Add pizzazz to your cooking by using your own home grown Italian herbs. Growing your own Italian herbs involves a few seeds, a dash of knowhow, and a pinch of patience. Mix the three together and you will soon have a garden of herbs waiting to enrich the flavor of your next Italian meal. This article will address four common herbs found in nearly all Italian gardens, plus some useful tips to help determine the overall design.
There are a variety of basil species available on the market. The most common variety for cooking is called sweet basil which is used frequently in Italian cooking. Basil can be used in many ways to create simple dishes, such as tomato basil salad or tomato and basil with pasta. If planting by seed, start in late March or 3 weeks prior to the last frost date. Make sure the temperature is at least 65 degrees F. not dipping below 50 degrees F. during the night. Make sure the soil is rich with lots of organic matter and has good water drainage. Pre-moisten the soil and sift it to help with aeration. Sow the seeds on the soil with adequate spacing. Tamper the soil lightly then add a 1/4 inch of soil gently on top to cover the seeds. Sprinkle gently with water. Continue to water on a regular basis making sure the soil does not dry out. Within 7 to 10 days the seeds will begin to sprout. Once sprouted, thin the seedlings 4 or 5 inches apart to avoid overcrowding. Do not pull the seedlings up by their roots as this could cause damage to the roots of nearby plants. Instead use a scissors and cut at the base of the plant. To keep your basil bushy, pinch off right above the larger leaves when the shoots are approximately 3 inches in height. Use a good fertilizer such as fish emulsion. Spray directly onto the plant every 2 weeks while the herbs are growing, then once a month for the remainder of the season.
Although often used as a decorative garnish positioned on the side of many pasta dishes, the Italians have long recognized its usefulness in many culinary recipes. Fresh chopped parsley can be used in pastas as well as chicken and other meat dishes such as leg of lamb. There are two types of parsley -curly and flat leaf, which is also called Italian parsley. Each variety has distinct characteristics. The curly parsley is more commonly grown, but the flat leaf is also good to have on hand. Both require the samegrowing conditions. To plant from seed, it is recommended to soak the seeds in warm water up to 24 hours prior to planting. This step will speed up the germination process. Parsley has a longer germination period than other Italian herbs, taking as long as 4-6 weeks. Plant the seeds 1/2 an inch deep with spacing of approximately 6-7 inches between each seed. Cover the seeds gently with soil and pat lightly. Parsley benefits greatly when a layer of bone meal is added to the top layer of the soil. If planting multiple rows of parsley, keep the rows at least 7 inches apart since the plants will spread. Water each week keeping the soil moist but not water logged. The soil must have good drainage and should be fertilized only one time while the plants are growing. It can take up to 6 weeks for parsley to germinate, therefore it is good to get an early start and plant the seeds in mid or late March after the last frost date. Make sure the soil is warm, at least 75 degrees F. The plants will begin to grow by late April or early May. Thin the plants between 7 and 10 inches when they start to grow. Use an organic fertilizer or feed once a month during growth and harvesting. The plants will be ready for harvesting within 3 months. To help keep the soil moist under the parsley, add some light mulch to prevent overexposure to the heat of the sun.
What is a pizza without oregano? If it wasn’t for the soldiers after WWII raving about their overseas oregano spiced pizza, it may not have become as popular as it is today. Oregano is an Italian classic. There are different types of oregano, Greek is the most common variety used in Mediterranean regions. Start planting oregano seeds a few weeks before the last frost date in an area which receives full sunlight. The temperature should be no less than 45 degrees F. The soil should not be a rich soil and should provide good water drainage. Interestingly in the case of oregano, a rich soil will weaken the flavor of the herb. Plant the seeds ¼ inch deep in the soil. If planting in multiple rows remember that these plants can grow to 20 inches wide. Use an organic time released fertilizer only once at this point. It will take up to a week for the seeds to germinate. Once the plants are small seedlings, thin them out to 10 and 12 inches apart. Use a liquid fertilizer every 2 – 3 weeks. Be careful not to over fertilize the herbs. Unlike basil or even parsley, oregano is not a thirsty herb and does best with just a weekly or bi-weekly watering. Once the herbs are mature, pick off any flowers as this will help promote faster growth.
Related to parsley, this herb is also called sweet fennel or finocchio. It develops feathery branches sometimes reaching 4 feet in height. The bulb of the fennel can be prepared like an onion, although it tastes much sweeter. In addition the leaves can be used in salads. To grow fennel, plant the seeds after the last frost in an area which has full sunlight. Make sure the soil is rich, has good water drainage and the temperature is at least 59 degrees F. If you need to add some fertilizer to help the soil’s nutrient content, use a good organic feed. Sow approximately a foot apart keeping in mind these seeds grow into tall bushy plants. If planting in multiple rows, allow for 3 feet between each row. Germination takes between 1 to 2 weeks, at which point it takes about 3 months to become a mature plant. Water the fennel frequently during the germination period until shoots start to appear. At this point, water at most 2 times a week. Do not be surprised if you need to stake the plants if they get too big. Humans are not the only ones who enjoy fennel, aphids do as well. Try to keep the fennel away from other aphid attracting herbs, such as oregano.
There are many ways to create a garden. Your choice may be due to personal preference or your circumstances may make the choice for you. Here are three points to consider when planning for your garden.
1. Location – Choose an area which receives 8 hours of full sunlight. The four herbs listed in this article all require full sun. Not only do you want full sun, but choose a location which is convenient. Last minute dashes to the garden for a few leaves of basil should not involve walking to the far end of a large backyard. Keep the garden in close proximity while making sure the house or other structures do not block the sunlight.
2. Size – This is perhaps one of the harder parts of the equation to figure out. A simple solution is to decide how many plants you want of each herb, and then figure out the maturity size of each plant. Diagram it out and you will be able to determine the approximate size required for your garden.
3. Aesthetics – Some gardeners get double usage out of their plants by strategically growing them in various areas around the yard to act as decorative foliage. For example, oregano acts as wonderful edging while fennel with its flowery and feathery long stems can be used as an ornamental bush. Another idea is to design your garden with a specific shape such as a semicircle to add softness to your landscaping. Planting the herbs around a statue or other objectlike a sun dial is another decorative idea.
Creating your own garden can have many benefits. From making fresh tomato basil salad served in decorative herb pasta bowls to roasted chicken with a parsley and garlic rub – your Italian herb garden will not only enhance the decor of your landscape, but also the flavors of your meals.
This article is contributed by Elizabeth Krause. She grew up in an Italian home where gardening and cooking went hand in hand. It wasn’t until later in life she decided to rekindle the joy of gardening and discovered a new love for cooking simple and fresh Italian dishes, especially pasta recipes Today she publishes her own Italian website where she shares her experiences. She enjoys cooking and experimenting alongside her husband in the kitchen. After returning from a trip to Italy, she got an Italian espresso maker for a stovetop and fell in love with the conveniences of simple style cooking. She and her husband hope to return to Italy and cook side by side with their Italian relatives.
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