Keeping Herbs Within Arm’s Reach

If you get the Nourish newsletter, you know that I’ve resolved to replant my herb garden this month. If you don’t receive the newsletter and would like to, you can sign up here!

As background, I started a “potted garden” on the steps to our back patio several years ago and while I’m sure better gardeners can keep their plants alive from year to year, I simply pack it up in mid-November, dump the barren pots, and wait for spring until I can replant! And so it’s time for Herb Extravaganza 2010.

Planting herbs in pots outside is SUPER easy. And thank goodness it is, because I can assure you that despite both of us having descended from farming ancestry, neither my husband nor I has a particularly green thumb. We’re trying to get the grandparents to teach our children how to REALLY garden and it seems to be working. Case in point? Our 5 year old is sprouting beans in a Ziplock baggie as I write this, though I admit that was a project started in her preschool classroom. Both sets of grandparents plant significant backyard gardens each year and let the kids take part in planning, planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting. I am so grateful for this AND for the bounty of produce that comes our way each summer. Is there anything better than a home-grown tomato? Seriously.

But I digress. This post is about herbs. My ode to vegetable gardens (and the in-season tomato!) will have to wait for another post. Herbs, herbs, herbs. Planting and maintaining herbs just feels simpler to me than vegetable gardening. I normally plant 8-10 pots of herbs and keep them within arm’s reach of the back door, which makes dinnertime use a breeze.

Most of the herb varieties I plant require the same growing conditions, which makes maintenance even easier:

  1. Full Sun – Lucky for me, our back patio BAKES in sun.
  2. Plenty of water, with good drainage – Preschoolers adore watering cans! And using pots with holes drilled in the bottom ensures good drainage.
  3. Slightly “lean” soil and infrequent fertilizing – How great that this low maintenance combination makes the herbs’ oils even more potent!
  4. Periodic trimming and harvesting – A no-brainer – I grow them to USE them, not to look at them.

This year I’m planting the following:

  1. Basil – We love this on caprese, that classic tomato and fresh mozzarella salad that is ubiquitous in the summer when tomatoes are in season. I also love to make my own pesto so I grow lots and lots of basil as you need bunches of it for that.
  2. Chives – Chopped, these are fabulous on potatoes and in some fish dishes.
  3. Cilantro – I use this in my guacamole, salsa, and a host of summer salads. You’ll recognize it as the quintessential Mexican cooking herb.
  4. Mint – I make homemade lemonade or iced tea and garnish with fresh mint. Mojitos, too! And it’s a great garnish on fruit desserts.
  5. Oregano – I love this on a traditional Greek Salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion and feta, drizzled with a great fruity olive oil. It’s also excellent in pasta sauce, on fish and in many Italian dishes.
  6. Parsley – This is such a versatile herb. I adore it chopped liberally on top of boiled new potatoes that are drizzled with browned butter and sprinkled with sea salt. It makes its way into a lot of my salads and seems to add a note of freshness to anything it touches.
  7. Rosemary – Pork tenderloin, chicken, tilapia, salmon…they all get a sprinkle or a sprig of rosemary before making their way to the grill. In the fall and winter, I love this on roasted root vegetables and in the summer, it goes into our grilled vegetable concoctions.
  8. Thyme – This is my favorite herb! It goes in virtually every salad dressing I make and I often add it to vegetable, pasta or fish dishes as well.

If eight varieties feels like too many, I encourage you to experiment with planting even one or two pots of herbs of your own this spring. You can find seedlings at your farmer’s market, garden center, the grocery store, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and many other places. Using seedlings is faster than starting from seeds and you’ll get a better sense of how much room each plant will require. Then buy some decent sized pots (10-12″ across) with drainage holes, a bag of potting soil, and get yourself started!

Did you know that cooking with fresh herbs (in addition to salt, shallots and butter) is a big restaurant secret behind those flavors you find difficult to reproduce at home? Having your own collection of herbs within arm’s reach will spark your culinary creativity throughout the summer. Let me know how it goes!

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