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HERBS ARE TRENDY EDIBLES

written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
Published 1/4/2013

Every year the Garden Media Group, a top home and garden marketing and public relations firm, predicts the gardening trends for the coming year. This year they report that people will be ‘channeling the forces of nature’ and trying to find happiness in everyday life. They note that connecting with nature, whether in the garden, a park, or a home filled with houseplants, is becoming a necessity in our highly ‘wired’ society.

One of the ways that the Garden Media Group (GMG) predicts that folks will be trying to connect with the forces of nature is through growing herbs. While interest in vegetable gardening has declined a bit, some predict that herbs are set to become ‘the next hot edibles.’ This trend includes not only the common culinary herbs but other less traditional culinary herbs and even some medicinal herbs.

I would advise against growing and then using any medicinal herbs without consulting credible, science-based references. Some herbs that are considered medicinal can cause serious harm. For example, comfrey is an herb with a long history of medicinal uses from treating skin ailments to helping heal bone fractures. However, it’s use as a tea is inadvisable according to physicians who indicate that ingesting comfrey can lead to liver failure because it contains alkaloids. Doctors also advise against using comfrey topical treatments for extended periods.

Interested in growing culinary herbs? Go for it. Most are very easy to grow. All you need is a nice sunny spot that gets at least six to eight hours of full sun. The soil should be well-drained and not extremely acid or alkaline. Plus, herbs do best in soils that are not highly fertile. To prepare a garden for herbs, simply till the ground to a depth of about a foot or more to loosen the soil and incorporate some organic matter. Herbs are attacked by few pests, but powdery mildew and aphids can sometimes be a problem.

The only thing left to do is to select the herbs you want to plant. There are both perennial herbs (coming back each year) or annual herbs (killed by hard frost and replanted each year). Because I don’t have space for a separate herb garden, I grow perennial herbs like lavender and sage in my perennial flower garden. I like to grow annual herbs in large pots on my back patio.

My favorite annual herb is basil. It’s perfect for our climate, because it does best in warm weather. There are many different types of basil so you could even grow an entire basil garden. In addition to basil, the common perennials rosemary, sage, thyme, sweet marjoram, chives, and mint are good herbs for novice herb gardeners.

If you would like to check out a local herb garden, take a trip to the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden in Kennewick (at 1610 S. Union behind the Mid-Columbia Library). Amongst the many different theme gardens, there is a delightful herb garden that might give you some ideas when you start one of your own this year.

Master Gardener Training Begins in January: If you’ve always wanted to become a Master Gardener volunteer, you have until January 24 th to sign-up. WSU Extension is now accepting applications for residents in Benton and Franklin counties to become WSU Master Gardeners. Classes start on January 29 th. If you’re interested, call the Extension office at 735-3551 to find out more about the program and how to apply. You don’t have to be an expert gardener, you just need to be willing to learn and able to volunteer your time our local communities.

Published: 1/4/2013 9:15 AM

2012 THE YEAR OF THE HERBS

written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

The National Garden Bureau has named 2012 as the ‘Year of the Herbs.’ Each year the National Garden Bureau names one vegetable, one flower, and one perennial to be showcased. The honored plants are selected because they’re popular, easy-to-grow, and widely adapted to gardens across the country.

I love garden herbs, but what’s the technical definition of an herb? Holly Shimizu, director of the U.S. Botanic Garden says ‘Herbs are defined as plants valued historically, presently, or potentially for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal qualitites, insecticidal qualities, economic or industrial use, or in the case of dyes, for the coloring material they provide.’ I consider garden herbs to be annual or perennial plants used for fragrance or in flavoring savory or sweet dishes.

Many of the garden herbs that area gardeners can grow prosper in full sun and a well drained soil that’s slightly acid to slightly alkaline. Some herbs like sage, thyme, and lavender thrive under our hot, dry summer conditions. Most herbs don’t grow best in soils high in organic matter or nitrogen, but will benefit from some added compost if the soil is very sandy, compacted or infertile. When it comes to soil moisture, certain herbs like sage, thyme, lavender, and oregano prefer dryer soil conditions and others like lovage, parsley, basil, and cilantro prefer evenly moist soil.

