A Decent Herb Garden

Someone recently asked me for  basic pointers on an herb garden that includes medicinal herbs. The thing is that many herbs are of course both culinary and medicinal. “Let thy food be thy medicine,”as Hippocrates said.So I will just mentally wander around my garden and try to organize the ones I see. But before I do that, I would just emphasize that most culinary herbs prefer well-drained soil and sun, with some sand and maybe some wood ashes added. Don’t add much nitrogen; it will make herbs grow lush and leafy but not as strong flavored.

Basils

yes, that’s Thai basil on the right

Basil– Well, there are so many cool basils, for medicinal use as well- they call them Tulsi in India, and there are a lot of African ones as well. My favorite is Besobila, the pretty Ethiopian Holy Basil. I saved some seed out of some besobila I got for Ethiopian cooking- they use the dried seedheads. Smells a bit like pineapple and has a great compact growth habit. Wonderful for headaches, colds, vitality, and spiritual funks. But of course you have to have Genovese basil for pesto, and Purple for salads. Pinch the flowering spikes off and it will grow back double, like the Hydra in the legend of Hercules.

Rosemary is a must have, and very efficient, since they grow into monster fragrant bushes, feed bees, counteract the carcinogens in roasted meat, perfume the house while cooking, and counteract depression, especially in Mediterranean types. I hear they make a rosemary hair rinse for dark hair as well. Who knew?

Tarragon is hard to grow for me- the French kind, so I don’t know much about it, but a bit in a jar of vinegar infuses wonderfully and it is so good in pickles.  It needs protection from gross physical violence and my cats are always digging it up. When we lived in France we had a giant bush. I guess it likes a cooler damper, more catless environment. The Russian kind is less delicious.

Catnip, speaking of cats, is tough as a boot, spreads readily, feeds the bees, amuses the felines, and makes a nice tea for whiny babies of all ages. It is very perennial. My husband hit it with the tiller and it made babies everywhere, like a starfish.

Parsley (Italian is tastier) has more vitamins than oranges, and should be used as a vegetable- giant handfuls chopped fresh into everything. You can’t beat it in Tabouleh. Also freshens the breath, says Nicolas Culpeper. It is biennial, so save seeds every other year and be sure to work some into the soil early, as it is not happy sprouting when it gets too hot and dry.

Sage is also great for tea, I think for the same reasons, and is of course good with meat. It is available in many different leaf colors and can grow to be quite a bush. My friend has a purple one that is three feet by five. It is definitely relaxing, good for digestion, and helps with unwanted sweating.

Thyme is sensitive about drainage, and is very pretty and delicious with lentils, chicken, salad, everything. There are a zillion kinds with different variations and flavors. Wonderful in tea if you are catching a chesty cold. It is quite antimicrobial. Plant in the front- it is short, some kinds even to the point of crawling between flagstones, and it won’t tolerate competition from other plants. English Thyme is softer and broader leafed, and Mediterranean types are more woody and resinous.

mentha nigra piperata

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

Mint is a water lover and quite invasive, so plant in a sunken pot where there is a leaky faucet or something. Frankly, I ripped mine out and stomped it into a ditch, where it flourishes and smells great when mowed. Great with meats, tabouleh, juleps, easy to tincture and make home made creme de menthe. Alcohol and oil infusions are great externally as liniment for injuries. I have spearmint; very sweet and a calming tea and face lotion, and  mentha nigra, which is industrial strength. There are many types, from huge hairy Apple Mint to delicate creeping Pennyroyal, which is not for eating, especially if you could be pregnant.

Lemon Balm, also called Melissa,  is a lemon scented mint looking perennial, very vigorous and spreading. The tea of the dried or fresh plant is delicate and lemony, and works very well for headaches. The crushed or chewed leaves are apparently a great remedy for cold sores and herpes lesions, perhaps antiviral. I have been given a facial with the tea, mixed with Rose Geranium.

