Easy, Fragrant Herbs
Imagine growing your own herbal tea — peppermint, lemon balm, lavender, chamomile. Or how about running out to the back deck for a handful of chives or a snip of rosemary whenever you need it? Or having a whole cupboard full of freshly dried seasonings, like sage, rosemary, thyme, and parsley, to flavor dinners through the winter and give away as gifts?
Many people don’t realize that the herbs and herbal teas they find on store shelves are often at least six months old, and because their essential oils have volatilized, they’ve lost a lot of their flavor by the time you take them home. You can often find fresh herbs in the produce section, but at an exorbitant price, especially considering how simple and inexpensive it is to grow them yourself.
Herbs are probably the easiest garden plants to grow. For the most part, they require very little attention, average soils, and no additional watering after they’re established (in fact, some herbs actually resent being watered, and their flavor is less pungent because of it). In addition to providing tasty teas and seasonings, herbs can be every bit as ornamental as traditional garden perennials are.
Once you’ve caught the herb-growing bug, you can learn to preserve them by drying or freezing them and to create herbed oils and butters as well as herbal vinegars. Learning about decoctions and infusions (see page 171) can help you get the most of the herbs you grow in your garden, especially if your goal is to brew the most flavorful cup of tea you’ve ever had!
Gardening with Herbs
You can find most of the basic herbs you want already started as transplants at your garden center. Starting your own is much like starting other seeds, with a few changes.
First, herb seeds are usually tiny. After leveling off your soil mix, sprinkle the herb seeds on the surface and just tamp them down. You don’t have to bury the tiny ones. Be sure to keep them moist and in a warm spot. The other big difference is that they seem to take forever to germinate. Two to three weeks is not uncommon.
Another way to get perennial herbs like chives, oregano, and tarragon is to divide an existing plant. In early spring, or after the growing season in fall, drive a trowel or spade through the plant and remove a chunk for your garden. Keep the roots moist as you move them, and transplant them immediately.
You can grow a good collection of the basic herbs in one or two hanging baskets, in a corner of your vegetable garden, in pots or window boxes, or mixed in a flowerbed. The best advice is to put your herbs as close to the kitchen as you can. You’ll use them more if you don’t have to make a special trip to the garden for a few leaves of basil or chives.
Caring for Herbs
Herbs like five to eight hours of sunshine every day and well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. The exception is mint, which likes damp, partly shady areas.
If you fertilized the soil at planting time, you shouldn’t need more during the growing season. Too much fertilizing makes herbs big and rangy, when what you’re after is compact, bushy plants with greater concentrations of flavorful oils.
Most herbs are at their best as they begin to flower. Pick the tender leaves and pick off the flowers to encourage continued growth. Herbs grow best if they are not allowed to set seeds. Prune them to control their size and shape as you harvest them for your own use.
A large pot of herbs is easy to move if you set it on a dolly.
Grow Your Own Ginger
Fresh ginger is a staple of Asian cuisine, and both ginger and its botanical cousin, turmeric, are surprisingly easy to grow at home. The part of the plant that’s normally eaten grows underground — a subterranean stem called a rhizome, which bears buds that grow into stems and narrow leaves. Eventually it flowers, and the pure white blooms — as many as 15, borne in a leafy conelike structure at the end of a cane — are delightfully fragrant.
To grow ginger, start with a visit to the supermarket. Purchase a piece of fresh ginger that’s at least 2 to 3 inches long and bears several buds or “eyes.” Select a shallow, wide pot and fill three-quarters of it with moist potting mix. Bury the rhizome shallowly, covering it with just an inch or two of soil. Keep the soil moist and put the pot in a place that’s warm and brightly lit, but out of direct sun.
The ginger plant grows tall quickly and resembles a stand of bamboo — in six weeks, it can be as tall as 3 feet! Although the rhizome can be harvested after just a few months, it doesn’t develop its full flavor until the plant is mature, which can take up to a year. If you live in a cold climate, bring the container indoors in fall and water only sparingly through the winter (no more than once a month); the plant should receive just enough water to keep it alive but in a dormant state. The foliage may die back, but it will resprout in spring.
Herbal Theme Gardens
An Easy and Fragrant Kitchen Border
Plant this herb garden near the kitchen door for easy access. The number in parentheses refers to the number of plants required.
