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Tips for growing and cooking with your own herbs

Suzanne Elvidge is a writer, editor and proofreader specialising in healthcare, technology, business and eco-issues. You can visit her at www.pharmawrite.co.uk/.

Homegrown herbs

Fresh herbs add a wonderful flavor to home-cooked food, and are so much more delicious than the dried alternative. But buying fresh herbs from the grocery store gets expensive, and the leaves soon lose their flavor. Growing an herb garden in pots, either inside or out, is an easy and cheap way to have a constant supply of great-tasting fresh herbs. In most areas, indoor herbs will grow all year round. Here are some simple tips for homegrown herbs and delicious food and herb pairings.

Rosemary

5 Tips for growing fresh herbs


Fresh herb tip #1: Choose a proper container

Herbs can grow in all kinds of containers, from standard plant pots to recycled containers. If the herbs are indoors, pick nice-looking pots, or give them a funky look with recycled kitchen items, such as colanders, food cans or cutlery drainers – in fact anything that looks good and has drainage holes or can have them added. Water regularly but don't let the compost get too wet, or let the pots sit in water, and don't forget to put saucers underneath indoor pots to protect tables, window sills and work surfaces.

Fresh herb tip #2: Use good potting soil

Whether the containers are inside or out, use potting soil, not dirt from the garden – it will be less likely to compact in the pots and will reduce the chance of pests and diseases.

Fresh herb tip #3: Grow in a sunny place and clip often

Pick a sunny windowsill for an indoor herb garden – in the kitchen, if possible – and keep using the herbs, because clipping off shoots and leaves will help the plants to grow strongly, and keep them compact and bushy.

Fresh herb tip #4: Grow a variety

A great many herbs will grow in pots – here are just a few to start.

Coriander or cilantro is a leafy herb that grows easily from seed. The leaves are aromatic, and work well in salsas and salads or in dals and curries. Keep harvesting the leaves to keep it from flowering, and sow fresh pots throughout the season.

Recipe: Chilled Watermelon Cilantro Soup

Parsley is available in curly and flat-leaf varieties. It can be difficult to grow from seed, so buy seedlings, or buy a pot of parsley plants from a grocery store, trim all the leaves off (eat them, of course), repot in a bigger pot and wait for it to grow. Be careful not to disturb the roots – parsley hates that! Add to just about any dish you want a fresh herb flavor, including potato dishes, grain salads, fresh green salads, sauces, and dips.

Recipe: Herbed Pasta with Toasted Walnuts

Chives, which have a mild onion flavor, grow easily from seed, and will die down in the winter but sprout again in the spring. Mince and add to potato dishes, garnish poultry or seafood, sprinkle on soups and salads, and use whole to tie bundles of asparagus for a showy presentation.

Recipe: Salmon Roulade

Mint can be very invasive, so give it its own pot. Buy a plant, or grow mint from cuttings or roots – try asking neighbors, or see if anyone local has some mint on Freecycle, the stand back and watch it grow. Mint is used in both sweet and savory dishes. Use it in couscous or tabouleh (or other grain salads) and savory sauces for lamb as well as in chocolate desserts and even cocktails (mojito, anyone?).

Recipe: Watermelon and Feta Salad

Sage has beautiful slightly furred gray green leaves and is a good-looking addition to an herb garden – it also comes in purple and variegated varieties. Grow from cuttings or buy plants, and use the leaves in sauces and stuffings for meat and poultry or minced into a flavorful chicken corn chowder. Sage leaves (and, really, any herb) can also be used to infuse olive oil – simply steep fresh leaves in olive oil in a saucepan over low heat.

Recipe: Ricotta Gnocchi and Sage Butter

Basil comes in a number of different varieties, including Thai, cinnamon and lemon, and a rather nice-looking purple version. This is another herb that tastes great in salads or in Italian wraps, is used a lot in Mediterranean cooking, and is the primary herb used in pesto. It also tastes good with strawberries and raspberries, in jams, sauces and desserts.

Recipe: Shrimp and Basil Wontons

Bay trees are evergreen and can be grown outside or inside in pots, and add a depth of flavor to stocks, stews and casseroles (but don't forget to take the leaf out before serving!).

Recipe: Cassoulet

Rosemary is another woody evergreen herb, and it grows well from cuttings, and has pretty pink, white, purple or blue flowers (which are delish to add to fresh salads). Rosemary tastes wonderful with lamb and in Mediterranean dishes. The plants thicker stems can even be used as skewers for flavorful kabobs (just be sure to soak them before grilling or broiling to avoid them catching fire).

Recipe: Rosemary Flower Biscuits

Thyme comes with green, golden, silver or variegated leaves, and has varieties that smell of lemons and oranges. Thyme goes well with lamb, tomatoes, potatoes or eggs. Another fun way to cook with thyme (and other herbs) is to use the stems and leaves to infuse a bottle of vinegar – add some fresh sprigs and set in a dark place for three weeks then strain out the herb.

Recipe: Thyme and Boysenberry Scones

Fresh herb tip #5: Eat and enjoy the flavorful benefits

In addition to the above tips for each herb, there are many more ways (and reasons) to incorporate fresh herbs into your everyday meals. Fresh herbs make a cheap and caffeine-free alternative to tea and coffee, and some offer super health benefits, too. For example, chamomile tea is supposed to help sleep, dill seed or peppermint tea may help digestion, and lemon balm tea might relieve headaches and is being studied in Alzheimer's disease. (Click for the super health benefits of seven spices and herbs.)

Simply use your culinary creativeness to liven up your meals with fresh herbs grown right in your own home garden. Once your creative juices are flowing, the delicious possibilities are near endless.

More on herbs and herb gardens

Grow a sensual herb garden
Grow an herb garden to fit any home 
Homegrown herbs and recipes
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