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Herb tips

15 culinary herbs

Many cooks consider these herbs essential:

Basil, bay, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, French tarragon, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, sweet marjoram, thyme and winter savory.

Good locations for herbs

Kitchen garden: Plant basic cooking herbs in a sunny raised bed near the kitchen door, in a planter box or as part of the vegetable garden. Herbs to include are sweet basil, chives, cilantro (or a hot-weather alternative), dill, sweet marjoram, mint (beware, it’s invasive), oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory and thyme.

Herbs for containers: Chives, lemon verbena, sage, pineapple sage, summer savory, sweet marjoram, mint and garden burnet.

Ground cover for sunny areas: Prostrate rosemary, creeping thyme, lemon thyme and silver thyme.

Herbs for partial shade: Lemon balm, parsley and sweet woodruff.

Herbs for moist areas: Mint, parsley and sweet woodruff.

Perennial border: Common wormwood, garden burnet, lavender, monarda and rosemary.

Source: “The Southern Living Garden Book”

Don’t despair. You can liven things up again — just hop into the herb bed. And bring the snippers.

Whether you play by the rules or are an experimenter, fresh herbs should be part of your repertoire in the kitchen. Spend a pretty penny if you must for those cellophane packs at the store, but growing your own is the cheapest, most convenient and most satisfying way to go in a committed relationship with herbs.

Using herbs is an important part of cooking, says chef John Zucker of Cru Cafe and Catering, who is growing his own for the second year. Their aroma and taste bring “the freshness of the garden” to food, he says.

Visiting with Zucker, another chef and a farm reveals how they use herbs and why, what’s trendy and interesting, personal favorites, some growing tips and more in the wide world of herbs.

On a large scale

One of the Lowcountry’s most diverse sources of herbs is found at Sea Island Savory Herbs off Chisolm Road on Johns Island. Growers Ella Cowen and Danielle Spies estimate the farm grows upward of 200 different kinds.

Under the main groups such as basil, thyme or rosemary, the farm has several varieties of each: Lemon Frost and Hi Ho Silver thyme, for example; or Cinnamon and Thai basils; a Tuscan Blue rosemary.

Formerly known as Pete’s Herbs, the farm includes five greenhouses for propagating the herbs as well as container and landscape flowers, shrubs, citrus and fig trees, and specialty vegetables.

The property is still owned by Pete Madsden’s family — 94-year-old patriarch Skip Madsden remains an avid grower of camellias there.

Kirk Young, a former employee and current owner of a landscape company, took over the farm’s management about four years ago.

Cowen and Spies say the farm went through a transitional period of rebuilding its stock and the greenhouses, but is once again up to speed.

They pride themselves on propagating most of the plants through cuttings from existing stock.

“From plants that have adapted to this exact climate,” Cowen says.

Lately, people and chefs have been showing a lot of interest in lemon verbena, Cowen says. True to its name, “it has a lemony kind of taste, like summer,” she says.

The verbena, various members of the mint family and lavender are increasingly being used in desserts, they say.

For both women, there are few if any boundaries in using herbs.

“I like using lavender in my cooking,” including mixing the leaves into ice cream, Cowen says.

“She makes the best potato salad with lavender,” Spies says.

Spies herself is enamored with cardamom ginger and the lemon verbena, two “happy” plants she can’t resist touching whenever she passes by.

“They make me feel fluttery inside,” she says with a laugh as she crushes a couple of the ginger leaves in her fingers and holds them under her nose. Spies says she uses the ginger leaves like bay, and they’re especially good for Indian curries.

Speaking of curry, Sea Island has a plant whose leaves give off the distinct aroma of curry when squeezed — seemingly ideal for say, a chicken or potato salad.

A frequently heard frustration is the failure of cilantro to thrive in the Lowcountry’s heat. Cilantro is a prominent flavor in salsa and Southwest and Mexican dishes.

“People are taking a liking to the alternatives” such as Vietnamese cilantro, and culantro from Central and South America, which has similar but more potent taste.

Other hot-weather-friendly options include Mexican tarragon and Cuban oregano.

The latter has plump, fuzzy leaves like a succulent. Cowen says it’s “really floral with almost a citrusy flavor” that would be well-suited for fish dishes or Caribbean fare.

But there’s nothing wrong with hewing to the tried and true. Rosemary is easy to grow and versatile. Sage is another worthy perennial. “I fry the leaves and it tastes like bacon,” Cowen entices.

Thyme, flat-leaf parsley and mint, especially the Kentucky Colonel variety, remain customer favorites. Sicilian oregano grows so profusely “you could probably set it on fire and it would come back,” Spies observes.

Most herbs like sun, they say. And when herbs develop problems, “a lot of times it’s from overwatering,” Spies says.

In general, Cowen recommends cutting plants back by a third every month or so. To revive a tired potted mint plant, they advise cutting off the bottom of the root ball and shearing off a good bit of the stems above the soil. “Then water the mess out of it,” Spies says.

Cowen goes all-out with herbs in her salads. She snips from almost every herb in her garden, tosses the leaves with arugula, some goat cheese, and strawberries, peaches or dried cranberries. Then she dresses the salad with a balsamic vinaigrette that includes a touch of honey and mustard.

Other ways they use herbs include infusing oils and making soap. One of their customers makes an herbal bug repellent that both women admit they have sprayed on as perfume.

“This is the only job I’ve ever had that when I leave I smell better than when I came in,” Spies says.

Powered by compost

Behind a chain-link fence topped with coils of barbed wire, in a gravelly, barren lot in Charleston’s industrial Neck Area, John Zucker has a Garden of Eden going.

Three large raised beds are brimming with herbs, tomatoes, squash, collards and other vegetables, powered by compost that comes from scraps generated by Cru Cafe and Catering.

There are large coolers against the fence filled with the compost that are sprouting vegetable volunteers. He digs down into one of them and pulls out a perfectly formed small white potato.

It’s only the garden’s second year but it’s already much better than the first. “I’m so excited,” Zucker says.

His herbs are fairly conventional: basil, parsley, thyme, mint and the like. But Zucker is sold on growing his own.

“There is so much more flavor (from them) versus what we buy from purveyors.”

He’s figuring out the basics such as not overwatering. “I’m not a farmer, that’s for sure, but I love learning about it,” he says.

Thyme for anything

At The MacIntosh on King Street, a 10-foot raised herb bed lies against a wall in the restaurant’s courtyard. It’s almost like a candy dish for chef de cuisine Chris Delaney.

The chocolate mint is his favorite. He likens its smell to an Andes Mint.

“I munch on it all day long. It’s like a breath freshener.”

The bulk of the herbs growing there are used when the kitchen makes lardo, or cured pork belly. Sage, rosemary and thyme go in initially with the salt. Later, more chopped herbs are used for coating the fatty exterior.

“That wipes out most of our inventory,” Delaney says.

But the restaurant also uses its stock for making a fine herbs mix — parsley, chervil, tarragon and chives — that is sprinkled over many of its vegetables as a finishing touch. “For a fresh burst of flavor,” Delaney says.

Thyme is the most versatile herb in his view. “It’s good with proteins, good with veggies, and good in desserts,” he say, such as thyme panna cotta.

He likes to roast meat such as pork on a bed of hearty herbs including thyme, rosemary, sage and parsley.

As for basil, another popular summertime herb, Delaney feels that it “has its place.”

“I find myself most excited about it when it’s used unconventionally.”