One of my favorite herbs is garden sage (Salvia officinalis). Sage is a strong seasoning used when cooking poultry, sausage, and stuffing. However, it’s flavor is not why sage is my ‘favorite.’ I hold this herb in high esteem because it does double duty for me as a flowering perennial. It dependably produces pretty purple flower spikes that attract birds, bees, and butterflies. The blue-gray sage foliage provides a pleasing contrast to the bright and dark green leaves of plants.

Another perennial herb that I like to grow is rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis. Rosemary, also a savory herb, is easy to grow. Some cultivars grow into woody shrubs that are trained into large decorative topiary. Unfortunately, most cultivars of rosemary aren’t hardy in our zone. An exception is ‘Arp’ which is quite hardy. Arp grows from three to five feet tall and has tiny light blue flowers.

My other favorite herb is common sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum. Both the flavor and fragrance of basil is heavenly. Because it’s an annual, I like to grow basil in a large pot on my patio. One thing I don’t like about basil is its propensity to go to flower or ‘bolt.’ Once it starts to flower, the production of useful leaves declines along with its flavor. You can keep pinching out the flowers, but it’s usually a losing battle. Your best bet is to select a cultivar that’s slow to ‘bolt.’ Many gardeners favor the Genovese cultivar because of its flavor and it’s slow to bolt.

For the last two years, I’ve also planted ‘Pesto Perpetuo,’ a decorative basil that doesn’t flower, so no pinching is required. ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ grows into a dense, columnar plant reaching a height of two to three feet and a width of only one foot. The bright green variegated leaves contrast well with the darker stems. It has typical sweet basil flavor with a hint of lemon. This coming season I plan to use it in the center of my large flower planters for height.

So now that you know this is ‘The Year of the Herbs,’ honor these flavorful plants by planting your favorites this year.

Published: 1/27/2012 1:24 PM

NEW BASIL FOR GARDENERS WITH LIMITED SPACE

written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Last year was the first time I was able to grow basil successfully. Even though it’s supposed to be easy to grow, something always happened to my basil crop. With my first attempt, my transplants were immediately decimated by earwigs who ate the leaves right down to the stem. The next year, I got started a bit too early and frost killed my baby basils. The third year, I planted my basil in wine barrel planters and they grew quite well until a soil fungal disease killed them in mid-summer. That’s when I decided to satisfy my need for this tasty herb by buying it at the farmer’s market.

Well, last year I decided to try one more time. I devoted an entire gigantic plastic planter to growing a plant of basil. I kept the soil moist (but not too wet) and the basil was situated where it would get morning sun and afternoon shade. The plant flourished until half of it was blown down in one of our summer winds. The remaining part of the plant took over the space , and still provided me with plenty of fresh basil leaves until frost threatened.

This year there’s a new variety of basil I want to try. It’s called ‘Boxwood’ because it resembles a boxwood shrub. It’s a compact bushy plant with small leaves, growing from 12 to 16 inches tall. While very ornamental in form it’s also great for use in pesto or other dishes, if you don’t mind the trouble of picking the very small leaves.

‘Boxwood’ basil should be a boon for gardeners who are growing their veggies and herbs in space limited areas or containers. It will also be perfect for edible landscaping or formal herb gardens.

According to Burpee, who is the exclusive distributor of this new basil, ‘Boxwood’ was discovered in someone’s garden on “one of the hottest days of August where the plants remained in perfect form.” They note it was “bred in France for a highly flavorful pesto ingredient.” Burpee, located in Pennsylvania, sells both the seed and plants of this new variety. You can reach W. Atlee Burpee & Co at www.burpee.com or by calling1-800-333-5808.

