Monday, January 11, 2010

The "herb"-an gardener

Every time I see two wilted sprigs of sage in a plastic box going for 2.99 at the local grocery store, I thrill to the little patch of herbs sitting near my garage. Considering value for square foot, can there be anything more rewarding than herb gardening? With a pair of sharp kitchen scissors at the ready, I can jazz up any lackluster meal with a trip to the backyard. Just yesterday, I dug through the snow for some thyme for chicken stock. Probably not at the peak of flavor, but the broth did taste great.

Drying lavender

I cook with fresh herbs whenever possible, but at the end of the summer, I freeze sage leaves, chopped lemongrass, and basil pesto for winter use. I am not a big dryer of herbs. I do love those coffee table books showing colonial-inspired kitchens draped with drying plants. Who doesn't sigh over those rustic garlands hanging down from the rafters? The first year I had my herb garden, I hung bunches of sage in my kitchen, feeling very Laura Ingalls Wilder about it all. I learned this: no woman can cook through a quart jar of dried sage in one winter.

My herb bed is 4 x 7 feet, and only has one or two specimens of each plant. One day - when I have more space - I will design a formal herb garden, edged to perfection and shaped into a beautiful Celtic knot. But for now this is a work-a-day plot. It serves as a source of kitchen seasoning, rather than Shakespearean inspiration. Other than this bed, I have a large patch of mint growing a bit too enthusiastically near the back door, courtesy of my neighbor. He went a little nuts with the mint planting on the edge of his property two years ago, and it spread quickly into my yard. Grumble though I may about its invasiveness, this mint is always at the ready to be tucked into spring rolls or cut into a chiffonade garnish. As a die-hard coffee drinker, I don't dry any herbs for teas, but I always mow down a section to plunge into my summer iced tea as it is brewing.

So here is my 2010 plan for the herb garden; this is probably the area with the least new plans. I am just keeping the tried and true going, and restraining myself from trying to squeeze in one more basil plant!


Thyme - Not only a cooking staple, but it makes the best cordial I've ever tasted.
Lavender, Munstead - I didn't prune aggressively enough. A little woody at the center. May need to grow new plants from cuttings.
Chives - I have two plants. One is coming out -- either to be potted or maybe divided and placed as an ornamental in the front beds.
Garlic chives - Planted this past summer -- we'll see if they make it through the winter; not sure if they are reliably hardy in Zone 5.
Greek Oregano


Thai basil
Italian basil - see my notes on basil in the pesto post.


Rosemary - Going strong on my window sill -- we'll see if I can get it through the winter.
Lemongrass - This was in-ground last year and became a behemoth in the corner of the herb garden. I'm going to container-garden this in the upcoming season, and hopefully keep it alive inside for winter use. I might stick a few around the flower beds, as it is pretty striking in full growth.


Dill - This has made the cut for the past few years, but my husband hates the taste of dill and it never does well wherever I put it. Does make for a nice addition to flower arrangements.
Chervil - Grew well last year, but aside from a few potato salads, I didn't really use it for anything. Made me feel very French though.
Parsley- This plant is always a bully in my garden -- it gets big and wide no matter how aggressively I cut it back. My husband claims it gives him a soapy taste like cilantro, so I tend to avoid adding it to too many dishes (I know, horrors, but I have a cooking audience of two, so I need to cater their tastes or I'm doomed for a bad review).
Shiso- I really want to grow this; not only is it important to several tasty Asian dishes in my repertoire, but it is a rather lovely ornamental. I have had no luck growing it from seed these past two years. Should I give it one more try, or throw in the towel?

Finally, I am most intrigued by some of the obscure Southeast Asian herbs featured in the Kitazawa Seed catalog, but I'm afraid it will turn into a chervil-like situation and I won't use them often enough to justify the real estate usage. I'm sure I'll impulse buy some other herb plants when I prowl the nurseries this spring. I have promised myself I will try to start most things at home, but the herb plants especially are hard for me to resist. If I see Anise Hyssop, how can I say no?


  1. I, too, learned that you can't cook through a quart jar of sage - BUT I do buy essential oil to put in mop water, and to sprinkle on a washcloth in the dryer for a positive (as opposed to neutral) smell. So, I've been thinking about trying to make some essential oils. Currently under investigation. I'm also potting all of my herbs this year so that I can bring them inside in the winter.

  2. Mint really does grow "enthusiastically" -- my daughter learned that as it took over her small vegetable garden one summer. You've chosen a great selection of plants. :)

  3. I'd love to smell some fresh hyssop. I'm not sure of it's culinary utility, but it has a storied history in Judeo-Christian mythology.

    Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo ... has quite a beautiful chant setting.