Herbs are one of the delightful pleasures of life. They add flavor to your food, scent to the air and beauty to your garden. In colonial times, no home was complete without an herb garden for the lady of the house to use in her kitchen, and it wasn’t unusual for those herb gardens to be separated by use – savory herbs, tea herbs, medicinal herbs. That’s a tradition that’s made a comeback in many modern gardens.
One of the more popular types of kitchen gardens is a spaghetti garden. Oregano, basil, garlic, bay and parsley are such easy to grow plants that it’s a pity for anyone to use dried and bottled herbs if they have a sunny patch of ground or a window-box. A few square feet of garden space can easily yield all the herbs that you’ll need for delicious Italian meals. They’re even easy enough to grow in a sunny window for year round use.
Bay leaves add a piquant hint of spice to stews, soups and especially spaghetti sauce. The bay laurel is a small tree that grows slowly – about a foot per year – making it eminently suitable for growing in a container. Unless you live in a mild climate zone (where the temperatures don’t drop below 25 degrees in the winter), you’ll do best to keep the tree in a pot and bring it indoors during the winter.
Basil is an annual, but it seeds itself so easily that I’ve never had to buy another after planting my first year. There are many varieties of basil, but all grow fast and require frequent pinching back to keep them from growing leggy and tall. To harvest: when the plants have reached about 6-8 inches tall, you can begin harvesting. Simply use your thumb and forefinger to pinch off the top 1/3 of the plant, just above a leaf intersection. Be sure to pinch off any flower buds before they go to seed. Six to eight plants will provide enough basil to make pesto for the entire neighborhood.
Garlic is possibly the easiest plant in the world to grow. Simply break apart a clove of garlic (yes, right from the grocery store!), and plant the cloves about 4 inches apart, 2-4 inches deep in light soil. Water lightly, and watch them grow. Harvest when tips of leaves turn brown – do NOT let them flower. To harvest: dig up the bulbs, and use them. In the interests of keeping a fresh supply going, plant one or two cloves from each bulb!
Parsley is easily the most used herb in the world. It comes in both flat (Italian) and curly varieties, and complements the flavor of everything from delicate sauces to hearty stews. It’s often used as a garnish on plates, or chopped and added to soups, dressings and salads. It adds vitamins and color, and subtly brings out the flavor of other ingredients in the meal. The parsley plant is a biennial, flowering in its second season. It prefers a little shade on a hot sunny day, and should be kept well watered to avoid wilting and drying. To harvest: pinch back woody older stems all the way to the base, allowing new leaves and branches to grow.
A perennial ground cover plant, oregano is a prolific grower that can send out shoots that grow up to six feet in a single season. If encouraged with pruning and bunching, oregano can grow into a small border plant. It prefers light, thin soil and lots of sun, so keep it on the south side of your garden. Harvesting can start when the plants reach 4-5 inches. Simply pinch back as you would basil. The young leaves are the most flavorful part of the plant, and are actually considerably stronger dried than fresh. To dry, lay the harvested leaves out on newspaper or drying screens in the sun until the leaves crumble easily. Dried oregano will retain its flavor for months.