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Fall Home and Car Care Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 23, 2010

From the White House to your house
Backyard gardens cultivate easy-to-grow herbs

By Anne Hayden

The amount of people attempting to grow gardens has nearly doubled over the last few years, according to Susan Pezzolla, a consumer horticulturalist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension.

The requests for soil testing have increased dramatically, ever since the push from the White House for home gardens, Pezzolla said.

One of the best things for people to grow, especially if they are new to gardening, is herbs, she said.

“I always encourage people to grow herbs because, if you have well-drained soil in a sunny location, it is so easy. I tell people to grow what they like to use in their cooking,” said Pezzolla. Some of the most popular cooking herbs include basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and cilantro.

Herbs that have flourished outside in the summer can be harvested in the fall, before the first frost, and preserved to use throughout the winter. Herbs like basil, oregano, and rosemary can be air-dried. Simply pick large stalks, tie them together, and hang them upside down; after a few weeks, take off the leaves and store them in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, Pezzolla said.

Another method for drying is to set up racks, place old screens over them, and lay the herbs out over the screens, according to Amy Castillo; she has worked at Gade Farms, on Western Avenue, off and on for 17 years. She said she sets up drying racks in her shed at home.

“It usually takes about two weeks for the herbs to fully dry, and you want to make sure they are not the least bit damp before you jar them; otherwise, they could grow mold,” Castillo said. In order to harvest the herbs, she recommends pulling up annuals — like rosemary, basil, parsley, and tarragon — by the roots and stripping the leaves. Perennials — like mint, oregano, sage, thyme, lavender, chives, chamomile, catnip, and lemon balm — can be cut down, but not too low, or else the plants will die, said Castillo.

Other herbs can be frozen. Chop them up, mix them with a small amount of water, and freeze them in an ice-cube tray; store the frozen herbs in a plastic bag, said Pezzolla.

“The frozen herbs are perfect for making sauces and soups because you can just take them out and throw them in the pot. They retain a very fresh flavor in the freezer,” said Pezzolla.

Castillo said she likes to freeze mint. She washes it, cuts it up with a pair of scissors, and puts it in a snack-size plastic bag with a little bit of water.

“It’s perfect for making tea in the winter. I just take it out and throw it in the kettle,” said Castillo. In addition to preserving cooking herbs, Castillo dries lavender for sachets and potpourri.

Inside Gardens

It is possible to dig up herbs, pot them, and bring them inside for the winter, although Pezzolla said there is the risk of bringing insects inside that could transfer to other house plants. To avoid insect infestation in the herbs, Pezzolla recommends an insecticidal soap, typically containing mild soap and vegetable oil.

The insecticidal soap should be sprayed on the underside of the plant, left to soak for several minutes, and then rinsed. It is a safe remedy to use inside, and the soaps are readily available and inexpensive, Pezzolla said. The herbs should be rinsed again before being used in cooking.

If people missed the window for growing herbs outside in the summer, most herbs can be grown inside if there is a proper light source.

“As we head into the fall and winter, we lose the duration and intensity of daylight, but people who want to grow indoors can use artificial light,” Pezzolla said. The light could be as simple as a bare fluorescent bulb, but the plant material must be very close to the light source, she said.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension, which Pezzolla said is not normally a fan of “gardening gimmicks” has found a tool called the AeroGarden particularly useful for indoor growing.

“It really is a surprisingly good tool,” Pezzolla said. She described it as a one-piece unit with a light source on top and a soil and seed trough on the bottom. The light is adjustable, and the unit is small enough to fit on the kitchen counter, she said.

According to Pezzolla, the humidity in the house must be fairly high in order to grow herbs during the winter, so it’s best not to place them in the same room as a de-humidifier.

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“The growing trend really piggy-backs on the bigger issue, which is how economical it is to grow your own food,” Pezzolla concluded. “I think Michelle Obama’s garden triggered a lot of that.”