Thursday, September 24, 2009

Backyard Herbal

In my successes post, I wondered whether it would be “cheating” to include herbs because I've had more experience growing them than any other type of plant, and because they are fairly easy to grow (sure bets, in other words). Later I realized I shouldn’t downplay herbs. They are essential to a Backyard Nest Egg due to their multiple contributions: culinary, nutritive, and medicinal.

As everyone knows, herbs can improve the humblest of fare. Today, for example, we’re having meatloaf and potatoes. Ho-hum. But the meatloaf is a Bobby Flay recipe that incorporates lots of finely chopped, sautéed veggies, as well as fresh thyme and parsley. The potatoes are our own homegrown German butterballs, roasted with olive oil and rosemary. Suddenly, our simple menu sounds like something a waiter in one of the better restaurants could wax eloquent about when taking your order.

Rosemary and thyme are among my favorite herbs for cooking. Thyme improves any beef dish and enhances just about any vegetable dish as well. Rosemary is a marvelous addition to many dishes, especially poultry, lamb, and potatoes. I also love rosemary baked into a hearty bread. These woody perennials are easy to grow and dry, and I’ve never had a problem with rabbits going after them!

However, here in Wisconsin, it’s impossible to overwinter rosemary outdoors, whereas thyme will survive as a perennial. If Thanksgiving doesn’t fall too late in November, and we haven’t had extremely cold weather yet, I still have fresh springs of rosemary, sage, and thyme for stuffing the turkey (together with onion and lemon – I bake the bread stuffing separately.) But that’s the absolute latest in the year I can hope for fresh rosemary from the garden.

Rosemary also takes a bit of time to get going in the spring. So my practice now is to plant one rosemary and one thyme seedling in pots in the spring. At the end of the summer, I bring the pots in. They don’t grow much, so I can only snip limited quantities of the fresh herbs over the winter. But in spring, I have a good-sized rosemary plant with an established root system. I plant it in the garden, together with several small purchased rosemary seedlings. The overwintered plant has a head start, so I get more fresh rosemary earlier. At the same time, I plant another small seedling in a pot, to take inside during the following winter, and provide a larger plant for the garden next spring.

I’ve only recently started thinking about the nutritive value of herbs. I was astonished to learn that parsley contains twice the iron of spinach and three times the vitamin C of oranges (by weight)! Parsley is definitely worth growing for those reasons alone. Parsley also enhances the flavor of many dishes, and complements other herbs as well.

Grown from seed, parsley is an herb that teaches patience and faith. Germination is slow, and no matter how I try to manage the seedlings, they are leggy and limp by the time I plant them out. They (and cilantro) look like the weak sisters of the herb garden, and it seems hard to believe you’ll get much out of them. But soon, parsley seedlings take off and produce lush, abundant foliage.

Before supermarkets shipped in out-of-season produce from distant locales, people in northern climates eagerly sought the first greens of spring for their nutritive properties. Chives are an easy-to-grow and versatile source of early greens in spring for the Backyard Nest Egg. Chives can survive the harsh winters of Wisconsin and are the first herb in my garden to send up green shoots in the spring. Chopped fresh chives are a great finish to many types of dishes – including soups, salads, and cooked vegetables.

Finally, as we all know, herbs have long been valued for their medicinal uses. In fact, it’s likely that some herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, and parsley, became popular culinary herbs because of their medicinal properties. Historically and today, rosemary, thyme, and parsley are considered beneficial as digestives and carminatives (a carminative is something that relieves flatulence). Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs identifies rosemary as a liver and gall bladder stimulant, and thyme as a liver tonic, while Michael Tierra (The Way of Herbs) describes thyme as an important parasiticide, useful for treating intestinal worms. (Contemporary research indicates that rosemary and parsley also have antioxidant properties.)

One of my goals for my Backyard Nest Egg is to expand my knowledge and use of homegrown herbs for medicinal purposes. I have used some simple preparations for minor complaints for years. For example, I always dry lots of sage for use in treating congestion in the head or chest in winter. Basically, I throw a handful of dried sage in a bowl of just boiled water and take in the steam with a towel over my head. (Rosemary is also a great expectorant and decongestant, but sage is more abundant in my garden and I find a little goes a long way in cooking. So I use the sage for colds and save the rosemary for cooking.) I find both peppermint and parsley tea refreshing and good digestive aids, and parsley to be a useful diuretic.

Other herbs take more time and effort to process. Echinacea is one of my favorite native flowers and I’ve grown it for years, when I lived in Nebraska and here in Wisconsin. But for medicinal purposes, I always use commercially produced preparations. I want to learn how to dig and process the root myself. Next year I plan to add Black Cohosh, another native plant to my garden. Like Echinacea, the root is the part used for medicinal purposes.

But our first experiment with processing root will be horseradish. (An upcoming post will focus exclusively on this herb.) Rick loves horseradish as a condiment and suggested we add it to the garden last year. The root is harvested the second year, so in a few weeks we’ll be digging it up. It got so big last year, we had to move it out of my backdoor herb garden to it's own place of honor in the larger garden. We must have left a piece of root, because as you can see in the photo above, there is a small horseradish still in the herb garden. Medicinally, as anyone who has eaten it knows, horseradish is great for clearing sinus congestion.

As food and medicine, for pleasure and health, the herb garden is obviously essential for any Backyard Nest Egg.

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