I might be a little cavalier about the herb garden. I consider it to be an independent entity, surviving on its own in spite of neglect, or because of it. Herbs are tenacious and tolerant, therefore, perhaps correctly, sometimes taken for granted.
I could probably be a wee bit more attentive. Recently I had to question my audacious herbal attitude – it’s not just that this was a hard winter for this region and they’re a little late this year, which they are, but several need attention, like removal from a soggy spot, and/or into more sun. The bay has gotten huge and is shading a larger portion of the herb garden; tarragon and sage are finally getting pissed off. Enough is enough they seem to be saying. So transplanting the now six feet tall Bay Laurel is at the top of my spring gardening list (or we could start anew with a bayby bay). I suppose I’ll continue to treat herbs as the uncomplaining troopers that they are, they don’t want or need to be fussed over, but a little TLC here and there wouldn’t hurt.
Chef and herbmeister Jerry Traunfeld is passionate about fresh vs. dried herbs and writes about it in The Herbfarm Cookbook:
“Fresh herbs offer an astounding palette of vibrant and glorious tastes, but their delights go beyond the flavors they lend to food. For a cook, there is joy in simply handling fresh herbs in the kitchen. Who can resist stroking the proud sticky needles of rosemary, rubbing a plush sage leaf, or crushing a crinkled leaf of verdant mint between their fingers? When you strip the fragrant leaves off sweet marjoram or tuck a few sprigs of shrubby thyme in a simmering stew, you feel connected to the soil and the season, no matter where your kitchen is.”
Bay Laurel’s intoxicating bouquet makes pruning it an aromatic event, and fennel emerges from winter looking like it just stepped out of a spa.
A new crop of sorrel ready for herb soup.
Herbs are so revered for their flavor that we tend to forget they’re also super-charged with nutrition. The deal is to grow some and satisfy both your discriminating palate and your inner belly.
Buy reliable starts at Farmer’s Markets or at local nurseries and some grocers. (Starting from seed is not difficult, but requires additional effort, space and resources.) Generally-speaking, plant them where they’ll receive at least six or eight hours of sun in the summer time, water them conscientiously the first few weeks and then never mind. They’ll happily adjust and flourish on very little attention – within reason. With a couple of exceptions (noted below) most herbs just want lots of sun, water, but not much, and regular pruning. Planting them in pots, moving them around throughout the season to find the best sun, is a great strategy for growing herbs. Same basic rules apply to herbs grown in plots or pots.
Jerry Traunfeld provides a chart featuring 29 herbs in The Herbfarm Cookbook. Of those, there are fifteen I’ve grown easily, two more that I might finally get right this year and several others I’ll plant for the first time.
I’ll pass on some of his wisdom about the preferences and idiosyncracies for the herbs that have been relatively care free and prolific in my own PNW garden: Basil, Bay Laurel, Chives, Fennel, Lavender, Lemon Verbena, Marjoram, Mint, Oregano, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage, Sorrel, French Tarragon, Thyme. Hoping to get Dill and Cilantro right this year, and to add Anise Hyssop.
Our herb garden is just out the back door, a few steps from the kitchen, comprised of clay-ridden soil which has been amended a little with compost (we do more of that in the veggie garden), and is approximately 7′ x 8′ with an 18”-wide path down the middle. It’s a sunny spot with decent drainage, but can get soggy in the winter which is why the sage is not happy.
Basil is a little fussy for an herb. It doesn’t thrive in the poor soil conditions that many herbs do. It’s an annual that grows well when it’s warm/hot, and nighttime temperatures are above 50º. It’s a mistake to plant them too early. Once they’ve suffered the cold they don’t usually recover. But, once it gets warm they grow vigorously in the right conditions: decent soil, plenty of water and sun. Heat. We plant basil in the vegetable garden where the soil is better.
Bay Laurel thrives here if conditions are right. Mine happens to be living proof of apparently ideal conditions. It’s gotten so big it has to be transplanted. It now provides shade in the herb garden which is decidedly undesirable. Bay Laurel wants well-drained soil, plenty of sun, but not searing heat. If in a pot, keep it indoors during the winter, which I did for a few years. It’s now survived eight or nine winters outside and is going strong.
Chives need well-drained soil, sun and water. Pretty easy to grow. Harvest regularly to keep it coming.
Cilantro & Dill have been challenging for me. Neither wants to be transplanted, so plant them and leave them alone. They both want good soil, plenty of moisture and sun. Cilantro, oddly, does best in cool weather so I’ll plant it earlier this year, maybe in the veggie garden where I’ll eventually plant the basil. The lifespan of dill is short, use it and plan on losing it – it’s a good one to sow periodically if you want it continuously.
Fennel will grow almost anywhere, reseeding itself willy-nilly once it gets going. Nothing much required. Get a start from somebody who has a backyard bounty if you can, stick it in the ground and it will grow. They come up everywhere and I pull many out each year. Others reach maturity and hang around all winter long. Beautiful, feathery foliage wonderful with fish, in salad, or on the grill as an herbal bed for a big chunk of salmon.
Lavender and Lemon Verbana are tolerant of a range of conditions, and they don’t want to be pampered. Sun and not much water once established. Surprising the delicious ways lavender and lemon verbana can be used.
Marjoram, Mint and Oregano, all easy to grow – often hang on through the winter if it’s not too cold. They don’t require fancy soil, want as much sun as they can get. Mint tolerates some shade and even excess water better than most herbs, but be careful, it can take over a garden in a minute. I usually keep mint in pots – I’ve learned the hard way.
Parsley prefers decent soil and lots of sun, regular watering. Ours reseeds constantly and thrives year round, even in this past winter’s cold. And, as I wrote the other day, parsley may be our most misunderstood herb – it packs a huge nutritional punch which I think we’ve come to take for granted.
Rosemary will survive year-round in the PNW if it’s planted in a sunny, relatively sheltered spot. I started mine from a sprig fifteen years ago; it’s a good-sized bush that’s survived many a cold winter now. It prefers sun, not much water, relatively mild winters.
Sage can handle scruffy soil if it’s well drained, likes lots of sun and tolerates cold pretty well. A great year-round herb.
Sorrel is shooting up right now. It prefers cool, some shade and moisture. Its leaves are at their best in early spring. Plants will continue to grow and self-seed, or cutting to the ground after spring’s early harvest may encourage a fresh bloom. I’m making soup with the sorrel this week – if it’s good I’ll share the recipe.
Tarragon differs from most herbs in that it appreciates better soil (like basil), even rich soil, but like most herbs benefits from good drainage and lots of sun.
Thyme will tolerate a variety of growing conditions – plant it almost anywhere and you’ll be rewarded if it’s in a relatively sunny spot. It won’t survive extended soggy conditions, which can be an issue here in winter. Mine didn’t fare well this year, but it’s coming back.
With herb gardens in mind – or simply fresh herbs from the Farmers Market available from now on – I’ll bring Jerry Traunfeld’s amazing fresh herb recipes to the MixedGreens table from time to time.
Everyone’s herbal repertoire varies depending on cooking habits and preferences – if I’ve missed a winner, please let me know. I’d love to hear about it.
Yes, we wear gloves, but . . .