Cover Story

Homage to Herbs


by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Writer

From Shakespeare to Simon and Garfunkel, herbs have been lauded, and the praise is not limited to parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Countless herbs are stimulating for many reasons. Practically, they have spiced up plain foods, created soothing fragrances, and yielded healing home remedies for centuries. Aesthetically, they provide ornamentation in individual arrangements, in groupings of pots tucked onto a city balcony, or in neat garden beds, small scale or large, informal to traditional. No matter what your landscape or lifestyle, herb gardening is immediately rewarding. Once you experience the ease yet impact of snipping fresh oregano for your spaghetti sauce or a cooling mint sprig for a frosty julep, you’ll never want to be without herbs again.

Culinary uses. In today’s health-conscious world of watching cholesterol, counting carbs, and eliminating sodium, cooking with pungent herbs offers variety and savory alternative ways to spice up everyday fare. Be fearless about incorporating herbs in regular meals. “Seasoned” herb growers cannot cook a chicken without filling its cavity with a new mixture of fresh herbs. Experiment with combinations of rosemary, sage, marjoram, curry, thyme, and even mint when cooking your next poultry. Let all the flavors cook into the meat, then remove the herbs before serving. Richmond herb grower Wendy McCullough recommends boiling pork ribs along with fresh herbs to eliminate much of the fat before grilling and reduce grilling time while imparting fantastic flavor.

Plant nasturtiums as the colonists did; pluck their distinctive round leaves and

Pungent rosemary forms a striking evergreen shrub in the front garden of this city dweller.

 colorful blossoms to add peppery zest to fresh salads and salsas. Freshly harvested caraway seeds cooked in rye bread or added to warm German potato salad or cabbage create a whole new taste sensation, compared to store-bought seeds that may have sat for months on the grocer’s shelf. Fresh basil makes any tomato dish sing; layer it on pizza or on garden tomato slices with fresh mozzarella sprinkled with a light vinaigrette. Grow basil in quantity to make into a delicious pesto. Infuse boiling water with chamomile or comfrey leaves for soothing herbal teas. Steep oils and vinegars with tarragon, oregano, dill, or chives to add delicate flavors to salads and sauces, or chop these herbs finely and add to butter or cream cheese for a quick hors d’oeuvre spread. Chop your freshly harvested herbs throughout their growing season and freeze with water in ice cube trays to be dropped into soups throughout the winter.

Alluring fragrance. As every homeowner trying to sell a house knows, a prerequisite for an open house is simmering potpourri (often cinnamon or cloves) on the stove to engender cozy thoughts and good feelings of home. Potpourris are Nature’s air fresheners. Try experimenting with different combinations of dried herbs to find yourself a signature fragrance. I’ll let you in on a secret: the key to mine is putting mint with the distinctive herb Labiatae, better known (with its biblical connotations) as Balm of Gilead.

Aromatherapy, so popular today in spas, is nothing new. Potent lavender and lemon verbena have been used for centuries to freshen linens, perfume b

Herbs make great subjects for horticultural themes such as this "Celestial Garden" at Buffalo Herb Farm in Raphine. Note the "planets" --tall heads of ornamental allium floating, appropriately, in space!

aths, and refresh tired spirits. Place little aromatic bouquets in vases to give a pleasant fragrance to the kitchen, bath, or bedroom. Once addicted to the sensual pleasure of these good-for-you herbs, you may find yourself rubbing them for an innocent “hit” of stimulating fragrance as the Victorians did their “tussie-mussies.” This concept of bruising herbs to emit their aroma is the reason to plant “carpeting herbs” such as creeping thyme in and around brick or stone on patios where they will be tread upon, “switching” on immediate fragrance for outdoor dining.

The kitchen garden of "potager" at Mt. Vernon includes herbs and vegetables in a pleasing yet practical design.

