By LUCY GILMOUR
THE FIRST HERB Tammi Hartung ever grew was lemon balm: "A neighbor gifted me with a little chunk of his plant. 'I don't know what it is,' he said, 'but it sure makes nice tea!' " It was as simple as that—growing herbs often is—though Ms. Hartung has since spent 30 years learning everything there is to know about them. For the past 16, she and her husband, Chris, have cultivated 500 varieties of fragrant plants at their certified-organic Desert Canyon Farm, in Southern Colorado. "Homegrown Herbs," Ms. Hartung's most recent book, channels her decades' worth of know-how into a comprehensive guide to planting, growing and harvesting. We asked Ms. Hartung for an abbreviated primer on getting the most bang from your basil—whether it's a homegrown crop or in a store-bought pot.
When to do the outdoor-indoor transfer: "I transplant our herbs into pots well ahead of the first hard frost, letting them acclimate for a week or so before bringing them inside. Herbs that do not like to be transplanted and are better bought include basil, cilantro and sage."
Inside, keep things temperate: "Herbs will do nicely indoors if they are located in bright, indirect light, in temperatures above 60 degrees at night and away from heating vents. Good choices include lemon balm, lemon grass and lemon verbena, thymes, oreganos, marjorams, chives, garlic chives, parsleys and all the mints."
For rosemary lovers: "Rosemary is notoriously hard to keep healthy indoors. Unless you have six hours of direct sunlight a day inside, try growing Arp Rosemary and Madeline Hill (also known as Hardy Hill) rosemary—the only two rosemary varieties that I find reliably come through harsh winters here. Mulch the ground around their root zone to give them a bit of extra protection."
Feed well and pinch often: "Indoors, herbs must be fertilized once a month with a liquid organic fertilizer (I use fertilizer from FoxFarm). To maintain a healthy, bushy habit, they must be pinched regularly, just above a node or joint in the stem. Always remove yellowing and dead foliage. Water them so that they stay evenly moist, not soggy or super-dry."
When to cut: "Herbs can be harvested at any time, as long as the part of the herb you need looks healthy and strong."
Best drying method: "My preferred method is to dry them in a shallow wicker basket and, once or twice a week, toss the basket gently to redistribute them. This should be done in a place where warm, dry air moves well and the herbs are out of direct sunlight. Herbs can also be tied into small bundles (the bunched stems should be no thicker than a pencil's diameter) or laid on top of a screen (if the screen is aluminum, place the herbs first on a piece of cotton fabric). Depending on the thickness of the leaves, they will dry in anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. They should feel dry and crackly."
How to store dried herbs: "I like to store them in airtight glass canning jars out of direct sunlight. Do not store herbs in plastics or metals (other than stainless steel). Store them whole and powder them as you use them, as powdered herbs lose their viability very quickly."
Freeze fresh ones: "Frozen herbs keep all the benefits and flavors of fresh herbs. Herbs that hold moisture, such as basil, lemon balm, mint and chives, freeze well. Rinse them lightly after harvesting, shake off moisture and place them in a paper bag, then in a Ziploc bag. They must be cooked upon thawing, as freezing makes them mushy."
Herbs are tasty medicine: "Kitchen thyme is fantastic for its antimicrobial benefits and is especially helpful for relieving cold congestion. Sage leaves make a great sore-throat gargle. For strong medicinal infusions, place ¼ cup dried herbs or ½ cup fresh herbs in a 32-ounce canning jar. Pour boiling water over and let steep 4-8 hours, then strain. The infusion will store for up to three days in the fridge and can be reheated as needed. To soothe a child's tummy ache, chop 1 tablespoon of lemon balm into a teaspoon of maple syrup or honey." For more culinary and medicinal recipes, go to desertcanyonfarm.wordpress.com.