In the south of France, a favorite spice blend is called herbes de Provence. It's a delightful mixture of lavender flowers with dried savory herbs--basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, and thyme. Americans have become increasingly captivated with this pungent, complex flavor-enhancer for fish, game, red meat, poultry, and even vegetables.
Growing Herbes de Provence
All of the herbs in this blend thrive in Provence's Mediterranean climate, but they can be easily grown in less temperate regions. Outdoors, all of the following plants do well in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 through 10. Some will also grow, with special winter protection, in zones 4 and 5. In winter, all can be grown in containers in south-facing windows that receive at least 4 hours of direct sunlight.
Because nearly all the herbs are prone to root rot (Phytophthora species), they prefer rocky, sandy, or gravelly soil for good drainage. Like most Mediterranean herbs, they tolerate drought well. For sage, lavender, and oregano, a sandy soil actually enhances the amount of volatile oils in the foliage, making the herbs' flavors more pungent. Basil is the only plant in the mixture that prefers ample moisture and a fertile soil.
Most gardeners prefer to buy seedlings of the perennial and shrubby forms of these plants at their local nurseries. Buy the smallest plants available, because their roots are less likely to be mangled by the container. It's safer to plant after the danger of frost has passed and soil has warmed. In the moderate West and South, fall planting produces superior plants by the end of the following summer. In humid climates, judicious pruning of the foliage of woody-stemmed herbs to a more open form will increase air circulation and help plants prosper.
Harvesting, Drying, and Storing
For all except lavender, harvest leafy sprigs from your garden throughout the summer, then dry and store them in a cool, dark place. After they dry, strip the leaves from the twigs and store the dried herbs in dark jars in a cool place.
Begin harvesting before noon on a sunny, dry day. Clip sprigs that are free of dew or water. Harvest lavender flowers and flower stems only, without leaves (strip any leaves that might hang on to the 12- to 18-inch flower stems). Dry lavender flowers and other herbs on screen trays or by hanging small bundles in a dark, dry place with good air circulation. If ventilation is a problem, run an oscillating fan at low speed nearby. Keep the location completely dark, because even fluorescent bulbs will fade lavender's flowers. Store each herb separately. To use, combine leaves and flowers only in small batches.
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