Herb Thoughts

Herb garden planning is not a lot of work, but here are some thoughts I have put together on the topic. Herbs are easy to grow for the most part, but they are a big category of plants (we grow 100 varieties of herbs) and it helps to break them down and organize them into categories. This will help any gardener plant the right plant in the right place and give it the preferred amount of water, sunlight, food, and water.

Why grow herbs? For flavor, fragrance, and beauty - it is the easiest way to improve the flavor of what you cook. It is also one of the easiest ways to have a container garden on your porch or deck.  Herb gardening is intimate - you get close to the plants, smell them, taste them, see them respond to regular clippings. They are a perfect way to better understand plant physiology and the best short cut to great food made with little effort.

Propagation: Plants vs. Seeds

All herbs can be planted from plants, and some can be planted directly into the ground as seeds. The herbs that you can seed directly in the ground and expect great results are: cilantro, dill,  and chamomile. Everything else will do much better if you start the seeds in containers in a sheltered environment. You can start your own herb transplants easily if you have grow lights and a heat mat. Many herbs take a long time to germinate and many herbs are propagated only from cuttings. Making your own rooted cuttings is possible too, but that takes a little more of a sophisticated set up with misters, rooting hormone of some sort, and humidity domes. For those herbs, it is generally easier to purchase the plants.

Herbs from Seed:

  • Parsley
  • Chives
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Chamomile
  • Savory (winter and summer)
  • Marjoram
  • Basil (all kinds)
  • Common Mint
  • Sage
  • Catnip
  • Chervil
  • Oregano (basic varieties)
  • Thyme (basic varieties)
  • Shiso
  • Sorrel
  • Lovage
  • Lemon Balm
  • Fennel
  • Salad Burnet

Herbs from Cuttings:

  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Mints that are true to type (spearmint, peppermint, pineapple mint, etc)
  • Tarragon
  • Specialty Thymes (lemon, variegated, silver, etc)
  • Specialty Oregano (golden, ‘Hot and Spicy’, variegated, etc)
  • Specialty Sage (purple, tricolor, golden, etc)

Containers vs. in the Ground

Some plants love to be planted in the ground and others would prefer to be in pots.  Generally speaking, the herbs that like it dry and warm will prefer to be in a clay pot that breathes like Italian terra cotta. Plants that like it wet and cool might prefer to be in the ground, but they can also be grown in pots if the right conditions are given (more watering, a glazed or plastic pot, heavier potting soil, a little shade).

Herbs that like to grow easily in the ground in Vermont:

Cilantro, Dill, Parsley, Rosemary, Savory, and Chervil

Herbs that prefer to be in containers in Vermont: EVERYTHING ELSE!

This does not mean that you cannot grow herbs in the ground, it just means that in containers, it can be a little easier.

Some herbs do really well as tiny shoots for micro-greens: chervil, dill, cilantro, basil, fennel are our favorites.  And they are easy to grow indoors year round – just pat down some moist potting soil in a shallow container (only need 2” or so of soil) with holes in the bottom, press in the seeds, cover very lightly with a thin layer of soil, and keep moist. When the first set of true leaves begin to emerge, they are ready to eat. You can also grow pea shoots and sunflower sprouts this way. A south facing, sunny window is sufficient.

You can bring in potted herbs in the fall and keep them in a sunny window for use during the winter. The herbs that do best with this treatment: sage, parsley, rosemary, thyme, and savory. Basil can be brought in as well, but it won’t be terribly happy unless you have grow lights for it.  If you had some of these herbs planted in the ground, you can dig them up and slowly acclimate them to being in a pot and being indoors.

Herbs can be dried or frozen or infused in vinegar or simple syrup for year round use. Pesto or herb pastes made with oil or water can be frozen in small containers.  Drying is very simple or very elaborate – you choose! A dehydrator can be used, and the leaves can be stripped off of the stems once dried and stored in jars in a dark place. Or you can go the simple route and just harvest whole branches of the woody herbs such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, and winter savory. Place the branches in woven baskets and keep in a dark, well-ventilated space. They will dry just fine on their own, and you can keep them covered with paper bags or kitchen linens and use as needed.

Related Upcoming Events

Cooking with Herbs with Molly Stevens and Julie Rubaud – a class and dinner.

