Spice up Your Life

Since early times man has used herbs to improve his way of life. Herbs were used to make his food more palatable, make him feel better, and to sweeten his surroundings. Traditions have carried down and today herbs are still an important part of our way of life. Herbs were brought to the new world by our ancestors who treasured them by collecting their seed and guarding the precious cuttings on the long journey to their new home. Not a day passes that you do not encounter these herbs: a spring of parsley on your plate, or that spicy flavor of basil, marjoram, and oregano in a dish of spaghetti. Memories of the sweet smell of thyme burning as incense and the smell of turkey stuffed with a sage dressing at Grandma’s house makes the holiday season a memory that lasts a lifetime. Along with the smells and flavors we expect, herbs enhance our surroundings with showy forms of green, grey and blue-green foliage bearing delicate blooms in hues of blue and white. So be creative and spice up your life. The only limit is your imagination.

In the early days man collected herbs in the wild. In Alaska both chives and chamomile are common in the wild but today it is more convenient to grow our herbs in the window sill and garden where we can enjoy their use each day. Most varieties of herbs germinate quickly and are easy to grow from seed. Parsley is one that is a little slow to germinate, so start it earlier than the rest. Herbs are annual, biannual, or perennial, but except for chives all are treated as annuals in Alaska. Due to Alaska’s shortened growing season herbs should be started indoors so they will mature before the fall frosts arrive. Herbs grow well when started from seed in a sunny window sill as they like the higher temperatures found in the house. When seeding indoors use a sandy, well-drained, sterilized potting soil to prevent the fungus disease, damp-off. Keep the newly seeded bed moist but not wet. When the danger of frost is past transplant to the garden. Choose a location for your herb garden that is close to the kitchen so it is convenient to take full advantage of the fresh zesty flavorings when preparing a meal. A herb garden along the walkway at the kitchen door is very attractive as well as convenient. Herbs are noted for their unusual foliage colors which ranges from grey to blue-green and numerous shades of green. Most herbs are native to hot dry regions so naturally they prefer a sandy well-drained garden soil. They are also sun-loving plants, and should be planted in an area that receives full sun at least half the day. Herbs, like most garden plants, prefer a soil just slightly acidic to neutral, so soils heavy to peat as found in the Anchorage area should be tested to see if lime is needed. Herbs are not demanding and need only an occasional watering and little fertilizer. If you over fertilize they will become leggy and straggly. If this happens prune the tips back to keep the plants compact. To feed container-grown herbs water with a liquid solution of plant food every six weeks to two months. Garden-grown herbs should be fertilized with 1-2 pounds of 8-32-16 or a like fertilizer, once a year or give them an annual application of bone meal.

Common Herbs and Uses:

Sweet Basil
A many branched annual grown from seed each year. The purplish oval-leaved plant grows to 1 ½ feet tall with flowers that range in color from white to purplish. Sweet basil grows well as a container plant indoors, and outdoors in a container garden, but does not do well in Alaska’s cool garden soils. The center of the plant should be pinched out when the young seedlings are only a few inches tall to make the plant bushier and more compact. The leaves have a taste similar to pepper or cloves and can be used fresh or dried with meat, fish, eggs, or vegetables. Sweet basil is also an excellent seasoning for making tomato sauce.

A member of the mint family, grown as an annual in Alaska. It is especially well known for the way its leaves and blossoms attract and delight cats. However, its lemony-mint scented leaves are also excellent, either freshly crushed or dried, for brewing teas, tonics, or as a seasoning.

An onion-scented perennial herb that over-winters in most of Alaska. It is grown for its hollow cylindrical leaves that are chopped and used as a seasoning, adding zest to many dishes. The plant is also very attractive in the garden because it produces rose-purple flowers. Chives may be started indoors then planted in the garden. The culture is the same as for onions. The plants are hardy and require no special attention. Chives can also be grown mid-winter in a sunny window.

Garlic Chives
The tubular grass-like leaves of this herb have a mild garlic flavor. Fresh leaves are cut as needed to flavor potato dishes, dips, soups, fresh salads and stir fry recipes. A perennial ornamental with showy white flowers.

Oregano is the trade named used for a mixture of European herbs used as condiments. Oreganum vulgare, more commonly known as oregano is a hardy, compact perennial plant with aromatic foliage, a member of the mint family, and is also called pot or wild marjoram. This plant is different and should not be confused with sweet marjoram. Oregano leaves are used to season food with a flavor similar to sweet marjoram but stronger with a more pungent flavor. Dry or fresh leaves are extensively used as flavoring in Italian foods. Oregano does not over-winter in most areas of Alaska and is grown as an annual.

Parsley is a very common garden herb, a member of the carrot family. Parsley is a many branched plant that grows 10 to 15 inches tall with crisp dark green leaves. It is a biennial or short lived perennial that is grown as an annual. Parsley is grown from seed but germination is slow and erratic. Germination can be hastened by soaking the seed in warm water for a few hours before planting. The leaves of parsley are used in salads and to flavor and garnish many foods. Parsley seed is sown in flats 1/8 inch deep, spaced ½ to 1 inch apart. Do not allow the seed bed to dry out during the germination period. Parsley will grow in any good garden soil. It can be grown out of doors or in pots in a bright window.

Summer Savory
A hardy, easy to grow annual grown for its attractive flowers and sweet scented, tangy flavored leaves. The leaves are used fresh or dried to flavor salads, salad dressings, soups, stews, sauces, stuffing , egg dishes, gravies, meats and vinegars. The leaves are also used to reduce the strong odors when cooking turnips, brussels sprouts, and cabbage. Savory is a plant that grows well.