I’m quickly learning that there is something both humbly reassuring and inexorably nerve wracking about growing your own food. I’ve come to accept that these dueling passions are just part of the process, but the slugs and bugs, molds and pests are an education in patience. Having planted my first herb and vegetable garden last March using organic seed from a local Vermont farm, I’ve made a commitment to move beyond my consumer status and upgrade to my new role as a consumer/producer—no matter how frustratingly delicious this task may be.
It turns out that gardening isn’t entirely the romanticized straw-hat vision I once thought it was. I’ve already had to replant and repot after an anonymous critter went wild digging up my seeds. I tried to chase him away (I’ve decided it’s a him) using chili flakes and orange peels to know avail; next it was onto organic peppery spray, until finally, I relented into ugly ass chicken wire fencing. The wire keeps the critters away, but the slugs still slink into my garden and eat up my lettuce leaves. I’ve since taken up a weekly six-pack habit, pouring a Tupperware filled with PBR for the slugs to drown in each night. It makes for gruesome work in the mornings when I go out to water the beds and count the dead (slugs that is), but I like to think it gives me some measure of authenticity as a gardener. Right?
Weeding is another ball of wax entirely. I don’t mind it actually; it’s as close as I get to my romanticized vision, if you replace the straw-hat with industrial strength knee pads. I’m just never quite sure what is a weed and what is a seed that has begun to sprout. I fret and dither with each weed I pull, looking online for images: What does a serrano pepper seedling look like? Is this a baby candy cane beet or an imposter weed trying to pass as a root vegetable? Ultimately, I make my best guess, sure that I’ve pulled up some darling dill seedlings as well as dandelions along the way, but hopeful that I’ve cleared enough space for my remaining plants to take root and grow. And grow they have!
I’ve harvested my first batch of mustard greens and am closing in on my second. My rainbow chard is about ready to pick, as are my watermelon radishes and dinosaur kale. My tomato plants have grown tall, and my snap pea vines have begun to blossom. In the coming weeks, I can do little but coax, water and weed them into bearing fruit, as I likewise cajole my herbs to grow bountifully ready for mealtime plucking. Tomato-basil marinara, dill-spiked spring pea pancakes and five-herb green goddess crudités dip are just some of dinner designs I have in mind. Fresh herbs impart a delicate flavor boost that make a homemade meal sing with the spice blend of your choosing, and I am eager to build upon that promise with the addition of my homegrown herbs.
Herbs aren’t just sprouting in my home garden; bundles of them are flowering at farmers’ markets and giving off the clean fresh scent of early summer. Officially arriving in June, fresh herbs continue to mark their presence throughout the season, only growing in numbers. The options seem endless; dill, thyme, basil, parsley, cilantro, rosemary, mint, bay leaf, oregano, sage and chives, are but the heavy hitters. More exotic herbs like chocolate mint and lemon balm, Thai basil and licorice-y tarragon are my go-to flavor bombs when looking to spice up standard summer vegetable fare.
In the weeks before summer squash and heirloom tomatoes take center stage at farmer’s markets across the country, bundles of salad greens, edible weeds and fresh herbs will stake their territory in savory abundance. Each can be adapted to accentuate a dish or act as its centerpiece, but basil may be the most noble of these shape-shifters—and my personal favorite. It hold’s its own in a simple caprese platter or can stand in for less flavorful lettuces in a chopped salad. Use it to garnish a pizza, a lasagna or a cocktail, or grind it with garlic, pine nuts, parmigiano-reggiano and olive oil to make pesto. Either way, the taste is honest and true. Herbs like basil help define the natural, unpretentious taste of summer.
These days, dried and fresh herbs both can be found year round in grocery stores, but nothing compares to just cut chives or recently snipped mint leaves pulled straight out of the earth. You can harvest or forage or shop for fresh herbs, and when you find yourself with more herbs than you know what to do with, freeze them. They can be frozen in water to make ornamental ice cubes for an herbaceous iced tea or lemonade, or saved in a freezer bag to be incorporated later into a sauce or stock. Try fresh tarragon and chives on a side of roast salmon for a time sensitive entrée that offers unfussy, intense flavor. A chicken thrown into the oven or onto a grill is made all the more splendid with a few sprigs of rosemary, sage, thyme and sliced citrus stuffed under its skin and into its cavity. Dill adds Mediterranean flare to what can otherwise be one-note potato salad, whereas my fennel pollen crusted pork loin marries a unique combination of anise flavors with mustard seeds, chili flakes and lavender.
Waking in the morning to see that my basil plants still stand is a uniquely fortifying feeling, as is relishing the woodsy flavor of the fresh-picked thyme I sprinkle atop the quail egg toasts I make for breakfast. Herbs are proof of nature’s knowledge that it takes little more than seeds, water and sun to make an herbalicious meal.