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 whole.photo

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 options.photo 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 epicurious.com 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.

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I am a Garden Gnome

Maybe I should buy myself a big tall red conical hat (possibly made of concrete). Because I am not exactly the most useful object, not the most decorative, nor even perhaps the most whimsically amusing, in a garden. But I give it my best from time to time, really I do. And generally, the earth is pretty forgiving and responsive to my fumbling efforts.

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The wildflowers hereabouts have continued to delight, with waves of Showy Evening Primrose bordering the roadsides and ditches, and Vervain spiking up out of the meadows . . .

For once, I paid attention to the promises of today’s rain; it’s not been terribly impressive thus far, but it has rained a teeny bit, so it was good to get things a little better in order out there and ready for some watering the day before the rain arrived. Not that I didn’t water it all thoroughly myself, at the end of my stint, since even if the plants hadn’t been so thirsty after all of my brash ministrations on a toasty afternoon, I needed a bit of rinsing too. Besides turning into a human saltwater fountain and being bespeckled by the colorful bite-marks of a seething mass of varied insect pests, I also collected plenty of bits and bobs of garden detritus in my hair, a nice thorough coating of fresh brown dirt all down the front of my clothes (with special emphasis on my mud-capped knees), and the handsome assortment of plant stains reaching up to my elbows, not to mention the weird black stain my cheap metal watchband makes on my wrist when its gets all slippery with sweat. I considered just turning the garden hose on myself full blast but opted for the slightly less neighbor-frightening method of going indoors and showering, after all. They’d suffered enough if they’d just seen me transforming myself into a living blob of nature-gone-bad while gardening.

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A sweet mockingbird sat surveying the front yard from the mailbox, but dashed off long before I came closer to tuck some sturdy, spiny agaves around its base . . .

Meanwhile, I did enjoy discovering that besides the blizzards of unlovable bugs gone rampaging on the heels of a warm winter, there are the lovely sorts as well: I was almost constantly surrounded by clouds of butterflies that were attracted to the plants I was tending and the nice little drinking fountains I was making with my sprinkler for them. It was as though the flowers woke up and took wing around me. The birds around here are certainly loving the feast of fresh insects, so at least I can tolerate the biting brats if I know that they may soon, in their turn, be Cardinal Chow. Which reminds me, I’ve heard tell that the hummingbirds are back in town, so the feeders should go back up today. How quickly things change in Spring!

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Less than two months of time, and what a difference on the patio and in the yard!

Both the ornamental and the edible is swiftly springing up, and thankfully, many of the latter sort of plants are very much the former too. Along with their other benefits of beauty and entertainment and insect-control, the birds have evidently gotten involved in the garden design work around here, planting a number of sunflowers in serendipitously amusing and even rather unexpectedly apropos spots. I’ll leave them all in place and see what seem to be propitious locations for next year’s crop of sunflowers. Meanwhile, I’ve got lots of other things beginning to come fully into bloom that need deadheading and trimming and fertilizing and watering.

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The dainty blooms on the capiscum plants promise sweet bell peppers to come, and the little wild rose is smiling broadly . . .

The roses have–not too surprisingly, given the kindly weather–been great show-offs already this season. The little old-fashioned straggler that I dug up from its hidden spot by the back fence last fall and tucked into a pail is thriving and throwing off a fair number of its small but deeply velvety dark red blooms. The coral colored rose that I moved to a more visible place in the raised bed by the patio has probably already fired up close to a hundred of its bold blossoms, bringing its own dazzling light to the little ‘courtyard’ enclosed by the house’s wings.

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The detonation of the roses in bright sunlight is impressive even if only from two plants . . . but should I add more, I wonder, when they're all so lovely? Hmmm . . .

That holly tree that I intended to kill, or at least cruelly constrain (someone planted it much too close to the house’s foundation for either’s good) was stripped to its trunk not much more than a year ago but is not only covered with those charmingly soft new leaves that have their pointy edges but no bite yet but is simply a mass of bloom as well, and now that I’ve seen how adored it is by the bees I know I won’t kill the tree but will just keep it as a sort of vertical bonsai, pruning it vigorously but leaving it to stand as a bee haven, a vine post–I loved having my cobalt-blue morning glory glowing from it last summer and have planted that and other colors this year–and a berry farm for birds and winter decor.

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Apparently, the birds and butterflies, not to mention the bees, are going to have a grand dance around the holly tree Maypole this year . . .

The herb-and-vegetable planters are well underway, and there’s not only plenty of borage leaf, despite the marauding munching bugs who try to turn them to lace, for a nice tisane long before they will be tall enough to bloom. The marigolds have opened their brilliant eyes to have a look around, and the carrots and beets are shooting upward (and, I hope, downward). The parsley and other, daintier herbs will have to fight their way up through the jungle a little more slowly, perhaps, but should be strong enough by the time they do that they will outlast the root veg and the annual flowers.

