Perennial Herb Garden

Last summer I started a perennial herb garden just on the other side of our orchard.  Although I grew up eating fairly bland food and have cooked that way myself for years, as I get older I realize that I enjoy herbs and spices more than I thought I did!

Perennial herb garden

Here is my Perennial herb garden looking from East to West, with the oregano section in the foreground.  The oregano started out as one small plant, but has spread and will probably fill in the bed this year.

I decided to start a perennial herb garden because I found that buying fresh herbs at the market can be quite expensive.  Even when I find the price reasonable, sometimes I have to buy too much for the recipe I am following and end up wasting some of the herb.  So, I decided to start growing my own.  Of course I will continue to plant basil seeds every year, and red peppers to make my own red pepper flakes, but the perennial herbs seem to take care of themselves.  In fact, it’s rare that they get bugs.  That’s probably because of the aromatic oils in the plants themselves.  My only problem has been with our &%$#(@# vole that insists on tunneling right through my beds!

The rosemary plants look pretty good. They are fairly drought tolerant and have virtually no pests, but our honeybees will absolutely maul the rosemary blooms when they appear later this spring,

I grew rosemary for years at our old house and ended up with huge rosemary bushes that weren’t very well tamed.  Our kitty cat used to sleep under the rosemary during the hot summer afternoons and she would come into the house smelling like heaven!  I am just learning to cook more with rosemary, and made a delicious rosemary sourdough cracker a couple of years ago.

I have also tried growing oregano before and really enjoyed learning to make Italian and Mexican dishes with fresh oregano.  However, I have never grown sage or thyme, which I had heard are fairly easy to grow, especially in my 7B/8A climate. In fact, when our new house is finished being built, there is a hill right behind our covered patio where I will be planting thyme, as it is supposed to be a great ground cover.

I decided to locate the garden right behind the log retaining wall that is terracing our orchard because many herbs are deterrents to deer. In fact, my research reveals that deer detest rosemary!  We haven’t had a real problem with deer in our orchard/garden, but I’m all for double purpose plants!

So, I decided to plant the herb garden with the four basics:  oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme. Did I just hear Simon and Garfunkel in my head? 😉  All of these are perennials.  Up in the garden I also have a few other perennial herbs including lemon balm, spearmint and lavender.

Growing lemon balm in a perennial herb gardenThe lemon balm is in a planter right next to the bee hives.  There is an old folk tale that bees will not abandon a hive (swarm) where lemon balm grows, so that is why we planted it there.  We also have another lemon balm plant right next to our bee watering pond, so you can see I put a lot of faith in some folk tales!  We’ll see how it goes this year.  Lemon balm was once called a “poor man’s lemonade” plant, because not very many pioneers had lemon trees, nor could they afford lemons, but lots of people can grow lemon balm!

I am keeping the spearmint plant contained in a large pot.  Spearmint is known to spread willy-nilly and is hard to get rid of once established.  That is why, even though it is crowded, I am keeping it in a pot.  I will find a wider pot for the spearmint later this spring, however, so it can spread it’s roots a bit more. But I must warn you, my plant kept trying to escape this past summer by producing runners down to the ground seemingly overnight!  Of course, these runners are what I snipped and used for my kitchen. I love putting a few bruised spearmint leaves in hot water with a touch of either honey or a few stevia leaves, letting it cool, then drinking it over ice.  Ahhhhh.  So refreshing on a hot summer day! Growing spearmint in a perennial garden

The lavender is located just above the log retaining wall, near the strawberries.  Lavender lavenderinfused water is also yummy, and I just love putting a few dried sprigs in my drawers for a fresh, clean scent.