South End Kitchen, Burlington, Vermont

March 19th.,  6pm

Red Wagon Plants pre-season Open House

April 4th 10 am to 3 pm. Tour the greenhouses and see behind the scenes.

Herbal Cocktail Party with Caledonia Spirits

April 17th, Red Wagon Plants 6 pm to 9 pm

Help us kick off our season with a bang!

Red Wagon Herbs

What's a greenhouse grower to do when the spring season winds down and there is still plenty of great weather for summer growing and the greenhouses are empty? Well, start a new business, that is what. We are so happy to introduce to you our new sister business, Red Wagon Herbs. We are growing Certified Organic herbs for year round harvest and selling to local stores, restaurants, and food hubs. Our focus is on the popular culinary herbs for now, but we are likely to branch out into the more unusual once we have had a chance to explore our markets and have gotten familiar with our new growing practices. This is a perfectly natural extension of our plant business since we already partner with fantastic stores and we love to grow herbs more than anything else. As a matter of fact, the plant business, in its earliest days, was just a potted herb business. In a way, we are going to back to those days and loving the continuity, evolution, and expansion.

Our herbs are grown using three different methods: in the ground for summer and fall harvest, in a new, unheated greenhouse (paid for in part by a grant from NRCS EQIP) for fall, winter and spring harvest, and in our existing, heated houses for those coldest months. We are excited to be the only Vermont farm offering organic herbs year round and hope you enjoy cooking with them as much as we enjoy growing them.

Please be on the look out for an Open House this fall so we can show you what we have been up to and give you a chance to smell, touch, taste, and see it all.

Our current line up consists of :

  • Basil (March through November only)
  • Chives
  • Cilantro 
  • Dill
  • Curly and Flat Parsley
  • Sage
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Tarragon
  • Rosemary
  • Savory
  • Marjoram
  • Spearmint
  • Bouquet Garni ( a mixture of aromatic herbs for roasting, stocks, and more)

Lori and Doug's Garden, Part 3

Sophia and Lily visited Lori and Doug's garden this week to take some pictures and get an update on how all those plants are doing in their new raised beds. The garden looks beautiful, and Lori and Doug, gracious as ever, are so pleased with their abundant harvests. A few lessons have been learned along the way in this garden's history, which you can read about here and here. 

The garden is a great example of how colorful and varied a vegetable garden can be. Here an array of lettuces, marigolds, chard and kales co-mingle to create a carpet of textures, colors, and flavors. This is a perfect example of how edible gardens are also ornamental and can be featured in the center of a landscape.

Doug and Lori did a tight spacing on their potatoes at planting time, so they decided to hill with straw since there was not enough room to hill the sides of the plants with soil. This should lead to good yields, helps retain moisture and keeps disease pressure down.

They carefully stripped the plants of blossoms in the spring and are awaiting next year's harvest. By taking off the blossoms in the first year, Lori and Doug were able to help the plants concentrate their efforts on producing the lush green growth you see in the picture. A raised bed is a great way to go with strawberries - it keeps the plants under control so that they do not spread into neighboring plants, the strawberry  plants have better air circulation (therefore less disease) and it keeps the berries clean.

On a recent trip to Tuscany, Lori and Doug spied this trellising system and were able to re-create it at home. Anytime tomato plants are trellised from above, they will grow strong, tall and the fruit will be blemish free. This is the method used by greenhouse growers and in field production on small farms that really care about quality.

This small 4' x 4' bed provides plenty of space for herbs used daily in the kitchen as well as a few edible blossoms such as calendula. Lori makes a fantastic herb salt by very finely chopping sage or rosemary and mixing it with a good quality sea salt. This herb blend is great on hard boiled eggs, fish, salads, grilled meats.....pretty much anything you can think of. I felt pretty lucky when I was given a jar and have been carefully parsing it out ever since. It is also a great way to preserve herbs for winter use since the salt acts as a natural preservative.

Spaces were cleared out as crops were harvested which meant that new plantings had plenty of room to grow. The space in the back corner is being reserved for another fall planting. Lori just called today saying that she is ready to do a round of fall crops - this will include lettuces, greens, cabbage, and some cold hard herbs such as parsley, cilantro, dill. It is always a good idea to clean up gardens regularly so that old or sickly plants don't take up space that could be used for new, fresh plantings.

We just love the mixed beet plantings....the mixture of golden, cylindrical and regular beets makes for great salads.

