Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Herbs in my Garden

            Everyone should plant an herb or two, even if it’s just in a container.  Having fresh herbs is enticing.  It makes you want to cook more because you’ll want to put these plants to good use.  And having herbs makes you feel like a real gardener, like you have a green thumb even if you don’t.  Because most grow very well with only a little care.  And there’s just something about growing a plant that looks and smells good, and that you can cook with, too.  It’s inspiring. 

            I have several different herbs scattered around.  In pots, I have a lemon verbena and a pineapple sage.  In my house, I try to keep a rosemary alive every year (and then I have to replace it every year).  I grow chocolate mint by the back steps.  Mixed into my flower beds are onion chives, garlic chives, lemon balm, bee balm, lavender, thyme, and lemon thyme.  In my vegetable bed I grow parsley, dill, and basil.  And I have a separate spot for Greek oregano.  Oregano, parsley, and basil are my “must haves” every year when it comes to cooking.  The rest are just for fun or occasional use.  If you love to cook and have only so much room in the garden, plant those three herbs.  They are so worth it!
            Oregano:  I have tried for several years to grow oregano in a pot, but it dies every year in our zone 5 winters.  So last year I did a bold thing and put it in the ground in its own little spot.  Oregano is a perennial and it grows like mint, by spreading roots.  And so I contained it as much as I could (like I did with the mint) with plastic landscape edging that goes 2-3 inches below ground and with landscape fabric that I pushed as deep as a could with a shovel alongside the plastic edging.
            If you can, get Greek oregano.  It’s the most flavorful one.  (Some people like marjoram, too.  But it tasted like floral potpourri to me.  I’ll stick with the oregano.)  Every year, I cut back the oregano a couple times.  I rinse the leaves, strip them off, and let them sit in a dish in a dark, dry closet until they are crisp.  (I swish them around every so often to help them dry better.)  Sometimes, I let the leaves dry on the stems, hanging in a bunch upside down, and strip them when they are dry. 
            The earlier leaves are better because the bugs nibble at the later ones.  But they only have little tiny chewed spots on them and so the leaves can still be used, even if they are a little unsightly. 
            It’s really nice to be able to use herbs all winter that I harvested from my garden.  I store the leaves whole in a jar, and I just crumble them between my hands into the soups and sauces.  I mainly use my oregano in spaghetti sauces and pizza sauces.  But there are a lot of other uses for it.  And I’m sure I’ll figure out more eventually.
            Parsley:  I have to plant this new every year.  Sometimes I buy plants from the store and sometimes I plant my own seeds in pots in the house in late winter.  And then I transplant them outside when the time is right.  I like to line my tomato bed with these plants on the sunny side. 
            Parsley doesn’t like to be transplanted, but I can still get a good bunch of it even if I have to separate my home-grown seedlings from each other to spread them out in the garden.  But they grow best if you disturb their roots as little as possible.        
            You can take a few of the outer leaves fresh when you need them or take a bunch of leaves throughout the summer to dry, or you can leave them till fall and take it all at once to dry for winter.  Parsley will push up more leaves from the center of the plant all summer, so taking the outer ones doesn’t hurt it at all. 
            I dry and store them the same way as oregano.  And I use my parsley in my soups all winter, like Cheesy Potato Broccoli Soup or Chicken Rice.  Just crumble the parsley in near the end of the cooking time so it doesn’t destroy the flavor.
            Basil:  Basil is an easy one, just spread out seed in the garden every year at the appropriate time and let it grow.  (I put them with my sweet peppers.)  I don’t buy mine as plants because I don’t have much use for it until the tomatoes ripen.  So it’s the perfect timing if I start it from seed in the garden.  I don’t really do much with basil, except make a Simple Tomato Salsa that is the most fresh tasting treat in summer.  But I love the smell of basil so much that it’s worth growing every year.  It’s my favorite smelling herb next to lemon thyme and lemon balm.  If you want to, you can cut basil stems, put them in water and let them grow roots, and then transplant them.  Just a tip I once learned.
            Onion chives and garlic chives:  Even if you don’t use these for cooking, they make great accent plants.  They look like clumps of giant blades of grass (onion has round hollow blades, garlic has flat).  And they push up little round flower masses on tall stems: purple or white, depending on type.  Several times a season, just cut these back to within a couple inches off the ground, and they will push up new, tender blades to use in your cooking.  (Old leaves that have been on the plant all summer can be too tough to eat.)
            Plus, these plants are known to repel garden pests, especially around roses.  So I like to plant them in pockets here and there around the rose bed.  So far, mine have stayed in tidy (but enlarging) clumps.  And occasionally, I just divide the clump and transplant a section elsewhere.  They transplant so easily. 
            Chives do not retain their flavor when they dry (so I hear), so I hear freezing them is best.  And you can eat the blossoms, too.  Although I’ve never tried it.  I don’t like the taste of raw onions, so I only really use ours mixed in sour cream for my husband’s baked potato.  But I love having these plants simply for the garden plants that they are.  And they come back stronger every year.   
            Lemon balm:  This plant just looks great and smells wonderful.  Each plant stays in a nice little clump, but it does seed itself around though.  So it can get weedy.  (You can easily grow these from a packet of seed, but it takes a little time to get going.)  I have to pull up baby plants when they end up where I don’t want them.  (They transplant just fine.)  But I love this plant so much that it’s worth it. 
            You can grab leaves and rub them on your arms to repel mosquitos.  You can make a tea out of them or add them to salads.  You can add it to water to liven the taste.  My birds love to nibble on the leaves I bring to them.  And once again, they just smell so nice that I have to have some.  I try to put them in a spot where people can easily brush up against them or run their hand through them. 
            And they come back every year to form nice, miniature, bright green “bushes.”  I love the shape of their leaves even.  And it’s easy to care for them; just cut the dead growth to the ground when the snow thaws.  And if they didn’t come back, you can bet that there will be baby plants growing from the seed that was dropped last year. 
            If mine get to be a nuisance, I may put them in their own spot where they can go crazy.  Right now, I’ve got them surrounding my Angel Face rose, and I may end up regretting that.  I’ll have to see.  But I totally recommend this plant for the smell and the look of it alone (but only if you can deal with the volunteer seedlings).      
            Bee balm:  Bee balm is another beautiful, but weedy, plant.  It grows tall and has funky-looking, bright-colored flower heads that draw the insects and hummingbirds in.  But you have to be careful with these plants because they can spread too easily.  And mine get a mildew on them every year.  They are one of my few plants to do this.  So I cut them back in the fall and discard the cuttings. 
