Plants which are commonly known as herbs form a broad varied category. Not only do many of them have either a culinary, medical, or cosmetic application but they can be attractive plantings for use and delight throughout the garden where they may be enjoyed by the nose as well as the eye.
While herbs are often conveniently grouped in a plot close to the kitchen door specific cultural requirements need to be taken into account.
Some herbs require shade, others full sun. Some of them, like the mint family, can become invasive and need to be contained. Plants like land cress and mint grow best in humusy soil given constant moisture, others need the root warmth best supplied by gritty or sandy well-drained sites.
While few small suburban gardens have room for a full-scale herb garden small plantings can still fit into the scale of things. An old wooden wheel or even a replica fashioned from bricks can be attractively planted with individual species between spokes. Hollowed blocks or styrofoam boxes make an acceptable edging around a vegetable plot.
Shrubby plants like rosemary, wormwood, and sage fit well into a mixed shrub border, and as tubbed plants, all of them add interesting foliage to either a patio or odd sunny nook.
Some herbs like angelica can be valued for their sculptural shape, others like thyme and camomile make acceptable ground covers or crevice plantings to soften the harsh effects of paving.
Companion plantings and their uses
As insect repellents, some aromatic herbs are without peer and many a gardener is able to testify to the benefit of herbs grown as companion plantings. Blue hyssop is said to increase the yield of grapes as well as attracting the white cabbage butterfly, thus luring it away from the brassicas. Parsley is said to aid roses, basil and tomatoes thrive together, rue repels houseflies and wormwood tea is thought to deter slugs and snails.
Yarrow is a plant considered to improve the aromatic qualities of any herb which grows nearby and wherever it is planted valerian seems to attract earthworms.
No serious cook can afford not to grow at least some of the most popular pot herbs for what would lamb be without the mint sauce, spaghetti without oregano, or omelets minus the chives?
Once established, most perennial herbs will continue to grow year after year. In cold climates, frost-tender plants like basil can still be raised in pots and, over winter, indoors.
Parsley, perhaps the ultimate garnish, is actually a biennial plant flowering then dying in its second year though most gardeners treat it as an annual, planting seeds or seedlings each year into moderately rich soil in filtered shade. The foliage as well as stems can either be used fresh or dried added to soups and stews or casserole dishes.
Basil is a frost-tender bushy-leaved annual, the name of which is possibly a derivative of basileus, Greek for King. Herbalists have long recommended the plant for stomach aches, headaches and anxiety. Though the herb is well known for its affinity with tomato plants its inclusion in tomato sauces and pasta has made it famous. The rich and spicy mildly-peppery flavor of the leaves also combines well with shellfish, chicken, veal, and lamb as well as cheese and egg dishes. Many vegetables also gain a little zip from the inclusion of a few basil leaves in the soups and stews in which they are incorporated.
As a cosmetic, basil reputedly improves the luster of hair and, when combined with other herbs, is said to invigorate the benefits of a herbal bath. Basil in a number of aromatic flavors such as lemon, cinnamon, anise, or dark opal leaf can be grown amongst vegetables either in pots or open sunny beds.
Chives have been added to foods as a flavoring for nearly 5000 years. First used by the Chinese and then the ancient Greeks, by the 16th century the plants had found a permanent place in European herb gardens. Endowed with magical powers in those days, bunches of chives were commonly hung around homes to ward off disease.
As with other relatives of the onion family, the sulfur-rich fragrant oils of the foliage is known as an antiseptic and an aid in lowering blood pressure. The mild taste of onions makes chive leaves acceptable for snipping over numerous meat, fish, and egg dishes apart from their value as a garnish. Like basil and tarragon, chives look as well as taste good in herbal vinegar.
As companion plants, as a border edging, or in the flower bed, chives keep a neat appearance through most of the spring, summer, and autumn months, while supposedly deterring black spot and aphids on roses.
Oregano, a winter dormant perennial, sits well in the flower garden as a shrubby filler or edging plant, and moist conditions favor early growth in either full sun or semi-shade. Though nowadays the addition of a handful of chopped leaves in a pizza or fresh tomato sauce is almost de rigor, many of oreganos early uses were medicinal rather than culinary. The plant has been listed in various materia medica as a stimulant and carminative.
The Greeks made poultices from the leaves to place on sores and aching muscles and ancient Romans recommended the herb as salves for scorpion and spider bites.
Like the taste of olives or oysters, that of tarragon is often acquired, but tarragon chicken is known as a unique dish. The more finely flavored French variety of the herb is considered to be more acceptable than the coarser Russian.
Tarragon can be used to add a lift to salads and egg dishes and makes a fine herbal vinegar as an accompaniment to fish.
Plant in ordinary garden soil in full sun where the creeping roots can be contained if necessary and protected with a mulch over winter.
Sage, accompanied by onions, has been a centuries-old favorite ingredient for stuffing poultry and pork, said to counteract the effects of too much fat. Though often short-lived the shrub grows best in a sunny spot in somewhat sandy soil and cuttings will root readily at the end of the summer.
Though similar in appearance to fennel, dill has a shorter but more manageable growth and both the seeds as well as the leaves are aromatic. Reminiscent of caraway, dill leaves should be picked as they open for the fullest flavor when they can be added to fish dishes, stews, sauces, and salad dressings.
Annual or summer savory has a more delicate flavor than the winter or perennial equivalent though both can be used as a seasoning for sausages, fish, beans, and salad dressings. Plant summer savory in light rich soils in full sun. The winter perennial which makes such an acceptable edging for borders prefers a sandy soil and plenty of moisture.