A Decent Herb Garden

Someone recently asked me for  basic pointers on an herb garden that includes medicinal herbs. The thing is that many herbs are of course both culinary and medicinal. “Let thy food be thy medicine,”as Hippocrates said.So I will just mentally wander around my garden and try to organize the ones I see. But before I do that, I would just emphasize that most culinary herbs prefer well-drained soil and sun, with some sand and maybe some wood ashes added. Don’t add much nitrogen; it will make herbs grow lush and leafy but not as strong flavored.

Basils

yes, that’s Thai basil on the right

Basil– Well, there are so many cool basils, for medicinal use as well- they call them Tulsi in India, and there are a lot of African ones as well. My favorite is Besobila, the pretty Ethiopian Holy Basil. I saved some seed out of some besobila I got for Ethiopian cooking- they use the dried seedheads. Smells a bit like pineapple and has a great compact growth habit. Wonderful for headaches, colds, vitality, and spiritual funks. But of course you have to have Genovese basil for pesto, and Purple for salads. Pinch the flowering spikes off and it will grow back double, like the Hydra in the legend of Hercules.

Rosemary is a must have, and very efficient, since they grow into monster fragrant bushes, feed bees, counteract the carcinogens in roasted meat, perfume the house while cooking, and counteract depression, especially in Mediterranean types. I hear they make a rosemary hair rinse for dark hair as well. Who knew?

Tarragon is hard to grow for me- the French kind, so I don’t know much about it, but a bit in a jar of vinegar infuses wonderfully and it is so good in pickles.  It needs protection from gross physical violence and my cats are always digging it up. When we lived in France we had a giant bush. I guess it likes a cooler damper, more catless environment. The Russian kind is less delicious.

Catnip, speaking of cats, is tough as a boot, spreads readily, feeds the bees, amuses the felines, and makes a nice tea for whiny babies of all ages. It is very perennial. My husband hit it with the tiller and it made babies everywhere, like a starfish.

Parsley (Italian is tastier) has more vitamins than oranges, and should be used as a vegetable- giant handfuls chopped fresh into everything. You can’t beat it in Tabouleh. Also freshens the breath, says Nicolas Culpeper. It is biennial, so save seeds every other year and be sure to work some into the soil early, as it is not happy sprouting when it gets too hot and dry.

Sage is also great for tea, I think for the same reasons, and is of course good with meat. It is available in many different leaf colors and can grow to be quite a bush. My friend has a purple one that is three feet by five. It is definitely relaxing, good for digestion, and helps with unwanted sweating.

Thyme is sensitive about drainage, and is very pretty and delicious with lentils, chicken, salad, everything. There are a zillion kinds with different variations and flavors. Wonderful in tea if you are catching a chesty cold. It is quite antimicrobial. Plant in the front- it is short, some kinds even to the point of crawling between flagstones, and it won’t tolerate competition from other plants. English Thyme is softer and broader leafed, and Mediterranean types are more woody and resinous.

mentha nigra piperata

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

Mint is a water lover and quite invasive, so plant in a sunken pot where there is a leaky faucet or something. Frankly, I ripped mine out and stomped it into a ditch, where it flourishes and smells great when mowed. Great with meats, tabouleh, juleps, easy to tincture and make home made creme de menthe. Alcohol and oil infusions are great externally as liniment for injuries. I have spearmint; very sweet and a calming tea and face lotion, and  mentha nigra, which is industrial strength. There are many types, from huge hairy Apple Mint to delicate creeping Pennyroyal, which is not for eating, especially if you could be pregnant.

Lemon Balm, also called Melissa,  is a lemon scented mint looking perennial, very vigorous and spreading. The tea of the dried or fresh plant is delicate and lemony, and works very well for headaches. The crushed or chewed leaves are apparently a great remedy for cold sores and herpes lesions, perhaps antiviral. I have been given a facial with the tea, mixed with Rose Geranium.

Rose geranium is a tender perennial but you can overwinter it as a houseplant as it grows well in pots and roots easily from cuttings.  It has small pink flowers and fuzzy hand shaped leaves that are redolent of roses. A Victorian favorite, it is a strong astringent and makes a nice face wash as well as lovely potpourri. I have heard of people laying a leaf flat in a cakepan before pouring on the dough.