1. Sage (2)
2. Peppermint (1, surrounded by a root barrier; it will spread)
3. Spearmint (1, surrounded by a root barrier; it will spread)
4. Oregano (1)
5. Marjoram (1)
6. Tarragon (1)
7. Lemon balm (1)
8. Rosemary (1)
9. Chives (2)
10. Upright thyme (1)
11. Lemon thyme (1)
12. Burnet (1)
13. French thyme (1)
A Cold and Flu Garden
When cooler winter weather arrives, colds and flu often arrive, too. You can plant a garden that provides an herbal harvest to treat your cold or flu. This plan can take up quite a large space. Peppermint becomes invasive, so plant it in a large tub or container with drainage holes in the bottom and sink it into the ground. Butterflies are drawn to echinacea and yarrow.
1. Thyme (4)
2. Garlic cloves (9)
3. Cayenne pepper (3)
4. Yarrow (1)
5. Echinacea (2)
6. Peppermint (1)
7. Rosemary (2)
When you are ready to harvest, choose a dry day and pick after the dew has evaporated. The essential oil concentration is said to be highest in the morning. Remember, essential oils give a plant its fragrance, flavor, and any health benefits attributed to the herb.
Because the oil content is higher in a plant before flowering, many herb gardeners recommend picking before the plant flowers. But I’ve harvested at all stages of growth. The best way is to experiment with different times. You might prefer the more delicate flavor of small, new leaves, especially for the more pungent herbs.
The easiest way to clean herbs for harvesting is to rinse them with a garden hose. Set the hose to a light spray or mist. Soak the plants well and let them dry in the sun before you harvest. If you choose instead to rinse them after cutting, use a salad spinner to remove excess water.
In North America, herbs (and herb gardens) go back as far as the Pilgrims, who used them to vary a monotonous diet, to camouflage odors, and to make medicines. They are easy to grow, often can be found in the wild (such as mints), and are easy to dry. Most are picked just before the flowers open or when the leaves are still young and tender. As the plants mature, the oils that produce the odors and flavors become less intense.
Herbs should be dried at cooler temperatures than fruits and vegetables to protect their delicate flavors and aromas. They should never be dried in full sun; rather, place them in the shade, where there is good circulation of warm air, or dry them in a dehydrator. Strong-flavored herbs should be dried separately from herbs that might pick up their flavors. Wash picked herbs only if they’re dirty or have been treated with chemicals.
Store completely dried herbs in labeled, tightly sealed jars.
Hang small bundles of herbs to dry in a dark, airy place.
Herb seeds should be allowed to develop and partially dry on the plant. Do not let them dry completely, however, or the pod will burst, spilling out the seeds to the ground. To finish drying, remove the seeds from the plants, spread them in a thin layer on trays, and dry them in the shade or in a dehydrator set at 95°F (35°C).
To dry herb leaves, spread them in a thin layer over drying trays and dry them in a shady area or in a dehydrator set at 95°F (35°C) or lower until the leaves are crisp enough to crumble in the hands. Herb leaves also can be dried by tying stalks together with a string and hanging them upside down in a shady, well-ventilated area. This time-honored method is more picturesque, but there is some loss of flavor and aroma during the longer drying time. The dried leaves should be removed from their stalks and left whole, then stored in small, tightly closed containers.
Jars or packages should be as small as possible to retain maximum flavor and aroma, and well filled to exclude air. Store in a dark, cool closet or cabinet. Dried herbs will keep their flavor for several months but should be discarded after a year.
Most satisfactory, of course, is not to store herbs, but to have them fresh and ready for use. Every kitchen should have a pot or two or three of herbs. Start them outside in summer, and then pot them up before the first frosts. The bigger the pot, the more productive the herbs will be. For starters, try parsley, chives, and basil. Give them as much sunshine as possible, keep them cut back regularly, and water them, and they will reward you with a constant supply of goodness.
Herbs should be dried at cooler temperatures than fruits and vegetables to protect their delicate flavors and aromas. They should never be dried in full sun.
A microwave oven will enable you to dry herbs in a matter of minutes, rather than the hours, days, or weeks previously required. There will no longer be the worry of dust contamination from hanging herbs to dry them. Best of all, you can do as much or as little as you are inclined to do. For instance, if you have over-picked a fresh herb to use in a dish, you can easily dry the remainder without wasting a bit of it.
Microwave-drying of herbs requires the same preparation as you would use to dry them in an oven or a dehydrator. If there is dirt on the herb you are drying, wash it carefully to avoid bruising the leaves, then dry thoroughly. You can use a salad spinner to dry large amounts of herbs at one time. Drying garlic or chilies in the microwave is not recommended, as both contain too much water to dry properly. All other herb seeds, leaves, and flowers can be dried in the microwave.
