Many of us received spice racks as wedding gifts years ago, and some may still have some small jars full of long-expired dried herbs and spices.
We often use the words “herb” and “spice” interchangeably, but there are differences. While both come from plants, flavor food and can be used fresh or dried, we typically can’t grow spices at home like we can grow herbs. The most common spices we use are cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, cumin and vanilla. The most common herbs we use (and can grow) appear in a refrain from a popular song — parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Add to that list cilantro, basil and dill. For years, our only option for herbs and spices were the small jars we bought and often forgot about. The shelf life of dried herbs or spices is between one to two years, and while we won’t get sick from eating older spices, their flavoring power will be reduced.
Today we have more options. Many supermarkets offer fresh-cut herbs in small packages, although they don’t stay fresh long. Why not grow your own and cut off just the amount you need for tonight’s dinner?
Growing herbs is an easy way to get started in culinary gardening. They can be grown in containers, mixed in with other flowers and vegetables or in stand-alone herb gardens. Whether you are an experienced gardener or a novice, herbs are simple to care for.
Herbs may be annual or perennial plants, and some can even be grown as houseplants. Annual herbs, including basil, dill and cilantro, must be replanted every season, as they complete their life cycle in one season. Some, like cilantro and dill, do better in cooler weather, while others, like basil and summer savory, thrive in warm months. Perennial herbs will come back for more than one year, and some can last a lifetime. Some die back to the ground, while others stay green year-round. Parsley is really a biennial, taking two seasons to complete its life cycle, but most gardeners treat it as an annual.
Start by growing what you use often. As you have success, add more. Most herbs do best in a sunny, well-drained site. Keep them in a location close to your kitchen with easy access.
Grow herbs from seed or transplants. Do your homework before planting; know what size they will be at maturity so you give plants enough room to grow.
Some plants are also more aggressive than others. A single mint plant may take care of all of your needs and then some. If you end up producing too much of one herb, either freeze it or dry it for later use, or share some with friends.
When planting, make sure you are grouping plants with similar needs together — sun, shade, wet or dry.
The beauty of herb growing is that you can start harvesting the day you plant.
Be more judicious in your pruning of perennial herbs than you are with annuals, since you need them to live longer. For annual herbs, frequent harvesting results in fuller plants and more foliage.
The best time to cut herbs is in the morning after the dew dries, yet before midday heat hits, or in the evening when it cools down.
When it comes to usage, experiment! Cooking with fresh herbs requires more than the dried form. Dried herbs (unless they are 20 years old!) are usually three times as potent as fresh, so adjust recipes accordingly.