When I first planted our garden nine years ago, herbs were among the first plants I tried, and they have been a delight ever since. Jean uses them in her cooking (see “Cooking with Herbs” below), and I like to try growing new ones occasionally and enjoy seeing how they differ in their needs for sunlight and moisture.
Some of my herbs, such as the rosemary, the lavenders, two types of sage, and mint, grow in the open ground and spread out. Some I’ve been happy to grow in pots on the pergola-covered veranda just outside our kitchen door or in the sun-filled garden: the basil, parsley, two other sages, tarragon, thyme, chives, Greek oregano, and lemon verbena are in the potted category. More about different sun requirements below.
Why pots or why not? Herbs are great in pots, for a few reasons.
(1) Pots are movable, especially smaller ones. I can shift them around the garden to take advantage of more or less sun, as the health of the plant seems to indicate. For example, I’ve had the best luck with thyme when I keep it out of the full summer sun, and indeed in pretty deep shade. The same is true to some extent with parsley, which can take more sun, but not as much as the basil or those sages that like full sun most of the day. Potting lets me keep plants on the veranda near the kitchen door, in Jean’s easy reach for cooking.
(2) Pots discourage snails and slugs. They don’t like to climb the shiny ceramic or plastic containers I use.
(3) Pots add even more color to the garden.
(4) They keep plants easily manageable. Besides being movable in the sun and shade, pots allow easy water management for each plant, allow distinction of environment from one plant to another, keep size manageable, and make weeding a breeze. Most herbs don’t need a large root system, so pots are perfect for allowing herbs to flourish without taking over a large section of the garden.
I don’t use pots when I want the plants to spread, and when snails and slugs will not be a potential problem. The rosemary was in the ground when we bought the house, and it’s spreading its wonderful fragrance as the plant has grown. It’s the same with the varieties of lavender we’ve planted, as well as with the mint and those types of sage–particularly Mexican bush and red fire–that have taken off in profusion in the side garden and that provide us beauty, as well as ground cover for birds and other small animals.
Growing cycle: I also treat the herbs differently in terms of the growing cycle. Most of the herbs I regard as perennials, mostly because they have kept coming back every year. But one, the Italian basil, I plant anew each spring, mainly because I like to rotate the spring-summer-early-fall basil with the onions I grow in the same pot each winter. There is no necessity for this pattern, and I may keep the basil in the pot this winter, just to see how it revives in the spring. Again, our Sacramento Valley climate gives us very few days of freezing temps, and none below the high twenties, so almost all of our plants have a good chance of staying alive through the winter.
This is not to say that all the herbs stay green over the winter and therefore fresh for cooking year-round. The rosemary is an evergreen, and most of the rest keep some of their leaves year-round, but most don’t produce significant new growth after October and until things warm up in March. Almost none brown out or drop all their leaves. One that appears to “die” is the mint, with just leafless tendrils in the winter months. But every spring its fragrant leaves return and the vines have spread to more of the garden, unless I cut it back.
The Greek oregano, which I’ve had in the same pot for eight years, appears to die out to just dead sticks each winter. But every March, it comes a-greening, with new shoots and leaves covering the soil and then sprouting higher each week. Its leaves last through October, and its spicy, meaty pungency is a delight in soups, stews, and sauces.
Sun and water requirements:
The tags on most herb plants one buys at a nursery will indicate “full sun,” regardless of the variety. “Full sun” means at least 6 hours a day of unrestricted sunlight. In a hot, dry summer climate like ours, “full sun” can really mean ten or more hours a day in bright 92-105 degree temps from June to September. Some herbs will thrive in that environment, such as the basil, culinary sages, lavenders, and oregano in our garden, while others, such as thyme, tarragon, parsley, cilantro, and chives can thrive on much less direct sunlight. As noted above, I’ve had the best luck with thyme during the summer when I keep its pot in deep shade under the orange tree.
The best advice is to watch your plants and be ready to adjust sun exposure as the plant indicates. If leaves start to yellow, brown, droop, or drop off, it may be time for a change in sun exposure.
The other main variable is moisture. Most plants prefer well-drained soil, which means that you don’t want to water too often or too much, and you should use containers (if you don’t put your plants in the ground) that have unclogged holes for drainage. (Holes may clog over time from roots or hardened soil, so check drainage from time to time.)
