Toronto Star column – published February 23, 2013
“He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise.” ~Henry David Thoreau
Gardeners, birdwatchers, golfers, and virtually all outdoor enthusiasts are counting the days to the season opener. That day when we can plant, observe a migratory species travelling our way, or hit the first ball, it all amounts to the same thing: freedom from the lock of a Canadian winter.
It may surprise you, then, that we are precisely 13 weeks away from our official frost free date: May 24th, when we can safely plant out frost tender vegetables and annual flowers. In the mean time we have pre-season season. A time when we can plant winter hardy evergreens, shrubs, and trees, and we can start many plants from seed indoors in anticipation of the big day. We are entering the Grapefruit league season for gardeners.
Getting started on your summer herb garden now is a good idea for a variety of reasons. We are starved for the smells of fresh herbs, you can ‘harvest’ a lot of herbs from your windowsill between now and planting time in May, and the activity of sowing and transplanting is a welcome break from winter activities, exciting as they may be.
The seed racks are in at your local retailer and they are jammed full of all of the herbs that you can imagine. Many start well from seed while others are best grown on from small transplants. The small starter plants are also available at garden retailers now too.
If your goal is to grow some herbs that you can clip and trim for cooking or as garnishes at the table, I have some advice for you. There are herbs that lend themselves to this activity and some that do not. Here is my list of favourites for use indoors this time of year. I assume that you do not have a greenhouse, but that you do have a sunny window ledge somewhere that suits itself to indoor growing. All of these herbs perform best in full sun, unless otherwise indicated.
Basil. One of the very few culinary herbs that is an annual [dies with the frost] and did not originate in the Mediterranean region. Basil is a native to India. The seeds are easy to start indoors but they do take up to 2 weeks to germinate.
While nothing compares to the flavour of straight, old fashioned basil when it comes to pesto sauce or the marriage of flavours between the tomato and basil, I recommend that you try some of the more flavourful varieties like lemon and cinnamon. For a great looking border plant in sunny locations in your garden, try purple basil.
Oregano. This is one of the most popular Mediterranean native herbs. Famously popular in Italian dishes, especially fish. Sow seeds any time now for a full crop this summer. Do not cover the seed after sowing for proper germination. Thin the plants aggressively after they sprout. The entire plant is edible and the flowers are quite attractive and tasty on salads and vegetables.
Oregano is a fast growing, ground hugging plant that is known to take over an area if not kept under control. Just saying, that’s all.
Tarragon – French and Russian.
A great addition to chicken dishes year round. Preserve the sprigs of tarragon in bottles of vinegar or freeze the leaves in ice cubes. Sow the seeds in trays and thin out the weakest specimens after they have sprouted. Don’t be afraid to clip and trim the foliage as the plants grow on your windowsill this spring as future growth will thicken as a result.
French tarragon is the more flavourful but the less winter hardy [as in, ‘it will die in a Toronto winter’].
Russian tarragon has a less well-defined flavour but will survive to zone 4 [Ottawa].
The most intense lemon flavour that you will get from anything other than a lemon. The leaves make great tea, flavour the icing on a cake, and are often used in turkey stuffing. For long-term storage, dry lemon verbena. When using fresh, be sure to chop finely as the flavour is intense and the leaves are tough.
Sow seeds in open, well-drained soil. Remove blossoms to encourage greater foliage growth.
Perhaps the easiest plant to grow from seed on the planet. Virtually all plant parts are edible including the flower. Sow in trays using a transparent top to hold moisture and heat pre-germination. Once they have germinated, thin the strongest plants out and pot up using several rooted sprouts in each pot.
As the leaves grow, feel free to cut them back for use in the kitchen as they will reproduce quickly. Chives are a winter hardy perennial that will grow into large clumps that can be dug up and divided quite successfully in spring or fall. The fresh, chopped leaves preserve well in the freezer.
Love the plant or hate it, everyone enjoys fresh mint taste, right? This is one of the easiest plants to grow in the garden as it travels quickly by root, hence why planting it in containers is a good idea. There, at least, you can keep an eye on it. Like the nephew that you can’t turn your back on, mint is known to get into trouble by going places where it has no business being.
That said; grow some from seed for a quick, satisfying experience. Grows well from seed and from a cutting. This is one perennial herb that will tolerate about half a day of shade. Look for peppermint, spearmint, rose flavoured mint, chocolate, and the list goes on. Check your favourite seed catalogue for a wide selection or go to www.veseys.com.
Not just a pretty face. Parsley is best known as the garnish that many people push aside on their salad plate. Fact is, it is high in vitamin C and iron and it freshens your breath. Slow to germinate [up to 4 weeks] but worth the wait. Use a transparent top over a seed starting tray for germination. Tolerant of up to a half day of shade, where it performs best in the heat of mid summer, or in full sun for spring and autumn use. Curly parsley is more winter hardy but the broad-leafed Italian parsley is more flavourful. Freeze in ice cube trays of water to preserve off season.