Bergamot, or Monarda, is a spectacular plant, also mint family, prettiest I think in the scarlet variety. It has a feathery crown of flowers bursting out of a pincushion of bracts. It is the flavoring for Earl Grey tea. It is a good 3-4 feet tall, and perennial, but does clump neatly. The tea is calming on many levels, and probably antimicrobial, since there is something of oregano and marjoram in the fragrance.

I have regular Oregano and Greek Oregano. The regular has pinker flowers and very delicate stems, while the Greek has a more resinous flavor and thicker stems. It is of course great in Mediterranean food, but I also love it in tea. I find that it always makes my stomach better; probably the fragrant bitterness stimulates my liver.Oregano is about a foot tall so it can go in front of taller plants.

Fennel liqueur is similar to anisette

Fennel liqueur is similar to anisette

Fennel is very useful; Bronze is pretty and very tough in zone 7, but does not bulb up for finocchio the way white fennel does. They are perennial, although the most symmetrical bulbs come from the first season. We use fronds for garnish, bulbs braised and in salads, and we tincture seeds for liqueur. Also use seeds in baking and some Italian dishes. They are great for stomach ailments and as a digestive- are used as such in many countries. The pollen is the latest expensive spice I hear.

Coriander/cilantro is a threefer annual; the fresh leaves are delicious, especially in Asian and Latino food, and chelate heavy metals very well. The flowers are pretty, although the flavor becomes sweeter as soon as it bolts. The seeds are used in Indian cooking, like my yummy spicy Indian style venison curry and are great for digestion. It is very prone to bolt and then you are pretty much done with the fresh use stage, so we plant it in the fall for early spring use, outdoors and in the cold greenhouse. Keep it watered and plant it in the damper part of the garden, and not too sunny. Grow it from seed, although it takes a good 10 days to sprout.

Lavender can be used in cooking. I have had delicious lavender cookies and ice cream. I have used lavender infused almond oil to rub my feet- it was so relaxing I felt as if I’d had a nap. Just strip the flowers into the oil and let it sit on the back shelf of your car for a week during sunny weather, then pour it through a thin cloth and squeeze it out well. If there is any water on the bottom pour the oil off of it or it will spoil. Lavender is the ultimate aromatherapy for calming down when you are stressed out. It really does work. Important to grow it in sandy, well-drained soil and a sunny spot, or it will languish and die. You can grow it from seed although starts are not expensive. I have a friend who grows it all around a small stuccoed chapel they have built near their house. It is the loveliest thing.

Dill is another annual that bolts quickly. There are a few varieties that promise to bolt slowly, and a bronze kind that is beautiful. I use a lot of dill in my cucumber pickles, which are good for the intestinal flora, and the dill promotes digestion, so I make an effort to grow it, but it hates our hot summers. For me it does best in shade.

Baltimore Fish Pepper

Baltimore Fish Pepper, a historical variegated pepper!

Chilies– You might not think of hot peppers as an herb, but they are pretty, edible, used for flavor and medicine- of course they belong in an herb garden. Chilies are tender perennials, -if you just have a few you can save time keeping them in pots. I am a chili freak and have a few that require a very long season, but your basic cayenne grows well as an annual. Warms the body and thins secretions, kills germs. Some are very tall and can need support. The ornamental ones are just as hot, and I have had a lot of fun with Baltimore variegated Fish Pepper, a deep purple Peruvian chili I call Purple Bullet which is nearly black, and tiny chiltepins.

Garlic is a great thing to grow- plant in September, harvest in June/July. I have a whole big blog post on that one. We have braids all over the house, although they are withering now. It also thins and heats the blood, and kills germs. People used to tape it to the bottom of feet for the flu. When you taste it in your mouth you are good. Some French friends used to grow it in the back of the herb border. They are stately until they turn yellowish when it is time to harvest.  However I grow it in the regular garden.

Valerian is a pretty flower; tall and lacy. The root, which I gather in late winter when I am separating the clumps and preparing the beds, is great for sleep issues. We had a buddy who was sort of becoming a nuisance because he didn’t sleep, wandered around all hours, and was grumpy to people. I gave him a couple droppersfull of Valerian root tincture and he slept 16 hours. Everyone was delighted. Its sedative properties are good for the heart.

 Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, (perennial) is good for the heart and relaxation, like a nice comforting hug from your mother. I planted in a shady acid patch of ground because I dug it up on a mountain in WV. It seems to like it. The lion-paw shaped leaves make a row with little pink flowers, which are followed by spiky seed heads. It’s about two feet tall but tends to sprawl. It is a valuable medicine plant so I don’t mind that it reseeds, but yes, it does.

 Honestly, though, there are so many fun herbs to try, and so many medicinal herbs to grow. These are just a few of my favorites that are easy to grow. A wonderful resource for herb information and seeds is Richo Cech’s Horizon Farm. His website, his catalog, and his books are really easy to read and full of good information.

Nightshades: What To Do With Too Many Tomatoes

Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes

tying up tomatoes

In winter, I dream of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. I go through my seed file, smiling fondly as I pull out last year’s successes and failures, new seeds from places we have visited, trades and gifts, deciding what to grow in the rising year. The fact is that I eventually can’t choose and I grow them all, and then I can’t bear to compost the hundreds of extra plants, so I take them to the farmer’s market, and then I still have bazillions, so I end up growing about half a football field of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. It is kind of a nightshade nightmare. I must be crazy. Anyway. These are solanums; what people call nightshades, because they, -and potatoes, granadillas, groundcherries, henbane, etc., are in the same family as the mildly poisonous hedge growing plant nightshade. Some people think with a name like that they must be bad for your health. Well, imagine life without pizza, mashed potatoes, gazpacho, chili, eggplant parmigiana. Seriously. So now, if you are like me, you are drowning in tomatoes and something must be done, or you will be up to your eyeballs in rotten vegetables and your good work will be wasted.

Yes, We Can!

Canned tomatoes

Canned tomatoes

Seriously, canning is very easy. Today’s instructions make it sound very complex and dangerous. They just don’t want to be sued. Look at the older copies of Rodale’s Stocking Up. The newer versions are much more cautious. Just don’t eat anything out of a jar with a bad seal. Freezing is nice if you have the freezer space and you don’t mind risking a power outage. Dehydrating is fun, especially if you have a solar dehydrator, but I haven’t really been successful in producing really nice reconstituted vegetables. Dried tomatoes are like candy, but it’s really a sideline for me. Canning puts produce in glass jars which will be stable at a wide temperature range on your shelves for years, which makes them a favorite for preppers.

Equipment

Glass jars about the size of mayonnaise jars: Mason, Kerr, or Ball jars mainly- but you can reuse any clean glass jar, any size, that the disposable lids and rings fit. I recycle just about every glass jar that has a lid I can trust for one thing or another, and I have always scavenged spaghetti sauce jars and mayonnaise jars for tomatoes. You can buy new canning jars at the dollar store, but people are always throwing them out. Let your friends and family know to save them for you.

A really big pot for submerging Mason jars in boiling water. (If you want to go whole hog and get a pressure canner, you can still use it to do the easy open water bath canning for things like tomatoes and applesauce.)

Canning lids and rings The button in the middle of the lid is how you check if your seal is good. The rubber gasket, usually red, built into the lid, should be smooth and soft.

Funnels, especially a wide mouthed canning funnel.

Jar grabber/lifter– Like a big set of bottle grabbing tongs-totally essential for lifting hot jars out of boiling water.Trust me.

Tongs and a magnetic lid lifter are nice too. You can get all this stuff cheaply in five and dime or hardware stores, online, etc.

Glass jars are reusable and non-reactive. I have some Mason jars that are older than me, so I just run my finger around the edge to make sure there are no chips, and reuse them. (The blue ones are collector’s items, but I think they make the tomatoes look sickly.)The metal sealing rings are reusable but rust easily, and lids are risky to reuse, because although the rubber seal might reseal, the plastic film on the inside of the lid is easily damaged and then the underlying metal will corrode into your food.  I have heard of reuseable lids, and then there are glass jars with wire bails, glass lids and reusable rubber gaskets. They are expensive so I just try to find them in thrift stores. The gaskets last years.