Since the amount of herb you are drying will vary from time to time, no definitive guidelines can be given regarding time involved in the process. Once you have separated the leaves, seeds, or flowers from the stems and cleaned them, if needed, you are ready to begin. Dry one herb at a time. Spread a single layer on a double thickness of paper toweling and put it into the oven. Microwave on high power for 1 to 2 minutes at a time, redistributing the herbs for more even drying at each interval. After the second or third time, the herbs will be noticeably drier. Continue this interval timing, but in ½- to 1-minute intervals, until the herbs are completely dry. Be cautious; once dried, herbs can catch on fire. Let them cool, then pack them into airtight containers.
A Guide to Dried Herbs
Freezing, Oils, and Butters
Sure, dry some of your herbs — but don’t stop there. Try some of the many other methods that can be used to catch their flavors.
Freezing them is one of the easiest and most satisfactory methods of keeping herbs. Wash them well, and then spread them out until they are dry and wilted. (This may take several hours.) Cut or chop them into the form you want for cooking, pack them in jars, and freeze them. With most herbs, flavor and color will be preserved. Try this first with chives and parsley, then move on to others.
Herb butters, too, can be made when herbs are most plentiful and frozen for later use. They are handy for adding flavor to vegetables as well as for the most conventional use with bread and rolls. Chop herbs very fine, then mix with butter in a ratio of 1 part herbs to 2 to 3 parts butter, depending on your taste. Tarragon, chives, parsley, and rosemary are some to try, and combinations are recommended as you become more familiar with them.
The herbs and butter should be blended with a fork and left in the refrigerator for a few days to enable the flavor to spread through the butter. Then pack it for freezing.
Most people have trouble avoiding a cold or flu at some time during the winter. This broth will provide you with herbal comfort when you’re ill. It is flavorful, warming, and packed with vitamins.
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups water or vegetable broth
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh cayenne pepper or ½ teaspoon cayenne powder
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary or ½ teaspoon dried
½ teaspoon fresh thyme or ¼ teaspoon dried Pinch to ¼ teaspoon salt, if the vegetable broth is unsalted
Add the garlic to the olive oil and sauté over high heat briefly, until the garlic starts to change color. Add the water, turn down the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 20 minutes. Add all of the herbs and salt to taste. Simmer for 5 more minutes. Sip slowly.
Yield: About 2 cups
32 Essential Herbs
There are endless possibilities of herbs to grow, but here are 32 of the most popular ones you’ll find at your local nursery, along with tips on how to use them.
Basil is a tender annual very sensitive to frost. Sow the seed directly into the garden after the soil is warm, with an extra dose of compost. Plant it in full sun and water it weekly in dry weather.
This fast-growing plant grows to 2 feet. To keep the plant bushy, pinch out the blooms or the tips of each stem before it flowers. Harvest the leaves throughout the summer.
To dry basil, harvest just before it blooms. Hang, screen-dry, or freeze.
Pesto is an Italian basil sauce that is fabulous on pasta, hot or cold. It also enlivens grilled fish, steamed vegetables, crostini, and omelets. Experiment with substituting parsley or other herbs for some of the basil, and use pecans or walnuts in place of the pine nuts.
2 cups fresh basil leaves Pinch of salt
1 or 2 cloves garlic
½ cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ to ½ cup pine nuts
Using a food processor, preferably with a plastic blade, combine the basil leaves, salt, and peeled garlic cloves until a coarse paste is formed. Add the grated cheese and process to blend. With the processor running, slowly pour in the oil in a thin stream. Add the pine nuts and process until smooth.
Use immediately or store in the refrigerator with a ½-inch coating of olive oil on top. To freeze pesto, prepare without the cheese and cover with ½ inch of olive oil; add the cheese after thawing. To make it easy to use small amounts of pesto, freeze it in ice cube trays. When frozen, transfer the cubes to plastic freezer bags for storage.
Yield: About 2 cups
Freeze small amounts of pesto in ice cube trays, then transfer them to freezer bags.
Bay (Bay Laurel)
Bay is a slow-growing evergreen shrub with aromatic leaves. A sun-loving plant, it is a tender perennial that must go indoors during winter in cold climates. It is difficult to propagate. Bay can grow to a height of 10 feet.
