Herbs can add so much depth to a dish, but those bunches from the grocery store never seem to last long and though not expensive individually, those figures do add up. Wouldn't it be great this summer to read a recipe, note the ingredients, and head out to the garden to freshly snip those flavorful elements? Herb gardening can be a resourceful tool for the kitchen as well as a lovely enhancement to any vegetable or flowering garden.
A surprising fact about herbs is that they can be planted as perennials or annuals. With that in mind, don’t plant perennial herbs in the middle of a vegetable garden. Place them in a protected space or bed near the house. For annual herbs, they benefit from the rich soils and sun provided with vegetable gardens and will thrive amid tomatoes and zucchini.
The Basics of Herb Planting
Herbs thrive in well-drained soil, prefer mostly sun, and moderate to low fertilizer. Fertilizers can speed growth but can dilute the flavor of many aromatic herbs. The general rule of thumb with herb usage is that dried herbs are far stronger than fresh, so when using plants from the garden you may need to use more than you would from the spice cabinet to achieve the same effect. Because many herbs are slow growing, they are perfect for containers and by doing so, extend the life of the more tender ones by bringing them indoors out of season.
Rosemary is favored by most gardeners. It is nearly winter hardy in this area and by a foundation or near the ocean, it will often survive the winter. The plant sprouts dainty blue flowers along spiky green branches, and can be used for giving vegetables and meats a unique flavor.
Lavender is a great landscape herb with a unique, familiar fragrance. The leaves and blossoms of lavender are edible and its aroma is used in everything from soaps and perfumes to insect repellents.
Thyme is another spicy kitchen enhancer with tiny leaves growing in carpets along tiny woody stems. It can sometimes have a lemony fragrance or tend toward the sultrier scents. Thyme is most often found creeping amid patio stones and along rock gardens.
Sage comes into its own in the fall and adds a fresh touch to many winter soups.
Mint is a wonderful culinary herb popular in many beverages and is a common choice with certain springtime and early summer foods like English peas or Middle Eastern yogurt dressings. Mint is an especially good performer in containers due to its propensity to spread vigorously
Parsley is indispensible in the kitchen. For years relegated to salad bar garnish status, true cooks find a way to incorporate parsley into many dishes. Parsley can be grown over the length of the season and can be cut and re-cut several times.
Basil is the herb that gets most gardeners excited as it is the true taste of summer. Easy to grow and easy to use, basil loves hot, sunny soil and to be picked regularly to promote more branching growth. Simply pick the leaves and layer with garden fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, and to really impress the family, blend with olive oil, pine nuts and/or Parmesan cheese for a perfectly decadent pesto sauce.
Dill is another seasonably long performer. Its leaves are the perfect garnish to fish dishes and of course pickle flavoring. Its flowers are distinctive chartreuse in a flower bouquet and its seeds are even edible when fresh.
This is just a short rundown of some of the more popular herbs that are hard to go wrong with in the garden, and the best part is, when in doubt, try any of the above on potatoes. Any of these choices will impart their unique taste to a basic starch and educate taste pallets. Herbs can become the most popular item in the garden and kitchen this year!
Information for this column was contributed by Volante Farms, 292 Forest St., Needham.