Adrian Higgins - Add Local Flavor to Your Food With a Garden of Culinary Herbs

(Adrian Higgins - The Washington Post)
By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, March 5, 2009

My herb garden is tiny, measuring about 24 square feet, but it has supplied the kitchen over the years with ample fresh rosemary, thyme, mint, oregano, basil and more.

Culinary herbs keep giving, to a point. After a few short years, they peter out -- even perennial herbs that are well tended and regularly harvested -- a practice that keeps them young and vigorous. Early March is the best time to rework the herb garden so that it is ready for planting in a month.

I rejuvenate the herb garden every three years or so by taking out old and tired sage, lavender and rosemary plants. Working the soil also allows me to remove any wayward tree roots and mint roots lurking there. I add bags of aged compost, peat and topsoil and incorporate them into the bed, along with some bone meal and a few cups of powdered limestone, to give the soil the sweetness that most herbs prefer. After raking, I leave it for a few weeks: It's still too cold to plant herbs that have spent the winter in the greenhouse, and the cultivated earth needs time to settle an inch or two.

Of course, shopping for little potted herbs at the end of March is one of the highlights of the gardening year. What perfect things they are: beautiful, aromatic, useful, easy to grow and rich in history and myth. Just remember to keep them in their pots so you can put them in a sheltered spot and then bring them into an unheated space at night. Do that for a few nights before planting to acclimate them to life outdoors.

If you don't have an herb patch to rejuvenate, see my plan at right for a modest herb garden measuring 4 by 8 feet, which will keep the cook in your family supplied with fresh herbs from April to December. Select a site that is level, sunny (at least six hours of sunlight daily) and close to the kitchen. One caveat: If you live in an old house, the soil next to it may contain unacceptable levels of lead from flaking house paint. If in doubt, ask your county extension agent how to get samples tested at a soil laboratory.

Perhaps the ideal site is on part of the lawn. You can skim off the grass with a sharp shovel and dig the ground to provide depth to the bed. Still, framing the garden with six- or eight-inch-wide boards will allow for deeper, richer soil and give it the free-draining qualities that herbs require. Use untreated wood (rot resistant cedar is perfect), and secure the boards with 12-inch wooden or metal stakes.

Hundreds of varieties of culinary herbs will grow in the Washington area, though gray-leafed Mediterranean herbs begrudge the heat and humidity and hate soil that stays wet. Mulch them with pea gravel to keep crowns from rotting.

Your 4-by-8 garden will house more than a dozen varieties, and you can add more in pots. Here are my suggestions for classic culinary herbs, and a few exotic additions.

Rosemary. Hardy varieties have been developed that are a safe bet for multiyear survival in Washington, but they tend to be coarse in form and flavor. If you have a sheltered site, especially inside the Capital Beltway, more tender types are reliable. I find some of the supposedly tender ones more finely textured and pungent, namely Tuscan Blue and Salem. Browsing the Web site of DeBaggio's Herb Farm & Nursery in Chantilly (, I am enticed to try two others, Blue Spire and Mrs. Reeds Dark Blue.

Sage. The variegated and colored sages Tricolor, Purpurea and Aurea are pretty but not the best for culinary use. Choose the regular garden sage (Salvia officinalis) or an attractive compact variety of it called Berggarten.

Thyme. Of the many types of thyme, common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and its cultivated varieties are the best for cooking, including the so-called French thyme with its narrow and curled leaves. Golden lemon thyme is also worth growing for its citrus scent and attractive yellow leaf margins.

Oregano. Italian oregano is the classic culinary form, but grow Greek oregano, too, for its more pungent flavor. Their cousin, sweet marjoram, is grown as an annual and is favored for its milder flavor and beauty.

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