Spring is the time to plan for a bright culinary future. Herbs not only liven up your cooking, they also can be easy-care ornamental plants. Sprinkle them into your planting beds, or grow them in a formal herb garden.
Although most gardeners today grow herbs for the cooking pot, the first herb gardens were for healing. The Chelsea Physic Garden in London was founded in 1673 for the study of medicinal herbs. The University of Washington’s Medicinal Herb Garden on the main campus is 80 years old and open to the public.
Designs for herb gardens can draw from these older traditions or reflect contemporary design. One approach is to divide a larger garden area into smaller beds to bring organization to what otherwise might be a jumbled collection of plants and to create good access for gathering the herbs.
For a classical design, use radiating paths around a central focal point, such as an urn, birdbath or statue. Create the divisions with bricks or tiles.
Another layout is to place the herbs in square beds separated by paths. When arranging the plants in the beds, take advantage of contrasting leaf textures and colors. Complement the fine texture of rosemary with the bolder leaves of culinary sage, the fluffy leaves of Italian parsley with the tiny foliage of creeping thyme.
How and where to grow
Many herbs come from the Mediterranean region, which has a similar wet winter and dry summer climate to ours, so herbs such as rosemary and thyme will thrive in a sunny location and need little additional summer water. Plant herbs near the kitchen door; having them close at hand will encourage you to use them more often.
Most herbs will not do well with soggy conditions, so if you have poor drainage, either mound up the beds or build raised beds with stone, wood or plastic lumber and fill them with a freely draining soil containing plenty of sand.
Pots are a good choice for herbs and allow those with no garden space to have an herb garden on a patio or deck. Each pot can hold one herb or a small collection. Bring the tender ones into the house in the fall, and use a sunny window to winter them over.
Even in a larger garden, use containers to contain aggressive plants such as mint.
Mint is also an exception to the rule that herbs like it dry: It thrives in moist places, so if it is in a container, you can give it the extra summer water it likes.
Another solution for these spreaders is to use flue tiles. Available at building supply stores, they are made of terracotta and make attractive dividers sunk into the ground, or use a plastic pot plunged into the ground for containment.
What to grow
Many culinary herbs are perennials or shrubs so they do not need replanting from year to year. Sweet bay, or Grecian laurel (Laurus nobilis), produces the bay leaf we use in soups and stews; it also served as the victor’s wreath for ancient Greeks.
Sweet bay can reach 20 to 40 feet. It can also be maintained as a small globe or topiary.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) needs room to stretch. The taller forms such as ‘Tuscan Blue’ can reach 6 feet. Other forms stay lower and like to sprawl, such as prostrate rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’), which will make a low-mounding groundcover or drape over a wall.
Prostrate rosemary is more subject to frost than upright rosemary; much of it was killed by last winter’s low temperatures.
For smaller herbs, growing only a foot or so tall, consider marjoram, oregano and culinary sage, French tarragon and thyme. Lemon thyme makes a wonderful addition to oil and vinegar dressing, adding a fragrant touch of citrus.
Basil is one of the most cold-sensitive herbs, a heat-loving annual redolent of the essence of Italian cuisine. Don’t rush it into the ground: Wait until the soil warms up in June, and seed it directly into the soil — whether in pots or in the garden, or buy started plants at nurseries.
Cilantro is another annual, evocative of both Asian and Mexican cuisine.
You can grow your own saffron, and have beautiful flowers, too. Saffron is the stigma of the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) and blooms in the fall, not in spring like most other crocus. Harvest them as soon as the flowers open in autumn. A dozen or so will flavor a dish of paella.
Herbs in the garden can feed our souls as well as out appetites, with both beauty and flavor, providing handsome, easy-care plants and good eating, too.
PHIL WOOD is the owner of Phil Wood Garden Design in Seattle and is a widely published freelance writer.[[In-content Ad]]