Gourmet Herb Garden Can Be Grown on Doorstep

By Conrad Richter

Just 20 years ago, growing herbs was the exclusive province of a few dedicated herbal connoisseurs who often had to order plants by mail from specialists in places as far away as Europe. Given the vagaries of international mail, it is well that herbs are now much more widely available locally, assuming as they do their rightful place amongst the petunias, marigolds and tomatoes on the annual spring shopping list for the garden.

The emphasis today is on the fresh use of herbs. In the freshly picked state, many herbs such as parsley, tarragon, rosemary, basil and chives are vastly superior to the dried stuff from your neighborhood grocer. Today no self-respecting chef at any of Toronto’s best restaurants would dream of being with out a regular fresh supply, and some even go to the extreme of installing their own rooftop garden or indoor hydroponic garden.

Mystique of herbs

Despite the mystique of herbs that lingers from the days when peppercorns were more valuable than gold or when basil was associated with the demons and witches, herbs are remarkably uncomplicated and undemandingas garden subjects go. For one thing, they are often weedy in their natural habitats, and although none of the most popular herbs are natives of Canada, they will grow quite happily in most places where there are at least four hours of exposure to the sun and where the soil drains well.

The more sun, however, the better, for the natural essential oils in the leaves become more pronounced in strong light, and it is these oils that give many herbs their exquisite aromas and flavours. If your soil is s heavy clay, then dig in plenty of sand and peat moss to improve drainage and friability.

The garden should be dug and prepared for planting when all risk of frost has passed. Some thought should be invested in the placement of a new herb garden, for although it could be treated like a vegetable garden – dug up and planted wholesale each year – many herbs are hardy perennials in the Toronto area and easily become permannent fixtures, if encouraged.

Close promiximity to the kitchen is an important consideration, so that fresh herbs are always near at hand whenever the culinary creative juices flow. Not much space is needed: In just a few square feet near the back door a half a dozen different kinds of herbs could grow. Even apartment dwellers have no excuse for a lack of fresh herbs because herbs are quite content to grow in planters on balconies.

When you go shopping for herb plants there is one thing to keep in mind: Many plants sold in the Toronto area are mass-produced from seeds. Starting herbs indiscriminately from seeds is a convenience for the commercial grower, but the practice is not always in the best interest of the consumer since several important herbs such as tarragon and mint are better grown from cuttings. Seed-grown tarragon and mint are completely devoid of the aromas and flavours we have come to associate with those herbs. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to queeze a leaf or two (even surreptitiously!) and if they don’t smell right, don’t buy.

Here is a short list of herbs to get for your back door herb garden:

Basil: There are dozens of varieties, but the most popular are the large-leaved and the Italian miniature bush varietities. Absolutely essential for pesto and tomato dishes of all kinds.

Chives: Of two kinds: the regular onion-like variety and the very popular flat-leaved garlic chives. Both are hardy perennials.

Coriander: Fresh leaf coriander is a keynote flavour in Latin American and Oriental cuisines. The common variety is best seeded directly in the garden and harvested at an early stage, with repeat sowings as is necessary to maintain supply. Annual.

Dill: For fresh leaves, it needs to be seeded directly in the garden at regular intervals and cut early like coriander. For pickling, use flowers and seed-heads of older plants. Annual.

Oregano: Most oregano sold is grown from the wrong seeds. Be sure you get the Greek variety with the strong, spicy aroma. Beware of oregano that has little flavour, and watch out for savoury (a lovely herb in its own right) masquerading as oregano in some places. With protection it survives as a perennial.

Parsley: The curled-leaf type is well known for garnishing, but those in the know much prefer the flat-leaved Italian variety, which has more flavour. Treat as an annual.

Tarragon: The only true French variety has the characteristic sweet flavour reminiscent of licorice, and it cannot be grown from seeds. With good soil drainage, it survives our winters quite well.

Thyme: The common spice-rack thyme is either the English or French cultivar. Both are perennials, but English is a little hardier. Lemon thyme is a radical, but irresistible departure from the common types, terrific on baked seafood and in tea.

Originally published in The Toronto Star, March 29, 1988.

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