East Bay Climate Great for Cultivating Herbs

By Shirley Barker, Special to the Planet
Tuesday February 26, 2008

Surely the healthiest diet in the world is vegetarian, the one which balances the complementary proteins found in whole grains and legumes, which features a wide variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and which is augmented by judicious amounts of dairy products.  

Gastro-intestinal ailments are rife among carnivores. Vegans are constantly at risk for nutritional deficiencies, often looking less healthy than their household pets. In contrast, this vegetarian cuisine is full of natural, not processed, life. 

We are fortunate in Berkeley to live where Indian, Arabic and Mexican groceries provide all kinds of lentils and beans as well as the chilis and spices to enliven them. Take for instance lentil soup, prosaic standby of many a wintry eve. Add to the brown or green or red lentils a dried reconstituted poblano chili, some tomato paste, chopped onion and parsnip, and lemon zest. Simmer for the time required to soften the lentils and one will enjoy a rich, savory soup that can not be bought in any form. 

Let us not forget to garnish the top with finely chopped parsley, for herbs contribute to the interest and value of vegetarian food. Fresh herbs are best used fresh, as they tend to be overwhelmed by other flavors when cooked. Dried, their pungency increases significantly. 

The following herbs grow readily in the East Bay. But first, a word on their cultivation. 

Culinary herbs are annual, perennial and biennial. Most herbs need their own space separate from the vegetable garden. Most need sharp drainage and lean soil. Many do well in pots, a good solution where space is limited. Provide drainage by placing pebbles in the base of pots to a depth of one inch. For heat and drought lovers, very fine gravel can be mixed with the potting soil and also used as a mulch. 

Although such herbs like a full day of sunlight, a surprising number tolerate some shade, and a few do better in it. 

The following have woody stems: 

Rosemary: Many varieties, from upright to prostrate. Take softwood cuttings after three years to perpetuate a favorite. 

Thyme: Similar to rosemary. Both do best with no fertilizer, little water. 

Origanum: Small flowers attract native bees, important pollinators, so shear after flowers are spent. Completely drought-tolerant here, once established. 

Sage: Similar to above. Many varieties, some quite large and fragrant. Salvia officinalis is garden sage. S. elegans, pineapple sage, is a large rangy shrub with scarlet flowers beloved by hummingbirds. 

All the above need their own space and are easy to dry. 

The following are herbaceous umbels: 

Parsley: The seed has to go to the devil and back before it germinates, so buy plants. A biennial, it sends up a flower stalk in its second year. Cut this off to prolong harvest. Fits in well with the vegetable rotation plan. Best used fresh—and cooked. 

Fennel: Some varieties have a bulbous edible stalk. Leaves and seeds taste of anise. An important food plant for caterpillars of swallowtail butterfly. Take care not to confuse fennel with poison hemlock. 

Cilantro: Small delicate plants quickly flower and set seed, almost before one has time to harvest leaves. Seeds however are valuable in the kitchen, as coriander. 

Dill: Similar to fennel in appearance but not in taste. 

The following are tender-leaved: 

Basil: Sow frequently in a hot spot throughout the summer, in the vegetable bed. Or grow in pots (think Keats). 

Mint: Prefers a shady spot with a little sun and plenty of moisture. Spreads by underground stolons, so can be invasive. 

Borage: Sow seeds in a permanent place. It dislikes being moved. Self-sows readily. 

Nasturtium: Easy to grow from seed, self sows, does not transplant well. Leaves, flowers and young green seeds are edible.  


Herby flowers 

Chamolie: Two kinds, one a ground cover that takes light foot traffic, the other an upright plant grown for its tea leaves. 

Pelargonium: Incorrectly called Geranium. Best in sun. Variously scented leaves perfume desserts and cakes. Easy to propagate from cuttings. Remove a side shoot, let the end dry for a day. Dust with hormone-rooting powder and pot up. Cut back mature leggy plants. If grown in a pot, it likes to be slightly crowded—choose a pot that seems just a little too small for it. 

My parsley will soon send up a flower stalk. At the moment it is going strong. I chose an Italian flat-leaved variety, although I can taste no difference between it and the curly-leaf kind. 

It’s delicious in breakfast patties. Simply cook those lentils again, just the brown or the green ones this time, with as little water as possible. Blend or puree them and if necessary, thicken over heat. Add finely chopped red onion and home-grown parsley. Form into little patties and fry until golden brown on both sides. Sprinkle salt over them if you must. Eaten after the usual cereal or with toast, they nicely contribute to a nutritionally balanced, protein-rich and, above all, easily-digested start to the day.