Out my back step is my secret to better eating: my beloved herb garden. I don't have much room in the backyard. It's maybe nine feet between our house and the neighbors'. From my herbs I harvest intense flavor. Gone are the days of bland chicken breast and boring pasta. Now we have homemade marinara sauce and last-minute rosemary potatoes.
There are many joys in growing herbs. They're pretty and easily contained. They don't need a lot of water or fertilizer. The beneficial insects like them, and the convenience of having what you need without another trip to the market can't be beat.
"Fresh herbs are an essential part of brightening food, bringing forth bold, fresh flavors - using less fat and yet imparting flavor," said Jesse Cool, chef of the Flea Street Café in Menlo Park. Cool has a huge garden and herb garden at her home and grows rosemary, thyme, parsley and oregano year-round. She also grows basil, dill and marjoram seasonally and uses them both at the cafe and at home.
"I tend to cook with them by adding a bit at the beginning of the process and then adding more at the end, just to warm, soften and bring out the oils and genuine flavors without muddling them," she said.
Some of the restaurants in the area even have small herb gardens. "In the back of my restaurant I have beautiful mint and lemon thyme," said Chef Jean Michel Peuvrelle of Le Petit Bistro in Mountain View. Peuvrelle uses the mint in his desserts and the thyme as a garnish. He also uses "tons of fresh parsley" and "tarragon and fennel for my fish,'' he said. In the winter, he makes a delicious veggie salad with mint and grapefruit juice.
If you're now inspired to give herb gardening a try, it can be surprisingly easy. Thyme, mint, rosemary, sage, oregano, chives and fennel all can share the same sunny spot and require light watering once established. You can add herbs to your yard by tucking them in among other plants with similar light and water needs or by growing them in pots. Rosemary, basil and thyme make great potted plants. If you want fresh bay leaves or mint, then pots are mandatory. Bay trees can get enormous without potting, and mint makes an excellent weed once it escapes.
The great benefit of herbs is that you don't have to harvest the entire plant to use them. The secret to getting the plants to do well even with frequent harvesting is to limit your pruning. At most, harvest a quarter of the full-size plant. That way you'll leave your herbs with enough leaves to make food for themselves and recover to their full size.
Fortunately, a 4-foot-by-8-foot bed is big enough to supply most cooks with more than they can use. Once friends and neighbors notice the herb garden, you may start getting requests for snips.
Not only are fresh herbs tasty, but many of the culinary varieties are pretty as well. Upright rosemary is often used in landscaping and is delicious with barbecued lamb or roasted potatoes. Lemon thyme has a variegated leaf that makes a good edging plant and goes well with chicken. Fennel, dill and sage are taller plants that have pretty blooms. Sage has a purple stalk of flowers, while dill and fennel have flat composite heads.
Herb gardening has been so popular over the years that a classic European garden plan has emerged - a square cut into four sections with paths dividing the sections. A potted bay goes in the middle with thyme growing around the bottom. Each of the sections is planted with a couple of herbs, taller ones in back, shorter in front. Heavier feeders like basil get their own section. You might not be this gung-ho. I started with three small plants. Five years later I am eyeing the European plan.