One of the joys of gardening is the ability to snip fresh herbs as you cook. Fresh herbs liven up a dish in ways you can’t imagine if you’ve always used dried spices.
When you have a culinary garden just steps from your kitchen, you’ll use fresh herbs more often — and reduce your reliance on salt and sugar to season fresh vegetables and stews.
Herbs can also complement your other plants, because many tolerate drought well, and are fragrant and beautiful lures for bees and beneficial insects.
Plan your herb garden
A great way to start an herb garden is with the plants you use most often. Into Italian cuisine? Plant basil and oregano.
Prefer Mexican food? You’ll need cilantro. Asian cooks may long for Thai basil.
One tried and true combination is the herbs used in a mixture that’s becoming an American staple: Herbes de Provence. These favorite herbs, known for growing in the Provence region of France, include basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme, and lavender.
With the exception of the basil, these herbs grow easily in sandy soil with little water. In fact, drier herbs have more volatile oils, which makes their flavor more pungent.
Plant your herbs within close proximity to the house so it’s easy to run out for a cutting. Place larger plants toward the back of a walkway, with the smaller herbs along the path. Be sure to keep plants with similar watering needs together.
Lavender is the secret ingredient in mixed Herbes de Provence, although reportedly it’s not traditionally used in French cooking.
Be aware when selecting plants there are many varieties of lavender. For cooking, the most aromatic species is the classic English lavender, Lavandula augustifolia, although you may find a hybrid French lavender for culinary use.
Lavender grows well in a Mediterranean climate, and needs little water once established.
Harvest lavender as the flowers open, and air dry the stems for a few days in a dark place.
Container herb gardens
If you’re short on garden space just outside your door, growing herbs in containers can be a good solution. Place the pots in a place that gets at least five hours of sunlight daily. Rotate pots as the seasons dictate, or as they reach the end of their life.
It’s easier to mix the ideal soil for your herbs in pots, especially for those of us living atop heavy clay soil. It’s also easier to water correctly for each type of herb. Keep an eye on them, as potted herbs will dry out easier than if they’re planted in the ground. Fertilize regularly, perhaps with a liquid fish fertilizer, and keep plants trimmed so they don’t bolt or outgrow their containers.
As a general rule, harvest herbs just before or as their flower buds are forming. Don’t let the flowers grow! Remember, flowers signal a plant that its work is done.
Take your cuttings early or late in the day when the plants are cool and dry to retain more essential oil and fragrance.
Reduce the stems by about one-third; more than that may make it more difficult for the plant to generate new growth.
But keep an eye out for stems that need to be harvested. Last year I didn’t harvest my Thai Basil vigorously enough and it bolted. At that point, I left the plant to live out its natural cycle, and this year I have new seedlings from the seed pods. The bees liked it too!
Use herbs fresh, or dry in a cool, dark place with good ventilation. Store dried herbs in sealed containers out of the light.