Herbs 101 – Mediterranean Herbs

A base for cooking to not only enhance the flavour of any dish, herbs can also be beneficial for your health adding much needed antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Herbs added to any dish can also culturally identify your dish from adding fresh cilantro to a Mexican salsa to adding methi or fenugreek to an Indian curry recipe. Because there are so many varieties of herbs, I will just focus on the basic perennials in this article. Look for future articles when I will speak about the annual herbs such as parsley, arugula, cilantro, and basil.

Growing Herbs Indoors

This new fad of either growing container gardens on patios and decks to having a window sill garden inside is a fad that is definitely here to stay once you know how to do it and how to grow enough for you or your family. There are a variety of herbs that do well outdoors in BC in the late spring and summer that can then be brought inside. One major tip I do have to share is that if you are impatient like me, growing “woody” herbs from seeds takes way too long. Buy woody herbs as in the below listed, as established plants and plant in your containers at home.

Here are some herbs you are best to purchase as “established plants” from your favourite garden store such as Gardenworks or a local nursery like Cedar Rim Nursery.  The below listed herbs are all perennials, meaning, they will grow back year after year and at the same time, are a must for any aspiring cook. One really good rule of thumb when growing herbs is that herbs that taste good together often grow well together. Similarly, if a recipe calls for tomatoes, basil and oregano, all three can also grow well together too.

  • Lavender – used for calming, drying out for sachets and potpourris, adding to sugar for baking or decorative. There are several varieties of lavender so make sure you take your time to get to know which one you like. Some are great for their blooms but have no fragrance some are grown just for their fragrance but need lots of space to thrive. If you want your lavender to really do well, consider growing in the ground rather than a pot as it likes to spread and has a deep root system.

Harvesting: Harvest the blooms just before they open, when they are on the more vibrant coloured side. They are at their most potent at this point and will really transfer their aromas well. Hang upside down to dry and then carefully pluck off the buds. Transfer into a jar of sugar with a vanilla pod for added flavour. Leave for up to 3 days before using in baking. Or add the buds to sachets and place in the opening of a window near your bed or under your pillow for a wonderful night’s sleep!

  • Cooking/Baking: what I’ve discovered baking with lavender infused sugar is the flavour combination of lavender, lemon and vanilla works so well together. Consider baking vanilla cupcakes using lavender infused sugar and icing with a lemon buttercream. Delish!
  • Growing Needs: lots of sun and little water as it is a plant that thrives in drier climates like the Sunshine Coast and the South of France. Once established the plant is very hardy and can withstand wind, dry soil and high heat. Water minimally.
  • Rosemary – I love to plant rosemary and lavender side by side because both thrive in similar conditions and together they demonstrate the opposite healing benefits as Rosemary is great for energizing you, clearing your mind and retaining memory and lavender is for calming. Rosemary is also an antibacterial herb so it along with lavender is great to plant in any school garden! With colds running repent throughout the year, make sure you show the health benefits of rubbing it on a child’s hands instead of using sanitizer!
    Cooking- use with RoastedNewPotatoes and any other root vegetable. Add rosemary fresh near the end of roasting veggies. Stuff inside poultry to enhance the flavour. Use the woody stems of the rosemary as skewers for grilling. Use a bundle of rosemary as a brush to brush on olive oil to meat grilling on the bbq. Rosemary is a very strong herb so use it sparingly in dressings and marinades. Best with lamb, chicken, beef and any stronger flavoured meats.
    Growing Needs – as with lavender, rosemary thrives in well drained soil with about a quarter to a third mix of sand as it is a Mediterranean herb. In the right conditions, rosemary can thrive and actually be used as hedging. At home in a pot, make sure you bring your plant in when the weather cools over night. Place in a sunny spot inside to over winter. Cut back sparingly during the fall and winter as growing tends to slow down.
Rosemary in pot

Sage – also highly reccomended to purchase as an established plant as it’s stems are quite woody, sage does really well growing among the listed herbs. Along with rosemary, sage helps to enhance memory and clear the mind. Smudging with a combination of dried sage, cedar, lavender and rosemary is also seen as a way to clear energy around home spaces. The sage we grew at the Forest Grove School Garden, grew so big, we actually took half of it to another school. Sadly, the plant did not like this at all and did not survive so be cautious when cutting sage back or transplanting.

