Each season, the edible garden has its own flavor profile. Hearty winter squashes and sturdy greens such as kale and chard flavor the meals of fall and winter, very often given an aromatic boost by warm tropical spices, like cinnamon, cumin, and cardamom that can be stored for long periods. Summer brings succulent fresh corn (on the cob!) and tangy tomatoes. These tasty vegetables are wonderful on their own and must be consumed within hours of harvest to fully enjoy their freshest flavor.
They are enhanced by a sprinkling of one or more of the summer herbs that are also only at their best when gathered in the garden as close to dinner time as possible. The short shelf life of these herbs means that growing them yourself is the best way to ensure that they are at their peak whenever you want them. Some of the best for summer are basil, cilantro, dill, and parsley. With the exception of parsley, which is a biennial (living two years before flowering and dying), these are all grown as annuals. Since most of them grow from very small seeds and actually prefer slightly warmer summers than we usually experience here on the coast, planting young seedlings is a good bet. The exception is dill (see below for details).
There are more than 150 different varieties of basil from several different species, and there are several different essential oils that give basil its characteristic taste. There are basils with lemon overtones, some with anise or licorice flavors, quite spicy selections that are almost peppery, and some with a hint of cinnamon. European cooks have traditionally used selections of Ocimum basilicum, while in Thailand and Indonesia, two other species (O. canum and O. citriodorum) lend distinctive flavors to curries and other dishes. Area nurseries may have five or six different selections. By choosing several, you can replicate the authentic flavors of ethnic dishes from around the world.
People either find cilantro to be the perfect accent for both Latin and Asian food or claim that it tastes like soap and can ruin any dish it is tossed on. This taste difference is probably genetic, and there is no amount of indoctrination that can cure it. The plants themselves bolt quickly in the summer heat, so it is a perfect crop for our foggy, late-spring months. Once the sun makes its permanent appearance, it can be rotated out. In the meantime, leaves can be harvested as early as five weeks after sowing. If the crop does begin flowering, you can leave the plants to mature their seeds. They are the well-known culinary treat coriander (even the cilantro-haters usually like this spice). Once the hottest season is over, cilantro can be grown again in the cooler days of fall.
Dill is the exception to the rule of buying starts and is best sown in place. Seeds germinate readily and young seedlings can be thinned for tasty additions to salads — both leafy kinds and hearty ones like potato or tuna — leaving plants a little more than a foot apart to mature for seed harvest. You will occasionally find small plants among the other herbs at well-stocked nurseries, and if you got a late start on your garden, they are a good buy. Harvest some of the ferny leaves throughout the summer and then pick the whole flower heads, either immature or with mature seeds, to provide the quintessential flavoring for cucumber pickles. After that, harvest the dry seeds at summer’s end to lend that perfect seasoning to enhance cabbage and potato dishes.
Parsley seed is nearly microscopic and difficult to germinate in place. It can take weeks to sprout (there is a folk story that says it must go down to the devil and back before germinating). It is far easier to buy a few plants and harvest stems and leaves often through the first summer and fall. Once the days get longer again next year, the plants will respond to their genetic imperative and flower no matter what you do. Just enjoy the show (and eat the flowers, which have a milder parsley flavor).
Grow them all with even moisture in a sunny location. A periodic dose of a good organic fertilizer like liquid fish and kelp can increase the harvest of tasty greens. Harvest often, pinching out the growing tips to delay blooming until the last possible moment. Even if you don’t have a large garden, all of these herbs will also grow happily in a pot.