The Herbalist Is In: Eat Local with Great Taste
Homegrown herbs to reduce your carbon footprint.
by Merry Lycett Harrison
I am enjoying Barbara Kingsolver's new book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life," in which she writes about her family's year-long effort to grow, purchase and eat only locally produced food. I'd like to give some of her ideas a try, and it occurred to me that perhaps growing and using more herbs for nutrition and flavor would be a good idea. What do you think?
I think it is a terrific idea. Growing and using more herbs will guarantee that the last potatoes, onions and hard-skinned squashes of February won't be bland, boring, boiled dishes that you have to endure to prove your point that you refuse to purchase food that costs more environmentally, socially, economically and politically than you are willing to ethically and morally spend. Barbara Kingsolver started with the small resolve not to buy any more bananas. Now she and the coauthors of the book, family members Steven L. Hopp, and her daughters Camille and Lily are passionate spokespeople and supporters of efforts to reign in the unjustifiable costs of food offerings in stores and schools.
Regard herbs not as delicacies to use sparingly, but as high-value food for flavor and nutrition, whether in infusions of hot water, honey and simple syrups, in meat and vegetable dishes or in baked goods.
My first suggestion is to increase quantities of herbs you grow by a lot! This does not necessarily mean you have to do a lot more work in the garden. For example, all you have to do is plant a few mint plants in full sun or partial shade and they will increase substantially in a year or two. Plant both peppermint and spearmint and enjoy the variety. My experience with the other mint varieties (such as chocolate mint) is that they are great fresh but don't retain their delightful flavor once they are dried.
Second, grow herbs that do well in your climate. By the time the cool weather of November arrives, you can have large canning jars full of an abundance of high-quality herbs ready to be used generously throughout the winter.
Think of places to grow herbs that you may not have considered before: windowboxes, pots, hanging baskets and even rooftops. You might consider a small greenhouse where you can overwinter cold-sensitive or exotic herbs.
Though it is easier to grow herbs that do well in our climate you could take your conservation efforts further. Try growing your own lemon, lime and bay trees and even ginger and lemongrass.
Barbara Kingsolver made special note of the amount of labor necessary to harvest adequate quantities of produce to last the year. You will need some time to process your herbs. You will have to be available to harvest your herbs at their peak of flavor, which may be a different time for each one, but all you have to do with most of them is rinse them, let them dry out of direct light, strip the leaves off their stems and store them in glass jars.
Roots like horseradish are usually dug in the fall. You can grind the root fresh with some vinegar and salt and store in the fridge for a while. Store extra roots whole in moist sand.
Herbs like parsley, basil and chives can be frozen in convenient portions that you can add to soups, sauces and stews. (They don't look pretty, but they retain their flavor and nutrition.) I make lots of seasoning and tea blends with the dried herbs that are ready to sprinkle or steep anytime.
You can extend the herb growing season in lots of ways. Plant the rosemary that is so hard to overwinter in the warmest place you can find, in good soil near a foundation or south wall of your home or other structure (some species overwinter better than others)-or in a pot that you bring inside for the winter. Sage, thyme, lavender and salad burnet are evergreen and though their flavor is not at its best in the winter, you can still pluck leaves to use.
Let's not stop at the herbs that have food value. Many medicinals can be cultivated to ease health problems in the home which means fewer trips to the pharmacy and doctor.
Thank you for this question. It has helped me and my readers think through what we can all do to minimize our environmental impact by using what can be locally produced.
St. Johns Wort
Merry Lycett Harrison is the owner of Millcreek Herbs, LLC, and a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild. She will offer free instruction on fall herb gardening at Traces (1432 S. 1100 E.) on Sat., Sept. 15. Go to www.millcreekherbs.com.