The Herb Garden

The Herb Garden

This issue we look at the world of herbs. You do not need a huge garden to enjoy these beautiful and useful plants. I have a large pot of mixed herbs at my kitchen window which I pluck from whilst cooking.

Herbs have played an important part in man’s life for countless years — in his politics, romance, love, religion, health, and superstition.

Celery was used by the Abyssinians for stuffing pillows. Ancient Greeks and Romans crowned their heroes with dill and laurel. Dill also was used by the Romans to purify the air in their banquet halls. Some herbs were given magical properties, probably because of their medicinal uses. The early Chinese considered Artemisia to have special charms. In France during the Middle Ages, babies were rubbed with Artemisia juices to protect them from the cold. Ancient Greeks used sweet marjoram as a valuable tonic, and parsley as a cure for stomach ailments. Rosemary was eaten in the Middle Ages for its tranquilizing effects and as a cure-all for headaches.

Chives, still a common herb often found growing wild, had economic importance throughout Asia and many Mediterranean countries. Odd as it seems now, the early Dutch settlers in America intentionally planted chives in the meadows so cows would give chive-flavoured milk.

Mint, another popular herb today, also had its beginnings early in history. Greek athletes used bruised mint leaves as an after-bath lotion. In the Middle Ages, mint was important as a cleansing agent and later was used to purify drinking water that had turned stale on long ocean voyages. Mint also was given mystical powers; it was used to neutralize the “evil eye” and to produce an aggressive character.

Mustard was lauded by Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, and Shakespeare called it a desirable condiment in several of his plays.

Other herbs with importance dating back to early times include basil, saffron, sage, savoury, tarragon, and thyme.

Perhaps inexperienced gardeners as well as those who have not yet had the pleasure of growing these interesting plants will give some thought to starting a small herb garden. If not grown for use in cooking, herbs are worth growing for pleasant aromatic foliage and some of them for the beauty of the flowers as well. Herbs can be used fresh for garnish in salads and to perk up the flavours of bland vegetables or to add flavour to meats and stews in which case one needs only to nip off a few leaves when wanted.

To dry herbs for winter use cut off tops of the leafy varieties in midsummer and wash them off with cold water. Hang them up just long enough for the drops of water to evaporate, then tie the stems together and place in a paper bag with stem ends at the opening and close the bag with a rubber band. Use a paper clip as a hook through the band and place the other hooked end over your line where you are going to hang the herbs to dry, indoors. After 2 or 3 weeks remove from paper bags, crumble the leaves and place on a shallow pan and dry out in the oven.

Medicinal herbs have long been thought to have curative powers. But while present medical knowledge recognizes some herbs as having healing properties, others are highly overrated. Medicinal herbs should be used carefully. Some herbs are harmless while others can be dangerous if consumed.

Below is a short list of some of my favourites

BASIL, SWEET (Ocimum basilicum) Both green and ‘Dark Opal’ basil are attractive plants for the garden. Grows to 18 inches. ‘Dark Opal’ has beautiful deep red foliage and lovely pink flowers.

CHIVES (Allium scboenoprasum) This is a perennial plant growing from bulblets. They are really very easy to grow from seed. The tiny little plants look like fragile spears of grass. When transplanted they wilt slightly. Even during a continued drought they grow very well. Mature plants grow to 12 inches. They are very hardy even in cold locations. Flowers are pretty enough so that chives can be grown as a border or in the rock garden. Fine in salads, egg dishes and sauces of all kinds. Potted up, chives will grow on a sunny windowsill in winter.

DILL (Anethum graveolens) This is an easily grown annual with feathery foliage. Blossoms are tiny and pale yellow. May be spaced as close as 4 inches apart. Self-sows readily. Fine for use in pickling and to flavour meats and fish.

LAVENDER (Lavandula). This is a hardy perennial with grey foliage and spikes of fragrant lavender flowers, which when dried are used to perfume the linen chest and for sachets. Dry easily when hung free in a dry garage or attic.

MARJORAM, SWEET (Majorana hortensis) This is a perennial hardy annual. Plants may be potted up and grown in the greenhouse or sunny window over the winter. Adds a delicate flavour to lamb, fish, salads and soups.

MINT (Mentha spicata) This mint is very easy to grow. It is a hardy perennial and spreads by root stolons. Is at its best in good rich soil. Fine to use for mint jelly and in mint juleps, lemonade and other fruit drinks.

SAGE (Saivia officinalis) This is a hardy perennial, grown in gardens for its pretty foliage and spikes of bluish flowers. Fine herb for dressings, chicken, turkey, pork and for flavouring sausages.

SESAME (Sesamum orientale) This herb has whitish coloured leaves and pretty pink flowers. Although they grow 2 to 3 feet, they need but 9 or 10 inches between plants as they do not branch. Seeds are used to flavour breads, crackers and cookies.

THYME (Thymus vulgaris) This is a hardy perennial being of somewhat shrubby growth. Leaves are cut for drying before the blossoms are open. It is easily grown from seed sown indoors with germination in 21 to 30 days. Grows slowly when young. Grows to 12 inches. It needs rich soil. Thyme is used for flavouring soups and poultry dressing.

The small investment needed to create a herb garden of whatever size, is highly rewarding for its taste, smell and beauty.