By Richard Frost, for Let’s Talk Plants! May 2023. Part l originally appeared in Let’s Talk Plants! May 2009, No. 176 and Part ll in June 2009, No. 177.
Green Veggies and Herbs for Every Garden, Part l
One of the joys of my vocation is working with hundreds of kinds of herbs and vegetables. This month I want to share with you several varieties that I feel are under-represented in home gardens and everyday meals.
I prefer growing lettuce in a pot. Prune the desired amount of leaf right before your meal, rinse them off and place in your salad spinner to remove excess moisture. In addition to the standard varieties, try Red Sails lettuce for the added anthocyanins, and mild-tasting Mache that is loved by people of all ages.
Now I think salad is more interesting with added greens. Use Salad Burnett leaves for a mild cucumber flavor. Tender young leaves of Chard, Kale, and Spinach are a good addition. Leaves of Shiso and Heal All are also likely not to offend anyone’s tastes. When it becomes too hot to grow Spinach, switch to Amaranth Leaf.
Arugula has almost become a salad staple in southern California. The Roquette and Runway varieties develop into large dandelion-size plants which become stronger and more sour in taste with age. The Sylvetta variety is more compact and develops a strong pepper taste with age. For a more peppery taste there is the relatively mild Chicory, the moderate Endive, the stronger Frisée, and the pungent Radicchio.
For people who like sour greens there is the mild Red-Veined Sorrel, the stronger French Sorrel, and the pungent Asian Mustard Greens. For European mustard flavors there is Water Cress leaf (Nasturtium officinalis), Curly Cress, and my favorite: Upland Cress. Use these in a fish sandwich, stir fry, or any place you like mustard.
Some people like Chervil (aka French Parsley) instead of the standard Italian Parsley. But why grow either of these annuals when you can have the perennial Mitsuba – Japanese Parsley, Cryptotaenia japonica? Along these same lines, the annual Cutting Celery, Apium graveolens cultivar, is less fibrous and better tasting than standard celery – a great substitute in any situation. But you could be growing the perennial Chinese Celery, Oenanthe javanica, year-round! And for that matter, if you don’t mind a hint of anise flavor, the perennial Lovage is also an excellent choice.
Did you know that the native peoples of the Americas use Epazote in the same way that Europeans used Celery? Use it as a substitute – in moderation, and you will cause just about any dish with celery to change continents. Likewise, the culinary Cleveland Sage will add a southwestern flair to any recipe calling for Sage. For the traditional sage flavor chefs will choose the Berggarten cultivar, but the giant Holts Mammoth Sage and colorful Purple Sage are said to be its equal in blind taste tests.
For Tarragon lovers, it has to be French Tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus. If this is too tart for you, consider Spanish Tarragon, Tagetes lucida, which is in the Marigold group of Daisies. But if you would like even more zest, it is the perennial Winter Savory for you – a beautiful dark green plant that works well in a pot or a planter. I think the tarragon flavor goes well with most foods, including omelets, pastas, and even roasts.
Hopefully, this has gotten your taste buds warmed up. Next month I will add more to this subject, so plan on having one heck of a good thyme!
Green Veggies and Herbs for Every Garden, Part II
If you want to have a really good thyme in your garden, I recommend you taste your herbs before buying them. Go ahead – break off a leaf and taste the plant you are considering. Smelling them is not good enough because culinary herbs usually taste differently than they smell.
Now for Thyme in particular, please taste-test ‘Mother Of Thyme,’ ‘English Thyme,’ and ‘Golden Lemon Thyme.’ For specialty applications such as herb bread or confections, you might also consider one of the many other thyme varieties such as ‘Coconut’ or ‘Orange Spice.’
For Dill, go with Stephan Facciola’s suggestion of ‘Superdukat’ (see Cornucopia II, Vista Press). Since Dill looks similar to Sweet Fennel, grow these plants in separate areas. A third notable herb with feather-leaf textures is Delfino Cilantro – a 2006 All-American selection that lives longer and provides a larger harvest than the standard variety.
To go with your feathery herbs, you might as well grow some spiky things like Chives and Scallions. They not only provide zest to a wide range of dishes, but also add interesting texture, colorful blooms, and scent to the garden.
Speaking of sweet things, most of you will probably grow Sweet Basil. But have you tried other annual basil cultivars like ‘Blue Spice,’ ‘Lime,’ and ‘Red Rubin’? (Warning – there are as many varieties of Basil as there are Tomatoes.) Further, did you know that the flower buds contain more oil than the leaves? Let the buds develop ½ to 1 inch in length and then make fresh pesto or dry them for sprinkles. If you don’t like the buds, you should still remove them from the annual varieties to prolong the life of the plant. Finally, if you are growing the perennial basil varieties ‘Blue African’ or the peppery ‘Greek Columnar,’ then you can let these blossoms grow to a full 6 or 8 inches without worry of the plants terminating.
When it comes to Oreganos, there are opinions as strong as the herb can be in taste. The standard kind that you find generically labeled in U.S. supermarkets is ‘Italian.’ On the milder, sweeter side is ‘Sweet Oregano,’ which many people know by the name ‘Marjoram.’ The white oregano cultivar ‘Kaliteri’ is even milder but with a traditional oregano taste. For regular oregano with a peppery taste, try ‘Greek’ (a small bite will be sufficient for most people). The middle eastern variety ‘Za’atar’ is the main ingredient of a sauce of the same name and has pleasant cumin-like overtones. The most pungent oregano I have ever tried is ‘Syrian,’ which will stand out in almost any dish. In impoverished regions from Turkey through Pakistan, people eat two or three meals a day of wild Syrian oregano ‘salad’ gathered from the hillsides.
If you enjoy making teas and flavored drinks, then there are mints, mints, and more mints to entice your taste buds. In my non-rigorous poll, the white mint cultivar ‘Mojito’ is popular with almost everyone and the hands-down winner. The second runner-up for teas is the spearmint cultivar called ‘The Best.’ Another popular spearmint cultivar is ‘Mint Julep.’ On the culinary side, ‘Chocolate,’ ‘Lavender,’ and ‘Orange’ are in strong demand. Mint is very invasive and should be grown in a pot on a hard surface (so that roots coming out of the bottom of the pot can’t root in soil).
For natural sweeteners, you can grow Stevia and the Verbena relative Aztec Sweet Herb. I prefer the latter because it is a bit hardier in our climate and is beautiful flowing out of a pot or mounding in the garden. Stevia may also be contraindicated for some medical conditions.