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Grow Culinary Herbs For A Tasty Treat
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow



Liesbeth has written for several western gardening publications, including Gardens West and The Gardener for the Prairies. She has also co-authored three gardening books: The Calgary Gardener (with the Calgary Horticultural Society), The Calgary Gardener, Volume Two: Beyond the Basics (with Lesley Reynolds), and 101 Best Plants for the Prairies (with Lesley Reynolds).


July 1, 2007

Loosely defined, herbs are plants that have been used domestically through the ages, either as medicines, food, dyes, insect repellants, or as fragrant ingredients for perfumes. You would be surprised at how many familiar plants dotting perennial borders are actually herbs. Lambs ears, soapwort, evening primose, bee balm, lady's mantle, lungwort, yarrow, and painted daisies abound in prairie gardens, and all at one time or another have had medicinal value, although today they are grown purely for ornamental purposes. So you may already be growing many herbs with historic medicinal value, without even knowing it.
These days, culinary herbs-the ones we purchase in dried form at the local supermarket-are making a comeback in our gardens. In fact, growing culinary herbs is fast becoming a popular pastime among gardeners of all persuasions, and with good reason. First, these herbs are visually appealing. They have attractive flowers and provide endless variety in foliage shape and texture; as such, they make charming additions to the perennial border, simply because they look good. Next, many herbs attract swarms of bees and butterflies whose contribution to the health and productivity of gardens is essential. Herbs also have fragrant foliage. Brushing by them along a pathway, or gently crushing their leaves releases aromatic oils that perfume the garden air. Most important, however, culinary herbs taste delicious. Who doesn't enjoy a mid-summer's meal jazzed up with a sprinkling of freshly picked savory herbs?
Several popular culinary herbs such as basil, borage, parsley, dill, cilantro, and summer savory must be grown as annuals. Most can be bought either as seeds or transplants at local garden centers, but if you're looking for something a little more exotic, try ordering from one of the many specialty catalogues.
Another group of culinary herbs consists of tender perennials that usually do not make it through prairie winters. They can, however, be grown outdoors as container plants and brought inside to overwinter. Before bringing tender perennial herbs inside, make sure you remove hitchhiking insects with a fine spray of water, and then put them under grow lights; our winter days are so short that plants rarely receive enough natural light from the sun. Tender perennial herbs include rosemary, lemon balm, lemon verbena, marjoram, and oregano, although when properly mulched, oregano, marjoram, and lemon balm often survive prairie winters.
There are also a number of perennial herbs that overwinter on the prairies, requiring no special care. Chives, lovage, mint, sage, sorrel, tarragon, and thyme are all hardy here, and with time, develop into large, well-established clumps, or spread into extensive, ground-hugging mats.
Most herbs are sun-loving plants, although some such as sweet woodruff, lemon balm, and tarragon will tolerate shade. Their soil requirements are minimal, but good drainage is a must; very few herbs will tolerate wet feet. Herbs that originate in the Mediterranean such as the proverbial "parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme" thrive on dry heat and actually prefer a thin, alkaline soil (as is common on the prairies) over one that is rich in organic matter. Too much nutrition results in lush growth of herb foliage at the expense of flavour. Pinch back herbs on a regular basis to encourage bushy growth and remember that, when it comes to harvesting herbs, their leaves are the most flavourful just prior to or during flower production.
There are many ways in which culinary herbs can be incorporated into the garden landscape. The most obvious plan is to group a collection of favourites together in a herb garden that is located close to the kitchen door for convenient snipping during meal preparation. For a more formal look you might be tempted to design a Victorian knot garden in which low clipped hedges of woody herbs such as hyssop, lavender, or shrubby thyme trace out elaborate symmetric designs; fill the enclosed spaces with a selection of other herbs, to "colour the pattern." Containers are also perfect for growing individual herbs or a collection of herbs, and again, should be placed close to the back door for convenience.
Don't hesitate to include clusters of culinary herbs in your perennial borders if you don't have a space to dedicate exclusively to herbs. Their interesting colours and textures make them excellent partners for a multitude of perennials. They are also perfect for interplanting with hardy bulbs, as their abundant leaves do a great job of disguising dying bulb foliage in late spring.
Mat-forming herbs such as the dozens of thymes that are currently available in garden centers will withstand some foot traffic and so are good choices for planting along the edges of paths or between paving stones. Walking on thyme releases its fragrance, which is a bonus for the busy gardener.

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