The finishing touch on a farm-to-table dish is the newly clipped herb, which garnishes salads, pasta and fish courses on restaurant tables nationwide. For home cooks who don't have the yard space to grow heirloom tomatoes and carrots, an herb garden is a simple way to add freshness and color to any meal.
"Herbs are pretty easy ... [they] don't need as much light as vegetables," says Megan McHugh, co-creator of Pistil and Stamen Flower Farm and Studio. "If you have good soil, other issues that are involved in herbs are relatively minimal."
Though herbs can be grown indoors, McHugh says an outdoor garden helps plants receive the light, water and nutrients that allow them to thrive. Outdoor arrangements pave the way for the continued growth of biennials like parsley and sage, which will grow for two years, as well as plants that last from year to year.
"One main benefit of [herb gardening] outdoors is that you can cultivate a lot of perennial herbs, which are herbs that are not annual, so they last indefinitely," McHugh says. "For example, rosemary is a real winner; you can just stick that into the ground and it will grow into a bush in a year's time — also oregano, lavender [and] tarragon are really good ones. [Tarragon] needs a lot of space but it's really awesome."
Herb gardens often fall into two categories: container gardens and bed gardens. Either should be set up in a partially shaded area that receives up to six hours of indirect morning light. Since container gardens don't have access to water retained in the soil, they'll need water every day, but they carry certain advantages: They can be moved easily in bad weather or if problems arise with their location. Containers also confine plants like mint, which grow aggressively and can choke out other herbs.
Bed gardens are raised structures with a planting medium mixed for optimal growth. For all arrangements, McHugh says a nourishing medium is key for productive output. Experienced gardeners use everything from the ash from burned-off sugar cane, high-quality pine chips, blood and bone meal, sand and chicken manure to create their planting medium.
"If you buy [soil] in bags from a store, nothing will grow in it," she says. "A lot of bag soils are not really soil yet; they're just sand mixed with mulch. I would add compost to any soil I buy in a bag from the store.
"There's also [a technique called] cover crop, where you plant a bunch of peas and other nitrogen-producing things in the box and it'll be more nutrient-rich when you plant the herbs." Over the summer, established beds or in-ground gardens should be watered once every few days.
Louisiana's temperate climate means gardeners can grow herbs year-round. Plant dill, parsley, fennel and cilantro alongside broccoli in the fall, and move on to other herbs in spring, the main growing season.
"This time of year is great for almost all herbs," says Babs Choppala of Harold's Plants. "[In spring] we can get whatever a customer is wanting, with [more available] at this time of year than at other times. Basil will grow well all summer, but it doesn't like cold weather. ... [At this time of year] fennel and dill can be frail."
Well-stocked nurseries offer the most variety, as they carry everything from mint to curry plants, lemongrass, the stevia plant called sugarbush and exotically named hybrids like magic carpet thyme and red beard bunching onion. Cultivated flavored plants, such as chocolate or pineapple mint, add an extra dimension to a finished dish.
Other unexpected benefits to herbs include a flowering stage with edible blooms. Some flowers (like certain nasturtiums, chrysanthemums and borage) also are edible and attract pollinators such as bees. If the flowers remain on the plant and die, trim them off. This process is called deadheading. Choppala says regular trimming encourages growth, as long as the trimmings aren't taken from the very bottom of the plant.
For yardless gardeners who yearn for fresh herbs to sprinkle over soup, indoor herb gardening is a solution. Windows that receive lots of high-quality light are best. The kitchen also is a good place to start herbs from seeds, as the even temperatures will help establish the seedlings and protect them from the vicissitudes of Louisiana weather. Herbs can be started from seeds any time between late October and Easter, though Choppala says novice gardeners may have more success buying young plants from the nursery.
McHugh says an outdoor, dappled-shade garden is the most promising starting point for gardening neophytes.
"If you're not a super-attentive gardener and you've never done it before, putting the garden in part shade is the best bet for you, just because that's the most forgiving situation," she says.