There’s nothing like the flavor that fresh herbs add to dishes. It’s why restaurants such as Rendezvous in Cambridge, 51 Lincoln in Newton, and dbar in Dorchester grow their own on their premises, and why Poor Richard’s Almanack proclaimed “Much Virtue in Herbs, Little in Men.”
Luckily, if you have a sunny window or spot on a patio, yard, or balcony, they’re easy to grow in a container.
Choose a planter that’s deep and wide; a window box 8- or 10-inches wide and deep will hold moisture longer and let plants root deeper than the average 6-by-6. For good drainage, line the container with a layer of rocks or shards from a busted-up terracotta pot. Then fill it to within a few inches of the top with a planting mix with plenty of vermiculite or perlite, with a small handful of an organic, balanced fertilizer added in. (The balance refers to the numbers on the bag, which give the concentration of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. You want something like a 5-5-5, rather than a 10-0-0.) If you have compost or humus handy, add a big handful or two of that, too. Tamp the soil down a bit before you start planting.
The best herbs to plant are the ones you cook with most. Parsley, culinary (not creeping) thyme, Greek oregano, chives, and rosemary are easiest to grow, and dwarf basil is short enough that it won’t overshadow everything else. Visually, a mix of mass, height, froth, and sprawl is most effective. Oregano is good for mass; upright chives give height; parsley adds froth; and sprawl comes from creeping rosemary or nasturtiums, which add a dash of color and a peppery bite to salads. To fill the pot, tuck in arugula or other lettuce between the herbs and harvest the leaves as the bigger plants spread.
Look for healthy plants with just a little bit of root showing at the bottom of the pot — it’s a sign they haven’t been forced with an overdose of fertilizer. If a plant is pot-bound, gently tease out the roots a little before planting. Tuck the soil firmly around, not on top of, each plant to get rid of air pockets that could dry out the roots. Don’t buy so many plants that you crowd the container; leave some room for what you have to grow through the season. When everything’s done, give the whole container a good watering, and top it off with a half-inch or so of buckwheat hulls or other mulch.
The herbs will benefit from regular doses of well-diluted liquid seaweed, but watering is key. Sam Bradford, the garden shop manager at Wilson Farm in Lexington, recommends a good drenching once a week, but “it’s hands-on,” he says. In a heat wave or for planters that stand on light-reflecting stone, increase the frequency.
Most importantly, use your herbs regularly, at three times the volume of dried herbs (basically, a tablespoon of fresh herbs for a teaspoon of dried). Pinching back the shoots cues the plants to keep producing tender new growth, and gives you a steady source.
“Their flavor is brighter, greener, fresher,” says Steve Johnson of Rendezvous. “When they’re dried they lose that fresh component that is part of the joy of cooking in season.”
Describing the difference between fresh and dried, Jeffrey Fournier, chef-owner of 51 Lincoln, says, “It’s very ethereal, it’s hard to put your hands on. But you know that it’s much better.”