Herbs From Seed
Many herbs are easily grown from seed, including basil, chives, parsley, and dill. Sow the seed in a single container, water thoroughly with warm water, cover with clear plastic, and keep the container in a warm location. It is important to use a good quality potting soil to prevent disease, allow good drainage, and provide the proper nutrients for plant growth. As soon as the seedlings emerge, remove the plastic cover and place the plants in the natural light of a south-facing window at a temperature slightly below room temperature. When the seedlings are big enough to handle, transplant them into separate containers or cell-pack trays with individual cells for each plant. Herbs can be planted in the garden after the danger of frost.
It is important to know the growing conditions of each herb. Is it annual or perennial? Does it grow in a cool climate or does it require a warm, sunny location? Most herbs perform best in full sun; a few tolerate part shade (e.g. lemon balm, mint, parsley, tarragon). Herbs generally require well-drained soil and an application of 20-20-20 or 20-8-20 fertilizer every two weeks throughout the growing season. Pinch back new growth to create bushier, more productive plants.
Growing herbs in containers can be very convenient, especially if they are located close to the kitchen. Tender herbs grown in containers can easily be taken inside for the winter and some herbs, such as basil, simply perform better in containers. It is always important to select pots with good drainage and removable saucers.
Most herbs can be harvested throughout the growing season, as long as enough of the plant remains intact to sustain good growth. For best effect, harvest herbs at the first sign of blossom development, the stage when the oil content in the leaves is the greatest and the flavour is most intense; harvesting when the flowers are in full bloom results in bitter flavour. The best time to harvest foliage is early in the morning after the dew has evaporated but before the temperature rises.
Edible flowers, often a milder version of the leaves, are typically used as a garnish. The most popular edible flowers include calendulas, nasturtiums, violas, chives, and borage. Harvest flowers immediately before use. Early morning and late afternoon yield the best flavour.
Edible seedheads can be harvested when they have changed colour and dried.
Storing and Preserving
To dry herbs, place them in a location that is warm, dark and dry. Tie them in bunches and hang to dry. Drying may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on temperature and humidity. When the herbs feel crisp, rub the leaves from the stalks and store them in an airtight container. Dried herbs begin to lose flavour after a year or so. Some herbs (basil, for example) lose their flavour when dried and are best when chopped and frozen in water.
Freezing is an excellent technique for preserving colour and flavour. To freeze herbs whole, rinse them in cold water, shake off the excess water, and dip them olive oil. Place the herbs loosely into plastic bags or store them in rigid containers to prevent the leaves from getting crushed. Another freezing technique is to place chopped herbs in ice cube trays and fill with water. Once frozen, remove the herb cubes and store them in freezer bags. Thaw as necessary for soups, stews and other recipes.