Friday, April 15, 2011

Perennial Herbs

I was having lunch with my friend Jen the other day (shoutout to Jen!) and she said her family goes away for several weeks at a time in the summer, which prevents them from starting a vegetable garden, because no one is around to water it. One of my favorite things about perennial herbs is that you can get the satisfaction of growing something to eat without doing much work.  They don't really care if you water them, and some actually thrive on neglect, and most of us are pretty good at that.  You only have to plant them once and you can enjoy them year after year.  That's much more satisfying than spending four dollars at the grocery store, using a small amount, and then retrieving the rotted remains from your crisper drawer weeks later.  (C'mon-  that happens to everybody.  Right?)

To make room for more vegetables, we moved a few perennial herbs to a bed of flowers and shrubs yesterday, and I was inspired to share my cheat sheet for Jen and others who might be interested in starting a little effort/high reward perennial herb garden.  I've also added a few little notes about what we like to do with them.

They like a sunny spot with good drainage. Don't take more than 1/3 of the plant at a time.  Divide them (just dig it up, split it, and replant in two separate holes) every 3 years.
We snip a few and stir them into scrambled eggs with some cheddar cheese almost every weekend.  You have to snip the fluffy purple flowers to keep the plant growing, and they're edible, too!  I think they're a little too weird in eggs, but you can chop them up for color and flavor in a simple green salad, or you can stir them into some goat cheese with a little lemon juice and zest, some parsley, salt, pepper and olive oil to make a pretty and tasty spread for bread or crackers.  

They like a sunny spot, but some shade is okay, too.  After it comes up in the Spring, cut it back by a third.  Every 2 or 3 years, divide into a few plants.  I don't know if all oregano grows big, but our plant is gigantic- like a small bush.  I didn't expect it to grow so large, and it wound up pushing all of its neighbors out of the way, including the cucumber, which is a pretty pushy neighbor.  We could never possibly use it all, so I'd suggest that you don't grow any, and just ask me for some. 
You can use oregano in just about everything, but we regularly use it in this quick week night dinner from Food and Wine- Eggplant Tomato and Fresh Ricotta Farfalle.

Plant it on a sandy, South facing slope that gets plenty of sun.  Prune a couple inches off the stems in the Spring for established plants.  Every 2-3 years shear it back to 6-8 inches.
I'll admit I've never used it in the kitchen.  I just like to run my hand over it and smell.  I'll do some experimentation this year and report back.  I've seen it used in a rub for chicken with other herbs, like oregano and thyme.  You can mix it in when baking chocolate desserts, too.

Most people complain about overgrowth when they talk about mint, but so far, our apple mint and spearmint are under control.  We were told to plant them near more established perennials with bigger roots (like hydrangea) and they won't go too crazy.  So far, so good.  I may have to eat my words. 
In the meantime, we like to use our mint in cocktails, like Absolut Citron, lemonade and crushed mint.

It likes a sunny spot, but tolerates afternoon shade.  Good drainage is important, and then leave it alone. They say you can split it every two to three years, but you should also replace the plant after four or five, because it will lose it's flavor.  We'll probably skip the splitting and just replace it, as it doesn't seem to split as easily as chives or oregano.
We roast butternut squash, garlic and sage (add a little olive oil, salt and pepper, too) in the oven and then toss it with pasta, pine nuts and parmesan.

I read that you're supposed to cut it back mercilessly in Spring, but mine hasn't grown back very well each time I've done this, with two different plants.  I'm going to plant a third this year and not cut it back next Spring and see what happens.
We use thyme with so many things, but my favorite is this carrot dish that has become a regular favorite when we have big family meals. 

Buy French not Russian, which is flavorless.  It's not a pretty plant, and it thrives on neglect.  Cut it back when it begins to flower, and harvest often to promote growth.  Divide clumps in the Spring to renew the plant.  It should be replaced after 3 to 5 years.
I love to chop it up and put it on roasted chicken with lots of lemon. 

My last note is this: When you go to the garden center to buy your herb plants, taste them first.  There are different varieties and some will taste better to you than others.
Do you have any great recipes to share using fresh herbs?


Tortla Dot said...

Check this out for recipes. It is from the Florida Extension Office. Recipes are toward the bottom of the page:

The Cherry Stuffed Grilled Chicken uses sage and thyme. Have not tried the recipe but is sounds delicious and unique.

Ellina said...

Never mind taking some of your overgrown herb plants -- can we just eat dinner at your house? :-)