The allure of growing herbs

What is so alluring about growing herbs in a garden? Hardly any of them are showy plants. You cannot eat enough to make a meal out of any of them. Nevertheless, if I had only time and space on a windowsill, I would most likely choose to grow one or two herbs over any other plant.

I do not know where this love of herbs came from. The only edible plants my mother grew were parsley, chives and rhubarb, probably dug from my great grandmother’s garden. Herbs were just dull powders in bottles on a high kitchen shelf.

In the early 1970s Ranger Rick magazine ran an article with instructions on starting an organic vegetable garden. That is where this whole idea about growing my own food started. The same kids’ magazine started me thinking about solar, wind and geothermal power, but that is another story.

Within a year or two of starting my vegetable garden, I began ordering herb seeds from Stokes Seeds. I sowed them all neatly in rows according to package instructions, then probably proceeded to neglect them. I remember three or four thyme seedlings surviving, a few sage, and maybe one or two rosemary. Of course I had no way of knowing (and nobody in my family knew) that was all we needed for a beginning.

Those seedlings introduced me to a whole new gustatory and olfactory experience. These living organisms bore hardly any resemblance to the insipid brown powders I had known. From the culinary mainstays, I had begun a voyage of discovery. I would become enchanted with herbs. Their allure is multi-faceted:

  • flavour may be their chief claim to fame
  • but fragrance attaches pleasant memories
  • the homely textures of green leaves and modest flowers
  • combined with lore, an historical mystique distinguishing them from food crops
  • medicinal qualities, both scientific and supposed
  • the potential brilliance of natural dyes

Herbs have personalities. Venturing forth from parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, I would soon discover my own favourites:

  • lemon balm: loses its flavour and aroma when dried, but nothing is more beguiling than the scent of its fresh, crushed leaves going into a teapot
  • lovage: another herb that is pointless to dry, its strong celery flavour brings life to any soup
  • the first wildflower I ever grew (the seeds came from an unidentified pod in a field, and I must have laboriously stratified them) turned out to be something I had never seen before: wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, wonderful in tea and attractive to bees

What are your favourite herbs? Why do you enjoy growing them?

Update on seeding

Yesterday after coming in from the garden, I caught up on sowing tomatoes, peppers and some tender and perennial herbs that need to start indoors. Now is the right time for tomatoes: about four weeks before the last frost date. Peppers and perennials should have been started a month ago, but it is now or never. I could follow the lazy route of buying plants later, but this is more enriching. Here are the specific varieties:

  • heritage tomatoes: Bonny Best, Black Prince, Golden Cherry
  • peppers: Lipstick Sweet, Purple Beauty
  • tender herb: Genovese basil
  • perennial herbs: sage, Old English lavender, anise hyssop, English thyme, lemon balm, lovage

I already have plants of chives, rosemary and some scented geraniums I bought last summer when we moved here. Today the first rain fell in more than two weeks. Hopefully the rest of the spring will not be so dry.

This evening I planted a few more things in the garden: shallot sets, and seeds of Italian parsley, borage and mammoth dill.

Planting update

March 27: I sowed Lincoln peas, rainbow chard and Bloomsdale spinach (all seeds from Urban Harvest) in the front bed. I made holes in the underlying carboard, made cups in the straw around the holes, filled the cups with starter soil and planted the seeds.

I added the primroses a few days later in memory of Mom. Although barely hardy in Ontario, they used to thrive and spread into big clumps in the sunny, south-facing bed under our family room window back home.

April 4: Friends Doug and Janette gave me some used chicken bedding, three big buckets of it. It is nice and rich. It also came with same red wrigglers. I added a few of them along with a hefty handful of chicken poop to the Worm Chalet, because the population there seemed to have dropped.

I decided to experiment with planting seed potatoes in cardboard boxes set on top of the beds. That will allow compost to be added as they grow. This will also make it easy provide frost protection for any sprouts that emerge. When they are ready for harvest, hopefully I can just tear the boxes apart. If we get a lot of wet weather the cardboard might need to be reinforced somehow. Four to six spuds of one variety went in each box: Warba, Norland and Bintje.

