Between the Rows: What you should know about growing common herbs

  • A collection of basil plants at Stockbridge Herbs in South Deerfield. Contributed photo/Pat Leuchtman

  • A collection of thymes, both culinary and ornamental, at Pickity Place in Mason, N.H. Contributed photo/Pat Leuchtman

  • Dill umbel in the process of making seeds that are useful during winter. Contributed photo/Pat Leuchtman


For the Recorder
Saturday, March 10, 2018

Herbs bring flavor and savor to a meal — that bit of piquance that can turn a bland dish into something delectable. They all have their own stories as well. I enjoy thinking of women from time immemorial harvesting their herbs and preparing meals and medicinal potions for their families. Herb gardens have an ancient history, and we moderns can still grow a handful of the herbs we use most often.

Simon and Garfunkel aside, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are just the beginnings of an herb garden. In my experience it is easy to find space for annual herbs in an herb garden or added to flower beds.

Every spring, I buy a flat or two of Italian parsley, and a flat of curly parsley. Italian parsley with its flat leaves is considered the best culinary parsley, but I like growing curly parsley as well. Although I consider it an annual, I often find the curly parsley sending up new shoots early in the spring and it is usable almost until the Italian parsley can spare some shoots for the kitchen.

I do not plant parsley from seed because it takes so long to germinate. There is a saying that parsley has to go to Satan and back seven times before it will germinate. Buying a flat of plants is easier. Buying a collection of herb starts means I can have a pretty herb garden in just one afternoon.

I also buy annual basil, rosemary, tarragon, fennel, cilantro and onion plant starts. The rosemary can sometimes make it through the winter indoors, but that really depends on the indoor climate of your house.

Aromatic fennel is both a vegetable and an herb. The fennel “bulb” can be braised for a delicious side dish, and the fronds can be used in salads and pesto, or add a piquant note to salmon en papillote. You can add that licorice-y flavor to any number of dishes. While scallions are not really an herb, I plant a handful of spring onion starts as well. Many summer salads and dishes call for a few scallions, and it is a treat to be able to go outside and pick them as needed.

Cilantro, with its lacy foliage, resembles parsley but is in a class by itself. The cilantro foliage is useful in many ways, but it goes to seed quickly. It is best to make succession plantings to keep flavorful cilantro foliage coming throughout the season. Cilantro is a staple in many Mexican and southeast Asian dishes. When cilantro goes to seed, it is called coriander — it is really two herbs in one.

Other useful and common herbs are the perennials: dill, chives, lemon balm and mints like spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint and pineapple mint. Dill and chives are well behaved in my garden. I don’t make dill pickles and confess that I love the dill for its fragrance as much as its flavor. It’s a reminder of the vegetable gardens my grandmother and aunt in Vermont had when I was a child. Dill fronds, otherwise known as dill weed, add flavor to many dishes, as do the seeds when they are set and ready to be harvested for winter use. Some of that dill seed always falls on the ground to produce another year’s crop, though I have not found it to be invasive.

Chive clumps will increase in size every year, so from time to time you can share a piece with a friend. The globular lavender flowers can be tossed into a salad for a bit of color and laughter when served.

Sage is almost like a tiny bush in the herb garden. I prefer the plain silvery sage. I harvest leaves during the season as necessary, and I always dry a few leaves to keep for the winter. There are fancier sages showing off golden foliage, or purple or tri-color, but these are not as hardy.

Finally, there is thyme. The English have been known to have thyme lawns and I have found common thyme pretty on the lawn, and useful as an edging plant, just waiting to be harvested as needed. Like sage, thyme is available in shades of gold and green and a dull gray-green that covers the ground like a carpet.

There is absolutely no reason that herbs cannot be planted among the ornamentals in your garden. However, I like having my herbs near the kitchen door. One benefit is that they are close at hand when I need a few leaves for recipe. There is also the advantage that since I walk by it several times a day, I often stop to do a bit of weeding, keeping it neat and turning it into a welcoming doorway garden.

Still, I find that parsley makes a great edging plant, and any of the fancy sages would be a pretty note in the flower garden.

Herbs are not demanding plants. They have been grown since ancient times when they had medicinal as well as culinary uses. They require sun and soil of average fertility. Like all new plantings, they should be kept watered as they are becoming established, but beyond that they need very little care.

Herbs are also happy outdoors in containers, whether it’s classic terra cotta pots or more decorative pots. Herbs and other plants grown in containers do need to be watered regularly, which in the summer heat means every day.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her website: www.commonweeder.com.