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Herban gardening



A little love and a lot of sun will produce a thriving potted herb garden

Just because you live in an apartment doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your green thumb. While you may not have acres of farmland or even a backyard corner to dig up, if you have a sunny patio, plenty of patience, and a willingness to experiment, you can have a garden.

One particularly ambitious year, I tried growing tomatoes in five-gallon buckets. By the end of the summer I had only picked two or three, but those tomatoes were the juiciest I have ever tasted. I sliced and layered them on fresh-baked, whole wheat bread, topped them with a handful of basil and a slice of mozzarella or provolone cheese, popped them under the broiler just long enough to melt the cheese - and raved about it for the rest of the season.

In contrast to my tomato growing efforts, I've been able to enjoy fresh basil, parsley, oregano, rosemary and mint virtually year-round. These herbs flourish on my tiny second-floor balcony amid the aloe vera, ornamental cactus, chile piquin, and the occasional decorative flower. My basils, spicy and sweet, sprouted from seeds that I saved from the previous year. The parsley and sage I purchased full-grown, having tried unsuccessfully to germinate them from seed. Others, such as the oregano and mints, I propagated from already thriving plants.

According to Charles Bartlett, vice president of the Gardening Volunteers of South Texas, herbs are well-suited for apartment dwellers as long as the plants receive at least half a day of sunlight and are potted in a container that drains well. "Otherwise," he says, "you'll end up with a soupy mess." Since almost all of the culinary herbs commonly used in this region come from the Mediterranean, where they thrive in rocky soil, full sun, and an arid climate, he explains, the trick to obtaining the best results is to reproduce those conditions in your backyard or container garden. He recommends the novice horticulturist start off with some of the heartier herbs, such as basil, sage, parsley, rosemary, mint, or even lemon grass, the fragrant stalks found in Vietnamese and Thai cuisine.

According to Bartlett, temperamental cilantro, so common to Mexican cooking, "likes San Francisco-type days rather than a San Antonio-type day," so plant now before summer's heat sets in. In contrast, garlic chives "are absolutely bulletproof" and make a great addition to salads and baked potatoes. For the adventurous, here are two of my favorite recipes that include fresh herbs.

Herbal oil

Gather copious amounts of herbs: Depending on what's available I'll use a combination of basil, parsley, chives, oregano, and rosemary. Mince and combine with crushed garlic cloves, chile, salt, and cracked peppercorns (all to taste) in a saucepan. Add at least enough olive oil to cover. Since you will be infusing the olive oil with the herbs, it is not necessary to use an expensive brand of extra-virgin oil. Slowly warm the mixture over low heat for 10-15 minutes. Do not boil. Remove from heat and let cool before transferring to a widemouthed glass container for storage (I use old Mason jars). If refrigerated, the mixture will keep for several months, but allow it to reach room temperature before using. Use the herbal oil as a dipping sauce for bread, a topping for foccacia, in combination with a flavorful balsamic vinegar for salad dressing, and just about anywhere else you would use olive oil, such as the following recipe for pasta salad.

Pasta salad

Fresh herbs turn pasta, a single-guy staple, into a dish fit for a date.

Prepare a 16-ounce package of plain or tricolor rotini pasta according to directions. Note: al dente does not mean "tough and chewy." While the water boils, pick and clean at least two cups of basil, parsley and mint. Chop the parsley and mint and set aside. Finely dice fresh vegetables, such as half a red onion, a small zucchini, tomatoes, and carrots. Drain the pasta and transfer to a container. Immediately stir in two or more generous tablespoons of herbal oil. Add the herbs and veggies, with the exception of the tomatoes, which should be added just prior to eating. This pasta is delicious eaten the same day, but even better as leftovers. ! Buen provecho!

Bartlett invites aspiring gardeners, regardless of their living arrangements, to get involved with the San Antonio Herb Society, which meets the third Thursday of each month to share tips and treats. For more information, call 641-8166.

By Alejandro Pérez

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