Any of these three “fine herbs” of classic cuisine is worth cultivating for its own sake. In combination they are one of the herb gardener’s greatest rewards. Their flavors are a perfect blend: Tarragon’s new-hay sweetness with a hint of anise, Parsley’s clean sharpness, balanced with the indispensable pungency of Chives. Small wonder that a handful of sprigs tied together and tossed into a simmering sauce is known as a “bouquet!”
“Les fines herbes” are a mainstay of Classic cuisine, where basic ingredients are used in simple preparations with the same care – and the same appreciation – as exotic and elaborate ones in “haute cuisine.” Ask herb gardeners why we take such pains with small nondescript plants that yield neither armloads of blossoms nor bushels of fruit. You’re likely to hear about putting water on to boil while we dash to the garden for a bouquet of Parsley, Tarragon and Chives, to turn a pan of boiled noodles into a main dish deserving of candles, tablecloth and wine. (See the Mushroom sauce in the Recipe section below.)
I present them together for several reasons: one, obviously, they combine so well that if you’re growing one, you should have them all. Next, they aren’t particularly difficult to grow, but to have them produce reliably requires, in each case, doing certain things right. Finally, all three are sometimes overlooked or underrated – Parsley and Chives out of familiarity, Tarragon for the opposite reason.
Something puzzling happened to appreciation of this herb – perhaps a need to convince people they were getting their money’s worth. Valued since Greece of the city-states for its flavor and medicinal properties, Parsley appeared to my generation as the uneaten garnish on a pretentious meal, the “college food service Family-Night” variety. The need for a cheap, visible garnish pushed growers to neglect flavor and fragrance in search of curlier and curlier leaves.
Flatleaf parsley was almost unknown outside Middle Eastern ethnic groups in this country until the late 70’s, and reputable herb books advised not to bother with it! This is probably the “mother of all Parsley,” with tall stems, flat but graceful leaves, a deep green color, and a flavor less sharp but sweeter and more complex than Curly Parsley. (A third type, Root Parsley, ias its name implies, is grown for its long thick roots which keep like carrots, and give intense Parsley flavor to slow-cooked dishes.)
Now it’s fashionable to argue the superiority of Flatleaf Parsley, but many people still stoutly defend Curly. The idea that it lacks flavor has several sources. Either people have never eaten it or only nibbled at it alongside an over-salted and over-cooked meal, or varieties grown for “good curl” may not have much flavor. Curly Parsley from a reputable seed supplier has plenty. Try a variety such as Forest Green. It has crisp, rather cool flavor, and the fluffy leaves add volume as well as color to dishes.
Parsley is biennial, but generally grown as an annual as it goes to seed early in the second Spring of its life cycle. Later I’ll explain how to winter it over so you have a steady supply while waiting for your Spring crop to get established. It belongs to the family Umbelliferae (the “umbrella-bearers”) which makes sense when you look at the seed head. Others in this family are carrots, parsnips, dill and fennel. All have deep taproots, which help to anchor the tall seed stalks, and bring nutrients and water from the subsoil to maintain lush leafy growth in hot weather.
It’s that taproot that dictates Parsley’s main requirement – rich, well-tilled soil (another blow struck at the “Herbs will grow anywhere” view). It is best to grow it in a level area of garden that has been previously tilled and enriched with organic matter. Manure should be added the preceding Fall, to mellow over winter, and aged manure is best of all. Parsley has few insect enemies, but one, the root maggot, is attracted by fresh manure.
For the earliest possible crop, Parsley can be sown indoors as early as January and transplanted out whenever the soil can be worked. Start it in a deep seed flat and sow thinly: although Parsley transplants easier than most of the other Umbelliferae, the roots should be disturbed as little as possible during transplanting. Use a light sterile potting mix, and make a straight row for your seedlings by pressing the edge of a board into the soil. Space seed about a half-inch apart.
