When you first begin to cook with fresh herbs, it can feel like such an indulgence, but if they are growing and ready to harvest within easy reach of your kitchen, they can become a luxurious habit to which one can easily grow accustomed. Most herbs are pretty easy to cultivate, and if you lack the gardening space, pots work well, too, and a place as small as a sunny windowsill can be your garden. Many herbs, particularly those from the Mediterranean region, are also quite resilient and don’t need feeding or watering very often, thriving instead on a lack of care. Herbs are the perfect choice for the anti-gardening gardener.
This plot has been overtaken by a mass of Kentucky Colonel spearmint and a slew of garlic chives that happily host a few weeds here and there. The boundary line moves back and forth a bit every year as differing weather conditions favor one invasive over the other, and they duke it out for real estate, but the two give no quarter to anything else, and it’s all I can do to keep them contained in the brick-lined plot. I pull them both out by the bushel, but there’s no stopping them, the mint running as deeply as a foot underground, and the chives willfully scattering seeds. Last year I even made sure to cut the flowering heads off the chives after the bees had finished with them, but before they set seed. No luck. They are still coming up in droves all over the place. At least I got rid of some mint on Derby Day by handing out bundles to the julep inclined.
On the other side of the garden is another mint, “Chocolate peppermint,” along with the perennial catnip. This mint doesn’t seem to run quite as enthusiastically as the spearmint, but I will still pull up quite a bit before the season is over. The catnip comes back every year and also re-seeds, so I tend to attract various feline visitors to the yard, much to the chagrin of my resident cats. The catnip supply has expanded to the point that I’ll give several away this spring. Weeds include: Trifolium, Veronica, chickweed, and one of those purple-flowered things that pops up in the spring. I can never remember the name, but I’ll get right on those… Those alliums in the back are leeks, and I should probably make soup before they decide to flower.
I put this lemon verbena plant into the ground after it outgrew several pots. It isn’t supposed to survive outside in zone 7, but it has come back consistently for at least six years now, if not longer. If I had realized what would happen when I put it in the ground, I would have been more selective about where I located it. That’s a rather healthy looking Cardamine pensylvanica growing up in the middle of the mass of stems. It’s native, but exceedingly annoying, so much so that I don’t particularly want to put this edible in a salad. I’ll chop the verbena back to the new growth now, pull out the weed, and the herb plant will become enormous before the summer is over. If you enjoy craft cocktails, lemon verbena makes a gorgeous simple syrup. Otherwise, or in addition, check out the recipe for the lemon verbena sorbet from the Splendid Table. It’s fabulous, and it also freezes into paletas that are the perfect antidote to a searingly hot summer’s day.
One herb that I always have in a pot is tarragon. Tarragon plants don’t care to have wet feet for longer than a day or two, so plants in the ground tend to rot in situ because of the clay content of the soil here. This one spent last year in a terracotta pot that either got shifted under a table when we had days on end of storms, or baked in the sun and dried out during heatwaves, demanding twice-daily watering. This year the plant came back strongly enough that I put it in a larger container, this time selecting plastic over clay. I will probably have to protect it from days of rain, but maybe it won’t need watering quite so much during hot and dry spells.
The Greek oregano plant I got from off my Mom’s larger plant comes back reliably every year. That’s a smaller one to the left that I will give to a friend or neighbor. Weed identifications: Oxalis, Veronica, and Chenopodium album, the current bane of my existence. You can spot a few more around the lemon verbena pictured above. What looks like a clump of grass under there is really a cluster of crafty garlic chives who think they will escape the trowel by cowering under the cover of the oregano. Shhhhhhhhh. Don’t tip them off.
Like their Mediterranean cousin, the oregano, the sage and French thyme come back reliably every spring, frequently surviving with usable foliage throughout the winter as well. The sage in particular is very hardy, and both require cutting back fairly harshly in the spring to keep them contained. Fortunately, both herbs also dry beautifully so I can keep them on hand in the pantry. There’s one of those garlic chives in there along with a chickweed plant (Stellaria media). I find it moderately depressing that this post has become something of a primer in weed identification.
I’ll finish with another potted herb, the European chives. I started these in a container last year after the garlic chives overran the ones I had in the ground, and I didn’t have any place to immediately situate new plants. They are already yellowing at the start of May, so I’m going to need to find them a place in the ground rather quickly. They are undoubtedly root bound. I wouldn’t mind quite so much if these spread – I use them in so many dishes – but they enjoy staying put, so they need a spot where some of the other, more aggressive herbs won’t run them out.
I hope you will find some space for perennial herbs in your garden this year. Selecting perennials ensures that you will have a continuous supply of lovely flavorings for your cooking projects, and it is a joy in the spring to see everything pop back up again, ready to grow. Enjoy!