New flavour for your garden and life

By Connie Kehler

Herbs – for some people the term brings visions of savoury, exquisite meals prepared by the finest of chefs. For others it brings visions of an elaborate formal garden prepared and planned with the greatest of care by the most dedicated and experienced gardeners.

Could you dare to integrate these visions into your own garden and kitchen? What if you are not that fine chef or the master gardener? If you can grow a marigold you can grow herbs. If you can scramble an egg you can integrate the sensational flavours of herbs into your meals.

What is a herb? The botanical term herb covers more plants that you could imagine. The way we use the term in day-to-day language includes plants that are used for flavouring or medicine. Generally, we mean plants that we use the leaves, flowers and/or roots of for the purpose of flavouring or medicine.

So where to start? First forget about thinking that herbs are a unique category of plants that require specialized skills to grow. You can have perennial, annual, and biennial herbs. You can have ones that are extremely hardy and others that are very fragile. You can have herbs that thrive in drought and others that live best standing in water. Herbs are just plants like the flowers you grow in your flowerbeds and the veggies you grow in your garden; they are as diverse as all of these and carry with them a lot of the same characteristics and problems.

There are a lot of myths out there. You can pick up books that tell you that herbs grow in the sun in well-drained soil. Taking a look at the range of herbs available to grow, that wide sweeping statement is equivalent to saying all plants grow in the sun in well-drained soil. Herbs do not get diseases and are not bothered by pests. False. Any set of plants grown in an integrated setting seem more immune to these problems. Sometimes this is because of mutual repellent benefits. Other times it is because there is not enough of a mass of the plants to attract pests. Put these same plants into a mono-culture (a large area of one type of plant) situation and all this changes. They then become susceptible to the same problems as other field scale crops.

Where to plant? Does a structured herb garden and the formable task of establishing and maintaining it terrify you? There are no rules governing where you have to plant herbs. Only the needs of the plants will dictate its location. If you are a novice and as busy as the rest of us seem to be, plant your herbs close to your door. Why not plant some of your favourites in your flowerpots or beds along with the flowers.

A tall fluffy ferny anise is a wonderful backdrop for a bed of pansies. Plant it so you can grab a few leaves to munch on the way out the door, this natural breath freshener may just save the day. Parsley makes a great border or focal plant in your perennial bed. The curled parsley looks like a wonderful mini hedge that will have your friends scrambling to figure out what it is! Flat or Italian parsley not only stands stately as a focal point but is delicious to eat!

Love the taste of fresh celery? Try growing Lovage, a perennial herb that grows like a small tree in your garden. It is not unusual to see it grow 8 feet tall! A word of caution though one plant will be enough for a small army to live on.

A fresh slice of cucumbers defines summer; a herbal version is borage, its leaves have the fresh cut cucumber taste for salads and it flowers taste like little candies. Love food cooked with fresh cilantro, like the taste of curry? Grow coriander. This diverse plant has a split personality. When it is in its leaf stage, it is named cilantro and when it goes to seed, it is coriander! The leaf stage likes the weather cooler and the seed hot!

Love pesto but cringe at the price? This scrumptious green paste that is becoming so popular is simply a combination of garlic, pine nuts (optional), olive oil and fresh basil. Sweet bush basil is a good choice. It likes a home that is hot and well drained. Right by your foundation on the south side of the house is ideal. Basil has beautiful flowers but unless you are not going to eat it, keep pruning it to prevent flowering. Successive planting will ensure a full season of pesto ready basil.

Some herbs very diligently work two jobs. Mint can be grown easily; if not controlled by restricting its evasive roots, it will invade and take over your garden. Mint is not only good for culinary but it can stand guard around your compost bin warding off mice looking for lunch. Tagetes lemon gem is really diligent. It is a low growing mound lemon marigold that adds a wonderful lemon accent to drinks or to fish. It is great looking does not mind being trampled on and to top all that off it wards off ants and mosquitoes!

Herbs come in many forms; let their wonders enhance your life today.

Connie Kehler is a master gardener from Saskatchewan who has run an organic greenhouse for 15 years. She is presently Vice President of Saskatchewan Herb and Spice Association.

Originally published in Go for Green’s Gardening for Life series, 2001.

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