Rose geranium is a tender perennial but you can overwinter it as a houseplant as it grows well in pots and roots easily from cuttings.  It has small pink flowers and fuzzy hand shaped leaves that are redolent of roses. A Victorian favorite, it is a strong astringent and makes a nice face wash as well as lovely potpourri. I have heard of people laying a leaf flat in a cakepan before pouring on the dough.

Bergamot, or Monarda, is a spectacular plant, also mint family, prettiest I think in the scarlet variety. It has a feathery crown of flowers bursting out of a pincushion of bracts. It is the flavoring for Earl Grey tea. It is a good 3-4 feet tall, and perennial, but does clump neatly. The tea is calming on many levels, and probably antimicrobial, since there is something of oregano and marjoram in the fragrance.

I have regular Oregano and Greek Oregano. The regular has pinker flowers and very delicate stems, while the Greek has a more resinous flavor and thicker stems. It is of course great in Mediterranean food, but I also love it in tea. I find that it always makes my stomach better; probably the fragrant bitterness stimulates my liver.Oregano is about a foot tall so it can go in front of taller plants.

Fennel liqueur is similar to anisette

Fennel liqueur is similar to anisette

Fennel is very useful; Bronze is pretty and very tough in zone 7, but does not bulb up for finocchio the way white fennel does. They are perennial, although the most symmetrical bulbs come from the first season. We use fronds for garnish, bulbs braised and in salads, and we tincture seeds for liqueur. Also use seeds in baking and some Italian dishes. They are great for stomach ailments and as a digestive- are used as such in many countries. The pollen is the latest expensive spice I hear.

Coriander/cilantro is a threefer annual; the fresh leaves are delicious, especially in Asian and Latino food, and chelate heavy metals very well. The flowers are pretty, although the flavor becomes sweeter as soon as it bolts. The seeds are used in Indian cooking, like my yummy spicy Indian style venison curry and are great for digestion. It is very prone to bolt and then you are pretty much done with the fresh use stage, so we plant it in the fall for early spring use, outdoors and in the cold greenhouse. Keep it watered and plant it in the damper part of the garden, and not too sunny. Grow it from seed, although it takes a good 10 days to sprout.

Lavender can be used in cooking. I have had delicious lavender cookies and ice cream. I have used lavender infused almond oil to rub my feet- it was so relaxing I felt as if I’d had a nap. Just strip the flowers into the oil and let it sit on the back shelf of your car for a week during sunny weather, then pour it through a thin cloth and squeeze it out well. If there is any water on the bottom pour the oil off of it or it will spoil. Lavender is the ultimate aromatherapy for calming down when you are stressed out. It really does work. Important to grow it in sandy, well-drained soil and a sunny spot, or it will languish and die. You can grow it from seed although starts are not expensive. I have a friend who grows it all around a small stuccoed chapel they have built near their house. It is the loveliest thing.

Dill is another annual that bolts quickly. There are a few varieties that promise to bolt slowly, and a bronze kind that is beautiful. I use a lot of dill in my cucumber pickles, which are good for the intestinal flora, and the dill promotes digestion, so I make an effort to grow it, but it hates our hot summers. For me it does best in shade.

Baltimore Fish Pepper

Baltimore Fish Pepper, a historical variegated pepper!

Chilies– You might not think of hot peppers as an herb, but they are pretty, edible, used for flavor and medicine- of course they belong in an herb garden. Chilies are tender perennials, -if you just have a few you can save time keeping them in pots. I am a chili freak and have a few that require a very long season, but your basic cayenne grows well as an annual. Warms the body and thins secretions, kills germs. Some are very tall and can need support. The ornamental ones are just as hot, and I have had a lot of fun with Baltimore variegated Fish Pepper, a deep purple Peruvian chili I call Purple Bullet which is nearly black, and tiny chiltepins.

