Superb Garden Herbs

Reprinted from Summer 2017

Southern Maryland is superb for herbs. Hot, dry summers and relatively mild winters are conducive to cultivating these culinary plants. Many herbs, such as thyme, oregano and lavender, are from Mediterranean regions and accustomed to moderately rich or lean, dry and gravelly soil. With prerequisites like that, why not throw a few herbs into your stamping ground this summer?

Herbs are plants with leaves, seeds or flowers used for flavoring food, providing fragrance and medicinal purposes. There are differences between herbs and spices; usually herbs are fresh or dried leaves with a milder flavor than spices, which are made from seeds, roots, flowers and even bark. From the time you wake up in the morning until you go to bed, chances are you’re using products with herbal ingredients – scented soaps, perfumes, herbal teas, aspirin and prescription drugs, dyes for fabrics and wool. And when you sit down to lunch or dinner, herbs add that savory zest! They lend flavor, color and important micro-nutrients, all without adding fat and calories. It’s hard to imagine many classic cuisines without them.
Of course many gardeners grow herbs simply because they’re pretty and durable plants. They naturally repel pests, so you won’t experience any unwanted invasions. However, herbs are “host plants” that attract and provide habitat and food for bees, butterflies and other pollinators. If you happen to notice small dark caterpillars crawling all over your dill or parsley, don’t touch them! Yes, they’ll temporarily decimate and completely defoliate your plants, but you’re growing black swallowtail butterflies instead. I don’t mind sharing with these hungry caterpillars that wipe out my parsley supply every summer. After they mature and emerge as butterflies, the parsley will bounce back. You’ll be amazed as you see them quickly grow into big, juicy, bright-green caterpillars before they get their wings and flutter off into the wild blue yonder.

 

An herb garden can be anything and anywhere you want. Herbs can be grown in a window box, windowsill or patio container. A large, rustic wagon wheel is wonderful repurposed as a ready-made herb garden when placed on the ground. Raised beds work well, providing excellent drainage and ease of accessibility, while formal herb gardens with patterns and paths are a beautiful experience that engage all of our senses.
There are numerous design options and ideas for creating an herb garden, but most gardeners choose to just mix them in with other flowers or vegetables. They are quite comfortable, compatible and complementary in those conditions. Just be conscious to keep overly vigorous plants out of the commune. Mint is marvelous, but should never be released from solitary confinement. I have an entire raised bed devoted to mixed mints, but all you really need is an abandoned stump in your yard. I’ll always fondly remember the simple, old-fashioned way my in-laws kept mint on our old farm. It grew around a stump near the kitchen door where there was narrow opportunity to escape grandpa’s John Deere. As long as there was enough fresh mint for making juleps on Derby Day, life was good back then!
Most herbs thrive in full sun; many will prosper in part shade. Annual herbs that only live one year should be harvested often. This prevents flowering that results in the plant “going to seed.” Basil and cilantro are two examples of plants that flower quickly and require constant clipping or they start to bolt. Use the herbs while fresh, or you can dry or freeze them. Pesto anyone?
Perennial herbs that come back every year can grow quite large. Rosemary and lavender are semi-evergreen plants that may live a long time, becoming the size of a small 2- to 3-foot shrub. Just remove the dead wood or damaged ends in spring; do not cut these to the ground each year. I have rosemary in its sixth year, and there are lavenders in the Charles County Master Gardener-maintained herb garden at the Dr. Mudd House (Waldorf) that are at least 10 years old. Planting in spring or summer allows plants time to establish before winter and increases the chance of long survival.Planting herbs can be very easy and satisfying, particularly when recipes call for something you already have in your own garden. Often when I’m preparing food in the kitchen, I’ll arm my husband with scissors and ask him to run out to the herb garden to get something I need. His standard response: “OK, what does it look like?” But you can bet when I suggest mint juleps, he knows just where to look! •

Mellow out with these classic cocktails
A cool and classic summer cocktail, not just for Derby Day, mint julep is the trademark of Southern hospitality.
Mint Julep Recipe (serves 1)
6-8 leaves of mint
1 tsp. to 1 T. superfine or powdered sugar
Splash of club soda
Bourbon
Preparation:
Place mint, sugar and club soda in bottom of julep cup (small metal cup) or tall glass. Muddle (smash and mash) contents together. Fill cup with crushed ice. Pour bourbon over ice to top of cup or glass. Insert straw all the way to bottom of glass (optional). Place a sprig of mint on top to sniff while sipping!

Southern Maryland Mint Julep Recipe (serves 1)
For a unique Southern Maryland version of the classic mint julep, follow above directions, omitting club soda and substituting a historic Maryland rye for the bourbon. Suggestion: Pikesville Maryland Rye, since the 1890s.
If you’re mad for mojitos, you aren’t alone. This traditional Cuban highball has become wildly popular again. It was a beloved beverage of renowned drinker and writer Ernest Hemingway. A clean, simple cocktail as easy to make as it is to tip back. So delicioso!
Mojito Recipe (serves 1)
½ fresh-squeezed lime
2 heaping tsp. superfine sugar
12 mint leaves
¼ C. white rum
Club soda or seltzer water
Preparation:
Muddle lime juice, sugar and mint in a Collins glass (tall, slim glass). Fill glass with cracked or crushed ice then add rum. Throw in the squeezed-out lime shell and top with a splash of soda or seltzer.

Ways to Enjoy the Magic of Mint
Steep leaves in hot water with tea bags for mint tea.
Sprinkle small or chopped mint leaves on fruit, salads, soup, pasta and peas.
Use in sauces and dips.
Infuse vinegar or oils with mint.
Add minted fruit, such as strawberries, blueberries or peaches to plain or vanilla yogurt; or use to top sliced pound cake.
Mint and chocolate is a match made in heaven.
Flavor coffee or hot chocolate.
Mint makes a simply refreshing drink when used in water or juice.
Add to ice cubes.
Rub leaves on arms and legs to repel insects.
Chew a few leaves to freshen your breath.
Mint tea and fresh leaves can aide in relief of sore throats, headaches and digestive issues.