By Brent Gray
Growing culinary herbs is easy. Right now, you can harvest armloads of basil, mint, and chives to name just a few. You can snip rosemary, oregano, fennel and many, many more culinary herbs in your garden —the trick for some may be what to do with them when you get them in the kitchen. Some beginning herb growers often try to follow recipe directions and guidelines precisely. That’s okay, but the fun part is experimenting with different herbs, combinations of herbs and amounts. Take notes when it works and take an antacid and forget about it when it doesn’t. Here are a few other non-guidelines to follow:
1. Harvest herbs for cooking when you have the time, no matter what time of day. Fresh always tasted better than dried, no matter what time of day you picked them—so, cut them and use them. Can’t run out to the garden every day? Try this easy trick—on the weekend pick a nice herbal bouquet of what is in season. Put it in a vase of water on the kitchen counter and snip, snip, snip all week. Chunk it on Friday and go pick another for the next week.
2. Most herbs go with everything. Stand by your favorite combinations, sage in dressing, oregano on pizza, basil in anything with tomatoes in it, fennel with fish, tarragon in chicken salad; but don’t be afraid to try new things. You may discover a great combo that your family loves.
3. Harvest and dry herbs that will be killed by freezing weather. That way you will have dried herbs to use during the winter. Easiest method to dry is to bundle stems together with rubber bands and hang in a hot, dry, dark place like an attic until they are crispy dry. Remove the leaves, and store whole in airtight containers.
Crumble the whole leaves right into the dish you want to flavor. Freezing works great for those herbs that do not hold their flavor well when dried—examples would be chives, parsley and cilantro. Freeze whole stems in plastic freezer bags. When ready to use remove from freezer and chop whole stems and leaves while still frozen before adding to food.
4. For best flavor add the herbs in the last 10-20 minutes of the cooking cycle. Of course, if the herbs are incorporating into the batter of bread or dressing you would have to add before cooking.
5. Locate your culinary herb garden near the kitchen if possible. If you have to walk more than 10 paces to get that handful of basil to go in that spaghetti sauce, I can about guarantee you, you won’t do it! Especially if you have wild-eyed, hungry children or a salivating spouse hanging over you as you try to cook.
Check your garden center for cool season vegetable plants. There is still time to plant many cool season crops like broccoli and cabbage. Some of them are stocked with different lettuces. Leaf types are the easiest to grow in Mississippi and will produce something to eat in only three or four weeks after transplanting into the garden. You can have salad from your own garden for Thanksgiving. Romaine or cos types produce a crisper leaf. Butter head and crisp head types work better in the fall than in the spring but still may go to seed before making a harvestable head. Keep the plants well watered and fertilized.
Many growers are still harvesting pepper, eggplant and tomatoes. The long range forecast indicates the first frost may be later than normal this year so a light application of fertilizer may help fill out those last fruits.
Gardeners who enjoy a lot of salt with their greens may want to try something different. Orach (Atiplex hortensis) is a cool season green that grows well in saline soils as well as normal soils. This green tends to accumulate salt in its leaves and can taste naturally salty when cooked. The leaves can be either green or red depending on the variety chosen. Seed will have to be ordered unless you have a seed rack from one of the non-traditional seed companies. This plant can grow fairly large, so don’t sow the seeds as closely as turnips or mustard unless you plan to eat the small plants as you thin.