Garlic is a great thing to grow- plant in September, harvest in June/July. I have a whole big blog post on that one. We have braids all over the house, although they are withering now. It also thins and heats the blood, and kills germs. People used to tape it to the bottom of feet for the flu. When you taste it in your mouth you are good. Some French friends used to grow it in the back of the herb border. They are stately until they turn yellowish when it is time to harvest.  However I grow it in the regular garden.

Valerian is a pretty flower; tall and lacy. The root, which I gather in late winter when I am separating the clumps and preparing the beds, is great for sleep issues. We had a buddy who was sort of becoming a nuisance because he didn’t sleep, wandered around all hours, and was grumpy to people. I gave him a couple droppersfull of Valerian root tincture and he slept 16 hours. Everyone was delighted. Its sedative properties are good for the heart.

 Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, (perennial) is good for the heart and relaxation, like a nice comforting hug from your mother. I planted in a shady acid patch of ground because I dug it up on a mountain in WV. It seems to like it. The lion-paw shaped leaves make a row with little pink flowers, which are followed by spiky seed heads. It’s about two feet tall but tends to sprawl. It is a valuable medicine plant so I don’t mind that it reseeds, but yes, it does.

 Honestly, though, there are so many fun herbs to try, and so many medicinal herbs to grow. These are just a few of my favorites that are easy to grow. A wonderful resource for herb information and seeds is Richo Cech’s Horizon Farm. His website, his catalog, and his books are really easy to read and full of good information.

Twofer:Edible Landscaping

red cabbage

amazing color and symmetry of a red cabbage

I got a call the other day from a writer who wanted to know about local experiences with edible landscaping. It was a really fun conversation which got my brain up and running, so this post grew out of our interview for a “Green Shore” article that will appear in the April issue of Attraction Magazine.

Of course, all plants are beautiful- a red cabbage like a blue rose, frilly safety green frisee endives, tiny jewel-like currant tomatoes,delicate pink new potatoes, fat purple-smoked lavender eggplants. Praise the Creator! One can very easily make the transition from pretty veggies to an edible landscape.

Space and Proximity

Why an edible landscape? It’s a natural- why grow the few plants that don’t feed or heal you? Also, if space is an issue, you can skip the  plants which merely supply beauty, and go for the twofer.

Another clever thing is that deer are less likely to munch in your garden if you are raising food right by the house. Our dog generally keeps deer away, but I just wish those deer would try it. I have a crossbow right by the window….

Look at the intersection between the plants we grow for food and medicine and the plants we grow for ornament. OK, trees, foundation plants, perennial specimens, annual accents, groundcover, climbers, perennials, container plants. The lightbulb goes on!

Trees

methley plums

Methley plums

I have apples, plums, cherries, figs, and pomegranates. The pomegranate has gaudy orange flowers that look like a giant crepe myrtle coming out of a latex 4 pointed star. Next to it the Black Mission fig, under it the Broadleaf thyme as a groundcover, on the wall behind it a grape vine. Whoever thought of a flowering cherry?  Scrooge? And my plums and apples are work, but they feed me delights all through the winter, and the bees agree with us about the flowers.

Foundation Plants

Instead of azaleas, how about blueberries? Same conditions, yummy fruit, easy care. Blueberries are elegant bushes, with great fruit, interesting gray bark, nice red foliage in fall, and they are a manageable size. Shadberry is nativeto our area, and I have seen them 7-9′ tall, graceful, with berries like elongated red blueberries. I like the flavor but it isn’t as lively as blueberry. North of here, red currants, the most jewel-like fruits, on a bush that sits in a partially corner and doesn’t ramble like raspberries and blackberries. I have some, but they are marginal in zone 7. I don’t have any experience with cranberries or lingonberries, but they are short.

