When I was in the produce section of the grocery store last week to purchase some salad greens, I stopped in front of the packets of fresh herbs. Many years ago, I purchased some fresh herbs from the grocery store in my desperation to try a special recipe during a time I was without access to a garden, but most of the time I rely on dried or fresh herbs from my garden.
At $2.49 for about ½ an ounce of herbs, or in other words, a couple of stems of wilted basil 4 inches long, using fresh herbs in the quantity I like to use them is expensive. Exceptions are fresh cilantro and parsley; stores sell rather large bunches of these herbs for a dollar or two, and because our heat usually makes the cilantro bolt to seed before tomatoes are ready to make salsa, I buy it at the store.
If you find yourself avoiding certain recipes because they call for fresh herbs, or if you do buy the expensive packets of herbs that cannot actually be fresh by the time they reach the grocery store, try growing your own herbs. No matter how small your garden, it is easy to grow your own for fresh consumption and to dry some for use the rest of the year.
If you have a sunny spot big enough for a pot, grow some herbs, even if you don’t have room for anything else. I used to have an herb garden, but now I mix the perennial herbs in with my flowers and shrubs and I plant the annual herbs in rows in the vegetable garden. They are easy to grow, and with the exception of mint, behave themselves. Mint needs the confines of a pot to contain the runners; if you ignore this advice, you will battle the runners for the rest of your gardening career. My mint is not in a pot, and we fight.
Rosemary is somewhat tricky to establish in the garden but once it decides it belongs in your garden, it does not require maintenance. In the winter or early spring, tiny beautiful purple blooms attract honeybees. Rosemary likes hot dry sites; my mother has tried for years to find some shrub that will grow across the front of her brick home that the afternoon sun bakes all day; rosemary thrives where many other shrubs have died over the years.
I water rosemary often until it is established. I make sure the soil dries some between waterings, but I don’t let it dry out so much that it begins to wilt. Many plants tolerate this treatment, but rosemary does not. Rosemary will also die in soggy soil. I have killed many more rosemary plants than have lived in my yard, but because I persevered, I have several healthy, trouble-free plants. If you kill rosemary in one place, move it somewhere else until you find a good spot. If a friend has an established rosemary bush, ask him or her to reach under the bush and remove some baby rosemary plants that have rooted from the mother plant for you.
Sage, in my experience, is also difficult to establish and likes conditions similar to rosemary’s preferences. My mother has a patch of sage growing in the same baking sun the rosemary likes that is older than I am, but she gave me several starts of her sage before I got one to grow in my garden. Using my own sage in recipes instead of that jarred “rubbed sage” is worth the trouble. Thyme and oregano like more consistently moist, but not soggy, sites.
After several years of letting parsley flower and go to seed in a corner of my flowerbed, parsley returns every year without any effort from me. I have enough plants to share with the Tiger Swallowtail butterfly larvae when they need some food, too. Cilantro and dill also reproduce each year without any trouble from me.
Put out transplants of rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, chives, tarragon, and parsley at any time of the year except summer. Water them until they are established, and try not to put them out if temperatures into the teens are expected. Sow cilantro, dill, fennel, and parsley in the early spring, and sow basil, the only commonly used herb that is bothered by frost, after the last frost in your area.
Perhaps one day I will have a formal herb garden, but for now, I am content having access to some fresh herbs nearly year round and dried herbs from my garden during times the fresh ones are not at their peak.