Today: I made a pocket of compost around the sun-facing edges of the boxes and planted seeds for more early crops: German giant radish from Urban Harvest, and local lettuce and arugula. Along the front edge of the front bed I cut a trench, filled it with compost and planted evergreen bunching onion (Urban Harvest).

We have a groundhog living under the shed and a pair of rabbits frequenting our yard. I have no choice but to put a small fence around the garden. This is an urgent priority. If any luscious little pea sprouts emerge, they will not stand a chance.

Permaculture for the wealthy

At Seedy Saturday I picked up a brochure for a permaculture design course taking place over two weeks this summer. However, the cost is prohibitive: $988 registration plus $390 for meals and a minimum $140 for accommodation. The promotional material gives no evidence of scholarships. Over the past 15 years websites on this topic have shifted away from providing a wealth of information toward advertizing expensive training courses like this one. It is a shame when wisdom becomes a commodity. Permaculture could improve the nutrition of low-income urban families, but not if we allow the knowledge to become inaccessible.

Seedy Saturday

Yesterday we went to Guelph’s Seedy Saturday at Norfolk United Church. I brought home a few more ideas along with packages of heirloom vegetable and wildflowers seeds.

Seedy Saturdays began in Canada in 1990, encouraging communities to share locally-adapted, non-hybrid plant varieties. I first attended one in Toronto in 1997 as a vendor of handmade papers, many incorporating wildflower seeds. Numerous Seedy Saturdays and Seedy Sundays are organized under the auspices of Seeds of Diversity, a volunteer organization concerned with conserving biodiversity and traditional horticultural knowledge. Its website lists a few more of these events occurring in small cities across Canada this month. Other similar events like the one in Guelph seem to have sprung up independently.

Best find of the day was a seed potato collection including three varieties: Bintje, Norland and Warba. I purchased a few more packets of commercial heirloom varieties, but also a few from plants that have grown in Guelph for several generations; arugula, calendula, lettuce, tithonia (Mexican sunflower) and zinnia. The latter two are supposed to be good for attracting pollinators.

The most interesting new local enterprise is the Guelph Community Orchard Project, which aims to build community, improve local environment, foster awareness of fruit and nut trees, and increase food security. It received its first grant from Tree Canada a few days ago and has launched a new blog.

Starting a permaculture garden

For the permaculture garden, I began by choosing the best site in the yard. Most vegetables and herbs prefer full sun. This section gets a little morning shade, but full sun from late morning through early evening. I decided to make two long mounds with a trench in between. No one is ever supposed to walk on the beds, so they have to be narrow enough for easy access. I laid out a plot 10 feet wide by 26 feet long. That means Van’s feet, a more organic system than metric or Imperial.

The trenches should be as level as possible so water won’t all run down to one end (irrigation, if necessary, will be applied to the trenches). I had a hard time because the garden slopes considerably down toward the back fence. Instead of levelling it all out I decided to make dams, but for now the shovel will do.

Digging a garden is hard work, especially when you are out of shape. I worked for a few minutes at a time whenever I had some to spare this week, edging my way into it. I was grateful for an early spring so I do not have to finish it all in a rush six weeks from now. This afternoon the trenches and mounds are finally finished.

Now the fun begins. And I mean fun, because the worst is over with all that shovelling. The rest feels much more creative. Next a layer of manure goes on top of the mounds, as thick as you can make it. A sprinkling of bone meal helps balance nutrients and soil pH. Over that goes a triple layer of wet cardboard. This smothers any grass and weeds and stabilizes the mounds to prevent erosion. The cardboard should cover the bottom of the trenches, too. Finally, a layer of straw mulch goes on top. Leaves would work as well.

Brock Road Nursery gave us two old bales of straw for free, a sensible and neighbourly thing to do. Today I ran out of manure, bone meal and disposable cardboard, but there is more to come. For now I have enough space to start planting some early crops that tolerate cool weather and soil: radishes, spinach, peas, chard and bunching onions.

Years ago I started a permaculture garden by a similar method. I made holes in the cardboard and planted tomatoes, squash and other seedlings in the compost underneath. I never planted seeds until the beds were established and I had soil to work with. Geoff Lawton recommends making the holes just big enough for taproots to go through the cardboard, and planting seeds and seedlings in pockets of compost in the top layer of straw. They need to be watered vigilantly from above until the taproot grows through. I’m nervous about that, but will give it a try.

