To successfully grow herbs, you really only need one piece of advice: remember that herbs are weeds. They were growing wild in some part of the world, and some member of some ancient civilization (probably while clearing room to plant crops) was yanking them up by the roots when she stopped, sniffed and thought, "Hey: maybe I could use this."
No, of course I don't have hard proof about that little re-dramatization. But I like to think it's true: it explains so well why herbs grow where very little else will, why they thrive on neglect, and why they make such a great choice for nervous novices in the garden.
To begin, you need a place to grow. Most herbs prefer full sun, but are fine with partial shade; shade is fine, too, but they will grow more slowly. Even if you have a very shady yard, I"ll bet that you could use a few pots and just place them in the patches of sunlight that come through the leaves (my parents, who have a yard full of hundred-year-old oaks, managed to fit in a couple of that way.) Containers should be wide, but don't have to be deep; if you've purchased a huge one, fill the bottom 2/3 with styrofoam peanuts, or turn a smaller pot upside-down and put soil over it, to conserve some of the space.
If you have a patch of earth, you don't need to double-dig or put in a raised bed to grow herbs, though they will grow even faster if you do. Just dig a hole a bit larger than the plant, mix in some compost and a pinch of organic fertilizer, and nestle your plant in the center. As it grows, keep the weeds and grass away from it by a few inches all the way around.
Now, where to find plants? The best option is to find someone who grows herbs and ask them for some of theirs, and since herbs are essentially weeds, they will be generous in sharing with you! Cuttings of woody plants (rosemary, thyme) will root if placed in water, while softer stems (chives, mint) need to be dug up with a piece of root and be replanted.
If you need to start from scratch, there are a few options. You can start herbs ; I've had great luck with the heirloom varieties at Victory Seeds. This works especially well for annual herbs that die off during our winters, like basil and parsley. It does mean extra time, though, and if you want to get started right away, seedlings are a better option. Almost any gardening store carries them in the spring: had a great sale last week, when 4-inch pots (some of which held multiple plants) were just $1.50.
The best, and most fun, option is to wait for the Baltimore Herb Festival in Leakin Park, held on May 26. It has an amazing number of vendors, and you'll be able to purchase unusual varieties of plants (herbs, vegetables and flowers) as well as products using herbs (soaps, spice mixes, potpourri.) Families come toting flatbed wagons that hold children first and plants later; folk music floats through the air and there are lots of good things to eat and drink. It's a wonderful event!
Okay, back to today, when you should start making a list of what you need and where you'll plant it. Here are ten herbs you should consider growing:
- Basil: great for everything from pasta sauce to cocktails. , but it's a must-have for summer.
- Mint: be careful where you plant this one; it will take over any bed. Luckily, it's a very useful herb. Pick it every week and use the fresh leaves in iced tea or juleps; what you don't use should go in a paper bag in the refrigerator, and once it's very brittle, stored in a Ziplock in a dark place, where it will make herbal tea and Greek meatballs all winter long.
- Lemon Balm: if possible, this herb is even more tenacious than regular mint (it's a close relative.) Really, keep an eye on it and don't let it get out of hand; the leaves are delicious in iced tea and cake, but there's a limit to how many you can use!
- Chives: snipped, these make lovely and flavorful garnishes for deviled eggs and soup; their blossoms, which are edible and have the same spicy flavor, are an excellent addition to salads. Look for the flat garlic variety, too.
- Rosemary: In Greece, I have seen bushes of rosemary that were taller than me; it really was a weed, as they didn't use it in cooking at all. It's a shame, since rosemary is such a great addition to stock and red meats. Woodberry Kitchen also uses it as a garnish for their Whiskey Smash cocktail, as it's one of the few herbs that can stand up to hard spirits.
- Lavender: Harvest the delicate, fragrant buds from your lavender bush and add them to dry sugar; after several weeks it will add a floral richness to desserts. Alternatively, steep the buds in hot cream, strain and use to make ice cream or creme brulee.
- Oregano: Greek salads absolutely require fresh oregano, as do tomato-based sauces (Italian marinara) and soups (Mexican pozole.) Keep it trimmed, because the older long stems start to lose the spicy flavor that make it so unique.
- Tarragon: Any chicken dish will benefit from the sweet, anise-like flavor of tarragon. I especially love this simple sauce: after pan-frying chicken pieces, transfer them to the oven to cook through while you deglaze the pan with white wine, then add heavy cream, Dijon mustard and lots of chopped tarragon. Try not to drink it straight from the pan.
- Parsley: Like basil, this herb needs replanting after the winter, though it's been known to re-seed itself for a year or two after a mild one. Parsley is so ubiquitous it hardly needs an introduction, but when fresh it adds another dimension to dishes like tabouli. Here's my favorite, a Portugese salad: black-eyed peas, tuna, minced onion, chopped parsley. Dress liberally with salt and olive oil. That's it.
- Thyme: This cousin of oregano has tiny leaves that need to be stripped from the wiry stems before using, but they're worth the effort for the punch of flavor they pack. In summer, toss with zucchini cubes, salt and olive oil and roast (or with spears, and grill); in the winter, add to cubed potato and carrot and cook in broth to cover, then puree for a delicious starter soup.