F or this fever, the o nly cure is herbal

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist May 4, 2011

I can’t resist herbs, so I don’t.

The long days of May, the warmth before the heat, the bare earth — all these things get my herb juices going. I usually buy more than I can plant or need. This spring was worse than most. I am looking at one receipt for $175.28, though I’m not sure for what, exactly.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

There was the Spanish lavender cultivar named something or other, the Dutch lavender, the tarragon, the chives, three kinds of rosemary and the Greek and Italian oreganos. No wait, the oreganos came later.

It’s not difficult to defend my weakness for herbs. Most culinary herbs are not only beautiful but beautifully different in form, color and texture. Often, the flowers offer secondary ornament: Think of the little powder blue blossoms of the rosemary or the fleeting, pink-blue carpet of thyme bloom. Foliage ornament carries the day — and the long season.

In addition, herbs, by definition, are useful. They are full of rich symbolism. They resist pests. They serve all the senses. Another voice is telling me to stop trying to explain. Herbs dwell in the heart, not the head.


Adrian Higgins under the arbor he built at his community garden plot. (Madeline Marshall/The Washington Post)

However, my herb-buying binge did have its roots in rationality. I needed herbs for two projects. The first was a border outside the fence of my community garden plot. This is deer territory, so putting ruminant-unfriendly herbs there and saving real estate within for veggies made a lot of sense. But I needed the herbs to come together in a pleasing design. I picked three main ingredients and repeated them throughout the border: chives for their grasslike foliage and gorgeous blooms, regular Genovese sweet basil for its large, glossy-leafed abundance, and garden sage for its low-spreading habit and tactile foliage. I like Berggarten, blessed with narrow, rounded gray-green foliage and a compact mounding habit.

It will take a couple of years for the chives and the sage to mature, but the wait will be worth it. You can fill in the first season’s gaps with annuals. I seeded poppies there earlier, now growing and a month from blooming. I will follow them with tasteful zinnias.

Container gardening

The second project is for a larger, linear planter, about 18 inches wide and five feet long. It will be kept outside the kitchen door and harvested often. For this, I picked a more tender (but tasty) variety of rosemary. I don’t want it to grow into a large bush in the planter, so if it perishes in its first winter or two, that’s fine.

The container also seemed the place for dwarf varieties of essential herbs, and I found a little bush basil named Minette, with small leaves, tightly mounded to 12 inches or so. The dwarf sage is a handsome little thing, with petite foliage and a diminutive habit. I bought only one, which was a mistake now that I think about it. The botanic name is Nana.

The container-planting scheme was always less defined than the garden border. As a result, its needs blurred with my impulses. Soon I was buying herbs that had no obvious place to go.

There’s the tarragon, tall and wispy, and the Dutch lavender, now a tiny mound the size of baby urchin but in five years a magnificent lavender, a big, tight mound of silver-gray foliage. I might put it by the front door.

Uncontained spending

My herbal indulgence occurred at DeBaggio’s Herb Farm and Nursery off Route 50 west of Chantilly. Gardeners flock from across the metropolis to the greenhouses of Francesco DeBaggio, where they count on a wide range of unusual and vigorous herbs during a May frenzy. I’m not a big fan of pizza, but I’ve become enraptured by oregano, which is itself an herbal maze.

The classic Italian oregano is a sterile hybrid between oregano species. Some of the crosses out there are not the genuine article, says DeBaggio. He also commends Rigani, sometimes called pot marjoram, which is a Greek variety that is distinctly upright with golden leaves. That went in the cart. I already have the regular Greek oregano but bought another just for the sake of it, along with a variety of another species of Greek origin called Kaliteri. I’ll find a place for it, promise.

This is also the time of year DeBaggio sells loads of unusual varieties of tomato, eggplant and pepper that would otherwise require the gardener to scour the seed catalogues in January and start them indoors under lights.

I have plenty of tomato varieties and plants started at home and certainly didn’t need to wander the aisles at DeBaggio’s. I did pick up one, just one, plant of Black Zebra, which is a dark version of the trendy Green Zebra. I’ll let you know how it does, if I can find a spot for it.

Community plot video

D Video In Adrian Higgins’s community garden plot, the peas are up, the lettuce is growing and the kale is in, but that’s only part of the story. See what happens when a gardener gets a need to build, in the second installment of this video series at washingtonpost.com/home.

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