Next nice day, I will plant seeds.

Weather: weird, worrying or wonderful?

This afternoon we took a break to walk 20 minutes to the supermarket. We dressed in shorts and short sleaves. Along the way a Forsythia and crocuses were in full bloom. Normally in Guelph we might expect to see these things a month from now. Meanwhile buds were bursting on a magnolia, a dogwood, a maple and a lilac, all six weeks ahead. Spring is burning to catch up with itself. It is lovely. It is also frightening.

Extreme weather is normal, but this is no quick flash. The average winter daily high here was above freezing. Looking at it a different way, the daytime temperature only stayed below freezing 18 times between Dec. 22 and the Mar. 21. The weather is expected to cool off Friday, but there is still no sign of frost in the long-range forecast.

What place is this? Surely not Ontario? Our normal last frost date around here is supposed to be May 9. Setting aside the bigger question of climate change, we ought to consider how this affects our environment, economy and food sources right now. Add to this heat a lack of rain and we have a long trend of extremely unusual conditions. Global warming was supposed to bring an economic advantage to cooler temperate climates like this. Farmers must be tempted to plant their crops early, but no one living can assess the risk of planting in Ontario in March.

As soon as I finish digging the backyard garden I intend to plant lettuce, peas and onions, things that tolerate cool weather and frost. If I decide to plant tomatoes a month early, I risk only a few dollars’ worth of seeds and supplies. It is not my livelihood.

The dry weather is bound to kill off blackflies and mosquitoes early. People will not complain about that. Birds, on the other hand, might suffer severely. As swallows and warblers begin arriving hungry after migrating thousands of kilometres, who can say whether a suitable diet will await them? No one has performed this experiment before.

One thing we can expect: plenty of strange weather variations to come. Hunter Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute called it “global weirding.” Right here and now, it is beautiful, but we should all be a little frightened. Besides that, I must admit to a fascination about what happens next, and how the world will adapt.

Birthday morning post

Who could have believed I would ever eat breakfast on my birthday sitting outside in shorts? The air smells of white pines and is full of the songs of chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, goldfinches and crows. I also glimpsed a blue jay flying overhead. I’m going to work on digging the vegetable garden while the bottom of the yard lies still in cool shadows.


I took the umbrella outside and planted it in the middle of the glass table so I could eat lunch on the deck. This weather is fantastic! So is this place. We have silence indoors, but that is nowhere near as beautiful as the complex outdoor stillness. I am reminded of our first few magical days in this house last July before we had our own wireless connection, when I would bring my laptop out here to take advantage of some neighbour’s unsecured network. I loved—still love—the soft movement of air, the bright light and the lack of street noise.

Although in the middle of the city, our house backs onto Hanlon Creek Conservation Area. Yet I can hardly believe the quiet is so profound. The drone of a small plane plus some other distant vehicular muttering leaks like the memory of a dream. Mostly I am enfolded in the whispers of nature.

You can hear the pines even in the slightest air movement but today, despite the breeze, they stand mostly breathless under the sun. Occasionally they whisper a soft: “Aaaaaaaaaaah!” A goldfinch twitters brightly in the distance. A pair of crows flies overhead with a faint sigh of flight feathers. I absorb as much warmth and peace as possible before returning to work.


My favourite time of year

I have two other favourite times of year: Lilacs and August. But my favourite favourite is Dirt. It calls up memories of the first gardens I planted as a boy: first a small herb garden, then a larger vegetable patch across the road, and later a rockery on the bluff overlooking Lake Erie. My heart is rooted in soil. I love when the snow is just melting, everything is wet and the Earth smells like earth.

My birthday comes on the last day that can never be spring, except in California and further west, where the Vernal Equinox occasionally creeps ahead of midnight on March 19. But I am hooked on Ontario.

Usually my age clock clicks higher during the last throes of winter weather. Mom told me I was born during a week of sunny, 70-degree weather (it was a Thursday and we still used Fahrenheit).

What a gift it is to be able to go outside in a t-shirt on a day such as this and dig. And to find such nice topsoil in our new backyard. Dirt has arrived before my birthday with so much promise, incipient power, a dream of urgent growth. Thank you, 2012.