Sunday, March 11, 2012


Sweet basil with wee carnivorous visitor. © Ryan Schierling 
Dried herbs?!? Don't even get me started. Yes, most of us grew up with them – sad rows of anemic, dehydrated, desaturated flakes with long-past-due expiration dates in the seasoning rack. There is a small place for certain dried herbs, sure. But a compact herb garden that can supply 95% of your fresh herb needs always wins as the better-tasting and less-expensive option over fresh-cut herbs purchased from a grocery store or anything in a dusty jar. 

My first "just outside the door" herb was chives. As a kid I LOVED them and would chew them down one-by-one, plucked carefully from the little flower bed tucked along the side of the house next to the kitchen door. This was all cute and adorable until my breath became so punctuated with the onion-y fragrance of chives that my mom started asking me to back off... both in physical presence and chive intake. 

I've moved beyond my chive-chomping "get out of this kitchen with that onion breath" youth, but my appreciation has not waned. I have always had a few herbs around, growing in a pot on the porch or in a patch of dirt out back. Then somewhere along the line, I stopped taking herbs for granted and realized that the benefit of growing them was such a huge asset to my cooking experience that a home without them was unimaginable. When we moved to Austin, it was late fall and our plans to put in a proper raised bed for herbs were delayed by a few months. By early spring of 2010, not having fresh herbs outside our door was driving us bonkers. Planting those first few starts was immensely satisfying and, while we have had a few minor casualties along the way, this herb garden has been the most continuously productive, useful and inspiring patch we have planted. 

Herbs purchased from the grocery store are not only quite perishable, they can be very expensive. It costs at least as much, or more, to purchase a package of fresh-cut herbs as it does to purchase an entire plant start or seed packet for your herb garden. Why not just buy something once and appropriate a pot for it or tuck it into the corner of a flower bed near the door? It just needs to be a tasty culinary variety, with a handy location to get to from the kitchen and kept free from any pesticides or other toxic residue. 

We use herbs from our garden nearly every day. Once you have some well-established plants, they are fair game to liberally experiment using – the flavors, the amounts, the combinations – without worry to cost or waste.  Pull a several stems of oregano for your pasta sauce and if you decide you need more, go snag another bit. 

There is a freedom to be spontaneous when a fresh herb "pantry" is bursting with flavor just a few steps outdoors. Mix minced herbs such as basil or rosemary into bread, pizza dough or biscuits. Throw a few sprigs of thyme or sage into that foil packet of green beans for the grill. Use some finely-julienned mint for that spur of the moment yogurt dipping sauce. Whip up a pesto of parsley with thyme. Treat the eyes by using any and all as a fresh and tasty garnish any time you like. And don't forget about the flowers! Rosemary flowers, for example, offer a delicate evergreen fragrance with pretty lavender blossoms.

Not everything will grow or produce year round, but a good many will be perennial or even yearlong providers. Basil, for example, will continue to yield wonderfully when the flowers are pinched off regularly and it will do well for most of the year – but after the first hard freeze it is usually done for and will need to be planted again in spring. Thyme, marjoram and oregano, on the other hand, will roll right through the winter months without a hitch. Cilantro and parsley tend to bolt quickly in the heat, so you may find these best to grow during cooler months. The Mexican mint marigold, which is similar to tarragon in flavor, will die back every fall but return in spring to thrive fantastically through the summer. We attempt to use them all to their fullest advantage throughout the year.

Culinary herbs – a pantry outside our door. © Ryan Schierling
Pictured from left to right, top to bottom.

Marjoram – A warm and fuzzy cousin of Oregano. Reminds me I need to try making more French cuisine.

Dill – A butterfly magnet when it blooms, and ever so delicious with salmon or when Ryan makes pickles.

Oregano – We use this all the time for tomato-based sauces.

Sweet Basil – Fresh and wonderful on pizza and in pasta salad. This divine leaf has innumerable uses.

Silver Thyme – A pretty varigated variety. Use in soups, with meats and vegetables.

Italian Parsley – Not just a garnish! We enjoy cooking with this flat leaf variety, too.

Mexican Mint Marigold – A hardy tarragon substitute that thrives in the hot Texas climate. Great with eggs and we use it liberally when making tuna salad for tuna melts. Something special with carrots, too.

Cilantro – A piquant spot of charm in for all kinds of Mexican and Southeast Asian cuisine.

Rosemary – Roast with potatoes or bake in crackers. Also famously good with meat.

Kaffir Lime – A new introduction to our garden, the leaves flavor dishes in Thai cuisine.

Thyme – Brilliant herb for winter comfort fare. Right now it's blooming beautifully.

Spearmint – A savory addition in many middle-eastern recipes, and delightfully sweet in a mint julep on a hot summer day.

Not pictured:

Thai Basil (Siam Queen or Sweet Thai) – We'll be planting this soon. Its unique flavor is essential for great curry.

Sage – Not just for the holidays! We replanted from seeds this year; it should be big and beautiful soon. 

Peppermint – Looking forward to a chocolate paring this summer. Thinking brownies...?

Chives – Not shown because I cleared the patch to generously top some baked potatoes with sour cream and chives. I still love these things!


  1. How'd you ever learn so much about herbs? We never "did" herbs at home when you were but a dear child, Julie! Quite a "herb-i-fore" you have become since you left home and "grew" into this "herb-i-culture"!

  2. Yeah, TMun, but I had CHIVES! I got a taste of that flavorful stuff and now look at me... I'm still not a very good meat-eater, though.

    Have I convinced you to try growing a few herbs at home? They're so very fresh and tasty!


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