Burnet’s cucumber-flavored leaves are used in drinks, soups, and salads. It is easily grown from seed. Burnet grows 1 to 2 feet tall in sun or light shade and slightly alkaline soil.
Beloved by felines, catmint is used in tea by humans as a cough remedy and as an aid to digestion. The plants are 2 to 3 feet high. Easily grown in sun or light shade, catmint tolerates most soils.
Tea made from chamomile blossoms is used as a soothing tranquilizer; it is also used as a tonic. Chamomile grows easily from seed or divisions. It grows up to 10 inches with a spreading growth habit.
Many flowers not only are lovely to look at, but they also add delicate texture or taste to foods. Use them as garnishes or to decorate a cake. Some favorites are borage, calendula, chive blossoms, clove pinks, elderflowers, lavender, mints, nasturtium, rose petals, and violets. Larger flowers, such as daylilies and squash blossoms, may be stuffed or fried. For culinary purposes, be sure to use organically grown flowers that are free from pesticides. See page 30 for more edible flower ideas.
These small, onionlike plants are useful in salads, soups, and egg dishes. Hardy perennials, they reach 12 to 18 inches in height. Cut off the mauve-blue flower heads to keep the plants growing, but leave them on later in the season for foraging bees.
Chives prefer full sun, rich soil, and plentiful water. Mulch around the plants to keep out weeds and grasses.
Harvest chives as soon as the spears are a few inches long. Snipping out entire spears encourages tender new growth. Chives do not dry well. Freeze them for winter use.
Costmary (Bible Leaf)
Its fragrant leaves with a minty flavor were pressed and used as bookmarks in Bibles during colonial days. Today, costmary is used as a garnish, in tea, and for potpourri. Propagate by root division. The plants grow 2 to 3 feet high. Costmary likes sun and ordinary garden soil.
Dill is a hardy annual that grows 2 to 3 feet tall; plant in groupings to keep it supported in windy weather.
Sow seed directly in the garden. Dill does best in full sun in sandy or loamy, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic (pH 5.8 to 6.5). Enrich soil with compost or well-rotted manure for best growth. Dill reseeds itself easily.
Both dillweed and dill seed are used in cooking; the weed is mild, but the seeds are pungent. Harvest dillweed any time, but its volatile oils are highest just before flowering. Cut seed heads when the majority of seeds are formed, even though some flowers are still blooming. Thresh the seeds after drying.
Echinacea is widely used to stimulate or support the body’s immune system. A perennial that loves full sun, echinacea grows to about 3 feet, spreading gradually. Butterflies love this plant. When the blossoms are finished, they dry out and reseed themselves; remove the spent blooms if you don’t want this to occur. To harvest, dig the roots after blooming, usually in early fall. Harvest only two- to four-year-old roots, making sure that you leave enough plants for future use. Wash and dry, then chop coarsely. Store thoroughly dried roots in a tightly covered glass container away from heat and light.
In addition to its healing properties, echinacea has beautiful blooms that attract butterflies.
Make an Echinacea Tincture
Tinctures are a simple and useful way to make the healing properties of herbs available to you. Use the instructions below to make a basic echinacea tincture. At the first sign of a cold or flu’s onset, herbal experts recommend 30 drops of tincture every 3 hours for the first two days only. You will need pure grain alcohol, also known as Everclear. If your state does not sell it, look for the highest-proof brand of vodka or brandy. If you do not want to ingest alcohol, place drops of tincture in a small amount of warm water and stir to evaporate the alcohol.
1. Combine ¾ cup alcohol with ¾ cup distilled water in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.
2. Add 1½ ounces of dried echinacea.
3. Replace the lid and set the jar in a cool, dark spot.
4. Shake the mixture daily for two weeks.
5. Strain the mixture to remove the herb. Do it quickly, or the alcohol will evaporate. Try pouring the mixture into a strainer lined with an unbleached coffee filter and place it in the refrigerator to slow alcohol evaporation. Then squeeze the filter to remove as much liquid as possible. Store in a cool place, in a dark-colored glass bottle with an eyedropper fitted into the lid. Label, including the type of tincture and the date.
Cautions. Echinacea can cause adverse reactions in people who are allergic to sunflowers. Do not use it if you have a severe systemic immune disorder or a collagen disease such as lupus or scleroderma. Echinacea should be used with caution by pregnant women. Always, always make a positive identification of any plant before using it.