Natural repellent. The strong odors of herbs can also act as environmentally safe insect repellents. Tansy, also known as “ant fern,” has been used for years in pantries to repel ants and is also planted at doorways to discourage flies from entering. Deer apparently hate the smell of lavender, whose perfume humans adore, so plant this evergreen herb liberally if you have a deer problem. Roses and other plants plagued by Japanese beetles benefit greatly from the inclusion of chives in the garden. Pennyroyal, rubbed onto the skin, has long been used as a natural repellent for mosquitoes, gnats, and chiggers.

Other properties. Native Americans and early colonists discovered many healing

This metal snail, nestled in an evergreen bed of luscious "Archer's Gold" thyme, makes a great centerpiece.

 properties of herbs and used them as the first medicines. “Feverfew” got its name because the herbal preparation made from its botanical parts in correct proportions reduced fevers. Pharmaceutical companies have become quite interested in herbal properties and many herb-based vitamins line the shelves of today’s health food stores. It is a good idea to let government-regulated agencies determine what herbs are safe to be ingested, but reading the history and lore is fun and can sometimes provide a scientific link to practical medical application. Also, if you are interested in textiles or old-fashioned crafts, or if you simply like the idea of using environmentally friendly products, applying herbs as natural dyes is another fascinating field of study.

Spring festivals such as "Herbs Galore" at Maymont Park in Richmond offer a wide variety of cultivars for both the novice and the expert.

Site and soil. Herbs are perfect for beginners because they are easy to grow, although most do like a sunny, well-drained location for best performance. A small patch of culinary herbs can easily be tucked into an existing patio by removing a few stones and amending that soil. Random mounds of herbs grow well spreading out onto the stone around them and the leaves stay nice and dry on the stone. Try extending a walkway incorporating a checkerboard pattern of alternating herbs with bricks or pavers. If your soil is not well-drained, grow herbs in pots or in raised beds, which can be formed into pleasing geometric shapes with practical pathways in between. This is where the fun starts: designing your new herb garden. Take a good look at your space, prioritize your purposes and a “must-have” plant list, then start small — you can always expand later.

Making a sketch on graph paper helps in planning your space. Have each small square represent a specific measurement.

Draw your space on graph paper. If you want to carve out only a small corner, work with small triangles and consider traffic patterns. If you are bold enough to dig an entire circle or square as a focal point in a traditional garden, give some consideration to a central piece of statuary to accent the area and use large numbers of the same herb in a circle around it. Formal gardens can be greatly enhanced with low borders of herbs like santolina or germander. The gray foliage of artemisia especially complements roses (my favorite is A. “Powis Castle”). If your garden is rustic, paint an old bench with marine sealer to waterproof as much as possible and line it with varnished bee skeps or add some found object with character.

If you think your landscape site cannot accommodate herbs, think again. I have

 seen blacktopped parking pads removed and the arid earth beneath transformed into lush herbal walks. If you have ever visited Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable and herb gardens nestled into the side of his little mountain at Monticello in Charlottesville, you can appreciate how even a severely sloped site can be turned into a successful kitchen garden by terracing. Cut out stepped layers of sloping earth and amend the removed soil with peat, compost, and sand or vermiculite to lighten soil and improve drainage. Turn pressure-treated boards on edge and secure with stakes or construct brick or stone retaining walls to box in the terraced beds. Replace the soil and plant these orderly spaces with herbs and vegetables. If you have shade, you can still plant sweet woodruff, mint-scented pennyroyal, or violets under trees as groundcovers. Even in heavily shaded yards, you can add color and texture with angelica, lemon balm, sweet cicely, evening primrose, valerian, ginseng, chervil, goldenseal, lungworm, and hellebores. If you have damp areas, try angelica, beebalm, boneset, sweet flag, elecampane, lovage, meadowsweet, or any of the mints (mints are very invasive; consider planting in pots). Herbs enhance. Try them — you’ll be entranced.

© Paula Brown is a freelance writer and lecturer on gardening topics. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she runs her design business, Imagine That. Questions, comments? E-mail her at [email protected]


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