These broccoli side shoots will keep producing into early winter. We only select varieties that produce lots of side shoots. Often one four pack is plenty to keep a small family in broccoli all summer, fall and early winter.

These peppers are great for stuffing. They have a wide, flat bottom and a large, hollow cavity. An herbed rice or a curried couscous is a lovely thing to pair with these beauties.

These are huge and lovely, and making me a bit jealous since the ones in my garden are small and not very happy.

FAQ #22: Which herbs are perennial and which are annual?

Perennials: Angelica, Catnip, Chives and Garlic Chives, French Sorrel, Germander, Anise Hyssop, ‘Munstead’, 'Grosso', 'Provence'  Lavender, Lemon Balm,  Lovage, Mint, Oregano, Rue, Sage, Winter Savory, Sweet Woodruff, French Tarragon, Thyme, Valerian Annuals: Artemisia (self seeds), Basil, Chamomile (self seeds), Chervil (self seeds),  Cilantro, Dill, Fennel, Feverfew (self seeds), Lemongrass, Marjoram, Papalo, Parsley, Red Shiso, Rosemary, Summer Savory

Some herbs can be kept as houseplants over the winter. Some that do well are rosemary, thyme, sage, basil, and parsley. It is always nice to have a few pots of these in the kitchen to snip into bowls of soup, salads, scrambled eggs and roasted vegetables and meats. You can dig them up out of the garden in the fall or just grow them in pots all summer that you then bring into the house once the temperature drops.

FAQ #21: How can I keep arugula, cilantro, lettuce, and dill from bolting?

The first step to preventing bolting is to understand what causes it. Bolting, or going to seed, is a natural part of the plant's life cycle. Some plants have longer life cycles than others. Arugula, lettuce, cilantro and dill all have relatively short life cycles, so they will try to produce seed within 8 to 10 weeks of being planted. It is an inevitable part of the plant life cycle but can be postponed with good management. It can also be caused by shock during transplanting, by too much or too little water, and around the solstice when the days start getting shorter. Transplant shock can be minimized by careful hardening off and transplanting in late afternoon when the plants will not be exposed to intense midday heat. Water carefully and time your plantings so that a fresh generation is coming along before the previous generation goes to seed. Here is a helpful schedule to help you maximize the harvest:

Cilantro - plant every 3 weeks from late April to mid August. These are very cold tolerant and can be grown early and late to extend the season. If you are very eager to have cilantro for salsa, then make sure to plant some in early July so that it is ready to eat at the same time as your tomatoes are ripe. The flowers of cilantro are edible and are a lovely addition to salads and salsas.

Dill - like cilantro, is very cold tolerant and can be grown early and late in the season. This self seeds willingly, so you can always allow a patch to flower and drop its seeds giving you a perpetual patch. The flowers of dill are tasty in pickles and marinades.

Lettuce - lettuce can be grown at the baby leaf stage or the full head stage.  Please refer to our lettuce post to learn more about the timing of lettuce. It should be planted every week or two if you eat lots of salads and want fresh, non-bitter leaves on your plate. It can be planted from seeds or from plants. If you prefer the texture and flavor of full heads of lettuce, then transplant individual plants every 10" - about 4 to 8 transplants a week is plenty. If you prefer cut lettuce leaves, then use seeds, and sprinkle them in a row, about 2 or 3 seeds per inch. Cut lettuce leaves can grow back and provide you with a second harvest, but the quality goes down each time and the bitterness increases. It is best to replant a fresh row of seeds every couple of weeks.

Arugula - like lettuce, it can be grown from transplants or from seeds. It is best to plant it regularly as it does not grow back very well. Its flowers are edible, and can be a nice peppery additions to salads, sauces, and grilled fish.

What Can I Plant for a Little Early Color Around the House?

It's been a pretty cold spring in Vermont this year. I cannot remember a spring like this in recent memory, with night temperatures dipping into the twenties in mid-April and day time temperatures hovering in the low 40's. Many of our customers are ready for some color around the house, and it's still not safe to put out hanging baskets, or most annuals for that matter.

What I suggest for early spring containers is a selection of cold hardy plants, especially the ones that seem unusual in containers, but will feed the need for signs of life around the yard!

The following plants are just great for a year like this and look really cute mixed together.

