A beguiling scent of essential oils exudes from plant pots in gardens and on balconies during the warmer months of the year. Herb expert Maja Stürmer knows how to make rosemary, sage, oregano and basil grow luxuriantly and how to preserve them during the cold season.
1. Planting herbs: it’s the location that counts
Maja Stürmer from Mandach AG has dedicated herself to the subject of herbs for about 20 years. As well as organizing wild herb hikes and cooking courses in the Aargau Jura Park, she plants, tends to and picks kitchen and wild herbs. In her farm shop “Maja’s Chrüterstübli”, she sells everything that the fragrant world of herbs has to offer, from scented sachets to herbal salts and essential oil cold syrups.
“For me, there is nothing more beautiful than smelling a bunch of freshly picked herbs,” says the 49-year-old. “There are over 2,000 wild herbs in Switzerland alone, plus many more Mediterranean treasures – there are so many scents and tastes to discover that you can never get bored,” the expert adds. She is particularly fond of wild species such as wild marjoram, origanum, purple-blossoming wild thyme and snow-in-the-mountain, which smells of parsley and celery. “They are easy to look after, come back every year and are a true gift of nature. Instead of complaining about them and pulling them out as weeds, just try them and leave them where they are,” Stürmer explains.
If you want to grow kitchen herbs in your own garden, you should pay particular attention to the location and the soil: “Mediterranean plants such as sage, lavender, rosemary and thyme like sunny, sandy locations,” says Stürmer, “whereas more watery plants such as basil, parsley, dill and chives need semi-shady, moist conditions.” Peppermint grows almost everywhere but requires a lot of space to grow and spread.
For herbs that are susceptible to snails, such as parsley, basil and dill, Stürmer places fern leaves, which are inedible for snails, around the plants in the flowerbed. But planting in pots also protects against snails: “It’s best to add expanded clay or clay fragments at the bottom – this prevents waterlogging,” advises Maja Stürmer and adds “a little watering every day is enough for the herbs to develop well.” Mediterranean herbs, on the other hand, should only be watered moderately once a week.
2. Flowering herbs: toxic plants or an insect playground?
When herbs blossom, they develop toxins and become inedible – is this true? “No, that’s a common misconception and a question people often ask me,” says Maja Stürmer. “Some herbs taste different during or after flowering – but they all remain non-toxic.”
In the case of wild garlic, for example, the leaves taste best before the plants have flowered. The flowers are good for obtaining oil, and the bulbs are at their most delicious after flowering. “I like to make peppermint tea from stems, leaves and blooming flowers – that’s when the aromas are most intense,” says the expert.
She considers the most opulent flowers and best sources of food for bees, bumblebees and butterflies to be purple flowering origanum, bright yellow St. John’s wort, white goutweed and the deep purple flowering Mediterranean plants sage, lavender and rosemary. “Their scent and appearance are unique – and you are doing something good for local nature by virtually bringing a flowering meadow onto your balcony,” says Maja Stürmer. Her advice: “It’s best to cut the plants immediately after flowering, then the herbs will continue to grow abundantly.”
3. Harvest time: how to protect your plants
“Regular harvesting ensures that the herbal plants thrive,” says Maja Stürmer. “The best thing to do is to cut off individual branches with scissors to avoid damaging the roots.” Important: “Don’t pick plants in the rain or frost,” the expert advises. “Leaves and stems store a lot of liquid in damp weather. In dry weather the essential oils flourish much better.” Mediterranean plants such as sage, rosemary, thyme and lavender are even best harvested in sunshine.
Basil, dill, parsley and savory should be freshly sown or planted every year – ideally after the “Ice Saints”, i.e. from mid-May onwards, so that they don’t freeze to death. The following applies to the perennial plants in your flowerbeds: “Since Mediterranean herbs are accustomed to warm winters, they should not be cut until spring – so that they don’t freeze to death,” advises Maja Stürmer. “Native varieties such as origanum and goutweed, on the other hand, are easy to look after and resilient.”
