The best herbs for containers

When it comes to herbs for growing indoors, we are rich in choice. Almost every plant nursery or greenhouse has a selection of starter plants intended for the garden but just as suitable for indoors. The catalogues and websites of seed companies will give you even more ideas.

Alas, indoor growing space is limited. And if indoor herb gardening is new to you, you would want to start with just a few plants.

Here are some criteria you can use to narrow down your decision of what to grow:

Herbs that are better fresh than dried

Fresh herbs and their dried equivalents are like two different products. Almost always, fresh is more intensely flavoured due to essential oils. These oils evaporate in the drying process. With evaporation goes some of the nutrition and potential health benefits as well.

This doesn’t mean that fresh herbs are always superior. For instance dried basil has a distinctive flavour that you would not want to replace with fresh basil. I’m thinking of marinades that cling to grilled meats. Or cubes of chicken tossed in a dressing of lemon, basil, and olive oil, and then skewered and placed on the grill. Fresh basil simply would not work.

On the other hand, the soft-stemmed herbs, like parsley, chives and chervil, are almost useless when dried. And many people dislike dried rosemary for its pine-needle texture.

Herbs that are expensive to keep fresh on hand

It feels bad enough throwing out old dried spices (which should be done every year). It feels even worse throwing out unfinished fresh thyme, sage, and rosemary (all in clamshell packaging) from your refrigerator every few weeks.

Fresh basil spoils quickly. Store-bought basil is meant to be used within a day or two.

For some reason, parsley can only be purchased in large bunches. If you don’t use it all up, say in tabbouleh with a handful of mint, you can chop it up and freeze it in ice cube trays. However, if you want just a few sprigs or a tablespoon chopped from time to time, it’s costly to keep a bagful in the refrigerator all the time.

Herbs that you would use

Much of modern North American cooking has its roots in Europe, particularly France and Italy. (I think we stopped thinking of Italian cuisine as ethnic some time ago.) Most of the vegetables we use, the way we prepare meats, and the sauces we dress them up with, are enhanced by herbs that are grown in these regions. And so we look to those cuisines for the herbs that we are likely to use to enhance our own cooking.

Consider the bouquet garni—the flavour component in homemade stock. Stock is used widely in many manners of cooking—from soups, stews, and sauces, to deglazing, poaching, and steaming. And what does the bouquet garni generally consist of? Parsley, thyme, and bay leaves. In Provence, they include rosemary. In the Italian version, mazetto, savory might be added.

In Italian commercial seasoning mixes, you will find oregano, sage, marjoram, rosemary, and thyme. In Herbes de Provence you will find thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, basil, savory, and lavender.

Now what would you like to drink? If you like caffeine-free tea, or tisanes, or you would like to put something refreshing in your water bottle, there’s mint and lemon verbena.

What I am growing right now

When I was a child (in the mid 20th Century), we had Christmas dinner one year at my the farm of my great-aunt Lillian, on the western Canadian prairies. Vegetables at that time of year tended to be mainly roots, cabbages, and anything canned from the previous summer. I watched Aunt Lillian walk over to a potted plant in her kitchen window (overlooking a landscape covered in several feet of snow, as I remember it). She plucked some sprigs from the plant and arranged them around a jellied salad.

Aunt Lillian, of Calmar, Alberta, kept a potted parsley in her kitchen all winter long.

“Oh, what a good idea,” my grandmother remarked. “Much better than buying parsley–so much goes to waste.” “Yes,” said Lillian, “It was easy. I just dug it up in the fall and put it in the pot.”

I remember thinking at the time, why doesn’t everybody do this?

Oddly, I grow parsley in my little herb garden outside, but I have never brought it inside. Here’s what I am growing instead:

Rosemary – Three years ago I bought the plant from a plant nursery and repotted it into a somewhat larger terracotta pot. The last two years it has bloomed pretty blue flowers indoors. It spends the summers outside on the deck. All year round, I harvest a branch at a time, for roasted potatoes or to make olive rosemary bread.

Thyme – This is another plant I bought at the nursery, and it also spends its summers outside. I use a sprig at a time in a soup, stew, home-made stock (what they are calling “bone broth” these days), or sauteed cabbage.

Lemon Verbena – I bought this plant last summer. When I brought it inside, it lost all its leaves. I pruned it harshly, and it is growing back. A few leaves in tea or ice water is delicious.

In smaller pots, I have just planted seeds–basil, sage, and, of course, parsley.

Thanks, Aunt Lillian, for giving me the idea.

 

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