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Packed with, very likely, too much, these planters are still cheerfully chipping in to do their flaming floral part . . .

The peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos and red cabbages are all quite happy and healthy looking right now, and as long as the garden pests can’t get ahead of the birds and me, there may be a nice little bit of produce before too long. In the meantime, it’s sweet just to look at the plants and measure their growth by the day, if not by the hour. One of the perpetual delights of gardening, of course, is the unplanned element that invites itself into the flowerbeds and borders. I was elated to find, among the dozens of baby oak and elm tree sprouts volunteering on the property (and many of which I will transplant, when they’re big enough, to other parts of the yard), a seedling which I quickly identified as a mulberry tree. This, too, will have to relocate eventually, but I thank the bird or squirrel that kindly donated it, as it will also become a great wildlife feeder on the back-forty one day. In the right-hand photo, it is balanced on the left by a seedling soapberry that I’ve been nursing along for just such a purpose, and together they frame a wonderful volunteer that apparently forgot it was supposed to be a tender annual plant, a brilliant orange Gerbera daisy from last year.

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Gifts from the garden to the gardener: a mulberry seedling, a wintered-over annual flower, and lively green growth galore . . .

Along with the Survivor Daisy there are hints of the wildflower seed I threw nearby beginning to assert themselves. The first tiny cosmos has peeped out from the pathway, and there are promising leaves and stems among the sunflowers and cosmos that say we’ll soon enough be seeing nasturtiums, corn (sweet and ornamental), blanketflower and Echinacea and a whole host of other charmers. If you want to know more specifics of what we’re, ahem, expecting, check back to my plant-list post.

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Grandpa Gerber Daisy, meet little Miss Cosmos . . .

I was certainly not confining my attentions to the back yard, and am pleased to say that both the surprises given to me by the garden and the things I’ve done myself and with goodness aforethought out front are also paying off in lovely dividends. The area in front of my beloved’s office window was particularly shabby and is not so easy to suss out, as it’s victimized by bad drainage because of the contours and conditions of our property and also is quite heavily shaded by one of our big beautiful post oaks out there. So if you set these characteristics up in combination with naturally hot and over-dry Texan weather, there are what might charitably be called Conflicts of Interest. I’m experimenting, to say the least. But I’m getting a fair return at the moment and will enjoy it while I can. Among the humorous and pleasant surprises I would count that of having celery in bloom there. Yes, celery. I had a very ancient bottle of culinary celery seed sitting in my kitchen for so long that I was quite sure it had no flavor left at all, but being a thrifty mad scientist, I tossed the contents out in the front flowerbed and behold, a year later I have flowering celery. If it’s biennial like some of its cousins, who knows what next year may bring!

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Outside the office window, hope is arising in its green and tenacious way . . .

Between the front walkway and the porch, the flowerbed is cut into yet another poorly drained (but sunnier) spot and is too narrow for its own good. But I’m getting a number of things, mostly perennial, to pop up there and even had a happy re-visitation from last year’s annual sweet potato vine (the fluorescent-green leafed sort) that will probably now give me yet another year of excellent fill-in wherever I haven’t yet solved the bed’s Issues. I’ve tucked in a few herbs besides the front door rosemary that’s thriving–far more than expected–and am working to have a broad mix of textures and colors and seasonal change-ups that I hope will continue to mature and fill in the naked spots until any non-flowery weeds will just feel unwelcome to even visit.

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Though the tulips are long gone from the planters, there are all sorts of new things coming in and many possibilities yet to sprout . . .

Along with the porch-side plantings there is also another shady stretch, this one less plagued by poor drainage but still overshadowed by one of our big flowering pear trees, so that too is getting an experimental blend of trial-and-error plantings to withstand the vagaries of seemingly opposing growth needs. One of the particular pleasures of yesterday was finding a Bonus Plant tucked into the pot like some sort of vegetal conjoined twin with one of the agaves I laid in yesterday, so now I have this vigorous ‘baby’ to choose a good home for as well. These specific agaves are a variety (Agave parryi) I’ve long admired for their good looks and was thrilled simply to locate, let alone in a size I could afford, but doubly so on learning that they are supposed to be relatively hardy plants–and then on top of all that, I got a big, handsome extra among them. Surely the garden gods were smiling on me yesterday. Or at least the garden gnomes.

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Last year's Beautyberry has burst into full bright green leaf, the New Zealand Flax is spiking up its burgundy spears, and the variegated leaves of their companion flax lily lights up the shade with its fine stripes. And where will bonus baby Spike go to live? Stay tuned . . .