            I am currently trying to move mine over from the rose/perennial bed to the wildflower and butterfly bed where I can take care of them more easily.  The rose thorns make it hard to get in there and cut them back as I need to.  And I don’t want the mildew to spread among the roses.
            Bee balm transplants easily and the clumps just keep spreading out.  Eventually, I may have to contain the roots somehow if they get to be a problem, maybe by planting them in a pot in the ground with the bottom cut off.  But so far, they are behaving alright. 
            Bee balm is considered an herb because the leaves can be used to make tea.  But I nibbled a leaf once and it tasted like strong peppery-oregano.  And I have no desire to drink an oregano tea.  So I don’t think it’s for me.  But maybe the tea would taste different, I don’t know.  But I don’t think I’m going to try.  I’ll just keep it as a flower and drink my green tea.   
            Lavender:  Lavender is not technically supposed to survive in our zone 5 climate.  But 2 of the 4 plants I planted two years ago survived the winter.  I was a nice surprise, and so I’m going to go with it for now.  The smell adds so much to the garden.  (And you can use it dried as potpourri.) 
            I love these slivery-green plants.  The leaves alone are beautiful and make great little accent plants in a formal garden, especially by roses.  (They might get squashed in a wildflower garden.)  I just lightly trim them back in the spring, and they bush out nicely.  If they keep living, I may try to get a few more in as other plants die off and room becomes available. 
            I’m kinda becoming addicted to these little plants.  The more plants the better.  Unfortunately, I didn’t put mine close enough to the front, so I want to try to get some where people can brush past them and touch them.  If I had sun up front, I’d line my walkway with them.  If you have the climate for it, grow a few of these.  They’re enchanting!                   
            [Speaking of lavender.  A “must have” at all times in my home and purse is a bottle of diluted lavender essential oil (not scented oil or lavender fragrance).  (I diluted mine in olive oil, about 15-20 drops lavender per ounce olive oil.)  This essential oil is remarkable as an infection fighter and germ fighter, as is Tea Tree Oil.  We put it on all sorts of sores, scratches, and stings.  My son once had a spider bite that was getting red, hot, swollen, and spreading, and a neighbor boy had a mosquito bite that was getting infected.  And after putting on a drop or two, 2-3 times a day, these both went away completely within a few days.  And a friend of mine had a burn on her knuckle that got infected.  As I was sitting with her at church, she showed me her arm, where a black line was running up her vein from her knuckle, about 8 inches long.  A serious blood infection.  I had a bottle of oil in my purse, and she rubbed a few drops in along the black vein.  And I kid you not, within the hour, it disappeared to within two inches of the sore on the knuckle.  It literally was vanishing before our eyes.  And it went away completely within a couple days. 
            Lavender essential oil and tea tree oil are always on hand at my house for all sorts of ailments, homemade cleaning solutions, and homemade deodorant powder.  I even add it to a water bottle to spritz in the air around sick family members.  If you are interested, read about these oils on-line and get to know their uses and the safety precautions.  As with all essential oils, they are highly concentrated and very potent.  So be cautious, but get to know their benefits.  They are worth having.]
            Thyme and lemon thyme:  I planted these plants along the front of my rose/perennial bed.  They are beautiful edging plants and I believe they are supposed to be beneficial to roses.  (I may be wrong, but supposedly they repel deer.)  But I love them mostly because they look and smell great, especially the lemon thyme.  Every spring, I just trim them back lightly, and they come back nicely.  But they do need to be on the sunnier side of the garden.  They don’t like too much shade. 
            Every so often throughout the season, I trim off some new growth and dry it inside to save for cooking or to share with others who like cooking with thyme.  I don’t use it as much as I should because I always forget it’s in my cabinet, but one of my goals is to find more uses for it.  That way, I get more out of these beautiful plants.  But even if I never cook with them, I love having them just for the smell and because they compliment shrubs nicely.
            [However, bees love them, so be careful.  I got the worst bee sting ever when my sandal-covered foot brushed past a thyme plant.  It happened so fast, but I thought I had been stabbed to the bone by a mini-knife.  What happened was that the bee got me right in one of the tendons or ligaments (or whatever they are called) that run up from your toe on the top of your foot.  And so every step I took hurt worse and worse because of the stab wound and because the venom seemed to get squashed around in there as I bent my toes.  It hurt so bad.  For days.  And nothing seemed to help take the sting away – vinegar, baking soda, meat tenderizer.  Nothing, except honey, if I remember correctly.  I think it was a light layer of honey (or maybe it was coconut oil, I can’t really remember) that finally soothed it enough that I wasn’t writhing around in pain.   But don’t quote me on that.]
            Dill:  This is another one that I like to grow, but I’m still getting used to it.  And I haven’t really found a good place for it yet.  I put a plant or two in the butterfly garden last year, and I’ll have to see if it reseeds.  I’d love to find a place where I don’t mind it reseeding itself, but I’m a little afraid of it spreading too much.  So I’m still working out my plan with this one.  I’d also love to get better at using this plant in my cooking.  I don’t do too much with it other than to add it to Lemony Pickles or refrigerator dill pickles.  Getting better acquainted with this plant will be a future project of mine.
            Other Herbs:  I also have chocolate mint – the best peppermint - except it doesn’t taste like chocolate at all.  I talked about this one in the Roses and Thorns post.  So check that post if you want my Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream recipe.
            And in pots, I am trying to grow lemon verbena and pineapple sage purely for the smell.  But I have to overwinter these in my basement in my climate, and I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.  Especially if I don’t use them for cooking.  I’ll have to see first if they make it or not before I decide what to do with them.  I did dry their leaves once for making tea, but I only tried the verbena once.  But I simmer them sometimes on the stove to make the house smell nice. 
            I refuse to use chemical scents in my house – sprays, air fresheners, traditional candles – so one of my favorite tricks is to use a potpourri simmer pot.  I just fill it with water and add a mixture of spices (cloves, allspice, cinnamon, etc.), herbs (lemon verbena, lemon thyme, mint, etc.), drops of essential oil (citrus, nutmeg, cinnamon, etc.), and occasionally an orange or lemon peel or apple slice.  Then just let it simmer away all day.  You can keep this same mix a few days before having to change it.  It is far nicer and healthier than artificially-scented products. 
            It’s gotten to the point where no one in my family can walk down the candle or cleaning supply aisles without complaining that the smell hurts our heads.  When you are used to “real,” the fake doesn’t smell good anymore.  It just smells like chemicals that will kill you slowly.  I love surrounding myself in real!  God’s creations are so much better than ours!  

