Herbs add flavor and good health to your garden and lifestyle


The word "herb" conjures up visions and aromas of basil, dill and parsley.

Yet there's more to an herb than meets the eye or nose.

Herbal encyclopedias describe an herb as a small seed-bearing plant with fleshy, not woody parts — hence the term "herbaceous" as in perennial coneflowers with soft, succulent green stems that die back to the ground in winter.

In addition to herbaceous perennials, herbs include trees like sassafras and poplar, shrubs like juniper and holly, vines like jasmine and passionflower, annuals like geranium and marigold and more primitive plants such as ferns, mosses, algae, lichens and fungi.

In most home gardens, herbs are valued for flavor and fragrance.

"I have been growing herbs for more than 50 years," says Rex Talbert of Williamsburg. "I've been a member of the Herb Society of America for 43-plus years. The motto of that organization — 'for use and delight' — expresses what herb growing and herbal plants have given me in that entire time."

When you plan an herb garden, find a place that's close to the house so you are more inclined to use herbs, recommends Genrose Lashinger, a member of the Colonial Triangle of Virginia Unit, Herb Society of America. Formed in 1999, the group volunteers in several Colonial Williamsburg gardens and sponsors workshops and plant sales throughout the year.

"Start with herbs that you like and normally use in cooking," Genrose says. "Use herbs in flower arrangements too."

If you lack a garden plot, grow herbs in pots on your deck or patio. Basil, mint, chives and dill, which is herb of the year, do remarkably well anywhere you plant them, as long as they have good drainage and lots of sun, at least six to eight hours daily.

Once your herbs are growing, let some — like fennel, dill and chives — go to seed for more plants. Use flowers from herbs, especially chives blossoms, for garnishes in salads and other warm-season dishes.

"Once you have had success with the basics, try new ones," Genrose says.

Here are herbs that Rex and Sandy Helsel of James City County recommend:

Basil, Ocimum basilicum, cultivar genovese. Its beautiful aromatic flavoring is wonderful in many ways — pesto is one to love! Pinch the tips to keep the plant producing more leaves.

Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis. Consider Majorica Pink, which is a beautiful plant with abundant pink flowers, and Shady Acres with deep blue flowers.

•Lovage, Levisticum officinale. It is one of the herbs that grow in light shade. Lovage features a celery taste and makes lovely liqueur when steeped in vodka.

Oregano, Origanum vulgare, sub sp hirtum. A low, shrubby plant in the garden — in full sun, please — with a pungent flavor, used especially in Mediterranean cooking.

Dill, Anethum graveolens, cultivar ' Long Island Mammoth'. In this area, plant early in the spring. If it's allowed to "bolt," or mature, often the seed drops and new plants come along to be used in late summer. It can be used to flavor cheeses, in pickling, and both the leaves and the seed can be used. A favorite salad uses sour cream, cucumbers, dill and garlic.

Lemon Thyme, Thymus xcitriodorus. This thyme does not have a yellow or variegated leaf — it's actually a dark green leaf. It should be chosen by its fragrance. Gently rub the leaves and smell the perfume. When you rub, you release the essential oils. Good for culinary uses and teas.

Salad Burnet, Sanguisorba minor. It usually comes back year after year, producing tiny green flowers with maroon stems; each plant grows in a circular pattern. It is best used in salads and has a mild cucumber taste. Harvest from outside to the center.

Garlic, Allium sativum, cultivar "soft neck," which can be found in grocery stores, or "rocambole' var. ophioscorodon," which comes from the wild and is named because of its sinuous growth habit. Plant in the fall in this area.

Elderberry, Sambucus nigra. It is a drop-dead gorgeous shrub in the garden with lovely dark purple, almost-black leaves and pink flowers in spring. In fall, the shrub produces wonderful clusters of dark purple berries that can be used to make wine, pies, jams, etc.

•Nigella, Ranunculacea sativa. Also called love-in-a-mist. The white, blue or pink flowers in early spring are lovely and sweet; later pods add charm to the garden. The flowers are used in potpourri.

"So now we have 10 herbs and we didn't even mention roses and bay and parsley and lavender and all the others," says Sandy.

ResourcesBest books: "Encyclopedia of Herbs" by Arthur Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio for selection and care; "The Herb Bible" by Jennie Harding for recipes and inspiration. Online: Herb Society of America at www.herbsociety.org, where you'll find recommendations for beginner herb gardens. Herbal hints•Emulate the plant's environment to its original home — for instance, Mediterranean plants like thyme, rosemary and lavender need well-drained soil with no organic amendment. They grow in sand and gravel in full sun in less humid places. •Avoid watering herbs too much. •Prune early and often when no frost threatens plants. When you use them, you are pruning, remember. •Grow mints and artemisia in pots so they don't invade your garden.

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