I garden for one reason: the sheer delight and utility of always having what I want to eat available outside my door. Not outside my door as in a “There’s a store down on the corner and this is why I live in the city” kind of way, but in a “I can always pull a carrot, onion and some celery from my yard at 10 p.m. if I feel like cooking” kind of way.
Such is the point of planting fresh herbs. It’s hard to justify buying fresh herbs when you often only need a sprig. Back when I would purchase them, they always seemed to go bad before I used them up; they were expensive, and it felt like a waste. Now that I have them at my disposal in the garden, I put fresh herbs in and on every damn thing. So dedicated am I to this idea, that when I visit another city for more than a few weeks, I will bring a cheap planter and plonk a few herb starts in them to keep outside the front door for dill or basil emergencies. (Yes, those are real things.)
In the herb world, you’ve got your hardier perennial herbs like rosemary, oregano and sage, and you won’t be able to kill those, even if you try. Then there are your tender herbs—basil, cilantro, parsley and dill—which I would argue are your higher target, superior herbs. They are also the herbs that will notoriously bolt, and have to be replanted over and over all season– unless you follow some sage gardening wisdom: Use ‘em or lose ‘em.
Once planted, all of these tender herbs will grow up one main stem and grow leaves off that main stem. Without intervention, they will continue to grow up, but not out, and eventually form a flower and go to seed. Once that flower starts, the plant has bolted, and there’s little more to be done than replant, starting over.
The work begins well before then—soon after you plant. We want to encourage your herb to branch, forming many stems, instead of one. This creates a stronger plant. To do that, you want to cut back the main stem to just above a node. For plants like basil, this is how we keep the plant from going to seed. It also means you end up with a basil harvest every few days.
For bushier plants like dill, parsley and cilantro, you can take a less careful approach by simply hacking them back. That’s right, take your scissors and just cut them back to two or three inches above the soil line, on the regular. This will encourage them to grow in fuller, and keep them from going to seed.
Using these methods, you’ll have your herbs around for far longer, and in more abundance. It also means you have to use those herbs, so here are a few ideas on how to do so.
Our Italian friend is the culinary equivalent of “say less.” The next time you find yourself looking quizzically around the kitchen, basil in hand, pick up a tomato and some mozzarella, and make yourself some caprese. If you want to think about it harder, pesto is always the solution, because you can make it quickly, incrementally, and store it in the freezer for the rest of the year. Basil dries okay, but I’ve never been compelled to use dry basil, not once.
Easily my favorite child in the herb family, I can always find a place for extra dill in the kitchen. Any vegetable is made better by some chopped fresh dill on top, and it is the perfect herb for fish or seafood. Since you’ll make pickles incrementally as your garden spits out produce, having fresh dill nearby is handy. Dill dries excellently, and is one of my most used dried herbs. Throw it into sour cream for an instant dip. Even when not used for taste, it really is a beautiful visual garnish to add sprinkle on almost anything.
These flat and curly cousins are culinarily (and criminally) underrated. Most people think of parsley as a tasteless, mostly visual accoutrement, but I will fight them to the death over this notion. Parsley has a slightly sweet, herbaceous freshness to it, and a spectacular bite. I am so willing to die on this hill that I grow both curly and flat parsley. While the taste remains largely the same, the texture or each is unique, and I have entirely different uses for each of them. Curly parsley gives body to pasta salads, and is the only parsley I’d even consider for tabbouleh. Flat parsley is a more dignified herb, destined to lay between thinly sliced potatoes, or get shuffled into the mixed greens of a summer salad. Chiffonade it into soups or make parsley oil, a springy green drizzle that pops on a plate and will make your dish feel extra fancy.
To fulfill its destiny, most cilantro must be married to tomatoes, garlic and peppers in pursuit of salsa. The upside is that in summer, it’s easy to throw together a quick salsa from the garden. But cilantro, like parsley, can be a lot more. It’s got great crunch, particularly in the stems, which I highly advise you see as part of the herb and use. My favorite use of a handful of cilantro is as a green addition to a pasta salad; the crunchiness is a perfect foil to pasta.
Blitz it All
When in doubt, the answer is to turn these herbs into a green goddess dressing, chimichurri sauce, or herb oil. In all three cases, you’re taking the herbs around you and chopping them with an allium, either garlic or shallots, vinegar, and oil (or just oil). Brazilian chimichurri is looser, and designed as a sauce for grilled proteins. Green goddess is a thicker emulsion and is a rare treat for summer, either on a proper salad, or as a dip for crudite, even when it’s as simple as sliced cucumbers.
Staying on top of your herbs with weekly haircuts will keep your herbs hanging around all season. They will eventually bolt anyways, and in some cases, like dill, that will happen around pickling season. Replacing them less often, and increasing the yield will make for an easier summer, while encouraging you to make better use of herbs in your daily meals.