  • Violas and pansies
  • Allysum
  • Cold hardy herbs such as parsley, chervil, mint (ginger mint cascades down the side of the container), cilantro, dill. The textures and different greens at dimension to the arrangements. Plus you can snip at them and bring them into the kitchen for some spring time flavor boosts.
  • Colorful kales such as Redbor and Red Russian.
  • Fennel - the bulb kind or the bronze herb kind
  • Lettuces - especially the green oak, red oak, and cherokee red batavian
  • Frisee endive - it has a lovely frilled edge, and an unusual lime green color.

The beauty of this kind of planter is that it is multi-purpose. The violas and pansies and their "companion" foliage are all edible. What a nice gift for someone special, or a treat for yourself to celebrate the slow unfurling of spring.

Do You Want a Little Spring in the Kitchen?

We start selling herbs in pots long before the ground is ready to work. Many of you still have snow on the ground; some of you may be lucky enough to live someplace where the snow is melted, but we all are worried more is on the way. Anyhow, when the snow first melts, the ground looks barren and dirty save for a few bulbs trying to poke through. Poor things. This has been such a cold spring, and while I don't want to complain too much, it would be nice if we had a little warm weather right about now. If you are wanting just a little reminder of what is coming down the road, you could grow a little window sill herb garden for now. All you need are a few herbs, a sunny window, and not much else. If you want to get fancy, you could pot up those herbs into pretty pots or mix them together in an indoor window box, but there is no need to really. Just some 4" pots are fine for now, and soon enough the plants can go outside, either in the ground or in bigger pots. We just started to deliver plants to a few stores, so consider picking some up for a little cheer. The scent alone is enough to lift anyone's spirit.

A group of Bhutanese farmers came to visit our greenhouses this week - it's the second group that has come by. When I saw the look on their faces when they were smelling the herbs - mint, rosemary, cilantro, lavender - I was reminded of why I do this work. It takes the edge off of those long end of winter weeks and brings hope and love into my being. It's an honor to share it all.

- Julie

Bay Laurel in Vermont

If you ask me what my favorite plant is in my garden I would tell you about my bay laurel tree.  Many folks are excited by the plants that add beauty to their surroundings.  Personally I love the plants that I can use in the kitchen and my bay tree adds value year round.  (The fact my favorite plant is a culinary herb would be no surprise if you follow my blog, Hippo Flambe). The difference between a leaf picked off my tree seconds before using it is far removed from the dry, dusty leaves in the spice section of your supermarket.  Plus my bay laurel has the added benefit of being easy to care for. It was a rather  inauspicious start to my bay laurel tree farming. I was given the tree by a friend who had decided to "euthanize" her tree. Her tree had developed a sticky residue on the leaves and she did not want to spend the time cleaning the leaves. In addition it had clearly outgrown its 23 inch pot and she had visions of it taking over her house. I immediately jumped at the chance to own my own bay laurel tree and told her not to kill it, I would adopt it instead.  When I arrived at her house one day in the pouring rain I stared at the giant tree and I began to wonder how well this was going to work out.  The first problem was how to get it in the back of my station wagon, even with the rear seats folded down it was far to big. So we went after the tree with clippers, ruthlessly cutting back every limb. In the end the tree had lost considerably more then 50% of its branches and I remembered the advice to never prune a tree back that far. I shrugged and figured what was the worst that could happen, even if it died the tree was free to me, I had nothing to lose.

That winter we kept the tree in an upstairs South facing window and miraculously it began growing new leaves almost right away. I did not give it any artificial light or fertilizer, we just opened the blind from 7 AM until it was dark.  The room it was in only gets passive heat from the other rooms, so the room temperature is often as low as 59 degrees.  The tree was severely pot bound as even in a 23 inch pot 1 qt of water would come rushing out the bottom almost immediately.  Every week it put out tiny new shoots and leaves and I began to take more leaves to cook with.  After using the leaves a few times I began to care more about my bay tree.

That spring we began to search for a larger pot. I was told at many locations that I could get a larger ceramic pot but not plastic. It had taken 2 of us to slowly inch the tree upstairs in a plastic pot, ceramic and its extra weight was clearly out. Finally one nursery suggested I try bonsai-ing the roots. She explained bonsai tress are removed from their pots and then pie shaped wedges are removed all the way around the root ball so more soil can be packed in and the tree can stay in a smaller pot.  So I bought some high quality soil and we hacked out 4 pie shaped wedges all the way around the root ball.  When I returned the tree to its pot I was amazed at how much water it could now hold.  After a few weeks of new growth it was clear the plant was much happier.