To speed germination, Parsley seed should be soaked overnight in warm water before sowing. That’s what all the books and seed packets say. Let me save you the aggravation of trying to “thinly scatter” wet seeds sticking together in clumps! Soak your seeds overnight, drain them using a small strainer lined with a paper towel, transfer them to another paper towel and let the excess water dry off them. After two hours’ drying they’ll still have the benefit of the soaking, and will scatter easily.
Or, you might think, “What’s the difference if they soak before or after they’re planted?” and you’d be right. If you sow them dry, they tap easily out of the seed envelope at half-inch spacing. Cover with about a quarter-inch of dry soil, then flow warm water onto each row of seed from a squeeze bottle. They’ll germinate just a little slower than pre-soaked seed.
Cover the flat with clear plastic, laying a few slender stakes across first to keep the plastic off the soil. Seedlings should emerge in 3 or 4 days. The two first, or seed leaves, are long, slender and emerge together. True leaves, round and slightly scalloped, appear one at a time after that.
As soon as true leaves appear, you can begin “hardening off” your seedlings for transplanting out. Set the flat outdoors as long as the daytime temperature is above freezing, in indirect light for the first two days, then if the seedlings show no sign of drooping, in direct sun. For the first week, bring indoors at night if temperatures are predicted to drop below freezing. After adjusting to the outdoors, Parsley is very cold-tolerant. Frost does not damage the leaves, and even a hard freeze will not kill the plants, although there may be some leaf burn which will slow their growth.
Parsley needs rich soil with lots of nitrogen to produce quantities of leafy growth. However, before transplanting, feeding heavily will cause it to develop more leaf than root, which you don’t want. Water with kelp extract, rather than a high-nitrogen fertilizer such as fish emulsion. Only if leaves begin to look yellow, indicating they have used up the nutrient in the starting medium, should you use a nitrogen fertilizer.
After about two weeks, Parsley should have 3 true leaves, the largest about 6 inches high and 1½ inches across. It can be transplanted any time now. Withhold watering for a day or two before transplanting, and allow the garden area where you’re setting it to dry out if weather has been wet. Plants set just before a period of rain are slow to become established: Parsley roots seem to need the stimulus of drier soil to send roots out around them.
To transplant Parsley, make a small deep hole with a garden knife, on about 6” spacing. Make half a dozen holes at a time, then set that many seedlings, being sure that the long taproot goes straight down into the ground, then firm soil up against it. Dry grass clippings make good mulch, which will keep soil temperature and moisture even while the plants become established.
Once transplanted, Parsley does not take a lot of caring for. If your summers are dry, a soaker hose left in place will provide dependable water. When the plants have 5 or 6 mature leaves, you can begin picking quantities, although a few leaves can be pulled for use before that. It is most important to let the plants get established, in order to have a full-season harvest. Flat Parsley leaves are folded when small, dark green and flat when full-grown. Curly Parsley leaves start out rather flat and get curly as they mature.
Your yield can be increased with correct harvesting. First, mark the bed into three sections, and harvest from each only once in three weeks. That gives the plant a chance to regrow full-size leaves, and to manufacture food for the roots to store. I have heard of cutting off the whole plant at soil level, and don’t approve. This has the disadvantage of cutting not only mature leaves, but also small ones, which are not much use and not full-flavored. More to the point, it weakens the plant by setting growth back. So take just full-sized leaves from each plant. The best way to harvest is to grasp an individual stem, and snap it off as close to ground level as you can. Any older, yellowed leaves can be snapped off and discarded as you are harvesting. Old, tough leaves that are still green should be left on the plant, to sustain growth.
Rather than refrigerating freshly picked Parsley, stand the stems in a jar of water, and change the water daily. Use an old pint fruit jar, and your “bouquet” will make a pretty green note on the kitchen counter. Kept this way, Parsley stays usable about a week, although it’s better to harvest smaller quantities and use them quickly.
