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Herbs in the Garden
by Lesley Reynolds
April 15, 2001

Many creative gardeners are also creative cooks, deriving great satisfaction from snipping homegrown herbs to add to favourite dishes. Over the past decade, growing culinary herbs has become even more fascinating as we discover new species and cultivars that not only please the palate, but are also delightfully ornamental. 
One of the easiest ways to grow herbs is in containers, and the simpler the container the better. After all, weren't herbs and terracotta pots made for each other? Other rustic choices include baskets, weathered wooden boxes, and old metal watering cans, kettles, and olive oil tins. Stone containers (if you can find them), rough concrete planters, or homemade alpine troughs are also beautifully compatible with herbs. 
There are huge advantages to container-grown herb gardens. They suit any size of garden and a collection of pots may be positioned on a deck, patio, or balcony, within a few steps of the kitchen door. Tuck pots of herbs into the inevitable boring spots that develop in the late summer garden after most perennials have finished blooming for the season. In addition, tender perennial herbs like bay or rosemary can be moved, pot and all, inside for the winter (after being washed down and checked carefully for pests). Containers are also the best way to grow basil, a glorious but notoriously temperamental herb that is best whisked indoors on particularly cool nights.
Some herbs suit hanging containers - try creeping thymes, golden or common oregano, creeping rosemary, and various types of mints.
If you have the space, try planting a small garden dedicated to herbs. Herb books are brimming with imaginative designs, most of which combine favourite culinary herbs with those valued for fragrance or medicinal purposes, often including lavender, scented geraniums, feverfew, yarrow, chamomile, and calendula. Choose a formal, clipped knot-garden or an informal, tousled, cottage-style herb garden. 
Many culinary herbs are appealing additions to a perennial border, providing an almost limitless variety of foliage effects, from low-growing thymes splashed with silver or gold to the tall feathery plumes of bronze fennel. Herb flowers are guaranteed to attract bees and butterflies, which are particularly fond of starry, blue borage blooms and tiny pink, purple, or white thyme blossoms.
Oregano, chives, chervil, thyme, basil and parsley are all attractive edging plants for the front of a border. Taller herbs like tarragon, common sage, hyssop, anise hyssop, dill, fennel, and bee balm may be placed in the middle of the border, while giants like angelica and lovage belong at the back. 
A word of caution: mint and horseradish may be wonderful culinary herbs, but they are invasive and almost impossible to eradicate once established. Try to find a confined area for these plants, such as a narrow space between a house and a sidewalk or lawn. If such a spot isn't available, mint may be grown in containers, but the pots must be sunk into the ground for the winter. In addition, the celery-flavoured herb lovage should be deadheaded conscientiously or seedlings will pop up all over the garden. However, lovage does have its benefits, attracting parasitic wasps that prey on caterpillars.
As a rule, herbs prefer a sunny, sheltered location. None are happy in full shade, but lovage, lemon balm, tarragon, parsley, chervil, can be grown successfully in part shade. Annual herbs like chervil, coriander, basil, dill, borage, summer savory, fennel, and bronze fennel are easy to grow from seed. In fact, borage and chervil will self-seed in the garden prolifically.
Most herbs grow well in soil of average fertility; in fact, overly rich soil or too much high-nitrogen fertilizer can result in lush growth of foliage at the expense of flavour. Avoid growing herbs in poorly drained soil or low-lying areas where water collects. Heavy clay soil should be amended with plenty of organic material such as compost or peat moss, with horticultural sand added as necessary. Herbs grown in moderately fertile garden soil need little additional fertilizer; in fact, a top-dressing of compost at the beginning of the growing season should be quite adequate. Container grown herbs require supplemental nutrition and may be fertilized weekly with a half-strength solution of 20-20-20. All herbs benefit from deadheading and pinching back to encourage bushy growth. 
Many perennial herbs are reliably hardy with little or no winter protection: chives, sorrel, spearmint, peppermint, horseradish, lovage, common sage, and French tarragon. Others prefer winter mulch or snow cover: thyme, ornamental sages, lemon balm, oregano, marjoram, winter savory, exotic and fruit-flavoured mints, hyssop, anise hyssop, and parsley (a biennial).

Email: reynolds@ab.imag.net
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