Herbs for the kitchen garden
Published: Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 10:19 a.m.
Several years ago, I had a chance to visit Arlington National Cemetery. One cannot help but be moved by the solemn nature of this place so steeped in history. Overlooking the bustle of Washington, D.C., the cemetery itself is a quiet place, seemingly unaffected by time or the policy decisions that are made across the river.
Ascending to the top of the hill the visitor arrives at Arlington House, the one-time home of Robert E. Lee. During a tour of the house and grounds, one observes the well-manicured kitchen garden, located just outside the kitchen building. As a precaution against fire, kitchens in 19th century manor houses often were located in a separate building. For convenience, a few commonly used vegetables were in supply adjacent to the kitchen, and prominently featured among these were a variety of herbs.
Most of the common herbs can be grown seasonally in Florida. Herbs also adapt well to container culture because they are generally small and only a portion of the plant is needed at any one time.
Only a few of each herb will be needed for a family kitchen garden, and it is wise to set aside a portion of the garden for their production. As many herbs are perennial, their section of the planting needs to be of a more permanent nature than the rotational system recommended for annual seasonal vegetable crops. As with vegetables, herbs should have at least six hours of sunlight each day. Soil pH should be maintained between 5.5 and 6.5, and light fertilization with a standard garden fertilizer (6-0-6 if available), five ounces of fertilizer per 10 feet of row, should be employed bi-monthly after March 15 until September 15. Loamy soils are desirable, and gardeners may elect to add organic matter to enhance soil conditions prior to planting. Special consideration should be given to the location and care of a few of the herbs that are somewhat sensitive to soil moisture conditions.Sage, rosemary and thyme require a well-drained, slightly moist soil; parsley, chervil and mint grow best on soils retaining considerable moisture.
Herb seed and planting stock may be obtained from a number of established herb gardens and seedsmen, as well as from many vegetable-seed mail-order firms. Seed of the more common herbs (sage, dill, fennel, parsley, celery and chive) can be obtained from local seed retailers, while the less common ones can be purchased only from those specializing in savory herbs.
A primary goal of many herb crops is about how these ingredients will enhance the flavor of meals. Various parts of the plant — seeds, leaves, flowering tops and even roots of herbs — are used for flavoring purposes, and it is largely the oils in the plant parts that are the key element in maximizing flavor. Care must be taken to harvest the product at the right time, cure it properly and store it correctly so that flavor-rich oils are not lost. Tender young leaves can be gathered and used fresh at any time during the season, but for later use they should be harvested when the plants begin to flower, and should be washed in cold water and thoroughly drained before drying. Tender leaf herbs (basil, costmary, tarragon, lemon balm and the mints) have a high moisture content and must be dried rapidly away from light if they are to retain their green color. A well-ventilated, darkened room is required to satisfactorily process these products. Those herbs that are less succulent (sage, rosemary, thyme and summer savory) can be partially dried in the sun without affecting their flavor, but avoid over-exposure.
If seeds, rather than leaves, are the desired product, harvest when the plant is mature, when the plant color turns from green to brown or gray. Cure seeds in an airy room several days initially, and finish them by drying a day or two in full sun.
As soon as leaves or seeds are dry, clean them by separating any stems and other foreign matter and pack them in air-sealed containers to prevent loss of the oils that are essential to good flavor. Store containers in a dark closet to prevent loss of green color.
Herbs offer new opportunities to enhance landscapes while providing new tastes to everyday meals. The University of Florida offers "Herbs in the Florida Garden," Circular 570, which may be obtained online at edis.ifas.ufl.edu, for more detailed information on the production.
David Holmes is Marion County extension director. Contact him at email@example.com.