My dresser drawers, silly.  🙂

When Ray and I went on a farm tour a couple of years ago, we visited a farm that specialized in aromatic herbs including lavender, clary sage and lemon verbena.  In their gift shop they gave away lavender cookies and let me tell you, they were absolutely delicious!  As you can see in the picture to the right, I haven’t cleaned the lavender bed yet, but I will get to that soon.  My husband gave me the beautiful garden armillary for our anniversary several years ago, and my father made the concrete pedestal.  When the lavender is in bloom, this is such a beautiful vignette in the garden. And the armillary actually keeps pretty good time!  Speaking of thyme…

Thyme

This is the thyme, which has spread triple from what I planted last spring.

All of the herbs survived well over the winter, despite all of the wind, rain, hail and snow, and are showing signs of good spring growth.

The sage is  the herb in my garden that looks the most winter worn, but it is showing signs of new spring growth, so I have faith it will do just fine. Ray and I can’t wait to try a new sausage recipe that uses fresh sage. Yummy.

I pinched a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme the other day for one of our new favorite veggie cooking with rosemary and thymedishes:  roasted root vegetables!  All I had on hand this time were potatoes and carrots, which is just fine, but parsnips, rutabaga, even radish works in this dish. Just a couple sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary, chopped fine, salt and pepper, drizzled with olive oil, and the vegetables come out browned and caramelized, seasoned to perfection. What temp to set the oven?  Just about anything from 300 to 425, so you can roast meat or bake bread while roasting these healthy and delicious root vegetables – just knowing that they will cook faster at higher temperatures  MMMMMMMMM…

 

And the cute little kitty reclining on a rock that you may have spied near the sage?  That is in memory of my sweet kitty, Missy, who was queen of our neighborhood for 15 years and will remain forever in our hearts.

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Pasta Sauce & Oregano Harvest

Last year I planted one itty, bitty oregano plant.  You know, one of those little 2″ x 2″ cubes you get at the nursery with a little sprig coming out of the top.Then I planted some basil this spring.  I also have my volunteer tomato plants.  So…  I have a pasta sauce garden!

Well, I was just a little disappointed with the oregano last year.  It didn’t grow as fast as I thought it should, and by the time I was harvesting basil, peppers and tomatoes, the oregano didn’t look very promising.  Even though it likes to dry out between waterings, I don’t think it was getting enough water.

This year, I have this:canning pasta sauce with meat

It’s starting to get leggy and the buds are just about to bloom (some are blooming and the bees are loving it), so now is the time to harvest some of the oregano – both for dehydrating to use later in the winter and also to make some fresh pasta sauce.

Finally! 🙂

For the pasta sauce, I set aside 2 tablespoons of the fresh oregano to make the sauce and processed the rest for my spice cupboard.  Since I don’t use pesticides, I know my herb is perfectly safe.  I also harvested some of my basil for the pasta sauce. Harvesting basil by cutting off the top three or four sets of leaves depending on how big the plant is, or in the case of oregano cutting the stems in half, is actually good for these herbs.  If you keep loping off a little of the basil now and then, it will branch out, get bushier, and you will have loads more to harvest!  Same with the oregano.

The remainder of the oregano was washed in cool water several times to make sure I got all of the dirt, spiders, etc. off.  Once that was done, I stripped the leaves from the stems and spread them out on a cookie sheet lined with parchment so the oregano could dry.  Make sure you don’t put it in the sun – that’s not good for herbs that you are dehydrating. If you want to use a dehydrator, follow the manufacturer’s directions.  I prefer to dry mine the “no power” way because the oils and flavors in the herb are very delicate and heat sensitive – and why use power if you don’t need to!  It only takes a day or so for the oregano leaves to dry. Once the leaves are leathery (almost crumbly) dry, they are done. Pack into an airtight container and, as with all herbs, it is preferable to keep out of light.pasta sauce with fresh oregano and basil

Alternatively, you could harvest your oregano, clean as above, then bunch together with a rubber band.  This can then be hung in a warm, dry area to dehydrate right on the stem.  Purists say this is the best way because all the oils follow gravity down the stem and into the leaves, which makes the most intense flavors in the herb.  I don’t really know for sure.  I have done it both ways and don’t really see a difference.Fresh basil and oregano pasta sauce