Climbers

Here I am talking about perennial climbers. Kiwis are vigrous climbers, which require one male for every 3-4 females. They are attractive and rambunctious, and the artic kind has variegated leaves, but only in the male, I understand. I don’t have that kind, and mine have yet to produce- I discovered my male had died, however, so we will see. The leaves are large, heart shaped, and leathery. Of course, everybody’s favorite climber is the grape. I begged my husband to let me plant grapes instead of Wisteria. Oh, no, everybody said, there will be bees. Can you imagine my reaction? What I am looking for is a golden muscat grape from Italy, but I have never found it. It produces a giant cluster of greenish amber grapes which have a seductive honey fragrance. Each grape is contemplated and savored. So I have muscadine grapes, good for juice, but very tough.

Annual climbers are delightful- Scarlet Runner, which doesn’t do well for me in zone 7, does great in zone 6. Imagine a lima bean with pink and black seeds and bright red flowers. There are a lot of wonderful old fashioned climber beans I have used to make tents using bamboo tripods. Fun for kids, and a great place to hide onion bags full of human hair to scare off deer. Hyacinth Beans are lovely- wild purple flowers and metallic purple pods, which you can eat if you pick them small. They grow 5-6 feet tall. I have seen them on mailboxes a lot. Speaking of beans, last year I grew bi-color snow peas which got 4-5 feet tall. They were again from Baker Creek, Carouby de Mausanne. Delicious, not the most productive or tender- they are an ancient variety- but wonderful flavor. I would grow them instead of the poisonous Sweet Pea!

Perennials

This is where I have a lot of information for you. Let’s start with herbs. Bronze fennel- tall, smoky plumes about 4-5′, delicious. I use the abundant seeds to flavor breads and make liqueurs. All fennels are pretty. Fennel pollen- delicately perfumed yellow powder that falls from the umbels before the seeds swell- is a foodie spice. Monarch caterpillars love them. All the apiaceae are statuesque- John Navios’ Purple Dragon carrots in bloom are prettier than any Queen Anne’s Lace (it’s all daucus carota anyway) or Achillea. Lovage, a savory celery-like plant that transforms New England Clam Chowder into ambrosia, is 8 feet tall when it flowers with a giant green umbel, sort of like dill on drugs.

Herbs near the kitchen door is a no brainer. Rosemary usually perennial in Maryland, although I think this winter may have done for mine, and aromatic Meditterranean herbs like thyme and lavender need a raised sandy bed in our climate, but it’s worth the trouble.
I have an English broadleaf thyme which stays flat to the ground and is more damp tolerant than common thyme. I have that under an elegant little Black Mission fig.

There are all kinds of pretty sages- the regular farinaceous sage comes in green, purple, and variegated. It grows into a specimen  in zone 7. Pineapple sage is a whole diffferent deal- it’s tall and has red flowers. I have not used it in the kitchen.

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

The mint family is huge. Peppermint, spearmint, and lemon balm are lovely and can be invasive, but the tea, the delicate blossoms, the sturdy, pretty foliage, and the fragrance make them tempting additions. I am constantly ripping out black peppermint, the source, I am told, of industrial peppermint oil. I stomped it into a ditch and now whenever we mow the edges of the ditch it smells great. Monarda, or Bergamot, or Bee Balm, is very showy, with a pineapple-like shaped flower. I love the scarlet version. This is the source of Earl Grey Tea’s distinctive flavor. It is calming to the stomach, as are all mints- both warming and cooling. Lemon Balm makes wonderful headache tea, and the crushed leaves are an excellent cold sore or fever blister remedy.

There are many pretty basils- solid purple leaved as well, but the new one I saw this year has lovely purple blossoms. My buddy says she is rooting some for me. I saw some in a catalog but did not note the name. It did not seem to have good pesto flavor- more perfumey.
The Indian basils are called Tulsis, and make wonderful tea for headaches, colds, and low energy, and the ethiopian besobila (holy basil) has a pretty low braching habit (12 “), reseeds modestly, has pretty lavender flowers, and a complex, fruity fragrance like a combination of pineapple and oregano, maybe?

