THE BASIL I grew on a New York City windowsill a few years ago not only thrived on the layers of black soot deposited there daily (I was afraid my pesto sauce would have black lung disease) but also actually forgot it was an annual, and produced green leaves year-round for two years. There was nothing better, at the peak of tomato/basil season, than alternating slices of fresh mozzarella and vine-ripened tomatoes, dressed with oil and vinegar, basil, salt and pepper.
It was no substitute, though, for a full-blown outdoor herb garden. And it left me with a hunger for a good seed catalog on a cold winter evening, as I have been reminded by my most recent favorite reading, "Park's Success with Herbs," a chatty and informative guide to growing and using 100 different herbs, co-authored by herbalists Gertrude B. Foster and her daughter, Rosemary Foster Louden ($10.80 postpaid from the Geo. W. Park Seed Co., Greenwood, S.C. 29647).
The chief problem with growing herbs on a sunny windowsill -- it has to be sunny -- is your own expectations. You can't expect annuals such as basil to last forever, after thier season, you have to replace them. Even perennials like tarragon and chives, after doing their things, go dormant, which doesn't make them particularly ornatmental; you may think you have killed them when they are merely taking a rest. You can let them dry out, put them off in a corner to sleep it off, and when spring comes round again put them back on the windowsill and give them full watering again -- which means, give them a good soaking and then don't water them again until the soil is nearly dry to the touch. You are more likely to overwater than underwater them; most herbs can't stand wet feet. On the other hand, they do need humidity, so if your air conditioner keeps the room too dry, consider the advantages of a windowbox.
Besides basil, herbs that grow easily on a sunny windowsill include sage, winter savory, rosemary, scented geraniums, parsley and coriander (or cilantro).
In choosing a site for an outdoor herb garden, look for drainage and lots of sun, which develops the flavor-bearing essential oils. Give herbs the sunniest part of the yard (which might be the border for your vegetable garden), in the north if possible, so they can get the fullest southern exposure, although the few shade-loving herbs -- angelica, sweet cicely, chervil and sweet woodruff -- will appreciate the dappled shade cast by a tree. If the ground is level or poorly drained, it will help to make raised beds, bounded by something like weathered boards. If no spot in your yard is sunny enough, plant your herbs in window boxes, large pots or strawberry jars you can elevate to a sunny perch.
Whether you're a novice or an old hand at distinguishing weeds from edibiles, you'll find the horticultural and culinary advice in the Foster and Louden book both useful and charming. What makes it an armchair gardener's delight is the variety of herbal lore and practical advice typified by the following tidbits: Herbs vs. Spices
According to Foster and Louden, herbs are plants whose shoots, stems, leaves, flowers and fruits (seeds or seed pods) are useful to man -- whether in cooking, perfume, medicine or commerce -- and grow in the temperate zone. Spices are plants with similar uses that grow in the tropics. (Thus vanilla, the "bean" or seed pod of the tropical vanilla orchid, is a spice.) The difference between an herb and a vegetable has to do not so much with use as with quanitity used: as a flavoring, garlic is an herb; as a main ingredient, it's a vegetable. To Pronounce Herb
"Herb" is British, "erb" American based on the Middle English "erbe". In Latin it is "herba" with the "h" mute until 19th century, when the British made it aspirate. New Englanders sometimes get around the problem by saying "yard." The "h" is usually pronounced in words like herbist and herbalist. The Right Soil Mixture
This varies with each spices, but generally herbs like a mixture of one-third sandy loam or garden dirt; one-third compost, peat moss or vermiculite (roughage, so the soil won't compact and prevent the roots from spreading); and one-third sand (plain, not salty), for drainage. For seedlings, you might top this with a shield of half an inche of shredded sphagnum moss, to deter damping off, the fungus condition that tends to kill off plantlets when they come in contact with soil. Recognizing French Tarragon
French tarragon, which the French call "estragon," is a clone. It cannot be grown from seed but is propagated by root division. Russian, or Siberian, tarragon is easier to grow because it produces seeds, but has almost no taste. How can you be sure someone isn't trying to palm off a Russian tarragon on you? "The important thing for the gardener to know is that French tarragon is A. Dracunculus var. sativa, with a distinct overtone of anise in its taste and a peculiar slightly numbing effect when it is chewed. That is why ancient physicians had patients nibble some 'French'-type tarragon before taking bitter medicine." Pinching Basil
Herbs show their readiness for harvest when flower buds begin to form. Catch basil then, and pinch it to produce more side shoots.Pinch the tips off, down to the first set of side shoots. Don't wait until flowers begin to open and the stems elongate or you'll have less herbage to dry or freeze and more stems to sift out. Freezing Herbs
