Herbs in the Florida Garden

Herbs are plants grown for their special aromas and flavors. They are mainly used to season, enrich, or otherwise improve the taste or smell of foods. Many herbs are also colorful and have interesting textures.

Herbs are well-suited for container culture, because only a small portion of the plant is usually needed at any one time and the plants are generally small. They can also be used in borders or in flower beds.

Most herbs will do well under the same conditions of sunlight and soil as vegetables, although some herbs are more sensitive to soil moisture conditions than others. The addition of organic matter to sandy soils can be beneficial since herbs are shallow rooting. Keep in mind that some herbs, such as mint, can grow rapidly and become weedy if left unchecked.

Some of the easiest to grow are rosemary, basil, oregano, mint, and thyme. Once established, a rosemary plant will produce fragrant leaves for years. Basil is perfect for containers or in the garden bed. Oregano is a perennial that comes in two types—Mexican and European. Both can be grown from cuttings. Mint is a perennial that spreads like wildfire, so consider keeping it confined to containers. Thyme works well in rock gardens, or looks good cascading over the edge of containers.

Herb gardenUF/IFAS Publications

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Growing Herbs Indoors

Creating a window garden is easy. Use one large container to house all your herbs with similar water needs or put each in its own individual pot. Or hang a window box with brackets from your local garden center. You can grow your herbs from seed, but you will save time by buying small plants from a supermarket or gardening center. A few favorites for window gardens include oregano, thyme, sage, and rosemary. Fill your container with a well-drained potting media. Herbs prefer a sunny location and can be grown in the same conditions as vegetables, whether indoors or out.

Even if you don't have a sunny windowsill, you can still grow herbs indoors, thanks to new products on the market. These kits include everything you need to get started, including seeds, a full-spectrum grow light, and either pots or a hydroponic container system. You can choose from basil, oregano, thyme, parsley, and many other herbs. Start by inserting special pre-seeded pods into your hydroponic container or by planting seeds in the provided pots. As the herbs grow, just add water and nutrients as recommended.

Hydroponics is when you grow plants in a nutrient-rich solution instead of in soil. Hydroponic units can be elaborate, with pumps, timers, and other equipment, or can be simple floating systems. You can even build your own system. While more expensive than a traditional container garden, hydroponically grown herbs grow much faster. This difference is because the needed moisture and nutrients are always readily available, allowing plants to maximize growth and production. Another advantage of growing herbs hydroponically is that you’ll never have to weed them or deal with soil-borne pests.

Using Herbs

Herbs can be used when fresh or dried. Their flavor comes from the essential oils they contain, and it lasts longer if the herbs are harvested at the right time and properly cured and stored. The young, tender leaves of herbs can be gathered and used fresh at any time during the season.

To dry herbs for later use, harvest them when the plants begin to flower. Herbs should be dried rapidly in a well-ventilated, darkened room. If the leaves are dusty or gritty, wash them in cold water and thoroughly drain them before drying. As soon as the leaves or seeds are dry, pack them in plastic or glass containers that can be closed tightly.

Drying is the traditional way, but freezing is just as simple. Harvest the herbs from your garden, wash them well, and then pat them dry. Place them in a single layer on a baking sheet in the freezer. This ensures that they won’t freeze together in one big clump. Transfer the frozen herbs to a labeled, air-tight bag.

Herbs like dill, sage, rosemary, and thyme freeze best when left on their stalks. When you’re ready to cook you can add whole stalks and then retrieve them before serving. You can also chop or snip the leaves of frozen herbs directly into your dish, just as you would with fresh herbs.

Herbal Vinegars

Herbal vinegars can be used in salad dressing, marinades and basting liquids, as well as in many dishes, like scrambled eggs and stir-fries. For full flavor, make sure to use the right part of the herb. Any herbal vinegar recipe should tell you which parts of the plant to use.

After picking and drying them, pack the herbs into a large jar, cover them with near-boiling white vinegar, and let the mixture steep for a few weeks. When it's ready, filter out the herbs. Put it in a fresh jar, seal tightly, and put it in the fridge for future delicious use.