Herb fennel is a hardy biennial that becomes a perennial in favorable climates. It reaches 3 to 5 feet. Fennel prefers a rich, well-drained soil in full sun. Add lime if your soil pH is below 6.0. Harvest leaves just before the plant flowers. Fennel adversely affects the growth of other plants nearby. It is related to dill, and the two should not be interplanted because they may cross-pollinate, resulting in dilly fennel or fennelly dill!
Biennial or perennial. As the name implies, this hardy medicinal herb is credited with many beneficial properties. It is easily grown from seed or division, and the plant reaches 2 to 3 feet. It does best in sun or light shade and a well-drained soil.
This pungent herb is grown for the flavor of its corms, or cloves. Garlic needs full sun, rich soil, a pH between 6.0 and 6.8, and even moisture. Plant it in fall at about the time of first frost for a summer harvest or in spring to harvest a fall crop. Harvest before flowering, when the stalks start to turn brown. Dig up the plant carefully, brush off dirt, and spread the heads on soil or a screen to dry.
The leaves are dried for tea and used fresh in candy and cough syrup. Grown from seed, cuttings, or division, the plants reach 1 to 2 feet. Horehound needs full sun and dry, sandy soil.
Braiding garlic heads is the best way to preserve them, because air can circulate around the hung braid.
The soft-necked variety works best. Start making the braids as soon as you pull the heads from the ground, so the stems are still pliable. Brush off soil rather than rinsing off the heads. Be sure to use heads that have their leaves attached.
On a flat surface, start with three fat heads and braid their leaves together. Then add other heads (like French-braiding hair). For braids you plan to give away, or if you care a lot about the appearance of a braid, put the heads so closely together that the leaves don’t show. You can use light wire to reinforce the braids. When you’ve done as many heads as you want, braid the last of the leaves and tie off with raffia or twine, forming a loop for hanging. Hang in a well-ventilated area.
Beginning a braid
A hardy, ancient herb used as a purifying tea and for medicine, hyssop is said to cure all manner of ailments from head lice to shortness of breath. Start by seed or division. The plant grows to 3 feet. Hyssop prefers full sun and well-drained, alkaline soil.
An aromatic herb used fresh or dried in sachets and pillows, lavender grows from seeds, cuttings, or divisions. Plant it in a protected location in northern areas. It prefers lime soil. English lavender produces the loveliest blossoms and fragrant oil. Plants grow to 1 to 2 feet.
The lemon-scented leaves are used dried or fresh for tea, jelly, and flavoring. The plant attracts bees. Start from cuttings or division. Plants grow 1 to 3 feet high. Plant lemon balm in sun or light shade and well-drained soil.
Lemon verbena is a tender, aromatic perennial that cannot stand frost, so it must be used as a houseplant during winter in northern climates. Its leaves drop in the fall, but they return promptly. It is fragrant and grows to 10 inches.
The celery-flavored leaves and stalks are used in soups, salads, and similar dishes. Lovage grows well from seed in partial shade and moist, fertile soil. Mature plants may be 4 to 6 feet high.
Marjoram is a tender perennial. In cold climates, it is grown as an annual. The plant reaches 8 to 12 inches and thrives in a light, rich soil with neutral pH in full sun. It has a shallow root system, so mulching around the plant helps retain soil moisture and keep down the weeds. Marjoram is highly aromatic, and its flavor improves with drying. Harvest just before the flowers open.
Herbes de Provence
This is a blend of summer herbs from the south of France. Use in soups, stews, and chicken dishes; with tomatoes and sauces; or in anything even remotely Mediterranean.
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried savory
½ teaspoon ground fennel
½ teaspoon dried lavender flowers
Combine all ingredients; store in an airtight container.
Yield: About ¼ cup
Mints are hardy perennials that often attain 3 feet. They are notorious spreaders. They prefer a moist, rich soil and thrive in full sun to partial shade. Harvest throughout the summer by cutting stalks just above the first set of leaves, as soon as the flower buds appear. Hang to dry for 10 to 14 days.
Oregano, or wild marjoram, is a hardy perennial reaching 18 to 30 inches. The plant grows in ordinary soil but prefers well-drained, sandy loam. If the pH is below 6.0, add lime and calcium. Oregano likes full sun away from winds. Mulch where winters are severe. Propagate by seed, divisions, or cuttings. The seeds are slow to germinate; it’s best to set out young plants. Space them 15 inches apart. Cut the stems an inch from the ground in fall, just before the flowers open, and hang to dry.
