Yes, there’s more to life than salt and pepper.
Rosemary... and Thyme...
Imagine tomatoes without fresh basil? Lamb and no rosemary? Pizza sans oregano? It would be akin to Romeo less Juliet, or Ernie less Bert. That’s the joy of herbs. Like the perfect marriage, they can even change your life.
More Canadians are growing herbs, for both summer-fresh taste and health benefits.
"The increase in the awareness of herbs has been astounding," says Conrad Richter, head of Canada’s top grower and exporter, Richters Herbs. He suggests it is partly because immigrants imported traditional knowledge of herbs, and aging boomers have a greater awareness of health and fine foods. As a result, herbs are a mainstay of home gardens.
"If you want to grow herbs, planting a garden is your best choice," Richter says, due to a garden plot’s naturally draining and aerating soil."
"One thing herbs require is light -- I can’t emphasize that enough," says Richter, whose Uxbridge, Ontario area company boasts 23 acres, including an acre of greenhouses alone.
"Kitchen herbs are typically from the Mediterranean area and these plants are accustomed to a lot of light," he says of such favourites as basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage, cilantro and chives.
And be warned, it’s a myth that herbs’ aromatic properties repel insects.
"We have fields in the back that we never need to spray," he says of outdoor predators who help keep bugs such as ladybugs and dragonflies at bay. "ln the greenhouse, it’s more of a challenge."
Containers have other challenges, but can also be excellent herb producers.
"My mother advocated a simple window box with charcoal in the bottom, and some good potting soil with herbs in four- or five-inch pots," he says, Large pots on a patio or verandah also do well.
Next to light, you need to ensure water drainage and air flow to the herbs’ roots.
"You need a soil mix with air gaps and we often add sand or perlite, or my favourite, vermiculite. Or just good potting soil," Richter adds.
Some grow better from seed -- such as coriander and the carrot/parsley family of herbs, such as chervil, fennel, dill and caraway.
Seed in February or March for rosemary and lavender; as late as April for oregano, thyme and basil, with a move outdoors in mid- to late-May.
Make sure to fertilize, whether inside or out. Fish emulsion works well but smells, well, fishy. Seaweed provides only minor nutrients. A 20-20-20 (nitrate-phosphorous-potassium] supplement is a very good mix," says Richter.
He recommends container-grown combos such as rosemary, Greek oregano, English thyme, basil, parsley, winter savoury and chives.
Container herbs need careful harvesting and some, like chervil and cress, won’t survive repeated cuttings. Cilantro needs re-seeding but oregano is hardy and basil can be cut right up until it self-seeds.
Richter is delighted with Canada’s growing love affair with herbs.
"Herbs were originally used for health and not flavour; he says. "For instance savoury is delicious on string beans -- but is also a digestive and thus prudent."
Richter humbly admits today’s herb revelation was common knowledge to his late [German] mother, Waltraut.
"She was the heart and soul of this business and an advocate for herbs," he says, recalling how his mother’s private herb patch replaced the family’s original flower-and-vegetable garden business.
"I was conned into believing herbs were an anachronism with my scientific background," says Richter who studied botany at the University of Toronto. "I always cringed when she’d say things like ‘take valerian for sleeping because it has no side effects.’ But she was right all along. I’ve read a number of scientific papers these last few years that have had the same findings."