Spice up your garden with Mediterranean-flavored herbs

While our climate is not exactly the same as the Mediterranean area, there are some similarities: hot, dry summers and sometimes cold, wet winters. As a result, many of the herbs that grow wild there grow very happily in our gardens here.

Some of our favorite foods come from the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, and it turns out that the unique flavor of many of those foods comes from the herbs that grow there.

Greek food, for example, is often flavored with dill, basil, bay leaf, fennel, marjoram, spearmint, oregano, parsley, garlic, rosemary and sage. All of these herbs grow well in Central Texas. They are so well-adapted that most of them are happy to grow in unimproved soil, in fertile raised beds, or in containers. They are just happy to be here. Dill and fennel prefer cool weather, and basil likes it hot, but the others grow year-round, making it easy to step outside and pinch off the flavor of Greece.

Spearmint is a dominant herb in Greek food. It is used in everything from cheese dishes to tomato-based sauces, meats and rice dishes. Steeped fresh mint is a favorite herbal tea. Spearmint grows like the proverbial weed in Central Texas. Many gardeners complain that it “takes over” the garden, but it is easily contained by planting it in a container. You can sink the container into the ground so it appears to be planted in the ground, or you can leave it as a container plant. Or, and this is my choice, you can plant it as a ground cover in a spot where it can run free. If it grows out into the lawn, then you get the bonus of sweet smells when the grass is cut.

Dill is another favorite in Greek cooking. It often appears in cold, creamy sauces served with meat or fish. Dill grows best here when it is planted in late winter or very early spring (now, for example). Young transplants or seeds can be put into a sunny spot, and soon you’ll see emerging ferny green leaves that form a seed head on top. Both the leaves and seeds can be used to give food that distinctive dill flavor.

Give your dill full sun, good garden soil and water when it is dry. There are compact varieties like fernleaf dill that take up less space in the garden.

Once the seed head forms, let the seeds mature and then cut them off. Use some for making pickles and hang the rest upside-down in a brown paper bag to dry. The seeds will fall from the pod and you can then store them in glass or paper containers. Use them in recipes and save some to plant next year.

Keep in mind that butterflies love both dill and fennel, so plant enough for both them and for you. If they are gnawing on all your plants, pick a couple to sacrifice and move the caterpillars to those. You’ll be glad you did when the beautiful swallowtail butterflies appear.

Italian foods use many of the same herbs, but in different proportions and with different vegetables and meat. Basil, oregano, bay, parsley, rosemary, sage, garlic, mint and onion are all found in classic Italian cooking. Southern Italy often combines herbs with garlic and tomatoes, both cooked and fresh. Northern Italy is more inclined to butter sauces flavored with sage for a more subtle flavor.

Basil is one of the best-beloved herbs used in Italian cooking. Simply sliced with tomatoes and mozzarella cheese for a classic Caprese salad, basil adds a subtle flavor of licorice and freshness. To make this summertime staple, slice your fresh homegrown tomatoes and mozzarella and layer in a dish with sliced or torn generous leaves of basil. Salt and pepper the dish and drizzle a small amount of olive oil and maybe a touch of balsamic vinegar over the concoction. The taste of summer!

Basil needs to grow in reliably warm weather, of which we have plenty, so don’t rush to put it out in the spring. It will grow from seeds or transplants, in the ground or in containers. It needs full sun or at least full morning sun and water when there is no rain.

There are many different varieties of basil: Sweet basil is the most common, but other varieties include cinnamon, lemon, purple ruffles, spicy globe, Greek, lettuce leaf, sacred, Thai, Mexican spice and more. One source lists more than 150 different options. All have a basic basil flavor with a slight twist. All should be grown in the same way.

It is a good idea to plant a new crop every few weeks so that when the first ones start producing seed, you’ll have more coming along. Pinch off the flowers as long as you can, then enjoy them and cut a few to bring into the house.

The other beloved cuisine from the Mediterranean is French. Their sophisticated and rustic dishes alike include such herbs as lavender, bay, sage, tarragon, peppercorn, marjoram, saffron, thyme, rosemary, garlic, parsley and oregano. French cuisine boasts of many subtle and different flavors. Herbs are essential to create the dishes that have made France a food paradise.

Tarragon is one of those flavors. French tarragon does not grow well in our heat, but there is a good native alternative. Texas tarragon (Mexican mint marigold) grows beautifully here. The leaves smell and taste very much like French tarragon, and the plant grows throughout the summer and then produces a wealth of bright yellow flowers in the fall. It dies back in the winter but reappears again in the spring.

It is easy to grow in well-drained soil in either full sun or partial shade. It grows 2-3 feet tall, making it a nice background plant in your beds or large pots. It needs very little care or attention. It grows wild in Mexico and Guatemala, where the leaves have been used as teas, seasoning and medicine for at least a thousand years.

Now is the perfect time to plant perennial herbs: rosemary, thyme, mint and others. Save the basil for later.

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