Tropical Gardening: Kiwis do herb and spice gardening for flavor

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Photo by VOLTAIRE MOISE Swiss chard fresh from the garden. Herbs and vegetables can be incorporated in to the home landscape for fresh produce.
Photo by VOLTAIRE MOISE Crisp and delicious lettuce.

We are now in New Zealand, where fresh herbs and spices are a natural for outdoor and kitchen gardening. In Hawaii, we tend to depend on the convenience of the supermarkets, but growing your own can be fun, as well as save you money on your food budget.

Homegrown flavor plants will add interest and piquant taste to the ordinary round of vegetables. Herbs also add a delightful tang to dressings for chicken, turkey, vegetarian and pork dishes.

Most herb plants are readily available at island garden shops. They will do well, provided the soil is well-drained and has sufficient nutrients. Organic loam is ideal for many flavor plants.

Other herbs favor damp, shady spots. As an example, mint does well in a shady spot near a dripping faucet.

A spot for growing your own seasoning takes almost no area at all. Often, you can squeeze the plants into the open spaces between other plants or along the border of a flowerbed. They also can be grown in pots on the lanai or even near a bright kitchen window.

Herbs for cooler areas are dill, coriander, anise, sage, sweet marjoram, thyme, lavender, rosemary and sweet fennel, but don’t plant that group in hot coastal areas unless you plan to provide extra insect and disease control.

Warm weather types you can plant are basil, chives, oregano, summer savory, catnip, borage, lemon verbena, tarragon, mints, pot marjoram, citronella, vanilla orchid and edible ginger.

Basil is considered one of the finest spices for use in pickling. It is of two types, sweet green basil and the dwarf form. A very few plants are sufficient for the needs of the average family. Sometimes, one or two basil plants can be grown in the flower border. The leaves and flowers have a clove-like, spicy flavor and are prized for use in spiced vinegar, for pickles, in gravies, for soups, stews, salads and meats and in fish cookery. Basil is an especially choice flavor for tomato dishes.

Sweet green basil also is just the right herb for flavoring soups.

When dried and powdered, basil is used for spicing meat, or other fish, sausage, liver paste and similar products. The flowers along with the tender tips of the stems with their foliage are cut, tied in very small bunches and dried.

The chive is the smallest member of the onion family. Its tiny bulbs grow in thick bunches, but the young tender leaves that can be cut freely have a delicate and pleasing flavor similar to a very mild onion. They add a gentle snap to salads and dressings, dry-bean dishes, jellied chicken, hot vegetables, omelets and other mixtures. The plant grows to a height of 6 to 8 inches, with dark green, grass-like foliage, and bears pretty, violet clusters of bloom. They should be used more often as ornamental border plants.

Chives are propagated by dividing the clumps and resetting in the fall, preferably in rich soil. In New Zealand, folks believe a border of chives repels hungry insects and other critters.

Edible ginger, often confused with the common ornamental ginger, grows well in Hawaii and produces choice roots if given rich soil, sufficient moisture and semi-shade. Ginger will long remain one of the world’s most popular spices and should be grown in every home garden.

It is an erect herb, 12 to 24 inches high, canna-like in appearance. It grows from thickened rhizomes that branch finger-like and send up new shoots from the tips near the surface of the soil. If used for preserving or candying, the rhizomes should be dug while tender and succulent rather than when old, tough and fibrous.

Fresh green ginger is an indispensable part of chutneys, giving them much of their spiciness and pungent flavor.

Vanilla vines are easy to grow from sea level to 2,500-foot elevation, but flowering and bean production is a bit more complicated.

If the vines are receiving too much water, fertilizer and shade, they will not bloom. Overwatering can cause fungus rot as well.

Pollinating by hand is required and takes expertise since timing is critical. We visited several vanilla farms while in the Society Islands. Surprisingly, some are located on tiny islets or motu.

Since vanilla vines are almost epiphytic, they do quite well in an organic medium such as coconut husks. They must have something to climb, such as trees or a trellis structure.

While on the island of Huahine, we visited some delightful relatives of the Kona Twigg-Smith family. Vanilla farmers, Sophie and Peni Teururai are special and reflect the loving nature of Old Hawaii and the Polynesian South Pacific. Their hospitality and sharing of vanilla from their farm reminded us again that aloha exists in abundance throughout Polynesia.

Harvesting and curing of herbs and spices are the most important parts of the flavor-growing hobby. The main point is to gather each plant at the proper stage of maturity and dry rapidly in a warm, dry place so the herbs retain flavor and color. The water heater is a natural for this.

Herbs, when sufficiently dry, are crisp. Many of them are stored in powder form. Separate the leaves from the stalk before crushing into a powder.

The knack for using herbs is often a well guarded secret. Sunset’s “Herb Gardening” will help you with many of these growing secrets. The book is available at garden and bookstores.

Some rules to follow in developing your own secrets include using a light hand with herbs. You want just enough flavor to complement your dish, not to crowd out the flavor of the food.

Be subtle with blends so only you and an expert can tell which herbs you used.

When using fresh herbs, chop very fine so more of the herb oils can escape. Blending or heating with butter or salad oil is the best way to draw out and extend the flavor or herbs.

Soak dried herbs in a teaspoon of water or lime juice for 15 minutes before using.

For casseroles and sauces, add the finely chopped fresh or dried herbs directly to the mixture. Remember, a little does a lot.

If you have room for trees, don’t forget allspice, cloves, nutmeg, bay rum, cinnamon, moringa and other flavor trees. With a little effort you can have your private herb and spice garden almost anywhere in Hawaii.