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.

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