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A Guide to a Well-Seasoned Season
words by Ellen Ecker Ogden / illustration by Ramsay Gourd

For most people, planting a garden is all about flowers or vegetables. To me, it is about fresh herbs. Flowers are nice, and vegetables are practical, but when push comes to shove and space in the garden is tight, I will always take culinary herbs over zucchini.

But it hasn’t always been this way. For the first two decades of my life, herbs were something my mother kept in jars next the stove. I memorized the herb chart that hung on the wall while pouring out a small amount into the palm of my hand, crushing and inhaling the bitter aroma. Needless to say, I found the world of herbs baffling, until I became a gardener.

I planted my first garden behind an old farmhouse in Vermont, where my husband tended his grandfather’s organic vegetable garden. I measured out the small plot that would become my herb garden with four sticks and a ball of twine. Buying seed packets from a rack at the grocery store, I had not yet learned the difference between annuals and perennials, and that some herbs grow easily from seed while others take their sweet time.

That summer, I discovered the luxury of plucking mountains of licorice-scented basil for pesto, grilling with whole branches of aromatic rosemary and crushing thyme into a marinade. The flavor of fresh far outshone the bitter dried herbs of my childhood, and the careful pairing I had memorized no longer seemed as essential as simply cooking with anything green and fragrant.

Container Growing

The good news is that most herbs are ideal for container gardening. They don’t mind basking on hot decks or drying out in between watering. In fact, they can even thrive in neglect. Many herbs prefer terrain that resembles the Mediterranean, with dry, sandy soil and full, beating sun. Good drainage is essential for their roots, so plan to fill the bottom third of the pot with small gravel and make sure there is a drainage hole at the base in case you overwater.

Herbs are far more tolerant of overcrowding than other plants, so plan to group herbs together in large containers, rather than build a collection of small ornamental pots, which will require more constant maintenance. Containers come in all sizes and shapes and how you arrange the pots to fill the space will largely depend on the way your door opens onto the space or where the steps are located on or off the patio. Building a garden with containers requires thinking about layers, to allow sunlight to reach all the plants with the larger pots in the back row, mid-sized pots in the middle rows and smaller plants dotting the front. Creating height by placing pots on top of a tiered structure can give the allusion of height, and allow airflow for the leaves to breath. If the pots are really large, position your containers on movable dollies before adding the soil and plants.

What to Grow

Since my first garden, I learned that annuals live a single season with a single focused goal: to produce flowers, set seed, then disappear when the weather turns cold. Perennials also produce an abundance of leaves and flowers, yet at the end of the season will go dormant over the winter, ready to generate new foliage the following spring. Most herb gardens contain a mixture of both since each plant offers unique foliage and flavors for the cook.

Start with culinary basics such as thyme, rosemary, sage, tarragon, sweet basil and parsley, which are easily found in garden centers. Still have room to expand your herb garden? Consider something different such as pineapple sage, lemon basil and chocolate mint.

When selecting plants, think about how to create a healthy tangle of textures, colors and varying height for visual interest. Fill window boxes and patio pots with aromatic thyme, silvery gray sage and purple basil, which are not only more satisfying than the ubiquitous impatiens or marigolds but far more practical. If you love basil, you can choose from more than 80 different cultivars and fill a single garden with sweet, scented or sacred basil. Love the smell of lemon thyme? Check out the dozens of varieties from low creeping thyme to variegated thyme, both ideal for forming garden edges or enhancing paths.

Combinations that work well together include a range of short, medium and tall plants as well as a variety of leaf shapes that will be visually interesting. Try tall spiky Bee Balm, with darker leaves of cinnamon basil and alternating miniature basil with flat-leaved parsley around the edges. Chives are a favorite in any herb garden and their ornamental purple globe blossoms double as an edible garnish. In truth, all culinary herb flowers make a stunning garnish when dropped into a wild salad. Plant to pinch the flowers off the plants frequently, in order to concentrate the essential oils back into the leaves.

Soil and Maintenance

Growing in containers often means buying soil. And when it comes to bagged soil blends, not all soil is created equal. Many are laced with a fertilizer infusion to boost plant growth, which herbs detest, or contain perlite (white plastic bits that make a lighter soil) peat (all natural but void of nutrients) and bits of unknown chunks. Since you are growing food, it is important to read your soil labels carefully, just as you would when selecting food at the grocery. Look for organic blends with a mixture of natural compost. Add a small amount of peat or sand to lighten the soil, which will help the pots drain excess water, and a handful of nutrient rich compost at the start. Unlike vegetables and flowers, however, be careful not to overdose herbs with too much high-nitrogen fertilizer during the growing season. Soil too rich in nutrients will create lush leafy growth, yet lack a certain zip in flavor—although from a cook’s perspective, they’re still better than the dried version found in the jars.

Ellen Ecker Ogden, cookbook author and kitchen garden designer, is the author of four books including her most recent, The Complete Kitchen Garden (2011 Stewart, Tabori and Chang) featuring designs and recipes for cooks who love to garden. Contact her at ellen@ellenogden.com.

Best culinary herbs for containers

While most herbs can be grown in containers, some do better than others. The following plant list offers a range of color, height and flavor for the cook. It only takes a few seconds to push a seed into the soil, yet look for a combination of both seeds and plants because some herbs take a long time to germinate. Besides, the season is short and sometimes it’s nice to have an instant garden by starting with full-sized plants. Don’t be afraid to taste a small leaf at the nursery to be sure it has flavor that you will like. Most herbs will increase about four times their original size over the course of a summer, so allow plenty of room for expansion during the growing season.

1. Basil: A tender annual, basil is easily started from seed or purchased as a plant. Look for true Italian Genovese basil or scented Lemon, Lime and Cinnamon.

2. Sorrel: Faithful sorrel is worth its weight in gold. It is a hardy perennial that shoots out an abundance of long, arrow-shaped leaves that are tart and ascorbic. Nice for a light sauce over fish or steamed vegetables.

3. Chives: A classic and ubiquitous herb found in most gardens, the spiky foliage and globed flowers add color and a light onion flavor to salad and soups.

4. Cilantro: Direct-sow seed for highest productivity, or buy plants and remember to keep the seed heads harvested to allow a longer season for the foliage.

5. Dill: As with cilantro, direct-sow seeds for best results and keep heads harvested for a long season of delicate ferny foliage to complement salads, dish and cheese.

6. Parsley: For the best flavor, select true Italian flat-leaved parsley, and start with plants rather than seed. The lush green foliage blends nicely with other colors in a container.

7. Rosemary: Plan to purchase a plant from a nursery, and select the classic upright form for the best culinary properties. Bring indoors for the winter.

8. Sage: A member of the Artemisia family, prized in the culinary herb garden for its soft blue-green foliage, particularly useful in chicken and egg dishes.

9. Summer Savory: An often-neglected yet essential summer herb, which grows into a small upright bush, dotted with silvery blue flowers. Sprinkle over summer squash before baking or add to herb butter.

10. Thyme: All thyme is culinary, and adding a variety of plants in a single container creates visual interest and aroma. Select lemon thyme for its glossy foliage or variegated thyme for unusual leaf pattern.