Herbs and a Scented Garden

Eight species of flowering plants' pollen were found buried in the grave of a Neanderthal man in Iraq. Seven of those plants are still growing in that area, and all are used for medicine. The pollen was deposited 60,000 years ago.

Imagine living in Persia 2000 years ago and having outside your door a walled, scented garden in a courtyard maintained by expert gardeners. The three principal ingredients were running water, shade and fragrance, all in perfect balance. The name for this kind of intimate garden was pairidaeza. It was not uncommon.

In Renaissance Europe, some medieval monasteries and a few royal palaces adopted the notion of structured plantings of useful plants. We have the St. Gall plan for the ideal Benedictine monastery of the ninth century. It was never built. The plans were very grand. They included a smaller garden of sixteen beds of healing herbs located next to the doctor's house and near the infirmary.

Albertus Magnus, a Dominican monk, in 1260 laid out the plan for a pleasure garden consisting of a lawn area surrounded by a border of sweet smelling herbs. He specified that the herbs include rue, basil and sage.

The introduction of the rose and later the lily to Western Europe secured a spot for both in the private gardens of the rich and the royal. Not by coincidence, they also occupied a special place in the gardens of the early Christian church and its monastery gardens. These were devoted to the blending of the fragrant blossoms with the older aromatic herbs. The medieval romance garden met the Renaissance love garden. They married and gave birth to a new and different aesthetic.

The reason for Columbus' voyage in 1492 was to seek a more direct passage to the rich spices of the Orient. In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama arrived in India from Portugal, mission accomplished. His search for a direct route to India for spices was successful.

Throughout Europe and around the world, many a home had the equivalent of its own herb garden. Even in America in Colonial times, families were reliant on the kitchen garden to supply flavorings and spices to enhance their food, medicines to cure or help with some ills, and ingredients to make perfumes, cosmetics, soap and candles.

In thinking about the heroes in American horticulture, Thomas Jefferson is, for my money, the first. His expansive and very ambitious gardens at Monticello were only one of his many great accomplishments. Credited with introducing many European plants to America, among them many herbs, in 1794, sixteen fragrant, culinary and medicinal herbs were listed. In 1814 he wrote, "the garden is so bare of kitchen herbs, as to have but a single plant of sage, and that stripped of all its leaves." He was unhappy and wanting.

For me, the best description of an herb is a low-growing plant with a fleshy stem in its youth. The leaves have historically been used for fragrance, to flavor foods, for medicinal preparations, and a variety of general household purposes. Some herbs may develop a harder, woody stem with age. Many herbs are perennial. With these the tops die back at the end of the growing season, but the roots remain vital and produce fresh new growth each year.

Many other herbs are annual, live only for a single season, and need to be replanted each year. The word comes from the Latin "herba" meaning grass, green stalks, or blades. Botanists refer to herbs as any plants that die back to the ground each year. This would include a lot of flowers, vegetables and even the potato.

Herbs have been used for centerpieces, potpourris, sachets, wreathes, natural dyes (yarrow and bedstraw), medicinal muscle rubs (rue and olive oil), teas (for upset stomach and other remedies), aphrodisiacs, cocktails, may wine, iced tea flavorings, appetite stimulants, culinary flavor enhancers, aromas and air fresheners, salad ingredients, condiments, preservatives, perfume ingredients, and as a mask for foods past their peak. Much the same can be said of spices, but they are subjects for another day.

Herbs have a history so long and ancient that new uses are still being discovered or rediscovered. Some repel insects that might otherwise be serious pests of stored grain products. Others repel mice, deer and other garden pests. A sprig of Artemisia tucked behind the ear, will keep flies and mosquitoes away. Some are excellent as companion plants (dill and cabbage for example) that improve the growth and quality of one another.

It is the soft leafy part of the plant that is harvested. It may be used fresh, dried (crushed or powdered), and frozen. Their largest uses are as culinary partners in the kitchen and in medicinal preparations.

If you've ever grown a plant, you can grow herbs. They are easy to grow if a few simple steps are followed. They appeal to nearly everyone and are ever useful. They can be grown indoors as a hobby (cleaning the air as a by product), and providing a steady fresh supply of food accompaniments. The plants grow well with little care. If you are a regular reader of my column, you know I'm an advocate of raised bed gardens. Principal among the reasons is the fact that herbs require well-drained soil for best growth. Most herbs grow best in a slightly acidic soil, pH between 6.0 and 7.0.

If you are inclined to put in a raised be for growing herbs, locate it in a spot that will receive six hours of sun a day. Keep the soil loose and free of weeds. If it's your first go at an herb garden, purchase established plants, available locally for a dollar and up. Transplant them into your garden space. If you're inclined to wait till next year, you can plan starting many from seeds yourself in late winter.

Your first herb garden may consist of as few as three, as many as fifteen or more. The fifteen are considered my many experts in the field to be the ones offering the greatest range of growing experience and the largest return for practical use in the kitchen. The hardy ones are the following: chives, marjoram, thyme, parsley, mint, oregano, tarragon and sage. The tender herbs are coriander, chervil, dill, summer savory, rosemary and bay (tender perennials) and basil (most tender of the tender).

Marjoram, mint, tarragon and oregano are spreading perennials that need to be given more room.

Thyme, marjoram and parsley are shorter growing and benefit by being planted in the front or on an edge.

Tallest growing dill, tarragon and coriander should be at the back.

Mint is a rampant spreading perennial grower, often labeled "invasive". It might be boxed in below the soil to a considerable depth (ten or more inches) to confine its growing area.

Bay and rosemary, both being tender perennials, might be planted in pots into the garden. These will have to be lifted in late fall to protect them from winter's killing cold. Keeping them in pots will confine their roots to a manageable size and they may then be brought inside to a sunny window.

Even moisture to the roots should keep the herbs growing well. They do not require a lot of fertilizer. In fact, excessive or rapid growth from fertilization will produce foliage that is lacking in flavor and other benefits and essential oils.

The herbs I suggested as the fifteen basic cooking herbs form the backbone of the first culinary garden. You might wish to expand it in the future, or establish an annual garden, a perennial garden, a mint garden, a thyme garden, etc., eventually moving in a trajectory that brings you to a tea garden, a soup garden, a pizza garden, a scented geranium garden, a lavender garden. Your imagination is the only limit. An edible flower garden that is scented?

A few tidbits:

  • There are over 500 varieties of sage, many of them perennial.

  • Drying temperatures for herbs should not exceed 90 degrees F or they will lose color and flavor. Once dried, store them in airtight glass containers in a dark cupboard.

  • "Cilantro" refers to the leaf of the coriander plant. "Coriander" refers to the spice made from the seed of the same plant. The taste of each is in no way similar and these are not interchangeable in recipes.

  • Herbs are not bug attractive, but neither are they immune from attack. If aphids or whiteflies find them, blend up a few cloves of garlic with some cayenne pepper, a splash of cider vinegar, and two basil leaves into a cup of water and a few drops of olive oil. Strain the liquid and spray both sided of the leaves with a mister. Larger insects like caterpillars that might go after parsley, dill and fennel can just be hand picked and removed.

  • There are more than two hundred plants classified by botanists as herbs ( most adhering to the definition to which I ascribe). The number of varieties of each is anybody's guess.

On August 23, 1785 Thomas Jefferson said to John Jay, "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands."


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on July 11, 2007

© 2007 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.