Herb Gardening for Beginners with an Italian Herb Garden will Awaken Your Senses!
When I married my husband, my initiation into his Italian family was learning how to make the ‘family sauce’. The family sauce was my inspiration to take herb gardening for beginners to a new level. The herbs used in the sauce were the start of our Italian Herb Garden.Making this sauce over the years and using herbs from our Italian Herb garden gives it that ‘special touch’ and provides a great sense of accomplishment!
The ‘family sauce’ includes Basil, Bay, Fennel, Oregano, Parsley, Thyme, and Garlic. These just happen to be the most common herbs used in Italian cooking. They are easy to grow and an Italian Herb garden is a nice and easy as well as the perfect herb garden for beginners. Sage and Rosemary are also included in Italian herb gardens. These herbs are also some of the tastiest and most favorable herbs used in cooking. Italy is known for its cuisine and this is due in part to their herbs.
If you find that you are entering herb gardening for beginners than an Italian Herb garden is the perfect place to start as the four main classes of herbs: Culinary, Aromatic, Ornamental, and Medicinal will be represented in your herb garden.This article will discuss each of these herbs that are found in an Italian Herb Garden.
Sweet Basil commonly referred to as just Basil is used in many cuisines, not just Italian. It is fragrant and has a strong flavor so don’t over use it, a few leaves are all you need. Remember it is easy to add more, but you can’t remove it if you’ve added too much. Basil makes a nice companion plant when planted next to tomatoes and peppers as it will increase their productivity and improve their flavor. Basil also works well as an insect repellant as it will repel flies and mosquitoes. Keep the flowers pinched off the plants to cause them to bush out and increase their productivity. If you live in a warm climate let a few of the plants go to see and they will self sow and you’ll have plants coming up in the spring. Basil is an annual and will need to be replanted each year. There are many different types of Basil, a fun one to try in the spicy globe basil. It grows in a mound. Basil is a sun lover, perferring full sun.
Bay Leaves – did you know that the Greek scholars wore a wreath of bay leaves around their heads and to show their academic achievement. This is where the term baccalaureate evolved from; it means laurel berries. Bay Laurel trees are prized for their leaves and the trees are some of the most beautiful and aromatic of all trees. The leaves are used in cooking for flavor, as a rule they are left whole, and then removed from the dish and not eaten. Bay leaves remain very stiff even after thorough cooking, and if swallowed whole or in large pieces, they may pose a risk of scratching the digestive tract or even causing choking. This is why it is recommended not to eat them. Bay is one of the few herbs where its oils become more favorable when dried. The dried leaves are what are used in cooking. There are several look alike plants that are poisonous, should you decide to try to grow Bay, get it from a reliable source.
They do need a mild climate to grow in. Bay does well grown in a container but must be kept pruned as then it will bush out. I have friends that live in the NW with cold winters and they grow a bay tree/bush in their green house. The bay tree is kept pruned and stands about 4 feet tall. The tree is in a large container with wheels on the bottom and can be moved outdoors during warm weather and back into the heated greenhouse for the winter.
Fennel is prized for its seeds, leaves, and the bulbs. The seeds are used in Italian sausage. Florence Fennel is grown for the bulb or stalk. It has a wonderful anise or licorice like flavor. It can be eaten raw, grilled, brazed, marinated, roasted, baked, sautéed etc. Many Italians prefer it sliced raw and served with olive oil, salt and lemon wedges or used in antipasto. If it’s the seeds and fronds you are after, then grow Sweet Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare. The Sweet Fennel plant will cross-pollinate with dill so plant it a good distance away from your dill.
You can start the seeds indoors and plant outside after the last frost. You can also directly sow the seeds outside as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. Fennel is a beautiful plant to grow; unfortunately many of the vegetable family do no like it. So keep it away from bush beans, tomatoes, kohlrabi, or caraway. Fennel does not like coriander, which will keep fennel from producing seeds nor wormwood (Dusty Miller), which will inhibit its growth. Fennel will cross-pollinate with dill so plant it away from a good distance away from your dill. Fennel is a perennial but it will need some protection in harsh winters. Every few years it will need to be divided and replanted as it loses its flavor as it matures.
