Garden Variety: Cultivate herbs to improve cooking, garden aromas

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Herb garden

Basil, oregano, thyme and a variety of other herbs are easy to grow, are a fun way to get kids interested in gardening, add flavor to cooking and add good scents to the garden and home. In northeast Kansas, perennial herbs can be planted as soon as the ground has thawed (and dried out enough to work). Annual herbs can be added to the herb garden later in the spring.

Herbs can be grown in gardens, landscape beds, raised beds or containers that receive about six hours or more of sunlight per day. If planting in the ground, add compost to the soil prior to planting to improve drainage and soil health. If planting in containers, use a high-quality potting mix rather than garden soil to ensure good drainage.

The easiest way to plant herbs is to purchase transplants (small plants) and plant them directly into the garden, container, etc where they will spend the rest of their life. Herbs can be grown from seed, but doing so is a more complicated process. Herbs grown from seed also take longer to get to a harvestable size.

When choosing herbs, start with ones that you may cook with already such as oregano, thyme, sage and chives. These four species are reliable performers and will usually overwinter even in containers where they are less protected than they would be if planted in the ground.

Kids love herbs in the garden because of how they feel and smell. Let them rub a leaf between two fingers to release the aroma and feel the different textures. Try getting different varieties of the same plant — such as wooly thyme (has fuzzy leaves), lemon thyme (lemon-scented) and common thyme — to see, feel, smell and taste the differences.

Other popular herbs include basil, mints (peppermint, spearmint, etc.), parsley, lavender, rosemary, cilantro and sweet marjoram. Basil is a good option but should be planted when frost chances have passed in mid-April to early May. Mints (peppermint, spearmint, etc.) are easy to grow but should be kept in a container or enclosed space to prevent them from overtaking other plants.

If growing parsley, plant extra. It grows well, but it is a favorite food for swallowtail butterfly larvae, so it often gets devoured by them in mid- to late summer. Lavender and rosemary are marginally perennial — they usually thrive in Kansas summers but may not survive the winter. Cilantro bolts (produces flowers/seeds rather than leaves) in hot weather, so it is a short-term spring plant. Marjoram is also marginally hardy and less popular for cooking.

After planting, herbs only need to be watered as needed through the season. Always water deeply and infrequently to encourage deep root growth. Of the herbs listed above, basil is the least drought tolerant and may need daily water in Kansas summers if grown in a container. The other herbs are more drought tolerant and may be able to rely on rainfall.

When plants are rooted into the ground and big enough that some leaves can be removed without removing all of them, you can start harvesting. For plants with larger leaves such as sage and basil, you can pick individual leaves or clip stems and pick the leaves off later. For plants with smaller leaves such as oregano and thyme, clip stems, then strip the leaves from the stems later.

Use fresh herbs in cooking for flavor or in arrangements or displays in your home for their beauty and scent. Or dry herbs before using them. Bundle stems and hang them to allow them to air dry, or use a dehydrator to dry leaves. Then, use a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder to crush or shred the leaves.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.


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