There are two main types — Italian parsley and French or curly parsley. Both herbs are a hardy biennial, often grown as an annual. The plants reach 12 to 18 inches and thrive in moist, rich soil. They prefer full sun but survive in part shade. Seeds take three to four weeks to germinate, so it is best to set out young plants, spacing them 8 to 10 inches apart. Pick parsley fresh all season. Cut the leaves in the fall and dry or freeze them.
This old-time medicinal herb was used for flavoring and to cure a variety of illnesses. Native Americans and early settlers also used it as an insect repellent. Grow pennyroyal from seed, cuttings, or root divisions. The plants grow 1 foot high and prefer shade and a moist soil.
Rosemary is used as both an aromatic and a flavoring herb in sauces, soups, and teas. This tender perennial evergreen shrub grows to 2 to 6 feet, depending on climate. Rosemary must be sheltered or grown in containers and taken indoors in winter in cold areas. It thrives best in warm climates and prefers moist, well-drained, alkaline soil. Apply lime or wood ashes to acid soil below pH 6.5. Grow rosemary from cuttings, root divisions, or layering, since seed germination is poor. Harvest all season or hang to dry for a winter supply.
Rue is a bitter medicinal herb used for centuries as an antidote to many poisons. It is easily grown from seed, but the ancient Greeks believed that a plant stolen from a neighbor’s garden had more power than one acquired honestly. Plants grow 2 to 3 feet high and thrive in an alkaline soil, in sun or partial shade.
Facts about Herbs
• Dried herbs are more potent than fresh — 1 teaspoon dried equals 1 tablespoon fresh.
• To store fresh herbs, wrap them in barely damp paper towels, place inside resealable plastic bags, and keep refrigerated.
• Add most herbs about 30 minutes before the end of cooking time; simmer slowly to release flavor and retain volatile oils.
• The chopped leaves of fresh herbs may be frozen with water into ice cubes and then stored in labeled, airtight freezer bags. Use to impart an herbal flavor to soups or stews.
• Use herbs in moderation. Some may be overpowering if too much is used.
Sage is a hardy but short-lived perennial growing to about 2 feet. The mature stems become woody and should be pruned. Because the plant takes a long time to mature, transplants are usually set out. Space them 2 feet apart in a well-drained, rich soil and full sun. Add lime if pH is below 5.8. Water sage well while it is young. Harvest sparingly the first season; increase yearly. Pick leaves anytime, but harvest two crops a year — one in June and another in the fall — to keep the plants less woody. Hang in small bunches to dry.
Harvest sage frequently to keep the plant from becoming woody.
The leaves of rose geraniums are used in jelly and to make tea. Most varieties are grown primarily as scented houseplants. These geraniums are not frost hardy. Started from cuttings, they prefer full sun and well-drained soil.
Sorrel leaves have a sour, acidic, citrus flavor and are used in soups and salads. Sorrel grows easily from seeds or division, prefers acidic soil, and often becomes a weed. Plants grow to 2 feet in sun to partial shade.
Used in Germany for many centuries to flavor May wine, it has also been used as an ointment, in perfume, and as an internal medicine. Placed in drawers, it repels insects and gives sheets and towels a pleasant scent. Sweet woodruff likes acid soil. It is difficult to grow from seed, so buy plants instead. The top may be cut and dried anytime; the fragrance appears only after drying. Plants grow to 8 inches high.
Tarragon is a perennial. The French variety has the best flavor and is preferred to Russian tarragon, which is weedy and lacks essential oils. Tarragon grows 2 to 3 feet tall and tends to sprawl. Because it rarely sets seed, propagate by cuttings or divisions. Tarragon prospers in fertile soil, sun, and moisture. Mulch the roots in late fall and divide every three to four years. Harvest throughout the summer. To dry, cut the stalks a few inches from the ground in early fall. Hang or screen-dry.
This traditional French herbal mixture will enhance any soup or stew. Tie sprigs of fresh herbs together in little “bouquets,” or use dried herbs and make up pouches to pop into the pot.
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
1 teaspoon fresh marjoram
1 teaspoon fresh summer savory
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
Cut a 4-inch square of cheesecloth and lay it flat. Pile herbs into the middle. Gather up the corners of the cheesecloth and tie with a length of string. Store in a closed container until ready to use.
Yield: 1 bouquet
Variation: You can vary the recipe by adding rosemary, basil, celery seed, or tarragon.
