Renewing the herb garden

Even though perennials return year after year, they are not forever.  Eventually old age or inclement weather takes its toll.  It seems that my on-the-deck herb garden has reached it’s expiration date and is in serious need of refreshing. That’s my project for the weekend.

img_3910.jpgSome of the herbs that I’ve grown were plopped into pots in a rather topsy-turvy fashion.  With the summer heat here it takes a lot of watering keep the smaller pots going, and some things just didn’t make it, whether from erratic watering or just plain old age.  This year I’m going to try to be a bit more organized and make the herbs a little easier to care for.

I’m fortunate to have a good friend and neighbor who is a serious plant person, and gardener, with a garden consulting business–Sharyn Caudell at Gardener to Go.  She’ll look over your garden space and give planting advice, show you how to plant, make suggestions about what to plant and where to plant it.  I’m shamelessly taking advantage of her know-how to  improve my herb plantings on the deck.  In exchange for some help on one of her projects she’s made suggestions about how I can improve the container herb garden. She is going to do a post on growing herbs in containers for us.

First thing on the  list was bigger pots with several plants in each so that there will be less watering.  I’m sure that some of my herbs that were in smaller pots bit the dust because of erratic watering during the last summer.  Others were just old plants–even perennials don’t last forever.

For my plants, it’s a trip to Gunter’s Greenhouse and Garden Center since their plants are locally grown.  They will have big bags of soilless mix for potting too.  Then it’s time to get my hands in the dirt–well, the potting mix.

Anticipation of things to come

Beginning planting

the almost bare greenhouse

I have lived where seasons are not markedly different–and I much prefer life where there is a distinct  seasonal change.  It’s partly the anticipation of the new and different things that come with each season.  Anticipation adds a lot to my life.  Living where flowers were almost year-round left me taking them for granted. Winter for me is a period of rest, rejuvenation, regeneration–and anticipation.

Anticipation contributes to enjoying so many things–that special bottle of wine and good food, or just a new season. Planning a special meal to go with a special wine…or those winter dreams of fresh produce while you dwell on the pages of the seed catalogs, knowing that the time will come when you’ll have seeds in your hand, and that those seeds will give you food.  That’s anticipation. Winter is passing into spring….

Plug tray of tomato plants

plug tray of tomato plants

Today I worked with a friend, as I do every spring and summer, getting a start on the luscious things that come from the field and garden.   I got my hands into the dirt and transplanted about 300 tomato plants from the itty-bitty plug trays into the three-packs that we’ll use to sell them at the farmers’ market.

We started with an almost bare greenhouse–just a few things that needed some protection to winter over, but were hardy without needing to heat the greenhouse all winter.

Small tomato plants in flats

transplanted tomato plants

The tomato seeds were planted just about ten days ago–in the house, because it was really too soon to get the green house up and going.  We planted the seeds in “plug” trays–each tray has lots of little “wells” just a bit bigger than my thumb (288 of them, I think).  Once they have germinated and have the first set of true leaves (even though they are very tiny they really do look like leaves on a tomato plant) then it’s time to give them more room to grow.  That was today’s work.  Tedious, yes!

Sungold cherry tomatoes on the vine

anticipation of what is to come

But, oh, the anticipation of what is to come from those tiny plants.  These are Sungold cherry tomatoes from last season–they’re summer candy.  Those tiny plants will  grow and bear tomatoes during the summer.  Today I did transplant some Sungolds, but there were Fried Green, Cabernet, Big Boy, Better Boy, Italian Tree, and Abe Lincoln tomato plants too.  Some of these are new for us–we’re trying them out to see how they taste and, of course, how that fare in the North Caroling summers.  So we’re anticipating….we’ll have more varieties like John Baer, Valley Girl, Champion, Brandy Boy…and maybe others.  It partly depends on how well the seeds germinate.  There be more transplanting going on shortly.  Then we can anticipate the sore knees, aching backs that comes from planting in the fields.  But that will pass, and we’ll be anticipating the sun-warmed, juicy fruit than came from that tiny seed.


Eggplant is a lovely vegetable from the blooms to the fruit.  What’s not to love about this glossy purple vegetable, especially from an artistic point of view?  Beautiful color, highlights and shadows….

From a cook’s standpoint, at the farmers’ market I hear lots of “What do I do with eggplant?” questions. This seems to be another vegetable that needs to be looked up in a vegetable cookbook to get some basic information.   I’d recommend checking out The Victory Garden Cookbook at the library if you don’t want to own it.  The author is Marian Morash.

I’m going to try to condense some information from various sources here to give you a bit better idea about what eggplant is and what you can do with eggplant.