            Well, that’s the extent of my herb garden.  They are so much fun to grow that everyone should have a least few.  I think of herbs as wonderful little blessings from God.  To me, they are about simplicity, about learning to appreciate the simple delights that God has placed all around us.  If we would just open our eyes to them and reach out and grab them. 
            And not only do we get a pretty plant that smells nice, but we get to liven up our food.  And herbs contain many health benefits.  They can be used in our food, in teas, rubbed on skin as bug repellants, or applied directly to sores, stings, and rashes to aid in healing.  (Look up the uses of herbs to learn how to do this.) 
            How thoughtful of God to give us healthy, healing food in attractive, fun-to-grow, nice-to-smell packages.  And what more wonderful way is there to show our appreciation than by adding a few herbs to our gardens.  (And a jar of dried herbs from your garden wrapped up with a pretty ribbon makes a great gift for someone else.  One of the true joys of having a garden is sharing the blessing with others.) 
A few recipes using my herbs:
Spaghetti or pizza sauce:  Most of the time, I make mine at home instead of buying jarred.  It’s cheap and simple.  For my family of 6, I just whisk together two or three 6 oz. cans of tomato paste with a hefty sprinkle of onion powder and garlic powder, a small dash of salt, a small spoonful of sugar, a few turns of fresh ground peppercorns (always use fresh ground pepper, never the pre-ground stuff), a crumble of dried oregano, and enough water to thin it to my liking.  Thinner for spaghetti sauce, thick for pizza sauce.  Let it simmer on the stove for at least a half-hour to blend the flavors.  Near the end, drizzle in a little bit of olive oil. 
            [I know this recipe will scare “strict recipe-followers.”  But trust yourself to add a bit of this and a dash of that until you get it to your liking.  (Just be sure to slowly add the salt and sugar.  A little goes a long way.  You can always add more, but you can't take it out.  And always use sea salt, never table salt.)  You can do it without a recipe.  And when you learn to let go of strict recipe-following, it is so freeing!  Trust me.  I’m a reformed “strict recipe-follower” myself.  I even do quick breads and biscuits with no recipe now.]

