February 18, 2022
By Merrie Witkin
When we last convened during the snows of January, I was waxing volubly about the benefits of cultivating herbs. This month, part II of that discussion focuses on those annual and biennial—the so-called “soft” —herbs that grow well in Ulster County and fill out a diverse selection of culinary herbs for your kitchen, and the considerations to take into account when planning for and cultivating your herbs. Mind you, it’s still mighty cold out there, and it fun to fantasize about what your garden will look like come May and June…….
Annuals and biennials:
Basil. A broad leafed aromatic herb, sweet basil is the most common variety grown and the key ingredient in pesto alla genovese (commonly referred to merely as “pesto”, although that term only means “to pound” or “crush”, and can be applied to any number of blended herb pastes). Purple basil, with a more pronounced licorice flavor, is a common herb used in Thai cooking. Basil prefers moderately rich soil and grows well as a companion plant to tomatoes.
Chervil. A tender leafy herb, chervil is often referred to as French parsley given its similar appearance and its importance in French cuisine. Together with chives, tarragon and parsley, chervil one of the fines herbes, a mixture that is a mainstay of French cooking. It’s flavor is something akin to a delicate mashup of Italian parsley and anise. Chervil grows best in the cooler temperatures of spring and autumn and can tolerate some light shade. Less well known here than in Europe, chervil starts can be hard to find at local nurseries, but can be grown from seeds directly sown in early spring.
Cilantro. Cilantro is used extensively in Mexican and Asian cooking. It is known also as Chinese parsley (due to its resemblance to parsley) and coriander, for its ripened seeds, which are used in curries and middle eastern seasonings. During hot summers it can bolt (go to seed) early, so staggering seed plantings is helpful. Of course you can let it go to seed and harvest the coriander seeds.
Dill. Dill grows tall, feathery bright green foliage, with flowers that produce copious seeds. Both the foliage and the seeds are prized—-the former pairing particularly well with creamy ingredients and sauces, and the seeds being important in pickling, soups and other dishes. Dill can be started from seed, and it self seeds readily. Like cilantro, stagger plantings due to its tendency to “bolt” in hot weather. It requires full sun and well drained soil, but can grow well in containers.
Fennel. There are two types of fennel: One treated as an herb (Foeniculum vulgare) and grown for its seeds, flowers and foliage, and one grown as a vegetable for its large edible bulb (Finocchio – Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce). The herb type grows 3-5 feet tall with fine textured foliage resembling dill. In recent years herb fennel pollen has experienced a culinary vogue for its delicate flavor and yellow color, while fennel seeds have long been an important seasoning in pickling, sausage and seafood recipes. Collect seeds by cutting the dried flower heads before they scatter to prevent self seeding. Do not grow near dill, as the seeds will cross pollinate. Grow in full sun in well drained soil.
Parsley. A biennial that is usually planted annually, it is easiest to grow from nursery starts and prefers partial shade. The two common varieties are flat leafed, or Italian, parsley, and curly leafed. Flat leafed parsley is more often used in cooking, where the herb plays a more prominent role than just as a colorful garnish. Think salad herbs, salsa verde and tabbouleh.
Site selection and planting:
When considering a site to plant herbs, you should take into account not only sun exposure, the topography of your property, drainage and soil fertility, but also how you plan to use them. Planting culinary herbs in a readily accessible spot, say by your kitchen or a patio, will facilitate easy access to them when you are cooking. Select a sunny spot for most of the herbs you wish to plant, and take into account the sheltering benefits of any nearby foundation plantings, walls or other landscape features that can be leveraged to protect some of the more tender specimens like tarragon and savory.
A number of herbs make good companion plants for vegetables (such as basil and tomatoes, or parsley and asparagus and/or rhubarb), or understory plants or ground covers, like thyme. For mints that can be aggressive spreaders, consider planting them in pots or in an area where their growth can be restricted. For tender annuals like chervil, cilantro and dill, consider planting them in pots or beds that are raised or otherwise protected to prevent noshing by rabbits and gophers.
Virtually all of these herbs require well drained soil, as wet roots can lead to rotting and dieback. Many areas in Ulster County have relatively clayey soils, so some soil preparation will be necessary, or consider using a raised bed or pots. Once you have selected a site or spots to integrate into existing beds, dig and amend the soil with compost, well rotted manure, or peat moss for organic material to improve fertility and soil texture, and add sand as needed to improve drainage. (Lavender in particular, benefits from adding sand to our clay soil as it likes well drained sandy soil with some lime content.) A bit of advance work will pay back with future years of hardy growth.
While most all of these herbs can be grown from seed, you really do get a lot of bang for the buck by purchasing nursery starts, which will enable you to begin harvesting them in the first year. Give them space to grow and spread and finally, to quote Jacques Pepin, happy cooking!
If you missed last month’s article –
click here to be redirected to
Foragers & Herbalists: Why Herbs? Part I.
There are many books devoted to herbs, their cultivation and culinary and medicinal uses. My personal references (collected over many years) include:
Bremens, Lesley, ed., Herbs, 1990, RD Home Handbooks.
Hutchison, Frances, ed., Garden Herbs, 2003, Barnes & Noble Gardeners Handbooks.
Lust, John, The Herb Book, 1974, Bantam Books.
Miloradovich, Milo, The Art of Cooking with Herbs and Spices, 1950, Doubleday & Company.
Reliable online information can be found on state university extension sites, including:
Iowa State University (https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu);
University of Illinois Extension (https://web.extension.Illinois.edu/herbs) Information on pollinator pathway gardens: