Without herbs, our meals would be extremely bland. Basil is a must in a Genovese salad; oregano is wonderful in vegetable soups and marinara sauces, and fennel seed gives my red sauce that extra boost.
My dad gave me my first herb, a pot of chives from his own garden. Chives give salad a subtle onion flavor plus they are a beautiful topping finely diced over twice baked potatoes or in a cucumber salad.
But what I have learned over the years is that herbs must be very accessible to the kitchen. Then they are used often in meals; easier to think about and to cut the bunches I need. If the herbs are planted in the vegetable garden far away from the kitchen door then I will forego fresh herbs and grab the bottle of dried herbs, which are okay in a pinch but fresh herbs are always tastier. They can be planted in terracotta pots and kept close to the house.
What are my “must have” herbs in my kitchen herb garden? Definitely basil, chives, thyme, oregano, Italian parsley, rosemary, and sage. Dill, fennel, and parsley attract swallowtail caterpillars, therefore, plant enough for you and them. Dill is a must for making dill pickles; my German relatives love the leaves diced in salads.
Some herbs are perennials (oregano and sage) or will winter over if they are in a sunny and protected area. However, basil is a Mediterranean herb and needs heat to survive. When you get the first cold night in the fall it is done for the season. Parsley may survive the winter, but it will bolt (produce flowers) in late spring.
Herbs are easily dried or frozen for year-round usage. I used to hang bunches of herbs and air dry them, but the herbs stay a darker or sage green color if they are hung to dry in paper bags which keeps ultraviolet light from fading them. I invested years ago in a multi-rack dehydrator. Now, when I pick herbs in the morning (best time to harvest), I can have dried herbs in a few hours with my trusty dehydrator instead of waiting weeks for them to dry. My food processor is my next important piece of equipment. I pull the dried leaves off the stems into the processor, pulse them until I get the right size I want, then into a glass herb jar for storage.
It is best to keep your jars of herbs in a cabinet or drawer, so they are not exposed to light and away from the heat of the stove. They will retain a dark green color that is more appealing. Label the jar with the name of the herb and the year. You do not want to keep herbs forever since they lose their flavor as time goes by. I store many jars of oregano since it is our favorite herb in Italian cuisine.
Basil can be dried, but I also like to take old ice cube trays, dice up basil (processor works well for this, but add an ice cube or two so the basil does not turn blackish), add olive oil, then freeze in the trays. When frozen, pop them out and store in freezer bags or a mason jar and keep in freezer. When I am making vegetable soup or a red sauce, I will add a frozen cube of basil to the pot. The dried basil works as well. In summer, fresh basil is used to make a pesto that is used over linguini, but pesto also can be used to stuff baked mushrooms.
Herbs provide vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Thyme has Vitamin C, potassium, and manganese. Sage contains Vitamins A, C, and K. Parsley is not just a garnish on a plate, it has Vitamin K. Eating fresh parsley freshens one’s breath and contains Vitamin A, C, calcium, and iron. Rosemary provides antioxidants and anti-inflammatory components. Also, it is a possible cognitive stimulant and improves memory. Oregano helps indigestion and coughs.
My mother prefers marjoram over oregano; her German grandmother used it in her soups. However, I find it difficult to find this herb locally at my favorite local nurseries that feature herbs for the garden. In the Midwest, it does not survive the winters which is why I prefer oregano. Oregano will spread; therefore, it needs to be in its own self-contained bed.
Mint is great to have for summer meals, but plant it in its own pot and not in the ground; otherwise, it will take over your herb bed.
Tarragon is a wonderful herb to infuse in your favorite salad oil but for me it can be overly dominant in flavor.
These are just very limited lists of herbs; every culture brings more to the table. My winter meals are enhanced with the dried and frozen herbs that I stored but my summer meals are where they shine. Picked fresh, washed, and added to pasta salads, green salads, potato salad or a light pasta dish. Diced mint and parsley added to chicken breasts that are oven cooked in olive oil just perks up what could be a bland dish.
This spring visit your local nursery and pick up a few herbs or grow them from seed. Experiment how you can add this wonderful addition to your daily meals. Herbs just add another dimension to our cuisine over salt and pepper.
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