Cheesy Potato Broccoli Soup:  For the easiest way, fill a stock/soup pot just over half full with chicken broth (I use 3 tetra packs of organic chicken broth).  Add enough cubed, peeled potatoes to almost reach the top of the broth (4-5 pounds for my family of 6).  Add a tablespoon or so of salt, hefty sprinkle of onion powder and garlic powder, and couple turns of ground peppercorns.  Simmer until potatoes are soft.  Mash with a potato masher right in pot.  Then add chopped broccoli.  (I use 2 lbs frozen-then-thawed broccoli florets.)  Simmer about another 45 minutes.  Near the end, crumble a large pinch of dried parsley into the pot.  Let it sit a few minutes.  Re-season if needed.        
            Then turn off the heat, add a stick of butter and let it melt.  Then add a few handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese.  Mix well.  Serve with biscuits.  (I like to make Garlic Cheese Biscuits.  Prepare biscuit mix as normal but add shredded cheddar to it.  Then drop by spoonfuls onto greased pan and bake till done.  Then melt a spoonful or two of butter, drizzle on cooked biscuits, and sprinkle of garlic powder.)
            [If you want to spend a little more time and energy on this soup and add a little more flavor and germ-fighting power:  Before adding the broth, put a spoonful of butter in the pot and add a diced onion, saute till softened.  Then add diced garlic and stir for minute.  Then add broth and proceed as normal. 
            Or add mashed, roasted garlic cloves while the soup is cooking.  I separate a whole bulb, leaving garlic wrappers on the cloves, and pour on a little olive oil.  Top dish with foil and roast in oven – or toaster oven, as I do – at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.  Don’t let them get brown, just soft.  Browning makes them bitter.  Then cool the cloves so you can handle them, squeeze them out of their wrapper, mash them in a dish, and add to the soup.  Adds a nice roasted garlic taste.]

Simple Chicken Rice Soup (Great for when you're sick.  Just keep packaged chicken broth on hand.):  Simply heat up chicken broth, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper in a pot.  (Add diced onions and garlic, if desired, especially if people are sick.)  Add chopped cooked chicken and chopped carrots.  Let it cook about an hour on low.  Then add broccoli if desired, and 1 cup or so (depending on how much soup you are making) of dried rice, and additional water (twice the amount of the rice you added) so there is more water for the rice to soak up.  Let it cook until rice is done, about another hour.  Then near the end, add a crumble of dried parsley.  Then turn off heat, add a stick of butter and more salt and pepper if needed.  (You can make this thicker by adding a little cornstarch or flour dissolved in some water before you add the butter.  Just turn the heat up a little and stir till it gets thicker.  Then turn it off and add butter.)

