With herb garden by your kitchen door, fresh-snipped flavor at your fingertips


Picture yourself in this all-too-common household dilemma:

Dinner time approaches and so do your guests. But you, the cook, are in trouble. The soup tastes flat; the fish needs seasoning. The salad is boring and the white rolls look hopelessly bland.

Do you throw open the cupboard doors, looking desperately for something in a jar to make things right?

No, you calmly walk outside and snip off some oregano for the soup, a sprig of savory for the fish, basil for the salad and a bit of thyme and rosemary to mix with the butter for those rolls.

Dinner is saved, once again, by the garden.

It's a cook's dream to have a constant supply of fresh herbs. But unlike other luxuries of the kitchen, this one is easy and inexpensive to have -- if you're willing to plant an herb garden this spring.

While their reputation is one of mystery and complexity, most herbs are actually among the easiest plants to grow. And growing your own herbs gives you the freedom to be lavish. You can experiment with all kinds of herbal dishes without worrying about the cost. You can surprise your friends with gifts of fresh herbs.

Your herb garden should begin now with a plan. Make a list of the herbs you'd like to have at hand.

"Basil is the most popular of all the herbs," says Rob Wood, owner, with hiswife Lucy, of Spoutwood Farm, an herb farm in Shrewsbury, Pa. "Then you have thyme and rosemary and, of course, the mints, spearmint and peppermint."

A basic herb garden could include these plus dill, parsley, French tarragon, garlic chives and regular chives, sage and oregano. "Make sure it's a good Greek oregano and not one of the mild, innocuous ones. Take a nip of a leaf if you can and if the taste has a good solid bite, that's the right oregano," he says.

Besides sweet basil, you might want to try lemon or cinnamon basil, he says. And there are several kinds of thyme, including English, French and creeping thyme.

Once you've made your list, match that with reality -- the space in your garden. If you have a tiny garden, you can tuck herbs in among other plants in a flower border. Or if you have lots of room, you can devote an entire garden just to herbs.

Look for a sunny spot. Most herbs need at least six hours of sun a day. But some -- lemon balm, mints, chervil, parsley, sweet cicely and tarragon among them -- will grow in an area of partial shade.

Mr. Wood recommends putting your garden plan on paper. "We usually recommend that people make a sketch of their plan, a bird's eye view to scale, marking the place for each plant to go in," he says. "It can be something simple or elaborate."

Your design can be a basic rectangle. Keep it no wider than 4 or 5 feet so you can reach across to work in the bed without having to walk on it. You can copy some of the more formal geometric styles -- the traditional foursquare garden or a round garden divided into wedges.

Place your garden as close to the kitchen door as you can and preferably in a place where there's light at night. Especially in the later part of the growing season, in September and October, you'll often find yourself needing herbs after the sun has set for last minute additions to a meal.

Preparation of the soil is the most important step for a successful herb garden, according to Maria Price, owner of Willow Oak Flower and Herb Farm in Severn.

Herbs need good drainage, she says. "Thyme and oregano especially prefer well-drained soil."

Cultivate the soil deeply. Add compost or other organic matter to soils that are too sandy or too heavy with clay. Starting your own compost pile will give you lots of rich organic matter, she says.

Drainage can also be improved by making raised beds. Mr. Wood adds that growing herbs in raised beds allows them to have better air circulation, which keeps them healthier. And raised beds warm up faster in the springtime, so plants start growing sooner.

To create raised beds, first remove any grass with a flat-bladed spade or shovel. Slide it just under the roots and lift the turf. Look around for bald spots in the garden and fill them in with the grass you remove or put it on the compost pile.

Then rototill or dig up the entire area. The deeper you cultivate the soil, the better the drainage will be. Mr. Wood says herbs aren't too fussy about the quality of the soil. "It doesn't have to be rich or free of rocks for most herbs," he says.

Take the soil from the paths and use that to create raised beds. Add other soil and compost to create beds that are 6 to 10 inches higher than the paths between them. Your paths can then be lined with tanbark or gravel for a neater look.

Basil and dill are annuals and two of the easiest herbs to grow from seed. Plant them in May and by midsummer you'll have a small forest of plants.

Basil is such a wonderful herb to cook with that you might want to grow it two ways. Plant seeds so you'll have a big crop by late summer, enough to make pesto and to keep up with all the tomatoes you'll be eating. But also buy one or more started plants so you'll have a small crop quickly to use in salads earlier in the season.

Thyme, rosemary, oregano and the mints are usually bought in pots as started plants. These grow quickly and will be large enough to steal leaves from in four to six weeks.

One of the best sources for herbs is the Baltimore Herb Festival, which will be held this year on May 29 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Leakin Park.

According to Mary Lou Wolfe, one of the organizers of the festival, nearly 80 vendors will be there this year.

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