Cook with a culinary herb garden

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By Ann Van de Reep

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If I could only have one type of garden, I think it would be a culinary herb garden. An herb garden doesn’t have to be big; a few pots and pans outside the kitchen door can give great results. Herbal gardens are teeming with flowers, scents and pollinators. There is something very satisfying about going out to harvest the fresh herbs for a recipe.

Culinary herb gardens should be located close to the kitchen; remember that most herbs appreciate a sheltered location and full sun. Plant the herbs you use most often in the kitchen, then experiment with those that are new to you. I have listed my favorites, grouped into three categories according to their cultural requirements.

Wintered rosemary.  Courtesy of Deborah Maier
Wintered rosemary. Courtesy of Deborah Maier Photo by Deborah_Maier /jpg

Mediterranean herbs

Mediterranean herbs thrive in full sun and well-drained soil. Once established, they are drought tolerant and thrive on neglect. One plant of each is sufficient for most cooks.

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sage (Salvia officinalis) is a bushy perennial with woolly, greyish leaves. It grows to about two feet tall and should be cut in half in early spring. I have found it to be short lived, so it may need to be replanted every few years.

Thyme is a slow growing perennial, perfect for the front of the herb garden. It has tiny flowers, delicate oval leaves, and spreads out in attractive rugs. Common thyme (common orEnglish thyme) is excellent for cooking.

Tarragon is a tall, vigorous perennial that grows well in Calgary. Culinary tarragon can reach a height of 60 cm. For the best flavor, be sure to buy only French tarragon (Mugwort dracunculus).

GreekOregano is my favorite type of oregano. It is a compact plant reaching up to 8 inches tall and extending to about 12 inches. It is delicious in tomato sauces and stews. Greek oregano does not typically overwinter in Calgary, but it dries well for use all winter.

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Rosemary is not rustic in Calgary. Plant it in a 30 cm pot in the spring and bring it in before the first fall frosts. It can be difficult to overwinter indoors, but in a sunny window or under grow lights it will often survive (if not overwatered). Be sure to gradually acclimate it to outdoor conditions before leaving it outside for the new growing season, after wintering indoors.

Plant a variety of herbs to create a culinary garden.  Courtesy of Pat Matthews
Plant a variety of herbs to create a culinary garden. Courtesy of Pat Matthews jpg

Leaf grasses

Leafy grasses grow well in regular garden soil amended with organic matter. They should be kept moist and can tolerate less light, but still need at least six hours of sunlight per day.

Chive are a perennial plant that is easy to grow from transplants or divisions. He thrives in Calgary. Make sure you hold your head up high to prevent reseeding. The leaves and flowers are edible. Pick the flowers right after opening and add them to a salad. The flowers can also be used to flavor vinegar. The use of the new flowers in culinary applications solves the self-seeding problem.

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Parsley is a biennial grown as an annual in Calgary. Buy transplants or start early indoors. Cooks often prefer the flat-leaf variety, also known as Italian parsley. If you have a bumper crop, it can be frozen. After freezing, the leaves lose their texture, so use frozen parsley in cooking rather than in salads or as a garnish.

dill is an annual cultivated for leaves, seeds and flower heads. Sow directly in the garden once the danger of frost has passed. Grown under ideal conditions, dill can reach a height of one meter. The feathery foliage can be plucked any time before the flower clusters open. To harvest the seeds, cut the flower stems when the seeds turn a beige color, just before they begin to ripen.

Basil is a tender annual that suffers when the temperature drops below 10 ° C (which seems to happen most nights in Calgary!). Plant it in large pots in a sheltered location near the house and cover or bring it inside when the temperature drops. Harvest frequently by pinching off a set of leaves and don’t let it go to seed.

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Coriander tends to go to seed very quickly, so choose varieties that are resistant to bolts. Instead of transplants, buy a seed packet. Sprinkle some in the garden (where it could even be reseeded) and some in pots. I treat cilantro like a ‘cut and return’ plant, cutting it a few inches above the ground, then letting it grow back. Start a new pot of seeds every few weeks.

Plant mint in a pot to prevent it from spreading.  Courtesy of Pat Matthews
Plant mint in a pot to prevent it from spreading. Courtesy of Pat Matthews jpg

mint

mint spread by runners and can be invasive. Plant it somewhere it can’t escape, such as between the house and a concrete driveway or in large bottomless plastic pots sunk into the ground. Mint grows well with lots of moisture in full sun but will tolerate some shade. Peppermint is my favorite, but there are many varieties, including chocolate mint, mojito mint, and even cotton candy mint. Mint cultivated in seeds is of variable quality; buy a plant (you only need one), or get a cutting or division from a friend and soon you will have plenty of mint for tabbouleh and tea.

Maybe this is the year to try planting culinary herbs in your garden, or in pots on your patio or balcony. Herbs are plants with many facets: they are edible, aromatic, of various textures and colors, and they are attractive. They can make a beautiful arrangement of plants or be presented individually on a table as a centerpiece. You can start with just one – let it grow in you.

Ann Van de Reep writes for the Calgary Horticultural Society

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