Herbs for the Garden and Kitchen
Herbs are technically any variety of plant ‘whose aerial parts above ground do not persist beyond the end of the growing season. How we usually use the word is to describe plants that are useful for their flavour, scent or medicinal properties. In addition to these traits, they are also often attractive in gardens or planters and many can be dried for use in arrangements and wreaths.
Incorporating herbs into a garden is fairly simple since most varieties may be treated the same way as any other annual or perennial. Keep them as close to your front or back door as you can for quick trips from the kitchen for harvesting.
When selecting herbs for culinary use check the plants for scent and flavour, some of the more decorative selections of basil, sage and thyme for example are somewhat lacking in good flavour.
These need to be replanted in your garden or planters each spring and should be provided with rich, evenly moist soil unless otherwise indicated. If garden space is limited you might want to consider growing 3 to 5 varieties clustered in a large pot or window box. This will also allow you to bring them indoors in the fall to extend your harvest for a month or two before the lower light levels leave them too spindly to be of much use in the kitchen.
Ocimum spp Basil
Available in a range of colours, sizes, and flavours, basil is one of the most popular herbs for kitchen use. It needs a bright location and fertile, well-drained soil. I have found that it does particularly well in planters, where it is less likely to be troubled by pest chewing on the leaves.
Pinch out flower buds to encourage dense branching and continuous growth throughout the summer. Varieties to look for are licorice scented Thai for its slightly licorice scented leaves and burgundy stems, Italian for its bold flavour, Sweet for its large, tender leaves, Purple for its dramatic colouring in planters and on the plate, Bush for its tiny leaves and dense branching, and Perpetual Pesto for its white variegation, tendency not to bolt and reliably tender texture.
Many types may be grown from seed, but if you are planning on growing a few types you might want to purchase individual plants from a nursery.
Coriandrum sativum Coriander (Cilantro)
Important in Mexican and Thai cooking this herb has gained a great deal of popularity in this part of the world over the last decade. Coriander grows fairly quickly from seed and is also quick to bolt and flower. Plant several batches 2-3 weeks apart from seed and grow in a sunny or lightly shaded location to ensure a continuous supply.
Anethum Graveolens Dill
A bit too eager to bolt, Dill can sometimes be frustrating to those of us who prefer the leaves to the seeds, but otherwise, this herb is fairly easy. Plant it in a sunny location, keeping in mind its tendency to stretch up to 2-3′ tall in fairly short order and enjoy its cool refreshing flavour with potatoes, salad and cucumber sandwiches during the hot summer.
I haven’t had a lot of success with transplants, since they seem to bolt as soon as I plant them, so I would suggest planting the seeds directly where you would like them to grow in the early spring. If you have access to fresh seeds from a friend (or possibly from the farmers market) in the late summer seeds sprinkled in the desired location will germinate in the fall and you will have an earlier and more reliable harvest the next season.
Allium sativum Garlic
Garlic is easy to grow. Purchase firm, locally grown, bulbs at your farmer’s market or health food store (I get mine from the Herb and Spice on Bank Street), split the bulbs into individual cloves and plant in rich soil in mid-September. Set the bulbs a few inches down into the soil and space them 6-10″ apart.
Cut the flower buds, called scapes, off when they appear in early summer and cook them with stir-fried vegetables. Dig the bulbs when the leaves have mostly yellow in the late summer. Allow the bulbs to cure for a few days in a dry space and shake the dirt off. Store them in a warm area, the kitchen counter is fine, to keep them from sprouting, and enjoy.
Apium graveolens secalinum Leaf Celery
Simpler to grow than celery for many home gardeners, as it does not require blanching, this plant bears a resemblance to flat-leaf parsley. The entire plant tastes strongly of celery and can be chopped into salads, added to soups and served with baked or boiled potatoes with chives and dill and a bit of olive oil. Sometimes leaf celery can be hard to find as a started plant but seeds are available from Richters Herbs.
Tropaeolum majus Nasturtiums
While nasturtium sandwiches have never suited my palate, they have found their way into my garden on several occasions. I particularly enjoy the effect of their brightly coloured flowers floating above the soft green foliage reminiscent of lotus leaves.
Available in both compact, upright, forms and trailing vines they are particularly lovely in planters or window boxes in sunny areas. The leaves, flowers and green seed pods are all edible. In my experience Nasturtiums do not transplant terribly well, but will grow quite quickly from seeds planted in the locations that you would like them. To encourage lots of blooms, spoil them with neglect, rich soil and lots of moisture will encourage lush leaves but few blooms.
Petroselinum spp Parsley
Useful for more than just garnish, parsley is a tough, biennial herb with brilliant green leaves that can be harvested right up until the snow flies. The two most commonly grown types are the flat-leaved Italian parsley that looks a bit like diminutive celery and the mossy looking curled parsley so often used to garnish plates.
Either variety is easy to grow and thrives in full sun or light shade. The curled variety can actually be quite decorative and incorporates well in planters or flower gardens. Both started plants and seeds are readily available locally in season.