This newcomer is just one variety of basil. According to the National Garden Bureau there are four basic types of garden basil. Gardeners and cooks are probably most familiar with sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) with its strong, clove-like flavor. It’s often used to make pesto. The species grows from two to two and a half feet tall. The leaves tender and two to three inches in length.

The other basic types are dwarf green basil, purple-leaved basil, and scented leaf basil.

Dwarf or bush basil (O. basilicum var. minimum) grows to a height of 10 to 12 inches high and has small leaves and a compact form. Purple-leaved basils (O. basilicum purpurescens) have ornamental purple leaves and purple flowers. The purple basils tend to have a very pungent flavor. Scented-leaf basils, have flavors that differ from the sweet clove-like taste of sweet basil. Lemon basil (O. americanum) has a lemony flavor, cinnamon basil (O. basilicum

Cinnamon

)has a flavor reminiscent of cinnamon; and anise basil (O. basilicum

Licorice

)has a licorice-like taste.

Another savory form of sweet basil, Thai basil (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflorum), has a somewhat different spicy flavor. It’s used in Thai cooking along with Thai lemon and Thai holy basil. The tastiest sweet basil is supposedly Genovese basil (O. basilicum

Genovese Gigante

), an Italian cultivar used in making authentic Italian Genoese sauce and pesto.

Basil is a tender annual that is killed by frost in the fall. You can either grow your basil from transplants or you can sow seed directly in the garden. Since it’s such a tender plant I prefer to use transplants. They need at least six to eight hours of direct sun a day, but will benefit from some shade during the hottest part of the day in our region.

Like so many other plants, basil prefers a well-drained, slightly acid soil. It’s best not to fertilize it excessively, but some fertilizer will help encourage growth. The basil should be harvested regularly by snipping the stem just above a pair of leaves. This will encourage new, tender growth. When flower buds appear, they should be pinched out as soon as they are detected to prevent the stems from becoming woody and the leaves from turning bitter.

All this talk of basil, makes me long for its delicious fresh leaves served with fresh mozzarella cheese and vine-ripe tomatoes splashed with a little olive oil and some golden balsamic vinegar. Hurry up spring!

Published: 1/24/2009 10:57 AM

USDA RESEARCH SHOWS

written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

The Agriculture Research Service (ARS) is USDA’s main in-house scientific research agency. Their job is to find solutions to agricultural problems that affect Americans every day… from field to table. This includes protecting crops and livestock from pests and disease; improving the quality and safety of agricultural products; determining the best nutrition for people; sustaining our natural resources; ensuring profitability for farmers and processors; and keeping costs down for consumers. Here are a few examples of their research that I think might be interesting to you, especially if you’re a home gardener.

Can you remember when cooking with herbs for many was a bit strange… when only the most adventuresome used herbs and spices in their everyday cooking? Well that has changed… and we’re probably healthier because of it. Dr. Shiow Wang, a researcher at the USDA Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, found that many herbs contain high levels of antioxidants. In fact, some fresh herbs have higher antioxidant levels than many fruits, vegetables, and spices. For example, a tablespoon of fresh oregano has the same amount of antioxidants as an apple.

Of the herbs tested, the members of the oregano family had the highest antioxidant activity… up to three to twenty times more than the other herbs tested. Gram for gram, oregano had 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 30 times more than potatoes, and 12 times more than oranges. Of the types of oregano tested, the strong-flavored Mexican oregano (Poliomintha longiflora) used in traditional Mexican and Southwest cuisine scored highest in antioxidants, but Italian oregano (Origanum x majoricum) and Greek mountain oregano (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum) came in second and third.

You don’t like oregano? Take heart… other culinary herbs also showed antioxidant activity. These included dill, winter savory, sweet bay, rose geranium, dill, garden thyme, rosemary, and peppermint. Wang suggests that we should “use more herbs for flavoring instead of salt and artificial chemicals” for enhancing the flavors of our cooking.

