All Gardens should be Herb Gardens

photoI am prejudiced. It seems logical to me that any garden grown for beauty should be grown for utility as well, and any garden grown for use ought to be pretty to look at and full of great sensory experiences well before it gets put to work. Why shouldn’t gloriously pretty edible and functional plants be shown off in all parts of the landscape, and why shouldn’t we take better advantage of what we have growing around us anyway?photo

Thankfully, these biases of mine are becoming more widely put into practice all the time. While kitchen gardens have a grand tradition of being ornamental and landscape design has long had its elements of utility inserted, those approaches have tended to be rather exceptional than the norm. So I’m thrilled to see such a proliferation, a flowering, if you will, of the whole concept that these belong as integrated into a delightful

My friend Christopher’s interest in starting the garden personalization of his next home with herbal inclusions and infusions (not to mention his appreciation of adventuring in the kitchen) got me thinking about my own past and present herbal operations. What do I consider a good framework for inserting my own preferences, herbally speaking, into the garden nowadays? And what, in turn, is actually happening in that way here? Not surprisingly at all, this thinking turned into a lengthy exercise in list-making. Herewith, my mental inventory of herbal ideas. Foremost among them: that I plant every and anything in my garden where I think it will thrive best, then opt for where it will provide the most splash and panache in complement with the nearby plants, and finally, tuck in some elements of surprise wherever I think they can inspire even the casual visitor to the place. Herbs, fruit, vegetables, common or exotic. So long as I’m not trying to subvert the laws of nature too far, let alone encourage an invasive alien species anywhere, it’s all fun.

For the moment, though, I’m focused mainly on herbs and a few similar animal (human or otherwise) friendly montage

Easiest to keep as perennials or self-sowing annuals are some of the best kitchen basic herbs and also some of the prettiest flowering or border texture plants, so they’re what I’d call genuine bargains in the herb dept:

Parsley (curled and flat-leaf); both can get pretty large over time, but are also pretty easy to cut back if necessary. Be prepared for gigantism, since parsley can easily top two meters in height when it’s stretched out in bloom.
Chives (common and so-called Garlic Chives); both give that nice light oniony flavor, and of course the ‘garlic’ variety has a hint of garlic in it as well. The purple pompom-like head of the common chive is attractive in the garden or as garnish and also edible, but I’m especially fond of garlic chives as a garden plant–they don’t look at all like the common chive, having a flattened stem and clusters of tiny white lily-like flowers in place of the purple variety’s.
Rosemary comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and leaf lengths, most tasting similar. It’s a woody, shrubby plant in general, but some are upright, some trailing. The blooms vary: white, pink, lavender, purple, even quite blue, depending on the variety. Pretty and fragrant even while still in the yard, and bees and butterflies tend to like it too.
Thyme also comes in a ton of forms. Its types vary slightly in the pink-to-violet bloom range (quite tiny flowers) and quite a bit in the leaf type: white- or yellow-edged green, solid green, silvery; some, like Lemon Thyme, have mildly differing flavors as well, and some, like Woolly Thyme, are more strictly ornamental. Me, I’m quite happy with common thyme (Thymus vulgaris); it’s really quite easy to grow, even as a sort of ground-cover plant in borders, easy to control, has those cute little blooms, and is a very versatile herb for cookery. My favorite with chicken.
Sage is pretty easygoing, too, and also has numerous colors. I like growing the purple-leaf and variegated yellow- or lime-and-green varieties for what they bring to the flowerbeds. They can get big and leggy and woody, so sometimes sage plants require some good pruning, but it’s not hard to do with them, and sage is so lovely with poultry and winter vegetables, not to mention that their fried leaves are fabulous with lots of dishes!photo montage

Some of the less common ones I love are well worth mentioning, too:

Lemon Verbena is better started from a live plant than seed and is fragile. I suspect it could work as a kitchen-window dweller for longer life, though I’ve not tried it indoors. I got lucky with it wintering over last year! As I said, great to add to tea (hot or iced), and would be dandy in anything where you want a less astringent lemony, kind of perfumy, flavor. There’s a lemon verbena ice cream recipe on that is sheer HEAVEN.
Borage is an annual, but I got lucky last year and it self-sowed from the previous season. It’s a kind of straggly and tall plant and has hairy, even lightly spiny, leaves and stems, but the hairs actually look kind of pretty in daylight, adding a lacy aura to the plant, and they don’t outright hurt when you touch them at all. Both leaves and flowers have a lightly cucumber-like flavor that’s nice in salads or cold drinks (chop the leaves finely or smash ’em to keep the fuzziness from being an off-putting texture in food), and the blooms are gorgeous, starry, true-blue dainties.