Simple Tomato Salsa:  Chop tomatoes (preferably garden ones) and drain off some of the juice so it’s not too wet.  Chop and add a few garlic cloves.  Chop and add a small bunch of fresh basil leaves.  Let it sit a little while before using.  (Add dash of salt, pepper, and olive oil, if you want to.  But it’s great without it.  But if you use store-bought tomatoes, you probably do need the salt.)  If you want it hot, add a bit of chopped jalapeno.  Serve with chips, crackers, or toasted bread slices.  My favorite is with Cracked Pepper and Olive Oil Triscuits.  You can even top cooked pizza with it.  It’s wonderful on a hot summer’s day.  You can make a summer meal of just this salsa on crackers with a little cheese on the side.
(Another version that is excellent on pizza is tomatoes, sweet peppers, red onions, garlic, and salt and pepper.  Love it!  It has revolutionized pizza night at my house.)
Simple Lemony Pickles:  Slice cucumbers, top with lemon juice, sprinkle of sugar, and chopped dill leaves.  (Or try lemonade instead of lemon juice and sugar.)  Let it sit a couple hours or so, and serve chilled.  Refreshing and light-tasting.

Refrigerator Dill Pickles (tastes like Claussen Dill Spears):  Mix 4 cups water and 1 1/2 cups white vinegar, 1 1/4 Tbl sugar, 1 Tbl salt.  Heat lightly to dissolve.  Slice up 5 cups or so of cucumber spears.  Add spears to canning jars.  (I use pint jars.)  To each jar, add a clove or two of garlic (largely diced) and a head of fresh dill (before yellow buds open).  You may want to add the dill before the spears so it fits better.  Pour on vinegar mix to cover spears, top with lid, and store in fridge 3 days before eating.  Use within 2 months. 

Herbal Green Tea:  Add a few dried or fresh herb leaves (lemon verbena, mint, lemon balm, etc.) to your cup when you are stepping a green tea bag.  Steep 2-3 minutes.  Remove bag and leaves.  Squeeze up to a whole small lemon and add as much honey as lemon juice.  This makes a wonderful tea in winter for fighting sore throats and colds.  I usually use it without the herbs, though.    
            And don’t worry about the “sugary” honey; it is a germ-fighter too.  People still put it on scratches to help fight infections.  I like to swallow a spoonful whenever I feel a sore throat coming on.  And lemon is a germ-fighter, too.  (And it helps turn your body more alkaline after it is digested.  And based on what I’ve read, viruses, germs, and diseases don’t grow well in alkaline conditions.  And you get an alkaline body from eating natural, real food.  So eat your fruits and veggies, too.)  And the tea itself is supposed to kill flu and cold viruses, too.  So this tea is great to drink regularly throughout the winter to help keep you healthy.  But don't take honey too close to bedtime.  It keeps you awake all night long. 
            And I also like to make this oil in the winter to help with sore throats:  mix 1 cup melted organic coconut oil, a few squirts of honey, and a sprinkle of cinnamon.  Let it cool and get solid, stirring occasionally to keep the honey mixed in.  Store in a covered dish.  And then when you feel a sore throat coming on, just scoop out a spoonful and let it melt in your mouth and swallow it.  (I must warn you, though.  If you use it like this too much, you may start to hate the taste and smell of coconut oil because you will associate it with medicine and being sick.  Use sparingly and only when you really need it.) 
            I believe coconut oil is a huge virus-fighter and germ-fighter.  And so are cinnamon and honey.  And this mix can sit on my counter all winter and not go bad.  I just scrape a little off with a clean spoon whenever I need it.  If you want to, look up the wonders of coconut oil and pretty soon you’ll be buying it regularly, too.  

Homemade deodorant powder:  Mix equal parts baking soda and cornstarch.  (Mash in some coconut oil if you want it creamy.)  And mash in a small drizzle of tea tree oil.  Then just take a pinch and rub it in your armpits.  (This is what my husband uses.  But I prefer straight baking soda, no cornstarch or coconut oil or tea tree oil.  It does the job just fine, although it takes a little getting used to because it’s a little irritating at first.  But then it’s fine.)

Well, this is a glimpse into my herbs and how I use them.  Now get out there and grow some for yourself!  You’ll love it!