Getting Real With Lisa Van De Graaff

When I was a child, my parents grew a huge garden every year. I have wonderful memories of eating sugar snap peas while standing in the garden (and feeding the pods to our dog, Freckles). The whole family shucked corn on the back patio, and we saved some strawberries to make ice cream together (with the hand crank ice cream machine). It was such a healthy way to grow up, and the garden brought me closer to my food than anything shrink-wrapped from the supermarket ever could.

Like her exceptional talent with canvas and paint, I didn’t inherit my mother’s green thumb. I find though, that I can bring a similar sense of connection with food for my daughter with a couple of tomato and strawberry plants, those vigorous sugar snap peas (though the cat refuses to eat the pods), and a plethora of herbs. To my great pleasure, my family eats their veggies when they have been involved in the process from garden to table. And the food tastes great too!

Herbs in particular are quite hearty and lend themselves well to container growing. They have to be watered regularly (daily in the heat of summer), and they have to have a good amount of sunshine, but other than that they are easy to grow and make me feel like a gardener.

Herbs can be started from seeds, and there are many kits available for kitchen windowsill growing. I’ve never had good luck with these – They don’t seem to get enough light, the soil doesn’t stay moist since the pots are so small, and the plants that come up are weak and spindly. I prefer to buy starts at the local nursery or farmer’s market, and I plant them in pretty pots near my front and back doors (so I can tiptoe out the door in my robe and snip off whatever I want for my eggs that morning – chives are my favorite).

Warning: Don’t plant rosemary or lavender next to the door – bees lovingly surround the plants in the heat of the day.

Some of my other favorite uses for herbs include:

• Fresh basil with tomatoes and Parmesan tossed with pasta for lunch

• Mint steeped in boiling water and chilled for a refreshing summer beverage

• Catnip for my kitty

• Sage with a butternut squash or pumpkin ravioli

• Lavender flowers stored in a jar with sugar for use in baking (sift the flowers out and the infused sugar will bring a light, floral flavor to cakes)

• Rosemary with any barbecued red meat

• Dill potatoes (check out the Barefoot Contessa’s recipe)

I find the key to longevity with my herb garden is using the plants. I trim them back every week as I “go out to tend to the back forty” every Sunday (which is my excuse for some alone time – the herb harvest takes about ten minutes, but my husband thinks it takes me an hour).

For dill, parsley, chives, and cilantro, trim a few springs back to the base of the plant to encourage new growth. For basil and mint, trim back an inch or two, just above a set of leaves. For the woody herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano, I just whack ‘em back a couple of times in the summer (not weekly). Sometimes I just toss the prunings in the trash or compost, but I much prefer to put them in a pretty vase in the kitchen for use throughout the week (or to just bring a beautiful element of the garden indoors).

Once an herb plant flowers, it doesn’t usually produce any more leaves, so trimming it back frequently will keep herb production up throughout the season. I stop trimming and let the plants bloom in the late summer and then trim them back to the ground in the autumn (in hopes that the perennials will survive the winter and the annuals will come back from the seeds dropped by the flowers – typically only my chives and thyme return in the spring, but sometimes rosemary and mint will make an appearance).

It’s not too late to pick up some herbs and plant a summer container garden this season!