You may be working too hard in your garden. Our advice? Relax and let nature do some of the work for you. Many of our favorite herbs reseed back into the garden year after year. It is convenient and natural to let them cast seed and germinate according to their biological clocks, which become more finely tuned to our specific climates with every new generation. It is unnecessary, as well as more work, to harvest the seed, store it indoors and then remember to replant in proper timing every year. If left alone, these plants perpetuate themselves completely on their own, without our interference. Our selections for perpetual patches are also successful because they don’t seem to be food that deer or rabbits are very fond of and, because they reseed prolifically, they produce plenty for everyone. The downside for some gardeners is that your garden will look as though it’s gone to seed during certain times of the year.
Herbs that reseed wildly and prolifically are Mother Nature’s version of efficient gardening. Learn how to manage these happy growers in your garden.
Perpetual herbs cast their seed around the garden at random, sometimes right in the middle of the garden paths; other times they might encroach the space of happily situated perennial plants. Every now and then, they plant themselves as they please in perfect spots we never considered, and we are content to leave them right where they want to grow. These volunteers pop up in huge numbers and require thinning. Some transplant well, others don’t. The thinnings and volunteers may be put to use as gourmet micro-greens, baby greens, green manure, simple medicines, mulch or compost ingredients. For their many benefits and uses, we are glad to have these perpetual patches of herbs naturalized in our gardens.
Knowing and Managing Perpetual Patches of Herbs
Arugula (Eruca sativa) is a member of the mustard family and the leaves have a spicy, nutty flavor, that sometimes are very pungent at the end of the season. The small, cream-colored flowers with purple veining are fragrant and edible. The leaves and flowers will definitely add zing to a salad, but the flavor is milder when it is cooked. Wild, rustic arugula (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) is sometimes sold, and we have also grown a variety called ‘Sylvetta’, a plant with yellow flowers and smaller leaves than common arugula. Arugula reseeds freely, and we pick it out by the roots when it grows out into paths and when the harlequin beetles begin to chew small holes in the leaves. Arugula persists in the garden virtually all year, although it dies back in freezing weather. Volunteer seedlings transplant easily.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is best sown from midsummer to early spring planted right in the garden where it is to grow, as it does not transplant well. Young plants appear in March and bolt to seed by May in our USDA Hardiness Zone 6b and 7 gardens. The mild licorice-flavored leaves are good in salads and French cooking, especially in fines herbes blends and ravigote (a white sauce made with stock and seasoned with chopped chervil, chives, tarragon, shallots and capers). The flavor is reminiscent of a subtle cross between flat-leaf Italian parsley and tarragon. The leaves are really best used fresh, as they retain little of their sprightly flavor when dried. When used in cooking, fresh leaves are added just before serving.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a wild, cool-season plant that volunteers in soils rich in organic matter. It survives well into midsummer in the shady parts of southern gardens, but remains lush in sun and shade nearly all summer in northern climes. The mineral-rich greens have a mild spinach-like flavor and taste best before the plant flowers. The best way to harvest chickweed for the greens pot or salad bowl is to snip the tips with scissors. This saves the cook from an inordinate amount of washing. Chickweed salve heals minor scrapes and bruises. A poultice of steamed chickweed is helpful for cooling inflammations. Transplanting is not required since it comes up all over.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a cool-season herb, which is a challenge for those of us who love fresh tomato salsa made with ingredients from our own gardens. Seed may be sown in fall through early April for the first stand. If allowed to flower and seed, cilantro will come back dependably year after year, providing leaves in the spring, fall and mild winter months. It transplants well. The root is used in Thai cooking, the dried stems are used for smoking food and the leaves are used in Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, Latin American and Mexican cuisine; the seeds, known as coriander, are used ground or whole for their clean citrus flavor. The inimitable taste of cilantro leaves combines a resinous citrus flavor with a mild green grassy herb and a mere suggestion of soap, which is what puts some people off the flavor. Cilantro is indispensable in our gardens because it works well with all summer vegetables, especially hot peppers.
