Monday, August 26, 2013

Neighbor, neighbor, cultivator, how does your garden grow? With oregano and cilantro, and lots more herbs all in a row

F rom the very first sage and basil plants nestled between geraniums in a window box at my first apartment, to the cornucopia of flavorful flowers, leaves and seeds that have taken up residence in my backyard today, herbs have been my most forgiving and dependable garden partners in wet summers and dry, hot and cool. As I impatiently wait for the first tomatoes to ripen, it is so satisfying to be able to snip a few mint leaves or a sprig or two to improve that day’s dinner: fresh-picked herbs are so unbelievably more intensely flavored than any you can buy in even the best-stocked market. And herbs air-dried in a shady corner of the house bring a touch of summer to winter dishes in a way that commercially produced dried herbs cannot. In short, herbs are the perfect plants to start an edible garden.
Herbs are incredibly easy to grow. Many are started from seed in the spring, including several of the most popular kitchen ingredients such as parsley, dill and cilantro. Sowing seeds of fast growing herbs such as cilantro in late summer in a sunny and protected location will yield a crop of delicate young leaves just as cooler air ushers in the close of the growing season. Other herbs are best bought as seedlings, including, surprisingly, chives, and can be planted any time. Basil and lemongrass can be started from supermarket cuttings - just keep in a vase until new roots appear. Or start all of your herbs from seedlings. And best of all for the busy gardener, many are perennials: mints, chives, sage, oregano, thyme and tarragon, for example, reliably reappear even after our cold winters while shiso leaf will quietly reseed itself year after year. Others, such as rosemary and lemongrass are not quite as hardy, but will cooperate if taken indoors before the first frost. Most herbs are quite undemanding as far as conditions go: they do insist on plenty of sun and resent over-watering but can tolerate many types of soil. All are as happy in pots or planters as they are in a garden plot!
Some herbs also have “special powers” in the garden. Many are said to act as natural pest deterrents. For example, planting rosemary or mint among members of the cabbage fly can help drive away the cabbage moth. And planting basil and tomatoes next to each other helps intensify the flavors in both.
Herbs are prolific and can easily yield more than you might think you know what to do with. See below for quick and easy ideas, a few more ambitious recipes, and suggestions for preserving them for later. Enjoy!