The Joys of Herb Gardening

I began the journey of herb gardening in my 20s and without dating myself too much let’s say I have several decades of playing with herbs stored in my memory bank. I say journey because there is no destination and, if there was one, I certainly would not have arrived yet. That is the beauty of all gardening, the lessons never end, and I will always be an eager student ready for the next success or next garden failure. Which in turn brings reflection. What went wrong, or what went right? As in life, the joys and disappointments keep coming, which in a way keeps me centered. However, as the growing season progresses, abundant or not, there is always joy. Joy in the early spring emergence of chives, the smell of fresh rosemary that escapes into the air as I run my fingers through it and digging in the dirt. Yes, there is joy in that too.

If you are ready to commit to an herb garden this spring, breathe deeply and smile. It will be one of the best projects you could ever invest in for you, and for those for whom you cook. First and foremost, assess what you have to work with. The site for your garden should have at least eight hours of sunlight and a water source close by like a kitchen sink, outside faucet, or rain barrel. Assess your soil; you may want to have it tested to find out its nutrient profile and PH.

If you know your soil is poor for gardening, don’t despair, soil amendments can be made and/or container gardening is always an option. Container gardening has gained momentum in the last few years and can be a perfect solution for dwellings that offer only a deck or balcony. Next, ask yourself how much you are willing to maintain, and be honest. A small well cared for herb garden will be a much better experience than a large unkept one. Once you’ve mastered a small garden, you can always add something new each year as you continue to grow in confidence.

What herbs should you grow? This is a loaded question. I believe an herb garden is a very personal experience and each gardener should choose plants that serve them the best and make them happy as a gardener and cook. Grow what you love and what you will use. Additionally, I like to try at least one new herb a year. This is a great way to introduce new tastes to the table. This is how I discovered winter savory. I love it! Its peppery taste is fantastic in almost any main dish, and I especially like it in soup.

Here are a few tips to promote success in establishing an herb garden:

Sketch your ideas first

  • Think about height when planning your layout. Taller plants on the outer edges and shorter plants near the walkways and borders allows none to be “lost.”
  • A mix of perennials and annuals will help to avoid the barren look in the off season.
  • Special features can make your garden unique. Remember the birds, butterflies, and bees by planting pollinator friendly plants or adding a bird feeder.
  • An herb garden doesn’t have to be strictly herbs, consider some flowers just for their beauty – edible flowers, like pansies and nasturtiums add color.
  • If you plan to start plants from seed read the package carefully for timing considerations. If purchasing plants, tender perennials can be planted in late April if there is no forecast below 32 in the coming weeks. For annuals like basil, it’s best to wait until the last possible date for frost as they are intolerant of cold. I usually wait until after May 10 in Talbot County for annuals.
  • Consider multi-purpose plants like lavender. It’s a pollinator, has a beautiful purple flower, it’s a perennial, and can be used for baking, tea or potpourri.
  • Plants with healing properties can add a spiritual dimension to your new landscape. Some suggestions are rosemary, chamomile, and lemon balm.
  • Keep your pets in mind – catnip is a very versatile herb. It can be used in teas, pollinators love it, it’s extremely hearty and your cats will pay it a visit at cocktail hour.
  • Once planted, 1 to 2 inches of natural mulch will help retain moisture for your new plants and help deter weeds.
  • Want to attract some caterpillars? Parsley and dill are favorite foods of the black swallowtail caterpillar that turns into a gorgeous black and yellow colored swallowtail butterfly.

Don’t go it alone. The labor and enjoyment of a garden is meant to be shared. Children love to dig in the dirt and watch the birds. Show them which plants the bees are drawn to and then watch in amazement as they pollinate. Show them how to harvest herbs and identify butterflies. (Be patient with the butterflies as many do not arrive until July.) Sketch and paint the herb garden with a child and teach them to identify the plants by leaf and by smell and taste. Mint is a great one to start with as mint is easy to grow and a generally enjoyable taste. Lemon Balm is a good one for tasting, too.

Using Your Herbs

So, you’ve chosen your site and prepped the soil, and let’s be optimistic and say that your garden is in full grace, courtesy of your due diligence of watering and weeding. What is the best way to use the herbs you have grown? The short answer is “limitless opportunities,” as herbs are incredibly versatile. Cook with them fresh, dry them, make potpourri, make tea, or add them to a floral arrangement.

The most common way to use herbs is to cook with them. Dried herbs and fresh herbs should be used in varying amounts. Dried herbs usually have a stronger more intense concentrated flavor. A tablespoon of dried herb will variably equal a handful of fresh. Dried herbs also withstand cooking better than their fresh counterparts. So, when using fresh, add them toward the end of your dish preparation. There are so many ways to prepare them for use in dishes. Fresh herbs can be chopped (leaves) ground (coriander), left whole and roasted (think garlic cloves), or bruised with mortar and pestle (think Mojito). Spices, the herb’s counterpart and often used in conjunction with herbs, can be ground also (black pepper), grated (nutmeg) and pulverized (cardamom). Herbal mixtures are also fun to create and cook with. For example, Herbs de Provence is a mixture of savory, rosemary, basil, thyme, and oregano and there are multiple variations of this recipe, including adding lavender flowers, fennel, tarragon and marjoram. My mother sprinkled this on pita bread with olive oil and toasted it. It was gobbled up quickly.

One of the most amazing things about herbs is the freedom for experimentation they encourage. Dice some chives and throw them in your scrambled eggs. Add fresh basil and fresh garlic to canned tomato sauce to liven it up. Whip up an herb dip with mayo and a selection of chopped green herbs. Sprinkle fresh thyme on your chicken before roasting. Top a salad with fresh springs of parsley. Add cilantro to your smashed avocado toast. Fresh marjoram is delightful on local river fish with lemon and butter. Rosemary compliments butternut squash perfectly. All of these herbal additions are easily done, and the combinations are infinite when left to the imagination.

Establishing a first-year garden can be both noble and challenging, but once it sets its roots, it becomes its own living entity. An herb garden is many things and, above all, hard to define until you discover its purpose in your life. For me, my herb garden is a healing garden full of medicinal and culinary herbs. It is also a blessing to me to have the accessibility of herbs right outside my door. It is tranquility, sustenance and curative all at once. I have made many batches of lemon balm, fennel frond and apple mint tea to calm a troublesome tummy. Chamomile is a repeat perennial visitor I welcome with a smile each year when it pops up in the spring. It, too, calms the stomach and I never cared for it much until I tried some freshly dried from my garden. There is no comparison between tea bag chamomile and chamomile grown at home; it is almost as if they are two different plants.

If you are interested in herb gardening, I humbly encourage the experience as it builds upon itself. Over the years, my herb garden has expanded and some of the perennials have had babies born from dropped seeds or rhizomes, shared with friends and family and transplanted again and again. This is perhaps one of the best benefits of an established herb garden, it just keeps giving. But my favorite thing of all about an herb garden is that it provides folly for afternoons feverish with culinary whimsy.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

Resources and Readings

Soil Testing

www.udel.edu/academics/colleges/canr/cooperative-extension/environmental-stewardship/soil-testing/

Herbes de Provence

www.marthastewart.com/340289/herbes-de-provence

Herb suggestions for a beginner: Chives, Parsley, Rosemary, Basil, Thyme, Marjoram, Oregano, Lavender, Mint

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