I love spring. The promise of new life, of green growing plants; the beautiful, the useful, and the delicious, after months of cold, gray days is irresistible to me. Soon after the beginning of the year, gardening and seed catalogs begin to arrive in my mailbox, and I know I’m closer to the beginning of the next garden season than I am to the end of the one just past. As all manner of winter weather swirls outside the windows of our house on the ridge, my mind explodes with excitement as I begin to dream and decide what will be. My husband, Scott, will recite his now-familiar refrain; “It’s almost spring!” It always makes me grin to hear him say that. And so it begins.
Gardens nourish our bodies and souls. They help connect us to the earth and to ground ourselves. If you haven’t yet partaken and would like to enjoy some garden love, check out your local public gardens, farmers’ markets, and nurseries. They are beautiful, educational and inspiring and your local markets are bursting with seeds and baby plants now.
Whether you regularly tend a large garden, or just have a sunny deck, how about tending some herbs this year? They give a lot of bang for your buck and most are easy to grow. Herbs attract bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. They make your healthy meals delicious, transport you to different cultures, support your body in health and soothe it in illness.
You can establish your herb garden in any spot that gets full sun. If you don’t have a garden already, you can dig and turn over a small patch near your back door, or pot them up individually or together in a multitude of different containers. If you’ll be using containers, gather some potting soil, an organic fertilizer, a scoop, and hose or watering can. Some pebbles at the bottoms of your containers would also help with drainage, but isn’t absolutely necessary. I pot up herbs and annual flowers on the table that sits on our deck to spare my back and knees, although a large pot is best filled and potted up where you want it to live. Plastic containers tend to retain water, and plants in Terracotta containers will dry out more quickly. One rule of thumb when watering is to dig your finger down approximately one inch into the soil of your potted plant. If it feels moist, the plant is all set. If it’s dry, water your plant. Herbs generally do not like to sit in water, so take care not to drown them. I find that plants in containers in full sun will require frequent water, sometimes daily. If you’re pinched for time, there are containers and deck boxes available with self-watering reservoirs.
Don’t be bashful about harvesting your herbs! The more your pick, the more they grow. Some herbs like basil want to be “pinched” so they grow larger and bushier. And since flowers mean a plant is trying to reproduce and therefore end its life cycle, harvesting will lengthen the life of your plants and increase your harvest.
Here are five easy herbs that everyone should have:
1. Parsley seed is so notoriously slow to germinate (up to 30 days!) it was once thought to travel to hell and back, so I would recommend buying “starts”, or baby plants. Italian or flat leafed parsley is more flavorful than the curly. It’s easy and likes regular water. Use it in everything; marinades (I’ll give you one today), dressings, sauces, salads, etc. Not just for garnishes!
2. Basil. Sweet basil, purple basil, lemon basil, lime basil, Thai basil…yum! I love it so much I buy starts and direct sow a packet of mixed varieties in my garden, so I don’t have to wait as long. Basil wants to be well watered. Pinch the top set of leaves off between your thumb and forefinger when your plants are about six inches tall and they’ll grow taller and bushier. That’s your first harvest! Toss it in your salad. Pick it freely and use it in salads, vinaigrettes, stir fry recipes, and anything Mediterranean. And don’t forget pesto! I make it towards the end of the season and harvest the entire plant.
3. Cilantro is best when you grow your own. I always have trouble with quality when I buy cilantro at the market, and you can’t replace that flavor. Direct sow cilantro and keep it watered. Harvest frequently to encourage more leaves, or allow it to flower and harvest the coriander seeds. If you’re growing tomatoes, you’ll have the best fresh salsa ever.Chives are perennial, which means they’ll grow back each spring. My mom gave me my first plant and hers came from her own mother.
4. Chives come up early in the spring, so it will be your welcomed first herb. The purple flowers are beautiful and edible. Add them to salads and steep them in white wine vinegar to make a beautiful pink vinegar to tint salad dressings. If you leave the flowers, they’ll cast seed everywhere and you’ll have lots of chives, I promise. Still, one of the greatest gardening joys is sharing something from your garden with another, so pot them up and share the love. If you’re in Bridgton during growing season, stop by and you can take the next generation home.
5. Rosemary, the herb of remembrance, is a tender perennial, meaning in milder climates it will repeatedly grow. In Maine, the first frost will kill it, graveyard dead. Rosemary tolerates poor and dry soil, so be careful not to overwater if it’s in a container. Rosemary is delicious with roasted and grilled meats and vegetables. The stems may be used as skewers or underneath your roast as a roasting rack. Steep some of your rosemary in olive oil.
This marinade recipe was a family favorite growing up, and I still prefer it. I’ve used this on just about everything; beef, lamb, pork, chicken, shellfish, veggies. I double it and will add additional herbs when I have them, so feel free to use this as a base and get creative.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, crushed (yeah, right – 1 clove)
2 teaspoons fresh chopped parsley
We’ve barely scratched the surface regarding herbs here, but there are many references available to you. I wish you an enjoyable summer nurturing and harvesting your own delicious bounty, and hope you’re inspired to explore and taste the multitude of herbs that await you.