More gardeners are growing herbs indoors and outdoors these days as complements to garden-fresh produce and other prepared foods. They are easy to grow, take up very little space and are valued as seasonings, as an interesting change of pace from salt and pepper. They can be dried and stored for year-round use.
The flavor of fresh vegetables is enhanced by herbs. Rosemary adds an exciting touch to carrots, summer savory is good with snap beans and sour cream with fresh-snipped chives is fine for baked potatoes. Canned or frozen vegetables come to life with a touch of the right herbs, especially if substituted for salt in the cooking liquid.
Herbs are ideal to use in homemade soups instead of salt. Chopped dill in soups and stews has a distinctive flavor, as piquant as salt.
Many of the herbs can be grown easily indoors. Thyme and sweet marjoram are attractive as hanging plants near a sunny window year-round. Sweet basil, a must for all Italian dishes, and caraway, delicious for cooking in goulash, also grow well indoors and provide decorative blossoms.
There can be different types of herb gardens, according to Gordon Tyrrell, assistant director of horticulature at Callaway Gardens, which has a very large one. "Ours is primarily culinary because it fits in with the main theme of the vegetable garden," he says.
Herbs are best planted in the spring, says Tyrrell. Choose a site in full sun that is well drained. Use a very light, porous soil which will help enhance the flavor of the herbs.
Planting herbs on raised beds insures good drainage and allows for a good soil mixture. The herb garden at Callaway Gardens is designed with many raised beds combining a wide assortment of delicate textures, various heights and many shades of grays and greens, which gives the appearance of a traditional English garden. Fruit trees are used as a backdrop to define the main garden area, in the French espalier style of gardening.
The French espalier type of gardening utilizes space to the fullest, he says. Fruit trees are trained to grow flat against walls and trellises so gardening can be done in a small area and be attractive as well.
Choosing herbs is strictly a matter of personal taste. If your interest is cooking, choose some of the more common types such as chives, savory, parsley, mint and thyme. For fragrance, try scented geraniums, lavender and lemon verbena.
Try mint with apples or other fruits, and of course with lamb. A sprig of scented geranium in jellies is delicious; or make salad dressing with crushed oregano, chives and thyme.
Herbs should be gathered just before blooming, when the plants are at their peak of fragrance and flavor. The early morning or late afternoon is the best time of day to collect the harvest. Dry the herbs slowly in an airy room and then strip the leaves from the stems and store them in labeled, dated glass containers.