Herbs are an essential part of a vegetable garden as they provide companionship in the kitchen as well as in the ground. The range of plants used as herbs is wide. Many are hardy perennials that, once established, will last for years. Of these, there are special, more flavorful or beautiful strains that cannot be grown from seed, but only reproduced by cuttings or division. For that reason, they should be purchased as plants. Be sure to taste what you buy, though, to make sure it’s what you’re after because not all nurserymen (or women) know their business.
The big five herbs that we grow from seed in our garden are basil, parsley, cilantro, dill, and fennel. We put the dill and cilantro in the first part of our rotation, with the cabbage family; parsley and basil go in the second part, with the tomato family; fennel is planted with the fall root crops.
There are many kinds of basil, a tender, mostly annual shrub native to tropical Asia. Most gardeners are familiar with the common sweet basil that is such a good complement to tomato dishes, but there are also scented basils that hint of cinnamon, licorice, and lemon, as well as ornamental basils that add a special touch to vinegars. All are easy to grow as long as a few inflexible rules are followed.
Point number one is that basil is the single most frost-sensitive plant in the garden. While the plants should be started 8 to 10 weeks before the frost-free date, they shouldn’t be set out in the garden until the weather is completely settled and there is absolutely no danger of frost. Once chilled, basil rarely recovers; you’re better off waiting to plant until summer has definitely arrived than being forced to wait for the basil to recover from the inevitable frosty late spring night.
If grown in a bed by itself (as we do with the main crops of pesto basil and drying basil) we set the plants on 8-to-12-inch centers; this is a 3:2:3 pattern on a 30-inch bed. The scented basils are often just potted in around the tomato, eggplant, and pepper beds, providing a nice bit of fragrance while making the most of what would otherwise be wasted space. Once the plants are in, cultivation is all that is required; we’ve never had any pest problems with our basil.
Basil should be kept from flowering to get the best flavor and the maximum yield. Once the plants have six sets of leaves, pinch the tip of the plant just above the top pair. That will cause the two uppermost sprouts to take over as the growing points of the plant; pinch both of them once they have six leaves each and you’ll have a basil bush. Harvest basil in mid-morning, just after the dew has dried off the leaves, to get the best flavor. If you make sure to once again cut just above a pair of leaves, the plant will branch at that point and produce another harvest two or three weeks later. Whenever you see flower buds, pinch them out to keep the plant in a vegetative state, producing new growth instead of flowers.
In my opinion, the best pesto basil is the Italian cultivar Sweet Genovese. For drying, we use Monstruoso, or Mammoth; this huge lettuce-leaved cultivar has consistently won taste tests all around the country, and doesn’t get bitter after long cooking, as many cultivars do. The scented basils are known simply by their scents, and while there is some difference from strain to strain you will only find out which is which by experimentation. My favorite of the scented types is cinnamon basil, which is a beautiful ornamental plant as well as one of the hardiest and most vigorous of the basils. Purple-leaved basil is the one most frequently used for vinegar, because it imparts a nice color as well as classic basil flavor to a clear vinegar. There is a small-leaved purple basil, but it is rare; your best bet is to buy the cultivar Purple Ruffles; while it is slow to get started in spring it is by far the most vigorous purple basil, once it gets growing.
Parsley is grown in so many gardens it practically ranks as a vegetable rather than an herb. It is a hardy biennial, a member of the carrot family, and usually grown for its leaves, though there are several cultivars that produce usable roots. There are two basic leaf types: curly parsley, which is the kind seen most frequently in home gardens, and used as a garnish on all kinds of dishes; and flat leaf, or Italian parsley, which though it has more flavor, is not seen as often, because the simple, celery-like leaves don’t have quite the visual appeal of the other, more common kind.
