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Herb Gardening from the Ground Up: Everything You Need to Know about Growing Your Favorite Herbsby Sal Gilbertie
In his most famous prayer, Canticle of the Creatures, St. Francis of Assisi praises God for all creation, including “Sister Earth, who produces all sorts of fruit and colored flowers and herbs.” I had always been exposed to flowers, fruits, and vegetables because of our family business, but herbs came into my life quite by chance, and what a great blessing that chance encounter has proved to be! Not a day goes by without my learning something new and exciting about these fascinating and wondrous plants. I just can’t wait to get up every morning and begin another day in my world of herbs, whether I am planting, lecturing, cooking, selling, or just breathing in the fragrances of herbs in our greenhouses and gardens.
I can’t say no to any invitation to talk about herbs. On hundreds of occasions I have spoken to all kinds of groups—gardeners, farmers, cooks, teachers, children, oldsters—and I love it when I am asked questions about herbs at the end of these talks. What’s another hour when you love what you’re talking about and having fun, too?
My discovery of herbs and their multiple purposes and joys has been one of the most important things in my life. Through herbs I’ve strengthened my faith, enriched my family bonds, built a career that’s rewarding to me on many levels, and struck up friendships with a host of fellow herb enthusiasts across the country. My passion for herbs has a lot to do with what I have found to be their essential, everlasting goodness. In these small, unassuming plants are found qualities and properties that can only be accounted for by some profound providential intelligence.
Thank God for herbs.
Herbs are so easy to grow, and so universal in their appeal and utility, that I believe there is room for an herb garden in everyone’s life. That’s the spirit in which this book has been conceived. Our approach to herb gardening is based on a broad understanding of the cultivation and care of herbal plants in a wide variety of landscapes great and small. It is designed to permit gardeners, from novices to experts, to enjoy herbs according to their own tastes and needs, and the particular time and space available to them.
The secret to success in growing herbs lies in the techniques of plant culture we at Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens have developed over four generations in the business. Today, we grow nearly 500 varieties of herbs, including subspecies, and although culinary herbs account for 85 percent of our volume, about one-third of our customers also purchase and grow herbs for use beyond the kitchen. As one of the largest wholesale growers of potted herb plants in the country, we have a “big picture” of the ever-growing, ever-changing consumer demand for herbs. At the same time, through our busy retail garden center in Westport, Connecticut, we have come to know the down-to-earth wants and needs of home gardeners of every stripe.
Dispensing advice on growing and maintaining plants of any kind is akin to a fine art, and over the years we have learned the value of clarity and precision in giving instructions. This book sets out to achieve the same objectives for our readers as we’ve achieved in our gardener-to-gardener conversations with our customers.
Our first step will be to describe the optimum location and soil conditions for the basic herb garden. Then we will offer detailed profiles of the fifteen most popular culinary herbs, emphasizing the nuts-and-bolts methods for sowing and growing them most effectively. By becoming familiar with each of the basic herbs, you will learn the growing techniques that work for virtually all herbs.
In other words, once we have helped you figure out how to successfully grow parsley, which is a biennial, for use in your salads and sauces and as a garnish, then you automatically know how to grow caraway, also a biennial, for your rye-bread-baking projects, or watercress, for its tangy bite in sandwiches, salads, and soups. If you understand how to propagate and care for sage or rosemary, then you can use the same techniques on lavender, a similar single-stemmed perennial. Annual herbs, such as basil, coriander, and dill—plants that, for all practical purposes, live for only the duration of a single season—also call for growing methods special to this category.
Once we have our cultural information in place, we will offer plans for dozens of herb gardens of broad interest, so as to acquaint you with the wide range of growth patterns among herbs, as well as their nearly infinite variety of leaf shapes and flower colors, and possibly inspire you to venture beyond the confines of the basic kitchen herb garden. The majority of these plans will be presented in an 8’ x 8’ planting scheme, to provide a common standard that all readers can consult in developing gardens for their own special sites.
