Spring weather + Mother’s Day generally mean one thing: lots of gardening! I grew up with gardening in my blood—I can remember being a small girl and my parents planting a huge vegetable garden in our backyard. Each year packets of seeds were dropped into the rich black soil, promising a harvest of edible delights. Before long I’d be excitedly plucking snap peas from their vines and radishes and carrots from the earth.
As we all grew older, my family maintained this vegetable garden tradition year after year. So it was with much disappointment I learned my first townhouse would not allow any vegetable planting in the flower beds! Thankfully the popularity of farmer’s markets and community shared agriculture allows even people without the space, or inclination, to plant a vegetable garden the ability to enjoy fresh produce. But I still wanted to grow something edible at my townhouse. With my only option to plant in pots along my sidewalk, I decided to start an herb garden.
If you’re new to gardening, but it’s always something you wanted to try, planting herbs is a great way to begin, especially if you also enjoy cooking! The great thing about herbs is they do well in containers and many can thrive on 3-6 hours of sunlight, so a part sun/part shade spot will still yield good results. The best part about using fresh herbs? They add so much flavor to a dish that often you can reduce or eliminate other enhancers like salt or sugar and have a healthier meal.
Since my first year in a townhouse, I’ve planted a variety of herbs annually and make it a point to cook with them whenever I can. Below are just a few of my favorite herbs and recipes, plus a couple new ones I’m trying this year!
Harvesting Tip: Herbs are best when the leaves are bright and green. Try to pick them when they are perky and have been well-watered, and wash them right before using. Some herbs, like parsley or dill, can be stored in the fridge for a week if the cut stems are wrapped in a wet paper towel. Others, like basil, won’t last long once picked. Once they start to flower, the herbs may become bitter as their energy is pushed towards producing seeds, so I often clip the flower buds off as much as I can to prolong the usability of the leaves.
Basil is one herb that loves warm weather and sunshine. I tend to plant at least 8 plants in a large pot because I am a huge fan of pesto! Basil will quickly get leggy as it grows, so I am diligent about clipping the tops off to help each plant get nice and bushy. I also am vigilant about clipping off the buds, which will show up quickly as the weather warms. Using this method, I’m able to get 2 or 3 harvests of enough basil leaves to produce 8-12 cups of pesto. Pesto freezes well so you can enjoy it all year long!
This herb is new to me this. Actually my parents planted bee balm as a perennial flower because butterflies and hummingbirds adore it. But what I never knew is that the leaves have a faint minty flavor and can be used to make a mint tea (either iced or hot). Here’s a recipe I plan on trying for bee balm tea. If you are planting spearmint, you can do something similar with your mint leaves - a very refreshing summer drink when chilled!
While most herbs are annuals and need to be replanted every year, chives are an exception. They are hardy and super easy to grow - just toss them in a pot, water now and again, and they’ll come back year after year. In fact, you’ll probably be able to pick them fairly early in the spring. A member of the onion family, their stalks have a more delicate flavor. They are a great fixing on dishes, like these “mock” garlic mashed potatoes (really made from cauliflower).
Dried dill absolutely does not compare to the tangy taste of the fresh stuff! I love growing dill but it tends to do better in the cooler weather and will quickly flower and go to seed as it gets warm. Take advantage of its leaves with a little parsley on potato salad - simply divine! Another delicious use is to sprinkle it with some lemon juice on roasted green beans.
This is another new herb I’m trying this year. Apparently lemon balm is in the mint family (the leaves look very similar to sweet mint), but they are decidedly lemony in smell. Steeping the leaves is a great way to make lemon balm tea, which I definitely plan to try this summer!
One of my absolutely favorite herbs, I’ve gotten quite attached to the versatility of fresh parsley. It will last long beyond your other herbs once fall weather rolls around. We had such a mild December last year in New Jersey, my parsley was thriving till almost Christmastime! When freshly clipped, it will last in the fridge (as noted above). I’m not a fan of cilantro so tend to substitute parsley a lot since they are in the same family, though have different flavors. Parsley is the star in this chimichurri chicken, and is also a nice touch in this smoky tomato salmon chowder.
f you love savory food, you just cannot get by without rosemary! Although rosemary is a woody perennial herb, I’ve generally found it doesn’t survive New Jersey’s winters if left outside. If you’re in a warmer zone, it may last throughout the year though. This herb’s extremely aromatic leaves add a ton of flavor when roasting meat or potatoes, but you can also try it with snacks like this popcorn or something totally different like these lemon cupcakes.
Sage, another member of the evergreen family, like rosemary, is often paired with winter squashes or other savory herbs. The thicker leaves hold up to the heat and are a delicious, crispy topping when fried in butter and served with butternut squash ravioli. I also love to use it fresh in this chicken soup recipe (though my husband always begs me to leave out the olives.)
Question: What herbs are your favorites - are there some you really love that aren’t in this list? What are your favorite recipes featuring fresh herbs?