In the gardens of American pioneers, herbs were the major source of seasonings for foods. They were also used for curing illnesses, storing with linens, strewing on floors, covering the bad taste of meats before refrigeration was devised, dyeing homespun fabrics and as fragrances.
Growing herbs in the garden declined when a wide range of dried herbs became available in supermarkets. Even though fresh herbs also may be found on supermarket shelves, most of the time they sit on the shelves too long and consequently tend to become dehydrated quickly after purchase. The consumer also is forced into buying a larger quantity than he needs at a price that can support an entire herb garden.
For best results, an herb pot should be placed in a sunny window or spot outside where it can receive at least six to eight hours of sunlight. Inside, a south or west window would be best.
Inside or out, good drainage is also important. Miller recommends selecting a good garden soil outside or using a prepackaged potting media for potted herbs.
"Annual herbs, like dill, can be seeded in pots in late summer," Miller said, while "perennial herbs, such as rosemary, will do better if placed outside during the summer...and brought indoors before the first frost."
"Harvest herbs early in morning, after the dew is evaporated and after about one hour of sunshine because the warmth draws the oil of plant up to leaves. Don't wait until mid-day or late afternoon," said Miller.
Herb leaves are most tender and sweet when a plant is young, up to flowering time. According to Miller, leafy annual herbs can be cut back to leave only four inches of stem. They will grow back again and again.
Leafy perennial herbs should not be cut back as severely, only remove one-third of their growth for harvesting. Most should be ready for harvesting by mid July.
Drying and using herbs
Herb leaves should dry in three to four days. In humid weather it may be necessary to spread the herbs on a cookie sheet and dry them for a few minutes in a 125-degree oven. Herbs can then be stored in an airtight container.
For recipes calling for dried herbs, substitute one teaspoon dried for one tablespoon fresh. A general rule of thumb is to add fresh herbs near the end of cooking because prolonged heat can cause flavor and aroma losses. For uncooked foods, add herbs several hours before serving to allow flavors to blend.
"Rosemary, a perennial, is difficult to start from seeds, so it may be best to buy a small plant to pot that should last for many years. It isn't winter hardy either so be sure to bring it in before frost," said Miller.
For a basting sauce for meats such as pork or lamb chops or pork roasts, Miller suggests mixing one half teaspoon of crushed rosemary leaves with one-fourth cup each of honey and mustard.
Chives and basil
Chives are an easy perennial herb to grow, according to Miller, and can be started from seeds or small plants, and in late spring they are topped with purple flowers that produce an abundance of seeds to start more plants.
"The leaves can be cut with scissors and chopped finely for use in a variety of dishes. Fresh chopped chives are especially popular sprinkled over baked potatoes with bacon bits and shredded cheese.
Sweet basil is an excellent annual for potted plants. The crushed leaves are often added to tomato sauces in pasta dishes and soups.