Again, through observing your plants over several weeks or months, you can tell what works for each plant. For example, in our hot-dry summer climate, the basil flourishes in full sun in a medium pot with about a quart of water every two days, whereas the parsley has flourished in a smaller pot in a partly-covered space with about a cup of water every other day.
If your plant pot has a base that holds water, be sure that it doesn’t hold so much that the soil in the pot becomes a swamp. Don’t add further water to a pot that still has water in the base, and don’t be afraid to empty the base if water tends to stand in it for days. If you are unsure about the need for water in a plant, stick a finger in the soil to see how far down you need to go to touch moisture. Soil that looks dry on the surface will often be moist an inch or two down. (See “D Is for Dirt” for more on this question.)
Cooking with Herbs
When I was young and learning to cook from my mother, I don’t think we used many herbs, except a lot of dried ground sage at Thanksgiving, and no fresh herbs that I can recall. So I have had to continue to learn and experiment with herbs. As on many other matters, much of this new knowledge has come from the Food Network, but I try to maintain my own perspective. I don’t always agree with their accepted doctrines. I notice all the chefs say “I like it this way” (whatever the point may be) but when they all say they like that thing exactly the same way, you know there is some authority telling them how they should like it.
Case in point, all TV chefs claim they prefer Italian flat-leaf parsley to the curly parsley we often saw as a garnish on the side of our plates years ago. I do find the flat-leaf parsley (pictured earlier in this entry) easier to chop into nice little ribbons, but I’ve heard the chefs (if you want to call a home cook such as Ina Garten, for instance, a “chef”) say it has “much more flavor” than curly parsley. The problem is, I always ate the curly parsley when I was a girl and found it delicious. I still think it has better flavor than Italian parsley. I’m just saying it’s okay to be a little skeptical, try different things, and judge them for yourself. Then work them into your own style of cooking with flavors that you and your family love. And know that if you only have curly parsley available, you don’t need to throw it out just because it doesn’t have a European name or origin. I think Ina is way too much of an elitist in that regard.
Another point of disagreement concerns the issue of fresh versus dried herbs. Ina, for example, often says that one of the only dried herbs she will use is oregano because fresh oregano is “too strong.” The fresh herb does have a rather strong, spicy flavor if you hold it in your mouth a while, but so do the dried herbs, I find. The real test is in the sauce, and I often find the fresh herb taste gets lost in a sauce, whereas the dried herbs hold up and continue to release their flavors.
For me, fresh thyme is also lost in cooking. I love using dried thyme leaves and ground thyme. I had one dinner guest who proclaimed herself a foodie and announced that she would never eat a dish with dried thyme in it. However, she brought a jello salad as her contribution to the meal, so I decided to take her comments with a grain of salt.
I’m not sure whether this was an attempt to fool guests such as that one, or solely a result of my own experimentation, but I have been using a double-whammy approach with many herbs. I may use dried oregano, basil, and or thyme in a dish or sauce that has to be cooked a while because I think it would be a waste to put fresh herbs in there. (I have recently found a semi-dried parsley that is better for this purpose than the dusty old dried parsley used to be). The finished dish, however, can be topped with fresh herbs for that pop of flavor and freshness that awakens your cooked dishes.
Generally, the only fresh herb I use in cooking (as opposed to making a fresh salad or pesto or garnishing a cooked dish) is rosemary. It is a lot more flavorful fresh than dried, and the tougher texture benefits from cooking. It doesn’t simply melt and disappear into the dish.
When fresh herbs are best: Despite these reservations about the use of fresh herbs, it’s hard to express how amazing they can be when added fresh to a salad, to top pasta or pizza, as ingredients in a frittata (as shown above) or to finish a chicken in wine sauce, for example. Like many of my cooking preferences, I don’t necessarily follow recipes strictly in this regard, sometimes being surprised by the combined flavors of whichever ones look best or are available in the most abundance at the time we gather them, such as those in this photo from our garden:
On the question of keeping dried herbs, you may hear that they should be thrown out every six months to a year. I am nowhere near that dogmatic, given the prices of some of these things. Smell them. If you don’t smell them, or they clearly seem dusty or faded, then you might want to throw them out, or use them in a brine or marinade for your turkey or other protein this holiday season. If they aren’t that old but you can’t remember when you bought them, awaken their flavors in one of two ways: (1) crumble the dried leaves between your fingers to release the oils, or (2) toast them in a skillet, perhaps while sauteeing onions or garlic for the base of your dish.
Like anything else, have fun with herbs. Experiment, keep an open mind, and develop your own personal style.