While many of the popular annual flowers and even most vegetables are best planted after mid-May, early May is a safe time to start on the kitchen garden, herbs in particular. Although I enjoy gardening on a small scale, I do tend to focus the hobby more on flowers to make our patio more enjoyable for outdoor dining and to make various locations around the property look inviting and colorful. When it comes to the vegetable garden, since I can in fact purchase fresh vegetables from the local farm stands, I plant limited produce. I usually will plant a variety of different tomatoes, eggplants and bell peppers. What I do plant in abundance are herbs, due to the extensive use of these flavor enhancers. Herbs are very easy to grow, require little care and can be enjoyed fresh from garden to plate from early may well into November. A variety of herbs go into the making of our Thanksgiving feast, and this is usually when the final trek into the herb garden yield the final herb harvest.
Begin planting most of your herbs now, starting with parsley, sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme and chives. Then plant your dill, mint, and hold off planting basil until mid-late May, as basil is more sensitive to cooler temperatures. If your property layout allows, I recommend planting at least those herbs which you use most often as close to your kitchen as possible if your kitchen has outside entry. I actually plant many of my herbs in those very long narrow pots that sit atop of the deck railing. All I have to do is step outside the kitchen door and snip what I need right there. Since I do plant large amounts basil, I typically plant this in the vegetable garden where there is more space, creating a border of it around the tomatoes. I like to buy two or three large rosemary bushes, which I'll plant strategically in the vegetable garden as well since they do add a decorative touch.
Herbs are so versatile in cooking. Most recipes call for at least one herb, and even when I see a dried herb listed in the ingredients, I usually substitute fresh herbs instead. In most cases, fresh herbs taste so much better, whatever measurement the recipe calls for in dried herbs, simply double the amount and use fresh. The addition of fresh herbs turns up the flavor factor in any dish. Be creative, even when not working off of a recipe. Next time you make polenta or mashed potatoes, stir in some chopped fresh rosemary. Add some chopped fresh oregano when sauteeing summer vegetables. Every good Italian out there knows that the best red pasta sauce has to have fresh basil. Herbs make wonderful seasonings for roasting meats. Nothing says spring more than lamb with rosemary and garlic, or salmon with lemon and dill. Sage is an flavorful and aromatic seasoning for poultry. Next time you serve cannellini beans, add some extra-virgin olive oil, sauteed minced garlic and finely minced sage. Herbs also create a nice visual finishing touch when serving up a dish. When presenting a serving bowl of potato salad or pasta, sprinkle the top with some freshly chopped parsley before you bring it to the table of eager diners. It wakes up the dish, the addition of fresh, bright green against the light background makes the dish pop. Add a sprig of fresh mint to a glass of lemonade or iced tea and you add a touch of freshness and flavor that enhances the refreshing factor of the beverage. It's also a wonderful thing to be able to make a batch of pesto or a pitcher of mojitos on a whim, knowing that the parsley and basil or the mint are all right there at your fingertips, allowing you to bypass a trek to the supermarket first.
For those of you who are fortunate enough to have a kitchen window with a nice big sill, or plenty of counter space near a sunny kitchen window, I highly recommend planting some herbs in decorative pots indoors. You'll be able to enjoy those benefits that herbs provide even throughout the winter months. When it comes to cooking ingredients, fresh is always best and there is nothing better than being able to harvest your own produce minutes before you need it. You also know what went into your gardening; if you like to use organic produce, easy enough to accomplish when you grow it yourself. So go ahead, it's safe, go visit your local garden centers and start planning and planting your kitchen garden, your family will enjoy the fresh flavors all summer long.