Fresh Herb Garden

by Christine Woll

I’ve been gardening in Alaska for 10 years, and I think this summer was the toughest – the cool temps and rain were an omnipresent threat and the slugs were, to put it mildly – abundant.

My herb garden, however, proved surprisingly weather- and slug- resistant, and I decided to really dig in to growing and cooking with fresh herbs.  In my opinion, fresh herbs put dried herbs to shame, and are so much more versatile.  I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned to inspire all those folks who decided this year was the year they would begin gardening, and may need a bit of a pep talk to keep at it in years to come….

Growing herbs

Of course all herbs prefer their own unique sets of conditions, but I’ve cultivated a group of herbs that tend to be pretty non-fussy (hence my herb success this year).  There are a few things worth paying attention to, however:

  • Is the herb an annual (needs to be planted every year), a biennial (will come back one year), or a perennial (will come back year after year)?  I plant my annuals directly into my raised garden beds so I can rotate them with my vegetables year after year.  I like to keep my biennials and perennials in pots (because I can keep them close to my kitchen, pull them indoors, and they provide good slug protection), but you can also keep a more permanent rock-lined bed for herbs in your yard.
  • Is there risk of the herb becoming a weed?  Chives and mint can take over a garden all on their own if they aren’t contained in a pot or with rocks or constant weeding.
  • What’s the hardiness zone? To overwinter biennial or perennials, look at the hardiness of the variety you are growing. To grow something that may be sensitive to cold and snow in the winter, take extra precautionary measures like mulching and covering your plants for warmth.  Because I grow my perennials in pots, they are that much more susceptible to be killed off by the cold, so I bring mine into the garage for the winter.
  • When do I plant them? In order to get herbs early in the season, some are nice to start indoors or buy as small plants from a nursery.  Look at your seed packets and plant as early as you are able.

My favorite Southeast Alaska fresh herbs – and what I have been doing with them!

Parsley:

  • How to grow:  Parsley is a biennial. I have had luck getting to stick around for year 2 (though some people don’t think it tastes as good the second year).  I’ve been growing the flat-leafed Gigante d’Italia from Foundroot, but you can grow varieties of curly leaved parsley as well.
  • What to cook:  Parsley is a great finishing herb on pretty much anything. I never really bought it at the grocery store, but now that I have it on my porch every day, I take a handful, chop it up, and throw it on just about anything that needs some brightness or inspiration –  – whether that’s pizza, or pasta, or potatoes, or chicken, or fish – or herby pestos and dressings (see below).

Cilantro:

  • How to grow:  Cilantro is another easy annual herb to grow here, but one that many people complain about because it goes to seed so quickly in our climate.  This year, I was tipped off to the Calypso variety, which I am now obsessed with because it does not go to seed quickly at all.  I planted this variety every three weeks up into July and I am still harvesting bushes of cilantro that have not gone to seed.  Also, you don’t even really need to thin this variety, you can let it grow into almost a thick hedge!
  • What to cook:  For those of us who love cilantro, it is the essential finishing ingredient to all things Southeast Asian or Latin American, or really anything spicy.  I like it on enchiladas, in spring rolls, on scrambled eggs, in an Asian slaw or cucumber salad.  I use it similarly to parsley – chop it up fresh and throw it on at the end, or blend it into an herby pesto or dressing.

Sage

  • How to grow:  I’ve had so much success growing sage here, despite our wet climate.  I’d suggest starting your sage indoors or buy a small plant from a plant sale or nursery, and by the end of the summer you will have a legitimate shrub.  Sage is a biennial and can do excellent in year 2 if you get a hearty variety like Foundroot’s Broadleaf Sage, and take care in overwintering it.
  • What to cook:  Sage may be my favorite fresh herb, and I think it is way underrated.  Fry or saute 6-12 fresh sage leaves in some butter, and you can use that as a sauce on so many things – my favorite is butternut squash or sweet potatoes.  It is also so beautiful and fancy looking.  If you want to impress dinner guests, check out Martha Stewart’s Sage and Butternut Squash lasagna or Sage braid.  

Mint

  • How to grow:  Mint is a weed in gardens in Southeast Alaska.  Find a gardener friend to dig some up for you – there are so many different varieties out there – and plop it in a pot or a well contained area of your garden.  You will have mint for years to come.
  • What to cook:  Mint is great to have around for summer cocktails and dessert garnishes, of course.  But it is also great with cilantro in spring rolls and Southeast Asian salads, or Minty Pea Soup.  

Rosemary

  • How to grow:  This year, I bought a plant from Master Gardener Ed Buyarski, so as not to fuss with having to start from seed, which is challenging.  My beautiful bush survived the torrential downpours all summer long.  I asked Ed what a rosemary plant needs to survive indoors in the winter and he told me that “it is a fine balance between not watering enough and watering too much”.  I’m going to give it a try this winter.
  • What to cook:  I really took advantage of the focaccia garden fad this summer.  I also like to make rosemary (or sage!) simple syrup for a unique cocktail mixer.

