By Marsha Fottler.
March is the month to plan the best, most convenient and most productive kitchen herb garden that any cook could covet. Sound like a springtime fantasy? It’s not only possible but proven if you follow a few easy guidelines. The first day of spring is March 20 so start choosing your candidates for a stellar herb garden now.
1. Plant herbs in containers (plastic or lightweight composite so you can move them around) or in a raised bed near the kitchen. When you can see fresh herbs from your cooking area, you’re more likely to use them daily. Seasonal herbs don’t have deep roots, so pick a container that has a lot of surface area. Five inches deep is plenty and allow for good drainage.
2. Realistically analyze your cooking habits and menu planning. If you make pesto, plant basil. If you cook Mexican, you want cilantro. If you rarely cook pork or make stuffing or sausage, skip the sage even though it’s a pretty herb to grow. What you don’t use will quickly go to seed and take up valuable container space.
3. Group in one pot or in a particular section of the garden the herbs that have similar soil, water and sun requirements. For extra color and texture plant an edible or decorative flower in with the herb assortment.
Which herbs like to buddy-up in the garden?
Rosemary grows wild in Mediterranean countries. It’s hardy, salt tolerant, doesn’t need much water or rich
soil. Plant different types of rosemary in one container. Put the upright rosemary in the middle of the pot and the spreading variety to the side. Include romeritos, which is more subtle than traditional rosemary. Romeritos has that lemony tang but without so much pine profile. For flowers, go with hardy marigolds or a tangle of edible nasturtium. Your pot of rosemary wants plenty of sun and occasional water. Harvest rosemary to flavor chicken, lamb, breads, marinades and more. You can make a topiary out of rosemary since it grows fairly fast and takes to pruning.
Basil is easy to grow and there are some 60 varieties – purple opal, lemon, Aussie Sweetie, Greek, cinnamon – that you’ll want a big container of three or four grouped together. Use good potting soil, put the plants in the sun and water when the soil dries. Don’t let your basil flower. When the delicate purple spikes appear snip them off or your plant will go to seed and die. Use basil to make homemade pesto and in egg dishes, salads, for bruschetta, pasta dishes, baked salmon, tomato soup, goat cheese pizza – the culinary uses for basil are endless.
Parsley is probably the best known and most widely used herb in America, both as a flavoring and as a garnish. Parsley brings a clean, lively flavor to foods. Before mouthwashes were invented people used to chew fresh parsley to freshen breath. Group Italian (flat-leaf) parsley and common curly-leaf parsley in one container. For color and texture put some impatiens or miniature pansies in the pot too. Parsley likes filtered light, not bright or hot sun. Parsley likes water. You know how you can never cook too much bacon? I think you can’t plant too much parsley.
Cilantro is polarizing; people either love or hate this herb that looks like parsley. Some cooks say its strong flavor is overwhelming, others insist cilantro is the essential herb that many Latin American, Thai and Caribbean dishes require. Cilantro seeds are the spice coriander. Plant cilantro in a container that can be moved, because the ideal growing conditions are cool but sunny. Cilantro doesn’t like the hottest part of the day and intense heat will make this herb bolt or go to seed. Move the plant around to avoid blistering rays. Alternatively, plant your cilantro with parsley and that should solve the problem. Be mindful that when you harvest cilantro you don’t mistake it for flat-leaf parsley. Red or orange impatiens in a pot of cilantro would be lovely.
Group marjoram and oregano together since they are both used in Mediterranean cooking. Use both in tomato recipes. Marjoram is also found in many Austrian, German and Scandinavian dishes. Plant in potting soil and water when dry. These two herbs enjoy sun and can take the heat of summer. They could certainly be located near rosemary in your garden. Marjoram and oregano tend to cluster and form an attractive thicket.
Because Americans eat so much salmon today, grow dill. Snip some to make a velvety lemon-dill cream sauce for fresh grilled salmon. Use bunches of dill for making gravlax. Dill is peerless for flavoring tomatoes, beets, cucumbers, peas, potatoes and dill works with eggs, stews and most seafood. It’s feathery texture and dark green color stand out in an herb garden. Dill does particularly well as a container herb. Expose to moderate sun or filtered light. Water when dry. Dill quickly goes limp when you cut it; pay no attention, that’s just its nature and the flavor will be fine.