Grow herbs now, savor and show off at the holidays

We're still some weeks from taking the Thanksgiving turkey from the oven, but time is growing short if the recipe calls for fresh herbs and you'd like to grow your own.

We're referring to the traditional big four of holiday herbs - parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Each holds a treasured place as a seasonal seasoning, and each requires more than a month to reach proper scissor-snipping size.

Winter can be a difficult time to harvest culinary herbs, but many of the plants can be potted and shifted indoors for a few months. If you do run out of time to garden, you always can buy fresh herbs from the nearest green grocer or you can turn to dried varieties.

The consensus among kitchen gardeners, though, is that fresh is best.

'The pungent compounds that cause herbs to be valuable in flavoring food are in most cases volatile, essential oils,' said David Trinklein, an associate professor with the University of Missouri's Division of Plant Sciences at Columbia. 'Fresh herbs usually have a higher concentration of these compounds as opposed to dried herbs.'

Herbs were the primary food seasoning grown in pioneer gardens. They also were used for curing illnesses, dyeing homespun fabrics, storing with linens or strewing on crude cabin floors to take advantage of their fragrance, Trinklein said.

The availability of dried herbs at the supermarket changed that. But as interest in cooking and ethnic foods in particular grows, fresh herbs are in demand.

Herbs can be grown indoors but the results probably won't be as good as what you would see from houseplants, which generally are smaller and have different requirements.

'Most homes don't have enough light to support good growth,' Trinklein said. 'The best-case scenario would be a light garden or near a sunny window facing South. Even then, production would be greatly reduced compared with growing (herbs) outdoors in a garden.'

Herbs usually are at their edible best just before flowering. If it's leaves you're after, most can be picked when the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth.

'Ideally, you should cut herbs soon after the dew has evaporated from the leaves in the morning,' Trinklein said. 'Harvest on a dry day that has been preceded by two dry days.'

Don't stuff fresh herbs into plastic bags if they're being gathered in large quantities. Use an open weave basket or a container that allows air to circulate. You can cut back a perennial herb to about half its height and an annual to just a few inches and expect still more production from the plants before season's end.

And don't forget that fresh herbs can be used outside: Weave them into wreaths and garlands to scent the home.

Show them off when entertaining: Roll a soft cheese in a batch of minced fresh herbs. Any one or all of the holiday herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme) will do. Package the herbs on the side if the gift cheeses won't be eaten for a few days.

Or make herb butter. Slice some quartered sticks of butter, roll in minced rosemary or thyme (or both), package and freeze. To enhance the presentation, allow the butter to soften, add the herbs, spread into molds (small plastic cookie molds will work just as well as the elegant but more expensive designer kind) and package. Freeze until it's time to add pieces to the packages of leftovers.