Tarragon

  • How to grow:  Tarragon is a perennial and this year I’m going to try my hand at overwintering it for the first time.
  • What to cook:  Tarragon is one of those herbs that has a licorice-like taste, which is personally not my favorite, but I’ve been playing with Tarragon this summer to mix it up.  Tarragon is cool cause you can add it fresh on a salad or roast with vegetables or meat.  Try Alison Roman’s Tarragon roasted halibut with hazelnut brown butter.  

Oregano:

  • How to grow:  Oregano is also a perennial that can be easily overwintered.
  • What to cook:  Like Tarragon, oregano is great because it can be eaten fresh or cooked, though the flavor is more mellow when you cook it.  You can use fresh oregano in recipes that call for dried oregano (like pizza!) but it is good to remember that dried oregano will have a more concentrated flavor.  I like oregano with fish and chicken, or in an herby pesto or dressing.

Thyme:  

  • How to grow:  Thyme is another easy perennial that will overwinter.
  • What to cook:  I love sautéing wild mushrooms with butter, garlic, and thyme sprigs.  Thyme (and/or oregano) can also be used to make Fresh Za’atar.

Chives:

  • How to grow:  Like mint, you need to find a gardening friend and dig up a chunk and put it in the ground.  It is such an easy way to always have something herby to pull from.
  • What to cook:  A great thing to finish anything that needs an extra pop of flavor.  A great ingredient for herby pestos and dressings.  I love to put chives in my biscuits.

Dill:

  • How to grow:  Dill is an annual, but with some attention can grow very nicely here.  I plant a lot of it and use it to pickle excess zucchinis and garlic scapes throughout the season.  It does go to seed more quickly than I would like, but I save the heads and use those for pickling as well.
  • What to cook:  In addition to being great for pickling, I love mixing whole bushy fronds with butter and smearing it on salmon before roasting.  Also a great addition to herby pestos and dressings.  And this recipe.

Basil:

  • How to grow:  Basil is difficult in Southeast Alaska, and must be grown indoors in a sunny window.  I’ve grown both Italian Basil and Thai Basil, and often try to set myself up so that I can bring my pots outside on sunny days for extra sun.  I’ve seen folks with very sunny spots have their plants last late into winter. One important trick I’ve learned is how to harvest basil so it becomes bushy instead of growing tall and falling over; make sure to pick from the top, snapping off the stem right above where you see new shoots forming on the stem.  
  • How to cook: I think you know what to do here!

Herby Pestos and Dressings

We classically think of pesto as basil based, but I like thinking of pesto as any mix of olive oil, fresh herbs, salt (or salty things), garlic, and unsalted nuts.  I like to use whatever mix of herbs I have on hand – you can use parsley, basil, dill, oregano, chives, tarragon, and cilantro in whatever combination you like.  Sometimes I like to add Kale or Arugula to bulk it up or add a different flavor.  Sometimes I add capers or sundried tomatoes or anchovies or parmesan for additional salty flavor.  Garlic is an easy add, but garlicky chives or garlic scapes are good substitutes as well.  Toasted pine nuts are the classic addition, but walnuts and almonds work too.  I use the pesto on pizza; in bruschetta; and as a base for a pasta and potato salad filled with my garden vegetables.

To make these herbs into a dressing or dip, I add the pesto to heavy cream, sour cream, Greek yogurt, ricotta, and/or feta.  I play with different consistencies and flavors to create things that can be used as salad dressings, or as dips for fresh vegetables or crackers and breads.

A note on preserving your fresh herbs

You can dry many of these herbs for later use.  I often do this when I have a lot left at the end of the season (especially my sage!).  But personally I think fresh herbs are so much better fresh, and freezing them as herby pesto is the next best thing.  I like to pack my pesto into quarter-pint jars and freeze for easy use in the winter.

What’s next?

I’m hoping to try a hardy lavender and Arnica next year.  I’d love to hear about other herbs that people are growing that I could try!

Christine’s Green Pizza with herby pesto 

For the pesto:

5 tbl toasted pine nuts

1 cup chopped fresh dill (or other fresh herb of your choosing)

1 cup chopped fresh basil

2 anchovy fillets (or 1 tsp salt)

3 garlic scapes (or 3 cloves garlic)

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil

 

Your favorite thin-crust pizza dough

1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella

1 bunch kale, stems removed and chopped

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

Fresh ground black pepper.

Red chili flakes

2 cups arugula

Splash of red wine vinegar.

zHeat pizza stone for ½ hour in the oven at 450 degrees F.

Meanwhile, saute the kale in olive oil over medium-low heat until slightly wilted.  Let cool.

Form dough into pizza.  Spread pesto to edges.  Top with Mozzarella and then wilted Kale.  Sprinkle top with parmesan, fresh ground black pepper, and red chili flakes.  Slide pizza onto the hot stone, and bake until cheese is beginning to brown, about 8-12 minutes.  Top with arugula and splash of red-wine vinegar.