Groundcovers

How about strawberries as a groundcover? I have them in my rose garden- the knockouts are very fungus resistant but I have not noticed any fungus from damp feet. I use everbearers, which don’t bear too heavily, but keep a trickle of berries going all through the growing season. Panda, which I haven’t tried, has pink flowers. I gather a bowl of strawberries while weeding. My Junebearers are in a flower bed which is not as near the house, but it is convenient to the patio. Yum….

Miners Lettuce is a visually intersting early spring sallad green.

Miners Lettuce is a visually intersting early spring sallad green.

Salad greens make lovely groundcover. Bulls Blood Beets have shiny deep burgundy leaves, are pretty compact, have smaller bubs so it’s mainly for the foliage, and they are tasty and gorgeous in salads. You have to snip them as they pull up easily. Violets are not just an invasive weed- you can eat them. My absolute favorite salad seed mix is Baker Creek’s Rocky Top Mix-

Rocky Top seed mix from baker's creek

Nice heirloom mix from Baker Creek

there are just so many different lettuces in there, from Merveille des Quartre Saison, a big ruffled bronzed butterhead, to Amish Deer Toungue, a smooth, thick bright green pointed leaf, to Baseball, a Boston lettuce the size of a baseball, and a bit tighter. There is such eye-catching variety in texture and color. I sow them in fall for maximum bounce in the spring.

A green that is wonderful for cooking and salad, and which is very easy to grow in our area, is Swiss Chard. The plain green ones are handsome enough, but the Bright Lights or Fivecolor Silverbeet is eye-popping. The large, rhubarb like leaves have fleshy stems and midribs, which idiots discard- my aunt put them in egg and cheese casseroles, with a sprinkle of mace. These midribs come in green, white, yellow, pink, orange and red. My favorite is Flamingo- a bright green smooth leaf and fluorescent pink stem. They usually grow as biennials; the first year they have a rosette of leaves, and the second year they put up a flowering stem, however before it bolts the leaves attain a phenomenal size. They overwinter well in Maryland, but I grow them in the greenhouse and we live on them.

One more groudcover is also nice for containers- sweet potatoes!!! The ornamental yams you see in containers in front of businesses? A guy who services those told me that at the end of the season he tips them out and finds tubers! For real! I usually prefer to grow Beauregard, which has a slightly glossy heart shaped leaf, but Porto Rico has a fancier shaped leaf, sort of 5 fingered. I was also told that in Africa yam leaves and stems are chopped up as a green.

Edible Flowers

Edible flowers give you great color and fragrance as well as nutrition- violets, for example- the leaves are very high in Vitamin C and they are a pretty heart shape. I pick a few bright green young leaves on my way to pick other salad greens. Violet flowers are sweet to taste and look lovely sprinkled on a salad. So do wild black locust blossoms, pea flowers, rose petals, pansies, violas, and nasturtiums. Pansies and violas are very cold tolerant so I usually have a few in the winter greenhouse, which I remember garnishing a salad with for Christmas dinner.

Pretty Vegetables

artichoke plant

artichoke plant

OK, my favorite in the world is artichokes. They create a giant architectural speciman which can last five years,  and will never fail to catch the eye of visitors. They can grow to 8 feet, and have dramatic silver foliage. Some varieties have purple buds. I have grown Green Globe (5-6 buds) and something which may have been Imperial Star (lost count at 40). In our climate overwintering is doable but tricky. Imperial Star can produce artichokes as an annual, but the second year is so fabulous. If you let them bloom they are bright purple giant thistles. Those become very large dried thistles. I think the chokes look like husky fur.

Dry artichoke head

Dry artichoke head

Then they escape and float away like dandelion fluff on steroids. And I haven’t even mentioned eating them yet. This year I am trying emerald, an annual type, and violetta, an Italian purple. They are sprouting in the guest room as we speak.