  • Cooking – Sage does really well with poultry. Using it dried in your stuffing mix, fresh stalks in your turkey brine or stuffing whole stems and leaves into the cavity of the bird enhances the flavour so well. Consider also taking leaves of the sage and placing between the skin and the flesh of the bird. For the vegetarians out there, sage sizzling in a pan of butter before sauteeing butternut squash cut nice and small also makes for a very delicious fall dish. Serve on top of pasta finished with some ricotta cheese and you have a meal fit for any dinner guest.
  • Growing Needs: as mentioned, sage will thrive in a large growing space and needs little tending to over the summer months. Plant in well draining soil with a bit of sand and allow for the root system to grow deep and wide. Water less than you would other plants in your garden. In our second or third year of growing our sage at the school garden, the plant produced beautiful purple flowers which attracted bees like crazy to our garden.
Bee on flower
  • Oregano – is part of the mint family and as such, can grow back prolifically. It’s definitely a must for growing A Pizza Garden. Oregano oil is used as an antibacterial and lately to fight flus and colds. Use sparingly however as it can be quite strong for young children. In fact, the best way to administer oregano oil for young children is rubbing it on the soles of their feet.
    • Cooking – use dried oregano at the start of any recipe. For example, after adding garlic to olive oil in a warm pan, add dried oregano before adding tomatoes to enhance the flavour. Opposing, add fresh oregano at the end of cooking a tomato sauce but use less as it will be stronger. Pluck off leaves of the oregano from the woody stems, chop finely and add to any dish. Use the whole stems and leaves to stuff into poultry, marinades for beef or lamb.
    • Growing Needs – when the oregano has started to bloom its tiny purple flowers that is a sign your oregano is close to being ready. There are several varieties of oregano, but all cooks agree, using the plants leaves when fresh or cutting the plant back and drying out the plant after the flowers have bloomed to use later is best. Cut the plant back at the base of the stems in late summer and after the flowers are finished blooming, tie up and hang upside down until the plant has dried out. Store in a paper bag to use throughout the year.
    • Bring oregano inside when the weather starts to cool overnight. Or leave it in your garden over the winter and it will come back in the Spring.
  • Thyme – although a small plant normally, thyme also has very woody stems. When I say “woody” too it means its best not to use the stems when you are cooking. Folks don’t normally like chewing up the stems of these plants. When using thyme, pull off the leaves going down the stem from top to bottom. The leaves are usually so small that it isn’t necessary to chop up. There are several varieties of thyme including: lemon, purple and the standard variety. It can also be used as a ground cover and is very soft and plush for sensory gardens for children. A very hardy plant, it’s a great addition to any outdoor box or garden that needs something low laying as it does not grow very tall. In fact, our thyme is buried right now underneath some marigold plants…sigh!
    • Cooking – use fresh in salad dressings with lemon and olive oil or as marinades for chicken or fish. Dried thyme is one of my pantry basics because it can be added to any sauce or gravy to enhance flavour. Fresh thyme when used often is harder to grow back so use sparingly in cooking.
    • Growing Needs: Thyme definitely does fine in pots on a patio mixed in with oregano and chives. It actually looks quite nice together as the chives tend to be taller with the thyme filling in the bottom of the pot. Choose soil that drains well and is has plenty of organic compost. Thyme needs less water than most plants. When watering, allow plant to be well drained before watering again. As mentioned previously, this is a slow growing plant so unless you have an abundance use fresh thyme sparingly. It is a strong flavoured herb so you don’t need too much anyway.
  • Chives: Although not a “woody” plant, this one does fall under the perennial category as it is an easy one to grow and have continuously coming back. It always makes me giggle how much children love this plant too. I’ve had 3 yr olds come to the garden, chew on it and calm right down after a tantrum. Every year when we ask what we should grow in our garden, there is always a student who says “CHIVES!” No matter how strong in onion flavour these taste, kids just love it. And so do the bees. What is really cool is you can also use the flowers of the chives to add in salads for flavour and flare. Once the chive flowers have finished blooming, dry out and almost fall off, look for the tiny black seeds that are within the petals. These can be saved to grow or share.
    • Cooking: use the stems or the flowers of the chives in any recipe that calls for a mild onion flavour. Traditionally, chives go best with sour cream and baked potatoes, chopped into salads, finely chopped and added to smoked salmon or used the whole length of a the stem to wrap around and bundle together a bunch of herbs. Chives often show up in the arsenal of a chef as a garnish with their long spikey look.
    • Growing Needs: cut chives back to the base of the plant in late fall. Harvest the dried flowers for the seeds and save to re plant or share with others. Once the plant is cut back, over winter the plant by either bringing it inside for the cold months or placing under a plastic covering, with leaf mulch to protect against frost in a pot. In early spring, you should start to see the plant growing back. Once this starts to happen and the temperature reaches 10 degrees on a regular basis, bring the pot back out in a sunny area. Flowers start to develop around April or May and can attract beneficial pollinators such as bees and butterflies to your garden.

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