Spice things up with home-grown herbs
Saturday, May 03, 2014 06:00 am
If you can grow a plant, you’re a gardener, says local gardening guru Jim Hole. If you haven’t thought of yourself as such just yet, maybe growing an herb or two on the window sill or in a back deck container will give you the confidence to call yourself a green thumb, or at least one in training.
Of course, going from zero to hero takes a bit of practice – some trial and error – around what herbs to plant, how often to water, etc. But herb lovers will say that once you reap the rewards of fresh young shoots of parsley, chives and other savory edibles, you’ll be hooked.
Local experts offer help by way of spring workshops at area greenhouses and garden centres, where knowledgeable staff are likewise ready to answer questions for those shopping the herb aisle.
At Morinville Greenhouses, herb production is largely done hydroponically – in water – and set to sell in four-inch pots or freshly cut for immediate use. The bulk of the garden centre’s herb production is destined for sale at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market or The Italian Centre shops in Edmonton, where owner Alissa Marles said today’s consumer looks for the convenience of ready-to-use fresh herbs.
“So many cultural influences in our neighbourhoods, restaurants and on TV cooking shows change what we want to cook at home, and that involves traditional and unusual herbs,” said Marles, whose recent workshop showed customers how to grow herbs hydroponically and even in unusual containers.
A novelty-type ball, made of two wire baskets filled with moss and dirt, is an example of how easy it can be to grow herbs around the home, but Marles said most people stick with traditional tubs and pots on the deck, in the garden bed or in smaller containers on the kitchen window sill.
“People want to eat healthier too, so herbs can reduce the need for salt in cooking,” she said.
Many perennial herbs survive well in Alberta, according to horticulturalist Tam Andersen. Herbs like chives, dill and mint not only thrive but can become invasive and spread through the garden. Gardeners in the know tend to keep aggressive herbs like these in separate containers, she said.
Basil is more fussy, needing just the right amount of light and water to stay happy, and while it’s finicky, this Italian-cooking staple joins the list of most-wanted herbs in Alberta gardens: rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage and parsley, among them.
“Some herbs, like rosemary, like it hot, sunny and dry. Others will take a bit of shade. We talk to customers on how to use, clip and dry herbs, and to introduce them to less common varieties,” said Andersen, who operates Prairie Gardens & Adventure Farm in Bon Accord.
She points to lemon balm, with an aromatic leaf that’s great for making iced tea, and different mint varietals (chocolate, pineapple).
“There’s a continued and growing interest in growing your own food, and customers like herbs for a garnish, in salads or to enhance cooking flavours,” she said.
In much of Alberta, there are about 105 to 125 frost-free days each year plus plenty of sunlight – enough to sustain all sorts of garden life. While most herbs grow happily in the yard with light and good drainage, those in pots can last even longer, brought indoors on cool nights or during bad weather.
And imagine the payoff – a pinch of herbs for a sauce, a handful for a salad and a burst of salt-free flavour for whatever’s cooking through summer and beyond.