Garden-fresh herbs: how to 'get them to the chef on time'

The twisters that recently touched down on Savory Farm here skipped around the house, for which Jim and Jane Wilson are grateful, uprooted several trees, toppled a greenhouse, and made off with the barn altogether.

Plants took a beating. But plants are an example to all of us, the Wilsons say. They don't sit around bemoaning their lot; they simply make do with what they've got and set about growing again.

The owners of Savory Farms did much the same thing. Rather than dwelling on their losses, they began rebuilding with what they had. Now the Wilson acres are green and growing again, to the pleasure of those restaurants and produce merchants calling for high-quality fresh herbs free from chemical poisons.

This freedom from excessive pesticide residues, or even illegal DDT, is a point of concern since the Canadian publication Harrowsmith recently blew the whistle on dried herbs imported into North America.

Analysis of samples bought from a natural-food store, gourmet shop, and supermarket revealed residues of DDT (banned in English-speaking North America) and levels of legal pesticides which were many times greater than Canadian or United States regulations allow.

Apparently, to get good herbs that are free of poisons, you must buy from recognized local growers or grow your own, says Mr. Wilson. Indeed, it was a shortage of herbs meeting these criteria that prompted the establishment of Savory Farms.

The former executive secretary of All America Selections had planned to go in for commercial vegetable production (he is co-author with Tom Eltzroth of ''How to Grow a Thriving Vegetable Garden,'' $8.95 from Countryside Books). But responses to surveys all bore the same message: Adequate supplies of vegetables are almost always available to restaurants, but supplies of really fresh, high-quality herbs seldom are. Too many ''fresh'' herbs arrive at the chef's door in a limp and wilted condition.

So the Wilsons dropped plans for cabbages, carrots, and cucumbers in favor of thyme, tarragon, sweet basil, and lemon balm, among many others. Orders are cut in the evening (the period of peak flavor), chilled overnight, and sent by express mail early the next day. ''Get them to the chef on time'' is the Wilson motto. It's a system that so far has never let them down.

For the home cook to get these same quality herbs, Wilson suggests getting to know a local herb grower. Or grow your own, he says. Not much garden space is needed, because a few herbs go a long way. Herbs, he points out, are ''the flavor, not the whole meal.''

These are Wilson's recommendations for herb production, whether at home or on a commercial basis:

Soil. With the exception of some mints that can grow in wet or dry situations , herbs need a well-drained, moist soil.

''On anything other than deep sand'' Mr. Wilson recommends raised beds. The soil should be close to neutral, which means that naturally acid soils will require some lime, while alkaline soils might need an application of aluminum sulfate. A plentiful supply of organic matter, including manure, will enrich the soil nicely for herbs.

Start small. Begin with a few herbs and expand as you get experience in growing and using them. Books dealing with the use of kitchen herbs are now quite numerous.

Sweet basil has now become so popular and is eaten in such quantities that it might almost be termed a vegetable.

''Bouquet garni,'' developed by the French, is a blend of parsley, marjoram, and thyme that is used in soups, stews, and other vegetable dishes. Chives are another very popular herb. The leaves of this lavender-flowered plant impart a pleasant onion flavor to all dishes. There is also a garlic-flavored variety.

Feeding. The emphasis here is on control. Don't overdo it, the Wilsons caution, as too much nitrogen can impart an off-flavor to some herbs, particularly basil. ''Light and frequent'' is a useful motto. Home gardeners might use a liquid fertilizer applied at half strength once a week. Well-composted or manured soils may provide all the nutrients the herbs require.

Mulch. At Savory Farms all the raised beds are heavily mulched with sawdust. This not only moderates soil temperature, retains moisture, and largely eliminates weeding, but its slow decomposition adds continually to the soil's store of humus. In those regions where temperatures remain cool until late spring, mulching should be held off until late May or early June. If a sawdust mulch gets incorporated into the soil before it decomposes, it will temporarily tie up the soil nitrogen. The home gardener can avoid this problem if he uses a hay or shredded-leaf mulch.

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