Freshly dried Parsley is very good for winter use, but a little more involved than drying woody herbs like Thyme and Rosemary. If your climate is very, very dry, just bunch 10 or 12 stems and hang upside down in an airy place. In humid climates, Parsley may not air-dry fast enough to keep from yellowing, so some heat is necessary. I wait for a baking day, pick a large quantity of Parsley ahead of time, then while the oven is on, strip leaves from stems and lay them over a cookie rack on a baking sheet to provide air circulation. After the bread is removed, I turn the oven off, put the Parsley in and the residual heat is just enough to dry the leaves crisp. If you’re not baking, you could just heat the oven to 350º, strip leaves while it is heating, turn it off and put the Parsley in.
(Parsley stems do keep their flavor when dried, but tend to be very stringy and hard to pulverize for use.)
There are any number of ways to freeze and store fresh Parsley. Whole leaves are double-bagged and frozen, or pureed with a little oil, broth or water and frozen in small tubs or cubes. A method I have heard of, but not tried, is to lay a thick layer of leaves flat on a piece of wax paper and roll into a cylinder about an inch thick. A number of these can be frozen in a double bag. You then take one out, cut off as much as you need and put the rest back in the freezer.
Now, about that year-round Parsley supply: as I said, mature Parsley plants are quite frost-hardy. In a mild Zone 6 Winter, they survive with no protection. Not knowing in advance what weather you’ll be favored with, here’s a way to protect plants “in case.” Weed your Parsley bed thoroughly, and clear a strip on all sides about two feet wide. Get a couple of bales of straw or old hay and split them crosswise into sections about ten inches thick. Make a solid wall of these around your Parsley, leaving the plants a space in the middle with about six inches between plants and straw.
Get a piece of clear plastic film, big enough to cover the rectangle of straw completely with some overlap on the long sides, and two pieces of two-by-four or old boards as long as the row. Anchor the plastic on one side of the straw with one board and on the other side with the other. From the side where you’ll be harvesting, roll up the board inside the plastic, back across the plants to the far side of the straw wall, and just lay it there on top of the straw. When severe weather is predicted, unroll it and anchor it with the board on the ground on the near side. You may staple the plastic to the board to make rolling easier.
If heavy rain is expected, lay some laths across the top of the straw before unrolling the plastic, to enable it to shed water. Cover the plants at night any time a hard freeze is predicted, and during the day if temperatures drop into the low twenties. The rest of the time, you can leave them uncovered. As day length decreases, you’ll notice the plants growing shorter. Harvest a little more sparingly than in summer, taking fewer leaves from each plant, every four weeks instead of three.
As soon as days start to lengthen again, around mid-March, your Parsley will turn brighter green and stems will lengthen. If weather gets very warm, seed heads will begin to form, but the leaves will still be usable. Of course, you will have started seedings for your new crop back in January, so they should be ready to transplant about now. By the time last year’s plants have bolted (gone to seed) completely, new plants will be ready to harvest.
Pests and Diseases of Parsley (a short topic)
If Parsley is planted in rich, well-worked soil where it can set deep roots, few insects will bother it. It should not be planted in the same bed two years in a row, and seedlings must be started in sterile growing mix, or they may damp off.
If a bed of Parsley has drainage problems, the roots may quit growing and eventually rot. In wet years, when heavy rains have made the leaves soft and milder-flavored, slugs may be a problem. Usually when weather dries out, they go away. In wet regions where slugs are a menace, try spacing your plants further apart, so the leaves of one do not touch those of another and the soil between can dry out. Slugs can be killed or repelled by scattering any of these thickly on the soil around plants: wood ashes, finely crushed eggshells, diatomaceous earth or, if you have a source, crushed dried shrimp or crawdad shells.
Root maggots can be a serious pest, if Parsley is grown in the same bed two years in succession, or in fresh manure, which attracts the flies of which root maggots are the larvae. Even with rotation, occasional single plants may be attacked. You will notice the whole plant yellowing and drooping. Pull it up and dunk the root in water to drown the maggots, then destroy the affected plant. Kill any maggots left in the soil by drenching the spot with strong tea. Used tea leaves and coffee grounds make good soil amendments which are said to discourage maggots.