For any of you who might want to think about growing your own next summer, keep in mind that it’s a hot-weather plant.  The nighttime temperatures need to be about 55 ° F before you put the plants out in the garden; otherwise they just kind of sit there and never do anything–even after the temperatures warm up.  So don’t rush it–wait until it’s warm enough.  Then you’ll have a plant that is very productive (if you keep harvesting the fruits).  Come peak season, you’ll find eggplant a bit like zucchini…you will have an abundant (maybe even excessive) supply of this lovely stuff. Maybe you neighbors would like some…especially if you can tell them some things to do with it when you give it to them.

It’s a widely used vegetable in Middle East and Mediterranean cultures.  It seems to be less familiar to the average American cook shopping at the farmers’ market.  So here is some basic information on yields (from The Victory Garden Cookbook, page 102-103):

  • one pound of cubed, peeled eggplant is about 4 cups.
  • for 1 cup of cooked, cubed eggplant you’ll need about 6 cups of raw, cubed eggplant.
  • for 2 cups of puréed eggplant, you’ll need about 6 cups of raw, cubed eggplant
  • for 4 servings, you’ll need about 1-1/2 pounds of eggplant.

Now for choosing your eggplant:  If you’re harvesting your own, size is not a good indicator of maturity–big is not necessarily better.  Older eggplants can become bitter, with many seeds, and skins will be tough.   First, look for glossy skin.  Then lightly press on the fruit.  If it’s hard, the eggplant is not ready.  If the flesh presses down, and bounces back–it’s ready.  Flesh of a too-old eggplant will press down very easily and will keep the depression from your pressure.   Eggplants that you buy should have the “cap” and part of the stem on them.

Eggplants are easily bruised so handle with care–when checking for maturity be gentle.

Eggplants also are not “fond” of refrigeration; best storage temperature is about 50 ° F.  Stored colder than that, the eggplant will rapidly develop soft brown spots (rotting) and will become bitter.   Plan to cook your eggplant as soon as possible after purchase or harvest and store in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel, at room temperature.

One of the down sides of cooking eggplant is that it’s a bit like a sponge–it can absorb large quantities of oil–which most of us don’t want in our diet because of the calories (at least).  A properly harvested eggplant does not need salting in order to remove bitterness.  Salting and draining, however, removes moisture from the eggplant.

Traditional salting uses about 1-1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt per pound of eggplant.  Let stand for 30 to 60 minutes.  Then press between paper towels to get more moisture out and compress the eggplant so that it’s not so porous or “spongy”.

You can also get help from the microwave:  add the salt 1/2 teaspoon per pound, place on paper towels sprayed with nonstick spray, and cook on high power for about 10 minutes until it feels dry and is slightly shriveled.  Press to compress the eggplant so that it’s dense, and doesn’t absorb oil.  Proceed with sautéing, and it will not absorb  nearly so much oil; you should be able to sauté a pound of eggplant with about 1 tablespoon of oil.  (I love this method–I have been able to sauté a pound of eggplant in less than a tablespoon of oil.)  See post on Caponata!  This will work with sliced eggplant as well as cubed.  I’d recommend doing this instead of the traditional salting, but the pressure compressing the eggplant is important.

There are other things to do with eggplant than make eggplant parmesan but that seems to be a dish that everyone has heard of.  Even if you’re going to make eggplant parmesan, I recommend using one of the procedures for removing moisture and compressing this vegetable.

If you’re going to broil or grill (a favorite of mine) you won’t need to do the salting or compressing–just brush the slices, of halves of the oriental-type eggplant with olive oil, sprinkle on some salt and pepper and grill/griddle/broil until tender.

There’s a wonderful Middle Eastern dip to make using eggplant too: baba ghanoush (many alternative spellings which I’m not going to include here).   This usually starts with a whole globe eggplant baked or grilled whole before being mashed with extra-virgin olive oil and seasonings.

Another popular eggplant dish which you may encounter in restaurants is Iman Bayidi–eggplant sautéed  and braised with onions, garlic, and tomatoes.  Ratatouille is a popular Provençal dish which uses eggplants.

Baking or sautéing is often a preliminary step in eggplant dishes, but you can serve it just like that with a squeeze of lemon juice, or one of many toppings.

When you’re searching for eggplant recipes, try looking at Mediterranean (Italian, Greek, southern France), Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern  cuisines as this vegetable is frequently used in these.    Just some thoughts on where to go to find things to do with eggplant now that you know how to buy it and some of the basic techniques for cooking it.

