The first plants to show green in my garden are the herbs growing right in front of my piazza. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – as well as dill, tarragon, chives, basil, lemon balm and black stem mint – are handy for seasoning my cooking, and for steeping a cup of tea. Other herbs are planted throughout the garden: black cohosh or cimicifuga racemosa; comfrey; scented geraniums, and lovage.
Herbs fall into two main categories. It is the perennial herbs that produce the first green shoots in my herb bed. By the time I notice that the chives are bare of snow, they are also ready to be snipped for use in the kitchen. Chives have an onion-y flavor and can be used at the last minute in a cooked dish, or cut and sprinkled as a fresh garnish. Who among us has not enjoyed a baked potato with sour cream with a dash of bright green chives?
Later in the spring chives bloom, with edible lavender flowers, a smaller version of the ornamental allium, that can be added to a salad for color and flavor. Chives will be usable all season into late fall.
Lovage is the most unusual perennial herb I grow. It gets to be 6 feet tall and has a celery like flavor. Whenever I need celery for a soup or other dish, but find the crisper empty, I cut a small branchlet and use the leaves to add that celery flavor.
Parsley is actually a biennial which means it will not set seed until its second season. However since there is not much usable the second year a new six pack of parsley starts will give you most of the parsley you will need all summer and fall. I have been growing my own parsley from seed so I have plenty to use as border edging and as lavish garnish on summer potato and pasta salads. I only grow flat leaf Italian parsley for its flavor, but many like to also grow the curly parsley, the garnish usually found in restaurant meals.
The annual herb basil comes in dozens of flavors from large leafed Mammoth to tiny Spicy Globe to Thai basils. Don’t put your basil seedlings in the garden too early, they are very tender.
Cilantro is an annual much used in Mexican-South American dishes. It is important to know that it goes to seed very quickly. In order to have fresh cilantro all season it is important to plant a new plot every two or three weeks.
Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow if you give them well drained, ordinary garden soil in full sun. Just a reminder, full sun means at least six hours of sun between 10 in the morning and six in the evening
Most of the herbs in my garden are used in my cooking, but other herbs can be used for herbal teas. Have you ever looked at the ingredients label of a Celestial Seasonings tea? Many gardeners will find those ingredients in their gardens – chamomile, raspberry leaves, lemon balm, bee balm or mint.
A calming tea can include a few leaves of chamomile, catnip and lavender. Some herbalists recommend a combination of three herbs which you can choose to your own taste.
An energizing tea can be made of spearmint, peppermint, rose hips, lemon balm and a little citrus zest.
Tea herbs, or any herb that you want to dry for later use, should be harvested in their youth, and early in the day, after they are dry. You will not get the best flavor if you wait till the end of the season to harvest just before the weather turns cool.
There are other less common herbs for less common uses. I have a big patch of perennial comfrey behind the house. The bruised leaves which contain allantoin can be rubbed on a scrape or swelling to help healing. One of its common names is boneset. You will find comfrey in many healing salves. It is also very nutritious and I use it chopped for chicken feed.
Everyone knows that mint can be quite invasive and are usually prepared to keep it in check, sometimes planting it in a container. Not everyone knows that tansy, which is sold in nurseries, is also very invasive. I speak from experience on both counts. In the field next to my vegetable garden and raspberry patch spearmint and tansy are battling to see who can spread faster and more thickly.
I planted tansy as an insect deterrent. Maybe the tansy and spearmint field around the vegetable garden is the reason I have so little trouble with bugs. The Rose Walk backs up to this field; perhaps that is one of the reasons I have so little trouble with Japanese beetles. I have been giving all the credit to milky spore disease.
Tansy and mints spread by rhizomes, but tansy also spreads by seed. Tansy now grows in the field, but also up and down our road. I assume the seed has been spread by birds. You may see tansy with its pretty bright yellow button flowers in a plant nursery and I have just one word for potential buyers. Beware!
We’ve had a lot of rain already this spring. Ed Himlan of the Massachusetts Watershed Coalition will give a free workshop on building a Rain Garden at the Greenfield Public Library Tuesday, April 6 at 6:30 pm. We’ll be able to see the Library’s new Rain Garden and learn the benefits to the gardener and the community.###
Between the Rows April 3, 2010