Growing Herbs for the Beauty of It

Culinary tri-color sage grows alongside perennial Geranium and fennel.

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I grow herbs mostly for their beauty.  That, and their toughness as season-long dependable plants in our pots, beds and baskets.

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Rose scented Pelargonium grows near emerging Colocasia.

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I haven’t built them their own little parterre, and I don’t grow them in cute little matching terra cotta pots, either.  I treat them like any other plant and let them earn their spot in my heart and in our garden.

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A newly planted Spanish lavender will soon fill this pot.  It is surrounded with wild violets and wild strawberries.

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Herbs may be some of the oldest plants cultivated and passed on generation to generation and from one culture to the next.  They are celebrated in story and song.  They can heal us, feed us, soothe us and delight us.  Herbs are intensely fragrant; a living, growing perfume.

But I would grow them even without their rich mythological and pharmacological mystique.  Why?  Because I can depend on them.

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The first fennel flowers of the season opend this week.

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The strong fragrance and coarse texture of many herbs makes them distasteful to the deer I want to foil.  I learned in the early years of this garden that I could plant herbs in the spring, and expect them to still be merrily growing in our garden, sans critter damage, the following October.  I like to believe that planting lots of fragrant herbs can also protect more desirable plants growing nearby.

They are a good investment.  They bring me peace of mind.

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Basil

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But the more I tried different cultivars of favorite herbs, the more I delighted in them for their own sake.  They are entertaining plants to grow.  Let me explain.

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Chocolate mint

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Most herbs draw in pollinators.  That means that on a sunny day, I’ll find bees, wasps, butterflies, and all sorts of bright little insects that I can’t name without a field guide hovering around them and blissing out on their sweet nectar.

As I observe and photograph the visitors, I can crush and sniff their wonderfully fragrant leaves.

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Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

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Many herbs, like the mints and scented geraniums, produce compounds in their leaves that repel biting insects.

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Mountain mint, Pycnanthemum muticum, is a versatile herb with strongly fragrant leaves.  The Garden Club of America  has named it their 2018 native plant of the year.

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If a buzzy or bitey is getting too up close and personal with me, I can pinch a stem and rub the fragrant leaves on whatever skin might be exposed.

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Pineapple mint with lavender

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Mountain mint, though not so beautiful, is an especially effective insect repellent with no toxicity to harm my family or me.

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Rose scented ‘Skeleton Rose’ Pelargonium repels insects with its fragrance. Growing here in a basket with Lantana, this basket makes a tough combination for full sun.

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That same fragrance makes herbs appealing as cut flowers, too.  Stems worked in with other flowers make interesting, long lasting arrangements.

My favorite herbs for the vase are Basil, Pelargoniums, Artemesia, and Salvias. The interesting colors, shapes and textures of herbal foliage pumps up any vase.  Oftentimes, a stem will root in the vase and can be planted out to grow on when the arrangement is disassembled.

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Basil with pineapple mint, Lime Queen Zinnia and roses.

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Just as herbs create interesting contrasts with flowers in a vase, so they also pump up pots, baskets and perennial beds.

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White Monarda came to our garden as a gift from a gardening friend.  It is edible, can be used for tea, and looks lovely in a vase.  Also known as bee balm or Oswego tea, this plant is a useful North American native herb.

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Although herbs bloom, most have relatively small and insignificant flowers.  With a few exceptions, like some basils, dill, borage and fennel; herbs are grown more for their leaves than for their flowers.

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Now rosemary is a delight all unto itself.  Sometimes evergreen if the winter is mild, usually perennial, it delights us with its blue, winter flowers.

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Rosemary in bloom

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Rosemary often comes into bloom in late autumn, and many years I can include blooming sprigs of rosemary in our holiday wreathes in December.

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A newly planted rosemary ‘Tuscan Blue’ will triple in size by fall. Sedum ‘Angelina’ shares the pot.

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The pungent fragrance of rosemary exudes from a lovely little shrubby plant.  With rosemary, as with other Mediterranean herbs, the hotter the better in summer.  Growing to 4′ tall or more, a rosemary hedge by a fence or wall is possible in Zones 7b or 8 and warmer.

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An upright shrubby rosemary grows here with prostrate, creeping  rosemary.  Most of our rosemary plants died in our cold winter, and so I’ve had to replace them with new this spring.

