Fresh and flavoursome herbs grown at home are the secret to sumptuous meals, but it pays to treat ’em mean.
Fresh homegrown herbs are the secret to turning your everyday meals into extraordinary cuisine. With just a handful of fresh pickings, you can add delicious flavour and colour to any dish.
To cultivate the maximum flavour from your herbs, you will want to mimic nature’s extreme conditions. This is because most herbs produce essential oils as protection from drought, pests and other stresses. And it is the essential oils in basil, rosemary, chives and other herbs that give them their delicious, concentrated aroma and flavour.
I have stressed some of the herbs in my own garden through neglect, but I have found those plants to have the best flavour, even if they’re not the lushest. James Wong’s book Grow for Flavour helped me understand why and proved to be an invaluable resource while researching this article.
Here are five ideas from research, Wong’s book and my own gardening experience to create extreme conditions that boost flavour – while also cutting down on maintenance.
Crowding plants reduces their access to sunlight, so experienced gardeners know plants should be given plenty of space to maximise their exposure to the sun. However, when researchers experimented with tightly spacing spearmint and lemongrass, they discovered a significant increase in essential oil production. It seems the stress of competition of close planting provides a trigger to produce defence chemicals, some of which are aromatic essential oils. To crowd those plants and intensify flavour, scientists spaced herbs about 30 centimetres apart.
Keep them thirsty
The stress from drought has been shown to increase the content of aromatic compounds in a wide variety of herbs, such as chamomile, lemongrass, catmint and, as I’ve experienced in my backyard, lavender. This is especially true for thyme, rosemary or other herbs that hail from drier Mediterranean climates with sparse water.
In most climates, this means once herbs are in the ground and established, or have created a stable root system, they prefer soil that has completely dried out between waterings, rather than the moist soil often associated with vegetable gardens. The exception to this rule is mint, a herb that showed increased concentration of essential oils when well-watered, which is about every week to 10 days in a temperate climate.
Fertiliser is important for healthy vegetables. For herbs, however, overly nutritious soil results in lush foliage but bland flavour. Don’t overfeed your herbs.
You can lower the fertility of soil around herbs by adding sand or other material to improve drainage and keep high-nitrogen fertiliser (which boosts leaf growth) away. Sand not only keeps the roots dry, it also provides just enough stress to boost flavours of herbs like basil, chamomile, edible marigold, and rosemary.
Leave them in the sun
Herbs produce flavourful essential oils in full sun, even shade-tolerant mint. Maximum light exposure and minimum water can concentrate such aromatic chemicals as linalool and eugenol, essential oils known to give lavender and cloves their dreamy fragrance.
Treat with aspirin
While they may not have a stress headache, herbs are fooled when aspirin is applied to their leaves. Aspirin contains salicylic acid, which triggers a plant’s defences against disease, as discovered by researchers at Rutgers University, who observed that spikes in levels of salicylic acid in plants triggered the production of chemicals to defend themselves, such as aromatic compounds.
Studies have shown that even a single dosage of 300 milligrams of soluble aspirin tablets dissolved in a litre of water sprayed on leaves can double the essential oil content and flavour of basil and marjoram in a week. The great news is that you can also use this treatment on the leaves of strawberries, tomatoes and corn.
As we’ve learnt, boosting the flavour of your herbs comes down to helping them create more of those flavourful essential oils. Keep them thirsty, crowded, out in the sun and not too fertilised, and hit them with a dose of aspirin every once in a while.
This article thanks to Houzz
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