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Herbs: Spring Celebrities

At last, spring is in the air. We’re really looking forward to all the great spring produce we’ll see from our local suppliers. There’s just something about local spring produce that makes you say, “Wow, this is really good stuff.” Sweet spring spinach, earthy morels, pungent ramps, and asparagus so fresh and tender you can eat it raw; these are some of my favorites. Since March, my morel-hunting buddy and I have been brainstorming ideas for new recipes that incorporate the season’s bounty. It gets a little competitive, but it’s fun, and the food is always incredible.

So naturally, when it came time to present topic ideas for this month’s article, I thought about these spring jewels and how to incorporate them into an article. Generally motivated by my stomach, I thought of recipes, and how I want to make asparagus/morel ravioli with chive butter. With so much attention focused on the elusive local, seasonal fare, we tend to overlook some of the lesser-famed items, like herbs. So, why not write about herbs? We have a great local source, they’re a great DIY garden pick, and they’re the “just-what-that-dish-needed-to-take-it-over-the-top” ingredient.

Our Fresh Connection
You’ll find a variety of fresh herbs in the Co-op’s Produce department. Our selection includes: basil, chives, cilantro, dill, lemongrass, marjoram, mint, oregano, curly and Italian parsley, rosemary, sage, tarragon, and thyme. In addition to these “common” herbs, you can also find fennel and, while in season locally, ramps, garlic scapes, green garlic, and scallions—all of which can be used as fresh herbs.
We work with a number of local farms who supply us with our herb needs. West Star Farms, Garden to Be, Keewaydin Organics, Tipi Produce, JenEhr, and Harmony Valley are all contributors throughout the local season. Last year we were able to purchase lemongrass locally for the first time from Harmony Valley. The quality was exceptional, which more often than not is one of the many advantages of sourcing and buying local.

Since 2005, we’ve had the opportunity to purchase our local packaged herbs from Troy Community Farm. It’s been a real pleasure working with Claire Strader and her crew. Claire has a history of experience in retail produce as a former Co-op staffer, which really makes for a great relationship.

Troy Community Farm maintains a five-acre organic farm at Troy Gardens on Madison’s North Side. Like Troy Gardens, Troy Community Farm is dedicated to producing high quality food for the local community. The farm employees two full-time staffers (Claire and Jake), one part-time employee, and incorporates worker shares and interns to help with the duties on the farm through the growing season. This year the farm will supply a diverse range of vegetables to 160 CSA members. You can purchase directly from the farm from 4:00pm to 6:00pm on Thursday evenings starting in June, or stop in to the Co-op. We purchase a variety of items from the farm during the local season including kale, Brussels sprouts, garlic, leeks, and roma and slicer tomatoes.

With the recent installation of a passive solar greenhouse, Claire and crew are looking forward to increasing their herb business. By having the ability to extend the season on their herbs, they are hoping other retailers will be more willing to take on them on as a local supplier. Current herb production begins in early May and runs through late October. The greenhouse hopefully will enable close to year-round production for heartier herbs, and add a couple of months for the cold-sensitive herbs like basil. That’s good news for the farm, and us.

Herbs are a great do-it-yourself item for beginning gardeners and anyone who enjoys fresh herbs. They’re fairly simple to grow, and you don’t need much more than a quart-size container in a sunny area to grow them. For Troy Community Farm, herbs are a good match due to the limited space available here in the city, allowing the farm to earn a good return on a very small space.
Herbs fall into three plant categories: annuals (plants that complete the growing cycle in one growing season), perennials (plants that grow year after year), and biennials (in the plant’s second season, it flowers and goes to seed). Because of the seed production in their second season, biennials are treated by growers as annuals.

Culinary herb annuals include basil, cilantro, dill, and parsley. The remainder are all perennials. All of them can be done in containers, and the great thing about herbs is that you can cut what you need and they’ll continue to produce new growth. A few containers of any herb will produce plenty to use as fresh, and also provide you the opportunity to dry or process for later use. You can use containers for fresh dill, however, if your end goal is to produce dill heads for pickling, a small space in the garden is a better option.

As with anything, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. An obvious disadvantage for annuals is that you have to plant a new crop every year, however, the advantage is that you can move them around so you’re not planting in the same location year after year. All herbs work well as ornamentals in the garden and in containers. When planning your garden, consider using herbs as borders, or planting to create patterns. Basil, sage, rosemary, and parsley are ideal as border plants. Remember, the perennials are going to be somewhat of a permanent fixture! Consider spacing them out in a manner that allows you to put annual flowers or vegetables in the scheme to add some color to contrast the green of the herbs and really create a unique, beautiful garden. Also, take into account that perennials like mint and oregano are extremely prolific and will creep into and take over the surrounding area if you’re not managing their growth.

To ensure years of production for your perennials, it is of the utmost importance to keep the weeds out. Every year I tell myself I’m going to stay on top of this, and initially I do. By August, when I’ve been dedicated to keeping the weeds out of the rest of my garden, my perennial herbs are camouflaged by lambsquarter and thistle. It’s a never-ending battle! To help reduce weed pressure, try applying a mulch around your perennials. In the fall, cut your perennials back and remove any old growth. A good layer of mulch will provide enough protection during the cold winter months so that when spring arrives, you’ll start seeing new growth. Claire recommends a thorough spring weeding and an application of fresh mulch to ensure another year of success.

At this time of the year, you should be able to find local herb starters at the various farmers’ markets and garden centers in the area. Or, stop in to the Co-op; we’ve got a great selection of both annual and perennial starters, seeds, growing mediums and equipment to meet your needs. For your immediate needs, look for Troy Community Farms herbs in the Produce departments at both Willy East and Willy West.

Eat well, and enjoy Spring!

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