There is no rule stating that herb gardens must be laid out in formal patterns, so as long as the right cultural conditions are present, the plants themselves will not suffer, even if the garden looks as if it were designed by a gardener wearing a blindfold. Generally, formal gardens laid out in geometric forms require more care than the rough-and-ready garden plot. But don’t automatically reject the idea of a formal garden plan or associate it with pretense and privilege. The fact is, gardens organized with semicircular beds and crisscrossing pathways create as much perimeter as possible, not only for aesthetic effect but also to enable the gardener to tend and harvest herbs more conveniently.
The possibilities for theme gardens using herbs are endless, because in many categories, such as thyme or mint, there are multiple varieties and subspecies. Herbs may be grouped in families to bring pleasure and satisfaction to gardeners who have the same zeal for collecting as folks enamored of rare coins or stamps. We also offer garden plans for gardeners faced with asymmetrical spaces and unconventional growing conditions. Herbs can be used to cope with problem borders or semi-shady locations. Acknowledging the increasing popularity of container gardening, we also show how herbs can be adapted successfully for window boxes, whiskey barrels, troughs, and other planting vessels.
I believe it is the universality of herbs that makes me think no one should be without a garden containing a selection of these wonderful plants. And if you need more incentive, note that it is easier to be more successful, more quickly, with herbs than it is with flowers or vegetables, not to mention some of the more exotic houseplants. Herbs don’t require as much space, as rich a soil, or as much attention after they are planted as flowers and vegetables do.
Certainly there are herbs to suit everyone’s taste and lifestyle. If you’re a party-giver, you can grow lemon verbena for martinis, mints for iced teas, and sweet woodruff for May wine. If beekeeping is your passion, you may want to take home several flats of borage and thyme to plant for your bees and thus favorably influence the flavor of your honey. If you’re a salad lover, you can devote your growing space to rows of tangy greens like arugula, salad burnet, and sorrel. If you can’t sleep, you can brew a cup of chamomile tea, justly famous for its calming effects, and await the sweet dreams you so deserve. Herbs even contribute to the care of the elderly, for whom it has been found that the introduction of lavender, in fresh or dried form, has a palliative effect.
In the kitchen, herbs are used to flavor vinegars, jellies, meat and fish rubs, and salad dressings. Speaking of salads, my godmother, Antoinette, used to gather greens for us as she traveled from her home in New Jersey to ours in Connecticut. Along the roadside and in the fields, she would pick dandelion greens, plantain, purslane, cardoon, and other herbs that grow wild. What we thought of as weeds (although we didn’t dare use that word in Antoinette’s presence) in fact made piquant additions to our more conventional lettuce mixes. Since then I’ve always thought of my godmother as the Italian Euell Gibbons—he who became famous showing people how to gather edibles from a wild landscape.
You can grow herbs simply for the aesthetic value of their diverse foliage or the contrasting or complementary color schemes available, especially in grays and greens, as demonstrated in a number of our garden plans. If you are primarily a flower grower, you can plant herbs, such as hyssop, borage, and sage alongside your flowers, both for their uses in the kitchen and their attractive blooms. Fennel and dill plants have foliage of such elegance that the addition of their tall stems make beautiful flower bouquets look even better.
Nowadays, herb gardening is gender-neutral. In early America, the garden was the exclusive responsibility of the woman of the house. But today, just as men have taken on their share of kitchen tasks, including the preparation of meals, they have also joined their partners in the garden. Herbs are not for women only, nor for people in any particular age bracket. The so-called “slow food” movement, the rise of sustainable agriculture, and the values implicit in the support of an organic food supply all have brought more and more young people into the world of herbs.