Corn salad or mâche (Valerianella locusta) is a little weed that resembles a small lettuce and comes up in waste places as well as in cultivated ground. We have never tried to transplant it; rather, we find it growing here and there in the garden. Also known as lamb’s lettuce, it is considered to be a gourmet salad green in Europe where it commands a high price in the spring and fall markets. The plant contains boron, which is important to the body’s utilization of calcium. The flavor is similar to a mild leaf lettuce, perhaps a bit earthier, and the season is short as it doesn’t tolerate the heat. Eat your corn salad in March and April. It bolts to seed quickly when temperatures become hot.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) is fussy about being transplanted, so we find it best to sow the seed into the garden rather than grow it from starter plants. We harvest dill regularly in the spring and the seed ripens on the plants in June, dropping to the ground shortly after. Small dill plants will occasionally sprout throughout the summer and sometimes into the fall, but the majority of the crop will wait until the following spring to germinate. It is good to have a large patch of dill for use in the kitchen and for butterfly larvae food. We enjoy dill in salads of every type from leafy greens to potato, egg, slaw, and chicken salads.
English plantain (Plantago major) is a weed to most people, especially those who require perfect lawns. But plantwise people who know plaintain’s true benefits make poultices and infusions of the fresh leaves to soothe bug bites and poison ivy rashes. Plantain will create a luxuriant, living, mulched path with rosette shaped plants. When the plants set seed midsummer, the seed stems can be cut back and used medicinally or as spikes in flower arrangements. Be sure to leave enough seed to insure progeny for the next growing season. The tender, young leaves can be cooked up in the greens pot; veining in the leaves makes them fibrous and tough if they get any size to them. The seeds are a bulk laxative.
Lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album) volunteer in our gardens, and we’re happy to have them, but we found one variety, ‘Magenta Spreen’, that is as showy as it is tasty. The light green leaves are tinged with bright fuchsia at their center base and the plants grow quite tall—over 6 feet—by the end of the growing season. Lamb’s-quarters provide us with vitamins C and E. Although covered with soft fuzz, the small leaves are good in salads or cooked, and larger leaves can be cooked as greens or added to the soup or bean pot. It is said that adding epazote (the Spanish word for lamb’s-quarters) to the bean pot will help reduce flatulence. Deer graze on our lamb’s-quarters, but they always leave enough for us to eat throughout the entire summer.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is one herb we could never be without in our gardens, particularly the Italian flat-leaf variety. Swallowtail butterfly larvae are crazy for the leaves. If you find yellow and black-striped caterpillars feeding on the leaves, just feed and water the plants—parsley will sprout new growth in short order and your garden will be graced with butterflies. When allowed to self-sow, flat-leaf parsley comes back year after year. Though biennial, some seed remains dormant from year to year, resulting in a patch that contains both first- and second-year plants; once the second-year plants send up their flower stalks, the leaves become slightly bitter. We harvest the outer leaves on our plants and add parsley to many dishes, both raw and cooked. It is a source of vitamins A, B and C.
Poppy (Papaver rhoeas and P. somniferum) freely reseeds when allowed to ripen on the stalk. The seedlings do not transplant well, and should be thinned to encourage large plants for the best flowers. We love their bright, cheerful flowers and their hairy green (P. rhoeas) or smooth gray-green (P. somniferum) foliage in our garden beds. The seeds are used in bread, desserts and salad dressings—the foliage and flowers are not edible.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is one of the most under-appreciated herbs in the garden. As a wild food, the flavor is slightly sour, like a lemon. The leaves are succulent, oblong and oval, hairless and without points. The plant grows generous numbers of edible stems. All parts are crisp on the outside and mucilaginous in the middle, a texture much like okra without the hairs. The stems make a great bread and butter pickle. Tina likes to eat purslane fresh from the garden. It beats out all green vegetables as a source of omega-3 fatty acids and also contains chlorophyll, vitamins A and C, iron, and is low in calories and fat. The seeds can be used in place of poppy seed in salad dressings and on breads. In the garden, we view it as a green cover crop and living mulch. The plants germinate during the late spring and early summer. They stay low to the ground, forming mats of moisture-retaining stems and foliage that keeps less desirable volunteers from germinating. The plant will reach a height of about 8 inches when it is in full flower; the small yellow blooms open in the cool of the morning and on cloudy days. As the plants grow, we cut the stems that crowd other garden plants and pull the ones that are badly placed. The resulting weed harvest heats up the compost pile in short order.
Mineral-rich chickweed has a mild spinach-like flavor.
This recipe is fast and easy for a gardener on the go and is substantial enough to hold you until lunchtime.
1 to 1½ tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 eggs, beaten
⅔ cup lamb’s-quarter tops or chickweed sprigs
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 slice of whole-wheat sourdough bread
Heat oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add garlic and sauté for 2 minutes. Add eggs to pan. Put bread in the toaster to toast. When eggs are half-cooked, add herbs. Flip eggs to finish cooking and wilt greens. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with toast.
