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Create a Culinary Herb Garden

by Carole McCray

Gardeners through the ages have cultivated herbs. In the 1600s, the Pilgrims traveled to the New World with seeds and cuttings of their special plants. Creating a garden with these charming and useful plants means discovering a place of enchantment filled with flavor, fragrance, and color--a garden to delight your senses and soothe your spirit. Your culinary herb garden will be where you will catch the scent of mint, gather fresh basil to enhance a favorite dish, and watch bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds feed on blue hyssop blossoms.

Locating and Planting the Garden

The best spot to plant your herbs is where they will receive six hours or more of sunlight in light, well-drained soil. The ideal location, also, is to place the culinary herb garden near the kitchen. Knowing the herbs are conveniently close by, the cook is more inclined to use them. A flat area or a gentle slope facing the sun are ideal locations. Dig the ground to a depth of at least 12"; remove weeds, stones, or underbrush. Incorporate a 6" layer of compost into the top 12" of soil. If soil is strongly acid, add lime in with the compost. Herbs like neutral to slightly alkaline or sweet soil with a pH of 6 to 7.5; have a soil test done to know your soil's pH level. Your local Growise Center will be able to answer questions regarding planting and can supply you with products to help your garden grow wisely.

A Design in Mind

Herbs can be planted formally or informally. Formal design dates to days of Roman nobility when a well-ordered garden signified luxury. One formal design is where two-three foot paths cross at their midpoints. The four-square herb beds may be bordered with stones or bricks. The wagon wheel design has a formal look. Bricks or stones are sunk into the ground to form the "spokes" or "run." Herbs are planted in the wedge segments. With formally designed gardens, you should try to keep the walkways trim by using mulch to retard weeds. A triangle design takes on an informal look when tall plants are set at the back of the garden; in the center, add mid-sized plants; set shorter herbs along the front leg of the triangle, and place low growing thyme in the corners. Informal beds look attractive edged with cedar posts. When short on space, set an old wooden ladder on the ground. Fill the spaces between the rungs with herbs planted in groups of three for a casual looking garden.

Garden Favorites

Herbs that you prefer in your cooking will determine what you plant. Some favorites are chives, dill, thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary, and mint.

Chives' green shoots appear in my snow-covered garden as a herald of spring. It is a perennial that brings a delicate onion flavor to food. Its purple blossoms impart a lavender tint to my herbal vinegar.

Dill is a tangy tasting annual with slender flowers and feathery foliage that lends an airy quality to the herb garden.

Thyme, especially T. vulgaris, is a popular, low growing perennial. Lemon thyme's citrus flavor complements grilled or baked fish.

Spicy sweet basil is an annual resembling a fragrant mingling of cloves and licorice. I harvest its green crinkled leaves for pesto; secure in the freezer, the pesto will top pasta for a winter night's supper.

Peppery tasting oregano is a popular oregano as well as a popular perennial used in Italian cuisine which enhances tomato dishes with its robust flavor.

Rosemary is a pine-scented tender perennial that needs to come indoors in cold winter areas. In warm climates, it grows as a perennial evergreen; in Arizona, I saw it growing as a hedge with lovely tiny blue flowers. Rosemary gives herbal jelly a superb taste--I like the jelly for basting a pork roast and for spreading on warm biscuits.

Mint is a choice herb that is refreshing in fruit salads and lends flavor to hot or iced tea or to your own brew. It has several scents--apple, pineapple, orange, spearmint, and peppermint. Mint is an invasive perennial that can be grown separately from other plants by potting it. Only a sampling of herbs have been explored here. There are dozens more, and your Growise Center will introduce you to other plants.

Following an interview I did with noted author and garden writer, Adelma Grenier Simmons, she penned this line in my worn copy of Herb Gardening in Five Seasons, "May herbs enrich your life and bring joy in all seasons." Creating and tending an herb garden brings her words to life.

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