Herbs put spark in summer recipes

by How Does Your Garden Grow? By Sharon Daniels

Layer fresh basil leaves and a thin tomato slice on what ordinarily would be a plain grilled cheese sandwich for a flavorful lunch.

Basil is an important compliment to tomatoes ripening now in gardens. Pair them with mozzarella cheese for a simple salad, or use basil in tomato sauce and marinades.

Culinary herbs, whether annuals or perennials, can be an important part of any garden. Even if you don’t have a full-sun area, many will grow with as little as a couple hours of sun daily. Try parsley, tarragon, dill and lemon verbena. They will be more robust in full sun and may get leggy in shade as they reach for sunlight.

Summer time is iced-tea time, and mints can enhance the flavor. Use fresh lemon balm leaves any time in the growing season, or dry them for later use. Harvest when the plant begins to put on flower buds or just as flowers start to open. Also use lemon balm to marinate chicken or fish, or to flavor jams or sugar cookies.

Muddle apple mint leaves for iced tea, or use in an herb rub for poultry. You can harvest a plant two or three times in one growing season. Pick a few leaves or if you need more, you can cut the plant about an inch above soil. I grow apple and other mints in containers to limit spread.

Some herbs are perennial plants and you’ll have them for a couple of years or for many years. Sage (think Thanksgiving dressing), thyme, oregano and sorrel are among them.

One year I divided onion-flavored chives and set them among hostas in hopes of deterring deer (it didn’t work). Chives now are everywhere but are useful for salads or sandwiches, and their pretty purple flowers will bloom about the first of August.

Lovage, which may not be familiar to all, has a strong but refreshing celery flavor, and mixed in softened cream cheese makes a delicious spread for crackers. Dry sprigs upside down in a darkened room and store in a sealed glass jar in a dark place.

Bay, an evergreen shrub with fragrant leaves, is a standard herb for spaghetti or pasta sauce. Dry leaves for future use. Bay also will thrive in a container, perhaps a pretty one near the front door where it is handy.

Harvest herbs regularly to encourage branching and keep plants more compact. Early day is the best time to collect leaves. If you see aphids or spider mites, first try to dislodge them with a stream of water. If that fails, use insecticidal soap or horticultural oil. Don’t fertilize herbs. This encourages weak growth.

One herb has two names: fresh leaves are called cilantro, dried seeds are called coriander. Lemony coriander is important for marinades and spice rubs. Mix cilantro, which is high in vitamins, in sour cream, or sprinkle on chili or rice. Sow as early as soil can be worked, perhaps March, as a late frost won’t bother it. Spread sowing every couple of weeks.

Sharon Daniels is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener volunteer.