Herbs, Kids, and Family Fun

Sunday, September 15, 2002

My friends at Parents and Kids magazine asked me to suggest ways to get kids into herb gardening - here's what I said:

What’s a Mom to do? We know the story: what we do now, the lessons we teach by design or living example, will stay with our children for good or ill. And we know that a lifetime of good health for them depends on eating habits and patterns established in childhood. So, what to do? First, relax, and take a vow to eat drivethrough dinners less often. Then take positive steps to ‘eat mo’better’ at home by growing and using herbs.

Lots of our favorite foods depend on decidedly unhealthy sources of flavor. I could live, from a taste standpoint, on french fried potatoes, cooked in saturated fat and salted liberally. But I know I won’t live long like that, and I don’t want my children to grow up loving such heart-stopping foods. Herbs add flavor to food, and provide an excellent alternative to the traditional salt and fats. And before too long, your kids, like mine, will frown at the fries, asking for herbed, roasted potato wedges instead.

Make herb gardening a family affair this year: take the kids to shop for seeds and plants with you, have the youngest paint a few flowerpots, pay the older ones to work up a garden bed with organic matter, sand, and a dusting of lime. And remember to act surprised when they want to check on the garden everyday.
Pick a spot in your yard that gets half a day of sun. You can grow herbs in pots on the deck, at the edge of the tomato patch, in the flowerbed, or in a combination of places. But herbs generally need less water and fertilizer than many plants, so grouping them together makes cultivation easier. Water weekly in dry spells, but fertilize only at planting time and again at midsummer with a slow release formula. Herbs attract few pests; if any trouble your plants, cut off the affected part, handpick any bugs you see, and spray with soapy water.

I grow some herbs in the ground, with pots of others nearby, based on their individual needs. Here’s how my children and I grow and use our top ten herbs:
Basil. Grow basil like you would any summer annual, but keep the plants pinched to prevent flowering and get more tasty leaves. Good ol’ green basil belongs in every tomato dish, but we like lime and lemon basils to flavor vegetables and fish. And purple basils lend lovely pink hues to herb vinegars.
Chives. Everyone says put chives in the flowerbed, but mine do better in a shallow flowerpot with greek oregano on the shady side of my courtyard. I like the taste of garlic chives, but onion chives are as easy to grow. Both chives die back in the summer, but don’t rip them out. They’ll resprout in fall.
Garlic. Even the youngest can peel a garlic toe and plant it; for the greatest range of flavors, choose mild elephant garlic and spicy creole garlic. Great candidates for the flowerbed, stick the single garlic into well-drained soil, and forget it until late fall. When the leaves flop over, it’s ready to dig. Lemongrass. Lemongrass This edible grass looks great as a focal point in an herb bed. It’s two feet tall and about as wide once it gets going. No, I don’t make lemongrass juice, but I wrap the long, skinny leaves around fish, shrimp or mushroom kabobs for the grill and broiler.

Mint. Horsemint, peppermint, spearmint, applemint...we love the flavors in teas and lemonades and they’re all easy to grow. Give them the low spot in the herb bed where their roots will stay wet, and mulch in summer to keep them cool. Or plant a patch on the shady side of the house in a damp leaf pile. 
Oregano. Pick greek oregano for traditional cuisine taste and easier growing in MS. Mine thrives with chives in well-drained potting soil. Pinch the ends frequently to keep oregano bushy; eat or root those cuttings. Mediterranean dishes love oregano, but use it to bring out the flavor in pork instead of salt.

Parsley. The first plant my kids grew, flat leaf parsley packs more punch and doesn’t gather dirt in the garden like its curly cousin. Like the perennial chives, parsley hates summertime, but it’s an annual, so plant it in spring or fall. When the plants start to send up a flowerstalk in June, cut parsley down and freeze. Rosemary. Evergreen and woody, rosemary will be equally at home in the herb bed or planted with ornamental grasses and sunloving perennials as at my house. Make a modern bouquet garni: wrap up rosemary and other fresh herbs with lemongrass. Use woody stems as skewers for meat kabobs.

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