The Herb Garden

herbgarden2005 120While die-hard gardeners fiddle with finicky tomatoes and delicate eggplants, there’s another garden to be considered by those looking for sturdier, less demanding edibles. It’s one that cuts grocery bills substantially, provides perennials as well as annuals, and grows vigorously with minimal time or effort from the gardener. This is the herb garden. Here basil, parsley, cilantro and dill flourish in the vegetable garden. Thyme, lavender, mint and sage fit into a perennial garden. Garlic, as a bulb, is well worth growing but best set aside in a bed of its own.

An added boon is that all these herbs are easy to grow from seed. Planted indoors like tomatoes and eggplants, they’ll be ready to put out of doors earlier than either tomatoes or eggplants. Most herbs come from ancient plants that have survived for centuries with little tinkering from humans, while many of the vegetables we grow are the product of laboratories in the last few decades. What we have gained in size or flavor has lost ground when it comes to basic survival.

Herbs have thrived because they need not bear fruit or even flowers. We grow them for their leaves. The distinctive aromas we carry into our kitchens are the single most important characteristic and that aroma is ancient. Most plants have evolved with toxins that make their predators ill. Herbs are no exception. But the herbs we love have evolved to ward off other predators. Humans are the lucky predators to benefit from the strong flavors that may generally discourage a four-footed browser.

Check the areas of the world where certain herbs originate and you may be able to guess the conditions that allow them to thrive in your garden. Thyme, lavender, and oregano come from the Mediterranean dry climes. Some lavenders and many therbgardenbirdbathhymes can take winter cold. Mint, too, is associated with the Mediterranean but requires wetter conditions.

The north European cuisines that embrace dill and parsley require moisture, too, as does cilantro, which often accompanies Thai flavors. But in your garden parsley, cilantro and dill require the same growing conditions so they’re worth growing together. Cilantro likes cooler temperatures and will bolt as soon as summer arrives. Parsley and dill will soldier on, nearly oblivious to what nature throws at them.

Thyme now is as ornamental as edible because many creeping varieties are beloved as ground covers. For an herb garden, it’s hard to beat the ordinary Thymus officinalis, which grows into a small bush. Shape it into a tiny ball and allow it to flower; it rivals lavender as a bee magnet. The flowers are as tasty as the leaves.

Best of all, these herbs rarely have any problems with pests, except for the parsley worm. But in this case, it’s worth growing plenty of dill and parsley for this caterpillar, which turns into an exquisite black swallowtail butterfly.

Thyme, lavender and sage will last for years in a perennial bed, as will chives. Chives are members of the onion family, like garlic. But unlike garlic, we’re not harvesting the bulb so it’s easy to include chives with the thymes.

Mint fits into a perennial garden although it demands more water. I keep mint in a spot with little or no additional watering to check its invasive tendencies. Some gardeners grow mint only in pots to prevent it spreading. Others grow mints in pots and submerge the pots into the garden soil. Any of these techniques is worth considering because mint can make a nuisance of itself.

There’s another reason to grow some herbs in pots. Basil is a tender annual that originates from the South Seas or South Asia. It requires lots of water and warm temperatures. Growing basil in pots will lessen the amount of water you must lavish to keep it healthy. A pot of basil also allows you to move this tender herb inside if temperatures outside drop suddenly. Few other herbs will be as tricky as basil. But the joy of having an armload of basil to cook with makes all the fuss worthwhile. I grow rosemary in pots also because it is tender in my part of the world and rarely winters over. It’s whisked into the house when temperatures drop below freezing.

Parsley, although a biennial, is planted each year for the most tender leaves. This underused herb is worth rediscovering for the vitamin clout it offers. Combine it with garlic or chives, dill or thyme in any recipe that uses fresh herb marinades. Or toss it in your mixed salads. Parsley could become one of your basic salad greens.

Dill often self-seeds and it’s easy to save dill seeds from year to year for replanting. A single umbel flower will contain hundreds of seeds if left to ripen on the stalk. Cilantro, too, is planted each year in early spring. I include them in the lettuce, beet, chard and spinach garden—what I call the salad garden. The conditions of that garden with loamy soil, a thick mulch for reasonable moisture, and an early spring start make them great companions.

Perhaps you have other herbs that fit your cuisine. Salad burnet or pineapple mint. Whichever you enjoy, herbs are an easy start to growing your own food. Even if you never attempt a tomato vine or pepper plant, herbs will satisfy a need to grow something for your table. They’ll add a resilient and tough beauty to the rest of your garden, too.