More on growing herbs

For those just starting gardening, and growing herbs is a great place to start, here’s an article from The Herb Companion that addresses the joys of having a kitchen garden of herbs (in containers), and how easy it can be.  You’ll probably find that it’s addictive!  Once you know how easily you can grow them almost any where, and how useful they are, you’ll not want to be without fresh herbs in season.

USDA hardiness zones

I’ve talked about growing your own herbs, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned that certain perennials are hardy in some zones and not in others.  If you are unfamiliar with these, here is a link  from the National Gardening Association which will answer some questions about hardiness zones, and will let you check out your zone.  Remember that drainage can affect hardiness, and it will make a difference if the plants are in pots, rather than in the ground.

It’s not only cold that affects your plants:  It’s thought that plants begin to suffer physiological damage at temperatures above 86 ° F.  From the American Horticultural Society, here is a link to a downloadable heat zone map; online this map may be viewed at the Southern Gardening website.  This gives the average number of days when the temperature is above 86 ° F

In using either of these (cold hardiness or heat zones) you have to consider where your plants are being grown–in the ground, in pots, the soil drainage, and water availability, among other things.

Bay, basil & oregano

Turkish (sweet) bay (Laurus nobilis)

New leaves on Laurus nobilis plant

Bay (Laurus nobilis)

This may be an herb that is associated more with winter cuisine because it is so frequently used in soups, stews, and braises which are typical of cool weather cooking.  Once you have used the fresh rather than dried leaves, it will be an all-season herb.

Culinary bay (Laurus nobilis) is often called bay laurel, sweet bay or Turkish bay.  The botanical name is important for this herb as there is another, California bay (Umbellularia californica), that is often found as “bay”.   The flavor of the California bay is more medicinal with a strong camphor smell that is much different from the complex flavors of  true bay laurel.   There is a whole new experience waiting when you use fresh bay laurel leaves in cooking.

This herb is “picky” to grow, but well worth the effort.  To grow bay laurel, you will need to buy a plant from a reputable source so that you can be sure that you are getting Laurus nobilis since the California bay lacks the “sweetness” of true bay.  True bay  is more expensive than most herbs because it’s difficult to propagate and is slow-growing.  You’ll likely (depending on climate where you live) want to grow your bay in a container in order to move it inside in the wintertime, at least until it is about 24 inches tall when the stems will be somewhat woody and better able to withstand cold.

Bay needs sun, but too intense sunlight will burn the leaves–so having it in a pot will let you move it around and discover the best site for it.   It also needs fertile soil, evenly moist but well-drained.  It should never be allowed to dry out completely or it’s likely to die. This is an herb that will need a container all to itself.  If you need to bring it indoors to winter over, you’ll need to put it where there is plenty of light and where it is well ventilated–best in a cooler area.  While indoors bay is susceptible to some pests like mealy bugs, scale, and aphids so you must watch it closely.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)

If there is a summer herb, as dried bay might be considered a winter herb,  it is most likely basil (Ocimum basilicum), especially the sweet, large-leaf, Italian basil.  Say tomato, and I’m sure a lot of  “foodies” would immediately say basil.  It is a tender annual that will not winter over–so it’s a spring event when you can plant basil and anxiously await that first harvest.   I suspect that basil would be at the top of a list of herbs grown by home gardeners–especially as it is so strongly associated with tomatoes.  There are many varieties of basil (purple, Thai, holy, cinnamon, lemon, and lime, globe for just a few) but we’ll start with the most common: sweet or Genovase basil.

To grow basil, you can start with seed or buy plants.  It is a heat-loving herb so you need to wait for warm weather to plant it outdoors (generally night-time temperatures need to stay above 50 ° F).  You can get a head start if you plant seeds indoors.  Once the weather is warm, you can gradually get your plants used to the outdoors, and finally plant them out. For your first time of growing basil, you should probably just buy plants.  Even so, if you plant your basil outdoors while the temperatures are too cool, you’re likely to have stunted plants that will never do really well.

Basil can be grown in the vegetable garden, herb garden, or in containers.  It needs average soil (so it will do well in that potting soil that you got from the garden center) but needs plenty of water (even moisture, not allowed to dry out between waterings) but must be well-drained.  It needs lots of  sun, but it does not like the drier, poorer soil conditions that some of the Mediterranean herbs will tolerate; however, basil will not do well in soil that is too rich either (don’t fertilize too much)–that will make it less fragrant since it will contain less of the essential oils.  This means that you should not plant basil in the same container as other Mediterranean herbs like sage.

As you start your basil plants, you want to pinch the growing tips so that the plants will branch sideways and be full and bushy.  Basil flowers readily, but after flowering the flavor declines so be rigorous in pinching the flowering tips.