In general, Parsley is a pest- and trouble-free crop. I’ve included a section on pests for a special reason. You may notice from time to time either a green-and-yellow or green-and-black striped caterpillar chomping along a Parsley stem. DO NOT destroy them. You can surely spare a few leaves, for the larvae of the lovely Queen and Monarch butterflies. Entomologists are not sure why the egg-laying adult sometimes chooses Parsley (or Dill) as the host instead of the usual Milkweed, but they speculate that suburban sprawl and lawn chemicals may be reducing the butterflies’ choice of habitat. If so, we can all easily grow a few extra Parsley plants for them.
Cooking with Parsley
A year-round Parsley supply can brighten a lot of winter meals. It’s hard to use too much – a “big bunch” (about 20 large stems) is my base unit of measure. Add a big bunch, chopped, to any clear soup just before the end of cooking, for bright color, fresh taste and extra Vitamin C. Or toss the whole leaves from a big bunch into a salad, a counterpoint to mild butterhead lettuce and pungent arugula.
Who am I to tell YOU how to make meatloaf? Everybody makes meatloaf different. Mix up your favorite recipe, but add a “big bunch” of chopped Parsley, a tablespoon of dried oregano, a half-cup chopped green olives, a chopped bell pepper (any color), and if you like, a seeded and finely chopped jalapeno pepper.
In these days of arugula pesto, cilantro pesto, strawberry pesto, lima-bean pesto, I suppose this is “parsley pesto.” But to me, pesto means Basil. Italy’s Piedmont is known for recipes featuring generous amounts of fresh Parsley.
2 cups Parsley leaves (& stems if tender)
juice of one lemon
2 or 3 cloves garlic
2 or 3 sprigs Basil (Littleleaf would be good here)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tsp peppercorns, crushed coarsely
Blend garlic, oil and anchovy to a fine puree. (You can omit the anchovy, but its salt helps to extract juice from the garlic.) Add parsley all at once and blend in pulses – it should end up coarse, not soupy. Remove from processor and fold in lemon juice and peppercorns before serving.
This sauce is a good way to store a lot of Parsley through winter. Freeze it in one-cup containers, to use on pasta or add to soup or tomato sauce.
Chicken Breasts Piemontese
Spread 6 skinned, boned chicken breasts with the sauce, roll up and secure with toothpicks. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet, brown chicken on all sides, then add enough chicken stock to barely cover. Fold in 6-oz can of tomato paste. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until a fork goes though chicken easily. A plain herb risotto makes a good side dish.
Enjoy your dinner guests’ astonishment at the effect of plain ol’ Parsley on these plain ol’ vegetables. For each serving, use three good-sized carrots, one stalk of celery and half a small onion. Peel the carrots, split them lengthwise and slice diagonally. Melt a half-teaspoon of butter very hot in a heavy saucepan, add the carrots, and toss or stir them occasionally. While they are browning lightly, slice the celery and add. Stir as before, while you cut up the onion. Add the onion, and keep the fire hot enough that the vegetables cook quickly tender but don’t get mushy. When the onions are lightly golden, add 3 or 4 sprigs of finely chopped fresh parsley. Cover, reduce heat and let steam just a few minutes.
Other vegetables can be added, such as a handful of new green peas, some crisp bulb fennel, a parsnip or two, or turnips. You can use leeks in place of onions, but use just solid parts and above all, don’t overcook them!
This hardy, prolific member of the Onion genus (Allium ampeloprasum) suffers a little bit from “Parsley syndrome” – “oh, yeah, Chives.” Sour cream and baked potatoes, right? Boring? Well, try it next time you’ve just cut your own fresh Chives.
There’s never been much mystique to growing Chives, either. As long as I can remember, small pots of chives have appeared in grocery store produce sections in Spring. They’re carried home to languish on kitchen window sills until they or the would-be window gardener gives up around August and the withered yellow clump goes to the trash can. Maybe that accounts for the view that there isn’t much you can do with them.
