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Back Yard Gardener: Rosemary is a versatile herb

Hello Mid-Ohio Valley farmers and gardeners! The first week of September brings back some summer time heat as we continue the harvest from local gardens. Sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans are brought in fresh from the garden for great homemade meals and for canning and freezing to enjoy this winter. One of my favorites is what I call Mexican Soup using frozen sweet corn form the garden, black beans, ground beef, red potatoes, and onions. Serve with a ‘dollop’ of sour cream.

If you planted Irish potatoes early some hills may be ready for digging and preparing for winter storage. Potatoes should be harvested after the vines have died and the crop is mature. To check maturity, dig up one or two hills of potatoes. If the skins on the tubers are thin and rub off easily, the crop is not fully mature and will not store well. Wait a few more days before harvesting. The skins on mature potatoes remain firmly attached to the tubers.

When harvesting potatoes, avoid bruising, skinning, or cutting the tubers. Damaged potatoes should be used as soon as possible. Potatoes must be cured before placing them in storage. Cure potatoes at a temperature of 45 to 60 degrees and high relative humidity (85 to 95 percent) for two weeks. Healing of minor cuts and bruises and thickening of the skin occurs during the curing process.

This week I am discussing a favorite herb of mine, rosemary. This aromatic herb can be used for culinary purposes as well as medicinal. The narrow leaves have a leather-like feel and a spicy, resinous fragrance. Traditionally used to flavor lamb, it is a popular flavoring for other meats and dressings or as a garnish on large roasts. It can also flavor tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese, eggs, vinegars, and herbal butters. The flowers and leaves of rosemary can be used in cooking and for garnishes.

Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) is a very versatile herb and used for many purposes, both fresh and dried. Medicinally, rosemary can be used as an astringent, antiseptic and cleanser in bath and beauty products. The aromatic oil is added to soaps, creams, lotions, and perfumes. The ancient Greeks also used it to strengthen memory function. During examinations they would wear garlands of rosemary in order to improve memory and concentration. It is widely used in Europe for digestive issues and to improve circulation. It has also been used to purify the air in French hospitals.

Rosemary is native to the hills along the Mediterranean, Portugal, and northwestern Spain and a member of the mint family. It is considered a perennial evergreen shrub and may grow to reach heights of four to six feet. Rosemary’s name in Latin, ros maris or ‘dew of the sea,’ refers to its dew-like appearance along the Mediterranean coast. This may also refer to the shimmering blue flowers that cover the plant.

Rosemary is only winter hardy down to 20 degrees and definitely adapted to a warmer climate. In most cases it will not survive our Mid-Ohio Valley winters outdoors. However, if you have a protected microclimate up close to the house it is not unheard of rosemary to make it through the winter. The foliage is dark green and needle-like much like a spruce or fir. A white band on the underside gives it a gray coloration. During the summer, rosemary produces small white, pink or blue flowers. The fragrance is an intense camphor or piney scent.

Popular rosemary varieties upright growth include “Gorizia,” “Tuscan Blue,” “Salem,” and “Arp.” “Gorizia” has leaves that are double the size of more ordinary varieties. “Tuscan Blue” has strong, upright thick stems and can reach heights of seven feet. “Salem” has dark blue flowers reminiscent of common rosemary. “Arp” is referred to as the winter hardy variety.

Rosemary can be grown from seed but I recommend propagating from stem cuttings. The cuttings root easily and grow into suitable plants very quickly. Direct seeding has low germination rates and resulting plants may take up to three years to become viable plants. Plants do best in full sun. Similar to other herbs, good drainage is a necessity. Fertilize lightly as excess fertilizer will reduce flowering and fragrance. The soil should be kept moist and good air circulation is important to prevent foliar diseases.

In most cases, I suggest growing rosemary in containers because it is not a cold hardy herb. In addition, rosemary plants grown in the garden do not transplant very well. They can easily be treated as container plants on the deck, patio or porch. In spring, potted plants can be moved outside to a sunny location, enjoy the summer sun and then be brought back inside before the first frost.

Keep in mind once you bring rosemary indoors it dries out quickly in an indoor growing environment. This can result in brown leaf tips and die-back. Rosemary prefers a cool sunny location with high humidity. Do not over water plant more because this can lead to root rots and loss of the plant. Frequent misting may be helpful. Rosemary also does not do a lot of growing during the low light, cool days of winter.

When harvesting, the tender tips and foliage can be cut as needed throughout the growing season. Leaves may also be dried and stored for later use. Sprigs can be frozen, preserved in vinegar or used to flavor butter or other culinary oils. Meats, soups, vegetables, and sauces are just a few of the dishes rosemary can be used in. Rosemary garlic potatoes is my favorite recipe. Rosemary can also be added to breads and its aromatic qualities also enhance a bouquet for the kitchen table. Pruning the plants will encourage a tight compact habit and traditionally plants have been pruned into shapes resembling small evergreens.

Contact me at the Wood County WVU Extension Office 304-424-1960 or e-mail me at jj.barrett@mail.wvu.edu with questions. Good Luck and Happy Gardening!

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