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Seasonings in the Sun : Cooks Harvest Fresh Accents From a Garden of Herbs


For the gardener who loves to cook, few tasks are more pleasurable than harvesting dinner from the garden.

"It's a lot more fulfilling and nutritional to spend an hour cooking dinner with fresh herbs and vegetables from my garden than it is to get fast food or pull out a TV dinner," says Dee Johnston of Laguna Hills, who grew up on a farm in New Jersey and says she rarely opens a can or box when preparing meals.

Cody Reynolds, chef at Diva restaurant in Costa Mesa, concurs. "The flavor and texture of vine-ripened vegetables and freshly cut herbs in your food is far superior to anything you could ever buy," he says.

Fresh herbs can make food come alive, says Johnston, who is also an RN and vice president of clinical services at ABC Children's Home Care in Mission Viejo. "When you cook with herbs, you don't need a lot of salt," she says. "Herbs can entirely change the flavor of food."

If you want to enjoy cooking with fresh herbs and vegetables, plant a cook's garden.

Although all gardens vary according to each cook's taste, most have a few standard herbs, including basil, coriander, dill, sage, tarragon, Italian parsley, mint, oregano, rosemary, thyme, coriander (cilantro), marjoram, chervil (a mild member of the parsley family), fennel, anise, chamomile, garlic, chives, onions and hot peppers.

You may also want to include some more exotic, lesser known plants, such as those found at the Ritz-Carlton herb garden in Dana Point. Landscape manager Philip Sellick created the garden three months ago. It contains more than 40 herbs regularly used by chefs for the resort's five restaurants and for cooking classes there.

In addition to basic herbs, the Ritz-Carlton herb garden has pineapple sage, English and French lavender, licorice, lemon and coconut thyme, Joseph's coat, horseradish and lemon grass.

Other necessary additions to your garden include lettuce, which can be grown just about year-round here. Reynolds recommends red oak leaf, green oak leaf, Boston bib and red romaine.

"I also think lemon and lime trees are important, as well as seasonal vegetables like tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, gold/bar zucchini, red and green bell peppers and strawberries," he says.

Cool weather seasonal vegetables for a cook's garden include cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, carrots and onions.

Thanks to our mild weather, most herbs will grow outside year-round, except in January and February, when nighttime temperatures drop, Sellick says. During these cold months, outdoor perennial herb plants tend to become dormant, and annuals are prone to freezing.

During nippy weather, you can enjoy herbs by growing them indoors, says Diane Grace, manager of the Pay Less Drug Store nursery in Rancho Santa Margarita. She suggests that you plant indoors now because of the fluctuations in temperatures in the late summer and fall.

"Herbs grow better in a controlled atmosphere," she says. "Indoors you don't have to worry about winds or cool nights and hot days."

Many herbs can be planted from seed, although the process is slow. Grace suggests planting four-inch plants at this time of year, especially if you're planting outdoors. "They're big enough to take hold and grow fairly rapidly," she says.

Many nurseries carry a variety of herbs; if you can't find a type, inquire about special ordering, Grace says. Or try a nursery that specializes in herbs, such as Heard's Country Gardens in Westminster.

It's important that your herb garden, whether indoors or out, gets lots of sun.

Of course, the closer the garden is to your kitchen, the better.

"Put your herb garden in pots in your kitchen or right outside your kitchen door," says Johnston, who has herbs in the atrium window of her kitchen and in an outdoor garden.

Some herbs can be used as landscape plants like hedges, Reynolds says. Good picks for this are rosemary, thyme and lavender.

When planting herbs and bulbs such as garlic and onions, it's important to place them in loose soil.

If your herb garden will be outdoors, Sellick suggests that you consider raised beds or add generous amendments. "Peat and perlite do a good job loosening up heavy clay soil," he says.

When planting herbs in containers, don't pack the soil, Grace says. "Just pat the soil loosely around the plants. You want the water to be able to drain quickly."

Don't crowd herbs into containers, she says. Plant one four-inch plant in a six-inch pot, or plant four four-inch plants in a redwood window box of 24 to 26 inches.

Many herbs are perennial and will grow year after year. These include tarragon, mint, winter savory, oregano, rosemary, thyme, garden sage, pineapple sage, marjoram and chives. If these plants go dormant in the winter or get overgrown, cut them back and they will regrow.

Other less hardy plants include the annual basil, summer savory, dill, cilantro and parsley, which is biennial. Sellick suggests regrowing these herbs each spring to get healthy, vigorous plants.

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