Sage advice

Growing a kitchen herb garden makes scents

ANISE TO KNOW YOU Rain or shine, Catherine and David Walther are at the Chico Farmers’ Market every Saturday morning selling herbs.

ANISE TO KNOW YOU Rain or shine, Catherine and David Walther are at the Chico Farmers’ Market every Saturday morning selling herbs.

Photo By Tom Angel

To learn more: An excellent book for exploring the various uses of culinary herbs is A Gourmet’s Guide to Herbs & Spices, by Mary Trewby (available at Barnes & Noble).

Most people think of herbs as dried substances purchased in little jars that have shaker tops underneath the lids.

But herbs don’t have to be that way.

You can grow fresh herbs in a kitchen garden right outside your back door, bringing in generous sprigs of your favorites whenever the culinary urge comes over you. Whipping up a spaghetti sauce? Pluck a bundle of fresh parsley and basil. Making potatoes? Reach for the rosemary. “Herbs aren’t hard to grow,” says Nancy Schleiger, herb vendor at the Saturday Chico Farmers’ Market. “They like to be in the sun, but they don’t need a lot of attention.” Apparently, even the worst “black thumb” can grow herbs.

During the 1980s, Bay Area chef Alice Waters popularized the kitchen garden with her restaurant Chez Panisse, where she prepared and served many of her dishes using fresh-picked herbs from a garden grown right outside the kitchen door. Her Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook offers mouth-watering recipes for those who want to experiment with preparing foods that are swirled with just-picked marjoram, basil, rosemary, thyme, or other flavor-enhancing plants.

The creation of a kitchen garden can offer hours of fun and good “hands-in-the-dirt” therapy, and Schleiger’s herb stand is a great place to get started. Personable and friendly, Schleiger loves to talk about the herbs she grows and sells, and she offers a wide array of culinary herbs, including: rosemary, good for flavoring meats, soups, and potatoes; sage, excellent for flavoring beans, vegetables, and stuffings; Italian and curly parsley, superb in soups, tomato sauces, and juices; Greek oregano, top-notch in Italian foods and tomato sauces; and stevia, which is useful for adding sweetness to teas.

Schleiger, who has been selling herbs since 1984, also offers medicinal herbs such as arnica, which heals skin problems; rue, an herb that helps alleviate intestinal tension; and lavender, which is valued for its soothing scent. “Fresh stuff right out of your yard is the best you can do,” Schleiger commented. “You know how it’s grown and where it comes from. It hasn’t sat inside a refrigerator for a week.” Schleiger noted there are lots of herbs that are “so good for us in so many ways.”

David and Catherine Walther, also herb vendors at the Saturday Farmers’ Market, offer mostly medicinal herbs, such as anise, hyssop, chamomile, costmary, monarda and gotu kola. Catherine says one leaf of gotu kola eaten daily can help a person stay healthy. “In India, elephants love to eat gotu kola!” she observed. “It gives them strength and energy.” She also pointed out that medicinal herbs make a lovely ornamental garden. And who can argue that a plant that is pleasing to the eye is not healing in and of itself?

Mike Morgenroth, another herb vendor, says he’s a huge basil fan. “I use it on sandwiches instead of lettuce!” He grows and sells 12 different kinds of basil, which he also uses in salads and in salsa. Additionally, he grows and sells chives (garlic, onion and fine-leaf), cilantro (a good winter herb), sage, parsley and horseradish. About the latter he said, “Either you like it or you hate it!” He has used fresh horseradish for pickling and in the brine for smoked salmon and, as with basil, in the place of lettuce on a sandwich. Morgenroth said spring is the best time to buy culinary herbs, as many herbs go dormant in the winter.

Therefore, in the long winter hours that lie ahead, do your planning and designing. Sketch out your best kitchen garden dreams and consider what herbs you will want to select and plant when springtime arrives. Then enjoy the savors and scents that fresh herbs provide.