Growing herbs: The Best Idea I’ve Had This Spring
It began with a little basil. Last spring, I planted some in a window box on the side of our house. The side that apparently got more bugs than sun. It had a good run, providing me plenty to sprinkle into my scrambled eggs, but not quite enough for the giant batch of pesto I had envisioned for my freezer.
It was, however, enough to get me thinking. Knowing that I could grow a few delicious leaves in a window box made me cringe all the more at the thought of buying herbs at the store. Because you almost never need that whole plastic box of rosemary or thyme. Just a few sprigs, and the rest of it is destined to either rot on your counter or command your meal planning the rest of the week.
Substituting the fresh stuff with dried can help avoid this problem, but it’s often not the same. Especially when it comes to parsley, basil, mint and the other really green things that are meant to be eaten, well, really green.
I recall being on a treadmill at a gym once while Barefoot Contessa (OK, Ina Garten) was on the TV screen, working on a batch of hand-blended tomato basil soup. She began the segment by walking out to her back patio, where giant pots poured fourth sumptuous sprouts of green. She clipped the herbs she needed, shoving her nose into the handfuls for a deep whiff, and headed into the kitchen. I was inspired. And then I forgot about it.
It wasn’t until I read the Local Living section in my Washington Post this past weekend that I decided: I SHOULD GROW HERBS! The section featured this beautiful sketch on the front of not just green but multicolored, hand-selected hues teeming from the pots. It was our first Saturday in over a month that wasn’t scheduled to the brims, and I had protected it ferociously for an occasion such as this. I was in the mood for a Saturday project.
And all the best Saturday projects, this time of year at least, begin at the farmers market. We headed to the bigger one in Old Town Alexandria with herbs in mind. I had a mental picture of what I wanted, based on the helpful layouts described in the planting piece (and the descriptions of what Nora Pouillon likes to keep in her edible menagerie). I nearly bought the farm at one stand that was brimming with potted herbs. Thanks to a budget, I stuck with the basics: sweet Genovese basil, mint, cilantro, parsley, rosemary and thyme. And for my centerpiece, a plant to stand straight up and anchor the pot from the center, I chose a unique lemon sage variety with red blossoms. I imagine I’ll stuff it into the skin of a chicken, since I like both lemon and sage for that use. I’m open to other suggestions. For now, it’s just pretty.
I spent a chunk of the afternoon getting dirt up to my elbows (which is probably not necessary when you’re just potting plants… but I’m still learning). There are also probably too many plants in this one pot, but I’m OK with that. I also picked up some precious fuschia flowers to plant in the window boxes, and at the Wednesday market I fell for some big Gerber daisies to fill the others. (I looked a little silly covered in dirt when we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon at the vet, getting our dog Round No. 1 of stitches after she skewered herself on a fence post. She decided to remove them herself and got Round No. 2 yesterday. Sigh.)
Perhaps it’s just because I’ve been in the mood, but I’ve noticed that the markets are overflowing with plants since they opened this month. I thought the farmers were just reading my mind, capitalizing on my newfound desire to get my hands dirty and pretend to be one of them. But one of the vendors at my Mount Vernon market said there are more plants because more people asked for them last year, and they try to accommodate.
The market manager told me their presence could also be because of the cold spring, which means farmers have had to supplement their first-of-the-season strawberries with still-growing plants, until the garlic and tomatoes come into their prime. Something’s got to fill those tables! Well, maybe it’s just me, but I tend to buy whatever they put out there. And, this year, it seems the farmers collaborated with Barefoot Contessa and The Post to get me planting. And I’m putting the project to good use.
So, anyone else dipping a toe into the potted-herbs realm this year? You know, it’s only a matter of time now before I become a farmer ;-).