As any kindergartner could tell you, Christopher Columbus ended up discovering America as he was searching for a new sea route to the Spice Islands. Had he but known, he had just found a land with many fine herbs unknown to Europeans.
While spices are parts of plants usually grown only in the tropics, herbs are always leaves of Temperate Zone plants.In America's early years, few homes were without herbs in the gardens. They were used in flavoring meats and other cookery and made up a large proportion of the medicines in the family's medicine chest.
In recent years there has been a dramatic revival of interest, particularly for the small house kitchen garden. Because of their pungent, distinctive flavors, herbs are used in small quantities to flavor foods.Thus, only three or four plants of most kinds will provide sufficient fresh and dried herbs for the average family.
"Herbs will grow well in any garden where vegetables thrive, in the garden rows, or around the edges," says Doris Thain Frost of Great Falls, Va., a board member of the Herb Society of America who has taught herb classes at the National Arboretum. "They will grow in flower beds, in borders, among ornamental shrubs and roses, just so there is good drainage and six hours or more sunlight. If an outdoor plot is lacking, many herbs will grow in boxes, pots or hanging baskets if the same conditions -- good soil, drainage and sun -- exist."
If you plant a separate herb garden, it should be located near the house for convenience in caring for and harvesting your crop. If the soil is too rich (too much fertilizer), particularly in nitrogen, the aromatic oils which provide the characteristic flavor and aroma may be of poor quality.Herbs can be started from seed or plants purchased. Local garden centers may have small plants of several kinds, also seed. A large number of seeds and plants are listed in the catalogues of Burpee Seeds, Warminster, Pa. 18991, and Park Seed Co., P.O. Box 31, Greenwood, S.C. 29647. Write and ask for their free catalogues. Directions for planting the seeds are on the packets.
"Prepare the plot as for vegetables," Frost advises. "Animal manure and compost are good fertilizers, preferably applied in early spring. Use mulches to keep the herb garden clean, for weed control and to preserve soil moisture. Cocoa hulls, buckwheat hulls, leaves, straw and hay are popular mulches."
"When planting the garden, remember that herbs belong in different classes according to their lifespan," she adds. Annuals, tender and hardy, may be planted in the vegetable garden as they mature in one season. The biennials and tender and hardy perennials must be planted in locations that will not be disturbed by cultivation or rotation since they live several years.
Among the herbs you might consider planting are:
Anise: Grows about two feet tall, has lacy leaves and white flowers. The leaves are used for flavoring salads, bread and cakes, but the seeds are more frequently used. The seeds are saved by cutting off the seed heads before seeds begin to fall. They should be thoroughly washed before being used.
Basil: The leaves and flowers have a clove-like, spicy flavor and are prized for seasoning soups, meats and salads. They are unequalled for flavoring tomato cookery. The harvesting time is when the plants are in bloom. The tender tips with their foliage are cut, tied in small bunches and dried for winter use.
Caraway: Has tiny white flowers resembling Queen Anne's Lace or wild carrot, blooms in early summer, the seeds are used for flavoring bread, cake, cheese and confectionery. The young shoots and tender leaves are sometimes used in salads, and the slender tap root is prized by some for its delicious flavor.
Sweet Marjoram: The green parts are used in seasoning for soups, dressings, meat pies, and so forth, imparting a delicate aromatic flavor. It was one of the most popular of the herbs in colonial gardens.
Mint: Wonderful for lamb, also good for flavoring soups and stews. Adds piquancy to peas, brightens jellies, fish sauces and beverages.Use chopped fresh mint on cooked carrots; add with butter just before serving.
Oregano: Closely resembles marjoram in taste, though the flavor is stronger and pleasantly bitter. Good in most Mexican and Italian dishes, with pork, stews, gravies, eggs and vegetables.
Parsley: Leaves give flavor to various soups, stews, creamed vegetables, and is one of the best herbs for garnishing. It can be grown in large flower pots in the house. Seeds are slow to germinate and soon lose their vitality, so be sure they are fresh when they are planted.
Rosemary: Has erect branching stems about two feet in height, green above and lighter gray-green underneath. Small pale blue flowers are borne in loose clutters at the ends of the branches. All parts of the plant have a spicy fragrance. The leaves, flowers and tender stems are used in flavorings and garnishes, particularly good in boiled potatoes, turnips and cauliflower.
Sage: Has been used as a seasoning for centuries. The young stems with tender leaves are used in cookery either fresh or dried. These may be sheared off about twice during the growing season. It's used in dressings, cheese, sausage and other meats, and is frequently used as a medicine.
Savory: Can be used fresh for stuffings, soups and meats; tender young tips and leaves are gathered about midsummer and dried for winter use. In colonial days the leaves were crushed and rubbed on bee stings and provide quick relief.
For more gardening inspiration, you might pay a visit to the new National Herb Garden on the grounds of the National Arboretum, which will be dedicated June 12. Among its highlights will be a fragrance garden featuring species roses, the non-hybrid type, and more fragile "sweet" plants (having a sweet scent), including rosemary, lemon verbena and heliotrope. A 25-by-50 foot herb knot garden will feature plant masses arranged to look like interwoven chains, expressing the traditional elegance of formal gardens of herbs. Another section will contain plants used for medicinals, flavorings, essential oils, dyes and teas, while still another displays plants of historical value. And plantings on the edges will be loosely arranged to provide a transition from the manmade to the natural, a meadow.