Every gardener worth their salt has an herb garden, even if it is just a pot of parsley growing in a windowsill. In this post, I will reflect on some of the herbs that I have had experience planting, growing, harvesting and using. My experience is rather limited, so I will also go into a few of the herbs that I would like to try in the future.
Parsley is one of my favorites. Curly varieties look great as a garnish on a plate of homecooked food, and they also freshen the palate in between the meal and dessert. Italian, or flat, parsley is useful in all sorts of dishes. It compliments chicken, beef, fish, vegetables, rice, citrus, and greens very well. To grow it, you simply cast the seeds around in just about any soil, then use a garden rake to gently stir the seeds under, and keep the patch watered regularly. Within a couple weeks you will see the little leaves poking up through the soil. Parsley is a very hardy herb, and will thrive happily, outgrowing any nearby weeds with ease. As a matter of fact, watch where you plant it. It volunteers itself all around the original patch if unchecked the next year. Parsley is great fresh, but if you grow as much as I do you will have to dry some of it for later use. Simply shake any little bugs and debris out of the cut fronds, tie them at the base with some twine, and hang them upside down in a dry area until they crumble between your fingers. Keep them whole until use. I like to crumble the leaves in my hand before I add them. Another helpful hint with parsley is that if you are adding it to a cooked dish, add it right at the end. It will lose all of it’s potency if you let it sit and simmer. Parsley can also be used to make a very robust pesto, just as the next herb on my list.
Basil comes in many different varieties to suit the tastes of the grower. My favorites are Sweet and Genovese. Basil is an attractive garnish, but it’s also good as a companion to lamb, chicken, veal, rabbit, winter squashes, almost any tomato dish or sauce, and works wonders if lightly crushed and spread under a thin layer of cheese and garlic oil on a homemade pizza. Basil is probably most famous for pesto, which accompanies many different pasta dishes, as well as fish and the meats I mentioned above. To make pesto the easy way, simply combine 3-4 large cloves of garlic, 1.5 cups fresh picked basil leaves (remove any stem pieces), 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, and any spices you feel necessary to the dish (salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne, rosemary, etc.) until it is all finely chopped and consistent. To grow basil, poke the seeds 1/2″ into well composted soil, cover lightly with soil, water, and wait. Some varieties of basil grow taller than others. In my experience they average 1′-2′, and they love full sunlight. So make sure that you don’t shade them accidentally by planting them north of taller plants. As with most green herbs, do not let them go to flower if you want a good harvest, pinch those florets off as soon as they appear and you’ll be able to keep picking leaves of as needed. For winter use, you can dry the entire plant upside down in a dry place, or you can make pesto and can/freeze it. Basil goes well with many other herbs in dishes, but my favorite pairing is Thyme.
Thyme has so many uses that I’m afraid I will leave out a few no matter how long I ramble on. The most popular uses are in italian tomato-based sauces, pizza, dressings/stuffings, vegetable and meat soups/stews, game birds, poultry, fish, and just about any red meat dish. It also makes a very pretty and deliciously fragrant little table bouquet. I LOVE the smell of fresh-picked thyme. Thyme is planted just as basil, but will take up a lot more space as it crawls. Indeed, on many pieces of land you may find thyme scattered through the lawn and along the edges of woods. Thyme is good for taking up space in between other herbs, as it will creep throughout the bare patches and cover them. It’s also lovely in between stones on a walking path. The smell your feet will churn up as they crush leaves beneath you will make you very happy and content. To harvest thyme, don’t waste your time picking off every leaf. Simply crook your thumb as if you were going to curl a ribbon, and slide your fingernail down the stem to remove all of the leaves at once. To use, crush, crush, crush. Cutting into large chunks will not release as much of the flavor and oils as you get if you crush the leaves. Dry the entire plant of thyme.
Sage is another really easy-to-grow and use herb. It goes well with lamb, dressings/stuffings, chicken, veal, rabbit, and game birds. It’s a very potent herb. A little goes a long way. The flavor seems to intensify if you use it in a long-simmering stew, so monitor how much you put in very carefully. I only grow a few plants every year, and they take up a 1’x1′ area. That’s enough to last me a year or more. Dry the entire plant, or individual leaves. Pick off any damaged leaves before drying, as the damage not only ruins the flavor but might spread.
Dill is a fun one to grow. Of course, everyone knows the uses of dill: pickled items. But it’s also good in sauces, on fish, and with dishes like potato salad. When you grow dill, it will get tall. Depending on the variety and location, it may grow taller than the average person. It is another volunteer plant, just like parsley, so plant it where you want it to be from now on and it will renew itself every spring. To plant from seed, just scatter the seeds over your well-composted soil and lightly rake it in. Small, lacey plants will emerge. These are known as dillweed, and can be used in salads, vegetable dishes, or fish dishes. As the dill grows, it will produce large seed heads. Wait until they begin to dry and turn brown at the tips before picking. Store them in a paper bag to dry, or use them immediately to make some sort of pickled concoction. My favorite are pickled cauliflower. If you have never tried it…. you are missing out. Dilly beans and pickled cucumbers are also very popular. Remember to leave a few of the seed heads on the plants so your volunteers take off next season.
Chives are a relative of onions, and add a very pungent spice to all sorts of dishes. They are used as a seasoning and a garnish for everything from meats to soups to salads, and are even good to munch on alone. A small pot in a windowsill will cover all of your garnishing needs throughout the year, but if you like to use chives as seasoning or even part of a main dish (as in a stir fry), then you should plant a small patch in the garden. Chives spread, so give them a little room. Sow your seeds, then watch them shoot up. Cut about an inch up from the base when you are harvesting, and be sure to rinse them before use. If a seed head begins to form at the top, snip it off right away. Chives are an exception to the crushing rule with herbs. Simply cutting them lets out enough of their fragrance and taste. Kitchen shears are great for this task. Watch your chickens around chives – they will eat the chives right down to the ground.
That concludes my experience with herbs. Some that I would like to try in the future include marjoram, rosemary, lemon balm, chamomile, various mints, fennel, and lavender. Herbs are fun and easy to grow. As long as you keep them watered and in the sun, they will thrive. As with just about anything that is home grown, they are much better than store bought.