Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Herbal Essence

If you have a windowsill, you can have a produce garden. If you have a balcony or a backyard, there's no excuse not to. Just do it. Plant an herb garden. Plant it now.

It might be too late to plant from seeds, but it's not too late to plant seedlings. This pot of basil, as it happens, is a mixture: new seedlings from the Union Square Greenmarket; old, nearly dead little plants I bought last season from the Greenmarket; and plants that I raised from a bag of basil seeds. But never mind the basil's origins; think instead about the convenience of having such a bumper crop. Basil for sauce, salads and garnish on demand, minus the hassle of shopping. Even better, you take only what you need from the plant, so you're spared the guilt pangs of watching the leftover half of a too-big bunch turn to slime in the fridge.

I'm growing dill, too. The dill is a bit less prolific, so I've been using it for garnishes or tiny bursts of flavor. I still need to buy dill when I want to make pickles or cucumber salad. Still, the dill justifies its keep with its lovely, lacy yellow seed head, a fireworks version of Queen Anne's Lace. 

I'm getting full mileage from the cilantro, oregano and chives below. I particularly love the earthy oregano, especially with luscious summer tomatoes. I've also just planted parsley and mint, two other workhorses.

I find a few yanks of fresh herbs add incalculable flavor - and class! - to salads and other dishes. 

I'll be thinking about this simple chopped salad in the winter doldrums.

I grow my herbs for their flavor punch, but they are also part of the world of alternative medicine. I was dimly aware that many favorite herbs are nutritional powerhouses but hadn't pondered why. As the food journalist Jo Robinson observed in her important essay, "Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food," herbs are powerful because they - unlike many popular fruits and vegetables - have largely been ignored by the formal and informal breeding programs that try to make our produce sweeter and hardier, and consequently their nutritional composition has largely stayed intact. 

As she writes, 
Herbs are wild plants incognito. We’ve long valued them for their intense flavors and aroma, which is why they’ve not been given a flavor makeover. Because we’ve left them well enough alone, their phytonutrient content has remained intact...Herbs bring back missing phytonutrients and a touch of wild flavor as well.

So capture that wildness - at least just enough to fit enough in a small pot or two, in the smiling face of the sun.


  1. Dill value in the Cottesmore garden is 85% fuzzy visuals, 15% edible herb.

  2. Up the utility percentage of the dill by gathering the dill seed. As the plant ages, yellow "fuzzy visuals" turn into brown seed heads. To sow next year's garden, leave the dill in place and give the seed head some vigorous shakes. Watch the seeds fly! Or chop the heads off and shake the heads carefully over a clean envelope. The dill seeds can be used in soups, stews, pickles, etc.