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Herb Garden

How many times has your grocery store been out of fresh basil, rosemary or mint? With a little planning, you can build your own 24-hour supply of garden-fresh herbs. Even a small garden can infuse your kitchen with heavenly aromas and striking flavor.

Finding a Spot

When growing herbs, location is key. Some like it sunny and dry, while others prefer filtered sunlight and moist soil. It's best to match seeds with the site. If your patio is the only sunny spot, set out herbs in large pots. If your yard is all sun, try planting shade-loving plants east of taller varieties like sunflowers. The tall plants will generate shade for the smaller ones.

Wondering which herbs are sun lovers? Here are a few rules of thumb:

Prefer Full Sun

  • Basil
  • Chives
  • Dill
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Tarragon
  • Thyme

Prefer Partial Shade
  • Chervil
  • Lemon Balm
  • Mint
Planning Your Garden

It's best to start small. Grow herbs you know you'll use, plus a few new ones for fun. Need ideas? Consult CNN's Herb & Spice Chart. The chart outlines each herb, its flavor, source and common uses.

How much should you plant? Many people are surprised to learn how much a single plant can produce. A single rosemary or tarragon plant will satisfy most culinary needs. If you plan to freeze or dry herbs for the Winter (read on to learn how), take that into consideration. It might take a dozen basil plants to generate a year's worth of pesto.

Have other questions? Try the Kitchen Garden Forum at GardenWeb, where hundreds of gardeners are ready to share their experience. GardenWeb also offers a plant database and glossary of botanical terms that might prove helpful.

Getting Things Growing

Some plants, including basil, chives, lemongrass, parsley and thyme, do best with seeds started indoors. Others, including mint, rosemary and tarragon, do better when propagated from cuttings (bought as plants).

When starting seeds, note the germination requirements, including soil temperature. Once seedlings appear, make sure they have ample air circulation, sunlight and humidity. To increase humidity, mist the area with a spray bottle. And be patient... some plants take several weeks. For herb-by-herb tips on starting seeds, visit the Weekend Gardener.

As soon as your plants bear a couple sets of leaves, thin them to the proper spacing distance. To see how much space each plant needs, consult your supplier. Roots need room to gather food and water, and overcrowded plants will go hungry.

Seeds should stay indoors until your frost-free date, which will vary by region. In the Midwest, May 15 is the recommended date. Packaging instructions may refer to your "zone." To determine what zone you're in, visit the U.S. National Arboretum.

When it's time to transplant, it's a good idea to "harden" your seedlings. Gradually move the seedlings or transplants outdoors so they have time to adjust to new temperature, wind and light levels. If possible, transplant on a cloudy day or in late afternoon. Special boxes and plastic tunnels are available for hardening seedlings. Check with your supplier for additional tips.

Keeping Things Growing

Remember to water and weed early and often. When you water, saturate the soil thoroughly (and make sure there's ample drainage). Watering deep allows plants to grow strong roots. Weeding keeps your garden clear of competition (and makes it look more attractive).

When plants are several inches tall, you might consider mulching. Mulch deprives weeds of the light they need to grow. Leave a circle of soil bare around the base of each plant to prevent mulch-loving pests like slugs and snails from taking over.

Bringing Herbs to the Table

Once you have a fresh supply of herbs in the kitchen, the opportunities are truly endless. Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Pair basil leaves with sun-warmed tomato slices for an irresistible sandwich or salad.
  • Drop whole mint leaves into a tall glass of iced tea.
  • To create herbal butters, mince herbs and mix into softened butter.
  • Create Fines Herbes by mixing 1 Tbsp. each of chervil, parsley, chives and tarragon. Sprinkle the mixture over eggs or meats before serving.
  • Add freshly minced herbs to vegetable or fruit salads.
  • Puree fresh herbs with mayonnaise to produce innovative sandwiches.
Preparing for Winter

Few plants can survive winter temperatures, especially in cooler climates. If you've grown the herbs in pots, simply bring them indoors. If you've grown them in the garden, dig them out and plant them in pots that are 2" wider than the root ball. Many plants will thrive in a window that gets a few hours of sun each day or when placed under fluorescent lamps.

To preserve summer herbs for winter soups and stews, make herb cubes in the freezer. Chop up your herbs and place them in ice cube trays, then cover with water and freeze. To preserve the color and flavor, use boiling water to fill the tray (this blanches the herbs). Some herbs, like cilantro, keep better when frozen in oil. Mince the herb in a food processor, then introduce olive oil until you produce a fine puree. Pour into ice cube trays or bags and freeze. When introducing the frozen herbs to recipes, remember that they contain water or oil. If this will throw off the recipe's consistency, thaw and drain the cubes first.

Online Suppliers

  • Burpee
    Offers a wide variety of seeds to start your herb garden.

  • Dan's Garden Shop
    In addition to herb seeds, Dan offers a selection of gardening books and tools.

  • Johnny's Selected Seeds
    This mail order seed company in Albion, Maine also offers gardening tips and links.

  • Richters Herb Specialists
    While their opening logo hurts, these guys are all about herbs. They ship seeds and live plants to destinations worldwide. The site also offers a chart of common herbs and their uses.
For More Information...

  • HerbNet
    The source for all things herbal. Track down everything from herbal associations to herb gardens open to the public.

  • Henriette's Herbal Homepage
    Answers frequently asked questions about herbs and offers links to newsgroup and mailing list archives. Learn more than you ever needed to know about sweet basil, chamomile, coriander and more....

   --- L.Z.

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