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Herbs That Are Yours for the Picking


Cuban mint awaits, on New Hampshire Avenue NW. (Joe Yonan -- The Washington Post)

Urban foragers, this one's for you. On the sidewalk between Subway and Starbucks, on New Hampshire Avenue NW, right near the intersection with U Street, is a wire-bound raised bed of herbs. The gates are unlocked, and you can reach in and pick. It's okay. Go ahead. You really can.

This rectangular piece of bounty has been brought to you by Local 16, a U Street restaurant. Aman Ayoubi, one of the owners, says the restaurant has been growing organic, biodynamic, heirloom produce at Whipple Farms in Culpeper, Va., and a year ago decided to create this little plot of organic herbs outside its back door. "We thought we’d share with the neighbors and see if they want to use the herbs for their own cooking," he said.


A sign at the Local 16 herb garden explains. (Joe Yonan -- The Washington Post)

Ayoubi says he and chef Eric McKaney are tending the herbs. Even though I haven't seen any other neighbors helping themselves to any of the plants (and frankly endured some quizzical looks when I was rooting around in there this morning), Ayoubi says people are. He knows because in some cases they call and ask to make sure it's okay -- and because, unfortunately, in other cases they pull the herbs out by the roots, which is a no-no. "Maybe we should put some scissors out there, or just take down the sign and put up instructions asking people to call us and we'll help them," he said. "Maybe we should communicate better."

I asked gardening columnist Adrian Higgins for quick pointers on harvesting herbs, and he gave me a few rules of thumb. With herbaceous, soft plants such as mint, cilantro and basil, pinch the stems off with your finger, but take no more than half of a stem, and to encourage new growth, pinch off the stem just above a pair of leaves. For woody herbs such as rosemary or sage, use scissors, again not taking more than half of a stalk. That promotes a "bushy habit," as Higgins put it. "They want to be picked."

He also said that early morning is the best time to pick herbs, because they are more flavorful than later, when the heat from the sun dissipates the oils.

Today I went by to get some flat-leaf parsley, but that little stand is leggy and flowered, and when I tasted a leaf, it was bitter. But I had plenty else to choose from: chives, oregano, rosemary and a big patch of gorgeous Cuban mint (the big-leafed kind that's traditional in a real mojito). Ayoubi says there is fresh zaatar in there, but I didn't spot any, although I'm not sure I'd recognize it anyway. I went for the mint; after all, the days are getting warmer, and if not mojitos I'll make juleps or maybe this Low Country Lemonade for friends visiting this weekend.

The rules about picking might be slightly less important when it comes to the mint, as the wet spring has created a bumper crop. "If you do not contain the mint, the mint might expand to take over the whole area," Ayoubi says.

I'll try to do my part to help Ayoubi and McKaney keep it under control, and since I'm a mint freak, that's an easy charge. Others may be happier about other herbs: What would you want to see planted there?

-- Joe Yonan

By Joe Yonan  |  May 19, 2009; 5:00 PM ET
 | Tags: Joe Yonan, herbs  
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Comments

What a great idea! I definitely want some of that mint. As for the zaatar, I'm confused. I grew up in Israel and there zaatar is a mix of spices, including hyssop. Do you mean that they're growing hyssop? If so, that's extra great, because it's hard to find here!

Posted by: zaatarweeblycom | May 20, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

From my understanding, zaatar is the Arabic word for the blend and also for the herb that is its main ingredient. It is called hyssop in Israel, but I'm not sure whether this particular zaatar is exactly the same thing, since apparently the name has also been used to describe sweet marjoram, Syrian oregano and even thyme. Looks like the best way for you to find out since you've had Israeli hyssop is to go to this garden, pick some, taste it and let us know what you think!

Posted by: Joe Yonan | May 20, 2009 10:37 PM | Report abuse

Wow - thanks so much for the tip! I always feel bad buying bunches at the farmer's market (or - gasp! - Safeway) when I know I only need a tablespoon or so.

Posted by: lizlemon | May 21, 2009 1:28 PM | Report abuse

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