Okra is like a pretty annual shrub. Itis in the mallow family, like hibiscus, rose of sharon, hollyhocks (Hollyhock flower tea is tangy and pretty) so the gorgeous cream yellow blooms with deep burgundy hearts are no surprise. There are several red okras.The regular burgundy okra you see in catalogs is about 3 feet tall, stocky and bushy, with fat burgundy pods that cook up green. They have a nice growth habit and pretty burgundy leaves, but for me the yield was not as good as the regular Clemson Spineless or Louisiana Green Velvet. I tried Jing from Baker Creek last year, and it has a nice yield, and has Chinese red stems and pods with green leaves that have red stems. The pods are slim and sort of laquered looking, and cook up more khaki colored than Clemson, but when you pickle them, they turn the pickling brine pink, which is very pretty in the jar. They are not as short and stocky as Burgundy.

red okra pickles

red okra pickles

 

 

 

 

 

Jerusalem Artichoke (not an artichoke but a tuberous sunflower with an artichoke flavor) is a good one for the back of the garden- it provides a steady supply of tasty tubers- hard to eradicate actually, which are rich in sugar regulating inulin, a delicious boiled like potatoes or sliced into flavored vinegar raw. Very crunchy and tasty but boy do they give me gas! The stalks get 10-12 feet tall, make sunflowers4 inches across, and must have good support or they will fall over in an untidy heap.

Another totally wacko accent plant which needs support is Amaranth. If you know celosia, imagine that 8 feet tall. That on a breezy day is hard to beat, but you do need to stake them as at least in our soil they go over. My favorites are Golden Giant and Chinese Red, which I got from Horizon Herbs.  You can dry and beat the heads to get about a pound of seed from each head of Golden Giant but it is a bit difficult to do on a large scale. I beat them on a sheet and tried sifting them through an old rusty screen. Yep. Rust particles. Live and learn. The flavor of this very mineral rich gluten free grain is similar to fresh corn. It is possible for the grain to pass undigested through the gut because it is so small that it doesn’t get chewed, so I ended up grinding it and adding it to bread. Birds are also wild about it, so it can be free bird food. The extravagant red plumes of Chinese red have a sort of chenille mosaic of different reds and the odd blue. Fantastic. If that is more than you want to deal with, Hopi Red is really pretty and about 4-5 feet tall. It is a dye plant and a bit less over the top.

Prickly Pear cactus

Prickly Pear cactus

Another questionable beauty is prickly pear cactus, a sculptural and dangerous thing to have on a garden path….but my friend from Guatemala prunes them when the paddles are small and tender to make nopalitos in eggs and nopalito salad. The fruit makes a wonderful purple-fuschia drink which has health properties for diabetes- I have a whole book on the benefits of eating prickly pear cactus. They are totally winter hardy here and have huge yellow flowers in late spring.

A few amusing nightshades

Purple peruvian potatoes have purple flowers.  I have grown variegated tomatoes, available from Tomato Growers Supply- the foliage is really green and white, on a compact tomato plant with somewhat ho hum squarish 1 1/2″ red tomatoes. Pretty productive. Wild Currant is a tiny feral tomato that coveres itself with strings of delicate 1/4 inch orangey red tomatolettes. It volunteers in my gravel and I have used it in hanging baskets. You can eat them but it’s a lot of work. They are just so cute!

Purple peruvian is one gorgeous nearly black pepper plant. The plant gets 3-4 feet with extra water, but usually stays around 2 feet. The marble like fruit is produced in clusters surrounded by a rosette of dark leaves, and ripens from crispy light green to purple to bright red. It is pretty hot but oddly refreshing. They are among the last to go in fall.

Here’s the capper. Baltimore Fish Peppers are a 2 -3 foot tall hot pepper with variegated leaves. The peppers start out green and white striped, go to orange and red, and finally lipstick red. They are Maryland history- used to flavor sauce for fish. All I could find was a sort of grand hotel recipe for a cream sauce warmed and pinkened by the powdered pepper. I keep wanting to send seeds to the White House. Also from Tomato Growers Supply.

Baltimore Fish Pepper

Baltimore Fish Pepper, a historical variegated pepper!