The holiday season is here, and with it comes a kitchen redolent with the scent of spices and herbs. While many of the spices we associate with the holidays come from tropical climates — cardamom, cinnamon, cloves — some of the enduring homey herbs can come from our own backyards.
Many herbs can be planted year-round. When looking to plant winter herbs, choose those that can thrive in our mild Northern California winter with lots of rain and cool temperatures. Some good choices are traditional Mediterranean perennial herbs such as oregano, thyme, sage or marjoram. Leafy perennials such as lemon balm or the many available mints also are good choices. Mints spread very easily, so be sure you plant it where you want a lot of mint or else put it in a container.
When choosing herbs, look for those that are meant for cooking. If you choose a sage, be sure you choose one marked as a "culinary" sage. With tarragon, the French is preferred to Russian for flavor. In choosing rosemary, get the upright type rather than the creeping for cooking purposes. There is a plant called a "curry" plant, but it is only named for the fragrance, as there is no individual "curry" plant.
Most herbs benefit from being cut back when they get out of hand. Parsley is a biennial that reseeds easily. If it goes to seed, cut it back, and it will return in six weeks or so. Chives can be tender in the winter, but it can usually be harvested year-round. Be sure to cut off the flowers with scissors to keep chives from going to seed.
Herbs love light. Plant them in a sunny spot where they will receive at least six hours of sunlight a day. If you plant them in a container, you can roll them around to take advantage of the light as the angle of the sun changes.
Herbs prefer well-drained soil. If you plant herbs in containers, you can use a light cactus mix that will hold the moisture but still drain easily. They do not need fertilization because the faster growth results in less intense flavor. Most herbs are drought-resistant once established.
Herbs can be a beautiful addition to the garden. Herbs are perfect for the edible garden movement that embraces planting food plants among merely ornamental ones. Herbs are beautiful in a border. A mixed herb garden can be a fragrant stop along a garden path. Of course, the best place to plant herbs is near the kitchen so you can just pop out and pick something delicious to add to a soup or salad.
Your homegrown herbs have many uses. In addition to the usual culinary flavorings, herbs such as rosemary can be used as infusions in vinegar or oil. Lavender, thyme or rosemary can be added to create a savory salt. Mint or lavender kept in a jar with powdered or coarse sugar adds a delightful, subtle flavor. Many books and websites give suggestions for these sorts of uses.
You can use your herbs in holiday decorations for a natural look and delicious fragrance. A natural choice is rosemary, which grows in abundance year round and is a traditional symbol of friendship. Rosemary can be twined into a garland to festoon a kitchen or hearth. Fragrant local bay laurel is a great addition to a wreath, along with rose hips, pinecones, pink peppercorns and dried yarrow from the garden. Or create a potpourri with your favorite herbs and spices.
Once you plant herbs, you may wonder how you ever did without them. Try a small pot of mixed herbs in a sunny spot outside, and you may find yourself hooked.