Taking care of my Bay Laurel tree is remarkably simple, especially as I am often a house plant slayer.  In the Fall, sometime in October, we bring the tree indoors. Once indoors we water sparingly about once a week, although I know there are stretches where we just forget.  In the spring we take the tree back outside, where it does not need watering unless there is a really extended dry spell. If you prune it a little in the spring it will produce new growth.  Use well drained, fertile soil.  I just recently applied some of my favorite tomato fertilizer to the soil. The next time it becomes pot bound I will again bonsai the roots. The sticky residue that my friend found on the leaves is caused by scale insects.  If this occurs just wash the leaves with an insecticidal soap and use your nail to scrape away any insect bodies on the leaves and stems. You can also spray with alcohol.  The sticky residue is not usually deadly to your tree but it will inhibit new growth.  Try to keep it in a humid area but do not over water.  Humid in Vermont in the winter is hard, just keep it out of drafts and away from the heating vents, misting them occasionally with water if you want.

The great thing about growing a bay laurel is you only want the leaves, which are the easiest part of a plant to maintain.  If I was starting over with a smaller tree I would not allow it to become as big as mine is, this would make it easier to bring it in and out of the house every year.  When cooking with it remember the fresh leaves are much stronger and more flavorful then dried. When a recipe calls for 2 leaves I only ever use 1. If I just want a slight bay flavor I use a smaller leaf.  One of my favorite uses for the leaves is to flavor a pot of red lentils. I just add one leaf to a pot of simmering red lentils with kosher salt and cook until the lentils are tender.  To serve I simply drain the lentils, drizzle with flavorful extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with freshly ground pepper.

Bringing in Herbs for the Winter

Herbs are one of the key ingredients in summer cooking that make the food really stand out, but we don't have to stop once winter comes.  The key, in my mind, to things tasting good is to layer in flavors using various simple techniques.  Herbs are the fastest and simplest of those methods, other than say, adding salt.

We have had such a warm November that I am still clipping herbs right out of the garden and the herbs in pots are still doing well on the back porch.  I have also started to bring in herbs from the garden to dry them.  The simplest method is to cut whole branches of  the woody herbs such as thyme, sage, winter savory, and rosemary and tie them into bundles and hang them in a dark, well ventilated place.  I usually leave them hanging for a month or so, and then place all the bundles into a large basket lined with a clean dishcloth.  I use a large amount of herbs all winter, by the handful, in simmering stews, soups, under and over roasted meats, inside the cavity of roasted poultry, etc.  I just can't think of a simpler and more effective way to add depth to whatever is cooking.

The leafier herbs, such as basil, cilantro, parsley and chives can be frozen for year round use.  This is best done with the aid of a food processor.  I take handfuls of washed herbs (stems removed) and pulse them in the bowl of the processor until they are finely chopped. I then drizzle in a little olive oil while the machine runs. Once it all looks like a nice green mush, I scoop it all into freezer bags and shape it into a thin, flat layer before placing the bags (lying down) into the freezer.  This allows the herb puree to freeze in a thin sheet that can be broken into smaller pieces when you are ready to use it. This frozen herb puree is a great addition to soups, stews, sauces, roasted or steamed veggies, and salad dressings.  I simply toss in a chunk of the herb popsicle at the end of the cooking time of whatever I am making so that the fresh flavor really comes through.

You can also bring herbs inside in pots for the winter and place them near a sunny window.  I keep a few herbs in pots all summer just for this purpose, but you can dig up whole plants out of the garden and repot them with some good potting soil. These are nice herbs to use as garnish, or chopped into a fresh salad.  These are not the herbs I use by the handful, but when I want just a teaspoon of fresh, chopped herbs to add a final punch to a dish.  Some of the herbs that work well for bringing indoors are thyme, parsley, rosemary, sage, oregano and basil.  The sunnier the window, the better luck you will have. You can also use some grow lights on a timer for even better results.  It's best to water these indoor herbs about once a week, but since they are in a semi dormant stage, they don't need to stay as moist as they would in the summer. The herbs won't always look great, but they will always smell good and have enough flavor boosting powers to earn their keep.