Using fresh ingredients is always best, especially those you’ve proudly cultivated yourself. Growing your own herb garden is a great way to liven up your cooking, impress friends and family, and keep your recipes unique and healthy.
Herbs are not only perfect for cooking but also as deodorizers, insect repellants, natural antibiotics and even pollinators for bees. Many contain plenty of health properties and vitamins.
“We use plant extracts a lot in naturopathic medicine, more as a single note to target certain issues in the body,” says Dr. Urszula May, naturopathic doctor at Align Health Centre in Newmarket. “But when you use the whole plant or herb in a culinary way, you’re getting a lot of different compounds working with each other.”
When you think of homegrown herbs, basil is one of the first that comes to mind. There are many different types of basil – such as sweet, Genovese, Thai, and purple – providing a variety of taste, colour and fragrance to add to your pastas and salads. “Basil is pretty easy to grow,” says Josh Meyer, owner of New Roots Garden Centre. “It needs a light area, and a drained soil that’s not too wet.” You can even eat it right off the stem. Meyer suggests using organic soil so that even when you’re not washing your herbs, you know exactly what you’re eating.
While basil is an annual, it can also live indoors in winter months. But some herbs are perennials, such as thyme, sage, chives and oregano. Herbs can be grouped together in a pleasing arrangement or planted separately, depending on their individual growth needs. Keep in mind, growing them in close proximity to the BBQ makes it easy to add fresh flavour to your favourite grilled meat and veggies.
While all herbs have their own instructions for care, a general rule of thumb is to avoid letting them go to flower. But the most important tip to remember is that herbs are meant to be used. “A lot of people grow them but don’t use them enough,” says Josh. “It makes the plant stronger and you’ll get more as you use it.”
Instructions for harvesting vary, too. While basil can be pinched at the stem, rosemary can be picked away at and trimmed like a bush. “Sage and chives can be cut like grass,” says Josh. The purple flower on the chives can be used to decorate salads, and it still tastes great. If nothing else, cultivating a personal herb garden will do wonders for your experimentation in the culinary arts. “It’s self-satisfying, when you can pull from your own garden,” Josh says.
Of course, to Dr. May, the health benefits are the best part. Take peppermint, for example. Best known for its effects on the digestive system, the herb also has powerful effects on the nervous system. “You can even mash it into a pulp and apply it to sore muscles,” says May.
Lemon Balm, another member of the mint family with a lovely aroma, can reduce inflammation, prevent infection and relieve an upset stomach, while oregano can help with fungal infections and muscle aches and pains. Parsley is antibacterial and can help with bad breath, while it’s also great in dishes such as pesto and salad dressings. “There’s interesting
research around sage,” says Dr. May, noting sage not only offers an anti-inflammatory benefit, but has also been used to treat neurological disease.
As you can see, there are so many different uses for popular and easy-to-grow herbs. Basil, rosemary and lemon balm can help repel mosquitoes and other outdoor pests, too. Whether you’re using them to cook, to decorate or to make your home smell beautiful, herbs are a perfect addition to any garden, big or small, indoors or out.
by Allison Dempsey & Charlotte Ottaway
New Roots Garden Centre
Snowball Garden Centre, Aurora
Align Health Centre