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NUTS & BOLTS : A How-To For Homeowners : With Effort, Fresh Herbs Can Be Near as the Garden

July 28, 1990|PATRICK MOTT

Don't let that comradely, 500-watt, slopping-over-with-hospitality smile that cookbook authors press onto their faces for the dust cover photo make you lower your guard. These people are sadists.

Sure, the lists of ingredients at the top of the recipes make you get all Pavlovian, and you leap straight for the stove to lash together the perfect herb-chicken saute. But, as the $10-a-bottle olive oil and the clarified butter sizzle in the pan, and you turn back to the cookbook with dried herbs in hand, ready to follow the directions and sprinkle the supremes de poulet with preserved greenery, you read this: "Do not, under any circumstances, use dried herbs in this dish! If you do, the chicken will taste like floor sweepings and anyone who eats it will choke and die. Also, you will be revealed to the world as the villainous cook you really are. All herbs must be absolutely fresh!"

At this point you can 1) continue using the dried stuff, phoning the book publishers in mid-saute to tell them the author is a pompous blowhard; 2) sling a little Marsala wine into the pan and save the day with the best booze-chicken combo ever invented, or 3) pluck a fistful of fresh herbs from your own personal herb garden and defiantly press on.

You don't need a lot of handy space if you want to go with that last choice, just a lot of available sunlight, which, conveniently, is plentiful around here. You can grow them in any sunny plot of ground, but it's also possible to grow a tasty crop in an outdoor window box, said Kent Taylor, owner of Taylor's Herb Gardens in Vista.

(You can grow your herbs indoors, Taylor said, but "they do their best outside, in an outside box or something where you can give them plenty of light and water.")

"I've taken planter boxes about 1 foot by 1 foot by 20 inches long and put in six or eight herbs, which is really crowding it," Taylor said. "But you can do that, and it'll be good from now until about Christmas, when they'll start to crowd each other out. Generally, you want to put them about a foot apart."

Commercially available potting soil works well in the outdoor box, Taylor said.

Beyond that, he said, all the herbs generally need is direct sunlight and plenty of water. And, about six weeks after you start the plants in the box, you'll be ready to harvest the sprigs of most herbs and toss them over that chicken you've been dying to cook.

Taylor said his nursery can supply seeds or plants for 130 varieties of herbs, both annuals and perennials, at a cost of about $1.35 for each plant. Here are a few of the more common ones that are worth considering:

Basil. Since America went crazy for pesto sauce, people can't seem to get enough of this one. And many cookbook writers become almost fanatical about the use of fresh versus dried leaves. It's an annual and thrives, in a truly happy coincidence of nature, at almost exactly the same time that tomatoes become their ripest. Plant the basil and tomatoes at the same time, and you'll never have to walk more than a few steps for the freshest of all pasta sauces.

Dill. Another trendy yet worthy herb. Plant it in full sun, water it well, and you can harvest it throughout the spring and summer. This one is relatively short-lived, but it's easy to grow from seeds.

Tarragon. Another spring-and-summer herb, you can buy this plant from a garden center or nursery. It should be watered only during summer dry spells.

Thyme. A perennial, similar to tarragon, that should be watered in about the same way.

Oregano. Another essential in Italian cookery. It needs full sun and lots of water and can be harvested from spring to winter.

Parsley. Buy this one in plant rather than seed form. Plant it in the early spring, keep it well watered, particularly in summer, and harvest it from late spring to late fall.

Coriander. If you love Mexican food, you also know this one as cilantro. It's another one that is easy to grow from seeds.

Some good news: Southern California weather is generally kind to herbs of many sorts, and plants such as rosemary, which is an annual in the northern states, can be grown and harvested for longer periods here.

More good news: Take a look at those recipes that call for herbs, and you'll notice that many of them also include garlic. According to Taylor, garlic does well in planter boxes alongside herbs. Even though it's a bulb, garlic is small enough that it won't crowd the herbs in the box if planted properly, he said.

Still more good news: You may find yourself heading for the herb garden instead of the medicine chest. Eucalyptus and thyme tend to loosen dry coughs, lavender oil rubbed on the temples can soothe tension headaches, and garlic can protect the respiratory and digestive systems against infection and help lower high blood pressure. Mint can also be a digestive aid.

The inevitable drawback: a window box full of irises beats heck out of a box full of chives as a thing of beauty. But if your dinner guests wrinkle up their noses at your herb garden, put a little cream-of-daffodil-petal sauce on their salmon fillet. Stiff 'em on the fresh dill.

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