Herbs 101

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What Could be More Local than Growing Your Own at Home?

Who hasn’t bought a plastic container of oregano or basil for one recipe, only to find brown, wilted herbs the next time you want to make a batch of meatballs or a green goddess dressing. There is an obvious solution, if you haven’t tried it yet – grow your own. Being able to walk out your door to pick herbs means you do away with packaging, never waste and importantly,  it improves your cooking and can make you happy! I swear to this.

With minimal time and effort — much less than what goes into a vegetable garden – you can enjoy fresh herbs anywhere from seven months to the whole year, depending on your time zone. Starting an herb garden is a gift that keeps on giving.

My guidance in this arena comes from landscaper Roxanne Kapitan, who plants stunning herb gardens around Martha’s Vineyard. In the kitchen, we share the same philosophy: “Fresh herbs can make the difference between an exceptional dish and a dish that’s just good,” says Kapitan. “There’s no substitute. You’ve gotta have them.”  I’ll be including some of her best tips for growing herbs here today.

When I finally expanded my herb growing beyond the typical thyme, chives and basil tucked in the vegetable garden, I was rewarded with a few surprises. My new designated herb garden sported four quadrants I labeled kitchen, cocktails, medicinal and teas, just to have a little fun. I knew little about specific tea or medicinal herbs, but what better way to learn than by experimenting and growing some. I planted lemon balm, for instance, and only later learned it induces calmness, so I started adding that to my fresh mint tea. I dry my own herbs for winter tea now: a mix of mint, lemon verbena, lemon balm and bergamot, favored in Colonial times during the tea boycott. I still don’t understand medicinal herbs that well, but was very excited to see many of them produce showy edible flowers, like purple star flowers from borage or the orange calendula petals. With these edible flowers, the artistic toolbox in my kitchen exploded and dishes looked more amazing and colorful than ever before. Check out my Instagram for some examples.

To decide what to grow first, think of the herbs you typically buy and start with those. From there, experiment. Try tarragon or lavender or chervil. I noticed lemongrass growing in a garden one year, and the next year, I tried it too. Some herbs like rosemary and sage are fragrant and lovely, but not used that often in recipes. My own favorites in the kitchen – the workhorse herbs –  include mint, oregano, parsley, chives, lemon verbena, cilantro, thyme, and basil. 

How do you plant an herb?  First decide if you want a large pot with a few herbs; a raised box or garden spot by your kitchen, or a designated place in your vegetable garden, and add some garden soil. Any of those spots needs 6 to 8 hours of sun. Dig a hole a little deeper than your seedling or potted herb from the gardening center. Add a cupful of compost, mix around, and place the seedling or plant, in the center. Fill in the soil and pat down. Water. It is that simple. Herbs are generally not bothered by insects or pests, and little needs to be done after the initial planting, aside from occasional watering. The perennial herbs like thyme, oregano, chives, and mint pop back up year after year. 

Most of the herbs can be purchased as single plants from a gardening center. In the cases of parsley and basil you’ll want to plant a six-pack of seedlings to cover your needs for the summer.  If you can, consider organic – there’s a good local resource listed below. Check with your friends who grow herbs to see whether they have any to divide and share. My garden had Laura’s chives, Holly’s bergamot (aka bee balm) and someone’s oregano, I can’t recall. In turn, over the years, I dug up sections of my mint to gift to those who asked. I know it’s not an herb, but I’ll never forget when my racquetball partner Edly  showed up one day with a rhubarb plant from his garden fastened on the passenger seat of his motorcycle. I thought of him each spring the rhubarb reappeared.

When planting perennials especially, Kapitan advises, consider the height and width of each herb. Some herbs like sage and lavender will need more room as they grow. Taller perennial herbs, such as chives and oregano should be planted toward the back of an herb garden. Kapitan also includes potted herbs in or around the garden. “Half-way buried pottery gives a nice cottage garden accent,” she explains. “They can serve dual purposes. A rosemary plant in a pot can be brought inside during winter. Mint, which is best contained anyway, can be cut back after the season and stored in a basement corner and watered maybe once a month.”

“And it’s really very healing – I can’t say that enough,” says Kapitan. “Whatever is going on in your life, you’re going to feel better after you work in your garden, even if your knees hurt.”

Roxanne’s Top 10 Herbs

parsley

lavender

oregano

tarragon

bay leaf

rosemary

cilantro

winter savory

marjoram

lemongrass

Cathy’s Top 10 Herbs

borage (edible flowers)

calendula (edible flowers)

mint

oregano

parsley

chives

lemon verbena

cilantro

thyme

basil

Ready to start cooking with herbs? View some of our recipes here:

Basil Gimlet

Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs

Chimichurri Sauce

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Catherine Walthers
Catherine Walthers
Catherine Walthers, Bluedot’s food editor, is a Martha’s Vineyard-based writer, culinary instructor, and private chef. A former journalist, she is the author of 4 cookbooks, including Kale, Glorious Kale, Soups + Sides, and Raising the Salad Bar. She wrote an environmental guidebook called A Greener Boston published by Chronicle Books in 1992. Follow her on Instagram @catherine_walthers.

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