Oregano is another herb plant found in the Italian herb garden and it also makes a nice addition to any garden, as it is as decorative as it is flavorable. Basil and Oregano go together in Italian sauces and pizza sauce, they create that special flavor found in Italian cooking. The use of Oregano is for culinary, decorative, and medicinal. There are two types of Oregano, Greek (used in Italian cooking) and the Mexican variety. Oregano is not the same as Marjoram.
Oregano is a member of the mint family and has purple or white flowers when it matures. It also makes a nice companion plant to your kole crops as it repels the cabbage butterfly.
When it is fully mature it will sprout pretty little purple flowers. If Oregano is being used for culinary purposed, then harvest the oregano prior to flowering, as the leaves will taste the best. Its production will slow after the plant flowers.
Italian Parsley is another herb that has many varieties and if used in the Italian herb garden you want the Italian Parsley. This is the broad leaf type used for culinary purposes not the curly one which is used more for garnish. Italian Parsley is another easy herb to grow and will also self-seed if you let some of it go to seed. To intensify the flavor of the other dried herbs, sprinkle them over fresh parsley and let sit a few minutes prior to chopping them or crushing them.
Thyme is known as being one of the most versatile herbs. An old ‘rule of thumb’ is when in doubt, add thyme. Thyme is used for culinary, decorative, and medicinal purposes. There are many varieties of thyme the main type used for culinary is common thyme or Thymus Vulgaris. Thyme was used in bath water by the Roman solders to ensure courage and strength. Thyme by the front door helps to ward off evil spirits.
Thyme is a perennial and very easy to grow, the plants will become woody and may need to be replaced after three years. There are many varieties to use as ground cover and between stepping stones or to form a living mulch.
Sage was once more popular than thyme or oregano in cooking. Sage makes a wonderful addition to Italian culinary from antipastos to main dishes. Sage has a slightly bitter taste, which is less in fresh leaves versus dried leaves; because of this it is usually used in cooking rather than eaten raw. There are many new varieties of Sage and some are used fresh in salads. Have fun experimenting with the different varieties!
Sage also tends to get woody and will need to be kept pruned back. Sage is one plant that can be harvested after it blooms, as the flavor stays consistent. Burning sage leaves helps remove spirits from an area.
Rosemary is a prized for its culinary, decorative, and medicinal qualities. It’s used both fresh and dried and imparts a distinctive flavor.
It is a beautiful perennial and evergreen shrub, which sprouts tiny blue flowers. Rosemary is very aromatic and thus attracts bees into the garden. Rosemary is a tough evergreen perennial, however it is sensitive to frost. You can prune it back in the spring to keep it from getting large or woody.
Garlic an herb you ask – quite simply – yes. An herb garden and Italian cooking would not be complete without garlic! This is the herb that is known universally as the ‘stinking rose’. Garlic is another versatile herb and is used for its culinary, decorative, and medicinal qualities also. There are many different varieties to choose from. Garlic is grown from cloves and easy to grow.
These Italian herb plants will give you the start of a very nice Italian herb garden and will be the envy of all who see it. This is another reason why it makes herb gardening for beginners a complete success.
If you’ve never had or made your own fresh pizza sauce here is my familes Italian Pizza Sauce Recipe. In the summer I use fresh Roma tomatoes. In the winter I use canned tomatoes. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do! “Buon Appetito”
Italian Pizza Sauce:
- 6 Fresh Roma Tomatoes, diced including juice OR
- 1 Can of Diced Tomatoes, including juice
- 2 large cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 medium Onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon of Dried Oregano, crushed or 3 tablespoons of Fresh Oregano, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon of Dried Basil, crushed or 3 teaspoons of Fresh Basil, finely chopped
- Olive Oil for sautéing
- Salt and Pepper to taste, only if you feel you need it
- Sauté the onion and garlic in hot olive oil until translucent.
- Add the diced tomatoes and juice.
- Add the herbs.
- Stir and reduce the heat to simmer. Do not cover.
- Let the mixture simmer for an hour. It will thicken and smell heavenly.
- Spread on your pizza crust with your favorite toppings and bake. We like to spread the sauce on the crust and bake it for 10 minutes and then add the toppings and finsh baking.
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