It’s important to note that the fresh herbs and spices tested had higher levels of antioxidant activity than their dried or processed counterparts. The ARS researchers point out that a moderate amount of fresh herbs “may go a long way toward boosting the health value of a meal.” So attention gardeners! For a healthier diet, plant culinary herbs outdoors for fresh eating during the summer and fall. During the winter, you may also want to grow some herbs in pots on your kitchen window sill.

If you haven’t grown herbs before, most are quite easy to grow. Many herbs prefer sunny, hot, dry conditions and well-drained alkaline soils, making our region an ideal place to grow them. In addition, most herbs don’t require a lot of attention. I grow a variety of herbs, including rosemary, thyme, and sage, in a wine barrel planter. Sounds like I should add some oregano to the planter next year. How about you?

Yellow star thistle ( Centaurea solstitialis)… the name doesn’t sound very ominous but this invasive noxious weed is a serious problem in Washington and in 47 other contiguous states, with California having more than 14 million infested acres. Despite a variety of control efforts including spraying, mowing, and prescribed burning in some areas, it continues to spread. That’s why scientists are investigating biological ways of controlling it.

One of the recent attempts at control involves the use of a rust fungus. Many introduced non-native plants become invasive, noxious weeds because they’re not kept in check by the natural controls that were present in their native habitat. This research is taking a rust fungus from the home region of the yellowstar thistle and inoculating plants here in hopes of developing a natural and environmentally safe way to manage this nasty invasive plant.

Scientists Bill Bruckart, ARS plant pathologist, Dale Woods, California Department of

Food and Agriculture plant pathologist, and Mike Pitcairn, an entomologist, are with the Biological Control Program of the California Department of Food and Agriculture in Sacramento. They have innoculated yellowstar thistle plants at 20 test sites with a rust fungus. Last summer they sprayed the weeds with spores of this rust fungus. They’re trying this as a natural, environmentally safe means of controlling yellowstar thistle.

The fungus was first released out in the field last July. However, this was after it was researched for the last 25 years to make sure it would be safe to release and to analyze its potential for use as a biological control agent. While it’s still too early to tell, the team is hoping that it will become one more weapon to use for managing yellow star thistle. The fungus hasn’t spread much in the first year after inoculation, but the team visits the sites every few weeks and anticipates that it will spread much farther next year. It is Wood’s hope that large acreage of pasture and rangeland (where control with herbicides is too costly and potentially harmful to the environment) will benefit the most from the fungus. Hopefully, it will be a success.

Have you read about cherries and their potential as a treatment for arthritis? A preliminary research study by ARS scientists and university researchers suggests that certain natural compounds in delicious Bing cherries may help reduce painful arthritic inflammation and also lessen inflammation associated with other conditions such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The subjects in this study didn’t have to take pills, instead they ate 45 fresh Bing cherries for their breakfast for 28 days. Their blood was analyzed to monitor the levels of urate. Urate is a precursor of uric acid. Uric acid is a naturally occurring chemical that accumulates in joints, commonly in toes, in a very painful form of arthritis known as gout. In the study, it appears that cherries did lower the levels of urate in the subjects’ blood. Based on their results, the researchers feel that cherries can play a role in fighting gout and also possibly other forms of inflammation.

You can see from these various research studies, that research done by the USDA Agricultural Research Service can be very valuable in making us healthier and improving our quality of life.

Published: 10/16/2004 2:15 PM

LEARNING MORE ABOUT HERBS

written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Whether you say “herb” or “erb,” these plants have a wide variety of culinary, medicinal, dye, and decorative uses. It’s perplexing to me that area gardeners don’t grow a multitude of herbs in their landscapes and gardens…. and also that more local growers don’t raise herbs as a commercial crop. Many herbs are native to the Mediterranean region that has a dry climate and alkaline soils… very much like our local conditions.

Sage is an herb I like to use in areas of my landscape that get little water during the summer. One bed of sage next to my front steps thrives so well I have to “whack” it way back each spring and again in mid-summer. This past spring I thought this sage might have been the victim of winter injury from the cold temperatures in January. The plants froze back almost to the ground and were very slow to start growing again in the spring. However, now they’ve once again overtaken their space and I’ve already had to trim them back some this summer with my hedge trimmer.

