Herbs are a powerful force. In my own garden, anytime I want to escape to my favorite hiking trails in the Cascades and Sierras, I simply kneel down and brush my fingers over the fluffy carpeting of Corsican mint that flourishes between the stepping stones. One whiff and the image of a hiker’s morning routine amidst ancient firs envelops my senses. Corsican mint, you see, produces the exact aroma of Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile soap, the ever-popular, environmentally-friendly, backpacker’s companion I’ve been carting around for years.
Clearly, it’s a scent that never fails to springboard my psyche beyond the countless toothbrush and wash cloth maneuvers performed in the wild, landing me smack-dab in the middle of that virtual paradise we all seek on trying days in the city. For that reason, there will always be a healthy patch of Corsican mint in my garden.
However, my passion for growing herbs in general, has expanded in the past few years. Each spring I introduce one or two new varieties to my established plot, and have gained greater and greater pleasure in cooking with them each year. Now is the best time to encounter herb starts at your local farmers’ market and nurseries. The following list represents the plants I consider essential for a cook’s basic herb garden. Accompanying each name is a tidbit or two of information that might help you when contemplating your own plot this spring and summer.
BASIL (tender annual) — Be it pesto or basil-infused oil, for the vast range of preserving and fresh cooking needs, no herb garden should be without basil. From a traditional flavor point of view, I still prefer the large-leafed Genovese, which is sweet and fragrant, with just a gentle hint of anise. Other strains that would add interest to your garden include lemon, cinnamon and anise varieties.
BAY (evergreen tree) — Sweet bay, Laurus nobilis, is essential in a cook’s kitchen. So consider a small bush for your garden. Although similar in appearance to the California laurel, Umbellularia californica, the flavor and aroma of L. Nobilis is preferred.
CHERVIL (hardy annual) — With a hint of parsley flavor, this somewhat delicate-looking plant is as delightful to look at as it is to cook with. It appears in a variety of classic herb blends, including Fines Herbs.
CILANTRO (annual) — Like parsley, this lovely plant is easily grown (although it has a tendency to bolt far too easily if you don’t keep an eye on it later in the summer). It is an annual, requiring a spring-time sowing every year. The plant performs better when it is sown from seed rather than transplanted from seedlings (less inclined to bolt, for one thing).
LAVENDER (evergreen shrub) — Roaming the aisles of your favorite nursery, you’ll see just how many varieties of lavender there are to choose from. And certainly, to a small degree, the look you’re after in your garden should dictate somewhat your final selection. However, speaking strictly from the aroma perspective, my choice is always French lavender.
LOVAGE (hardy herbaceous perennial) — This herb comes as close to cooking with celery as possible without actually doing so. As Corvallis cookbook author and herb guru Rose Marie Nichols McGee states in her book, “Basic Herb Cookery,” lovage is the essence of celery. Further, she states, “Many people find it tastes like Maggi liquid seasoning and indeed, it is also known as the Maggi herb.”
OREGANO (tender perennial) — The three varieties you’ll encounter are Origanum heracleoticum, Origanum x majorana, and Origanum vulgare. O. Heracleoticum is considered the true Greek Oregano, and the ideal herb for cooking. It’s been thriving in my garden for years. I have a healthy plot of it growing on the south side of my garden near green house, another clump of it overtaking a pot, and an entire row of it creeping under our north fence from our neighbor’s herb garden. It hunkers down in the winter a bit, and then every spring, comes back in full force, and in greater mass than the year before.
ROSEMARY (tender evergreen perennial) — Apart from common rosemary, there are several named varieties, including a rapidly-growing upright called “Sawyer’s Selection,” which can reach eight feet within three years.
SAGE (hardy evergreen shrub) — Even if my only purpose for keeping sage in the garden was ornamental, that would be reason enough. I love to grow this hearty-flavored herb in colorful gangs so the variegated varieties can play off the deep purple and green varieties.
SAVORY (hardy evergreen shrub) — With its peppery spiciness, savory is a marvelous herb to have on hand when assembling your dried herb mixtures. It’s appearance is between the low-growing thyme and sprawling tarragon.
TARRAGON (perennial) — The two common varieties you’ll encounter are French, which has the refined flavor indispensable to classic French cuisine, and Russian, which is simply not as flavorful.
THYME (evergreen shrub) — You will find a vast range of varieties to choose from. Species, subspecies, cultivars and hybrids abound. Before adding any of them to your garden, pinch and sniff, because from a culinary point of view, there are only about half a dozen considered suitable for cooking. My favorites: French thyme, English thyme, lemon thyme, oregano-scented thyme, and caraway thyme. All five varieties have leaves that remain throughout the year, and their summer blossoms range from pale lavender or pink to white. Thyme is my favorite “secret ingredient” to use when cooking artichokes (see recipe below).