Passing the herbs displayed in the produce section brought a smile to my face — my gardening superpowers saved me $3 for a bundle of chives.
I grow greens and herbs in my tiny garden and happily purchase the fruits and vegetables that need more time and space than I have to offer. Lettuce, spinach and an assortment of Japanese greens claim my raised beds — while the herbs inhabit the other nooks and crannies in my landscape. This season it occurred to me to bring them out of the corners, so I’m growing herbs on our outdoor dinner table where we can all enjoy them.
Early records from priests and healers describe the healing and nutritional value of helpful herbs. These herbalists spark my interest in my plants’ storied past and their presence on our dinner table initiate lively discussions.
Mastering the basics of container growing can keep herbs looking pretty all season.
Sun: Most herbs are happy growing in at least six hours of full sun.
Soil: You want to achieve a Goldilocks balance, soil that drains well but still retains moisture. For containers use a mix of soilless media, compost and a few handfuls of local soil. Top the pots with a layer of ground hardwood mulch, it keeps plants looking neat and reduces mud splashing on their leaves when watered.
Water: The trick to watering containers is to do so slowly, allowing the water to seep down to the lowest levels. Pouring water on your plants too quickly will just overflow the container making things messy. Alternatively, you can place the pots in a shallow tray of water allowing them to absorb the water over a couple of hours.
The most popular kitchen herbs to grow:
Basil — Ocimum basilicum: Beloved for its affinity with tomatoes and as the principal ingredient in pesto, basil is a summer garden staple. The key to growing basil throughout the summer is to stagger the plantings, as this annual wants to bolt and go to seed. Once the leaves mature and grow tough, put the plant on the compost pile and turn to the younger versions in the garden.
Chives — Alium schoenoprasum and A. tuberosum: Chives are a welcome addition in a wide variety of foods, from omelets to salads. The key is to cut off the flowers, attractive though they might be. This will promote new growth — and after all, the leaves are the reason you grow it.
Lemongrass — Cymbopogon citratus: popular in Southeast Asian cooking, lemongrass is a handsome addition to the garden, reaching a height of 30 inches. It will not survive winter but can be grown as an annual.
Mint — Mentha ssp.: There are two groups of mint, spearmint and peppermint, so the choice is yours as to which one to grow. Grow in containers or where it cannot take over the world.
Oregano — Origanum ssp.: This is one case where many cooks prefer the dry form of this herb. See for yourself. Please note that “Mexican oregano” is not an oregano but is a member of the verbena family.
Tarragon — Artemisia drucunculus: This herb is difficult to grow in most of North Carolina but is worth trying at higher elevations where the temperatures are cooler. It needs a good, well-draining soil. Be warned that the so-called “Russian tarragon” is the inferior tarragon; search out the “French tarragon.”
Mountain gardeners are fortunate in that we can grow English lavender, Lavandula augustifolia, a lavender that doesn’t survive in the Piedmont or eastern Carolina. Utilize its captivating aroma in potpourris or add the flowers to the cooking herb mixture known as herbs of Provence. Add mulch to protect it from harsh winter conditions.
Marjoram — Origanum majorana should be treated as an annual. O x majoricum is somewhat easier to grow but will not survive our winters. Harvest just before the flowers bloom. Cut back before blooming for a repeat performance.
Sage — While sage is a Salvia, be aware that all salvias are not sage. The one here you want is S. officinalis.
Kit’s Best Butter
½ pound butter, preferably unsalted
1 T. chopped chives (or garlic chives)
1 T. chopped Italian parsley
1 T. chopped additional herbs (tarragon or basil go well here)
Mixing with a spoon, add the chopped herbs to the softened butter. Add additional herbs if desired along with a good sea salt.
Variations might include 1 T. lemon juice, 1-2 crushed garlic cloves, Dijon mustard, ½ t. pimentón (either hot or sweet). For an extra zip, add a dash of Sriracha.
Herbs de Provence
Use this mixture in stews and soups. Traditionally cooks use dried herbs but why not use a mixture of fresh herbs at the end of summer? Use in marinades or infuse in olive oil to baste meat, especially chicken.
Use equal amounts of: Marjoram, Garlic, Oregano, Basil, Thyme, Rosemary, Sage, Lavender flowers and Chives.
Add 2 bay leaves crumpled up to the mixture. The lavender flowers are not mandatory but they do add a lovely touch.