If you've ever felt fresh-herb envy as Julia Child lays a feathery sprig of dill on the salmon or sprinkles the tiny, pungent leaves of thyme into the boeuf bourguignon, consider planting a kitchen herb garden. Fresh herbs are as divorced from their store-bought counterparts as Tupperware is from Royal Doulton. In addition, herbs are beauty for the eye and tonic to the senses. There is no aroma therapy like the heady scent of basil as you gather some for tomato and mozzarella salad. Growing herbs is eminently satisfying. And, it's easy.
Herbs are the least fussy of plants. They can endure neglect and will grow happily in a variety of places -- small garden plots, among the ornamentals in your flower beds, in containers on a city balcony or deck -- even in less than ideal soil.
Where to plant
The first thing to consider in starting a kitchen herb garden is the site. Proximity encourages use, so the closer to the kitchen you can get it, the better.
A second consideration is the amount of sunlight available. The minimum requirement is six hours a day, though most herbs prefer full sun. Fortunately, herbs are forgiving, even growing in dappled shade, though the less light they get, the more leggy (tall and spindly) they grow.
If your growing space is limited, you can use containers. Containers usually require less weeding than an in-ground plot. There is a variety of containers available today. Clay pots, though economical, have two drawbacks: they dry out quickly, which means you need to water more frequently; and they are heavy. Additionally, they are vulnerable to freezing and cracking in winter, though this is not a problem if you bring them inside in fall.
Plastic pots, either the supermarket variety or the upscale types designed to look like much heavier molded concrete planters, offer both beauty and ease of maintenance. And, because they are relatively light, you can redecorate by shifting them around periodically.
An in-ground plot by the back door can be as small or as large as your ambition and space allow. A 4-by-4-foot square can easily produce enough fresh herbs to supply a family from early spring through first autumn frost while also yielding several packets of pesto for the freezer and a few herbal vinegars for friends.
What to plant
Once you decide where to plant, you must decide what to plant. Start with the "five necessities" -- parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and basil -- the backbone of good cooking. Thyme is a staple in French cuisine. You can't make broccoli quiche, French onion soup or coq au vin without it. Basil, called the king of herbs, is indispensable in pasta primavera, fresh salads and chicken cacciatore. Sage, which also makes a beautiful dried wreath, is the primary seasoning for sage and onion stuffing in roast goose or poultry. Parsley, that ubiquitous grocery-store clump, is loaded with vitamins and natural breath sweeteners and is a superb addition to herbed cheese balls, soups and salad dressings. Rosemary, which dries as easily as sage, is essential in lamb cassoulet, a hearty casserole of beans, tomatoes, garlic and lamb shanks.
Though each of these herbs comes in several edible varieties offering a range of tastes as well as foliage and flowers, you might want to choose just one variety of each (or maybe two of basil), to leave room for a few of the great additions to a kitchen herb garden. Do you like fresh salsa? Plant cilantro. Salmon? Cold tomato soup? Plant dill. Both cilantro and dill are annuals but reseed themselves liberally, so once established, they often return unaided year after year. Lemon balm, mint, chives, savory and oregano are perennials that add wonderfully to scent, sight and flavor in a kitchen herb garden. Lemon balm and mint make wonderful teas and fruit-salad additions. Chives add a spring-oniony flavor to cream cheese spread or potato soup. Put some fresh-snipped oregano on your pizza and you'll think you're in Italy. Savory adds a robust earthiness to casseroles. Let your imagination and an adventuresome palate be your guide.
How to plant
When planting pots, use at least three different herbs in each. Vary leaf color and size, and plant size according to your taste. There are no rules. Yellow-leafed lemon thyme contrasts beautifully with the lavender flowers and pale blue-gray leaves of sage.
Creeping thyme, speckled with tiny white flowers in the late spring and summer, can spill out like lace at the edge of a pot, while the dark green spikes of chives, topped by lavender flower globes, share the center with frilly cilantro.
Basil, because it comes in so many varieties, from tiny, lime-green Piccolo to deep burgundy Purple Ruffles, can be its own contrast.
When planting, note the height of the fully grown plants, usually listed on seed packets and the plant sticks in the seedling pots in nurseries. Logically, the lower the height, the closer to the outside (or front) of the plot or the pot a plant should be.
Once planted, an herb garden is a snap to maintain. While they are establishing roots, be sure they are sufficiently watered.
Basil and parsley wilt to let you know they are parched; sage, thyme, and rosemary grow dull-leafed and brittle. Mulching, even in pots, helps retain moisture, keeps down weeds and fills in the spaces between the small plants until they grow up. (Don't mulch over anything, like cilantro or dill, seeded directly into the ground, or it won't come up.)
A springtime dressing of manure, bone meal and/or compost generally takes care of herbs' nutritional needs for the year. Keep them weeded. In a 4-by-4-foot plot this should take about 15 minutes a week.
That's it. Herbs require little effort, but offer great rewards. So, stick a sprig of fresh-picked mint in your tea, and enjoy. Eat your heart out, Julia Child.
Pub Date: 3/30/97