THE popularity of growing herbs at home for culinary purposes is new to the current generation, but herbs have been used for food and medicine throughout human history.
In an article by the University of York, U.K., Karen Hardy, a research professor at the Universitat AutÃ²noma de Barcelona, Spain, did chemical analysis of teeth from Neanderthals living some 25,000 years ago. Hardy said, "The varied use of plants we identified suggests that the Neanderthal occupants of El SidrÃ³n cave in Spain had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings which included the ability to select and use certain plants for their nutritional value and for self-medication." If we jump ahead thousands of years there is archeological evidence that Egyptians, Romans, Persians and the Chinese have used herbs through the millennia to augment their diets and cure illness.
In the modern world, rising food costs and concerns over the health, sustainability and safety of mass-produced food have driven many people to grow their own herbs at home. The issue of growing at home is not only about nutritional value, especially since no unbiased scientific institution that is not supported by big agribusiness has done independent testing to answer the nutritional debate. But homegrown herbs offer two valuable benefits that cannot be found in grocery store herbs: control over the growing conditions and additives, and freshness.
Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow for the following reasons. Most herbs prefer to grow in lean soil conditions which prevents them from growing too lush and falling over or becoming attacked by pests and disease. Herbs grown in the soil of earth do not require the addition of chemical fertilizer. Most herbs are reasonably drought tolerant. And many flowering herbs are good food sources for beneficial insects. There are a few herbs that will grow in the shade but most need full sun to grow and flower well.
Any garden big or small can accommodate a few herbs. Herb beds should be designed to have a narrow width to make picking easier. The beds should be divided into sections to achieve a pleasing design and to make harvesting and growing the various herbs easier. Most herbs will grow well in a sandy soil that is amended with compost or manure at planting time.
Herb beds should always be mulched after planting. Some herb growers claim that mulching with fine gravel, crusher dust or even rocks helps the soil to retain more heat in our temperate climate which benefits herb growth. However, hem-fir bark mulch or coarse wood chips work just as well. And remember, do not install that useless ground cloth.
For the small garden or balcony, herbs are very easy to grow in containers. Choose bigger rather than small pots to allow for future root growth. You may have to feed herbs grown in pots, but do so sparingly. And water regularly.
Beyond the traditional herbs like rosemary, thyme, basil and oregano there are many other less grown herbs that are delicious and beautiful.
Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) and California bay (Umbellularia californica) are used for cooking and both are lovely trees that can be grown in our climate. Both trees can be a little tender when they are first planted but they will adapt greater hardiness over time if placed properly in a south-facing position with protection from winter wind.
Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is an old-school herbaceous perennial that is tasty in soups, salads and as flavouring for meat. Lovage likes full sun but it will tolerate partial shade. It grows five feet tall and can be a robust grower so place it wisely.
Hamburg parsley (Petroselinum crispum
"Tuberosum") looks similar to regular parsley but it produces a taproot similar to parsnip. The tuber can be harvested in the second year of growth and used raw in salads or added to soup and stew.
The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) was used by Arab physicians in the 12th century as a cure for many health problems. Dandelion is used as a diuretic, blood purifier, to treat chronic joint diseases and as a digestion aid. Dandelion roots and leaves are high in protein, sugar and vitamins. The leaves can be eaten in soups and salads. When roasted and ground, dandelion root is a substitute for caffeine-free coffee. And the whole plant can be made into intoxicating dandelion wine. As for where to grow dandelion, anywhere you have a crack in the sidewalk, between paving stones or out on display in the front lawn.
The wealth of herbs that can be grown in our climate is vast but most of the non-traditional herbs can only be purchased from seed. Remember that herbs used medicinally should only be administered with proper scientific understanding.
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