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Give your cooking a boost with fresh herbs

Linn County Master Gardener

OSU Linn County Master Gardener

Need a flavor boost in your cooking without adding salt? Try growing favorite herbs in your garden, a porch container or in a sunny window. 

Many herbs, like rosemary and thyme, are perennials that will thrive in our “Mediterranean” climate. Annual herbs, like basil and dill, grow and bloom in one season then die, and are often cultivated indoors in the winter.  Biennial herbs, like parsley, bloom their second year and may reseed themselves. Parsley is the most-grown herb, used mostly as an edible garnish.

Herbs are not just culinary. Some are grown for their aromatic qualities, like mint and lavender. Herbs have interesting foliage and are used in fresh or dried arrangements. 

Some herbs, like garlic may have medicinal or health purposes. While medical practitioners recognize some herbs have healing qualities known since ancient times, a health care professional should be consulted because they may interact with prescription or over-the-counter medications.

Nearly all herbs can be grown from seed. Cilantro, dill and fennel should be sown directly in the garden or container because they do not transplant well. 

Cuttings or divisions are easier ways to propagate oregano, chives, mint and marjoram. French tarragon is supposedly only started from a cutting or division, but seems to reseed prolifically and appear everywhere if allowed to bloom. 

Herbs grow best in well-drained fertile soil. Drainage is a key to success since most herbs struggle or die in soggy soil. Compost is ideal. Fertilizer encourages excessive foliage and reduced flavor. Some herbs, like mints, must be contained or they will spread and take over the garden.

Herbs require lots of sunlight to produce their flavors. Growing them indoors, even in a window, may require supplemental light. Without enough light they may stay alive but may stop growing, especially in winter. Indoor herbs may need weak weekly feeding with a liquid fertilizer to grow actively.

Very few insects attack herbs. Some herbs, like garlic and chives, are used as companion plants in the garden because they seem to repel pests. Deer generally do not like aromatic plants. Aphids may be attracted to anise, caraway, dill, fennel and curly-leafed parsley, but can be washed off. 

Certainly wash herbs before drying, eating or using them in food preparation. Fresh leaves can be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to absorb sunlight and grow actively. Cutting to one-third of their size will leave enough foliage to thrive. 

Herbs have their best flavor and aromas when harvested in the morning, and before flowering. Air-drying is the most common way to preserve herbs, but they may be frozen. Some, like basil, lose their flavor when dried and are best saved when chopped and frozen in an ice cube tray.

For more information on herbs, visit https://extension.oregonstate.edu/. Master Gardeners have written some helpful one-page summaries available at www.cmastergardeners.org. Master Gardeners are available by phone most business hours at extension offices in Tangent and Salem.

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