Herbs: A feast for the senses

Julie Welsenhorn/Flickr

Julie Welsenhorn/Flickr

Before cosmetic counters, supermarkets and pharmacies were close at hand, householders for centuries turned to that exceptionally versatile collection of plants, the herb garden.

Today we can buy perfumes, food seasonings, teas and remedies from the shelves of well-stocked stores. But the appeal of an herb garden is still compelling, linking us to history and folklore in a way that store-bought products never will.

Herbs present a feast for the senses, offering pungent scents, strong or subtle flavors, intriguing textures and vibrant color. Handsome and serviceable, herbs are easy to grow and useful in the landscape as well as in the home. Satisfy the yen for your own fresh herbs this summer by planning a little patch of plants that you can put to good use.

The difference between herbs and spices? With herbs, you are using the leaves; spices are any other part of the plant (seeds, roots, bulbs, bark). It may be difficult to pin down exactly which plant species qualify as herbs, but here’s where history comes in handy. Include plants you like, even if they are no longer in use for their original purposes.

Echinacea has been debunked as a cure for the common cold, but its bright flowers are exceptionally long-lasting. You may not make a poultice of lady’s mantle, but its broad, saw-toothed leaves catch rain or dew most charmingly and its chartreuse flowers are good filler in bouquets.

The beauty of an herb garden is that it can be as elaborate or as simple as you wish. The traditional array of geometric beds defined by brick paths could be a striking landscape feature, especially for period homes. But a small bed near the kitchen door is enough to hold a satisfying array of ready-to-use seasonings. For that matter, herbs do well in containers so don’t let the lack of a yard stand in your way.

Make a list of culinary herbs that are especially good when freshly cut – basil, cilantro, dill and mint, for instance. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme may remind you of a song, but all are delightful enhancements to meals made in the pot or on the grill. Plant your favorite flavors.

For fragrance, consider lavender, lily-of-the-valley, heliotrope and lemon verbena – scents reminiscent of perfumes from grandma’s day. Flowers traditional to the herb garden include catmint, poppies, chamomile and bee-attracting bee balm. The blossoms of borage and nasturtiums are edible and so pretty topping a fresh salad.

Foliage herbs often introduce shades of gray to garden combinations. Think of the fuzzy-leafed lamb’s ear, the finely cut foliage of artemisia, or the dense, rounded form of santolina, which also goes by the odd name of lavender cotton. Low, mat-forming thyme is not only a pot herb, but idea for sprawling among the seams of a stone patio or walk.

If you need inspiration, head up to Port Murray where one of the largest collections of herbs in the country is on display and available for sale. Run by the Hyde family for 47 years, Well-Sweep Herb Farm at 205 Mt. Bethel Road cultivates nearly 2,000 species from around the world.

A printed or downloaded catalog (from the website) should be enough to get your creative juices flowing – 85 types of lavender, 38 basils, 47 rosemarys, 104 thymes. The real problem may be narrowing the choices to fit your site.

Cyrus Hyde is the collector-in-chief, unable to resist a new variety. The farm started as an educational display garden and “just grew and grew.” His wife Louise is the skillful cook. Ask for her book, “Favorite Recipes from Well-Sweep Farm” at the shop on site, where special events and classes are held through most of the year. Visit the web site or call 908-852-5390 for a schedule.

Basil - Judi May/Flickr

Basil - Judi May/Flickr

Some pointers on growing and using herbs:

Most prefer a well-drained soil and a bright, sunny spot; strong light and heat help concentrate essential oils. If your location doesn’t have full sun, choose shade-tolerant herbs like chives, angelica, chervil, sweet woodruff, lovage, lemon balm, mint, parsley and lady’s mantle.

Pests and disease are rarely a problem. In fact, many herbs are said to repel problem insects. Plant pennyroyal and nasturtiums to chase away ants, chives or garlic to discourage aphids and tansy to fend off flies.

Most herbs don’t need extra fertilizer in decent soil. If yours are languishing, try a low-nitrogen organic plant food like fish emulsion.

Some herbs are notoriously invasive, especially the mints, which are distinguished by stems square in cross-section. Plant these in containers or in a sunken pot from which the bottom has been removed. Lemon balm and sage can spread rapidly via seed. Deadhead the flowers and you won’t have too many.

To dry herbs for later use, cut them in the morning when their oils are at their peak. Bind the stems and hang in a dry, dark place like an attic. When completely dry, crumble them into airtight jars and store out of direct light.

Most herbs don’t freeze well since they become slimy when thawed. One trick is to pop small sprigs in ice cube trays filled with water. Add the cubes, still frozen, to soups, stews or sauces.


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