THERE'S NOTHING QUITE LIKE stepping outside the kitchen, scissors and basket in hand, to snip fresh basil, rosemary and other culinary herbs from your own herb garden. • Their delightful aroma lingers on your hands and fills the kitchen with rich scents of the meal to come. For a few moments, you feel like the Barefoot Contessa or Emeril Lagasse. • You'll feel smart, too. For a fraction of the cost of store-bought herbs, you can easily grow your own at home — even if all the gardening space you have is a windowsill.
Culinary herbs are easy to start and maintain. Though many are grown in Florida as annuals from September through May, there are perennial herbs that weather the hot, humid summer with a little TLC.
According to the Herb Society of America, the Top 10 culinary herbs are basil, garlic, oregano, marjoram, sage, dill, chives, parsley, bay and rosemary. If you're new to herb gardening, the Top 10 are some of the easiest and most useful to grow, says the society's executive director, Katrinka D. Morgan.
Look for a space that receives four to six hours of sun each day, preferably morning sun. If that's not possible, you can group your herbs in another sunny spot of the yard, or mix them into garden beds, creating what's known as an "edible landscape."
Herbs are ideally suited for containers. If you cut them frequently, keeping them small and compact, you can plant several in one container. As sun patterns shift during the year, you can move pots to avoid blazing-hot afternoon sun. In the summer, you can move pots to a sheltered spot to protect herbs from frequent, heavy rainfall — a sure kiss of death for summer-sensitive herbs.
Monica Brandies, author of numerous gardening books, has grown about 100 herbs at her Brandon home. "I have herbs all over the place. It's all mixed in. For one thing we don't have a door from the kitchen. But I try to keep the kitchen herbs closest to the kitchen so I can get to them easily," she says.
Her herbs go right into the ground, which she amends with organic material. "It helps to improve soil no matter what you are growing, but herbs are less fussy than other plants," says Brandies, author of Herbs and Spices for Florida Gardens (B.B. Mackey Books, 1996, 250 pages, about $15 from www.amazon.com or www.gardensflorida.com).
You can make a soil mixture of 4 parts top soil, 1 part perlite (to improve moisture retention and drainage) and ½ part dolomitic lime (to boost calcium). Mediterranean herbs, such as rosemary and sage, prefer quick-draining soil, so add some builder's sand.
Start out modestly and increase your plant variety as you go. "Get the things your family likes and use them with your regular recipes. Don't give your family too much, too soon," Brandeis says. "The main thing is to enjoy it."
Yvonne Swanson is a Pinellas County master gardener and freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com.