Herbs are essential garden plants, as pretty as they are useful, so when you’re choosing herbs for your garden, don’t just think about taste; remember color, fragrance, and texture, and give herbs plenty of room in your garden plans.
There’s an herb for every recipe, but really no recipe for an herb garden. The important thing is to grow what you like and to find places and ways for herbs to thrive. An herb garden might include old-fashioned roses for rose-petal jam or tea, lemongrass to freshen up Asian recipes, or sesame plants for your baking. You might grow a row of tall, cheerful sunflowers and harvest seeds both for yourself and for the birds. You don’t even need to do any digging: Simply place a pot of rosemary on the back stairs where you will enjoy its fragrance as you come and go.
The choice of plants for herb gardens “is wide open,” says Gayle Engels, special projects director of the American Botanical Council, which specializes in herbal medicine information but promotes herbs and herb gardening widely. Herbs from around the world flourish in 25 medicinal and culinary herb gardens at the ABC’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. The demonstration gardens are pretty, but they have a purpose. The goal is to inspire herb growing and suggest new ways to use herbs.
Engels doesn’t have a handy list of recommended herbs for everyone. It “depends on the individual and what they want,” she says. Many herbs are beautiful and versatile: Engels loves calendulas for their bright petals, which are dazzling in a salad. They’re certainly appropriate in a culinary garden, but they’re also grown for their medicinal uses: Engels makes a soothing skin oil from calendula petals and almond oil. Mint also works hard in both culinary and medicinal herb gardens. It is a classic herb for summer drinks and salads, but a big bundle of mint leaves can also be used to make a first-rate soaking solution for tired feet, Engels says.
Most herbs grow best in a sunny spot. “It doesn’t have to be the best soil ever,” Engels says, as long as it drains well. Many annual herbs — parsley, basil, cilantro, dill and others — flourish in summer’s heat, and do not need pampering to grow and thrive. Perennial herbs — sage, oregano, thyme, lavender, mint, chives and others — are also easy to grow, and they benefit from pruning and harvesting.
Experience is an excellent teacher, Engels says. You’ll learn by doing, and by persevering. If you’ve been trying to grow an herb that doesn’t seem to thrive for you, try moving it to a different spot. In the AHC gardens in Texas, if an herb still doesn’t do well after a couple of moves, they replace it with a plant that prefers their climate’s hot, dry conditions.
You don’t need 40 acres and a tractor to have a successful herb garden. A large flowerpot will serve for several parsley, basil and dill plants. Plant labels may recommend generous spacing, but when you’re harvesting regularly, it’s all right to crowd herbs close together. Many herbs grow well alongside ornamental plants; try planting zinnias in with dill or basil, for example, or grow a border of parsley, chives or lavender around a flower bed. Remember, many common garden flowers — daylilies, dianthus, pansies, nasturtiums — are traditional herb-garden plants, too.
These days, gardeners are expanding their herb selections to include spices commonly used in Indian, Middle Eastern and Vietnamese recipes, Engels says. It is easy to give them a try, either by planting seeds, getting cuttings from friends or buying transplants. “Push the envelope. Try new things,” she says. “It’s more of an art than a science.”
Engels teaches herb-gardening classes, and she says her students are also looking for new ways to use familiar herbs. Lots of gardeners ask her about herbal teas, about infusions and elixirs made with herbs, and about the benefits of herbs for pollinators. The flowers of many herbs, including dill and fennel, attract butterflies to the garden, and their leaves and flowers are a source of food for the caterpillars. It can be disconcerting to discover caterpillars eating your parsley, so plant enough to share, she suggests. Vegetable gardens are even more productive when there’s a thriving pollinator population in and around your garden.
Herb gardens have their roots deep in the past, but they’re full of modern-day adventure, Engels says. They’re rich in the fragrance, flavors and cultures of faraway places. No matter where they come from, you can enjoy them to the fullest in an herb garden right in your own back yard.
— The American Botanical Council is a great source of information about herbs of all kinds. The Council specializes in herbal medicine information and supports sustainable gardening. The Council’s headquarters in Austin, Texas, is open for tours. For information, abc.herbalgram.org.
— The Herb Society of America is another excellent source of information promoting the “knowledge, use, and delight” of herbs. For information, herbsociety.org.
Ross is a free-lance garden writer who lives in Kansas City, Mo. She writes a regular gardening column for Universal Press Syndicate, and is a regional editor and garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens, Country Gardens, and Nature’s Garden magazines.