SAGE: Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is a hardy, woody perennial herb. Its leaves are gray-green and oval shaped. They have a rough, pebbly-like surface. Garden sage has a very intense camphor-like scent that’s used sparingly in cooking for flavoring meats and stews.

The plant grows about two feet tall by two feet wide or more. Because it has a tendency to sprawl, it should be pruned back each spring to keep it from becoming leggy. Sage grows best in full sun and well-drained alkaline soil… which is no surprise since it’s one of the herbs native to the Mediterranean.

Sage grows best in full sun and well-drained alkaline soil… which is no surprise since it’s one of the herbs native to the Mediterranean.

Gardeners buying garden sage will usually find several different cultivars offered. ‘Purpuria’ has purple tinged leaves and stems. ‘Tricolor’ has a leaves patterned white, green and rosy-red. ‘Icterina’ has green leaves variegated with yellow-gold which is different from ‘Aurea’ which has smaller yellow leaves. One of my new favorite sages is ‘’Berggarten.’ It has larger, softer-looking rounded leaves. The plant itself has a bushier habit and less of a tendency to sprawl. For additional variation there’s ‘Holt’s Mammoth’ which grows to at least three feet tall.

Salvia gets its botanical genus name from the Latin word “salvare” meaning “to cure” or “to save.” In ancient times, it was considered a sacred herb and was supposed to have curative and healing properties.

ROSEMEARY: Rosemary is also a small, shrubby evergreen perennial herb that grows well in area gardens, but it’s only hardy down to a temperature of 10 degrees F. As you might guess, many local gardeners, including me, lost their rosemary plants that had persisted and thrived through several of the previous milder winters.

Rosemary is a member of the mint family. It has short, pine-like needles with a strong, pungent flavor and fragrance. It’s most often used as a dried herb to flavor meat. Its name is derived from two Latin words meaning “dew of the sea.” This is very appropriate since its native habitat is on cliff sides overlooking the Mediterranean.

Rosemary has been used as an herb for centuries… since at least 500 B.C. Over the years, it has been revered as a ceremonial herb to signify love, devotion, fidelity, faithfulness, and remembrance. Various old marriage customs incorporated this symbolism. As a sign of fidelity and remembrance of the wedding vows, rosemary was used instead of rings in wedding ceremonies. It was also placed in bride’s wreaths, given to wedding guests, and used for wedding decorations. In ancient Greece it was thought to improve the memory and Greek students would wear it in their hair to better their chances on exams. As quaint as that might seem, researchers at the University of Cincinnati have found that the aroma of rosemary does stimulate the memory!

BASIL: Perhaps my favorite culinary herb is basil. Annual basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a wonderfully aromatic herb that I find irresistible. It’s easy to grow, but it’s a very tender, warm-season plant and should not be planted outdoors in the spring until all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed up a bit. Unlike many other herbs, basil is a tropical plant. It’s not drought tolerant. It likes plenty of sun and heat and grows best when grown in moist, slightly acid soils containing organic matter.

Basil is native to southern Asia and the south Pacific islands, but has long been used as a seasoning in various cultures’ cuisines, especially Asian and Italian cooking. There are both culinary and ornamental cultivars of basil. The best basils for pesto are ‘Genovese,’ ‘Italian Pesto,’ and ‘Profuma di Genova’ because of their vigorous growth and full flavor. Lemon basils (‘Mrs. Burns’ and ‘Sweet Dani’) have a strong lemon flavor and aroma. The spicy basils (‘Persian Anise’ and ‘Siam Queen’) have a slightly different flavor that resembles anise. There are also lettuce-leaf basils and miniature basils. An increasing number of ornamental basils have been catching gardeners’ interest. ‘Purple Ruffles’ is one of the most popular ones with its dark purple, ruffled leaves, as well as ‘Dark Opal’ with plain dark purple leaves.

Published: 7/31/2004 2:19 PM

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