Why Grow Herbs?

Gardeners love kindred souls, and if you decide to grow herbs, you’ll be in the company of plenty of kindred souls, both in the present and from times past. Even before recorded history, herbs were the sources of countless culinary, medicinal, and craft materials.

Historically, growing herbs wasn’t a hobby; it was necessary for survival. Then, during the last half century or so, chemists began developing synthetic forms of aromas, flavors, medicines, and dyes that formerly had been extracted from herbs. (Notice how often artificial flavors and colors appear in the ingredients lists on packaged foods.) Because it was cheaper to make these imitations in a lab than it was to grow and extract the real thing, herb gardening fell out of favor to some degree. Now that the “better living through chemistry” heyday is over, there’s renewed interest in getting back to natural sources of the stuff we ingest and otherwise use in our daily lives. And herb gardening is experiencing a renaissance. This chapter is a potpourri of herb information — our effort to introduce you to the subject, including some of its historical and entertaining aspects, and to inspire you to join the legions of herb gardeners, past, present, and future.

What Makes an Herb an Herb?

Before we talk about growing herbs, it’s only fitting to define the meaning of the word herb. (We pronounce it “erb” with a silent “h.” If you want to sound British, pronounce the “h,” as in the name Herb.) What, exactly, is an herb? Different resources define the word in different ways, depending upon their frame of reference.

A biologist might use the term herb as shorthand for herbaceous plant — a plant that forms a soft, tender stem rather than a woody stem. However, that definition leaves out many plants that are typically considered herbs, including rosemary, a charter member of the culinary herb hall of fame. And it includes plants like daffodils, which aren’t on anyone’s herb list. Some ethnobotanists (people who study plants in the context of how they’re used by different social groups) might define herbs as “useful plants,” but hundreds of plants are useful, such as corn and oats, that few of us would call herbs. Others define herbs as “plants grown for medicinal qualities and for seasoning foods,” but that definition leaves out dye plants, plants used in rituals, and those used for making cosmetics, crafts, and more. The Herb Society of America (HSA) follows the “big-tent” philosophy and defines herbs as plants valued for their “flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticide properties, and coloring materials.” If it’s good enough for the HSA, it’s good enough — and broad enough — for us. So if you’ve planted something that tastes or smells good (or bad), cures what ails you, or can be used in some way, feel free to call it an herb. You won’t get an argument from us. As for this book, we focus on some of the most common herbs that are popular for their flavor, their medicinal qualities, and other purposes. Most of their names will be familiar, even if you haven’t sown a single seed.

Seeing Why and Where to Grow Herbs

 If you garden at all, you’ve probably grown some herbs, even if you weren’t aware of it. If you have bee balm, lavender, roses, or sage in your ornamental beds, you’re growing herbs. Ditto if you tuck in some basil, fennel, or garlic among your edibles. But if you need more convincing to add herbs to your garden plant palette, here are a few reasons to give them a try:

Herbs are versatile. They’re pretty, smell nice, are useful, or all of the above.

Many herbs are easy to grow. Annual herbs like basil, cilantro, and nasturtium are among the most reliable plants, even for beginner gardeners.

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They benefit other plants. Even if you don’t plan to harvest and use the herbs directly, you’ll enjoy the way some herbs repel pests and attract beneficial insects.

Herbs are great conversation starters. Once you know a bit of lore about the plants you’re growing, you can entertain garden visitors with their historical significance or fun factoids.

They’ll kick up the flavor of your culinary creations. Fresh rosemary, thyme, or tarragon can turn an everyday dish into a gourmet delight.

You’ll save money. If you’ve ever looked at herbs in the supermarket, you’ve probably noticed two things about them: They usually appear wilted or shriveled, and they’re very expensive. If you grow your own herbs, you’ll have access to the freshest herbs possible — clipped right before you need them — for a fraction of the price.

Herbs in your garden

 You don’t need a special herb garden to grow herbs. Most herbs are very companionable and happily share garden space with more flamboyant ornamentals or more familiar edibles. (A notable few, described in Chapter 2, are decidedly invasive and should be avoided or grown in a confined area.) For ideas on designing your herb garden.

Herbs in containers

Even if you don’t have a backyard garden, you can still grow herbs. Most herbs readily adapt to growing in containers, and some can even be grown on a sunny windowsill. And even if you have a big yard, you may want to grow some of your favorite culinary herbs in pots just steps away from the kitchen for easy harvesting.