Herbs really are for everyone, and for all occasions. The Christmas Eve supper that my wife, Marie, and I host every holiday season for the Gilbertie clan is a good example of an occasion in which herbs, with their intrinsic flavors and rich symbolic meanings, play an important role. The centerpiece of our formal holiday table is a wreath that I fashion from cedar, boxwood, and holly, combined with bay, rosemary, golden thyme, lamb’s ear, and tricolor sage. To this basic arrangement I add fresh white roses, white daisies, and sprigs of eucalyptus. Four white taper candles spaced evenly in the wreath shed their light on the foliage in all its colors and patterns.
At the place settings for all our female guests, I set out a white or red rose along with three or four sprigs of herbs, usually thyme (for courage), sage (for longevity), rosemary (for remembrance), and parsley (for festivity). When we all sit down, I take a moment to remind everyone of the symbolic associations of those herbs—just in case they’ve forgotten my disquisition from the previous year.
The supper marking la viglia di natale is a fish-lover’s feast in the Italian tradition, prepared to perfection by Marie and the other great cooks among our relatives. Seven varieties of fish are prepared according to recipes that have been in our families for generations. Herbs provide the dominant flavors throughout the menu. Sautéed shrimp, for example, is seasoned with fresh savory, oregano, and parsley. Our Christmas Eve spaghetti—to which we add chopped filberts, pine nuts, walnuts, anchovies, and raisins—is enhanced with minced thyme, oregano, and garlic. The baked calamari dish uses bruised lemon verbena leaves, minced dill, savory, and parsley, and more garlic than the average cook would consider. Broiled salmon is prepared with minced shallots in a lemony dill and fennel sauce.
No one is hungry at the Gilberties’ by the end of Christmas Eve, nor is anyone untouched by the magic of herbs.
Herb Varieties, New and Improved
In response to the growing popularity of herbs, many new cultivated varieties have been developed over the past decade. You may want to try some of the following newly introduced varieties in your own garden and in your favorite recipes.
Basil • Aussie Sweetie
This excellent variety is sometimes referred to as a Greek columnar basil because it grows quite erect—as tall as 36” if not pruned. With its slender profile, it takes up very little space in the garden. Its dark green foliage has a desirably strong basil flavor. Unlike most basils, it performs quite well indoors during the winter months. It lends itself to training as a topiary standard and as such strikes an elegant profile in a sunny window location in the home. (Because it is a sterile plant, the Aussie Sweetie cannot be grown from seed but must be propagated from cuttings.)
Oregano • Hot and Spicy
This variation on Greek oregano, developed by a Dutch hybridizer, packs a fiery edge that will spice up any meal. It grows in a compact bush form and is a good choice for container planting. Its rich green leaves often grow on red stems, so sprigs of Hot and Spicy make a decorative and tasty garnish on pizzas.
An herbal alternative to sugar, the leaves of this plant, which grows wild as a small shrub in Brazil and Paraguay, can be used fresh, dried, powdered, or extracted as a liquid to sweeten a variety of beverages and foods. It is grown from seed as an annual and for best results should be harvested just as its flowers appear. Stevia tolerates light shade but do not transplant into the garden until temperatures are above 50°F.
Rosemary • Barbecue
This is a dark green variety with a strong, erect growing habit and the same intense flavor of most rosemaries. It is especially welcome in poultry dishes of every kind. As a tender perennial, it must be brought indoors in the Northeast in October and November, where it will survive the winter in a cool, well-lit location. The stems of this variety make excellent skewers on the grill.
Sage • Berggarten
This variety, originating in Germany, grows as a compact bush with rounded, very large silver-gray leaves and lilac-blue flowers. Like most sages, it does best in hot and dry conditions, and even though it is touted as mildew-resistant, don’t be tempted to wet its foliage with the sprinkler. It’s an attractive plant in the garden with a strong sage flavor wonderful for cooking.
English Thyme • Wedgewood
A sport of common thyme, this herb has variegated foliage, chartreuse and dark green, and pale lavender flowers. Leaves have the aromatic thyme flavor desired by cooks. One of its best features is that it does not develop the woody stems that most English thymes have in their second and third years of growth.
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Cooking and Food » By Ingredient » Herbs and Spices