Well, there’s all the difference in the world between that perception, and the reality of an 18” high, 12” diameter Chive colony covered with fragrant (and edible) purple blossoms. More than anything else, I would like to see people take to herbs for everyday use. There is no herb more suited to that than Chives. With a little adaptation, they can take the place of onions of every kind in every dish – how about Chive Vichysoissse?
To grow dependable quantities of Chives tender enough to use in place of leeks or scallions, you have to understand a little about their nature. They’re an Onion, of course, but a species of Onion that has adapted to form small bulblets and to multiply into closely spaced “colonies’ of many plants. Like all Onions they’re essentially a root crop, although the leaves are the part used. They need deeply tilled soil, room to spread, abundant water plus good drainage, and a little grooming.
Plants sold in grocery stores or nurseries in Spring are usually sown from seed in Winter, and sometimes “forced” with high-nitrogen fertilizer to get to market size. This is not conducive to the strong root growth which Chives need to flourish. The leaves are bright green and about as thick as grass seedlings. They are sold in 4” or 5” pots, which is nowhere near enough space for their roots. If you have bought a plant that meets this description, don’t discard it, though. Follow these directions for planting out, and in about a year it will be prospering nicely. In the mean time, cut it sparingly, if at all. What you have is a colony of seedlings, and treated as such it will mature and produce.
Nurseries which specialize in herbs carry full-grown Chive plants, which have been propagated by dividing mature plants. You will know them by their dark-green color and leaves 12” to 18” tall.
Or if you know someone who has a healthy clump of Chives, it’s probably time to divide it anyway, so offer to help them do this in return for a couple of “shares.” The best time to do this is early Fall, so the plant can become rooted and not be exhausted by blooming before Winter.
Prepare an area about 2 feet across in good soil. Add some aged compost, or thoroughly composted manure if necessary. Never use fresh manure, since it attracts root maggot flies, which are Chives’ main insect pest. As with any root crop, work in a half-cup of bone meal or other source of phosphorus. A half-cup of used coffee grounds or tea leaves can be added as an acid amendment to discourage root maggots.
(After division, if possible, the lifted plant should moved to a new site, but if space is not available, rework the ground where it is to be replanted the same way. But don’t replant in the same area if there are signs of root maggot infestation.)
Loosen the soil around the clump and, using a digging fork, lift it free of the soil. Shake most of the soil gently from the roots. A healthy clump can be divided into 4 to 6 good-sized colonies, which can be shared with other favored friends.
Take each division and swish it in a bucket of water to wash the rest of the soil off the roots. With a sharp shears, prune the whole tuft of root to within 2” of the bulbs. Check through the clump for small white grubs of the root maggot fly, or its orangey-yellow cocoons, and if you find any, rinse them off the roots. Discard this rinse water away from any other onion or root crops. If the clump is seriously infested, it may be best to discard it and find another source, although if this is the case you probably would have noticed poor growth before starting to divide and transplant.
Set the division in a shallow hole, covering just the bulbs. If the leaves are very tall, you can place a twistie around them and fasten it to a small stake to keep the plant upright while the roots “take.” In about a week, a gentle tug should tell you the plant is established. From that point you can harvest it sparingly, until you notice thick new growth.
It is possible to grow Chives in a pot, and wonderfully convenient to have a clump on your kitchen windowsill. In order to meet the plant’s needs, you will need at least a gallon plastic pot, fairly deep. Buy or divide a mature plant, rinse and prune the roots as described. Use a sterile professional-quality potting mix. Fill the bottom ¾ of the pot with a mixture of potting mix, 2 or 3 tablespoons of slow-release fertilize and a quarter-cup of bone meal. Place the roots on top of this and add soil just to cover bulbs.
Chives in containers, for some reason, are a set-up for root maggots. I recommend that you repot them at least once a year, in early Fall and early Spring, dividing if necessary. Watering once in a while with cold tea helps deter maggots, and adding a tablespoon of bone meal and some diluted fish emulsion once a month will sustain growth in between repotting.
