Hardy herbs

By Tom Seymour | Jan 23, 2014
Photo by: Tom Seymour Chives push their way through last year's dead growth.

Herbs add so much to our lives. A simple vegetable dish becomes a mouth-watering epicurean treat with the addition of herbs. And as with everything else, fresh is best. Sure, we can buy “fresh” herbs from the store, but these can’t compete with just-picked herbs that we harvest ourselves simply by walking outside and harvesting what we need.

By “hardy,” I mean perennial plants, the kind that once planted and established, continue on practically indefinitely. Of course many of our favorite kitchen herbs are annuals and must be planted each year. But a good number of useful, tasty and even healthful herbs are of the hardy variety and these are what we’ll discuss in this week’s column.

Herb choices

Some herbs are so tough that they send up new growth even in the depths of winter, during brief warm spells. One, chives, Allium schoenoprasum is a must-have for the kitchen herb garden.

This past week’s unseasonably warm weather melted the snow in front of my house and it occurred to me to check my chive patch. And sure enough, numbers of a quarter-inch-tall chives had sprouted from the parent clump. Given continued warm weather, these would quickly develop into useable chives. But alas, winter returned and that couldn’t happen. Nonetheless, I picked and nibbled on a handful of fresh chives, quite a feat for mid-January. These were firmer than summer-harvested chives and in fact had a hint of crispness. Also, the flavor was not so strong as to be overpowering. In every way, these January-picked chives were just right.

This same patch of chives ranks among my earliest herbs each year. By early April, I’m selectively picking chives for use in cooking. And by May, these same chives grow so robustly that I’m snipping them into small bits for use in wild salads.

Many plant centers and greenhouses sell potted chives and for those wishing to have useable chives the first season, this is the way to go. For those willing to wait, chive seeds are cheaper and one package of seeds can cover a large area.

It’s also possible to harvest chive seeds from established plants. Just wait until blossoms on your friend’s or neighbor’s chives lose their pink color and turn dry. Hold a hand under one blossom head and shake, and enough small, black seeds will come loose to plant several garden’s worth of tasty chives. Chives are hardy down to zone 3.

Oregano

Oregano, family Labiatae, a staple in Italian cooking, is another hardy herb and well worth cultivating. Oregano is so tough that it persists, evergreen, under the snow. In writing this column, I decided to go out and prove this very point. Fortunately, sun had melted the ground around a small shrub. Oregano had filled in under the shrub, a happy combination.

Anyway, I was able to pick some still-green leaves of oregano and upon crushing them, found them as aromatic and flavorful as ever. However, my dried oregano supply from last season’s oregano is holding out well, and it wasn’t necessary to harvest any of this wintertime herb.

Oregano is an introduced herb and wasn’t popular in the United States until after World War II. Soldiers, who had eaten oregano-laced pizza in Italy, demanded the same here and oregano became an instant hit.

We have around 20 species of oregano to choose from and while we can start oregano from seed, cutting and root division, it’s difficult to get a feel for the aroma when starting from seed. Better to buy live, commercially-raised plants or else take cuttings or divided plants from a friend. This allows the buyer to become acquainted with the taste and aroma before planting.

Once established, oregano can really go to town if given free reign. In fact, its long, branching stems often use other plants as support and climb about freely in the herb garden. But oregano is shallow-rooted and it’s easy just to pull up offending plants.

As with so many herbs, growing in a dry environment boosts the essential oil content. And it is the essential oils in herbs that give them their flavor and power. This is an important aspect of growing medicinal herbs. Plants grown in a fertile, moist soil develop only low amounts of essential oils and often lack flavor and strength, while those grown in dry, even infertile situations, pack in lots of essential oil.

While fresh (as in new growth), oregano won’t be available until the ground becomes thoroughly warm, overwintered oregano is there any time we need it. So in effect, oregano is truly a year-round herb. Oregano is hardy to zone 5, but when planted in a protected area, it should survive down to zone 4. Indeed, temperatures in my supposed “zone 5” garden often drop to zone 4 levels.

Thyme

Thyme, Thymus vulgaris, another hardy perennial, is my number three choice as a must-have, kitchen garden herb. Thyme also figures in to lots of different garden designs and serves as a fragrant groundcover and also, a fill-in plant for barren areas. We have several hundred species of thyme to choose from, so again, while thyme grows from seed, it’s best to sample the product first, meaning that cuttings, root division and even potted plants are better choices.

Like the other herbs listed here, thyme persists under the snow, making it at least potentially available year-round. Still, since we never know what a winter will bring, it’s best to pick and dry thyme during the growing season and store it for winter use.

Thyme excels in stews and sauces, but the imaginative cook can easily discover myriad ways to use this hardy and long-lasting herb. I like to pick fresh thyme, crumble it in my hands and sprinkle it over fresh-caught fish fillets. The uses for thyme are indeed limitless.

Thyme grows in several locations in my garden and each of these plots has held thyme for well over 20 years. The only problem I’ve ever had with it was when it overstepped its bounds. Thyme has a more tenacious root system than oregano and I found it difficult to totally eradicate by pulling. So I just clipped it back to ground level and that worked fine.

Thyme, or one of its components, thymol, has any number of commercial applications, one of which is an ingredient in commercially-produced mouthwashes. Thyme also figures into folklore and the wild thyme that grows in higher, drier elevations in Britain is immortalized in the verses of an old Scottish folk tune, "Wild Mountain Thyme."

As with oregano, the growing shoot, or the woody part that persists through the winter, is perennial, whereas the flowering shoot, or the part that grows anew each year, is annual. The entire plant, since it survives year-round is perennial. Thyme is listed as hardy to zone 4 and since these hardiness zones are only rough guidelines, it seems probable that thyme would endure in protected areas in zone 3.

These are only a few of the hardy herbs that deserve a place in every kitchen garden or cottage plot. They intermix well with many other species and plant types and once established, provide us with food, wonderful aroma and most of all, beauty, year-in and year-out.

Helpful tip

Either buy chive seeds or harvest from established plants. Plant these in containers in late summer and bring inside and place on a windowsill for a wintertime herb garden.

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