A familiar refrain all of us knew, back in the day, when we sang folk songs together and strummed our guitars. I’m not sure any of us quite got what the song was about, beyond love found, love lost, and love fondly remembered. It was so pretty to play and sing, especially when friends sang in harmony and remembered most of the words.
A traditional folk song from the north of England and Scotland, most of us learned Scarborough Fair from Simon and Garfunkle’s album in the mid-60s. It is one of those songs which plays as background music in the psyche, never quite fading away; its longing and simple beauty a reminder of what stays the same generation to generation, century to century.
And so it is as fresh today as it was back when. Its lyrics offer a bit of insight into how much we continue to rely on the companionship of our simple herbs, even through the changes and frustrations of our life circumstance and relationships.
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme: our companions as we tend our gardens and as we cook our meals. They are beautiful, promote good health, and are hardy and easy to grow. These are the herbs you can still snip outside on a wintery day and bring in for the soup pot, whether you are making soup for your love, your extended family, or just for yourself.
All they really need to be happy is Earth for their roots, full sun for their leaves, and a bit of water to keep them going. They grow deep roots to sustain themselves and demand little from the gardener.
Parsley is the only biennial in the group; growing this year, blooming next, setting seed, and then dying back. It must be renewed with fresh plants each year, but will sow its own seeds far and wide to produce them.
Sage is perennial in my garden. Some forms are herbaceous perennials; others make small, woody shrubs. When planted in a spot it likes, it spreads and thrives. If it’s not happy, it fails to thrive and dies out after a season or two. It doesn’t like too much water or dampness, and loves the sun.
Sage has been used by our indigenous people for centuries as a “smudge”. It is dried in bundles, kindled, and its smoke used to clear, clean, and heal. It also makes a lovely tea and helps sore throats, especially with honey dissolved in the tea. Its leaves are delicious fried in a little butter or olive oil as used as a garnish.
Rosemary forms a beautiful shrub, blooming in winter with clear blue flowers. It is evergreen and grows more lush each year. It responds well to trimming back, has many medicinal uses, and has strong anti-bacterial properties. It is the herb of remembrance, and so is a good plant to grow near the main path of our comings and goings from our home. It is delicious baked into bread; or with potatoes, carrots, and onions. It can be used as a skewer on the grill and to flavor a marinade.
Thyme is the smallest, lowest growing of these herbs. It makes a wonderful ground cover, and can be grown on the edges of paths, in rock gardens, pots, and as edging for garden beds. It comes in many different colors and fragrances, and blooms beautifully in early summer. I like Lemon Thyme the best. Thyme is drought tolerant, and can tolerate partial shade better than other herbs. It responds well to cutting back, and needs to be cut back at least once a year to keep it growing fresh leaves.
Thyme can be enjoyed raw minced into green salads or vinaigrette salad dressings. It is also good mixed into cream cheese and/or goat cheese, with some garlic, chives, freshly ground pepper and a little sea salt for a savory cheese spread on toast or crackers. Thyme is a delicious addition to marinades. Mix into lemon juice and olive oil with garlic, freshly ground pepper, sea salt, and a little Rosemary. Toss with hunks of potato, carrot, onion, and mushrooms before roasting the vegetables. This marinade can be used similarly for vegetable kabobs and grilled chicken.
If you have never grown herbs, these are the four with which to begin. They grow happily in a pot beside your door, as long as that pot sits in the sun and gets water. When you have a bit of sunny land, plant these reliable friends and clip them often for your cooking.
Sage and Rosemary help to deter deer, and so make good companions for plants which need protection. Parsley is a wonderful host plant for butterflies, so plant enough to freely share. It looks beautiful planted among Violas and will stay green all winter in Zone 7B and warmer.
Bees love to visit all of these herbs for nectar. They can all be dried and kept in jars, if you must. They can be infused into olive oil or wine vinegar for cooking and salads. Add Sage and Rosemary to your Christmas wreath or swag, plant thyme in pots over your spring bulbs. The possibilities go on and on.
Growing herbs links us to a very long tradition of gardeners. These plants have changed little, if at all, from the herbs our distant ancestors grew. We join a timeless community of gardeners and cooks when we make them a part of our everyday lives.
All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013