Thursday, May 7, 2015

Planet Lovely

May is the month when those of us who live in Vermont (or much of the Northeast for that matter) are transplanted from Planet Harsh to Planet Lovely. The world truly is transformed. For the next six months we live in a state of green, or of green green, as a German friend said to me yesterday, recalling a description from a childhood story. The young grass and unfolding leaves on the trees and shrubs are so vivid they almost glow. At this point early in the season, there are myriad shades of green, too numerous to count. But as the summer progresses, they tend to converge into a more uniform green, for which perhaps the state was named: vert mont, or green mountain from the French. My favorite patch of green though, my herb garden, remains a mosaic of different shades, from the bright shoots of Chives poking up through the ground

to the silvery gray-green Sage leaves soft as my dog's ear.

I’ve been gardening for many years and, much as I love my vegetable garden and flower beds, it’s the herb garden that I find most rewarding. I use herbs in virtually all aspects of my cooking—snipping them into salads and soups, rubbing them onto meats to be roasted or grilled, stirring them into sauces and marinades, and even baking them into breads and cookies. They elevate a mundane meal to flavorful and unexpected heights. Of course you can buy fresh herbs at most food markets, but growing your own is easy and brings bountiful returns. 

Herbs take the least amount of tending out of all the plants I grow, and they produce during much of the year, even in New England—from those first Chive shoots to the frosty Sage that I harvest in early winter for holiday meals. I planted both of these herbs around twenty years ago and every year they faithfully return. The same goes for my other favorite herbs: Creeping Thyme, French Tarragon, Garlic Chives, Greek Oregano, Peppermint, and Winter Savory, all of which are perennial in the Northeast.

In addition to perennial herbs, a few annuals I couldn’t do without and so I add them every year: Rosemary, which I dig up and keep in a pot inside during the winter (with mixed success); Lavender, which sometimes overwinters; Cilantro and Dill; and three kinds of Basil—Spicy Globe, which is small-leaved and compact, Genovese, which is the best for making pesto, and Purple Basil for its color (the latter two I grow in my vegetable garden because I like to have several plants of each and they need more room).

Growing herbs in pots on a windowsill or balcony is rewarding too, but if you’ve never planted an herb garden and have a small, sunny spot, it’s well worth the minor effort it takes to start one. First, although herbs are quite resilient, before putting any in the ground, it’s a good idea to consult a Plant Hardiness Zone Map to find out which herbs are perennial in your area. Planting them in a protected spot, such as along a wall or fence, can improve their hardiness, but be sure that they get enough sun. Most herbs like full sun and well-drained soil. Other than that, they’re not very picky and can thrive in a wide variety of locations and soil types.

Still, it’s important to prepare the soil by turning over the top eight inches with a shovel, removing the sod, rocks, and weeds. Healthy soil is friable, meaning that it feels crumbly if you pick up a handful. If it’s sticky and dense, there’s too much clay and it won’t drain well. Adding organic material, such as composted manure (which you can find at a nursery), will improve the soil and enable your herbs to thrive. 

Herbs vary in terms of how much space they need to grow, so follow the planting guidelines for each herb. Some, like Globe Basil, are compact, whereas others such as Peppermint like to sprawl. Herbs can be grown from seed, although buying small plants will ensure that you have foliage to harvest the first year. Water the plants when the soil becomes dry, but be careful not to over water them. If your soil is healthy, you won’t need to fertilize very much. I apply an organic fertilizer around every three years and my herbs couldn’t be more robust. Once your herb garden is established, it’s very low-maintenance; all I need to do throughout the season is some light pruning and weeding.

Now for the best stage of the process—harvesting. You can start harvesting your herbs as soon as there’s enough foliage, and continue as long as at least two sets of leaves remain on the plant. In general, though, don’t remove more than one third of a stem’s length. Most herbs grow quickly, so it won’t take long for you to have more than enough. It’s best to cut herbs in the morning, with a pair of scissors, after the dew has dried but when the plant’s essential oils are still abundant. To strip the leaves from the woody stem, run your thumb and first two fingers along the stem in the opposite direction from which the leaves are growing, et voila!—they fall right off.

The flowers of many herbs are edible as well, and to me are sometimes the best part. Chive and Garlic Chive blossoms, in particular, provide several weeks’ worth of tasty and pretty blooms; just pull off the blossom and then remove its base to separate it into florets. 

Lavender buds, probably the most well-known herbal flower, are versatile in both cooking and baking, and a sprig is also a fun addition to a summer drink. Some herbs though, like Basil, become slightly bitter after they flower. If you pinch off the bud as it starts to form, that will prevent the flavor from turning.

Once you start using fresh herbs in your cooking, it’s hard to return to dried ones (one of my least favorite aspects of living on Planet Harsh). Fresh herbs are more subtle and pure in flavor and have a softer texture. If you’re in the habit of cooking with dried herbs, though, and like a strong herbal note in your food, you’ll need to use around three times the amount of fresh herbs to achieve the same strength.

It’s easy to dry your own herbs harvested from your garden to have on hand throughout the year. The best time to collect them is just before they flower. Gather a few sprigs, wash and pat them dry, and then tie them together with twine. Hang them in a warm, dark, well-ventilated room, and in about two weeks all the moisture should have evaporated. Pull the leaves from the stems, crumbling them if you’d like, and store them in labeled, airtight containers in a cool, dark, dry place.

Freezing herbs also works well. I store them in labeled baggies (press out all the air before you seal them), and then pull them out to add to soups and stews all winter long. You don’t need to thaw the herbs before adding them to the pot. I prefer this technique to drying my herbs because they’re closer to the taste and texture of fresh herbs. 

With so many opportunities to incorporate fresh herbs into your cooking throughout the year, herb gardening is well worth a try. The benefits in the kitchen are huge, not to mention the pure pleasure of sitting outside near your herb harden on a warm afternoon and having the breeze carry its fragrances to you. Planet Lovely, indeed.

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