Herbs such as parsley or chives may be chopped fine, placed in plastic margarine containers and frozen. Others can be left on the stem and packed in waxed paper. Waxed paper sandwich bags, labeled and stapled together, allow easy filing of herbs in the freezer; the greens slip out of Pliofilm bags. Enclose the waxed paper envelopes in a freezer container or larger plastic bag to protect the aroma of the contents. Frozen Herb Cubes
After washing the leafy herb, you needn't pat it dry before putting it in the freezer packet; the added moisture from a cool-water bath doesn't harm the herbs. Chervil, which doesn't keep its delicate flavor with drying, is especially good frozen. One of the neatest ways to freeze much-used species such as chives and basil to chop them with water in the blender. Lay washed herb leaves, pulled off from the stems, in a 2-cup measuring container. fill it with water (about 1 1/2 cups of water to a cup of greens), then pour contents in the blender. Whirl them for 2 minutes until you have a green puree. Empty an ice-cube tray, fill it with the herb puree, and freeze until solid. After 24 hours, remove the herb cubes and place them in a freezer container or a stout plastic freezer ba, labeled and dated (herb ice cubes tend to look alike). Basil, chervil, chives, cilantro (coriander), dill, fennel, lovage, mints, French sorrel, lemon balm, sweet cicely, and other leafy herbs keep their out-of-the-garden taste when frozen this way. And variations are endless. The white flowers an violet blossoms of sweet woodruff make a lovely ice block for May wine, for example. Making May Wine
May wine is usually Rhine wine in which fresh woodruff leaves have steeped. To make it at home, pour a jug of white wine into a quart jar stuffed with fresh sweet woodruff. Decan it in a few weeks, or leave it to steep until you are ready to use it in punch or for a spring tonic. The herb contains coumarin and is therefore somewhat medicinal. Tansy For Two, and an Ant Chaser
The drinking of tansy tea is discouraged, especially since the ruling that the dried herb may not be sold in herb shops; too strong a tea is quite toxic (you were right, Miss Marple!). If you grow your own and don't like the tea, the tansy needn't go to waste: "Dried tansy foliage keeps moths out of woolens and insects from attics and basements. Ants may walk over the plants in the garden, but when the fresh foliage is cut and laid where they enter or take up trails indoors, it does turn them away. As one old lady said, 'It doesn't kill the ants, but it makes them nervous.'"
Following are two of the recipes Louden provides among the glorious color photographs in "Park's Success with Herbs": TUNA SALAD (2 servings)
Lovage, an herb whose taste and sodium level is comparable to celery's, is often used in place of salt for low-sodium diets. Added to salt-free herb mixes in small quantities, its pervasive flavor helps satisfy the dieter who is trying to break the salt habit. In a tuna salad with horseradish (which you can also grow in your garden), it can replace celery, and you can pick it all summer from your garden. When I tested this recipe I found the lovage to be rather strong. A pleasant substitute is celery seed, or you may want to experiment with other herbs from your garden. 9-ounce can tuna packed in water 1/2 cup cottage cheese 2 tablespoons grated horseradish 2 tablespoons fresh lovage leaves, finely chopped
Drain the tuna and flake it with a fork. Put it in a bowl with the other ingredients, mix completely, and serve on individual lettuce leaves. A sprinkling of chopped chervil makes a fine garnish. LIGHT MAYONNAISE (Makes 2 1/2 cups) (To serve with arugula and lettuce) 2 cups cottage cheese 1/4 cup yogurt 1 egg 1 to 2 teaspoons light prepared mustard 1 tablespoon lemon juice 2 tablespoons salad oil 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon white pepper Dash of red pepper sauce
Combine ingredients in a food processor or blender and whirl till smooth (beat it to death!). There are about 18 calories per tablespoon serving. Slather over young leaves of regular (arugula) mixed with lettuce. Getting Deeper Into Herbs
One of the best places to learn what an herb looks and smells like is the new Herb Garden at the National Arboretum, off Bladensburg Road NE. The herbs there start coming up in April but are really worth going to see in May and June. No cutting is allowed, but you can pinch and smell in the 10 different herb gardens to your nose's content.For information on classes, lectures and workshops, including a summer workshop for children 8 to 12, call 742-9280. You can also find herb gardens at The Washington Cathedral, Brookside Gardens in Wheaton Regional Park, Woodlawn Plantation and Mount Vernon. Good Sources for Herb Seeds
Comstock, Ferre & Co., 263 Main St., Wethersfield, Conn. 06109 (free catalog). A better-than-average list of herb seeds.
J. A. Demonchaux, 827 N. Kansas Ave., Topeka, Kan. 66608 (free catalog). An unlikely location for a firm specializing in French herb and vegetable seeds and imported foods. Some of the seeds they carry include celeri-rave, corn salad (mache), sorrel and rocket (roquette, or arugula). Pickle your own cornichons this year!
DeGiorgi Company, Inc., P.O. Box 413, Council Bluffs, Iowa 51502 (catalog, 66 cents). A good selection of herbs and vegetables plus offbeat Italian specialties such as Sicilian fennel, cocozella squashes, radichetta (Italian chicory), sparachetti (broccoli raab or Italian turnip). I've never tasted them either!
