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Herbal Gardener

I have always heard that gardening and good food go hand in hand. What is this link between gardening and good food? Many of my gardening friends seem to have as many cook books as gardening books. Yet many of my non-gardening friends are excellent cooks and don’t spend much time in their garden, but always have herbs and a vegetable garden.

Every year, I am amazed at the amount of the annual herb sweet basil we sell in the spring. It must be the most widely grown and most well-liked herb today. I am currently trying to convince my 11-year-old son that basil, although it’s green, tastes great, especially with his favorite pasta. He still seems undecided, but I will keep trying.

If you planted herbs this spring, your garden is probably already bursting with lots to harvest. Here are the two big sellers and most popular to cook with.

Sweet, sweet basil
Because basil is an annual crop, you have to plant it every year. I always plant two or three plants and this produces more than I can ever use.

For the best production, plant basil in full sun, right along with your tomatoes if you like, but it will grow acceptably well in part shade. You can also grow sweet basil in a container on your deck or patio.

If you don’t have a garden, I have noticed that my local health food grocery also sells hydroponic basil, with its roots still attached, that you can keep in a vase in your kitchen. I tried a bunch this winter and I was able to keep it going for about a week and a half while harvesting a little here and there.

I’ve grown several other types of basil, like Thai, lemon, and cinnamon, but they were mainly ornamental to me—I never did figure out how to use them in cooking. For now I will stick to good old sweet basil.

Rosemary varieties
Rosemary has to be the second most widely grown and well-liked herb. We are asked for rosemary plants year-round, especially around the holidays. This herb is more shrubby or woody and is almost hardy in Kentucky. In the right spot and with the right variety, you can get it to over-winter outside.

‘Athens Blue Spire’ is a relatively new variety developed at the University of Georgia. It is said to be hardier and I have successfully over-wintered it in my garden for three years. It is in a spot that is well-drained year-round and protected from harsh winter weather.

‘Arp,’ ‘Barbecue,’ and ‘Tuscan Blue’ are just a few of the many other varieties of rosemary that are available today. Because of its shrubby nature, it doesn’t grow as fast as an annual herb like basil, so you may have to plant several more to have enough to cut generously.

I have two ‘Athens Blue Spire’ plants in a protected spot in my garden that unfortunately gets a little shade, thereby reducing production slightly. Every year I also plant three rosemary ‘Barbecue,’ which produce nice large stems of rosemary that make perfect skewers for the grill, although the plant doesn’t grow as vigorously as I would like. If I cut several stems, it takes it a while to fill in again. I also have a large rosemary topiary that sits on my patio and is over-wintered inside. Between all these plants, I have a good supply of rosemary for most of the year.

My herbs are not in a garden by themselves, they are mingled in with the menagerie of plants that I love. Their location is selected by how they will affect the design, so that if I do cut them hard for cooking they won’t look too horrible until they grow again.

I guess like gardening, cooking is just fun, so perhaps this is the link between the two. I don’t always make the right decisions when it comes to my garden, and on occasion my cooking has been known to hit or miss, but I keep trying. Tomorrow always brings us a new opportunity to garden, a new meal to cook, a new conversation to enjoy, a new chance to laugh, and a new day to share.

Other popular culinary herbs
Chives: perennial; mildly aggressive; grows fine in a container

Common sage: perennial; best when grown from cuttings or transplants

Common thyme: perennial; best when grown as a transplant annually in Kentucky

Dill: annual; easily grown from seed

Flat-leaf or Italian parsley: easily grown from seed; is a biennial but the leaves taste better when grown annually

Greek or Italian oregano: best when planted as an annual in Kentucky

French tarragon: hardy perennial; once established, it flourishes

Kentucky spearmint: mints are very aggressive; best if planted in a container or kept separate

Lemon verbena: good for teas, cookies; long-lasting aromatic when dried; best when grown annually in Kentucky

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