&    Sweet Bay, if you have the room for an actual tree, is a pretty one and exudes a faint resinous perfume on a windy day as well as providing bay leaves for all sorts of cookery. In a former home I had a 4 foot tall lollipop shaped semi-bonsai one I grew in a big galvanized tub and wish I could’ve taken it with me.
&    Saffron is both useful and a glorious choice for the garden, being the dried stigmas of a very pretty kind of crocus. These bulbs don’t naturalize readily like some crocus, but are of course worth the effort and expense if you can get them.
&    Sorrel‘s bright acidity makes it a welcome herb with which to spike a salad, my favorite use for it. The zippy sourness comes from oxalic acid, so it’s not something you want to eat by the bale, but it’s not so potent you can’t safely make soup or just eat it raw in small amounts. The flower stalk is slightly weedily aggressive, and the leaves are very popular with munching insects, but since it’s not a virulent spreader the flowering isn’t hard to nip, literally, in the bud, and those insects are often butterflies and moths, so I’m happy to share with them.

Some herbs are big on flavor but not worth trying to grow in the wrong climate or simply too short-lived for my lazy wishes:

&    Cilantro: I love it, but it bolts (goes to seed) so fast that unless I grew a huge patch of it for one-time harvest and freezing or kept planting it repeatedly through the season, it’d be sprouted and dead in no time, so I’m happy to pay farmers to grow it for me.
&    Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass and ginger (okay, that’s a rhizome, not an herb) are exceedingly delish in all kinds of Asian foods but require more tropical conditions than I’ve lived in for their happiness!photo montage

Some annual herbs are worth the effort, even if they don’t tend to self-sow:

&    Basil is one that I have been known to plant in a couple of varieties a season for different purposes: the purple leafed types are pretty as well as decent tasting; Thai Basil gives a specific and welcome familiar spice to Thai and Vietnamese cookery; Sweet Basil is the most versatile flavor king among them. They all have nice blooms, though not showy; if you let them bloom, though, they tend to wind down as their work is done, so you want to keep beheading at least some if you plan to keep using it through the whole growing season. Then basil tends to keep proliferating. Cruelty pays! 😉
&    Lettuces are of course lovely, but cabbages too are often forgotten as ornamentals, but as you know, I like planting them for their leaf color and texture, can cut occasional leaves for food or garnish, and when I leave the rest to do so, they bloom in very hummingbird-friendly ways and are a fun novelty in the flowerbed as well. Another lettuce cousin I like a lot is chard (silverbeet), whose leaves are tasty spinach imitators (raw or cooked) and whose varieties include some with great colorful stems that make them look like rhubarb or Pop Art versions of it in yellow and orange. Mine wintered over this year in the front flowerbed, surprisingly. Radicchio is a great member of this whole group, too: edible and showy burgundy colored leaves, and if you let some or all of them go to flower, they’re tall blue daisy-like things. Quite delightful.
&    Shiso, or Perilla, is a less commonly used leafy herb in the US, but the popular Japanese treat comes in a number of often quite attractive leaf shapes, textures and colors. I grew a gorgeous one some years ago that had a slight scallop on the leaf edges, a gracefully veined texture, glorious purple and green-black hues, and a spectacular metallic sheen. I confess I didn’t use it much for food because I couldn’t bear to snip it.
&    Garlic and Onions, on the other hand, have distinctive and fun flora, and can survive longer term if you don’t choose to dig all of them up to eat.

Some herbs are potentially invasive pests but I still like them for their beauty and/or culinary gifts, so I’m willing to keep massacring them occasionally to keep them in check:

