A Garden of Your Own

Summer brings us sunshine, warm rain showers, and long evenings. That sounds like a great recipe for a special hobby of mine...herb gardening. While I also add some of the tried and true items to my garden, the herbs I grow have a special place in my heart...and my kitchen!

Fresh herbs are a welcome treat in my summer kitchen. Herb gardening is very simple and fulfilling. Caring for a small garden takes little time and the fresh herbs that find their way to your dinner table are sure to bring oohs and aahs from those seated around it!

Before we get started, I'd like to extend my appreciation to the people at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin. All of the wonderful photographs presented in this article were taken there. Too bad they wouldn't let me take some samples home!

Types of Herb Gardens

One of the major advantages of an herb garden is its versatility. You can grow your own on a tiny patio or make it spread across a backyard. You will need to determine whether you want to plant your garden in a plot or in containers. Of course, you can always use a combination of both for a unique look.

If you intend to grow herbs for cooking, you'll want to choose your combinations based on what you think you'll want to include in your meal plans. Some popular choices are sage, thyme, chives, oregano, basil, tarragon, parsley, cilantro, rosemary and mint. Of course, there are different types of these herbs too. In fact, you could grow a substantial mint, sage, or thyme garden featuring only one or two of each type of plant!

You have another choice to make when planning an herb garden. You can plant small plants that have been grown at a nursery or you can grow your own plants from seeds. Both options are available to you. However, be advised that if you live in an area with a late growing season you might want to start growing plants from seeds indoors. Also, if you decide to start your herb garden later in the season you might find yourself more satisfied starting with plants.

Care and Tools

Another advantage of herb gardening is that the amount of care required is relatively small. Apart from making sure that your plants have enough water, the surrounding area is relatively free of weeds, and harvesting occurs at the appropriate time, the plants really do take care of almost everything else.

Your biggest job will take place when you first plant your garden. Take great care to plant your garden in such a way that each plant has enough room and the appropriate amount of sun exposure to grow properly. Some plants, like mint, have been known to be pigs when it comes to room. You might want to give these plants extra space or plant them in separate containers (you can "plant" a container if you want to keep a garden with a uniform look and feel). If you plant your garden in one or more containers, you have the added advantage of being able to move them if you find that you miscalculated about sun exposure.

The tools needed for herb gardening are simple. You will need a way to water your garden; this can vary from a glass carried from the kitchen sink to a multi-purpose garden hose. I follow the tradition set by my grandmother and use the rain water that collects in the watering pitcher I leave outside! You should also have a clean set of shears for harvesting. In addition, you might want some of the following items to make your life a little easier:

  • liquid fertilizer (always follow directions)
  • gardening gloves (a must for this gardener)
  • small shovel
  • labels for identifying plants
  • small storage unit near garden for storing all of these things!

There's one last thing that needs to be mentioned. If you live in an area that is known for having freezing temperatures after April, you should keep a close eye on the weather forecast before planting your garden. After you've planted, if a cold night does threaten to kill your small plants, bring them inside or cover them carefully with an old sheet or the like to help save them. Just remember to take the sheets off in the morning!


Just because this article is about herb gardens doesn't mean that your herb garden has to be exclusive. There are many other neat treats that can be grown right beside them! Since there are so many options, I will only cover a few that are appropriate for small patios and can be grown in containers. For more extensive information, I suggest you visit your local nursery or garden store.

A popular patio favorite is tomatoes. While tomato plants are certainly a familiar sight in plot gardens, they can also thrive on decks or patios if they are given room to grow in their containers, plenty of sunshine, and ample amounts of water. You will probably want to use one of the tomato cages available to help keep your plants from toppling or the tomato-laden branches from laying on the ground. Together with your favorite herbs, this is a recipe for one fantastic garden salad!

Strawberries on your patio? Yes! Strawberries can grow on a patio if they are kept well-watered and given as much sunlight as possible. Talk to your local nursery about ideal containers -- they do make a difference. Also, you might want to reconsider if your patio or deck is one of those favorite hang-outs for the birds. Strawberries are also one of their favorites!

Want to add a little pizzazz to your summertime meals? Try adding a nice selection of edible flowers to your already beautiful herb garden. Some favorites are nasturtiums, violets, pansies, and Johnny jump-ups. Add them to pesticide-free rose petals, lilac blossoms and the lovely blossoms from your herb garden and you won't have far to look for a great way to decorate your meals!

The Fruit of Your Labor

You've spent the time and money to maintain a wonderful herb garden and now you are ready to try your hand at using your fresh herbs. Here are a few favorites!

Quickie Summer Salad

Seasoned Cooking columnist Jenny Wojcik loves sweet basil with fresh sliced tomatoes and mozzarella cheese slices. It makes a great quickie salad and looks great on the plate!
  • 2-3 tomatoes, sliced 1/2" thick
  • 1 bunch fresh sweet basil leaves
  • 6-8 slices mozzarella cheese

Arrange tomato slices on a salad plate. Place a few sweet basil leaves and a slice of mozzarella cheese over each tomato slice. Yum!

  • Yields: 6-8 simple salad/appetizer plates
  • Preparation Time: 5 minutes

Fast Herbed Focaccia

Focaccia is a flavorful Italian bread somewhat reminiscent of thick pizza dough. This recipe calls for those favorite herb garden treasures.
  • 2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 c. thinly sliced sweet onion
  • 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 T. chopped fresh basil
  • 2 T. sliced black olives
  • 1 Pre-made pizza crust (like Boboli)
  • 1/4 c. cornmeal
  • freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Mix first 6 ingredients together. Carefully spread over the pizza crust. Sprinkle the cornmeal over the top.

Bake for 10 minutes. Remove crust and brush lightly with olive oil. Replace and bake an additional 10 minutes. Serve warm.

  • Yields: 1 crust
  • Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Grilled Salmon with Dill

Grilling salmon over a mesh of fresh dill adds a special flavor that is only enhanced by a unique creamy dill sauce. This is a guaranteed people pleaser!
  • 4 salmon steaks, cut 1 inch thick
  • Fresh dill
  • 1 T. margarine
  • 1/2 c. chopped onions
  • 1 can cream of celery soup
  • 1/2 c. cream
  • 2 T. white wine
  • 2 T. chopped fresh dill

Prepare grill. Place fresh dill between two pieces of fine metal mesh. Grill salmon over the fresh dill for 25-35 minutes or until fish flakes with a fork and juices are opaque.

For the sauce, sauté the onions in the margarine. Add soup, cream, wine and dill. Stir until smooth and warmed throughout.

To serve, spoon 3-4 tablespoons of sauce over each salmon steak. Seasoned wild rice makes a perfect accompaniment.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 45 minutes

Mint Lassi

Experience the summer soothing effect of this minty Indian favorite. Pour a tall glass and relax on the veranda.
  • 1 1/4 c. plain yogurt
  • 3 T. chopped fresh cilantro
  • 25 large fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 3 T. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cardamom seeds
  • 8 ice cubes

Combine all ingredients in an electric blender until smooth (some ice may remain). Pour into 2 tall glasses and serve garnished with mint leaves.

  • Yields: 2 glasses
  • Preparation Time: 5 minutes
If you find that you have more herbs than you can use at one time, dry the remaining herbs in a dehydrator, oven, or by hanging them near an open window. You should be able to easily crush dried herbs between your fingers.