The Simple, Essential Herb Garden
by Sandra Bowens
Resolutions often come with Spring. As the days grow longer we feel more motivated to make changes, to do things, than we did at the beginning of the calendar's new year. Maybe you have decided it is time to become more active, get outdoors more. Or is it time to start eating better--more salads and vegetables, less junk? Perhaps your plan is to beautify your living area and get to work on fixing up that patio. An herb garden is a solution that addresses all three of these perfectly sensible goals.
As with any new project, the first inclination is to dive right in. Your eyes, and taste buds, dance at the thought of the dozens of herbs you will grow and the ways you will use them in your kitchen. Again, a perfectly good goal but you might want to start small, get your feet wet.
Start with the simple, essential herbs first and see how it all works. Six is a good number; basil, chives, dill, marjoram, thyme and rosemary grow well in the garden and are important in the kitchen.
Perhaps the single most critical factor in the success of growing herbs is providing them with enough sunlight. This is where we run into trouble trying to grow herbs indoors. Look for a place where your plants will get at least six hours of light each day. Keep in mind that you are not limited to a tradition "in-the-ground" garden. Herbs grow well in pots.
There are certain advantages to container gardening. You can move the pots around, in and out of the sun or inclement weather, and it is harder for the creeping, crawling garden pests to get at them.
Also consider the part of the country where you live. Some climates are extreme at particular times of the year and you will need to do a bit more research for gardening in your area. The local county agricultural extension office and the library are good places to learn about the special care your plants may require.
Most herbs thrive on the same kind of care. They like soil that drains well, regular watering, a natural fertilizer and lots of pinching. Herbs are less susceptible to pests and disease than many other plants but do keep an eye out. Don't just go eliminating every bug you see in your garden--some of them are the good guys. Tackle each situation individually after you have identified a specific problem.
If you are going to plant a garden, amend the bed with organic matter like compost, sand, sawdust and/or a rich soil mix. For containers you will want to use a high-quality potting soil and make sure your pots have holes for adequate drainage. Apply a seaweed-based fertilizer every two weeks or according to the package directions.
Pinching and pruning and grooming will encourage your herb plants to become lush and bushy. Each plant has its own needs for how this should be accomplished as I have pointed out below.
Basil is a joy to have in the kitchen and the garden. It will grow well for you if you follow two simple rules. Don't expose your plant to temperatures below 50 degrees (F) and pinch it back frequently to encourage bushiness.
Although starter plants are readily available, basil is one of the easier herbs to start from seed. It is an annual, meaning the plant will live its life cycle in one season. You can extend that cycle by pinching off flowers as they form. That way the plant puts all of its energy into foliage production rather than into making seeds.
To harvest basil for the kitchen, pinch sprigs just above a point where more leaves have emerged from the stem. Most herb lovers need no instruction on using basil in the kitchen but if you find you have harvested more than you can use right away, try
making flavored oils and vinegars or pesto.
I enjoy chives more than any other herb I grow. You can snip and snip at them but there will always be more when you go back. They accent so many different foods from salads and salad dressings to chicken or fish.
Start with a plant, the bigger the better. It will look more like a clump than a single plant and that is because chives, like other onions, are grown from bulbs. As your garden ages, you will want to divide this original clump every couple of years. Be aware, too, that chives will go dormant in the winter but they can take the cold.
To help your chives along, mulch around the base every now and then with coffee grounds. When you snip from it, take entire leaves by cutting from
near the base. This will generate even more growth. Chives send up pretty little purple puff flowers every now and then. These flowers are edible although intense. They make an attractive garnish but if you want to add them to foods, it is best to pull them apart first.
Since dill is persnickety about being transplanted, it is better started from seeds sown where you want it to grow. If you choose to grow dill in a container, make it a deep one to allow for the long taproot that will develop. Dill will become a tall, gangly plant that might need to be staked at some point. Plant it in the back row if you're doing an in-the-ground garden or look for a dwarf variety like Fernleaf.