&    Oregano spreads fairly easily but is a pretty bloomer as well as a tasty leafy herb, and not awful to control.
&    Mint is a genuine monster that wants to take over the world, especially my favorite commonly named ‘apple mint’ (huh??? I’ve never figured out what’s apple-y about it) that’s so incredibly versatile, but I try to plant it in places where it can spread without turning into square-stemmed kudzu. There are a number of interesting and fun varieties of mint ‘flavors’ available, but I stick with my old reliable despite the allure of Chocolate Mint, Orange Mint, and even true Peppermint and Spearmint, since one aggressive invader variety is enough for me. Wintergreen is a beautiful plant but, besides not being a mint variety at all, is pretty hard to find. It’s a broad-leafed evergreen with small white flowers and big pinky-red berries, and the crushed leaf is wonderfully fragrant, but it’s not commonly found, isn’t a snap to prepare for edible uses like most of these others, and has a picky attitude in climate and growth requirements. Still, I did grow it once in Washington because of its peculiar attractions. Maybe I feel an affinity with it by virtue of my husband’s having chosen me for my peculiar attractions. Ha.
&    Dill is sometimes known as Dill Weed for good reason, as it can run rampant in friendly climates and it’s a large, blowsy plant despite its delicate thread-like leaves. But its starburst flora and subsequent seed heads are pretty among the leafy lace, and it’s so danged delicious in so many meals that even if your climate is conducive to such running amok it’s worth the trouble. Besides, in that case you can at least put in some of the dwarfish kinds of dill. Pretty unbeatable with fish, and indispensable in deli pickling!
&    Fennel is similarly a member of the uncontrollable-toddler plant type, moving aimlessly but at speed all over the garden and being a big showoff of a thing, but even if you’re a little hesitant about the licorice-y hints it gives food, it too has a nicely delicate look for such a tall plant, and you can bring some nice color into the beds by planting bronze fennel. Just chop it ruthlessly when it wants to flower to keep it in check. I’ve never tried growing bulb fennel myself since as rarely as I use it, it’s easier to buy it and give the garden space to something else.photoClearly, I could wander on like this for ages. My experimental wildflower mini-meadow out back has behaved modestly well in its first half-season last year and appears to be letting a few sprouts emerge for a good beginning again now. I will go out in the next few days and give it a thorough haircut with the weed-cutter so that it has its own mulch through the remaining unreliable chills of late winter and early spring, and have been feeding it a kind of pre-compost over the winter by tossing the chopped and blended remains of the kitchen’s dregs in and letting them freeze and decay gradually as they would have in a regular garden, and will add to that with some other treats as the patch begins to revive. I am very curious to see what of the multitudinous kinds of seed I’ve planted out there now makes an appearance and what will take hold for the long term, as much of what I put in was intended to be naturalizing perennial feed for the birds and insects as well as soothing wildflower beauty. The bonus, if all goes well, will be lots of herbal fun for my dining companions and me. Only time and Mother Nature will tell.


28 thoughts on “All Gardens should be Herb Gardens

  1. I agree there is nothing more aromatic and delightful than a herb garden. I love herbs and most of the mentioned above ones are my favorites specially basil, rosemary, and saffron. the lovely smell of saffron in all dishes and rice is the most beautiful smell I have witnessed so far. Great post Kathryn.

    • Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I read your comment just at the time when I should be fixing a bit of dinner, but now I shall have to hurry up with my correspondence so I can go out and find some saffron to fix up some rice, I think! 😉

  2. Love that pineapple sage next to the driveway! This whole post was a balm for my winter-weary soul…Has that fig tree found a home in your yard?
    We’re doing more herbs this year…they’re much more forgiving of neglect, and I have a really good farmer’s market to buy produce from…your list reads much like mine. Going to try growing some caraway seeds!

    • Unfortunately (but not surprisingly) the pineapple sage had a one-season life and will have to be replaced to be enjoyed again. But so it goes in gardens. The fig tree is currently living in its barrel pot straight behind the kitchen, almost by the back edge of the property, and has held up well into this year. I *hope* that the recent late freezes haven’t harmed it but haven’t had a chance to get out for a real recon since we’ve been so busy lately. Now that the three-concerts-in-two-weeks bit has passed, perhaps there will be time…. Caraway? Yay! 🙂
      Hugs to you and the little squirts!

  3. I intermix some of my herbs like dill, thyme, and basil into my flower garden. Most folk are none the wiser and think they are flowers. 🌹🌸🌷

    • As good as any flowers, and better than some, I’d say! 😉 Besides, if they’re all close to each other then you have no excuse for *not* nibbling as you wander, right??

    • Thank you as always, my Sweet! Hope it’s a lovely week for you. Have you started cooling down for the season yet? We had a weird weekend with the temps going from 24 degrees to -7 in less than 24 hours and a big bash of freezing rain/ice/sleet while we were driving home from Dallas Sunday afternoon. Seems to be moderating slightly upward again now, and I hope it’ll stay steady since the freeze murdered all of the bloom on our just-opened flowering pear trees. Sigh. I hope the leaves will help them recover!!! Anyway, may you and Pete have a grand start to March!

      • Kath, I keep saying that Mother Nature is very angry with the world. The weather has changed worldwide. So sad to see so much suffering because of the weather.
        We seem to be in a little spot that doesn’t have the harshest of weather although we didn’t get rain for a while but it is slowly gracing us with some much needed wetness. I have started feeling, if even just a little bit, the weather cooling. I am very much a summer baby so wish winter away as much as I can.
        Wishing you tenfold for a lovely March too dear Kath. xo

        • Well, enjoy the warmth as long as you can possibly stretch it, my dearest! We’ve been told we might get a little rain shortly, and that would be a really good thing. Rarely quite enough of it here these days. Yes, old Mother N can be quite the drama queen. I hope there can be some respite for those who are so hard hit.