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Many people grow herbs primarily for use in the kitchen.  And most, but not all, are edible.  Herbs generally respond well to the continual pruning that frequent use entails.

There are whole encyclopedias of information on using herbs for cooking, crafts, healing and housewifery.  I’ll leave you to read them if you want to learn more.

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Creeping Rosemary makes a good groundcover, or a good ‘spiller’ in a pot in full sun.

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I get busy and forget to cut and use them, I’ll admit to you.  My plants might be bushier if I used them more.

But I love watching my Pelargoniums grow huge and fill the gigantic pots I grow them in.  I love watching butterfly larvae growing plump as they harvest my parsley and fennel for me.  And yes, quite often the plants regenerate themselves within a few weeks once the larvae crawl off for their transformative naps.

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And so it is that I end up growing herbs much like any other garden plant; no special fuss required.

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Comphrey with Artemesia

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That said, keep in mind that herbs such as lavenders, culinary sages, thymes, rosemaries, oregano, germanders, Artemesias, Santolinas, and a few others originated in hot, mountainous areas where the soil may be a bit rocky and the rain scarce.  They aren’t used to coddling, and they don’t much appreciate our muggy damp summers in Virginia.

Our soil may be a bit too acidic and heavy with clay.  Our nights too damp and warm, our rain too intense.  There may be some rot or mildew.  Their roots may not thrive.

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There are a few simple things to do to make these Mediterranean herbs a bit more comfortable.  I tend to grow many of them in pots more successfully than in our heavy clay soil.

But culture in the soil is possible.  I like to dig some dolomitic lime and a little pea gravel into the planting hole before I plant a new transplant.  I set the crown a little high, mounding up the back-fill around the top-most roots, but not up the stem.  Then, I mulch with gravel out a few inches around the plant.  I’m told that chicken grit or broken up oyster shells work well for mulching herbs, too.

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Roots of these Mediterranean herbs want good drainage.  They can rot easily if left sitting in wet soil for very long.  That is why it is smart to amend the soil and plant them high.  If your soil is too heavy with clay, also dig in some compost before you plant, to loosen and improve it a bit.

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If planting in a pot, I mix some lime into the top few inches of the potting soil, set the plants a little high, and mulch the pot with pea gravel.

The gravel reflects sun and heat up into the plant on fine days, holds a little extra moisture during drought, and prevents soil from splashing up onto the lower leaves when it rains.  The gravel mulch helps protect those lower leaves from any disease harbored in the wet soil.

When growing an herb plant with woody stems or grey to blue leaves, take these precautions if your soil and weather is like ours.

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Artemesia with lavender and Iris

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Basil, dill and cilantro are annuals.  Parsley a biennial.  Chives and other Alliums are perennials, even when they are harvested annually for their bulbs.   All are soft stemmed and want a bit gentler treatment.  They appreciate more water and richer soil… but not too rich.  Herbs grown without much fertilizer have better flavor and aroma and grow more compactly.

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The Alliums are just beginning to bloom.

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Grow all of these in full sun, or the most sun you can manage.  The more sun, the more growth in most cases.

Also, give them space to grow.  Your little transplant fresh from its 4″ pot may look a bit small, and your new planting a bit sparse at first.  But please remember that most herbs grow quickly.  Mind the mature height and spread and allow space for your herbs to grow into their potential.

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Pineapple sage in its fall glory, still sending out new buds in late September 2017.

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Crowding, in our weather, makes it more likely for mold or rot to get a start where the branches stay too wet, and where air can’t easily circulate around their leaves.

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Thyme needs a good trim now and again. The stems get too long, with new growth only towards the tips.

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I wait each spring to see which of our perennial herbs made it through the winter, and which were finished off by the cold and damp soil.  Ironically, most will make it through until early spring.  It is those last few weeks and those last few frosts that may prove too much.

That is why I wait until I see new growth sprouting from their branches, before I cut them back.  Once they are growing and the weather is milder, I can cut with confidence.  Cut too soon, and a late freeze may be too much of a shock.  I killed a beautiful Agastache this spring by pruning it too early.

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Breakfast at the Agastache… summer 2017.

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Cut back any obviously dead wood, and trim most of the branches by at least a third to stimulate new, healthy growth.  But don’t throw all of those trimming away!  Many herbs, like Artemesia will root from these stem cuttings taken in late winter or early spring.  What will you lose by trying? 

