At the moment, on an illegal fire-escape garden and an even more illegal rooftop garden, I’m growing chile peppers, strawberries, Swiss chard, figs, a few kinds of tomatoes, summer squash, cucumbers, and herbs. All but the last of these are pure vanity; it is not cost-effective to grow fruits or vegetables at home. I garden because it’s fun and it feels direct and physical to make something that isn’t a bunch of pixels on a screen. I grow a tomato, I eat the tomato, I’m happy about the whole process. But herbs are different.
Perfectly cooking a vegetable is exponentially harder than sort of basically cooking vegetable pretty well. But the differences are small, and nobody cares very much. On the other hand, knowing how to do easy-but-showy things, like making your own pickles or your own syrup, universally signal that you know what you’re doing in the kitchen — that you have some advanced techniques, even though, really, frying an egg is about a million times harder than making a batch of rhubarb-mint syrup. Growing fresh herbs is one of these little tricks, and they make your house smell nice, too. Fresh herbs ramp up the flavor of a dish in almost the same way salt does, adding an entirely new dimension and levels of complexity with ease. They are also underused, which I think is mostly due to the difficulty of keeping them around, a difficulty you can very easily overcome by growing your own.
In the culinary world, “herb” typically refers to the leaves or tender stems (fresh or dried) of a plant that tend to be high in flavorful compounds and oils. (Spices usually refer to some other part of the plant — the root, maybe, or a seed, or a berry. Minerals like salt are not spices. They are minerals.) The word “herb” is a little vague and sometimes flexible, as it doesn’t refer to, say, a taxonomic category but instead a usage category. So “herb” means a leaf that’s used for flavoring rather than as the base of a dish, okay. Basil: herb. Spinach: not herb. What about mustard greens? They can be either! Very messy terminology. But generally, when we talk herbs, we’re talking flavoring agents. There’s a reason why people don’t usually serve oregano salads, and it’s because it would be kind of gross.
Buying herbs is almost always a mistake. They cost, I don’t know, a dollar or three, but because they’re so powerful, you rarely want more than a couple of leaves at a time. So the herbs end up costing not two dollars for a bunch, but a dollar per leaf, which is absurd. And yet herbs are the easiest of all culinary plants to grow precisely because you grow them for their leaves. You don’t have to wait months and months for a single fruit (literally, my fig tree gave me one fig this year), nor do you really have to worry about pests eating them since most herbs are naturally pest-free; the compounds that give them such intense flavor evolved to repel bugs and other critters who might eat them.
Growing herbs also doesn’t require much space, nor all that much sun, and they grow quickly, so if you go out of town and your basil plant dies, you can pretty much plant another and in a few weeks it’ll be big enough to start eating. And the quality of your herbs is going to naturally be very high even if you don’t bother with any advanced gardening methods (like fertilizer or compost), simply because you pick them right before you eat them.
Most importantly, it feels cool to eat stuff you grew yourself.
Among the easiest herbs to grow are the many, many plants in the mint family, Lamiacae. These include all the different kinds of mint, of course, but also basil, oregano, thyme, and sage. I like them because they’re very common in a lot of vegetable-heavy Mediterranean cuisines, but also because they’re fairly hardy and easy to transplant. You can buy these as seedlings and they won’t freak out when you move them to a bigger pot.
To plant: Most members of the mint family will come in seedlings in a three-pack or four-pack. As soon as you get them home, move them to a bigger pot. Each seedling gets its own pot; the biggest mistake home gardeners make is overcrowding, which stunts growth and can even wreck the flavor as the plants spend their energy fighting each other rather than growing big and strong. Don’t get any pot smaller than about six inches in diameter, and even that is really pushing it. The bigger the pot, the bigger and healthier the plant. Fill the pot with soil (get organic soil; stuff like Miracle Gro will deplete all its nutrients after one year, so you can’t re-use the soil, which is kind of a waste of money), make a small divot in the middle, insert seedling, bunch up soil around it. Easy. Water daily, at the root level (NEVER WATER THE LEAVES), in the morning if possible. Some of these will do okay indoors, on windowsills, but place outside if at all possible. In general, pick off any flowers as soon as you see them; you can eat them, and they’re pretty, but you also want to keep your herb’s focus on growing leaves rather than on trying to get all sexy with flowers.