The many varieties of this perennial include lemon thyme, creeping thyme, and garden or common thyme. Most have ornamental, culinary, and aromatic qualities. Thyme is a short plant, growing only 8 to 12 inches tall, and is used as a ground cover or in rock gardens. It flourishes in sandy, dry soils in full sun. Propagate by seeds, divisions, or cuttings, but the seeds are slow to germinate. Space thyme 15 inches apart. Rejuvenate an older plant by digging it up in early spring and dividing it. Fertilize with compost or seaweed. Harvest the leaves throughout summer. To dry, cut stems just as flowers start to open. Hang in small bunches. Harvest sparingly the first year.
Watercress is used for garnish and flavoring. If you have a shallow, slow-moving pond or stream where there is no threat of flood, you can try growing this flavorful, low-growing herb. Propagated by division, it can be easily transplanted from one stream to another.
Making More Herbs
Once you’ve got a couple of herb plants, there’s nothing to stop you from having many more! Here are three easy ways to make more plants for your herb garden:
Two or three 3- to 6-inch cuttings can be obtained from one healthy stem (above). Strip off the leaves from the bottom third or half of each cutting, dip the cutting in rooting powder (optional), and insert it into a pot of moistened perlite.
To make root cuttings, dig up the donor plant and slice sections from the root system. (If you want to keep the donor plant, as well as the cuttings, don’t slice very large sections.) Bury the sections in moistened perlite.
Simple layering can produce new herb plants. After partly slitting a stem, lay it in a hole (one preferably amended with compost) adjacent to the donor plant and tack it down to prevent it from working itself loose from the soil. In time, new roots will form on the buried section. When a good root system has developed, the new plant can be cut from the donor and transplanted.
Making Herbal Vinegars
Herbal vinegars are incredibly easy and inexpensive to make. Use a delicate rice wine vinegar with a subtle herb like chervil for a gentle hint of summer’s glory. Combine a robust red wine vinegar with garlic, rosemary, marjoram, and black peppercorns, and enjoy extra gusto in a hearty bean soup.
The biggest mistake people make when creating herbal vinegars is not using enough herbs. To achieve the best effect, use about 1 cup of loosely packed fresh herb leaves to 2 cups of vinegar. For dried herbs, use ½ cup of leaves to 2 cups of vinegar.
After cleaning the herbs, place them in a clean, sterilized jar and bruise them slightly with a spoon. Pour vinegar over the herbs and cover the jar tightly. Do not heat. Let the mixture steep in a dark place at room temperature. Shake the jar every couple of days and after a week, taste it. If the flavor is not strong enough, let it stand for another one to three weeks, checking the flavor weekly. If a stronger flavor is desired, repeat the steeping process with fresh herbs. When the flavor is right, strain, fill clean sterilized bottles, cap tightly, and label.
Basil and Other Single-Herb Vinegars
Follow this basic pattern for any fresh herb vinegar. Dill and chervil make nice alternatives, and tarragon makes one of the best vinegars. Chive makes a subtle vinegar; be sure to use a lot of it in the bottles. For small-leaved herbs, such as thyme, use an extra sprig or two.
4 large sprigs fresh basil
2 cups white wine vinegar
1. Place the basil sprigs into a pint bottle (or divide between two smaller bottles) and pour in the vinegar. Seal.
2. Store for two to three weeks before using.
Yield: 2 cups
Bouquet Garni Vinegar
This vinegar takes on the flavors of a classic French herbal combination. It is ideal in marinades for beef and for dressing roasted vegetables.
1 cup sprigs of parsley
½ cup bay leaves
½ cup sprigs of rosemary
½ cup sprigs of thyme
1 quart white wine vinegar
Using a wooden spoon, pack the parsley, bay leaf, rosemary, and thyme into a glass jar. Cover with the vinegar, seal with plastic wrap, and screw on the lid. Allow to steep for four to six weeks.
Yield: 4½ cups
Mixed Herb Vinegar
Here is an all-natural, instant salad dressing. Just whisk it with olive oil, and you’re ready to toss.
¾ cup chopped fresh basil
¾ cup chopped fresh marjoram
½ cup chopped fresh rosemary
½ cup chopped fresh savory
½ cup chopped fresh thyme
1 quart white wine vinegar
Using a wooden spoon, pack the basil, marjoram, rosemary, savory, and thyme into a glass jar. Cover with vinegar, seal with plastic wrap, and screw on the lid. Allow to steep for four to six weeks.
Yield: 4¼ cups
What Goes with What?