And there is nothing complicated in my technique.  I open up a hole in the earth with my blade, insert a stem a few inches deep, and close the hole.  It roots and begins growing within a few weeks.  That is how I’ve spread Artemesia all around my garden over the years.

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Pineapple sage has beautiful leaves, but won’t bloom until late September.  It is hardy in our garden.

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Most herbs will root from stem cuttings.  You might cut several stems of basil, use most of the leaves, and root the stems in a glass of water to generate new plants over the summer.  Herbs like thyme are easy to divide.  Just take a stem on the outside of the plant, with some roots already growing, cut it off and plant it where its needed.  Do this with most Salvias, too.

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Apple mint roots easily in water. But easier still, pull a stem with some roots attached and planted it up elsewhere.

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If you’ve shied away from planting herbs in the past, I hope you’ll try a few this year.  You don’t need to be an expert gardener to succeed.  Most are very easy, and forgiving.

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An heirloom Pelargonium that I managed to root from a gifted stem cutting is now out in a basket for the summer.  This cultivar was brought to Williamsburg by the early colonists and grown here in the Colonial era.

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And this is the perfect time to begin, now that we are into the second week of June.  Garden centers in our area have just begun to mark down their herbs by 20-30%.  There are great bargains available this month as plant shops clear out their stock.

Unlike more tender plants, herbs will establish just fine in summer’s heat, so long as you don’t let them completely dry out as they grow new roots into the surrounding soil.

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Deadhead lavender, and other herbs, to keep the flowers coming all season. This is Spanish lavender, with its ‘rabbit ears’ atop the flower.

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There is always more to learn, there is always more to try, and there are always more beautiful and interesting plants to introduce in our gardens.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Fabulous Friday: Growing Herbs

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One of the nicest things about summer is the garden filled with fresh herbs.  Most herbs prove very easy to grow.  They enjoy full sun, can stand a little dry weather, naturally repel pests, and smell delicious.

Herbs have such beautiful and interesting foliage, that I enjoy using them in containers and in the perennial garden. They also add an interesting touch in a vase.

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Rose scented Pelargonium grows with parsley and fennel.

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Evergreen perennial herbs, like rosemary, often maintain a presence through the winter.  Even when frost damaged, most will begin to recover and grow again by early spring. Although many Mediterranean herbs are marginally hardy in our climate, we’ve had enough success overwintering them that it is well worth making the effort.

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Overwintered Lavender and Artemesia. Artemesia propagates easily from stem cuttings in early spring.

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Parsley, Rosemary, Thyme, Artemesia, culinary sage, Santolina, germander, oregano, chocolate mint and many varieties of Lavender remain evergreen in our garden.  Other herbs, like comphrey, dill and fennel, return with fresh growth once the weather warms.

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Comphrey is one of our earliest herbs to bloom each spring.

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We’ve had mixed experience in overwintering one of my favorite herbs, scented Pelargoniums.   I’m always thrilled to see tiny leaves emerge in early spring where one has survived the winter.  Perennials, they aren’t fond of winter indoors, unless you have a spot to keep them in bright light.

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Thyme provides lots of early nectar for pollinators. It grows into an attractive edging for perennial beds and borders.

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Scented Pelargoniums rank high on my spring shopping list, as I scout out choice varieties wherever herbs are sold.  P. ‘Citronella,’ sold to ward off mosquitoes, can be found in many garden centers and big box plant departments.  But I am always watching for the rose scented varieties and an especially pretty plant called P. ‘Chocolate Mint.’ 

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Pelargonium ‘Lady Plymouth’ has the scent of roses

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Basil grows particularly well for us here in coastal Virginia.  It really takes off quickly in our late spring and summer heat.  Sometimes I begin with seeds, but most often watch for my favorite varieties at herb sales.  Some varieties, like African Blue Basil, are hybrids and can’t be grown true from seeds.

African Blue and Thai Basil quickly grow into small, fragrant shrubs.   I let them flower, and then enjoy the many pollinators they attract all summer.  Their seeds attract goldfinches and usually stand in my garden until after the holidays, when I finally pull the plants once the seeds are gone.

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Basil gone to seed, delighted our goldfinches and other small birds last September.

