How To Up Your Herb Game
A little encouragement and some friendly tips
At the first sight of weeds in the spring, I crawl out of my spice cabinet and head for greener pastures. For me, that means the garden. For you that might be the farmers market, a neighbor's yard, or the produce aisle. We share a singular goal: More fresh herbs.
I've been growing herbs for almost 25 years, every place from an old tire or a hodgepodge of containers to a huge organic garden in rural Kansas. For the last decade, my herbs have chased the sun in semi-urban backyards, nestled into relatively small terra cotta pots set on sturdy wagons.
The flexibility and ease of container herb gardening makes it wildly popular, especially if you have a sunny patio or deck, or a greenhouse window for year-round growing inside. The mobility of four wheels solves almost every other remaining challenge.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of gardening, let's review the culinary herb basics, starting with some heresy. Though no two herbs taste alike (and indeed different varieties of the same herb can taste wildly different), they become interchangeable if you operate from the position that any fresh herb is better than no fresh herb — coupled with a general use-what-you've-got philosophy.
This substitution game works best when you divide common herbs into two groups: those with twig-like stems ("strong" herbs high in volatile oils like rosemary, lavender, oregano, marjoram, mint, epazote, thyme); and those with tender green stems ("milder" herbs like basil, cilantro, dill, parsley, chervil, and chives).
If you have a choice among varieties, here are a handful of my suggestions: For basil, Genovese, or so-called sweet basils over small-leafed options, and definitely Thai or purple when possible as an additional choice. Hands down, spearmints are more nuanced and less toothpaste-y than peppermints; I don't bother with chocolate mint or the other so-called flavors but some folks do like them. Big-leafed Greek oregano is awesome if you can find it. The best-tasting rosemary smells like flowers, not pine cones. And flat-leaf versus curly leaf parsley is a personal choice based more on texture than flavor.
Learning to grow herbs is like any new skill: Start small (with two or three kinds); get advice from more experienced friends, a trusted local nursery, or farmers at the market (where you're likely to also run into knowledgeable home gardeners); and do a little research about your United States Department of Agriculture growing zones so you know what to plant when and which (if any) perennial herbs will over-winter where you live.
Whether you grow in the ground or in containers, your soil must be loose and loamy, dark and rich in nutrients, well-drained, and of neutral ph—all, but especially the last, are considerations that make container gardening much easier. You get some good-quality plain potting soil (I prefer organic over pre-treated self-fertilizing brands), a bottle of fish or seaweed emulsion, or a balanced dry organic fertilizer (your reliable sources will be able to help you with that), and your pots (and wheels if you don't have all day sun anywhere) and you're ready to go. I also advocate a layer of compost for mulching beneath the plants but it's not necessary.
Starting herbs from seed is tricky but if you want to try — and live in a moderate climate — cilantro and dill are the easiest. Otherwise small plants offer a solid chance for success. Make sure they're healthy-looking and lush, ideally free of flowers (a sign they're "bolting" and going to seed, which requires specialized care), and that the roots aren't straggling out the bottom through the drainage hole.
You can almost never plant your starters too deep. It's far better to bury them an inch or so below where the bottom leaves sprout from the stalk than to leave any hint of the root ball showing. Once you get some soil in the pot, gently invert the plant to release it from its growing container, loosen the root ball with your fingers (it's okay if some ends break off), set it in the dirt upright, and fill the pot about an inch from the top. Pat gently and add more dirt or a layer of compost. If the plants are small or fragile-looking — or you've got big pots — you can put multiple plants in the same pot. Some gardeners like to mix different herbs in the same container. Pretty for sure, but less practical since it’s tougher to control how you water and feed them individually.
After transplanting immediately saturate the soil but from then onward be careful not to overwater. I plunge my index finger into the pot as a test to see how dry the soil is below the surface. In general, the tender-stemmed herbs require more water than the twiggy-stemmed kinds. Wait a week before beginning a fertilizing routine; just follow the directions for measuring and frequency on the package.
I'm a judicious harvester and usually pluck the biggest leaves and anything on the top that looks like it's starting to flower. That helps force growth on the bottom of the plant, especially when they're beginning. Later in the season, you can cut whole sprigs. Mints, chives, and some other perennials will grow back after cutting all the way down (in fact mints are super aggressive and will take over and spread unless somehow contained) but in general, herbs won't grow back if you cut the plants back more than about 30 percent at a time. You'll get the hang of that with experience.
Once picked, herbs keep best like cut flowers in an inch or two of water. Basil is the most fragile and keeps best on the counter; the rest can go in the fridge. I dry extra thyme, rosemary, Thai basil, oregano, and lavender to use during the winter but that's probably a story for another day.
If you're interested in more herb garden tips, check out these posts from when I chronicled my garden on Mark's New York Times blog in 2009 (yikes!!!).
And now that you've got lots of green stuff in hand, check out this bunch of herb-forward recipes exclusively for Bittman Project members:
Linguini with Deconstructed Pesto
Coconut-Herb Marinated Crisp Tofu
Grilled (or Broiled) Pork Tenderloin with Herbed Bread Crumbs
Linguini with Deconstructed Pesto
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes
Try this sometime: Instead of pureeing the ingredients (and then later washing out a blender or food processor) simply sauté garlic and pine nuts in olive oil while the pasta cooks, then add the cheese and toss. Steamed greens like spinach or arugula go well on the side—or even in the same bowl.