As a rule, stronger flavors go with strong vinegars and subtler flavors with more delicate vinegars. When you anticipate lovely color from your herbs or petals, a white wine vinegar would usually be the best choice. Here are some great combinations.
Red Wine Vinegar
• Rosemary, savory, sage, basil, bay, and garlic
• Sage, parsley, and shallots
• Raspberries and thyme
• Red bell pepper, hot red peppers, garlic, rosemary, and tarragon
White Wine Vinegar
• Dill, basil, tarragon, and lemon balm
• Savory, tarragon, chervil, basil, and chives
• Blackberries and lavender flowers
• Green onions, green peppercorns, thyme, marjoram, and a bay leaf
Apple Cider Vinegar
• Horseradish, shallots, and hot red peppers
• Dill, mustard seeds, lemon balm, and garlic
• Parsley, thyme, rosemary, and a bay leaf
• Apricots and allspice berries
• Pears and hyssop
• Rose flowers and lemon balm
There’s a knack to brewing the perfect cup of herbal tea that tastes, smells, and looks inviting and has the strength to heal or refresh without calling to mind a dose of medicine. Packaged China teas with clearly spelled-out directions don’t pose much of a problem. But because herbal teas are brewed from petals, roots, seeds, flowers, or leaves — alone or in combination — they require more know-how. Once you master a few simple methods, it’s easy to brew a perfect cup of herbal tea.
Depending on the type of herbal tea you’re brewing, you’ll use one of two methods — infusion or decoction. For either method, brew the tea in a covered container; an open container allows volatile oils to escape.
Brewing by Infusion
Most teas made from leaves, petals, and flowers are prepared by infusion — steeping in boiling water. Infusion allows the oils in these parts of the herb to be released gently; if the herbs were boiled, the oils would evaporate.
Brewing by Decoction
The decoction method — simmering herbs for several minutes — is used mainly for teas made from seeds, roots, and bark whose active ingredients are more difficult to release. Herbal teas prepared by decoction generally tend to stay fresher than do teas prepared by infusion.
Basic Infusion of Leaves, Petals, or Flowers
Bruise freshly picked herb leaves gently by crushing them in a clean cloth. The bruising will help release aromatic oils. Some herbal tea experts say infused herbs should be removed and discarded after brewing. Others believe the tea can steep for as long as a day or two. If you allow the herbs to sit, use boiling water to warm up cold tea and/or dilute it if it has become too strong.
1 teaspoon dried herbs (or 3 teaspoons freshly picked herbs)
1 cup boiling water
Rinse teapot with boiling water (to heat it). Place herbs in the pot, pour in boiling water, and allow mixture to steep for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the delicate flavors are released. Strain and serve.
Yield: 1 cup
Basic Decoction of Seeds
Seeds should be well crushed to bring out their oils. A mortar and pestle work best, or wrap the seeds in a clean cloth and crush them with a wooden mallet or rolling pin.
2 cups water
1 tablespoon seeds
Bring water to a boil over high heat. Add seeds, reduce temperature, and allow mixture to simmer gently for 5 to 10 minutes. Strain the tea, then serve.
Yield: 2 cups
Lavender Mint Tea
Lavender adds a pleasant but not too flowery contrast to the sweetness of mint.
1 teaspoon fresh lavender flowers or ½ teaspoon dried
1½–2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves or 2 teaspoons dried
1 cup boiling water
In a teapot, combine the lavender flowers and mint. Pour boiling water over mixture; steep 5 minutes.
Yield: 1 cup
Variation: For more interesting blends, add rosemary, lemon balm or lemon verbena, and rose geranium.
Tea punches are economical, low in sugar, and high in fruity flavor.
6 bags peppermint tea (4 tablespoons dried peppermint leaves)
2 quarts water
1 tablespoon honey
1 quart cranberry juice cocktail
Juice of 1 lime
Sprigs of fresh mint
1. Place the tea bags in a pitcher. Bring the water to a boil; immediately pour water and honey into the pitcher. Let steep for 30 minutes.
2. Remove the tea bags. Add the cranberry and lime juices; chill. Serve in tall glasses over ice, garnished with a sprig of mint.
Yield: 3 quarts; 10 to 12 servings
15 Herbs That Make Delicious Tea
1. Anise hyssop
4. Catnip or catmint
7. Lemon balm
8. ‘Lemon Gem’ and ‘Orange Gem’ marigolds
9. Lemon verbena
11. Monarda (bee balm)
12. Pineapple sage
15. Scented geraniums
Growing Herbal Teas
Cooking with Herbs