Most people enjoy the connection with the earth that comes from gardening. Nothing is more satisfying than growing that which brings sustenance and nurturing to one's own life.
Growing herbs can make you a better gardener and a better cook. A quick trip to the greenhouse, deck, patio or windowsill with a pair of scissors, and dinner or a cup or tea can become a culinary delight. The very smell of herbs growing around the home and garden adds a quality to life that is simple, yet extravagant.
Pots are a great way to grow herbs because you can grow plenty without having them take over precious garden space, and you can bring them inside during harsh weather. Many herbs will prosper during winter, even in our mountain zones, such as mint, thyme, oregano, and chives.
Mint plants come in a variety of flavors, including chocolate, which makes a wonderful addition to coffee or yerba mate. Fresh mint from the garden can be the inspiration for preparing a Vietnamese or Thai dish, such as lettuce wraps or fresh spring rolls. The herb is also used in tabouli salad and can be added as a garnish to any dessert.
Basil plants should winter indoors near a sunny window. Lemon basil, and even anise and cinnamon varieties, are among the unique flavors of the herb available at local markets. I have a Thai basil plant that resembles a small tree and during the winter it lives on a rock slab next to a south-facing window. During the long winter the plant looks almost dead, with a few scraggly leaves hanging on. Our cabin has only wood heat and temperatures drop quite low at night and while we are out skiing during the day. Nevertheless, the basil plant, with an occasional watering and a bit of faith on my part, returns to its fat healthy self inside the greenhouse by mid May or so. In our climate, most basil will thrive outside in a sunny location from June through August, but on especially cold nights it should be brought indoors.
I enjoy making basil infused olive oil by steeping the fresh herb in a jar filled with oil for up to 48 hours and then straining the oil to be used for special recipes and salad dressings. The leftover basil can be run through the food processor to make pesto or added to soups and sauces.
Parsley is my favorite herb, for its combined culinary and health attributes. I use fresh parsley in salads, fresh squeezed vegetable juices and just about any savory dish you can imagine. Parsley is an age-old medicinal plant that has been used to treat everything from food poisoning to the measles. It is known to strengthen the adrenal glands, counteract halitosis and treat kidney and bladder infections. The herb is a great source of vitamin C, containing several times the amount found in citrus fruit, and is loaded with other nutrients such as vitamin A, chlorophyll, calcium, sodium, magnesium and iron.
An herb that grows enthusiastically in my greenhouse and is a hardy perennial in an outside garden is sorrel. I had to do some research to discover the real culinary attributes of this abundant plant. At first I would add finely chopped leaves to a salad for a lemony flavor, but this hardly made a dent in the vigorously growing herb. I discovered that one could liven up a fish or chicken dish with sorrel or add it to a potato soup. Sorrel can also be used to make pesto with parsley, nuts, salt, and olive oil pureed in the food processor. When the plant is cooked it loses its luscious green color, turning a dingy brown, but the tartness mellows and the flavor is much more palatable.
Lavender is an easy herb to grow in a pot on your terrace or in your garden. Try bringing it inside during the winter to add a soothing and luxurious aroma to your home. The leaves can be plucked and placed in a sachet under your pillow to promote relaxation and sleep. It is also a wonderful addition to homemade lemonade, muffins and ice cream.
A variety of pre-potted herbs can be purchased at the Telluride Farmers Market, sold by at least half a dozen local farmers. Shop around as the plants vary in quality and price. Ask a farmer for their favorite recipe when purchasing an herb. I recently bought summer savory at the market and was told that the leaves, finely chopped, go well with eggs, which I bought from the same farmer. Eggs and summer savory are now a Sunday tradition in my home.
My good friend Salli Russell has had a catering company in Telluride for over 15 years and considers fresh herbs from her garden a must in her business and a luxury in her own life. She brings her love of gardening to her Telluride Kitchen catering company by adding a sprig of mint to homemade brownies or lemonade, fresh oregano in a lasagna or freshly cut chives to accompany a smoked salmon tray. Like other garden chefs, Russell often finds that her recipes revolve around the herbs that are in season.
"Because these herbs are from my garden I am able to share with my clients the love that goes into them," said Russell. "You have to nurture the plant in order to nurture the people that you are feeding and it is a continuous cycle. It totally makes the experience more whole."
Though not many people can put love into food the way Russell can, the bottom line is anyone can grow a pot of herbs. Herbs help your food look and taste good. They naturally provide aromatherapy to your home or garden and they have health benefits as well.
Whether it is tea time, bed time or time for a fancy dinner party, fresh herbs are a way of life.