Considering Culinary Herbs

Before the advent of refrigeration, herbs with antibacterial properties, including garlic, oregano, and thyme, were enlisted to help preserve foods that had to be stored for use during times of scarcity, such as in midwinter when fresh foods were hard to come by. These and other herbs and spices with strong flavors and aromas were also used to mask the tastes and smells of foods that were beginning to go rancid, making them more palatable. Now that we can control the temperature in our refrigerator with the turn of a dial, most of us enjoy herbs for the way they enhance the flavor and coloring of food and drink. Most recipes contain one or more ingredients purely for aesthetics — better taste, more attractive presentation. What would pickles be without dill, or pesto without basil? Purists use the word herb to refer to plants grown for their leaves and stems; spices are those cultivated for their flowers, seeds, bark, wood, resin, and roots. You also may come across the word potherb. That’s an old term that refers to vegetables and herbs used in salads, soups, and stews. For our purposes, spices are culinary herbs.

Upping your nutrition quota

 If aesthetics aren’t a good enough reason to grow herbs, consider the fact that many herbs are good for you, too. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a teaspoon of dill seed contains 32 milligrams of calcium; a teaspoon of ground basil contains 6 milligrams of magnesium. But when it comes to nutrients, the herbal champ is the chili pepper: One teaspoon of chili powder contains potassium, sodium, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), niacin, and vitamin A. (However, if you decide to substitute chili powder for your multivitamin, we recommend taking each teaspoon with a gallon of milk to offset the heat of the chili.) A few culinary herbs have recently made the news because of their antioxidant levels. Antioxidants are chemicals contained in plants that are thought to play a role in preventing some forms of cancer, as well as in helping to slow the aging process. In one study researchers tested the antioxidant levels of a variety of herbs and found the highest levels in oregano, sage, peppermint, and thyme. They concluded that herbs are an important source of dietary antioxidants, right up there with red wine and green tea.

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Finding ways to cook with

herbs There’s nothing like freshly harvested rosemary tossed in with roasted potatoes or chopped basil topping a bowl of pasta. Scan any cookbook worth its salt, and you’ll find inspiring ways to incorporate herbs into your meals. If you have a particular herb in mind, flip to its entry in the appendix for tips on using it. When you start growing herbs, you’ll be inspired to try things you might never have considered. (We’ve all tasted mint-flavored ice cream, but how about making your own using bee balm or lavender?)

Adding flavor to oils, vinegars, dressings, and marinades

Browse supermarket shelves and you’ll find a growing array of herb-flavored oils and vinegars, usually at premium prices. The same goes for salad dressings and marinades. But there’s no need to break the bank to enjoy the flavors provided by these products. You can easily create homemade versions using fresh ingredients right from your garden. (And you can feel safe without the artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives that give store-bought products an extended shelf life.)

Brewing herbal teas

Your choice in the tea section at the grocery store used to be simple: Lipton or Tetley? Now there are dozens, if not hundreds, of variations on the tea theme, some that are combined with traditional tea (Camellia sinensis) and others that are completely herbal: from hibiscus to blueberry to chai to acai, with many teas touted for their health-boosting properties as well as their taste. Certainly some of these teas contain exotic ingredients grown in some far-off land, but many are made from herbs you can easily grow yourself.

Exploring Medicinal Herbs

Plants and medicines have been partners as far back as history reaches, and the partnership continues today. In the last few decades, both echinacea and St. John’s wort have become popular herbal remedies, both readily found on supermarket and pharmacy shelves. More recently, supplements containing ginkgo, ginseng, goji berry, acai, goldenseal, and licorice root have invaded store shelves. Historically, different cultures have taken a variety of approaches to herbal remedies. Many Eastern cultures, for example, traditionally view illness as a sign of cosmic disharmony. Herbal cures are calculated to restore balance — to create peace between the opposing principles of yin and yang — rather than treat specific problems. The European herbal medicine tradition has been less holistic, and is usually focused on treating symptoms rather than preventing problems. The ancient Greeks, for example, viewed life in terms of four universal elements — earth, air, fire, and water — and the four bodily humors — sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic (hot, cold, moist, and dry, respectively). “Hot” and “dry” herbs were prescribed for “cold” and “moist” ailments, and vice versa. Astronomy, too, has played a role in herbal medicine, and old herbals are filled with references to herbs “owned by Venus” or “under the dominion of the moon.” People have prescribed herbs for every condition known to humankind: boils and burns, coughs and constipation, drunkenness and dog bites, fevers and fits, giddiness and gout, heartaches and hiccups, impotence and indigestion, nightmares and nerves, snoring and sneezing, and worms and wounds. Chapter 13 is the place to find information and recipes for herbal remedies you can make from your own homegrown herbs. You may be skeptical about the power of fennel to cure “every kind of poison in a man’s body” — the claim in one 13th-century herbal — but plants are unquestionably rich with substances that can ease, cure, and even prevent diseases.

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