The other “pests” you might notice in potted Chives are those little segmented sowbugs that live under damp surfaces. They really aren’t a threat to the plant, since they eat only decayed vegetation, but they may indicate another problem, such as root maggot infestation or a need to repot. Taking care of that gets rid of the sowbugs as well.
When people buy a Chive plant, indicating that their last one failed to thrive for some reason, I usually ask how they harvest it. It never fails – when all they need is “a little,” they snip off the tips of the leaves. This causes the whole leaf to yellow and die back, and may result in the death of the bulblet it grew from. Oddly enough, cutting a whole leaf is better for the plant! An entire new leaf emerges from the top of the bulblet, grows to full size and in doing so, produces nutrition to keep the plant going.
So if all you need is a tablespoon of Chives, separate 2 or 3 leaves from the main clump, and cut them off almost at the soil line. Don’t cut from this section again until it regrows to the height of the rest.
Chive blossoms, while pretty, are often depicted as a nuisance that threatens to turn your garden into one vast carpet of chives. Well, yes, they do reseed pretty freely, but keeping them cut offers a bonus. The blossoms are delicious – their flavor, while not hot, is more intense than that of the leaves, with an added sweetness from the nectar that attracts those clouds of bees and butterflies!
When you harvest blossoms, clip the (rather tough) stems from the base, but use just the flower. You may cut off the individual florets to sprinkle through a salad or omelet, or use whole blossoms as a garnish. The color is beautiful against a spinach salad with sliced raw mushrooms, in gazpacho or in an aspic.
And once again, I won’t tell you how to make it, except that you can substitute a “big bunch” of chives, coarsely chopped, for the onion your recipe probably calls for. See if anybody notices the difference.
Remember to save a few blossoms per serving for garnish!
For each serving:
2 tbsp half-and-half
2 chive blossoms, extra for garnish
2 sprigs parsley
Beat eggs lightly with a fork until yolks and whites are mingled. Add half-and-half and mix well. Melt butter in skillet over medium heat. Tip bowl of eggs gently into skillet so butter is spread under eggs.
Cut chive florets off blossom stalk, and chop parsley fine. Scatter herbs over surface of eggs. Move skillet gently back and forth over heat until eggs are set. Loosen edges carefully with spatula, and flip half of omelet over onto other half. Cook just another minute to set top of eggs, then slide onto serving plate. Garnish with additional chive blossoms.
For this one, you’ll need about three big bunches, plus garnish.
2 small onions
2 tablespoons sweet butter
5 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups scalded milk
1 cups heavy cream
Cut chives into ¾ pieces, saving some of the very thin tips for garnish. Chop onion fine and saute slowly in butter til softened, add chives and cook just till they turn bright green. Add the chicken broth and potatoes, and cook for fifteen more minutes. Add the scalded milk and heat to boiling, then remove from heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then puree in blender or food processor. Chill thoroughly, then whisk in the cream and serve in chilled cups with thin chive tips for garnish, and some blossoms if in season. 8 servings.
Tarragon has the opposite problem to Chives and Parsley, that of relative unfamiliarity. Customers often react with a suspicious look when it is suggested. Perhaps the hint of anise in the flavor is not most people’s idea of a main-dish flavoring.
But while parsley and chives, paired, are useful enough, add Tarragon and the balance makes it possible to almost completely eliminate salt from recipes. They are especially useful with bland ingredients – eggs, cream, butter, mild cheeses, pasta. Use them when you don’t want overpowering spiciness, but want to give interest to a mild dish to accompany a delicately flavored entrée such as whitefish. The classic Omelet aux fines Herbes is the outstanding example.
Older cookbooks sometimes mention Chervil as the third, or sweeter, of the fines herbes. Chervil is an easily grown annual, but needs cool weather to sprout and to remain leafy. It is milder than Tarragon, with a lettucy note, and the sweet flavor is more comparable to licorice than anise.
