How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
What are herbs?
According to The Herb Society of America's New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses:
The term "herb" also has more than one definition. Botanists describe an herb as a small, seed bearing plant with fleshy, rather than woody, parts (from which we get the term "herbaceous"). In this book, the term refers to a far wider range of plants. In addition to herbaceous perennials, herbs include trees, shrubs, annuals, vines, and more primitive plants, such as ferns, mosses, algae, lichens, and fungi. They [herbs] are valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticidal properties, and coloring materials (dyes).
Herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow and the most cost effective. I once noticed that fresh bundles of herbs were selling for $2.99 per 25 g at my local supermarket. That's $120 per kilo!
They can be lovely flowering plants; roses, lavender, borage, nasturtiums and flowering sages are all classed as herbs. The scent of herbs growing on a hot day is one of the delights of summer. I also love the sense of self-sufficiency I get from popping out into the garden for a bunch of parsley or a few sprigs of rosemary.
Herbs will often grow in difficult spots. For instance, mints (such as peppermint, spearmint and Vietnamese mint) will grow in dark, damp shady corners, and Mediterranean herbs such as oregano and rosemary will grow in hot, dry, rocky places where other plants merely wilt. Herbs are also a great choice for those who only have space for potted plants. I do not have a designated herb garden; I pop them in wherever there is a suitable gap.
Herbs can be effective companion plants. They can attract beneficial insects and deter unwanted ones. The list of good companion herbs in Roger Mann's A Practical Guide to Organic Gardening (1998) includes:
borage with strawberries
French marigolds with tomatoes, roses, potatoes, daffodils and beans
basil with tomatoes
mint with brassicas and peas
garlic with roses, apples, aprocots and peaches
nasturtiums with cucurbits and apple trees
sage with brassicas
thyme with brassicas
hyssop with cabbages and grapes
horseradish with fruit trees
chives (which have died back over winter but that should come back in the Spring)
celeriac (I use the leaves in place of celery.)
lemon balm (died back during the drought but just beginning to reshoot)
several varieties of mint
nasturtiums (self-seeded and not in flower yet)
garlic (I leave the bulbs in the ground and eat the greens)
roses and lavender
I also have a baby bay tree in a pot, for bay leaves.
In the Spring I will plant:
several varieties of basil
I would like to plant borage, wormwood and soapwort but do not know where to buy them.
I am fascinated by the history of herbs and the mystical lore surrounding them that has been passed down through the ages. This passage about lemon balm from Culpeper's Complete Herbal, c. 1659, for example, combines astrology, a recipe, a method of preservation, and some history.
It is an herb of Jupiter, and under Cancer, and strengthens nature much in all its actions. Let a syrup made with the juice of it and sugar ... be kept in every gentlewoman's house to relieve the weak stomachs and sick bodies of their poor and sickly neighbours; as also the herb kept dry in the house, that so with other convenient simples, you may make it into an electuary with honey ... The Arabian physicians have extolled the virtues thereof to the skies; although the Greeks thought it not worth mentioning.
An 'electuary' is a form of medicine made of conserves and powders, in the consistency of honey.
Some ancient and medieval claims for herbs are now being verified by scientists and even used by the pharmaceutical industry; others have been shown to be literally 'old wives' tales' but are interesting nonetheless.
Here is a picture of my newest herb, feverfew, which I will plant out today. Feverfew is known as the migraine herb, and is also thought to benefit those suffering from arthritis. I am keen to learn more about the medicinal properties of herbs, especially lesser known varieties.
Do you grow herbs in your garden? Which ones do you grow?