Growing up in the city, gardeners took care of our yard, but my mom always planted her own herbs. For fresh herbs, we would pop out the kitchen door to pick a handful of this or a sprig of that to season whatever was cooking. Now, if I could only plant one or two things, I would grow herbs.
Many herbs are easy-to-grow perennials that come back year after year. Sage, an 18 to 24-inch bushy perennial with silver foliage, is beautiful both in the garden and on the plate. You only need one or two of these lovelies to ensure a fresh supply for sage butter, stuffing, poultry, and more. To keep sage tidy, cut back to three to four inches in the spring after new growth begins to show.
Chives emerge early in spring and can be harvested throughout the growing season. With purple flowers, grassy foliage, and a clump-forming habit, chives are a welcome addition to any garden. For a beautiful garnish, try a dusting of minced chives or a sprinkle of chive flowers. Their sweet mild onion flavor adds a fresh taste to omelets, soups, and salads.
Mint is used extensively in Middle Eastern cooking, drinks, and tea. A cool and refreshing sprig of fresh mint for ice tea, lemonade, or mojitos makes it feel like summer. But as much as I love it, mint is a problem child in the garden. It doesn’t share; it always wants more and no matter how you try to contain it, it usually escapes. Plant mint where it will not get into trouble—either in a bed or patio pot by itself, alongside the garage, or in the back of the yard.
Thyme is a must have for French cooking. Marginally hardy and slow growing, French thyme is a diminutive plant with fine textured evergreen leaves. Plant in groups at the edge of the garden and use it for trim in container gardens. If you like to cook, it may truly be hard to have enough thyme. Greek oregano, much like thyme, is marginally hardy and excellent in containers.
Rosemary is the one of the few herbs to happily overwinter in the house. Keep it evenly moist in a sunny window, and it will grow sizable enough to harvest. Fresh rosemary is a favorite seasoning for roast chicken, pork, and lamb. Try making a healthful tea or invigorating hair rinse by boiling a sprig of rosemary in water for 5 to 10 minutes. It’s worth it for the aroma therapy.
Annual and Biannual Herbs
Annual and biannual herbs are typically less aromatic and used in greater quantities than perennial herbs. Plant an ample supply of parsley, dill, and basil by growing them mixed in amongst flowers and vegetables or grouping them in container gardens.
Parsley grows in partial shade or full sun and makes a wonderful edging for flower gardens. When left to overwinter, it may come back for early spring harvest, but it goes to seed as the temperature rises. Like all members of the carrot family, parsley, dill, and cilantro lose their basal leaves when they start to flower. Then there is nothing left to harvest.
Dill is a reliable self-seeder that germinates in May and blooms in June. Their beautiful chartreuse flowers are a favorite of mine for bouquets and cooking. Thin seedling when they are five to six inches by pulling out the majority of baby plants. Leave only one or two dill babies per square foot. Use to season fish, green beans, salads, and more. To grow dill for pickling, sow seeds again at the same time you plant your cucumber.
Cilantro and coriander are one and the same. Both are used extensively in Latin, Asian, and Indian cuisine. Cilantro, the leafy parsley-like part of the plant, bolts quickly to produce coriander seeds. For a continuous supply, cilantro has to be planted repeatedly throughout the summer.
It’s hard to think of summer without fresh basil. A renowned companion for tomatoes, it too hates the cold. Wait until the end of May or the first of June to plant outside, and then plant more in July so that there are fresh plants through the end of summer. Fresh and flavorful, herbs are easy to grow and wonderful to have on hand. They mark the seasons, define cuisines, and add beauty to the garden. Try growing a planter of herbs outside the kitchen door; mix them into flower beds and plant amongst vegetables to help them grow healthy and strong. My mom always said, “It’s not that I’m a great cook, it’s just that I use fresh ingredients.” You may be surprised how a sprig of this or a tablespoon of that can elevate the simple to the sublime.
For recipes incorporating garden herbs, see below.
Joan W. Ziegler is a horticulturist and garden designer and winner of the 2015 Perennial Plant Association Merit Award for Residential Landscape at ZDA, Inc. Landscape Architecture, 4797 Capitol View Road, Middleton. Call (608) 831-5098 or visit zdainc.com .
