Recently I have been genuinely feeling my lack of fresh herbs. Somewhere around New Year’s, the last of the herbs on my deck died back beneath the frost, and we have been missing them ever since. Often, in the kitchen I find myself longing for a sprig of rosemary to add nuance to a potato dish or a handful of cilantro to bring that unique depth to a salad. Passover in particular is a great holiday for herbs with the fresh astringent bite of the parsley dipped in salt water and the rich dill flavor of a vegetarian matzah ball soup.
Cooking with fresh culinary herbs is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to improve just about any dish. Whether you are frying fresh sage leaves in butter for a quick ravioli sauce, chopping basil to sprinkle on garden tomatoes or using cilantro to make your fresh salsa jump out of the bowl, fresh herbs make all the difference.
Along with adding shades of flavor as fresh leaves, herbs can be easily dried and enjoyed over the course of the winter or used to make infused oils and vinegars. It’s as easy as cutting a bunch of fresh sage or thyme and tying it into a bundle to hang in your kitchen; the herbs are both aesthetic and useful.
Unfortunately, if you go to a grocery store to buy fresh herbs, you will most likely encounter a plastic clamshell containing a limp sprig or two of unappetizing greenery sold at an inflated price—not a strong motivator for experimenting with fresh herbs, especially ones you might not be familiar with.
Luckily, in the realm of growing food, culinary herbs are one of the easiest things you can grow. Fresh herbs can grow in just about anything—a window box, a container garden, an herb spiral in the yard and more. Many of them can also tolerate partial shade, small containers and minimal water.
Herbs can be both annual or perennial in our Mid-Atlantic climate. Parsley, cilantro, dill and basil are all annuals and must be planted anew every spring, while sage, thyme, oregano, tarragon and chives are perennials and should live year after year. While rosemary is a perennial, it doesn’t usually make it through the winter outside and should be brought inside or sheltered during the peak of the cold season.
An easy starting place is to get a three-foot planter box, put it somewhere close to your kitchen and fill it with herbs. You can fill it with about five or six small plants. Consider planting basil, parsley, chives, dill and a trailing thyme. Rosemary, sage, mint and oregano will do better in slightly larger pots. While mint is a wonderful herb to have on hand, don’t try to plant it in the same container as other herbs, as it doesn’t play well with others and will take over—it needs its own pot.
While some of these plants will survive placed inside a sunny window, most herb plants really need to be outside to thrive, so try to find a spot for them on the outside of a windowsill or just outside the doorway. Remember to keep them close, however, so you don’t have to walk very far to snip off what you need while cooking. As Permaculture founder Bill Mollison supposedly said, if you get your slippers wet walking from the kitchen to your herb garden, you placed the herb garden too far away.