August 17, 2008

It’s Time to Use, Preserve Herbs’ Peak Fresh Flavor

By Christine Arpe Gang

This is a time of year herb gardeners savor.

The tasty and aromatic plants they love to grow and use are now at their peak.

Some of them, such as rosemary, thyme and parsley, remain evergreen and usable throughout the winter.

But others, such as basil, an annual, need to be preserved before they wither or before the first frost.

Because it tends to lose flavor when dried, my favorite way of preserving the fresh taste of basil is to freeze it in ice cube trays.

I make a slurry of basil and water in a blender or food processor and pour it into the trays. When the dark green cubes are frozen, I pop them out and place them in freezer bags.

When I want to add the fresh flavor of basil to a spaghetti sauce or Italian dish during the winter, I add a frozen cube to the hot liquid right before serving. It doesn't take long for it to melt into the sauce, but you can also thaw it quickly in the microwave.

With this method, it's possible to taste and smell summer in your meal in January.

After two bad starts, a nice supply of basil is now thriving in my small kitchen garden.

The first six or so plants, planted in early May, succumbed to a drift of Roundup that inadvertently hit the young leaves. The backup seeds I always sow, along with installing some plants, failed to germinate.

The second set of plants didn't take either, possibly because they didn't get water at a critical time.

In late June I tried again. This time, the plants that I purchased at a big home improvement store were fairly large, and there were at least two in every tiny pot.

They took off and are now leafy bushes, as are two lemon basil plants that piggybacked in with the others somehow.

So all is well. I can't imagine not having fresh basil to chop into salads and flavor the cold gazpacho we love.

Basil likes warm soil, sunlight, adequate water and a little food to keep it going. Keep the flowers pinched off to encourage leaf production.

The bold flavor of oregano intensifies, but also mellows when it is dried. So, some herb gardeners use it only in that form to flavor pizzas and other Italian dishes.

Most herb gardeners grow the tasty Greek variety, which has white flowers and a peppery taste. But a new variety, Hot & Spicy, is also gaining favor, because, as its name suggests, it packs a powerful flavor.

Italian oregano is also sold as Sicilian oregano or hardy sweet marjoram. Marjoram and oregano are of the same botanical species, and Italian oregano is a cross between sweet marjoram and oregano, so it is less bitter.

The best way to buy one is to taste a tiny leaf first so you don't accidentally buy an oregano that is more ornamental than tasty.

Oregano is easy to grow if you give it well-drained soil and a sunny site. Do not overfertilize or overwater, and cut back the flowers and stems a few times during the growing season to keep the foliage succulent.

Don't cut back after mid-September. You don't want a flush of tender new leaves when the first frost hits, typically in early November.

Bug-free plants for the winter

We have been receiving many gardening questions from readers:

Steve Seaton wants to know a good drench for killing insects in the potted plants he wants to bring into his house for the winter.

Horticulturists at Dixon Gallery and Gardens use imidacloprid, the active ingredient in Bayer Advanced Tree & Shrub Insect Control, to drench the soil in potted plants that will be placed in the greenhouse for the winter.

They also spray the leaves with a light horticultural oil, such as Sunspray, to smother pests. Before using oils, be sure to read package directions, because they are not recommended for some plants, such as ferns.

The plant takes in the chemical through its roots and sends it to the leaves. When insects suck on the leaves, they eat the chemical and die.

If you don't like using chemicals, you can also drench the soil in the pot with a solution of warm water and insecticidal soap or warm water and dishwashing liquid. Use two teaspoons of dishwashing detergent, such as Dawn or Ivory, to every quart of water, or 2 1/2 tablespoons to the gallon.

The soapy water should also also be sprayed on the leaves, especially the undersides, where insects hide.

Before you apply soapy water to all of the foliage, spray a leaf or two as a test.

(Never use dry dishwashing powders or laundry detergent on plants. They are too harsh.)

Soapy water is effective against aphids, young scales, whiteflies, mealy bugs and spider mites.

Questions or comments? E-mail Christine Arpe Gang at [email protected], or call Lifestyles editor Peggy Reisser Winburne at 529-2372.

Originally published by Christine Arpe Gang .

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