By Bill Turner
This time of year, I start dreaming of my herb garden. Everyone is in the mood for projects in the spring and an herb garden is a great one. It is easy and fun — kids and grandkids will love it, and it will open the door to new culinary creations. Unlike vegetable gardening, which I have never been very successful at, herb gardening is a breeze.
So, resolve right now to do an herb garden this year. Here’s how to get started.
Sun is an absolute requirement to grow herbs, but they don’t require much space. For the most part, you have three choices in terms of how to grow your herbs. If you want to use a porch or patio, you can grow everything in pots. Two large pots — 18 inches to 24 inches in diameter — will work just fi ne. If your budget allows, you can get decorator ceramic pots, but inexpensive plastic ones work just as well. For herbs you might want to bring inside in the fall, like rosemary, you’ll want smaller pots.
If you want to grow herbs in the ground, all you need is about 10 to 12 square feet of space, and a little sunny strip is more than enough. A third option, which I have recently tried with great success, is a waist-high raised garden. Lowe’s and Home Depot have kits you can buy, or purchase treated lumber and some nylon mesh for the inside bottom to make your own.
The next thing to consider is soil. Unless you have real Big Foot prairie soil in your backyard, buy bags of good soil with fertilizer, which is available at many garden centers and home improvement stores; MiracleGro and Sta-Green have good products. This will cost you about $20. This soil goes into the pots, your small garden plot or the raised bed container. If you are planting in the ground, remove some of the existing soil to make room for your supercharged stuff.
Now it’s time to choose your plants and decide when to put them in. Even though Wisconsin weather has been unusually warm for the last few years, it is best to wait until May 15, though nothing is lost if you wait until after Memorial Day. While you can use seeds, I suggest the small plants that all nurseries and farmers markets sell in the spring. There is a great farmers market in Lake Geneva on Thursdays at Horticultural Hall. Here’s a list of the plants you need:
- 3 basil: there are a number of varieties available, but just get the standard sweet Italian basil.
- 3 Italian ﬂat leaf parsley or other varieties if you like.
- 3 cilantro
- 1 rosemary: I like to put this in a pot because it is one of the few herbs that you can bring inside in the fall. It is actually a shrub and will last for years with a little TLC.
- 1 chive
- 1 thyme
- 1 oregano
- 1 sage
- 1 mint
This selection of herbs will cost you about $40.
Once planted, let the herbs grow for about three weeks before you start cutting anything, with the exception of the basil, which doesn’t start to take off for about six weeks. While you don’t need to be careful about how you cut other herbs, basil is a little tricky. First, and most important, never let your basil start to flower. Once this happens, the leaves turn very bitter, so you must cut the plant back before this happens. To do this, follow a stalk down about six inches and snip just above a pair of leaves where you see new growth beginning. Two new shoots will then come out and the plant will become fuller.
Note that I suggest three cilantro plants. This is a great herb and you will find yourself using it more than you might think, but with three plants, the garden should keep up. Like basil, don’t let cilantro flower or the leaves will lose their flavor.
Herbs do much more than add flavor to things. They contain many micronutrients and often have antibacterial properties. For example, cilantro is used in almost every dish in Mexico, in part because it has strong antibacterial properties, which is especially important in countries with sanitation issues. Cilantro is one of the few natural ingredients that have been shown to kill salmonella. Put chopped cilantro in any chicken or meat marinade and get an extra layer of flavor and protection.
Basil is another great example. It has strong anti-inflammatory properties and is a natural remedy for arthritis. Basil has flavonoids and antioxidants. Like cilantro, it also has antibacterial properties and can make your food safer to eat.
The Italians put parsley on everything. That might seem strange at first, unless you know that two tablespoons of parsley contain a smorgasbord of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, including 150 percent of the RDA of Vitamin K, an essential ingredient for bone and heart health.
Here’s why herb gardening makes sense. First, you are getting organic produce, which is important for many people. Secondly, you have little waste. We all know that when we buy bunches of parsley and cilantro, or little boxes of other herbs, we often have some left over, which never gets used and eventually tossed. With your own garden, you can cut just exactly what you need.
The economics are also good. Let’s assume you use pots for growing. The pots and the soil will cost about $60. Let’s amortize that over five years, so our annual cost is $12. You’ve also spent $40 on the plants for a total investment of $52. Your garden will typically produce about 10 bunches each of parsley and cilantro, worth about $1.25 each, or a total value of $25. You will get a total of about 20 three-ounce cuttings of basil, sage, thyme, oregano, mint and chives. These herbs are much more expensive in the store or at the farmstand; each three-ounce package or bunch would cost you about $3.50 each or a total of about $70, and they might not be organic. A $52 investment gets you about $95 in really good produce. Not bad.
The final reason you need an herb garden is because it is sexy. When you have friends over for dinner and you send them to cut some fresh herbs to finish a dish, you’ll catch some looks and you know these people are saying, “This guy is very cool!”
Here are some tasty and easy things to do with your herbs.
Scrambled eggs with herbs:
Almost any herb, finely chopped, works with eggs. Chives is an old-time favorite, but all the rest are great, too. Mixing herbs in a single egg dish doesn’t work very well, but you can cut a variety of herbs and make eggs for everyone, letting them choose their favorite herb.
Roasted potatoes with herbs:
Cut up some Yukon gold, red or new potatoes into one-inch chucks, put them in a baking pan, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and then sprinkle on a liberal amount of your favorite herb, finely chopped. Bake for 20 minutes at 375 degrees, take them out to stir and turn, and bake for another 20 minutes. Rosemary is a common choice, but you will be surprised at how well the others work. Roasted potatoes with thyme is a real sleeper, and parsley is also tasty, especially if you add a little butter in the serving bowl.
In Argentina, grilled meat is always served with chimichurri sauce. To make this great sauce, take one cup each of parsley, cilantro and one more herb of your choice, put into a food processor or blender with ¹⁄³ cup of olive oil, 1 tsp. of salt and ½ tsp. of pepper. Blend well and serve. You won’t believe how good this is with, for example, grilled flank steak.
There are many varieties of pesto. The word itself literally means something that is mashed with a mortar and pestle. The most famous is basil pesto. Forget the mortar and pestle and put two cups of basil leaves, ½ cup olive oil, 2 cloves of garlic, ¹⁄³ cup of pine nuts (or walnuts) and ½ tsp. of salt in the food processor and blend well. Stir in ½ cup of grated Parmesan and you are ready to go. This will produce enough pesto for one pound of pasta, but you can also make a great appetizer by thinly slicing a baguette of French bread, toasting the rounds in the oven for 15 minutes (350 degrees), and spreading the pesto on top.