Published on 04/07/97

Real Cooks Grow Their Own Herbs

What's the difference between a cook and a chef? In a word: herbs.

"A chef knows the difference between culinary and fragrant herbs and uses them flagrantly in cooking," said Wayne McLaurin, a University of Georgia Extension Service horticulturist who numbers himself among the chefs.

Some combinations are almost automatic: dill with fish, basil with tomatoes, onions and garlic with everything.

"My kids used to say whatever doesn't have onions or garlic on it is probably dessert," McLaurin said.

The world of herbs is deliciously diverse. And all you need is a pot, a window box or a small garden plot, and you can have an herb garden. Add a sunny spot and well-drained soil, and you're ready to plant herbs.

Just don't overfertilize herbs. "You don't want them to grow too much," McLaurin said. "When you have succulent growth, you dilute essential oils. And that's where the flavor is."

And don't bother using pesticides. Most herbs have little to no insect or disease problems.

Most herbs are hardy plants, McLaurin said. When you get ready to plant, divide the annuals and perennials so you can leave the perennials in place. You can also stick herbs into flower beds.

"Give the neighbor four houses down some mint and go harvest it for them," he said. "Mint takes over everything. It will be a weed in no time. It's very aggressive."

If you enjoy the graceful visits of butterflies, try planting fennel and dill. Swallowtails will lay eggs on these herbs.

The easiest ones to grow include chives, basil, parsley, dill, fennel and rosemary. French tarragon is about the only herb that has trouble with the Georgia heat.

McLaurin adds a few tips for these easy-growers.

"Try using the purple blossoms from chives," he said. "They're beautiful in salads. You can choose from among 19 kinds of basils. And the flat-leaf Italian parsley is easier to grow than the curly-leaf variety and has much better flavor.

"Coriander looks like parsley," he said. "They use it in Mexican food. I call it a green flavor. It goes well with tomatoes, and it's easy to grow."

Alongside your herbs, throw in some nasturtiums to use like herbs. McLaurin said these plants aren't just pretty. They're edible. The leaves and flowers have a hot pepper flavor.

"If you grow herbs, you can make up your own seasoning," he said. "You can reduce the use of salt a great deal by replacing it with various herb flavorings."