Bush: All about herbs 101

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Many individuals use the terms "herbs" and "spices" interchangeably, but there is a distinct difference between the two. Spices come from the bark (cinnamon), root (ginger, onion, garlic), buds (cloves, saffron), seeds (yellow mustard, poppy, sesame), berry (black pepper), or fruit of plants and trees (allspice, paprika). Herbs are the leaves of low-growing shrubs. Examples are parsley, chives, marjoram, thyme, basil, caraway, dill, oregano, rosemary, savory, sage, and celery leaves.

Seasoning blends are mixtures of spices and herbs, such as chili powder (red pepper, cumin, oregano, salt and garlic powder), poultry seasoning (white pepper, sage, thyme, marjoram, savory, ginger, allspice, and nutmeg), and pumpkin pie spice (cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves).

Historically, herbs and spices have been used for personal hygiene and medicinal purposes, as well as to flavor food. Spices originally were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them. Trade routes and millionaires were created through the trade of spices. By colonial times, most families cultivated their own herb gardens. Many herbs are easy to grow and very suitable to our soil and climate. For beginning gardeners and cooks, it is best to start with the basic herbs, such as sage, basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme, and chives.

Growing herbs in the home garden is an easy and economical way to add flavor and interest to both your landscape and your kitchen. Herbs can be grown in a special home herb garden, or they may be directly incorporated into the landscape because many have attractive growth habits and flowers. Woody herbs, such as oregano, sage, and thyme, fit easily into the garden because they grow in many different soil types and have low water requirements. Most herbs prefer well-draining soil containing organic matter. Light fertilization with a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 will aid in increasing production.

Herbs are classified in one of three ways. Annuals grow for one season in our region and then die. Biennials live for two seasons, blooming the second season only. Perennials can live for several years with proper care. Once established, perennials overwinter and bloom each season.

Herbs should be planted in the spring after the danger of frost has passed. It is a good idea to plant perennial and biennial herbs in beds away from annual vegetable gardens because cultivation and other activities can disturb or destroy the herbs.

Many herbs can be harvested after they are well established and have grown to an adequate size. Harvesting is technically pruning for the plant, so no more than a third of the plant should be removed at one time. In many cases, harvesting will improve growth because the herb "bushes out" after pruning.

The plants should be allowed to regrow between harvests. Herbs should be harvested before the plant begins to bloom since blooming can lead to reduced flavor and decreased plant size, especially in annuals. Gather the herbs in the early morning after the dew has evaporated to minimize wilting. Rinse herbs in cool water and gently shake them to remove excess moisture. Discard all soiled, bruised, or imperfect leaves and stems.

Drying herbs is very easy and does not require any special equipment. Sturdier herbs, such as rosemary, sage, thyme, and parsley, should be tied into small bundles and hung in a well-ventilated area. You may hang them outdoors away from direct sunlight, but indoor drying will result in better color and flavor. Tender-leaved herbs, such as basil, oregano, tarragon, and mints, have high moisture content and will mold if not dried quickly. To speed the drying, secure small bundles inside paper bags before hanging. Punch holes in the sides of the bag and close the top with a rubber band. Any leaves that fall will be caught at the bottom of the bag. Remember to label the herbs because many look alike when dried.

Oven-drying is a nice method for sage, mint, or bay leaves. Place individual leaves on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels, making sure the leaves do not touch. Create up to five layers and place in the oven. The light in an electric oven or the pilot light in a gas oven is enough heat to dry the herbs overnight. This is an especially good method if humidity levels are very high.

Herbs can also be dried with a food dehydrator or in the microwave. Refer to the owner's manual for specific instructions.

Store dried herbs in air-tight containers away from heat, moisture and light. Label the container with the herb name and the date dried. Herbs should be used within one year for best quality. Dried herbs are more potent than fresh because all moisture has been removed, concentrating the flavor. Generally, 1 teaspoon of crumbled dried herb is equivalent to 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh herb.

For more information contact the University of Tennessee Extension, Cannon County Office in Woodbury at 615-563-2554. UT Extension offers it programs to all without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, pregnancy, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, physical or mental disability, or covered veteran status.

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Carla Y. Bush
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