Sunday, February 12, 2012

Herbal Remedies - Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

Food gardening has lost thousands of enthusiastic newbies to the pungent temptation and false promise of a "herb garden." 

For some reason, many of those who decide to try the hobby will consider herbs to be an easier option to carrots or beans. To the newbie, herbs are a toe dipped in the water of grow-your-own without properly being immersed. A herb garden is something they've seen in glossy magazines and on lifestyle television and to the amateur, it's a patch where their wishlist of useful culinary ingredients will live harmoniously together and thrive - thus providing myriad fragrances and flavours within a handy grab of the kitchen stove.

What a load of Horseradish!

Years ago and in this very frame of mind, my first herb garden went something like this: The rosemary and sage died because the ground was too wet. The spearmint, which loves wet soil, took over, shooting up everywhere with its underground runners and became almost impossible to control. The parsley and thyme got crowded out by the mint and the coriander bolted. The fennel shot up and free seeded all over the place causing me to end up pulling unwanted fennel twiglets out of every corner of the garden for the next five years. The basil didn't ever have a chance to get faulty - it was massacred on day one by the slugs.

A load of horseradish yesterday.

Contrary to popular belief, a successful herb garden - that is, with all the herbs sharing one bed - is an almost impossible feat to manage. The plants we commonly lump together as “herbs” are in fact a thoroughly diverse bunch of characters who hail from many different parts of the globe. As a result, they require a thoroughly diverse set of growing conditions.

Forcing these alien bedfellows together in the same garden bed, sets you on a hiding to nowhere. Setting the newbie on this particular road to nowhere are those plants from hot housed supermarket stock which are pre-programmed to die of shock a few seconds after you bring them home.

And so, weeks later, finding themselves dazed and in possession of a thick rampant rug of spearmint digesting the remains of a half a dozen former herb bedfellows, the newbie says: "Sod this grow-your-own thing, I’ll stick with watching Strictly Come Dancing.” 

And gardening loses them forever.

Some disillusioned newbies walking away from gardening forever yesteday

Herbs are actually not so difficult to grow once you get them from the right source, treat them as individuals and provide each one for their different whims and needs. They may be lumped together in the "herb" family by the cookbook, but out in the garden the're a mixed bunch - some are tough evergreen shrubs, some are tender annuals. Some will die without copious amounts of water while others will die because of it.

So to help readers understand what’s what, today I’m kicking off a three part series which should enable you to get the very best from herbs. I'm starting with what I call the "dry" herbs - Rosemary, thyme and sage.

Roasting Rosemary

Rosemary is perfect for roasting with vegetables and meats, in particular for lamb and chicken. It originates in the Mediterranean where it is often used as boundary hedging. Its pungent oil has antiseptic qualities and can be used for many purposes other than cooking. Boiling it in water, straining the mix and allowing it to cool for example, makes an antiseptic mouth wash while and boiling it in water with the addition of some soybean oil makes a perfect hot oil treatment for dry hair.

Med born rosemary hates Irish weather and soils. So it often languishes and dies because its sparse needs are not understood. Rosemary likes a fine dry soil with a preference for lime - a higher ph which can be achieved by lacing the soil with lime granules. Wet soil rots it to death from the roots up. I find that it does best in well drained situations like raised beds or better still, in containers where its conditions can be more easily regulated.

Usually I don't use terracotta planters because in the summer months they act like ovens - warming up the soil inside and causing it to dry out super fast. But for this very reason, I keep my two rosemary plants in big terracotta planters where they stay dry and raised. They like to be sheltered from winds and they also require the sunniest position you can get in the garden otherwise they get spindly and weak. Full sun is an ingredient necessary for them to produce that essential oil that we want for our cooking. For the same reason, don't let your rosemary get crowded by other plants.

Rosemary baby!

Cut it back hard in mid summer to keep the tender shoots coming and to prevent it becoming leggy and woody - a state in which it produces less shoots. You can dry out sprigs of it by hanging them upside down in the kitchen for two weeks. Pull off the dried leaves and grind them to powder with a pestle and mortar and you have a powder to flavour up any roast.

You can grow rosemary from seeds but it's probably easier to buy a plant at a garden centre. Buy a bushy example with lots of shoots. You can propagate them through cuttings by trimming off a tender sprig about half way down. Remove the leaves leaving only a "tuft" on the very top of the cutting plant it into damp soil to help it root. 

I dug up a mature rosemary still clinging to its root ball and then sliced it in two right down the middle with a sharp spade. The two parts separated and transplanted perfectly. Once damp and frost is avoided, rosemary is a tough customer.  One of the more versatile aspects of rosemary is its ability to be uprooted and transplanted at any time of year.Though do move it to a greenhouse to protect it through the winter months in a temperate climate.

Stuffed With Sage
There's no stuffing without sage, another sunshine and lime loving perennial which gets by Irish conditions. Used for seasoning fatty meats for the most part, it's also long known for its healing qualities and has anti fungal qualities. Sage comes in broad and narrow leaf varieties, the former for drying and the latter for cooking with fresh. It grows around two foot in height and needs full sun. Crowd it out and it fades fast. But when it does catch on it will need regularly cutting back. You can pull out clumps of it and move them elsewhere. When my sage (located in a raised bed which I use for salads) spreads too far I pull out the excess and try to plant it on in protected public places.
Get wise to sage
Sage is easily grown from seed in a greenhouse or sunny windowsill where it requires humid conditions (cover it in clingfilm) to germinate. Second year plants are the highest in oil and generally produce a better harvest of foliage.
It can be propagated using cuttings and should be cut back hard in mid summer and again a month later to prevent it from becoming woody. It will require a spread of about two feet. Frost will scorch the leaves black but usually the plant will come back again. Constantly soggy soil however will kill the plant so it's best kept in a raised bed or in a container.

Bunch of Thyme

Also a lover of dryer soils is the spriggy sweet smelling herb thyme which can be quite tricky to establish but does well once it does. Great with pork and in stews, thyme is also a great flavour to combine with eggs, pasta, tomatoes, olives and garlic. Thyme can survive happily through droughts and freezing conditions but like the above herbs, hates boggy or wet conditions.

Thyme should be planted in containers or raised beds and because of its low slung gait (about six inches high) you need to watch out for it being crowded and overshadowed by other plants and weeds. It’s perfect place is at the very front of a rockery or raised bed.

Thyme you got growin...

Trim it back hard in early spring and again after it flowers to prevent it becoming woody. Now and again it will establish itself in cracks in paving or in stray containers. Thyme is best left alone so apart from its above needs, don’t fuss over it.  Cut your sprigs for the table halfway down, leaving three inches or so remaining on the plant. It will become more productive this way.

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