Among all the simple pleasures of Vancouver’s brilliant summers, this is one of my favourites: slipping out into my garden, wine glass and scissors in hand to snip some fresh chives, basil or parsley on a sunlit evening. I cook a lot of seafood, especially this time of year. Freshly cut chives on prawns or scallops, to me, is a match made in heaven. What can top a plate of sliced tomato, red onion and basil fresh from the garden? Throw in some buffalo mozzarella and a splash of balsamic vinegar, enjoyed with a cool glass of white wine, and summer dining is solved.
The amazing thing is the ease with which you can cultivate your own herb garden. Forget about a fancy greenhouse or a knotted English herb garden or dedicating any special plot of land. Just pot up six or seven containers in your garden or your balcony and you’ll have a great selection of your favorite herbs all summer long. The ABCs are easy: some well-drained soil, a sunny warm position, water regularly and that’s about it. The key is ease of access: your little herb corner must be close to the kitchen, of course.
Now draw up a list of your favorite herbs. My top three are easily basil, chives and parsley, closely followed by rosemary, coriander and thyme. Mint and dill wouldn’t be too far behind, either. Once you have your short list, determine which are annual and perennial and go from there. Some herbs are more temperamental than others. Delicate basil can be a rather sensitive annual in our cool climate; it prefers warm temperatures and needs a lot of sun to thrive. I grow mine on a sunny windowsill for extra insurance. At the other extreme, perennial garlic chives can live through almost anything. I started with a tiny clump a few years ago, and now even by early March I have a huge thicket of chives, which can add flavour and tang to virtually any dish.
Being an avid flower gardener first and foremost, I couldn’t simply have an herb garden on its own. The real art comes in integrating color and texture. I grow bee balm (monarda) and helenium in dramatic swaths of red and orange as a backdrop to my herbs. They offer wonderful wind shelter and form a colourful floral curtain.
Ease and artistry aside, an herb garden is also a simple way to incorporate garden-fresh produce into your cooking. In my book Four Chefs One Garden, I touch on the rediscovery of food gardening in all its variations, as we increasingly demand fresh, organic “garden-to-table” ingredients. So, instead of heading to the store, use a sprinkling of home-grown basil in one of the delicious pasta recipes provided by Umberto Menghi for the book.
Think simplicity and ease and pot up a few herbs in a sunny corner of your patio or yard. You’ll have delicious, reliable results for months.