The kitchen window above the sink opens, and a home cook, scissors in hand, appears. She snips a bit of parsley and chives from the window box just outside, and, leaving the window open, chops her herb harvest and adds it to the green salad she’s making. For the herb fancier, what could be quicker, fresher or tastier?
Growing herbs, as the home cook who gleans from the window box knows, can be almost as simple as harvesting them. Both novice and experienced gardeners — children, too — can easily cultivate and enjoy cooking and making salads with herbs.
As for where to plant culinary herbs, three basic choices await the gardener: pots, the aforementioned window boxes, and a good in-ground spot in the yard. Caren Bower, annuals and perennials department manager at Woodley’s Garden Center, grows her herbs mainly in the ground, but she does have a couple of pots just outside her back door, where they are handy to the kitchen. In these pots, she grows the herbs she uses most often.
Caren weighs in on the pleasure of selecting just what herbs to plant season by season, with the emphasis on those that work well in the Midlands. “In the earlier spring,” she says, “you want to start planting hardier herbs like rosemary, oregano, parsley and sage. As the season warms up past the possibility of frost, go for basil, cilantro, your more fragile herbs. In the fall, go back to hardier herbs.”
Waving toward a small Woodley’s window box filled with herbs, Caren explains that certain herbs can even make it through a Midlands winter. In the window box, for instance, she’s used rosemary as the main feature in the center back because it stands up tall. Sage works well front and center, and Greek oregano (for its small size) and thyme round out the arrangement along the sides. Between the sage and thyme, red leaf lettuce and violas add color.
“These plants won’t grow too big during the winter,” Caren promises, “not the way they will in the spring. The thyme and oregano might get a little scraggly in the very coldest part of the winter, but they will come back. Parsley and bay also stand up well to cold weather.”
Caren adds that with good potting soil (she likes organic) and compost and good light, gardeners can grow any combination of herbs in the same pot. It’s when they’re planted in the ground that one has to be more concerned about putting together herbs with similar growing needs, such as frequent or infrequent watering.
Balconies present another great venue for pot gardening. Lee Gaddis, who owns a condominium in a Columbia high rise, attests to the usefulness of a balcony herb garden. “I grow mostly salad herbs in pots on my large condo balcony — mint, sweet woodruff (great for a shady spot), parsley, cutting celery, rosemary, thyme, bay and sage — and many is the time I’ve used these herbs raw in salads, although I cook with them, too. Take sorrel, a great lettuce or spinach substitute. It has saved me on several occasions when I couldn’t get to the grocery store. I grow all these things on a northeast-facing screened-in balcony, and they get only morning sun. If I can grow them under such relatively disadvantageous conditions, most anyone should be able to.” Lee adds that this type of herb garden is well suited to people who are downsizing and have only small spaces available for gardening.
Lee’s balcony also plays host to a few spring-blooming scented geraniums, which are hardy on his balcony all year. These aromatic beauties (genus Pelargonium) prove attractive in flower arrangements and useful in flavoring jellies and cakes, although he confesses he hasn’t tried to use them in this way to date. Brushing against the leaves of these herbs lends a subtle rose or lime fragrance to his outdoor space.
Judy Lowe, a Columbia-area garden writer and seasoned gardener, grows her herbs primarily in pots wherever there’s room in the garden. “There’s almost no herb you can’t grow in a pot if your pot is big enough,” she says. “One of my favorite garden ideas is growing herbs in pots near the grill for convenience and fragrance. I want the herbs right there where I am so I can reach over and pinch off what I need for whatever’s cooking on the grill. For this type of garden, I favor the traditional parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme combination.” Near the grill, Judy also likes to station a pot of pineapple sage with a fan blowing behind it. The fan carries the fragrance of the pineapple sage delightfully over the whole backyard.
The grill herb garden Judy maintains at her home is only one of many imaginative herb gardens she has created. In her latest book, Herbs! Creative Garden Themes and Projects, she details how to plant a number of theme herb gardens, one of which was inspired by her children. “When they were young,” Judy remembers, “my two sons absolutely loved the idea of planting a pizza herb garden — herbs like oregano and cilantro, along with little cherry tomatoes, the things you would put on a pizza. We used purple ruffled basil to make it more colorful, and all the plants were really easy to grow. If you try a pizza herb garden, I suggest planting it within the spokes of an old wagon wheel so the garden resembles the slices of a pizza, one kind of herb to a ‘slice.’ That’s part of the fun!”
One more tip from Judy: for best flavor, harvest leaves before an herb flowers. Some herbs, however, come in nonflowering cultivars, and these can be harvested anytime at full flavor.
