Whether you have a huge vegetable plot or only have a little time to indulge your green thumb, creating an Italian herb garden can be the perfect project. Italian herbs will bring out the best in any cooking, and of course, they are essential in preparing traditional Italian food. Here are five tips to help you create the ideal Italian herb garden.
Choose Herbs Used Most in Italian Cuisine
There are dozens of herbs readily available in seed packets or starter plants today from garden centers, home supply stores and health food markets. While you can start your plants from seed if you have time or live in a year-round warm climate, it may be easier to buy young plants that are already established.
A quick look at an Italian cookbook will show you the herbs you may wish to have in your garden:
Basil is the herb people probably associate most closely with Italian food. When used fresh, you can create Caprese salads and wonderful sandwiches, and you can use it both fresh and dried in pasta dishes. If you grow enough of it, you can also make your own pesto. Basil comes in many varieties for more exotic flavors, such as cinnamon, lemon and cloves.
Oregano gives basil a run for its money as the most popular Italian herb. When you eat a delicious pasta or pizza sauce, you can bet it has oregano in it. Like basil, you can use oregano dried or fresh. If using it dried, rub it in your hands before adding it to any dishes to help release it’s pungent taste, and add it at the beginning rather than the end of a recipe.
Thyme is an often overlooked herb when gardeners think of Italian cooking, but it is actually quite common in Mediterranean cuisine. Thyme is more delicate than some other herbs, so always add it towards the end of your preparation. It pairs especially well with chicken and fish.
Fennel is unique for its licorice-y aroma and taste, and it’s a surprise ingredient in many great dishes. You can use the fronds for salads and dressings and roast the bulbs like root vegetables to serve along with meat dishes.
Rosemary is a staple in Italian kitchens. Its strong, piny aroma lends itself well to robust dishes, and you can add it to breads and pizza dough as well. Some people also tout rosemary’s health benefits for arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.
Italian Parsley is a flat-leafed parsley with a crisp, fresh flavor. It adds zing to salads, soups and casseroles–anyplace you might use regular curly parsley. Chop it fine to release its wonderful fragrance.
Be Versatile in How You Plant
While you can always include herbs in your vegetable garden or raised beds, be sure to plant some in pots too. This will allow you to move them around to follow the sun or place them in the shade on very hot days. Also, you’ll be able to bring the pots indoors if you get an unexpected frost or want fresh herbs all winter.
Italian herbs look as beautiful as they taste, so mixing them in with your flower pots as part of your container garden is a natural. If you travel to Italy, you’ll see beautiful arrangements of herbs everywhere–even luxury hotels have their own rooftop herb gardens.
Containing some herbs may be helpful too, in that they can be invasive once they get established in the garden. Oregano, for example, can take over other plants, so you may want to grow it exclusively in pots. Thyme emits a marvelous fragrance when crushed or brushed, so if you have an ornamental lawn or need for ground cover between pavers, it can be a heady addition to your garden. Just make sure to keep some in containers to use in your food!
Know Your Soil and Water Requirements
Remember, Italian herbs grow naturally in a Mediterranean climate, so you want to replicate that environment as closely as possible in your garden. Italian soil is fertile and slightly limey, with excellent drainage. All of these herbs above do well with quite a bit of sun, rosemary needing the most. They all need moderate water, although fennel can be kept a bit dryer than the others. Be cautious about over-watering your herbs.
Especially when growing herbs in pots, they may need periodic fertilizer, and you need to check periodically to make sure they aren’t getting root bound. If you notice any bugs or pests on your herbs, consult your garden center for a solution that won’t affect your ability to eat the plants. There are many organic and non-toxic solutions to common pests today.
If you live very close to the sea, some plants, such as basil, may have a difficult time with the salt air. In that case, consider moving them indoors to protect them from sea spray, or try other protected environments where they won’t be subjected to salt. That’s another advantage to container gardening!
Tend to the Plants Properly
While you can let your Italian herbs grow wild as in nature, if you intend to use them in food or keep them looking healthy in pots, they will need a bit of tending. The biggest issue with most Italian herbs, particularly basil and oregano, is their tendency to go to seed. To do this, they first flower. When you see plants getting “leggy” or spindly or if you notice the presence of blossoms, they need to be trimmed back right away.
Some species of basil and oregano can be pruned pretty aggressively; check with your garden center for advice about how much you can remove at any one time. With proper care, you’ll be able to have continuous herbs throughout your growing season. If you do a large harvest for drying or pesto, for example, cut above the plant’s lowest level of leaves, which should produce a second bushy growth later in the season.
Enhance Your Herbs with These Other Garden Elements
Once you start growing your own herbs for cooking, you may want to try your hand at other plants to complement and enhance your herbs. Here’s a list of other garden elements that you’ll be able to easily integrate into Italian cuisine:
- romaine lettuce
- edible flowers, such as lavender or nasturtium
Once you start cooking with your own herbs and using them in other creative ways, you’ll likely want an entire garden for Italian ingredients. Be careful: your Italian herb garden can start an addiction you won’t be able to stop!