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Our garden is filling up again with growing herbs, now that we are into mid-May.  Taking some time to enjoy our herbs makes this rainy Friday fabulous.  The perennial herbs are into active growth now, and I’m finding and planting choice varieties of Basil, Salvia and Pelargonium.

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Newly planted Santolina and purple Basil will grow in quickly.

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We experimented with a relatively new Lavender cultivar last year:  L. ‘Phenomenal.’  This very hardy (Zones 5-9) and disease resistant cultivar was introduced by Peace Tree Farms in 2012. Hybrid ‘Phenomenal’ can take our muggy summers, so long as it has reasonably good drainage, and doesn’t die back during the winter.  It will eventually grow to a little more than 2 feet high and wide.  I was curious to see how it would grow for us, and bought a few plugs through Brent and Becky’s Bulbs last spring.

I was so pleased with how fresh they looked all winter, that I ordered new plugs this spring.   The plugs are still growing on in pots, but I look forward to planting them out before the end of May.

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Culinary purple sage grows well with German Iris and other perennials.

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If you have faced challenges in past years overwintering your Lavender, or losing them during a muggy summer; you might want to give L. ‘Phenomenal’ a try.  These will work nicely in a good sized pot if your space is limited.  Add a little lime to the potting mix or garden soil, and try mulching around newly planted Lavender plants with light colored gravel to reflect the heat and protect the foliage from splattered soil.

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Spanish Lavender also proves very hardy and overwinters in our garden.  This is my favorite Lavendula stoechas ‘Otto Quast.’

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Herbs prove such useful plants.  They nourish, they heal, they repel pests, and they thrive in challenging garden conditions.  Their unique leaves and healing scents add beauty to our lives.

Do you rely on herbs in your garden?  Wild at heart, they simply want a place to grow.  Why not try one this summer you’ve not grown before?

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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August herbs in a vase

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Happiness is contagious!  Let’s infect one another!

Candlemas Monday Vase

Purple sage has survived winter, still growing in the garden.

Purple sage has survived winter, still growing in the garden.

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February demands patience.  Still locked in a battle for survival, the garden remains in defensive posture; waiting out the onslaught of wind, ice, rain, and grinding cold.

And so do we.  Perhaps already feeling the approach of spring, our bones tell us that winter will linger a while yet.  Perhaps a frustratingly long while yet.  Who can say?

Interludes of brilliant sun always fade as the clouds blow back in, bringing who knows how much more pounding rain or snow.  A morning in the 50s will likely fade into the 20s overnight.  Such is February, perhaps the hardest month of the year.

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February 2, 2015 Monday Vase 005

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Today’s Monday vase reflects this sense of ‘survival mode’ in our garden.  Buds remain tightly closed. ‘Evergreen’ leaves are dulled and discolored from the cold.

Yet ‘survival’ is the operative word here, and the garden remains very much alive.  Hazel twigs sport their male pollen filled ‘flowers.”

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February 2, 2015 Monday Vase 013

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Lavender, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme remain fresh and growing, if only very slowly.  Our Camellias are covered in buds.

Sprigs of ivy, found growing under a mat of wet leaves, show new growth.

Like a tightly coiled spring, the entire garden waits for the sun’s signal to begin its annual vernal unfolding.

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The moonstone frog heralds spring, as the discarded antler reminds us of what was left behind last autumn.

The moonstone frog heralds spring, as the discarded antler reminds us of what was left behind last autumn.

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Candlemas, February 2 of each year, brings its own message of purification, hope and renewal.

Bright color may presently be lacking in this vase and in the garden; but for those with patience, the potential for spring’s explosion of new life and color can be felt everywhere.

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February 2, 2015 Monday Vase 014~

The vase is hand blown glass made by Blenko, an historic glass company in West Virgina.  Filled with a sandy bottom, it suggests the eternal sea, from which all new life comes.  The plate is by friend and potter Denis Orton.

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February 2, 2015 Monday Vase 010

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With appreciation to Cathy at Rambling In the Garden for her Monday Vase challenge. 

Please visit her page for links to more beautiful vases of flowers prepared today.

Woodland Gnome 2015

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February 2, 2015 Monday Vase 015

Words and Herbs, “In A Vase On Monday:  Snow White”

In A Vase on Monday- Gray or Silver?

A Walk In the Garden, In A Vase on Monday: Buds

Herb Garden

Garlic chives come into bloom beside Thyme and a Muscadine grape vine.

