Monthly Archives: May 2010

Basic Culinary Herbs

There are some basic herbs that I can not live without any time of the year.  Most of them can be grown in our gardens during the summer months and harvested at the end of the season.  I prefer to freeze herbs right after harvesting to keep for the winter.  During the summer, it is my great pleasure to step out in the morning and collect what I feel I will use for the day.  I like mint and lemon balm for my water,  chamomile and sage for my tea.  And depending of what is for dinner, I may collect chives, parsley, oregano, basil or tarragon.  Lavender, chocolate mint and apple scented geraniums are all great additions to many desserts.

Although still in its infancy, I planted my herbs in their new bed.  I have decided to follow an informal design rather than the traditional parceled out  garden.  Instead, I have planted from short to tall, and hope everyone behaves and keeps their bounds.  Here is how it looks right after planting:

Herbs, Newly planted garden

Newly Planted Herb Garden.

So far, I have all the above mentioned herbs and in addition: borage, garlic, right in the center, rhubarb (technically a vegetable), many varieties of thyme, cilantro, rosemary, fennel and dill.  I am sure I forgot some and many that are classified as herbs and are  growing around the perennial beds, grown more for their flowers and foliage than for their medicinal or culinary properties.  Here are my recommendations for must have basic perennial herbs:

Chives or Allium schoenoprasum.  Once you plant it, there it is for life!  Very easy to grow from seed but deadhead all flowers before they go to seed or soon you will have more that you want!  Use for flavoring and as a garnish.  Flowers are edible and great as a garnish and in salads.  Freezes well for winter use.

Oregano  or Origanum Vulgare. A favorite mediterranean herb, closely related to Marjoram.  Great in soups, stews and for flavoring pasta dishes.  This is another herb I freeze every year.  Flowers profusely to the delight of bees and hummingbirds.

Thyme or thymus vulgaris.  An important well known herb.  Used in the kitchen to flavor meats, soups and vegetable dishes.  Many varieties and flavors available in the market.  Also used as a scented groundcover between ground stones.

Chamomille or Chamaemelun nobile.  Its most popular use is in the well known chamomile tea, which settles the stomach, promotes appetite and is said to relieve fevers. Its daisy-like flowers re-seed freely so it can be use as a low growing ground cover.

Common sage or Salvia officinalis.  A culinary and medicinal herb for centuries, encompasses a huge family of many different varieties, some annual, biennial and perennial.  Used primarily to flavor meats and for teas.  It has been credited to cure just about any ailment.  It is an antiseptic, anti-inflamatory herb.  It is believed to help the digestive system and liver and to act as a general tonic.  It has long had a reputation for improving memory and stimulating the brain… Well, with such properties, it could not hurt to plunge a leaf in your tea from time to time!

“If one consults enough herbals…every sickness known to humanity will be listed as being cured by sage.”
Varro Taylor, Ph.D. (herb expert)

A Culinary Herb Garden

For years I have grown a variety of herbs in an area close to my kitchen and intermingled with my perennial garden. I placed some lavender plants by my steps, maybe some oregano and thyme  next to the Irises, parsley and basil in some small spot in between other plants. But as the perennial herbs started to mature they require a lot more space, I realized it was time to create a garden just for herbs.

Since I keep a large lawn, in the sunniest area of the back yard, and since my New Year’s resolution was to diminish my lawn area, it seemed obvious to me that I should carve out a nice bed and move the entire collection of herbs to the new location.  So this new project was launched last fall.  I used the newspaper layering method to kill the grass and prepare the space for the new bed and just let it sit for the winter. There was a slight hill, so I put in a couple of retaining walls, which gave me a space for the larger plants on the upper area.  Here is a photo of the finished bed.

The front terrace is a nice place for the smaller heat loving herbs such as sage, thyme, oregano as well as basil and parsley.  The entire bed faces south for maximum exposure.  So now I can start planning the actual plantings, moving some from different parts of the garden and adding new things I never had the space for before.

In the middle ages, the term “pot herbs” was meant for all green and root vegetables, as well as the culinary and strewing herbs used for flavoring foods and for scenting living quarters.  Nowadays, we use the term herb to describe plants used primarily in the kitchen to flavor and garnish soups and salads, stews and sauces.

The choices are endless, almost every plant in our gardens has many properties and uses, unfortunately,  in our world of modern medicines and  vast varieties of prepared foods, we have lost the knowledge of what plants really do for us in a raw state and how to use them.  I am happy to be able to grow and use as many as I can identify and in doing so, become acquainted with each plant’s properties.

“When obscurities and legends are removed in the light of modern methods, the treatment with plant simples so dear to our ancestors are still capable of rendering their services.

Henri Leclerc, Precise De Phytotherapie

May in the Garden

May in the garden is a month full of hope and possibilities.  In the perennial garden, plants are regaling us with their beautiful fresh leaves.  I love the new leaves of hostas and ferns as they unfurl all perfect and bright. Sometimes, a surprise ‘volunteer’ appears in the most unexpected places.  Perennials like Aquilegea or Columbine, Brunnera macrophylla and Tannacitum or Feverfew (technically and herb) will seed themselves in the fall,  I prefer to have plants in colonies so, when the seedling is a good size, I lift it and transplant it to a more desirable location.

May is also a great time for dividing large clumps of perennials that are too large for their space. The technique involves lifting the entire clump and, depending on the size, dividing by half and even 4 sections and then planting each section individually.  Grasses, Hostas, Irises and the majority of clumping perennials that bloom later in the season can be divided this way.

A clump of Pulmonaria lifted from the ground

...and after dividing it in three sections.

After days on end in the garden, edging and mulching, weeding and dividing, the best thing of the start of the gardening season is shopping for new plants.  I always advise my clients to go shopping armed with a good list of plants for specific sites and plants suitable for your environment.  How many times do we end up buying plants on impulse, because they happen to be in bloom or were recommended by a salesperson who does not have accurate facts about your individual garden’s need?  When I end up scurrying about trying to find a place for a plant, that is when I remember I should have stuck with my list.

Gardening is a kind of disease.  It infects you, you cannot escape it.  When you go visiting, your eyes rove about the garden; you interrupt the serious cocktail drinking because of an irresistible impulse to get up and pull a weed.  ~Lewis Gannit