Both Caren and Judy warn of the need to watch herbs that can become invasive, such as mint. Of course, mint and other invasives can be tamed by growing them in pots away from other plants, raising them off the ground onto bricks and screening their drainage holes well so their roots can’t go out of bounds. It doesn’t hurt to check the pots now and then to make sure the roots haven’t found a way of escape into the rest of the garden. If they have, cut them off.
For those with clay soil, Lexington County Master Gardener Sharon Thompson has some relevant advice culled from 40 years of gardening. “In my experience, in-ground herbs growing in clay soil really don’t need to be fertilized; they generally like a leaner soil. In pots, however, I recommend a slow-release fertilizer.”
The State newspaper’s longtime “In the Garden” columnist, Sharon has herbs scattered throughout her landscape. For lavender lovers, she recommends Spanish lavender over the English version as better fitted for our climate. “Plant it in spring,” she says, “and you may find it going on through fall.” Dill, another of her favorite herbs, is associated more with springtime planting, but it can be very successfully grown here in the fall. “Last year,” Sharon says, “I was still harvesting dill at Christmas.”
In addition, Sharon strongly suggests planting herbs purchased at garden centers as quickly as possible. Such herbs not planted swiftly may bolt, or go to seed, too soon. Most herbs need very little care and generally are not picky about their growing environment. They are forgiving plants, a good thing for forgetful gardeners. And they offer an enormous variety of shapes, colors, textures, fragrances and cooking flavors. According to Judy Lowe, the best way to buy an herb is to go to the garden center and examine it in person. “Very gently rub an herb leaf between your thumb and forefinger and take that up to your nose,” she says. “Do you like the smell? Then buy it and see how it fares in your garden and in your kitchen.”
For more on growing herbs in South Carolina, visit the Clemson Cooperative Extension at www.clemson.edu. To locate herbs not sold locally, visit Sea Island Savory Herbs on Johns Island, S.C. or online at www.seaislandsavoryherbs.com.
Simplest Herbs to Grow
It’s hard to go wrong when these easy-care herbs fill the garden.
From Herbs! Creative Garden Themes and Projects
Herbs in the Kitchen
Try these delectable recipes from local herb specialists.
Rosemary stalks are great as skewers for cooking on the grill. The rosemary will permeate the food as it cooks. To use, remove most leaves from stalks and rinse. Thread chunks of chicken, pineapple, onion and peppers onto rosemary stalks. (Pierce chunks with metal skewer first to ease threading.) Brush chunks with olive oil. Lightly salt and pepper. Grill until chicken is done.
1 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
1 1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 1/2 cups bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon Italian Herbs seasoning
Following the white-bread recipe, mix according to your bread maker and bake. Dip finished bread in a mixture of olive oil, coarse sea salt and any other fresh herbs you like.
Cilantro-Lime Salad Dressing
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 garlic clove
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
3/4 teaspoon minced fresh ginger root
1/3 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
1/4 cup lime juice
1/4 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Mix all together. Drizzle over salad.
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 teaspoons fresh minced garlic
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh rosemary
1 to 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Place ingredients in a glass jar with a lid and shake to mix. Pour into zip-top plastic bag. Add meat or chicken and seal. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes, preferably several hours. Turn several times. Remove food from marinade and grill. Yield: about 1/2 cup.
Herb Basting Brush
short stalks of fresh herbs
Gather short stalks of fresh herbs. Tie them to the end of the handle of a clean wooden spoon. Dip herbs into a marinade and brush onto food as it cooks. Discard herbs after cooking.
Herbal Iced-Tea Punch
1/4 cup chopped fresh peppermint or spearmint
1/4 cup chopped fresh lemon balm
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup orange juice, preferably fresh
1/4 cup honey, or to taste
2-liter bottle ginger ale, regular or diet, chilled
Place mint and lemon balm in a stainless-steel or heatproof glass bowl. Set aside. Combine lemon juice, orange juice and honey in a small saucepan and heat until warm. Pour mixture over the herbs. Let stand 1 hour and strain. Pour into a pitcher and refrigerate if not using immediately. When ready to serve, mix in the ginger ale. Yield: about 8 servings.
Herbed Cheese Spread
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 stick of butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon dill weed
1/4 teaspoon basil
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
* herb amounts are for dried herbs, not fresh
Combine ingredients in food processor and process until smooth or put ingredients in a bowl and beat with electric mixer. Line small bowl with plastic wrap, spoon cheese mixture into it and smooth with spatula. Refrigerate. Turn onto plate and peel off plastic wrap when ready to serve. Serve with crackers or pita chips. This is a good alternative to purchased herbed cheese spreads. It is also excellent stirred into cooked grits or mashed potatoes.