It’s not a disease. Herb Fever is what I have affectionately started calling the driving urge to grow new and increasingly more herbs each year. There are a few topics that can get my enthusiasm ramped up and this is certainly one of them. Talk to me anything about faith, family, food and herbs and you’ve got my attention.
I refer to my passion for growing and learning about these little beauties as a love affair. In the beginning, my husband was always a bit puzzled about why I would grow herbs we never actually used in the kitchen, and always way more than we could even if we did. I explained to him early on that herbs are far more than just a culinary ingredient in my mind, they are a beloved part of our landscape and environment. I would rather have a yard and house full of herbs than all other non-edible flowers possible; fortunately, I don’t have to choose, today I get to enjoy a lovely mixture of both. Most people don’t think of herbs as flowers, but most have gorgeous blooms by the end of their season that can hold their own with any other blooms in the garden and are great for attracting beneficial insects as well as repelling nuisance insects.
Did you know, that technically speaking, grass is an herb? Wildflowers, dandelions, most things growing in your yard, the neighborhood, even the local park are all herbs. The line between whether or not they are herbs or weeds is whether or not they are considered beneficial or useful in the mind of the person who is calling it. That means that what one person or culture considers a weed might very well be considered a valuable herb to another. A somewhat narrow definition is:
“A seed-producing annual, biennial, or perennial that does not develop persistent woody tissue but dies down at the end of a growing season”
While many herbs are herbaceous, having little or no woody tissue, there are many that do develop woody stems, and some that do not die back entirely at the end of the growing season. Rosemary and sage are two examples of popular plants that develop somewhat of a woody stem and, if you’re lucky, do not die back during the winter.
Some sources even broaden the definition of herbs to include the entire plant kingdom spanning from trees, mosses, ferns, and even algae. Herb is more of a cultural term than scientific term.
Herbs have been used throughout history for many purposes - medicinal, culinary, pest control, dyeing, and simply to enjoy. The entire plant of most herbs can be useful in various ways. Leaves and stems, flowers, seeds, fruits and nuts, roots, bark, wood, and resin, and last but not least the oils. Essential oils are the concentrated, aromatic essences of these various parts of herbs.
So how does one delve into the world of herbs when there is so much to learn about them? Keep it simple is my recommendation - start in the kitchen! Culinary herbs are easy to access, easy to grow, and fun to incorporate into cooking. I sometimes search for new recipes just so I can use an herb or spice with which I am less familiar. I learn something new every year and I enjoy having a beautiful garden full of color and natural fragrance right outside my door. Many can even be grown indoors right on a kitchen window sill.
Basil, rosemary, thyme, parsley, cilantro are my favorites. Some herbs can be grown together in containers while others might need a separate space because they don’t play well with others.
There are estimated to be between 50-150 species of basil. Overwhelmed already? No need to be. There are 15 widely used for culinary purposes with which most Americans are familiar.
Starter plants can often be obtained in the produce section of the local grocery store. Basil is used in a wide variety of recipes and is considered a “fine” herb - one that is more mild, sometimes added to salads, and usually added just before serving to a hot dish. It is an annual, which means it has to be planted each year. If you allow the plant to mature in the Fall, you can harvest and keep the seeds and start them indoors in late winter for transplanting in the Spring when temperatures warm enough to put them outdoors. I confess that most often I buy starter plants at our local nurseries and transplant them into my garden and in containers. The day I get to go nursery shopping for my plant starts is always a very happy day indeed!
I have enjoyed growing many varieties of basil, including Genovese, Thai, sweet, lemon, cinnamon, and spicy globe. Sweet/Genovese is my favorite for cooking. Spicy globe is my favorite basil to enjoy in containers on my deck. It is small and compact with very small, delicate leaves and white flowers. It smells so wonderful! Well, actually they all smell so wonderful!!
