Fresh herbs have been revered for their healing properties and culinary flavors since ancient times.
I started my herb garden years ago outside my kitchen door. There, I surrounded myself with garden tools of the trade and a wheelbarrow full of tiny three-inch pots of rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage and parsley. As I put them in the ground and carefully sealed their tender roots with dirt, I thought about how long a wait it was going to be to see them thrive and mature. I had plans for those herbs; they would go into so many dishes from savory to sweet, besides providing a beautiful garden display that attracted bees, butterflies and the occasional frenetic hummingbird.
I depended on these plants to do their thing and willed them to grow into lush, bush-like shapes. The first year was slow, but then, after the root systems were established, my herbs started to reward me as mature plants with delicate flowers and distinctive flavors. Just rubbing the leaves with my hands released volatile oils that stayed with me all day, and I was ready to respond with a cook’s zeal.
Most herbs are perennial plants, but they are also tender and need to be treated with care. Most like well-drained, sandy soil and a sunny location. Many herbs—such as basil, oregano and parsley—benefit from frequent pruning, allowing the plants to bush out.
Some herbs—such as mint and chervil—can tolerate damp conditions. Of course, herbs can be container plants as well.
To get the best flavor, gather herbs in the morning, before the heat of the day, and use them that day, if possible. Bring the cuttings indoors and trim the stem ends before placing them in a glass of cold water to prevent the leaves from wilting. Do not wet the leaves; wipe them with a damp paper towel. (Basil is especially prone to unsightly dark watermarks on the leaves.)
When cooking with herbs, add them to foods such as soups and egg dishes toward the end of the cooking cycle; heat destroys their oils. For stews or braises, make a bouquet garni of herbs such as sage, rosemary, thyme and parsley, and add it to the pot halfway through the cooking process.
For baking, snippets of herbs such as peppermint and lemon verbena are a delicious surprise in scones, cookies and cakes.
Herbs have so many uses in addition to adding flavor to your favorite dish. They are a healthy alternative to using salt. Gather herbs up to make a bouquet of fresh scent for your home. Dry them to use in floral arrangements. Make potpourri sachet. Infuse them in your cup of tea.
Herbs that are perennials—such as oregano, mint, sage and thyme— are gifts that reward you year after year.
Mary Ann's Herb Dishes
Pasta with Parsley Walnut Sauce
Spicy Chicken Thighs with Mixed Herbs