There are no sure things when it comes to coaxing food out of the garden, but just like at casinos and the horse races, some bets have better odds than others. And after 18 years of growing everything from arugula to zucchini in my large organic kitchen garden, I've figured out how to consistently walk away with the biggest payouts: by planting herbs. Homegrown herbs are easy to grow, cheap to keep, don't require lots of space or attention, and aren't usually bothered by diseases and pests. They're pretty to look at, bursting with flavor, and far fresher than anything you can buy at the store.
In comparison, store-bought fresh herbs are notoriously pricey, often come packaged in non-recyclable plastic containers, and are sometimes sprayed with really scary chemicals. The selection is limited, and a lot of times the fresh herbs aren't actually all that fresh. One of the nicest things about growing your own herbs is that unlike many vegetables, you don't need a whole bushel to make a worthwhile harvest; just a little bit will go a long way. And most herb plants actually benefit from from being regularly snipped back, even when young. All you really need to get growing is a mostly sunny spot that has well-drained soil. Lots of herbs will also do well in containers, and many can even be grown indoors on a sunny windowsill.
Ready to risk it? Here are my six favorite, easiest-to-grow herbs:
If I could only have one perennial herb in my kitchen garden, I would definitely choose chives. They'll endure hot, dry, humid summers with nary a droop and are hardy to Zone 3. Pests ignore them, and they're even said to discourage harmful insects, including aphids and mites, from attacking nearby plants. Chives should be dug up and divided every three years. I also tucked some purchased seedlings in with them, too.
Chives have hundreds of uses. You can add them to everything from mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs to chicken salad and quesadillas. They also mingle well with other herbs; try mixing some chopped fresh chives, basil, oregano, and parsley into yogurt cheese for a quick, scrumptious, versatile dip/spread. Before your plants die back in winter, stash a cup or two of chopped chives in an airtight container in the freezer. The pieces will freeze individually, enabling you to pull out a pinch of two whenever you need it.
Basil is an excellent companion for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.
Gardening can be a real challenge here in Missouri, and basil is one of my few never-fail crops. If you're a big pesto fan, you can save a small fortune by growing your this heat-loving annual. Each year I stock my freezer with enough pesto to last throughout the year.
Basil just keeps on giving; with water and sun, these plants will start growing right back.
There are two main things to remember about basil: It hates the cold, and it loves to be trimmed back. Start pinching off leaves as soon as the plants are just a few inches high, and continue throughout the season. In early spring and fall, drape floating row cover or an old bed sheet over your plants to protect them from the cold.
Prepping freshly picked Greek oregano. When you buy fresh or dried herbs, you often pay for a lot of stems.
What goes beautifully with basil? Oregano! Greek oregano is one of the most reliable, low-maintenance edible plants in my garden. I've had the same pot of Greek oregano growing for a decade, and all I ever do is water it, eat it, and fertilize it twice a year with sheep manure. I use it in everything from Greek style Panzanella and fresh tomato pizza sauce to slow-cooked Greek style leg of lamb and homemade Italian sausage.
There are several varieties of thyme, but the one I love the most -— and have the best luck growing -— is lemon thyme. This low growing, spreading perennial adds a gourmet touch to any dish and can be used whenever a recipe calls for lemon and thyme. One of my favorite ways to enjoy it is with roasted turnips. Try stuffing a chicken with lemon thyme and lemon wedges, or add it to a garlicky marinade for chicken, fish, lamb, or beef. Toss it with tomatoes, stir it into cream cheese dip or herb butter, or add it to a vinaigrette. Make lemon thyme-infused olive oil and drizzle it over mashed potatoes or crisp baby greens.
Italian Flat Leaf Parsley
Parsley may be ubiquitous and cheap, but growing your own is still worthwhile, even if you don't live 40 miles from the nearest place to buy it (where it's usually wilted). Organic parsley can be hard to find, and the conventionally grown stuff may have been sprayed with AZM, a neurotoxic insecticide that attacks the human brain and nervous system and is so harmful that it was banned by the EPA last month (but can still be used for another year). What's nice is that you can harvest just what you need, rather than buying an entire bunch and then letting half of it turn to forgotten black mush in the fridge. Last April I bought a six-pack of Italian flat leaf parsley seedlings at a local nursery for $2.50, planted them along one edge of a 4'x 8' raised garden bed, and have been snipping fresh bounty several times a week ever since.
Lemon balm is a beautiful, fragrant member of the mint family that is heat tolerant, cold tolerant, rarely bothered by pests, and, like other types of mint, grows like a weed. This gentle medicinal herb has been used for centuries to treat everything from depression and upset stomachs to insect bites, fever blisters, and tension headaches. Sip lemon balm tea throughout the day to aid digestion and alleviate stress and anxiety, either hot with honey or over ice. During the summer I like to stuff a bunch of fresh leaves in a half gallon canning jar, stick it in the sun for a few hours, and chill it in the fridge for a refreshing, healthy drink.
Growing your own anything is truly rewarding, and not just because it's the ultimate way to go green. And since young herb seedlings can often be purchased for less than those "fresh" little packets at the supermarket, even if you end up killing all your plants you'll most likely have gotten more than your money's worth out of them first.
Besides, if you lose it all, you always can go back next season and try to win big again.
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