Add star power to summer meals
Fresh herbs pack more punch than their dried counterparts, bolstering the look and taste of a whirlwind of dishes. So why not grow your own? Flavourful favourites like mint, thyme, parsley and dill make for low-maintenance garden additions and can easily be cared for using these simple tips. Grow forth and conquer!
Fresh herbs are Oscar winners when it comes to giving your meals real star power. What would a juicy tomato salad be without a handful of aromatic basil? And a pot of steamed and buttered new potatoes dotted with fresh chopped chives and dill takes on glamour as well as fabulous flavour.
To get them at their peak of flavour and eye appeal, however, most herbs must be fresh, fresh, fresh—as in, picked just moments before using. The only way to do that is to grow them yourself. Not sure where to start? Well, growing herbs is one of the easiest garden projects you can take on, so let’s get started.
Most of our culinary herbs come from temperate climates and do best in a sunny location in relatively good soil that’s well drained. All herbs hate wet feet, so if your soil is wet, consider growing them in raised beds or in containers. Right now is the best time to put the seedlings you bought at the nursery into the ground. Some herbs such as cilantro (coriander) and dill—which don’t like being transplanted—can now be directly sown as seeds into the garden. Here’s another thing you need to know about herbs: they can be annuals, biennials, or perennials.
Some sprout relatively quickly and won’t take more than a few weeks in warm weather to grow big enough to harvest, including basil, parsley, and dill. Others are very slow to germinate from seed and are best purchased as plants, including the woody herbs of thyme, sage, and rosemary.
The ideal place for your herb garden is near the kitchen, so if you have a sunny spot in well-drained, reasonably good soil, that’s the place you should plant your herbs. Put drought-resistant herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and sage in a spot that won’t get too much water when you tend to more tender plants such as dill, basil, cilantro, and parsley, which all need regular watering. Tip: If you’re new to gardening, start with just a few plants to see how well they—and you!—do. If you lack space in your yard for a herb garden, use a few good-sized pots. Remember that once they’re filled, they may be too heavy to move easily, so place them in good light and within reach of a water supply. Use clay, ceramic, or wooden containers—never black plastic pots, as they may get hot enough to fry the roots of your plants.
Overwatering Most herbs are relatively carefree. Mediterranean herbs such as sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sweet marjoram prefer hot, dry conditions, and the best way to kill them is to overwater and overfeed. If they’re in containers, yes, do water more often—particularly if the containers are small. As for those in the ground, if it hasn’t rained for two or three weeks and the soil looks very dry, give them all a drink. Otherwise, leave them alone.
Neglecting basil The one exception is basil, a favourite in our household. We call it the diva of the garden patch. Basil—particularly the pesto queens Genovese and lettuce- or big-leaf basil—likes a moist, rich soil, so it may require more regular watering and light feeding. It demands bright light but hates scorching late-afternoon sun, which can blanch the leaves. It hates the cold, so requires some sort of cover at night if you want to extend the growing season well into fall. The reward, of course, is worth the effort, as nothing says summer like the scent of freshly picked basil.
Letting mint spread One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to plant mint in the ground, where you don’t want it taking over the entire garden. And it will do that once it becomes established, which is very quickly! Try planting mint in a deep, bottomless plastic bucket or plant pot buried just up to the rim, or use largish containers where the mint roots can wander. You’ll have to repot the roots every year as the mint dies out in the centre.
There’s an art to harvesting your herbs. Tender plants such as basil should be pinched regularly—that is, picking off the bigger leaves but leaving the tiny new leaves undisturbed. As well, unless you’re growing the herb for its flowers, pinch off any flower buds as soon as you see them. If you let them flower, the plant will put all of its energy into producing flowers and seeds instead of leaves.
Preserve the freshness Although nothing beats fresh, preserving herbs by drying or freezing means you can enjoy them year-round. Best for drying are thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, and rosemary. The more tender herbs don’t keep much flavour when dried. Fresh basil is best preserved as pesto, which freezes well. Dill, parsley, and cilantro can be frozen too. Just spread clean, dry leaves on a large baking sheet and freeze. Once frozen, transfer to an airtight container. The frozen herbs will be wilted once they thaw, meaning they won’t look as good as fresh herbs, but they add wonderful flavour when thrown into soups, sauces, stews, and other dishes. a
Think about the dishes you prefer to cook as your best guide on what to grow.
Here are five easy-to-grow herbs that will reward you with plenty of flavour throughout the growing season.
Basil also comes in a wide variety of types, but best for eating fresh and for pesto is the Italian Genovese or sweet basil type.
Chives are perennials that will never let you down. In fact, they produce pale lavender flowers that will eventually produce so much seed, you’ll have them coming up everywhere—so be vigilant about deadheading. Chive flowers are edible and look pretty tossed on a salad.
Dill comes in both the mammoth variety, which produces the flower heads beloved by pickle makers, and the fern-leaf variety that I prefer, as it produces more of the leaves I use in cooking.
Parsley comes in both the curly and flat-leaf variety. The latter has intense flavour and is favoured by most chefs. Parsley doesn’t like its roots disturbed, so keep that in mind when buying seedlings. When starting from seed, it takes much longer than most to germinate, but once established, it’ll grow very quickly.
Thyme comes in a variety of types, but for cooking, Thymus vulgaris is the most flavourful. Buy plants that have already started growing, and plant in full sun.
The best time to harvest herbs is after the dew has dried but before the sun gets too hot. Place them in an airtight container in the fridge until ready to use.