By Sue Smith-Heavenrich
As a Girl Scout, I spent one Saturday morning every summer month weeding and pruning a formal herb garden. I decided, right then, that herbs required more care than they were worth and vowed I would never grow them. Ever. They’re a waste of time, I tell my husband as I tuck coriander and dill seedlings around the tomatoes. Truth is, herbs are one of the least demanding things I grow. Sure, they need well drained soil, rich in organic material. Sunshine too – at least six hours of it. For me, this means spading up a patch of soil in a sunny spot and tossing in some compost. I mulch the plants, then forget about them as I turn my attention to the more needy eggplants and peppers. Not only do my herbs survive under this regime of benign neglect, but some of them thrive. In return for minimal care, herbs provide me with spices, teas, leaves and flowers for salad. I simply can’t imagine making a potato salad without a snip of dill and a handful of chives … and maybe some sorrel to add lemony zing. The secret of growing herbs, I’ve discovered, is to grow only what you like, then add a few each year. Here’s my list of hardy favorites that can withstand not only our short seasons and cold temperatures, but the loving attention of a trowel-wielding toddler.
Introducing the Annuals
Annuals complete their entire life cycle, from seedling to seed-producing flower, in one season. You need to plant them year after year, unless you forget and let them go to seed – in which case you’ll be weeding them out of the asparagus next spring. I directly sow these into the garden.
Anise (Pimpinella anisum) produces seeds with a slight licorice flavor. The seeds are used in baking cakes and cookies, and the leaves can be snipped into salads and used as a garnish. The plant grows between 2 and 3 feet tall and bears small, white, umbel-shaped flowers.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. One of those indispensable culinary herbs, and major ingredient of pesto, basil is a warm-weather plant and tends to suffer more from insects than other herbs. Covering it with row cover early in the season helps.
Of the many kinds of basil, ‘Sweet’ basil is the all-around cooking variety; ‘Genovese’ is more aromatic. ‘Spicy Bush’ basil has tiny leaves and a strong fragrance – perfect for window boxes and borders. The purple-veined leaves of ‘Cinnamon’ basil are used in traditional Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine, while ‘Lemon’ basil adds a dash of flavor to fish dishes.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) seeds have been found in King Tut’s tomb. Ground seed is a major ingredient in curry powder, while the leaves, called cilantro, are essential in Oriental and Latin American cooking. The plants grow about 3 feet tall and produce an umbel-shaped flower that attracts beneficial insects to the garden.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) gets its name from the Norse word ‘dilla,’ meaning ‘to lull.’ Rumor has it that Charlamagne offered dill oil to dinner guests to stop their hiccups and belching after a banquet. The leaves, called dill weed, taste good in just about everything.
Perennial herbs take more than one season to complete their life cycle. The first year they produce foliage; the second year they produce flowers and seed. The secret to keeping perennial herbs going year after year is to make sure they get a good start. Get them well established at least six weeks before that first fall frost comes. Then, don’t harvest too late in the season – late August is my cut-off date. Harvesting herbs encourages new growth – and that makes them vulnerable to winter injury. Even though these guys are hardy, they still need protection through the winter. Cover them with 8 to 10 inches of loose straw just as the ground is freezing. This keeps the soil from thawing and refreezing, which is what damages plant roots. In the spring, remove the mulch gradually over the space of a week to allow the plants to acclimate to strong sunlight.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are indestructible. These ‘toddler-friendly’ herbs grow in clumps of grasslike leaves to about a foot high. They bear fluffy lilac flowers that taste ‘hot’ and make great additions to salad. The more you cut chives, the more they grow. Every three years divide them so that they stay strong. My three-year-old’s first garden was devoted totally to chives.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is actually a mint. It has light green, heart-shaped leaves that smell, and taste, lemony. We use it in tea, freeze leaves in ice cubes, add it to fish dishes, and dry the flower spikes for winter arrangements.
Oregano (Origanum sp.) is absolutely essential to the garden of any pizza lover. This is a low-growing plant with small leaves and tiny flowers. Start it indoors and remember to trim it before it flowers. I toss the clippings into a paper grocery bag and let them dry.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is very hardy, but takes awhile to germinate. Once you’ve got it growing, leave a bit to flower and it will reseed itself. You’ll never have to plant another parsley seed. It’s a staple in tabouli and pesto, and I dry lots of it to toss into winter soups and sauces. It’s also a major food source for the swallowtail butterflies, but they don’t eat so much that they destroy your plants.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) has plenty of uses beyond turkey stuffing. It can flavor egg, cheese and pork dishes. The grayish leaves make a nice base for a wreath, but the plant has a short lifespan and needs to be replanted every three years.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is another low-growing plant with tiny leaves. This one can live in the worst soil in your yard, as long as it’s well drained and in the sun. You can start it indoors, but it does just as well seeded directly into the soil. Keep it clipped for continual harvest.