By Steve Poses
When I started this business some 46 years ago (yikes!), fresh parsley was about all you could get at the grocery store. There were no urban farmer’s markets. Even on the farm, herbs were hardly considered a cash crop. Times (and thymes) sure have changed. With fresh herbs readily available, a caring cook’s need to have an herb garden has diminished. But there is still great pleasure to be had by potting your own rosemary or dill, giving the fledgling plants a bit of TLC, and watching them grow, happy to be snipped and snipped again. Here are a few tips to get started.
Planting and Tending
In Philadelphia, the first safely frost-free day is usually April 17th, so wait until then for best results. Choose the right area for your garden. Christina and I are fortunate to live atop a building in South Philadelphia with a generous terrace ideally situated for an urban herb garden. We get 14 hours of sun on summer days, but, really, any outdoor spot that gets at least six to eight hours of full sun a day will do.
Apart from sun, herbs are easy to please. They like well-drained soil. A convenient source of water is a garden plus. Try to strike a watering balance—don’t overwater, and let the soil dry out but not to the point that your herbs start to wilt. This can be especially challenging in the high heat of summer when they will dry out quickly, especially if planted in a porous clay pot. Most herbs will survive it as long as they are well-watered.
Before putting in a drip-irrigation system, I tried self-watering containers with some success. Self-watering containers wick water from a reservoir at the bottom. As long as you tend to the reservoir, the soil stays moist, but not too moist. Early in the season, before the plants’ shallow roots extend, you still need to water from above. In the peak of summer’s heat, extra watering will be in order.
Since you want the plant’s energy to go into producing leaves, prevent flowering by pinching off flowers are they occur—unless, of course, you want the flowers, which are pretty and taste like the herb’s leaves. Herbs also benefit from being cut back, which stimulates growth in the lower portion of the plants.
Our herb garden has about twenty varieties of plants. But I rely most on these five:
Lemon thyme. This is my favorite of the many thymes by virtue of its sweet scent. Thyme leaves are small and typically coarse, making them perfect for a marinade on something that you plan to cook. My basic summer marinade is garlic, lemon thyme, olive oil, salt and pepper—try it on grilled fresh swordfish. Or mince and add to a finely diced shallot, a little honey, olive oil and red wine vinegar or lemon, for a delicious dressing for grilled vegetables.
Basil. A ripe red tomato is summer’s greatest gift and basil is the perfect partner. Tear or chiffonade the basil, add a very good olive oil, a flaky salt like Maldon and a grind of pepper. Welcome to heaven! Basil comes in many forms but the classic is sweet or Italian basil. My garden also includes Thai, opal and bush. I try to buy pretty established plants to get a head start on the season and if you have the space, I suggest two or three plants.
Tarragon. I’m partial to anise in nearly any form and so I love tarragon. Classically, it’s paired with poultry but I find it works with many dishes, including a simple green salad. Poach some shrimp, cube cantaloupe, add tarragon leaves and a touch of white balsamic and olive oil.
Fennel. Another herb in the anise family, related to but not to be mistaken for the bulb fennel. I love the flavor and the feathery look of the leaves, especially the bronze variety. Swap it for your basil on fresh tomatoes.
Rosemary. One of the most perfumed of all herbs, rosemary is ideally suited to a marinade prior to grilling. Unlike most herbs, rosemary needs to be cooked before eating so it benefits from and stands up to grilling. Its classic affinity is lamb and roasted potatoes. But you can finely chop it along with some garlic and brush it on anything you grill. Try adding a rosemary syrup to lemonade. Typically, this herb will last well into fall and likely will return in the spring on its own.
Oregano. The fresh leaves are much gentler than the dried product. The golden variety adds beauty to your garden and another flavor to your table, but I also like the milder Greek oregano.
Marjoram. This cousin to oregano is especially good on fish.
Sage. Its strong and distinctive flavor is classically paired with Thanksgiving turkey. I grow it every year but hardly ever use it as it reminds me of cooler months, but I do mix it into decorative arrangements of cut herbs around the apartment.
Parsley. Parsley is underappreciated. Combine it with oregano, marjoram, garlic, olive oil, red wine vinegar and you get chimichurri, a pesto-like Argentine condiment born to go with steak. I recently made a garlic-parsley aioli to serve with stuffed deep-fried olives. Big hit.
Chives. An herbal workhorse with spindly leaves and oniony flavor. Chives grow like a proverbial weed but need thinning as the older stalks turn brown over time. There is also a broader leaf garlic chive.
Dill. I grow dill but for some reason I don’t think of it as a summer flavor so I rarely use it in warm weather. It’s always delicious with salmon.
Lavender. A prolific grower with a wonderful scent, lavender has limited culinary use but adds color and fragrance to the garden or a vase. The first time I made dinner for Christina I served lavender ice cream. (Steep lots of lavender in heavy cream, strain, use it to make a custard and freeze.)
Mint. The variety of flavored mints available has exploded in the past few years, but I stick to spearmint and peppermint. Plant in pots or it will take over the garden sending runners underground every which way. Add a few leaves to fresh berries or any fruit salad. It’s hard to beat a fresh minted mojito in the summer, or a minted lime rickey as a change-up from lemonade.
Proceed with Caution
Cilantro. Perhaps my favorite herb but not herb-garden friendly as it does not do well in high heat. I try it each year but by the time it gets established its progress is stalled by summer’s heat. Typically, I just buy my cilantro at Whole Foods or the Asian market across the street.
Chervil. A delicate faun of an herb compared to the cilantro buck. But you face the same considerable growing problems as cilantro. Maybe there is a “goldilocks” spot in the garden with just enough sun and just enough shade for growing these herbs, but I have not found that yet!
For Those with Space and a Sense of Adventure
Shiso. This big-leafed herb has flavors of basil and mint. My first memory of it was shiso rice at Omen in Tribeca where I once said hello to Spike Lee. It’s hard to find so I grow my own. Last year, our single shiso plant grew about four feet tall—more than I could possibly use.
Nasturtiums. Prized for their peppery, saw-toothed flat round leaves and bright red, orange and yellow flowers, nasturtiums provide a sassy, show-stopping addition to anything served at room temperature off the grill. Best to start from seed in peat-pots that go directly into the soil once established. They don’t like being transplanted.
Marigolds. Standard garden variety marigold petals add a sparkle of color atop most anything. Try adding them to sliced Kirby cucumbers tossed with cider vinegar, a sparkle of sugar, salt and pepper.
Mexican coriander, a.k.a. culantro or recao. Some years I can find Mexican coriander plants in nearby Latin and Asian markets. Mexican coriander has sturdy, broad, long leaves with an earthy, citrusy flavor. The plants stand the heat much better than standard cilantro. Perfect for roasted pork tacos.