Like basil, dill is also an annual. For a longer harvesting season you might consider what experienced gardeners call "succession planting." This just means that you plant a few more seeds every couple of weeks. If you allow your dill to flower, those flowers will eventually "go to seed." You can harvest these seeds for eating as dill seeds or to plant next season. Once the flower begins to dry out, hold a bag under it and gently knock the seeds into it.
Snip from your dill plant by cutting the frilly leaves at the point where they meet the main stem. Dill is wonderful with eggs, vegetables, fish and, of course, pickles. I love it in tuna salad and mixed into sour cream with chives for a dip.
You are probably wondering how marjoram got onto the list rather than oregano. From a gardener's point of view, marjoram is more reliable than oregano. From the cook's point of view fresh marjoram is more pleasing to the palate than fresh oregano.
Marjoram is easy to grow from seed if you start them indoors early but for most gardeners a small plant is the best way to begin. Since it does not tolerate cold weather, most of us will need to grow marjoram as an annual. Nor will it tolerate "wet feet" so water marjoram a bit less than your other herbs and keep it in as much sun as possible.
Once your plant is growing well, snip from it often. No real rules apply to a method for harvesting so you might
want to go for keeping it in a nice shape. In the kitchen, toss the fresh leaves into sauces, soups, salads, marinades, just about anywhere a tasty sweet herb would be suitable. Soon you will see--it really is better than oregano.
Fresh or dried, thyme is my favorite. Such a wonderful savory flavor that is good alone or in combination with other herbs. It is an easy to grow perennial that will suffer the winter but always bounce right back. Keep it a little on the dry side, trim it often, but never more than one third of the plant, and it will thrive for you.
When shopping for plants you may be confronted by a wide variety of choices. French and English thyme are the basics and either one is a good choice. For a second plant consider lemon thyme. It has a lovely scent and a tasty flavor combination that is especially nice on fish or vegetables.
The amazing difference between cooking with fresh rosemary rather than dried makes a rosemary plant essential to the herb garden. It is a tough, scruffy plant that can handle some cold but not a deep freeze. If your climate is known for extreme winters, you may wish to grow your rosemary in a pot that you can move around as the weather dictates.
Growing rosemary from seed is a lengthy process so it is nearly always propagated from stem cuttings. Look for a well-established plant from a nursery that specializes in herbs, if possible. Watering is the biggest concern with rosemary; too much and the plant may develop root rot, too little and the leaves dry up irreversibly.
To trim your rosemary for
cooking, or maintenance, snip no more than one third of each branch making your cut just above a set of needles. To use in a recipe, strip the needles from the tough stems and chop roughly. If the stems are thick enough, you might use them as skewers for grilling meats and vegetables. Rosemary is wonderful in meat dishes, in breads and with vegetables.
What about the others?
These six herbs were chosen because they are nice garden plants that are versatile in the kitchen. Basically, they are a good place to start. You know better than I what herb you simply must grow.
For instance, I have learned that tarragon is incredible as a fresh herb. Although I don't use it a lot, when I want to, dried tarragon simply won't do. When it comes to parsley that is so readily available at the supermarket and often used in large quantities, I choose not to give it a place in my garden. I would rather try something more elusive like borage or lovage.
Now, if you are like me, six herbs isn't going to be enough. Like I said, it is a good place to start but once you get started, it's exciting. Time to branch out, you will probably think. And, of course, you will be right.
May I suggest two other edibles that I have discovered are fun and delicious? Arugula and nasturtiums both grow fast from seed. Arugula, sometimes called rocket, is a sort of nutty tasting green that is great on sandwiches and in salads.
Nasturtiums are a beautiful edible plant that flowers. The peppery bite of the leaves is surprising and the flowers with that same flavor make an irresistible garnish. Although I have yet to try it, the seedpods are sometimes pickled and used as capers.
Now that you have the basics down it's time to get out there. Hurry, you are going to have so much fun!