Tarragon is adaptable to a wider range of weather. There’s no reason you couldn’t grow both, since Tarragon will be coming out of dormancy into full growth about the time Chervil is ready to bolt. In adapting recipes, use a little more Chervil than Tarragon.
Now that you’re persuaded of Tarragon’s versatility, it’s time to consider growing it. Your options are buying or being given a plant, or dividing one. Tarragon in its wild state may have been weak-seeding to begin with, so that the root division method was adopted by the first gardeners to cultivate it. In any case it’s been cultivated vegetatively for so long that it has lost whatever ability to set seed it may have had. It does not layer or root cuttings, either. Divisions bud from the roots, form roots of their own and appear above ground as new stems.
If you have access to an established clump of Tarragon, look for smaller clumps of shoots a small distance from the main clump. A clump 2 to 3 inches in diameter, with 3 or 4 shoots, seems to have the best chance of taking after division. Clear away the soil and locate the stem that connects it to the main clump. Tug gently at the side clump to be sure it has roots, then lift from beneath with a garden fork and clip the connecting stem. Keep the clump wrapped in damp newspaper and cool until you can replant it.
Pick a well-drained area of your herb garden, and, if soil is heavy, remove soil from a hole about a foot in diameter (a little larger if you have a large clump to plant). Mix this with 1/4 compost and 1/4 perlite and replace. Make a shallow hole and place the root division in it, refilling so the soil just covers the roots. Firm lightly to eliminate air spaces. If the ground was damp, you should not need to water at this point. You should see new growth within a week.
To grow Tarragon in a pot, shake extra soil off the roots, then place in a half-gallon pot almost filled with a light soil mix. Pro-mix with 1/4 perlite works well. Add enough more soil just to fill the pot and cover the roots. Water lightly and place in a partly shaded spot until you notice new growth. Water potted Tarragon only when the soil surface appears completely dry, and do not soak the soil. Tarragon does not require a very rich soil, but in a container it is possible for the nitrogen available to the roots to become used up. If you notice yellowing of the leaves, add some fish emulsion to the next watering, and repeat once a week until the leaves green up again.
A large established clump of Tarragon can be dug up whole, divided, and repotted or planted out as several new ones, following the directions above.
When new shoots of Tarragon are six to eight inches long, clip them off a few inches above the soil line, leaving 3 or 4 leaf axils to re-branch. Celebrate with a beautiful Spring omelet using the clippings. You should be able to harvest several more times from each shoot.
In hot summers, the branches of Tarragon begin to appear leggy, and the leaves start to die from the ground up. This hot-weather semi-dormancy is normal: it benefits the plant by resting the root system during heat stress. To harvest during this time, clip an entire branch close to the soil line, discarding any leaves that are browned. Don’t harvest all the branches from one plant, and above all, do not fertilize at this stage. Forcing the plant to produce new growth may exhaust the root system and leave it vulnerable during cold weather. If new shoots appear when weather cools off a trifle, go ahead and harvest, but leave some leafy growth to store food for Winter.
Tarragon is hardy in Zones 4 through 7, although if there are periods of severe cold some mulch may help it survive. During Winter, all above-ground growth dies, and should be clipped off. If you have Tarragon in a pot, leave it outdoors in a sheltered spot, or in a cool greenhouse, through the Winter. Be sure it doesn’t dry out completely. Mulch must be removed in early Spring if it is not to smother the plant. The new shoots begin to appear in March or later, so be patient if you do not see them at first. Container Tarragon will generally break dormancy earlier than Tarragon wintered outdoors in the ground.
In areas warmer than Zone 7, where winters are too mild to send it into dormancy, Tarragon does not grow particularly well. It may be best to grow it in a large pot, let it go completely dormant in the hottest weather, then move it to a cool, shaded area to let it go into winter dormancy.
