Room to Grow: If you’ve got a little extra space, pick these herbs

Say “kitchen garden” and think of tomato vines loaded with slow-ripening fruits, tidy rows of frilly green lettuce, ferny carrot tops signaling great happenings below, cucumbers dangling from groaning trellises. Or think a little differently. The most important plants in your kitchen garden may be the culinary herbs.

Fortunately, you don’t need a backyard to grow these perishable ingredients. One of my great-great-aunts used to grow herbs in little pots on the windowsills of her gloomy rented rooms facing Osage Avenue. She would snip dainty sprigs of basil, oregano and thyme and use them to flavor the pots of vegetable soup bubbling away on her stove. (She then bottled the soup and gave it away – I remember fishing out the okra.)

If you’re limited to a windowsill, stick to the standards: basil, chives, mint, oregano and thyme. But if you have a little more room – a sunny patio for containers, a yard, even a rooftop – experiment with a new herb (or two or five) this summer. You won’t regret it.

We asked local cooks and gardeners what herbs they’re excited about growing and cooking with this year. Here are some of the most noteworthy:

Anthriscus cerefolium

Know it: The beautiful ferny leaves of chervil carry a slight anise flavor, similar to tarragon. The plant is short and moundy, then erupts into gauzy white flower once hot weather arrives. Look for it at Bowood Farms in the Central West End.
Grow it: Chervil is a cool-season annual, so plant and use it before hot weather arrives. It’s one of the few herbs that will tolerate shade, making it useful for kitchen gardeners with shadowy yards.

Use it: Chef David Kirkland of Café Osage, the restaurant at Bowood Farms, plans to use chervil as a garnish, particularly on seasonal risottos. “We’ll chop it up and use it as we do dill,” he said. “It has that same kind of [mouth-awakening] flavor.” Chervil’s soft fragrance and gentle taste are quickly released, so add it at the last moment before serving.

Coriandrum sativum Delfino

Know it: Delfino is a reliably fine-leaved variety of cilantro. Chris Schaul of Wine Country Gardens in Defiance hopes that this variety will reduce her chopping time. “Right now,” she said, “I groan when a recipe calls for a cup of chopped cilantro because I know I’ll be out of commission for a half hour or so.” Delfino, however, can easily be snipped into tiny pieces with scissors.

Grow it: Cilantro is another cool-season herb for spring and fall growing. Schaul said that Delfino is no harder to grow than regular cilantro, but it’s a prettier plant. Babette Briagas, who buys the herbs for Frisella Nursery in Defiance, grew Delfino in her own garden last year and it didn’t go yellow and leggy as quickly as the more well-known strain. Give cilantro full sun and well-drained soil.

Use it: Because cilantro doesn’t tolerate St. Louis’ summer heat, Shaul warned not to expect it to last until tomato season. Rather, she suggested using Delfino in stir-fries or as an unconventional pesto. “I make a killer spicy shrimp with cilantro,” she said.

Cymbopogon citratus

Know it: You’ve probably encountered lemongrass in Thai restaurants. You might even have picked up some stems for use in your kitchen. But have you seen it in a garden? Briagas has grown lemongrass for years. “It looks like pampas grass,” she said. “In fact, I’ve even had people pick it up thinking it was pampas grass.” Chef Christopher Bork of Revival on the Near South Side has used lemongrass frequently in the past and is going to try growing it himself this year. Sounds like lemongrass has a bright future in the garden and the kitchen.

Grow it: Lemongrass is lovely to look upon – it makes a shimmering fountain of green blades as attractive as any ornamental grass. Give it full sun and rich soil for best results. Lemongrass is not winter-hardy in the St. Louis area.
Use it: When it comes to lemongrass and other lemony herbs, “I don’t restrict myself,” Bork said. “I particularly like [lemony flavors] with lamb.” One recent preparation was salmon in an aromatic marinade flavored with cilantro, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and shallots. What wouldn’t be good steeped in such a fragrant mélange?

Levisticum officinale

Know it: Lovage has found few friends, not because of its character or taste, but simply because of a lack of exposure. Who wouldn’t welcome an easy-grow herb that smells like smoked celery? Plant lovage and stump your know-it-all foodie friends. (“What was that in the salad?”)

Grow it: Lovage is a hardy perennial herb with thick, hollow stalks and coarse, celery-like leaves. Ellen Barredo of Bowood Farms suggested planting it in afternoon shade and rich, moist soil.

Use it: Lovage’s distinctive flavor makes it useful in a wide variety of preparations. Kirkland plans to use it in Café Osage’s Bloody Marys. “We’re always trying to improve our Bloody Mary mix,” he said, “and I think [lovage’s] nice sour-pickly taste will really work there.”

Mentha x villosa

Know it: This beautiful fuzzy mint is the authentic flavoring for mojitos, those classic Caribbean concoctions of lime juice and rum. Barredo said that this is the mint favored by America’s most famous mojito drinker, Ernest Hemingway.

Grow it: Mint’s vigor is legendary and this suave creeper is no different. Plant it in a container on the patio so that you can pluck sprigs without wandering out into the garden. While they’ll tolerate shade, mints generally grow best with plenty of sunshine and moisture.

Use it: According to Barredo, the authentic mint does make a difference in the taste of a mojito. “It’s softer and less sweet,” she said. Café Osage will be offering a mojito made with this mint once the plants get large enough to begin harvesting.