By: Elisabeth Ginsburg
Spring is full of small revelations: the smell of thawing earth, the sight of early crocuses and the taste of the season’s first herbs. Some of those herbs are old standbys like chives, parsley, dill and cilantro. Others, including lovage, chervil and sorrel, have an equally long history, but are less well known today.
Now, as last frost dates gradually pass and gardens begin their annual emergence, it is time to start annual herbs indoors and watch as outdoor perennials and self-sown annuals begin sprouting in beds and borders. If you are new to herb growing, take the plunge and grow a few varieties from seed. The sooner you start, the sooner you will reap spring’s first and tastiest harvest.
Spring Herbs in the Parsley Family
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is the best known member of Apiaceae, or the Parsley Family. It is biennial and available in curly and flat-leafed varieties. The green sprigs are such ubiquitous garnishes that it is easy to forget the distinct “green’ taste note that they add to all kinds of dishes. In classic French cookery, parsley stars in the traditional aromatic herb mixture known as fines herbes. It also makes a great breath freshener.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) or sweet cicily is another fines herbes component that also enlivens the luxurious flavor of Béarnaise sauce. Less celebrated than its relative, parsley, chervil’s delicate flavor combines parsley, citrus and licorice notes. The annual plant’s deeply dissected leaves have a similar lacy appearance.
Unlike many low-growing herbs, perennial lovage (Levisticum officinale) stands tall in the garden, often growing to six feet or more. It emerges in spring, bearing leaves with a celery-like flavor that intensifies through the growing season. The leaves are best eaten fresh, but the seeds can be ground to flavor winter dishes.
Fragrant annual dill (Anethum graveolens) is nearly as tall as lovage, sprouting up to five feet in spring. Best used fresh, the feathery dill leaves enhance spring foods, from fish to eggs. In the garden, those same leaves feed swallowtail butterfly larvae. Start sowing dill outside just before the last frost date and continue planting once a week until the last week of spring. This should provide enough dill for both humans and butterflies.
Cilantro (Coriander sativum) is another lacy-leafed parsley relation, often used in Latin or Asian dishes. Some people seem hard-wired to hate it, while others relish the taste. The leaves of the annual plant are best used fresh and the aroma and flavor combine green notes with a discernable soapy undertone. Cilantro seeds are known as coriander, though in Europe and elsewhere, the leaves also go by that name.
Perennial chives (Allium schoenoprasum) belong to the same strong-flavored tribe as onions and scallions, but the taste of the grass-like leaves and bulbs is more subtle. All parts of the plants are edible and the purple-pink flowers make a colorful addition to salads. A happy stand of chives quickly outgrows its boundaries, so be prepared to divide regularly.
Sorrel (Rumex scutatus) is a perennial leafy green with a lemony flavor. Its spade-shaped leaves are mild tasting early in spring and more assertive later on. Used for both medicinal and culinary purposes since ancient times, sorrel is a traditional ingredient of European spring soups. It is hard to find, even in farmers’ markets, but easy to grow.
Planting Spring Herbs
To get a jump on spring, start herbs indoors at least a few weeks before the last spring frost date. Use small containers filled with quality seed-starting mixtures, like Fafard Organic Seed Starter. Distribute seeds evenly over moistened potting mix and cover with a thin layer of additional mix. Place pots in roomy plastic bags, seal and provide bright indirect light. When seedlings appear, remove the bags and check daily to make sure the soil remains moist. Thin seedlings, if necessary.
Before transplanting to outdoor containers or garden beds, move the young plants to a porch or other shady, protected location, to allow them time to acclimate to outdoor conditions. Then choose a porous potting mix, such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix, or amend beds with a rich soil additive such as Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix. Good care will ensure an early and bountiful harvest.
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