I am no cook. But I can grow stuff! I happen to be married to an excellent cook who not only possesses amazing natural talent in this department but cooking is her No. 2 passion (after knitting). With a little coaching from the cook in the family, I present you with my top five garden herbs.
It is not good enough that they are useful in the kitchen. They have to grow and thrive in a garden or container.
It is not good enough that you can grow them with abandon. They must have a useful place at the table.
My criteria, my list:
1. Basil. Experienced gardeners and cooks will know that this is a no-brainer. Of course basil is No. 1 on my list. It is versatile as a culinary herb (listed as one of the primary ingredients in a pizza garden) and it grows easily, given certain conditions. The first is the need for sunshine. In its native India, it receives more than a lot of heat and sunshine. Basil is a frost-tender annual. You can start the seeds now or you can pick up small plants at your garden retailer. Keep them in your sunniest window until the end of May before you plant them out.
Basil is an excellent container plant. Plant it in a quality planting mix and don’t re-use the soil from last year as it is tired out. Put the old planting mix in the garden and work it in the existing soil.
Pinch new growth on the plant as it matures. Use the cuttings in your cooking and enjoy the thickening effect that pinching has on the foliage of your plant. Basil is available in a multitude of flavours. Look for lemon and cinnamon flavoured basil and my own Blue Spice Basil, “Heavily fragrant with spicy vanilla tones” from the back of the package. The copy writer is a wine taster in his spare time.
2. Dill. My cook/wife loves dill. She grows it herself near the kitchen door as she says that I don’t grow enough of it. Dill is a cinch to grow in any spot in the garden with a minimum of six hours of sunshine. It prefers an open, fertile soil but is not all that fussy. Avoid clay-based soil. The big challenge in growing it is to avoid hoeing it out when you are weeding. Harvest the leaves as the plant matures for fish dishes and the seeds make great pickles. To grow it next year just let some of this year’s crop drop its seeds. You will have dill for life.
3. Rosemary. This is an appetite stimulant. If you find yourself without one (an appetite) just run your hands through a rosemary plant and inhale the aroma as you activate the essential oils on the plant. Give it a few minutes and you will be ravenous. Well, maybe. It is very useful in pork dishes, fish, soup and rosemary bread (with a tonne of olive oil — I can make a meal of this). It loves the sun, needs to be dry between watering and loves rain water. Rosemary grows well in containers and when you clip its foliage for use in the kitchen it just gets thicker and better looking. Don’t plan on keeping it over the winter, even though it is defined as a perennial woody herb. Mine always die in January.
4. Chives. If you are the person that I keep meeting who says, “I can’t grow any thing. But I love your column.” This is for you. Everyone can grow chives. I grew them when I was four years old and sold small divisions to my neighbours for five cents. Sow seeds directly into a container or plant store-bought versions right into the garden or containers. Chives are very winter hardy. The last clump that I planted, I stole from the compost heap at the community garden on the Leslie Street Spit. Yes, that was me. A nice lady with a dog let me in.
5. Parsley. Technically this is a bi-annual. It grows for two years and then dies. I have good luck with it in the garden and in containers. It is unusual in that it only needs four hours of sun to do well. Look for the classic ‘curly leafed’ parsley for garnishing any dish, adding to a salad or soup. Italian parsley is tougher, grows more quickly and is useful in cooking. I don’t recommend it raw, though no doubt someone eats it that way.
All herbs, with the exception of basil, love heat but tolerate cool temperatures. Allow herbs to become dry between watering and do not fertilize any of them; although basil will respond well to plant food.
In my experience, it is best for the gardener to stay out of the kitchen, but if you happen to have talent in both departments, growing your own herbs can be as much fun as using them.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, ‘The New Canadian Garden’ published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.