Summertime Herb Care
By Paul James
Beyond their incredible flavors and versatility, I love the fact that culinary herbs are so darn easy to grow, even for folks who don’t fancy themselves gardeners. And now that they’re actively growing in our gardens, whether in the ground or in containers, here are a few pointers on how to care for them…and how to use them.
Basil is an annual, and it’s not very cold hardy. So sadly, we don’t get to enjoy it as long as we do many other herbs. But you can always make and freeze a big batch of pesto! Basil (regardless of the variety) needs to be pinched often to keep the plant bushy; otherwise it’ll get leggy and may require staking. Most people insist that the developing flowers reduce the flavor of the leaves, so they remove them as they develop. I don’t buy that. Besides, the flowers attract pollinators.
Chives are super hardy perennials that are also super easy to grow. And in addition to their delicious, mild-onion-tasting leaves (hello, baked potato!), their piquant flowers are also edible and bring in the bees. I probably use chives more than any other herb, which is why I have eight plants. If their growth gets a little gangly, feel free to shear them back to about three inches and they’ll bounce back in no time.
Cilantro, an annual, is a bit of a challenge around here because it bolts quickly when temperatures start to warm up. But it’s oh-so good while it lasts, unless you’re one of the 10% or so of the population that thinks it tastes like soap. If you let it go to flower (queue the pollinators!) and set seeds, it produces the spice known as coriander, which is great both in savory and in sweet dishes.
Dill is also an annual, although it readily reseeds and comes back year after year. I love it, but so do the larvae of the black swallowtail butterfly, so I plant enough to share. And the flowers it produces are beautiful and — you guessed it — prized by pollinators. Dill goes great with a number of dishes, especially grilled or cured salmon (gravlax), potato salad, and of course cucumbers.
This lesser-known perennial herb is one of my favorites. Said another way, I love lovage. Its leaves taste just like celery, and they’re great in salads. Give lovage lots of room because in the garden it can grow to six feet or more, although in pots it’s more tame. Harvest the seeds after it flowers and the bees have done their thing — they taste like mild fennel.
This is one perennial herb you’ll definitely want to grow in pots because it’s extremely invasive in the garden. Pinch the terminal growth to keep the plant bushy, and use it in all sorts of cuisines, from Greek to Middle Eastern to Vietnamese. And of course, it’s great in beverages too, from iced tea to mint juleps and Moscow mules.
Oh, oregano. So earthy. And so delicious. Most commonly sold as Italian or Greek oregano, there’s also a Mexican version that’s a different plant altogether. There’s also oregano’s cousin, marjoram, which I like best of all because of its subtle citrusy notes. Oregano is a hardy perennial, and when used fresh its flavor can be assertive, but in a good way. It can get pretty gangly, so feel free to cut back the plant by one-third every few weeks or let it go to flower. Your call.
I use a ton of parsley, especially the flat-leafed Italian variety. It too is prized by swallowtail larvae, so I plant a lot of it. Parsley is a biennial, meaning it flowers in its second year of growth. In fact, it will sometimes flower in its first year if you plant too early and it’s subjected to below-freezing temperatures. And once it flowers, it’s time to plant anew, at least after the butterflies have had their fill of nectar.
Woodsy and resinous, rosemary is as fragrant as it is versatile. It’s a dependably hardy perennial around here, although it can die back in severe winters. Don’t overwater (maybe once a week at the most), and don’t bother with fertilizer. Dip stalks in olive oil and brush on grilled meats, or use the woody stems as skewers for grilled scallops.
It’s a hardy perennial, comes in a variety of leaf colors, is easy to grow, and tastes great. So why is it that so many home cooks only use sage at Thanksgiving? I use it when I’m braising fatty meats such as short ribs, chuck roast, and pork shoulder, and I love to quickly fry it and use it to top potato and pasta dishes.
Excellent flavor from an underused perennial herb. That’s a good way to describe tarragon. It tastes like licorice with a hint of vanilla. But then it also tastes like peppery, minty hay with a splash of eucalyptus. And it makes a number of dishes come alive, especially chicken salad. It’s also great in sauces, including the classic French bearnaise. Keep it on the dry side to avoid root rot.
There are lots of different thymes out there, but my absolute favorite is lemon thyme, which I use on fish, chicken, and just about any recipe that calls for lemon, except maybe pie. Good old English thyme is awesome too, and like all culinary thymes (as opposed to strictly ornamental varieties) is easy to grow. Cut it back hard when it gets shaggy and goes dormant in winter, and it’ll return good as new in spring.
Happy gardening, ya’ll.
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