There is one serious fungus disease (fusarium wilt) that can affect basil–it turns the leaves black and will kill plants in a short time.  This is a disease that is carried by seeds–so if you are starting your basil from seed, buy seeds that have been tested and are known to be disease free.  Should you get this disease in your plants, the only thing you can do is (literally) trash them–don’t throw the diseased plants in the compost or that will be contaminated too, and the disease can be transmitted to tomatoes and basil plants on which that compost is used.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum

Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare, subsp. hirtum)

There are many types of oregano which vary markedly in the intensity of flavor.  Likely the one most commonly found in the supermarket or in the garden center is common or wild oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. vulgare).  I like to grow the true Greek oregano (subspecies hirtum) for my use as it is very spicy and has an intense flavor.  It is a less vigorous growing plant than the common, but still easy to grow.   While you can start oregano from seed, it takes a long time to germinate and is slow-growing so unless you have lots of patience, buy a plant to start your herb garden.   The best way to tell what you’re getting it to smell and/or taste a leaf from the plant that you’re going to buy.  If you have never tasted Greek oregano, you are in for a wonderful treat–it’s much more flavorful and more peppery than the common oregano (which is what is most likely in those supermarket packs and in the garden center).

The two basics for growing oregano are sun and well-drained soil; given these it is a vigorous grower.  It is a perennial so once you get it started, it will stay with you for quite some time and generally be quite carefree to grow.   As with most herbs, it benefits from being used frequently or having the growing tips pinched occasionally to encourage it to branch and be a bushy, rather than a leggy, lanky plant.

A word of warning:  if you are also growing common oregano (see also Marjoram), don’t put it near your other species of oregano–it spreads by underground off-shoots (stolons) and by seeding itself, and it can (and likely will) replace your prized Greek (or other) oregano.   You might plant your Greek oregano in a container with sage, but not with other species of oregano or with marjoram.

◊ ♦ ◊

These three herbs would have to be part of absolute bare necessities, along with parsley, sage, thyme, and rosemary, for my cooking.  The longer I cook, the more herbs I want to have available for spontaneous use:  I’ve added tarragon, epazote and shiso (perilla), and lavender to what I’ve come to consider the “necessities”.  Every growing season is likely to find me adding another herb–this year it’s lime basil.  I’m waiting rather impatiently for the plant to be large enough to harvest some leaves and do something more than nibble on a leaf and contemplate where I’ll use it!

Herbal joys of spring

Chives with blossom

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)

Even though we’ve had the occasional chilly day, it does feel as if spring is close.  I felt that especially going out on my deck and seeing that green was showing amongst my pots of herbs.   For some herbs, I take their hardiness for granted–sage, rosemary, lavender, mint, oregano, marjoram, chives.

There are others that make me breathe a sigh of relief when I see the green shoots coming up in the spring.  Even for the hardy ones, it is such a pleasure to see them return each spring: it means more freedom to improvise with seasonings.  I don’t try to winter-over in the house.  There is not enough room, or light to have really flavorful herbs.  During the coldest parts of the year, I depend on good quality dried herbs, or purchase fresh ones from the grocers.  The problem with having to depend on buying fresh ones is that it really dampens spontaneity in the seasoning process.  So the green shoots of spring are especially welcome.

Several weeks ago I was able to pick a few sorrel (Rumex acetosa) leaves to make sorrel butter to add some sparkle to my griddled salmon.  I had to be careful not to get greedy as there were so few leaves there at the time.  Now it’s  a lovely


Garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

clump of bright green foliage.  Sorrel sauce for salmon is in the offing.  While discussing herbs with a customer at the Durham Farmers’ market last week, it was mentioned as something to be added to white bean soup.  I’d not thought of that, but my mouth says that might be really interesting, given the bright, tart,  somewhat citrus-like  flavor of sorrel.  That got me to thinking that I might try it in the lentil soup that I like so much (instead of the lemon–definitely not with the lemon juice).   Sorrel leaves are very delicate and will cook down and almost literally melt into a sauce.

Greek oregano

Greek oregano (Origanium vulgare hirtum)

Another herb that I’m always happy to see showing new green in the spring is oregano–it’s one of my favorites.  I grow the Greek, and usually the Italian (or marjoram), and Syrian as well.  In addition to all the things like pizza and pasta sauces, I like to toss haricots verts (grown in a pot on my deck) with just a little extra-virgin olive oil that has been carefully infused with some fresh oregano (Greek or Italian, depending on my mood at the time I’m cooking them).  While oregano and marjoram do well as dried herbs, there is nothing like the flavor of the fresh herb to wake up your taste buds and say that the season has changed.  Spring is on the way!

Your own fresh herbs.

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.