Purslane leaves and stems can be simmered in lightly salted water as you would spinach and served with butter, salt and pepper, or they can be sautéed as in the following recipe.
About 1½ quarts purslane leaves, upper
stems and flower buds
About 2 tablespoons olive oil
2 or 3 cloves minced garlic
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, optional
Hot red pepper flakes, optional
Wash purslane and pat dry. If leaves are small, leave them whole, otherwise cut crosswise; chop the stems into 3/4- to 1-inch pieces. Heat oil in a skillet or sauté pan over medium-low heat; add purslane and sauté for about 5 minutes. Add garlic; stir, reduce heat to low, and cover for 4 or 5 minutes. Stir and season with salt and pepper and cover for another 1 to 2 minutes. The purslane will wilt considerably. Sprinkle with fresh Parmesan, if desired, and serve hot as a side dish. Pass the pepper flakes.
Makes about 2 cups sauce, enough for 8 servings of pasta
This sauce is similar to a Southwestern-style salsa verde. It is delicious on pasta, potatoes, fresh sliced tomatoes, any grilled vegetables or with grilled chicken and fish. Replace half the parsley with basil if desired. Use whatever peppers you have available, and add a few serranos or jalapeños for heat, if you like. This recipe is adapted from The Chile Pepper Book by Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger (Interweave Press, 1994).
About 1⅓ cups packed cilantro leaves
⅔ cup packed Italian parsley leaves
⅓ cup pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds), lightly toasted, or ⅓ cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted
3 or 4 large garlic cloves
2 large poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, and seeded
2 large Anaheim or New Mexico chiles, roasted, peeled, and seeded
About ¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ to ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
About ¼ cup water
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a food processor, combine cilantro, parsley, pumpkin seeds, garlic, chiles and Parmesan. Start the processor and add the oil in a steady stream as the ingredients are processed. The sauce will be thick—add a little water for the desired consistency. Taste for seasoning; add salt and pepper and adjust with a little more Parmesan or olive oil, if desired. Serve as an accompaniment to grilled vegetables, fish or chicken, or toss with hot pasta; garnish with herb leaves and serve immediately.
Contributing editor Susan Belsinger is a writer, photographer and an herbal presenter. She lives in Brookville, Maryland. Frequent contributor Tina Marie Wilcox is a gardener, musician and writer who lives in Leslie, Arkansas. Susan and Tina collaborate frequently, and are currently working on their newest book, The Creative Herbal Home, available in June.
Serves 4 (or 8 as appetizers)
This winning combination is the perfect way to start a meal. If you serve these as a main course for lunch, allow two per person. We like a variety of heirloom miniature tomatoes: yellow or red pear-shaped, green or red grape, or good, old-fashioned red cherry tomatoes. Imported olives and fresh sliced mozzarella make a good accompaniment. Recipe adapted from The Greens Book by Susan Belsinger and Carolyn Dille (Interweave Press, 1995). This topping is delicious on pasta, too.
Generous pint cherry or pear-shaped
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 to 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely minced or pressed
About 3 tablespoons chopped chives, common or garlic
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 long baguette or loaf of good-quality, country-style bread, preferably whole wheat
About 2 cups arugula leaves, cut into chiffonade
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
Combine tomatoes in a bowl with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, garlic and chives. Add salt and pepper to taste, and toss well.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice bread into 1/2-inch slices and place on a baking sheet. Toast bread slices for about 6 to 8 minutes, or until both sides are lightly browned, turning them once. While bread is toasting, add arugula to tomatoes and toss well.
To prepare bruschetta, remove the toast from the oven and rub with a clove of garlic. Brush with remaining olive oil.
Taste the tomato and herb mixture for seasoning and adjust with a little more balsamic, salt or pepper, if desired. Spoon mixture evenly over the prepared toast rounds and drizzle a little of the marinade juices over all. Serve immediately.
For a quick, refreshing salad, gather any or allof the perpetual patch greens listed (except for the poppies, whose foliage and flowers are not edible). Wash well and spin or pat dry. Tear larger green leaves into bite-sized pieces and place them in a salad bowl. Tear or snip smaller herbs such as dill, chervil or cilantro and scatter them over the salad. Make a simple vinaigrette in a jar or a measuring cup using good quality olive oil and your favorite herbal vinegar, balsamic vinegar or fresh lemon juice, seasoned with a little salt and freshly ground pepper. If desired, stir in a pinch of two of poppy seeds. Blend well with a fork and drizzle over your salad. We like to eat this salad sitting somewhere outside, preferably in a shady spot in the garden.
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