PITTSBURGH—Every cloud has a silver lining, right?
Even the coronavirus pandemic, awful as it has been, has had some good come out of it. With everyone forced to spend more time together under one roof, the family dinner has become a thing again.
The virus has gotten more of us outdoors, too, dirtying our hands in the soil. And a gardening boom has been ushered in as people search for ways to occupy their time with kid-friendly and soul-soothing activities.
Anxiety over food supplies and availability of fresh vegetables this summer has led to a surge in searches for “growing vegetables,” according to Google Trends. People are more interested than ever in trying to cultivate herbs, as well.
Both Pennsylvania-based Burpee Seeds, which has been helping people to garden for more than 140 years, and Stokes Seeds in Canada had to temporarily suspend sales in spring because of the growing interest in gardening.
There’s also been a heightened interest in gardening workshops and volunteer opportunities, although most classes have been canceled for the year, or at least until the pandemic stay-at-home order is lifted.
Thankfully, many seeds are back in stock now and plenty of potted plants are available at local nurseries and in big box stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot.
While some amateur gardeners might be reluctant to plant a full-fledged pandemic Victory Garden—gardens are hard work, taking time and effort—herb gardens are an easier sell.
“They’re very easy to grow, because they don’t need a lot of care or attention or fertilizing,” says Peggy Trevanion, a Penn State Master Gardener and herb expert.
Because most herbs are fragrant, they’re mostly deer resistant, too, a definite plus for gardeners plagued by hungry four-legged interlopers.
Herbs tend to be “less fussy” than vegetables, and they’re also incredibly versatile in their uses. A cook’s best friend, these aromatic bits of green brighten sauces, bring fresh flavor to soups, stews and stocks, and make meat and vegetables sing, often in foreign languages. A sprinkle of something green as a finishing touch also makes food look pretty.
They smell good on your porch, windowsill or garden. And a little can go a long way.
Some of the easiest herbs to start in the garden from seed are cilantro and dill. Mint also is a wonderful herb, though its roots—called runners—can be invasive if it’s not grown in a confined space. Trevanion suggests planting it between the sidewalk and the house, or in a pot sunken into the ground.
Mediterranean herbs such as basil, parsley, sage, oregano and thyme are great for picks for novices, especially since they all do just as well in a pot as they will in the ground—a definite plus for those who don’t have large yards or porches.
Growing conditions for each herb should be taken into consideration, too. Some herbs love sun and water while others can thrive in the shade. For instance, woody herbs like thyme, rosemary and sage are much more draught tolerant than basil, chives and parsley, which like plenty of water. To be sure, read the info on the seed packet and take that advice to heart.
A good first step in planning out an herb garden is to put like-minded plants together so you don’t kill them with kindness by over- or under-watering them.
Also, herbs have a life cycle. So if you want a continual supply, plant new plants every four to six weeks during the growing season or keep them carefully pruned. For instance, cilantro is usually only harvested once while basil and rosemary can be pinched off and snipped back to create new growth.
Tara Rockacy, owner of Churchview Farm in Pennsylvania, suggests going one size up when it comes to choosing a pot, especially if you want it to produce all season, so the roots can expand and absorb nutrients and water. Be sure to fill it with nutrient-rich potting soil; a handful of compost on the surface also works wonders. But don’t worry about fertilizers. They dilute herbs’ essential oil, which give them their fragrance.
If you have questions, the Herb Society of America is a good resource. It offers fact sheets, essential guides, sustainable gardening practices and even recipes for the harvest.
The main rule, both women say, is to plant what you like to eat and don’t be afraid to experiment or fail. Gardening can throw challenges your way, but also it brings satisfaction and so much enjoyment.
“Mistakes are going to happen with the best of things,” says Trevanion, “so if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Herb gardens for 3 cuisines
Italian: No Italian garden is complete without flat-leaf parsley. It likes the sun, and moist soil. You’ll also want plenty of Genovese basil, a classic ingredient in pesto, tomato salads and pasta sauces. It, too, likes sun and well-drained soil. Thyme and oregano are other sun-loving herbs, and both grow well in pots with little care. And don’t forget about rosemary or sage.
Mexican: Cilantro is a must-have in Mexican cooking, along with mint for mojitos, parsley, marjoram and oregano. Jalapeños are a popular pepper for home gardens, since they add spice and can be used in everything from salsa to pepper jelly to cornbread. If you can find it, epazote, which tastes like a cross between mint and pepper and is used to flavor black beans, quesadillas and enchiladas, is easy to grow.
French: Classic French cooking often includes herbs de provence, a mix comprised of basil, fennel, marjoram, parsley, rosemary, tarragon and thyme, and fines herbes, which includes parsley, tarragon, chervil and chives.