Simon and Garfunkel sang about parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme — increasing their fame — but this 17th century song just begins to touch on the herbs that can easily be grown by gardeners. Herb gardens are ideal for a novice gardener to tackle, and a rich resource for the cook.
To begin, all you need is a sunny space with ordinarily fertile soil. You can plant herbs in your vegetable garden or make a very pretty herb garden devoted to culinary or ornamental herbs. My own small herb garden is located along the house foundation right outside the kitchen door.
Parsley is treated as an annual herb, although it is actually a biennial. With a little luck, it will come back its second spring, but will rapidly go to seed, which is why most of us plant fresh seed or buy new seedlings every year.
Most people will recognize the two types of parsley — the flat- leaved variety, which has the best flavor for cooking, and the curly-leaved type. I have grown parsley from seed indoors, but it is very slow to germinate. In some areas of England it is said that parsley must visit the devil seven times before it will germinate.
Parsley has been used in the past for many medicinal reasons, but today only its power as a diuretic and its nutritional value are what is acknowledged. So remember, all the parsley you use in cooking is adding vitamins, as well as flavor, and a pretty garnish to your dishes.
Sage — a perennial herb — was considered a general heal-all, while preserving the memory and lifting depression. Today, it mostly used in the kitchen to flavor recipes, including eggs, chicken, lamb, polenta and stuffing with onions and apples.
Sage is a foot-tall perennial that can be grown outside in our area, although, over time the stems will become woody and you might want to replace it with a new plant. The texture of the foliage is velvety. The common Salvia officinalis is tender gray-green, but there are also purple and golden salvias. It is an essential plant in the herb garden, but it is also a good addition to the ornamental garden.
Rosemary is tender in our region. In the past, I have dug up my rosemary and potted it for a winter inside the house. I kept it in a cool room and kept it watered. It came through the winters, but was always happy to be back outdoors once spring had fully bloomed.
Sometimes, I put my rosemary plant right in the ground for the summer, but I often have it grow in a beautiful pot that gives it more presence in the garden.
There are many varieties of thyme. I have only grown the common Thymus vulgaris. This is a low-growing and wonderfully “spready” herb. Here in my new garden, I have it growing in front of a low stone wall to make a thyme path and consider it a cousin to the English thyme lawn.
In fact, in Heath where our lawn had very dry spots, I planted thinnings from the thyme near the house. Those thinnings took root and spread. I did not have a whole thyme lawn, but it was an important element in a lawn that included dandelions, violets, clover, hawkweeds and other nameless flowering weeds, creating what I called my “flowery mead.”
A busy friend of mine placed a sun dial in her lawn and then surrounded it with varieties of thyme. I don’t know what varieties she had, but I have seen gardens with Mother of Thyme, which is only 3 inches tall, silvery wooly thyme, which is only 1 inch tall, and Elfin thyme, which will rarely reach 1 inch tall, making a very flat mat.
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are essential herbs in my kitchen, but they are not alone.
Dill and chives
Dill and chives didn’t get songs, but they are also essential. I would grow dill, even if I never used it in my cooking, because I love the fragrance. It always reminds me of my childhood on the shores of Lake Champlain, where my grandmother occasionally held a shrimp fest — all the shrimp (cooked with dill) that the extended family could eat. Dill is also a great pollinator plant and an annual, but can hardly help seeding itself.
Chives are a perennial, and the clump will get bigger every year. It is one of the earliest plants to come up in my garden. I can start harvesting the grassy, oniony foliage in early April. Late in the spring, it will blossom, and those blossoms are a pretty addition to a salad.
Ever since pesto became a staple in our kitchens, basil — an annual — has become a necessity. There is the big leafed Genovese basil I began with, but now I have a number of basils, including Thai basil, lemon, cinnamon, Greek dwarf, dark purple opal and holy. They are delicious in a variety of ways in the kitchen, and their different forms make them striking in the garden.
Whether you are a serious cook or not, herbs are a hardy and lovely addition to any garden. Most garden centers sell seedlings and you can set up an herb garden very quickly.
Pat Leuchtman had written and gardened since 1980. She lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her Web site: www.commonweeder.com