  4. Terrific post Kathryn! Happy herbing to you. We have a few herbs in the garden but as I now cant contibute to the work involved in the garden and John is still out working we often have to buy them. But we certainly have chives, various mint, and masses of fennel. I love it!


    • Chives, mint and fennel—that sounds like a walk-through salad right there! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’m looking forward to growing things coming into their own again here soon, but as I told Mandy, that’s an iffy business at the moment in north Texas! Later on I will undoubtedly bemoan the swift passing of the cool weather. Guess I’m just a spoiled baby. 😉

    • It’s all in the camera angles, my friend! Keep in mind that I always opt for the low maintenance and easy-peasy approaches in life, and that Texas can be cruel to plants, and you’ll know that I kept most of the scruffiest stuff out of frame. 😉 All the same, it’s worth a try to have at least a few favorites on hand to delight the senses, if not enough to feed the stomach too. 😀

  5. Great Post Kathryn! Edible landscaping is so cool. I have potted herbs that I move around the yard…I have to start my sweet Basil every year as it is so sensitive to the cold. I love the scent as do the honey bees ….. mutual benefits. I put 50 strawberry plants out in the front yard to create a border in two of the street side beds. I may need to compliment them with some herbs too….thanks for the informative post and inspiration.

  6. Kathryn, you know me too well, you drew me in with the title of your post, tempted my tastebuds and teased my gardening eye! Oh I’d love a wander around your green space, so many things to delight me.
    Loved the list of herbs – I sowed borage on the allotment and will never have to sow it again – in fact I sometimes have to rip it out as it can end up taking over, but the bees do love it!
    and your question of where to plant herbs? Where they are accessible or could be touched and brushed against 🙂

    • Oh, yes, you are so right, Claire! The more we can muddle around aimlessly in the garden, the happier the day becomes. I say that even when I have become so lazy about the back-breaking maintenance of the stuff, of course, but all the same I am happy when I can get out amid the leaves and blooms…the veg and trees and moss and fruits and buds….

  7. Such a lovely post full of the promise of sunny times ahead for us ‘northerners’. I had the same theory in our little Sherkin Island patch as planting vegetables and pretty flowers just leads to fatter slugs! So far, we have thyme, mint, chives, lavender, fennel, rosemary (seems to thrive in the wind swept conditions, which is odd) and rhubarb. They seem to thrive in our absence, which is always a plus. P

    • Ugh! to slugs!!! I confess that I was never able to see the appeal of eating Escargot since I grew up in Banana Slug country. Once you’ve accidentally stepped on one in the dark or had one sneak up onto your hand while you were innocently sitting on a nice mossy rock it’s hard to picture gastropods as anything but repellant jelly. But I’ve learned to work around them for the sake of getting what they can’t destroy of all those tender delights in the garden. I do so like your list, too. Now I am famished for a big dish of rhubarb crumble with cream!!!!!!

  8. So utility is truth, truth utility. And yet these plants are not all ye sow on earth.

    Your description of dill’s “starburst flora” reminded me that in 2001 I conceived of a native relative, Texas parsley, the same way: “If you look down at an almost-flowering plant from the top and let your imagination wander again, ten or twenty bright umbels against the darker plant and the ground below can look a lot like the starbursts of multiple yellow fireworks in the night sky.”

    • Great Minds in action once again! Being a carrot relative, TX parsley is apparently also related to what I knew as Queen Anne’s Lace when I was growing up in WA, so I think your description entirely apt.

      • Right indeed, Queen Anne’s lace is in the same family (though it’s not native in the United States). The scientific name of that family is now Apiaceae (compare Spanish apio ‘celery’), but it used to be Umbellifera because of the plants’ typical umbels (compare English umbrella).

  9. Great summary! Hoping to get some more herbs in my garden this year…I always grow basil, parsley (curly and Italian), a few different varieties of thyme, and dillweed, but I want to add even more this year. I’ve grown shiso as microgreens indoors and it’s fabulous!

    • What a cool idea! I’ve really never tried microgreens indoors since my long-ago youth when it was of course all the rage to grow mung bean sprouts at home. I sincerely doubt it ever occurred to me then (or perhaps to Mom, the instigator, either) that there was a world of herbal and vegetal goodness we *could* grow and eat at any size but full-grown. Funny how we change attitudes over time. I guess there’s hope for me to keep learning after all, even at my rapidly advancing age! 😀

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