4. Drying herbs: patience pays off
Herbs from your garden must be preserved so that you can enjoy them in the cold season. “The best way to do this is to dry the herbs,” says Maja Stürmer. The mistakes people often make can be summarized as follows: too fast, too hot and too impatient! “You can dry the herbs in the sun or in the oven at 80 degrees, but they lose their color and essential oils,” the expert knows from experience. “I prefer to lay the branches out over a large area of the attic on hot days – that way, they remain aromatic.” If you want to dry out herbs regularly, you can do so with the help of a dehydrating device or tumble dryer. “It’s definitely more ecological than keeping the oven on at 80 degrees all day,” says Maja Stürmer.
She believes that some herbs taste even more intense after drying than when they are fresh: “This applies to woodruff, oregano and lemon balm, for example,” says Stürmer. Not only lavender, but also more watery herbs like peppermint can be tied into loose bouquets and hung upside down to dry. “The essential oils stay well preserved by careful drying,” says Stürmer, “but watch out: if the bunch of herbs becomes gray and furry, it is a sign that a fungus has settled on it and you should throw it away. If the herbs are crispy, on the other hand, this means that they are completely dried out.”
5. Storing herbs: how to preserve the essential oils
After drying, Maja Stürmer freezes the herbs for a day to protect them from food moths in the long term. She then dries them again before storing the tender leaves in cotton bags: “There is too much danger of moisture and fungi forming in a glass jar,” she says confidently. Then she stows the bags away out of sunlight in a kitchen cupboard at room temperature.
The herbs can be dried in portions or frozen fresh in ice cube containers: “This means you always have fresh herbs with healthy ingredients ready for pasta sauces, salads or pestos within seconds,” advises Maja Stürmer, who also offers wild herb cooking courses.
6. Recipe tips: how to use herbal vinegar and oils
“Once the herbs have been dried, they are ideal for making aromatic vinegars or oils,” says Maja enthusiastically. “I love having fresh spices in the house all the time!”
Recipe tip – herb vinegar: coarsely chop four cups of dry herbs as desired and pour a liter of warmed white wine vinegar over them, then leave to stand in a sealed bottle in the refrigerator for a month. The herbs can be sieved or left in the liquid according to taste. “I particularly love nasturtium vinegar, for example,” Stürmer tells us.
Recipe tip – herb oil: coarsely chop four cups of dry herbs as desired and pour a liter of oil over them. “For Mediterranean herbs, I use olive oil, for all other herbs, I opt for Swiss rapeseed oil because it has a longer shelf life than sunflower oil,” explains Maja Stürmer. The longer it is left to stand at room temperature, the more intense the taste.
7. Gift ideas: herbal salts and pastes with seasoning power
“Extremely simple and extremely tasty,” is how Maja Stürmer describes the production of her bestseller herbal salt. “You mix about a third of fresh herbs with about two thirds of salt – and if you do this with a food processor, the salt takes on a wonderful green color.” After about a month, the essential oils have been absorbed and the salt is ready to enjoy – or give to people as a gift. “It makes a nice little present or souvenir in pretty bags or glass jars,” the expert adds.
If you want to preserve even more herbs for seasoning, you can also make a paste: mix fresh herbs such as basil with salt and oil, pour into a glass jar and use the finished herb paste to season and enhance food as desired. “As long as the top layer always remains covered with oil, the paste will last forever, even at room temperature,” she explains . This also makes a welcome gift for friends and family with a satin ribbon or bow wrapped around the glass container.
8. Scented decorations: wreaths, sticks and bouquets
But herbs and wild herbs not only smell and taste great – they also look great. “They can be tied into door wreaths, herb sticks and small dry bouquets,” suggests Maja Stürmer. “They bring country house flair into your own four walls as decoration.”
And with a twinkle in her eye, she reveals: “Herbs have a mystical meaning to many people.” According to rural customs, roses, for example, have a harmonizing effect as door decorations, mugwort offers protection from evil forces, peppermint creates clarity while lavender opens the door to new things. And even if you don’t hold with these mystical traditions, they will still smell and look good!