Banish blandness by planting a wide selection of herbs
The first food I ever attempted to grow was herbs. One winter while living in Toronto, I bought some small clay pots, soil, and chive seeds. I planted the seeds, watered them, placed them on my south-facing windowsill, and waited. My mouth watered at the thought of adding fresh chives to my soups, rice, eggs, and salad.
One week passed. And then another. A month later, still no chives. Eventually, I gave up, replaced the unsprouted seeds with spider plants, and didn’t attempt to grow food again for several years. Now chives grow in quite a few corners of my garden. I’m happy I didn’t give up on my chive dreams (I wonder if this is the real meaning behind “Keep calm and chive on”?), because chives, one of many perennial herbs, are an extremely welcome sight in spring, often popping out of the ground when it’s still cold and snowy in April. Turns out, chives can be rather tricky to grow from seed; it’s much better to plant transplants.
By persevering, I also learned that herbs are extremely rewarding to grow. They don’t take up too much space, they grow well in pots, they complement other vegetables in your garden, they offer health benefits, and they can even keep pests away. In fact, despite my early, failed attempts, herbs are the first thing I recommend new gardeners grow. After all, a few fresh leaves of basil, snips of chives, or pinches of thyme can really add some zing to staples like eggs, meat, soup, and grains. Even a small, simple salad of fresh, cold-hardy parsley – with a basic vinaigrette – is incredibly energizing when the temperature drops and the days grow short.
If you’re just starting out, you can get herb transplants from a garden centre or a farmers’ market vendor, or you can grow them from seed. Common transplants include savoury herbs like thyme, rosemary, basil, chives, and parsley. Perennial seeds, as I said, can be a bit tricky to start yourself – but once they’re established, you essentially have a lifetime supply of chives or thyme. For annual herbs – plants that live and die in one season – it’s much more cost-effective to start the plants from seed. Besides, a seed catalogue offers a far greater selection than you will find in most nurseries.
Basil is my favourite herb to grow from seed, but because it is native to tropical regions, it takes a few tricks to get big, healthy plants in our cooler Maritime climate. Jo Ann Gardner, in her book Living with Herbs, suggests buying seeds that boast large leaf sizes, such as Genovese, or Mammoth, or a crinkly-leaved variety I grew this past year called Napoletano. Basil hates the cold; even cold soil and cold wind will stunt or burn this sensitive plant. So I start my seeds indoors about six to eight weeks before the last frost, then gradually harden them off in my cold frame or under plastic.
Basil is considered an excellent companion plant for tomatoes, but when I tried this I found the tomatoes would eventually engulf the basil, keeping the tiny plants in perpetual shadow, which they do not like. Now I grow my basil exclusively in pots on my hot, sunny deck. This keeps the soil much warmer (especially if you use black pots), allows for more consistent watering, and makes it easy to move the basil under cover or even bring it inside if the temperature suddenly drops.
I also make sure to pinch my basil – meaning I snip the leader stem when it looks to be setting flowers, which encourages the side stems to develop leaves, ensuring a bushier plant and a longer harvest. My basil loved the hot, dry summer this past year, and in September I harvested my biggest crop ever, filling a large garbage bag with the pungent green leaves.
Most herbs dry quite well if hung upside-down in a relatively dry room out of direct sunlight, but dried or frozen basil can get brown and ugly. The best way to preserve basil is to use it as an ingredient. In the fall I make large batches of pesto and zucchini-basil soup, which I freeze, to be enjoyed throughout the winter.
This past year I adapted Pascal Baudar’s salted herb recipe (from his book The New Wildcrafted Cuisine) by combining one part salt to four parts chopped basil, which resulted in a very flavourful bouillon-type mixture; I add a spoonful or two to soup, or as a salt substitute in other recipes. The salted herbs keep well in the fridge, and as they very slowly ferment, the saltiness diminishes. You can use any herb in place of basil.
A couple of years ago I noticed how much the local bumblebees loved the few basil flowers I neglected to pinch, so I now make sure to let some of my basil plants go to flower, to share with the bees. My honeybees are indifferent to my savoury basil, but they love my tulsi (Sacred basil) flowers. With its potent smell, a unique flavour resembling bubble gum, and prolific growth, tulsi has become one of my favourite tea herbs. Plus, like a lot of herbs, it’s loaded with health benefits; it relieves stress, alleviates cold and flu symptoms, and is even good for oral and dental health. I harvest my tea herbs in the summer and fall, dry them until they’re crispy, store them in Mason jars in a dark, cool place, and make healthful teas or use them to flavour kombucha all winter.
Other tea herbs I enjoy growing include chamomile, lemon balm, and chocolate mint. Another bee favourite, anise hyssop (aka liquorice mint), is a tall-growing perennial that I plant at the northern end of my garden beds. I love growing as many perennials as I can; unlike fussy annuals, my chives, oregano, lavender, mint, and lemon balm come up year after year once established, with little or no work.
A lot of herbs will also self-seed, so you may find chamomile, cilantro, or dill popping up in unusual places all over your garden. Be careful, though, because a few, such as mint and lemon balm, may threaten to take over. Not that I mind, however. My lemon balm has become a lovely ground cover, and in the summer it’s delightful to roam through and enjoy its bright, citrusy scent.
And that’s just the tip of the basil flower when it comes to herbs. There’s a vast number of varieties and flavours to grow and experiment with. If at first you don’t succeed – well, keep trying and chive on!