The Joy of Herbs

The first garden I planted when we bought our home in White Hills was an herb gardHerb Gardenen.   It sits on the rocky ground in front of our three-seat outhouse facing due south, as close to the kitchen door as I could make it.    To me there is great joy in continuing a tradition where herbs were a valued part of a woman’s garden – cherished for their flavor, smell and beauty and many other qualities.

Since ancient times, people have used herbs to enhance the flavor of food.   The leaves, flowers, seeds and roots can be used to season meats, vegetables, salads, and soups; to flavor vinegars and butters; and to make teas and drinks.  I use herbs every day because my homegrown herbs are handy (just steps away), more flavorful than those found in the grocery store, and much less expensive.  And besides their wonderful taste, herbs provide beneficial nutrients and vitamins.

In addition to using the herbs fresh, I dry the leaves and seeds for use in the winter.  Luckily I have hot, dry barns, but any well ventilated location out of direct sun will do.  Once they are dry, I store the herbs in a sealed container in a dry, dark place to preserve the taste and smell.  Many herbs freeze well, especially basil (Ocimum basilicum) and mint (Mentha sp.) which lose much of their flavor when dried.  You can also preserve herbs like tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) in vinegar.  Recipes and techniques abound in books (check out the library) and on the internet.

Beyond their culinary use, herbs have always been valued for their fragrance.  Just brushing the plants in my garden releases such wonderful scents.  Best known of the aromatic herbs is lavender (Lavandula sp.); but some lesser-known herbs of merit are anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) with its licorice scent,  southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) and wormwood (Artemtsia absinthium) with their very distinctive sharp, spicy odors and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) with its sweet lemon smell.  Many of these aromatic herbs have the added benefit of repelling insects like ants, moths and mosquitoes as well as rodents.

Another traditional use of herbs was in the treatment of common illnesses and conditions.  Many of these past medicinal uses are not recommended today as some herbs have been found to be toxic or poisonous.  Exercise caution with herbs – know what you are using.   In this article I include the scientific or “Latin” name of plants because common names can often refer to totally different plants and that can mean trouble.  French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), preferred in cooking, is not the same as Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides).  Lemon balm can refer to Melissa officinalis or Monarda citriodora – two totally different herbs.  When you buy herbs, always check the scientific name.

Growing Herbs

Herbs include annuals, biennials, and perennials. Annual herbs like basil, cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) and dill (Anethum graveolens) produce foliage, flowers, and seed in one growing season then die.  Some annuals like dill “self sow,” that is the seeds fall to the ground in the winter and sprout again in spring.  Basil and cilantro will need to be started from seed or purchased new.

A few herbs like parsley (Petroselinum crispum) are biennials.  They live two growing seasons, forming leaves in the first season and then flowering and setting seed in the second season before dying.  Parsley is often treated as an annual but I let my plants bloom the second year as the flowers attract beneficial insects.

Most herbs are perennials and live for years. Some perennial herbs like rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) are not cold hardy and must be overwintered indoors.

The most important requirement for growing herbs is at least six hours of full sun a day.   Full sun will result in denser foliage, darker color and higher levels of flavorful essential oils.  A well drained, neutral soil is best for most.  However lavender requires an alkaline soil and, since our Connecticut soils are generally acidic, the pH needs to be raised with lime to make it happy.  Many herbs like oregano (Origanum vulgare), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), lavender and sage (Salvia officinalis) are very drought and heat tolerant once established.  As a rule of thumb, herbs with grayish leaves and/or woody stems require less water.  A word of caution about herbs like mint, lemon balm and catnip (Nepeta cataria) – they can grow aggressively and need to be planted separately or in pots.

Avoid pesticides of course.  They generally aren’t needed as very few insects or diseases attack healthy herb plants.  Another bonus, deer don’t much like strongly-scented herbs either.

Finally herbs don’t have to be in their own garden – mix them with flowers and vegetables.  In fact, there is a growing practice of companion planting.  This means planting one plant with another one that assists in its growth either by attracting beneficial insects, repelling harmful insects, or providing nutrients.  Take for example that parsley I let bloom; it attracts hoverflies whose larvae are known to eat aphids, thrips and other plant-sucking insects.  Asparagus, carrots, chives, onions, roses and tomatoes benefit from having parsley near (but mint hates parsley).

Sharing Herbs

Herbs have nectar- and pollen-rich flowers that attract many beneficial insects and pollinators like butterflies and bees.  As a beekeeper, I plant herbs like oregano, thyme, catnip, lemon balm and anise hyssop where ever I can and in the summer they are covered with both native bees and honey bees.

Herb Black Swallowtail
Herb Black Swallowtail

Not only do butterflies benefit from the nectar but the plants themselves are also crucial for raising the next generation.  Take for example the Black Swallowtail butterfly.   An adult female will lay a fertilized egg on a plant that is a member of the carrot family like caraway, dill, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and parsley.  The egg hatches and the resulting caterpillar (pictured here on my parsley) will eat until it is ready to enter the chrysalis stage.  They can devour quite a bit but I enjoy having them and just plant enough for all of us.  However, if you care to spare your parsley plants, you can move the caterpillar to some wild Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) another member of the carrot family.

Plant a few herbs and you willHerbPot be charmed – and hooked.  Did I mention what beautiful and fragrant bouquets and potpourri they make?     To learn more about herbs, check out the Herb Society of America (www.herbsociety.org).