Rosemary is another easy to grow herb with many varieties. It is a perennial, evergreen shrub. Two basics to understand are upright and creeping. Some varieties of upright can withstand colder temperatures and can grow to heights of 6-7 feet or more and do better in the ground. Creeping varieties grow low to the ground and are often less cold hardy. Creeping varieties grow well in the ground but can also be a great choice for a container or even a hanging basket - if you remember to keep it watered! You can overwinter more delicate plants by bringing them indoors for the winter.
Rosemary has a pungent odor and is considered a robust herb, standing up well to roasting, cooking, grilling and is great to combine with other herbs or use alone in recipes. Recently I have learned that rosemary essential oil is believed to help with focus and concentration. It is symbolic for remembrance.
I have grown arp, Tuscan, and prostrate (which is a creeping variety). I love the arp most because I plant it in the ground and it usually survives our midwest winters, growing taller and fuller each season. I can use it to skewer meats before grilling or roasting and dry the leaves for soups, stews, and many other recipes. I’m thinking of cutting a bouquet of it to have in my kitchen :-)
Thyme simply doesn’t want to die. I have grown it in the ground, in containers, hanging baskets, indoors and outdoors. You can use it, abuse it, forget about it and then ask for forgiveness by giving it just a little TLC and it will perk up like nothing ever happened. Lemon thyme, lime thyme, cinnamon thyme, French thyme, and so on. Very pungent and robust, the leaves of thyme can be used in many ways and combine well with lots of other herbs. It is perennial and can also be brought indoors to enjoy during the coldest winter months and taken back outdoors when it warms up (or not - you might want some both indoors and out!). It might seem to die back during the cold weather but it doesn’t take long for it to green back up in the Spring. It does get a bit woody after a few growing seasons and does well with a ruthless pruning in the early Spring.
Parsley is a biennial and has two common varieties that you are probably familiar with. Curly leaf parsley has less flavor and is good more for garnishing for a nice presentation than for eating. Flat leaf parsley, or Italian parsley, has more flavor and is my choice for all my cooking.
Parsley self seeds and can be allowed to spread with each growing season, but is often treated as an annual since the second year it develops a rather bitter, tougher leaf. Starter plants can be transplanted in the late Spring or you can start from seed in later winter.
Cilantro (also known as Chinese parsley) is the crown jewel of my garden. I think it would be nearly impossibly to grow enough cilantro in my (current) garden to have enough on hand throughout the season, let alone the entire year. It loses most of its unique flavor when dried, and is absolutely best when used fresh from the garden. The problem is that it bolts and goes to seed so quickly that in order to have fresh leaves you have to plant in rotation throughout the season. I suppose someone who is better at remembering to do such things would have no complaints about having enough cilantro on hand for their favorite salsa, pico de Gallo, tacos or dozens of other recipes!
But even if your cilantro goes to seed don’t pull up that plant right away! The dried seed of cilantro is coriander and is a wonderful spice in its own right! Just let it go to the end of the season until the seeds are all dry. Place a brown paper back around the seedy area and shake them off into the bag. Store them in a glass jar in a cool dry place along with your other spices.
Trivia - what’s the difference between herbs and spices? Herbs come from the leafy part of the plant while spices are the dried, often ground, parts of the rest of the plant - the stem, roots, seeds, etc.
So if you are catching a bit of the fever, start thinking about where you can grow a small garden. Do you have a little room in your backyard, some pocket in your current landscaping that could use some fillers, or do you prefer to give it a try in containers on a deck, or porch?
Think about what you would like to grow. At this point of the year, you will most likely need to get some starter plants. You can find starts for these herbs and so many more at most garden centers. I’ve even found plants at Aldi on occasion. Local nurseries start selling them in April but because of a renewed and growing interest in growing herbs they can often be gone by late April or early May. But keep looking because they do occasionally restock them at later dates throughout the season.
Start learning how you can prepare your soil and mark a tentative planting day on your calendar.
Ready, set, go!
Learn more at these great sites!
Books and magazines about herbs I love:
Herbs DK Smithsonian Handbooks
Complete Guide to Vegetables, Fruits & Herbs
Mother Earth Living (formerly Herb Companion)