Your Complete Guide to Growing and Cooking with Fresh Herbs Year-Round (No Matter Where You Live)
Getting your hands dirty in the garden is a lot like getting your hands dirty while cooking--it's a lot of fun. Getting down and dirty in a home garden can provide new opportunities for connecting with and understanding your food, as well as exploring new flavors. If you live in an urban environment or only have a tiny space to work with, an herb garden is a great place to start. Herb gardens, no matter where you live, are totally maintainable and provide a constant source of fresh flavor inspiration. Not to mention, adding green to your living space is one of the simplest ways to cultivate some positive feng shui energy into your home.
I know this seems like the easy part, but when I first started an herb garden, I quickly ran into the problem of not having a ton of ideas on how to use the herbs. Once you get going and growing, you end up with a constant supply of fresh herbs to work with... and for me, it was a little overwhelming. I was new at it and mostly just happy that the plants were alive and looking good, but I didn't want all of the amazing culinary potential I had growing at my fingertips to go to waste either. That's why I've spelled out some of my favorite uses I've found for various herbs below.
Herb plants are organized into different categories, but the category of herbs that I generally like to grow are called perennials. Perennials can live and grow continually for several years, rather than only coming to life annually or biannually like a number of other plant varieties, which makes them much easier to tend to, even during the chillier months. Here are my favorite perennial herbs, their uses, flavors, and properties:
Description: An evergreen bush that grows long branches with waxy needle-like leaves.
Scent & Flavor: Rosemary has a strong and pleasant herbaceous aroma that matches it's robust flavor. Simply touching its leaves causes the sweet and almost minty smelling oils to be left on your hands (some believe these oils are a natural mosquito repellent).
Uses & Tips: This herb works well to add a distinct touch to desserts and breads, and is great for poultry dishes and stews as rosemary will remain fragrant (but not too overpowering) when cooked with other savory flavor agents. Also, if you like essential oils, rosemary is a great one to use to fragrance a room.
Description: A popular garden staple that can grow into a large bush or tall stalks with either round or oval leaves that are fuzzy and light green in color.
Scent & Flavor: Sage has a subtle aroma but a big, earthy flavor that is slightly bitter and also pleasantly minty.
Uses & Tips: This herb works well in stuffings and poultry dishes that require baking, because these allow the herb to marinate for a while with the other flavors. Sage is also known to have a relaxing and soothing effect when enjoyed in a tea.
3.) Lemon Balm
Description: Thin, soft leaves that are flat and bright green in color.
Scent & Flavor: Lemon balm has a hugely fragrant personality that is, of course, distinctly lemony. It's fresh, earthy, lightly sweet, and really relaxing.
Uses & Tips: Lemon balm is popular when made into a tea or a simple syrup. To do this, the lemon balm needs to be cut and laid out to dry for about a week. This herb can grow to huge sizes if left to its own devices and requires being cut back periodically. Like sage, lemon balm has calming properties, which makes it a very popular bedtime tea.
Description: Flat and toothed green leaves that are usually longer than they are wide.
Scent & Flavor: As expected, mint carries exactly the refreshing aroma that you would expect, but depending on your species of mint, you'll get slightly different fragrances and flavors, such as with peppermint, spearmint, or chocolate mint.
Uses & Tips: Mint makes a great addition to drinks, desserts, salads, and soups and delivers a wonderful cooling qualities. Like lemon balm, a mint plant can have an invasive personality and requires regular maintenance to keep it from getting too big or out of control.
Description: Stalk-like, with thin, powdery green leaves and purple flowers when it blooms.
Smell & Flavor: Lavender has a huge fragrance reputation. Its pleasant, light, and distinctly floral aroma is powerful without being cloying or overbearing.
Uses & Tips: Lavender blooms mainly from spring-late summer, so it's a lovely flavor to infuse into drinks like ice teas or to add into a summery fruit crisp. The smell is soothing and relaxing, which is why lavender is so often used in baby shampoos and oil diffusers to help induce sleep.
Description: This plant has long woody branches or stems that are covered in tiny, round, green leaves.
Smell & Flavor: Thyme has a strong earthy aroma that is very pleasant.
Cultivating Your Herb Garden
If you're like a lot of people, you may live in an area where having an outdoor garden isn't feasible. This may be a second story apartment or a place where you don't have access to a plot of earth. In that case, you'll want to turn to containers that are either placed indoors in a bright and sunny area or placed out on your porch. Keep in mind that containers placed outside should be brought inside when the weather is scorching hot or freezing cold. Wherever you decide to put your herb garden, Make sure you have these three essentials:
- Adequately sized containers with with drainage plates
- Potting soil
- Plenty of sunlight
Your herbs will require watering every other day and also some periodic pruning. Trimming and pruning your plants is an essential way to keep them healthy, contained, and consistently growing fresh leaves. Plants that are left to grow unchecked can get leggy, invasive, droopy, and can quickly overpower their containers. Periodically trimming them also means you're harvesting fresh sprigs and leaves for your kitchen uses.
Drying Fresh Herbs
When saving your herbs to make seasoning blends or teas, simply prune your herbs, tie them in a bundle with twist ties or kitchen twine, and then hang them upside down in a cool, dry place (like a pantry). Avoid trying to expedite the drying process by using the oven or a dehydrator, as this can impart an odd flavor and damage the oils in the herbs. One whole bundle of herbs should be completely dry in about a week.
Freezing Extra Herbs
There's a healthy chance that even after using your herbs for cooking, drying, etc, you'll still have a plethora left over. Because we're not about to waste all of that herb goodness, an easy way to preserve the rest is to freeze them. Here's what you'll need:
- Oil or butter
- Fresh herbs, finely chopped
- An ice tray
- Freezer bags
OK, so, you feel ready to start your own herb garden? There's no day like today. And if you already have one going, let us know some of your favorite herb uses and gardening tips are in the comments below.