By Julie Bonnin

There are many reasons to grow your own food, and recent unresolved food safety concerns about summer favorites like tomatoes and cilantro, the official herb of Tex-Mex cooking – are likely to have more folks cultivating an interest in growing edible plants.

Herbs are the perfect entry-level plant for first-time food growers. Given the right conditions and a minimum of care, they’re quite easy to grow, even if your outdoor space is limited to a small patio.

There are many more fringe benefits — the taste and scent of fresh herbs can’t be beat. You’ll never again pay grocery store prices for a bunch of past-their-prime herbs. Often those prices are only a little less than you’d pay for the plant itself, though growing your own, you will have to invest in pots, good soil and a few other necessities, as well as make a small investment in time.

But perhaps the biggest advantage of growing herbs is what people have known for centuries – that they have considerable health benefits to give. Researchers began looking into the role of circumin (the principal ingredient in turmeric) in preventing Alzheimer disease after noting the much lower number of elderly with the disease in India, where turmeric is
the spice that colors Indian curries yellow.

Tumeric, which can be grown in the warmest regions of the U.S., also has been cited as a preventative for certain cancers and for rheumatoid arthritis, because of its anti-inflammatory properties. It is being studied in the treatment of several other medical disorders.

U.S. Department of Agriculture studies also have found that many herbs are high in antioxidants. A tablespoon of fresh oregano contains as much antioxidants as a medium-sized apple.

And by growing your own, you’ll have no worries about whether pesticides or synthetic fertilizers were used if you stick to organic practices.

Andrea and Matthias Reisen of Healing Spirits Herb Farm near Rochester in western New York raise and sell wholesale herbs and host educational sessions for people who want to learn about herbs. In more than 25 years of business, they’ve seen interest grow, and Andrea has a simple explanation: “The nice thing about herbs is that they don’t take that much space and they’re good for the soul.”

It’s difficult to single any out for special mention, she adds. “They all have such wonderful medicinal properties.”

The Reisens grow a huge variety of herbs for both medicinal and culinary uses, including some relatively obscure ones, like nettles, which Matthias cites for being high in vitamins and minerals (calcium in particular). Still, it’s doubtful if most backyard growers will be willing to put up with nettles’ spiny stems.

Instead, let’s focus on five herbs that are quite easy to grow and known for their health-promoting properties. It’s best to get planting times and other region-specific growing requirements for your neck of the woods.

  1. Cilantro, also known as coriander. Ironically, as cilantro joins tomatoes and other possible suspects in recent salmonella-related illnesses reported nationwide, this herb was shown in a 2004 study to contain a natural antibiotic, helpful in fighting bugs like salmonella. Some believe it also helps remove metals from the body. This is best grown from seed because it is difficult to transplant successfully. Cilantro likes well-drained soil.
  2. Oregano. Everyone’s favorite pizza seasoning is packed with antioxidants. In the USDA study mentioned earlier, researchers found oregano contained more than any other herbs, vegetables or fruits. It’s incredibly easy to grow in a pot or in-ground in full sun (good as a ground cover), and prefers to not get too much fertilizer for best flavor.
  3. Dill is also high in antioxidant activity. It’s a favorite of caterpillars and butterflies, so expect to share the bounty with a few of these creatures. Both the foliage and seeds are used to flavor salad dressings and dips, potatoes, and fish. Dill grows two to three feet high and likes full sun.
  4. Rosemary is a much-loved plant that enhances meats and potatoes and is simply lovely to encounter in the garden because of the wonderful smell. Rosemary is another full sun plant that does best in well-draining soil. Because it loves the sun, it can be a bit of a challenge outdoors in northern climates (but you can raise it year-round indoors). Rosemary will sprawl into aromatic shrubs in warmer, dryer parts of the country. It is thought to enhance memory and brain function.
  5. Turmeric, part of the ginger family, will survive the winters in semi-tropical parts of the country and can be grown in greenhouses elsewhere. The plant bears pretty flowers, with a bright yellow tuber, and the yellow powder is ground from these dried roots, but other parts of the plant are edible as well. If you don’t want to order it from an online source, try an Asian grocery store. Grown in India and long used in Ayurvedic medicine, it’s thought to be helpful as an anti-inflammatory, to treat allergies and to help regulate the female reproductive symptom, among many other uses.

The web is rich with info on herbs. Here are some resources that will help you expand your knowledge of herbs:

You can search this database for info on aromatic, medicinal and culinary herbs. It also notes that anyone using an herb for medicinal reasons should consult their doctor first.

These web pages match herbs and food dishes; give growing tips for indoor and outdoor herb gardening, and historic information about everything from culinary workhorses like chives to decorative herbs like chicory. The compendium of herbs provides info about harvesting and drying as well.

We knew they studied plants at A&M, but we had no idea they did so much cooking! This website will hook you up with dozens of dishes – entrees, salads, breads – that use fresh herbs.

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