Herbs for the vegetable garden

When I realized I wasn’t going to plant a huge vegetable garden this year, I began to think about what I could cut from the list.

I prefer to use fresh herbs for cooking and always try to plant enough to dry and store for the winter as well. I prefer to plant rows of my favorites directly in the vegetable garden.

With limited space this season, I had to choose which herbs I couldn’t live without. I realized the two I probably use the most are basil and flat-leaf parsley.

While I like curly parsley too, flat-leaf, also known as Italian parsley, is what I use in my kitchen. Sometimes recipes will specify which variety to use based on flavor and texture, and there is a difference.

When I first began gardening, I knew that parsley wasn’t just a decoration for my plate. In restaurants it was placed there to freshen my breath and cleanse my pallet after a meal that likely contained onions or garlic. It was to prepare my taste buds for whatever sweet dessert course came next.

And then either someone introduced me to flat-leaf parsley or I read about it in a magazine, I don’t remember which. I rebelled at first, refusing to grow this strange variety of an herb I knew so well. How could it be better?

But it is, whether its torn fresh into salads, chopped over vegetables or added to tomato sauces, soups and pretty much everything else.

The flavor is not the same as curly parsley. It’s better. Flat-leaf varieties don’t have the coarse texture or the crunch of curly parsley. Depending on the growing conditions and varieties, curly parsley can be bitter. Flat-leaf is not.

Parsley is a biennial plant, which grows from a central crown. The first season is for growing leaves that strengthen the root system. It needs this strength the second season to produce flowers and set seeds that will ensure the parsley population will live on.

The second season leaves and flowers are edible, but I think they are bitter and not as tender. I treat parsley as an annual, which is why I don’t have a problem planting it in the vegetable garden where anything left will get pulled up at the end of summer to be preserved in the freezer or tossed on the compost heap.

My second favorite herb, basil, also is used a lot of my kitchen. I can’t imagine a tomato dish without sweet basil, and it’s also one of the three main ingredients in Caprese salad.

Basil works in the vegetable garden because it is an annual that loves heat and hates cold. Like parsley, basil loves to be planted in full sunlight. But since basil is an annual, it will flower and set seed quickly, especially if the season is particularly hot. Slower-bolt varieties are available, but I generally pinch off the tops of the stems when see the plants starting to set flowers.

Both parsley and basil are not easily dried herbs. Unlike woody herbs, such as thyme or oregano, parsley and basil leaves will quickly wilt and turn yellow. The best way to preserve these herbs is to put bunches in plastic bags and store them in the freezer.

Some growers like to make a slurry of the leaves by pulverizing them and mixing them with olive oil and then freezing them in ice trays. Each cube can be popped out of the tray and dropped into soups or sauces.