy. If you live in a place like IN, it must be taken into the house over winter. And sometimes, even then, it might die--especially if you thoroughly neglect it like I did. Rosemary does not grow easily or, usually, true from seed, so it might be worth your while to buy a start. Perennial if you live in a warm area or are careful to bring it indoors. Cost: 2-4 dollars.

4. Winter Savory

This is a great Italian herb. It's pungent and smells great (although it may make you crave spaghetti). It also looks good creeping over rocks in a border. I got mine from a start. Perennial. Cost 2-4 dollars.

5. Sage

Sage comes in lots of colors and varieties. This is the most standard green variety. It has proved sturdier than my other varieties and is still lovely. It bushed into a beautiful cluster of sage and it smells just awesome. As far as I'm concerned, you haven't had Thanksgiving until you've stuff your turkey with some sage as fresh and lovely as this. It lives through the winter (and beyond) here in southern IN. It benefits from a good trim when it starts to get long legs. And if it gets too wet, it will start to wilt. I didn't get this from a friend, but I think if a plant was well-established you could probably take a start. Perennial. Cost: 2-4 dollars.

6. Thyme

Thyme comes in a lot of different sizes. I love the elfin thyme, which is a low-lying one that can grow as ground cover. This one pictured is a standard cooking thyme. I got it from my same friend and in just a year, it's grown into a lovely blotch of herb. It needs a haircut when it gets long. Put it in your chicken, put it in your soup. And for all that is right in this world, put it in your Thanksgiving turkey/stuffing. Even if you can't use all that thyme, or even dry it, you should give it a good haircut, so it doesn't get excessively tall and leggy and woody. Thyme likes sandy or dry soil, though I've found it to be plenty hardy in my wettish herb garden. Perennial. Cost: free from a friend.

7. Parsley

Parsley is a biennial, meaning it goes for 2 years. You can use it both years, although it's going to go to seed fairly early in the second year. Mine was covered in a layer of leaves and stayed green throughout the winter. Even if it's too cold for that, it will come back quite early in the spring. I grew mine from seed. I soaked the seeds for 24 hours first and then I waited and waited and waited. Parsley takes a while to germinate so give it its sweet time. You can get curly or flat. I found seed for curly and went with that. It's often used as a garnish, but the flavor is great in cooking as well. Also, because of it's curb appeal, it makes a good addition to your flower beds. Biennial. Cost: 20 cents for seed packet.

8. Chives

Alas, this isn't the most flattering picture. A few weeks ago, my chives were straight up and flowering with pretty purple flowers. Sorry I missed the photo op. My same friend (thank you, Vanessa--you're the best) gave me a start for chives as well. I could not get those boogers to grow from seed, even after repeated tries. Other than that, what can I say? Chives are the classic herb in a lot of ways. They are so delicious and can hold their own in a decorative bed (bad photo withstanding) as well. I can't wait till my plant is big enough to get a start for my window garden. Cost: free from a friend or 2-4 dollars for a start.

9. French Tarragon

Generally speaking, I'm pretty lassez faire about my herb varieties. If you can cook with it, I don't care if it's Greek or Spanish, flat or curly, golden or purple. But here I must take a stance. You need to grow French tarragon and it's going to have to come from a start. Russian tarragon is the type that comes from seed and has a terrible reputation for tasting bad and becoming invasive. So splurge and go with the French. It's a perennial so it will reward you year after year. Mine sort of lagged along it's first year and I wasn't sure it was going to make it, but sure enough, this spring it's looking green, strong, and growinger. Cost: 2-4 dollars.

10. Mint

Up top you see, um, let's call it fuzzy mint--I think it's peppermint. And below is chocolate mint, which was a gift from, you guessed it, my friend Vanessa. I also have some spearmint that I tried from seed 10,000 times and then bought on sale at Home Depot. Mint is invasive and therefore must be grown in pots. It likes things pretty well drained too. It might look a bit scraggly at first, but soon enough will fill up those pots. I love mint tea or mint in lemonade. And the other day at (shockingly) Vanessa's house, she plopped a snippet of mint right into our water and it was so refreshing and smelled awesome. Move over lemon slices. The chocolate mint is my favorite; it truly smells both chocolate-y and mint-y. How can it be wrong? Perennial. Free from starts from friends; 2-4 dollars otherwise. 

11. Lavender

This is not displayed to it's best effect. In a few more weeks, its wee buds will become fragrant purple blooms that birds, bees, and butterflies will got NUTS for. I love it. I love how it smells. I love the wild life it attracts. I love how it looks. If I was a gourmet, I would even cook with it. I should have given mine a better haircut last year, but oh well. This started itty bitty and grew up quite big in two years. It didn't flower until the second year. As a warning, many varieties of lavender won't make it through a cold winter, so check with a nursery worker who knows their stuff before you accidentally buy an annual variety. Also, lavender can be grown from seed, but it's not an easy thing to do. Cost: 2-4 dollars for starts.

12. Lemon Balm

This was one of my original five herbs. I love how it smells. Some people cook with it, but I have not. I have tried it in tea several times both fresh and dried and think it tastes like spinach, not the lemony goodness I love to smell. Lemon balm grows easily--sometimes a little too easily, so keep you eye on it so it doesn't take over your garden. Get it from a free start if you can. I notice it coming up on freecycle in the spring, and that's where I got mine, though I bet Vanessa had some of that too. Perennial. Cost: free from a start.

Phew. Are you still reading?

If so, here are several more herbs I love, though I don't have them growing at this moment.

13. Cilantro

This is easy to start from seed and it will often reseed itself from year to year. I love love love everything about cilantro. Yes, I'm on that team. It can be used in Mexican or middle eastern or southwestern foods and it's awesome. Annual. Cost: 20 cents for a pack of seeds. 

14. Basil

Also easy to grow from seeds. I usually just sow it into the ground. It's pretty too and you can get different varieties. I like purple, lemon, and just the regular old kind best. I have the itty bittiest little starts coming up, but that's it. I love this fresh, dried, and most of all in pesto. Grow it; it will save you money. Annual. Cost: 20 cents for pack of seeds.

15. Marjoram

Also grows well from seed. I believe it's in the oregano family and I've got that coming out of my ears right now so I didn't grow this this year, but it's tasty if you do. Annual (though it sometimes reseeds itself). Cost: 20 cents for packet of seeds.

16. Dill

Okay, so I actually have some little starts of this, but forgot to take a picture. This grows easily from seed and often reseeds, sometimes a good bit more than you want it to. It's great with fish and in summer salads. Also, it tends to act as a pest deterrent. Last year it grew up in hordes around my strawberry plants and I had significantly fewer slugs eating my strawberries last year. The bugs, it seems, don't like how it smells. Good thing I do.


  1. I liked this post! I feel like your special friend! :) One thing my mom taught me about cooking with fresh herbs - always crush them gently with your hands to release the oils before using. Cutting releases some, but you'll find them more pungent and fragrant if you crush them first. That crushing makes the "weed water" (mom's mint water) so fresh and wonderful on a summer's day!

    PS - It's funny you were shocked... I wonder if everyone else was? We had mint water at ever spring/summer meal growing up! I just assumed everyone had, I guess!

  2. Oh, I see, the shock was it being about my house. Well, I'm glad, I was starting to feel a little weird. I always wanted to be one of those old witch-ladies with a big herb garden and fat cats. M nixed the fat cats but at least I've got my garden!

  3. Yes, yes, the shock was that it was at your house--and I'd been talking about all the herbs I got from you the whole time. Although I must admit I hadn't had mint in water before. Too bad you can't have some fat cats, just fat chickens.



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