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Make some room for herb plants

Last modified: 7/8/2012 12:00:00 AM
Whenever I go somewhere new I am drawn first to the gardens to see the amazing feats of labor and sigh over plants well grown. But it is the herb beds that always seem to impress me the most. I love visiting a restaurant or inn that displays culinary herbs along its entryway so that visitors can experience their fragrance when walking past.

There is something about an herb garden that stirs our connection with the plant world - a connection that lies deep within us. Of all the plants in a garden, it is the herbs that awaken the relationship mankind has had with plants since the beginning of time. Somehow, this sense is most sharp when there is a scent of chamomile or lavender - a faint longing of the heart arises, perhaps we are pining for a time when we were more involved in the mysteries and magic of the plant kingdom, or maybe the smell merely reminds us of our grandmothers.

My own rambling garden has a bit of everything in it: roses, birds, wildflowers, bugs, projects, disappearing cranesbill mixed with phlox that has run amuck, ground ivy or creeping jenny (glechoma hederacea) peeking out everywhere because I cannot bear to pull up its periwinkle sweetness.

If there is such a thing as an innocent weed, this would be it. It was once used as a medicine for coughs and a tonic for chafed skin. Its flowers were once worn entwined in a crown on the eve of St. John's Day. There was a time when ground ivy was considered a great healing herb, and now we just think of it as a pest. Our world has grown and changed so much, yet the herb plants have stayed pretty much the same.

Whenever I taste fresh basil, rosemary, cilantro or chives, or catch the scent of chopped fresh herbs, I think about what it would be like to give it all up and just have nothing but herb beds. How nice it would be to just trade it all in for the neat tidiness of these plants!

An herb garden is a grown-up garden, one that is more Zen and less zany, more practical than playful. Herb plants tend to be grown in an orderly fashion and exude a refinement that responds well to design and cultivation.

There is nothing especially difficult about growing herbs. If you can grow pansies, you can grow herbs. The best way to grow them is to give them a place of their own and enough space so they can bring forth both show and utility from constant harvesting.

My new gardening method of making pods of raised beds would lend itself very well to creating a designated space for herbs. Traditionally, an herb garden is laid out in a square or circle, with the largest plants grown in the center and smaller ones around the edge. You can also plant a simple border with the tallest plants at the back and smaller ones in the front. Just make sure to plant your herbs in a bright and sunny spot.

Soil is important, too. When preparing a garden bed, I like to think about the plants' places of origin. Many - such as the lavender, oregano and rosemary - are from the Mediterranean, a place where it is hot and sunny and the air is moist from ocean mist in the early morning. The soil for these plants should be light and yet be able to retain moisture. Prepare a mix of dried cow manure, pearlite, humus or peat and let it sit for a while, then mix in some lime and phosphate to sweeten it, as most herb plants (except for thyme) don't do as well in too-acid soils.

Herb plants should be allowed to get dry before watering, and it is never a good idea to water during the heat of the day. This stresses and weakens the plants, which have shut themselves down to withstand the temperature. If you must intervene on behalf of a wilted or parched-looking specimen, take it away to a shady spot, if possible, and immerse the roots in water.

Like a painter's paint box, the many colors and textures of the blooms and foliage of herbal plants will inspire you. Group plants that are similar in growing habit and place them strategically so that you can access them easily.

In classic herb gardens there is always a main focal point - something wonderful in the center. Place a magnificent potted Bay tree or Meyer lemon at the heart of your garden to set the tone, and then plant the rest with fragrant herbs, such as lemon verbena, sweet scented geranium, catmint, lavender, rosemary, black peppermint, pineapple mint and oregano.

One bed could be dedicated to just the extra-tender annuals - dwarf nasturtiums, chamomile, tarragon and dill. And you should always plants lots of parsley, cilantro and chives, since they tend to get used up most often.

Did you know you can freeze herbs? Tarragon, basil, borage, chives, dill, lemongrass, mint, oregano, sage, savory, thyme, fennel and lovage will all freeze well and taste better than if they were dried. Wash and pat dry the herbs, spread them out on a sheet pan and put it in the freezer. Chop herbs into your preferred sizes before freezing.

After they're frozen, transfer your herbs to freezer bags or other freezable containers.

Some herbs will turn an unappetizing black color when frozen, such as basil and mint. The best way to freeze these is to make a paste by mixing ⅓ cup of oil with 2 cups of chopped herbs and processing in a blender until smooth. Not only does this paste freeze beautifully in sealed jars, you can experiment with chopped mixtures of herbs and create frozen herb blends that will turn the plainest meal into one that will astound you and your guests with the rich flavors of summer, even in January.


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