Yes, I digress from actual in-the-kitchen cooking, but it’s the time of the year when the seed catalogs have started to appear in my mailbox, and the birds are beginning to suggest springtime, too. It’s time for wishful thinking–and ordering seeds and/or plants. There are so many herbs available that you won’t necessarily find in your local garden center–they will have the basics, and probably lemon thyme, and other flavored thymes. Fresh herbs are one of the easiest ways to keep your cooking (even if it’s for more than one) exciting and healthy. I’m not going to suggest that you replace salt with herbs (more on salt a bit later)–just use it judiciously with the fresh herbs.
Even though I purchase fresh herbs from the market during the winter and use some dried herbs, there’s nothing like being able to walk into the garden our even just out onto the deck and snip what herbs you want right now. You are not in the frustrating position of not having the herbs that you need whenever you want them. Having them readily available frees you to experiment depending on your mood, or whims as you cook. Sometimes I don’t know what I want to use until I’m actually smelling the herbs as I brush against the plants.
Herbs are easy and fun to grow. If you don’t have garden space, you can grow them in containers. One fairly large pot can be used to grow several herbs, and has the advantage that you need to water less often than if you put your herbs in smaller containers. I like larger containers with several herbs grouped together for several reasons: I need to water less often, and I don’t have to be so concerned about them blowing over. When you plant herbs together, you do need to consider the moisture and light requirements of the herbs planted together. Basil and oregano are not likely to be happy pot-mates as they require different moisture levels to be happy. Most herbs like lots of sun, but there are a few that you may need to have in partial shade or shade so you’ll need to consider that as well.
When I say a “fairly large” container I am think about a three- to five-gallon container. Pot sizes are usually given as the diameter at the top–so a 4-inch pot would be that wide at the top, possibly tapering to smaller diameter at the bottom. The larger the diameter of the pot, usually the deeper the pot, so by the time you have a wide surface, say 14 to 16 inches, at the top, you may have a pot that is deeper than you really need for herbs, so don’t waste the extra potting soil! Use some inert filler in the bottom of that huge pot so that you are using only the amount of soil needed. Many herbs really need only about 8 inches of depth. The old Styrofoam peanuts, for example, can be used (newer ones are biodegradable and will not last in the pot). In order to avoid having to collect them when I need to change soil, I put them into old panty-hose (which take years to break down). You could also use soft-drink cans, turned on-end, and upside down in the bottom of the pot–just be sure not to interfere with the drainage of your pot. Because my deck is elevated and I don’t want to have to worry about pots blowing around, I will sometimes use bricks or rock to fill the bottom–just making sure that I can move it if needed.
A good place to start your herb gardening (container or otherwise) is with the basics that you use most often. For me that is rosemary, marjoram, Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare hirtum), Syrian oregano (Origanum maru), sage (Salvia officinalis, ‘Extrakta’ or ‘Berggarten‘), French or summer thyme (Thymus vulgaris ‘narrow-leaf French”, summer savory, and French tarragon (Artemisa dracunculus sativa), Thai basil, globe basil, bay (Laurus nobilis), chives, flat-leaf parsley, mint, and cutting celery. Since you want only one plant of each, it’s probably best to buy plants rather than start from seed. You can find herb plants at your farmers’ market in the spring, or at the garden center.
I will admit to being a bit of a snob about my herbs–I do want to know exactly what I’m getting, as you can see from the botanical names included with the list above–at least for some herbs, really as many as possible, but especially for bay and for French tarragon. I don’t plant lemon thyme, et cetera, because I feel that the “citrus” part of the thyme cooks off quickly, so I prefer to add the citrus by using juice or zest of the citrus. I don’t want Russian tarragon because, to me, the flavor is harsh–just not what I want from tarragon. The same principle holds with bay–the California bay (Umbellularia californica) is strongly flavored, but lacks the complexity of the Lauris nobilis or true bay.
Tarragon is another herb were it pays to be particular–it must be from cuttings, as true French tarragon does not produce viable seeds. The seed packets of “tarragon” are a relative, but lack the finesse of French tarragon. Other herbs that I’ve listed I like because of particularly high essential oil content, so more flavor. Once you’ve got the basics, you’ll probably find others that you want to try: I’ve added shiso, epazote, Spanish tarragon (Tagetes lucida), and given a catalog, I’m sure I can find many others I would love to try.
I generally do NOT combine annuals and perennials–I don’t want to disturb well-established roots of the perennials to remove or add an annual. one of my containers is likely to contain sage for a nice tall plant with lovely grey-green foliage, oregano, thyme, and perhaps some chives in a 12- to 14-inch pot. Rosemary can become quite bushy and makes a good tall plant for another container. My bay gets its own pot, as I want it to be large and tree-like.
Cutting celery is an herb of which I’ve grown particularly fond–it does not head, and yet can give me fresh celery flavor for salads, soups, and the stems even add a bit of crispness. It can grow with dill, chives, Vietnamese coriander, or stevia, for example. Parsley usually get a pot to itself. Cilantro, which bolts easily, gets a 6-inch pot or an area in a planter which gets sequential plantings all summer. Most dill is not suited to containers as it tends to get huge, and develop a tap root; however, there are a few “dwarf” varieties (Fernleaf being one of those) which can be grown in a container.
Mint must have more moisture than these other herbs, so it gets its own separate pot, perhaps sharing with lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) usually placed out of the blazing summer sun. My wish list for this summer’s herbs is not complete yet…there are more seed catalogs to go through yet.
It does take a bit of effort to grow herbs: you’ll need to water them, and do some mid-season fertilizing, but it is well worth the effort. The other thing that you need to do is to keep herbs pinched and trimmed in order to have them bushy and productive. You’ll not want them to bloom as the flavor is not as good after blooming, so pinch and trim. To a large extent that happens as you harvest for use. There are times when I just go out and give them a “butch”. That’s when you make an herb vinaigrette, share with friends or purée to use under the skin of a roast chicken! You can also include the leaves in a salad of mesclun or your favorite greens.
Having your own herb garden keeps you supplied without the expense and (even as manyas I used) waste with the packaged supermarket herbs. It also provides a sensual pleasure just to smell them as you walk by, or to deliberately brush through them, just for the heavenly aromas they give off. Nothing is much more exciting than seeing those first leaves as they come back in the spring, announcing a whole season of wonderful tastes and smells–time to have things just a son goût even if it is single-serving cooking for one.