Processing

I put my jars in the dishwasher, but I also check very carefully that each jar is clean and has no chips or cracks. Set up enough lids and rings in a separate pot of water to boil and sterilize for 15 minutes when you are getting ready to fill jars.  Put the wide mouth funnel in the mouth of the jar you are filling – it will be an exact fit so the mouth of the jar stays clean. Fill the jar until you have a half inch of space left- this is for the air that will exhaust and create your vaccuum seal. Remove the funnel, dip a clean cloth or paper towel in the water of the lids and make sure the rim of the jar is food-free, as little microorganism threads will climb up on food and break the seal, like weeds in a sidewalk, if you don’t. Using your jar lifter or tongs, put a lid on the jar, add the ring, and finger tighten, repeat.

boiling lids for canning

boiling lids-this was from a jam jar but it was late and I had no pictures….

When you have about seven jars filled, if you have the canning pot I think you do, put them in the pot, fill to cover with at least a half an inch of water over the top of the jars, and allow to boil until bubbles have been exhausting from the jars for 25 minutes. Many canning books quibble about the time, but my garden mentor, Steve Moaney, told me to just submerge the jars in water  and count 25 minutes from when it boils.Then use the jar lifter/grabber to carefully place the jars on a mat to cool. Make sure you have a secure grip before lifting clear of the water. You could make a serious mess and get badly scalded if you hurry.

As they cool, you will hear the lids suck down with a clicking sound. Check the “button” in the center of the lid and make sure it is down. If it didn’t go down or pops up, throw the contents out, unless you just canned it and it hasn’t had time to spoil. In that case you can eat or refrigerate it.

When the jars are cool, remove the rings, wipe, label, and store someplace they won’t freeze. Dry the rings so they don’t rust and put them away for reuse.The lids will stay on from the vaccuum seal until you pry them off with the side of a butter knife this winter. Some people like to cap the lids with a square or pinking shears circle of cloth- old clothes are fine- and tie a string around the top to hold the cloth cap in place. This is cute and keeps dust off the lid, plus if your seal is bad and the contents spoil the cloth will stain and show it. Not necessary and a time consumer, but it looks nice at the county fair. You can get cute labels and alll that. I know what tomatoes look like and only label my jams, jellies, and pepper sauces using plain white adhesive labels.

Labor Saving

sphaghetti sauce from summer tomatoesI used to skin and seed my tomatoes, pile them neatly into sterilized jars, and cover them with strained tomato juice. Later I would open the jar, chop the tomatoes, and add them to fried onions, peppers, eggplants, etc.  Lots of work. Why not make my own convenience foods? Tomatoes are acid, like applesauce, another easy canner. So what if I just made huge pots of the mixture I would usually make? I start with fried onions, add herbs, garlic, salt, peppers, eggplants- what ever I have- even okra or zucchini, and then pile in chunks of tomatoes. Each tomato that ripens gets quickly cored, bad parts cut out, and tossed into the big iron pot. It sears and melts into red deliciousness. Eventually it gets too watery, so I ladle off juice into a seive over a funnel over a mason jar or a sealable bottle. That way, when I open the jars, if I decide to make lasagna or spaghetti, it is thick enough. The tomato juice can be drunk, thrown into rice, or used as a soup base. I don’t peel anything but the onions and garlic, and I only slice the zucchini, if I have it. I get through my work a lot faster, and we eat our own tomatoes all year.

Just the Recipe

2 onions chopped

6 cloves garlic

1 tsp sea salt

2 tbsp olive oil

2 green peppers

4 Asian eggplants (long skinny, don’t have to be peeled or drained)

2 medium zucchini

8 large tomatoes

small bunch basil

1/2 tsp italian herbs

Slice and brown onions until nicely caramelized, add salt, garlic, chopped, Italian herbs ( just something dried and aromatic- I have oregano) add chopped peppers, chunked Asian eggplants, cook until softened, add zukes, sliced, and tomatoes, chunked. Cook until liquefied, add chopped basil. This is a way oversimplified recipe. I just put things in in a logical order, and use up what I have, in a basic tomato sauce so it is acid enough to can. Add whatever, mushrooms, okra, etc., except meat. Meat has to be pressure canned, and that is a whole ‘nother deal. Make sure it is still mostly tomatoes, especially if you are using low-acid tomatoes, because the acidity, as in vinegar pickles, is what makes the open bath bath canning technique safe.

In winter, when you look at your rows of gleaming tomato sauces, you will be pleased. They are like a meal in a jar. You can throw them on pizza, spaghetti, rice, or make soup, and the blissful taste of the summer garden is still there.