tampabay.com

Add herbs to list of life's pleasures

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published July 13, 2007


The other day I was reading a cherished book given to me years ago by my best friend, another journalist, who loves decorating and gardening as much as I do.

Girlfriends Forever was written and illustrated by Susan Branch, an author I love both for her musings on home, gardening, food and friendship as well as the sweetly whimsical illustrations that make leafing through the richly illustrated pages of her books one of life's little pleasures.

In the book, Branch offers her home-spun recommendations for personal happiness, and I have to say I agree with all of them. They are: "Feed the birds, eat good food, breathe fresh air, wear something pretty, read good books, grow flowers, redecorate, take long naps, soak in bathtubs, write in a diary, show love, paint toenails and see chick flicks."

You bet!

The only thing I would add is this:

Grow fresh herbs - and lots of them.

For years I longed for a kitchen garden of my own, a little plot of earth that sprouted with all things magical that I could sprinkle in my soups, stews and salads. The idea of growing fresh herbs was intimidating to me at first and most attempts failed almost immediately, usually the result of overwatering and too little or too much sun.

But then one fine, sunny day I looked over at my neighbor's deck and she was growing all sorts of things in her designated little condo plot - including basil, my favorite, especially when served over fresh Florida tomatoes topped with mozzarella and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. The soil in our little plots, my neighbor said, was rich and dark and perfect and needed nothing to make things grow.

So I tried my hand in it, first with a basil plant I bought at a local home store, then rosemary, dill, oregano and mint.

They grew like crazy, even in the heat of Florida summer. My basil has sprouted into a leggy tree and needs some serious cutting back. The mint, true to form, is spreading with wild and weedlike abandon. The rest are healthy and maturing, I'm happy to report, and need little in the way of tending.

What gives me so much pleasure is knowing I am growing fresh herbs just a few yards from my kitchen - herbs that make my food taste wonderful and my life easier.

Since my attempt was a trial-by-error effort and, believe me, my attempt to grow cilantro failed miserably, I called Al Latina of Temple Terrace, a master gardener through the Hillsborough County Extension Office.

Latina specializes in growing roses and orchids; his yard is full of them and he gives regular talks at area libraries on the subjects. But he is also an avid grower of fresh herbs, something he started doing as a teenager growing up in Connecticut.

He still has a garden plot that thrives with many things, including his favorites, sweet basil and flat-leaf parsley.

Latina said that for most people just starting out growing herbs, he recommends doing so in containers and growing them indoors in a place where they will get a lot of sun - preferably a south- or west-facing window.

He recommends growing them in a pot or window box, using a good potting soil mixed with a little sand and a little agricultural lime.

"Whatever kind of container you use, make sure it will drain the water," he advised.

The air-conditioning will dry the soil out, but don't overwater them - once a week is plenty.

"If the leaves start getting yellow, it means you're overwatering and the roots are starting to rot," Latina said.

Grow your herbs from seeds or seedlings ("with seedlings, at least you know what they're going to look like") and choose herbs that will probably do well even if you have a black thumb.

"Ones that I think are good to grow are mint, parsley, basil, cilantro, chives, rosemary, oregano and thyme," he said.

Cut them back when they get too large because they won't taste as good. And harvest often.

The point is to really use what you're growing in your cooking.

"There are all kinds of wonderful things you can do with herbs," Latina noted, "like using them in your soups and sauces. I love to use my oregano in my Italian sauces."

And growing lots of fresh herbs at home might just fall into author Susan Branch's "How to be Happy" list.

I think I'll snip some of my rosemary for dinner tonight.

It very well might be my secret ingredient for happiness.

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.