Archive for Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Let herb garden work for you

May 9, 2001


One of the aspects of spring planting that I find most enjoyable is tweaking my herb garden. I never have to start from scratch because my herb beds contain a mix of perennials and annuals, and many of them are enthusiastic reseeders.

Although I often plant basil in my vegetable garden, I otherwise give herbs their own space. I make the exception for basil in the vague hope that it will discourage hornworms from feasting on my tomatoes. While there's some evidence that it works, it certainly isn't a sure-fire deterrent. However, when I plant basil between tomato plants, what I can rely on is an interesting mix of aromas when I tend that part of the vegetable garden.

An established herb bed will be structured around the perennials, which are stationary and provide the main reason for making the herb garden a separate space. The perennial herbs include sage, tarragon, thyme and oregano on the culinary side. A few years ago I added salad burnett and sorrel, which are perennial greens.

Most gardeners, myself included, also mix culinary and aromatic herbs in their permanent beds. Lavender and artemesia are common choices among the scented perennials.

While perennials stay put, oregano in particular is a reliable reseeder, which provides a measure of flexibility. You can't rearrange the herb garden every year, but you can move the new plants.

Whether you let your perennial herbs go to seed is a matter of preference sort of. If you have a nice spread of oregano, for example, keeping the plants pruned to prevent seeding is a chore. What I don't clip for cooking I generally let flower, and the following year I find oregano popping up in unexpected places around the garden, and between the bricks in the sidewalk.

These little surprises I sometimes transplant to new locations or give away to other gardeners. It seems ironic and unkind to treat them as weeds, particularly when new plants are fetching a pretty penny at local nurseries.

I have lamented in the past my decision to plant lemon balm in my herb bed, and I would issue a warning here about planting anything in the mint family in a bed where you expect other herbs to grow. Spearmint and other wandering perennial mints can be planted in large pots and usually will overwinter outdoors in their containers.

As a general rule, noninvasive mints such as catmint are just for show and don't have culinary or aromatic value, but they can be incorporated into the garden for their leaf tint and texture. I also have planted lamb's ears in my herb bed for the contrast that the soft, silvery foliage provides.

Chives are another herb with a mind of its own. Enough of it grows wild around here that I can't imagine actually planting it in a bed.

Annual herbs include not only basil but cilantro, parsley, dill, marjoram and rosemary. Cilantro, parsley and dill will eagerly reseed, and if you let them bolt at the end of the season you probably won't have to replant them to get them started next year.

The seeds of many annuals will survive the winter, and it's always a treat to see what freebies will appear in the spring. You can move these volunteers as well.

What's more, if you plan it right, you can create a steady supply of these annuals through the gardening season. In areas reserved for those herbs, sprinkle seed once every week or 10 days through early July. With adequate sun and water, cilantro, dill and parsley will be ready for use in the kitchen within a month of germination.

Some gardening manuals list rosemary as a perennial, but the authors of those books have never gardened in Kansas. Rosemary will not overwinter here and also doesn't do well in the broiling sun. I generally keep my rosemary in a pot so that I can set it out during the morning but move it into the shade during the heat of the day. At the end of the season I can bring the pot indoors and harvest the rosemary through the winter.

When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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