Published Sept. 6, 2015 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Journey section, “Herbs, Grow them for scent, flavor, flowers—or fun
Text and photos by Barb Gorges
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine.
–traditional English ballad verse
I have to admit, my interest in growing herbs was sparked by old lyrics made popular by Simon and Garfunkel. Back then, these four herbs mentioned were considered “essentials.” Now I grow them for their scents, flavors and flowers.
The definition of an “herb” is a useful plant, the leafy part, used in smaller quantities than vegetables.
Spices come from other plant parts–roots, bark, seeds.
Some herbs are grown as medicinals. However, without the oversight of a trained herbalist, I wouldn’t recommend experimenting with herbal remedies.
Instead, let’s look at culinary herbs in my garden–all easy to grow. My experience in Cheyenne is that some are annuals, while others self-seed. Some are short-lived perennials and some survive a number of winters.
I usually mulch my herb garden in late fall with a 3 to 4-inch layer of crispy, curled, dried leaves from our ash trees. Straw can also offer protection.
Remember to never treat herbs with pesticides of any kind– herbicides, insecticides or fungicides–if you plan to eat or cook with them. Otherwise, they don’t need anything that flowers and vegetables don’t also require.
Fall is a good time to check local nurseries, which may still have a few herb plants you can set on the window sill for the winter and plant outside next spring. Having fresh leaves to pluck means you don’t have to bother with drying.
Next spring you can tuck your plants into a mostly sunny corner in your garden the way master gardener Linnie Cough has, next to vegetables or flowers. Or pop them into a strawberry planter like master gardener Kathy Shreve does. She sets it on the deck within reach of her kitchen door.
Herbs are happy in any situation, from containers to the symmetrical beds of formal herb gardens.
The four “essential” herbs
Parsley (Petroselinum) – This is a biannual classified into two groups, curly-leaved and the Italian flat-leaved. Mine self-seed and now new plants come up every spring. Chop leaves and add to soups, salads, Italian dishes, just about anything. Or dry or freeze them.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) – Don’t mix this up with sagebrush, which has toxic oils, even though it also has a woody stem, is evergreen and has leaves of sage-green (and now other colors). I’ve been able to keep plants growing for several years at a time. We flavor roasts with sage.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – Another woody herb, it is often seen as a little potted evergreen tree. Master gardener Michele Bohanan brings hers in for the winter. I’ve been able to mulch and overwinter the prostrate variety a few winters. Rosemary is great in meat and vegetable dishes.
Thyme (Thymus) – A low growing woody perennial in the mint family, some kinds work well as ground cover between patio stones. Apparently there are dozens of kinds, with different scents and ornamental leaves. T. vulgaris is the culinary type. We’ve admired its tiny flowers more than we’ve cooked with it. Perhaps we should put sprigs under our pillows, as they did in the Middle Ages, to aid sleep and ward off nightmares.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) can be made into tea. I like it for the lemony scent. But it is a mint and has invaded most of my raised bed. I yank it out wherever I want to plant something else. Wise gardeners keep it in containers as they would with chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate’), peppermint and spearmint, in containers, either above ground or in the ground.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) – It’s one of my favorites—for Italian cooking as well as for the tiny flowers that attract lots of bees. It is a mint, but fairly well-behaved, spreading each year just enough to dig up and share some with friends.
The other Italian
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) – There are many varieties with leaves of different colors and flavors. This annual, is easy to start from seed indoors and transplant to the garden, but the first hint of frost will finish it off. Besides Italian dishes, the leaves are also sprinkled in salads and soups. Pinch off flowers for better foliage, but leave some for the bees. This year Kathy grew “Purple Ruffle” and Thai basil.
Edible flowers—just the petals
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) – A clump of chives is self-perpetuating. Mine is 25 years old. The grass-like leaves are easy to snip into any dish where onion would be at home. The ball-shaped purple flowers are also edible as individual florets. This is one of the culinary herbs native to North America.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolume) – The showy orange and yellow flowers are reward enough for taking time to grow this annual, but the flowers can add color and a peppery flavor to salads. Direct seed it in the garden in spring.
Lavender (Lavandula) – I love the scent in soaps and sachets. Leaves can be used with roasts and the flowers on desserts. “Munstead” is supposed to be cold hardy. Mine has overwintered several years now.
Calendula (Calendula) – This is another self-seeder after it’s been in the garden a season. I’ve grown it for years, though I haven’t tried strewing the petals over dishes, like a poor man’s saffron. Its other name is “Pot Marigold.”
Bee balm (Monarda) – A variety I have with over-sized red flowers has been very popular with hummingbirds that migrate through Cheyenne mid-July through August. A slow-to-spread mint, the crushed leaves smell interesting and the flowers can be added to salads.
Other herbs to try
Cheyenne gardeners have good luck with a number of other herbs: borage, chamomile, cilantro (the seeds are coriander, a spice), dill, fennel, lovage, Greek oregano and summer savory.
Ways to preserve harvested herbs
In her book, “The Garden Primer”—a great all-around gardening book suitable for our climate—author Barbara Damrosch explains that what we’re after, flavor or scent, is the result of plant oils. Harvesting and storage should maximize them—if you aren’t just snipping a few leaves to add immediately to the soup.
Hang dry – The oils are at their strongest just before plants bloom. On a nice day, cut stems and hang them upside down, inside a paper bag, to dry. Strip dry leaves and store in airtight containers.
Freeze in ice cube trays – Basil doesn’t freeze well. Damrosch suggests pureeing it with butter or oil and then freezing it in ice-cube trays, then popping the cubes into a zipper lock bag so it’s easy to pull out what you need later.
Freeze whole in sealed bag – Other herbs with less tender leaves can simply be frozen in a plastic bag.
Preserve in oils and vinegars – Another way to preserve herb flavors is in oils and vinegars. Recipes abound in cook books and online.
Recipes with herbs
Gardening magazines are rife with recipes seasoned with herbs. My old favorite, “Organic Gardening” magazine, has morphed into “Rodale’s Organic Life,” but it still includes recipes, giving me ideas for more herbs to grow. And then I’ll need to look for seeds in the specialty catalogs, like Richters, www.richters.com, in which I counted 38 kinds of mint.
It’s fun having a collection of herbs, even just for rubbing a few leaves so I can enjoy their scent while working in the garden.