You should be able to harvest parsley almost from the moment the snow is gone in spring until the hard frosts and short days of fall slow its production of tangy new leaves. To do this requires only two plantings, both outdoors. The first should be sown mid-spring, after the danger of hard frost is gone; that planting will provide a supply of fresh sprigs from the middle of July until almost November. The second planting, in late summer, will yield a supply of seedlings by first frost that are just the right age to be transplanted to the cold frame and held over for early spring cutting. It’s important to do this early on, or take a large amount of soil with the plants, as parsley has a large taproot and doesn’t appreciate transplanting if it damages that root. Any leftover plants can winter over in the garden with minimal cover and provide a crop soon after the early, cold frame crop runs to seed. By the time the outdoor overwintered crop itself runs to seed the first of the spring planting will be ready.
The only problem we have had with our parsley is an occasional parsleyworm, which we have left alone, as it eventually becomes a beautiful butterfly. If faced with a horde of them you can spray with Bacillus thuringiensis as soon as the first caterpillars appear.
Parsley can be harvested at any time. But if you restrain your harvest to the older outside leaves, the plants will continue to produce throughout the season. After extensive taste tests, my favorite parsley is a Dutch cultivar named Krausa. Most flat-leafed parsleys are not named, so you’ll need to experiment with different suppliers until you find one you like.
Another important annual herb that has many uses in the kitchen is cilantro, also know as coriander, when it is grown for its seeds rather than its leaves. We rarely plant it in a bed by itself, but rather use it as bed-edge companion to some other crop, as it grows fast, and almost as quickly runs to seed, at which time it not as useful. Direct sow cilantro 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep and thin progressively (for harvest) until the plants are 4-6 inches apart. Harvest when the leaves still look l parsley leaves; once they start elongating and get a feathery appearance, they have gone too far.
Special varieties of cilantro have been developed that are slower to run to seed, such the aptly named Slo-Bolt, and Santo. If you want grow coriander seed, so late spring and progressively thin to 8-12 inches apart. The plants will eventually reach 3-4 feet tall and bear typical carrot family seedheads. Harvest as soon as the dew dries and spread on a tarp for a few days to cure.
Dill is a tall, ephemeral plant whose ferny young foliage eventually turns to a winsome spray of delicate flower heads that are used for pickling, and whose seeds are themselves useful for breads, meats, and cheeses.
We sow dill on the edges of a bed that is growing broccoli, cabbage, or cauliflower. The seed should be sown at the same time the transplants are set, putting the seed ¼ inch deep, two or three seeds to the inch. It can be thinned once the covers are removed, and the young thinnings used for salads or seasoning. Dill should eventually be thinned to a foot per plant so that it has the room to produce a large crop of seed heads. To get a continuous crop of the greens simply re-sow periodically throughout the summer.
For pickles, harvest the immature seed heads with a few leaves attached. For seed, let the flowers mature fully. They, and the foliage, will turn from green to a rich tannish yellow; cut the heads in later morning, just as the dew is drying off, and dry on a clean cloth in the sun for a day, then shake loose the seed and winnow to remove the chaff.
My favorite dill is Dukat, also called tetra dill. This is a vigorous dwarf cultivar. For really large plants, try Mammoth.
Young fennel looks just like dill, but it has a different, licorice flavor. As it grows, the base of the plant swells, and it is these swollen leaf stalks that are the harvest.
Fennel grows best as a fall crop. It can withstand light frosts, but the lengthening days and rising temperatures of spring are likely to make it run to seed without producing an edible stalk. It should be direct-seeded ¼ inch deep, about 60 days before the beginning of cool fall weather. We sow a few short rows across the bed in any odd spot we can find among the fall root crops. Thin gradually until the plants stand 8-12 inches apart in the row, depending on the size bulb you want. The thinnings are nice in salad.
The best bulbing fennel by far is Zefa Fino. For extra interest there is also a red-leaved fennel called, simply, Bronze. It is used primarily for salads and is related to the wild roadside fennel common along the California coast. I can become an invasive if not carefully controlled.