by Lucinda Hutson
Lucinda Duncan, my great-grandmother and namesake, crossed the plains in 1852 in an ox train along with 12 other pioneers to become, according to my grandmother’s handwritten note, “the first white settlers in Los Angeles County.” She brought her own herbs with her and established an “herb garden for medicine,” Grandma wrote.
Apparently, my namesake passed down her herbal legacy to me.
My first book, The Herb Garden Cookbook, has remained in print for 27 years and has been heralded by three different covers—including an updated edition published in 2010. As I reflect upon my years of growing herbs organically and cooking with them, I pay homage to Lucinda Duncan and her precious cargo of herbs packed in a Conestoga wagon bound for California, and to others who brought to America the beloved herbs of their homelands—aromatic and flavorful seasonings that made even mundane fare more flavorful.
Spring is indeed the time to plan and plant culinary herb gardens, and I dedicate separate areas of my garden to culinary “themes.” Herbs with similar cultivation needs and culinary uses are planted together—just as they often complement each other in a recipe. I pick basil, oregano and thyme from a sunny “Mediterranean garden,” and gather sage, sweet-scented marjoram, parsley and bay from a “Tuscan garden.” Mexican mint marigold, epazote and yerba buena mint thrive along with chiles in the “Mexican garden,” and my “Provençal garden” is brimming with lavender, tarragon, lemon verbena, rosemary and thyme. Or, not far away, my “Southeast-Asia garden,” redolent of Thai basil, lemongrass, cilantro and mint, may suit that day’s culinary whims.
Consider planting your own theme garden! If you have more than one theme in mind, replicate certain herbs in each bed. For example, cilantro is favored in Mexican, Asian and Indian cuisines, and Mediterranean herbs are popular in Latin cuisines, too. Or perhaps you’d prefer one large “kitchen garden” divided into distinct culinary areas or simply planted with the herbs you mostly use. How about a “tea garden” planted with exotic herbs to steep, a “cocktail garden” filled with herbs and flowers for garnishings and flavoring, or a “pizza/pasta garden?” Two of my favorite herb beds include a “citrus-scented garden” with herbs such as lemon verbena, lemon balm, lemon thyme, lemongrass and lemon basil, and my “salad bar garden,” sporting salad greens, edible flowers and tender sprigs of herbs bound for the bowl.
Nursery transplants (or seeds) planted in the fall are now in full glory—having survived the chilly winter. Italian and curly parsley, winter savory, cucumber-scented salad burnet, creeping prostrate rosemary and thyme make verdant border plants, along with oregano and its sweeter-scented cousin marjoram. Tall dill and fennel plants with their feathery fronds and golden umbels bring delight as background plants. Use larger perennial plants, such as rosemary, sage and bay, as anchors. These herbs, mostly of Mediterranean origin, thrive in our similar climate provided they have plenty of sunshine and loose, well-draining soil. Because only one to three of these plants is needed, I suggest purchasing them as transplants in the fall or early spring. Do not plant dill, arugula, fennel, cilantro, chives or parsley in later spring; they will quickly bolt when the weather turns warm (which for us can mean late April!). Pansies, Johnny-jump-ups and nasturtiums (planted in fall or very early spring) interspersed in the garden add color and fragrance—lending themselves as garnish and flavor for recipes. As spring warms up, plant many different varieties of basil, mint and warm-weather-loving lemon-scented herbs. Growing like-minded herbs in large containers and pots works well, too.
To get an idea of what herbs to grow throughout the seasons, their cultivation needs and ultimate size, make sure to visit the herb garden I designed at The Natural Gardener—recently selected as one of the top five nurseries in America—or visit the archives of this column at edibleaustin.com to find articles such as “The Lemony Herbs of Summer” (Summer 2010), “Springtime Herbes de Provence” (Spring 2008), “From Garden to Salad Plate” (spring 2013) and “Spring Desserts Garnished” (Spring 2012). For more information about growing herbs and cooking with them, consult The Herb Garden Cookbook. Start an herb garden! The elder Lucinda would be so proud.