Autumn Is for Raising Herbs
|Herb expert Conrad Richter demonstrates the harvesting of lemon balm on the Royal York’s rooftop herb garden. |
Fall is in the air and you probably think it’s time I started writing about fall bulbs.
However I’ve just been re-introduced to the herb garden, which reminded me that fall is also a time for harvesting and preserving culinary herbs such as rosemary, oregano, garlic chives and lemon balm.
My re-awakening took place about 18 storeys up, on the roof of the Fairmont Royal York hotel where chef and "herban" gardener Jean-Charles Dupoire grows enough fresh herbs to season the dishes on the menu at the hotel’s elegant dining room, EPIC.
Herbs have been used in cooking for centuries, not only lending their distinctive flavours to foods, but their preservative qualities too. (According to herb expert Conrad Richter of Richters Herbs in Goodwood, Ontario, thyme was valued for its essential oil called thymol, and was used to preserve meats before the advent of refrigeration.)
You might not think so, but fall is a perfect time to plant a herb garden. Hardy perennial herbs such as oregano, parsley, thyme, chives and garlic chives as well as lavender, lemon balm and mint can be planted now for a head start on spring. Says Conrad Richter, "By next May, you’ll be able to use your herbs instead of waiting for the end of summer" when spring-planted herbs would normally be ready to harvest.
If you already grow herbs, now is the time to harvest them to make herb vinegars and oils. At the Royal York’s EPIC, Chef Dupoire recommends making an oregano oil to drizzle over Greek salads, or rosemary salt as an aromatic rub for lamb or lavender sugar to use in delectable pastries - mmm…yum.
To extend the season by a month or three, you can also bring potted herbs indoors - but be careful not to bring insect pests with them. Richter recommends washing the plants with an insecticidal soap first. To do this, turn the plants upside down (I usually wrap a plastic bag around the pot to keep the soil from falling out), and swish them around in a bucket of water and insecticidal soap. Rinse, and repeat the soapy wash one or two times, and they’re ready for life inside your house.
Be warned that your herbs won’t be happy growing indoors unless you can provide them with enough artificial light to supplement their need for at least four hours of direct sunlight a day. The best way to do this, says Richter, is to place them in the brightest (and coolest) window in the house. (Cool temperatures slow down the growth of herbs to compensate for reduced light levels - the combination of heat and low light spells death for most herbs.) Then install a gro-light, or a high-intensity lamp (be sure to shield this bright light from your eyes), to give the plants the boost they need.
Check the soil daily, and when dry to the touch, water thoroughly until it drains through the bottom of the pot. Occasional, but thorough watering is much better for the plants than frequent, light watering.
Given all this coddling, herbs may last for a scant month, or right through to spring. (My rosemary usually bites the dust just as the first birds of spring start chirping - argh!) In some European countries, says Richter, gardeners bring clumps of chives indoors after the first killing frost nips their leaves. Because the roots are still alive, within a few weeks, the plant will send up succulent, new green shoots that can be harvested indoors for about a month.
So, fall is not just for bulbs - it’s for herbs too!
Surrounded by herbs, Lorraine Flanigan writes from her garden in the South Eglinton neighbourhood of Toronto.