Most herbs are native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, but Iowa’s hot summers are ideal for growing some of the most flavorful varieties. Imagine pizzas with fresh basil, tacos with cilantro leaves and chicken soup with sprigs of lemon thyme. No matter what your culinary preference, herbs make nearly everything taste better and fresher.
Following are five top herbs that will excel in your Iowa garden:
Small leafed basil (Ocimum x. africanum ‘Spicy Globe’) varieties, such as ‘Spicy Globe’, make attractive container plants.
1. Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Italian and Thai recipes use lots of basil. This plant is an annual and grows prolifically once the weather is really hot. Harvest leaves by snipping them off the top of the plant. This will keep the plant from setting seed and also help keep the plants bushy and leafy.
Types: Try ‘Boxwood’, a variety that has an upright growth habit and is great in containers. The basil of choice for pesto is ‘Genovese’.
How to Use: Snip off fresh leaves and drop directly into salad, use on sandwiches (or better yet, panini) to add flavor, sauté in olive oil with garlic and tomatoes to make a quick fresh sauce for pasta. Make pesto.
Storage: Use fresh basil while it lasts. You can also freeze it in pesto form. When you freeze whole leaves, they retain their taste, but they become limp.
2. Thyme (Thymus spp.)
This small-leaved, low-growing perennial herb is as beautiful in the garden as it is in recipes. Use it in an herb garden as a fragrant ground cover, or tuck it at the edges of containers or window boxes.
Types: There are lots of different thymes, but if you plan to cook with it, choose the culinary kinds, such as English and French thyme. Add a lemony sparkle to chicken and pasta dishes with lemon thyme.
How to Use: Thyme is a great herb for spicing up light meals such as egg, chicken and fish dishes. It is also a component of herbs de Provence, a French herb mixture that is added to stews and sauces. Use whole stems when roasting meats.
Storage: Fresh thyme lasts a long time in the refrigerator. Wrap harvested stems in a wet paper towel and store. Thyme is easily air dried for later use.
Parsley with swallowtail larva
3. Parsley (Petroselinum)
Frequently used as a garnish, this fresh herb has a mild, fresh taste. Parsley forms verdant mounds of green leaves, which makes it an ideal edging plant. It also looks great in containers and window boxes. Plant a little extra for food for butterfly larvae. The yellow, white and black-striped swallowtail larvae love the leaves.
Types: There are two kinds of parsley: curly (P. crispum) and flat-leaf (P. crispum var. neapolitanum). Both are very easy to grow. Curly parsley is especially cold hardy and can frequently be harvested for Thanksgiving dinner.
How to Use: Chop it up and add it to pasta dishes for fresh flavor and a deep green color. It’s also delicious dropped into soups and stews. You can even grind the leaves into pesto.
Storage: Fresh parsley is delicious and lasts a long time in the refrigerator. You can also dry parsley to use in winter dishes.
Herbs can grow vertically! Pack herbs into a brightly colored planting frame.
4. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
The thin, green leaves of this annual herb are used in Mexican and Asian dishes. The leaves have a pungent, distinctive taste that people seem to either love or hate. One plant actually produces two different herbs: the fresh, green leaves are called cilantro and the dried seeds are called coriander. Cilantro and coriander have very different flavors.
Types: Cilantro blooms in hot weather, called bolting. If you use the leaves primarily, try the variety ‘Jantar’ for a slow-to-bolt option. Or, sow seeds every few weeks to extend the harvest.
How to Use: Chop fresh cilantro leaves into soups, salsas and guacamole. Grind the leaves into pesto. Coriander seeds can be added to Indian dishes or used in pickling recipes. Or, grind this pungent herb into a dry marinade for roasted meats.
Storage: Use cilantro fresh, or dry the leaves to use later. To harvest the seeds, hang the plants upside down to air dry. Store dried seeds in an airtight container
5. Sage (Salvia officinalis)
One of the staples of the Thanksgiving table, sage is delicious in stuffing, as well as added to roasted vegetable mixes. It’s also a delight in the garden. This perennial herb produces mounds of gray-green leaves. It makes a lovely border in an herb garden, and can be tucked into containers as well.
Types: Culinary sage is primarily gray-green. Nonculinary sage comes in several showy colors: Tri-color is variegated with pink, green and white leaves.
How to Use: This flavorful herb adds its culinary charms to pastas, eggs, fish and chicken. For a fast evening meal, sauté sage leaves in butter and pour over pasta.
Storage: Use sage leaves fresh or air dry to use all winter.
From Iowa Gardener Volume I Issue III. Photos by Karen Weir-Jimerson.