GROWING fresh herbs and flavoring with them is an increasingly fashionable and exciting art. Sowing the seed, raising the plants, building the garden, harvesting, and cooking the dinner are all part of the fun of herbs - along with the pleasure of enjoying it all when the work is completed.
The herb garden, the herb artist's ``palette,'' is just outdoors - a step from the kitchen, the artist's ``studio.''
Not all the new culinary herbs can be grown on the back plot or on the kitchen windowsill, however. Some derive their flavor from the particular soil and climate of the place where they grow.
For example, Greek oregano, imported in the United States since World War II, has to be raised on the parched hillsides of Greece to attain its magnificent flavor.
Greek oregano is imported dried - and Italian pizza isn't pizza without it!
One of the herbs that you can grow and that is most likely to meet with approval of the art ``critics'' (the family's palates) is tarragon. Until recently, this has meant French tarragon - that spring-green feathery plant standing beautifully bushy, soft, and fragile in the garden.
French tarragon's aniselike flavor has long enhanced haute cuisine. It is delightful in salads, meats, sauces, and many soups.
But unfortunately French tarragon disappears from the garden in winter and doesn't appear again until spring. And it can't be brought indoors to spend a productive winter on the kitchen windowsill. It wants to rest all winter long.
In the past, this has meant resorting to the old standby, dried tarragon, with no fresh flavor until spring.
But now there is a new tarragon, called Mexican tarragon or winter tarragon. Mexican tarragon has large, shiny, dark green leaves and stiff, strong stems. A tiny orange flower adorns its stalk.
Though it doesn't survive the northern winters outdoors, Mexican tarragon will luxuriously sprout new plants from cuttings in a sunny kitchen window. Its aroma and flavor could fool you into thinking you have French tarragon straight from the summer garden.
Use Mexican as you would French tarragon. Cut it into a salad. Flavor that lemon sauce you use on fish. Blend it with other herbs to form new and interesting flavors.
Mexican tarragon, tagetes lucida, may require a bit of hunting in most markets. One place it will be available this week is from herb plant dealers at the Baltimore Herb Festival on May 28 at Leakin Park, on the western edge of Baltimore.
This festival is a full day's herbal event, with 12 lectures to inform, herbal music to entertain, a forest of wild herbs to hike through, exhibits to see, and herbs and herb products to buy. Profits from this year's herb festival will be used to help restore the historic chapel in Leakin Park.
Another herb festival is the ``Herbs 88'' convention of the International Herb Growers and Marketers Association in Baton Rouge, La. Herb dealers (about 800) from around the world will congregate in June to learn more about the aromatic, culinary, horticultural, medicinal, decorative, and economic properties of various kinds of herbs.