Johnny's Selected Seeds, Albion, Maine 04910 (free catalog). A good catalog for your mountain cabin, it lists seeds developed for short seasons, including a solid selection of herbs and vegetables and a few tempting eccentricities like alpine (bush) strawberries.
Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Hwy., Albany, Ore. 97321 (free catalog). Common and unusual vegetables and herbs, including saffron crocus bulbs (6 for $3.25). A great browser's catalog.
Geo. W. Park Seed Co., Greenwood, S.C. 29647 (free catalog). This reliable old seed firm places more than the usual emphasis on herbs. (P.S. I'll take 10 horseradish roots.)
The Redwood City Seed Co., P.O. Box 361, Redwood City, Calif. 94064 (catalog, 50 cents). An excellent catalog that includes chili peppers and lots of interesting herbs.
Otto Richter & Sons Ltd., Goodwood, Ontario, Canada LOC 1AO (catalog, $1; minimum order, $5). One of the most extensive listings of herbs you're likely to find, from anise and bay laurel to toadflax and vervain. How can anyone resist entries like this one for rue: "Pungent bitter leaves used sparingly in stews, salads, sandwiches and vegetable juice. Two leaves chewed will quickly relieve nervous headache. In early times judges relied on fresh sprigs of rue to repel fleas brought into court by prisoners."
Yanke Peddler Herb Farm, Rt. 1, Box 251A, Burton, Tx. 77835 (ask for "Herb and Health Farm Product Catalog," $1). As befitting the state it comes from, a nice big selection. Local Sources of Live Herb Plants
Cathedral Greenhouse, Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues NW, 537-6258. Follow the driveway behind the Washington Cathedral, passing the Herb Cottage (which sells dried herbs) halfway up the drive. Sells herbs year-round, a really full selection in the spring and summer: five thymes, three sages, chervil, French tarragon, three basils, rosemary, catnip, chives, sorrel, oregano, sweet woodruff, several mints (including pennyroyal), lemon balm, burnet, rue, curry plant, coriander (cilantro), sweet marjoram and both flat-leafed and curly parsley.
The Third Day, 2001 P St. NW, 785-0107. Carries healthy plants and plenty of free advice (e.g., plant dill and fennel in isolation because they're somewhat toxic to other plants). Beginning early May they will carry basils, chives, fennel, dill, thymes, rosemary, lavender, oregano, parsley, sage, spearmint, peppermint and a new type of mint that smells like Estee Lauder, called eau de cologne. Mail Order Sources
Carroll Gardens, Box 310, Westminster, Md. 21157 (free catalog). One of the largest collections of live herbs in the area -- not just bergamot but five varieties of bergamot. Order by mail, or stop in on your way to Gettysburg. Herbs about $1.75 each.
Le Jardin du Gourmet, West Danville, Vt. 05873 (free brochure). Shallots, low-priced live herb plants, and things French (including Vilmorin seeds) a specialty. Get acquainted offer: 8 sample packets of herb seeds for $1 postpaid (basil, caraway, chervil, chives, dill, roquette, savory and sorrel.
For a list of reliable mail-order sources of herbs, send 25 cents to the Herb Society of America, 300 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, Mass. 02115. Local Sources of Dried Herbs
The following outlets carry more than the usual number of dried herbs:
Blue Nile Trading Co., 2826-B Georgia Ave. NW, north of Howard University, 232-3535.
Cash Grocer Natural Foods, 1315 King St., Alexandria, 549-9544.
The Herb Cottage, Washington Cathedral, Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues NW, 537-6230.
St. John's Herb Garden, 5525 Decatur, Bladensburg, Md., 277-1176. (Herbalist Sydney Vallentyne wholesales to many of the other stores listed, but will sell to the general public, too.)
Shaheed's Health Food Store, 922 Kennedy St. NW (off Georgia), 829-9779.
Sun and Earth Natural Foods, Little Falls Mall, 4701 Sangamore Rd., Bethesda, 229-7876.
Yes! 1015 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 338-0883. Reference Books
"The Complete Book of Herbs and Spices" by Sarah Garland, available for $25 from the Smithsonian museum shops and elsewhere (and sometimes remaindered), is a beautiful coffee table book that also includes many tempting recipes both for food and against insects. Mothballs are a common source of allergies. If you want a healtheir moth repellent, you can't beat a good combination of herbs. Garland lists the following herbs to be included in a strong-scented moth bag: 4 parts dried, crushed mint 4 parts dried, crushed rue 2 parts dried, crushed southernwood 2 parts dried, crushed rosemary 1 part powdered cloves
The herb gardens pictured in this book will drive you crazy.My current fantasy involves a large meadow through which a brook (for watercress) meanders.
Another good reference book that is less expensive than "Park's Success with Herbs" is "Handbook on Herbs," $1.95 plus 60-cents postage. Available from Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1000 Washington Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11225.