Advice from a magical kitchen to yours.
Every week, the Kitchen Witch answers your culinary questions with an eye towards seasonal, sustainable cooking. Ask your question by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ECkitchenwitch.
Dear Kitchen Witch:
I live in a cold-weather place and would like to try growing some things to add to my cooking. What are easy herbs or plants to start container gardening for someone who is not great at plants and has never done this before? And what are some easy ways to incorporate more fresh herbs in the kitchen?
—Would-Be Grow Op
I love this question, and I am a firm believer that if you can get a few edible plants you really love thriving, it will make a lot of your cooking shine and feel much more fun. I’m not an expert gardener by any means, but I am a farmer’s daughter and I never feel really happy unless I have something edible growing. I strongly recommend herbs to start, in part because they are some hardy little suckers. A lot of herbs are basically just formerly wild plants that evolved to, like, cling to Mediterranean rocks in adverse circumstances and along the way developed flavors we find pleasing. They can survive a little neglect or beginner’s stumbles. Buying those little plastic clamshells of herbs, which have often gone slimy, at the grocery store is a huge drag and is really expensive for what you get. Where I live, the $2.99 or whatever they cost will literally buy me a living plant of the same exact thing—which will make more of itself! Like magic!—at any basic nursery or hardware store.
So, I strongly encourage you to get a few cheap pots (make sure they have a drain hole and put a little rock over the drain hole so not all the water goes right through) and some potting soil and get going with container gardening. A word about soil: I don’t know how hot and dry it gets in the summer where you live, or what your native soil is like, but a lot of the bags of potting soil sold at garden stores are much lighter than what I prefer. They don’t hold water (for me, anyway) and so you have to water and deal with your plants all the time, and the whole vibe of herbs is that they can be low maintenance. Ask at the garden store about what they recommend, but it’s probably fine to fill up the pots you buy with regular old dirt from your garden mixed with maybe some compost or potting soil. (By the way, I mean purchased compost. Don’t worry, I am not about to tell you to start composting. It’s fine to save that for when you are an obsessed and preferably retired gardener who likes to think a lot about kitchen and garden scraps.)
As far as what to plant, I think it’s important to plant things you like and will use often. That sounds glaringly obvious, I know, but it’s easy to get seduced at the garden store and think “oh look! They have lovage! How cool!” and have no idea what to do about lovage once you have it. Gardening is enough of a new chore to contend with; don’t make eating the produce you grow another chore. That said, I have some basic suggestions about what kinds of things to choose and plant. The first thing to know is the difference between plants that are perennial (last for years, think thyme and sage; often have woody stems) and annual (soft stems, replant every year, think parsley and basil) herbs. Some herbs can only overwinter depending on your climate and whether you can bring pots in for winter; ask at a local garden store if you aren’t sure.
If you can only pick one plant to start with, make it a little pot of rosemary. In my experience, it will live for freaking ever with very little encouragement. You can bring it inside in winter and put it outside in summer and snip leaves off to add to pasta dishes or roast vegetables and scatter on roast chicken and even spike a cocktail. If it gets leggy (this is plant speak for long branches that aren’t as pretty anymore), trimming off woody branches to throw on your grill is a total power move at a cookout. Your hands will smell great every time you touch it. In terms of sheer bang for your gardening buck, nothing beats rosemary.
Another very easy and hardy perennial herb that will deliver a lot of flavor is sage, which is a great one to have on hand when fall rolls around and you want savory stuffings and turkey or squash dishes.
Thyme is also easy to grow, but to be honest this is one where the payoff of fresh versus dried is not as huge as many other herbs. It’s pretty and easy to stick in a pot, though, so there’s not a big downside to it.
I like to always have flat-leaf parsley growing to freshen up almost anything, including savory chicken or simple potatoes. You can also make condiments. You can even use it in a kicky cocktail. Or, add it by the handful to salads, including tabbouleh, which also uses mint.
Mint is an ideal container plant because it infamously will take over non-container spaces. It can get leggy fast, but if you just cut it down ruthlessly it will come back. It’s maybe the perfect summer herb in lemonade and cocktails, salads, popsicles, pesto—whatever.
Speaking of pesto brings us naturally to basil, another great summer herb. I’d wait to plant these until things are starting to warm up where you are. With basil, make sure you are pinching off the buds before they flower; that will keep the flavor of the leaves at their best.
If you want to branch out from herbs, I’d try some intermediary steps before you go straight to, say, tomato farming. Green onions (and their slender cousins, chives) grow easily in bunches. Sometimes you can buy dwarf hot-pepper plants, which are both adorable (pops of color!) and nice to have on hand for spicing things up on the spur of the moment. You can even grow berries in containers if you’re getting serious. In the cooler seasons, lettuce and other greens grow well in containers and can be pulled off the plant for impromptu salads. I say this with great envy because my climate is just too hot to grow lettuces for any length of time.
If you are feeling thrifty, you can try growing things from kitchen scraps (this can work for green onions, too). And if you get really, really—like really—into growing your own food, you can always level up. For now, though, a few pots of herbs in a sunny kitchen window or outside the back door when it warms up should elevate your kitchen game, save you a little cash at the grocery store, and make you feel pleasantly like the lord of your own very small manor. Good luck!