I still remember a friend of mine telling me about a visit to Italy when she and a new Italian friend were cooking dinner. He went out on the fire escape to grab some fresh basil for the pasta, which she found awe-inspiring. Maybe it was only because she was a young, impressionable college student at the time or the aura surrounding Italians and food, but she thought to herself, “Now THAT is living!”
Enjoying an herb garden is indeed living at its best. Growing herbs is not very difficult and can truly transform your daily cooking experience (don’t miss our Pesto recipe from yesterday). Especially if you’re lacking space, an herb garden doesn’t take up much room and can work almost anywhere: straight in the backyard in and amongst flowers, in potted plants on your deck or fire escape or even right in your kitchen.
Not only is it profoundly satisfying picking a few herbs to accompany a favorite meal, I’ve found that I save money and no longer suffer the guilt of throwing away mounds of rotted cilantro because I only needed a few sprigs the day I bought it. I use what I need, as I need it and herbs are always more flavorful when freshly picked.
An herb garden is also a great entry into gardening because you don’t have to invest much into it. It’s not like waiting three months of patient nurturing for your beefeater tomatoes to finally start producing, only to have them get a disease and wither before you can taste a single one.
Herbs vary in how they grow. Rosemary and thyme tend to grow more like bushes and may take longer to establish, whereas basil, cilantro and parsley grow relatively quickly in large sprigs. Mint on the other hand, can grow like ground cover, spreading quickly. Herbs can be grown from seeds or if you’re impatient like me, I suggest buying small plants already started and transplant them. Here are a few details about what herbs to consider and what you might expect.
Basil is imperative during the summer months and especially at the end of the summer when tomatoes are in season. It is particularly virtuous freshly cut and scrumptious in bruschetta or pasta. It thrives in sun and warmth and does better with frequent trimming. When Basil starts to flower- be sure to remove the flowers quickly, as the plant will produce fewer leaves with less flavor if allowed to flower completely.
Parsley doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. I grew up with the kind of parsley that was only meant to be a garnish, a sprig on the side of chicken for decoration purposes only. Parsley is versatile herb that works well in all kinds of dishes, from pasta to Indian curries.
Of all the herbs I’ve grown, my greatest success has been growing Italian parsley, which I prefer over other varieties. It can grow into a large, strong plant that withstands frequent cutting. (Cut stems close to the base of the plant.) Parsley likes the sun or partial shade and bi-weekly watering. Eventually it will “bolt” or “go to seed” growing straight up into a flower, which like lettuce, means it’s reached the end of its usefulness. Best if grown in large pots or directly in the ground.
Cilantro, not to be confused with Italian parsley, has a distinct flavor that seems to elicit passionate responses of either love or hate. While it was an acquired taste for me, I fall firmly into the “love” camp, as this herb works well in so many recipes, including salsas, Asian stir-fries and with fish. Cilantro likes sun and can be tended much like parsley, cutting sprigs as needed. Trim flowers if they start to appear.
Rosemary grows well in many climates and is often used as an ornamental flowering bush in people’s yards. There is nothing quite like fresh rosemary with roasted chicken. Rosemary is a hardy plant that grows quickly and lasts a long time with little tending. Grow directly in the ground or in a large pot.
Nobody should live without thyme. I may use thyme more than any other herb. It is particularly aromatic and goes well with everything, such as tomato sauces, bouquet garni’s for soup stocks or meats and vegetables. In fact, thyme makes an excellent alternative for basil in bruschetta. Thyme loves the sun and does well with little tending. It grows well in pots and can be trimmed frequently once established.
I have developed a new love for mint. I once had enough mint outside my back door that simple syrup and a muddler were always on hand. While most people recognize its crucial role in drinks like mint juleps or mojitos, it can be overlooked as a fabulous addition in concert with other herbs in frittatas, fish pistous, vegetable sauces or pasta dishes. Mint grows readily and quickly and may be best grown in pots unless you’re ready to live with it in abundance.
Sage is an excellent herb for flavoring stuffing. It’s also amazing toasted in butter and served as a garnish with butternut squash soup. Sage is a shrub-like plant that grows well indoors or out and can get quite large if given the opportunity. It prefers lots of sunlight and loose, fertile soil.
I used to shy away from dill, but no more. Dill is a great herb for potatoes, fish or egg dishes. It grows well in containers and does best with ample sunlight, plenty of water and tall pots to accommodate its deep roots.