As the covers of winter start to envelope the garden, I feel a great urge to run out and harvest whatever is left that may be usable. It is as though a tsunami is approaching and my only avenue of escape is through the garden. Lucky for me I have my trusty shears to clear my path. Cutting the stalks and stems of the last remnants of herbs soothe the savage wave and calm, luckily, returns when I think I have enough inspiring herbs for the winter. 

Admittedly, many of the herbs are showing a few ravages of the cold nights we have been having. It is hard to find the perfect branches of summer. But, there is still much that is usable and these late harvests will stay fresh that much longer or that much closer to next summer when we will again take for granted the abundance of a growing (not sleeping) garden. 

One of the herbs that hangs around the longest here is the Scented Geranium. Heavenly aromas of Chocolate and Lemon spiced with a bit of Rose fill the house as I bring in these last armfuls of what will become teas, sugars, cookie additives and potpourri ingredients.

 

Chocolate Mint Scented Geraniums 
1/cup fresh leaves in the bottom of cup, pour boiling water over, steep five minutes, add a bit of honey. Great Fragrance and mild minty flavor. Serve with Lemon Geranium Danties

To impart flavor to milk, gently simmer leaves for two or three minutes? then use in baked goods?

Made chocolate mint scented geranium syrup with 1cup leaves whole, 1 cup sugar, 1/4 cup water, simmered five minutes added another cup of fresh leaves, refrigerated on 11/20

Chocolate Mint Scented Geranium sugar. Pat leaves dry, cover bottom of jar with fresh leaves, cover with sugar and stir with dry fork or fingers. After leaves are coated, pour in more sugar to cover. Put in refrigerator 11/20

Lemon cripsum leaves sugared the same way, also in powdered sugar. Refrigerated 11/20

 

IT STARTS WITH THE SOIL

One of the greatest myths about growing Herbs is that they will grow in almost any soil. They are like all plants and prefer a nice healthy, loose or friable soil. Good drainage is an absolute must. Its easiest to amend the soil, preferably with compost, before the garden is planted.  Herbs have coarse roots that benefit from chunky organic matter. These larger particles of soil also provide the air spaces necessary to keep the plants from drowning. Yes, plants do need air and yes they drown when they don't have it.

Soil can also be improved by mulching the ground heavily after planting Barring the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, insects and microorganisms will compost and transport this richness down into the soil. It will take longer to improve the ground this way but it is still a worthwhile effort. Even if you only pile on shredded leaves, these natural amendments add the nutrients from the decayed plant which reduces the need to fertilize. Most herbs prefer a neutral to slightly alkaline soil and compost can help to regulate this.

PRUNING THE HERB GARDEN

HERBACEOUS HERBS

Many Herbs are herbaceous; they die back to the ground in winter. Thoughtful pruning is not necessary for these varieties, just chop it off to the ground any old time. Usually this will be when you harvest or when you cut back to get rid of the flowers. At the very least, you will do this at the end of the growing season. Some herbaceous herbs are Oregano, Chives, Sweet Fennel, Winter Savory, Tarragon, Bee Balm and Mint. Herbaceous Herbs can even be mowed several times a year to keep them free from old and dead branches. Maybe an all Herbaceous culinary Herb garden would be a good idea. Except for the mint. Keep it out of the garden and in a well confined area, like a pot suspended in mid air. This plant is invasive and should NEVER be planted in your garden.

 EVERGREEN HERBS 

Evergreen varieties like Rosemary, Thyme and Sage require pruning at least once a year. Hopefully, you will be cutting often for the kitchen. If not, either in fall or early spring,  you need to prune branches that are old and show no sign of new growth, those that are dead,  and those lying on the ground or crossing other branches.  When the branch of an evergreen herb reaches its maximum height (see our catalog for specifics) and starts to become woody, it will produce little new growth. If there are other shorter and healthier branches, the tall woody branches should be removed. This brings more light and energy to the best part of the plant. When harvesting an evergreen herb for the soup pot, cut only about one third of the foliage at a time. Always cut the stem to a section that still has growth showing. These pruning practices are vital to the longevity of the plant.

ANNUAL HERBS

All of the herbs mentioned under Herbaceous and Evergreen are perennial herbs. This means they live more than two years. Some of the culinary herbs are annuals. These include Basil, Chervil, Cilantro and Dill. The life cycle of an annual demands that it produces seed each year before it dies. The best way to have a continual supply of most of these is to plant new plants every four to six weeks during the growing season. Once an annual starts to make flowers it is difficult if not impossible to make it return to the production of leaves. And, when a plant is making flowers, it is NOT making leaves.