About Tarragon from seed: “Tarragon Seed” listed in catalogues is not culinary, or French tarragon, but Russian. It grows much taller, flowers and has a pleasant sweet scent. It can be used as a cut flower, particularly in fragrant bouquets. The scent disappears almost completely on cooking or drying. If you wish to use Tarragon in cooking, grow French.
Cooking with Tarragon
Besides the many uses of the fines herbs combination, Tarragon by itself compliments chicken, eggs, butter, cheese and mushrooms. Its most frequent use chez nous is to give interest to a plain salad – lettuce, oil, vinegar salt and pepper, tossed in a wooden bowl rubbed with a clove of garlic.
You may have read that Tarragon cannot be dried. Once more, I think dried herbs’ reputation has suffered from prepackaged marketing. Freshly-dried Tarragon has less of an anise note but keeps its sweetness, and can be used in marinades, dressings and casseroles. Either bunch and hang it to dry, or just lay it in a small basket in an airy place. Store dried leaves in a tightly covered glass jar. If it fades to a tan color, it still does not lose its flavor.
Mushroom sauce aux Fines Herbes
There is a particular affinity between Tarragon and mushrooms, as this and the next recipe indicate.
1 lb sliced mushrooms
2 tbsp butter (or generous amount of cooking spray)
2 tbsp each chopped fresh parsley & chives
1 tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
½ cup white wine (approx)
1 cup sour cream or low-fat substitute
Saute mushrooms in butter or cooking spray until soft. Stir in herbs and add enough white wine to barely cover mushrooms. Simmer on low heat until wine is reduced by about half. Fold in sour cream. Serve over pasta or rice.
May also be prepared to the point of adding wine, and used to poach chicken breasts, pork or veal cutlets or any mild white fish. When meat is cooked through, remove to heated platter, fold sour cream into sauce and serve.
2 cups water
½ cup olive oil
juice of 3 lemons
½ teaspoon salt
Tie in cheesecloth:
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs thyme
4 sprigs tarragon
6 coriander seeds
Combine the above ingredients and bring to a boil. Add 1½ pound sliced mushrooms, reduce heat and simmer until mushrooms are cooked. Drain the mushrooms, return marinade to heat and simmer till reduced by half. Pour over mushrooms, chill and serve. Whole mushroom caps may be cooked this way and then served with rounds of crusty bread as an hors d’oeuvre.
To make marinated vegetables, instead of cooking them in the vinaigrette, they are first blanched and then the hot marinade poured over them and chilled.
Use celery, baby carrots, leeks, artichoke hearts, small turnips or parsnips, wedges of eggplant or zucchini. Tomatoes may be added, but do not need to be blanched.
Many consider this dish, created by French chefs for the Russian nobility, to be the pinnacle of fines-herbes cookery.
4 ounces sweet butter (NO, margarine may NOT be substituted)
1 tbsp each finely chopped fresh Parsley, Chives & Tarragon (or Chervil)
Soften the butter and work the herbs into it evenly. Divide in four portions and shape each into a cylinder about a half-inch in diameter.
Flatten 4 skinned, boned chicken breasts by pounding with a rolling pin or whatever is handy. Place a cylinder of butter on each, roll up so the butter is completely enclosed and secure with one or more toothpicks.
Beat an egg with 1 tbsp water until very thin. Dust each chicken breast with flour, roll in egg and then in fine breadcrumbs until thoroughly coated. Chill at least 2 hours. If this part is done a day ahead, you will be in much better shape to enjoy your guests and the impressive dinner.
Remove chilled chicken from refrigerator, leave covered and allow to warm up a little for easier frying. In the meanwhile you may prepare the accompaniment, fine egg noodles with Mushroom Sauce, above. Then in a saucepan large enough to hold all four chicken breasts, heat enough oil (a flavorless type) to cover them. When very hot, lower each portion into oil using a slotted spoon, and fry, turning occasionally, till they are evenly browned. Remove from oil, allowing to drain well, and serve each at the side of a serving of noodles and sauce.
The rest of the meal may consist of crisp yeast rolls and a very plain green salad.