So – onward to my pasta sauce!

ground chicken in pasta sauceFirst comes the tomatoes.  I had some regular old slicing type tomatoes and some grape tomatoes in my freezer and I bought a couple pounds of Roma tomatoes to make the sauce.  Last year I discovered that the easiest way to peel tomatoes is to freeze them. You can see the entire instructions HERE. Once they begin to thaw, their skins start to break.  Once thawed, all you have to do is tug on a peel and it comes right off!  No boiling water to scald your fingers!  If you click on the picture, you will see that some of the tomato skins are starting to crack.

Easy-peasy!

Once the tomatoes were peeled and quartered, I placed them into a large pot and let them come to a boil.  I didn’t bother making sure all the seeds were out.  I don’t mind seeds.  The tomatoes simmered for an hour or so, to cook down, get soft, and concentrate some of the juices.  Then, I cheated – I poured the tomatoes into my blender to make a smooth tomato sauce.

🙂

The sauce was poured back into the pot and then I added 2 tablespoons of chopped basil,Pasta sauce with ground chicken 1 tablespoon chopped oregano and 2 tablespoons of minced garlic.  Those were the fresh ingredients.  Since hubby and I like just a little bit of “kick” in our pasta sauces, I added about 1/2 teaspoon of the red chili pepper flakes that I dehydrated and ground up last year, plus a generous grind of black pepper.

While the pasta sauce was simmering again, with the fresh herbs, getting nice and thick, I browned some ground chicken in a skillet, then added it to the pasta sauce.  I let the pasta sauce (all ingredients now in) happily bubble away on my stove top while I prepared the jars, lids, and pressure canner.Fresh basil, oregano and garlic pasta sauce

My pressure canner is a heavy one, and it isn’t recommended that I use it on top of my glass cook top range, simply because of the weight.  Happily I have an outdoor kitchen.  Unfortunately, we are in the process of re-doing the granite top of the outdoor kitchen.  Luckily, dear hubby had a better idea, anyway.  Our middle son gave us one of those outdoor turkey cookers several years ago for Christmas.  Though we have used it a couple of times to cook turkey, and once to process a bunch of crab, I think we have found it’s best use yet:  Canning!  The pressure cooker fit perfectly into the stand – just like they were made for each other!  I even realized that the large pot that came with the turkey cooker will double very well as a water bath canner!  This is ideal because I won’t have to heat up my kitchen ever again!  Wahoo!spaghetti sauce with ground chicken

Once the hot jars were filled with the hot pasta sauce to within one inch of the top of the  jar, they were placed into the canner that already had hot water.  Did you pick up on the term hot?  Always remember, hot jars for hot food into hot canning water.  Cold jars for cold foods into cold/warm canning water.  If you don’t follow this rule you may just end up with a lot of cracked jars and a mess in the canner! 🙁

The pasta sauce was then processed (after venting and bringing up to 10 pounds of pressure) for 75 minutes for pints (90 for quarts).  You must always process any low acid food in a pressure cooker – that means all vegetables and meats, and even some fruits!

After the 75 minutes were up, the gas was turned off and I let the jars just sit in the hot canner for about 5 hours, so they could cool down.  If you don’t do this, you risk having bad seals or even cracking a jar.  It’s even better to just let it sit overnight.

This is what I ended up with:

Spaghetti sauce with ground chicken, basil, oregano

Now, when I want to serve spaghetti, I will pour the contents of the jar into a pot, heat it up to a simmer, and then add whatever I want – mushrooms, fresh tomatoes (to make it chunky) olives – or nothing at all!  Then it can be poured over freshly cooked pasta. Sprinkle with a little Parmesan.  Mmmmm…

Or this could be as the base sauce of a home made pizza.  Yum!  What is your favorite way to use pasta sauce?

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