Fresh herbs are easy to forget about if you’ve never had them. They go bad quickly and they are much more expensive. When cooked, they don’t really offer much more than their dried equivalents. Consequently, I learned to cook with little shakers of dried Italian seasoning mix and crispy bay leaves, and I like to think that, even so, my food turned out pretty tasty. However, a decade or more later, I’ve found myself in awe of the flavor and hidden powers of fresh herbs. I’ve ditched the shakers, and now raw herbs are featured in almost every meal I make.
The big difference started with gardening. In an attempt to start growing more of my own food, I decided to build something called an herb spiral just outside of my kitchen. The spiral idea came from permaculture and seemed so sensible, here’s why:
- Plant things like herbs close to the kitchen, so you’ll actually use them. The area just outside your door should be filled with things — herbs, lettuce and salad fixings — that readily go into meals and can be harvested daily. You’re more likely to pick them rain or shine, and you’ll be more inclined to add an herbal kick to any meal.
- Using the spiral design creates different microclimates. By constructing a raised-bed in a spiral shape, plants are afforded different climates to grow in: shady, sunny, well-drained, cooler, etc. It allows herbs that might otherwise not do well in such close proximity a chance to be friends. It also separates herbs that do grow well together. You can even change the soil in different sections of the spiral.
- It looks awesome while it’s working for you. The bed slowly winds its way up to three or four feet high, with greenery popping up everywhere. Why would someone choose to have a patch of grass rather than a turret of flavor? The herb spiral will provide vitamins and minerals to every meal with very little maintenance; the patch of grass will require cutting every week while looking like any other yard.
I was convinced. It made too much sense. So, there was just the spiral construction remaining, and it turned out to be a lot easier than expected. Here’s what I did:
- First, I leveled of a spot for the spiral, just outside the kitchen door. Generally, herb spirals are about five or six feet across. To help with weeds, you can either skim the top layer of turf away or cover the space with cardboard, which will both stop weeds and attract earthworms.
- Next, you have to build the spiral. I had an unused pile of slate stones lying around, but it can be done with brick or cinderblocks even more easily and cheaply. Start in the center, stacking as high as you’d like the middle to be, and work your spiral outwards. It’s easiest to make the entire bottom layer first so that gauge the spacing well.
- Then, fill the spiral with organic matter. Straw seems to be the consensus favorite among YouTubers. However, I pilled a mixture of dried leaves, light compost, soil and mulch. Just be sure to leave some space for water to adequately drain, as you would with a pot plant. It also important to realize herbs are herbaceous and often small, so they’ll need airy soil to get those little roots started.
- Finally, plant out your herbs in a designed fashion. Where you put plants shouldn’t just happen on a whim. Find out if the plants like a lot of sun or a little water. It doesn’t have to be too scientific, but planting sun-loving basil on the shady side of the spiral would be counter-productive, or planting a tall row of lemongrass in a spot that would block sun for the other plants would cause problems later. Give it a quick think.
I used seedlings rather than seeds so that I could start harvesting sooner, within a couple of weeks. Soon, I found myself eating fresh herbs at nearly every meal. I’ve stopped cooking them in my sauces and stews. Instead, I just cut up a nice mixture of herbs, garlic sprouts (in the garden) and peppers (also in the garden) to sprinkle on everything as you would salt and pepper. Meals just burst with flavor now, and there are many more medicinal benefits of using the herbs this way rather than dried and cooked to death.
Lead image source: Emma Gallagher