The above is a question that I am frequently asked by my herbal customers, friends, family and acquaintances. It seems that a lot of people are interested in herbs but have concerns about planting them and do not know what to do with them after they have planted them. It is also a question that I attempted to answer at a workshop held at The Simple Heart of Life herb shop on March 5th. There is just too much basic information on herbs to fit into a workshop format. So, I decided to share additional information on this blog.
I have narrowed down the topic to five basic herbs; Mint, Basil, Lavender, Calendula, and Stevia. These five herbs are some of the most recognizable and most versatile available.
For those of you who are interested in growing Mint, a word of caution. Although Mint is very easy to grow and will thrive in all types of soil, it can be very invasive. Mint propagates by sending out multiple runners that look like thick roots. These runners will potentially develop a root any place they touch the soil. The result is lots and lots of Mint plants and lots and lots of runners. In fact, a well-established plant can have so many runners it is very difficult to completely dig up. That being said, Mint is, however, one of the most popular and most recognizable herbs. It is great for flavoring desserts, teas, toothpaste, mouthwash and even candy. It is also known to increase concentration and help with indigestion. No wonder many restaurants provide after-dinner mints to customers.
Basil is another herb that is highly recognizable by the general public. It is an herb that every tomato lover needs to become aquainted with too! There is nothing that says SUMMER quite like a home-grown tomato drizzled with olive oil and topped with a leaf or two of Sweet Basil. Basil hates cold weather and will not survive when the temperatures drop. The cut leaves will even turn black if placed in the fridge. It is fairly easy to grow though and will thrive in the hot and humid conditions we have here in Illinois during the summer. A gardener’s tip is to pinch off the center leaves at the top of the plant to make additional leaves grow and to make the plant grow bushy instead of tall. This also assists with prolonging the life of the plant as it will delay the production of blooms (and eventually seeds) which signals the end of the plant’s life cycle (as an annual). Basil is available in many different varieties but Sweet Basil, Large Leaf Italian, Cinnamon and Purple Ruffles are several personal favorites. Each variety has a distinct scent and flavor. In the case of Purple Ruffles Basil, it is also a wonderful ornament in the garden.
Basil can be used in all types of recipes. It will enhance the flavor of everything from the popular pesto, to pasta dishes, meat dishes, soups and even salads. The dried leaves will keep for several months to flavor wintertime dishes too.
Lavender is a favorite herb for many. It seems people in general either love or hate Lavender. There is little middle ground here. For those who love Lavender, it is an herb that they cannot get enough of. Did you know it can be grown in central Illinois? Why not be the envy of your neighborhood and grow your own? With just a little care, it will thrive in most yards. It originated in the Mediterranean and needs good drainage with full to part sun. Lavender will also ‘heave up’ with the freezing and thawing of soil in the winter which will frequently kill the plant. A rock garden is a good place to plant Lavender as the rocks can provide additional heat in the winter and prevent this. Lavender plants will become woody after 4 or 5 years and will need to be replaced. It is, however, an invaluable plant to have available. A small amount of the blooms inside a pillow case can help to ease insomnia. It is known as a natural relaxant and can also help to relieve headaches and anxiety. The oil of Lavender is also a natural antiseptic and is a great addition to homemade salves, soaps, lotions, etc. Lavender also produces a beautiful bloom that smells (and tastes) as good as it looks. Lavender blooms do make a great addition to cookies, tea blends, vinegar, cakes, honey; the list is endless.
Calendula may not be as well known as the other herbs mentioned on this blog. But, once you feel a Calendula bloom on your skin you will be eager to grow your own. Calendula is an invaluable addition to healing salves, lotions and soaps. The petals of the herb are very soft and silky. These properties are easily transferred to olive oil or any other carrier oil through infusion and can help heal minor cuts and other skin irritations. Calendula resembles a Daisy and is available in a variety of colors and sizes. It is easy to grow in full to part sun and will self-sow for several years. Calendula petals are also edible and are a colorful addition to vegetable salads, chicken salad and desserts. It is known as the ‘Poor Man’s Saffron’ as the petals will actually color the dish they are added to.
Stevia is becoming more and more popular it seems. At least the concentrated white powder and blends are more widely available in the grocery stores in the sweetener aisle (even though the FDA is reluctant to actually call Stevia a sweetener). Did you know that the average gardener can grow Stevia at home? The leaves can then be dried, ground up or left whole and used as a substitute for sugar. It is safe for Diabetics and should not affect sugar levels in the body. By growing your own, you then know it is pure Stevia and does not contain additives. It is a little difficult to cook with any form of Stevia, however. Each variety and each brand of the concentrated powder has a different level of sweetness. In addition, even the sweetness of the plant’s green leaves vary from plant to plant. Some recipe books do offer conversion tables for using Stevia, however. But It does take a little experimentation and practice to learn how to bake and cook with Stevia. The results are well worth it. Stevia can sweeten chocolate, pies, cakes, cookies, puddings, teas, shakes, cereal, sauces…just about anything.
Information is abundant on growing, cooking with and using herbs. In this day of information overload, it can be too much. The best advice I can give the beginning herb grower is to start with just a couple of herbs. Learn how to grow them and experiment with using them. Then, move on to adding more herbs to your garden. If you start with too many in the beginning, it can be overwhelming. By starting with just a couple of herbs, you can take the time to discover the wonders of each one without becoming frustrated. It also helps to share information with other herb growers. The Simple Heart of Life regularly offers hands-on workshops and a passion for herbs with others. Stop by the shop (1486 Turkey Farm Rd, Bluffs, Ill.), visit us on-line, join a workshop or give us a call (217-248-1508). After all, herbs truly are one of life’s simple pleasures!