GROW IT IN A CONTAINER

Growing in containers offers several advantages. They can ornament your patio while bringing cooking Herbs to the brink (or sink) of sacrifice for the kitchen. They are mobile and can provide a temporary home while choosing the best permanent location. Container growing makes herb growing possible for many who have no growing ground. For some plants, like invasive mints, containers are the only option. When planting an herb pot, select a container that has at least a one gallon capacity. If you don't have a gallon pot, use a milk jug or any gallon container to measure your soil.  Each plant will need its own gallon of soil. So, if you plant several together, make sure they have enough space by measuring your soil. Any high quality commercial potting soil with organic fertilizer mixed in should work fine. Adding one part perlite to three parts potting soil will improve drainage and suitability for herbs. You can also combine two parts fine textured humus/compost to one part perlite to make your own medium. It is preferable to plant only one variety per container. Different plants grow at different times at different rates to different heights. Inevitably one plant will take over the others or the foliage will be so mixed up you won't know what you are cutting. Strawberry pots are the exception to this rule, just don't plant a mint in one.

THE HERBS TO START WITH

Now that you know where to plant and how to prune, the fun part comes with the choice of plants. No doubt if you are just starting out, you will want the basics. Here's an outline for an Herb Garden that will satisfy the most recipes per square foot. It is based on the needs of a family of four who cooks often.

CHIVES: 3-4, they don't get very big.

BAY: 1 grow it in a pot and bring it in for the winter, a bay tree is an absolute must. 
DILL: 4-6, like Basil you have to plant in succession to have fresh dill throughout the growing season.
ENGLISH or GARDEN THYME: 4, these are small plants and you might want to let one flower (for garnish and for the bees) while harvesting from the other 3.
FENNEL: 2, one for you and one for the butterflies.

FRENCH TARRAGON: 4, even so you will never have enough.

GREEK OREGANO: 2 because you will put this in everything.
MINT: 1 good spearmint like Mint the Best or Kentucky Colonel Mint and 1 nice Peppermint.

PARSLEY: 4-6, even though this plant lives two years, you should replant every spring for the best results.

ROSEMARY: 1 if you live where Rosemary is hardy. 2 if you must grow it as an annual and harvest and dry for winter.
SAGE: 2 plants should do. You can choose from any of the forms of Garden Sage. They all have excellent flavor. 
SWEET BASIL: 4-8, it takes 3 cups of fresh Basil leaves to make enough pesto to coat one pound of pasta. 
WINTER SAVORY: 2, maybe 3, depends on how much you put in your spaghetti sauce. 

Of course, these are only general guidelines. But, this list is a great starting place for building your culinary repertoire.

After you succeed with these, the Herbs of the world are waiting for an honored spot in your garden.

USING YOUR CULINARY HERBS

Using fresh from the garden herbs is definitely the ultimate reward for the hard working gardener.  It is almost impossible to use all of the great bounty these simple plants provide.  All summer and fall, the fresh cuttings for the kitchen are taken for granted. Wandering through the gardens and picking the herbs that will highlight tonight's meal becomes routine. The winter comes and the reliance focuses on what has been preserved. 

You probably already know from first hand experience what dries well and what doesn't. Whenever I cut for the kitchen, I always cut too much. Those snippings not used end up in a special dish my son made in Boy Scouts at camp one summer. When I don't have time to run out to the garden, those pieces, now dry, end up in the pot. Some of them have rich concentrated flavor when dried and some taste like dust or grass.

TABLE FOR DRYING AND FREEZING YOUR HERBS

Angelica: Dry roots the first year, leaves and stems the second spring.

Basil: Freeze leaves whole or ground in oil in small zip lock bags laid flat.

Bay:  Dry leaves.

Bee Balm: Leaves are really best when used dried instead of fresh.

German Chamomile: Dry flowers.

Chicory: Dry roots, leaves have no taste when dried or frozen.

Chives or Garlic Chives:  Spears best fresh, but can be frozen.
Snip into pieces first.

Dill:  Dry seed. Freeze leaves in bundles.

Fennel: Dry seed. Freeze leaves.

Lavender: Dry flowers.

Lemon Balm: Dry the leaves on the stems

Lemon Verbena: Dry leaves.

Spearmints: Best used fresh, dry leaves on stems.

Peppermints: Best dried leaves on stems, too strong when fresh.

Oregano: Dry leaves and flower heads while still green.

Parsley: Freeze leaves, Italian Parsley is better for this.

Rosemary: Dry on the stem and then pull leaves off for storage.

Sage: Dry leaves whole off stem or on stem and pull off for storage.

Winter Savory: Dry whole leaves on stems.

Tarragon: Best fresh, but can be leaves can be frozen on the stem.

Thyme:  Dry or Freeze whole stem segments.

If you are just starting out,
our Kitchen Herb Garden Six Pack
is a good way to get your feet wet. 

Or if you need to fill a large garden fast (and cheap),
try our 36 Pack Culinary Herb Garden Assortment.

If you have gone beyond basics,
our Gourmet Herb Garden Six Pack 
will tantalize your taste buds.

Of course, there is also the 36 Pack Gourmet Herb Garden Assortment.

As always with herbs, there is something for everyone!

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