Roasted Lamb w/ Mustard Coating
(serves 8-10 people)
1 4-6 lb leg of lamb
3 carrots, cut into 4-6” carrot sticks
1 large onion, cut into ¾” slices
½ cup Grey Poupon Mustard
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 clove garlic, mashed
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
½ cup wine or vermouth
1cup beef stock or beef bouillon
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Prepare mustard coating by whisking together mustard, olive oil, soy sauce, mashed garlic, and fresh rosemary. Place carrot and onions on the bottom of a roasting pan. Lay lamb on top of vegetables with less presentable side up; slather this side with mustard coating; turn lamb over and cover the rest of the lamb with the mustard coating. Reserve 1-2 Tablespoon of mustard mixture for sauce. Roast lamb for 1.5 hours or to a meat thermometer reading of 125°F to 140°F for rare to medium-rare. A good indication of medium rare is that the meat juices just begin to fall into the pan and juices run rosy red if you prick the meat with a fork. Immediately remove from oven, cover with foil and let rest for 20 minutes before carving. Serve garnished with fresh rosemary sprigs or parsley.
To make the sauce: Remove vegetable form pan. Spoon fat out of roasting pan. Pour in beef stock or bouillon, 1/4 cup wine or vermouth and boil rapidly for several minutes, scraping up coagulated juices. Remove from heat, stir in reserved mustard mixture and strain into a warm gravy dish.
(serves 6-8 people)
Rustic Italian bread
1 large garlic cloves
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup olive oil
2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
½ teaspoon dijon mustard
1 ½ cup tomato, diced
⅓ cup basil, minced
To prepare bread: Slice bread into ½” slices. Broil in oven until well browned.
Smash garlic cloves to remove skin. Place on cutting board and cover with kosher salt. Use a butter knife to mash salt and garlic into a paste.
Combine garlic paste, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and Dijon mustard. Toss with basil and tomato.
Allow tomato mixture to rest at room temperature for at least 20 minutes. Top cooled toasts with a mound of tomato mixture and serve.
Warm Bulgur Salad
(serves 8 people)
1 cup #3 cracked wheat (bulgur)
1 ¾ cup water
½ medium onion, diced small
½ head fennel, diced small
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup raisins
⅓ cup sweet vermouth
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon white sugar
½ teaspoon cumin
3 tablespoon chives
2 tablespoon dill
1 bunch parsley
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cucumber, diced small
1 red pepper, diced small
¼ cup capers
In a medium pot, bring water to a boil. Add bulgur, cover, and remove from heat. Allow to sit while you combine the remaining ingredients.
Sauté onion, garlic and fennel in olive oil until translucent. Add vermouth, vinegar, sugar, raisins and cumin and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 2 minutes then remove from heat.
In mixing bowl, combine minced herbs, lemon juice, chopped vegetables and capers. Add bulgur and onion mixture to the bowl and toss to combine.
(serves 6-8 people)
1 head iceberg lettuce (may substitute romaine)
Juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon dried mint
2 tablespoons fresh mint
1 large tomato cut into wedges
½ cup kalamata olives
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon sour salt (optional)
Mix olive oil, dried mint, lemon juice, salt and sour salt in a small jar that has a lid and shake well. Break or cut iceberg lettuce into bite size pieces and place in salad bowl. Add fresh mint and olives. Drizzle with salad dressing and toss to lightly coat salad. Add tomato wedges, toss again and serve.
Hint: Crispy lettuce makes the salad pop. To crisp lettuce, wash and core the head. Place in a bowl and top with ice. Refrigerate for 15 minutes. To dry lettuce, wrap in a dish towel or paper towel and return to frig until ready to dress. Salad dressing adheres best to dried crisped lettuce.
Green Beans with Dill
(serves 6-8 people)
1 lb green beans
2 tablespoons fresh dill, minced
Salt to taste
Clean and snip green beans. Blanch in boiling water for 3 minutes. Refresh in cold water and drain. Toss with olive oil and dill. Salt to taste.