Garlic chives come into bloom beside Thyme and a Muscadine grape vine.

“My love affair with nature is so deep

that I am not satisfied with being a mere onlooker, or nature tourist.

I crave a more real and meaningful relationship.

The spicy teas and tasty delicacies I prepare from wild ingredients

are the bread and wine

in which I have communion and fellowship with nature,

and with the Author of that nature.”

Euell Gibbons

 

 

August 19, 2014 lavender 032

Garlic chives remain one of the easiest of herbs to grow.  Plant in full sun, keep them moist, and they will grow indefinitely.  A perennial herb, the stand of chives grows a bit larger each season.  All parts of the plant are edible, and leaves can be snipped year round to season in cooking.  Chives are especially nice mixed with cream cheese or sour cream.  Their flowers may be cut for arrangements, cut and used as a garnish, or left to delight the bees.

Thyme grows as another spreading, perennial herb which enjoys full sun.  It blooms sometimes in summer, and it is a favorite for cooking.  A good cheese spread may bee made with chives, thyme leaves, and perhaps a little garlic, minced Rosemary, and freshly ground pepper.  Mix these into any combination of soft cream or goat cheeses.

Grape leaves make tasty wraps for various fillings.  Our favorite are Greek dolmades, which are stuffed with a mixture of rice and herbs, then steamed.  Grape leaves may be eaten raw in salad or added to sandwiches.

 

Basil grows here beside scented Pelargonium.

Basil grows here beside scented Pelargonium.

Basil leaves remain our favorite summer herb.  Eaten raw on a sandwich, pureed into pesto, or cooked with tomatoes, their distinctive flavor sings “summer,” even when enjoyed in February.  Their flowers are edible and may be enjoyed as cut flowers or as a garnish.  Stems of  Basil, mixed in with other flowers in a vase, perfumes the entire room.

Basil

Basil

Scented Pelargoniums are not only edible, they dry beautifully.  Lemon, orange, or rose scented geraniums, as they are called, may be added to home made mixes for tea, used as flavor in baked goods, or may be dried and preserved for their fragrance. Their flowers are edible and may be used to garnish cupcakes.  Some Pelargoniums survive the winter for us in Zone 7B.  They die back to the ground, but will sometimes come back from their roots in late spring.  They are happiest in full sun with moist soil.

Chocolate mint in bloom

Chocolate mint in bloom

Plant all of the mints in full sun.  They prefer moist soil, and will spread madly over a summer.  Every part of the plant may be eaten fresh or dried.  Used mainly to flavor beverages, mints are wonderful fresh or dried in tea.  A stand of mint in bloom remains busy with every sort of bee and wasp enjoying the feast of nectar.  This chocolate mint has beautiful, distinctive foliage and smells like minty chocolate candy.

Pineapple Sage, Pineapple Mint, and Rosemary enjoy this end of the butterfly garden where they get sun.  All appreciate moist soil, and will return each spring.

Pineapple Sage, Pineapple Mint, and Rosemary enjoy this end of the butterfly garden where they get sun.   All appreciate moist soil, and will return each spring.

A garden may be appreciated by all of our senses, including taste and smell.  These wonderfully fragrant herbs contain healing oils and compounds, in addition to their delicious flavors.

Although not a traditional vegetable garden, an herb garden allows us to consume a bit of what we grow and use the plants in many different ways.

Salvia officinalis, 'Tricolor' is delicious.  This perennial culinary herb is added to many savory dishes.  Individual leaves may also be fried in butter or olive oil  and used as a tasty garnish.

Salvia officinalis, ‘Tricolor’ is delicious. This perennial culinary herb is added to many savory dishes. Individual leaves may also be fried in butter or olive oil and used as a tasty garnish.

Whether bringing cut herbs and flowers indoors to enjoy, making sachet packets to keep moths out of our drawers,   blending our own tea, or cutting herbs to add to our food; we come to know these beautiful plants better through frequent use.

Salvia officinalis, 'Berggarten'

Salvia officinalis, ‘Berggarten’

Perennial herbs generously offer themselves up season after season, and once planted, remain with us so long as we tend the garden.

Rose scented Pelargonium with Pineapple Sage and Rose

Rose scented Pelargonium with Pineapple Sage and Rose

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

 

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