Deb Babcock: Use herbs for a sweet, savory garden

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

Just outside my kitchen is an herb garden I’ve been cultivating for several years now. It’s heaven to be able to step out and snip some fresh basil leaves for a salad or a few stalks of chives for a pasta sauce. Or some mint for refreshing glass of iced tea.

I also enjoy the aromas of an herb garden, especially when brushing by some of the leaves as they release fragrant oils.

Many herbs are quite hardy and can withstand our winters as well as the extreme temperature swings of the summer. Other herbs, however, need to be grown as annuals or overwintered indoors.

Master Gardener Jane McLeod has had wonderful success with an herb garden consisting of French tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus), loveage (Levisticum officinale), thyme (Thymus), horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), sage (Salvia officinalis), sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and chives (Liliaceae). Of these, sage tends to be the most sensitive and needs extra protection during the winter.

Growing basil (Ocimum) in the garden frustrates many local gardeners, including myself. With our cool nights here in the mountains, this tropical plant never seems to get very lush in an outdoor setting. Indoors, especially in a warm, moist greenhouse, basil yields enough leaves to harvest for cooking. Our recommendation is to treat this plant as an annual. The same holds true for rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis).

For the summer, leave both these plants in their nursery pots and simply set into the ground in your herb garden, and then bring indoors over the winter. I followed Jane’s recommendation to keep a wall of water around my outdoor basil plants the entire growing season with great results — instead of a spindly plant with a handful of leaves, it grew to the size of a small shrub.

If you like to grow mint (Mentha), you might want to keep this plant contained in a pot also since it is very invasive in a garden and will quickly choke out your other plants. I grow a variety of mint including spearmint, peppermint and chocolate mint.

Other herbs that should be treated as annuals here in the Steamboat area are marjorams and oregano (Origanum), parsley (Apiaceae), coriander (Coriandrum) and dill (Anethum graveolens). Although I have to say that my oregano, parsley and some dill seems to come back after overwintering.

For decorative foliage, flowers and aroma, Jane has added these other herbs to her garden: sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), borage (Borago), soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), comfrey (Symphytum officinale), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), sweet woodruff (Galium) and meadowsweet (Spiraea ulmaria).

Most of these herbs can be grown successfully in full sun in our alkaline soil. Sweet woodruff, meadowsweet and sweet cicely all need partial shade; sorrel and rosemary prefer the soil to be slightly acidic.

Using herbs in their just-picked state obviously is the most satisfying way to add flavor and aroma to your cooking. The flavor comes from the oils in the plant, which are released by chopping and heating the herbs. To extend the bounty of your herb garden through the winter months, dry or freeze your herbs. Dried herbs will store well for up to a year; and frozen herbs can be kept for up to two years if well wrapped.

Add spice to your garden as well as to your cooking with an outdoor herb garden this summer.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.

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