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If you are considering what to put in your spring garden, don't miss the opportunity to plant herbs that flourish in Central Texas' hot and dry conditions and can lend flavor to food as well as beauty to the garden. Photo courtesy of Joe Urbach

Growth in gardening: Spring Herbs

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Time to get the spring garden in the ground. Though some of us started early, Mother Nature, as she so often does, tossed a late freeze our way and many local gardens suffered pretty badly. If that happened to your garden, fear not, it is the perfect time to start anew. If, on the other hand, you have been waiting for the right time to start the spring projects then your time is now. The question I often get asked goes something like this: “What do I plant, and when?”

Spring vegetables, for our neck of the woods are things like asparagus crowns, beans of all sorts, corn, cucumbers, eggplants of every variety, all melons, summer squash, and of course let’s not forget those wonderful tomatoes.

You can still start from seed, but I recommend you visit your favorite plant nursery and start with transplants. Get them in the ground, give them some water and you will be enjoying the fruits of your harvest before you know it.

Every gardener I know is dreaming of garden vegetables this time of the year, but I also want you to consider spring herbs. Now is the perfect time to plant some of the best culinary herbs around and, with apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, I’m not just talking about “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.”

As a gardener and food lover, I can’t get enough of spring’s selection of fresh herbs. Dainty and light as a feather are the herbs of springtime, those first tender tendrils that lend our cooking the unmistakable flavor and fragrance of freshness, vibrancy and green. Just be sure to add them near the end of cooking for optimum color and flavor.

While purchasing packaged herbs can get expensive, growing your own fresh herbs only requires a pack of seeds or a plant and a little care and attention. Choose a sunny spot for your herb pots and be sure to water them on a regular basis.

The best time to harvest herbs is in the morning, after the dew has evaporated but before the sun has warmed them. Pick just the amount you need for that day. Keep them in the refrigerator in a produce bag until ready to use. Herbs should appear fresh, with no leaf discoloration.

To wash herbs, hold them by the stems and rinse vigorously under cool water until they are free of dirt. Spin dry in a salad spinner or blot dry with paper towels or a dish cloth. The drier the herbs, the better they’ll tolerate cutting and chopping. Cut your herbs with a sharp knife or scissors to avoid bruising. You also can tear leafy herbs, like basil and mint, to release more flavor during cooking. Store your herbs in the crisper section of the refrigerator, wrapped in a paper towel and tucked inside an airtight container. Leftover herbs such as basil, arugula, Thai basil and mint make great pesto. Freeze pesto in ice cube trays, then transfer to an airtight container.

You may even want to try your hand at making your own homemade herb-infused butter: Simply blend half a cup of unsalted softened butter with 1 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh herbs of your choice. Roll butter into a log and freeze it in waxed paper. Freezing makes it easy to cut off just the right sized pat to top your dish. The frozen dollop will slowly melt as it is heated by the food it tops, making your dish both delicious and attractive.

Some of my favorite herbs to plant in March are:

  • Chervil – This herb is similar to parsley but with a slight anise-like flavor. Popular in France, it’s delicate and best used fresh, added at the last moment. Garnish salads with it, use in dressings or add it to omelets.
  • Chives – Fresh chives, they offer a mild, herbal onion flavor that’s delicious with potatoes, asparagus, leeks, seafood; added to butter and in cream sauces. The thinner and brighter green the chive, the more delicate the flavor. Also available are garlic chives that taste more of garlic than of onion.
  • Dill – Another favorite, dill offers a flavor between anise, parsley and celery and pairs well with cheese, seafood, chicken soup, chilled salads and vegetable casseroles. It’s a frequent player in Greek, Italian, Turkish, Russian and Scandinavian cuisine. Look for young, brightly colored, feathery leaves.
  • Lemongrass – I must come clean, I cannot live without lemongrass. I love its citrus flavor that provides just the right brightness in Asian and Caribbean cuisine. Cut it into 1-inch pieces and smash well before incorporating it into soups and simmered dishes. For salads, slice lemongrass into thin rounds.
  • Mint - Oh, mint, how I love thee, let me count the ways: Peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint, apple mint, orange mint, mojito mint – you get the idea. Just call me the mint man because I am sure to grow at least a dozen different mints this year. Mint is used widely in the cuisines of the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where its cooling influence complements aromatic spices on grilled meats, grain salads and steaming bowls of pho and other soups. Mint is lovely with lamb, lends sophistication to fruit salad and is refreshing in a mojito or other cocktail.
  • Marjoram – This is a sweeter, milder cousin of oregano that’s well-suited to starchy vegetables and often blended with sage for poultry seasoning or with thyme to season sausage. It’s wonderful with fried potatoes, clam chowder, black beans, broccoli, tomatoes, chicken and duck.
  • Oregano -Its name comes from the Greek for “mountain joy,” and it has a warm, aromatic scent with a pleasing robust taste. Widely used in Mediterranean and Mexican cuisines, it’s great for seasoning soups, stews, pasta and shellfish. My kids always called this the pizza herb – try sprinkling it over pizza or just give it a good sniff and you will understand why.
  • Parsley - Whether flatleaf (Italian) or curly (traditional), parsley is among the most universally used culinary herbs. Parsley is the basis of iconic green sauces such as Argentina’s chimichurri, delicious atop grilled meats. Parsley works well in stuffings, in whole grain salads, with eggplant and in many other dishes.
  • Rosemary – While it is everywhere in Central Texas, Rosemary, a member of the mint family, is actually native to the Mediterranean. Its aromatic, piney flavor is a great fit for lamb, chicken, meat stews and marinades, but it also can add life to lighter fish, duck or turkey dishes, as well as vegetables.
  • Tarragon - What with its aromatic, anise-like flavor that marries well with chicken, egg and mushroom dishes, this mainstay in classic French cuisine has really become one of my favorites over the years. I cook with it and I also use sprigs to flavor white wine vinegars.
  • Thyme – Thyme has been used by man for a very long time and with good reason as it lends a powerful fragrance yet subtle lemon, minty taste to dishes. Common in French cuisine, it’s included in bouquet garni and is used to season soups and sauces. Thyme pairs well with poultry, fish and lamb, but for me, it is a must in all great egg dishes.
  • If you haven’t grown herbs in your spring garden before, I encourage you to do so this year – you really don’t know what you are missing.

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Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgriLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

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