You don't need green acres to grow fragrant herbs
For thousands of years, herbs have been used in myriad ways. Their taste, smell, and healing properties have made them integral to the home, whether they are used in beauty products, taken to fight illness, or simply added to enhance the flavor of food. While shakers of the dried variety will do in a, er, pinch, there's nothing quite like fresh herbs to add character and flavor to recipes. Luckily, growing your own herbs is easy, and you can test your green thumb whether you live on acres in the country or six flights up in a city building.
So where do you start? We put that question to Renée Shepherd, owner of Renée's Garden Seeds company and author of two kitchen garden cookbooks, Recipes from a Kitchen Garden and More Recipes from a Kitchen Garden.
"The key is to have your herb garden close to where you're cooking," she says. "Even though I grow an extensive backyard herb garden, I still plant my favorites for everyday use in four or five pots set outside the kitchen patio so I can get to them quickly whenever a recipe needs a little herbal zing." She recommends pots with a diameter of 12 or 18 inches. While they will fit snugly on a fire escape or in a window, she cautions that it's crucial to make sure there's enough sun and also exposure to light in general. Another plus for growing herbs in containers is that they need little weeding and can be moved easily and brought inside if the weather turns chilly.
For a simple how-to guide on growing and maintaining a windowsill or backyard herb garden, including recipes for ten different herbs and extra tips, read on.
There are many kinds of basil, and Shepherd's favorite is "Genovese," which requires cool sun and consistent day/night temperatures in the 50s. "Don't start it too early," she cautions. Find a sunny spot for it, and harvest it often. She suggests two plantings a month apart to guarantee a steady supply. Shepherd always plants several kinds of basil in a big, deep pot to use them in salads and sautés. "Late in summer, when they start to flower, I enjoy them as fragrant ornamental edibles," she says.
Shepherd says this perennial is easy to grow from either seed or plant. It prefers a moderate climate with cool sun, and has pretty flowers that you can toss in a salad. Chopped chives can complement the flavors of cheese, egg, rice, and potato dishes, and Shepherd recommends using them "whenever you want a delicate onion flavor without the bite."
"Cilantro is a cool-loving herb," says Shepherd. Plant it in spring for summer and summer for fall, and remember that it's an annual, so you have to plant it each year. She makes sure she plants two batches a few weeks apart so she always has some available, as it grows quickly. "The seeds are coriander, and you can collect them," she adds. Another bonus: The flowers attract insects that will help your garden.
"Fresh dill has a wonderful flavor, and I love it in salad," raves Shepherd. It's a cool-season annual, and tastes delicious sprinkled over poached or grilled salmon, and with veggie dishes and salads. After the blooms have faded, you can use the seed-heads to season pickles.
So is it true that mint will take over your garden? Yes, it does spread, says Shepherd. "Plant it in a pot with holes in the bottom and stick it in the ground. That'll contain it." Mint doesn't "grow true" from seed, she adds, as you get a mix of varieties. Look for peppermint or spearmint. You can use it as a garnish for lemonade and other drinks. Middle Eastern recipes often call for mint, and it's great in desserts and drinks too.
"Oregano is a hardy Mediterranean herb that's easy to grow all over the country," Shepherd says. "But make sure you get the real thing." She says some retailers sell marjoram as oregano. She sells True Greek Oregano, and loves its intense flavor. It is a wonderful herb for Spanish and Italian cooking as well as in its native Greek cuisine.
Another cool-season herb, parsley grows easily from seed. Shepherd loves the Italian flat-leaf variety: "It's much tastier!" Fresh parsley tastes much sweeter than store-bought, and Shepherd says, "I wouldn't be without it." Sprinkle leaves on your pasta, potatoes, vegetables, or salad for a flavor boost.
This fragrant herb is easy to grow in a climate with a mild winter and few freezes. If the mercury plummets, simply bring it indoors. Rosemary doesn't thrive in humidity either, says Shepherd. She recommends French rosemary for its "strong but subtle piney-mint flavor." You can turn its branches into aromatic skewers and use the leaves in marinades. If you have a surplus, cut the branches and hang them in a dry place to preserve them.
Sage loves the sun, and its purple flowers brighten the garden and attract hummingbirds. When the flowers stop blooming, cut the branches back to encourage further leafy growth. Sage pairs well with vegetables, potatoes, poultry, beans, and soups. To dry it, hang the branches upside down in a cool, airy place.
Thyme is easy to grow from either seed or plant, says Shepherd, and loves full sun. It is also happy in containers, and is a good herb for the novice to grow. A staple of classic Mediterranean cuisines, it pairs well with lemon, basil, garlic, and parsley. She loves French thyme, with its intense aroma. It also can be dried for later use by hanging in a dry place.
Try planting an herb wheel. These circular arrangements of pots or wooden planters keep the herbs contained but separate. Some are modeled on a real wooden wheel, while others are ceramic wedges that fit together like slices in a pizza.
Renée Shepherd's ideas for coping with too much basil? Dry it in the microwave for two or three minutes, then check. When the leaves are thoroughly dry they will crumble when you rub them. You can also chop it in olive oil and freeze in ice cubes.
For a special treat, coat mint leaves in melted chocolate. Nibble them just as they are, or decorate desserts with them.
Season Later, Not Sooner
Add fresh herbs at the end of a dish's cooking time. They tend to lose their flavor the longer they are cooked.
Generally, the more you harvest your plant, the better off it is, so feel free to use daily. It will grow back thicker and healthier.
By Joanne Camas