Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme...And Mint, Marjoram, Oregano, Chervil...

Simon and Garfunkel apparently only had four herbs in their garden, but you should have much more than that in your backyard. It is herb and vegetable planting season in Houston. Our terribly cold winter (haha) has passed, and the weather is perfect for gardening.

It's a great time of year to build raised-bed gardens, container gardens or, if you are lucky enough to live on a farm, then plow up a plot of land and get to planting. Let's start with where to get your plants or seeds. There are numerous nurseries and mega-hardware stores that carry your basic herbs and vegetables. They may or may not be organic or heirloom. More than likely, they are produced by Monsanto. The public would be stunned to know how many seeds Monsanto has bioengineered. If seeds are controlled by Monsanto, agribusiness trade controlled by Cargill, processing controlled by Pepsi and Phillip Morris, retail controlled by Wal Mart - then that is a recipe for food dictatorship. Our food supply is so important. It is the least common denominator of mankind. We all have to eat, and we all deserve to eat the best our system can offer. Avoid these seeds and plants at all costs!

Always try to buy heirloom or organic plants. This can get expensive if you go to the boutique nurseries in the area. I have the perfect solution, though. There is a hidden gem of a nursery that keeps heirloom, organic plants and seeds year-round. They have every kind of plant you can think of and several you probably never could. It is family-owned and -operated, and the owner lives on the property. It is Maas Nursery. Jim Maas owns it and calls it his gardening paradise

Maas nursery is located in Seabrook. Before you stop reading and turn your nose up at going, consider this - the nursery is about five minutes from Kemah Boardwalk. I say, make a day of it with the family. Tour the nursery, buy some plants, talk to Jim Maas and then go have fun at the boardwalk. Maas is so well worth the short, scenic drive. The nursery is an eight-acre oasis that can't be missed. Even better, the prices will keep you coming back year after year. Believe me; I have shopped many, many nurseries. Big ones, small ones, specialty ones, hippie/granola ones...and I always kick myself for not going back to what I know - Maas has better quality, more variety, better service and the best prices. And they have Smokey the nursery cat! She is friendly and often found lying amongst the herb plants. She loves a good belly rub if you pass by her.

Growing your own herbs and vegetables is so much better for you and cheaper than buying them at the grocery store. You control what you want, how much you want, and which chemicals are used or not used, and you are providing for yourself and your family in the healthiest way possible. If you think the tomatoes you bought at Kroger, even the "on-the-vine" ones, are what tomatoes taste like, then you are in for the taste sensation of your life when you grow your own, pick it, slice it, sprinkle it with salt and pepper and put a leaf of your basil on it.

While there is a place for dried herbs in cooking, there is also absolutely a place for fresh herbs. You can open up a whole new taste realm when you use fresh herbs to finish a dish. Dried herbs are used when they will be cooked for a long period of time. Fresh herbs are too delicate for that and are best used at the end of the cooking process or in cold dishes.

What you grow in your garden is completely up to your taste. There are thousands of herbs, and volumes have been written about their taste profiles, medicinal qualities, spiritual meanings and historical significance. I will not be addressing any of that. I say, go to Maas Nursery, taste all the herbs, decide which ones you like and grow those. Look to your favorite recipes, chefs or cookbooks for the most called-for herbs - plant those.

Herbs easily grow in small pots that can be put in window boxes or around your back patio. You can also build raised beds of any size. It will be easier to plant vegetables in raised beds, but lettuces, tomatoes and peppers do well in pots. Although many urban gardeners have little choice, selecting a garden site is extremely important. The ideal garden area gets full or nearly full sunlight and has deep, well-drained, fertile soil. The garden should be near a water outlet but not close to competing shrubs or trees. However, if you select the right crops, almost any site can become a highly productive garden.

Herbs can be grown nearly year around. Rosemary is nice to actually grow in your flower beds. It makes a nice bush and can be pruned to be as small or large as you want. It does well in extreme heat and cold. Basil loves our hot temperatures - keep pinching the flowers off, and it will keep producing leaves for most of the year.

Cilantro is the finickiest of the herbs. It likes cooler weather, so now is the perfect time to plant. As soon as we get continually hot days, the plant "bolts" or goes to seed. But then, if you harvest the seeds before they flower, you have coriander. Let the seeds dry and then grind them or use whole.

I personally have mint, marjoram, oregano, thyme, chervil, flat leaf parsley, three types of basil, chives, cilantro, rosemary, sage, savory, dill, lemongrass, lavender, bay leaves, tarragon, ginger and sorrel growing in pots or in a raised bed. Every couple of days, I check them for budding and pinch off any buds or flowers to produce more foliage. I also planted onion sets, Chinese cabbage, two kinds of lettuces, five different kinds of tomatoes, jalapenos and leeks. From seed, I planted peas, chard and two kinds of carrots. In addition to enjoying the fruits of my labor with my family, I also enjoy being able to share with neighbors and friends. Gardens are bountiful, and it feels very rewarding to share something you have grown. And the recipient feels pretty special to get such a personal gift.

A good reference site for vegetable planting times can be found at the Texas Cooperative Extension through Texas A&M. This site has great information for planting in Texas, a planting calendar for various vegetables, pest control, etc. It is a site to keep bookmarked to return to again and again.

While Houston has some very good farmers markets, it is a lot of fun to grow your own herbs and vegetables. The sense of accomplishment and healthy feeling you will get from growing, using and eating your own produce is worth the little bit of work it takes to plant a garden.

Good gardening!

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