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Herbs can spice up a dreary garden

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 22, 2013 at 07:50 AM

Some herbs scoff at winter temperatures. "Ha! Bring it on!" they laugh.

In fact, a few can be grown only during Florida's cooler months. So while the rest of your yard sits freeze-singed and dormant, keep your gardening juices going by planting some tasty, cold-hardy herbs.

A few of my favorites, such as cilantro and parsley, are cool season biennials - meaning now is the time to grow and enjoy them. They both grow through the fall and winter and then go to seed in late spring. You'll sometimes see parsley and cilantro sold as small plants during summer, but they can't take the heat and perish quickly.

The leaves of cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) are commonly added to Mexican salsas, Asian soups and certain Indian dishes. Cilantro has a strong, pungent flavor and should be used with a light hand. Most folks either love it or hate it.

As days warm and lengthen, the plant stretches up and produces pretty white flowers that set tiny seeds also prized in cooking. Curiously, the spice made from the crushed, dried seeds is called coriander. It delivers a lemony flavor that enhances Indian curries and many other recipes. One plant - two great flavors.

Two types of parsley are commonly grown: curly-leaf and flat-leaf. You'll see the ruffled leaves of curly parsley used most often as a garnish. This tradition harks back to Roman times, when the herb was used as a breath freshener. For flavor, I prefer the flat-leafed type often called Italian parsley. I think it's delicious added to Italian salad dressing (see recipe).

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), sage (Salvia officinalis) and common thyme (Thymus vulgarum) are three more herbs that officially are perennials but usually perform best during the cooler months. I purchase all of the above as small plants in late fall, enjoy them through the winter and spring and then watch them gradually fade away - some more slowly than others. The exception is garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), a much more durable species that survives year after year.

Then there are the herbs I consider long-lived perennials in Central Florida, namely rosemary, oregano and mint. All three are robust, attractive plants that are easy to grow and are always at your culinary beck and call.

Rosemary demands a sunny, dry location and is available in upright and creeping forms. Use it fresh or dried - it's wonderful on chicken and roasted potatoes. The woody, water-soaked stems of rosemary also make perfect skewers for barbecued meats.

Oregano, a Mediterranean herb like rosemary, also thrives in rugged conditions. It's one of the few herbs I prefer dried over fresh. Mint - and there are many types - can be a bit aggressive in the garden and is probably best confined to a container where it can't run roughshod over other plants. Mint will tolerate sun but is happiest when given a little shade and moisture.

All the herbs I like to cook with grow together in a large, clay pot just outside my back door. They stay cleaner in this container than if they were planted in the ground and don't have to be washed before I use them. I can simply dash out with my handy snips and harvest what I need.

The snips are also great for trimming the leaves from stems and for cutting them up. Voila!

Add a teaspoon or two of fresh herbs to your next dish and savor the flavor difference they make. For information on growing herbs in Florida, see "Herbs in the Florida Garden," a University of Florida Extension publication available online at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/vh020 or from your county's Extension office.

SYDNEY'S FAVORITE ITALIAN SALAD DRESSING

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/4 teaspoon red pepper

Pinch oregano

Salt/pepper


Sydney Park Brown is the state Extension specialist for consumer horticulture. She's also a gardener, cook and lover of delicious foods. Reach her at spbrown@ufl.edu.

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