There is little argument that you will spend less at the market by growing your own vegetables, but some of the biggest money savers in your garden are humble herbs. In addition to cash not spent on bunches of parsley or basil, having fresh herbs in the garden makes cooking home grown veggies more interesting and fun. Culinary herbs offer big flavors, too, whether you’re sprinkling chopped dill over lightly steamed carrots or adding oregano to zucchini destined for the freezer. Many herbs can be dried in small bunches hung in a shady corner of your kitchen. You can easily dry a year’s supply of oregano or thyme from single established clumps.
Basil, cilantro (coriander) and dill are fast-growing annual herbs, while most others are hardy biennials and perennials. Cold hardiness varies with both species and variety. Some varieties of rosemary, for example, will survive having their roots frozen, while others will not. In climates where temperatures often dip to below 10°F (-12°C), it’s safest to grow rosemary and other marginally hardy herbs in containers. In late fall, prune back the potted plants by half their size and move them to an unheated garage or other cool place. Give the dormant plants small sips of water through winter, and move them back outdoors first thing in spring.
This Summer’s Herbs
Many gardeners give perennial herbs a bed of their own, and let annual herbs mix and mingle among their vegetables. One of the great things about herbs is that you can slip them into small spaces along the edges or corners of veggie beds. I like to give cucumbers a backdrop of dill, which will (hopefully) bloom just in time for making a delicious batch of pickles. Basil loves the same warm, sunny sites favored by tomatoes, and there’s nothing quite like tying and pinching and picking tomatoes while enveloped in a cloud of basil perfume.
How many plants of each herb do you need, and what special care do they need? In alphabetical order, here are five foundation kitchen herbs to include in your GrowVeg Plan:
- Basil (annual) has it all – great flavor, fantastic fragrance, and it comes in a range of colors, sizes and textures. Three plants per person are usually enough to eat fresh and preserve as frozen cubes of pesto. Pinch off flower spikes, which encourages the plants to produce new leafy branches. Gardeners in cool climates grow a single crop of basil each summer, but in warm climates you can set out seedlings in spring and sow seeds directly in prepared beds during the summer months – the best way to have vigorous basil coming on all season long.
- Dill (annual) is easy to grow from seeds sown directly in the garden in spring, while conditions are still on the cool side. If you gradually thin the plants, you can snip leaves from pulled up babies into spring salads. Later, the leaves, flower clusters, and seeds can be used to flavor potatoes, fish, eggs, and or course, pickles. Allow two plants per person if you are growing a tall variety, or three if your dill is a dwarf strain. Tall varieties often benefit from staking in late summer, when they become top heavy with ripening seeds. If you allow your dill to hold its seeds until they fall away freely when you shake them into a paper bag, expect a very high germination rate when you plant the seeds the following spring.
Oregano (hardy perennial) leafs out first thing in spring, quickly forming a mound of spicy foliage. In its first year, a single plant will form a 10-inch wide clump, which will get bigger and better in subsequent seasons. Gather oregano by the handful in early summer, before the plants bloom, and dry small bunches to use during the winter. When oregano blooms in summer, it attracts droves of tiny wasps and other beneficial insects. If you cut the plants back soon after flowering ends, they will regrow a fresh show of leaves in time for tomato canning season.
- Parsley (biennial grown as an annual) can perk up hundreds of dishes with its rich green color, and it’s surprisingly nutritious, too. Curly parsley and flat-leafed Italian parsley are grown the same way, though flat-leafed varieties tend to grow into larger plants. Allow 2 plants per person of curly parsley, or one of a flat-leafed type. Parsley plants that are exposed to cold temperatures become eager to bloom, which cuts the cropping season short. You won’t have to worry if you take a two-pronged approach: sow some seeds directly in the garden in spring, at about the same time you set out a few purchased seedlings.
- Mint (hardy perennial) spreads so aggressively that you must be careful where you plant it, yet every garden needs a patch of mint for teas, fruit salads and desserts. A large half-barrel planter makes a great home for mints, or you can let the plants colonize the edges of an area that is regularly mowed. Hardy and hard to kill, it’s better to have not-quite-enough mint than to grow so much that it takes over your garden. Gather stems for drying in early summer, before the plants show flower spikes. If your mint gets away from you, dig out errant plants sooner rather than later.
- Barbara Pleasant