Folks planting their first garden usually think beyond tomatoes, lettuce and squash to herbs. I did it too, thinking I could plant a compact herb garden near my kitchen. I didn’t count on the huge number of herbs available or even how to use what I planted.
Herbs are available for medicinal and culinary uses as well as dyeing, scenting, making cosmetics, even powerful poisonings. Gardeners should be very careful what they plant, considering family, pets or friends who may “sample” your herbs. If you’re growing foxgloves or castor beans, for instance, parts may be deadly to samplers who identify plants by taste.
For a standard American diet, planting onions, garlic, chives, shallots, sweet basil, rosemary, thyme, dill, sage, oregano, sweet marjoram, parsley and mint should be sufficient culinary herbs. As your palette expands, you’ll want to plant cilantro, cumin, epazote and chiles (technically not really herbs) for Mexican food.
Every war the U.S. is involved in also expands our dietary choices. Following World War II Americans began to grow and eat fennel (seeds, fronds and bulbs), bean sprouts, real spaghetti (other than canned Chef Boyardee), rice, stir-fried vegetables and other foods enhanced by soy sauce (new to the U.S.) or sesame oil (even more recent introduction here).
Now that troops are home from southeast Asia, they brought a taste for fish oil, fermented fish sauce much like the garum or liquamen of ancient Roman cuisine, bundles of food rapped in rice paper, rice noodles, and increased emphasis on ginger, turmeric, hot chiles, lemon grass and mints.
We can grow many of these more exotic herbs, if we remember to treat tropical plants (such as lemon grass) as tropical, and bring it indoors over winter.
Some notes about my herb growing over the years: Mint’s reputation as an invasive thug is well-known and deserved. You can grow it in a container, but it will escape through drain holes and spread unless you pick up the container and turn it at least once a month. Dried mint is a poor substitute for fresh mint.
Lemon balm is a pleasant little plant, but it can put mint in the shade when it comes to being a garden thug. It spreads by runner and by seed, so it will pop up everywhere. It and catnip are the true thugs of the mint relatives. I’ve never planted catnip but have had to dig it out for 43 years.
Another pleasant-looking plant is garlic chives or Chinese leeks (same plant). Umbels of tiny white flowers are attractive, but when they pass they leave behind seeds that spread by wind, rodent and bird, planting themselves everywhere you didn’t want them. They are useful, imparting a mild garlic flavor to food (chopped leaves). Asians dig them out, preferring the milder white portion of the buried stems. Their depth makes them rather hard to remove.
Plant dill once, let it go to seed, and you may never have to plant it again, if you’re judicious about which volunteer seedlings you remove. Leave some to seed future generations.
Oregano can be a bit of a thug, spreading over a bed. It doesn’t tend to wander into other beds though. Sweet marjoram is a close relative of oregano, with a similar growing habit.
Cilantro seeds are known as coriander, a spice. The foliage is used in many Mexican and other Latino dishes, as well as many southeast Asian dishes. Southeast Asians make more extensive use of their roots than the foliage, however. Most of us are frustrated by the bolting of cilantro, but we should remember it’s really a cool weather plant, bolts to flower and seed in hot weather.
If you want to grow the fennel that forms bulbs at the base, select seeds or plants identified as “finocchio” or Florence fennel. Other fennels do not form bulbous bases. Fronds of either variety are useful with fish.
Parsley may be difficult to start from seed. If you fail, buy a plant, let it go to seed and seed itself where it wants to grow. Let it alone. Chervil also selects where it wants to grow, so I let it. It’s a gourmet form of parsley.
There are annual forms of caraway, but the usual spice is a biennial. We use the seeds in many dishes. I’ve grown that in a container, but have not been successful yet with cumin or anise.
One of my favorite culinary herbs is summer savory. It lends a wonderful flavor to bean dishes, and is easily grown, harvested and dried for winter use.
Send garden questions to email@example.com or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.
Rose garden volunteers needed
If you don’t know how to prune roses, you’ll learn how here. Since 1935, the Julia Davis Rose Garden has attracted gardeners of varying expertise who share one thing in common — a passion for roses. The rose garden has always been a labor of love by and for the people of Boise, and you can help the Boise Parks and Recreation Department keep the tradition alive by volunteering one morning each week through the summer.
Starting March 16, we will hold weekly work sessions from 8 to 11 a.m. each Wednesday through the growing season. Although some knowledge of plant care is preferred, the professional staff will provide direction and training for anyone interested in lending a hand. So don’t be shy — all skill levels are welcome.
Sign up here: