Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme

Growing these and other culinary herbs is an easy way to add zest to your meals.

April 23, 2003|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

If you love fresh basil with your summer tomatoes or rosemary sprinkled on your roast lamb, happiness can be as close as your back yard.

Growing culinary herbs isn't difficult, and the rewards are fresh ingredients to liven up your salads, flavor your meats and side dishes, and infuse into butters and vinegars.

Which herbs to grow depends largely on what you like to cook. If you're partial to French cuisine, thyme, tarragon, oregano, marjoram, parsley, sage, basil, bay, garlic and rosemary are essential. If your tastes go more toward northern European dishes, you'll want dill, mint, caraway, horseradish, sorrel, fennel and garlic. If you want to cook North African meals, plant coriander. If you prefer Asian, grow lemon grass.

"Different people have different preferences," says Scott Aker, horticulturist with the U.S. National Arboretum. His favorites include basil, rosemary, sage, thyme and dill.

"If you're going to have salmon, you've got to have fresh dill," he says.

Barbara Steele, owner of Alloway Creek Gardens & Herb Farm in Littlestown, Pa., says basil is essential to flavor salads, chicken, fish, and herb vinegars. There are dozens of varieties, but one of her favorites is Mrs. Burns' lemon basil, which has a citrusy flavor. "A good lemon basil is really good with chicken and fish," Steele says.

If you can grow only one basil, choose Genoa or Genovese green, says Susan Belsinger, a culinary herbalist who lives in Howard County. "That particular cultivar has the best flavor," she says, noting it is a key ingredient in pesto and makes a perfect match for tomatoes.

Belsinger's favorite herbs include not only basil, mint, chives, rosemary, sage and thyme, but also some more unusual herbs like monarda (also called bee balm), which she says imparts a tealike flavor in fruit dishes, and sweet woodruff, which is one of the few herbs that can be grown in the shade.

Because most culinary herbs come from the hot, dry climate of the Mediterranean region, they need at least six hours of sun and good drainage. Otherwise, they are not demanding, and many will return year after year.

"Herbs are pretty peaceful," says Sue Latini, who has been growing herbs for more than 20 years in her back yard in Ferndale.

Janice Carver, herb specialist at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, says interest in herb gardening has been increasing. "It's something you can do without a lot of space," she said.

Figuring out how many herbs to plant can be tricky. A half-whiskey-barrel container can supply a family with herbs for a season, Latini says. She suggests starting with one plant each of marjoram, rosemary, basil, thyme and chives.

But you may need more than one plant of tender herbs such as parsley, dill and fennel. Aker's advice: "Plant twice as many as you think you'll need."

Whether you plant a few herbs in a pot or rows in your yard, they should be handy to the kitchen. "While you've got something on the stove, you want to be able to run out and snip something," Aker says. "Otherwise you won't use them."

All herbs, except basil, can be planted now; basil can't be planted until the danger of frost has past, and even then it won't flourish until the weather is hot. Dill, on the other hand, doesn't like the heat. It can be planted now, but fall is a better time, Akers says.

Maintaining herbs throughout the summer is mostly a matter of watering and trimming. Plants in the ground need only a modest amount of fertilizer at the beginning of the growing season and water about once a week. Herbs grown in containers should be fed monthly and may have to be watered daily in hot, dry weather. To determine when plants need water, Carver says feel down about an inch into the soil to see if it is dry.

About once a month, perennials should be cut back to one-third their height and annuals to just above the bottom set of two leaves to encourage new growth, Belsinger says.

Herbs are fairly resistant to pests and diseases.

Aker says fennel, dill and parsley may fall prey to black swallowtail butterfly larvae. He advises planting extra herbs rather than trying to kill the larvae. Thyme and sage can be susceptible to blight, so mulch should not be applied to those herbs, Aker says.

In the fall, potted herbs can be brought inside, although they still will need lots of sun.

"With management and care, they are very rewarding," Aker says.

A dozen herbs to grow

Basil - There are more than 50 different kinds of this annual. Some favorites are Genoa or Genovese green basil, Mrs. Burns' lemon basil, Aussie Sweetie cinnamon basil, licorice basil and purple basil. It needs warm nights to thrive, and flowers should be cut back until the end of the season.

Chives - There are two main types, common chives and garlic chives. Common chives have reddish-purple blossoms in the early spring. Garlic chives have a much stronger, garliclike flavor. Cut both back after they bloom to encourage new growth.

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