To use: Some of the mints can be cooked and some turn kind of gross when cooked. Use basil, mint, and oregano raw. My favorite trick is to use chopped raw fresh oregano in Greek salads (you know, the kind with tomatoes and cucumbers and olives and feta).
Thyme is a magical herb that always wants to be close to tomatoes. When making any kind of tomato-based stew or soup, early in the process, like when you’re sauteeing garlic and onion, throw in a few whole sprigs of thyme, and take them out just before serving. You won’t be able to pinpoint exactly what’s different about the soup, but you’ll know it tastes better.
The other big family to know about is the parsley family, Apiaceae. This one includes parsley, cilantro, dill, and chervil, as well as crops usually thought of as vegetables like carrots and celery. (Carrot and celery leaves are excellent and under-used herbs; carrot greens make a very good earthy pesto and celery leaves can replace cilantro in most spicy dishes. But they’re very inefficient to grow, so just buy the vegetables with leaves attached at the farmers market and use the leaves as you would parsley or cilantro.)
Parsleys tend to be flimsier and more delicate than the plants in the mint family, and some of them are significantly harder to grow. Cilantro, for example, will flip the fuck out if it’s transplanted and will usually start to bolt. (Bolting is the term for when the plant is sure it’s about to die, so it quickly dedicates all its energy into making seeds so it can hopefully become a parent.) At this point the plant tastes like garbage because everything besides making seeds is a secondary concern. Don’t let it do that. Keep your cilantro calm.
To grow: Cilantro is easy to grow from seed, and should only be grown in this form; don’t bother buying cilantro seedlings. Instead take a regular pot, fill it with soil, and plant a few seeds about half an inch below the surface of the soil. Keep it moist and in a few weeks it’ll start to grow. Growing from seed is a lot cheaper than from seedlings, but it’s also sometimes frustrating. Cilantro is one of the few plants I grow from seed.
Dill is a pain in the ass. I have no idea what its problem is. It’ll look great for a couple weeks and then all of a sudden flip out and start to grow huge and woody, which makes it basically unusable because dill leaves are so small that you rely on the small, tender stems. Then it’ll bolt and grow seeds, at which point it’s of basically no use to you. EXCEPT: Dill seeds are very flavorful, and are ideal, even better than the leaves, for making a dill pickle of any sort. I grow it because I love dill but I’ve never really felt like it loves me back.
Parsley is easier to grow than cilantro; you can transplant it, though sometimes this will cause it to bolt as well. The problem with growing parsley from a seedling is that it’s very mild for an herb, and you tend to use a lot of it at once. You’d rarely use more than a few leaves of mint or basil, but if you’re making, I don’t know, an Israeli (or Middle Eastern, or Lebanese, or whatever you call the salad with chopped tomato, cucumber, lemon juice, and olive oil, please don’t hurt me, people are very passionate about the naming of this salad) salad, you’re going to need a LOT of parsley. So if you grow it from seed, that’ll keep the cost down nicely and let you keep replenishing it by growing several crops throughout the year.
To use: I mostly prefer to use these raw as well. Dill and parsley make a great addition to a vinegar-based potato salad like this one. A som tam salad, like the second recipe over here, benefits enormously from some chopped cilantro. I have no idea what to do with chervil. Do any of you guys cook with chervil?
There are basically no dishes that won’t benefit from fresh herbs. Mexican dishes love cilantro and epazote (and about a hundred other herbs that are a lot harder to find), Italian and Greek and Provencal dishes match well with basil and oregano and parsley, Thai and Vietnamese benefit enormously from mint and cilantro and basil, and even the humble, mostly bad foods of eastern Europe will be happier with some dill. I’m skipping huge parts of the world there, but my basic point is, grow some herbs. It’s very easy and kind of fun and also impressive.
Photo by Alice Henneman