Learn all about herbs and find out which types are the best for your garden.
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By Lynn Underwood, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
Herbs are gifted plants - they give back to the people who tend them. They're easy to grow, have culinary and medicinal properties and can add unexpected aroma and textures to gardens or walkways.
Types and Traits
Herbs are traditionally thought of as herbaceous perennials, the leaves, seeds or stems of which are used for their scent, flavor or medicine. But according to the Herb Society of America, herbs can include annuals, vines, shrubs and trees.
- Annuals: Plants last one growing season and die when the temperature hits freezing. Examples include basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, chamomile, chervil, sweet marjoram and summer savory.
- Perennials: Plants produce new stems year after year. (It doesn't hurt to mulch in the fall for reassurance.) Examples include thyme, mint, chives, sage, tarragon, lemon balm, lavender, hyssop and lovage.
Fresh-picked herbs always taste better than store-bought ones. Grow the herbs you use most frequently for cooking in a container or garden close to the kitchen door, if possible. Here are some common herbs for cooking:
- Basil: Shady Acres has 20 varieties of the spicy-sweet popular herb - from cinnamon to Thai sweet. 'Genovese' is the top basil for Italian cuisine. Greek Mini makes a good container plant.
- Chives: Although garlic is a top herb, many growers favor milder garlic chives because it's a "no fuss, no muss" perennial. Snip chive leaves into salads, soups, pasta, chicken and fish.
- Mint: The fresh smell and taste of old-fashioned mint can't be beat in an herb garden. The many varieties include candy mint, chocolate mint, orange mint and peppermint. Spearmint is ideal for tea, mint jelly and mint juleps. But be sure to contain mint or it will spread.
- Oregano: Peppery-flavored Greek oregano is used in tomato sauces and to season meats and vegetables. Creeping oregano works well in a pathway or rock garden.
- Parsley: The feathery-textured herb (curly and Italian are favorites) adds a tangy flavor to soups, sauces, salads and dressings. Japanese parsley, which is catching on, is a blend of Italian parsley and celery leaves.
- Rosemary: A spicy-piney flavored tender perennial that seasons almost any food.
- Sage: This evergreen herb with a strong flavor comes in many varieties. 'Berggarten' from Germany is a hit with cooks (especially for turkey stuffing), pineapple sage sweetens desserts.
- Thyme: A fragrant, dense, low-growing groundcover with tiny flowers that can carpet a garden or accent pathways and rock gardens. French thyme has the best flavor for meats and vegetables.
If you already have a garden of must-have herbs, consider adding these:
- Horehound: Malone makes candy with this herb, which was used as a cough remedy in ancient Egypt.
- Horseradish: Grind up roots to make sauce for roast beef, ham and hamburger.
- Dwarf hyssop: A non-culinary flowering herb that is a magnet for bees and butterflies.
A sunny, dryish site is the best for growing most herbs. "After they are established, herbs are pretty easy to grow," said Gisela Meyer, president of the Minnesota Herb Society. Here are some tips for a successful herb garden:
- Plant in well-drained soil that has been amended with compost, manure and peat moss.
- Plant in full or afternoon sun, which most herbs need to thrive. Herbs for semi-shady spots include angelica, lady's mantle and lovage.
- Pinch and prune frequently. This encourages new, compact growth. Snip off spent flowers to encourage new buds to open and trim all over after flowering.
- Keep moist but not wet. Most herbs like dry feet.
- Herbs are generally pest- and disease-free if growing in right spot and soil.
- Harvest herbs in the morning after the dew is gone, if you plan to dry them. Fresh herbs can be cut anytime.
The ornamental qualities of herbs often are overlooked. But they can add color, texture, foliage and form to container gardens. Experiment with different combinations of herbs and flowering annuals. Good container herbs include parsley, summer savory, lemon verbena, a trailing thyme, 'Dwarf Pink' autumn sage and calendula. Johnny-jump-up has pansy-like multi-colored flowers that are edible and can be dried for potpourri.
Ornamentals For The Garden
Many herbs - such as purple coneflower and bee balm - also blend well in a garden design. Here are some other good-looking herbs:
- Dwarf curry: The striking, small silver plant is as fragrant as the spice curry.
- Golden oregano: Boasts decorative yellow foliage and flowers.
- Ornamental chives: Forms clumps of narrow, deep-green leaves with pinkish-purple flowers.
- Bergamot (bee balm): The spiky pink, white or red blooms lure bees and hummingbirds.
- Purple coneflower: One variety of the popular perennial with daisy-like flowers produces the medicinal herb echinacea.
- Russian sage: Not a culinary sage but an attractive perennial with spikes of lavender blue flowers.
For centuries, herbs have been used for nourishing the body and soul. Here are uses that are common today:
- Aromatherapy. Use essential oils derived from herbs and flowers to soothe aching muscles and lift your spirits.
- Freshening bath. Mix lemon verbena or lavender with bath salts, place in a cloth sack and add to bathwater.
- Room freshener. Hang a basket of lemon verbena and rub a leaf as you pass. Make a lavender potpourri.
- Chamomile hair rinse. To add sheen, rinse hair with warm tea made from dried chamomile.
- Fragrant soaps can be made with herbs, essential oils and emollients.
- Dried arrangements can be made using golden oregano, lavender, thyme, yarrow and marjoram.
Master gardener Paul James answers gardeners' questions about pampas grass, seeding lawns, types of garlic, agave and more.