Chefs around the world know there’s one “not-so-secret” to healthy, flavorful meals: Fresh ingredients.
Nothing gives a dish more punch than plucking herbs straight from the garden and adding them to the recipe. That’s one reason so many of the world’s finest restaurants have herb gardens readily available — either indoors, behind the building or a short drive away.
Isn’t it time to start your own?
You don’t need much room,
and most environments are perfect for growing herbs outdoors. But they also flourish in small indoor gardens, so having enough room doesn’t have to be an issue.
First, decide how big you want your garden. This will depend on how much variety you want. You only need an area about 12 x 18 inches for each herb. A good outdoor kitchen garden can be an area 20 feet long and 4 feet wide. Here’s a tip: make a diagram and labels for each section, as things can get confusing!
Where to put your herb garden
When choosing a site, think drainage – perhaps the most important single factor in growing herbs. The simple fact is herbs won’t grow in wet soils. To improve drainage, remove the soil to a depth of 15 inches or so. At the bottom, place a three-inch layer of pea gravel covered with compost or peat moss, then add the original soil back on top. Refill the beds higher than the original level to allow the soil to settle.
You don’t need much, if any fertilizer, either. In general, highly fertile soil produces excessive foliage that doesn’t have much flavor. Adding a few bushels of peat or compost every 100 square feet of garden helps improve soil condition and retain moisture.
Very few diseases or insects attack herbs, though rust can infect mints. In hot, dry weather, red spider mites may be found on low-growing plants. Aphids may attack anise, caraway, dill, and fennel.
A few herbs, such as mint, need to be contained or they will overtake a garden. Plant them in a can or bucket; punch several holes just above the bottom rim for drainage. You can also use a drain tile, clay pot, or cement block. Just sink them into the ground and they’ll confine any plant for years.
If you’re in a pinch for room, you can grow herbs in containers, window boxes, or hanging baskets. Just give them more of your attention, especially when it comes to watering.
If you sowed seeds in the winter, now is the time to transplant your seedlings. A rule of thumb is that the finer the seed, the shallower it should be sown. Anise, coriander, dill, and fennel should be sown directly in the garden because they don’t transplant well.
Get biennials directly into the ground in late spring. Work the soil to a fine texture and wet it slightly. Sow the seeds in very shallow rows and firm the soil over them. Do not plant them too deeply. Fine seeds, such as marjoram, savory, or thyme, will spread more evenly if you mix them with sand. Some larger seeds can be covered by up to 1/8-inch of soil. With fine seeds, cover the bed with wet burlap or paper to keep the soil moist. Water with a fine spray to keep your soil from washing away.
Cutting plants can be helpful in propagating certain herbs. When your seeds are slow to germinate, try cutting the plants. Also, be ready to divide certain herbs from the pack, like tarragon, chives, and mint. Lavender should pretty much always be cut.
Once the foliage is flourishing, it’s time to start harvesting your bounty! This is the fun part. Seek out recipes that ask for the herbs in your garden and put them to work! It’s amazing the difference that fresh-picked herbs will add to your meals. You can pick fresh leaves as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth.
To ensure proper oil content and the best flavor, pick leaves after the morning dew is gone – but before the sun heats up. For dry, winter use, harvest leaves and seed heads before the flower buds open. Pick them as the color changes from green to brown or gray. Wash leaves and seed heads in cold water; then drain thoroughly, dry and use.
Enjoy the explosion of flavor that is sure to come from a bountiful herb garden!