With a little planning, herbs can add flavor and flourish to your garden all season long.
Want spice? Herbs are what savory is all about. They add zing to your meals, as well as aroma to your outdoors. Without herbs, you might as well skip the squash—it will be a singularly boring side dish. Forgo the lavender in your linens, and your nose will never forgive you. The good news is that herbs are refreshingly easy to host in your garden. Plant an herb early in the season, and the rest of the year is going to smell and taste delicious.
These botanical workhorses go way beyond pleasing your senses. Herbs are attractive, as well. Although the plain vanilla version of many herbs is certainly handsome, you can up the ante with improved cultivars.
The time-honored cooking sage Salvia officinalis is all well and good, with its slender blue-gray leaves, but you could grow Salvia officinalis “Berggarten” and get larger, thicker, hardier foliage that is even more pungent than the prototype—plus it remains green until the plant disappears under snow. Like thyme? Thymus vulgaris, or English thyme, is deliciously pungent. But go for the golden lemon version (Thymus citriodorus “Aureus”) or silver-hemmed “Silver Posie” for more color and flavor. Rosemary can be upright or creeping. Oregano comes in variegated, white-leaved types in addition to the plain green. There’s a tender marjoram with plentiful, colorful topknots of white flowers that beats all its winter-hardy kin on the yummy scale. And if you haven’t encountered curly parsley, where have you been? The ferny-leaved version long ago usurped straight-stemmed parsley’s thunder.
But be sure to check before eating herbs. Not all herbs are used for culinary purposes, and some common names can be deceptive. For example, curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) is not used in curry and is not normally employed as a culinary herb.
Not only are herbs handsome, tasty, and aromatic, they are also incredibly adaptable in gardens. Most herbs are sun worshippers, preferring as much bright light as possible. Mints are the exception to this rule, as they tolerate partial shade (and can do just fine in soggy conditions, by the way). Well-drained soil also tops the list of druthers for most herbs, and most can grow without complaint on a rocky ledge.
No need to throw on the plant food when growing herbs; their essential oils are more pungent when the plants are grown in lean conditions. In fact, herbs will gladly grow where more finicky perennials fail. They are ideal for problem areas. Even the hell strip is fine with most herbs (although you might think twice about eating herbs grown where cars and trucks are constantly rumbling close by). Herbs tend to like a sweet soil rather than acidic conditions. Annually amending the planting bed with lime will get the soil up to speed.
Many herbs are stoically hardy. English thyme, oregano, cooking sage, lovage, winter savory, English lavender, chamomile, tarragon, peppermint, spearmint, and lemon balm are all winter hardy in our region. However, sweet basil, rosemary, knotted marjoram, sweet bay, parsley, summer savory, and stevia are too tender to reliably survive the winter here. Basil is particularly cold sensitive. Don’t bother to plant it until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 40°F, and you can expect to lose it in the first frost of fall.
Devote an entire garden to herbs, and it will look ravishing. Harness your creativity. No need to limit the design to the traditional four-square English herb garden. Herbs create a compelling picture en masse, but herbs can also serve as handsome bedfellows with other plants. Liberate herbs from cohabitating solely with their aromatic kin and sprinkle them into perennial borders and vegetable gardens. Their simple beauty has a calming effect; their heady aromas add nose appeal; and the local pollinators will thank you.
The pot is simmering on the stove, but your pasta would taste so much better with a sprinkling of freshly plucked oregano or tarragon still warm from the sun. Unfortunately, the last thing you have time (or energy) for is a sprint down to the garden for a few savory sprigs. The solution is to grow herbs in containers just a few steps from your kitchen door. Put a container of herbs on the picnic table, and the family will think you just completed a chef’s course. Here are a few pointers for growing herbs in containers.
Many herbs fare well in pots. Thyme, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, sage, and winter savory are just a few likely candidates for container growing.
Select a container with sufficient depth and width to accommodate your herb. Although many herbs endure tight quarters, they will dry out frequently, and the stress might court opportunistic diseases and insects.
After purchasing an herb, repot it into a container that is 1-2 inches wider and deeper than the original pot. Terra cotta works beautifully.
Select an organic potting soil mixture, especially if you plan to eat the herb.
Don’t try to cram many herbs into a combination pot. Herb roots tend to be dense, and they’ll be competing for space in no time.
Water regularly. Most herbs can endure occasional drought, but you don’t want to push their good nature.
Harvest often. Most herbs love frequent cuttings, and they’ll branch luxuriantly as a result. More leaves and fewer flowers is when herbs do best.
Bring your contained herbs indoors when fall threatens frosts. Those tasty plants will make all the difference for winter feasts.