Minutes June 20 — Herb Gardening

Gardeners Exchange Group Meeting 20 June 2015
Location: Home of Don and Betty Nuttall
Topic: Herb Gardening presented by Betty Nuttall
Submitted by Julie Neely

The weather was hot and humid but the Nuttall’s landscape was so green, lovely and perfectly manicured that no one seemed to mind the mugginess a bit. According to Betty, it was not such a bucolic scene when they first moved to their home from Northern Pennsylvania in 2001. Full time gardening effort has replaced honeysuckle and other invasives with a beautiful lawn, shade trees, a raised vegetable garden, a variety of flower beds, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, shade gardens, flowering vine covered trellises, ground covers and today’s topic, a charming herb garden.

“Herbs” are defined in various terms such as “non persistent, woody plants used dry or fresh as seasoning.” A point to remember when using herbs as a seasoning is that the flavor of dried herbs is more concentrated so use less dried herb than fresh herb in recipes; also herbs should be added last to preserve their aroma and natural essential oils.

Betty recommended The Complete Herbal by John Lust as her “go-to” book on herbs and as “the most complete catalog of herbs ever published.”

Herbs and herb gardens can be categorized and designed in many ways such as:

  • Medicinal herbs – including foxglove from which digitalis is derived
  • Tea herbs – bergamot, roses, lemon verbena, mint, echinacea and comfry
  • Silver or Fumigant herbs- artemesia, wormwood, yarrow
  • Shakespeare garden herbs
  • Biblical herbs
  • Native American Herbs

More from Betty Nuttall:

• When making herbal concoctions to ingest or apply be aware that chemical compounds contained in herbs can be toxic in large (and sometimes small) quantities and concentrations vary amongst plants.
• Herbs can be annuals such as basil and lemon verbena, biennial such as parsley, foxglove and honesty, or perennial such as sage and bee balm.
• Most herbs seem to prefer warm, dry, well drained soil, owing to their Mediterranean origin. Betty successfully grows her herbs in a bed close to the house that receives morning sun and recommends using a pea gravel “mulch” that looks pretty and promotes good drainage.
• If you plant intensively (placing plants close together), you may be able to cut down on the weeds.
• Most herbs are deer resistant.
• Betty recommends cutting back the silver foliage herbs in late July/August to remove the brown centers and promote a flush of new foliage for fall.
• Harvest herbs after the dew has dried in late morning, just after the blossoms have opened for best flavor.
• Preserving herbs in oil is not recommended because of the risk of botulism poisoning. Remember from the canning lectures that Clostridium botulinum is a normal soil inhabitant that grows and produces toxin best in a neutral pH, anaerobic (no oxygen) environment such as bottled olive oil.
• Several methods to dry herbs were described:
• Collect your herb bundles, secure using rubber bands which hold the bundles together as the stems contract during drying, hang upside down in the attic or any dry warm place.
• Dry your herbs in the oven using the heat from the pilot light or low heat -never use heat greater than 100 degrees, keep the door ajar while drying
• Dry your herbs in a food desiccator
• Microwave herbs on a paper towel, on a paper plate, 1-2 minutes at a time – repeat drying times as necessary, changing the paper and dry until the herbs are desiccated, this method preserves the herb color
• Try drying herbs in a car with the windows up in the sun
• Don’t overheat or over dry the herbs or some flavor could be lost.
• Betty recommends this method to check dryness: put your dried herbs in a plastic baggie, seal the baggie, and if condensation collects inside the baggie over the next 24–48 hours, then your herbs need more drying time before storage.
• Basil is one herb that dries poorly. Betty recommends making pesto instead of drying and uses combinations of herbs such as basil, parsley, kale and spinach in her pestos. Once the pesto is made, she freezes it in ice cube trays and then pops out the cubes into plastic freezer storage bags for ready to use flavoring. Pestos can be stirred into vegetable soup, used in potato dishes and with eggs.
• Herbal vinegars are a great (and safe) way to use herbs especially tarragon. Betty crushes the herbs into a 50/50 mixture of cider and white vinegars (although other types could be used). This herb and vinegar mix sits for 4–6 weeks in a lidded jar on the porch. After it has steeped, she strains it through coffee filters into decorative bottles and inserts a spring of the herb used to flavor the vinegar. Cork or screw on the lid and the flavored vinegar is ready for use in salad dressings, or in potato salad, egg salad or as a gift.
• Dried and fresh herbs such as lavender, thyme and sage can be made into wreaths. Use a metal frame or straw wreath base, hot glue or use 24-gauge florist wire to attach the bundled herbs tightly together onto the frame. An herbal wreath should last several years.
• Herbs can be used to make soaps, scented candles, potpourri, cosmetics, teas and of course in cooking. Try making a caprese salad with fresh sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil leaves, a drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil, salt and cracked pepper, maybe some minced fresh garlic, capers and Greek olives for color. Served with a loaf of crusty french bread and a glass of wine, you could be on the Isle of Capri…..
• Herbs such as parsley, dill, fennel, and echinacea are great additions to a butterfly garden.
• Small hanging closet bouquets were popular in colonial times to freshen clothing and can be easily made with bundles of tansy, artemesia, lavender, thyme and rue. Just wrap the herb bundles in cheese cloth so that as they dry they don’t crumble into your clothes.
• Mint is a useful herb for teas, cooking and flavored waters but it can become invasive so Betty plants hers in large plastic pots which she sinks into the ground. This contains the mint’s underground running roots and prevents spreading.
• Chives can self seed; to prevent this pick off the blossoms before they fall and sprout.
• For more herb garden suggestions, have a look at the National Herb Garden in Washington, D.C., Caprilands Herb Garden in North Coventry, Connecticut, or Artistic Gardens & Le Jardin du Gourmet.