For the freshest herbs, plant a kitchen garden
We live in the confluence of wanting to save money while wanting to save the planet. Both of these are working together, sparking a 40 percent spike in gardening. And this means a return to kitchen gardens.
Kitchen gardens are a must in Europe. You’ll see little plots of herbs and salad ingredients near every home with the space. In France, about a fourth of vegetables are home-grown in these spaces called “potagers.”
In England, the Victorian kitchen garden helped make hundreds of meals year around. They were large, up to six acres, and tended by dozens of workers. Unlike in the main gardens, the rule in the kitchen was, “if you can’t eat it, don’t plant it.”
European immigrants brought the kitchen garden to the United States. By the 1920s, there was a kitchen garden at nearly every house.
The concept is simple: a small, secondary garden of herbs and leafy plants most often used in cooking. A big plus is to have space near your kitchen door. The cook pops out, grabs a handful and is back to work in seconds.
Restaurants are getting into it. Chefs are demanding perfectly fresh produce, and that means only one thing — grow it nearby. They are mimicking France, where many chefs also are master gardeners.
Most kitchen gardens are about 4 feet square. That’s small enough to be manageable, but can grow eight or more herbs.
Unlike your big garden, it’s easy to choose the plants. What do you use most often in your daily cooking? That’s what to grow.
The garden often is planted in raised-bed style. That means mounding the soil in beds 6 to 8 inches tall. These drain well and are easier to weed. The downside is that, in the dry heat of summer, they dry out fast and must be watered.
Excellent soil full of organic nutrients is critical for plants grown in compact gardens. These plants love sunlight, at least five hours per day, so keep that in mind.
Herbs are a main focus, and parsley is No. 1. It is biennial, meaning it self-seeds every two years. Well-mulched parsley roots will survive most winters.
The fun comes in discovering new flavors of exotic herbs — lemon thyme, Russian oregano and French globe basil are musts. Italian marjoram is easy to grow and a principal herb in Italy.
Edible flowers are a staple in California. These offer the added benefits of color and design.
You may want to round out your garden with spinach and lettuce, and perhaps a row of French white radishes.
Some cooks use herbs planted in containers outdoors. Almost any herb can be used. The larger the container, the larger the plant. Use good potting soil and make sure your pot has a drainage hole. Bring inside in fall to prolong use.
These green biennial herbs are the most popular and cheapest to buy fresh in groceries. The types:
Curly leaf: Most often used as a garnish on salads and meats, waxy and tough texture.
Italian: Flat, tender leaves, flavorful and slightly aromatic. This is the all-around cooking parsley, especially noted with boiled, buttered potatoes and other vegetables.
Long-stemmed, thin, perennial onion plants that do not form white bulbs. The stems are chopped and used any place a delicate onion flavor is desired, also as a garnish. Note: Snip them, do not pull up the roots.
Common: Ornamental with bountiful purple flowers and culinary, flowers are edible and used to flavor vinegar.
Garlic: Mild garlic overtones with onion flavor, flatter leaves, also called oriental.
Plant these annuals in mid-spring from transplants or spread seed for a later harvest.
Standard: a hearty Italian perennial with wide, aromatic leaves chopped for a variety of sauces and salads.
Globe basil: More spicy flavor and smaller leaves grown in a compact plant perfect for small gardens.
Each has a distinctive flavor ranging from hot to sweet. These should be planted in mid-spring and are perennials.
Greek: Grows up to three feet tall, pronounced flavor, the most popular basil for cooking.
Italian: A blend of sweet and spicy with no bitterness, a hybrid cross between oregano and marjoram.
Vulgare: Avoid these, as they are wild oregano and lack flavor. Check the plant tag.
Marjoram: A sweet oregano, very strong, most popular in Italian tomato sauces.
Tall-growing and invasive, a favorite in herbal blends and in cream sauces. Chopped fresh and coated with poultry is decidedly French. Offers a flavor similar to anise and chervil. The plants reappear each spring from roots of the last year’s crop.
French: Compact plants with almost no seeds, highly aromatic, used fresh in salads and infused in vinegar.
Russian: Produces seeds, much lower in flavor.
With more than 100 varieties, these three are best for kitchen gardens.
French: Low-growing, strong aroma and flavor.
English: Similar to French but more hardy in colder climates, considered the standard for most cooking.
Lemon: Herbal flavor with citrus undertones, often used with seafood and in salads.
These are steeped in Mediterranean legend, including a variety with a 33-year lifespan there, the same as Christ’s. Famous chopped fresh on pork, chicken and lamb, often combined with garlic.
Arp: The hardiest variety with edible blue flowers and a lemony scent.
Common: Best in most recipes, an upright up to 4 feet with gray-green leaves and delicate blue flowers.
Tuscan Blue: Very tall with broadest leaves, strongly seasons white meats and is used in potpourri.
More than 100 are available. Favorites include dill, chive, carnation, cornflower, nasturtium and squash. More information: